Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review of "Conan the Warrior" by Robert E. Howard

Thanks to Arnie, Conan the Barbarian is one of the most well-known characters of heroic fantasy in today's world.  A creation of Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, Conan, with his exotic adventures, sword fights, arcane wizardry, and buxom blondes in leggings and breastplates, has become not only the epitome of sword & sorcery, but a product of the times.  Though influencing a large amount of fantasy, from Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers to Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Steven Erikson’s Karsa Orlong to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd, tales of the Cimmerian warrior nevertheless represent juvenile wish fulfillment in its most overt form, leaving most to balk.  Given that the quality of the writing is also extremely, extremely poor, there is little to recommend about the stories save nostalgia and cover art.

Conan the Warrior is a collection of three tales, all published toward the end of Howard’s short life.  The following is a brief summary of “Red Nails”, “Jewels of Gwahlur”, and “Beyond the Black River”.

“Red Nails” – Conan, and his unpredictable ally, Valeria, find themselves in an eerie city, danger and intrigue all around.  Wheels within wheels of plot unrolling themselves in this complex story, events shift unpredictably as the secrets of the roofed city are undone by the duo in one action-packed scene after another. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review of "Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology" Edited by Bruce Sterling

There are a handful of people who have/had their finger on the pulse of cyberpunk.  Love him or hate him, Bruce Sterling has perhaps two.  In 1986 he decided to pull together a collection of stories he felt were representative of the sub-genre.  Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology the result, it is both broad in scope yet delimits the idea of what cyberpunk, or at least can be.  Sterling’s agenda his own, some stories will be immediately recognizable for their mood and voice, while others will require more thought toward determining just how they fit into the sub-genre, if at all.  The following is a brief introduction to each.
"The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson – A connoisseur’s piece, this story requires an understanding of the evolution of science fiction to fully appreciate.  Commentary on modernism’s influence, this is Gibson’s first published work.  It is also perhaps his most overtly ideological work, the result an iconoclast opening salvo.

"Snake-Eyes" by Tom Maddox - George Jordan, a soldier who has been cybernetically altered to fight a war that never happened, is now looking for employment.  Where he finds it may take advantage of George’s alterations in ways he never wanted. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review of "The Centauri Device" by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison’s 1975 The Centauri Device is a rare beast in science fiction.  Short (200 pages), prosaic (the language is at most times brilliant), and with literary aims, it is sure to draw the disapproval of genre fans expecting the easy-to-digest hero’s story typical of space opera.  Harrison’s offering to the sci-fi world is instead one for connoisseurs who appreciate well-written stories with a driving—though it at times seeming fantastical and obtuse—purpose.  

The Centauri Device is on the surface a rather simplistic story.  John Truck, belying his name, is an average Joe living the life of a loser space trucker, hauling freight, legitimate and otherwise, planet to planet whenever contracts arise.  Living on Earth, the universe around him is at war.  On one side are the IWG, a Jewish pro-capitalist faction who are at odds with the other side, the USAR, a group of Arab socialists.  Despite doing his best to avoid everything having to do with the conflict, it proves impossible for Truck.  That his mother was Centauri means that he is the last surviving member of the race, an earlier war having wiped out the race.  A sentient bomb having been discovered in the war’s ruins by an odd religious group called the Openists (for bizarre reasons that are a delight and disgust to read), both the IWG and USAR seek a Centauran, as only one of their race can detonate it.   Let the chase for Truck’s services begin!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review of "Big Planet" by Jack Vance

Big Planet (1957) is Jack Vance’s third published novel.  Barely longer than a novella, the book nevertheless features many of the ideas and imaginative storytelling that would come to make the writer so well known in fantasy circles.  Big Planet itself home to a seeming unlimited variety of wild cultures, species, and fantastical creatures, the storytelling is full-on planetary adventure.  Though the idea would later be revised and expanded in The Tchai (Planet of Adventure) series, this is the roots of fantasy travelogue. 
Big Planet is the cross-planetary adventures of Claude Glystra and his crew after they crash land in strange circumstances on the titular planet.  Landing at a point far distant from the only civilized locale on the massive world, Glystra and the others, with a limited amount of supplies, set off on the 40,000 mile journey with little hope of surviving the wilds.  Making matters worse, they know a traitor exists in their midst.  Bajarnum de Beaujolais, a self-made ruler who hopes to build a power base on Big Planet, has an agent planted among them.  The other schemes the delusional Bajarnum has cooked up are for Glystra and the reader to stumble into.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Times...

