Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review of The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner



The 1950s and 60s was a time in the US rife with social tension and conflict.  With unpopular wars being fought on foreign soil, blood was also being shed on American streets as ethnic, gender, and counter-culture concerns often turned to violence.  Partially a reaction to these social issues, the New Wave science fiction movement, spearheaded by such writers as Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Joanna Russ, and others shifted the genre’s gears, moving away from a hard science, extra-terrestrial focus toward Earth-side concerns.  John Brunner is an author who made the shift—highly successfully—and began incorporating the concerns of the day directly into his sci-fi.  Examining prejudice, social fragmentation, weapons production, paranoia, and existentialism in a dystopian setting, his 1969 The Jagged Orbit is one such book.  Undoubtedly part of the platinum standard of the New Wave, the novel has only become more relevant as society evolves closer to his frightening vision.

The setting of The Jagged Orbit is late 21 st century America.  Heavy racial segregation is occurring in the wake of ethnic tension, with various parts of the US seceding to form politically independent enclaves.  In mixed areas, hate crimes occur daily, the racism open and unabated.  Fully enabling the enmity, a family of arms manufacturers, the Gottshalks, play both sides against the middle, their profit line the beneficiary.  Fear and paranoia the selling points, ordinary citizens arm themselves as the cycle of violence spins faster everyday.  People barricading themselves at home and treading the streets in fear, society is unstable, life forever seeming one step away from complete chaos.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review of Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg



In the spirit of Thoreau and Emerson, William Butler Yeats’ 1928 poem “Sailing to Byzantium” discusses the desire for transcendence—putting aside the mortal cowl for immortality in a Grecian idyll.  Grasping the sci-fi potential oozing from this concept, Robert Silverberg took the poem and developed it into an eponymous novella the genre community can be proud of.  Though the prose is not up to the height of some of the Silverberg’s other works (unfortunate given the poetic motivation), the story fully represents the poem’s ideal in sci-fi parallel, and then takes one additional step.

It is the 50th century and humanity has evolved to lack for nothing.  A Brave New World societal structure set in far future the main character, Charles Phillips, freely wanders the Five Cities of post-scarcity Earth on permanent holiday with his girlfriend, Gioia.  Australia disappeared, the tail of South America shifted into the Pacific, and major portions of Africa swamped, the number of cities remain fixed, only their location is in flux.  At the outset Asgard in the north is being torn down while Mohenjo Daro in the east is being constructed to keep the number of five Elysian playgrounds constant.  But Phillips and Gioia are in Alexandria, wandering the rebuilt, ancient city.  Proud centaurs and sphinxes walk the streets, there is no crime or money, and the seventh wonder of the world—the lighthouse of Alexandria—stands over all, a symbol of the glory and power of humanity’s control of life.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review of The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer



Ambitious in its effort to confront a variety of contemporary issues, Nancy Farmer’s 2005 The Sea of Trolls is at heart a YA adventure tying together the history and epics of the cultures it sources.  A triangle created of Anglo-Saxons, Northmen, and Jotun societies and beliefs, it is through the eyes of Jack the reader experiences all three and how they are interrelated and adapted to.  Not a simple black and white exercise in contrast or re-telling of myth, Farmer’s worldview comes shining through the three societies and their prejudices and biases: in order to survive in this world, the differences of opinion, including religion and culture, must be understood and comprised, a “force of life” binding us all together.

At the outset of The Sea of Trolls, all seems well-enough for Jack and his Anglo-Saxon family.  But not long after, Northmen come raiding and kidnap he and his younger sister, Lucy.  Initially intended to be sold as slaves to the mysterious Picts, Olaf, the leader of the raiding expedition, takes a liking to Jack, and decides to make him his personal bard—much to the chagrin of Thorgil, a young comrade who oozes distaste for not only Jack, but for life itself.  Thinking to make her bile felt, Thorgil decides to give Lucy to King Ivar the Boneless and his half-troll wife, Queen Frith, as a gift.  But when the boats arrive back at court and Lucy is presented, everything falls apart, and Jack, far, far from home, must do what he can with what little talent he possesses to fight for he and his sister’s survival.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review of The Dervish House by Ian McDonald



Ian McDonald’s 2010 The Dervish House is a slow burn—a fuse that smokes rather than sizzles, culminating in fireworks that are not wondrous for size, rather subtlety of color.  Centered on six lives connected to a dervish house—an aging 17th century wooden building—in near-future Istanbul, McDonald builds the story, one historical, cultural, personal, and technologically innovative block at a time.  Nanotechnology and its potential effects in a culturally tense environment the major premise under examination, The Dervish House is yet another domino in McDonald’s chorus line of top imaginative and socially conscientious books today.  

