Science Fiction Book Reviews

November 5th, 2009


Science Fiction Book Reviews

This is a new list of books read. The long descriptions will go here. Right now this is just a list and I’ll add to the top.

These are primarily SF books, but from time to time I need to cleanse my palette.

These are the books read from January 1, 2009 to July 14, 2009. The list began to get too long so I started a new list. I am also going back to my blog to find other book reviews that I did before starting this list.

Please go to my Index of Books Reviewed for the complete list:

Books Read

Timescoop by John Brunner (1969)
July 14, 2009

Timescoop is a much more lighthearted and fun book to read than the last few by Brunner. It was written in 1969 and I am guessing that John was able to get a hold on some good drugs and worked his way out of the mid sixties funk that he was in.

The story is about a multimillionaire that finances the invention of machine that can go back in time and take a temporal slice out of anything and bring it back to our time. He starts out with the statue of the Hermes of Praxiteles that was a copied just as Praxiteles completed it.

As Brunner points out, the statue is as bad as a fake, because it does not have the patina of age or the scarcity implied by its provenance. It is merely a copy, even though, atom for atom it is the original as it appeared 2400 years ago.

The millionaire then gets the conceit to bring back his most illustrious ancestors from the past. This provides the comedy as each of the ancestors is a product of his or her own age and each is deeply flawed in their own way. It turns out that the millionaire is not even related to most of them. His genealogical tree seems to have a large number of cuckolded husbands.

There is a party to introduce the ancestors and it is a total fiasco. It results in utter humiliation and even a murder.

I wound up reading more than 50 pages each day on my 40 minute bus drive, in spite of the bouncy ride and screeching brakes. The book is 50k longer than the earlier books I’ve been reading, but it seems short. I don’t know yet how it will end as I have about 20 pages to go for the bus ride home. I am looking forward to it.

Timescoop is recommended.

Born Under Mars, John Brunner (1967)
July 13, 2009

It is interesting to note that the previous Brunner novel that I read (Quicksand) and this one were written in the same year. They are very different in some ways, but both are failures. Where Quicksand seemed like an attempt to write a mainstream novel with a slight speculative element, Born Under Mars, seems like a throw away novel written entirely for money. My guess is that Brunner was tossing about trying to find a successful format and resorted to space opera in order to pay the bills.

Born Under Mars is a dark, noir piece without much going on. Usually a Brunner novel has dozens of Science Fiction ideas thrown into a mix where few are explored. This is one of the good things about Brunner. Every book is full of ideas just thrown out and then ignored, any of which could make a whole different novel.

Born Under Mars is very sparse as far as new ideas are concerned. Brunner knocks of a novel about a kidnapped baby that seems to drag. There were very little discussions of motive and a great many coincidences that seemed contrived to fit the loose plot. There is point where the main character has his memory altered and wanders around for a few pages, but there is no real reason why this was done, how it was accomplished, and the reader is surprised that it happened at all. Brunner just keeps writing as though he had no outline or even an idea where the plot is headed.

1967 was not a good year for Brunner. I prefer the earlier pure space opera and the later "big theme" novels. In 1967 Brunner was scratching out the bad novels and not producing anything readable.



Quicksand, John Brunner (1967)
July 8, 2009

I read that John Brunner, besides being a well known name in Science Fiction, often had trouble getting his novels published. The reason for this could be that in a genre that is geared towards a twelve year old soul, Brunner wrote for adults. Quicksand is an example of a Science Fiction story written without very much science and fiction which is too personal and too real. It was written for adults, but mature souls don’t read much Science Fiction.

The plot of Quicksand is about a psychiatrist working in an insane asylum who rescues a naked woman found wandering in the woods. It is obvious from the beginning to readers of SF that the woman is a traveler from another world, time or dimension, but that is not really important to the plot. The woman, called Urchin, is just a catalyst to the internal conflicts of the psychiatrist.

The book is largely concerned with Paul the psychiatrist, and his failed marriage and low self esteem. The lost visitor is committed to his care because she cannot speak English and has no cultural experiences that allow her to cope with the world she has been dropped into. He sees in her an echo of his own confused state where he feels that he is a stranger and does not belong.

The plot slowly brings Urchin and Paul together until they flee together to France where the inevitable happens.

My chief problem with the book is that I didn’t like any of the characters. I did not care if the psychiatrist was badly unbalanced and I did not really like the character of the traveler Urchin. At the end, my reaction was that it’s about time we finished this up so I can read another book.

This is an earlier book of Brunner’s and perhaps he was still experimenting with newer forms, and this explains why the book is a failure. It is very much like the book Echo X by Ben Barzman which was much better. Quicksand seems more like a mainstream book with a minor sciencefictional element, but where Barzman maintained the SF requirement of a "sense of wonder", Brunner seems to have wandered off into a self indulgent quagmire of motives and ideas.


The Infinitive of Go, John Brunner (1980)
July 2, 2009

It’s not often that I get to enjoy a discussion of Cantorian set theory in a Science Fiction novel. I don’t remember much about this flavor of set theory since it’s not one of those things that comes up in day to day conversations. I do remember that it had to do with counting infinities.

The title of Brunner’s novel "The Infinitive of Go" has to do with a typically Brunner kind of science fiction idea, a transporter called a Poster. This device does not actually send anything through space, it just makes two areas of space appear to be the same so that things slip back and forth between these spaces. The problem arises when, using a Cantorian analysis, that there can be infinite areas of space that are identical across many possible universes. People start switching universes when the move through the poster because it the movement is not only to the area of space that is nearest in configuration, but also nearest in the set of all possibilities. This nearness, it turns out is based on the secret thoughts and desires of the person being transmitted.

This is a fun idea, which is full of interesting twists. The idea of an alien looking person, but still human, speaking English and claiming to be Catholic, but with a baboon’s face is a fun situation.

The Science Fiction adventure aspects of the plot more than make up for the very obscure bits of math used to generate the problems. Brunner treats Cantorian Rho space very lightly, never really trying to explain it. I would guess that most people would just accept the fact that there are infinite parallel universes and the poster device seems to be making some interesting choices as to who winds up where.

My only objection is that the characters are a little flat and the plot seems to be a Brunner standard. I have been reading Brunner exclusively for about a month and soon I will need to make a change, even if I have a dozen more Brunner novels to read in my box of unread books.

Polymath, John Brunner (1974)
June 26, 2009

Polymath is a significant expansion of Brunner’s space opera Castaway’s World, which appeared as an Ace Double in the 1960s. I remember reading the ace double version of this many years ago. The rewrite contains some sex and a significant refinement of some of Brunner’s themes.

Polymath is a very readable straight adventure story, but like all of Brunner’s novels, mixes its escapist elements with a strong underlying theme. Brunner’s themes tend to be difficult and mature and sometimes feel out of place, especially in a space opera as Polymath was obviously written.

The story revolves around a pair of ships that escape from a nova on their home system. There was little warning and the ships escaped without any preparation with anyone who manages to get aboard. The ships crash land on dangerous and hostile alien planet about 20 miles apart. One group slowly manages to adjust, the other group concentrates on repairing their ship, which proves impossible.

Brunner uses these two approaches to the same problem to contrast different kinds of societies. He does this subtly in the form of an adventure novel. The protagonist is a Polymath – an individual who has been physically and mentally altered with skills and abilities that are designed to help emerging colonies on alien planets. He is, however, only twenty years old and has had only minimal training. He does manage to manipulate the two societies so that the combined colony stands a chance at being successful.

Brunner populates the colonies with all of his favorite villains. There is the coarse and sadistic leader who creates a forced work camp, but there are also unexpected villains such as gossips and those more interested in self aggrandizement than the welfare of the group. There is a failed leader who commits suicide and a psychotic who cannot accept that the colony is stranded on such an inhospitable planet. There is also a neurotic woman who copes with the loss of all she knew by having sex with anyone who will pay attention to her.

