Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, August 31, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of August 2015

#47: The Stars are Too High (1959) – Agnew H. Bahnson, Jr. (1/5)
This author only ever wrote one book, which is a good thing judging by the quality of this single piece of writing. It’s painfully dull, littered with unspirited motivations, rigidly assigned sex roles, and a stupid love story. The thick of it is: A post-war German scientist creates a functional gravity drive under the employ of John Sloan, a wealthy man in the aircraft business. John’s right-hand man is Jack Baker, his nephew, who he has raised as a son from a young age. The three decide to use their machine for peace, rather than war, so they concoct a scheme where they would seem like aliens delivering a message. They rope in Dr. Henry Alvin, high-level military brass, from the Pentagon to be their eyes and ears from within the government. Bent of delivering world peace on a full-time basis, Jack isn’t allowed to become involved with his lover interest, Sandy Carlson, in Cleveland. Jack must decide between love for mankind and love for Sandy… if they all don’t get caught first.

#48: Best Science Fiction of the Year 5 (1976) – Lester del Rey (4/5)
I’m a skeptical believer when it comes to award-winning novels, all-time favorite novels, and so-called best-of collections. I very rarely agree with any objective praise lavished on a story because, for me, the subjective appeal is much more important to me that any trophy. If a story hits a nerve in me to some degree, it appeals to me, which is why del Rey’s best-of collection here ranks among one of my favorites. Some are quirky and fun, making you smile; some are reflective and humanistic, making you think; the others are fine yet are pale in comparison as they don’t offer a smile or a thought. Among the best are Phyllis Eisenstein’s probing of the alien and human condition in the “Tree of Life” (1975) and Hayford Peirce’s utterly unique and detailed “High Yield Bondage” (1975)—the former to make you think, the latter to make you smile. (full review)

#49: The Quy Effect (1967) – Arthur Sellings (1/5)
Yet another case of new author/unknown book. This a gamble I’m willing to take, but it’s a result like this that I always fear. I had bought another book by the same author at a different time, so the name was familiar to me, but the contents of both were still a mystery. The pulpy synopsis of “Its implications were so revolutionary as to render all past scientific concepts obsolete” had me intrigued in juxtaposition with its publication date; surely, no inferior pulp such as this would have been produced by 1967! Lo and behold this dull and drawn out, hokey and amateurish, juvenile and brain-dead pulp for those of the same ilk (?). The geriatric yet mildly inventive Adolphe Quy creates a compound that blows the roof off of the company he worked for. With the accident, the company abruptly fires him and threatens him with lawsuits, yet the knavish old man always has tricks up his sleeve. Seeking sponsorship for his organic compound that deflects gravity, Quy stoops low to save the only thing that he has to live for—the one material that exhibits the Quy Effect… albeit on his own quid, another’s few thousand quid, or under the guise of a laboratory assistant. His own son despises him; his grandson admires him—both perspectives warped by the metamorphic façade of Adolphe Quy.

#50: A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965) – John Christopher (5/5)
It’s unfortunate that I own the 1978 Sphere edition of A Wrinkle in the Skin, the cover of which screams at the reader like a cheap disaster novel. The 1970s were an era of the disaster film, among the generically titled: Earthquake (1974) and Tidal Wave (1975). There were also novels—i.e. Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977)—but most were pinned on depicting the disaster and not the people. Pawing A Wrinkle in the Skin off as a cheap “global disaster” novel is cheap gimmick to sell books—shame on Sphere for digging low. Christopher’s novel is far above the dregs of other disaster films or novels because it captures the spectrum of coping mechanisms in the face of disaster, the malleability of the mind under extreme conditions, and the bleakness/hopelessness of the scene. A series of global earthquakes eventually reaches England and the Channel Islands, one of which is inhabited by temperate tomato farmer Matthew. After saving a boy from the rubble of his family’s home, the two set out across the denuded seabed to find Matthew’s daughter, barring anarchy, despotism, hermits, and the up-thrusting of the earth beneath their feet.

#51: The Tides of Time (1983) – John Brunner (3/5)
I’ve read twenty-nine pieces of Brunner’s work, from popular novels to one-offs, from extra long novels to his one-page poetry, and from his serious work to his humorous work—I’ve covered the Brunner spectrum. Sometimes it’s great (The World Swappers) and sometimes it sucks (“No Other God But Me”). I had read that The Tides of Time was one of Brunner’s more experimental works, so having read so much of his work, I was eager to tackle it. Most of the novel is a series of connected vignettes revolving around the two man characters: Gene and Stacy. The start of the novel doesn’t make clear why the duo is reclusive; they rid their automated boat of tracking devices and set upon a Mediterranean island beach, where they sleep. After each period of sleep, they awake in a previous era, which keep regressing as far as the Crusades and the rule of the Roman Empire. The recurring themes and highlighted relics in each story are tantalizing… but Brunner blows is all with the grandiose pseudo-scientific conclusion where the protagonist—Gene—spouts his theory to scientists who linger upon his every word like the gospel. It could have been so good if it had been open-ended.

#52: Intermind (1967) – Arthur Sellings (3/5)
I only had two of Sellings novels on my shelves last month, yet this month I drew both in near succession (it’s impossible for me to choose which book to read next, so I have to randomize the decision-making—don’t ask). Sellings’ novel The Quy Effect (1967) was a gag-inducing read. Reading the synopsis for Intermind, it sounded like a much more sophisticated novel—strange considering that both novels were published in the same year. The novel is framed as science fiction—it almost opens with scientific non-sense: a transfer of cerebrospinal fluid gives the recipient the vague recollection of the donor. The meat of the novel, however, is a calm spy mystery situated in Turkey (pun unintended). It reads like a semi-autobiographical tour of the sights and sounds of Istanbul, but it matches well with the mystery—why had the previous agent been there and where will it all lead? Ryder is the spy and his main weakness is alcohol, which actually benefits his recollection from the cerebrospinal fluid of the dead spy (eww, right?). In the end, as mentioned above, it returns to scientific non-sense that doesn’t tie in well at all with the rest of the novel; it even loses focus on the memories of the dead spy—that just tapers off, like the rest of the novel.

