Monday, December 30, 2013

Best reads of 2013

The following are the best books or novellas reviewed in 2013 on Speculiction.

Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky  - Literary, poignant, intense, purposeful, vivid, and intelligently working with genre tropes—everything one could want in a speculative fiction story

Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem - Forget about genre boundaries, this is one of the most intelligently creative and creatively intelligent books ever written.  Science fiction, fantasy, philosophical robot tales - however you want to look at it, it's brilliant.

The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner - As America descends into deeper, darker depths of uncontrolled violence, Brunner's burning vision of a country held proverbially hostage by its weapons industry only becomes more relevant.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr. – One of Tiptree Jr.’s most powerful works, this story of a young woman jacked into an avatar as a living advertisement works at many levels.  Prosaically, ideologically, structurally—everything falls into place to make a strong statement regarding self-perception.

Silently and Very Fast by Cathrynne M. Valente - Poetically dressing science fiction in the colorful clothes of fairy tale and fantasy, Valente looks at the birth AI from a highly stylistic point of view.

The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en - One of the four great novels of the Chinese canon, this episodic display of imagination is unrivalled not only in China, but in the world.  The Monkey King is literary and fantasy magic.

Wandering by Hermann Hesse - Beautifully relaxed prose pieces on the simple joys of being in nature. 

The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick - A subversion of epic fantasy though a dark, bold, visual, multi-fractal coming of age of a young girl.

My Life as an Explorer by Sven Hedin - An amazing account of the great Swedish explorer’s treks through Mongolia, China, Tibet, Iran, and other locations in central Asia.  Hedin's eye for local culture and landscapes is superb.

The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe - The second chapter in Wolfe's incredible Solar cycle is more accessible than the first, but loses nothing in weaving together its spiritual, philosophical, and classical elements.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - Perhaps the writer’s greatest novel, this retelling of the American Revolution through the eyes of lunar colonists is engaging at numerous levels.

Viriconium by M. John Harrison - The four book transition that is M. John Harrison's Viriconium Cycle (The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium (UK)/The Floating Gods (US), and Viriconium Nights) is simultaneously a subversion of fantasy worldbuilding and an artistic representation of the mutability of perspective.

Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars incredible visions that present equal parts hard and soft science, it would be difficult for any writer to match or supercede Robinson's effort at portraying humanity's colonization of Mars.

Bridge trilogy by William Gibson – With the pressure on to follow up his monumental Sprawl trilogy with something better, Gibson took his time writing the Bridge trilogy.  Worth the wait, the three resulting books (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties) produce a more subtle look at near future tech and the society it appears that rivals his breakthrough for quality.

Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck - I dare anyone who reads this not to want to visit Baja California and the Bay of Baja.  Utilizing all his powers of writing in this travelogue, Steinbeck creates a vivid sense of place and character that will have some making travel arrangements.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - Considered the originating point of modern science fiction by Brian Aldiss, this story of man, his human creation, and its consequences is a heavy, emotional read that has no Hollywood monsters, but does indeed expose something dark.

The Wisdom of China by Lin Yutang – Simply put, this collection is all the little bits of Chinese perennial wisdom in one place.  Eminently re-openable.

Tracks by Robyn Davidson – This account of one woman’s solo trek across the Australian desert with her dog and a group of camels is one of the most emotionally powerful travelogues I've ever read.  Just superb.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges – A ‘best of’ collection from the erudite Argentinean, it rewards, and rewards, and rewards upon multiple reads, the layers of classicism, surrealism, philosophy and other arcane knowledge slowly seeping through.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review of The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree jr.

If James Tiptree Jr.’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973) were published today nobody would think it dated.  Ahead of its time, it was cyberpunk before the movement had a name and post-human before it too became a craze.  Telling of an abused, heavily augmented girl taken advantage of by the system, the novella remains fully human in scope, the motifs of sci-fi used to spectacular yet poignant effect in this tale of self-perception in a media-ensconced world.

P. Burke is an abused, cyborgized teenage girl, biologically and mechanically modified to the point of disfigurement.  Found near death in a park and brought to a hospital, a caretaker recognizes her implants and phones a friend.  A company representative showing up and asking questions a short time later, P. Burke will do anything to escape the bleakness of the hospital and into the home of someone who cares.  Graphic advertizing outlawed in the world of the future, she is made a proposition: to change her life and become a living advertisement.  Agreeing to the terms, P. Burke is locked inside a cabinet, cables and tubes attached, and is connected wirelessly to a living doll.  Reality taking a twist in this environment, so too is P. Burke’s definition of existence as the company puts her through the rounds.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review of Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

(Please note this review is for the novella Magic for Beginners, not the short story collection.)