The article hereafter has been up for some time.  I read it several months ago, but am only now getting around to linking to it.  Starting out a review of Gardner Dozois' ongoing The Year's Best Science Fiction series and other such annual collections, it quickly becomes commentary on the current state of science fiction.  Easily extrapolated upon to become speculative fiction, Kincaid's thoughts echo many of the ideas floating around in my own head about about the situation the genre finds itself in.  Undoubtedly enjoying a popularity unlike it has ever seen, it's possible a peak has been reached, one from which we must now descend.  How long will the surfeit continue, how long before the ideas become fresh and new again, how long before another peak can be reached is anyone's guess.  What's not is that too much of a good thing is indeed bad.  Have a read.   

As published on the L.A. Review of Books

*April 2, 2013 - I'm adding a link (here) to the Coode Street Podcast which features an interview with Paul Kincaid regarding the article.  Great discussion - many big ideas about the state of genre.

I should add that I liberally stole the image from Salvador Dali...

Review of "Gap into Conflict: The Real Story" by Stephen Donaldson

Though better known for his ongoing epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen Donaldson has also taken a foray into science fiction.  The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is the first in The Gap Cycle and a very difficult read if it is not understood that the book is mere stage setting for the four books which follow.  Essentially the exploits of a sadistic psychopath and his victim, the novel will (rightfully) not win sympathy from many readers, but must instead be approached with a view to the larger framework of character development Donaldson imagines the series to be.  Criminal and victim may be the assigned roles now, but what of the future? 

Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is unique in science fiction for a handful of reasons.  Another example of Donaldson’s proclivity for anti-heroes, the three main roles are filled by characters not particularly nice, to say the least.  One is Angus Thermopyle, a space pirate with a malicious, vindictive temperament the likes sci-fi rarely sees.  Space opera generally the story of heroes, Thermopyle’s evil upon evil (and also his victim’s concernedly passive acceptance of his abuse), defies everything the sub-genre is famous for.  Much like Thomas Covenant in Lord Foul’s Bane, readers should not expect a warm and fuzzy champion in Thermopyle, rather a raping madman filled with anxiety.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review of "The Heretic Kings" by Paul Kearney

The Heretic Kings, volume two of Paul Kearney’s five part Monarchies of God series, picks up events precisely where Hawkwood’s Voyage ended. No dip in quality or style, the story continues in exactly the same multiple-viewpoint, character and plot focused fashion.

The Heretic Kings broken into three parts, the first and third relate events on the Nimmerian continent.  Albrec, the monk at Chalibron, furthers his research in the archives and discovers documents he was not intended to, putting his life in danger in the process.  Around him, the church continues its press for power, consolidating its allies with treaties and bullying, excommunicating those who disagree with church policy.  Abelyn, after he and Mark’s disavowal of church rule in Voyage, heads to Abrusio, only to be waylaid along the way, casting his country’s fate into doubt.  In the east, the Merduks are quiet, collecting supplies and men for another major offensive on Ormann Dyke.  Corfe, however, is quite active, and after being sent to the city of Torunn, acquires a new commission from the city’s mysterious sorceress queen.

Review of "Hawkwood's Voyage" by Paul Kearney

After reading the first installment in Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God quintuplet, Hawkwood’s Voyage (1995), its difficult to believe the books is not better known.  With its strong parallels to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series, one would expect fans to come running to its plethora of character based action, magic, and adventure—all within the scope of epic, gritty fantasy.  Perhaps this review will do something to set fans of the genre on the path away from manipulative authors like Joe Abercrombie and treacle factories like Patrick Rothfuss.

Hawkwood’s Voyage is the relatively subdued introduction to Kearney’s five book series—hard to believe given that all manner of action, conflicts, and tension fill its pages.  Obviously playing off a European-esque geography, the author is none to subtle building the setting.  In the west, a land fragmented into individual kingdoms living under one god is attacked by a horde of fanatics from the east living under the rule of their one god.  Roughly the Renaissance era, swords and gunpowder are used to fight in the resulting conflicts, the church trying to leverage its power every other step of the way.    