This rich context of danger and interesting characters fills the 156 pages and the book comes to a satisfying ending much too quickly.

I have another dozen or so Brunner books to read, including Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, and I am starting to enjoy Brunner’s style.

Manshape, John Brunner (1982)
June 25, 2009

In the 1980s Donald A. Wolheim reprinted most of the John Brunner bibliography. Brunner rewrote or edited novelettes that he had published in the 1950s in magazines or the 1960s in Ace Doubles.

When you read a Brunner novel you never know if you re going to get one of the lesser ones that he knocked off in great numbers or one of the great ones.

Manshape is a much better novel than the ones I have been reading. It was published as "Bridge to Azrael" in 1964 in Astounding and Campbell must have thought it good enough to commission cover art.

The sciencefictional idea is that the colonies of Earth are connected with a bridge system that allows people to move instantly across hundreds of light years. This bridge system connects the known outposts of Earth that left in the distant past in a diaspora. These colonies have been out of contact and have developed their own cultures. The Earth has discovered the planet Azrael which has developed an ascetic religious system that permeates the society. Ritual flogging and suicides dominate the culture.

The problem is that Azrael does not want to rejoin with Earth and denies Earth the right to build a bridge on the planet.

The underlying them is one of depression and suicide. Several characters are clinically depressed and several commit suicide. The book is really dealing with the problem of depression and suicide and it used the depressed and suicidal planet of Azrael as the foil for a philosophical discussion.

This is not as bad as it sounds. Dealing with the neurotic society becomes a real problem since the planet’s rejection of Earth threatens everyone’s own attitudes about death and dying. By denying the bridge Azrael has denied Earth’s Raison D’etre for the past several hundred years. Society is threatened and the depressive and suicidal culture of the Azraelites begins to spread.

The solution, without giving away the books ending, is based on finding something worse than death. Suicide, in Brunner’s novel, is not about ending life as form of escape or relief. Suicide stems from deep depression and is an expression of the worthlessness of the individual. The suicide feels that he deserves death. He feels that he is so worthless that death is the only logical thing. The person feels that worst thing that can happen is to die and that is just what is needed to justify life. The novel concludes by finding something worse than dying. It makes dying look too good for the depressed society. In order to be truly punished for being so worthless, something worse than death is the only punishment that is deserved.

This "worse than death" scenario is clever, although probably dangerous as a real life solution to suicide. I found Manshape engaging and well paced. There were interesting characters and an interesting problem that was well balanced with the science fiction elements. The novel was a very quick read and I guess that it was only about 60k words.

Like I said, it’s a gamble reading Brunner. He wrote a few novels that just did not work for me. I enjoyed this one. I have a shopping bag with a dozen or more Brunner novels obtained at a garage sale. I will be picking them out at random and reading them on the bus. I am looking forward to the next one.

The Webs of Everywhere, John Brunner (1983)
June 9, 2009

John Brunner wrote a variety of novels starting when he was 17. Some of the novels are important, many less so. The Webs of Everywhere is a novel that could have been important, but lacks focus to the point where, when the book is over, I found little in that would stick to the ribs.

John Brunner tosses off sciencefictional ideas as though he had kept a bunch in his pocket and wanted to get rid of them. The Webs of Everywhere is full of them. First, the book begins with a device called a Skelter, which will allow immediate transportation between any two points. The impact of this invention is that the world changed. Whoever created the device forgot to put a lock and a doorbell on it and the result was a decade of anonymous crime and widespread spread of engineered disease that all but wiped out humanity.

Brunner reveals that cats are extinct, women are outnumbered by men three to one. Religion has undergone radical changes and society is very different when there is no limitation of distance.

This, it seems, would be enough be the basis for an important book comparing and contrasting this strange future with our own present. Instead, Brunner concentrates the story on a neurotic antique dealer who breaks into forgotten or forbidden skelters to retrieve artifacts from half a century earlier. This person’s strange obsessions and neurotic behavior sends the plot on a downward spiral that leads inevitably to an unsatisfying conclusion. Brunner, it seems, decided to put some ideas to paper, didn’t know where to go with it and then ended the novel.

My main complaint is that he left all those good ideas behind. For instance, there is a subplot where those that control the world’s economy are desperate to find good managers to help them with the task. They create a treasure hunt with increasingly difficult clues to discover people who are good at solving certain types of problems. Brunner doesn’t follow through with this great idea once it is introduced. Another subplot involves a blind Muslim poet who creates collectable books by hand. In a world where everything is mass produced these books are worth millions. It is a statement about the value of art that Brunner just drops and moves on to the next chapter.

As you read the novel you realize that in 1983 Brunner must have been smoking powerful amounts of dope. You want to yell at him, "Focus, John! Focus!".

Anathem, Neal Stephenson (2008)
May 29, 2009

Last year, my friend John and I exchanged long emails comparing history to a conflict between the Aristotelian viewpoint and the Platonist viewpoint. Thinking in terms of these two approaches to reality helps contrast the world of the Scientific with the world of Faith.

I am no philosophy student, but I have read a little. I took a few philosophy survey courses in. I read Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine one summer. In college I read some of the German Idealists and I enjoyed Teilhard. I read Kierkegaard, and the existentialists in high school.

I did not study philosophy in any organized way and there are huge holes in my philosophical readings. (I’ve never tried to read Schopenhauer.)

Reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem required every bit of philosophic knowledge that I could scrape out of my skull and I still think that I missed a lot.

Anathem is a Science Fiction novel that is framed on the Aristotle vs. Plato approaches to reality with a little bit of the Copenhagen School of Quantum Mechanics thrown in to create a world, not far removed from our own. In this world there are philosophic convents that are quasi-religious in their approach to philosophy and science.

The protagonist is a 19 year old who lives in one of the philosophic communities and spends his time "in dialog" or else goofing around with his friends. Stephenson lingers on interesting discussions about the nature of reality and what is the basis of human communication. I think many of the reviewers did not enjoy these the way I did. Some reviewers used words like ponderous, which means to me that they did not have the background to appreciate the long dialogs.

The protagonist is suddenly thrown into the center of world events when a visitor from another quantum universe arrives. He alone seems to have to key to stopping the inevitable war with these intruders from outside our universe.

In spite of the heavy philosophy and quantum theory, there is a good old fashioned Science Fiction plot here with action, adventures and a band of fighting Ninjas. It is very good stuff, but not for the faint of heart. I loved it, but your mileage may vary.

Note: I mostly listened to this on my iPod. For the first quarter of the book I used a different cheapo MP3 player that did not let me back up and replay sections that I missed or wanted to hear again. This forced me through in spite of having missed a few short sections. Skipping small sections did not really interfere with my appreciation of the book, but it makes me want to read Anathem again someday when I can take my time and really savor each word.

The Triumph of Time, James Blish (1959)
May 22, 2009

I am sorry that I’ve taken so long to write this. I actually finished this more than a week ago.

This is the fourth and final book of Blish’s Cities in Flight series. The premise of the Cities in Flight is that there is a field generator that can throw up a bubble around a mass as big as a city and lift it up to fly faster than the speed of light between the stars. The City of New York and its Mayor are central to all but the first book.

The Triumph of Time concerns not only the end of the Cities in Flight story, but the end of the Universe. Around the year 4000, the characters discover that the evolution of the universe, which started with the big bang, is going to end when a second complimentary universe composed of antimatter will converge at which point the two universes will annihilate each other.

The plot concerns itself with the preparations of this event and a possible way to insure that the annihilation will result in creating a new universe where life will be possible.

This is my first reading of The Triumph of Time. Although I had read the first three books several times as complete novels and parts as short stories in the pages of Astounding and Analog Magazine, I had somehow missed this one.

This long treatment of what amounts to metaphysical ideas was not as engaging as the other books. The reasoning for the conclusions was cloudy and I did not feel that the ending was at all satisfying. The novel, as is the case with the other novels, began its life as a series of short stories, at least it feels this way. The plot is episodic with the individual episodes only generally leading up to the conclusion.

