Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood catches a lot of flack from the genre community for a quote regarding science fiction—“that it’s just a bunch of squids in space” (I paraphrase). Mainstream genre fans taking it as a shot across the bow, they react in different ways, from pointing out she misunderstands the fundamental definition of ‘science fiction’ to outright insults and refusals to read her work. While Atwood does have her own definition of what science fiction is, there’s no denying her attempt to clarify what is significant literature in the genre (no matter your definition) and what isn’t—an attempt to keep the bar high, as it were. Her 2011 bric-a-brac collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination helps to explain why.

Opening with recollections of her childhood reading and creative writing experiments, moving through reviews of classic sf, and closing on a miscellany of short fiction, In Other Worlds is as much a response to people who accuse Atwood of misunderstanding science fiction as it is a memoir of one person’s experiences with the genre—as fuzzy as its definition may be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories by C.M. Kornbluth

Rampant commercialism, news rendered to entertainment, fiction without substance, corporate greed, social class issues—these are some of the problems being discussed in the 21st century. Not in fact new issues, it seems the technological advancements of 20th century spawned a variety of opportunities that allowed human vice to manifest. Thus, while not all contemporary fiction is empty (indeed, one can still find literature attempting to address said issues), one can go back and find them being discussed in genre more than half a century ago. The mode satirical, look no further than C.M. Kornbluth, his 1959 collection The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories the reference point.

The collection beginning innocently enough, the potter Efim Hawkings is rooting through fields behind his house when he comes across a body in a tank, suspended in animation. Apparently the result of a bizarre accident at the dentist many years prior, the man, John Barlow, is welcomed to the future, and immediately introduced to the problem of overpopulation. A highly simplified version of Brave New World with a strong satirical twist, it is one of Kornbluth’s most celebrated stories, but perhaps not his best. A story with a very similar twist of fate for its protagonist as “The Marching Morons”, “Dominoes” tells of a greedy stockbroker and the lengths he goes to stay one step ahead of the market. Getting involved with time travel, he goes two years into the future to learn what’s best to buy and sell. He does pay for his knowledge, however—but not in a way most readers could predict.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Most series, regardless of the number of volumes, run linearly. A single story stretched over numerous pages, the end of an individual volume is just a convenient waypoint to starting the next. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias/Orange County trilogy is so unique. Like an apple tossed in the sky and shot with arrows from different sides, he presents three futuristic perspectives to one region. The Wild Shore a post-apocalypse society re-building itself and The Gold Coast an autopia of hyper-commericalism, no one could predict what scene the third arrow through Robinson's SoCal apple, Pacific Edge (1990), would present, except that somehow SoCal would be involved.

Pacific Edge indeed portrays a near-future, Southern California scenario. Surprisingly utopian (not a utopia), however, it is one only slightly shifted from our own reality. That small shift the key, Robinson posits the dissolution of major corporations into small entities and the return of major resource management to government (water, electricity, fuel, etc.). That’s it. By dissolving the big, multi-national corporations, money and profits stay local, and by returning major resource control to government, less commercial and more humane decisions regarding usage and planning are made. It should be stressed that Robinson is not in the game of utopia building, rather in utopia striving. Openly stating utopia is an impossible ideal, he puts his money where his mouth is by imagining simple, possible changes, then exploring them fictionally to see what benefits might be derived in comparison to the present system.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a wonderful piece of journalism recounting the civil conflicts in Spain prior to WWII.  Detailing the plights of the communists, marxists, fascists, anarchists, nationalists, and the conservative and liberal sub-units each consist of, it provides a fascinating view into how complex political ideologies can be in practice.  The Spanish civil wars something little discussed globally in the years since, they have become almost a footnote to the world war erupting soon after. Another politically complex conflict nearly elided by time is the happenings in the Free State of Fiume in the years directly following the first world war.  Likewise a milieu of anarchists, liberals, fascists, etc., the small region was a hotbed of human political interest for a short period of time, and almost as a natural expansion, military tension.  The 1920s simultaneously blustering for the wonders of the future modernism seemed to promise, it was wild times in Europe.  Satirically glamorous, Bruce Sterling's Pirate Utopia (2016, Tachyon) captures a comically refined view of the proceedings as only Bruce Sterling can.

