Monday, March 31, 2014

Review of Blood Music by Greg Bear

Blood Music (1985) by Greg Bear is a novel that in its day was well lauded, but has since had its profile reduced by books which have taken its central premise further.  One of if not the first major novel to utilize the idea of nanotechnology, the wave of related sci-fi digging deeper into the potential for nanotech that has followed has perhaps drowned out the book, leaving it to be found by those looking back into the history of the genre.  While the classic comic book opening does not endear the story, the concept it evolves into stands as an abstract extrapolation at least not of the superhero variety.

Blood Music is not the story of a single character, rather many; if looked at from another perspective, it is a go-zillion characters.  Matters begin at a single point at a biotech research center near San Diego with Vergil Ulam, however.  A self-seeking scientist, Ulam has been performing illegal experiments with lymphocytes behind the scenes of his government funded work.  When the lab’s director discovers Ulam’s secret work, he orders it immediately destroyed.  Loathe to wipe out years of hard research, Ulam takes the drastic step of injecting himself with the altered cells in the hope of acquiring the right equipment to remove a sample and continue his work in the near future.  He never gets the chance.  Trouble is, neither does the rest of America and the world.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rocket Talk: Shooting for the Stars and Hitting a Streetlight

Recently, one of the major online genre presences, decided to add its piece to the gameboard by introducing a podcast of their own.  Hedging their bets on the logo, they titled the podcast Rocket Talk, and produced a first episode on the Lego movie.  The host Justin Landon, with guests Bradley Beaulieu (novelist and podcaster himself) and Emily Asher-Perrin (Tor columnist and re-reader), together made an honest effort to analyze the film and expressed their personal opinions in sunny fashion but were unable to achieve the heights of critical discourse Landon obviously hoped the show to be.

The sum essentially a trading back and forth of subjective estimation, rarely did the conversation on Rocket Talk truly flesh out the themes on the agenda in functionally objective fashion.  In discussing the hero’s journey, Landon quoted Joseph Campbell.  But it was obvious from the discussion which followed none were completely comfortable with the concept, the cursory reading not enough to induce relevant discussion that interrogated the film in any significant fashion.  It goes without saying that before a person can talk about whether or not material subverts an idea is to first understand how the idea functions in non-subverted form.  Based on the bandying of personal opinion that the topic reverted to, none were fully knowledgeable.  But this should be no surprise: the untutored application of a literary theory rarely results in perspectives that fully penetrate the material at hand; rather they limply cling.

Review of Lord Weary's Empire by Michael Swanwick

The first sentence of this review must be: you shouldn’t read Lord Weary’s Empire independent of The Dragons of Babel, the novel which it is excerpted from.  A flighty, implausible, incoherent milieu otherwise, context, in this case, means everything.  In other words, you’re better off looking into the novel. And if you haven’t read the novel, then it’s best to start with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.  All of that being said, I will still move forward with a review of four chapters taken from the middle of The Dragons of Babel known collectively as Lord Weary’s Empire.

The novella opens in classic form: a young man must fight to the death to prove himself to a shadowy underground group: Lord Weary and his Army of Night.  The young man, whose name is Will le Fey, survives the ritual, and goes on to become Weary’s lieutenant in the bowels of the city.  Ruling the subway and sewer lines, the Army of Night lays traps for other gangs and participates in guerrilla war with the city’s militia.  Weary a strong but paranoid leader, Will’s competence eventually bites back, and when it does, Will needs to be prepared for the most base of tactics in the underground world if he is to survive.

Review of The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick’s 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was one of the most blatant efforts at confirming yet subverting fantasy the genre has seen.  Throwing all of epic fantasy’s knick knacks and souvenirs (and several from science fiction, as well) into a pot and stirring them rough and tumble, the resulting story had a polarizing effect on readers (the Amazon summary of customers’ star ratings is the opposite of a bell curve).  The setting more than fertile, Swanwick returned to the convoluted city in 2008, fifteen years later, with The Dragons of Babel.  

With Jane’s story concluded in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a new ‘hero’ was needed for Dragons.  Enter Will le Fey, a young man from a small village who has his life swept out from under his feet by the world at large.  Though seeming a standard fantasy premise, everything which follows is far off the beaten path. Extremely similar in style, Dragons expands the scope of Daughter, yet remains the second pea in the pod: a simultaneous confirmation and subversion of epic fantasy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review of A Good Old-fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling

In 1986 Bruce Sterling edited an anthology of stories he called Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.  A manifesto of sorts, Sterling wrote not only an introduction to the book, but an intro for each story.  Focusing entirely on the art and ideology of cyberpunk, the anthology drew ire from some readers; not all of the stories fit their expectations of what they thought the sub-genre to be.  The same disagreement could never appear regarding Sterling’s 1999 collection A Good Old-fashioned Future.  Like arrows clustered around the center of a target, Sterling’s stories strike different places but are all aimed at the same point: cyberpunk of the unalloyed variety.  Reminiscent of the Sprawl stories in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome but with more cynicism and focus on tech influencing politics and vice versa, Sterling’s collection is at the core of the sub-genre no matter which way you look at it.

