Wednesday, December 23, 2009

March Column Online



My March 2010 column is here.
This time around there's an essay on time travel in sf. Books reviewed:
  • Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt
  • The Return by Ben Bova
  • From the Pen of Paul: The Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul Edited by
    Stephen D. Korshak
Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reviews From 1984

Here's another set of retro-reviews. These appeared in the Baltimore Sun sometime in 1984.

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Harry Harrison's West of Eden is a stunning book. Its premise is simple enough: What if dinosaurs had never died out, but continued to evolve until they were the dominant intelligent race on Earth? What if the only humans on the globe were poor Stone Age creatures hiding in the frozen northlands?

Harrison has taken this single premise and built up a fascinating and intricate world. He has created every aspect of the dinosaur culture, from a language based on both sound and body position, to the living creatures that the dinosaurs have created as part of their technology. The main story springs from the conflict between human and dinosaur creatures, but the main delight of the book is the marvelously complex and deliciously detailed background. West of Eden is a book to pore over, a book to reread every so often, a book that will become a classic. I hope we have not seen the last of this particular world.

Heechee Rendezvous is the third book in Frederik Pohl's Gateway series. Conventional wisdom teaches that sequels ought to play it safe by resembling the first successful book as much as possible. Fred Pohl has sought the unconventional -- and succeeded.

In this book Pohl's hero, Robinette Broadhead, is an old, very rich and very influential man. His life is happy -- he is deeply in love with hsi wife, he has many friends (including one of Pohl's most delightful touches, a computer program modeled after Albert Einstein), and he has the best medical attention on the planet.

But Boradhead's conscience bothers him. He feels guilty because his life is maintained by transplanted organs that belonged to others. He feels angui9sh that humanity is beset by terrorism and the threat of war. And Broadhead lives in fear that the Heechee, a long-vanished race of godlike aliens, will return to judge mankind -- and Boradhead.

Eventually, Broadhead gets everything he ever wanted -- and, characteristically, he has trouble dealing with that, too.

The book is filled with compassionate humor. Its underlying message -- that love and compassion are more important to human salvation than technological wonders -- is as vital to us today as it is in Pohl's future world.

In the tradition of Mary Renault and Mary Stewart, Robert Silverberg has taken the 4,000-year-old Epid of Gilgamesh and turned it into a delightful novel.

Gilgamesh the King is the story of the Sumerian folk hero Gilgamesh, told in his own words. Silverberg has chosen to present the historical Gilgamesh, king of the cioty of Uruk, rather than the mythological hero, and so his tale is more believable than it might have been otherwise.

Robert Heinlein's new book, Job: A Comedy of Justice will offend everyone. Everyone, that is, who lacks a sense of humor. Heinlein manages to good-naturedly insult religious fundamentalists, atheist, liberals, conservatives, women, men, angels, and God himself.

The story is a complex one that is unfolded gently and with skill: Alex Hergensheimer becomes lost in alternate universes with Mergrethe, the girl he loves. Alex is from a world where religious fundamentalism is the rule, and as the book develops, he is tested again and again with situations that would sorely try the pateince of Job. Every time Alex and Mergrethe manage to start adjusting to a new and different universe, they are cast into still another world and left without money or belongings.

But Alex continues to work and continues to be happy, for he is with Mergrethe, and that is all he wants on earth.

Until the Last Trump, when Alex becomes a saint in heaven, only to find that Mergrethe has been kept out of paradise on a technicality. So he challenges the highest authority....

Heinlein tells this madcap story with gentleness and compassion. Alex is such a likable character that we stay with him through metaphysical speculation piled layers deep atop theological whimsy. Heinlein doesn't become preachy, as he has so often in the past. Job is a book that leaves the reader with a sense of well-being in his heart and a smile on his lips.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

January/February Column Online


My January/February 2010 column is here.
This time around the theme is otherness and mooreeffoc. Books reviewed:
  • A Glimpse of Splendor and Other Stories by Dave Creek
  • Of Wind and Sand by Sylvie Berard
  • The Sunless Countries by Karl Schroeder
  • Maine Quartet by Thomas A. Easton
  • The Medea Hypothesis by Peter Ward


Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Friday, November 6, 2009

April 2010 Column Submitted


Wednesday night I finished and submitted my column for the April 2010 issue. This time around the theme is prisons.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

December Column Online


My December 2009 column is here.
This being the December issue, the column features something naughty, something nice, and some helpful gift suggestions. Books reviewed:
  • Death's Head: Day of the Damned by David Gunn
  • Webdancers by Brian Herbert
  • Gantz by Hiroya Oku
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins


Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

March 2010 Column Submtted


Wednesday night I finished and submitted my column for the March 2010 issue. This time around there's quite a bit about time travel.

I'll post some more reprint reviews Real Soon Now, honest.

Monday, September 14, 2009

November Column Online


My November 2009 column is here.
This being the November issue, and in honor of Thanksgiving, the theme is "Science fiction is a lot like food." Books reviewed:
  • The Lost Fleet: Relentless by Jack Campbell
  • Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Omen by Christie Golden
  • Vixen by Bud Sparhawk
  • Open Your Eyes by Paul Jessup


Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Reviews From September 1985

Here's another retro-review. This appeared in the Baltimore Sun on 15 September 1985.

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Footfall. Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. Del Rey. 495 pages. $17.95.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are the most successful writing team in science fiction. Footfall, their latest offering, is a delight in more ways than one. At heart, it is an old-fashioned story of alien invasion: a mysterious spaceship arrives from outside the Solar System, attacks Earth, and lands alien troops to conquer the planet. The story is well-told and the suspense finely-crafted -- not until the very last page do we know the final outcome. There is heroism and cowardice, fear and bravery, and believable characters both Human and alien.

While undeniably science fiction, Footfall contains enough realism to satisfy any reader of LeCarre, Higgins, or Cussler. It particularly shines in portraying the top brass of the Soviet Union reacting to the invasion. The scenes set in the Kremlin are among the most fascinating in the novel.

Niven and Pournelle don't stint in their treatment of the aliens, either. The fithp, who resemble baby elephants, are a fully-realized and interesting race with a psychology at once alien and comprehensible, fully the equal of Niven's famous Puppeteers, Kzinti, or Protectors.

Footfall is brilliant, compelling, and as completely satisfying as a seven-course dinner at a fine restaurant. It is a sure bet to wind up on the ballots for next year's Hugo and Nebula awards. For the price, this is possibly the best bargain around.

The Invaders Plan. L. Ron Hubbard. Bridge Publications, Inc. 603 pages. $18.95.

The Invaders Plan may be the finest science fiction novel of 1933. Certainly it has nothing -- in ideas, plot, characterization, or writing -- to commend it to an audience in the 1980s.

This book, itself almost as long as the author's massive bestseller Battlefield Earth, is the first volume in a promised (or threatened?) series of ten billed as "the biggest science fiction dekalogy ever written."

The plot is simplistic. The 110-planet Voltarian Confederacy is involved in an endless interstellar war of conquest -- but the nefarious Lombar Hisst has plans of his own. Hisst heads the Apparatus: a division of the Confederacy government that seems devoted to torture, espionage, and other dreadful doings. Hisst sends the narrator, one Soltan Gris, to the planet Blito-P3 (Earth) in the company of a virtuous Space Patrol agent named Jettero Heller. Gris and Heller are supposed to infiltrate Earth's society and turn our world into a weapon for Hisst's dastardly schemes.

