Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys



John DeNardo on SF Signal decries Algis Budrys' 1960 Rogue Moon for its character development and focus on existentialism, opining that “too much of the book centers on the characters of Hawks, Barker, Claire,, and Vincent Connington. While their stories are somewhat interesting, I really wanted to see more of the BDO.”  It’s precisely superficial attitudes like this which have kept much of sf in the gutter, my friends.  Gimme cool death machines rather than exploration of human nature…  Yeah.  But I get ahead of myself.

From its title to the central plot device, Rogue Moon is an enigma.  Is it satire on the American system and what it demands of a person before they die?  Is it a meditation on death from the point of view of numerous character types?  Allegory to the subjectivity of existence and the variety of responses to that notion?  Or just an obtuse idea presented as conceived without deeper significance?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review of Breathmoss and Other Exhalations by Ian R. Macleod



Ian Macleod is, point blank, one of the best sf&f writers in the field today.  Each piece, from short story to novel, comes fully considered, polished til shining, imaginative, multi-layered, and persistently focused on humanity—no matter how wild the speculation may get.  So why haven’t you read him?  Macleod’s 2004 collection Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is an excellent palette of stories to dig into.  Perfectly representative of the author’s range and talent, there may be no better starting place.

Breathmoss and Other Exhalations opens with its title story.  We meet Jalili as a young girl in the midst of a major family move from the sparsely populated highlands to its more dense coastal lowlands of the planet Hebara.  The move tough, Jalili nevertheless sees and experiences things she’d never dreamed—rocket ships take off, new cultures and peoples, and, as is strange in her all-female family, men.  “Breathmoss” a touching coming-of-age story that eschews most any paint-by-the-numbers idea the reader could throw at such a story type, tragedy and comedy are only stepping stones to Jalili’s self-realization.  (For extended review, see here.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review of The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway



It’s always something of a disappointment in my post-reading about a novel to discover a review which has summarized it so precisely as to render any opinion or words I can conjure, secondary.  Such is the case with Nick Harkaway’s 2009 The Gone-Away World.  In The Guardian, David Poole writes the novel is“…a bit like spending a week with a hyperactive puppy: there are delightful moments aplenty, but it's slightly wearing over the long run. Still, any author who has come up with the beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure has to be worth keeping an eye on.” Summing it up perfectly, this review will, accordingly, be brief.

As Poole insinuates, The Gone-Away World is exuberant fun.  Foremost linguistically, I feel I should capitalize EXUBERANT FUN.  Bending and twisting characters and dialogue into lexical elbows and knees, meaning is always clear but the approach angles and result are linguistic loops and swirls—anything but ordinary.  From scene to syntax, there seems no digression untaken, which can be really engrossing, but also annoying.  Here is one such digression (leading to several other digressions, before getting back on track):

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review of The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad



One of the things that has always bothered me about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Princess of Mars is how easily John Carter was able to rally hordes of men in support of his pursuit of Dejah Thoris.  What damn does the ordinary man give whether Carter gets a kiss before he goes to sleep at night?  And yet there they were, dying for his ego.  Barsoom a contrived fiction, the sentiment of an obedient mass blindly following its megalomaniac leader nevertheless transcends the text.  Spinrad spinning this idea to the historical surreal, he penned The Iron Dream in 1972, and in doing so, put Hitler’s wildest dreams into Burroughs-esque, pulp form.  In the words of Joachim Boaz, it may even be possible after finishing the novel that the reader “will never read pulp SF/F in the same way…”

The Iron Dream is a fantastic, pulling-out-of-the-rug-from-beneath-the-feet of male power fantasy inherent to much science fiction and fantasy.  The deconstruction presented in a novel-within-a-novel, The Iron Dream opens with a brief pseudo-biography of the science fiction writer Adolph Hitler and is followed by his Hugo Award winning novel Lord of the Swastika.  The afterword, provided by one Homer Whipple (i.e. Spinrad in open disguise), psychoanalyzes the Fuhrer’s ideas for extra abstraction.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review of Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman



In the context of its era, the work of James Tiptree Jr. was a slap in the face of mainstream sf.  Openly challenging a number of traditions, from gender roles to the context of male authority, to say she was influential on the current group of texts expressing similar opinions on many of the same issues would be to put it lightly.  In most of these texts, however, the influence is only indirect; there are similarities in ideology but often nothing more concrete ties the works together.  With Carolyn Ives Gilman’s 2015 Dark Orbit, however, the antecedent is clear.