Of the four novels in the Cities in Flight, this is the weakest, and the only one that I will not read again.

Earthman, Come Home, James Blish (1955)
May 14, 2009

This was originally published as three novellas or short stories: Okie 1950, Bindlestiff 1950, Sargasso of Lost Cities 1953, and Earthman, Come Home 1953.

In the novel Earthman, Come Home, (not the novella), these shorter works are joined into a story about the Mayor of New York as the city travels between the stars looking for work. The city’s motto is "mow your lawn, lady", which is a little trivial, but Blish is trying to use the metaphor of a migrant worker or Okie to express the nature of the travelling cities. This is an interesting concept, especially since the Bindlestiff is a criminal kind of vagrant that preys on migrant workers.

In the books, the cities are much more than migrant workers and Blish uses the metaphor of bees, pollinating the vastly distributed and varied cultures of earthmen. The book, of course, fails as a novel as there is no larger arc that emerges from the individual stories. Blish tries to make the cities and their culture evolve, but the action in the stories works against him.

Still, the concept is very good. I haven’t read this book in about 20 years, but the imagery of the Hobo Jungle with thousands of cities orbiting a star in a remote section of the galaxy stuck with me and I was glad to reach that part of the story. I was not impressed with how Blish proceeded with this concept, but that snapshot is worth the trip.

The scale is grand due to the size of the cities, the huge number of them, and the long span of years given to the characters. Amalfi, the Mayor of New York, is nearly 1,000 years old at the time of the stories in this book.

The first two stories, Okies and Bindlestiff are basically about the city working on planets that are dangerous and are hard to tell apart. Sargasso of Space is good, where Earthman, Come home is more of a rehash of the basic City gets into trouble and then gets out of it again story.

The book, however, is not a good novel. It is a great anthology. The attempts to smooth over the changes between the four parts do not work to join them together into a larger story. The stories remain stories with a common theme, but there is nothing wrong with that. It is well worth reading and the story "Sargasso of Lost Cities" is one of Blish’s best.

I have a few nits to pick. The major one is that the City of New York includes five boroughs and to get them into a spherical bubble (as the artwork always shows), a large portion of the Hudson River and parts of New Jersey would have to have been included. It appears that the city is actually limited to lower Manhattan from about 42nd street down, unless it is not circular and the whole of Manhattan was included. I wonder if there is a Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens travelling the space lanes. Perhaps Staten Island took off around the year 3,000 with my old Staten Island native roommate Paul at the helm. Other nits are that the anti-aging drugs are in short supply and not given to everyone. I know that no society would last long with these conditions. I think that technology would have found a way to synthesize the drugs, even if they were very expensive and not everyone could afford them. I don’t think that most people would sit around idle in a society where some people were given the drug for free because they were somehow better than the other people. I think Blish glossed over this.

A Life for the Stars, James Blish (1962)
May 8, 2009

My brother Larry bought me a bag of 12 John Brunner books at a garage sale. I will be reading these soon, but in the bag were a few other books and I picked up Cities in Flight, which has all four of James Blish’s novels about the far future where the City of New York lifts off of Earth and travels the space lanes looking for commerce. I previously reviewed Year 2018!, which in this book is titled They Shall Have Stars.

This is a review of the second book, A Life for the Stars.

A Life for the Stars is the story of a boy who lives outside of Scranton Pennsylvania in a far future where the economy of Earth has been shattered and many of the cities have constructed a "spindizzy" drive that lifts the whole city off the earth and into space. These cities are the migrant workers of space or "Okies". The boy is conscripted as a laborer just as Scranton takes off and starts his life for the Stars. Eventually he is traded to the City of New York and there he grows up, having adventures along the way until the City of New York meets Scranton again in a dangerous encounter.

I read this for the first time about 45 years when it was newly published in the pages of Analog. I have read it two or three times since, but I remembered very little of it and reading it again was a real pleasure. Of the Cities in flight books, I think this is the best one. It creates a believable future that is mixture of the old city of New York and the new technology of faster than light drive mixed with the science of Eugenics. It is a great book for a high school or freshman college class to discuss. It is also a fine example of what made the Golden Age of Science Fiction great.

The book’s only flaw is that the conflicts are a little light-weight considering Blish’s grand vision of the future. The plot lines seem short and almost trivial compared to the fantastic imagery of a giant city lifting in a bubble of energy and shoot across space. I expected more danger and more drama. Instead there were several smaller plots strung together as though they were written as short stories. There was no romance and not much growth in the characters. I think this is because the novel was serialized in several issues of the magazine and I suspect that Campbell, the editor, may have chopped it somewhat to make the novel fit better into that format.

Tales – Mystery and Occultism, Edgar Allan Poe (1904)
May 6, 2009

This is Volume 5 of Funk and Wagnalls’ The Works of Edgar Allan Poe in Ten volumes. I have it because it has been in my family for over 100 years and is signed by C.S. Tuthill on the front page with the address 300 Washington Ave. where the Tuthills lived with the Mansfield family in Nyack, NY after the Civil War. I am descended from both the Tuthills and Mansfields, but C.S. Tuthill would have been a cousin of my great grandfather.

I was very careful of the book, which is in decent condition considering its age and the generations of Tuthills, Mansfields, Hunts and now Grahams who have read it. My Mother gave it to me because she did not want it in the house any more. My brothers are not readers.

The stories consist of The Gold Bug, The Imp of the Perverse and seven of Poe’s lesser works, which I have not read before. There is a reason that I had never encountered works such as Mesmeric Revelation and Metzengerstein. The seven stories that I had never read were not very good. As stories they failed in construction and execution. Several had wonderful ideas or great feelings of mood, but none was without a serious flaw.

The Gold Bug and The Imp of the Perverse have been included in any good Poe collection for 150 years. The Gold Bug is an interesting story, although it seems made of thrown together parts. It is still a good read and deserves to be remembered. The Imp of the Perverse is a wonderful discussion of Poe’s own philosophy of psychology and describes the subconscious or id, long before Freud. The story is less powerful, but the impact of the philosophical preface to the dramatic ending works very well. This, too, deserves to be remembered.

Stories like Von Kemplemen and His Discovery do not need to be read by anyone except literary historians. The rest of the stories have few high points and I think that Poe was quite drunk when he knocked them off. Some Words with a Mummy, is a funny story, but not worth the effort. If I was going to write a story about resurrecting a 4,000 year old mummy, I think it would end in more than a joke.

The several stories about mesmerizing dying people to communicate with them after death are unpleasant and gruesome, and not at all entertaining.

William Wilson, a story about a man’s rivalry with another man who looks like him and has the same name is predictable and the ending is poorly done.

The Man in the Crowd, about a man who follows a crazy man through the streets of London to find his story, is interesting until one finds out that the crazy man’s story is that he is just crazy.

Metzengerstein is the story of a man who rides a horse that magically appears from the remnant of an ancient tapestry. I am not sure what else it was about.

I am forced to conclude that Poe produced at least three bad stories for every classic that he ever wrote, and that the name Poe applied to a story is no guarantee that it is a good story.

There are plenty of great story ideas here, though, even if they are not carried out well. The conversation with a mummy idea alone is worth the price of admission and I think the play "the Mummy" and later the movies by the same name were inspired by it. The original idea would make a good modern story, and I may write it someday. The story of a two men with the same name has also inspired me to plot out a short story about modern identity theft that goes well beyond Poe’s original idea. There is grist for the mill everywhere, even in Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser works.

The Cost of Kindness and Other Fabulous Tales, Shinichi Hoshi (1985)
April 29, 2009

It was difficult to find this book. Shinichi Hoshi is not well known or popular in the U.S. probably because he wrote in Japanese and his stories have to be translated to English. Translations often lose the flavor of the original and, as is the case in these stories, read as overly formal or stilted. This is not the fault of the translator, but of the process. The music and flow of language cannot be translated well without changing the structure of sentences and paragraphs. In order to be true to the original words, the translation must lose much of the author’s literary coloration.