The rest of the story is as pathetic as it is predictable. Noble Heller defeats the scheming Gris at every turn, remaining perfectly loyal to the Confederacy and derailing the Apparatus plans.

The writing is worthy of a talented ten-year-old. Hubbard's paragraphs are sprinkled with childish outcries, exclamation points, and clumsy sentences that outdo the worst excesses of early pulp writers like E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton.

There is no real characterization -- the actors in Hubbard's interminable drama are cardboard cutouts of Virtue, Vice, Cruelty, and others that would be at home in a medieval morality play.

Hubbard's sense for scientific plausibility -- usually rather keen although understated -- went on vacation while he was writing this book.

The book's flaws -- its primitive language, lack of characterization, simplistic plot and total disregard of modern science -- are flaws appropriate to the novels of the thirties. The same criticisms can be levelled against any number of books that are classics of the field. may be the best sf book of 1933, but in 1985 it is almost unreadable.

Child of Fortune. Norman Spinrad. Bantam. 483 pages. $16.95.

Spinrad's latest is a sweeping tale of a journey of discovery. Wendi Shasta Leonardo was once a rich, empty-headed girl on the quiet and beautiful planet Glade. Wendi's voyages take her to many planets and introduce her to many unforgettable characters -- and in the end, she finds what she was looking for: herself.

In this novel Norman Spinrad has reached a new height of artistic writing. Those searching for a quick read or a nice adventure story should stay away...Child of Fortune is a book that should be savored, as much for its imaginative scenery as for the sheer beauty of the writing. Spinrad's words paint pictures like the impressionistic masters; in the end, the story of a young wanderer is all but lost in the experience of reading the book.

Ancient of Days. Michael Bishop. Arbor House. 354 pages. $16.95.

Michael Bishop gives us an excellent illustration of the fact that science fiction doesn't have to be about spaceships and far-off planets. In his most recent novel the world is present-day Earth, and the science that forms the book's basis is anthropology.

When a living caveman shows up in his ex-wife's garden, restauranteur Paul Loyd's life changes completely. When his beloved Ruth-Claire falls in love with the habiline -- whom she names Adam -- Paul feels jealousy, dismay, confusion...and eventually learns to accept and even love Adam. But can a Georgia woman and a living specimen of Homo habilis find happiness even in the big-city atmosphere of Atlanta?

The story runs on many different levels. Below the tale of Adam's discovery of civilization is the tale of Paul's discovery of himself, of love, and of the nature of spirituality. There is also the deeper story of our world and its reaction to things that are different, even if they are tender and beautiful.

Ancient of Days is gripping in its realism, and rewarding in its affirmation of the good things in life.

Eon. Greg Bear. Bluejay. 504 pages. $16.95.

One of the best new sf writers has given us a gripping novel in the tradition of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood's End.

In the year 2005, mathematician Patricia Vasquez takes her first trip into space. Her destination is "the Stone"; a large, hollow, deserted asteroid that has taken up orbit around the Earth. In an atmosphere of international tension, Patricia begins to probe the secrets of the Stone's seven chambers.

The Stone is apparently from the far future -- a future that may or may not be Patricia's own. But there is something incredible about the seventh chamber -- it continues onward, in defiance of natural law, for millions of kilometers.

Before Patricia can deal with the seventh chamber, she learns another of the Stone's dreadful secrets: its intact libraries tell of an apocalyptic nuclear war on Earth...a war that is scheduled to take place in only a handful of weeks.

As international tensions mount and the war comes closer, Patricia becomes more obsessed with the seventh chamber -- and the question of what happened to the Stone's original inhabitants. But the answers are more shocking than she could possibly dream.…

Eon is a fine story of politics, time-travel, and discovery that changes man's conception of his place in the universe.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

January/February Column Submitted


Last night I finished and submitted my column for the January/February issue. This time around the theme is "otherness."

I'll post some more reprint reviews Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, there's a whole pile of reading for next month....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

October Column Online


My October 2009 column is here.

There's not really a theme this time around. Books reviewed:
  • Other Earths edited by Nick Gevers & Jay Lake
  • Warrior Wisewoman 2 edited by Roby James
  • WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller & Satoshi Kanazawa


One late correction (thanks, Steve Silver and everyone else who noticed): Murray Leinster's groundbreaking alternate history short story was "Sidewise in Time," not "Sideways in Time."

Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

SF Universe #3 (1988)

This is a reprint of my third SF Universe column for the late, lamented Wilson Library Bulletin. This column appeared in 1988.

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To the general population, the most infamous year in science fiction is 1984. But to those within the field, this year of 1988 will live in memory as the worst year ever. For this is the year Robert A. Heinlein died.

From the appearance of his first short story in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Heinlein was universally acknowledged as a major talent in the field.

In a career spanning half a century, he produced over 40 books, including four Hugo Award winners, a half-dozen titles from the Publishers Weekly bestseller lists, and an even dozen so-called "juveniles" that started more youngsters reading sf than any hundred dozen other titles.

When the Science Fiction Writers of America decided to give a Grand Master award for lifetime achievement, there was no doubt that Robert Heinlein should be the very first recipient. To three generations of writers and readers, Heinlein was science fiction.

Heinlein's impact on today's science and technology will never be completely appreciated. His stories and novels inspired legions of young men and women to become researchers, engineers and scientists. His myriad bold ideas, both technological and philosophical, have very literally changed the shape of the future.

All of Heinlein's books are still in print and still quite readable. Other writers can only envy his storytelling skills, his compelling characters, his fine touch with the details that make future worlds seem real. The most current round of Heinlein reissues (Baen Books for the early titles, Berkley for the more recent ones) provides attractive and well-packaged paperback editions for yet another generation to discover.

Doubtless, when the first settlers arrive at Luna City on the Moon, or Marsport, or Alpha Centauri...Heinlein's books will be in their microform or CD-ROM libraries. His influence will live forever.

Every Spring the Science Fiction Writers of America presents the Nebula Awards for the previous year's best science fiction. These awards are notable for two reasons. First, unlike the fan-voted Hugo Awards, the Nebulas are voted by writers, and thus are accorded more respect within the field. Second, like the Hugos, the Nebulas give full recognition to short fiction as well as novels. In fact, three short fiction categories appear on the Nebula list: the short story, its big brother the novelette, and the novella (a hybrid of short story and novel).

The 1987 Nebula winners were announced in Los Angeles on May 22nd. The short fiction winners were: "Forever Yours, Anna" by Kate Wilhelm (short story), "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy (novelette), "The Blind Geometer" by Kim Stanley Robinson (novella). In addition, Alfred Bester was posthumously named Grand Master.

The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy won the Best Novel Nebula. This is a carefully-crafted fantasy which juxtaposes Mayan mythology with a figure from present-day myths: the eccentric old woman archeologist.

Elizabeth Waters is the archeologist. Independent and self-assured, she is an expert on the civilization of the ancient Maya. She has a secret that she keeps from her colleagues and students alike: Liz Waters can see the shadows of the past. Her nights are haunted by them, and sometimes they seem more real than the world around her. Driven by the shadows and her need for independence, Liz long ago abandoned her husband and her daughter, teetered on the edge of madness and managed to make her peace with the shades of yesterday.