No fuse can be lit without heat, and The Dervish House opens with a terrorist attack on one of Istanbul’s trams.  Necdet is a young man standing near the bomber when it goes off.  He survives the attack, but with head swirling in an unfixed reality, stumbles away from the destroyed tram.  Can is a boy with a heart condition; sudden noises and scary moments are capable of stopping its beat.  The device he wears to dim noise catches the sound of the bomb, so he sends his robot monkey through the alleys and rooftops to have a peek.  What he sees causes him to send it scurrying back.  Georgios is a Greek living in the old dervish house.  Having been displaced in a cultural purge from the Turkish university post he occupied many years prior, he lives in isolation, thinking upon what his life could have been.  His days sitting at tea in front of the house, however, are never the same after the bomb.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review of Stars Seen through Stone by Lucius Shepard



One of the most consistent writers of short fiction alive, Lucius Shepard is also perhaps one of sci-fi’s least appreciated.  Regularly published, nominated, and awarded for his work since 1984, readers who never delve into the shorter length works of the genre are missing not only an entire sub-universe, but a plethora of brilliant ideas and writers—including Shepard. Stars Seen through Stone (2007) is one of the writer’s later novellas, but still effects all the nuance of his talent.

Stars Seen through Stone opens with a man contemplating life on the steps of the town library.  A record producer named Vernon, he goes on to recall events leading up to that point.  Things begin quotidian; a pre-naturally talented young blues musician sends a promising demo.  But when brought to the studio to record, trouble starts.  An emotionally immature fat kid who expects the world but is unwilling to put in the effort, Jason Stanky is not the most likeable guy.  But his music is, and Vernon attempts to reconcile his disgust to get a record deal that will earn them both a little cash.  But it’s in relating the town’s history to Stanky one day that things begin to take a turn for the weird.  Escalating alongside the potential for the young man’s success, the town of Black William finds itself on the map in ways no reader can predict.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review of Home Is the Hangman by Roger Zelazny



Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of science fiction’s most important works, not to mention literature’s, in this day and age.  Examining the idea of man as god—a creator of man, when published it set the tone for ethical and existential discussion on the subject.  But in the wake of scientific progress since 1818, a similar yet different idea has appeared: man creating sentience in a machine.  Though AI is now a relatively common theme in science fiction, it’s fair to say most exploit the concept for entertainment purposes, or as a simple plot device to get from point A to B.  There are, however, some works, which in the tradition of Shelley, look at AI with more erudition.  Roger Zelazny’s 1975 Home is the Hangman, with its focus on the psyche, religion, and guilt, is one such novella.

The brief opening scene of Home is the Hangman is fraught with tension from a threat palpable yet unnamed.  But before matters can be explained, Zelazny jumps into the back story.  Technician, detective, and recluse, an unnamed narrator is located on his houseboat by a man seeking assistance, and sets about relaying the history of sentient machines.  Many years prior, advances in robotics and telefactors had accidentally brought about the first artificial intelligence.  Sent by NASA to assist the exploration of distant moons and planets, the humanoid at first performed its duties as expected.  But with time came deterioration in its willingness to obey, followed by outright disappearance, and ultimately a loss in hope it would ever return.  But the narrator has been located for a reason: the machine’s space lander has been found in the Gulf of Mexico, and immediately thereafter, the murder of one of its four creators in New Orleans.  Requiring further investigation, the most influential of the remaining three has sent a man to hire the narrator to find the AI before it kills them all.  A most interesting and truly unpredictable investigation unfolding thereafter, the narrator discovers for himself what sentience in a machine means.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson



For those looking to relax and have a little fun with a sci-fi conceit, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu may be just the ticket.  Taking the idea of the yeti and running—full tilt—with it, serious literature it is not, but fun, indeed, it is.  (Please note this review is for the novella, not the short story collection of the same name.)

George Fergusson is mountain guide waiting between treks in Kathmandu.  Staying at the Star Hotel, he passes the left-mail rack everyday.  One of the letters, which bursts its envelope, catches his attention, but it isn’t for some time until he lets the dust convince him that the owner has left the country for good.  The story of a group of botanists and zoologists studying the plant and animal life of the upper Himalayas contained within, there is one surprise: the mammalogist meets a yeti.  But things turn all the more interesting when the mammologist returns looking for his unreceived letter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review of A Song for Lya by George R.R. Martin



Telepaths, soul-sucking blobs, and humanoids on an alien planet are not the three keys to selling an intelligent, mature sci-fi story.  Yet these are precisely the main plot devices of George R.R. Martin’s 1974 A Song for Lya.  Rooted in the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, the novella is undoubtedly amongst the author’s most thoughtful, most human works, and well worth a read for anyone interested in the ruminative side of the author.