Whatever hints the title gives as to the contents of the story, there is nothing the reader can predict about Kelly Link’s 2005 novella Magic for Beginners before turning the first page.  Not an instruction manual from the vaults of Harry Potter, the story is instead a window into the life of  a teenage boy, his family and friends, and their love of the tv show The Library.  Both fun and sad, conclusive it is not.  Beginning and ending on open notes, the reader needs to throw aside their standard story expectations for full appreciation.

Jeremy is your average high school teenager.  He has friends who share weird interests.  He wonders about love and kissing girls.  His parents are eccentric and have their own troubles.  And he has his hobbies, the biggest of which is watching the tv show The Library. Appearing at random on any station, the format continually fluctuating, and the characters both mythic and tragic, he and everyone close to him excitedly call oen another when a new episode randomly appears, and get together and watch and rewatch.  Things take a turn in Jeremy’s life, however, when a relative dies and leaves their Vegas marriage parlor to his mother.  Leaving his east coast home to visit the bizarre city and parlor may just change his life forever.

Review of The Queen of Air and Darkness by Poul Anderson

While authors like Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, and others get credit for writing science fantasy, it may be, in fact, Poul Anderson who has written the highest quantity of such material.  Nearly every story intruding fantasy into the real, his 1971 The Queen of Air and Darkness is no exception. Novella, novelette, or short story (depending which award nomination you take into account), it is an interesting clash of fairy and the real world.

Blossoming like a fairy tale, The Queen of Air and Darkness opens with the kidnapping of a small boy.  Stolen away in the night from a remote research station on the planet Roland by the Outlings, his mother, Barbro, calls the local police to get help.  Such disappearances relatively common on the yet unsettled planet, they offer no assistance.  Refusing to believe a search of the barren hinterlands would be fruitless, Barbro contacts a local detective, Sherrinford, who knows the unexplored regions well, and together the two go in search of the lost child.  Meeting the titular Queen, however, may prove more than planetary adventure.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

For that thimbleful of regular visitors to Speculiction and those who stumble randomly across this blog, Merry Christmas!!

Review of The Tear by Ian McDonald

There are rumors going around that the current wave of science fiction will be called the Accelerated Age.  When the official announcement is made (most certainly not happening until we reach the trough of the next wave—coming sooner than you may think), undoubtedly pundits will be racing to find exemplary texts.  While not seminal, Ian McDonald’s 2008 novella The Tear is unequivocally a representative text,  Playing with reality in a way only writers of the astronomic surreal are seemingly able to, it is post-human to the mimetic limit.

Ptey is a young man growing up on the water world of Tej.  Brought to the Manor House to learn the ways of his seven other personalities, he is also taught the interstellar situation his home planet finds itself in.  A Second-Level species living in space overhead, the Andreen’s use Tej’s vast oceans to resupply water they use for intergalactic, faster-than-light travel.  More advanced than Ptey’s people, it’s a lucky chance that gets him aboard one of their water-sucking globes.  It’s unlucky, however, that he’s on board at the time when an enemy chooses to attack.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review of The God Engines by John Scalzi

Like popular fiction, there is a mainstream of science fiction.  Located in the tepid flow are authors like Alastair Reynolds, Brandon Sanderson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mira Grant, Robert J. Sawyer, and many, many others.  Their works present new spins on old ideas, feature serviceable to competent prose, and are fun but do not challenge.  They are comfort food: Golden Era genre in contemporary clothes.  John Scalzi is another such middle-of-the-road author, a fact underlined by his 2009 novella The God Engines Entertaining, but easily forgettable.