Until one day, in the ruins of a Mayan city, she sees the ghost of Zuhuy-kak, a Mayan priestess who died a thousand years ago. Until Zuhuy-kak does what no other shadow has done before, and speaks to Liz.

On the brink of her greatest discoveries, Liz is shocked when her daughter, Diane, arrives at the camp. Diane, fleeing from her own shadows, has left her own life behind just as her mother did. She doesn't know what brought her to the jungles of Mexico, but she knows she is searching for something.

These three women -- mother, daughter and priestess -- fall further and further into the mysterious world of Mayan magic. As events build to a tense climax, orchestrated by the ancient gods, death looms ever closer for the falling woman.

Pat Murphy has crafted a superb fantasy of three very strong women and the myths that bind them together. Definitely not to be missed.

S. M. Stirling's Marching Through Georgia is, despite the title, a World War Two story...but decidedly one with a difference. The book falls into the sub-genre called "alternate history:" a world in which history followed a different course than in our world. Alternate histories are all the rage nowadays, many of them excellent stories written by authors who have a firm understanding of the process of history. Marching Through Georgia is a sterling example of the strengths of this type of book.

Stirling's World War Two is a conflict between three major powers: The United States and its allies, the Axis powers and a third nation called "The Domination of the
Draka."

Founded by loyalist Tories who emigrated to South Africa following the American Revolution, the Domination is a hard, cruel society that somehow combines the worst aspects of modern-day South Africa, antebellum Dixie and ancient Sparta. The Domination is ruled by a British-Germanic aristocracy; most of its people are serfs and slaves. The Domination is a militaristic state par excellence; both men and women train for the armed services from infancy. In order to preserve its rule, the Domination becomes a conquering power -- by the time of the book, the Domination controls all of Africa, Arabia, and a large portion of central Asia.

The plot is simple: In 1942 Russia collapses, leaving the Domination and the Third Reich to fight over its corpse. Eric von Shrakenberg, of the Domination, is in command of a legion sent to wrest a Caucasian village from the Nazis. Hence the book's title, which refers to Soviet Georgia and not the American State.

With Eric is William Dreiser, an American war correspondent who serves as a captive audience to the lunacy of both Domination and Third Reich. Eric's forces find themselves barricaded in a small village, fighting a losing battle against a Nazi force ten times their size. But since the people of the Domination are such good fighters, odds are just about even....

The real meat of this book is in its depiction of the Domination itself. Here is a heartless, ruthless society that violates virtually every tenet of morality. They keep slaves, they relish killing (and spend an enormous number of pages at it), they are without pity or any sympathetic emotions. They are fascinating in their grotesquerie. In order to overcome the threat of Nazi Germany, the U.S. must make an alliance with the Domination -- but it's clear that Eric's people can't rest until they control the entire world. So which, indeed, is the lesser of the two evils?

Stirling leaves the question unanswered. Word has it that he is writing more books about the Domination of the Draka; one hopes that he'll follow through and that the Domination will get it in the end.

Marching Through Georgia, although packaged as science fiction, is a good crossover title. World War Two buffs will enjoy it, especially those whose tastes run toward detailed descriptions of tanks, rifles, mines and obscure points of German military etiquette (the rest of us can just skip over those sections
without losing anything important.) So will those poor souls who thought that Red Storm Rising was a good book. Some of the fight scenes, which can get rather graphic, will appeal to readers of the "men's adventure" genre.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking book...and a very disturbing one. If he produces many more like this, Stirling will be a writer to be reckoned with.

Neil Barron is a Librarian's best friend. He is the editor of a wonderful reference book called Anatomy of Wonder, and he is obviously devoted to making our lives easier.

Barron has assembled nearly 900 pages of information to delight fans, students, or just hard-working librarians who need some help with the field. Anatomy of Wonder contains essays on the development of science fiction, on foreign-language sf (including Belgian, Romanian and Hebrew sf, just in case you ever get a request), and on such topics as teaching materials, author studies and science fiction illustration. But the bulk of the book is the annotated title entries -- over 2500 of them, from the beginning of the field until 1986. Many entries allude to more than one title, and most of them have comparisons that make readers' advisory a joy rather than a chore.

Particularly welcome is Barron's "Core Collection Checklist," a 23-page list of the best that sf has to offer. Anyone stocking a new library, or revamping the sf
collection of an old one, should make this book their first buy.

A remarkably-complete pair of indexes (Author/Subject and Title) finish off the volume.

Anatomy of Wonder is certainly going to become one of my secret weapons; it ought to be one of yours, too.

Finally, the big news this month here at Don's Acres is the publication of The Leaves of October. Obviously, I can't properly review a book that I wrote, so I won't make the attempt; just the same, if you like this column you might want to give it a try.

Books reviewed:

Barron, Neil (ed.). Anatomy of Wonder 3rd edition. Bowker, 1987. 874 p. 0-8352-2312-4

Murphy, Pat. The Falling Woman. Tor, 1987. 287 p. $3.95. 0-812-54620-2

Sakers, Don. The Leaves of October. Baen, 1988. 276 p. $2.95. 0-671-65422-5

Stirling, S. M. Marching Through Georgia. Baen, 1988. 410 p. $3.50. 0-671-65407-1

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

December Column Submitted


Tonight I finished and submitted my column for the December 2009 issue. The theme is something naughty, something nice, and some gift suggestions.

Now to start reading for next month....

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Book of Lost Tales Part One (1984)

Here's another retro-review. It appeared in the Baltimore Sun on March 25, 1984. I'm particularly fond of this one. The publisher quoted from this review on the back cover of The Book of Lost Tales Part Two and many of the subsequent volumes of the History of Middle-Earth series. If you own any of the mid-1980s editions of those books, take a look on the back cover and you'll see my words staring back at you.

----------

The Book of Lost Tales Part One, J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 297 pages, $14.95.

The appearance of a new book by J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, is news indeed. Tolkien's son Christopher has spent the years since his father's death editing the vast stacks of handwritten manuscripts that Tolkien left behind. This latest volume is the start of a projected series ambitiously called "The History of Middle-Earth."

The Book of Lost Tales relates the earliest legends that would later develop into The Silmarillion. The manuscripts date from 1916 and 1917, when Tolkien had never dreamed of Hobbits, Rings of Power, or the Dark Lord Sauron. At that time the Elves were called Gnomes, the Dwarves were evil creatures, and even the geography of Middle-Earth was somewhat hazy.

There is a great gulf between The Book of Lost Tales and the more familiar parts of Tolkien's world. Nearly fifty years elapsed between these first scribblings and the publication of The Lord of the Rings; but the larger distance is in the development of the world, its myths, its theology and philosophy. Tolkien was 25 years old when he wrote the Lost Tales -- as he grew older the structure of the tales evolved until they came to be the basis of Middle Earth as we know it.

The Book of Lost Tales is not another Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien has done an admirable job of editing the rough manuscripts, but still the tales are at times as distant and silted as The Silmarillion. Readers looking for another story like that of Frodo and Samwise will be disappointed by this new book.

For the true devotee of Tolkien, however, The Book of Lost Tales is a treasure trove to match the hoard of the dragon Smaug himself. Many of the conceptions in the Lost Tales were dropped out of the late mythology; in many cases what was lost has a power and depth of imagination that was missing in later versions.