Lya a telepath and her partner Robb able to read emotions, the duo are called to the main city on the planet Shkeen to solve a problem the human colony have with the native population.  The Shkeens existing for 14,000 years without evolving, they practice a mysterious cult which at first was only a novelty to the colonists.  But it has begun claiming humans too, and the colony’s governor Valcarenghi wants to know why.  Called the Cult of the Union, joiners become deliriously happy and walk the streets ringing bells, a Greeshk now attached and eating away at their body.  In a year’s time, the Greeshk becomes full grown, leading its host to full Union and death in the city’s caves.  Valcarenghi concern growing as more and more humans abandon their posts and join the mysterious cult, he sends Lya and Robb to investigate the reason for the attraction.  What the two discover will change their relationship forever.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review of The Samurai in the Willows by Michael Bishop



An abstract experience, describing Michael Bishop’s 1976 novella The Samurai and the Willows is not an easy task.  A writer conscious of every word put on paper, the narrative requires attention to glean full meaning.  The effect a desired one given the themes at work, lines such as “…she was damn glad to get away from that flute and fiddle, from the posturing zombie on the grandstand. It was OK for a while, but she didn't have Tyger-boy's knack of making what was ‘just mental’ into a kinetic showplace for her instincts. She kept looking at what she was doing and wishing she could shake off her skin and emerge into an unclad rioting of the blood.”, and another line “Seymour Glass, who loved the haiku, who lived when a man could let a cat bite his left hand while gazing at the full moon” are good representations of the prose used to tell the story.

Not allusive for the sake of being allusive, there is a tale pushed sporadically along by the prose of The Samurai and the Willows. Set in a futuristic Atlanta after an unnamed apocalyptic event has forced humanity to dome the surface and emigrate to levels underground, the novella tells the story of Queequeg, an eighteen year old rollergirl postman, and Basenji, a “thirty eight-or nine” year old horticulturist specializing in bonsai.  Queequeg full of life and a possessing a keen sense of fun, she is confronted by the brusque silence of Basenji’s past when the two come to share the same cubicle on level 9.  By the end of the tale, however, the two affect one another in powerful ways.

Touching upon some interesting ideas, The Samurai and the Willows has three main thematic prongs.  First is the evolution of culture and art.  Basenji condescending of Queequeg’s youthful view of what is aesthetically valuable, Bishop devotes part of the novella’s discussion to the importance of art, as represented by bonsai.  (There are no descents into the minutiae of the craft.) Secondly, Bishop looks at the theme of guilt and aging.  Though Basenji’s mother passed away year’s prior, a weight still tugs at his heart thinking of the woman and his relationship with her in the years leading to her passing.  Lastly, Bishop utilizes his knowledge and experience of Japan to imbue the story with its culture.  The samurai aspect metaphorical rather than actual, the window upon our Pacific neighbors is opened a little wider through the narrative.

An interesting read for its prose alone, The Samurai and the Willows is likewise recommended for its cultural and personal concerns.  A product of the New Wave movement, the era’s fingerprints nevertheless remain light.  Bishop poetically, subtly working his ideas into setting and character, it’s an accomplished hand telling an accomplished story.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review of Oracle by Greg Egan



In a tribute to Alan Turing, Greg Egan’s 2000 Oracle puts science to the test in ideological and practical terms.  The novella soaked in theory, Turing is represented by the fictional computer scientist Robert Stoney, a homosexual man imprisoned and tortured for his lifestyle choices at the end of WWII.  Broken free of his prison by a most unique ‘saving angel’, the two escapees are later challenged by one John Hamilton, a Classics professor at a prestigious university who strongly disbelieves the possibility of science’s ability to create a thinking computer.  A thinly disguised C.S. Lewis, Hamilton proposes a debate to Stoney on BBC which, interestingly, sees one using the ideas of the others' expertise as proof. 

