Science Fiction Though the Decades

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.

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