Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review of Descent by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod’s The Stone Canal opens with the story of the young Jonathan Wilde and the major happenings of he and a fair-weather friend as they grow up in near-future Scotland.  Getting drunk, chasing girls, and arguing politics, they eventually split due to personal differences as post-humanisn spins everyone’s lives in crazy directions.  Easing back on the throttle (aiming at ‘mere’ purposeful humanism), Macleod’s 2014 Descent uses a similar character setup, but keeps its agenda more closely tied to the here and now.  Purported UFO sightings, government and commercial conspiracy theories, speciation, and subjective reality abound, the story of Ryan Sinclair successfully extends the personal struggles of Wilde into more relatable and eerie Orwellian near future.  Featuring the tightest technique of the author’s career, some may argue it is Macleod’s best yet.

Where Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors plays with the psychological, cultural, and sociological aspects of UFO visitations, Descent looks into the ____________ aspects.  To fill in that blank would spoil the story, but suffice to say Macleod uses existent concepts on the pinboard of UFO theorists to paint what he would see as the empirical reality of the situation.  From government conspiracy to neuroscience, the underpinnings of urban myth to street drugs, the strange objects people—some of whom consider themselves rational beings—see in the sky are looked at in mysterious/thriller-esque style.  As the front cover copy says, seeing is not always enough to believe.

Star Wars-ars-ars-ars: Why Zahn Did It Better

Like so many I loved Star Wars as a child, and to this day lazy holiday afternoons with chocolate, chips, soda, and a deep, plush sofa might find me re-watching any of the movies.  Sure they have the brains of a toaster and can spawn the nerdiest possible conversations (evah), but for those lazy-lazy times, they entertain with that all important sf quality: sense of wonder.  (Zzrrum, zzrrum goes my lightsaber.)  I have recently been to see Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, and since the whole world is having a go, I will add my one, possibly two cents.

The Force Awakens is one of the most derivative pieces of pop culture I’ve ever been witness to.  Abrams went the politically correct route and provided two major new characters, a woman and black man, and then reversed the hero vs. damsel in distress roles between them.  Bravo.  Otherwise, he outright copies what has come before.  Jakku is Tatooine, BB8 is R2D2, there is another Death Star (the series count has now reached three, with the possibility for more), which includes another Death Star trench run, Kylo Ren is Darth Vader (with one twist on family), General Hux is Grand Moff Tarkin (with no twists), there is another cantina with alien musicians, Maz Kanata is Yoda, Rey is Luke (scavenger on a desert planet, parentage unknown, latent force talents, finds a lightsaber in haunted underground cavern, blah, blah, blah), there are AT-AT Walkers on a snowy planet, there is big, evil Empire attacking innocent, altruistic Rebellion…  And on and on and on goes the list of things copied from the first Star Wars films. Episodes I-III catch a lot of flack, but for sure they were original films, and fun for it.  The Force Awakens is just recycled material that has a lot of its fun sapped for having so obviously been done before.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling

Everybody knows the story of Alice in Wonderland.  A little girl playing in her yard one day discovers a little hole, falls in, and suddenly arrives in technicolor fairyland bizarro.  Innumerable similarities posited by science fiction, Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical vision of a little girl’s adventures in a world far abstract from her own makes for something of an ur-text for the ‘sensibility’ of post-human fiction.  I guess that would make Bruce Sterling’s superb Holy Fire (1996) a post-human rabbit hole. 

Medical economist Mia Ziemann is out for a walk through the rolling streets of San Francisco one shining morning when she is invited to the home of a very old friend.  Martin, like Mia, is chock full of medical enhancements that have pushed his lifespan well-beyond the natural.  But he has reached his limit: he knows he will die the following day.  Martin having bequeathed his memory palazzo to her, on the way home Mia ponders what to do with the lifetime of digital memories.  While having a drink at a café, she encounters a teenager learning how to design her own clothes.  Inspired, Mia decides the next day to have a controversial new treatment that will restore her body to its twenty-year old form.  Awakening from the procedure with the vim, vigor, and rashness only the young possesses is too late: she’s fallen down her own rabbit hole.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Review of Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

While for many people cave paintings strike little aesthetic interest due to their simplicity, it’s virtually impossible for a person not to ruminate upon the circumstances of what brought them into existence.  Religious art, Louvres of the past, or mere pre-historic vandalism, we can only speculate on the larger significance of the paintings to the groups of humans who created them thousands and thousands of years ago. 

