Science Fiction Book Reviews
This is a the July-December 2009 list of books read.
Please go to my Index of Books Reviewed for the complete list:
I finished Bleak History a few days ago, but I wanted to let the book ferment a little before I wrote a review. I keep trying to find things I didn’t like about it, but, except for a few minor nits, I have come to the conclusion that this is John Shirley’s best novel since Eclipse. It is certainly the best written and paced of all of his novels.
The setting of Bleak History is a near future where the "wall" between the supernatural world and objective reality is breaking down. Certain sensitive persons can use the forces that are leaking between worlds. The hero is a man with an ability to harness the unseen forces and the villains are the agents of a secret government agency that is trying to abuse the powers of the unseen to their advantage.
The conflict gives rise to sexual tension between a female government agent and the protagonist. The action is largely the protagonist avoiding capture, and the search for his long lost twin brother, and trying to understand the how reality is being redefined.
My major nit is that it is an urban fantasy style novel and not purely Science Fiction. I tend to be a golden age hard science fiction bigot, although I enjoy an occasional fantasy. I normally dislike books that use the supernatural as a theme with para-religious elements such as ghosts, demons and magic. John Shirley treats these elements as phenomenological and understandable through scientific analysis and experiments. This takes the sting out of the supernatural theme. At least there were no zombies or vampires.
There are no low points in the novel. Shirley has done a great job of creating a non-stop thriller with well-crafted three-dimensional characters and frightening villains. Once he explains the initial setting the action pulls you through each chapter, building to a satisfying ending. Shirley does create a conclusion to the novel where some of the conflicts are not quite resolved, leaving room for a sequel, but that may have been to appease the publishing minds who cannot conceive of a standalone novel as being successful. The novel stands on its own. If there is a sequel in the works, I will be interested in finding out what becomes of some of the characters not fully accounted for at the end of this novel.
Bleak History is a fantasy novel that has its roots in SF type fantasy such a Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Heinlein’s Magic Incorporated. Bleak History has quite a bit in common Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos books. It has that sense of wonder that is characteristic of the best Science Fiction, and it will sit on my bookshelf with the books that I will read again and again.
I don’t know why I haven’t read more Chandler. 40 years ago, I read some of the Chandler stories that appeared in Ace doubles, but I have little recollection of them. Finding Nebula Alert as an ace double in an old collection of Science Fiction was a welcome surprise. I had no preconceived notions of what a Chandler story would be like and I really enjoyed it.
Nebula Alert starts slowly. I was worried in the early chapters that I had a hard read ahead of me. It’s almost as though Chandler has a checklist of all the things he needs to get done in the first chapter.
First, he sets the time and place, introducing the space ship before any of the characters. Next, he quickly introduces a dozen characters. I was lost and was afraid that I would not be able to tell them apart later, but this was not an issue. Then, he sets up the context of the conflict.
After he sets this all up – bang! The story jumps into a space yarn with a very nautical flavor. Chandler is very logical and orderly. You have to get the main stuff out of the way before you can start enjoying the adventure.
I won’t go into it, but there is a grand chase across space with some political back story and then everyone winds up in an alternate history. You would think this is a strange jump, but in the context of Chandler’s created world of the future, the Rim Worlds play an important role.
Chandler wraps a context around the book, while not necessary to your enjoyment of the novel, is a part of a grand adventure and this novel is only a small part of it. Being the first time (that I can recall) that I’ve entered the Chandler continuum, I was ignorant until I read a few web pages devoted to Chandler and his Rim Worlds.
This is actually the third story about this ship and its crew in Nebula Alert. I didn’t feel that I missed anything. I will, however, do a little research before I dip into the next Chandler novel. There must be an order to these stories that will enhance the reading experience. I have half a dozen more Chandler books in my collection.
Nebula Alert is not really a novel. It is only about 30,000 words long, which is why it is half of an Ace double. It reads easily and quite fast and I finished in two and a half quick bus rides across the Hudson river.
I originally picked up Shiner’s Deserted Cities of the Heart after I read one of his stories in the Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology. It was cyberpunk that brought me back to Science Fiction in the mid 1980s, and I could not get enough of the stuff. Deserted was not SF, but it was more of a magical realism story. I still enjoyed it and Shiner seemed to me to represent a more ambitiously stylistic approach to modern spec fic, and I read Glimpses, another realistic fantasy which is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I recently decided to explore more Shiner and I bought Frontera and a couple of other books. My copy is signed by Shiner and the inscription says "for Charlene. Read this, too" and dated 1988. It only cost me three dollars at Alibris.
Frontera appears to be Shiner’s first book. Sometimes a first book suffers from fatal flaws, and this is no exception. Shiner throws a great deal of SFnal ideas at the book, but none of it seems to stick well. The story is a return trip to Mars from an earth taken over by multinational corporations after governments fail. I am guessing this notion of zaibatsu control of the world’s economy was a consensual shared vision among the cyberpunk authors. Gibson, Shirley, and Sterling all use it to some degree in their works from this period. Seeing this early cyberpunk world building this far out of context makes it read like a cliché, where at the time it was quite new, although not as fleshed out as in Gibson’s books that appeared at the same time.
