Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review of "All the Birds of Hell" by Tanith Lee

It may be short, but Tanith Lee’s 1998 novelette “All the Birds of Hell” is one of those pieces that smolders in the brain long after the final word has been read.  The imagery, the atmosphere, the sentiment—individually and combined have an impact felt beyond the page.  Opening with a man arriving at one of the world’s most unique museums for a six-month stint as curator, he’s given a quick rundown of the facilities by the exiting curator and left to himself.  Russia in the depths of a fifteen year winter, his lonely outpost, a former mansion, houses the sealed bodies of two lovers who took sleeping pills and then exposed themselves to freezing temperatures.  Their frozen, lifelike corpses on display for those able to make the lengthy trek to the rural mansion, the man’s lonely duties are of quiet and contemplation.

From the howl of wolves to the chill of loneliness seeping off the page, “All the Birds of Hell” eases its way to a haunting conclusion.  Thoughts set moving, one gives way to the next about what it means to the characters, and to the meta-story.  Its essence of dark fairy tales and science fiction, something undeniably human nevertheless binds the pieces together.  Overall, an eerie, affecting story not easy to forget.

(See here for a better review of the novelette at MPorcius Fiction Log.)

Review of "The Night of Long Knives" by Fritz Leiber

One of the key moments in the Nazi’s rise to power was an evening dubbed “The Night of Long Knives”.  Numerous key opposition leaders attacked and killed, the resulting vacancy was a political hole Hitler and his minions swept in and filled, eventually resulting in their complete takeover of German government.  In 1960 Fritz Leiber, an American writer of German heritage who often interrogated aspects of WWII in his writing, decided to take a look at the logic underpinning such aggression and penned a novella of the same name. 

A dark, edgy story, Leiber deconstructs the madness of such aggression in turns overt and subtle.  Ray is a Deathlander wandering the nuclear wastelands of the American west when we are introduced to him.  Armed to the teeth and wary of every step, any movement in the corner of his eye is enough to set his heart pounding in fear someone is out to kill for his food and weapons.  A woman, likewise armed and wary, appears on his path, and after a silent, ritualistic disarming to prove one to the other their intentions are non-violent, proceed to socialize the only way they know how.  A strange, hovering airplane landing beside them the next morning, out steps a beautiful specimen of humanity.  The man, though appearing more civilized, is likewise armed and distrustful of the couple.  But conversation does not get far as Ray’s instincts take over.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review of The Glamour by Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest’s 1981 The Affirmation is a novel that superbly outlays the all-too-human manner in which we stifle the world—repress reality—to keep life warm and charming, no ugly burrs or bumps to spoil the vision.  But what of the past, our memories of times good and bad?  Are these also malleable facets of existence and not the concrete recollections we would have them be?  In sideways-brain fashion, Priest’s 1984 The Glamour continues the author’s interrogation of perception by tackling precisely this question.

We first meet Richard Grey convalescing in a rural English hospital.  One of the victims of a bomb attack at a police station, multiple injuries binding him to a wheelchair, he is slowly recovering to mobility.  Memory likewise unstable, he remembers nothing in the handful of weeks prior to the attack, and as a result is undergoing therapy with the hospital’s psychologist and psychiatrist.  Receiving a major surprise one day, he is introduced to a woman named Susan who claims to have been his girlfriend in that blank space of memory.  Her face triggering no memories, Grey places upon himself the task of getting to know her as well as he can in the hopes it will to revive the time.  He gets much more than he asked for.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review of The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

“Gandhi lived in forty-nine villages during his Noakhali pilgrimage.  He would rise at four in the morning, walk three or four miles on bare feet to a village, stay there one or two days talking and praying incessantly with the inhabitants and then trek to the next village.  Arrived in a place, he would go to a peasant’s hut, preferably a Moslem’s hut, and ask to be taken in with his companions.  If rebuffed he would try the next hut. He subsided on local fruits and vegetables and goat’s milk if he could get it.  This was his life from 7 November 1946, to 2 March 1947.  He had just passed his seventy-seventh birthday.” (557-558)