Here we read of Eriol the Mariner and his visit to the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressea, where the alst of the Elves still live. In the magnificent Cottage of Lost Play, Eriol is entertained by the stories of the Elves, their vanished cities, and the lost days of happiness in Valinor by the light of the Two Trees.

And as the tales unfold for us an Eriol, the surprises start. In the origincal conception, we learn, Tol Eressea was England itself. In the Lost Tales we learn of the Path of Dreams, whereby human children journey in their sleep to the forgotten shores of Valinor and folic with the Elves.

The structure of the Tales roughly follows that of The Silmarillion, beginning with creation myths and describing the advent of evil in the world and the flight of the Elves from Valinor. To a reader familiar with the "official" version of the legend, there are many delightful differences. From the goddess Palurien's creation of the light-producing Two Trees to the lengthy account of the making of the Sun and Moon, the Lost Tales proceed with a sort of primitive vigor usually associated with pagan myths.

The Book of Lost Tales will probably make some enemies among Tolkien's fans. The prose is unpolished, ranging from high poetic style to quickly dashed-off outlines; at times it is even turgid. Christopher Tolkien's notes at the end of each chapter speculate learnedly upon the sources of his father's inspiration, and upon the differences between this version and the previously-published works. The entire approach of the book is more that of a college literature text than a book of tales.

And yet, despite these problems, the pure imaginative power of J.R.R. Tolkien shines through with a light just as dazzling as that of the Two Trees, and so far transcends the nature of the book that the faults become minuscule in comparison.

The serious student of Tolkien will find much delight in this book, and it serves as an excellent example of the creative imagination at work. The casual reader can easily skip the notes and introductions and derive great pleasure from just the Lost Tales themselves.

This is not another Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself knew that he would never produce another work to match his famous trilogy: the goddess Yavanna spoke for Tolkien when she said, "Even for those who are mightiest...there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only." Yet the Lost Tales have virtues of their own, and not just for those of academic bent.

Friday, June 26, 2009

SF Universe #1 (May 1988)

Here is another reprint of old reviews. This was my first column for the Wilson Library Bulletin, originally published in the May 1988 issue.

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“Science fiction,” I told my boss, “is like olives. Either you cultivate a taste for it, or you can’t stand it. Very few people are in between.” She just smiled and shook her head. She does that a lot.

While I know that many of you have cultivated the taste (for science fiction, not olives), I’m also aware that most of you have not. I won’t be offended if you’re one of those who hates it. Yet you want to do the best you can for your patrons and customers who do fancy the stuff. Well, I think I can help.

A few words of introduction, and then we can get down to business. I’m a science fiction writer and public library paraprofessional. From my base here at Dons Acres, I’ll be giving you periodic updates about what’s happening in the world of sf. (Yes, some people call it sci-fi -- but to someone in the field, that’s a little bit like picturing librarians as wrinkled, grey-haired old women.)

The great John W. Campbell once defined the genre this way: “Science fiction is what science fiction editors buy,” and that's the definition I intend to use. Thus, when I refer to sf you can assume that I mean the related genres of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction as well as the occasional piece of nonfiction.

Now let’s to work.

Mike Resnick is a dependable storyteller whose unusual characters and settings are nicely original. The Dark Lady, which is set against the interstellar art world of the 70th Century, is no exception.

The narrator is Leonardo, a nonhuman art appraiser working for a large gallery on the planet Far London. Without quite knowing how, the meek Leonardo finds himself embroiled in a mystery when he runs across several paintings of the same dark-haired woman...paintings done thousands of years apart.

In pursuit of this Dark Lady, Leonardo is thrown into association with misanthropic collectors, art thieves, mad artists and even a bounty hunter or two. He risks his status, courts banishment from his home world, and eventually hazards his life before learning the secret of the Dark Lady -- a secret that will change him forever.

The background is fascinating and the central enigma tantalyzing -- but ultimately the success of The Dark Lady is in Leonardo himself, and his progression from a timid creature of the herd to something more Human...and far more interesting.

----------

A relatively recent phenomenon is sf publishing is that of the shared world anthology. A number of authors write stories set in a common world; their characters reappear in each others tales, sometimes the same events are retold from a different viewpoint. Shared worlds are usually fun for both writers and readers, and publishers like them because they sell well.

Fever Season is the most recent volume of tales set in C. J. Cherryh's Merovingen Nights world. (The first was Cherryh's novel Angel With the Sword, followed by the shared world anthology Festival Moon.)

At the mouth of the Det River on the world Merovin is the city Merovingen, a city reminiscent of a mixture of ancient Constantinople, medieval Venice and modern New Orleans. Barefoot traders and smugglers ply the canals of Merovingen while murderers and thieves lurk in the shadows; meanwhile, in the perfumed apartments of the upper class, nobles pursue their Byzantine schemes for wealth and power.

It is fever season in Merovingen: moving with the yearly plague is something darker, more treacherous -- war and betrayal. Thomas Mondragon is the one man who can keep the city from exploding...and Mondragon lies immobile in his fine house, a secret victim of the fever. His friends -- a rifraff collection of canalers, spies and traitors -- are the last hope of the beleaguered city.

And the fever still spreads...

Shared world anthologies, almost by their nature, are disjointed. Fever Season, though, has a coherence that others of its type lack. Indeed, it reads more like a collaborative novel than a collection of short stories. Cherryh, who serves as editor for the series, has done her homework. Not only do transition chapters link the various chapters, but the volume contains an appendix with maps, an explanation of diseases and treatments, and even a few songs.

All this work shows: Fever Season is captivating, and weaves a spell of pseudo-reality that persists after you finish the book. SF fans who like shared worlds will love it; a reader of historicals who is looking for something a little different would not, I think, be disappointed.

----------

One of the most original new voices in science fiction is that of Melissa Scott. In 1986 she won the Campbell Award, given by fans to the best new writer of the year. Time has proven that the fans were not mistaken.

The book that established her reputation was Five-Twelfths of Heaven, published in 1985. The next year saw publication of a sequel, Silence in Solitude. Now, at last, the trilogy is complete...and the final book, The Empress of Earth, more than fulfills the promise of the earlier books.

To read The Empress of Earth is to step into Melissa Scott's world -- and a delightful world it is. In this universe, Einsteinian physics has been supplanted by a new physics based on the teachings of Aristotle and the Hermetic sciences of the Middle Ages. Magi study the mystical arts while satraps and Hegemons rule over a vast empire.

In the hands of a lesser writer, we might have wound up with a retelling of the Arabian Nights. Instead, Scott has made Hermetic magic the basis for a whole technology. Her Magi are the scientists of this universe; starships fly through the mystical dimension called Purgatory in order to reach distant worlds; and the Hegemon’s empire is one of planets, not deserts.

Into this universe comes Silence Leigh: a woman who has learned the male skills of piloting and magic. With her two husbands and her teacher Isambard, Silence has conquered every obstacle to her goal of finding the way to lost Earth. She has the skill, she has an ancient star map that shows the safe road to Earth -- and she has the help of the Hegemon himself.

The road is difficult, but what lies at the end is harder; for Earth is under the control of the despotic Rose Worlds, and great mystical siege engines block the way. Silence Leigh has overcome every obstacle so far...but can even this remarkable woman bring freedom to Earth?