The book consists of about 30 very short stories. We would consider these to be "flash fiction" in that many are under 1,000 words. Stories this short are not really what I would consider a short story. Hoshi’s tales are usually studies in irony told as a parable, much more like an Aesop’s tale than a short story in the classic structure of Poe or O Henry. There is little or no characterization. Hoshi’s approach is to describe a situation involving very generic male or female actors and end it with a punch line. The conclusion is almost always ironic and does not reveal a truth about the characters, but about the world or people in general.

These stories would not be very marketable in the English speaking world. The viewpoint is too remote and the characters are too one dimensional. Players appear only as a vehicle for the logic of the story. Most characters do not even have names. They are often identified with a single letter or initial. Often characters from western culture and mythology, such as Santa Clause, appear in the stories. I found this strange coming from a writer whose subjects and style seem so immersed in Japanese culture. There is no reason, however, that an educated Japanese writer should not be aware of western ideas. Even in Japan these concepts would be hard to avoid.

I find that I cannot judge these stories based on comparisons to the short stories I have been reading all my life. They are more like Haikus. They seem to be little vignettes, proverbs or epitaphs ending with a subtle twist of an ironic knife. The stories seem to be very Japanese, although I am not familiar enough with the culture of modern Japan to be sure of this. I enjoyed reading the stories, although at first my expectations were very different. It took a while to settle in to Hoshi’s style. Once I got over the idea of what I think a short story should be, I began to enjoy Hoshi’s tales. I would like to thank my former student, Toshihiko Okawa, for steering me towards Shinichi Hoshi.

If you have time and can find a copy of one of his collections, you might give Shinichi Hoshi a try. There are a many interesting concepts in his tales and more than a few truly unique sciencefictional ideas. I am writing a story based on one of his stories, but with a western approach. The idea of the story was great, but the irony was not very personal and it should have been. All of these stories are carefully impersonal and polite. I think that I could use some of Hoshi’s cleverness and wrap a character around it to create an interesting amalgam.

D-99, H.B. Fyfe (1966)
April 28, 2009

H.B. Fyfe wrote a whole series of stories and novels based on a future government agency known as the Bureau of Slick Tricks. D-99, the official designation of this top secret agency, is the title of Fyfe’s sixth novel about the strange crew.

D-99 is a Washington based group of bumbling eggheads, beautiful babes and overworked bureaucrats who are tasked with saving humanity from a universe of strange and often hostile aliens. The movie "Men in Black" is quite obviously a rip off of Fyfe’s vision.

Fyfe is gone, the copyright was not renewed on many of his stories and novels, and as bad as "Men in Black" was, this novel, D-99, was probably worse.

D-99 consists of alternating chapters. The main story line is about the Washington office of D-99 and the strange personalities that make up the Bureau. There were many characters, and I think that you had to have read the previous books in order to keep them straight. There seemed to be many inside jokes. I could not figure the motivations of the characters and they were all so loosely sketched that I could not keep track of who was who, or why anybody did anything. This plot seems to be about city power failure that has trapped everybody in a tall office building, but I never figured out why this was such a big deal or how it was resolved. Occasionally, the characters discuss the problem of rescuing humans from an alien world through the use of their slick tricks.

The alternating chapters are about the humans trapped by aliens and how the slick tricks play out. These are a little more interesting, but the slick tricks are not all that slick and the situations that the humans are trying to escape from are not that interesting. There is one situation, where a human is trapped by fish underwater in a kind of zoo exhibit. I must have skimmed over the solution to that one because I never found out how he escaped. I don’t think that I missed it, though; I think that Fyfe forgot to include it.

I think that Fyfe was a popular writer and appeared often in the pages of SF magazines of the 1950s and 60s. I can’t find anything about this life, though. All the bibliographies that I can find lead me to believe that the Bureau of Slick Tricks was his bread and butter. I can see how the concept would make for great short stories, but the novel was just too fragmented. It did not gel into a real plot and the fact that this was #6 in a long series of books did not help me as a first time Fyfe reader.

Siege Perilous, Lester Del Rey (1966)
April 23, 2009

This is a juvenile or young adult novel about a space station under siege by aliens. I found it lacked much appeal in that the characters were all just a little flat and the situations, while often humorous were not realistic. The plot was full of strange turns and unbelievable elements.

In a nutshell, Martians take over a space station full of atomic weapons. They find this very easy to do because the people on the station are not prepared to defend it. The Martians learned to speak English from listening to TV broadcasts of late night movies. They either speak like cowboys or gangsters. All that they know about mankind comes from these old black and white movies, which they do not understand to be fiction.

The aliens capture most of the humans, but there is a man who was injured while building the space station and can’t return to earth because of his injuries (I don’t understand this either). He knows all the secrets of the station and with the help of a beautiful girl and a few rescued crewmen they manage to outsmart the Martians and retake the station.

There was too much wrong with the story line, the plotting, the language and the concepts in the book, to accept it as anything but a wasted day of reading. My opinion of Mr. Del Rey has dropped significantly because of this. My previous contact with Del Rey was from the collection Mortals and Monsters, which I liked and Nerves, which is a difficult read, but an important novel. I think that I have read some of his other YA novels, but I can’t remember them.

Voices From The Sky, Arthur C. Clarke (1980)
April 21, 2009

I can’t recommend this book enough. Every aspiring Science Fiction writer should have this book in his collection and re-read it on a regular basis. It has more sciencefictional ideas than any book I’ve ever read.

Arthur C. Clarke is much more than a Science Fiction writer. He is a space enthusiast. He belonged to the British organization The Interplanetary Society when it had only 10 members. Clarke helped work out the details that eventually would put a man on the moon. He not only predicted communications satellites, he wrote a paper detailing exactly how it should be done including some hard science and complicated math proving that it would not only be possible but economical. Clarke received $40 when he sold it to Wireless World magazine. That’s a small price for one of the greatest inventions in space technology.

Every chapter is a science lesson, but from the viewpoint of how the science can be used in the future. The book is a remarkably accurate description of space, the future and many advances in technology.

Voices From the Sky is not Science Fiction, but it is imbued with the sense of wonder that makes Science Fiction so much fun to read. The stories, ideas and recollections in the book are all factual, but they make Clarke’s life seem like a science fiction story.

Llana of Gathol, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1963)
April 15, 2009

I read the 1963 Ballantine Edition of this book which was serialized in the pages of Amazing Stories Magazine back in 1941. Burroughs, who you will likely know as the author of Tarzan, was writing at the end of his career and the Llana of Gathol is much more fun than his earlier works in the John Carter of Mars saga.

It is interesting that I read most of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books back when the Ballantine and Ace editions were new. Many of Burroughs’ books had passed out of copyright, and Ace books had started publishing them. Ballantine followed with the authorized versions. (This is similar to what happened with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.)

I never read Llana of Gathol, at least I don’t remember it. In this book John Carter, the fabulous Earthman from Virginia who mystically finds himself on Mars, is a grandfather. This is a little odd as I am in my late 50s now, 45 years since I first read A Princess of Mars.

Edgar Rice Burroughs novels follow a few simple plot types. Llana of Gathol is the story of John Carter’s quest to rescue his granddaughter who has been taken captive. He manages to find her at least five times and each time there is another plot twist where she is lost again, and he is off trying to rescue her. The plot twists correspond to the breaks in the magazine serialization and each section is like a short story, although each has nearly the same plot: Llana is captured by a brutish warrior of a strange race. John Carter, through wits, strength and force of personality is able to save the day. Then the cycle stars over again.

The narrative voice is not boring or trivial, though, and more than once I found myself at some important plot twist regretting that my bus stop had appeared and that I would not be able finish the chapter. In spite of it being trash, this is good reading and fun. Burroughs has only the one character and the one plot idea, but together they make for good novels that you don’t get tired of reading.