His name practically defining the word ‘altruism,' Gandhi’s attempts, in the days leading up to India’s independence, to keep Muslims and Hindus an Indian whole exemplify his dedication to equality and peace, and why the man is such an inspiration.  Though others have since been written, Louis Fischer’s 1950 The Life of Mahatma Gandhi was the first biography to appear after the man’s untimely death, and though possessing a large quantity of well-intended hyperbole, remains adherent to the facts in proper biographical fashion.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer’s 2001collection City of Saints and Madmen was a tour de force.  Putting Ambergris on the map, it presented vignettes from multiple perspectives of a fantastical city: scattered amidst historical monologues and art house pieces, interviews with crazed writers and fictional glossaries are stories of the strange and Weird.  Shifting gears, VanderMeer followed up the collection with Shriek in 2006.  Approaching the fungal metropolis from a personal point of view, the character studies of a socialite and her historian brother anchor what is by comparison a more subdued but no less creative text.  But even after the second book, questions remained—what about the Gray Caps, the underground, what ever became of Duncan Shriek, what of Ambergris’ true history, among others.  Thus for the third Ambergris book, VanderMeer did what any writer would do who wants to get under the skin of their own creation: he wrote a detective novel in an attempt to uncover its mysteries.  Putting an exclamation point on the Ambergris series, Finch is that novel.

Though the perspectives vary significantly throughout City of Saints and Madmen, there is a classical feel to the collection, a sense that the stories are written in modes more akin to yesteryear than modern times.  Shriek saw the clock roll ahead; Ambergris was still not the modern metropolis one thinks of New York currently as, for example, but instead a previous iteration, perhaps mid 20th century.  The clock spinning further ahead in Finch, the setting is contemporized.  While far from obvious, the fungal city nevertheless has a turn of the 21st century feel to it.  The surface details as wonderfully Weird as VanderMeer’s imagination has proven itself to be, rather the shift is seen in the function of the elements deployed.  And none moreso than the state of socio-politics.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

One of the great aspects of video games is the reset button.  A person may get mad when their brother pushes it in the middle of game play, but generally it is a positive option.  Worked yourself into a corner: push reset.  Technical glitch: push reset.  Need a quick path to the start menu: push reset.  Can’t figure out what to do next: push reset.  Need the default settings: push reset.  Humanity in the middle of a great game (please suspend your groaning; I know the metaphor’s bad, but you’ll see it fits the book), no reset button exists for us, unfortunately.  There is no stopping Hitler in the middle of what he did, just as there’s no getting back many of the natural resources we’re bleeding the planet dry of.  Such situations only able to be manifested in speculative fiction, in 1971 Philip Jose Farmer hit the reset button.  To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the start menu, and depending on genre perspective, you may wish to push the reset button on the novel upon completion.

A man awakens in an immense zero g cavern, floating amongst a seemingly infinite flotilla of nude, hairless bodies.  Gradually gaining perspective, before him appears a vision.  He realizes it is his old self, as he appeared in real life, and he is the explorer Richard Burton.  Like billions of raindrops, the bodies begin falling, and before Burton knows it, he lies in a field, other bodies scattered around him.  Still entirely nude, he has only a metal canister with him.  Behind him rise mountains, and before him a wide river.  To either side he sees nothing but trees, fields, and bodies.  Each person slowly awakening, they discover cultural and language barriers.  Not everybody is from the same place, era, even planet.  A Tau Cetan named Monat amongst the humans, Burton makes friends with a 20th century American man named Frigate, a British woman Alice, a caveman Kazz, and others.  Coming across strange metal mushrooms that erratically shoot blue flames, they discover that by placing the canisters in special indentations on the surface at certain times they are provided food and drink, cigarettes and alcohol, even pleasure drugs.  Building a solid group, Burton eventually does what he was born to do: explore.  Building a sailing vessel with the others, they set out upriver to investigate their strange river world. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review of Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s 2012 Dark Eden was a novel whose setting glowed like a Christmas tree and whose thematic import likewise glowed for its simple but profound examination of the beliefs, practices, and rote underpinning Western social, religious, and cultural order.  Eschewing the opportunity to tell the hero’s tale (though there was every opportunity to do so), Beckett set his ambitions higher, widening the lens of his story to encompass society and how it evolves, or fails to, in the face of existential reality.  The story ending on a momentous discovery for the stranded colonists, the effect of the knowledge (that they would not be rescued) was left to the reader’s imagination.  That is until 2015’s Mother of Eden (2015, Crown Publishing).  Expanding the map considerably, producing a new cast of faces, and shifting the focus to politics and gender, the novel is a fresh follow up that fully satisfies the hunger for more of the exotic planet but which may sacrifice part of its thematic strength to over-simplification.