At heart, Oracle is thus a hotly contested ground of scientific theories and their relationship to reality.  The juxtaposition of science vs. creationism waved in the reader’s face, anyone with an interest in the philosophy of science and religion should pick up this novella.  They will find this one of Egan’s most dense stories from an ideological perspective—Turing and Lewis his combatants.  Very little plot buoying matters along, the story is a platform for Egan to promote his pro-science views (like the majority of his fiction), as well as get in a few jabs at the issues which result from too narrow a worldview.  Given this side-stepping of plot and emphasis on theory, the ‘story’ is one of Egan’s better written as his skills as a technical writer coming strongly to the forefront in positive effect.  

And did I mention the time travel motif?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review of The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson



Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1986 The Blind Geometer is an interesting thought experiment at the intersection of blindness and spatial geometry.  Told through the eyes Carlos Oleg Nevsky, Robinson presents the life of a sightless person working for the government as a mathametician.  Helping an office mate with a confidential situation that Nevsky and his cutting edge knowledge may be able to assist with, the story quickly becomes intriguing.  And when introduced to the enigmatic Mary to help carry on the investigation, not everything is as his senses would tell him, a deeper examination needed. 

Presenting the life of a handicapped person from a sensual perspective, Robinson should be commended for putting himself, and as a result the reader, in the shoes of a blind man with the aim of realism.  Olevsky happening to be a brilliant geometer who loves modern classical music (not an oxymoron) and baseball—or at least beepball, the story is full of references to be followed up on.  Everything from philosophy (Husserl and Derrida) to mathematics, to the fictional blind detective Max Carrado; Robinson has done his homework.  But what else does one expect from the author...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review of Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente



I recently (or at least at the time of writing this review, some months back) listened to a podcast in which Catherynne Valente was a guest speaker.  While I agreed with many of her opinions about books we each have read, I was not impressed by her attitude, and when looking into some of her review work, found it often unbalanced and reactionary—moment based, rather than thought out opinion.  Knowing her titles by sight only, I decided to delve into Valente’s work thinking to find the posture translated into fiction.  I could not have been more wrong.  Most importantly, I discovered a writer in whom I am now seeking more work by.  What grabbed me?  2012’s novella Silently and Very Fast.

Indefinable from a taxonomically, Silently and Very Fast is mytho-biblio-fairy tale of science fiction—and that only begins to blur matters, further details a pure kaleidoscope.  Multi-layered, multi-textured and featuring three sections in dialogue with themselves, the story is digested with pleasure: meaning and substance appear and reappear at a variety of depths and levels.  One of characters in the novella has the following to say, and I think it sums up the direction and structure of the narrative:

“I will explain it in language, and then I will explain it in symbols, and then you will make a symbol showing me what you think I mean, and we will understand each other better than anyone ever has.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review of The Postman by David Brin



If anything, living outside the US this past decade has given me a new perspective on my homeland.  Having consumed buckets of foreign culture, American culture now reflects in a different light.  One difference is that perhaps nothing is more identifiable than the typical American movie.  I’m not a saying this perspective is available only to those outside the US, only that the contrast becomes more vivid when one sees films, reads books, and participates in a worldview which does not take the idealized hero and happy ending as its starting point for quality entertainment.  Though writing with the best of intentions to subvert the idea, it would seem David Brin in his 1985 The Postman failed to fully extricate himself from the box he set to escape.  Tripping over its own ambition, the book can be enjoyed for story and appreciated for ambition, but when examined any deeper crumbles for lack of literary skill.

It’s the future and WWIII has happened.  Nuclear weaponry razing the Eastern US, a large EMP blast destroyed what solid-state tech remained across the country.  Stragglers surviving in pockets and alone, humanity has been forced to revert to pre-civilization, a retro wild-west scenario the result.  Escaping the destruction of the East and currently making his way through Oregon to a society rumored to be establishing civilization once again is Gordon Krantz.  A drama major at university, his ambitions were cut short by the war.  Never sacrificing principle to join the savage hordes plaguing the land, he likewise meets with rejection at the various small communities he encounters—an extra mouth more a burden than help.  And making matters worse, at the outset of the story Krantz is robbed of all his possessions, save the clothes on his back.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review of Night Lamp by Jack Vance



Jack Vance may no longer be with us, but his voice can still be heard.  Refined throughout his lifetime into an ever more sublime salience of dialogue and plot, 1996’s Night Lamp sees the author re-treating elements from his own stories while striking out into another unique novel the likes of which no other can imitate.  A seamless fusion of Emphyrio and Araminta Station, along with minor elements from several other works, the novel is classic Vance that shows no deterioration in quality despite being published in the author’s 80th year.

