Monday, September 30, 2013
I am very happy to say that over the coming weeks Speculiction will feature a handful of interviews I've had with people from around the review world. I have done my best to avoid the usual drivel (‘What’s your favorite book?’, ‘Who is your favorite author?’ etc, etc.) and tried to focus on asking about what makes these people's perspectives unique, aspirations for their sites, and ultimately the reasons why I might be a regular visitor to their corner of the spec-fic community.
First up is Rob from Val’s Random Comments - a site I really admire for its mix of sub-genres, gender, and international writers. I hope you enjoy his not-so-random comments on reading challenges, self-awareness, what’s happening in the Netherlands in sci-fi and fantasy (including a link to a novelette translated into English), where science fiction might be headed, and reading in one’s mother tongue vs. a secondary language. I did.
On your blog there is a short history of what brought Val's Random Comments into being, particularly your breaking away from a previous site. How would you compare working on a multi-contributor site to one that you are the sole owner/provider of content, and, has the change been positive?
Yes and no I guess. What I was afraid of when I left the site I reviewed for is that I wouldn't be able to create enough content to really keep the blog alive. I guess I have done well enough with more than 300 reviews since I started it but ideally I would have liked more content. Right now I am writing one review a week, usually on Sunday. I've found that that is all I can manage over the long haul if I want to keep it from becoming a chore. I'm thinking of doing something about that in the near future but no definite plans yet.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Jeff Noon’s debut novel, 1993’s Vurt, is a wiiiiild ride. An action packed story filled with psychedelic imagery and punchy language, the most intriguing reason to buy a ticket is, however, its unique premise—an epithet of science fiction increasingly difficult to achieve. This is not to say that the entirety of the novel is original (the genre influences are readily visible) but that it’s impossible for the reader to walk away—smiling or frowning—without having an indelible mark on their memory. At turns poetic, entertaining, colorful, sensational, and always speculative, letting a Curious Yellow tickle the back of your throat will take you to a variety of places.
On the surface, or at least one of the surfaces, Vurt is the story of Scribble. A young junkie, he and his crew, the Stash Riders, spend their days tripping inside vurt and trying to find illegal feathers, feathers that will take them on a vurt trip like they’ve never had before. Seeking out the dangerous blacks and yellows and tickling a pink when they need a little sensuality, they often run afoul of the law, something their leader, the fun but abusive Beetle, has no trouble dealing with in their crash-tight van. Drowning in the pleasure to the point of loneliness, Scribble’s biggest trouble in life is still his lost sister, Desdemona. Haunting his memories, she was lost inside a very dangerous feather called Curious Yellow—a feather Scribble is seeking so that he may try to rescue her. But finding another Curious Yellow proves difficult, the quest leading him further from his real self.
Daughter to an anthropologist and psychologist, it was perhaps inevitable that once Ursula Le Guin started writing fiction, deep questions surrounding culture and human interaction would eventually trickle into her work. Virtually right off the bat, however, she confronts readers with the subjects. A far more mature work than her rather simplistic first effort Rocannon’s World, her second novel Planet of Exile, also published in 1966, possesses all of the rudiments of style and content that would color the majority of her later novels,. Planet of Exile the story of a community trying to come to terms with the disillusion and enmity of its two member groups in engaging, personal style, Le Guin fully brings to bear the subjects of her parents’ interests in this short but satisfying novel.
Planet of Exile is set on Werel, a planet far distant from other inhabited places in the universe, and one with exceptionally long seasons given its odd solar setup. Technologically advanced humans having come and gone many, many years prior, the “cultural attaches” (called Farborn) who were left behind hold little hope anyone will return for them and have begun to experience the degradations of living in a foreign environment. Conception foremost among them, their population is in decline. Childbirth, however, is no problem for the native Tevarans, a people who have little trust for the dark-skinned invaders. Holding the telepathic people capable of witchcraft and other evil talents, hostility occasionally breaks out, the Tevarans naturally protective of their women. But when the Gaals, a primitive, war-like group from the north, are rumored to be gathering en masse for an invasion, the Tevarans may have no choice but to seek refuge with the better protected Farborn. The events which result leave the sentient fate of Werel hanging in the balance.