Perhaps the least likely inspiration for a science fiction novel, Kim Stanley Robinson nevertheless took one such cave painting as inspiration, the Chauvet Cave in France, and created its backstory in Shaman (2013).  Rich in prehistoric detail, from social function to sheer survival in the Ice Age, speculation on life before recorded history may never been as realistically or engagingly created in fiction. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review of Glow by Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman’s 2012 The Teleportation Accident slides along a wet blade of charm and wit, most often of the irreverent variety.  A raucously fun read, it draws blood for the rich language, uniquely realized personal stories, and left-field view of early ‘30s flapper life in Europe and Los Angeles.  Beauman’s follow up Glow is to be enjoyed for similar reasons, though the blade seems to have dulled some in the meantime.

Glow is the story of Raf and his unintentional involvement in a global synthesized drug scheme involving Burmese revolutionaries, a slippery American corporation, and the most eclectic thing of all, the city of London and its raver youth culture.  Music and drugs everything, Raf’s life takes a new direction when riding home from a rave very early one morning after trying a new drug called glow.  A fox sitting in the seat behind him, afterwards he sees even stranger things, particularly silent white vans kidnapping people off the streets.  It isn’t long before his friend Theo is snapped up.  But meeting a half-American/half-Burmese woman calling herself Cherish is what really turns Raf’s life upside down.  Can she help him get Theo back and get him another hit of glow?

Review of "Interlude: Swallow" by Chuck Wendig

Approaching the creation of serial killer fiction, the writer must choose their entry point with care.  Politicized? Stylized?  Sensationalized?  The politicized best done in satire (for the dark, cynical edge) or realism (it gains the appropriate degree of sympathy).  The sensationalized functions at its “best” when uber-violence and eroticisms are laid on a formula storyline such that the masses can suck it up with a straw.  It’s the stylized that takes real talent.  On top of being saturated in the sub-medium you are working in to make the little homages and delicate points have the proper touch, the writer must also have a feel for language above and beyond average so as to effect the desired mood or tone.  Caitlin Kiernan’s “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)” possesses these qualities in spades.  Chuck Wendig’s “Swallow: Interlude” (2015) doesn’t.

Lacking a single entry angle, “Swallow: Interlude” is stuck between sensationalized and stylized.  There are scenes of violence intended to discomfort, but being either mediocre or overwritten, do not have the desired effect.  Due to lack of style, the mood and tone do not exist to the level necessary to cut (har) in desired fashion.  The main character Miriam, a girl who can see the day people die, has attitude as she tracks serial killers, but digressions such as the following severly dilutes her attitude, and indicates a writer unable to detach themselves from their story: 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review of Declare by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is one of fantasy and science fiction’s long standing writers.  Never seeming to get his due, however, the award nominations, media presence, delightfully varied and imaginative novels for four-plus decades, and strong recommendations have never been able to push him fully into the radar of mainstream genre readers.  Yet that is precisely where he best fits, and 2000’s Declare is an example why.

Homage to LeCarre with strong elements of the supernatural, Declare is a steadily-paced spy thriller set in Cold War history.  Powers himself perhaps best describing his angle of approach, he takes the search for solar systems, particularly the search for nearby interstellar anomalies as indicators of nearby systems, as his metaphor.  The biographies of British spies Kim Philby, Anthony Burgess, and other historical figures having numerous gaps between them that recurse through WWII and the Cold War, Powers fills them with a story of his own without, in his own words, changing accepted facts.  Anthony Hale the British spy created to cement the pieces together, from the unknowns of his birth to the uncertainty of life as his assignment grows ever more mysterious and dangerous, Powers steadily plays out a line of story that has the reader begging for resolution come the final pages. 

Review of Prador Moon by Neal Asher

Consistent, dependable, Neal Asher has a real handle on grimdark space opera in his far future universe, the Polity.  Prador Moon is the second of three Polity books that came out in 2006, and the fifth overall.  Telling of the first meeting between the Prador and humanity, to say things don’t get off on the right foot would be to sell the opening scene (and the several novels which follow) short.  Prador-human relations tumbling to bits in the aftermath of ‘diplomacy,’ all-out space war erupts.

Asher, as is his custom, provides viewpoints into all sides of his conflicts.  Scenes from the Prador general Imminence’s ship grotesquely describe what happens to the humans captured, including the rudimentary research into thrall technology as war increases the pressure on the lab.  Meanwhile, humanity is not unified against the Prador.  Not wanting to be ruled by Polity AI, a Separatist faction has blossomed, a faction whose agenda may see the war turn one way or another based on their guerilla actions.  And within the tech labs of the remainder of humanity, a young woman recently augmented by an illegal technician finds her new skills more than helpful meeting a certain technical challenge facing human logistics.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review of The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

I was having one of those bibliophiles’ moments of crisis: with so many books to read, what next?  I looked through the stacks, read a few back cover blurbs, and stutter started a few pages.  But none felt right.  None clicked: this is the book to read now.  What to do?  I did what I always do in such situations: fall back on something dependable.  Knowing in the very least his books are tightly plotted, possess sharp prose, and intelligently playful with politics and technology, I fell back on Ken Macleod, particularly his 2010 The Restoration Game.  The final result: while not his best, Macleod remains in my TBT pile*.

