Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review of The Concrete Jungle by Charles Stross

At the current state of science fiction’s evolution, the grab bag of familiar science fiction tropes is as large as it ever has been.  This paves the way for one type of ‘originality’: test the limits by combining as many as you can.  Published in 2004, Charles Stross’ novella The Concrete Jungle is a posterizable example.  Anything (familiar) goes in its roughly 100 pages: zombies, alternate history, androids, Greek myth, 21st century corporate life, threats of alien invasion, Big Brother conspiracies, the occult, emotion detectors, invisibility shields, and all not to mention humor involving lesbian sheep and jokes having “don’t have a cow” as the punchline.  Whether this is too much for 100 pages will depend on what expectations the reader brings to the table.

Bob Howard is a mild mannered, unassuming agent for the Laundry Arcana Analysis Section of British Intelligence.  Woken in the dead of the night, he is called to the office on a code blue alert and given a folder of top secret files to review en route to a site the Section wants answers regarding.  The files detailing a century’s research into gorgonism, i.e. the ability to burn to cinders anything carbon-based with the power of sight, Howard prepares himself with heat goggles approaching the scene.  The charred corpse of a domestic animal lying in the middle of a traffic circle, where the investigation leads is only more bizarre. 

Review of Deathworld by Harry Harrison

Storms, carnivorous plants, earthquakes, and all manner of teeth, fangs, and claws hungry for flesh on a planet whose two cultures are at sociological odds, Harry Harrison’s 1960 Deathworld is a Golden Age conceit imbued with New Age ideals.  The title defining which side of the fence the main thrust of the novel falls upon, there is something for fans of each era to enjoy, but with much left unspoken in the middle.  

Jason dinAlt, a gambler with psionic abilities, finds himself on the planet Pyrras after a ruse gone awry.  Otherwise known as Deathworld, he must go through intensive training just to step outside the door of the facility where he’s been invited to stay and help solve Pyrras’ eminent problem.  The flora and fauna predatory and only becoming more aggressive, the Pyrran population is dwindling each year, complete extinction a certainty if the onslaught of claws, creatures, poisons, and all other manner of menace are not put in check.  The Pyrrans a scarred and calloused culture who rarely live to see old age, dinAlt, however, meets with resilience at all turns of his research, that is, until being thrust into life outside the secure facility.  Survival taking a whole new twist the deeper into the jungle he moves, he holds out hope that Deathworld will not live up to its name—for himself or the Pyrrans.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review of Griffin's Egg by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick’s Griffin’s Egg tries as much to be retro sci-fi as it does to push the limits of the genre—or at least the limits when the novella was published in 1991.  The story of a industrial worker on the moon who must deal with the spillover of violence from Earth to the point of post-humanism, the effort succeeds for as much as it could be improved, proving the combination at least marginally effective.

Gunther Weil is an employee of G5, one of the biggest industries mining the moon for metals and raw materials.  Though working on a voluntary contract, he holds no place in his heart for the rote and plethora of bureaucracy, the rubbish strewn about the moon’s surface, or the radioactive storms that plague his rover trips delivering fuel pods.  But he is more afraid of political turmoil on Earth; governments continually with fingers on the button, Weil considers life on the moon a worthy sacrifice.  He can run, but he can’t hide; one day a button is pushed.  World governments reacting in kind, the effects eventually reach the moon.  A terrorist unleashing a chemical agent into one of the mining complexes, Weil and the others must find a way to bring normalcy back to their isolated colony.  The choice they ultimately face amidst the evolving chaos, however, is anything but.

Review of Looking for Jake and Other Stories by China Mieville

Things have changed in the genre.  It used to be that writers cut their teeth and honed their style in the short fiction world of magazines and quarterlies, collections and anthologies, slowly climbing the ladder of success to novel-hood. But today, any writer with a good idea and manuscript in hand (and a little good luck) can get published.  Iain Banks, for example, has twenty-seven novels published, but only one short story collection.  China Mieville is another writer whose initial successes were novel- rather than short fiction-based.  It took seven years from the appearance of his first novel, 1998’s King Rat, to the time his first collection was published, 2005—and it remains his only collection published as of 2013.  Containing dark, occasionally artistic, often florid stories of horror, fantasy, and things marginally between, Looking for Jake and Other Stories is collection and is the subject of this review.  The following are short commentaries on the individual selections:

“Looking for Jake” is Mieville’s second-ever published work.  Epistolary in form and edgily atmospheric in tone, the narrator describes London after a strange apocalypse.  Monsters and other horrors forever hovering at the edges of empty streets and macabre scenes, Mieville is obviously attempting a moody, artistic piece regarding the evolution of society.  Lexically exuberant to say the least (very similar to Perdido Street Station in style), it’s a story to ruminate upon, nothing clear-cut, and one of the best in the collection.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

It’s difficult to get much more classic than H.G. Wells 1898 The War of the Worlds.  The first novel to Martian aliens, a significant number of books and stories have since fallen under its influence; to say it was a door opener would be putting it mildly.  From the B-movie likes of Burroughs in the aftermath on through the likes of Alastair Reynolds, Iain Banks, John Scalzi, and Vernor Vinge today, there are few who have not been directly and indirectly affected by the novel. Given the apocalyptic proportions the story takes on with the star of war at its helm, flowing through to the religious and political sub-texts, it would be remiss not to name the novel one of the most influential sci-fi works of all time. 