Tephe is captain of an intergalactic spaceship powered by a god.  Remaining nameless throughout the story, the god lies in chains in a compartment of the ship, watched over by a powerful religious order.  Capable of teleporting the whole ship to any point in the universe, its skills are useful to the ruling bishopry in maintaining their grip on power.  Unheard of events in the universe occurring with more frequency, the bishopry decide to send the captain on a mission to quell the outbursts.  The god’s power revealing itself in ways Tephe would rather it not, surviving the mission may be more than his mortal soul can handle.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review of The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson

Theater, war reenactments, Star Trek conventions, cosplay, video games, and several other aspects of society—new and old—feature adults consciously participating in a reality with an entirely different context than the accepted version: an imaginary reality.  Taking the idea and running with it, Poul Anderson’s 1981 novella The Saturn Game asks readers to not only suspend their reality to participate in the story, but to try to understand the realities the characters themselves are participating in.  The story perhaps capable of being improved in the hands of another writer, Anderson nevertheless tells a tale with a conclusion relevant to humanity on our side of the looking glass.

Opening on a bizarrely mythic note wherein characters speak to one another of epic matters in archaic English, the story quickly settles in to describe a group of explorers arriving at Saturn’s moon, Iapetus.  The five member crew, having spent the preceding months in transit, prepare to land and explore the iced-over rock which floats against the backdrop of the massive ringed planet.  The crew who land on the surface are participating in a game in which they agree to improvise upon unfolds in reality.  The only one who is not playing stays behind to watch over the lander while the remainder head off to explore the icy crags.  A small catastrophe occurring after the explorers mount an ice ridge, it quickly proves potentially deadly.  Their game interfering with the rescue, whether or not they will get back to the lander safely becomes a matter of reality.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

An appropriate title for any Jorge Luis Borges collection, Labyrinths is that selected by Penguin for their ‘best of’ printing of the author.  Containing short stories, essays, and parables, each selection takes the reader on a winding path of ideas that seems to branch off infinitely into the wonder of reflective thought.  Surreal in concept rather than imagery, it’s no surprise many of the most intelligent writers of fantasy and science fiction cite Borges as one of their significant influences.  Erudition on full display, the reader should come fully prepared to wade in over their head in abstract allusion and references—known and unknown.

With its limited accessibility, Labyrinths is the opposite of mainstream fantasy.  Borges utilizing civilization’s range of output, the stories possess elements of the quotidian and esoteric, scholarly and conceptual, and interweave these concepts with (literally) extraordinary flexibility.  A lifetime of knowledge and musing packed within each selection, readers who do not consider such writing pretentious stand a chance to be fully rewarded. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review of The Traveler in Black by John Brunner

Breaking into the business with Silver Age space opera but putting himself on the map by writing intelligent dystopia with a social conscience, few are aware that for a brief moment John Brunner put aside science fiction and dabbled in fantasy.  After the success of Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, he wrote the four novelettes starring the other-wordly traveler in black.  Unconventional to say the least, the eponymous collection is fantasy without being fantasy.  A wizard (of sorts) may be the common thread binding the stories together, but humanity is at stake.  The novelettes thus embrace the general idea of genre, but eschew its epic-ness in favor of parables.

“He had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.” is the quote which opens the first novelette in the collection, “Imprint of Chaos”.  The traveler in black seen carrying only a staff of light, he walks the land granting wishes in satirical fashion, fending off the ingress of Chaos to give Order its place.  And indeed the city of Ryovora requires every ounce of his wisdom if they are to survive the malevolent enchanter who seeks to twist the roots of the people’ ideology to the rudiments of a forgotten era. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Though Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick may seem to exist at opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum, for parts of the 60s and 70s the two routinely corresponded and had a mutual regard for one another.  Experimenting in the form of the paranoid/schizophrenic/manic sci-fi master, Le Guin wrote The Lathe of Heaven in 1971 in tribute to Dick, garnering awards and praise in the process.  Winning the Locus and being nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, the novel’s reality-controlling dreams and ambiguous psychologists were more than enough to catch the eye of the public.  Perhaps more importantly, however, PKD gave his own approval.  

The Lathe of Heaven is the story of George Orr, a man who abuses drugs to prevent what he thinks are “effective” dreams - dreams that alter reality.  Forced by the authorities to undergo treatment for his abuses, Orr finds himself a patient at an asylum and begins therapy with the psychologist Dr. Haber.  Haber, seeming to quickly recognize the latent power and opportunities present in Orr’s dreams, begins rigorous testing.  The multiple levels of experiments Orr undergoes, in combination with the cumulative effects of the dreams, slowly but surely alter reality in ways neither can predict.  The conflict of interests—Orr’s desire to escape and Haber’s ambitions for Orr’s abilities—gradually culminate in circumstances that change the world.  Or does it… (PKD smiling on the wings.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review of The Player of Games by Iain Banks

Iain Banks’ 1988 science fiction debut Consider Phlebas received a middling amount of attention upon its intial release (considerably more in the time since).  But given the speed with which a second sci-fi book was produced, it would seem the potential for the Culture had been rolling around in Banks’ mind for some time amidst his mainstream efforts.  Published one year later, The Player of Games is the follow up novel that does not exhibit the intergalactic imagination of the books that would come, but does indicate the author honing in on the major themes and ideas underpinning his far-future vision of post-human existence.  If it is to be taken at face value, then humanity may see great improvements to its quality of life, but at the expense or benefit of losing its most primeval instincts.  