An inference to a nation state’s continually evolving quest to bring itself back to some self-perceived glory day, The Restoration Game plays with the idea of political recursion, as told through the life of Lucy Stone.  An admin for a small start-up computer games company, she receives a most unusual request one day from her mother: to design a computer game based on the history, legends, and myths of their native Krasssnia, a former Soviet bloc state.  Lucy’s past a bit of a mystery, particularly the identity of her father and whether indeed her mother is an agent working for a government, researching the background details of the game soon draws her into a political sub-world she never thought existed, and just perhaps, may even bring her back to her native Krassnia to face the demons of the controlled state.

Evidence #836: Pulp SF Has Returned

Every once and a while I like to take a screenshot of the books available for review on NetGalley as a kind of cross section of the state of genre. Long story short, it's not looking good.  No less than five pairs of oiled pecs, some with animals, and somehow only one with a sword-wielding girl superimposed over a generic ethereum.  And the titles, Forbidden Dance, Iron Dominance, Shadow Rites, it's like low budget, straight to television film...  I'm feeling nauseated...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review of "Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God" by Lavie Tidhar

I’ve read Lavie Tidhar is interested in Literature (capital L) as much as pulp, and as a result tries to write “ambitious pulp.”  His 2011 novella “Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God” shows an uneven balance across that spectrum—to the chagrin of some and to the reward of others.

Gorel is a bounty-hunting gunslinger addicted to the drug God's Kiss.  Exiled from his home long ago, he crosses lands taking bounties, all the while seeking a secret mirror that will show him the way home.  The gods living and real, he ends up playing games—and being played with—getting to the mirror.  Aliens, mistresses, and action propel him to the mirror and the Pot-Bellied God where he gets the surprise of his life—literally.

Significantly tipping the pulp side of the scale, “Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God” is retro storytelling that attempts profound personal resolution.  To some degree, it achieves this.  The pieces are all in place and the denouement means something to the main character, and perhaps the reader.  The issue, at least for me, is the journey to this denouement.  The pulp aesthetic detracts from rather than adds to the personal aspects.  Gorel does a lot of typical pulp song and dance—shoot ‘em ups, philandering with curvy women, encountering the supernatural, etc., etc.—before the wool is pulled off his anti-hero eyes.  None of this deepens his character to the point of empathy—a requirement if the reader is to fully invest in the personal issues at stake. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of Lena's Nest by Rosalie Warren

Robert Sheckley’s 1959 Immortality, Inc. is the story of a man who dies in a car accident, only to wake up a century in the future in a new body.  A sharp work of satire, Sheckley was riffing off a lot of things—the delusions of capitalism and the meaning of mortality primary among them.  Rosalie Warren’s debut novel Lena’s Nest (2015, Indie-Go) uses the same premise, but moves in a different, far more conventional, direction. 

Awaking into normal life, Lena has trouble believing she’s anywhere but 2014 at the outset of the novel.  Slowly but surely she is convinced, however, that she is now in 2105.  The trick is, she exists only virtually.  Once one of the premier researchers into robot sentience, it comes as a surprise to learn the rudiments of her work have evolved into machine intelligence, her mind now living in a hard drive.  Robotic technology evolving in parallel, not only do the machines think, they also occupy a significant portion of society physically.  With sentience transmuted through humanity, robots, and virtual existences, Lena has some intial trouble getting her head around life in the future.  But it’s not her biggest issue.  Her children now a century old but still possibly alive, she does all she can from inside her virtual world to find them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review of Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe

After finishing Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and facing writing of a review, I couldn’t help but feel daunted.  While I was confident the four volumes had portrayed the moral and personal coming of age of a man to be judged as an example of humanity to determine whether his world was worth saving, there was much of the sub-text I knew I had missed—who really was who, the symbolism, the details of setting, etc.  With Book of the Long Sun—a more accessible story, I had less trouble.  Having now read Book of the Short Sun, the third and final series in the overall Solar Cycle, I’m back to square one: daunted.  I may even be back to square zero: speechless.