The pieces collected in A Good Old-fashioned Future were published individually between 1993 and 1998.  Not skipping over minor advances in science to get to the ‘good stuff’ of the far future, they focus on just a few years down the road, particularly the little evolutions in science, technology, and industry, and the effect they have on culture and society at large.  The collection is loaded with: imaginative gadgets and concepts one step beyond the current state, behavioral changes and zippy lingo associated with said tech, and the political factions (including bizarre agendas) which evolve in the wake of societal/technological change.

Review of The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

The Color of Magic literally ending on a cliff-hanger (as only Terry Pratchett can), it’s up to The Light Fantastic to conclude the worldwi—err, discwide—adventures of Rincewind, the wizard with only one spell, Twoflower, the world’s first tourist, and their lively pearwood chest of money.  Though readers had to wait three years for the concluding sequel, the pair’s adventures are brought to a fine, satirical end, in turn triggering the romp that Discworld has since become.

The one spell Rincewind knows proves to be important.  The wizards a the Unseen University discover that the disc will be destroyed if they do not recite the Eight Spells, including the one trapped inside Rincewind’s head, and set off on a quest to find the erstwhile magician.  In a space ship at the outset examining the disc, Rincewind is soon thereafter separated from Twoflower and taken, certainly against his will, on a whirlwind of adventure to a variety of places, including the realm of DEATH, to the mountains to meet trolls, and in a strange world of dragons.  The wizards eventually find Rincewind, but his ability to recite of the Octavo—the eighth spell—is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review of Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

(Please note, this review is for the novella Last Summer at Mars Hill, not the collection of the same name.)

If there is an earmark to Elizabeth Hand’s career, it is her willingness, no, willful intention to focus on people having less-than-standard lives and upbringings.  Step-children to the incestuous, nerds to the counter-culture living at the margins of society, Hand’s stories tell of social outcasts of all degrees.  The realism of the portrayal of these people’s thoughts and emotions foremost in the narrative, it’s through subtle means she slips in a bit of the fantastic or science fiction to complement the atypical character arcs.  1994’s Last Summer at Mars Hill is precisely this kind of story.

The novella is a well-crafted story about two young people dealing with their parent’s health problems during a summer holiday in Maine.  Not horror or science fiction, it is paranormal fantasy (sparingly used) which touches upon terminal illness in poignant fashion. Moony and Jason are atypical eighteen year olds in the last years of the 20th century.  Their hippy parents still living according to the quirky values of the counter-culture movement, Moony’s mother Ariel practices mysticism, tarot cards and the like, while Jason’s father, Martin, is a gay artist whose partner recently died of AIDS.  Their life possessing niches and facets that the majority of teens their age do not due to their parents’ esoteric worldviews, Moony and Jason are mature beyond their years yet remain part of the idiosyncratic lifestyle of their parents.  Part of the lifestyle is a yearly summer retreat to Mars Hill—a gathering of new age mystics and fellow spiritualists who believe the coastal town in Maine is inhabited by powers beyond description.   The story opens at the beginning of one such summer, the last summer before Moony and Jason will head off to university, and Moony’s discovery her mother has breast cancer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Ahh yes, the time has become to review another review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year edited by Jonathan Strahan.  This year’s volume eight from Solaris Books, the genre aficionado once again places their trust in Strahan to filter through the literally thousands of stories published in the year to present a ‘best of’.  As always whenever those two words are bandied about, some contention is sure to arise, and this year’s volume is no exception.  It is thus much simpler to describe what the anthology is, rather than what it should have been, could have been, or isn’t, because in the end it is a rich collection of stories which every reader can find something enjoyable within.  One of the better in Strahan's ongoing series, it would seem to indicate 2013 was a strong year in short fiction.

TBSFaFotYv8 opens on an empty note: a wild west one-off from Joe Abercrombie marginally in the same setting as Red Country called “Some Desperado”.  The prose poor and story dry, it will, nevertheless, appeal to that niche of genre fandom which believes Abercrombie can do no wrong.  (See the following quote.  “Neary’s arrow had snagged it in the shoulder, not deep enough to kill or even slow it right off, but deep enough to make it bleed at a good pace. With her hard riding that had killed it just as dead as a shaft in the heart.” The last sentence not even a coherent thought, such jarring, if not blasé, lines are spread throughout the story.)  “Zero Conduct” by Greg Egan shifts to the near-future and tells the story of an Afghani teen living in Iran with her exiled grandfather.  Despite making an exciting discovery in superconducting, getting it into public and into production does not prove easy for a foreigner, however.  Humanitarian in scope, it is a solid story featuring a clash of cultures and advances in knowledge.  One of the most bejeweled stories in the anthology is Yoon Ha Lee’s “Effigy Nights”.  A poetically expressed Jack Vance concept, the story never finds a precise balance between science fiction and fantasy as legends are brought back to life voodoo-style to defend a city under attack from galactic invaders.  A moody, very well written piece of distant galaxy mysteriousness.  “Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman is a fun story in dialogue with Shakespeare and science, and is cleverly structured, but possesses little to ruminate upon given the “profundity” of the subject matter.  Another fun entry is Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”.  As is the wont of Gaiman, the story is a fairy tale involving queens, dwarves, and a strange spell sweeping a land, but with its own contemporary spin on things.  Charming but forgettable. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review of Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard passed away recently, and due to the fact I have not read enough of his novels to offer a definitive statement, I decided to do what little I could: read a collection sitting on my to-read pile in tribute.  Originally published as Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories in 1997 (and re-published as Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories in 1999), the collection is vintage Shepard, and though it may not be the best of his numerous collections, remains a good reminder of the unique imagination and sense of style he possessed.