Empress of Earth is a gourmet feast for those who like science fiction. The mystical technology is so well-conceived and exhaustively thought-out, that by the end you will find yourself convinced that it is real. The characters are finely drawn and will soon become fast friends: crusty Isambard, stolid Chase Mago, wily Balthasar, and of course the indomitable Silence herself. The action is nonstop; plan on losing sleep because you won’t be able to put it down.

Indeed, Empress of Earth has only one flaw, although it is a major one: however devoutly we wish otherwise, the book ends.

Any sf reader will love this book...and those who have not yet acquired the taste might give it a try. I guarantee, its not at all what you expect.

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BOOKS REVIEWED:

The Dark Lady by Mike Resnick. Tor, November 1987. $3.50. 279 pages.

Merovingen Nights #2: Fever Season edited by C.J. Cherryh. DAW, October 1987. $3.50. 297 pages.

The Empress of Earth by Melissa Scott. Baen, November 1987. $3.50. 346 pages.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

September Column Online

My September 2009 column is here.

There's not really a theme this time around. Books reviewed:
  • Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker
  • Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
  • Flinx Transcendent by Alan Dean Foster
  • The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3 edited by George Mann


Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reviews From March 1987

Here is another set of retro-reviews. These appeared in the Baltimore Sun on March 8, 1987 and Philadelphia Daily News around the same time.

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Foundation and Earth. Isaac Asimov. Doubleday. 365 pages. $16.95.

Foundation and Earth begins just after its predecessor, Foundation's Edge ended, in the five-hundredth year of the Foundation. Golan Trevize has just made a choice that will alter the direction of Human history; now, in the course of second-thoughts, he finds that he must locate the legendary planet Earth. Along with his companion Janov Pelorat and Bliss, a woman of the collective intelligence known as "Gaia," he sets out to locate the lost home planet of the Human Race.

On the way, Trevize and his friends visit five strange and different worlds. On each they find menace, and finally they face the greatest danger...and the end of their search...when they find Old Earth at last.

In a way, this should be the greatest of the "Foundation" books. Certainly the ending is mind-boggling enough. And yet, somehow the book seems to just miss its mark. The unexplained events are too unexplained; the subtle mind-tampering is too obvious; the odd characters are a little too odd for comfort. Again and again the reader mutters to himself: "There's no for thus-and-so to happen that way -- therefore it must be part of someone's unrevealed plan."

This does worse than spoiling the reader's enjoyment at the slow unfolding of an intricate plot; it blunts the impact of the final scene, so that when we reach the last chapter and find out just who has been manipulating Human history for twenty thousand years, it is a letdown. What could have been the most stunning revelation in science fiction hits the reader like the slap of a wet dishrag.

Judged in comparison with other novels of the year, Foundation's Edge is superb. As a continuation of the "Foundation" series, however, or in comparison to Asimov's other recent science fiction, it falls short. This is a good book, yes...but it is not a great book.


Marooned in Realtime. Vernor Vinge. Bluejay. 270 pages. $17.95.

Marooned in Realtime is a cracking good story that leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

In the late 23rd century, Mankind suddenly vanished from the earth. The only survivors were those who had previously frozen themselves in time, using a new technology known as "bobbling." Those who bobbled did so for a great variety of reasons -- incurable diseases, a desire to see the future, hope of becoming rich through multiplying investments. Some, like 21st-century cop Wil Brierson, were unwillingly bobbled.

Now, fifty million years after the Extinction, high-tech survivors under the leadership of Marta Korolev have gathered the only remaining Human beings to start a new world. Only a few hundred people exist, drawn from across the two centuries preceeding the Extinction. Many of the low-techs -- those from the earlier ages -- resent the rule of Marta Korolev and her fellow high-techs.

Then, suddenly, Marta is murdered in a spectacular and heartless way. Someone, it appears, wants the Human settlement to fail. But who? And when will they strike next?

Wil Brierson, the only detective left on earth, must solve the mystery...or watch Humanity's last chance for survival disappear.

Vernor Vinge draws fine characters and writes a compelling plot. Brierson's inner conflicts work in tandem with the contention in the Human community. In and around the whole murder investigation flows the greater mystery of the Extinction. Was Humanity slaughtered by hostile alien invaders, or did Mankind reach a pinnacle of knowledge and go on to some unimaginable other dimensions?

In the end, almost all the mysteries are solved -- the only loose ends are those which will leave you pondering the future of Mankind and of the earth for weeks after you finish the book.

Winter in Eden. Harry Harrison. Bantam. 399 pages. $18.95.

Winter in Eden in a sequel to the highly successful West of Eden. Once again Harry Harrison returns us to an Earth on which the dinosaurs never perished. The Yilane are the intelligent descendants of the great reptiles, and they rule the world. But the Yilane have rivals: the Tanu, the Human folk of this alternate world. The first book told of the beginning of the conflict between Yilane and Tanu, a conflict that would decide who would ultimately rule.

Now another ice age threatens, and the Yilane must move to warmer climates or die. So they are driven to conquer Human territory.

The delight in this book is the detail of Harrison's alternate earth. This is one of the most fully realized worlds in science fiction; the author has created languages, mythologies and whole biologies that are completely coherent and ring totally true. What J.R.R. Tolkien did for high fantasy, Harry Harrison has done for the genre of alternate history.

Winter in Eden is billed as the second book of a trilogy. Harrison could fill a dozen trilogies, fully exploring the world of the Yilane. If he does stop at only three books, then we the readers will be all the poorer.


Double Nocturne. Cynthia Felice. Bluejay. 330 pages. $16.95.

In Double Nocturne, Cynthia Felice has produced a dense, almost impenetrable book set on a colony planet whose society has become a feudal matriarchy. Into this world comes Tom Hark, a young technician sent from civilization to repair the colony's defective Artificial Intelligence...a kind of super-computer that guides the development of the colony.

Thus we are presented with three of science fiction's oldest cliches: the computer that takes over the world, the medieval society in the future, and the planet where the women are in charge. Of course Tom Hark's ship crashes, and of course he is taken captive by the Amazons of the planet. And of course there is an all-powerful religion to contend with, as well as a war going on...

Readers new to science fiction, or those who like variations on the same old tired themes, may like Double Nocturne. For everyone else, it is hardly worth the trouble.

The Starry Rift. James Tiptree, Jr. Tor. 250 pages. $14.95.

James Tiptree, Jr. (who is in reality Alice Sheldon) has a knack for wrapping the most elusive, abstract ideas in the most lyrical prose, thereby giving us all a glimpse of the reality that underlies life. The Starry Rift is a collection of three long stories, all set in the same future universe, in which she successfully tackles courage, love and truth in one big package.

The Starry Rift of the title is a vast, empty bit of space at the extreme frontier of the Federation. We read the tales of three different voyagers into the Rift, and each one is as delightful as it is mesmerising.

In "The Only Neat Thing to Do," (a Nebula Award nominee), a rich teenager in search of excitement finds one of the most original alien races in science fiction...and discovers what bravery is all about. "Good Night, Sweethearts" deals with a travelling Salvage officer who saves a space liner from pirates and confronts not one but two versions of a woman he loved and lost long ago. And in the final tale, "Collision," an interstellar war can be prevented only if two exploration crews -- one Human and one alien -- can see beyond misconceptions, illusions and hatred to the truth about one another.