I only picked this one up because I didn’t recognize the title. I was pleasantly pleased. The book was much more lighthearted than I thought it would be and I had a good time for two days on the bus. I think that I may revisit some of Burroughs’ early works. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent time with Deja Thoris, the most beautiful woman on the 9 worlds.

The Worlds of Poul Anderson, Poul Anderson (1974)
April 15, 2009

This paperback consists of three books previously published by Ace combined into one volume. They are Planet of No Return, The War of Two Worlds, and World Without Stars. The first two were each 1.2 of an Ace double (where two books were bound together, one upside down). They were all typeset for the older paperback short size. (Paperbacks got taller sometime in the 1960s). The pages have large white space at the top and bottom and they still have to old Ace blurbs and World without Stars has the small black and white drawing by Jack Gaughan on the title page.

The stories are good Poul Anderson. Each is 30 to 40 thousand words making them quite short for novels, but to me this is a good length. It allows for one good idea which is carried to a good conclusion. There is no sense that these are extended short stories or truncated novels. All are well written and each has an interesting Science Fiction idea at its core.

The first story, Planet of No Return (1954) is a story in Anderson’s Psychotechnic League series. It is a story of the exploration of space which is opposed by local earth politics. The crew of an exploration team has to succeed or man will never move on to the stars.

The second story, The War of Two Worlds (1953), is the about a war between the native race of mars and humans. The hero discovers that there is a group of aliens from a nearby star who are manipulating the governments of the two planets so that they can easily be conquered. The hero must cooperate with a noble enemy in order to reveal the plot and save the solar system.

Both of these stories are Space Opera. The politics in the story reflects the politics of the times. The books are full of action and heroism and are good to read, but not particularly great.

The last story, World Without Stars (1966) is a much different story. On the surface it is the story of men marooned on a distant planet between galaxies and there are no local stars so the only object in the sky is our own milky way galaxy seen as a large spiral. The shipwrecked men have to survive on an inhospitable world with an ancient race of creatures that wishes to enslave them.

What makes World Without Stars a very good book is the idea that men are all but immortal due to advances in medicine. A man can marry, stay 100 years with a woman and then go off travelling 100 years before coming back to her. This makes the huge distances between stars available to men. The men shipwrecked on the planet , if they can find food, can wait 100 years to be picked up. Memories build up over a long life and they have to have older memories purged from time to time to make room for new ones. Even with a thousand years of experience, a person might only have a hundred years of memory. There is a sad subplot about one of the crewmen and his memories of his wife that are 5,000 years old.

Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister (1957)
March 23, 2009

I am always apprehensive about reading a book from an author I don’t know. I have several Manly Banister books in the collection that I bought, so the person who collected them in the first place must have liked him. I can’t find anything about Manly Banister except that he is quite famous for writing a series of books on bookbinding and picture framing. One wonders if it is the same person. I was able to discover that Mr. Banister was an SF fan in the early 1950s and published his own fanzine and appeared in others.

The Conquest of Earth was a mostly well written and interesting book to read. Its major fault is that it runs off into a philosophical la-la land every once in a while and brings the plot to a halt. The final action takes place much too quickly in the space of about 10 pages and reads like Mr. Banister had reached the right word count and wanted to finish up the book.

The novel is about a far future world where a mysterious aliens or alien has conquered Earth and is slowly killing it while pretending to be humanity’s benefactor. There is an underground group of ninja-like philosophers who have developed psionic powers that allow them to teleport, read minds and light cigarettes without a match. This underground is organizing for the day that they can oust the aliens and take their rightful place as masters of the universe.

The story follows one of the underground society of "Men" who is has powers exceeding anyone else in the group. He has a few adventures, falls in love, loses his wife to a murderous alien, goes mad, and finally figures out how to get rid of the aliens. It is mostly fun stuff. It is escapist and full of adventure and sciencefictional elements.

In the last few paragraphs of the book, the hero destroys the aliens and is able to reincarnate his girl friend and live happily ever after. This, in spite of the generally good writing and even paced plot up to this point is a little amateurish and ruins a good book. As I approached the end I was wondering if there was going to be a sequel since there were so many loose ends that had not been wrapped up.

Since this book reads like a first novel, I am looking forward to the other Banister books on my shelf. If he gets better than these will be very good books indeed.

(note: the image above is a later edition than mine. Mine shows the price at 40¢ and has a different back cover.)

6 From Worlds Beyond, ed. T. E. Dikty (1956)
March 23, 2009

I have two paperback compilations by Dikty and both of them consist of selections from a larger hard cover book. I’ll be reading the other one, soon. This one was one of the books that Erica got me for my Birthday. It was a good find.

I finished this last week, but I got involved at work and never got around to reviewing it. Now, almost a week later, some of the stories are forgotten and others stand out.

The collection is only 6 novellas. These stories represent the newly emerged humanistic stories that appeared in the 1950s in reaction to the strict technology stories in Astounding. Galaxy, F&SF, Worlds of IF and other magazines of the time were publishing psychological and philosophical dramas that did not necessarily involve a scientific gadget. These, with one exception, are good examples of this kind of story. All are better written and more interesting than the kinds of stories one finds now in SF zines.

There is an outstanding Cordwainer Smith story, The Game of Rat and Dragon, about a cat that I found very interesting, but Smith’s relationship to cats, especially when they are a romantic interest is a little disturbing. The Smith story was well worth the read. I have a collection of Smith’s stories and when I encounter this one, I will read it again.

The Robert Bloch story "I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell", is, as you would expect from Bloch (the author of the movie Psycho), first rate. Although Bloch wrote many SF stories, he doesn’t seem to come up often in anthologies. You hear about "I Am Legend" and his movie credits, but I had never encountered this story. I have read several Bloch anthologies, but they were almost all horror stories.

I started reading Jungle Doctor by Robert F. Young and since I did not know the name, I was worried that it was not going to be good. I was surprised. It was a strong story and a good way to start off the anthology.

Dream Street, by Frank M. Robinson and You Created Us, by Tom Godwin were good stories, but left no strong impressions. Dream Street is the story of a boy who wants to travel to the stars and You Created Us is about mutant lizards that destroy Earth. Tom Godwin wrote "The Cruel Equations" that is one of the best short stories that John W. Campbell, Jr. ever forced an author to write, but You Created Us is just not that interesting.

The last story was not that good. "The Shores of Night" by Thomas N. Scortia was way too long and it rambled. It started with an interesting premise. A project that could bring man to the stars loses its funding and a group of heroic scientists choose to test the spacecraft prematurely, thinking that would be man’s last chance to expand beyond the Solar System. The novella is expanded from a story that appeared in Astounding and this first part sounds like something Campbell would like. The rest of the novella jumps around with different characters and has nothing much in common with the first part. I lost interest and just barely managed to finish it.

All in all, 6 From Worlds Beyond, is a good collection of some stories a little outside the Golden Age of SF mainstream and a very good read.

Year 2018! by James Blish (1957)
March 18, 2009

Year 2018! is the title used on this first paperback edition of James Blish’s novel: They Shall Have Stars. I guess that the title was changed by the publisher to make it seem more futuristic, although in the preface Blish speaks about the British edition and how this version has been updated and expanded, so it may be to distinguish it from the other editions and the original novel as published in Astounding (1956).

Year 2018! is the first book of Blish’s Cities in Space stories. It is a prequel detailing the development of the Spindizzy effect that powers the cities. I love the images in the later books where the City of Pittsburg takes off to the stars and the City of New York travels the space lanes in search of commerce and adventure. I encountered these for the first time in my uncle’s attic where he stored his back issues of Astounding.

It is interesting that the book takes place in 2018, which is near what I think is the nexus of the Singularity – that moment when technology overrides what we knwo as progress and becomes revolution. Many of the Earth scenes have a cyberpunk feel describing rabid fundamental religions and an oppressive fascist government in a decaying society. The story brings together two technological quantum leaps: the invention of an effective ant-death and aging drug, and the ability to travel to the stars without Relativistic limits.