Posted by Jesse at 2:39 PM
After establishing himself as a writer of short fiction, Jack Vance began to shift toward novels in the 1960s. His unique voice rounding into form and imagination given more space (ha!) to create, the decade can be marked as the upswing of his career—particularly given the exclamation point The Tchai (Planet of Adventure) series places on the end. Tucked neatly in the middle of the publishing of these four novels, however, is a stand-alone novel: Emphyrio. Interestingly, the title is not taken from the name of a locale or culture, as is usual with Vance, but from a legend innate to the tale. Singling it out further, the book is one of the author’s more ideological pieces: there are ominous elements of socialism and the value of historical knowledge is expanded. The capricious storytelling, vivid setting, and resourceful hero remain classic Vance, however.
Emphyrio is the story of Ghyl Tarvoke. Son of a master artisan, Ghyl grows up on the planet Halma learning to carve elaborate wooden screens from his father, Amiante. Investing long hours in their work, the father and son duo reap little reward, however. With business and production on Halma highly regulated, the two receive only a stipend for their skilled creations, while the lords of the city, aristocrats who live in towers, rake in the profits from outlying planets for the handiwork. Worse yet, no manner of duplication—mechanical or otherwise—is allowed on Halma. Each wooden screen, silk blouse, item of metalwork, book, etc. is hand crafted, and if methods of duplication are discovered, punishment, up to and including death, are implemented. Amiante a quiet, phlegmatic man, what he is found doing after hours one evening shocks young Ghyl. But is it enough to shake him from the doldrums of Halma?
Posted by Jesse at 2:36 PM
Thursday, September 26, 2013
“Żelazo” is Polish for “iron”—the root of Roger Zelazny’s family name. A hard, unbending substance, the name seems an appropriate metaphor for his persistent choice of protagonists; picking up a Zelazny novel, the reader knows precisely who will occupy the lead role. Zelazny’s first novel, the 1966 This Immortal (previously serialized as …And Call Me Conrad), presented the first such hero and is the starting place of all the author’s forays into the mythically fantastic. Featuring the part-man, part-god Conrad, the book sets the benchmark for every novel/protagonist that would come later in the author’s oeuvre. Multi-layered and featuring some of the strongest writing he would produce, the novel is also amongst Zelazny’s best.
Scarred, diseased, mismatched eyes, and walking with a limp, Conrad Nimikos is a rather atypical hero—larger-than-life nonetheless. Possessing a past centuries in length and awash with hazy facts, his present, unfortunately, is crystal clear. Having been decimated in a three-day nuclear war, Earth lies in ravages, its population under the control of an alien group, the Vegans, who took control in the aftermath. An enlightened race, the Vegans have transported the majority of humans to their home planet to live in peace and safety. However, roughly 4 million remain on Earth in pockets of land untouched by radiation, many mutated beyond recognition. His job to oversee the cultural treasures left unaffected by the war, Conrad is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives. Asked one day to give an important Vegan a tour of ancient Egypt and Greece, his pride is challenged: give respect to Earth’s controllers or to defend her honor by eliminating the overseer? In classic Zelazny style, the road Conrad chooses is his own.
Posted by Jesse at 7:15 PM
Sunday, September 22, 2013
In Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg created an exotic planet filled with peoples and landscapes, all bursting with imagination. The tale of a man recovering the throne wrongfully swept out from beneath his feet, Silverberg also gave his audience a strong, lovingly crafted main character in Lord Valentine. The conclusion of the tale, Valentine Pontifex, is the other side of the coin, however. How does Valentine deal with the weighty exigencies of leadership, all the while getting older? Not as fresh or original as Lord Valentine’s Castle, Valentine Pontifex is nevertheless a fair read that continues to define Silverberg’s take on science fantasy on the vast planet Majipoor.
