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 fa├žade 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