A case wherein a writer uses ideas and capabilities to expand upon what has come before, Dark Orbit is not mere imitation Tiptree, however.  Examining identity, emotions vs. logic, gender treatment, response to Otherness/alien-ness, and a couple other significant areas, Gilman blunts the paranoia of Tiptree Jr. by better blending presentation with setting and character.  A certain melancholy still pervades (starting with the title), but Gilman’s novel is more introspective and open to possibilities, something that Tiptree Jr.’s work can rarely be described as. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow



The Cold War is ironically one of the most ludicrous yet perversely understandable events in human history.  Male chest blustering at the largest scale possible, massive collections of the most destructive weapons the world has ever known stood passcode and red button ready to be launched at the perceived enemy.  Expanding on the ludicrous nature of the situation, James Morrow’s 1986 This Is the Way the World Ends is Cold War satire of the most absurd, surreal bent—and yet, relatable.

George Paxton is an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in small town Massachusetts.  Husband and father, the light of his life is his five-year old daughter, Holly.  The world seemingly on the brink of war, scopa suits (suits designed to protect the individual from nuclear attack) are all the rage. The price of one scopa suit more than George and his wife can afford, when he receives a favor in return for a nice turn for a customer, he decides to do what any loving father would do for his daughter: he cashes in on a scopa suit.  Trouble is, in order to receive the goods, he has to sign on the dotted line that he is complicit in the ongoing cold war.

Review of Old Venus ed. by Gardner Dozois & George R.R. Martin



George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ themed anthologies are some of the most popular on the market these days.  Soliciting the genre’s best-known mainstream writers, selecting highly familiar themes, and letting length run to 500+ pages, Rogues, Warriors, Dangerous Women, Songs of the Dying Earth, Old Mars, and others are some of the bestselling anthologies the past five years.  Once again not trying to reinvent the wheel, the duo released Old Venus in 2015 with all of the above attributes.

If you catch a hint of disdain in the opening paragraph, it’s real.  Old Venus is yet another interminable sequence of stories by authors using familiar modes and motifs stuck in the same setting.  Therefore, if mainstream genre is your bread and butter, you can skip the rest of this review and buy the anthology.  What follows will only upset you.

Generally lackluster, seemingly every story (though, in reality not every) in Old Venus features swamps, jungles, frog/reptile-esque aliens, steamy climate, and a plot as retro as Hugo Gernsback could ever want.  Almost all the stories novelettes, this also means the anthology runs to 600+ pages, despite containing only sixteen stories.  Monotonous unless supplemented with other reading material in between incursions, this is one of those anthologies severely limited by theme and the authors solicited.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Reads of 2015



As has become a tradition here in the bustling offices of Speculiction, we’ve gleaned 2015’s posts and chosen the best books, collections, anthologies, and short stories reviewed, regardless of when the book was originally published.  (For a summary of books published in 2015, see here.)

Novels

The Glamour by Christopher Priest – A person can expect a novel from Christopher Priest will be based on the subjectivity of perception, and The Glamour is that.  The wonderful thing is, the concept is so rich with potential one never knows in what direction Priest will take it, and by the time they’ve figured it out, they’re already wrapped up in an engaging, intellectually stimulating experience whose complexity does not match the deceivingly simple mode of presentation. The Glamour is that, too.

Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel – A novel that was released to little fanfare, and has garnered little in the decades since, it nevertheless is a fine, literary work examining the human side of life’s inexplicable, seemingly fantastical events, and the variety of sense and meaning (and madness) that humans subsequently attach to them.  Delicately satirical and oh so well written, the novel deserves more attention than it received.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson – Amidst the flurry of ever wilder genre excursions comes what some are calling Robinson’s best ever.  The story of a generation starship endeavor gone awry, Robinson puts the brakes on techno-fantasy futuristic speculation and places the focus square back on Earth.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock – Along with Robinson’s Aurora, this was my pick for best speculative fiction novel published in 2015.  Featuring windows into the lives of three women, past, present and future, and focusing on their interaction with art, the creative process, and art in the social/public arena, it is a politicized novel, but one which wields its agenda tactfully.  Amazon reviewers looking for more of the same ol’-same ol’ were disappointed with the ending, but they, in fact, identified the novel’s most delicately expressive moment.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand



Writers use their personal inspirations in a lot of different ways in their fiction.  It may be something only peripherally motivational, detected in a character name or subtle setting detail, and it may be so much as a complete rip-off.  Elizabeth Hand is a writer prone to using personal experience in creating her characters and settings, but to date has yet to dip into historical reference for inspiration.  Radiant Days (2012), however, finds the versatile writer paralleling the troubled youth of Arthur Rimbaud with the strife experienced by a gifted young woman trying to survive herself.

Merle is from a troubled home.  Her father a drinker and mother essentially non-existent, it’s only through the motivation of a teacher and a little luck that she gets a place at an art university in Washington D.C. in 1978.  Her first semester not going off as planned, an affair with a married woman, a failed trip to the big city, and a general rebelliousness serve to push her into the gutter: a university drop-out without a home.  Walking the riverbank one night she encounters an aging musician tramping it in rags and tattered boots.  Her life, surprisingly, changes forever.

Review of "Uh-Oh City" by Jonathan Carroll



These days the amount of discussion, commentary, criticism, review material, etc. available on sf and fantasy is astounding.  The gates blown off by the internet, anyone with a google account can create a blog and be a critic.  Naturally in this flood exist people with simple mindsets; they love or hate something, and are unafraid to spout either.  Often insensitive to the relativity of the positions (unskilled reviewer vs. professional writer) not to mention lacking the tools necessary to properly review, the result can be hurt feelings if the writer is particularly prone to personalizing such attacks.  The attacks often more satisfaction of the reviewer’s ego than personal (i.e. this is my opinion, here me roar), were the reviewer to actually meet and spend time with the author they bash, undoubtedly future reviews would be more objective, and if negative, at least constructive in their criticism.  Such is the nature of learning to put yourself in other positions.  “Uh-Oh City,” Jonathan Carroll’s superb 1992 novella, is a finely imagined and more eloquent manner of arriving at the same point.  In fact, do yourself a favor and abandon this hack review and go read the novella.

For those who didn’t…

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review of Inverted World by Christopher Priest



The subjectivity of perception is one of the classic themes of literature.  From the existentialism of novels like Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea to more literal renderings like Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, the surrealism of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence or Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress to Barry Malzberg’s psychological examination of the multiplicity of experience in Beyond Apollo, reality is anything but concrete.  Falling somewhere between the subjectivity of personal and social perception, Christopher Priest’s 1973 Inverted World is another quality novel to add to the list.

Part Jonathan Swift and part Keith Roberts, Inverted World builds itself from setting.  The novel is set in a massive city residing on railroad tracks that are continually torn up behind and laid down in front as the hulking mass moves forever forward.  Time measured in miles rather than hours or minutes, the guilds, engineers, laborers, and sundry support personnel perpetually lay track and winch the city forward, chasing the ever-elusive Optimum speed that remains just a few miles ahead.  The countryside rolling by at roughly the rate of a tenth of a mile per day, no movement is felt by the city’s residents.  In fact, due to guild regulations, most people inside the city have no idea what is happening outside the walls.  Strict oaths of silence and secrets laid upon all guildsmen and their apprentices that keep its people the dark, learning the reality of one’s existence comes in fits and starts, and may not always be what the eyes tell you is real.

Review of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson



It’s all too obvious to point out that science fiction is at the most fragmentary point in its existence it has ever been.  The number of sub-genres so widespread, not to mention the works which hop amongst, interpret narrowly, or otherwise bleed into the many other genres and sub-genres.  With Neal Stephenson’s 2015 Seveneves there is no doubt, however.  Masturbatory in technical detail and endless in gadgetry, it’s as (die)hard sf as they come.

