Monday, September 29, 2014

Review of The Secret of this Book by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is one of, if not the most versatile writer in speculative fiction.  Published in a variety of forms (poetry, plays, short fiction, novel length, and non-fiction), a variety of genres and sub-genres (fantasy, science fiction, and realism—to cover the big ones) and in a variety of writing styles, his dynamism, willingness to try new modes, and experimentation with prose make him one of the most important science fiction writers alive—and still writing as he closes in on his 9 th decade.  Capturing this versatility is Aldiss’ 1995 collection The Secret of This Book.  Showing off nearly all the tools in his kit, it’s a mature collection of well-wrought stories that are perfect for the reader looking for variety in their genre reading.

From the opening salvo to the last, Aldiss lets the reader know art is one of the main motifs of The Secret of This Book.  “Common Clay”, which opens the collection, is the story of a starving artist living in Geneva.  Despising fellow artists who go commercial, he stubbornly sticks to his squalid apartment and poor ways for the principle of it all, that is, until meeting a mysterious woman.  Given the conclusion, “Common Clay” may be the ultimate starving artiste tale.  In fact a trio of stories, “Her Toes Were Beautiful on the Mountains” is the salvo closing the collection.  Ostensibly sci-fi, each nevertheless delves into human concerns beyond the tropes of the genre.  The first is the derailing of military propaganda at a shuttle launch, the second a brief piece in which Gaugin is brought to virtual life, and the third is a dialogue between two scientists about primitivism and its relation to art.  Moving briskly, each vignette stands alone yet is linked thematically to the others, Gaugin, and his work in the Pacific, the centerpiece.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review of Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

At a time when American sci-fi was wallowing like a pig in mud on a hot summer’s day (the pulp era), what little science fiction existed was swimming almost entirely in literary waters. Save for H.G. Wells’ staid presence and C.S. Lewis’ thinly veiled apologetics, very few other writers were on the UK scene regularly using the ‘yet possible’ to tell stories.  But quantity was made up for by quality.  One of the most questioning, challenging, and influential writers to ever pick up a pen, regardless of era, was published in this time: Olaf Stapledon.  A doctor of philosophy, he applied knowledge to humanity’s deepest questions in thought experiments that pushed at the limits of understanding in ways other writers have yet to equal.

Odd John is Stapledon’s third novel (1935).  Though continuing to work with the supermind idea that comprises parts of his previous works (Last and First Men and Last Men in London), the novel sees Stapledon breaking fresh ground—or at least a new tangent in a familiar domain.  The story of a boy born into a normal British family, his semi-mutated features give rise to the possibility he will be limited in some fashion when he grows up.  John, as the baby is named, proves to be the exact opposite.  Remaining silent for the first couple of years, he suddenly bursts into coherent language, and thereafter offers one intellectual surprise after another.  Physically slow in developing, his brain, however, is obviously multiple degrees more intelligent than the average human’s.  Coming to terms with his abnormality, John follows his own path toward adulthood and realizing his dreams.  Problem is, will humanity let him?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Vol. 6 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

2011 was a very solid year in short speculative fiction, and Volume 6 of Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series proves it.  Ken Liu’ story dominated awards, while K.J. Parker, Paul McAuley, and Kij Johnson’s were also winners.  Several others nominated and/or added in more than one collection or anthology, Strahan captures a very readable snapshot of what 2011 was in short speculative fiction.