Ten years have passed since Lord Valentine retook the throne that was rightfully his, and in the time since Majipoor has prospered. In his personal life, however, he has been having dizzy spells, as well as rushes of guilt for postponing the duty of descending into the Labyrinth to take his rightful place as Pontifex. But things are changing quickly. Quickening the guilt, Pontifex Tyeveras, a shell of a man kept alive by tubes and machines, begins to cry out unconsciously, begging for release into death. Across the land, strange blights are spreading and destroying crops—the livelihood of Majipoor’s citizenry. An enigmatic cult is rising and aggressive, mutant animals have also been sighted, the shapeshifters hinted as the cause but never confirmed. Making matters worse, the sea dragons are behaving erratically. Moving outside their migration patterns, they appear in great, flitting herds, their presence taken as a bad omen by all. With trouble in his head and trouble in the land, for Valentine maintaining may prove more difficult than retaking the throne.
Posted by Jesse at 8:31 PM
Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor series is an important if not underrated addition to the world of science fiction and fantasy literature. The eponymous planet, an immense sphere settled by a wide variety of alien species, is a world fecund with the possibility of story. Having published Lord Valentine’s Castle after a four year hiatus from writing, an overflow of creative effort revealed itself in the following year’s publication of Majipoor Chronicles. Both breaking new ground and filling in gaps left by Lord Valentine’s Castle, Chronicles is an above average collection of shorts that leans more toward the literary than fantastic.
The collection is framed by the idea of the Registry of Souls. Hissune, now a government administrator, is bored at his position. Breaking into the Registry one day, he re-lives the life of a young woman named Thesme. Not caught, he repeats the experience, and eventually re-lives the experiences of ten people in total, including Valentine himself. But for all of his sneaking, Hissune is ill prepared for the gravity of the lessons contained in the individuals’ tales.
“Thesme and the Ghayrog” – Somehow both a touching and bizarre story, a young woman who feels cast out of her small village leaves to live in the jungle alone. The life she finds with a Ghayrog is not what she expected, but goes a long way toward giving her a new perspective on life.
“The Time of the Burning” – More historical in context, the story describes how humans took control of Majipoor, for better or worse.
Posted by Jesse at 8:29 PM
It’s hard to believe that Robert Silverberg, one of the most prolific writers of science fiction and fantasy the past century, took two significant hiatuses from writing in the heart of his career. The first roughly between 1965-67, the author paused to transition from the so-called Silver Age into the New Age of science fiction. Experiencing a creative crisis and needing time away, in 1976 Silverberg took another break, returning in 1980. Presenting a standard fantasy storyline, placing it in a science fiction setting, and imbuing it with all of the humanism the previous phase of his oeuvre boasts, that return was Lord Valentine’s Castle. Simultaneously classic, subversive, personal, and sublimely stylish, the novel was a triumphant comeback. It won the Locus Award, was nominated for other awards, and proved so fertile a premise, six additional books in the Majipoor setting were published, the seventh due this year. What was Silverberg doing in those four years away, well…
Lord Valentine’s Castle is the story of Valentine, a man who begins matters sitting on the side of the road, overlooking a city and pondering the meaning of life. Unsure of his direction, a boy invites him to tag along in taking animals to the city’s markets, markets which are flourishing with news the reigning Coronal will soon be in town. Coming across a group of jugglers in need of a third while in the festive city, Valentine quickly finds his dexterity suitable for the vocation, and joins them. Heading out on the road to live the life of a traveling performer, it’s in discovering his lost past, however, that the story achieves heights of power and glory.
Posted by Jesse at 8:26 PM
Friday, September 20, 2013
The Caltraps of Time is a 1968 collection of short stories by David I. Masson. In the vein of early 20th century science fiction, despite being published in the midst of the New Wave movement, the stories use familiar tropes to tell experimental tales. Well written, there are points of originality poking through now and again, no common theme connecting the stories. The collection essentially a one off, Masson would go on to publish only three additional short stories in his lifetime. (These three have been added to the 2003 printing of Caltraps.) The following is a brief rundown of the seven in the 1968 edition.
In a version of Britain where weather is emotional (yes, emotional), “Lost Ground” tells of a man who stumbles into a wall of time searching for his lost wife. His mental well-being regulated by aerosols and others drugs taken in response to weather fluctuations, the man’s view of life radically changes upon crossing the wall.