Given the contents of collections published prior (for example, Sports & Music which contains only two stories, both of which are re-published here), Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories is Shepard’s third of significance.  Written in his generous, paced prose, the collection is a departure from the previous two; where The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth leaned most heavily toward stories of the fantastic, horror, and otherwise paranormal, Barnacle Bill is mostly in the vein of science fiction.  A space thriller with elements of horror, the title story Barnacle Bill the Spacer opens the collection and is the story of a man living on a station orbiting Mars.  Coming to inexplicably care for a deplorable, mentally-defective man who the module’s residents have dubbed Barnacle Bill, his stewardship is put to the test when a mysterious cult puts a death mark on Bill’s door.  Saved by Shepard’s quality prose, the plot unwinding thereafter is rather standard science fiction, but does build to a crescendo over the last few pages.  If anything, the novella leaves the reader sitting squarely on the fence regarding character.  Bill disgusting and loathsome, learning of the underlying reasons to his problems serves to balance the odium and advances the narrative in train-wreck fascination as his fate unfolds.  (See here for a more in-depth review of the novella on this blog.)

Review of Barnacle Bill the Spacer by Lucius Shepard

Most well-known for his excursions into fantasy, magic realism, horror, and all things between, Lucius Shepard’s 1992 Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a notable exception.  A space station drama/thriller, the novella nevertheless possesses the writer’s signature style.  What it may be missing, however, is originality and significance.

Barnacle Bill the Spacer is set on Solitaire, a station orbiting Mars which assembles long-distance exploratory ships.  Earth in ruins, life on the station and Mars is considered a luxury, and is available only to a select few.  An exception to the happy, healthy people at the station, however, is Bill, a mental defect who escaped mandatory abortion due to his mother’s position in government.  “Barnacle Bill”, as he is derogatorily called, is looked down upon by the station’s community and isolates himself with sweets and porn.  In a bar fight in the opening pages, one of the other station dwellers named John defends Bill for reasons he doesn’t understand, and in the aftermath, finds himself offering protection to the slow witted man.  The bar fight not the end of the violence, a mysterious cult called the Strange Magnificence leaves the mark of death on Bill’s door one morning not too long after, drawing Bill, John, station security, and local government into the fray.  The ship builders of Solitaire are never the same.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review of Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

(Please note, this review is for the novella Behold the Man, not Moorcock’s later novel-length expansion.)

For anyone who has grown up in or around some form of Christianity, or at least read and pondered on the subject of Christ, it is perhaps inevitable to wonder whether the man actually existed, or, if we in the modern era are simply the receivers of a myth tweaked and twisted, forged and reforged through time.  No matter which cultural viewpoint you hail from, the story has potential effect.  Love, guilt, sin, and sacrifice are, in fact, universal values.  Michael Moorcock’s 1966 Behold the Man is thus a noteworthy novella for its very personal examination of the Christ myth-history without dependence on religious agenda.

Karl Glogauer is a bookshop owner who feels the weight of existence.  Burdened with emotion from the life he’s lived to date, when a friend shows him a time machine he’s invented, Glogauer jumps at the chance to go back in time and learn whether Christ the man truly existed, and whether the story we know is true.  Landing amongts a group of Essennes and meeting John the Baptist, he eventually finds his way to Nazarene to meet the carpenter—the man Jesus.  Not finding what he expected at Joseph and Mary’s home, Glogauer’s time traveling thereafter becomes what he, and the reader, could never have expected.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review of Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

While we debate mankind’s relationship with the environment and its future possibility in space, there is one thing that is not in question: mankind’s domination of Earth.  Whether one believes the human animal to be civilized or not, it has evolved to occupy the top spot in the food chain, no questions asked.  Mike Resnick’s 1994 Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge traces, through windows of time, this process: from minority to majority, then postulates what may happen after.  Though rather simplistic in presentation and clunky in assumption, there remain more than a few grains of truth tucked into the novella.