If Book of the New Sun is recondite, Short Sun is recondite2.  New Sun, with its mythic and pagan symbolism, dream sequences, and subjective personal view is a story that often surprises for the seeming incongruity of the scene at hand to the context of the story up to that point.  But everything progressed linearly.  Short Sun takes said complexity of New Sun, adds additional layers, and removes the straight-line plotting; the story is chopped into bits and rearranged temporally.  There are also sudden shifts in location, parables, lucid dreams, remembrances that may or may not have been dreams, and, to top it all off, shapeshifters capable of assuming any human form.  Point blank: Short Sun is personally one of the most challenging texts I’ve ever read.  Far from a casual read, it requires focus, memory, attention to detail, and continual questioning of the reality presented to understand what the underlying reality or purpose actually is.  But rather than discourage the would-be reader, it’s perhaps best to go into what I do know, as Short Sun is as rich as New Sun, if not more.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

What if Neil Gaiman’s right and David Mitchell’s left hands typed out a story from James Blaylock’s notes?  The result could only be Ned Beauman’s 2012 The Teleportation Accident.  

By turns charming and exuberant, with a small genre conceit tucked inside what is otherwise historical fiction, The Teleportation Accident is a delight.  Based on its line by line cleverness and getting caught up in a cavorting tale that treads the line between plausibility and reality, the reader can’t help but give in and let the glitz of modernism pre-WWII wash over them, one finely tuned simile and turn of phrase at a time.

The Teleportation Accident is the humorously tragic story of Egon Loeser, a sex-obsessed socialite German set designer living in Berlin in the ‘30s.  His carnal desires already suffering due to a lack thereof, one cocaine dusted night he’s pushed to the brink of madness when meeting the woman of his dreams.  Going overboard, Loeser gives up all pretense of a normal life and heads to the bars and lights of Paris, and eventually crosses the Atlantic, to pursue his new obsession as the world crumbles around him.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review of Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley is one of the major names of Silver Age science fiction that has not held the spotlight as well as Heinlein or Asimov.  I understand the reasons why: Asimov and Heinlein were writing simple entertainment whereas Sheckley was mostly writing more sophisticated humanist satire, which, unfortunately, doesn’t sell as well.  A prolific writer nevertheless, Sheckley churned out more than forty short stories in the first two years he was published, the best of which are collected in Untouched by Human Hands (1954).

In that incredible two-year span of creativity, Sheckley covered a lot of ground.  Highly interested in presenting modern civilization from completely wild and different perspectives, his stories almost always utilize common tropes—aliens, planetary adventure, robots, etc.—but always with sub-texts so sharp they cut. 

Starting off Untouched by Human Hands is a darkly humorous perspective.  “The Monsters” is the brief tale of humanity’s arrival on a strange planet—from the aliens’ view.  A reptilian-esque species, they kill their wives every 25 days due to an extreme overabundance of female eggs.  They get indignant with the idea that the extraterrestrials might be sentient beings, and thus truth tellers.  Qualified hilarity ensues.  “Cost of Living” was meant to be satire in Sheckley’s time, but given the debt crisis that set off the mini-depression shortly after the turn of the second millennium, it has proven more prescient than sarcastic.  About a man interested in keeping up with the Jones, the agreements he’ll sign to remain a consumer are not as shocking as they might have been in the ‘50s.  “The Altar,” escalating from urban New Jersey to the paranormal in the smoothest gradient, is the next story. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review of Meeting Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Each of editor Jonathan Strahan’s three Infinity anthologies to date has been loosely—emphasis on ‘loosely’—centered around a core idea of science fiction.  Engineering Infinity, Edge of Infinity, and Reach for Infinity in some way explore hard sf as of 2010, look at the (supposed) burgeoning fourth generation of sf in 2012, and provide an outlook to the fictional state of solar system exploration in 2014, respectively.  For the fourth Infinity installation, Meeting Infinity (2015, Solaris), Strahan switches things up with the notion of ‘future shock.’  While most authors selected take the theme in a post-human direction, the overall variety of perspectives prevents the anthology from becoming monotonous.  But it’s the relatively consistent quality of the stories that make it the best of the Infinity series to date.