Having landed amongst sentient aliens, “Not so Certain” tells of humanity studying and learning the new language. Communication, however, is not so easy. This piece not a story, it is rather an examination of “alien” phonetics.
Reminiscent of Lovecraft, “Mouth of Hell” describes a team of explorers’ slow descent into a mysterious opening in the ground. Starting out haunting and ending up satirical, this is one of the better stories in the collection.
Posted by Jesse at 8:16 PM
The stylistic application of language and linguistic theory, in combination, have the potential to produce brilliant writing. Such a mix also has the potential to fail spectacularly should one or the other extend too far. Samuel R. Delany’s 1967 Babel-17 is amazingly able to fail at one, but given the secondary and tertiary layers worked into the overall premise, succeeds. Dated for the theory it depends on, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the novel’s prose never lets the reader down, the hypothesis proving useful in a lateral manner. Transcending much of the genre’s norms of the time, Delany’s seventh published novel is well worth reading despite the disputability of the linguistic concept incorporated.
For those unaware, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (as it was largely known in Delany’s day), and what has since become linguistic relativism, is a theory that purports humanity’s perception of the world is shaped by language. Generally speaking, if a language lacks a word for a specific thing then that thing is either non-existent or hazy in meaning, depending how strictly you interpret matters. For example, the language I’m learning now, Polish, lacks directly translatable words for “chuckle”, “snicker”, “giggle”, “cackle”, “chortle”. Adhering strictly to linguistic relativity would mean these variants of laughter do not exist in the Polish mindset. Seeming dubious at best (especially anyone who has spent time amongst the Poles), the idea is nevertheless the main principle guiding Babel-17.
Posted by Jesse at 8:07 PM
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
My Life as an Explorer is a quintessential book of world adventure and discovery. Written in the 19 th century—a time before the internet brought the world to your fingertips—Hedin’s expeditions have an exotic flavor entirely impossible to recreate today save space travel. Though many of Hedin’s exploits are questionable or possibly exaggerated for storytelling effect, My Life as an Explorer, which is an autobiographical ’best of’ his travels, nevertheless possesses a narrative difficult to put down, making it almost necessary reading for anyone who yearns to know more about the less-traveled parts of the world of yesteryear.
Focused almost entirely on central Asia, My Life as an Explorer is a detailed account of numerous of Hedin’s expeditions in the steppe, mountains, and deserts of the East. His exploits include crossing the Taklamakan desert, numerous excursions in the Himalayas, and trips in Persia. His writing style easily accessible, Hedin’s prowess in the field goes matched by his skill with a pen (though some sources do believe Hedin had help in his native Sweden editing his records of travel). Regardless, the narrative is at times nail-biting for the extreme situations Hedin finds himself in, funny for the culture clashes that often occur, and always colorful given the exotic (to the Western mind) nature of the lands he’s traveling though. Having a particular love for Tibet, his descriptions of his time amongst the people are especially notable.
Posted by Jesse at 6:20 PM
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Published in 1948, Against the Fall of Night is Arthur C. Clarke’s first ever novel. Dissatisfied with the outcome, a few years later Clarke returned to the story and extensively revised it. Warranting a new title, he took the original concept and tweaked, expanded, and plugged gaps, producing The City & the Stars in 1956. (It should be of interest to readers that the initial Against the Fall of Night was not replaced by the revised version but has remained in print in parallel, and is perhaps worth looking into if the general idea is interesting.)
