Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best reads of 2014

In 2014 I had more free time than usual to look through books I read prior to starting the blog, as well as read fresh books, and write reviews.  (With a new child in the house, I do not expect this to continue in 2015.)  The result is a review count much higher in 2014, making a large possible selection for the year-end summary, and in turn a longer ‘best of’ list than usual.  Without further ado, the best books reviewed on Speculiction in 2014 are:


Gormenghast cycle by Mervyn Peake – Not only the best of the year, but Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone are some of the best of all time.  Peake’s fantasy achieves the utmost in gothic subtlety (like a sublimely dark Alice in Wonderland).  And don’t let anyone tell you Titus Alone is the weakest novel; the mode is indeed different, but the imagination is every bit as rich.  Curse the fates that deprived us of Peake and the completion of Titus’ story.

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon – Perhaps the single greatest science fiction novel ever written, Stapledon takes the human soul to the infinity of the universe and time in a quest to understand them all.  I don’t think there is a stronger philosophical inquiry in all of genre; the jaw is truly left hanging.

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh – A novel that feels as though it shouldn’t succeed due to the disparity of its elements, this story of a young man living in a US in the grip of Chinese power nevertheless engages the reader from page one for McHugh’s tight minimalist style, and the heartbreak and success that ensue his plight for identity and place.

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – Not only brilliant historical fantasy, this novel is likewise the greatest statement regarding feminism in Medieval speculative fiction I have yet to read.  Completely re-visioning and humanizing the idea of the ‘woman warrior’, it makes laughing stock of epic fantasy.  While telling the no-holds-barred story of a young woman trying to come to terms with herself, it not only circumvents all the familiar tropes but puts to shame the buxom sword-mistress.  An intrinsically visceral story, it hits the reader, and hits hard.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review of Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke

The mission statement of this blog is an Olaf Stapledon quote, pre-WWII.  The writing on the wall as far as he was concerned, Stapledon challenged writers and artists regarding the purposes and intent of their creations. Europe facing another major conflict, he felt authors should use the power of their voices to speak out against warfare, and injustice in general.  The war came and went, leaving in its wake a great deal of doubt whether the civilization humanity had supposedly created was just an illusion, or indeed a shattered vase.  A Stapledonian shot in the arm needed to refocus humanity’s collective spirit in the aftermath, Arthur C. Clarke provided one in 1953 with his first novel, Childhood’s End.

Humanity on certain path to nuclear self-destruction, Childhood’s End opens with an alien group, dubbed the Overlords by Earthlings, arriving in space ships and parking themselves above the world’s major cities.  Never revealing themselves, they rule passively via technology and other means from their massive, floating ships, and in the process prevent mankind from further damaging itself.  The eventual result a utopia on Earth, humanity’s journey toward self-actualization in the universe is, however, only just beginning.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review of Man in a Cage by Brian Stableford

There is the classic scene in Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee enters a room of mirrors.  His scratched and bleeding body caught in a prism of reflections, he loses himself for a moment, his brain in panic in the existentially ambiguous, claustrophobic space.  Make the man a schizophrenic, lock the door, send the room hurtling through space and you’ve got Brian Stableford’s intelligently complex, psychologically alinear, and finely crafted Man in a Cage (1975).  Deservingly re-released by Open Road Media this year, it’s a character study incorporating and transcending the individual to comment on humanity. Smoothly shifting gears between perspectives, delicately poetic yet unforgiving in tone when the situation requires, the novel is an overlooked masterpiece of science fiction that, like Bruce Lee, is forced to look at itself from multiple perspectives to find some semblance of truth.

Locked up in a dangerous maximum security prison for more than ten years is the schizophrenic homicidal maniac, Harker Lee.  Even the guards suffering mental lapses due to the harshness of the conditions, Lee steels himself to the exigiencies of life, letters and journal entries to himselves the main stress relievers.  Gangpressed into civic duty one day, however, the space program has had repeated failures sending sane men into hyperspace and believe that “Space drives men mad.  Hence send a madman. What harm can it do him?” Wary of ulterior motives yet desiring freedom, and all the while warring with the carousel of voices in his head, Lee’s excursion with Project Titan will make him or break him, humanity’s fate tied to his own.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Diamonds in the Rough: Overlooked Gems of the Gollancz SF Series