The Player of Games is the story of Gurgeh, an ageing games master with literally only a handful of people in the galaxy who can match his prowess on the boards.  Ennui and boredom the result of his dominance, after a touch of “real world gamesmanship” Gurgeh accepts a commission from the Culture to head to the distant planet Azad and play their local, eponymous game.  Azad a game that resounds with tradition, it also plays a strong role in determining leadership—the current Emperor the most recent Azad champion.  Though Gurgeh is expected only to represent the Culture as an ambassador, winning unnecessary, he soon finds facets of the game that not only pique his interest but shake him from his boredom and challenge the meaning of being alive.  Whether or not it’s “all just games” is up to the reader to find out.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky

Contemporary science fiction is witness to more and more female authors rising to the top—short fiction in particular seeing a huge increase in the number recognized by awards.  Over the past few years, in fact, the number of women nominated for the major short fiction awards has either been greater than or equal to the number of male authors.  Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, Kij Johnson, and others have been nominated or won Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards.  Rachel Swirsky’s 2010 novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window among these works, reading the story it’s obvious why the movement is underfoot.

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window does not belie the pretention of the title.  Defying the fairy tale hints, it is the story of Naeva, a sorceress in a world where women rule—women and other men.  Her allegiance and loyalty falling awry in the opening pages, Naeva finds her soul imprisoned in a stone, able to be made corporeal only by someone with arcane knowledge.  Pulled back into the real world at various moments in the years that pass, she learns the truth behind her death and does what she can from her prison of stone to enact revenge.  But that is only the first half of the story.  Pulled into reality on a later occasion, an entirely new scene awaits, one which she may not have the resources to fight against.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review of Enemy Mine by Barry Longyear

(Please note this review is for the novella Enemy Mine, not the novel.)

Sweeping the major American novella awards, Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine certainly caught the genre’s eye when it was published in 1979.  A film produced six years later (a film which unfortunately is hindered by poor special effects), the exposure took the story beyond the book world and moved it into the attention of the general public.  A tale of confronting Otherness, its treatment in the years since is perhaps a good indication of the novella’s innate integrity.

Opening mid-action—mid-punch even, Enemy Mine begins with a soldier of Earth in hand to hand combat with an alien Drac after their fighter jets have crashed on the surface of an uninhabited planet.  Towering tidal waves, scarce food, and little wood for making fire, the harsh living conditions quickly force the two to cooperate or die.  Lost at sea, scavenging among the rocks, and language problems all around, the two eventually form an accord that allows for a sense of normalcy to life.  But when tragedy strikes, a whole new set of problems must be solved.

Review of A.R.M. by Larry Niven

Larry Niven’s 1975 novella A.R.M. is decidedly of the sub-genre of science fiction called puzzle stories (the cover telling the rest of the story).  A locked door murder mystery with a conceit of science at the nexus, it oozes the familiarity of a police procedural yet integrate theories of physics to form a story the mainstream sci-fi community will enjoy.

Gil Hamilton is a detective for A.R.M., a branch of the United Nations chartered with investigating organ theft (via murder), enforcing the fertility laws (regulating motherhood), and lastly (for purposes which suit the story only), monitoring technology which could create new weapons affecting world economy or the balance of political power in the world.  Called to a crime scene at the beginning of the story, a man carrying a fishing pole is only the beginning of the weirdness which awaits Gil inside the penthouse of the rich and reclusive scientist Raymond Sinclair.  A strangely shaped machine hovering over a perfect circle of burned grass in the living room, a partially mummified man lying inside, Gil’s investigation does not kickoff on standard terms to say the least.  The fact the mummified man’s watch is spinning backwards at 7 seconds per minute is, however, what turns it bizarre.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review of The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is a classic novel depicting London laid waste by alien catastrophe with an underlying commentary on the social, political, psychological, and religious state of Britain.  Most certainly a work heavily influenced by Wells’ 1898 novel, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) likewise lays waste to London in apocalyptic style.  The novel a hero’s tale, however, it forgoes thematic layering to tell the conventional tale of one man against the odds—as contrived as they are. 