#53: ICO: Castle in the Mist (2008/2011) – Miyuki Miyabe (2/5)
I don’t read fantasy. There are very few exceptions, like when the crossover with science fiction is subtle. I’m not at all into swords and sorcery, dragons and demons, elves and arrows, or kingdoms and castles—my tolerance for any of that is really low. With Ico, I made an exception for two reasons: 1) I loved the PlayStation game of the same title back in 2001 and 2) it’s a Japanese translation—quirky combination. Ico isn’t a Tolkien fantasy so dragons, elves, and dwarves are absent, but there still remain magic, swords, spells, a castle and its queen, and a warrior from a far away land. A boy born with horns is sent to a castle as a sacrifice, a generational offering that appeases whatever holds a spell over the land. An outcast from his village, he is taken to the castle where he’s placed in a sarcophagus, but it immediately breaks because of the Mark he wears that wards off evil. In the castle, he finds a desultory girl, whom he decides to rescue from her cage and the prison as her castle. The castle is old, the castle is haunted, and the boy—Ico—is caught between forces her doesn’t yet understand; he only knows his destiny. (full review)

#54: The Unreal People (1973) – Martin Siegel (3/5)
I read this book just three years ago and, just before picking it up again for a reading project, I could barely remember the plot… and it didn’t help that I also was also confusing it with Guy Snyder’s Testament XXI (1973). With a faulty memory, I plunged ahead looking for that gratification that I had had before (I gave it four stars in 2012). Though there’s a decent thematic echoing toward the conclusion, I never found that spark again. The underground city has been in a state of decay for generation after the war, the plague, and the voluntary submersion to the depths of the earth. The population stagnating, the genetic pool regressing, the food quality deteriorating, and the general state of living plummeting, recent talk has been made to move the entire population to the surface. Rumor is that the First Guide won’t welcome that option, so a senior Nark Skwad member—Conrad—has the know-how and know-who to cull off an assassination and coup, but only if he can wean himself off his loyalty drug addiction. Meanwhile, different facets of the subterranean community gleam in the grim of their everyday lives. (original review)

#55: A Maze of Stars (1991) – John Brunner (4/5)
Prior to traveling, the last thing to always be packed is the books I’m going to read on the trip… near panic-mode. Do I read something new that I may not like? Or do I read something old yet relevant? Or do I pick up one of my favorite authors? I chose Brunner’s A Maze of Stars for my Tokyo flight and trip because he’s an author I like and I thought the story matched well with my trip. The Ship had seeded the local arm of the galaxy, with its 600-some inhabitable or semi-inhabitable planets, about 500 years ago. The spores drifting in space help humans, who have been colonizing the planets, evolve faster in order to adapt to the local situation. After its massive bulk had dropped off all the colonists, it was programmed to return to each world and assess their progress, yet not to intervene. The Ship, however, finds a loophole where it was pick up passengers who are surely to die, which gives Ship some much needed companionship and understanding of the states of what it means to be human, regardless of culture.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

2015 (Aug): Dispatches from the Future (Popular Science)

A modern curiosity of futuristic flash fiction (4/5)

After reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora (2015) this month, I was interested in what else I hadn’t read from the author. I had read his Mars trilogy+one (1992-1999), two-thirds of his Orange Country trilogy (1984-1990), and three of his other novels, but his collection Remaking History (1991) has always stood out to me, though I’ve never been able to procure it. While reading his bibliography on ISFDB, I saw that he had published a short story in Popular Science in the same month. Intrigued, I tracked down a copy and had a pleasant surprise.

The August 2015 edition of Popular Science highlights ten “dispatches from the future” that “imagine how we live—on Earth and beyond—in the decades and centuries to come”. Flipping to the pages where the stories were located, I was again pleasantly surprised to see flash fiction (stories with less than 1,000 words)! It’s very, very rare to come across quality stories of very short nature (Asimov and Conklin’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales [1963] comes to mind), so I knew that I must put some effort into reviewing the stories within.

It’s unusual for me to review stories from a magazine, but my track record shows that I’m a fan of reviewing short fiction. I’m no newbie to the science fiction scene either; I’ve been reading SF for eight solid years (about 75 books per year on average) yet I have only ever read Kim Stanley Robinson from this 10-story collection. My initial curiosity was piqued… but having seen the bibliographies of many of the other writers, I’m not so much interested anymore.

Interesting to note: This 10-story collection is comprised of six female authors and four male authors; this reflects the recent trend to highlight female authors in a genre where males typically over-represent.

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Transplant (shortstory, 2015) – Will McIntosh (4/5)
The victim of some bodily degradation, a man is given a choice: receive a transplant or receive death. Wisely, the man accepts the transplant and the rehab that ensues as she has to relearn simple tasks again. The medical success is widely heralded, yet society doesn’t fully accept the medical feat that has allowed the man to walk again, to live again. As he exits the clinic, he’s met with mob disapproval, but also a woman—someone who sees him for who he isn’t.

Sunshine Ninety-Nine (shortstory, 2015) – N. K. Jemisin (4/5)
Homes of the future are just as “affordable” as they are now with convenient payment plans. At the Casbah Village, homes can be financed for just $500 per month yet a list of stipulations may deter some buys, or may simply be common fine-print for homes with such features as cloud-backed security, free suspended animation, and charging foe electric cars. The 99-year contract can’t undo melting icecaps or memory-directed adware, though.

The Wanderer (shortstory, 2015) – Karen Lord (3/5)
Nowadays, we disrobe and shower before bed, but in the future, an additional measure of mental comfort may need to be taken. One woman strips herself of any electronic tags or devices so that she can be free to roam in her sleep as a nightwalker. A jogger discovers her body and, because of the absence electronic tags, believes her to be dead… until she opens her eyes with a smile and a wish.