When the inimitable Joachim Boaz first proposed the idea of suggesting a handful of titles to be included in the Gollancz SF Collector’s series / SF Masterworks (see issues #3 & #4), my initial thought was: I haven’t read wide enough in the field to make such a determination! Can you wait a few years while I catch up?! But once deciding I should go with what I’ve got, my mind flew in several different directions.  Most deserving?  Most in need of re-printing?  Most in need of saving before truly disappearing? The latest titles worthy of someday being classics?  But looking through the lists, I decided to limit myself to the 80s and 90s.  Because…

Most of the canononical novels written prior to 1980 have already separated themselves from the herd (though there are still more than a few gems the people involved in this project are sussing out every week on their blogs.)  Overall, the reader will disagree with individual selections (Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, really??), but Gollancz’s two series have done a pretty good job of highlighting titles worth preserving.  On the more recent side of the 80s and 90s, books published fifteen years ago or less are still relatively fresh in the genre’s memory.  Though they are beginning to yellow at the corners, works like Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Sterling’s Zeitgeist, Stross’ Accelerando, McMaster Bujold’s A Civil CampaignHarry Potter, for goodness’ sake—still feel relatively new.  Though some of the titles the past fifteen years are certain to someday be etched in the genre’s plinth if they are not already (e.g. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others), it’s still too early to tell what other books will emerge.  Therefore it’s the tweener years—the years that haven’t faded entirely into history but are beyond recent memory—that have their major works sitting before the great arbiter of genre to be judged worthy of remembrance: the 80s and 90s. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Of the many common threads binding works of epic fantasy/sword and sorcery together, the strongest may be the portrayal of the masculine hero.  Everybody knows him. Indefatigable in a fight and chivalrous to women; civilized at the king’s banquet table, but dominant warrior in a battle; unsurpassed swordsman, yet equally skilled with his wits and tongue.  Conan, Aragorn, Kellhus, Druss, Elric, Logan Ninefingers—all are some of the most recognized fantasy heroes today.  And they are truly fantasy.  Archetypes rather than living, breathing humans, they exist beyond the limits of our reality.  But none, however, qualify as the male fantasy archetype as well as Edgar Rice Burrough’s original: Tarzan.  It is his 1912 Tarzan of the Apes that introduces the ultimate in civilized male contrivances—sorry, anthropoids to the world.

Born in the jungles of Africa after his parents were marooned on a sea voyage, John Clayton is adopted by a tribe of apes after when they are suddenly killed.  Raised among the tribe by Kayla, a large female ape, he comes to be called Tarzan, or ‘white skin’.  Developing slowly and not without trouble in the group of primates, Tarzan eventually becomes part and parcel of the jungle.  He learns to kill meat for food, eating it raw.  He traverses the towering flora as an ape does, through the branches.  After discovering the cabin his father and mother had built, he learns to read and write English, though not speak or understand it.  And, perhaps most importantly, Tarzan comes to realize that if he is to stay alive in this savage world, he must fight for place.  With cunning and strength, he works his way to the top of the food chain and becomes king of the jungle.  But it is the chance arrival of a group stranded on a nearby shore that changes Tarzan’s fortunes.  An American professor, his lovely daughter, mutineers, and a French militia among those without a ride home, the jungle man’s life takes a turn.  Buried treasure, mutiny, war, and love also in the offing, the changes to Tarzan’s social life are just the beginning, his collision with the outside world, awaiting.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of "Voodoo Planet" by Andre Norton

Third in the Solar Queen series, “Voodoo Planet” sees the crew of the space freighter back at square one after having been cheated out of their trading grounds in Plague Ship.  Deregulated and facing the prospect of performing lowly mail runs to rebuild their place in the merchant fleet, when a rare opportunity presents itself on the planet Khatka, Captain Jellico, Dane Thorsen, Tau and the others are only too eager to accept.  Khatka colonized by people from Africa, the inhabitants are said to possess a kind of magic impervious to science and technology, and while out on a hunting safari the crew of the Solar Queen meet first-hand the wizard Lumbrilo.  But with wild creatures attacking from all sides and psychedelics whirling in the dense jungle, they begin to wish they’d stuck to mail.