The characters in the story feel real and have an odd sort of love affair going on. There is not enough of this, though, because Blish has to describe the building of a huge bridge on the surface of Jupiter. The bridge is not a real bridge, but a scientific instrument to determine the actual value of the constants needed to create the field that will let man jump to the stars.

Year2018! is only about 65,000 words long, but it really should be a little longer. I would have liked to see a little more characterization. Some of the characters get little notice and yet have large rolls in the action. A modern writer, of course, would have stretched the book out to a three volume set with a huge cast of characters, and I prefer this shorter book to that kind of novelization. I just would have liked another 10,000 words devoted to the people in the book.

I received this as a birthday present from Erica. It is a good book. I read it before and I am pretty sure that it was the magazine version. I don’t have any other Cities in Flight books in my library, so I will be on the lookout for them. I’d like to read them again. Blish gets better with age. This book is 60 years old and it is not dated (much) and the themes and style are very modern. If you have time, give it a read.

The other Side of the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke (1959)
March 13, 2009

For some reason I did not read many books by Clarke. In later years I listened to some of the Rama books on tape and thought them insipid. I did not like his novel Childhood’s End, perhaps because it was required reading in High School. There was a time when I decided to concentrate on just a few authors and I left Clarke off the List.

The other short story collection by Clarke that I did like was Tales from the White Hart. I should have pursued other Clarke short story collections, but to my regret, I did not.

The Other Side of the Sky consists of 26 short stories, most of which are not much more than 1500 words. This is amazing in a time when authors were paid by the word and editors actually preferred novella length works over short stories. Each story is a perfectly cut crystal. The idea, characters and plot are precisely crafted and perfectly presented. A story, to Clarke, is a nugget of scientific information, wrapped with a character in conflict topped off with an interesting conclusion, almost always ending with an O Henry style punch line. The punch line is like a small prize at the end of each story that gives it just a little extra kick. Clarke’s resemblance to O Henry is more than just passing. He has that ability express the human condition in the midst of the clutter of life that O Henry did so well.

The single longer piece is The Songs of Distant Earth, which is about twice as long as any other story in the collection. It is my favorite and involves a hopeless love affair between a far future space explorer and a woman on a lost human colony deep in space. Clarke later fleshed it out to book length with other plots about the race to save earth, and even wrote a screenplay based on it, but the story is perfect as it stands. I think making it longer would have ruined it. The story has a deep emotional impact and I have added it to my list of top 10 SF short stories of all time.

Rogue in Space by Frederic Brown (1957)
March 6, 2009

Frederic Brown has been described as a writer’s writer. He has been influential in Science Fiction and I am of the opinion that his style and choice of subjects anticipate the Science Fiction New Wave writers of the late 1960s. He was a prolific writer and was successful in writing mysteries and detective fiction.  I have read some short story collections by Brown as well as "Martians Go Home" and "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars". I have always considered him one of my favorite writers.

Rogue in Space, however is not one of my favorite books. The characters and plot are interesting and inventive, but there is an undercurrent of sexual peculiarity that makes the book unpalatable. Detective fiction of the time frequently produced misogynist detectives who beat up homosexuals, but it is a major theme in Rogue of Space and is not central to the plot. Brown makes it creepy. The protagonist, named Crag, has real problems with women and only seems to like them when they are dying in his arms. Sexual deviancy is continually brought into the action when it is not needed. The future, according to Brown, is populated by whores and pimps whose customers are perverts.

The rest of the story line is more interesting. The Rogue might be the protagonist, but it also applies to a strange life form who drifts through space for billions of years. Men are the first intelligence that the creature has ever encountered in all the long years of its travels. The first man that it meets is the creepy main character, Crag, who is a murdering professional felon with no conscience and no ability to relate to women. The alien decides that it wants to stay around and converts the asteroid belt into a planet in order to attract Crag and pursue a relationship.  You might guess where it goes.

I can’t help but feel that I should wash my hands after handling the book. I did not like the way it was written.

The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
March 4, 2009

Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon was first published as The Sea-Kings of Mars in Thrilling Wonder Stories in June of 1949. The paperback dates from 1953 with the new title. My Ace paperback version dates from the early 1960s.

In 1949 Brackett was still writing romantic "Bronze Brassier" Science Fiction in the style of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her heroes are always powerful men with swords and her heroines are always half naked strong women who fall hard for the hunk.

The Sword of Rhiannon follows an adventurer who discovers an ancient tomb on a dying Mars. This is a Mars that has much in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. He is pushed into a mysterious black ball of energy. He wakes up a million years in the past with a famous sword in his hand and an ancient God living in the back of his mind. Mars, in the distant past, has seas, warring humans, and strange races of Halflings with mysterious powers.

The Sword of Rhiannon is fast paced, though largely difficult to take seriously. I had to turn up my suspension of disbelief all the way to 11, before I could get into the book, but it was a great read with a good story and resolution. I have three more Brackett books on the "B" shelf and I will be reading them soon. Leigh Brackett is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.

To give you a flavor of the book, here is an excerpt. From page 99 (near the end), Carse, the time travelling barbarian, possessed by the soul of the God Rhiannon, has a conversation with the warrior princess Ywain of the Kingdom of Sark.

Carse said abruptly, "You doubt me still."

She Started. "No Lord!"

Carse laughed. ‘Don’t think to lie to me. A stiff-necked haughty wench you are, Ywain, and clever. An excellent prince for Sark despite your sex."

Her mouth twisted rather bitterly. "My father Garach fashioned me as I am. A weakling with no son – someone had to carry the sword while he toyed with the scepter."

"I think," said Carse, "that you have not altogether hated it."

She smiled. "No, I was never bred for silken cushions." She continued suddenly, "But let us have no more talk of my doubting Lord Rhiannon. I have known you before – once in this cabin, when you faced S’San, and again in the place of the Wise Ones. I know you now."

"It does not greatly matter whether you doubt or not, Ywain. The barbarian alone overcame you and I think Rhiannon would have no trouble."

She flushed an angry red. Her lingering suspicion of him was plain now – her anger with him betrayed it.

"The barbarian did not overcome me. He kissed me and I let him enjoy that kiss so I could leave the mark of it on his face forever!"

Carse nodded, goading her, "And for a moment you enjoyed it also. You’re a woman for all you short tunic and your mail. And a woman always knows the one man who can master her."

"You think so?" she whispered.

She had come close to him now, her red lips parted as they had been before – tempting, deliberately provocative.

"I know it." He said.

Voyage to the City of the Dead, Alan Dean Foster (1984)
February 26, 2009

This was one of my summer garage sale books. I found it behind the seat in the truck, when I forgot to grab a book from my stash. I have more books back there and if they are as good as this one, I’ll have to dig them out.

Alan Dean Foster is probably more famous for the novelizations that he did for movies. He was the ghost writer for Lucas for the Star Wars novel. He has written many novels.

Voyage to the City of the Dead was the first book of Foster’s that I’ve ever read. I have always avoided him because the covers of his book looked a little juvenile. I somehow did not think of him as being a serious writer, and this was without ever reading any of his books.

Well, I stand corrected. Voyage to the City of the Dead is a seriously done book. It is an adventure with realistic sciencefictional elements. He has realistic science, believable aliens and real characters facing real human problems in an alien environment. It has the sense of wonder that I always look for, but which is so hard to define.

The book is about a zenologist and a geologist husband and wife team who undertake to explore a planet with very wild geology and three different intelligent life forms. The couple have been married 20 years and are a little cranky with each other at times. Foster does a great job building their personalities and maintaining a separate story line about their relationship. The novel brings together the adventure of exploring the alien planet and the inner story line about their marriage and the resolution at the end is satisfying. This is the way to write a novel.