Told from Wells’ typical competent-British-male perspective, The War of the Worlds is the first-hand account of a science journalist’s witnessing the great Martian invasion.  The man unnamed, he is living a normal life until astronomers observe strange bursts of light coming from Mars.  Metal capsules streaking in from space and plowing into the suburbs of London a few days later, little happens at first.  The public gathers around the pits containing the half-buried cylinders, listening to the thumping and tapping noises that emanate from within, and speculate on the qualities of Earth’s neighbors.  But when a disgusting specimen plops out and lays waste to the surrounding crowd with never-before seen weaponry, London turns to panic.  The chaos and destruction which result, and too humanity’s reaction as the British homeland is razed to the ground, is now classic.  But reading for one’s self is all the pleasure.

Review of Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Featuring a bright, confident girl caught up in a nightmare only a child could have, Neil Gaiman’s playfully frightening Coraline is a delight.  A fairy tale a la the Brothers Grimm for the modern age, the 2009 novella strikes a perfect note, a wonderful little story of a clever and brave girl ringing true after the past page is turned.

Moving to a new home brings big changes to Coraline’s life.  But she’s ready for it.  Her new apartment only part of a larger mansion, she introduces herself to the retired actresses who live next door, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and the elderly man who claims to be training a mouse circus upstairs, Mr. Bobo.  On the advice of these eccentric but kindly neighbors, she sets about exploring the mansion’s grounds and corridors.  Coming upon a mysterious door that opens into a brick wall, her mother’s explanation (that it is just a way to separate the flats) can’t scratch the itch.   And so one day while her father is at work and her mother is off grocery shopping, Coraline snatches the key to investigate the wall a little closer.  What she finds sucks her into a world that is eerily similar to her own, but the more she investigates, the less it is. 

Review of Oceanic by Greg Egan

There is no doubting Greg Egan’s views.  All of his short fiction and novels incorporating detailed scientific theories and concepts (actual and playful), he is this generation’s leading writer of hard sci-fi.  But that he goes out of his way to denounce religion through fiction is what makes him one of the genre’s most politicized authors, as well.  Subverting religious concepts with the knowledge mankind has gained through science, there is even the ostensible idea that mankind would be better off without religion.  Synthesized into the story of a young man growing up in a culture with a Christian-esque belief, Egan’s 1998 novella Oceanic is a prime example of his worldview in fictional form.  (Please note this review is for the novella Oceanic, and not the short story collection of the same name by Egan.)

A brief but impacting bildungsroman, Oceanic tells of Martin and the effect religion has on his life as he grows older.  Uncanny, Egan captures perfectly the Pentecostal belief in story form.  ‘Baptized’, accepting God into his heart, and ‘speaking in tongues’ before leaving home, the fundamental elements of the sect are presented in analogous form in Martin’s life and culture.  Consistent throughout, Egan keeps the story’s perspective on the personal and religious as Martin moves from boyhood and into the secular world.  Through this coming of age, his beliefs run a gauntlet of tests, none perhaps greater than his chosen profession.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review of The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

Though I have read both The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories, I’m still holding my breath on Paolo Bacigalupi.  Relatively original ideas, engaging plots, vivid settings, and seemingly a strong environmental agenda to his work, there’s a lot to like.  However, I find he’s unable to produce any synergy between plot and theme.  The Windup Girl ending on a note that satisfies story rather than being a progressive solution to the world’s bioengineering ills, and many of the stories in Pump Six dependent on sensationalism to get their point across, I keep waiting for Bacigalupi to work thematic material into his stories with more subtlety—to present the issues he so rightly has identified in a fashion more relative to the reality he's commenting on.  It was thus with expectation I pushed into his third major publication, the 2011 novella The Alchemist.

Set in an Asian-Medieval world (co-created with Tobias Buckell called the Khaim, though in fact their stories share nothing in common but a name), the main character of The Alchemist is Joez.  Former trades abandoned, Joez has devoted the past fifteen years of his life to building a machine, a balanthast, that will destroy the evil bramble.  Bramble the result of people’s usage of magic, its thick stalks and poisonous hairs spring up in fields and home whenever anyone uses spells and witchery.  Joez himself secretly using the forbidden practice to heal his ailing daughter, the beginning of the story finds him selling her bed to get money to continue work on the balanthast.  But the struggle to construct a working prototype is only the beginning. Convincing the magister of Khaim, the ruthless Scacz who beheads anyone caught using magic, that the machine is science not magic, however, may be the greater task.

Review of The Executioness by Tobias Buckell

I’ve long been in debate with myself about the woman warrior. On one hand I can understand that it may be proper to present women in positions of strength and power—to give them a place in epic fantasy as otherwise none would be available amongst the male dominated battles and bloodshed.  On the other hand, isn’t a woman wielding a sword and shield and leading armies just a man with breasts—cramming feminism into a masculine box?  Aren’t there more effective ways of integrating the unique aspects of women into literature than violence and blood?  Tobias Buckell’s 2011 novella The Executioness only furthers this debate in my mind.

The Executioness is the story of Tana, a middle aged woman living as a butcher in Khaim.  Her father, the city’s executioner, is aged and lies sick abed.  One day when the bell rings, calling him to a beheading, he is too weak to stand and forces Tana to don the mask and clothes to do his part.  Trembling every step of the way, Tana completes her father’s assignment, collapsing afterwards in a heap of emotion but with a handful of coins to feed her father, husband, and children.  The problem is, raiders invade the city before she has a chance to return home, kidnapping her sons for slave labor.  Her home burned in the invasion, Tana’s desire to find her sons and bring them home becomes the goal of her life.  Her life destroyed, she has no other choice.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review of The Only Neat Thing to Do by James Tiptree Jr.