Tiptree is a master of language and of character. Moreover, she manages to reach inside a reader and make him or her care, and care deeply, about the imaginary folk and worlds she creates. In all ways, she is a truly great writer, perhaps the greatest in science fiction today.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Songs of Distant Earth (1986)

This is another reprint review. It first appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Daily News in 1986.

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The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. Ballantine. $17.95. 256 pages

When "science fiction" is mentioned, Arthur Clarke's name is sure to come up. Even before he burst into public prominence with 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was a respected leader in the field. Although he ranks with such Golden Age giants as Asimov and Heinlein, Clarke's literary background has always been just a bit different. Born and raised in Somerset, England, his style owes as much to Wells, Huxley and Stapledon as it does to early American pulp sf writers like Smith, Campbell and Simak. Clarke's science is precise and his extrapolations exact; yet he writes in a lyrical style filled with a consciousness of the beauties of life.

More than a decade ago Clarke announced his retirement from writing -- since then, he has produced a string of "last" books ranging from the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama to his last runaway bestseller 2010: Odyssey Two, to several collections of nonfiction essays. Each "last book" is eagerly awaited, and each seems better than its predecessors. The Songs of Distant Earth is no exception.

Longtime Clarke readers will recognize the title; this book is loosely based on a 1957 short story. Those who have read the earlier work need not worry -- this current version is immeasurably better.

The story is set on the planet Thalassa: a watery world settled seven hundred years ago by automated seeder ships sent out by a doomed Earth to colonize the stars. The Thalassans are a gentle folk; the builders of the seed ships saw to it that only the best of Human knowledge went out into the universe with their progeny. The Thalassans have never known war, jealousy, murder or hate. They also have never known Earth -- except in age-old records, computerized databanks and music.

Into this tranquil garden comes an unexpected visitor: the starship Magellan, which carries the last survivors of the nova that destroyed Earth.

For the crewmen of Magellan, haunted by memories of Earth's destruction, Thalassa is merely a way-station; a planned stop where they can obtain supplies and make repairs. Earthmen and Thalassans face one another across a gap much wider than the lightyears that Magellan has travelled -- a gap of cultures. The Earthfolk bring many gifts to the Thalassans, but they also bring a threat. The people of Earth carry with them a heritage of passion, war and jealousy -- all the worst possibilities of Earth's culture, which Thalassa's creators labored so hard to eliminate. Magellan's visit lasts only one year -- but the effects of that visit will change Thalassan history forever.

The Songs of Distant Earth is written in a marvelously understated style which firmly guides the reader's imagination without stifling it. This technique is especially evocative in Clarke's descriptions of the violence of Earth's final days -- images of the melting Pyramids and boiling seas are haunting well after the book is done.

Although the clash of cultures is the main theme of The Songs of Distant Earth, the book abounds in well-drawn characters, both Earthmen and Thalassans. No character is more memorable than Earthman Moses Kaldor: a philosopher and religious leader, grief-stricken at the loss of his home world and his beloved wife. In Thalassa's timeless winds and gentle people he at last finds peace.

This book can be seen as a symbol of Clarke's concern with clashing cultures here on Earth -- it is easy to read the Earthmen as rich, decadent and corrupting Westerners, and the Thalassans as the third-world inhabitants of Clarke's own beloved Sri Lanka. But Clarke's message is no simplistic diatribe against the West; instead, he demonstrates the commonality of human experience, and shows how even two widely divergant cultures can each learn from one another. When Magellan departs, both Earthmen and Thalassans are much better off.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

November Column Submitted


Early this morning I finished and submitted my column for the November 2009 issue. In honor of the cover date and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, it's a very foody column. You'll see.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Star of Gypsies (1986)

Here's another reprint. This review appeared in The Baltimore Sun in 1986.

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Star of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg. Donald I. Fine, Inc. 397 pages. $18.95.

Robert Silverberg is undeniably one of the modern masters of science fiction. His career began in the late 1950s with a long apprenticeship writing sf potboilers; by the end of the sixties he had moved on to more mature works that earned him a place in the forefront of the so-called "New Wave" movement. The "New Wave" stressed characterization and literary quality over straight action/adventure tales and stories in which the characters were little more than vehicles for scientific ideas. Silverberg had found his metier, and in years to come his skill would only improve.

Despite several announced retirements and a rather strong mid-seventies denial that he was a science-fiction writer at all (this rejection of the sf label seems to be a stage through which all of the New Wave writers had to pass sooner or later), Silverberg keeps returning to the field. And each return brings work that is stronger, broader, more vital.

The action/adventure phase gave way to emotionally powerful novels of near-future Earths : The World Inside is a masterful study of overpopulation taken to its extreme; To Live Again examines a world in which the recorded personalities of the dead are implanted in the minds of the living; and The Second Trip is an ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde story. These seminal works guaranteed Silverberg a place in the higher ranks of sf writers; then his output moved away from the field, into almost-mainstream psychological novels that merely borrowed science-fictional themes.

In 1980 Silverberg returned to the field with a vengeance. Lord Valentine's Castle is a sprawling epic set on the far-future planet of Majipoor, the story of Lord Valentine's quest to find the great castle where he can claim his birthright. Majipoor is a world in which science fiction and fantasy become inextricably entwined: Lord Valentine's Castle and its companion books join the exalted ranks of those sf novels that actually become part of the genre of legend and myth. This new Silverberg, building upon all the strengths of his previous incarnations, is a modern successor to Homer, Virgil and John Milton: he is a teller of tales and a maker of myths.

Star of Gypsies is his best -- and most original -- foray into this new area.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would be prosaic: the bare bones of the plot concern a succession crisis in a future Galactic Empire, the telling of which is interspersed with flashbacks of the main character's life and travels to various worlds in the Empire and beyond. Hardly the stuff of myth. But Silverberg, master wordsmith and alchemist of the imagination, has touched this rather ordinary story, and turned it into something unexpected and wonderful.

The main character is Yakoub, King of Gypsies. In this future Empire, the Rom (as the Gypsies call themselves) have risen to Galactic power based on their mystical talents. Yakoub tells us the story of his long life, of the magnificent history of the Rom, and of the destiny of his people. For the Rom are not of Earth at all, and one day they will return to their long-lost homeworld, a small planet circling far-off Romany Star.

It is Yakoub who makes this story live. Centuries old, wise and yet humanly foolish, irreverant and bawdy, Yakoub is the embodiment of his people. It is Yakoub who brings reality to the absurd medieval Empire, to the ghosts and visions that pepper his story, to the wild and amazing places he has been. Who would believe a planet where rainbow fish swim through solid ice, or a world on which gold is plentiful as sand, or the living hell of Mentiroso where the very air makes you afraid? We believe, because Yakoub tells us it is so, and we feel we can trust Yakoub.

The universe of Star of Gypsies is a vast and marvelous one; Yakoub is one of the most finely-drawn and sheerly enjoyable characters in modern science fiction. From the moment you open the cover, you are drawn into Yakoub's world -- like Scheherezade, he will captivate you, entertain you, tell you of wonders and long-ago lands and a thousand things of which you never dreamed.

But Silverberg is a fine storyteller, and Yakoub is more than an old man reminiscing over his past. Together, they take the reader on a journey whose every step is well-planned, a journey toward a destination every bit as satisfying as the rest of the book. To reveal Yakoub's destiny -- which is the destiny of his people and of the whole Galaxy -- would be to cheat the reader out of one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. Open the cover...put yourself into the hands of Silverberg and Yakoub. You will not regret embarking upon this journey.