“Voodoo Planet” is perfunctory planetary adventure.  Norton inverts the race hierarchy of Africa by having blacks rule Khatka, whites on the bottom rung, but nothing is done with the idea.  The focus suspense and adventure, the crew of the Solar Queen find themselves perpetually fleeing for survival. If it isn’t the chemicals in the water, then it’s the animals attacking in the night, and if poachers don’t want them out of their hunting ground, then their old rivals are working behind the scenes to see they are finished once and for all.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review of The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

It is a simple dream that criminals might be whisked away to an isolated land, a place to live amongst their own kind and do what it is that makes them criminals, never to enter good society again.  The idea the opening premise of Robert Sheckley’s 1960 novel The Status Civilization, the ensuing planetary adventure gradually evolves into a story of personal discovery in a universe gone mad.  The absurd deteriorating into the merely surreal, it is also utopian satire. 

Awaking to discover he has no memories save those of a hazy murder, on the first page of The Status Civilization Will Barrent quickly learns he’s on a prison ship bound for a place called Omega.  An insular planet where convicted criminals live, rule, and die, the average life span is a scant three years, long term survival unlikely.  Stepping out of the ship and onto the sidewalk, Barrent is immediately confronted by three men drawing lots to decide who has the right to shoot him first; it is hunting day for newbies.  Escaping into a nearby building with a victim’s sanctuary sign above the door, he discovers the room is not intended to assist him, rather to ensure no rights violation is occurring.  As newbies are legal game on hunting day, the proprietor of the sanctuary promptly draws a gun himself.  Barrent narrowly escaping the sanctuary, he gradually but uneasily settles in to Omegan society as an owner of a shop selling poison antidotes.  He meets a priest in the religion of Evil, talks with a mutant soothsayer, learns about the Black One, and has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who, for reasons he cannot scry, helps him through the ordeals Omega’s strictly hierarchical society places on him.  Though experience gains him status, unfortunately for Barrent, it also increases the size of the cross-hairs on his back.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review of Steel Beach by John Varley

There are several significant features which identify the stereotypical cyberpunk story.  Most readers would agree that one is setting.  Near future almost necessary to bear the sub-genre’s label, Gibson, Sterling, Shiner, Rucker, and other writers known for the form did their share to propagate visions of technology burgeoning in our lives just a few years in the future.  The stereotypical cyberpunk view rarely one that looked long term; a life replete with technology to the point of utopia was not on the agenda.  Such perspective appeared in the wave of science fiction that came next: the Singularity, the Accelerated Age, whatever you want to call it.  Segueing the two nicely is John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992), which examines the personal effect of having an existence where technology is expanded to the point it can provide every dream.  What will humanity want next?  Varley’s answer is disturbing.

Steel Beach is the story of Hildy Johnson.  A magazine journalist living on Luna, he works for the Nipple, covering whatever entertaining material he can get his hands on.  Society lacking for nothing, his reports typically feature the latest in sex change technology, what actor A is doing with diva B, and the latest in body modifications.  The two-hundredth anniversary of the Invaders’ takeover of Earth upcoming, Johnson’s editor assigns him the task of producing an article a day comparing life when the aliens came to Earth to life on Luna now.  But before the reader can groan “Oh no, here comes a lengthy, episodic, self-indulgent examination of how the future is different from Earth today”, Johnson’s life takes a twist.  Living in an underground Texas cabin, complete with slivers, horse shit, and a doctor whose medicine bag contains more whiskey than medicine, Johnson’s ennui begins to dig its thorns deeper and deeper into his mind, and he takes to reckless behavior.  A slash-boxing competition injuring him severely one day, in rehab a virtual dream changes his life.  Meeting Luna’s Central Computer while under, he emerges with a new perspective pushing him to seeking meaning like he never had before.  Trouble is, which is it, real or virtual?

Review of The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs genre milestone A Princess of Mars ended with the hero appropriately back on Earth where he’d begun his tale.  One plot line was left unresolved, but had the book not sold as well as it did, the reader could have walked away satisfied the circle was completed.  But with Dejah Thoris trapped in the First Born’s Temple of the Sun, a Martian year to go before she is to see the light of day again, the ending of The Gods of Mars is anything but complete.  With the red carpet laid out for a third installment, The Warlord of Mars follows upon The Gods of Mars, but, brings the tale of John Carter to a close, no loose ends.