A frame story, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge opens with a group of aliens as they explore Earth many years after man has extinguished himself from the universe in an extended conflagration of aggression—a mere 17 millennium after reaching the stars.  On an archeological dig, the variegated group sift through strata of Earth and the remains of past human civilizations—looted and otherwise.  He Who Feels is the narrator, and his talent is to be able to experience an object’s history through touch.  Seven such objects coming into his presence—a metal stylus, triangular stone, bullet, knife handle, three small pieces of bone, and a chain link—it is through their individual histories that Resnick presents his perspective on the evolution of humanity through and into the future.  Whether the story is a cautionary or just pure cynicism is up to reader interpretation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review of The Death of Doctor Island by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is one of science fiction’s most unique voices.  Effortlessly able to weave the building blocks of literary fiction into his genre work, the resulting allusions and abstract story elements often leave passive readers mystified.  But for that portion of the reading population who seek to engage with a text—to ruminate upon the forking paths of meaning and purpose—his stories are a joy.  1973’s The Death of Doctor Island is perfect example of the author’s work in novella form.

The Death of Doctor Island is the surreal story of Nicholas Kenneth de Vore and his time on a empty island.  Calling itself Dr. Island, a voice whispers to him from the surf, from the leaves, and even from the monkeys that live in the jungles along the beach he calls home.  Savagely beaten in the opening pages by a man named Ignacio, Nicholas runs into a deranged young woman named Diane in pursuit of vengeance.  Though explaining to him the nature of life on the small, uninhabited island, everything still seems too disconnected to proceed with purpose.  Shown strange secrets in the jungle by the Doctor, things come to a head when running into Ignacio once again.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s writing is a voice, an extremely strong voice, in support of the idea of quality over quantity.  The opposite of prolific, Chiang has published precisely fifteen pieces of short fiction in a space of time covering slightly longer than two decades (as of Sept. 2013).  That’s less than one story per year.  But each is so lovingly crafted, so coherently whole, so multi-faceted and multi-layered, so grounded in the most basic aspects of being human that they take on dimensions greater than the sum of their parts.  Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) collects the first eight stories Chiang published, and remains his only full-length publication to date. 

Every selection (save one) either nominated for or winning an award, the collection is a superb mix of short stories, novelettes and novellas.  Working within science fiction, fantasy, and the liminal areas between, each is a singular piece that stands out from the others.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the consistency of Chiang’s style, the collection would feel like an anthology.  There remain, however, single-color threads running through the stories.  “Division by Zero”, Story of Your Life, and “Hell is the Absence of God” feature characters dealing with loss.  “Tower of Babylon”, “Understand”, “The Evolution of Human Science”, Seventy-Two Letters, and Liking What You See: A Documentary involve people pushing limits of what it means to be human.  In “Division by Zero”, “Tower of Babylon”, and Story of Your Life there is open discussion that science may not be as airtight as many believe it to be, i.e. a strong post-modern concern for relativity.

Review of Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

It is one thing to understand an idea and internalize it; but it is another to be able to relate that idea through the most practical examples to another person.  This is the mark of an intelligent person, this is the mark of a good teacher, and for the majority of purposes, this is the mark of a good writer.  Ted Chiang’s 1998 Story of Your Life does all of this, and goes one step further.  Utilizing a fundamental theory of physics, the novella is an alternate perspective on the universe through very human eyes.

Story of Your Life is the story of Dr. Louise Banks, one of the world’s leading philologists.  Aliens having arrived in orbit above Earth and sent communicator devices cascading to various regions, at the outset of the story she is asked by the military to study and learn the heptapods’ language so that humanity might be able to communicate with the seven-eyed, seven-legged creatures.  Interwoven into the story of alien contact are flashbacks to Banks’ past, particularly the daughter she raised to adulthood but who died mountain climbing at age twenty-five.  Chiang paralleling Banks’ present and past in sublime fashion, the resolution of the doctor’s story is touching.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review of Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang

Explored pointedly in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, reproduction is a fundamental aspect of being human, but one which is mutable.  There are moments it is planned, and moments it is unplanned, and oscillating between these two points the species has propagated itself through the millennia—at least as far as we know (*wink*).  Though the approach is entirely different than Huxley’s, Ted Chiang’s 2000 Seventy-Two Letters is another story bringing into focus the significance and responsibility of the human creative act.

Imagery and backdrop residing ever-so-close to what most perceive as the core of the sub-genre, Seventy-Two Letters is undoubtedly steampunk, though with a strong fantasy edge.  Set in pre-industrial Britain circa the mid 1800s, the novella is the story of Robert Stratton, a nomenclator working in a factory that produces golems.  Made of clay, the anthropomorphic objects are animated with codes, called names, that are written on pieces of paper and inserted into the neck.  Each golem able to perform a limited number of actions based on the coding, Stratton has grand plans for the reduction of manual labor through the introduction of a new model he has recently developed with opposable digits.  But when a pair of scientists approach him regarding the application of his knowledge on human fetuses, Stratton’s research into the application of names takes him into uncharted territory for the human race.