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ADDENDUM:

(26 June 2009): I received an email from Robert Silverberg, which contains the following factual correction:

I never denied that I was a science-fiction writer. That was Ellison. When I retired "forever" in 1975, I simply said that I was tired of writing. (And I was.) But I never claimed that I was anything but an s-f writer, and I still am willing to admit to it.


I'm happy to have the chance to set the record straight, even if it is 23 years later.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reviews From February 1985

This batch of short reviews appeared in The Baltimore Sun on February 24, 1985 and The Philadelphia Daily News around the same time. Subsequently, I received a postcard from James Tiptree, Jr. saying that she was glad to see at least one reviewer got the point of Brightness Falls From the Air.

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The newest crop of notable science fiction books spans four different generations of writers, and illustrates the continuing vitality of a field that has developed from pulp-magazine origins to bestseller status.

The Merchant's War. Frederik Pohl. St. Martin's. 209 pages. $13.95.

Frederik Pohl started writing in science fiction's Golden Age of the 1940's -- a contemporary of Asimov and Heinlein. His newest book is a sequel to his 1953 satirical masterpiece, The Space Merchants.

Once again Pohl returns to a future Earth ruled by advertising executives, a world where sales are everything, most folk are helpless, squalid consumers, and the freedom-loving colonists of Venus are the only ones who fight back against the system. Pohl's hero, Tennison Tarb, is a minor-level copywriter who becomes involved in a Dickensian journey through the worst aspects of the society. Tarb triumphs, however, and wins his way back to fortune and power -- and responsibility -- beyond his dreams.

This book lacks the biting satire of its predecessor; after thirty years, Pohl's future is no longer quite convincing and he gives us precious little background to support it. Tennison Tarb is a rather drab character, and it is hard to remain sympathetic. The book has some fine moments (most notably Tarb's method of advancing in a supermarket checkout line), but they can't really save the book. Pohl has done better.

Dayworld. Philip Jose Farmer. G. P. Putnam's Sons. 320 pages. $16.95.

Philip Jose Farmer was, in his time, one of science fiction's most pioneering authors. He was the first important writer to introduce human sexuality into science fiction; his Riverworld series is a classic in the genre. Now Farmer is a mature writer, using the tools of his trade with precision and skill -- and Dayworld is one of his best books.

In this future society, the problems of overpopulation and pollution have been solved by a creative use of suspended animation. Each day of the week, one-seventh of Earth's people awaken, live, and go back to sleep -- while the remaining six-sevenths wait in stasis for their turn. Monday's people never meet Firday's; Tuesday and Wednesday exist in the same space but never the same time. This is the world of Stoner civlization, and only the criminal "daybreakers" live continuous lives from day to day.

Jeff Caird is a daybreaker. He is also an "immer" -- member of a privileged and secretive minority who have discovered the gift of eternal life. In order to survive in Stoner society, Caird has created seven separate alter egos, one for each day of the week.

But when another immer turns traitor, Jeff Caird must use all his personalities to track the criminal across the week. And when that criminal murders Caird's Tuesday and Wednesday wives, Caird is caught in a chase that may cost him his life.

Detective story, action and suspense novel, and a psychological tour-de-force that questions the very roots of individuality...Dayworld is a rewarding story from a master craftsman.


Brightness Falls From the Air. James Tiptree, Jr. Tor. 382 pages. $14.95.

James Tiptree, Jr. -- pen name of author Racoona Sheldon -- came to prominence during the "New Wave" of the sixties and early seventies. Tiptree's poetic mastery of language and compassionate concern for human feelings marked her as a rising star in the science fiction world. Tiptree has been silent for almost a decade...and the wait was well worth it.

Brightness Falls From the Air, a sure contender for this year's Hugo and Nebula Awards, is a tale of beauty -- and the responses that beauty causes. It is a tale of those who admire beauty, those who would possess it, those who are indifferent to it...and those who would destroy it.

The Dameii, natives of the world Damien, are the most beautiful creatures in the known Galaxy. It is their misfortune that they produce a secretion that can be distilled into Mankind's most potent and satisfying drug. Years ago, the Dameii were tortured and exploited for the sake of this liquid, known as "Stars Tears," and only the armed intervention of the Federation was able to save the race. The Federation placed guardians on Dameii, and then withdrew.

Now, decades later, a baker's dozen tourists have come to Damien to witness a unique astronomical event: the passage of the last wavefront of a nearby nova.

During the long Damien day and night, tension mounts as the guardians begin to suspect that some of these tourists may have come for a more sinister reason -- to once again visit upon the Dameii the horror of Stars Tears.

Tiptree's characters and real and human; her word-portraits are exquisite; and her construction is flawless. The novel will leave you crying, hoping, jubilant, and in awe. This is surely a book that must not be missed.


Fire Watch. Connie Willis. Bluejay. 274 pages. $14.95.

Connie Willis is the newest science fiction superstar, a writer of the new generation of the eighties. This book, a collection of her short stories, is an excellent introduction to a woman who is destined to become a major talent in the field.

Here is her Nebula-winning short story "A Letter from the Clearys" -- a disturbingly realistic version of a post-Holocaust world. Here is the powerful title story, Hugo and Nebula winner "Fire Watch": in which a time-tripper loses -- and finds -- his soul in the World War II firebombing of Saint Paul's Cathedral. And here is a riveting and disturbing new story, "All my Darling Daughters," which examines human relationships in a new light.

Twelve stories altogether make this collection a true bargain.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

SF Universe #2 (1988)

This is a reprint of my second SF Universe column for the late, lamented Wilson Library Bulletin. This column appeared in 1988.

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In the science fiction house there are many mansions -- the two major ones are Science Fiction and Fantasy. Far too much time and ink have been wasted over the years in attempting to draw a line between these two genres, and I don't intend to waste more now. Suffice it to say that sf generally deals with things (like missions to Mars, genetic surgery, and lifeforms on distant planets) that are possible within the framework of current knowledge, while fantasy concentrates on those things (like elves, wizards and magic spells) which are impossible so far as we know.

Science fiction fans come in three varieties: Those who read both sf and fantasy, those who prefer only sf, and those who read nothing but fantasy. Life being what it is, individuals in the latter two groups usually marry one another.

This month, we have something for everyone.

Frederik Pohl is a legend in the sf field. In his 45-year career he has played every possible role: fan, editor, agent...and writer. His latest book, Narabedla, Ltd., is a page-turner chock full of excitement, adventure and Pohl's own brand of good-natured satire, sure to please sf lovers.

Nolly Stennis once had a promising opera career, until an adult case of mumps stole his golden throat. So he became an accountant specializing in the tax returns of opera stars. One thing haunted him: the multi-billion dollar conglomerate Narabedla Ltd.

Narabedla had once made Nolly a strange offer: a tremendous salary for a musical tour to parts unspecified, the only condition being that he would be totally out of touch with the rest of the world. Disease intervened, and Nolly never accepted Narabedla's offer. But some of his clients received the same offer, and those who accepted...vanished.

Nolly Stennis is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be -- he is Everyman, who in his own bumbling fashion starts investigating Narabedla. A few cloak-and-dagger episodes later, he is knocked unconscious, and awakes in the strangest place he has ever seen.