Awakened in a hospital bed by silence, Bill Masen can’t wait to remove the bandages covering his eyes to know the reason.  Partially blinded while researching triffids, a carnivorous, poisonous plant which spreads aggressively, he was forced into the emergency ward.  Removing the bandages, Masen finds the reason for the silence: catastrophe.  One of the lucky ones, a meteor shower that passed Earth has rendered all those who stared at its iridescent beauty, blind.  The sightless stagger the streets, groping for food and companionship, some choosing to end it all with a jump out a window.  Masen eventually coming across a woman who can also see, the two make their plans together.  But with blind gangs roaming the streets led by others who can still see and death and chaos all around, their survival is anything but certain.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

A sub-cult of science fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga is one of the genre’s most popular.  Combining the devices and motifs of space opera and fairy tale to examine soft science fiction themes, the reason it is beloved is obvious.  Published 7th and occurring 7th in the internal chronology (as of mid-2013), The Mountains of Mourning is a novella describing events in Miles’ life as he exits the military academy and enters the real world of responsibility.

The story opens early one morning when Miles returns home after a morning’s exercise to find an adamant young woman at the gate seeking justice for the murder of someone very close.  After presenting her to his parents, Miles sets off to pay his respects to dead relatives in honor of his successful completion of the Barrayan military academy.  He is called back a short time later, however, and instructed to accompany the young woman back to her village to settle the injustice.  Walking into a den of tradition and prejudices, discovering the murderer is only half of Miles’ problem: administering the punishment proves to be more troublesome.

Review of The Battle for the Abaco Reefs by Hilbert Schenk

Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is a novel with its heart in the right place.  Improving cultural understanding and the development of self the subjects under discussion, it was unfortunate that Card used a super-emo man to literally and figuratively drive the demons of discrimination and repression from the scene.  Though aiming at a wildly different theme, Hilbert Schenk’s 1979 novella The Battle of the Abaco Reef, unfortunately, has the same general problem: great destination, poor road chosen to arrive there.

I normally summarize the premise of a story at this point in a review.  However, as the novella’s opening paragraph indirectly accomplishes more, I will allow it to speak for itself: 

The fall wind blew steadily from the east, dead across Elbow Cay, and the big, vertical-axis wind machines, running synchronously in the steady breeze, gentled the island with their hushahushahusha, a giant snoozing in the lowest frequencies. Susan Peabody toyed with her coffee and half watched the tiny, jewel-like TV screen at her elbow, thinking of nothing in particular. Or, really, much in particular such as the department, and the university, and the screwing, literal and figurative, she had taken from that bastard… But that was already six months past, and how big a plum would it have been anyway, in a riotous, unheated Boston?… Susan, a forty-year-old, tall, thin woman, her brown hair cut short and severe, her thin lips pressed thinner still, thought to herself, hating herself as she thought it: I have a good face, high color, a straight nose and a strong chin. I have tits and my legs are long. Oh, for God’s sake!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review of The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

“Mighty King, here is a story, a nest of stories, with cabinets and cupboards, about Trurl the constructor and his wonderfully nonlinear adventures.”
I can think of no better introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada in the original Polish) than the line above taken from the text.  Capturing the atmosphere of storytelling, the quirky, entirely singular imagination behind it, and the meta-human perspective suffusing every word, thought, and concept innate to the stories, the quote is a mini-excerpt of one of the most timeless, creative, and insightful collections science fiction has ever produced.  There is nothing like the constructors Trurl and Klaupacius in literature, and never will be.

Imagination oozing off the pages and pooling on the floor, The Cyberiad is a collection that continually tops itself.  Each story containing another fresh, original idea, it bursts with humor, wisdom, and unquantifiable things between; Lem is in touch with both the gravitas of humanity and its foibles.  Two robot constructors the stars of the show, the tales of Trurl and Klaupacius are at turns absurd, pitiful, happy, adventurous, clever, egotistic, salvatory—everything that makes us human but they not.  The pair being master constructors, most every story sees them whisked away to some location—with and against their will—to create for some deluded being the fulfillment of their dreams.  One king, for example, requests the “best hiding place ever” while another the ultimate quarry; a multi-eyed robot found living on an abandoned asteroid demands the knowledge of the universe, while in another story the greatest poet ever is built of machine parts. (In the end, the electronic bard proved immortal; every time someone tried to dispose of it, the machine would write a poem so pitiful the person couldn’t bring themselves to go about their duty).  