Review of Liking What You See: A Documentary by Ted Chiang

Beauty is one of the most fascinating subjects relative to humanity.  Both subjective (‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’) and objective (refer to the principles of advertizing), it is a quintessential aspect of human motivation, and conversely, de-motivation.  Playing with the idea as only science fiction can, Ted Chiang’s 2002 novella-length Liking What You See: A Documentary is an equally fascinating examination of the concept.  Dismantling beauty, then building it back up again in relation to other human characteristics, the novella remains unparalleled in the genre.

Liking What You See: A Documentary is centered around Tamara Lyons, a first year university student at Pembleton who has recently had her calliagnosia deactivated.  ‘Calli’ is a neurological means of turning off a person’s ability to see beauty in the human face, and Tamara, after spending her entire youth with the non-invasive procedure in place, is starting her undergraduate studies getting used to the idea of seeing the aesthetics of the people around her.  This is not to say everyone used to look like a lemming, rather that the specific node of the brain which registers beauty and ugliness was turned off, facial characteristics still completely visible.  Being in public, seeing her friends at school, and most importantly, looking in the mirror through the lens of beauty/ugliness are now entirely different experiences for Tamara.  It is thus when a student organization proposes that every student at the university be made to go through the calliagnosia process that Tamara is forced to consider whether she was better off before or after.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review of In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was one of the great observers of humanity.  Writing non-fiction based on his experiences in various parts of the US and the world, the overwhelming majority of his novels likewise present people and situations in a wholly realistic manner.  Forever with an eye to the common man, much of his Depression era fiction examines the civil strife sweeping the land; seemingly everything was scarce for the majority of the population.  But with harvest time came an opportunity, albeit temporary, for migrant workers to collect the bounty of the season, that is, if farmers and owners were willing to pay fair wages for the work.  In almost every way a precursor to The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle examines the human side of labor strikes in the 1930s in both leftist and realist tones.

In Dubious Battle (title taken from Paradise Lost) is the story of Jim Nolan, a young man with no direction in life, and Mac, an experienced communist agitator.  Knowing the owners have banded together to lower wages, at the outset of the novel the pair arrive in a valley filled with apple orchards ripe for the picking and workers upset at having their pay reduced.  Slowly but confidently organizing the men and their families into a strike, events soon begin bouncing back and forth between the owners and workers as anger, scabs, and local political interests take over.  Escalating into a clash of violent proportions, the lives of Jim and Mac end up changed forever.

Review of 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment by David Loeff

Given the current state of market publishing, i.e. its eagerness to flood shelves with mediocre genre in the hope of making a buck, my willingness to take on self-published works has grown in parallel. Having had both good luck and bad (see William Rosencrans’ The Epiphanist for an example of a book that deserves house recognition, and vice versa, Escape the Bone Yard by R.C. Scott for a work whose talent doesn't rise to the ambition), it was with indifference I accepted David Loeff’s request to review his self-published 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment.  Falling somewhere in the middle, the collection will not set the genre afire, however, it remains a respectable entry which will appeal to readers who enjoy classic storytelling, particularly in the vein of 1,001 Arabian Nights.  The following is a review of the twelve (depending how you count) stories in the collection.

Lacking a framing device like Scheherazade, 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment instead opens with two quick, clever parables, “In the Bag” and “Life Changing Encounters”.  The former is the story of a man who tries to reclaim the handbag stolen from him after entering a new city, while the latter is the tale of one man’s encounter with Death on the street early one morning.  “The Dog’s Golden Dish”, a story appearing soon thereafter in the collection, has a very similar, mercurial feel.  It is one man’s hurried account to an expectant king about rises and falls from wealth, oscillating ever faster the closer it gets to the end.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review of Protection by Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh’s 1992 China Mountain Zhang is foremost a personal novel of people confronting realities of life and dealing with them as humans do.  It is also set against a future that sees the West, predominantly the US, go through a Second Depression.  The Chinese jumping into the gap to take over the US culturally, linguistically, and economically the same way the US has other countries, the political backdrop is one rich with potential that is only partially explored in the novel.  Far heavier ideologically, McHugh’s 1992 novella Protection is set in the same US, but foregrounds the practical realities of socialism vs. capitalism, the personal stories coming in a close second.

Protection is the story of Janee, a tough-skinned, rebellious young woman who has been convicted of larceny and assault, and sentenced to 10 years at the labor camp Protection in Kansas.  Uneducated, she has trouble adapting to life at the camp, particularly its group sessions in which the prisoners discuss their crimes in the outside world and publicly confess what they did wrong.  Though forcing herself upon a weak ‘political’ named Paul for warmth in the cold bunkrooms and companionship in the vast sewing room where they spend their workdays, she finds herself flustered in conversation regarding the political ideals behind society outside.  The blue sky she comes to, however, is not what the reader expects.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review of "Shades" by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard’s collection The Jaguar Hunter features several stories set in a near-future Central America overrun by war, a fact exacerbated by US military intrusion.  With the jungles, trauma of war, drugs to blunt—or sharpen—the edge, and soldiers caught up in the death and fighting for which the purpose is unclear, the Vietnam War echoes strongly, and intentionally.  “Shades”, Shepard’s 1987 novelette about a war veteran still deeply affected by the conflict years later, drops the parallel and cuts right to southeast Asia in the 80s.