But we start slow.  With future shock the theme, there are inevitably stories most sf readers could predict.  “Cocoons” by Nancy Kress presents a planetary colonization scenario wherein humans are being taken over by microscopic… things, transforming them into something more than human.  Executed in simplistic terms, Kress’ story comes across as very traditional, which, in the context of today’s multi-dimensional sf, does it few favors.  “Aspects” by Gregory Benford is another standard story.  Humans running from mechwarriors a la Terminator (with a brief interludes why technology is important), this may be the purest genre story in the collection—a tag it perhaps could have avoided by having a bit more mood.  Emphasis on the “shock” side (given how manta rays play a role), “Rates of Change” by James S.A. Corey is a story about a woman trying to come to terms with the meaning of existence in a body she was not born into, as well as dealing with the aftermath of an accident involving her son.  The ideas in the story are far from new (I could list many similar stories), “Corey” nevertheless renders them in intelligent enough fashion to give pause upon the final page.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review of Nobody's Son by Sean Stewart

Sean Stewart is a writer who, for telling his own brand of tale while walking familiar genre roads, paid the price.  Quality not able to overcome the herd’s desire for ‘more of the same crap’, he appeared, was recognized by writers and readers with an eye to talent, but was never supported with sales enough to drive a career.  He has not published in a decade.  A most unfortunate outcome, Stewart penned several fine novels, including Perfect Circle, Mockingbird, and Galveston.  Nobody’s Son (1994) is his second, and while it may not be his best, is nevertheless a quality tale with its eyes looking beyond mainstream high fantasy.

Taking the classic fantasy trope ‘fatherless farmboy’ and moving it in a unique direction, Nobody’s Son shifts the focus away from the worldbuilding and complex plotting so common to Medieval fantasy and moves it toward personal resolution, moral value, and a bildungsroman that develops the main character in meaningful fashion.  The use of language crisp and dynamic, and occasionally exuberant, what some authors tell in multiple volumes, Stewart accomplishes in less than 300 pages.

Review of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 3 ed. by Jonathan Strahan

2008 was a great year for short speculative fiction, and Jonathan Strahan captures some of it in his The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3.  By my count (which will certainly be disagreed with), we saw no less than four that will go down in history as some of the best the genre has produced, backed up by several more very, very solid stories.  Every best-of anthology has its share of stories the reader shakes their head in wonder How’d that get in here?, but with Volume 3, it happens less often than usual.

Strahan, as usual, does his share to cover a wide variety of sub-interests.  Volume 3 contains everything from hard sf to space opera, urban to secondary world fantasy, literary pieces to pulp.  Depending which version the reader purchases (there were two printings, each with a different story order), it’s possible their version will open with the brilliant “26 Monkeys, and the Abyss” by Kij Johnson.  It is the obtuse little tale of a woman who buys into a traveling monkey show, and the personal issues she must deal with in the aftermath.  Showcasing the fact genre authors can indeed produce quality, literary material, spec fic at short length doesn’t come much better.  Moving from literary to pulp, Garth Nix’s “Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe” tells the story of a fantastical pirate adventure that doesn’t give Robert Louis Stevenson a run for his money, but does Tim Powers.  “Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan is a standard Frankenstein-esque science fiction idea: an advance in technology leads to creations beyond mankind’s control, told from Egan’s pro-science perspective.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A quick Google search reveals that I am late to the party—very late.  There are seemingly hundreds of reviews of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) available online.  From the most regarded newspapers to Joe Blow’s SF Nook, everyone has an opinion of the novel—many raving.  Moving in that direction, this review may be more of a review of reviews as much as a review in itself, the novel’s import captured in the offing.

There are schools of thought that believe a reader/reviewer may interpret a novel/poem/story/etc. however they like.  The writer has written something, put it into the public arena, and there it is the right of anyone who encounters it to perceive what they will.  While I think the general idea of this concept is something to support, it quickly crumbles anytime someone attempts to examine the deep psycho-social quandaries and post-modern angst of a Clive Cussler novel, for example.  There are limits, and those limits are most often dictated by what is actually on the page.

Review of The Domains of Koryphon (aka The Gray Prince) by Jack Vance

I will start with a bald fact: Jack Vance’s 1976 The Gray Prince (or The Domains of Koryphon as Vance’s preferred title) sticks out from the author’s oeuvre like a sore thumb.  The idiom poor, it does not refer to the quality of the story, rather how the telling, structure, and aim are different from the majority of Vance’s fiction. 

Vance is best known for writing planetary adventure, e.g. The Tchai, The Blue World, or the Cugel stories and coming-of-age tales, e.g. Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, or Night Lamp.  The Domains of Koryphon possesses the attributes of each, but there is more; underpinning all of the above is a soft science fiction story examining first/aboriginal rights. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review of Edge of Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Jonathan Strahan introduces his second Infinity anthology Edge of Infinity (2012) with the simple line: “Welcome to the Fourth Generation of science fiction.  Citing the development of the genre from childhood into adulthood, he believes the current iteration of sf is “a post-scarcity period of incredible richness and diversity.”   What follows are fourteen stories from some of the top writers in the field that utilize a variety of modes and perspectives.  Do they indicate sf has achieved another level in its growth?  If yes, it isn’t definitive.