Some may say science fiction, some may say fantasy, but the bottom line is that categorization of The City & the Stars is unimportant. No matter the forces at play—magic or technology—the story is one that is ideological and independent of the details. Of greater focus are the time scales at work, the history that has lead to the Earth being in the situation it is, the value of avoiding stagnation through forward thinking, and man’s relationship with the great beyond. The spec-fic candy is all there, it just takes a backseat to the questions Alvin is attempting to answer. Who is Alvin? Well…
Posted by Jesse at 7:57 PM
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We is not the first work of dystopian fiction. But because of it, it is far, far from the last. Existing at a point on the handle of a torch about where the hand grasps, Zamyatin’s work has undergone multiple iterations in the hands of other authors since it was first released in 1924, a fire seemingly erupting in its wake. Others efforts may burn brighter but they are still homages (or plagiarism, depending on viewpoint). With varying degrees of license, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, China Mieville, Ayn Rand, Lois Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, Arthur C. Clarke, even David Mitchell’s recent success Cloud Atlas borrow elements of the novel. Looking back over the past century, what The Lord of the Rings is to epic fantasy, so is Zamyatin’s We to dystopian literature. It has minor faults, but remains a must read for its influence on genre.
Hovering in and around science fiction and fantasy, We is foremost a tragedy of mythic proportion. The novel set in the glass city of OneState, the residents live in a perceived utopia. Rising, working, eating, and sleeping in the proscribed rhythms of the Table, life is synchronized to the minute. From sex to “free time”, music to stride, uniforms to humor, the citizens of OneState live according to the mechanized (machinized?) movement of the clock and the hyper-formality of state regulated existence under the watchful eye of the Benefactor. Zero room for imagination and individuality, violators are publicly scorned and electrically melted. But beneath this severe façade of rote and etiquette, and outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city, a movement is stirring.
Posted by Jesse at 10:25 PM
Friday, September 13, 2013
European science fiction is a geography of the genre not many readers in English speaking countries come in contact with, let alone Eastern European. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre are known to some, but by in large Slavic forays into sci-fi, particularly Russian, go untranslated, and therefore unrecognized (see here). More often leaning toward ideas philosophical or ideological in nature rather than entertainment or whatever the zeitgeist of the period happens to be, theirs is the more literary side of the genre. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1977 Roadside Picnic is one such novel, and like a similar novel, Lem’s Solaris, is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written.
Philosophical and affective, the Strugatskys capture existential sci-fi in a bottle with Roadside Picnic. Elusively cerebral, the simple storyline flowers into mind-opening and thought-provoking questions regarding the fundamentals of reality, the subjectivity of perception, and of the vast ontological mystery that is existence. Ideas turning over in the mind long after finishing the final page, that the storyline presents a wholly human existence without preaching or flaunting is the testament to the book’s literary qualities.
Posted by Jesse at 10:39 PM
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
There may be no more divisive writer in science fiction than Robert Heinlein. Love or hate the majority of opinion I encounter online, his works are revered by some and castigated by others. I had read Stranger in a Strange Land, and while finding myself on the detractors’ side of the fence, was not put off reading the author. More in style than content, I held hope that perhaps the satirical ranting could be channeled differently to better effect. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress the next novel of the author’s I picked up, I’m glad I held out. A near masterpiece, the book is an inventive work of subversive science fiction that is focused, linguistically playful, influential, and, bottom line, well worth the read.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is the story of Mannie, a computer technician living in the lunar colony. The year 2075, the colony is only marginally free after operating for years as a penal institution for Earth’s criminals. Their underground farms providing food for the teeming billions on Earth, to say the Authority takes advantage of the moon’s population for cheap labor is an understatement. Taxed to death while their depleting resources are literally catapulted Earthside, the future looks grim for citizens of Luna. The computer system which governs and manages the infrastructure, economy, and production—everything—on Luna coming to life one day, Mannie is in the right place at the right time for the awakening. Making friends with the child-like AI (who he names Mike), Mannie, along with a couple of friends, embark on a revolution to shake the Authority to its knees and gain Luna’s freedom in the process.
Posted by Jesse at 7:21 PM
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Begun more than a decade after the Book of the New Sun, the Book of the Long Sun (consisting of four parts: Nightside the Long Sun, Lake of the Long Sun, Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun) is the middle “book” of Gene Wolfe’s three part Solar Cycle. Presentation and setting wholly different than New Sun, the themes of transcendence, materialism, personal development, and ethical stamina, however, continue to be the undercurrents buoying story. Wolfe ratcheting back on the allusion, symbolism, and general narrative complexity, readers will find the tale of Patera Silk more accessible in the writing but equally engaging in the telling when compared to New Sun. Whether or not they consider Long Sun as good, however, will probably be up to how strictly Wolfe’s religious agenda is interpreted.