Review of the Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd ed.)

The Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to learn, or who has any understanding of Chinese up to an upper-intermediate level and needs a reference.  At 1,100 pages and 26,000 entries, it covers the overwhelming majority of words and phrases used regularly in each language, but remains roughly the size of the average paperback novel, making it ideal for students just starting to learn Chinese or those who are well on their way to fluency.  Those looking for advanced language reference or phrases and expressions simply for travel purposes would do better looking elsewhere.

The Chinese half is organized alphabetically according to Chinese standard pinyin (not the Wade-Giles, Yale, or any other outdated romanization).  Simplified characters are used (though many traditional characters are presented for expository purposes).  There is likewise a radical index which lists radicals, their conjugations, and is completely cross-referenced with the pinyin section.  (Any serious student of Chinese will find this most useful.)  For each character, its function (noun, verb, etc.) and its meaning(s) in English are given.  Examples phrases, sentences, and expressions are provided, as needed, for the purpose of clarification, of which there are innumerable instances.  The English section (organized as any English dictionary) contains phonetic pronunciations (British English) as well as various and multiple analogies in Chinese. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review of Hardfought by Greg Bear

As much as it is a display of surreal visuals, Greg Bear’s 1983 Hardfought is also a novella featuring an engaging, important theme.  Seemingly in dialogue with Starship Troopers, Bear proves following orders is a deeper, more convoluted human idea than Heinlein made it out to be.  In line with the work of Ursula Le Guin or C.J. Cherryh, an interesting premise is mixed with exploration of the meaning of Other in a deep space, military setting.

Told in alternating form, Hardfought is on one side the story of Aryz, a branch mind of the Senexi tasked with discovering a way to communicate with the humans they’ve recently captured so as to fight the pestilent species.  On the other is Prufax, a (post) human fighter being indoctrinated in the ways of war against the Senexi.  Primed for her first battle, little does she know she will soon meet Aryz on his turf. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review of Aztecs by Vonda McIntyre

Aboriginal young men in Australia undergo circumcision and are told “men’s stories” as their initiation into adulthood.  There is an African tribe that requires its initiates to hunt a lion.  And American fraternities have their own variety of hazings, from drinking goldfish laced vodka to lying on the dividing line of a busy street.   It can thus be imagined that in sci-fi, the possibilities for rites of passage are limitless.

Focusing on one such passage in the life of a young woman, Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1977 Aztecs is the story of Laenae, a Pilot.  Sacrificing her heart for a mechanical pump which makes it physically possible to navigate long distance freighters through the black of space, the title is all too real for her.  The novella dealing with Laenae’s transition in emotional, human terms rather than via action or excitement, this is the more subtle, mature side of sci-fi.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

There are many schools of thought regarding the best manner in which a human can develop into being a responsible member of society.  There are different types of institutions and beliefs, their programs hard to soft.  There are cultures which value life within the family.  And there are lifestyles which promote a lack of rules, everything free and easy as a means to discovering responsibility.  Literature not immune, there are also many works of fiction which, directly or indirectly, admonish a manner or social environment in which a person can be brought to accountability for self and society—Huxley’s Island, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, and Hesse’s Siddharta among them.  Feeling a manifesto as to the best mode of human development, Robert Heinlein’s 1959 Starship Troopers is another such novel.  As much divisive as it is a product of the times, the novel has remained in print through the decades—and history—which have transpired since.  Worth a read regardless whether the reader ultimately agrees or disagrees with the ideology presented, the length of this review will testify to the fact it is indeed a thought-provoking novel.

It is the future.  The world is at peace, and all the countries have been united under one government: the Federation.  In order to be a citizen—a voting member of society—you need to serve.  Enter Johnny Rico, the son of rich, controlling parents.  Wanting respectability rather than simply to follow the path his father envisions (university degree in economics and a high position in the family business after), Johnny rebels and joins the Military Infantry with the aim of passing boot camp to become a citizen.  Basic training molding and shaping him in ways that shock, Johnny gets what he wants and much, much more.