The biography of James Tiptree Jr., known as Alice Sheldon in reality, makes for interesting reading.  Having had anything but a predictable life, amongst her many talents was writing science fiction.  Her personal life troubled, its emotional tension leaked into her fiction, giving it a certain salience, and likewise dark undertones.  One of her last novellas, The Only Neat Thing to Do may be the most autobiographical of them all.

Coati Cass is a plucky, intelligent young girl with dreams of space.  She knows all the star stations, the models of ship that traverse the universe, and the rules of space flight.  Saving up her money, she decides to put her knowledge to use and fulfill her dreams by renting a ship for a few weeks’ trip into the great unknown.  Things go smoothly at first; she spends the last of her money on fuel and food, gets permission to lift off after chartering a course, and heads off to the starry beyond.  At the first way station, however, things take a turn—as innocent as it may be.  Intercepting a message from a pair of spacers thought lost, she decides to follow up on their request for help.  Little does she know what else was stowed in the message container.

Review of "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress

Please note: this review is for the novella "Beggars in Spain," not the later novel expansion.

What if a person no longer needed sleep?  How would they spend their nights?  And what if there were a number of people in the same situation—hundreds who could devote their evenings’ hours to whatever they desired?  And what of the society they exist within?  Would they be open minded?  Would they accept these people for who they are?  With mixed but predominantly positive results, Nancy Kress’s 1991 novella Beggars in Spain attempts to answer these questions.

The novella opens with the rich entrepreneur Roger Camden consulting a gene modification agency on the options available to he and his wife for the child they desire.  Wanting an exceptional daughter, Camden inquires into a new gene treatment available wherein the child will never need sleep.  The twenty test subjects thus far exhibiting above average intelligence, Camden presses the agency until he gets what he wants.  Nine months later, a bright and healthy daughter named Leisha is born, and from that point onward, the girl’s life is the reader’s.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review of Use of Weapons by Iain Banks

Rankopedia ranks Iain Banks’ 1990 Use of Weapons as his best work, even in comparison to his mainstream fiction. Such lists generally favoring entertainment over content, it was a pleasant surprise to find the novel both a complex narrative and multi-layered examination of character.  Excession may take the Culture cake for sheer imagination, but Use of Weapons unearths the dark corners of the human psyche in a fashion that allows the novel to vie for the top of Banks’ sci-fi.

Use of Weapons is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a mercenary regularly employed by Culture’s Special Circumstances as a manipulator of local politics in less-developed areas or as an outright soldier, depending on the need.  Wanting only rejuvenated youth, money, and the knowledge of where his long-lost sister is in return, Zakalwe is time and again inserted into situations the Culture are trying to discreetly twist in their favor.  

At the beginning of the story, special agent Diziet Sma (of The State of the Art fame) tracks down Zakalwe for yet another mission, this one involving the extraction of a scholar who wields political influence in a system currently under pressure to join the Culture.  Lured by the idea they have at last located his sister, Zakalwe once again gives over his unique talents as leader and fighter and heads to the scene undercover to influence matters as the Culture sees fit.  This mission, however, may be different than the hundreds coming before.

Review of The Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’ 2010 Blackout/All Clear was a massive effort.  Clearing a whopping 1,168 pages, her love for WWII history, particularly Hitler’s attacks of London in 1940, came full on—emphasis on ‘full’—in historical content.  But as fans of the author are aware, this was not her first foray into the so called ‘Blitz’ of London.  A handful of short fiction had been written previously, hinting at what was to come.  Her 2000 novella, The Winds of Marble Arch, is one such story.

Starring (another) historical scholar, The Winds of Marble Arch is set in London at the beginning of Tony Blair’s prime ministry.  Tom, along with his wife Cathy, are in England’s capital to attend a conference.  The visit is social as well, so while Cath is out shopping with a friend catching up on old times, Tom is tasked with acquiring theater tickets for their group.  In love with London’s tube, he sets out to the theater district to see what’s available.  But a strange occurrence at one of the stops—an explosion that only he can sense—derails the search for tickets and sets him on new tracks, seeking out the cause of the perceived explosion.  An exploration of London via the tube resulting, what he finds is less Tom and more Connie Willis—for better or worse.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of The Persistence of Vision by John Varley

Physical handicaps have to be among the least commonly used aspects of reality in science fiction.  Occasional side characters may be blind to spice a narrative, others may be mute or deaf to give an added degree of interest, but rarely does handicap itself directly inform the storyline.  John Varley’s 1978 novella The Persistence of Vision bucks this trend entirely and uses physical impairment in a highly engaging, provocative story worthy of the counter-culture generation.

The Persistence of Vision is the story of an unnamed, middle-age man disenchanted with the state of the U.S. which Varley presents as the near future.  The economy and ecology in a slow spiral downward, employment is dismal, society continues to fragment, and the health of the land deteriorates more each day.  Abandoning his urban life and hitting the road, the man sets himself the goal of tramping to San Francisco to catch a steamer to Japan, leaving the S behind.  But while crossing New Mexico, he encounters a commune unlike any that has ever existed, and it will change his life.  