The Improbable War (shortstory, 2015) – Kameron Hurley (4/5)
A single tank approaches a battlefield against an opposing army of 40 million, yet the tank—a massive mobile wall—doesn’t feign from the fight with its 4 million soldiers atop. The wall is driven by the countless souls of fallen soldiers who not only drive the wall, but also the society toward higher, nobler goals; regardless, it heads to war knowing, as a result, that the destined outcome is better for all, deaths and all.

Hearts That Beat, Mechanical and Cold (shortstory, 2015) – Seanan McGuire (4/5)
Unluckiness strikes a newborn baby as she’s born with a genetic flaw that seemingly melts her own proteins from within her body. Fortunately for her until she’s 18, her family’s insurance can assure continual organ renewal while in her incubated, isolated world where she has limited exposure to the world. Though she analyzes spreadsheets, her main contact is with the computer that monitors her and keeps her alive, which has also just proposed to her.

The Drones (shortstory, 2015) – James S. A. Corey (3/5)
The ingenuity of mankind has taken their science to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where squid-like and beetle-like robots harvest solar energy for their respective geological missions. Nevertheless, Mars was also colonized by the micro-sized workers of transformation in order to make way for human explorers. After their work was complete, Samuel Ko stepped foot on Martian soil to claim it for humanity.

Superluminal (shortstory, 2015) – Andy Weir (3/5)
Initial tests of the superluminal speed drive proved unsuccessful in the first 216 settings. Far away in the year 2438, the 217th setting proves a great success with the crewed craft having traveled over 260 miles in less than a second. The jubilant crew contact Earth yet are a bit perplexed by the errors in their navigation, where it misaligns the planets and renders them a tad lost; regardless, they head for home. Little do they realize that their radioed message had been misdirected.

<3/</3 (shortstory, 2015) – Genevieve Valentine (3/5)
Celebrities’ lives are beyond the reach and understanding of the lowly commoners. Regardless of the lifestyle gap between superhuman and all-too-human, there are legions of “truefans” who defend their “fave” to all extremes, yet there are also haters against each and every celebrity. Remote and enthralled with their fave, they prefer their faceless dedication and wholehearted reverence… until their fave shows a vulnerable, human side.

Grinding Time (shortstory, 2015) – Mary Robinette Kowal (4/5)
As our society becomes more and more advanced in regard to technology, there is a growing backlash toward the complexity of daily life, daily routines, and daily habits. As shoes became fancier, running became a minimalist barefoot affair; as sources of food became blurred, homegrown cuisine became the fad. However, the human train of obsession is still healthy, even as the two merge in the future: mortar grinding for health—for cuisine and exercise.

Exploring Location X (shortstory, 2015) – Kim Stanley Robinson (4/5)
Familiarity breeds contempt when of proximity and loathing is a fellow human, but our everyday surroundings can cause us to experience the pang of routine, the bitter taste of commonplace. In a backlash to the mundane and the predictable, a group of people are taken back to nature in order to experience their own nature—dropped off in the mountains with a week’s supply of food, they’re exposed to mother nature’s elements.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

1976: Best Science Fiction of the Year 5 (del Rey, Lester)

Some smiles, some thoughts, some originality (4/5)

I’m a skeptical believer when it comes to award-winning novels, all-time favorite novels, and so-called best-of collections. I very rarely agree with any objective praise lavished on a story because, for me, the subjective appeal is much more important to me that any trophy. If a story hits a nerve in me to some degree, it appeals to me, which is why del Rey’s best-of collection here ranks among one of my favorites. Some are quirky and fun, making you smile; some are reflective and humanistic, making you think; the others are fine yet are pale in comparison as they don’t offer a smile or a thought. Among the best are Phyllis Eisenstein’s probing of the alien and human condition in the “Tree of Life” (1975) and Hayford Peirce’s utterly unique and detailed “High Yield Bondage” (1975)—the former to make you think, the latter to make you smile.

Prior to reading this anthology, I had never heard of Hayford Peirce. But his two inclusions to this collection are quirky and fun. He’s an author whose work I’ll have to track down.

The Bitter Bread (novelette, 1975) – Poul Anderson (3/5)
On a rotating observation of a star ready to go nova, the ship Uriel and its crew of seven men stray too close. The unexpected result of the tugs of gravity and its passing of warped time and space is their state without inertia. Immediately, a mission to re-supply the ship is gathered, and the wife of one member bribes her way onto the roster of the usually male-exclusive space mission. She’s prohibited from touching her husband so as not to mix states, but destruction might be a kinder fate. 29 pages

Mail Supremacy (shortstory, 1975) – Hayford Peirce (4/5)
Chap Foey Rider recalls the days of express mail service, twice per days mail services, and ever prompt deliveries. At his main offices in New York, Chap receives an in-own letter within eight days yet a letter from Tahiti in only three days. As a test, he has his office in Bangkok send a letter to Lima 12,244 miles away—it arrives in one day. His curiosity piqued, Chap addressed and mails a letter to the Supreme Galactic Council regarding its General Post Office. He doesn’t know it yet, but 1984 is the start of something big. 4 pages

Child of All Ages (shortstory, 1975) – P J. Plauger (4/5)
Fourteen-year-old Melissa is a precocious child correcting her history teacher about the labor conditions during the industrial revolution. While the teacher said the child labor was disgraceful, Melissa argued that it was better than farm work, which was why she too worked in the factories centuries ago. Wanting to change foster homes, she admits to the social worker that she’s in fact 2,400 years old, her long life a gift from her ancient wizard father. Continually and purposefully still in pre-pubescence, adulthood has no draw for her. 20 pages

Tree of Life (shortstory, 1975) – Phyllis Eisenstein (5/5)
A parasitic alien crash lands on Earth. As its host dies, the parasite transfers itself to the nearest life form—a lone berry tree. Limited to the tree’s own senses, it can still sense the man whose land hosts the tree. Dismayed and angered with the inconveniences of the tree, the man cuts it down, cuts it into timber, and paints the imperishable stump blue. Yet, the tree doesn’t die, so the parasite can’t transfer. It waits for a time to become the dominant species of the planet—man. 8 pages