The fourth time to be included in Strahan’s ‘best of’ and the second time to open the anthology, Neil Gaiman again makes an appearance, this time with “The Case of Death and Honey”.  A Sherlock Holmes story (surprisingly), Gaiman portrays the fictional detective as he always dreamed but was never portrayed: in retirement as a beekeeper.  Unsatisfied with his honey making efforts in Britain, Holmes’ pursuit of the perfect honey takes him to China, where, another life feels the affects of his search.  As advertized, it is a bittersweet note on which to open the anthology. Another story of bees and China, this time from the point of view of the insects themselves, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu is a story that makes an impression at first read, but upon deeper thought threatens to crumble like the fragile nests described.  Weird (capitol ‘W’) and seemingly political, Yu’s story at least makes for a nice piece of eye-candy.  “Tidal Forces” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a superb story about a writer and her lover attempting to come to terms with the unquantifiable aspects of life.  Written in non-linear yet flowing prose that moves like the titular tide, it is a story that can be read multiple times given the layering.  High quality science fiction, the usage of scientific theory (a riff on an Einstein quote) is so intelligently subsumed into a story of modern human interest that I find myself rambling…  “Young Women” by Karen Joy Fowler is decidedly more conventional—in the realistic sense.  Written in sharp, intelligent sentences that snap off the page, one evening’s encounter between a snoopy mom and her fifteen-year old’s boyfriend has all the drama one would expect, but thankfully more poignancy. More an art piece than fiction, “White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente is 50s’ nostalgia after having undergone a Coyote myth transformation.  Salaciously written, but still looking for the substance…

Review of Son of the Tree and Other Stories by Jack Vance

The material so similar, it is no easy task to parse Jack Vance’s short fiction into collections.  Chronologically in order of publishing one option, the creators of the Vance Integral Edition instead went another: thematic -as challenging as it is.  While some are easier to identify than others, Golden Girl and Other Stories, for example, brings together the stories Vance wrote starring women and The Dragon Masters and Other Stories his three most successful novellas.  Others are less easy; The Potters of Firsk and Other Stories seems to simply have been a pot collecting miscellaneous stories.  Son of the Tree and Other Stories is a collection somewhere in the middle.  The common thread not immediately apparent, but once the reader delves in, the motif of space mystery becomes clear—at least for most of the stories.  The following are brief summaries of each:

“Phalid’s Fate” – A man is surgically altered to become a bug-like alien—a Phalid—so that he can get revenge upon the aliens for killing his brother in their inter-planetary war, but instead becomes involved in a massive plot.  Golden Age science fiction, this novelette is a middling example of Vance’s style of planetary adventure.

“Chateau d'If” – Mario is a bored architect until seeing an advertisement for the mysterious Chateau d’If.  Promised an adventure, he gets more than what he pays for, and must find a way to get himself out of a major hole.  Fully deserving of novel length treatment, this story is unfortunately a rushed affair full of gaping plot holes.  Though a fear of trans-humanism plays itself out in realistic style, the remainder has plot gaps the size of cadillacs, all characterization lost in the process. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review of Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer

City of Saints and Madmen was a phantasmagorical mélange of (sur)reality. The past and present of Ambergris like shards of stained glass lying on wet pavement, the themes of art, history, culture, and humanity colored what was otherwise a fungally Weird vision of urbanity.  Underlying realities forever hinted at but never revealed, the collection proved to be a course of appetizers that whet hunger but do not sate it. In 2006 VanderMeer unveiled the main course: Shriek: An Afterword, which is, thankfully, infinitely better than my food metaphors.  Presenting the character studies of two siblings living in Ambergris in tumultuous times, the novel expands the ideas of City of Saints and Madmen in subtle, layered fashion, helping to define the Ambergris books as one of the most important works of 21 st century fantasy.

Shriek begins as an afterword to a re-printing of The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shiek.  Written by the author’s sister Janice, it opens on a biographical note recounting the details of her brother’s youth.  But very quickly it becomes apparent the afterword is not standard historical material.  Duncan’s own words appearing in the text (in such parentheses), the narrative becomes reminiscences, revelations, and running commentary from both Janice and Duncan.  Janice’s personal issues rising slowly to the top, the narrative becomes autobiographical as well.  Scenes from her involvement in the art scene intertwined with Duncan’s own good and bad luck as professor and writer are featured.  Events in Ambergris at large taking shape in the background, the rivalry of the city’s two main publishing houses escalates into a civil war, and finally all-out war when the neighboring Kalif invades.  Known from the outset that Duncan eventually disappears into the underground and that Janice’s self-destruction moves continually downhill, the mystery of Janice’s ultimate fate, as well as how Duncan came to annotate Janice’s narrative, are mysteries needing resolution.