“Shades” is the story of Puleo, a Vietnam veteran who has returned to the country as a journalist to write a piece about a ghost soldier named Stoner local scientists have recently captured in a force field.  Weighted down with heavy emotional baggage arising from the traumatic memories of war, his return is contentious from the start.  Meeting a trio of other journalist at a bar upon arrival, the whiskey only releases more angst.  But nothing gets him more jittery than actually meeting Stoner.  A confrontation like no other, the aftermath sends shockwaves through Puleo’s life.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review of "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

Joy and anger flash like a fire, burning one moment, subsiding the next.  Regret, however, is a feeling that can stay with a person the length of their days.  Each person dealing with the pain and frustration it brings differently, Ted Chiang’s 2007 "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" would have the last word.

The novelette is the story of one Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant of yesteryear Baghdad.  At the beginning of the story he sits before a caliph, recounting the story of his life.  One day he had been perusing a market when he came upon a strange new shop.  Selling items he had never seen before, the proprietor asks him into the back room to see the alchemy which produced the oddities.  The source a strange, rigid arch, what passes through one side has its time scale interrupted before passing out the other.  The proprietor possessing two such gates, one is seconds in length, the other two decades.  Having encountered many people in his lifetime, the man proceeds to tell the tales of a handful who have chosen to pass through the gate, both into the past and the future.  Hearing their tales, ibn Abbas is unable to resist stepping through himself.  What he finds on the other side, however, is not what he expected.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

With the strong backing of a confident publisher, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell took the genre world by storm in 2004—and even turned a few literary heads.  Part historical fantasy, part alternative history, a mite sword and sorcery, and a touch Gothic, the lengthy novel won several awards and was reprinted numerous times in its first years on the market.  Imagination ripe, cultural commentary relevant, prose confident and stylish, and historical scope grand, books of such unique quality do not often come along.  The story of magic’s revival in Britain in the middle of the 19th century, it does not return in a form one would expect.  

At the outset of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, magic is thought dead in Britain—a facet of history only the legendary Raven King is said to be able to practice, and even he is commonly held as just an apparition of nightmares.  Quickly it is discovered, however, that a respectable gentleman, Mr. Norrell, has held himself in seclusion and been hoarding magic books for years.  In fact the only known practicing magician (as opposed to the horde of ‘theoretical magicians’ who eternally discuss but never apply their ideas), he is brought to London and introduced to high society as magic’s savior.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review of Cri de Coeur by Michal Bishop

  “Why, once, did moths singe the tapestries of their wings in candle flames? Why, once, did the cinder-laden parachutes of fireworks so excite us? And, again, why did certain crazies—fools or saints—sometimes steep themselves in petrol and torch themselves to carbon?
    Why, in short, do we long to blaze?
    Ever since I turned twelve, I've known. Only a minuscule fraction of the stuff of our universe glows. The rest, the bulk, drifts in darkness, unmoored or rudely tugged. The cold vast black of interstellar night cloaks it from our eyes, our telescopes, our roachlike searchings. We belong to the part that does not glow, to the swallowing dark.
    Why wonder, then, that a yearning to leap into the furnace, to god-fashion ourselves in fire, drives us starward on the engines of a mute cri de coeur?” (1)

Such is the brilliance upon which Michael Bishop’s 1994 novella Cri de Coeur (roughly translated to Cry of the Heart) opens.  A presentation of life onboard a generation starship and the hope for humans beyond the solart system, the poetic prose continues throughout, giving the story a rich flavor.

Cri de Coeur is the story of Abel Gwiazda, a Tanzanian adopted to Polish parents (his last name means ‘star’ in Polish), and his time on the Annie Jump Cannon in its 100 year flight to New Home.  The planet thought to be able to support life based on astronomics research on Earth, Gwiazda, the soil scientist, hurtles through the blackness of space spending most of his time in the bioracks, woken one month of the year in cycles with the 1,500 other crew members to carry out the necessary tasks of life aboard the massive wheelship.  Desiring a child in flight, he contracts Lily Aliosi-Stark, and together the two give birth to a boy with Down’s Syndrome named Dean.  Life aboard the thirty-three mile long ship anything but utpoic, Gwiazda must deal with fellow crew members, the fear of space, and the uncertainty of their destination if he is to survive with heart and mind intact.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review of Burn by James Patrick Kelly

Beyond math, physics, chemistry, etc., there remain numerous philosophies and ideologies underpinning science fiction: existentialism to Cartesian dualism, the eternal return to metaphysics, and many others.  But the transcendentalist ‘manifestos’ of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and others of the Club in Concord are something I’ve never seen utilized in science fiction.  That is, until I read James Patrick Kelly’s 2005 Burn.  Fully in dialogue with Thoreau, the novella intelligently examines the juxtaposition of naturalist vs. progressive societies via a thought experiment, sci-fi style.  Though occasionally lacking subtlety, the novella challenges utopian thinking about nature, as well as nihilism that civilization is dying.