Set several generations after John Jeff, and Tina led the expedition away from New Home to start their own community, the population of Eden has considerably expanded itself in the time since.  Society in essence set free with the knowledge rescue will not be forthcoming, a diaspora has occurred, people moving out to explore new islands and continents.  But disagreement remains.  Calling themselves, Davidsfolk, Johnsfolk, Jeffsfolk, even Tinafolk, differences and discrimination still eat at the heart of the colonists.  Enmity among the groups seeming to continually simmer just beneath the surface, things start to boil when the descendants of John Redlantern discover metal on a continent across the Big Dark.  Believing themselves to be on the path to returning society to a state of civilization, they organize their rudimentary community along feudal lines in order to best extract the valuable material from Eden’s hothouse soil in the hopes of someday re-creating the technology which produced starships and space travel.  Trouble is, without access to real human history, they’re bound to make the same mistakes as they grow.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review of “Riding the Torch” by Norman Spinrad

Call it nausea, call it existential pain, call it a pscyhosis of modern civilization, call it post-modern nihilism—whatever it’s nomenclature, people today are facing crises of existence in quantities unlike any previous generation.  And we all run in the direction we see fit trying to find meaning or escape—from the immediacy of suicide to the classic stand-by of religion, the acceptance of fatalism to the restlessness of denial and uncertainty.  Approaching from the perspective humanity is bent on self-destruction, Norman Spinrad’s 1972 novella “Riding the Torch” tackles the crisis in fine, science fictional form.  And yes, sucking void is something you will want to do too, even if just for a moment. 

“Riding the Torch” is the story of Jofe D'mahl.  A senso producer (films that interact directly with the mind), he is one of the chief entertainers aboard the generation torchship Brigadoon.  Ego to the brim and the ship’s main socialite, he has no time for the voidsuckers—the sullen men and women who go beyond the massive ship’s hydrogen umbra to seek out new planets for its passengers to settle.  Goaded into taking one such trip after a voidsucker news bulletin upstages his latest senso, however, D’mahl has the experience of his life.  Cut off from all technology and social affairs of the Brigadoon, he is offered a new perspective on existence.  Problem is, he also comes upon knowledge that unhinges his mindset regarding the Brigadoon’s mission.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review of Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea by Adam Roberts

I imagine it’s something of a minor surprise to readers of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea to finish the book without ever having dipped a mile or two beneath the surface.  At least it was to me.  (It’s worth noting, however, the adventures of Captain Nemo and Aronmax onboard the mighty Nautilus are more than enough to make the reader lose sight of the fact ‘across’ is the more suitable adjective.) Apparently more inspired than surprised, in 2014 Adam Roberts dipped into the lexical impasse by penning a waterverse adventure in honor of Verne that holds true to its verbiage.  Oh, and he added a few zeroes to the depth meter—Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea (2014 Gollancz UK, 2015 St. Martin’s Press US) where the needle ultimately rests.