Review of The Best of A.E. van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

Please note: this review is for the 1974 UK publishing, not the 1976 US publishing of the same name.  For the record, the UK version is van Vogt's own selection, the US the publisher's.

The Golden Age of science fiction was witness to a large number of names trying to cash in on market demand.  Many, many of these names since fading into history, there remain some that echo, albeit fainter and fainter through the decades.  One of the biggest names echoing is A.E. van Vogt.  Making that name for himself with dense, dynamic stories, he would continue writing in Golden Age mode decades beyond the era.  Accumulating a lengthy backlist of short fiction in the process, its best of—selected by van Vogt himself—was collected in 1974 and is the subject of this review.

Clute and Nichols calling it “shuffling upon re-shuffling”, I can’t think of a better term myself to describe van Vogt’s plotting.  And, “Vault of the Beast“, the first story in the collection (and earliest, as they are arranged chronologically) is a perfect example.  Starting simple but quickly escalating to galaxy-wide implications, more events are packed into the novelette than many writers today put into a novel.  Van Vogt stating that he limited himself to 800 word action scenes, the tactic never lets the plot slow, as immediately following upon some excitement is the transitory ‘clean up’ that sees the characters, aliens, et al shuffled into new positions, with new implications and tensions, requiring a new action scene, and so on goes the re-shuffling. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The opening line of the canononical Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms reads:“A nation divided must unite, and a nation united must divide.” Implicit to this statement is that any given society is in continual transition between periods of social stability and times of war and chaos.  It begs the question: how to turn off this perpetual ferris wheel of existence?  How to apply the brake in a stable period, affording humanity peace and quiet?  None yet able to answer these questions in practical terms, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2014, Macmillan-Tor/Forge) removes the ferris wheel’s housing to get a better look at the motor inside. Triangulating classical and modern physics, alien contact, and 20 th century Chinese history, it is a deceivingly simple examination of perhaps the most relevant issue facing humanity as a whole: how to stay united?  The Three Kingdoms' scenario has become the three-body problem.

The Three-Body Problem opens on a powerfully symbolic scene.  The irrationality of China’s Cultural Revolution set as the benchmark for chaos, a physics professor dies for his understanding of the world.  His daughters, who happen to fall on opposite sides of the ideological fence, are left to carry on the family name, with one, Ye Wenjie, going on to become an astrophysicist.  But after transcribing a letter to help a friend, she nearly lands in the same pot of boiling water as her father, and is lucky only to be exiled to a rural mountain top radar installation where a secret government project is underway.  Many years later, Wenjie’s daughter meets a nanomaterials researcher, Wang Miao.  Miao heavily involved in a computer game called Three Body, his discoveries in the virtual environment gradually evolve into the real world as the secrets behind the game and Wenjie’s mountaintop project collide in a galaxy-spanning plot with life-changing implications for the future of civilization.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of Timescape by Gregory Benford

A back cover quote from Paul McAuley on the SF Masterworks edition of Gregory Benford’s 1980 Timescape reads: “Perhaps the best fictional account of scientists at work.”  Physics nerds more often better readers of science fiction than subject material for science fiction, the quote induces a certain foreboding: ohhh no, a dry account of scientists in the laboratory, working over the minutiae of some esoteric niche of knowledge, tension and drama pushed far, far to the background.  But Benford pulls it off.  Not a Hollywood blockbuster, Benford’s book nevertheless integrates hard science fiction with the lives of scientists—in- and outside of work, successfully, and as a result reads with more interest than a number of space operas. But I still wonder which features worse sexism...