An interesting dichotomy, the setting of Burn is the planet Walden.  Initially colonized by a people called the pukpuks, the aggressive usage of resources and impractical implementation of economic and social programs caused their civilization to collapse.  Seeing the potential for a natural utopia, Jack Winter purchased the planet in the aftermath and converted it into the Transcendental State.  Strictly interpreting Thoreau’s views, the Transcendentalists disturb nature as little as possible, keeping their farming to a minimum while allowing the forest to retake the planet.  The problem is, the forests have regrown to the point they encroach upon the land of the remaining pukpuks.  Desiring a return to the ways of their technologically enhanced ancestors, the pukpuks resort to terrorist activity.  They intentionally start fires that re-open land for development and allow them contact with upsiders—people from other planets who have the technology they want to trade for.  Such clearing of land against the principles of the Transcendentalists, not to mention potentially deadly, conflict ensues.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review of The Space Merchants by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl

The dystopian novel has become a tradition in science fiction.  And it’s easy to see why: the facets which separate the genre from the rest of literature are conducive to manifesting societies and ideologies at odds with whatever the current social reality is.  Brave New World presents a society in which nearly all humanity has been drained from humanity; Fahrenheit 451 takes books away from society; Nineteen Eighty-four envisions a world wherein personal freedom is lost to government control; We presents a scenario in which individualism is crushed beneath the sterility of conformity; and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up present different facets of allowing corporate influence to usurp political and social concerns.  Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress sees a society stymied by chemicals, reality always one hallucination away.  Unheralded yet fitting perfectly amongst these novels, C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s 1952 The Space Merchants is a dystopian novel that sees commercialism play out in a frightening scenario that stratifies society unhealthily.  Gaining prescience rather than losing it with time, the ideas of the novel are hurt only by poor plotting.  Otherwise, they ring loud and clear to this day.

The society Kornbluth and Pohl imagine is indeed all too realistic.  Set nominally in the 22 nd century, corporations have gained enough power to force political bounds to shift from the geographical to the commercial.  States no longer represented in government, business conglomerations and mega-corps instead compete and lobby fiercely on the highest stage to ensure products are consumed and profits high.  Playing the largest role in this are the advertizing agencies.  Able to use whatever methods they desire, the five senses are appealed to in commercials, billboards, etc., while the products themselves often carry addictive elements.  Wealth channeled to the top, the lower class grows while the rich prosper.  All services privatized, even a person’s ability to receive civil protection stems from their ability to pay—anything from Burn’s Detectives to Star Alliance Security available.  The poor having to subside on low quality nutrients, third world countries supplying labor for the wealthy, and many people wearing mouth filters on city streets, the world of The Space Merchants is exactly like ours in many ways.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review of The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard is a writer of science fiction and fantasy that usually gets discovered only after the reader has spent enough time in the genre to explore all of its formats.  Not one of the ‘big names’ of novel land, he has quietly staked himself out as one of the tip-top writers of short fiction the past three decades.  Winning and being nominated for innumerable awards in the short story, novelette, and novella categories, his trademarks are a keen feel for the craft of writing, vividly drawn characters, sustained narrative tension, and a desire to explore all areas of spec-fic.  Shepard’s first published collection, The Jaguar Hunter (1987), presents all these elements near fully formed—a sign of the waterfall of quality short fiction that was to follow.

A varied collection of stories, the title The Jaguar Hunter covers the majority.  Seven are indeed set in Latin America, and for this the collection exudes an exotic flavor of sweaty jungles, snakes, jungle cats, guerrilla armies, and banana plantations.  But there are also stories set in Nepal, the US, Afghanistan, Spain, and one not of this Earth—at least ostensibly.  That the stories never reuse the same motif—alien visitation, near-future sci-fi, thriller, character study, magic realism, horror—also speaks to the diversity.  A mix of formats as well, the collection features two short stories, six novelettes and three novellas.  About the only constant is Shepard’s voice.  Patient, evocative, visceral, and practiced, the remainder is all any fan of speculative fiction could ask for in a collection.

Review of The Traveler's Tale by Lucius Shepard

The Traveler’s Tale (1984) by Lucius Shepard is a science fiction/horror story set on the fictional island Guanoja Menor off the coast of Honduras.  One of several stories Shepard has set in the region, he brings to bear his familiarity with Central America in telling this voodoo-esque tale of alien proportions.