Helbent Four (novelette, 1975) – Stephen Robinett (4/5)
The lone survivor of the epic 2.478 nanosecond battle with the Spacethings, Helbent Four returns to Earth to gloriously proclaim the end of the human war against the aggressive aliens. In orbit, he’s met by no welcoming party, only a radio signal which interrogates him. NASA has no idea who Helbent is not who the Spacethings are; it’s then that Helbent realizes that he is three hundred years in Earth’s past, he the victim of the warpstorm. Thence, he spills forth his incredible story, awaiting a reply yet when his are answers are unwelcome, Helbent eyes sacrifice. 20 pages

Pop Goes the Weasel (shortstory, 1975) – Robert Hoskins (3/5)
After the Apocalypse, in which nearly everyone died of disease, only a few remain isolated from each other. Willie is one of them, having been raised by robots for most of this life while living in a mountainside bunker. Lacking human contact, aside from video calls from the blonde Margaret and the elderly Ernst, he lives a childish life of fantasy, whim, and pouts. One day, when Ernst announces he’s dying and his well-maintained abode falters, Willie feels the draw of living out his fantasy, but first he must escape his only home. 17 pages

The Book Learners (shortstory, 1975) – Liz Hufford (4/5)
The aliens on the planet Imitia were taken by storm when they first read the Bible of a crashed cosmonaut. Struck by the sheer originality of it, the entire planet became Christian and those who considered themselves Christ had themselves sacrificed on the cross—hundreds of them. Earth hears of this and sees an opportunity. The first two missionaries there are amazed to find the planet much like Jesus’ time—whales and all. The aliens being prone to new ideas and rules, a second book is sent to establish them as a base for manufacturing. 11 pages

High Yield Bondage (novelette, 1975) – Hayford Peirce (4/5)
Over 17,000 light-years from its home system, Huntleader Riderson and his ship plummet to the Earth but check their trajectory and settle in the unoccupied central desert of Texas. Unable to quickly contact home or repair the ship, the ship, itself, begins a decadal project in which Huntleader will take the form of a human, manage a supermarket, and launder money in order to secure enough finances for the next step of the project—nothing short of mutually beneficial world domination. 30 pages

Senior Citizen (shortstory, 1975) – Clifford D. Simak (3/5)
Orbiting Earth in his isolated satellite, Mr. Lee awakens every morning to the pleasant voice of the satellite’s robotic voice. His breakfast is made, he tasks are listed, and his garments are readied, yet Mr. Lee is as stubborn as an old man comes. Having his every care catered to, the geriatric man scorns things he once loved—scrambled eggs and painting—simply for a plain view of the stars, albeit sitting and feeling defeated. He misses his wife, who he spookily sees in all aspects of his hermetic life. 5 pages

The Peddler’s Apprentice (novelette, 1975) – Joan D. Vinge & Vernor Vinge (3/5)

Wim Buckrey and his small-time band of louts eye the recent arrival of a merchant gypsy. For lack of trade in the poor village, the gypsy-cum-magician named Jagit decides to travel through Darkwood Corner and Witch Hollow with Buckry’s band acting as so-called protectors, when they really just want to thieve him. When Buckry’s men are killed in an attack, he bonds with Jagit and, as they enter their destined city of Fyffe, Buckry learns an astonishing secret behind the magician and his own world. 44 pages

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of July 2015

#40: The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8 (1979) – Terry Carr (editor) (3/5)
Carr’s collection here from stories published during 1978 seems to be as diverse as possible, as wide-ranging as possible rather than as good as possible. Of the twelve stories, only Vinge, Watson, and Disch come out with successful stories that intrigue the mind… the other nine stories don’t have any message, merit, or meat. The top two were Ian Watson’s “The Very Slow Time Machine”, which really twisted the mind of the reader, and Thomas R. Disch’s “The Man Who Had No Idea”, which is an extension on the abuse of freedom of speech and the fact that most people actually have very little to say… yet this story speaks volumes. (full review)

#41: Mother Night (1962) – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (4/5)
This novel isn’t exactly science fiction, but since the author is well-known to the SF world, I thought I’d include it here. Howard Campbell, Jr. is the only person—aside from the man who recruited him—who knows he’s a spy for the American government while working as a broadcaster and a one-man propaganda machine for the Nazi regime. After the war ends, he tries to return to America to live the simple life, only to be confronted with his past and to accept his future as a much hated war criminal. The premise sound serious, but the follow-through is a multi-facets gem of humor, absurdity, authentic emotion, paranoia, perseverance in the face of death, and a glimmer of the human spirit. It had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, yet it was an altogether clever book about WWII and the turbulent politics and witch-hunts that followed.

#42: Slow Bullets (2015) – Alastair Reynolds (4/5)
Though just a novella, this is a warm welcome back to Reynolds’ space opera writing, which I haven’t picked up since reading Blue Remembered Earth (2012). It’s an open-ended mystery of a few plot strands, leaving it to the reader to infer various conclusions from hints, context, themes, and subtlety. The overarching theme of the novella is one of memory: the importance of one’s own, the desire to record it, the tangibility of its duration, the frailness of its accuracy, and the willingness to forget it if need be. An honest soldier recently tortured by her captors has woken up aboard a prison ship, which seems to be in a state of disrepair and failure. One of the crew, who has also just awoken from hibernation, informs her of the ship’s nature: on route to an industrialized planet so that all the war criminals aboard can be tried. Among the criminals, she spied her torturer and, thus, brings the chaos of everyone’s awakening into order so that she can find him. Outside the ship, the planet below looks like the right destination, but its civilizations seems to have disappeared… only then do some truths rear up while some mysteries spring forth. (full review)

#43: Eifelheim (2006) – Michael Flynn (3/5)
If Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade (1960) were a whim, Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim would be in indulgence. Both novels are first contact stories that take place in medieval Europe and both were nominated for a Hugo award. Just because you like one story about aliens coming to Earth and meeting the backward humans doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy all stories of similar cut. As mentioned, where Anderson’s novel was fun and playful according to the author’s delight, Flynn’s novel is bogged down in detail according to his own research. By detailed, I mean he simply must give an archaic name for everything the characters interact with. Then there’s one researcher (of similar ilk to Flynn himself?) who speaks in occasional foreign phrases. It’s all terribly indulgent—to a fault—but the message and human story is the reward… which doesn’t save it from the to-donate pile.

