Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is a renowned writer across many fields of literature.  From science fiction catastrophes like The Drowned World to the highly experimental, post-modern literary collage comprising The Atrocity Exhibition, the semi-autobiographical The Empire of the Sun to the controversial social commentary of Crash, urban dystopias like High-Rise to free-form representation of the art and ideology of William Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company—Ballard’s oeuvre covers a lot of ground.  All novels, seemingly only people in the know are aware of what a powerful short story writer Ballard was.  The transition to short form not something every great writer can do, Ballard made it look easy—the ideas and themes of his novels deftly rendered in a dense, paucity of pages.  His 1964 collection The Terminal Beach contains some of his best.

Opening the collection is one of Ballard’s most straight-forward pieces of fiction: “A Question of Re-entry” starts in Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness mode, but quickly gets conspiratorial, science fiction style.  A UN agent named Connelly hires a boat captain to pilot him deep into the jungles of South America and find a crashed space shuttle. Arriving at their first waypoint, Connelly meets a half-crazed foreigner who lords over the village and its native inhabitants.  Something inexplicable about the foreigner, Connelly’s search for the fallen craft ends up turning over more than he expected.  The story lacking a lot of the psychology and symbolism Ballard is known for, the stripped down piece nevertheless reads very Ballardian, even as it represents humanity’s penchant for megalomania and criticizes the US space program.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski

What to do with malevolent people? It is a question every society, no matter how big or small, must answer. Kill them? Incarcerate them? Let them go free? If incarcerated, in what conditions? Bare minimum? Luxurious? Average standard of living? What rights should they have? Education? Roof? Communication with the outside world? Time in nature? Three meals a day? Medical facilities? Daylight? And beyond, in the society they came from, does the threat of punishment in fact reduce malevolence? A short, bare-bones novel compared to the size of the subject matter just described, George Zebrowski’s 1998 Brute Orbits attempts to address these very questions.

It is undoubtedly the opinion of much of civilized society that the bad apples should be separated from the good. Taking this premise and running with it, Brute Orbits posits a near-future scenario where the world’s convicted criminals are packed aboard asteroids rigged up as living modules and sent hurtling into solar orbit. The groups segregated to some degree, one asteroid is home to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other violent criminals. Another is a mix of men and women convicted of white-collar crimes. And still another is teenagers and other delinquents who have broken the law in rash moments of youth. And there are other asteroids. The convicts told the length of their orbits before sent spinning into space, the isolation has a different effect on them all. But does it affect their humanity?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

‘Savory’ and ‘gritty’ are not two words that typically go hand in hand describing a novel.  One rich and full and the other edgy and rough, casting through my thoughts trying to quantify Angela Carter’s magnificent The Magic Toyshop (1967), I keep returning to the dichotomy, however.  A fleshed out experience with detail that brings the story to life, the novel nevertheless possesses an edge of quotidian realism that grounds it in something wiser, more fatalistic, and more human for it. 

Gorgeous prose telling a gorgeously dark story, The Magic Toyshop is a few months in the life of young Melanie.  Eldest daughter to an upper-middle class British family, she and her younger brother and sister enjoy the comforts of life, even as her parents are not often around.  At fifteen, her body, and her thoughts regarding her physical self, are changing.  But nothing changes her as much as a tragedy that strikes one day.  Forced to leave her home and live with an uncle, Melanie’s youth takes a drastic, unexpected left turn.  The uncle, named Philip, is a surly toymaker and runs a strict, depressing home.  Philip married to an energetic Irish woman named Margaret, however, Melanie finds solace in the new situation through her aunt’s kindness.  It remains uncertain, however what Margaret’s two brothers, Finn and Francis, have to offer.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review of The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

From setting to style, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds is one of those amazing novels that simply defies categorization.  ‘Comedy fantasy’ about the shortest one can describe it without descending into broader, vague descriptions, it is a wan term that doesn’t come close to clueing the reader in just how unique the novel is.  A success, Hughart looked to continue the story of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in 1988 with The Story of the Stone.  The humor returning in full form yet the story taken in a new, equally singular direction, the follow-up it is every bit the success of the original.