But in what spirit these leagues are traversed is what gives Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea its character.   Largely eschewing the hard sf mode of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and utilizing the underworld adventure mode of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the combination results in an underwater fantasy that pays homage to both Verne novels while telling its own vintage-esque tale of imaginative fancy.  Thus, hard sf purists will undoubtedly call out Roberts for his less than rigorous application of scientific knowledge when Verne went so far to make his Leagues as realistic as possible.  But they would be missing the point.  Twenty Trillion Leagues is as much homage to the original novel as it is Verne’s oeuvre and the era’s overall storytelling.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

What do the folk tales of Africa have in common with contemporary life in the UK and the US?  Different eras, different technologies, different cultures—ostensibly, little.  But Neil Gaiman’s 2005 Anansi Boys brings them together in a light but successful combination of vibrant storytelling, lush prose, and the idea, indeed, something may transcend the tales of old to live in our times.

Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie Nancy.  An unexcitable, phlegmatic guy (the definition of ‘lacking in personality’), he was born in the US but as a boy moved to the UK.  Growing up in London, he was never able to come to terms with his father.  A gregarious, entertaining man willing to play dirty tricks on his own son, Fat Charlie has attempted to block his father from his mind since.  But as it stands, his shadow still looms large.  It’s thus planning a wedding that the news arrives: Mr. Nancy is dead, and Charlie is needed back in the US to close affairs.  Spending time with his father’s old friends, he gets the personal closure he sought, but in turn gains new knowledge that sets his head spinning.  His father a god and a brother he never knew of living somewhere in the world, Charlie doesn’t know what to think on the plane back to the UK.  But life only gets more surreal when he finds a spider in the bathtub.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review of Solaris Rising: The New Book of Solaris ed. by Ian Whates

From 2007 to 2009, George Mann edited a series of science fiction anthologies called The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction.  Unthemed, the anthologies captured a wide variety of perspectives on the field, hard to soft sf, entertaining to literary—the majority of which were British writers.  After a break of two years, Solaris decided to revitalize the series and commissioned Ian Whates to bring together a new selection of stories.  The mission statement the same, Solaris Rising: The New Book of Solaris (2011) continues the small albeit quality start made by Mann, and Solaris’ desire not to “highlight one flavour of SF but rather reflect its boundless variety, the energy and imagination that can carry science fiction in so many fascinating and entertaining directions.

And the variety shows from the opening salvo to closing; Solaris Rising begins and ends on opposite ends of the pulp/literary spectrum.  Ian McDonald’s “A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” starts things off with a mid-future look at Africa.  Not a zombie story, international commerce and resource competition have combined to bring about a revolution in one corner of the continent—by the virtual dead. Fully a work of humanism, McDonald spins a more subtle but no less interesting story than he is known for in portraying a land trying to retake the reins of control from foreign interests.  Sharp description defining realistic characters, the content of “The Incredible Exploding Man” by Dave Hutchinson more literally reflects its title than figuratively—thankfully.  Not a standard comic book story, Hutchinson sends a shout out to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination in this well-written tale of an accident at a particle collider in the US. A strong relationship built between two characters, we don’t find out until the end why precisely the story is titled as such, but it fits.  A YA offering, “Sweet Spots” by Paul Di Filippo is perhaps the ultimate high school boy’s dream.  It begins when Arp discovers he can see the precise places in time that trigger desirable events—like knowing which pair of butterfly wings in Brazil will bring about a blizzard in Chicago.  Taking full advantage of these sweet spots, he proceeds to tweak and twist his life into better and better shape.  Trouble is, the girl he loves still eludes him.  Filled with Di Filippo’s trademark style and humor, this is YA worth reading as an adult.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review of Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett

As NASA’s Curiosity rover trundles about the surface of Mars today, another page turns on the glories of pulp science fiction.  Leigh Brackett’s vision of a land populated with humans and aliens, ancient cities and creatures, long-buried secrets and mysterious deserts fades a shade closer to pale as one desolate desert image after another is beamed back to Earth.  But there was a day when her works shone with the hope and possibility of life on the planets beyond Earth. Gollancz bringing together the best of these stories in one collection, Fantasy Masterwork’s Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is the imaginatively nostalgic look back to a time when the solar system held more possibilities.