A pleasant exercise in style possible only in science fiction, the anthology opens with “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” by Pat Cadigan.  About biologically modified workers employed in orbit of Jupiter, the reader learns of a relationship changed by the switch from biped to sushi.  Perhaps more an exercise in worldbuilding, Cadigan nevertheless proves her 90s’ fiction was not the bottom of the barrel and Strahan may be on to something.  I find novel-length work not to be Elizabeth Bear’s strength, rather her short fiction, and with “The Deeps of the Sky” my assumption rings true.  As alien as fiction can be, the story describes one insectoid’s attempt to please the queen, and the unexpected meeting he has while working hard.  Are realistic alien perspectives Fourth Gen material?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review of The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker

If you’re reading this review, then there’s no need to go into any rigamarole about The Prince of Nothing or Aspect Emperor series by R. Scott Bakker.  Point blank: The White Luck Warrior superbly escalates the story begun in The Judging Eye, and indirectly so the The Prince of Nothing series, to leave the reader on the doorstep, panting for more.  The Unholy Consult is going to be as epic as epic fantasy gets.

Where The Judging Eye expends much of its energy re-setting the pieces on the board and putting them in motion, The White Luck Warrior opens with the pieces already in motion—and in some cases, exhausted from the rousing conclusion to The Judging Eye.  Though there are lulls and eddies, The White Luck Warrior moves these pieces’ stories full-steam.  The Great Ordeal, still marching its way across the great plain, encounters unheard of swarms of sranc; Akka and his daughter still head toward the coffers of Mimara to learn the roots of the Aspect Emperor; and things in Momemm remain politically unsettled as Kelhus’ family continues to implode. Thus, to say the book is non-stop action is one step too far; whether it be tense scenes involving Kelhus’s mad children or Sorweel discovering his role in the great ordeal, learning about the Non-man’s real history or what dragon’s bones mean, Bakker ramps up the action at a steady, engaging pace leading directly into the concluding volume.  If everything continues to move in the directions hinted at, The Unholy Consult is going to be one hell of a climax.

Review of Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

For many readers, including myself, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword possesses the gravitas—the weight more than spread of epic-ness—that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is, on the whole, lacking (yet his Silmarillion possesses in spades).  This is not to say one is better than the other, merely that Anderson did a better job of imbuing his narrative with consistent drama-proper.  For this, I have come to think of his later Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) as its partner: the laughing clown.

Succeeding at the comedy game where The High Crusade fell flat, Three Hearts and Three Lions takes itself seriously enough to be read as a storyteller’s story, yet light-heartedly enough that the reader relaxes—escapes, as it were, from the real world into the classic, high fantasy stylings of Anderson’s world. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising 2 ed. by Ian Whates

Of all the science fiction anthologies, it is perhaps the generic—the unthemed—anthology that has the greatest chance at touching warm spots with readers.  Unless the reader is obsessed with one particular theme or motif, e.g. A.I., cloning, robots, etc., there’s little chance a book full of relevant stories will fail to bore at times, or at least become redundant or repetitive.  Unthemed anthologies, or themed anthologies where the editor effectively turns their back at the door and lets the riff-raff in, tend to not only be more engaging in terms of ‘what comes next?’, but more varied across the trigger points of reader enjoyment.  This is all just a long-winded way of saying Ian Whates’ ongoing science fiction anthology series Solaris Rising remains a more inviting experience than many of the other offerings I’ve come across in recent years precisely for its variety. 

Containing nineteen stories all original to the anthology, Solaris Rising 2, despite its name, is actually the third in the Solaris Rising series.  A return to form after the in-one-eye-and-out-the-other feel of Solaris Rising 1.5, the “second” indicates that when an editor is given proper time to commission authors for stories, everything works in the reader’s favor.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review of The History of the Runestaff by Michael Moorcock

When reading China Mieville’s “50 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read,” there were several titles that struck me.  I can easily see the context for Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, Zamyatin’s We, Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (as tongue and cheek as that selection is), but other choices less so, including Pullman’s His Dark Materials…, Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and, perhaps most interestingly, Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon cycle (collected in the omnibus edition The History of the Runestaff).  Mieville citing Moorcock’s satirical stabs at British imperialism as the reason, apparently the cycle has at least one layer operating beneath its shiny epic fantasy facade. 