Review of The Hemingway Hoax by Joe Haldeman

At a quick glance, Ernest Hemingway and Joe Haldeman would seem not to have much in common. One flourishing in modernist times, the other most certainly in post-modern times, the two nevertheless share some important qualities: both are writers and war veterans.  Regardless that one is realist and the other speculative, one WWI and the other Vietnam, their commonalities shape their ideas in ways that others without similar backgrounds cannot relate to.  Not only an homage to a writer he obviously knows a lot about, Haldeman’s 1990 The Hemingway Hoax is a lustful, violent novella that examines the dirty parts of the psyche via time travel and parallel universes.

The Hemingway Hoax is the story of Joe Baird.  A humble Hemingway scholar married to an attractive woman half his age, life is getting worse rather than better, that is, until meeting the con man Sylvester Castlemain in the Miami railway station one day.  Suggesting the two collaborate on a scam to “find” the manuscripts that were supposedly stolen from Papa’s girlfriend at the Paris railway station, Baird begrudgingly agrees, and sets about doing research into the correct typewriter, paper, ink, and style.  Heading back to Florida after research at the Hemingway section of the JFK library in Boston, a strange thing happens: Hemingway himself appears in the carriage warning that if Baird continues with his ruse, the world will collapse.  Baird doesn’t know whether to believe the apparition or not, but after being thrown into a parallel universe, things only get stranger: if he is to finish the fake manuscript, he’ll have to face the Hemingway figure again, and again, and…

Review of The Death of Captain Future by Allen Steele

Heroism is a tricky business in science fiction.  It can be so candy sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but it can also be grittily realistic, and, in some cases, both.  Winner or nominee in the novella category for all the major American awards of science fiction, Allen Steele’s 1996 The Death of Captain Future is one such story.  Playing with the history, tropes, and direction of the genre, it is short, sweet, and quality storytelling.

Rohr Furland is a veteran spacer.  Burned out from too many space hauls, he bums his way from one gig to the next, spending his free time in bars and space stations and dreaming of earning the big bucks.  Receiving the employment opportunity he’s been waiting for one day, he spies only one catch: he must work his passage to the gig.  Ultimately agreeing to the proposal, he becomes second mate on the Comet and is introduced to the one and only Captain Future—a self-pronounced space captain of heroic proportions.  The reality of the claim, well, that’s for Furland and the reader to discover. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review of The Secret of Life by Paul McAuley

It is common evolutionary theory that life on Earth as we know it evolved over millions of years from bacteria.  But what about Mars?  The probes and landers we have sent have shown nothing thus far.  Paul McAuley’s 2001 The Secret of Life examines this particular question.  But to make matters exciting, he introduces the foreign life form to Earth, culminating in a sci-fi thriller with a pointedly pro-science stance.  Not the most literary of books, it nevertheless packs a serious bang for the buck if microbiology is your game.

The Secret of Life is the story of Dr. Mariella Anders, biomathematician extraordinaire.  Tops in her field worldwide, she’s also perhaps the most rebellious.  A casual drug-using eco-hippy with facial piercings and a sexual life that can loosely be described as active, she balances her microbe research at a facility in Arizona in the day with alternate lifestyle fun in the evening.  Her life takes a turn, however, when a strange organic slick is found growing, seemingly randomly, in the Pacific Ocean.  Interestingly Cytex, one of the world’s leading corporate researchers, has narrowed down the source of the slick to being extra-terrestrial.  The result of a bit of top secret espionage gone wrong, what the Chinese discovered on their expedition to Mars the preceding year has accidentally been unleashed on Earth.  But that the Chinese are gearing up for a return to the red planet is the matter of the day.  The race is on, and Cytex, needing scientists and astronauts of its own, offers Anders a position on the flight.  A chance of a lifetime, the wild woman can’t refuse, and off into space she goes.

Review of The Saliva Tree by Brian Aldiss

In 1966, with the 100th anniversary of H.G. Wells’ birthday approaching, Brian Aldiss wrote a story in tribute of one of, if not, the genre’s grandfather.  The novella The Saliva Tree the result, it distills elements of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a suspenseful horror story that has just the socio-political agenda ‘grandpa’ would have approved of.  (Please note this review is for the novella only, not the short story collection--though that will come someday.)

Set in the late 19th century, The Saliva Tree opens with two “scientifically enlightened” young men standing in the countryside of rural England, watching a meteor shower, and remarking on life.  When one of the meteors enters the atmosphere and appears to land at nearby Benford farm, one of the men, Gregory Rolles, declares that the following day he will visit to see the lump of metal for himself.  Influencing the scientifically minded young man is that farmer Benford’s daughter, Miss Nancy Benford, is an attractive, unspoken for young woman.  Coming to the farmstead the following day, none of the Benfords appear the least bit interested in what landed in their pond.  Borrowing a boat to inspect the strangely opaque waters, Rolles has an experience he can’t explain, and in the days which follow, sees even stranger things.  The mysterious death of the Benford’s dog, sows birthing exceptionally large litters, and a strange, musty-smelling dew coating everything, Rolles’ narrow escape from the pond is not enough to set him off investigating the underlying mystery.  The reality of the situation scarier than he imagined, he and the Benford family’s lives are in the greatest of jeopardy.  But is Rolles’ “modern” wit enough to sort out the problem?  

Review of He Who Shapes by Roger Zelazny

In the mid to late 60s, the sci-fi world was Roger Zelazny’s oyster.  Possessing an abundance of fresh ideas delivered with a deft hand, the author took the genre by storm—This Immortal, Lord of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness gaining notable attention and winning awards.  Published amidst these unique novels was, however, a book of an entirely different range and frequency.  More personal and cerebral than mythic or heroic, The Dream Master (1966) instead features Zelazny’s interests in the psyche, subconscious, and to a small degree, spiritualism.  The novel is based on the novella He Who Shapes—which Zelazny would later state is his preferred version—and is the subject of this review.