Pirate Utopia presents a view to the short history of the the Republic of Carnago (stand-in for the Free State of Fiume) through the kaleidoscope of Futurism—capital ‘F’.  The scene motivated by the horrors of WWI and the burgeoning achievements of science, it was a time people dreamed big politically.  Utopia a believable possibility, Carnago is Sterling’s staging ground.  Presented as something of a silent film, the story features intentionally madcap heroes and villains, generals and poets marching toward ‘utopia’.  Lips moving silently as dialogue appears, arms gesticulating overtly, and all moving at 1.5x normal speed—the blips and scratches of light are almost visible on the celluloid, even as subversive films like Buster Keaton’s The General motivate the politics sluicing beneath the surface.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of An Unreliable Guide to London ed. by Kit Caless & Gary Budden

There is a handful of world cities that even though a person may never have been, there are enough novels, news events, magazine articles, history texts, and various other forms of media available that a person feels like they know the place.  And London is for sure one.  Most everyone in the Western world knows Big Ben and Sherlock Holmes, red phone booths and the Queen, double-decker busses and the Thames, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace.  But what of the unknown streets of the vast city?  What of the neighborhoods and everyday places not seen in crime novels and fashion magazines?  And what of the little secrets, even if a step or two beyond reality, that linger in its nooks and crannies?  Featuring twenty-three stories, An Unreliable Guide to London (2016, Influx Press) gives a glimpse of such places, and is one of the surprise anthologies of 2016.

Divided into the compass points: west, north, south, and east, An Unreliable Guide is a bric-a-brac account of London’s locales and people rarely, if ever, seen in the news or fiction.  Generally written in quality prose, the stories cover material from local legends to quotidian street scenes, surreal wishes to existential quantity.  Most stories only a few pages in length, the overall result is a patchwork of architecture and style, culture and society that feels more like what London really is.  Or least I guess so; I’ve never been there.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review of Freeware by Rudy Rucker

If the release of the omnibus Live Robots is any indication, publishers thought that Rudy Rucker’s Ware series was at an end.  Software and Wetware capable of being seen as something resembling a closed loop, Rucker nevertheless returned nine years after Wetware to continue the story of the world turned upside down by wild technology.

Switching gears, Freeware (1998) breaks new ground in the Ware world.  Set many years after Wetware, the boppers have been destroyed by humanity, and a new form of sentience has appeared.  Something akin to algal-plastic beings, “moldies” live alongside standard humans, but not always in friendly or approved fashion.  A traditional religion based on Christianity called Heritagism rising to power, followers disapprove of human-moldie relations, and have even been known to burn the smelly beings in public.  But the real tension in the novel results from the development of a new form of imipolex—a substance key to moldie existence.  A complex, crystalline plastic, when a new form of the product slips onto the market, the world, and universe, really opens up.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The thimbleful of readers who frequent this remote corner of the web are aware that Speculiction is no friend to H.P. Lovecraft.  His political views (which in fact do not often appear in his fiction) are only one of the reasons however.  More off-putting are the man’s writing style and relative cheapness of ideas.  The irrelevance of humanity in the vastness of the universe is interesting subject matter, but when presented in the guise of cosmic horror (kettle drums roll…) is, well, cheap.  And the prose…  Thus, when hearing Kij Johnson was attempting a revisioning of Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, my ears perked.  Johnson’s versatile sense of style, not to mention ability to keep her stories human-centric despite the abstract nature of the imagination, seemed to promise an interesting riposte to Lovecraft’s lunge.  With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016,, I was right on one account…

Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” tells of Randolph Carter, an everyday man who wants something more.  Dreams give him distant views of the majestic city of Kadath, however, he is never allowed close enough to see its true splendor.  Frustrated, Carter calls upon the gods for assistance, but is likewise denied.  Taking matters into his own hands, Carter enters the Enchanted Forest to find the city.  Descending into a dreamland of surreal visions, he wanders among strange and bizarre things, and eventually finds Kadath, just not in the visage he imagined.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review of The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Picking up where The Fallen Blade left off, Act II of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy, The Outcast Blade (2012), is more of A Game of Thrones meets Twilight. Major characters falling, cabals for Marco’s throne revealing themselves, and more bits and pieces of Tycho’s backstory revealed, the stakes only get higher.

Following upon the battle for Cyprus at the end of The Fallen Blade, The Outcast Blade opens with Tycho’s return to Venice. Thrown under the bus by people he thought friends, what should have been a triumphant return as a hero quickly becomes a fight for his life. Not all is as it seems with Prince Alonzo, and only Tycho’s physical abilities allows him to live another day. But Tycho’s return likewise has an effect on his friends. Atilo’s relationship with Desdaio takes a new spin as Tycho begins spending more time with Venice’s most desirable bachelorette—a fact that others in power would seem to try to exploit. With the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund waiting on the wings with a mind to annex Venice, the city is a fire keg ready to explode.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of The Unexpected Dimension by Algis Budrys

In a broad sense, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs should be considered the foundation stones of contemporary science fiction: Burroughs writes the highly fantastical side and Wells the largely realist (or at least human-centric) side, while Verne represents a kind of middle ground, a fascination with the possibilities of technology and science as it plays against both sides. The fathers of space opera, soft science fiction, and hard sf, respectively, they have directly or indirectly influenced science fiction since. Squarely in the Wells’ camp, and thus the most likely to transcend his time yet be forgotten, was Algis Budrys. Largely overlooked when 50s’ sf is discussed, the descendants of Burroughs and Verne (e.g. Asimov, Heinlein, etc.) hog the spotlight all the while Budrys, along with a handful of other writers from his era, remain deserving of further discussion. Pulling together the best stories from the first eight years of his career, Budrys’ The Unexpected Dimension (1960) is as much representation of Wells’ legacy as it is engaging soft science fiction in its own right.