Set once again in a “China that never was”, The Story of the Stone, like Bridge of Birds, remains a wildly fantastical parallel to the Middle Kingdom.  The clever Master Li (the man with “a slight flaw to his character”) along with the young, strong Number Ten Ox are now a team, thus when a monk from a local monastery comes to the two’s home, telling of an inexplicable murder that occurred in the cloisters, the pair set out to investigate.  Discovering an apparently forged and therefore useless ancient manuscript beside the body, Master Li turns to rumors of the Laughing Prince having been at the scene.  The ghost of an evil prince who died centuries earlier, Master Li and Number Ten Ox dig into the Prince’s opulent tomb, only to have the intrigue heighten in what they find.  A trip to the capital required to answer further questions, the ethereal Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn join the team.   Master Li hot on the scent, he rides Number Ten’s shoulders, looking to get to the heart of it all: a mysterious grey stone. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P. Blaylock

James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives has quietly become of one the greatest fictional adventurers of all time.  Since 1978 his globe-trotting escapades featuring dirigibles and nefarious clockwork devices, time travel and giant kraken, space rockets and uncanny carp, have appeared in print in one form or another.  From short story to novel, fourteen different stories have appeared as of 2016, and likely more to come.  Subterranean bringing together the first set of adventures into an omnibus edition and adding a plethora of complementary artwork from J.K. Potter, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (2008) collects the stories that introduced the gentleman scientist and his trusty comrades to the fictional world.

Collecting two novels and four short stories, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives opens with the first-ever story published featuring Langdon St Ives.  “The Ape-Box Affair” (1978) has many of the trademarks of Golden Age fantastika yet bears a modern sensibility—an awareness of of what it’s doing.  An eccentric gentleman scientist, Langdon St. Ives, has built a rocket ship, and his test pilot is an orangutan named Newton.  Forgetting to fill the food box before lighting the fuse, however, has dire circumstances, as the ape, cheated of his vittles mid-flight, sets to pushing buttons, sending the ship careening back to London.  Emerging from the wreckage a smoldering, alien visage, London may never be the same as Newton wanders the city.  Quite simple a story that may define the word ‘uproarious’… 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review of The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

As of the beginning of the 21st century, it’s arguable whether or not Edgar Rice Burroughs predominantly influenced the American science fiction scene and H.G. Wells the British.  Cross-pollination of all styles and forebears the state of the current game, I would nevertheless point to the influx of sf fluff in the American market in the years following Burroughs’ success compared to the lack thereof in Britain as an indication, at least in the beginning, of such sway.  Simply put, as the early 20th century got on with itself, more considered, sophisticated sf material was coming from Old Albion.  Writers like Olaf Stapledon, C.S. Lewis, Naomi Mitchison, and others show clear influence of Wells.  As do later writers, including Brian Aldiss, D.G. Compton, Michael Coney, Ian Watson among them.  One other British writer influenced by Wells is Christopher Priest, and in 1976 he penned an open homage to the father of British sf called The Space Machine.

Young salesman Edward Turnbull has the meeting of a lifetime while on the road one day. Attempting to cash in on the trend for motor cars, he peddles goggles for the Sunday driver, and in doing so meets the lovely Miss Emily Fitzgibbons at an inn.  The young lady’s overseer ensuring the two spend as little time together as possible, a spark is nevertheless lit, and upon his return to London Edward receives an invitation to visit Emily at the estate of her uncle, a rich, eccentric inventor.  Over drinks, the young couple decide to test out his time machine to see a few years into the future.  The blind twist of a knob here and an accidental kick to an instrument there, and the two are winging their way through space and time to ends unknown.  Awaking in a strange place with red weeds and a strange, pallid coldness to the air, it takes the two some time to figure out where, in fact, those ends are.  It takes them even longer, a fact supported by the capture, enslavement, wars, and otherwise inadvertent detours the two are put through, to even consider getting back to turn of the 20th century England.  And when they do, well, it’s nothing like they left it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review of Lexicon by Max Barry

What are some standard tropes of fantasy? Wizards, incantations, duels of magic, schools for magic, numinous objects, farmboys with undiscovered powers, light romance, world traipsing adventures—they are on the list, right? And, what if we took this body of tropes and trotted them out dressed in the clothes of a 21st century conspiracy thriller? Why, we would have Max Barry’s 2013 Lexicon, wouldn’t we? Enough of the questions.

A secret organization known as the Poets scour the world’s cities looking for new members, all the while their Academy trains would-be members in the arts of personality recognition and neuro-lingual hacking. Yes, neuro-lingual hacking. By identifying a person’s personality type, poets are able to utter secret code words (handed down through generations, undoubtedly) matching said personality type to bring said person under their said control—a subservient automaton, as they say.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of Lord Kelvin's Machine by James Blaylock

Between the mid 70s and early 80s, James Blaylock occasionally played in a Victorian England sandbox of his own creation.  A short story here and short story there, the scientist cum adventurer Langdon St. Ives was having himself a variety of steampunk (before there was Steampunk) escapades around the globe.  The stories paving the way for a novel, Homunculus appeared in 1986.  A success, Blaylock looked to develop lengthier material in St. Ives’ world, and in 1992 extended the short story “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” into a novel of the same name.