He Who Shapes is the story of Dr. Charles Render, a neuroparticipant who enters patients’ dreams via machine, altering and shaping them to heal mental wounds, breakdown psychological barriers, and generally improve their mental state.  One of only 200 hundred people on Earth physically and mentally capable of performing the work, his personal life nevertheless remains unsettled.  Wife and daughter dead in an accident years prior and his son’s education at a distant boarding school troubling his mind, locally an equivocal relationship with a younger woman fails to fulfill any sense of wholeness.  Render emotionally detached from life to say the least, an encounter with a blind psychiatry student at a restaurant changes everything.  Possessing an offer most intriguing, can she shake Render from the languor of life?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Being a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I spend a fair amount of time on the web reading reviews, essays, criticism, listening to podcasts, writing comments when appropriate, in general trying to stay abreast of the genres’ history and current happenings.  Coming across ‘best of’ lists online, I peruse whether I agree with the selections or not, as occasionally they may make you aware of a classic you may have overlooked.  Over time I have noticed that some books rank routinely high from one perspective within the genre, for example Locus’s, while the same book can be completely absent at other locations, e.g. fan-made lists.  Ray Bradbury’s 1950 The Martian Chronicles, however, is one of the few books I’ve seen which seems to transcend all perspectives, appearing on most every list I’ve encountered.  What is its magic (and magic it is), let’s see.

Technically a collection, The Martian Chronicles is many short pieces of fiction strung together along a common theme.  The theme the human settlement of Mars—by individuals rather than a group, Bradbury takes the reader back and forth between the two planets, “chronicling” the evolution of humanity’s takeover from the native Martians and transitioning the red planet into another Earth.  Each story dated, he begins from the Martians’ perspective, shifts to the arriving astronauts, and then to the lives of those who choose to migrate. Touching upon religion, culture, domestic life, racism, metaphysical crises, and other subjects, Bradbury strikes at the heart of what it is to be human, for all its ugliness and beauty. In short, it is the perfect example of a book which holds a mirror to reality—even if its glass is blown from Martian sands.

Review of The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories by Jack Vance

The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories is a collection of Jack Vance short stories and novellas, though at times it’s difficult to be sure.  Published in the early part of his career, many of the stories feature Vance finding form rather than flowing with it.  Plots are rather standard and only briefly hint—here and there—at the brilliance of later works.  Most simply do not exude the same colorful light.  Certainly a must for a completist and diehard fans, those unfamiliar with the writer and his style may want to look elsewhere for an introduction.  

One of the main problems with the collection is the inclusion of eight Magnus Ridolph stories.  Magnus an early attempt at a Sherlock Holmes in space, his stories are loosely sketched and lack the wit and subtlety that define the later Vance story.  Eight is too many.  Beyond Ridolph, stories like “The Enchanted Princess”, “Dover Spargill’s Ghastly Floater”, “The Visitors”, and “Parapsyche” likewise show a rather straight forward approach to writing that does Vance no favors.  “Dead Ahead”, “The Uninhibited Robot”, “Three Legged Joe” and “Four Hundred Blackbirds” are middle grade and neither hurt or help the collection.  

Review of Olympos by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmon’s Ilium ended on a massive convergence standing at an edge.  Olympos, the conclusion to the duology, pushes the story over—and then peers over the edge to make sure it is falling with speed.  Grand reveal following upon grand reveal, unrelated stories becoming intertwined with familiar ones, and the plot filling out its grand scope, if anything can be said of the concluding volume of the duology: it does not short-change the reader on action and entertainment.

Picking up events a few months after the conclusion of Ilium, the war between the mortals and the gods is in full swing at the start of Olympos.  Paris having died in the segue, the setting at Ilium opens with his funeral and the behind-the-scenes scheming of sworn enemies now tenuously comrades in arms.  Holding Zeus by the hand and leading the Mighty One to a rendezvous, Hera has plans of her own for the gods’ involvement in the war, none of which make the circumstances any clearer.  The moravecs, in collusion with Hockenberry, have evaluated the situation on Mars and come to startling new conclusions regarding the state of post-humans on the planet.  Reorienting their sights toward Earth, they take up a mission which, for reasons few understand, requires one human.  Who that will be, is even more in question.  And though their story only picks up in the second section, matters likewise return to Earth where Harman, Ada, and Daeman attempt to deal with the primitive life they suddenly find themselves living after the fall of Prospero’s Isle at the end of Ilium.  The voynix now in attack mode, every bit of technology and knowledge they dredge up helps to keep the mechanical menaces at bay and their safety ensured for another day.  But the horror Daeman discovers in an iced-over Paris just might cause the remaining old-style humans to reconsider where the greatest danger lies.  

Review of Ilium by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos is a masterpiece of space opera.  Utilizing the dimension of Greek myth inherent to Keats’ poetry in a piece of science fiction like the genre had never seen, the four books were nevertheless unable to drain the author’s tank of classically inspired ideas.  Riffing off Homer’s Iliad and mixing in goodly sized portions of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Simmons returned to epic space opera in 2005 with Ilium.  The first book in the Ilium/Olympos duology, Ilium’s plot is action-packed, the visuals flying fast and furious as Zeus, Achilles, and all the heroes and gods of the Iliad play on Mars.  Lighter and more mainstream in tone, those who disliked the (figurative) weight of Hyperion will find Ilium more adventurous and entertainment-focused.  