#44: Speculative Japan 2 (2011) – Yasumi Kobayashi & Issui Ogawa (editors) (5/5)
The first Speculative Japan (2007) collection from Kurodahan Press was an exhibition of classic Japanese short stories, many of which made my mind race with analysis and excitement. When picking up the second collection, I held the book with borderline reverence. This collection isn’t as hard hitting in the mind or gut as the first, but it does cast a wide upon the sampling of speculative fiction from Japan. In the first collection, I love-love-loved the stories that had an obvious or subtle salaryman theme, perhaps this is the reason why I didn’t favor the second collection so much (for that type of story, see Yasutaka Tsutsui’s collection Salmonella Men [2006]). The best stories of the lot—Issui Ogawa’s “Old Vohl’s Planet” (2003/2007), Shinji Kajio’s “Emanon: A Reminiscence” (1979/2007), and Yasumi Kobayashi’s “The Man Who Watched the Sea” (2002/2007)—are all thematically a mind-twist while also being immersed in a richness that’s ripe for anaylsis.

#45: Stress Pattern (1974) – Neal Barrett, Jr. (3/5)
Random author, random novel, so it’s a gamble when reading. Add to this the fact that it’s a DAW book, and that gamble continues. I’ve got about thirteen DAW books already read on my shelves (mostly Brunner); sadly, Barrett’s novel Stress Pattern won’t be part of that collection. Aside from being embarrassed in public with the cover’s huge black phallus, most of the book is pretty good. An economist is stranded on a planet and he thinks he must use his wits to survive. In reality, he needs to stop thinking and start following. The denizens of the planet are lethargic, uncommunicative, and illogical, according to Andrew Gavin, the logical economist. Each planetary scenario leaves him riled with anger or confusion—usually both. Eventually, he discovers that he has borne a daughter of questionable origin and form, which is only the beginning of his ponderous existence on the planet. It gets great marks for its off-the-cuff humor, but the entire novel is meandering and loses itself in the conclusion, which may or may not conclude that the whole thing had been just a dream.

#46: Aurora (2015) – Kim Stanley Robinson (5/5)
I’ve read Robinson’s Mars trilogy-plus-one (1992-1999), the Orange County trilogy (1984-1990), his novella “A Short, Sharp Shock” (1990), and three stand-along novels: Icehenge (1984), The Years and Rice and Salt (2002), and 2312 (2012). Look again at that list and you’ll see an author with a bountiful imagination set on Earth, Mars, in Sol’s system, and far beyond as well as the past and the future; nothing binds his sense of imagination. With Aurora, Robinson tackles the ever-enticing scenario of a generation-ship; granted, this is an epic setting to write about, but this is merely a frame from an even larger concentration. After six generations, a starship laden with ecological niches and its host of 1,000-some humans approaches Tau Ceti, it’s fifth planet, and that planet’s moon—Aurora. When the moon proves to be poisonous to humans, the division it causes almost splits the ship in two, until the ship itself intervenes. Many parts of the novel are steeped in experiencing their hardships, their decisions, and their consequences, but the vehicle for most of the narration is unique—through the eyes of the ship as it learns the techniques of narration and importance of the human experience… therein lays the message: If artificial intelligence differs from human intelligence, is it intelligent by the standards we had defined? If it indicates untrue, the error may lay in the framing.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015: Slow Bullets (Reynolds, Alastair)

A cause greater than revenge, love, or recollection (4/5)

I’ve been a big fan of Alastair Reynolds ever since 2007 when I spent twenty days reading through the entire Revelation Space trilogy: Revelation Space (2000), Redemption Ark (2002), and Absolution Gap (2003). Since then, I’ve read nearly everything the man has written, minus the Dr. Who novel and the sequels to Blue Remembered Earth (2012), which is also the last novel of his I’ve read. I was certainly eager to return to the mind of Reynolds, ripe with noir space horror.

Though much of Reynolds’ work is rather lengthy, Slow Bullets is a slim volume on par with a novella (a little less than 40,000 words). Its compact size doesn’t leave out any of the expectations associated with Reynolds’ work—a combination a distant future humanity, a large-scale war, the gritty reality of the grassroots, and greater mysteries of Man.

Typically, when I read a book’s synopsis that contains the words “vast conflict” or “conscripted soldier”, I immediately place the book back on the shelf; I’m not at all into novels glorifying soldiers or war (though some novels redeem themselves in one way or another). Thankfully, Slow Bullets doesn’t focus on the command structure of the military or the tactics of the battlefield; rather, the focal point of the story is on one solider, a woman named Scur, and her self-imposed parallel responsibilities of revenge upon her torturer and keeping peace and order.

A vast conflict, as stated above, between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems had been drawn out yet comes to a near-end with the recently agreed upon ceasefire. News of the ceasefire, like their trans-dimensional skipships, takes time to cross space, which is unfortunate for Scur because she has just crossed paths with the notorious Orvin. His reputation is so bad, in fact, that both sides of the war would like to see him one. For scur, physical pain from her torturer is only the beginning of a pain that will stretch into her future and Man’s future.