Oscillating back and forth in time, Timescape opens in Oxford 1998 with the discovery of technology that can send faster than light tachyons back in time. Chemical industry practices having caused algal blooms that significantly disrupt world commerce, the device is used to send messages back in time in an attempt to make scientists in 1963 aware, and thus possibly able to devise a plan to thwart the catasrophe.  Scientists in La Jolla, San Diego the receivers of the messages, at first they don’t know what they have.  A range of hypotheses formed why a physics experiment would produce coherent communications involving chemical formulas and astronomical coordinates, a large amount of speculation and skepticism—from aliens to backfiring equipment—is fomented within the scientific community.  The careers of those involved in both timeframes constantly in doubt, averting the catastrophe is no guarantee.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review of The Drought (US) by J.G. Ballard

Fully believing that “the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, and an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game”, J.G. Ballard set about writing his third of four disaster novels.  The first featuring a world inundated with water, for the third he went the opposite direction: drought.  The Burned World (1964) its apposite title, human reaction to extreme environmental conditions is once again the subject under examination.  Ballard would later revise the text, and as a result it has come to be known most predominantly as The Drought.
The Drought is the story of Edward Ransom, a doctor living on a houseboat in the fictional town of Mount Royal.  The over-usage of industrial chemicals having created an insoluble layer on the ocean’s surface, water is unable to evaporate, and for the second straight year, Earth is experiencing drought conditions.  Ransom’s houseboat stuck in the mud flats of the river that flows through the small city, at the outset he is considering joining the mass exodus of residents to the coast where water, though salty, is available in abundance.  Chaos taking over as conditions worsen, looting, fires, and religious skirmishes abound, Ransom soon finds himself in a fight for his life, the weather only one threat.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review of Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

When teaching English, it’s often very useful to provide meters, for example, adverbs of frequency from the pole of ‘never’ to the pole of ‘always’.  Such meters can also be useful in representing how ideas are used in stories, specifically quantity.  There are some writers who hold to the left side of the spectrum and invoke as many and as much as possible.  Charlie Stross is a veritable barrage of ideas.  They flash before the eyes, few settling into place before the next appears.  Adam Roberts occupies the right side.  Selecting one or two ideas and thoroughly unpacking them, his novels take a premise and carefully examine its facets.  It is thus good news his 2012 Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story contains three ideas to unpack.  Whether they are something as fresh and invigorating as Stross would dream of, well…

Jack Glass is three windows into the life of the man, the legend, the eponymous Jack Glass.  Using bits of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and pulp era sci-fi, Roberts presents three stories that together form something resembling a cohesive whole.  Starting small and working outwards, a larger picture of the murderer, teacher, detective, rebel, guardian, farmer, etc. comes to light as the pages turn.  The first story opens with Jac (as he is called then) imprisoned in an asteroid with six other hardened criminals.  Left to fend for themselves with a minimum of supplies, Jac’s starting point is even more difficult than the others: he’s legless.  Battling the harshness of social Darwinism in such a masculine, limited environment, Jac makes his incredulous escape.  The second story is of the young heir to Clan Argent, named Diana, landing on Earth for the first time.  A lover of murder mysteries, she is immediately confronted by not only gravity, but a real-life whodunit involving the servants at the house where she is staying.  Roberts unveiling more of the solar system simultaneously, Diana, and her bodyguards Deno, Bethesene, and Iago, eventually solve the murder, but not without major surprises along the way.  (For those who pay attention to details, the mystery was already solved in Roberts’ novel Gradisil.) And the third and final section of the book is a classic locked room mystery.  An unexplainable murder taking place inside Jack’s house (or space bubble, as it were), how the shot came from in not outside is the question on everybody’s mind as matters in the solar system escalate to FTL proportions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of The Race by Nina Allan

Nina Allan has, for the past dozen years, quietly but steadily put together a worthwhile number of short stories residing in the wonderfully fuzzy area between genre and literary fiction.  With the recent success of her elegantly futuristic myth “Spin” in 2013, it seemed only natural that a novel would be forthcoming, and in 2014 the promise manifested itself in The Race (NewCon Press).  Her roots of short fiction not far behind, the novel is four pieces of tangential fiction linked obtusely.  Fractured narrative only begins to describe it; one must also add dimension.  Moving between the realms of fiction, veiled autobiography, and embedded fiction, the reader knows with certainty where they stand, but only in the story at hand.  Familiar objects and ideas appear and reappear throughout the novel, but the light shining on them is always different.  But for as elusive as the novel sometimes may be, when the façade washes away, what remains possesses the breath of existence of any person riding the changing currents of life and memory. 