Seeming unbelievable given the disparity of their starting points, Ilium consists of three strands of story which Simmons steadily braids into a whole.  Matters begin on far future Mars where Thomas Hockenberry, a scholar resurrected from our age, studies the ongoing development of an Iliad reenactment.  Able to morph in and out of bodies in making his daily observations how the reenactment varies from Homer’s version, he sees for himself the bravery of mighty Hector, the passion of Achilles, and the beauty of Helen.  Hockenberry himself called into battle one day, things threaten to go permanently eschew from the blind poet’s epic after a visit to mighty Olympos.  The second story is of Daeman, a young man living on far future Earth, an Earth that has been permanently altered by an apocalyptic event hundreds of years in the past.  Humanity now fully sponsored, people need do nothing as teams of robots and servitors take care of the details of their lives, leaving Daeman and his friends free to indulge in a life of luxury.  Indolence and ignorance the result, shaking him to life one day is gossip of a mysterious Wandering Jew unregulated by the system.  When one of the friends sets out to locate them, Daeman soon finds himself a more active participant in life in ways he wished he wasn’t.  And the third strand tells of the moravec Mahnmut, a human/droid researcher on Jupiter’s moon, Jovian.  His deep sea submersible called into action, Mahnmut and a team of four other moravecs, including his friend Orphus, are sent to Mars to investigate suspicious quantum activity on the red planet’s surface.  What he’s not sure of, however, is the purpose of the strange object tucked into the hold of his submersible.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

While growing up, I knew a girl who had a hard life.  Born into a broken home, she would talk back to the teacher in class for no other reason than simple rebelliousness, she could be seen smoking outside of school at a very early age, and was pregnant by the time she reached sixteen—an unfortunately classic story.  I do not know the details of her home life, but certainly it must have been far from ideal.  This is not to say the girl bore no responsibility for her actions, only that the situation she was born into didn’t make life any easier.  Though outwardly appearing something totally different, Michael Swanwick’s 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is the story of one such girl.  Fantasy that subverts common conceptions of the genre yet confirms its potential as meaningful literature, Jane’s story is largely surreal yet retains a visceral edge that propels the story beyond mere genre.  

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is the coming of age of Jane.  The girl’s developmental years the furthest from idyllic, her story begins in a factory that produces mechanical dragons.  Going through puberty in the opening chapters, times are tough for Jane. She performs manual labor for long hours, has a demanding foreman, is called upon to perform extra-curricular activities for the aging owner, and must deal with the jealousies, petty feuds, loves, and hates of the creatures she calls co-workers.  But things change one day when walking through an out-of-the-way corner of the factory grounds.  Following a voice in her head, she comes to a rusting heap of a dragon calling itself Melanchthon. Stepping into the metal beast’s cockpit, she makes a deal with the machine: help free him, and in return earn her own freedom from the stark exigencies of life in the factory.  All hell breaking loose in the escape attempt, Jane sees life morph before her eyes as she enters the real world.  A place where her inner desires are satisfied, all hell eventually catches up to her. 

Review of The Giver by Lois Lowry

As simplistic an indictment of government institutions which deny individual freedom as Le Guin’s The Telling, Lois Lowry's The Giver is a book that examines political dystopia and the psychological implications of imposing homogenized thought upon society.  Through the medium of a highly ordered society, “Sameness” is enforced by death, thereby exposing the black and white limits of restricted thinking when a foundation of sensual, aesthetic, and emotional memory is missing.  Sounding grand, the novel likewise possesses a few significant holes that balance the ambition. But on to the review.

As with the real societies of Stalin's Russia or Mao Zedong's China, the ideology of homogenized behavior and thought for the benefit of all pervades the society of The Giver.  Individual details are present, for example the public apology students must give when making mistakes, the heightened sensitivity towards non-conformity, not to mention the politically correct language used by everyone to euphemize death or sex.  In the China of today, though it is fading quickly with the country's rapid modernization, written apologies are still a common method by which minor transgressions of the law are handled, not to mention the language used by the government to explain political situations such as Tibet or East Turkestan to its citizens.  Despite political realities, most Chinese believe their government is there for the community's benefit, much the same as Jonas initially follows the order and routine of the nameless society at the outset of The Giver in happy, unwary fashion, the idea of thinking independently radical and extreme.

Review of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

I was lucky enough to have seen Avatar in 3D at the cinema.  I say ‘lucky’ because, despite the simplicity of the storyline, the visuals were truly a feast.  There is one particular scene wherein the main character has just been rescued by a woman and she leads him back to her community.  As darkness settles in, the jungle comes to bright neon life—the electric blue flowers, pink fronds, and yellow leaves literally vibrating in the air, creating an organic, hallucinatory experience impossible for television to emulate.  Relying on visual effect, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Broadway Books) possesses this same stark contrast between darkness and color, but embeds the setting with a more intelligent story than James Cameron’s.  Throwing down the gauntlet to society and its perspective on time, the novel is among the top sci-fi books published in 2012 (UK) and 2014 (US).