Book of the Long Sun is the story of Patera Silk, a young priest who recently took responsibility of a temple located in the city of Viron. Experiencing enlightenment on the first page, Silk becomes aware that the Outsider, one of the lesser gods in the Pas-dominated Whorl pantheon, is the true God. Going to the market to buy an animal for sacrifice that day, Silk encounters a rich man in a floater. He later learns the man, named Blood, has taken advantage of his temple’s tax deficient status to claim the property. Bolstered by the belief it is his duty to spread word about the Outsider, Silk resolves to regain his temple and sets out on what can only be described as a non-priestly mission to accomplish this goal. A revolution slowly developing in the aftermath, Silk’s personal achievements are only part of the story, the state of the Whorl as a social and spiritual entity put to the test.
Posted by Jesse at 6:11 PM
Thursday, September 5, 2013
From the outset of his career, Ian McDonald has been one of the most socially and culturally relevant writers of science fiction. His first novel Desolation Road a look at the growth and decline of a small town a la The Martian Chronicles and One Hundred Years of Solitude, his second novel Out on Blue Six a look at Utopianism commenting on Thatcherism, and his third King of Morning, Queen of Day a multi-generational overview of a family in Northern Ireland (a sci-fi version of John Crowley’s Little, Big in many ways), McDonald has long had his heart and mind in the plight of the peoples and cultures of the world. His fourth novel, originally published as Hearts, Hands, and Voices in the UK but re-titled The Broken Land for the US market, sees the author returning to his beloved Northern Ireland, this time to take a closer look at the political and religious struggles of the region. Recently brought back to life by Open Road Media after two decades out of print, the following is a review of the novel.
Hearts, Hands, and Voices is the story of Mathembe Filiel, a teenage girl living in what at the outset appears far future Africa, but in fact could be anywhere, including other planets. While a state of semi-civil war exists with the Imperialists, life in her village of Chepseynt goes easily in the fecund forests and fields of the land. Participating in jungle hunts, genoplast molding, and time with her family, she lives the typical life of a teenager until a couple of village members choose to harbor rebel Nationalists warriors. The Emperor-Across-the-River discovering the concealment, he sends an Imperial brigade to raze the village and teach a lesson to other Nationalists. Their home in ashes, the family’s belongings limited to what they could collect in five minutes, and the village in mass exodus, Mathembe is left to fend for herself—a difficult task as complete civil war engulfs the land.
Posted by Jesse at 6:58 PM
Monday, September 2, 2013
Tim Powers is an author who seems to forever fly under the radar of popular readership. And there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason. His stories are well crafted; the prose has been revised numerous times until it’s a lean and brisk; and the sense of the fantastic he utilizes is always vivid and invigorating. His 5th novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, has all of these qualities on display. Recently brought back to life by Open Road Media after two decades out of print, the novel has everything a genre fan could love, including one layer just beyond quality entertainment.
With echoes of Stephen King’s The Stand, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a post-apocalyptic novel in an American setting. The story occurring in the crumbling remains of L.A. long after a nuclear catastrophe, humanity has reverted to pre-industrial times. Cults roam the land, bandits and brigands hide along broken roads, ragged buildings sag in the sunlight, and people scrape by in whatever manner they can—alcohol the only dependable currency. Wandering the decrepit scene is Gregorio Rivas. Once a redeemer but now a musician for hire, Rivas assumes his past is behind him, that is, until preparing for a gig at Spinks one evening. Made a most inviting offer that involves redeeming a former lover, Rivas can’t refuse 5,000 temptations, and he’s suddenly back in the saddle on a mission to rescue the kidnapped woman. Walking the tightrope with an evil drug, tangling with creatures mutated by the nuclear catastrophe, and attacked by hooters and pocalocas, the cult of the Jaybirds he must infiltrate will only kill or make him stronger.
Posted by Jesse at 8:25 PM