In the style of legends, Night Lamp begins with young Jaro Fath found beaten nearly to death on the side of the road.  Adopted by a loving couple who bring him to the planet Gallingate, everyone is rightfully concerned when psychological tests reveal Jaro is suffering from amnesia (memories of the first six years of his life missing) and possibly schizophrenia, a strange voice speaking within his skull and haunting his days.  But not all is forgotten.  Jaro has vivid images of his distraught mother and a man clad in black with a white face stuck deep inside his memories.  Begging for an explanation, the older he gets the more he resolves himself to become a spaceman and find the man from his nightmares and discover why his mother was murdered.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge



There are times in my reading life that I come across stories that are so simplistically presented, so presumptuous of reader intelligence, and so poorly effected, that I shake my head in wonder.  Vernor Vinge’s 2003 novella The Cookie Monster has my head on a swivel.  Before I rant, I will give the story the respect of summing up its premise. 

The Cookie Monster is the story of Dixie Mae, a customer support specialist working for the biggest corporation in the world (imaginatively) named LotsaTech.  Her adjacent cube worker receiving a lascivious email about her one day, the two start an investigation based on clues in the email’s header.  Moving to other buildings in the Microsoft-esque campus, things take a turn for the weird when they discover time has shifted by one hour.  But by the end of their investigation, time is not the only thing that has warped.  Reality itself flipped on its head, their corporate life was only a fa├žade they must come to terms with. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review of Wandering by Hermann Hesse



Lin Yutang once wrote that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden could be translated into Chinese and passed off as having been written by a local, none the wiser.  The concepts, verbiage, and background ideology so much in tune with the Eastern mindset, the bounds of culture can be transcended. I dare say precisely the same could be done of Hermann Hesse’s Wandering: Notes and Sketches.

A personal, heartfelt collection of essays, poems, and watercolors, Wandering is an experience as much as personal reflection.  Hesse retreating into the mountains of northern Italy to regain direction in life after experiencing hardships, the prose pieces are imbued with nature, its power to soothe the soul, and a sense of anchoring one’s self back in the simple realities and universal spirituality of life.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of Feersum Endjinn by Iain Banks



Science fiction and fantasy being close bedfellows, it comes as no surprise that innumerable works within the umbrella genre of speculative fiction (or as John Clute names it, fantastika) have meshed together, the lines between the two bleeding into one.  Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, nearly anything by Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance’s works, and numerous others have forced the scholarly community to come up with the term ‘fuzzy sets’ as an attempt to quantify what is otherwise unquantifiable work somewhere within the genres.  Examining the link between myth, legend, and science fiction, Iain M. Banks’ 1994 Feersum Endjinn is another tale to add to the pile.

The cyber world of Greg Egan’s Permutation City plunked down into the middle M. John Harrison’s far-future Earth of The Pastel City goes a long way toward describing the setting of Feersum Endjinn.  The majority of humanity having evacuated Earth some time ago via space elevators, what life remains has degenerated to the point technology is no longer fully understood.  Society re-stratified into a monarchy where the lowest of the low are monitored via implant by the highest of the high who have the luxury of dipping into the net whenever they please, all of reality is underlain by the dataspere—a cyber world where people may live both in life and death.  A dust cloud called the Encroachment approaching Earth from the cosmos at the beginning of the novel, the King nevertheless lives his days in luxury, caught up in a war with the Engineers—the very group seeking to abate the oncoming destruction.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review of Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts




Like many modern science fiction authors, Peter Watts is not a prolific writer of short stories.  In the twenty-three years since he was first published, only eighteen have appeared.  This is not an insult, rather a reflection of the publishing industry: writers today must supplement their income with ‘real-world’ earnings to get by, and thus spend less time filling the niches of their oeuvres.  But the advantage of limited outputs is that the ideas have time to ferment, for the prose to be polished, and ultimately for quality stories to emerge.  Essentially a best-of which pilfers six stories from 2001’s Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes and adds seven stories since published, 2013’s Beyond the Rift (from Tachyon) is high quality writing from Watts, one of science fiction’s most underrated yet important authors writing today—at least sometimes.   

Containing thirteen stories and one essay, all published between 1990 and 2013, Beyond the Rift is a varied mix that would be a great place to start for anyone looking to delve into the fiction of Peter Watts.  Short stories and novelettes, the selected pieces range from far to near-future scenarios, deep space to deep in the Earth’s oceans, post-humanism to the birth of AI, religion to secular interests, hard science fiction to cyberpunk (albeit cloaked), free will to determinism, environmentalism to the psyche, and life to death and back again.