The Traveler’s Tales is told through the eyes of Frank Winship, a retired American who recently bought a piece of land on a remote corner of Guanoja Menor, met a younger woman, and is ready to settle into his twilight years.  The locals full of color, Frank spends his days at the area chicken shack, eating meals, and having beer over gossip.  A few tourists travel through the area, and Frank strikes up a short friendship with one, a great storyteller named Ray Milliken.  Milliken disappears a short time later and Frank thinks nothing more of it until, having chicken one evening, he hears a rumor that Milliken has returned and intends to develop an unused, snake-infested point of land into a town.  Visiting the large parcel, a place the locals call the Burying Ground based on old pirate legends, Frank learns firsthand that indeed Milliken intends to develop the overgrown jungle into a community and has brought along a cadre of like-minded young travelers to help.  But when the travelers begin straggling out of the jungle at odd hours, knocking on Frank’s door seeking assistance, things take decided a turn for the strange, and Frank begins fearing for his life.

Review of R&R by Lucius Shepard

The late 60s/early 70s was a time of international and civil strife.  The Vietnam War one of the major touch points, things in the US only quieted down in the late 70s with the election of Jimmy Carter.  But with the induction of Ronald Reagan into office a few years later, a new round of unpopular military action was begun.  Learning their lesson, the government operated mostly out of the public eye, inserting small strike forces in Latin America to assist guerrilla armies here and broken governments there, all with an eye to economic rather than human interests.  Aware of what was happening in the region, Lucius Shepard penned R&R in 1983.  Bringing awareness to a situation that to this day does not receive the same recognition as Vietnam or Iraq, the near-future story of a US soldier fighting in Guatemala offers anti-war sentiment in mature fashion, and in turn adds itself to the ranks of anti-war stories told in highly human terms.

R&R is the story of David Mingolla, an army soldier fighting in the jungles of Guatemala against whatever enemies spring before him.  Cubans, local rebels, and even renegade U.S. Army units on the attack, things are far from black and white in Mingolla’s life.  Preferring to relax and walk the rural villages while his buddies whore, take drugs, pit fight, and carouse in the neon madness that springs up outside army barracks, he spends his r&r time thinking of going AWOL to Panama—an idea his morals prevent him from acting on time and again.  Meeting a partially psychic woman in a village one evening changes things, however, and Mingolla’s world begins to spin ever faster.

Review of The Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie

The 1980s were a tumultuous time in Central America.  Though late Cold War, the Reagan administration was still sticking its nose into the region to attempt to prevent communism from spreading—which is an underhanded way of saying keeping a handle on its own economic interests.  Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and numerous other countries, including Nicaragua, were caught up in the resulting mess of violence and social turbulence—memories that haunt to this day.  Secret armies formed and disbanded, attacks taking cities and even the sleepiest villages by surprise, and revolutions a dime a dozen, about the only constant for the people was the uncertainty of life—aka war.  Invited by the then government of Nicaragua to see the country and hear the political ideology under discussion, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey is Salman Rushdie’s account of three weeks in the country in July 1986.

A very well-written piece of journalism, The Jaguar Smile holds more in common with Orwell and Steinbeck’s international accounts of war, than say, Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux’s travelogues.  Rushdie forever keeping an eye to the interaction of politics, religion, society, theory, and practice, the relatively short book (170 pages) is packed with the ideologies at stake, lives of the people, political concepts attempting to be implemented and implemented intentionally or otherwise, and just enough background history to contextualize events.  The writing style a mix of Rushdie’s prosaic leanings with a concise journalistic approach, the book is both informative and a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review of The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady

If there is any universal trigger of nostalgia in the United States, it is the Golden Years of the 1950s.  Glamorized to this day, the innocence of youth, the music on the radio, and of course, the tons of steel molded into cars are some of the most common visuals associated with the period.  DeSotos, Hudsons, Chryslers, Lincolns, and all other manner of road behemoths piloted the burgeoning highways of America, guzzling gas and fueling the joy the driving every mile of the way.  Simply a beautifully written novella, Jack Cady’s 1993 The Night We Buried Road Dog reflects back upon the era to evoke a similar nostalgia, and in the process touches upon aspects more intrinsic to the motion and direction of the human spirit.

The Night We Buried Road Dog is the story of Jed and his life in small town Montana circa 1961.  He and his friend Jesse both car junkies, the hammer of pistons on the open road is their religion.  So in love with automobiles, when Jesse’s decrepit Hudson gets too old, they bury it in his front yard, complete with a tombstone and epitaph.  But Jesse does not spend long without a car, a giant Lincoln is soon burning rubber beneath his feet.  The highways of the night forever calling their name, mile after mile is racked up by the pair.  But everywhere they go, they see markers and signs left by the mysterious Road Dog—a man some think is real, and others just a legend of heartland USA’s open highways.  One night driving home, an even more mysterious thing happens: a ghost car flashes past, and in its wake the mystery of the Road Dog deepens.