And indeed, with Dejah Thoris trapped, it is up to her beloved John Carter to rescue her (for the millionth time) from the jaws of death.  Trailing a Thern and First Born into an underground cavern in the opening chapter, he learns of a secret entrance into the Temple of the Sun.  But worse yet, he learns the pair plot to kill Dejah Thoris before her allotted year is up.  Spurned to action with the ever-faithful Woola at his side, John Carter embarks on yet another rescue attempt (rolls eyes).  An extended chase that takes Carter to the North Pole, every color of man on Barsoom—red, black, white, yellow, and green—is eventually drawn into the plight.  Battles on ice, secret entrances, double-bluffs, new alliances, enemies turned friends—all of Barsoom intersects for the massive conclusion of the John Carter epic.

Review of The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the most over-the-top novels ever written.  Inspired by pulp and in turn inspiring pulp to this day, its heroic absurdity—ahem, sentimentality possesses a verve for storytelling that plumbs the depths of exaggerated and imaginative fiction like few other period works of such length. And once the train starts rolling, it’s tough to stop it.  The Gods of Mars (1914), sequel to A Princess of Mars, sets the dial to twelve for John Carter’s wild return to Barsoom.

Transported back to Earth amidst an oxygen crisis at the end of A Princess of Mars, John Carter never learned whether the woman he loved, Dejah Thoris, or the son they were waiting to hatch (hatch!!!) suffocated or not.  Praying to the sky above his New York home one night that he might return to know their fate, at the outset of The Gods of Mars John Carter once again finds his corporeal-self transported away from Earth.  Arriving in an unfamiliar land, he’s unsure whether he’s on Barsoom or not. Strange plant men assaulting him in an exotic landscape that is nothing like his memories of the red planet, it isn’t until he meets up with his old friend Tars Tarkas that the truth slowly unfolds: he has arrived in Dor, the land of the dead.  All manner of exotic adventure unraveling, Carter must fight through peril and danger to escape a land no Barsoomiam has ever escaped from to learn what has befallen his beloved Dejah Thoris and son in the ten years since he last set foot on Mars.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Review of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I had the misfortune of seeing Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation before reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  I say misfortune as, in the context of the novel Verhoeven’s perspective adds layers of meaning beyond the mere senseless violence it appears as on the screen.  A critique of blindly following government command and the visceral aspects of war Heinlein conspicuously skipped over, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the film without having read the novel.  But such is not the case with John Scalzi’ Old Man’s War (2006).  Though Scalzi likewise uses Starship Troopers as as a mold, the story he produces is an ideological fence-sitter that adds little in the way of political commentary, and thus is best appreciated at the screen level.  Humor and the values of friendship and marriage the ideas shining faintly through the stereotypes of science fiction, the novel gets in a few passing shots at war, but at the same time peace, resulting in an mainstream genre offering that’s easy on the eyes but lets Heinlein off easy. 

It’s the future and mankind has populated the stars.  Earthlings not the only sentient beings inhabiting the universe, they gain and lose interstellar ground as much as the next species in an eternal fight for resources, fertile colonies, and lebensraum.  Soldiers continually needed to replace those lost on the front lines protecting humanity’s interests, the elderly on Earth, once they reach 75, have the option to live on until death or to be recruited with the promise of new bodies and new youth.  But a chance at a second life has a caveat: they must be willing to sign away all rights to themselves and their former existence, and understand that life on the front lines might bring their existence to an end faster than old age might.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review of Transfigurations by Michael Bishop

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is one of the science fiction’s landmark works.  A philosophical and psychological study of a man confronting the inherently unknowable, the imagery, events, and overall experience of the novel lodge in the mind, begging questions for which one uncomfortably has no immediate answer.  So strange and haunting, a person can only think of the main character’s experiences as the most figurative representation of ‘alien’ possible.  Bringing the idea closer to home corporeally but no less existentially is Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi” (1973).  The premise so fertile, he revisited the novella years later, extending the story into the novel Transfigurations.  Layers upon layers, it possesses the same quest for understanding in an irrational scenario as Solaris, but adds an anthropological element, tying in evolutionary and biological aspects.  No less uncomfortably thought provoking, Bishop’s novel is likewise a classic of the genre.