A different approach to storytelling than Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine shifts away from the picaresque, and closer to the darker, more dramatic.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and other such stories of the late 19th and early 20th century whispering from the wings, Blaylock digs deeper into Langdon St. Ives’ head while expanding established material in highly adventurous, world-wheeling form.  From world destroying comets to time machines, volcano chases to doppelgangers, storytelling remains front and center even as mood darkens.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of Invisible Planets ed. by Ken Liu

Global diversity is a key term to discussing 21st century science fiction. From Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF series of anthologies to Afro SF, The Future is Japanese to Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, these and many other compilations of short science fiction from abroad, not to mention individual novels and short stories, have expanded English language readers’ perspective of what science fiction can be. Adding a strong voice to the contemporary field are Chinese writers. And a lot of the availability of Chinese sf in English is due to the work Ken Liu. In 2016 Macmillan-Tor/Forge compiled many of his translations into a single volume, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation the result.

Grouped by author, Invisible Planets contains thirteen short stories and three essays from Chinese writers, all originally published in Chinese and later translated by Ken Liu. Several of the stories already known to English language readers of short science fiction; Clarkesworld, Interzone, award nominations, and other venues are represented. Variety inherent to style and content, the stories run the gamut of cyberpunk to humanism, satirical to fantastical, soft to hard science fiction, which, aside the cultural aspect, is one of the main draws to the anthology.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye

The ‘brain in a vat’ scenario is a classic thought experiment rooted in inquiries into ontology, materialism, and epistemology. Positing the idea that it’s possible our brains are merely connected to neural stimulators which simulate reality, it asks: how can we know whether we exist in true reality or a simulated reality? While the Matrix trilogy of films is perhaps most famous for exploiting the idea in fictional form, brain-in-a-vat has been a part of science fiction for decades. Putting a dystopian, commercial spin on the concept is Daniel Galouye’s sound 1964 novel Simulacron-3*.

Researchers are hard at work developing a total environment reality simulator called Simulacron-3. Participation in marketing surveys mandatory for the populace, the simulator is intended to replace street corners pollsters who interrupt people’s daily commutes to gather information for companies seeking to better advertize and sell their products. Things take an unexpected turn when one of the simulator’s scientists, Douglas Hall, learns that the lead scientist Hannon Fuller has died under mysterious circumstances. Meeting with Fuller’s family to glean what he can from the dead man’s notes, Hall attempts to continue the research. Exasperating matters is that another scientist vanishes, seemingly into thin air. But when a man emerges from Simulacron-3 VR immersion claiming that Hall’s reality is also simulated, the rabbit hole truly opens, and there’s no looking back.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review of Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

The Lethal Weapon series of films in the 80s and 90s were quite popular. Epitomizing the action-comedy sub-genre, the series relied on the old-standby of a wise-cracking duo caught up in exciting chases and shootouts. While Lethal Weapon remains low-brow Hollywood fluff, the racial dynamics of the starring roles were far less common. Taking the cue from Riggs and Murtaugh, Joe R. Lansdale went about creating his own salt and pepper dynamic duo in 1990’s Savage Season, this time of the blue-collar Texan variety.

An average couple of Joes caught in a money grab gone wrong, Hap and Leonard exude every inch of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. A conscientious objecter during the Vietnam War, when Hap Collins is released from prison, he attempts to start over, and gets employment at a local rose farm in Texas. Meeting the surly Leonard Pine as a result, the two form a friendship based on common interests in martial arts, drinking beers, and taking the piss out of one another. Hap’s ex-wife coming back into his life unexpectedly one day, she brings in tow a get-rich-quick scheme. Hap enlisting the reluctant Leonard, the two join forces with the ex-wife and a pair of leftover hippy idealists, trying to find a cache of money supposedly lost by a group of bank robbers. It isn’t long before the tables start turning, and duo find themselves in over their head.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review of The Deathbird and Other Stories by Harlan Ellison

There are few writers in speculative fiction who have proven themselves as long-lasting as Harlan Ellison. An award nominated and winning career spanning five decades, the audiobook collection of his ‘best’ stories now stretches to four volumes. Voice from the Edge Volume 4: The Deathbird and Other Stories brings together the renowned stories from the latter phases of the author’s career. Unavoidable, Ellison’s unique narration stands front and center, and, as with the other three volumes in the Edge series, fully complements the original written material.

Autobiographical fantasy, the opening “story” in the collection, called “Ellison Wonderland”, likewise doubles as the collection’s introduction—or at least an imaginative glimpse into the mind (madness?) of a/the writer. Interesting enough (no coincidence intended), the story closing the collection, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”, also contains strong elements of autobiography. The story tells of a man who creates a 5-inch homunculus for his own pleasure, and the eventual public backlash (predominantly from conservative viewpoints) against the little guy. The tiny man purported to be a product of the devil rather than an individual right to create and own, Ellison, as he has done throughout his career, sets a major component of the establishment in his crosshairs to delightful, and dare I say upon the conclusion, sympathetic effect (*sniffle*).