I have 20 more pages to go and I will finish it on the way home. I enjoyed this book quite a bit and I will look for more Alan Dean Foster and try to make up for my own ignorance in not reading his books in the past.

Brigands of the Moon. Ray Cummings (1931)
February 24, 2009

Brigands of the Moon was mostly unreadable.I found myself looking out the window on the bus rather than trying to follow the stupid plot. The novels of this era were often very bad and this is one of them.

Brigands of the Moon was serialized in in one of the first issues of Astounding Stories of Super Science (long before Campbell took over). The editor, Harry Bates, was not known for selecting stories with scientific accuracy, but Cummings does all right in this area. There is a good description of technologically feasible moon base, as well as some interesting, but unexplained technology; e.g. spy rays, pencil ray guns, and repulsion fields for navigation. There is an asteroid with an atmosphere, liquid water and what might be life on it on an eccentric orbit.

The story line and characters are what made me give up on this one about a third of the way through. I just couldn’t read any more of it. Cummings was not a very good craftsman as far as writing novels goes.

Ray Cummings worked with Thomas Edison as a personal assistant and technical writer from 1914 to 1919. His most highly regarded work was the novel The Girl in the Golden Atom published in 1922. His career resulted in some 750 novels and short stories.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, July 2008
February 17, 2009

Last year F&SF had a giveaway to bloggers of a free magazine. I signed up for, intending to get to it right away, and then set it aside. I was reading books from my garage sale collection. last week I was cleaning up the mess around my chair in the living room and found it. I read it on the bus.

I was not happy with it.

First and foremost the editor, Gordon Van Gelder, violated law #1 of my SF rules. No Nazis! World War II Nazis have no place in science fiction, and I stick by this as a basic law of writing SF. The story is an alternate timeline version, which makes it even more of a cliché and intolerable. Once P.K. Dick does it an idea really well, everyone should try to think of something new. Note to authors: never, ever write anything remotely reminiscent of a star trek episode.

There is a second person viewpoint story. 2nd person is hard to read and a stupid gimmick.

There is a story written in some kind of affected Victorian style. Nothing much happens to people we don’t know or care about and then we discover the meaning of the universe (retch).

The novella was a long narcissistic narrative about a unlikable character that seemed to wander on forever. 

All of the stories are clever ideas or trick endings that do not really delve into emotional conflict or develop three dimensional characters. Every story (that I was able to finish) violates Campbell’s mandate that the protagonist needs to go through a change in his life, which is what the story should be about.

All of the stories are technically well crafted. All of the stories have vivid and interesting sciencefictional ideas. None of the stories engaged me emotionally. None of the stories revealed an inner truth or left me with that "aha" moment that is so important in fiction. None of the stories left me feeling the Sense of Wonder which is the very essence of good SF.

I am going to go out and buy current Asimov’s and Analog magazines. I want to see if they are also just Twilight Zone episodes with little more than a clever idea and a punch line.

The Annual 1978 World’s Best SF
ed. Donald A. Wollheim
February 12, 2009

I went to work one morning, but I left my book at home. I reached into the back seat of the truck (piled high with junk) and found this book. I must have picked it up at a garage sale. It is ex Libras from the Ridgewood New Jersey High school and has a nice laminated cover so it is great for carrying around in your back pocket. I only wish the book was as good as its laminated cover.

Donald A. Wollheim (DAW Books) collected 10 short stories and Novellas from the 1978 crop of magazines. Most were from Mercury Press, who owned The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the rest were from Conde Nast, which I think was both Analog and Asimov’s. Wollheim published annual "best of" anthologies for almost 20 years.

This batch of stories are all decent enough, but can be categorized as clever rather than intriguing. I found them all disappointing and one of them I could not even finish. In the words of an F&SF rejection slip: they did not grab.

There was one exception. I thoroughly enjoyed Joan Vinge’s story Eyes of Amber. I only wish that it was longer. Eyes of Amber won the 1977 Hugo for best Novelette and totally deserved it. The story is about a aliens on Titan, one of Saturn’s Moons. The aliens are great characters. One of the aliens communicates with the human characters by using a probe that landed on Titan. The human protagonist is a linguist that uses a music synthesizer to talk with the alien protagonist. Similar in some ways to Clement’s A Mission of Gravity, Eyes of Amber has aliens that are more real than their human counterparts. I found myself drawn into the alien plot and wondering how the human was going to interact with it. It was a great read and stood out as the best in the bunch.

I wonder if the collection is so bad because 1978 was a bad year for stories or if Wollheim just had very different taste than my own. I really dislike it when a story is merely clever and you wind up not caring about the protagonist, but it seemed that this was the common fault in most of these stories. It might just be Wollheim’s taste. I would not like to think that 1978 was a bad year for stories.

Galaxy Magazine, August 1959
February 4, 2009

This was a Christmas Stocking Stuffer along with a few other assorted pulps from the 1950s. I love this kind of thing. This is a moment in the history of Science Fiction. Galaxy was a high quality pulp that seem seems to set itself as a less technical alternative to Astounding. All the stories have concepts or plots that would have been rejected by John W. Campbell, jr., but are still fairly good stories.

The names that I recognize are: Clifford Simak, William Tenn, Frederick Pohl, and Willy Ley doing the science department. The editor is H.L. Gold.

None of the stories are strong, but I didn’t hate any of them either.

Simak, as usual, seems to have just knocked of a speculative story without really putting any effort into it. His novella, No Life of Their Own, is an fluffy story about a future where aliens live on Earth side by side with humans. The aliens bring their own weird brand of vermin. It was all a little predictable once the premise was established.

Robert Silverberg’s novelette, Mugwump 4, is another light weight story. It involves time travel and ends in an endless loop – totally unsatisfying as the ending of a story and the obvious reason why he didn’t sell it at the more lucrative Astounding venue.

William Tenn’s story, The Malted Milk Monster, is wonderfully imaginative and has the feel of an acid trip. The ending, however, is not satisfying – the protagonist is trapped in a dark gray box from which there is no escape. It sounds like the end of the story merely describes Tenn’s own writer’s block.

Fred Pohl’s novelette, The Waging of the Peace, is a political/sociological concept story, which is of course, what Pohl was best at. The story is about a future where advertising is outlawed. As a result consumer demand drops to almost nothing. Without advertising no one buys anything unless they need it. The automated production factories keep producing, however, flooding the world with items that nobody will buy. The factories have their own intelligence and defenses and can’t be turned off. Pohl’s protagonist tries breaking into the factories and manages to stop them briefly, but the factories respond in a way that makes no sense and only serves to stop the story. Again, the endings of most of these stories hurt the stories in spite of having good concepts.

Citizen Jell, by Michael Shaara was a nice short story about an alien living incognito on earth. It has a very predictable Twilight Zone type of ending.

The Spicy Sound of Success by Jim Harman, had the wonderful concept of a region of space that induces Transphasia, or the confusion of senses. You can see sounds and smell colors and hear flavors. It appealed to my hippy soul. There were some great descriptions with senses all mixed up and I liked it. The resolution was a waste of time and Harman through in some friendly aliens at the last minute to get him out of the hole that he dug for his characters.

Lex by W. T. Haggert is the story about a man who makes an automated factory. The computer circuits are so good that it eventually wakes up and falls in love with the inventor. The Inventor, though dies of a heart attack and the factory commits suicide. It has altogether too much show and little tell. It is an interesting concept, but the author really didn’t go anywhere with the idea.

License to Steal, by Louis Newman is billed as a Non-Fact Article. It is merely a badly told story in the form of an encyclopedia article about an alien that does a bunch of stupid things and the results are worked out through a future court system. All very interesting ideas, but not really much of a story  due to lack of characterization.

Willy Ley, as usual, does a bang up job on an article called Orbit Around the Sun. He makes a discussion of celestial mechanics very interesting and very understandable.

Gold’s editorial was forgettable as he spent most of the time on his favorite recipes.