In the opening sentence of Seveneves the moon explodes.  An extinction event, humanity has two years to devise the technology that will allow it to escape the doomed planet and live in space.  A team of scientists coming together, they begin the process of planning and building the necessary devices, engines, ships, and all other manner of technology necessary to support human life between the stars.  Their personalities individual, from daring to charismatic, a handful succeed in leaving Earth orbit, only to find real trouble awaiting them in the black of space.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best of 2015's Books



Jealous of Couch2Moon’s ability to participate in the discussions surrounding 2014’s new releases and subsequent award ballots, I vowed at the beginning of 2015 I would significantly up the number of new books I read published in the year.  I haggled with publishers (not as easy as one might think), gleaned NetGalley (a poorer and poorer prospect each month), and ultimately scraped the deep folds of my wallet more than a few times staying ‘up to date.’  But I did it—at least as much as can reasonably be done in this age of ubiquitous publishing.  Perhaps in another post I’ll record my thoughts on the experience (it is, after all, very different than the relaxed, world-is-my-oyster view to the thousands of reading possibilities available from the past century), but for the moment will suffice at briefly summarizing the books of genre interest published in 2015 that I read.

If my rating system is any indication, there were no masterpieces produced in 2015, but there were some near misses.  A tie, I’m picking Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as 2015’s best.  Polar opposites in many ways, they nevertheless stood out, and certainly are worthy of representing genre in the larger arena.  Honorable mentions include: Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit, James Morrow’s Galapagos Regained, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star, Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, and Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities.  Below find a breakdown of all twenty-eight 2015 releases I read, by rating.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of Memoranda by Jeffrey Ford



There are many complaints and expectations in mainstream media these days about the weakness of bridge novels in trilogies.  Gary K. Wolfe even goes so far as to posit they are unnecessary; the first and last book in a trilogy can be read with nothing of significance missed in the stop-gap.  But what is implied but never stated in these statements is the inherent linear nature of the series under discussion.  What about those series wherein the author chose to think laterally, to move their story in unexpected directions?  M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels are an artistic statement about a setting, it’s plotting and characterization the opposite of contiguous throughout the four books.  Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris stories individually earn praise, but again, the major point binding them together is setting.  Jeff Ford’s Well-Built City series, as its title indicates, deserves mention in the same breath.  Memoranda (1999), the second in the trilogy, is anything but a standard bridge novel.

The Physiognomist the macabre tale of the man Cley finding ‘the light,’ Memoranda opens with him living in a small town, putting his medical talents to use as local surgeon, midwife, pharmacist, and whatever other medical talents are requested of him.  A huge mechanical bird landing in the town square one day, it explodes, filling the space with a toxic yellow mist that puts the townsfolk into a deep sleep.  Knowing the evil Drachton Below must be the mind behind the mass slumber, he heads to what remains of the Well-Built City to find him and extract the antidote—by force, if necessary.  But what he finds is a nightmare of the most sublime proportions.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Review of Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand



How many mysteries and thrillers open with the central problem of the story?  A dead body found in unusual circumstances?  A damsel in distress consulting a PI because the police won’t help her with her special problem?  A dreadfully evil deed requiring retribution?  Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss (2007) ignores this convention.  Telling a hardline, personal story of a woman kicked to the curb of life (by herself and others), tension and suspense unfurl organically around her until she not only needs an explanation for the circumstances of her life, but immediate protection from the situation arisen around her.  That may be the definition of real suspense.

Cass Neary is a washed up photographer working the stock room of The Strand in NYC when Generation Loss opens.  Her first photography project “Dead Girls” a one-off, she’s been fighting drug abuse and bad relationships ever since, and always coming up on the losing end.  When a friend contacts her to ask if she’s willing to travel to a remote Maine island to interview a once-famous photographer named Aphrodite, she jumps at the chance.  The opposite of NYC, the small town life Cass discovers is more bizarre than she ever could have imagined.  Strange personalities, missing persons, and an old hippy commune now in tatters exacerbate her finding that Aphrodite a half-crazed bitch that doesn’t remember asking to be interviewed.  One drunken night Cass’ reality takes a hard spin, and she begins to discover just how truly bizarre life on the island is.