All soldiers have slow bullets buried within them, a capsule safely embedded in their chests that hold data about their respective history, career, and family. These slow bullets burrow through skin, painfully, only to stop once it reaches its destination in the chest. It’s a necessary pain with anesthesia, but what Orvin has in store for Scur is an unnecessary evil: an un-anesthetized slow bullet shot burrowing, grinding, shredding through her thigh on its way to penetrate her heart. Her torture begun, the pain reels through her but her captors’ intentions are cut short when they flee from an oncoming raid, leaving her with the excruciating pain and certain death. Her one recourse: cut through her own flesh to dig out the slow bullet.

And so, the novella is off to a start like the draw of a whip; the snap of which comes when Scur awakens from hibo sleep in her capsule with no memory of having come aboard any ship. Much like on the battlefield, Scur adapts to the unfamiliar situation by assuming her role as scout, voracious for information. Her first opportunity comes in the shape of Prad, a man being chased through the corridors of the same ship. She comes to learn that she is a prisoner, a war criminal, on route to Tottori for a tribunal on her crimes, of which she is aware.

Prad is one of the members of staff on the prisoner ship Caprice, a massive ship converted from a luxury liner touring the stars. He savvy with the technology of the ship, all of which seem to be on the fritz. Together, they witness through the ship’s camera other prisoners waking up and fighting among themselves. Seeing the violence as senseless, Prad assists Scur in announcing that everyone should segregate themselves by their affiliation, one torus for each affiliation: Central Worlds’ soldier, Peripheral Systems’ soldiers, and civilians. She also organizes a council with representatives from each, thereby forming a Trinity with Scur as the temporary dictator; her first order of business: find and kill Orvin, the man who left her in pain and for dead.

Within Caprice, tempers are dampened by a shared dilemma: Why hasn’t anyone rescued them yet? Outside Caprice, a planet that resembles Tottori seems aged, rugged, and colder than it should be… and where are the industrial sectors of the great planet? Without the ubiquitous NavNet to suggest their location, without any timing device to suggest how much time has passed, without a shred of datum as to what has happened, the unwilling residents-cum-prisoners hold on to the threads of their tripartite union by their joint endeavors alone. While they look for Orvin, they also search for an additional passenger, an interloper from a docked spacecraft—merely a cramped, one-person capsule.

This plot builds steadily with Reynolds taking great care in applying his skill at pacing; variables in the story surmount while one truth after another are unknotted from the tangle… the when, where, and the why stagger the minds of Scur, the Trinity, and the captives—of time and space—within the Caprice. Once their joint projects conclude, tensions once again arise with the memory that differences ought to split and the differences ought to remain. Tentatively peaceful, the Trinity mulls solutions; Scur mulls over possible recourse for her own prisoner; and the Caprice mulls over its continual and progressive loss of data.

However, not all the dealt cards that lay facedown are reveled toward the end. Though only 190 pages, a great amount of detail is infused in Reynolds’ world-building. It isn’t unnecessarily over-detailed, nor are crucial factors in the frisson glazed over. One point of difference between the Central Worlds and Peripheral Systems is their belief in The Book, a semi-religious or cultural text that differs between the two sides; each has their own Book, each has their own allegiance. Atop this split in culture that divides the people aboard the Caprice, Scur straddles her own two-sided gulf between who she is and who she should be; this gorge of responsibility and identity deepens as she learns more of their shared plight.

Eventually, the “slow bullets” come back into play. Scur’s own military slow bullet holds pictures of her mother and father, so it symbolizes her connection with her past. Everyone else also has this connection to their own past. The ship’s data tablets can read information on the bullets and write information onto them. Scur’s greatest triumph is deciding her personal history and Man’s future, but this may not be a shared decision, nor may it placate the friction developing between the two sides, but Scur herself sees a selfless solution. As the narrator, she ends the novel with saying (190):

I called myself Scur. I was a soldier in the war.
I set my hand to these words.

These parting words and the final section of the novella offer a glimpse into her actions, her memories, and her motivations throughout the story. The conclusion isn’t a jolting twist, but it is a turn of finesse.

Monday, July 6, 2015

1979: The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8 (Carr, Terry)

Watson, Vinge, and Disch redeem an otherwise dull collection (3/5)

Going through my database of books, 1978 doesn’t exactly stand out; there are a few novels (Bob Shaw’s Ship of Strangers, Joan D. Vinge’s The Outcasts of Heaven, and Jean Mark Gawron’s Algorithm), a few collections (Stanley Schmidt’s Lifeboat Earth, Joe Haldeman’s Infinite Dreams, and John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision), an anthology (Jerry Pournelle’s Black Holes), and a translation (Friyes Karinthy’s Voyageto Faremido/Capillaria). According to my book collection, 1978 wasn’t all that great of a year for SF. Regardless, according to the editors ready for an quick buck or easy dollar, a “best of” anthology must be created… and so was born this “best of” anthology.

I must read about five so-called “best of” anthologies and each time I’m disappointed by the content. Thankfully, I only have one remaining unread in my library with stories from 1975: Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Fifth Annual Collection (1976). That year wasn’t much better, actually—damn.

Carr’s collection of stories from 1978 seems to be a selection that covers the array of science fiction, as if they were selected to be as broad as possible rather than as good as possible. Even the stories from the good ‘ol boys club (read: Varley, Benford, Leiber, Ing, and Ellison) weren’t good enough to propel this collection along; I had to stop after four stories to read something else in order to regain my interest in reading… actually, the stories from these five authors were among the worst in the collection! Ian Watson, Joan D. Vinge, and Thomas M. Disch all had stories that make this collection a keeper (unless I can find the same stories elsewhere [pray]).