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review of "Galactic Effectuator" by Jack Vance

Though certainly more well-known for his science fiction and fantasy, Jack Vance was also an avid mystery writer.  The crime genre influencing much of his more famous works, all five of The Demon Princes books, Araminta Station, Son of the Tree, The Houses of Iszm, Maske: Thaery, the Magnus Ridolph stories, and several others feature men solving riddles in private eye fashion.  But, Galactic Effectuator is Vance’s most overt example of mixing space adventure and mystery.  Actually a compendium of two novellas: The Dogtown Tourist Agency and Frietzke’s Turn, the book features Miro Hetzel doing what he does best: effectuate investigations into the puzzling and mysterious. 

The Dogtown Tourist Agency opens with Hetzel signing off on a contract for which he’d been employed tracking a playboy.  Moving quickly on to the next case, one Palladian Micronics which produces robots, Hetzel interviews the CEO who informs him a competitor is able to sell a similar product at a much, much lower price.  An obvious threat to the industry, the CEO wants to know why, and gives Hetzel a retainer.  He also provides some clues, all of which point to the backwater Maz.  Arriving on the strangely populated planet, what follows is an investigation that becomes only more mysterious by the day and requires all of Hetzel’s wits and bravery if he’s to get to the bottom of the case.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review of "Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (or as it is also known, the Ryhope Wood series) is one of fantasy literature’s truly unique creations.  Like most works of quality, the books are founded upon a simple premise, in this case an alternate reality where the sub-conscious comes alive.  Mythago Wood, the first book published in the series, immediately garnered attention, winning Holdstoock the World Fantasy and British Science Fiction Awards in 1984, and formed the basis for the seven books that followed.  Informed by Jung and mythical archetypes more than Tolkien, the book is unconventional to say the least, and worth a read for anyone seeking cliché-free fantasy rich with imagination, symbolism, and quality writing. 

Mythago Wood is the story of a soldier returning home to see his family after being injured at the end of WWII.  Stephen Huxley’s family home is situated in the English countryside along the edge of a small patch of forest called Ryhope Wood.  Events peculiar from the outset, Stephen’s brother Christian acts in a peculiar fashion and hints at fantastical creatures, strange women, and the lure of traversing Ryhope’s dark shadows.  Uncomfortable memories of the boys’ father also linger, adding tension to a situation already moody with the strangeness of the Wood.  Curiosity piquing with each mystical element emerging from the trees, it’s not long before Stephen decides to make his own excursions into Ryhope.  What he finds leads inward as much as onward.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review of "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was one of the most influential writers of sci-fi in the 20th century.  He published more than thirty novels, several of which won awards, and many more received nominations.  Considered one of the ‘big three’ alongside Asimov and Clarke—the American perspective, that is—Heinlein’s agenda included independence, personal responsibility, freedom, and the influence of religion and government on society.  Stranger in a Strange Land, arguably his most famous book—and perhaps most controversial—is the subject of this review.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith.  The only remaining human of the Mars’ settlers, he is brought back to Earth and kept under wraps by the US State Department.  Raised by Martians, Smith’s cultural perspective is radically different, not to mention he has the ability to control body and mind telekinetically.  As the sole survivor of the Mars missions, Smith is seen as “owning” Mars in the government’s eyes, and is therefore protected and treated as a pawn in larger world affairs by US officials.  Jubal Harshaw, retired attorney-at-law, comes into contact with Smith one day and kidnaps him in the hopes of protecting him from the various social and political interests at work, plugging his own agenda in the process.  Smith, as innocent as a child, is allowed to develop by Harshaw, giving the cultural instincts he acquired on Mars free reign on Earth.  Where these instincts take him flies in the face of all that’s thought “right”, telling Smith’s tragic tale in the process.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review of "The Black Company" by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s Black Company series has been going since 1984, ten books and counting.  Cook by and large flying low on most people’s fantasy radars, his is a cult following.  Unconventional sword & sorcery to say the least, the series is best represented by moral ambiguity, a focus on plotting (not character or setting), and a mythic scope on par with the best epic fantasies.  The first book, The Black Company, introduces the group that is to be the center point of the series and sets the tone, even if not all members survive to the end.

Narrated by their doctor, Croaker, The Black Company is the story of a group of mercenaries in an alternate world, .  Caught in the middle of kingdom-spanning events, war rages all around the Company, their swords and magicians for sale to the side most likely to prevail—and to themselves if no other option presents itself.  On one side fights the Lady and her Taken, a group that centuries previously dominated the land with powerful magic—a dominance they once again hope to set up with a new Empire.  On the other sits the Circle of Eighteen, a rebel group with less of the supernatural under their control, but with stronger unity.