While reviewers today would be likely to call the story Dickian, “The End of Summer” was before Philip K. Dick’s time. About memory editing on an Earth where life has been extended near to indefinite, the novelette opens with a man returning to his US home after hector-years living in Europe. Having reviewed his memories of his previous time in the US on the flight over, he takes his time getting to his home, enjoying the long drive from the airport. But once at his old apartment and back in society, not all is calm and certain. Budrys’ sparse style suiting the story being told, he portrays the man, and the people around hinm, as more dependent on the memory vaults they carry than actual memory itself. Loss of the man’s memory vault a natural springboard into interesting story, what happens after examines—yes, like PKD—memory, perception, conspiracy theories, and the surreal, resulting in powerful, if not Brave New World-esque, ending. The title literal and figurative, “The Distant Sound of Engines” is another piece about memory. A short work, it tells of a driver who lost his legs in an accident and is now convalescing in a hospital room, listening to the sound of cars and trucks on the highway outside his window. About what the brain retains as long term and short term memory, Budrys writes subtly but powerfully.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology ed. by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

As editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel admit in the opening line of the introduction to their 2006 anthology Feeling Very Strange, the term ‘slipstream’ may be the most subjective in genre. Working with Bruce Sterling’s initial stab at a definition, as well as some of their own ideas, the pair do, however, come up with a comprehensible set of parameters that may corral the term into a semi-manageable space. Namely a literature of “cognitive dissonance and strangeness triumphant”, they equate the ability to understand two realities within a story to a post-modern cognizance of different levels or perspectives to reality. Selecting fifteen previously published stories they feel representative of the notion, regardless whether the reader agrees with the definition of ‘slipstream’ provided, the stories offered are quality reading material in their own right, even as much as they are dissonantly strange.

A strangeness not always readily accessible, the warning flag waved at the anthology’s opening ‘Beware! Not all is normal!’ is “Al” by Carol Emshwiller. On top of being a superb specimen of writing, it is likewise a James Hilton Lost Horizon conceit covering art, the motivation to create, and the humanity surrounding them both. Existing at the edge of complete comprehension, as perhaps do life and art, it’s a great note on which to open the anthology. Closing the anthology (and the only original story in the anthology) is M. Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here”. Shifting between fictional and non-fictional perspectives, and, as the title hints, often using the second-person, it’s an hourglass tale—the grains of sands shifting quickly and steadily, rearranging themselves indefinitely. While perhaps lacking the depth of Emshwiller’s story, Rickert readily portrays the subjectivity of existence with appropriate mode and mood.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I've sometimes wondered if Jon Courtenay Grimwood is an author perpetually one step ahead of his audience. I do not refer to trends or patterns in genre, as, on this front, he is most often behind the times. I refer instead to his sense of style—his mannerisms while writing. Smooth yet indirect, the reader must put a little effort into penetrating the surface—not a lot, but a little. They must have an active mind to keep pace, even as the story he's telling is familiar at heart. And we all know what happens when most readers are asked to invest a little effort in their reading material. They give up, meaning Grimwood has not enjoyed the same success as some of his peers, despite writing the more sophisticated versions of familiar material. But in writing the Assassini trilogy, which The Fallen Blade (2011) is the first act of, Grimwood seems to have accepted market demands. Settling into a far more accessible groove, the story of Venice prowled by the paranormal is one fat spoonful of genre fare.

The familiarity in content as much style, The Fallen Blade takes the mindset of A Game of Thrones and marries it to Twilight substance. Werewolves and assassins, dukes and demons, princes and army regiments vie for power and control of 13th century Venice—a time when the city held great commercial power in the Mediterranean. Nobles warring with poisons and assassins after dark and openly with soldiers in the daytime, the canal city glitters on the exterior but is stinking to the core on the inside, corruption and depravity rampant. A gifted boy falling into the hands of an evil man one evening, he is trained as an assassin, all the while he tries to discover his lost history and the secrets behind his strange powers. Anything becoming possible beneath the arches of Venice in the aftermath, crossbows and cabals collide to decide who holds power in one of the world's most opulently and beautiful cities.