Hovering somewhere near the figurative center of The Race is a teenager named Christy.  Her mother one day walking out the door and literally never looking back, she is left with a hard working but emotionally distant father and an older brother whose virulent personality is bearable on a day to day basis but can give way to acts of extreme violence if provoked.  Having a gift with words, she gets a few stories published, but the weight of her family life and uncertainty regarding friendship and partners prevent any major breakout or desire.  Losing her virginity, the transition to university life, relationships with her brother’s girlfriends—Christy moves through the normal events of life with the requisite drama of becoming an adult.  Trying to make sense of it all, it’s the people around her and the stories she writes—stories of troubled families, smartdog racing, and a land damaged by poor environmental practice—that layer the proceedings, giving them the full complexity of reality.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review of Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest

The 60s and 70s were an interesting time—not only for genre, but mainly for the social environment in which science fiction was produced.  The New Wave would not have existed without the social revolutions and counter-culture movement happening at the time.  But there remained, of course, conservatives, and from a genre point of view, traditionalists.  Rather than veering off into atypical story premises and experimental prose styles, they clung to the roots of science fiction telling their tales.  Possessing a desire to incorporate both prior and currents aspects into his fiction, Christopher Priest’s first novel Indoctrinaire appeared on the scene in 1971.   A fence rider, the novel is as much H.G. Wells as Philip K. Dick in its dealing with the major political issue of the time (the Cold War).  History has not shown it to be an important novel, yet it remains worth reading.

Indoctrinaire is the story of Elias Wentik.  Living and working in an underground laboratory in Antarctica, his research into pharmaceuticals is put on hold when military men appear one day and request he accompany them for a project of more importance in Brazil.  Landing in the jungle yet having to hike in to the facility, things look a bit strange when one of the military men has a moment of insanity.  Regaining composure and continuing to lead the way, they arrive at an abandoned jail in a perfectly circular plain in the middle of the Amazon jungle, ready to start the research.  But things quickly accelerate to the bizarre.  Wentik is kept to a room where a roving light follows his eyes; he is interrogated by a man whose table possesses a large, lifelike hand that points its finger at the comments he makes, and the underground labyrinth he is shoved into one day only confuses rather than helps him understand his surrounds.  The final straw being told he is 200 years in the future, Wentik’s goal becomes escape from the circular plain.  But where to?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review of Great Science Fiction Adventures ed. by Larry T. Shaw

Spotting Larry T. Shaw’s Great Science Fiction Adventures (1963) in a local used book shop for literally pennies, I couldn’t say no.  The anthology contains four stories of novella and novelette length from some of science fiction’s most well known writers: The Starcombers by Edmond Hamilton (1956), Hunt the Space-Witch! by Robert Silverberg (1958), The Man from the Big Dark by John Brunner (1958), and “The World Otalmi Made” by Harry Harrison (1958).  Precisely as the title, cover art, and blurb indicate, it is indeed a space adventure romp of yesteryear to escape into.

The anthology opens with Hamilton’s The Starcombers.  The story of a group of scavenger ships, led by the slothful Harry Axe and his shrew of a wife, it opens with their exploration of the third and final planet of a system.  Looking for valuable metals and materials left behind by previous civilizations and alien races, things take a turn for the interesting when they discover a deep cleft in the planet and a lone alien.  Taken on a commercial venture into the cleft with the promise of goods from the little man (not green), in the volcanic depths the group get far more than valuables in exchange.  The Starcombers is classic space opera, but due to Hamilton’s competency as a stylist, and that he is able to develop the story in unpredictable fashion, remains at least readable.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of Pavane by Keith Roberts