Transfigurations is the story of Thomas Benedict.  Living on Bosk Veld, he is in regular contact with a friend, the anthropologist Egan Chaney, who is in the field studying the mysterious aliens who inhabit the planet. Chaney’s notes becoming more erratic as his experiences with the monkey/lion Asadi become increasingly bizarre, Benedict begins to fear for his friend’s life.  The Asadi openly copulating, having staring contests with psychedelically pinwheel eyes, participating in randomly violent acts, appearing subservient to a flying homunculus, and disappearing into the jungle as soon as the sun sets every day, Benedict’s fears are well-placed.  Jaw-dropping descriptions of a sacred pagoda the last word he gets from Chaney, all communication is suddenly cut off.  It thus takes the appearance of Chaney’s daughter on Bosk Veld, a young woman named Elegy and her chimpanzee biomodified to look like an Asadi to motivate Benedict to enter the mysterious jungle and find his friend.  Benedict likewise becoming subsumed in the desire to explain the behavior and doings of the Asadi, he soon finds himself stepping in familiar footsteps.  With Chaney’s notes as a guide and the fresh discoveries of Elegy and her chimp opening doors, the mysterious pagoda lies ahead.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review of Kiteworld by Keith Roberts

If the dear reader has spent any amount of time in Southeast Asia, or read about the cultures existing there, they will be aware of the prayer flag.  If one has been even luckier and able to travel to the Tibetan Himalayas, they will have wonderful memories of the strings and strings of colorful flags stretched across valleys, hanging from bridges, and flapping in the wind atop mountains.  Prayers inscribed on each flag, they believe the words of mankind are blown to the heavens for blessings and protection from the gods.  Employing a similar scenario in in his 1985 Kiteworld, Keith Roberts extends the Christian church steeple into the sky: manned kites fly above an England rebuilding in the aftermath of destruction.  The perspective downward rather than upward, however, the colorful objects sent aloft are for watching over the land rather than bringing humanity closer to the heavens.

The land ravaged, and civilized society only beginning to rebuild itself, the setting of Kiteworld is a futuristic, post-nuclear war England wherein the Church has absolute power.  Though berms and walls are established that separate normal society from the wilds, it is not enough; protection is also needed against the demons that roam the badlands and traverse the skies.  Establishing bases along mountain ranges and the coastlines which form natural boundaries, massive manned kites are kept flying continually aloft, watching for invaders and shooting them, as necessary.  Aristocracy getting permission from the Church to fly kites from their own palaces and mansions, colorful streamers can also be seen amongst the towns, villages, and cities.  And the kitemen, no matter working in the private sector or directly for the church, are given exclusivity and absolute respect by the populace.  Like soldiers, they are considered guardians of the land, and due to the uncertainty of their lives, awarded with admiration, even hero status.  Tossed on the currents of wind and facing evil demons, indeed many meet an untimely end.  Law, taxes, civil government, and other aspects of civilization slowly settling back into place as the Kitemen guard over the land, Kiteworld tells the stories of a handful of the men and women living the uncertain reality of post-war times.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Review of Race to the Stars ed. by Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend

Slim science fiction anthologies now a piece of history, the idea of picking up a small book for a few cents featuring only a handful of stories is strange to a generation accustomed to doorstopper ‘year’s best’ anthologies and sprawling collections having twenty or more stories from their favorite author.  Gone are the days a publisher thought to re-print a couple of popular selections, hoping to squeeze a few additional cents from fan favorites.  Unless ebooks revive the format, anthologies like Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend’s collaborative 1958 Race to the Stars are a thing of the past.

Race to the Stars features four novellas, all published at least a decade prior to being anthologized by Margulies and Friend, and one nearly two: “The City of the Lost Ones” (1949) by Leigh Brackett (better known as “Enchantress of Venus”), “Forgotten World” (1946) by Edmond Hamilton, “The Time Gate” (1941) by Robert A. Heinlein (better known as “By His Bootstraps”), and “The Sun Maker” (1940) by Jack Williamson.  Each story has been reprinted at least four times since, with Heinlein’s in a whopping fifteen different anthologies or collections and re-printed in The Menace of Earth alone twenty-one times.