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The Barbie Murders (novelette, 1978) – John Varley – 3/5
In an isolated community, every resident has the same physical characteristics, share the same menial labor, and share the same name: Barbie. When one of the barbies is murdered in front of their own by one of their own, they are all part of the victim and all part of the perpetrator. When an outside female investigator is called to the case, her frustration peaks when she can’t get a straight answer from the sexless society, until she choose to don their garb. 34 pages

A Hiss of Dragon (novelette, 1978) – Gregory Benford and Marc Laidlaw – 2/5
On a planet with one-third the gravity of Earth yet capable of maintaining an atmosphere, the flora of the world—Lex—tends to be spiky on the ground while holding its fruit aloft. This fruit, the thistleberry, is much sought after, so Lex’s resident fauna—the bloat—was genetically altered so that it could harvest the berries. The alteration made the aggressive sacks of hydrogen able to breathe fire, but the daring harvesters are willing to take risks. 21 pages

Black Glass (novelette, 1978) – Fritz Leiber – 2/5
Visiting the city of New York, one man traverses its cold grey arteries of pavement and wanders aimlessly, until he decides to silently follow a woman in a green coat. Meandering, she takes him to Rockefeller Square and into a crowded passage where she mouths a destination to him: atop the south tower of the World Trade Center. Once there, he experiences a hallucination of one subway man’s paranoia of “black foam” in the city. He and the woman conspire to end the foaming. 33 pages

To Bring in Steel (novelette, 1978) – Donald Kingsbury – 3/5
For years in the asteroid belt, Kell is responsible for mining and refining 300 million tons of ore destined for Earth. The cold slag of the mined rock reflects his cold, detached heart; yet, there’s one soft spot for his daughter who just lost her mother to suicide. Kell wants to bring the little precocious girl to the rock but the other miners, all experts in their respective fields, deny him the privilege. So, he hires a charming whore he once met at an orgy to baby-sit on the rock for the next seven years. 47 pages

The Very Slow Time Machine (novelette, 1978) – Ian Watson – 5/5
Amid the confines of the National Physical Laboratory in 1985 appears, with a deafening blow, a galena-shaped machine—a time machine, or sorts. Within is a man living is squalor who doesn’t communicate through his sole glass window. Attempts at investigating the machine are futile and eventually one-way communication with the man is cryptic. The world rejoices in the miracle of the time-traveling man as he seems to age in reverse, while he even promising, belatedly each time, to reveal the truth at a later date, 23 pages

Devil You Don’t Know (novelette, 1978) – Dean Ing – 2/5
Christopher Maffei is a doctor and a spy on psychiatric institutes in America. He may be the brains and face of the secret operation, but the elfin girl Valerie Clarke is the eyes and ears as she puts one a convincing show of being an MR (mentally retarded). Their next institution is in the south where vague and nefarious doctors run a loose shift, according to the buxom nurse Maffei has an eye on; meanwhile, Val discovers the ward’s secrets. 47 pages

Count the Clock That Tells Time (shortstory, 1978) – Harlan Ellison – 2/5
Ian Ross has wasted his life on thinking of his ambitions rather than actively following his dreams. Unknown to him and the millions who waste their lives in idle states, their stagnation accumulates chronons in a nether realm. After so much idleness, their meaningless lives fade into the misty, detached world of the chronons, where history’s events play out. Looking for answers, he instead finds a similar lost soul, as idlein love as he. 21 pages

View from a Height (shortstory, 1978) – Joan D. Vinge – 4/5
Nearing 1,000 AU out from the solar system, Emmylou Stewart is a very isolated woman aboard a space telescope heading further away into deep space. She reflects on her missed opportunities while being very susceptible to all disease on Earth when she was young, on her lack of contact with Earth and her advisor/love-interest Harvey Weems, and the fact that she is so totally isolated. When she burns out her only mode of communication, she transcends anger in order to revel. 18 pages

The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck (novelette, 1978) – Hilbert Schenck – 2/5
In the ice-free yet frigid Atlantic in the late nineteeth century, the Kirkham becomes stranded fifteen miles from the shore on an unforgiving shoal. Amid a treacherous storm off the coast of Nantucket, the crew cower in the face of death, yet Keeper Walter Chase and the Coskata Life Saving Crew are alerted to their peril and rush selflessly to the rescue, regardless of wind and wave. In their favor, Keeper Chase is at the helm of more than the rescue ship—but time itself. 35 pages

Vermeer’s Window (shortstory, 1978) – Gordon Eklund – 3/5
A frustrated painter searches for his skill only to have his mind imprinted with the likeness and image of the obscure Jan Vermeer, who had died more than three hundred years ago. Slowly, in parallel with Vermeer’s own age, the frustrated painter can match the long-dead artists stroke for stroke; however, he can only produce what the artist himself produced, so that all his paintings look like excellent forgeries. His own personal life, too, is just a forgery of Vermeer’s. 17 pages

The Man Who Had No Idea (novelette, 1978) – Thomas M. Disch – 5/5
Barry Riordan wishes to have public conversations with ordinary strangers, but it’s illegal without a license which certifies the holder of being able to hold a conversation. He attains a temporary card and immediately visits a speakeasy where a round robin of others with licenses speak with each other. Barry, however, finds that he actually has very little to say. Eventually, his opinions form and he learns that a good listener is sometimes all the better. At time expires, his position and emotions deepen. 38 pages

An aside here: Disch was a gay author among very few that I can name, along with Frank M. Robinson and Samuel R. Delany (interesting how they all include their middle initial… a dedication to fellow gay SF author Arthur C. Clarke?). In Disch’s story, the protagonist meets an older woman who writes poetry, with whom he has striking conversations, all of which is possibly a reference to Disch’s longtime partner Charles Naylor. At the end of the story, the same protagonist gives his shoe to a female character named Cinderella, rendering him a one-shoed protagonist… much like Delany’s male characters. From a literary perspective, this story is quite good; also from a SF-historical perspective, this story is a snapshot of an era.