Dark Eden is the story of the descendants of the space ship Defiant.  Like the Mayflower, the Defiant left Earth seeking freedom from oppression.  But upon arriving on the planet Eden, new problems arose, forcing some of the crew to return to Earth and leave three behind to await rescue.  Six generations later, the three have grown into a small community—genetically dysfunctional, but a community nonetheless calling themselves the Family.  More than 500 people now live in Circle Forest—a piece of land that glows with neon life amidst the perpetual darkness of Eden.  But population increase has not had a positive effect; times are getting harder and harder.  Where there were once many animals and fruits available, provisions have become scarce as the number of mouths has multiplied and the available resources diminished—and nobody wants to climb the dangerous ice-clad mountains of night that surround Circle Forest to see if sustenance lies beyond.  Hunting one day, John Redlantern encounters a night leopard, and rather than climbing a tree to escape, decides to face down the deadly creature.  Living to see another day, John goes on to challenge status quo at community council, proposing a new group be set up in a different part of the forest.  In the aftermath of the ensuing conflict, the Family on Eden is never the same.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review of The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Mankind’s (emphasis perhaps on the first three letters of that word) competitive instinct is strong, indeed, perhaps innate.  If something can be made bigger, it is made.  If it can be raced, it is raced.  If someone can do something, someone else wants to do it more, better, faster.  Whole economies and power in government are based on the idea.  Corporations, governments, empires, even the quality of a person’s home television are caught up in the quest to outdo another.  At times competition benefits, and at others the health of mankind itself is threatened; the Cold War pushed humanity into both space and to the edge of nuclear war.  Christopher Priest’s 1995 The Prestige, featuring two rival magicians, is an examination of the inhuman lengths humans will go in fulfilling its competitive instinct.

The Prestige is foremost a frame story—the story nestled within echoing through the years.  Matters begin in the present with Andrew Westley, a young investigative reporter working for the Chronicle writing articles of dubious veracity—UFOs, séances, witches covens, and the like.  An adopted child, he remembers little of his youth but has constantly had the feeling a twin was separated from him at birth.  Following up on a report of an odd religious sect in the countryside, he uses the train journey to familiarize himself with a magician’s journal recently mailed to him by a stranger, a stranger who believes he may have some interest in the contents considering the magician is his long dead ancestor.  When the newspaper story proves a dead end, Westley decides to contact the stranger, a young woman named Kate Angier, who  lives nearby.  Welcomed into her estate, the two begin poring over pictures and ledgers from their families’ pasts.  As night settles in, so does Priest, letting Borden’s journal take over the narrative with the tale of the rivalry of two magicians. 

Review of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 Fahrenheit 451 is one of few works of science fiction deemed worthy by public schools in the U.S. (Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, and Shelley’s Frankenstein being the other most common works taught).  A book highlighting the cultural depravity of modern American life, certainly the average lifestyle as of 2013 has done little if anything to fill the void.  The written word slipping in popularity in favor of screen entertainment, cultural values in turn seeing their common denominator lowered, there may be no better sci-fi novel to standardize.

Confirming the tradition of dystopian literature made popular by Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 is set at an unstated time in America’s future in a social environment that defies our cultural norm.  Books, those promoters and propagators of dissent, have been outlawed.  The main character is Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, and subsequently the homes of those caught with the contraband.  Satisfied with his work, Montag’s relationship with his wife is, however, less content.  Mildred a vacant soul, she spends her days in front of their massive three-walled telescreen with her favorite soap operas, interacting despondently with Guy and taking medication indifferent to the consequences.  A near-death experience of Mildred’s, coupled with a startling occurrence at the home of a book hoarder, however, begin to open Montag’s eyes to aspects of his world he was not aware of.  The lesson, however, may be too late.

Review of The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

The 1950s are called by many America’s golden age.  With the second world war in the rearview mirror, the nation once again focused on developing itself and settled back into routine.  New jobs came available in the post-war economy and roles were reestablished in middle-class families; men worked and women stayed at home to maintain house and children (take a look at any Betty Crocker cookbook if you doubt this), and everything became, well, golden.  But naturally, no situation is perfect.  Feminist concerns aside (and there are many), life for men, though easier, was also not paradise in this time.  As the sole monetary provider, there was pressure to provide.  Each husband dealing with it differently, losing one’s job or not being promoted at work affected home life in a variety of important ways, and vice versa.  Though utilizing a presumptuous motif, the heart of Richard Matheson’s 1956 The Shrinking Man examines such a man for whom the pressure of the times becomes too great.  

The Shrinking Man opens with Scott Carey, already a thumbnail-sized man, running a gauntlet of basement odds and ends trying to escape a black widow.  Weaving in and around paint cans, clamoring over garden hoses, and trying to squeeze under box tops to escape the murderous spider, the simplest household object to us is to Carey an insurmountable obstacle.  Life difficult beyond belief in such a familiar environment, Matheson feeds flashbacks into the narrative to tell the story of how the little man came to be trapped in his own basement as the little man lives his last week before shrinking to nothing.  The question is: will the spider get him first?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review of The Squares of the City by John Brunner

In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba.  One of the deciding matches so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history.  (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.)  Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel.  1965’s The Squares of the City the result, it tells of a city experiencing a strong racial divide, with each character representing a piece in the game.  The premise both strengthening and weakening the story, the book is nevertheless a unique read, but is perhaps most special for social conscience behind it all.

The Squares of the City is set in the South American city of Vados, capital of the fictional Aguazul.  Like Canberra and Brasilia, Vados is a planned city, and is the shining result of Aguazul’s rapid rise on the global economic scene thanks to the shrewd maneuvering of its eponymous president.  But wealth and prosperity have not trickled down to the country’s native Indians—a people who move to the city in droves, seeking a better life and more opportunities than their deprived countryside existences allow.  The city’s elite, many of which are nationals of foreign origin, desire ways to quell the eyesores of Indian habitation which result—the city center itself the biggest point of contention given the squalid market that has taken root there.  The government of Aguazul marginally democratic, they seek a defendable means of clearing the lower class from its nest and hire Boyd Hakluyt, one of the world’s best traffic engineers, to design away their social ills.  The board is thus set.

