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.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review of The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

Paul Di Filippo may be speculative fiction’s best kept secret.  As imaginative as any reader could ever hope, erudite and inventive regarding the history of literature and the writers who populate it, sensitive to his texts’ political stance, boisterous wordsmith of the nth degree, and clever-clever in his plotting, it’s difficult to ask for more.  But perhaps Di Filippo’s greatest talent is awareness of the genre’s undercurrents before they hit the shore.  Though technically a second-wave creation, his 1995 collection The Steampunk Trilogy was nevertheless on the steampunk wagon 10-15 years before the massive third-wave explosion hit the mainstream.

Containing three novellas, The Steampunk Trilogy utilizes Di Filippo’s variegated talents to play with a few of the tropes and themes common to the sub-genre inherent to the title in original fashion.  Alternate history, a bit of clockwork gadgetry, 19th century America and Britain, colorful characters and dialogue, famed historical figures, and some bizarre uses for “biology.” But the underlying ideas (what often amounts to brazen challenges to many of the social and cultural mores of the era) feature most heavily.  Set off by Di Filippo’s raw aptitude for writing, the three novellas set the bar for second wave steampunk.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review of Accelerando by Charles Stross

I find no better analogy for the fiction of Charles Stross than the pop and fizz of a champagne bottle being opened. Bubbling with ideas, and expressing them in the most exuberant prose, reading a Stross novel can leave the reader reeling, at a loss to assimilate the myriad concepts thrown their way.  A few days needed to recover, Accelerando (2005) may just be Stross’ most exemplary novel.

Hailed by many at the time as the new generation’s Neuromancer, Accelerando plots the imaginary course of Vernor Vinge’s singularity from near-future cyberpunk to post-human existence among the stars.  While there are perhaps too many post-human/A.I. antecedents to make a valid argument, Accelerando pushes ahead.  The tech boom of 90s paving the way for a new perspective on technology and humanity, Stross fully futurizes the new possibilities for language, gadgets, and social paradigms to a point impossible in sf 50 years ago.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review of Picnic on Paradise by Joanna Russ

As everybody knows, the middle of the 20th century was a time of great social upheaval in the US.  As the Silver Age shed its glow, advances in civil rights, Vietnam war protest, flower power, and other counter-culture movements took center stage.  The old guard forced to take a stand, so too in science fiction were traditional ways challenged.  From narrative structure and style to race and gender assumptions, the genre expanded, using it’s own unique tools to express the zeitgeist.  Presenting the anti-Conan, Joanna Russ’ Picnic in Paradise (1968) is a part of that literary upheaval—not a key part, but certainly a contributor.

Hardened female soldier stuck in a semi-utopian civilization, Picnic in Paradise is the story of Alyx.  Displaced in time, she is pressed into acting as guide for a group of spoiled humans—all upgraded bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than herself—across uninhabited, scenic terrain.  Despite the commercial war going on in the background, Alyx expects the trip to be an easy one, and thinks they can make it in a matter of days.  Events quickly escalate, however, and what was supposed to be a week-and-a-half becomes weeks.  But the journey is not the only thing that stretches. Alyx’s personality caught in a variety of conflicts with her past and the vices of the travelers, she is forced to confront, and in some cases conquer, personal demons as their journey becomes ever more harrowing in the wild beyond.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Review of Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley Beaulieu

The following is less a review and more a response to Bradley Beaulieu’s 2015 Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

I recall encountering the term ‘churnalism’ in John Clute’s review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s novella “The Alchemist”on Strange Horizons.  I’ve not investigated the term further, but Clute’s typically abstract phrasing left me with an impression of its meaning: product pumped out of a manufacturing facility to keep the conveyor belt of mainstream fiction turning.  Within two chapters of Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai my mind immediately snapped to ‘churnalism.’