Death Therapy (shortstory, 1978) – James Patrick Kelly – 3/5
The Soviets have created a controversial deterrent for perpetrators of serious crimes: subversion to the State. One American doctor brings the knowledge back with him where he hopes to try it on a rapist-cum-murderer. His researcher is Carla Walsh, who begrudgingly accepts the role along with the actual therapy—actual death. She laments on the ethics of the victim’s experience and begins to identify with the human side of the prisoner, Michael Huxol. When push comes to shove, her stance lies with humanity. 28pages

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of June 2015

#32: All Fools' Day (1966) – Edmund Cooper (4/5)
I hadn’t heard of the author prior to buying the novel for $2, but being a post-disaster novel from 1966, it pretty much sold itself. Mysterious sunspots appear and suicides are on the rise, which continue to climb as Britain depopulates. All the so-called normal people have offed themselves, leaving a broken and scattered society of Transnormals. Now everyone lives on the fringe from the fear of murder, rape, and slavery. The protagonist Greville is one such Transnormal, but assumes the identity all too readily while his woman—a perpetual victim of the former crimes—assumes her role all too easily, too. Regardless, the story is unusually bleak and graphic for 1966, a jarring perspective into a world run by the self-exiled.


#33: Rollerball (1973) – William Harrison (3/5)
So, you like the movie Rollerball, huh? Then you find out it’s actually a short story by William Harrison and you think to yourself Hey, I’d like to read that, so you go and buy the collection pictures to the right, which has the blurb “[O]ne of thirteen tightly written, provocative and, ultimately, unforgettable stories of the past, the present, and the horrifying future”. Pretty cool, right? Yea, not so much; it’s hook, line, and sinker. “Roller Ball Murder” is the story you come for, but there are a few non-genre stories that are OK, but the entire collection is very much specific to the author, as he indulges his own interests in his own characters, which seems a bit shallow because it doesn’t convey any relevance to the reader. (full review)


#34: The Seed of Earth (1962) – Robert Silverberg (3/5)
Silverberg is an author who has yet to entice/impress me with any of his work. After six of his novels or collections, I had yet to be impressed. Every time I pick up one of his works, I prepare myself for disappointment. When I read the first half The Seed of Earth, I loved it: Earth holds a lottery for colonization and the plot follows the unlucky selection of the few with their personal histories, conflicts, and expectations. It was a great absorbing read that was ripe for a second half where they would delve into the planet they were going to colonize. However, the novel is a tale of two parts, the two halves disjointed, glued together from seemingly separate stories. What follows is a tit-for-tat fuzz within a cave between four of the colonists. The ending is… I can’t think of any other adjectives other than stupid because it just doesn’t mesh with anything found anywhere else in the novel. Tear the book in two; keep the first half.


#35: The Library (2002) – Zoran Živković (5/5)
The author was brought to my attention by Kurodahan Press in Japan… even though he’s Serbian. I guess Kurodahan just does excellent translated literature (this is my fourth read from the same publisher and this statement still stands as T-R-U-E). The premise of this collection made the hair on my arms plucky: “A cycle of six thematically linked stories, droll renditions of the nightmares ensuing upon misplaced, or (of course) excessive, bibliophilia”. I, an avid reader and collector—borderline archivist—,found a bit of myself in every story about a man and his relationship with books. Could any topic be simpler yet written with sure depth and accuracy?!?! These stories are Kafkaesque and Borgesian… a delightful and addictive combination for a fellow book whore bibliophile. (full review)


#36: Survival Margin (1962) – Charles Eric Maine (4/5)
Another new author, another unheard-of novel… this time with a worldwide plague, millions dying, and a schism rupturing between the government and its people. Reports vaguely detail a terrible disease ravaging China, which crosses into Japan where Pauline Brant serves an international team investigating the disease’s danger. As she returns to England for rest, another peril meets her: Clive, her emotionally and physically remote husband, wants a divorce because it’d be better for the both of them. Both Pauline and Clive find themselves free of the deadly plague and casually enamored with convenient member of the opposite sex, both of whom offer security of one time or another. As the schism between the population and its government deepens, both find themselves in precarious circumstances on the battleground that was once society. Again, a good novel is tainted by the stupid, serendipitous, and/or spurious actions of the characters.


#37: Seveneves (2015) – Neal Stephenson (3/5)
Of Stephenson's work, I've only ever read Snowcrash (1992), The Diamond Age (1995), and Anathem (2008); the former was quirky and futuristic, the middle was rather trite, and the latter was a giant novel full of humor and inventiveness. The rest of his bibliography doesn't interest me much, but I was intrigued by the synopsis of Seveneves. Sadly, much of the novel is laden with burdensome hard science... like several pages of detailed information on a spacesuit, a configuration for orbiting capsules, and an inflatable glider. The weight of detail is, in fact, a key factor in its tedious progress. The last third of the novel jumps ahead in time and feels like an afterthought, a lazy and obvious tag onto the novel. Prepare to suspend belief and prepare to be disappointed with a predictable and sentimental conclusion.


#38: Donovan's Brain (1942) – Curt Siodmak (4/5)
This had been on my to-buy list for a while due to its elements of horror and science fiction. It’s rare to come across a decent combination of the two, and I was skeptical that a novel from, 1942 could nail it; thankfully, the novel comes across strongly on both fronts—psychology, medicine, and fringe science; body horror, loss of volition, and murder. Dr. Patrick Cory steals the mind of a notably wealthy mind after an air crash. A photographer knows both of his secrets: the taking of the mind and his gruesome experiment. In his remote lab, Cory keeps the mind alive and feeds it heartily so as to amplify its electrical signals. Soon, the mind is able to penetrate his own, make its desires known, and direct Cory toward California with a veiled purpose. The more the brain feeds, the stronger it becomes. Cory revels in his success while succumbing to its power and will, costing him his health, relationships, and mental stability. While the plot plays out very well, each and every character is a mere two-dimensional paper doll in an otherwise well-constructed and well-furnished three-dimensional doll house.


#39: Monsieur (1986/1991) – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (4/5)
A translated non-genre French novella about a man of whim who, once he injures his wrist in a fall and self-prescribes some time off his work—which is leisurely, at best—, follows errantly from one mini-disaster to another in his personal life. Boring yet eccentric, Monsieur is his own mystery groping his way through life the only way he knows how—leisurely, at best (people, really).