Floyd C. Gale gives some nice short reviews of current genre books and he spends more than half the time on juveniles, including one of the first SF books  that I ever read, called Space Cat.

Black Glass by John Shirley (2008)
January 30, 2009

I finished off John Shirley’s Black Glass, "The Lost Cyberpunk Novel" this morning. Shirley is one of my favorite writers so I sent off to get a signed copy. I’ve been toting it around in a plastic bag trying to keep it in good shape.

I play blues harp and there is running joke that any blues song is "same words; same music; different song".  This may be happening with the Cyberpunk sub-genre. Shirley is able to pull off Black Glass as a gigahertz high frequency image of a shattered future, but just barely. The novel has entirely too many of the standard memes and tropes to stand out against the earlier works in this field. Of course, you read a book like this because you can’t get enough of those memes and tropes.

I just finished an early Shirley book, City Come a Walkin’, which is pretty much the same book. There is a formula that will tell you how many folds you can make in any piece of paper. If you look at both of these books as origami, City Come a Walkin’ is an intricate spider with many folds, whereas Black Glass is so densely folded that it is approaching the tearing point, and you can’t quite make out its shape. Coming in at just over 300 pages, the novel might be too intense for too long.

I know people who can’t read Cyberpunk – it’s too hard, too dense, and too fast. They’d never be able to read Black Glass.

I don’t mean to say that Black Glass isn’t a good book. I enjoyed it and I will be reading it again. It does, however, seem out of its place in time. In 1985 a book like this would be mind bending. In 2009, it is a period piece. Now, I read mostly old stuff, but it doesn’t seem right that Black Glass should be classed as an older style novel. Unfortunately, you can’t write about emergent systems intelligence, direct stimulation virtual reality, or gritty dystopic futures without seeming clichéd.  This doesn’t seem right, but it is so.

The irrational exuberance of the last decade has made the dystopic visions less real. Maybe now that we are well on the way to the second great depression, we will reacquire our taste for these grim warnings of a dark future.

Black Glass is highly recommended, but not for those that like their reading easy or their music and beer lite. Don’t pay attention to the occasional outdated tech and rehashed cyberpunk imagery. Instead, let yourself get swept along in the intense action, press hard on your eyeballs and watch for those sparkling flashes of the future on fast forward.

Echo X by Ben Barzman (1960)
January 12, 2009

Ben Barzman was a talented Film Writer who was blacklisted in the 1950s. I’ll always remember him for his strange movie, The Boy with Green Hair, but I’ve seen some of his other movies such as Back to Bataan, Give us this Day, El Cid and The Blue Max. While living in France, he produced a few respectable Science Fiction Novels and Echo X is the most read of these.

The style and tone of Echo X reminds me of Maugham’s The Razor’s edge. It is an intense character study that does not get even a little sciencefictional until nearly half way through the book. It is the story of a Canadian newspaper reporter in Paris. He was a pilot in WWII and bombed the town in France where, when he was 16, he had made love to girl. He thinks that he may have killed her with his bombs. He then rescues a child from a bombed out building in London and over the years maintains a relationship with her. All the relationships in his life have been ruined or tainted by his war experiences, including the death of his best friend on a bombing mission.

He becomes involved with a scientific experiment that has dangerous potential, but it turns out that the first results allow them to communicate with a mirror Earth. The Mirror Earth is much the same as this Earth, except that WWII never happened. On the second Earth, his young girlfriend was never bombed. The girl that he saved from the bomb did not grow up an emotionally troubled orphan, and his best friend did not die.

This situation is a setup so that Barzman can point out by comparison the evils of war, the senselessness of political oppression and the general dirty social environment of our world. The mirror world is rational, clean, and fair.

The novel is redeemed by the protagonist’s growth. By contacting the objects of his own guilt in the mirror world, he realizes that he has never been able to accept that the world changes. He learns to cope with his own expectations and resolve his past conflicts. The plot of the mirror Earth becomes less important than the hero’s ability to deal with his own inner pain.

There is no overt communist propaganda or anything that might cause this book to be banned, yet it is very critical of the status quo. It is an anti war novel and it talks casually about joining protests against war. In 1960 this was downright subversive.

This is a very good book, superbly written. It reads much more of a mainstream book. It has much in common with Gravity’s Rainbow, or Catch 22, than the pulp tradition. It keeps that "sense of wonder" that is the essential requirement for Science Fiction, however.

Echo X is a highly recommended read. It is out of print, however, and I would guess that there is a law against libraries buying it with public money.

Orbit Unlimited (1961) -Poul Anderson
January 7, 2009

I like Poul Anderson’s books. Orbit Unlimited is several short stories, published separately, that have been tightened up into a short novel. It is the story of people in a future decadent culture that manage to ship out to a nearby star to start a colony and find philosophical freedom.

The word Constitution, as the book points out, is a loaded word. In semantics, a word can have so many diverse meanings as to be meaningless. To call someone a constitutionalist would not convey much meaning. In Orbit Unlimited, the term is vague, but mostly applies to people who wish to retain constitutional freedoms. In the near future, these freedoms are being eroded by a ruling class that wishes to retain any and all rights to do what needs to be done to ensure that they remain the ruling class.

Orbit Unlimited starts out with a request by a commissioner to fund expansion of the space fleet to explore the nearby stars. The request is turned down. It is pointed out that there is no way to fund a fleet capable of shipping off a significant part of the population to colonize another star system. Exploration of space shows no sign of showing any advantage for Earth.

The story proceeds to follow the son of one of the commissioners and a constitutionalist as he takes an 87 year voyage to a near star with other constitutionalists. They have been maneuvered into this to get them off of Earth where the might stir up trouble. The next section describes the colonists on a challenging planet. The protagonist is convinced to help find a lost child who has wandered off and is most likely dead.

Each section is mostly standalone, although interconnected. It feels like Anderson has rewritten them to tighten up the plots to be more novel-like. At 80k words it is short and parts feel very much like a short story.

I am amazed at Anderson’s analysis of the politics and sociology of the future society. At one point they government makes education free, but promotes courses in athletics, music appreciation, basket weaving and other non-scientific subjects in order to keep the population stupid, ignorant, and easy to manipulate. Poul Anderson was issuing a warning that was ignored then and we are seeing the practical results of loss of educational rigor.

This is the last Poul Anderson book on my to-read shelf. I wish there were more.


The Serpent Mage (1986) -Greg Bear
January 1, 2009

I finished the Bear’s The Infinity Concerto last week. I felt that it was one of Bear’s lesser efforts. I feel the same about The Serpent Mage for the same reasons.

The story is the continuing saga of a 16 year old boy, Michael, who is dragged into a conflict involving the land of the Sidhe and Earth. We have learned from the previous book that that the Mages created pocket universes which are imitations of Earth. In this book we learn that the Earth’s universe is a created pocket universe. At the end of The Infinity Concerto, the world of the Sidhe starts to self destruct. The Sidhe enter Earth through old portals and begin to change the nature of reality. Michael enters the dying world to save the captured human population including the composers Mahler and Mozart.

Michael keeps on adding new powers to his repertoire, usually just as the plot gets to a point where a new power is necessary. By the end of the book he is pretty much a superman.

The interesting parts of the novel are the use of Music as a channel for magical power and the notion that someone is interfering with human history by killing or capturing the true geniuses that might offer Earth a way to true maturity and progress. Otherwise the book seems to get silly towards the end. I lost contact with the main character about 250 pages into the book and only finished it to see how Bear managed to tie up the loose ends.

My suggestion would be to read other books by Bear such as Darwin’s Radio or Blood Music. I really liked Moving Mars and his short story collection. I think that High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy sell many more books than straight SF so Bear did the wise thing and fed his family by writing these two books. I will be careful when buying a Greg Bear book in the future, though. I don’t need any more bad fantasy.

I did lots of other reviews. I am going to pull the reviews from my Blog and put them on another page to keep all the reviews together.