Having now read the Runestaff novels, I think it’s fair to say there is only one layer operating beneath—and it’s just an inch below the surface.

The History of Runestaff is comprised of four individual volumes: The Jewel in the Skull (1967), The Mad God's Amulet (1968), The Sword of the Dawn (1968), and The Runestaff (1969).  A mix of steampunk, sword and sorcery, and epic fantasy, the four volumes are connected linearly in telling the story of Dorian Hawkmoon as he fights the empire of Granbretan to prevent its conquest of Europe.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review of The Tenth Victim by Robert Sheckley

Before Running Man and before Surviving the Game there was Robert Sheckley’s nifty little short story “Seventh Victim.”  About a man hunting a woman through an urban environment, it is a mini-gem representative of Sheckley’s very particular brand of black satire.  The Italians apparently appreciative of the story, they expanded it into a script, the film La decimal vittima (The Tenth Victim) the result.  Later, Sheckley was later contracted to write the novelization.

The Tenth Victim is set in a world where humanity’s penchant for violence is curbed by legal manhunts called the Big Hunt.  The survivors of ten hunts gaining prestige and a major cash prize, the Hunt is a major media event.  Television studios worldwide vie for the best angles, the best insider info, and of course, the kill shot—literally and figuratively—tracking the hunter and hunted across the globe.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is one of science fiction’s most versatile participants.  Active in a wide variety of areas, from novel-length fiction to shorter works, editor to columnist, playwright to poet, he is even a painter.  His most active years as a novelist in the 60s and 70s, in 1973 he became a scholar, publishing Billion Year Spree a history of science fiction.  Thirteen years later, the development of sf having continued apace, he recruited author David Wingrove and together they revised the volume, updating content for the writers and novels that appeared in the meantime.  The title was also extended; Trillion Year Spree appeared in 1986. 

Starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and ending with the arrival of cyberpunk, Trillion Year Spree is an attempt to outline the history of science fiction, or, in the author’s words, “to provide a countour map without surveying every tree.  Organized ever-so-roughly in chronological order, Aldiss and Wingrove take the reader through the development of the field the past three centuries.  All major and some lesser known writers are covered, most often with brief discussions on their major works, as well as commentary on their place in the larger context of the genre.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review of The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys

If Joseph Campbell is to be believed, then the hero’s journey is a story as old as mankind.  And we keep on telling it. From the epics of Homer to the gush of epic fantasy currently on the market, the underlying formula remains relatively the same: take a person, separate them from their society, put them through the wringer to emerge triumphant in their society once again.  Such a quantity of such stories, in fact, there may be more than a thousand faces. 

The Falling Torch (1959) by Algis Budrys is one of the faces. The story of a scion raised in exile, Michael Wireman is thrust back into the thick of the war that pushed his father’s government to another planet.  With the expectation he will reverse the tides of fate, he is given contraband weaponry, contacts amongst the guerilla rebellion, and parachuted in to “save the day”.  As the prologue informs the reader, Wireman is successful, but as the intro to this review is also informs, it’s the journey that matters.

Review of The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker

Ahh, you’ve finally done it.  You’ve trudged through umpteen thousand pages of the latest epic fantasy series. You’ve read lengthy descriptions of how Anvus puts on his belt in the morning.  You’ve restrained yawning as the next leg of an endless quest is expounded upon.  You’ve listened to kings and knights discourse ad infinitum about the fate of the land and meaning of honor. And now you’re ready for the final volume, the ending of endings—the convergence of all dramatis personae in a clash that will seer the vault of heaven… only to have it trickle out in a scant few pages of meager scene.  Fear not.  R. Scott Bakker’s conclusion to the Prince of Nothing trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought (2006), meets if not exceeds all expectations.  The fact he does it with the same economy—the same quality over quantity approach as the previous two books—is a testament to its status amongst other such series.

The Holy War refocused under the leadership of Kellhus at the conclusion of The Warrior Prophet, a lot nevertheless remains unclear concerning the Inrithi’s assault on Shimeh.  The Holy War’s leaders more fragmented than ever concerning Kellhus’ status as a holy prophet, they reluctantly continue following him south toward the heathen capita at the outset of The Thousandfold Thought l.  But not without drama along the way involving Ikurei Conphas and his new status as Emperor.  Cnauir among the many confused, he too finds himself in a situation he never imagined—his visions more than his reality would seem to allow.  And Achamian, having survived capture at the hands of the Scarlet Spires, is now Grand Vizier and tutor, teaching Kellhus the ways of Gnostic sorcery.  As the Fanim and the mysterious Cishaurim sorcerers prepare for battle, the fate of human Earwa hangs in the balance.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review of The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