The stately ebb and flow of human (r)evolution is movement many individuals are aware of but for lack of meta-control are unable to absolve humanity from.  The rise and fall of civilizations a picture painted in a wide variety of arts and philosophies, history is the canvas upon which most are situated.  This leaves the remainder—the future, alternate histories, and alternate worlds—to science fiction and fantasy.  A wondrously conceived and presented alternate history, Keith Robert’s 1968 Pavane is as quietly monumental as it has been influential, and captures the cycle perfectly.  Rich, realistic characters, textured, substantive exposition, and a theme that permeates and transcends the text, the novel will remain relevant as long as humanity is participating in this cycle we call life.

Alternate history (and steampunk before the term existed), the prologue of Pavane lays out a scenario wherein the Catholic church is able to maintain supremacy beyond the 16th century and into the 20th.  Strictly limiting the growth of technology, steam is the main source of motorized power, and communication towers, with flags and semaphores, flash messages across Europe, from Britain to the Vatican.  Church officials the mightiest of the mighty, the Church Militant maintains its authority amongst the common folk, with the slightest word against the church cause for heresy.  Feudalism still in place, quotidian life is as harsh as can be for those without blue blood or a place in the church.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Upgraded ed. by Neil Clarke

I normally do not open a review with a quote, but in the case of Neil Clarke’s 2014 science fiction anthology Upgraded (Wyrm Publishing) the editor’s introduction is too endearing not to pass up:

“Last July, I suffered a ‘widow-maker’ heart attack that nearly killed me. The damage to my heart was very significant and that led to my doctors installing a defibrillator in my chest. That day, I became a cyborg.”

Inspired to say the least, Clarke decided to edit an anthology about cyborgs.  Upgraded the result, it is a selection of stories which, in some fashion, deal with the intersection of machine and body.  Featuring twenty-six in all, some of the biggest names writing short science fiction today are featured (see bottom of review for table of contents). Twenty-six a large number for such a narrowly themed anthology, there are likewise lesser known names.  But quality is not always an analog to popularity, thankfully, rendering the impact of the anthology limited by quantity, only.

Knowing the theme is cyborgs/androids/augments/cybernetic humans, it’s easy to start forming expectations about Upgraded.  And very few are not met. “Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby is a classic story about an augmented bodyguard contracted to protect the son of a rich CEO.  Death threats sent in emails, the boy is attacked one day at school, leading to some revealing moments in the two’s relationship. “God Decay” by Rich Larson is the requisite upgraded athlete story.  Highly pre-dic-ta-ble, it tells of a super-athlete whose modifications, unsurprisingly, begin deteriorating.  “Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine is the story of a girl whose grandmother dies and is replaced with a robot possessing her grandma’s memories.  “Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman is yet another classic story of a woman with a digital implant who gets hacked and must find a way out.  Likewise obligatory, “Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness is a story about a man whose girlfriend is a cyborg and explores the disconnection inherent to a human-machine partnership in perfunctory fashion.  From the ills of biomodification, we arrive at its glory in Greg Mellor’s “Fusion”.  The story of post-apocalyptic, augmented transcendence, it puts a rainbow spin on the wonders of being upgraded.  Though featuring nice atmosphere, I can’t help wondering if the horse was designed for the cart given the ending...  “Taking the Ghost” by A.C. Wise is about an injured young war veteran who runs into an older man amidst the debris of battle, and together they scrounge, looking for a replacement arm. Nice atmosphere and well-paced, Wise’s story is one of the better in the anthology for as apparent as it is.  A wonderfully unveiled story, “Married” by Helena Bell is about a wife whose husband has recently undergone treatment that slowly converts his body into a cyborg’s.  Elegantly prosaic, it lightly yet effectively questions the underlying humanity of augmented humans in a manner some of the other stories in the anthology attempt but are not as successful. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review of On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Ahh, pirates! From Robert Louis Stevenson’s superb Treasure Island to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the thieving rogues capture the heart of everyone wanting freedom and life on the high seas with wine, treasure, and adventure.  Recent genre forays faring better and worse (Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom, better; Scott Lynch’s Red Seas under Red Skies, worse), a little gem written in the 80s has gone overlooked and is deserving of resurrection—voodoo style—for anyone interested in eye patches and Jolly Rogers: Tim Power’s 1987 On Stranger Tides.  Falling in the middle quality wise, the novel remains an imaginative romp through pirate land.