The novels opens with a bloody gladiator fight between a warrior woman and hulking male fighter (aka “feminism” in modern genre), and within a few paragraphs transitions to a graphic sex scene featuring said warrioress (including the words “spilled seed,” “manhood,” “gasp,” and other such refined expressions).  Pure advertizing, such an opening ‘hook’ screams: “If you want more of this, keep reading!!”  Obviously trying to capture a piece of the success of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones tv series and its similar dependence on unending sex and violence, Beaulieu’s novel, at least what I read beyond this point, is rife with sensationalism but little if nothing of deeper substance. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet opens with a shot of an ultra-typical, American suburban home.  Slowly zooming in on the lawn, the view descends through blades of grass to the swarm of insects in the earth beneath.  While Lynch used the symbolism to represent his opinion of what was happening behind the white-picket fence, 1.5 children veneer of suburban America, it’s also possible to transpose the symbolism into other areas, the human mind among them.  The veneer the late 60s and early 70s free love and groovy times, Robert Silverberg uses his 1971 The Book of Skulls to dig beneath its surface, particularly the era’s male youth to find what swarms beneath.  It isn’t pretty.

But the novel starts in thriller land.  Four will enter: one will commit suicide and another be murdered, and the last two will exit immortal.  Thankfully, The Book of Skulls is more than this cheesy idea would promise.  Hovering uncertainly between realist fiction and satire, the premise is engaged and resolved via character rather than plot or melodrama.  Rendered in smooth and subtly affective prose, Silverberg presents the machinations of four human minds in all their dirty detail while taking to task aspects of the (post?) flower-power mindset.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Awards Like Stars in the Sky: The Canopus

The past year has seen a Pluto flyby, a Mars landing, and an asteroid landing—all major, major successes for space exploration and events whose images are utterly fascinating for their reality and the mind boggling amount of calculation and preparation that went into getting each.  These missions remind us that, despite the immense technological deficiencies remaining, some small progress is being made toward humans beyond the moon.  These three successes apparently so poignant, a new science fiction award was created.  Just what the genre needed… 

Intending to spotlight works that have interstellar exploration and travel as their prime motif, The Canopus Award was inaugurated just this past week.  Such is the world we live in today.  Don’t like something?  Change it yourself!  With a little bit of money and a few people to help coordinate the necessities (locating pertinent texts, writing policies and procedures, creating online presence, etc.) one can, in this example, attempt to overcome the wrenches in the works (known as Barry Malzberg, cyberpunk, and space fantasy—sorry, Singularity texts) and get back to the good ol’ fashion idea of massive metal objects transporting humans through the great void at great speed by creating an award that brings awareness to such texts.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

From one (admittedly simple) perspective, art can be divided into two parts: the internalized (what is created or enjoyed for individual satisfaction) and the externalized (what is bought/sold, exhibited, studied, discussed, and passed on through time by society).  Both are highly dependent on the fact a means is available.  Without materials or access, an individual cannot create or partake in art, just as without sponsorship, research, knowledgeable persons, public venues, etc. art is not integrated into society at large.  Inject gender into these two halves of a whole and you’ve got the delicate, intelligent workings of Anne Charnock’s wonderful second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015, 47North).

On the surface, Sleeping Embers is the story of three iterations of young women.  Real-life daughter to the fifteenth century Italian master painter Paolo Uccello, young Antonia looks ahead to her adult life with trepidation.  Despite showing promising talent, painting is a limited option to females of the era.  A life in the cloisters of a nunnery or as a dowried wife to a nobleman are her only options.  Living in contemporary UK, Toni is a thirteen-year old girl on a trip with her father, a skilled copyist, to China for a proposed commission.  Her mother having died in a car accident a few months back, she and her father are trying to get their lives back together with just the two of them.  And in the early twenty-second century, Toniah is starting post-graduate work in art history at a university in London.  Middle daughter in a parthenogenetic (all-female) family, she attempts to apply her knowledge of quattrocento art in women’s restitution studies, but meets some resistance.  The discovery of a never before seen painting by one Antonia Uccello, however, changes her luck.