The chief problem that I have with Frontera is the character development is not done very well. All the male characters have short names, and they speak, sound and act pretty much the same. I had trouble remembering which of them was which and it began to not matter much.
The technology is well done and based on good source material, but it reads like an uninteresting textbook. The science fictional element is based on mutants on Mars creating advanced devices that will revolutionize humanity. This kind of science is something that Greg Bear did much better in his book Moving Mars. I felt that this part of the book was added in just to have a plot line, and I found it uninteresting. Mutants appear constantly wherever there is reproduction, and just because Mars has a higher radiation rate, it is not likely that it is a special place to produce mutations.
Frontera is an interesting book. It appeared 10 years before the publishing houses began to ask for Mars books. If Shiner had held off, he could have been part of that surge of long boring books about the exploration of Mars, where it might have sold better
Frontera is a flawed first novel. Parts of it read well and it was not a waste of my time, but in the end, it is not one of Shiner’s best.
How John Brunner went from writing short complex flawed novels in 1967 to producing the huge Stand On Zanzibar in 1969 is beyond me. At the heart of Stand On Zanzibar are two of Brunner’s stock characters with their quiet introspective British reserve, but wrapped around it is an incredible feat of world building that not only reflects the waves of chaotic change that were sweeping the world in 1969, but which set the pace for almost all the near future fiction for the next 40 years.
The main story line of this novel is stock Brunner. There are two countries, one an impoverished African nation, and another, a Pacific Rim country that is positioning to be the technological leader in the 21st century. Two men, one a quiet academic and the other a middle manager in a huge corporation, who share an apartment in an overcrowded world find their destinies in these two countries.
The African nation is poised to be taken over by an international corporation, but the people are happy in a world where no one else is happy. The Pacific Rim country is the home of a geneticist who has the ability to change the way the human race evolves.
There is a third character that almost makes it to the fore as a major protagonist: the enigmatic author of the Hipchrime Dictionary. He is quoted frequently for most of the book until Brunner brings him in as a character.
What makes Stand On Zanzibar a great book is not the main thread of the novel. The simple plotline of following how the two men cope with the problems of saving the world and confronting the issues presented by each of the two nations would not be long enough to fill one of Brunner’s short novels of the sort he was writing just a few months before. In fact I was very disappointed in the story.
What makes the novel great is the huge amount of extra data that has been tied to the book with chewing gum and bailing wire. There are dozens of short chapters that capture a moment in the lives of the people living in the overcrowded future. There are countless details that enrich the experience of the book (including the New York Fuller Dome that later appeared in Gibson’s Neuromancer.)
Brunner uses news feeds (like twitter tweets, none longer than a hundred or so characters), and he uses vignettes and a couple of times he uses tables of data which, much like Ballard’s "The Index", tell a story as you read them.
Stand On Zanzibar, as well as his later Novel Shockwave Rider, are two of the most influential and prescient books in Science Fiction. Stand On Zanzibar predated the Cyberpunks by nearly 15 years and yet is the standard source book for not only Cyberpunk, but much of modern SF. In 1969, men landed on the moon and Science Fiction stories about the exploration of space seemed to die off. Books like Toffler’s Future Shock taught writers to look to the present and near future. The social changes of the 1960s taught writers to think in terms of the great changes that are coming.
If you read only a dozen Science Fiction books in your life, you have to read Stand On Zanzibar. It is not a good or easy read. It is a complicated and difficult book. I had started it before and given up on it. Parts of it are just bad, but in the end it is a major work by a major genius. It is a book of huge ideas and themes treated with disturbing clarity, detail and believability. Stand On Zanzibar has influenced almost every living science fiction writer in a positive way.
1972 was an off year for John Brunner. He only produced 5 books and two of those were short story collections. In the 1960s and 1970s John wrote a whole bunch of words. Unfortunately, he knocked off mediocre novels just as fast as he produced the brilliant ones.
The Dramaturges of Yan fits somewhere in the middle ground of quality, better than most, but not one of his brilliant stories. John Brunner, by 1972 had learned the advantages of self medication with hallucinogens and it shows here. (I can only assume this, but I think it is a good guess based on the stylistic changes in his writing.) The story is a sort of passion play within a play about an ancient civilization of human-like aliens. These aliens are unique in the explored galaxy in that they can have sex with humans.
The Dramaturge comes to the planet to create a dramatic spectacle that will involve the entire planet and will be viewed by the entire civilized universe. This spectacle will recreate the events of the historical catastrophe which changed the alien world.
The characters are the typical Brunner group of thoughtful men and beautiful sexy women. Brunner’s protagonists often have a little too much stiff upper lip and dry reserve, as might be expected of a very British writer.
Brunner’s books are always filled to the brim with sciencefictional ideas, but the central idea of an ancient civilization committing suicide is disappointing and the characters never reach the point where I care much what happens to them. Brunner seems intent on bringing his theme to a conclusion as quickly as possible so he can get on to his next book.
I am beginning to think that it is best to read only the very best of Brunner and the very worst. The 50s space operas do not pretend to be anything other than cheap escapes and the later grand theme novels are too amazing to miss. The lesser novels in the middle are good for getting new story ideas that Brunner has tired and discarded, but for the most part are a waste of my time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.