On Stranger Tides opens with John Chandagnac as passenger aboard the Vociferous Charmichael in Caribbean waters on its way to Kingston, Jamaica.  Looking forward to reclaiming an inheritance from a sleazy uncle who cheated John’s father years ago, his dreams of vengeance, as well as conversations with the lovely Beth Hurwood onboard ship, are interrupted by a pirate attack.  The little brigand sloop amazingly able to overtake the much bigger and better armed Charmichael, John is taken captive by the buccaneer Philip Davies and given a choice: join or die.  Taking the obvious path, John is soon learning the ways of pirating and helping to trim the Charmichael down to racing speed so that Davies can rendezvous with the notorious Blackbeard.  Blackbeard’s purpose for the meeting, however, remains shrouded in ghosts and magic, leaving John in a fight for his life—and soul—on the seas and in the jungles of the Caribbean when they do meet.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review of "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Architects and engineers, with their geometry and aesthetics, physics and mathematics, would seem the natural stuff of science fiction.  (And indeed, someone like Kim Stanley Robinson has capitalized fully.)  It’s thus a more difficult trick to insert one into a fantasy story.  Upping the ante further, Kij Johnson added romance to the mix and penned her elegant 2011 novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist is the story of Kit Meinem, an engineer sent by the Empire to take control of a bridge project already begun between the towns of Nearside and Farside.  The bridge to span a quarter-mile gulf of what the locals call mist, it takes some time for him to get a ride across the temperamental mist from the ferry-women Rasali to takeover the project, the conditions needing to be just right to attempt the dangerous crossing.  Competent only beginning to describe Kit, his eventual arrival on the far shore sees him deftly handling the takeover and management of the teams working on the foundations, suspension materials, and towers.  The bridge a major new facet to life in Nearside and Farside, it’s the people, as they live with the dangerous mist and the just as dangerous construction of the bridge, that Kit must handle, however. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review of Marcher By Chris Beckett

In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim.  A later release Dark Eden (2012) meeting a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), he then decided to do something I assume many authors these days think of doing but almost none actually do: thoroughly revise a novel and re-release it.  Tackling Marcher from the opening line, Beckett added, subtracted, and modified the entire text.  Using the five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished the novel in 2014 (NewCon Press) under the same name.  With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages (isfdb) and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more subtracting than anything.  Paring the story down to the minimum needed to really drive the book, Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen.

Social work is perhaps the blip furthest from the center of the science fiction radar, but in Marcher Beckett pulls it into the spotlight.  Told from a handful of perspectives, the novel represents all sides of the field, from client to case worker, government official to social outlier.  Because of this, there are moments the novel feels like the fix-up it is.  But given the social themes, it’s easy to argue focusing on certin viewpoints at certain times is natural, even perhaps necessary, for a novel of such import.  The setting near-future England, a couple of simple but effective concepts foreground Beckett’s target social issues.  In keeping with real-world trends, social deviants are isolated and placed in living communities (ironically) called Social Inclusion Zones.  The Zones gated, only the well-behaved are allowed to enter and exit, the remainder kept living apart from ‘normal’ society.  Further complicating Zone life are strange little things called seeds, or slips.  A few minutes after ingestion, the glowing blue balls shift a person into a parallel world—similar to ours, but different in the details—never to return save by chance and more seeds.  Shifters arriving and leaving unexpectedly, this trans-spatial immigration/emigration adds a degree of ambiguity the world could do without when considering shifters can suddenly appear, commit a crime, and shift to a parallel world without local authorities having any hope of knowing which world they shifted to, or apprehending them. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo

Those familiar with the work of Max Ernst are aware of the dark images of the surreal which haunt his art.  (If not, see here, here, and here for a quick idea.)  Much more than meets the eye lurks in the depths of the images.  Fleeting glimpses of abstract humanity, time, and existence seem captured by the troubled dreamlike yet eerily relatable images.  Originally published as part of a package that included a hardcover novel, jigsaw puzzle, poster, and post card, Paul Di Filippo’s Cosmocopia is a work of speculative fiction that captures precisely the same response via the surreal.  Re-released by Open Road Media in 2014 as a text-only ebook, those who missed out on the package at least have a chance to discover the bizarrely engaging, fully imaginative Weird  story that binds Di Filippo and Ernst’s minds and ideas together. 

Cosmocopia is the story of Frank Lazorg.  An aging pulp cover artist who was once the darling of the genre crowd, he looks to recover from a recent stroke.  Though his virility has taken a hit, more frustrating his muse is lost—an homage to Courbet’s The Origins of the World” (warning: nsfw) sitting half-finished on an easel.  But thoughts of despair are interrupted one day when a package arrives from an old friend.  Containing a brick of red beetle dust, Lazorg begins ingesting a pinch or two every day.  His energy and creative juices slowly returning, alongwith come strange hallucinations—his dreams filled with creative images.  But nothing motivates Lazorg like learning his once favorite model Velina Malaspina is now working for his main rival, and in a fit of emotion after meeting her one day, finds the energy to complete his masterpiece.  The thing is, it’s not on canvas, rather something more 3D.  And into a rabbit hole he falls…

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review of The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Having abandoned the space opera scene with his previous novel The Execution Channel, Ken Macleod looked to head deeper into the near-future with his next offering.  The aftershocks of 9-11 still resounding in 2008, The Night Sessions approaches religious fundamentalism from a decidedly unique approach: a setting wherein religion simply isn’t acknowledged by government, and by default, citizenry.  The story’s payout playing things safe thematically, Macleod nevertheless delivers a well-paced mystery with loads of technical, science fiction intrigue.

Starting with the World Trade towers attack and escalating into a conflict that peaks at nuclear war in the Middle East but doesn’t come to an end until the Coalition forces are driven from the arena due to lack of money and soldiers, The Night Sessions is set in a weary UK that has seen religion legally marginalized as a result of its failures in the Middle East.  The official government stance ‘non-cognizance’, most people have a sour taste for religion in their mouths from the fallout of the Oil/Faith Wars, and do not practice.  But not everyone, however, as at the start of the novel Detective Investigator Adam Ferguson and his partner, the tripod-robot Skulk, are called to the scene of what appears to have been the mail-bombing of a Catholic priest.  The investigation which results taking the pair from dirty alleys to major corporations, underground to above-ground churches, and from the comfort of the police briefing room to the dangers of the real world, the implications of the priest’s death spread from Edinburgh all the way around the globe in a story of extreme belief only science fiction can tell.

Review of Golden Girl and Other Stories by Jack Vance

For as gloriously dynamic as Vance’s plots and settings are, his main characters are all occupied by clever men cut from the same cloth.  Far from the only author to consistently use the same hero in almost every story, few are aware Vance wrote a few stories with women as his protagonists.  Story mode entirely the same, it’s fair to say Vance did not have a feminist agenda writing them.  That being said, the presentation is not the same as his male heroes, and are worth a visit for the Vance connoisseur. For those interested, Golden Girl and Other Stories collects all such stories (plus a couple more) published between 1951 and 1974, and will be of specific interest. 

The collection opens on “Golden Girl”, a short but tragic tale of a woman crash-landed on Earth with no hope of returning to her home.  Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land in short form, Vance’s content is, however, more readable.

In “The Masquerade on Dicantropus” an anthropologist is stuck in a quandary: to disturb or not to disturb the native's pyramid on the planet he studies?  Plot tension a bit forced, this may be the weakest story of the collection, but does superficially dig into the man's relationship with a woman.