I’m speechless.  I’ve not had so much true enjoyment reading a story in some time: aliens come to Earth to eradicate non-rationalist thinking, and space rangers save the day—all presented to the reader in intelligent fashion.  I don’t know if I’ve ever said such a thing about a story…

James Morrow’s 2014 The Madonna and the Starship is simply one of the most intellectually fun pieces of science fiction I think I’ve ever read.  Humor a fickle thing, of course, Morrow’s erudite mix of situational comedy, cultural irreverence, and pulp parody is apparently right up my alley.  Somehow able to mash the ideas of Christianity and Buck Rogers into a weighty yet amusing tale with humanity’s future (figuratively) at stake, it’s a feat I only a few writers with such scalpel-sharp style and wit could pull off.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review of The Paper Grail by James P. Blaylock

The true caper—that perfect mix of light-hearted fun and enjoyable adventure—is one of the most difficult literary tricks to pull off.  Too much comedy and you drown the plot.  Too serious and the story falls flat.  And the product as a whole must be genuine—to have a character unto itself.  James Blaylock has refined this art to a degree that few other writers have.  His books don’t sparkle, they glitter.

One of the novels of Blaylock’s so-called Christian trilogy (a thin moniker at best), The Paper Grail (1991) spins the Holy Grail into a fabulist escapade possible only in rural America.  It’s simply incomparable to Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Chock to the gills with colorful characters and the remarkable realia of life in off-the-beaten-path northern California, it tells of the museum curator Howard Barton and his trip to Mendocino to pick up a 19th-century Hokusai sketch from an eccentric uncle.  Running into the residents upon arrival, particularly the screwball Mr. Jimmers, it isn’t long before Barton is dragged into the local scene—crystal readers, haunted house owners, curio shop proprietors, and of course, the evening parties of the glint-eyed Heloise Lamie who has her own designs on the Hokusai.  Studebakers lodged in trees, the art of John Ruskin, invisible kleptomaniacs, a tin shed that produces unearthly noises, cliffside tunnels, and an old flame, Barton finds himself caught in an age old war for something he doesn’t fully understand but may end up dead because of if he doesn’t start digging deeper. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s first published novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, was surreal science fiction painted in the colors of Philip K. Dick but built on the chassis of a Raymond Chandler novel.  Successful style-wise, Lethem paid homage to a couple of his favorite writers while getting his feet wet in publishing.  Five years later as a writer with four novels and a short story collection under his belt, fully immersed, Lethem produced another novel of detective noir proportion, Motherless Brooklyn (1999).  Moving past homage and into singular, personalized fiction, it shows a mature author in control of his craft.  But Lionel Essrog is the reason to read.

Though Chandler will haunt the shadows of any private eye story, Motherless Brooklyn is written in Lethem’s own hand.  There is a murder mystery, shadowy NYC is the setting, and a fairly typical gamut of plotting—through police investigations, crime figures, and female interests—is run.  But the phrasing, the tone, and character portrayal are something different.  NYC is brought to minimalist life; the flow of story is more staid, less predictable; and Lionel Essrog is as memorable and atypically heartfelt a character as one can imagine.

Review of The Warrior Prophet by R. Scott Bakker

Gary K. Wolfe once made the statement on the Coode Street Podcast that bridge books in trilogies are useless—that it’s possible to skip the middle volume without missing anything for the third.  While there are several examples that support his claim, R. Scott Bakker’s The Warrior-Prophet, second book in the Prince of Nothing trilogy, balks at it.  Shaking off the bridge book blues, the novel picks up where The Darkness that Comes Before left off and escalates the story in critical fashion to the third and final volume, The Thousandfold Thought. 

Like the importance of The Two Towers to The Lord of the Rings, so too is The Warrior Prophet to The Prince of Nothing.  A convergence of powerful characters and a grand revelation about Earwa occurring at the end of the previous novel, The Warrior Prophet proceeds directly from this point.  Kicking off the Holy War, thousands upon thousands of soldiers are set marching to the land of the heathen Fanim and begin taking down cities one by one, all while fractures begin appearing in leadership.  Kellhus, despite starting to make a name for himself, has the mysteries surrounding his origin and purpose deepen.  Dreams of the First Apocalypse continue to haunt Achamian’s nights, making it more difficult for him to know how to proceed with Kellhus—the Scarlet Spires haunting his footsteps in the daytime.  Skin-spies continue to be revealed in key places, and the emperor, still reeling from his dungeon encounter, sits on the throne, digging himself ever deeper into a pit of fear and anxiety.