Review of The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus is a compilation of three short story anthologies: Penguin Science Fiction (1961), More Penguin Science Fiction (1963), and Yet More Penguin Science Fiction (1964), all edited by Brian Aldiss.  Presenting an all-star lineup of established Silver Age and burgeoning New Age writers, most all are well known names in the field, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, James Blish, William Tenn, John Brunner and many others.  Aldiss having thematic aims for each of the three, overall story quality is better than the majority produced in the era as, generally speaking, the more intelligent side of the genre is presented—not always, but generally.  Containing thirty-six stories, it’s not a collection to be devoured in one sitting, rather many.  As is typical of such large collections, readers will probably find that amongst the variety some stories appeal, while others fall flat.  

(Due to the quantity of stories, I decided to append the individual summaries.  Thus, the following is an outline of the collection.  For individual story and author listings, you may scroll down.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

Numerous are the science fiction novels I have read, and numerous are the adjectives I’ve encountered describing them: epic, imaginative, technically detailed, futuristic, visionary, even breathtaking and humorous.  But ‘gorgeously dynamic’ is not one of them.  Yet that is precisely the phrase which comes to mind thinking upon Ian McDonald’s debut novel, 1988’s Desolation Road.  Unable to be anything but science fiction, the novel is a beautiful imagined history of an outback Martian town that springs slowly to life with each eccentric who comes to call the quaint hamlet in the dunes home.  Occupying a most unique position in the genre, if anyone is looking for something vastly different in science fiction, this is it. 

Though undoubtedly influenced by The Martian Chronicles, the lines between reality, science fiction and fantasy are rarely clear in Desolation Road.  Following in the footsteps of Bradbury’s collection, religious passion, personal crises, family feuds, government interference, love, the intrusion of newer technology with time, social bonds, commercial exploitation, and strife are inherent to the lives of the people of the lonely railstop. The founding of Desolation Road, its golden years, and the town’s eventual fade into the sands of the desert could be anywhere-civilized-Western World.  Each author’s novel touching in its own way, McDonald’s is just more bombastic.  

Review of The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

For many readers, epic fantasy is fantasy.  Despite the ever increasing variety within the genre, Tolkien, Martin, Brooks, Eddings, Howard, etc., etc. are what the world of fantasy literature is.  It’s therefore interesting that most have probably not heard of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros--a book which identifies the sub-genre like no other.  Simply put, it defines the term ‘epic’.  A seminal influence on every work of fantasy bearing the adjective since, up to and including The Lord of the Rings, it is only due to language and the fickle thing that is time that the book is not more well-known today.  Written in a style that is sure to put off many, Eddison’s debut novel is as grandiose in presentation as it is in content.

A (semi) frame story, The Worm Ouroboros opens with the man Lessingham relaxing at his manor with the wife.  Whisked away to the Middle Kingdom that night by bird, he finds himself in the castle of Demonland the next morning.  Jewels and precious stones encrusting every available surface, Lessingham meets the castle’s lords—their noble, imposing statures as glorious as their halls.  But when an ugly dwarf from the rival kingdom of Witchland arrives to demand that Demonland bow in obeisance, Lessingham fades and the focus switches to the lords: the noble Juss, the mighty Goldry Bluszco, and the world’s greatest warrior, Brandoch Daha.  The dwarf’s message an unacceptable affront to Demonland’s dignity, the group holds conference to decide in what manner to respond to King Gorice’s demands.  Settling on a duel in three weeks’ time, the fate of the Middle Kingdom hangs in the balance.  Events in the aftermath not as either side would have it, the bruised egos, cycles of vengeance, treachery, quests, and victories and defeats which follow are as epic as fantasy gets.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Interview: 2theD from Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature

For the second in my ongoing series of interviews with bloggers from around the speculative fiction community I have 2theD from Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature.  If you are one of the thimbleful of people who accidentally come across my little corner of the web but have not visited Potpourri, I highly recommend it.  The blog covers the span of science fiction, past to present, and most often goes beyond popular and awarded material to look at lesser known authors and books of the past.  Not shy about his opinion, the reviews are full of candor, and thankfully, so too is the following interview.  
I will start from the top, particularly the upper-left.  Your profile openly states "I don't like Dune...".  I am not one of the people who subscribe to its greatness either, but I was wondering if you could explain your dislike, particularly what makes it important enough to place as the opening statement—a shot across the bow, as it were—for people reading your blog for the first time?

I’m not a reader who flocks to Nebula Award winners or Hugo Award winners and I certainly don’t rush out to buy anything on the New York Times bestsellers list. I take pride in reviewing more esoteric novels and collections of short stories rather than jumping to the top of any Top 100 SF list and working my way down (though I have read a number of those books). Dune is the prime example. Whenever I used to read recommendations about SF novels (I don’t care for that any more), Dune almost always topped the lists; therefore, my expectations for the book were set really, really high… and my opinion of the book fell very, very far. So, this opening salvo of “I don’t like Dune…” shows the reader of my blog that this blog isn’t your run-of-the-mill fanboy site or cathedral to the books everyone has read and everyone seems to enjoy (I sometimes doubt their sincerity). Openly denouncing Dune on my homepage is my shrine to SF sacrilege.