The collection contains five novelettes, five novellas, one short story, and one novel.  Though organized chronologically by publishing date, little actually links the stories.  A few are set on Venus and a handful feature the character Eric John Stark, but the majority are the plights and travails, adventures and journeys of various men and women across the ancient Martian landscape.  All manner of the vividly fantastic and anachronistically technical emerging in their tales, the collection is by default science fantasy, but certainly the motifs and mindset of pulp fantasy fill the book’s cup.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Review of Miracle Visitors by Ian Watson

Abductions in the middle of lonely fields; crop circles; strange lights hovering in the sky and disappearing at impossible speeds; beings in society who look just like us but are not; strange, late night visitations.  What does it all mean?  Do people who claim such things need psychiatric help, or are they real experiences, real perceptions?  Is it something they are among the chosen few to be participant to, or is it mere hallucination?

    He raced his bicycle towards the rise.
    Resting among the gorse sat a wingless metal ellipsoid as large as a milk tanker. It no longer glowed, but seemed to be pulsing as if breathing: a metallic lung, emitting a bee-like hum.  As he watched, it steadied, firmed.  Light streamed from a porthole.

Such is the intro to Ian Watson’s 1987 Miracle Visitors.  A persistently evolving novel, what starts as an alien encounter develops into a story of consciousness, perception, and hints of the collective unconscious.  Arabic sufis, anti-gravity Ford Thunderbirds, and a little green man round out the genre contribution to what is a kaleidoscope story difficult to pin down—just like claims of alien encounters.

As a boy, Michael Peacocke had the above alien experience riding his bicycle home late one afternoon on an empty meadow road.  But he has no memory of it.  It’s when taking part in Prof. John Deacon’s hypnosis studies that the knowledge escapes.  Relaying the details of the encounter while in a trance, even stranger events conspire around Peacocke, little to his knowledge.  In faraway North Africa, an unearthly wiseman makes himself known to a local sufi—the wisdom of the ages spun perennially in the aftermath.  A young woman in the US sees a green goblin.  And a former Air Force pilot, now UFO hunter, sees things he’d never seen before.  But it’s when returning to the meadow road that Peacocke gets the (conscious) experience of his life.  Taken on a most amazing ride in a Ford Thunderbird souped up on alien matter reactors, he learns what’s happening behind the closed doors of the perceived reality.  Or does he?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Review of "A Year in the Linear City" by Paul Di Filippo

Of the striking elements of Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the greatest may be the setting.  Humanity confined to an infinite strip of land bounded by mountains on one side and a river on the other, they can go as long and as far as they want in either direction and never find a barrier.  Individual groups and societies lining the river, raw human nature pervades the story.  But what if they achieved civilization?  What if the strip became a single line of city buildings stretching from horizon to horizon?  Such is one premise of Paul Di Filippo’s delightful 2002 “A Year in the Linear City”.   It is, however, not the most striking element.

The novella opens on a roaring 50s’ quote from John Clellon Holmes.  Expressing a freedom, a joie de vie, an uninhibited exuberance in which new cultural niches were continually opening up, what follows is the dynamic story of Diego Patchen.  Part of a new wave of writers producing what is being called Cosmogonic Fiction (CF!), he’s had recent success with stories published in the increasingly popular Mirror Worlds magazine.  Writing not yet as profitable as he would have it, he and a disreputable yet amiable friend, Zohar Kush, occasionally participate in the illegal activity of scale-hunting (stealing scales from the massive reptile that resides in the under levels of the city) to make ends meet.  Though having a girlfriend of the voluptuous, kind variety, not all is sanguine in Patchen’s world.  His father a bilious man who lies abed day after day lamenting the death of his wife, Patchen likewise faces editorial censure and peer ridicule for his production of “counterfactual tales”.  But when a cultural embassy is planned, of which Patchen is on the list of delegates, things take a turn Uptown.