For Narabedla, you see, is nothing more than a backwards spelling of the star Aldebaran...and Nolly's adventures on the second moon of Aldebaran's seventh planet would drive any man mad.

Narabedla's business is performers: for centuries, the company has been kidnapping singers, actors and dancers, then sending them on tours throughout the Galaxy.

Any red-blooded man would want to escape and return to Earth, and Nolly is no exception. Not even the knowledge that some of his fellow performers are hundreds of years old, kept young by Narabedla's advanced science, can keep him from wanting to return home.

But then Narabedla offers to restore his lost voice...

Nolly Stennis is every one of us, faced with a shocking, unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous new world. Yet when the chips are down, there's a heroism within him that agrees with something w‚e‚ feel. Fred Pohl makes us laugh at ourselves; yet at the same time he makes us aware of what a truly wonderful thing it is to be human.

(Incidentally, Pohl is not the first to pull the "Narabedla" trick -- the word also occurs in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Falcons of Narabedla, which was first published in 1957.)



Those who prefer fantasy will not be disappointed by John Gregory Betancourt's The Blind Archer. It has a wizard, a quest, all-powerful gods and evil demons -- in short, everything that makes a good fantasy.

Young Ker Orrum is the son of the Baron of Vilchir. His father wants Ker to become a scholar, but Ker desires to learn magic and become a wizard. On his thirteenth birthday, Ker makes a traditional pilgrimage to the village Oracle, and his life changes. The Oracle tells him that he is fated to win a great ruby that belongs to the god Derethigon (the blind archer of the title).

Against his father's wishes, Ker sets out on this task. It isn't long before he runs into Derethigon, who challenges Ker to an archery contest. Brash and foolhardy, Ker agrees -- and unsurprisingly, he loses to the god. Derethigon, laughing, claims his prize: he steals Ker's face.

Blind, mute and unable to smell, Ker stumbles away. But then a wizard, one of Derethigon's servants, takes pity on him. "Serve me for five years," he tells the boy, "And I will get your face back."

Now begins the real tale. The wizard, whose name is Biur, takes Ker back to Treshemna, the magical kingdom of the gods. Ker becomes Biur's apprentice, and starts learning the ways of magicAlmost at once, Biur and Ker set forth on a holy mission, tracking down some demons who have stolen the sacred bones of the god Shon Atasha. On that mission, Ker learns more of magic and its strange ways than he ever wished, and finally finds true fulfillment and the meaning of his life.

The success of a book like The Blind Archer depends largely upon its concept of magic. In Betancourt's world, magic is an inborn talent, like singing or gymnastics, which requires rigorous practice and coaching -- rather than a discipline like accounting which can be learned. Ker Orrum has the talent, Biur provides the coaching, and events conspire to force Ker to practice. His transition from inexperienced beginner to full wizard takes the entire book, and is completely believable.

In the final analysis, this is a book about growing up. When we first meet Ker, he is a typical twelve-year-old: impulsive, emotional, rebellious and somewhat paranoid. Based on nothing more than an oracle's prediction, he challenges a god -- only when it's too late does he realize that he's been stupid. Throughout the story, Ker's pride and his inexperience are the obstacles he must overcome.

Overcome them he does, to the reader's great amusement. The Blind Archer will be a popular book for adolescent readers, especially those who like stories of wizards and magic; adults, too, will enjoy watching Ker bumble his way to the threshold of manhood.


Every Easter weekend a group of Baltimore sf fans presents the Compton Crook Memorial Award for the best new sf novel of the previous year. (Compton Crook was a Baltimore-area sf writer who published under the pseudonym "Stephen Tall.") This year's winner of the Crook Award is one of those rare books which will appeal to readers of both fantasy and sf.

Christopher Hinz's Liege-Killer is set in the year 2307. In the 21st century the world ended: wars, ecological disasters and economic collapse left most of Earth's surface completely lifeless. The worst element of the Apocalypse were the dreaded Paratwa -- products of genetic manipulation, more-than-human creatures bred for fighting. No army, let alone any single man, could stand against a Paratwa armed with the terrible Cohe wand.

Under the direction of the E-Tech Alliance, Mankind moved into space. Now, two centuries later, over a billion people live in the Colonies, artificial habitats in Earth orbit. The society of the Colonies is a peaceful one, a happy and rewarding one for most of its citizens.

Rome Franco, current director of E-Tech and one of the most influential men in the Colonies, is satisfied -- until the morning when he hears of a murder in Lamalan Colony. Further investigation reveals an awful truth: a Paratwa assassin has been reanimated, and is free.

Following his predecessors' instructions for such a calamity, Rome reanimates two sleepers from the past: two men who fought -- and defeated -- Paratwa in the pre-Apocalyptic world. But as his investigation continues, Rome uncovers layer upon layer of hidden meanings, assumed identities and centuries-long secret schemes. Do the Paratwa still exist...and are they still planning the ultimate conquest of Humanity? By awakening the sleepers, has Rome saved his civilization...or doomed it?

Christopher Hinz has written a thriller, an adventure story, a brilliant sf novel and a powerful fantasy all within one cover. There is enough fighting, enough scheming, enough scientific and sociological extrapolation, enough characterization and more than enough well-developed background to hold any reader. The world of the Colonies is shown in loving detail; the complex plot unfolds in a straightforward and inevitable manner, with each surprise coming in exactly the right place and with exactly the right amount of foreshadowing.

If Hinz's writing is sometimes a bit unpolished, it doesn't matter...the excitement of the book keeps us glued. If the book seems somewhat too strongly flavored with trendy "cyberpunk" elements, we are quick to forgive. Liege-Killer is a joy to read, a story that stays in the mind long after the last page is done. The Crook Award committee made the right choice: this is the best first novel to come around in a long time. Would that many veteran writers could turn out a story this good!

There we have it: one for the sf fanciers, one for the fantasy devotees, and one for everybody who likes a good book no matter what the genre.

BOOKS REVIEWED:

Narabedla, Ltd.
by Frederik Pohl. Del Rey, 1988. $16.95. 375 pages.

The Blind Archer‚ by John Gregory Betancourt. Avon, 1988. $2.95. 233 pages.

Liege-Killer by Christopher Hinz. St. Martin's Press, 1987. $3.95. 458 pages.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Invaders Plan (1985)

It's my intention to post my past reviews here, so that they can be preserved for posterity (and so that readers can judge my track record). This one was written for the Baltimore Sun and appeared in 1985. Since then, L. Ron Hubbard has quite definitely been established to be no longer alive.

The Invaders Plan by L. Ron Hubbard. Bridge Publications, Inc. 603 pages. $18.95.

L. Ron Hubbard should be a fictional character. The man's life seems drawn from the pages of the pulp magazines in which he started his writing career. Hubbard is many things to many people: Messiah, cynic, millionaire recluse, myth -- in recent years there has been doubt as to whether the man is even alive.

Hubbard began his career as a writer of pulp adventure stories in 1930. His first science fiction story appeared in 1938. In the next dozen years he became a fairly popular figure in science fiction's so-called Golden Age, producing a few stories and novels that are read with enjoyment even today.

Final Blackout, his most regarded work, is a dark and powerful novel of Europe completely decimated by a generation of total war. The bleak life of the survivors, as they travel to England to re-establish order, is shown in despairing detail. This cautionary tale became something of a legend in science fiction.

Hubbard's life changed in 1950, when he became the first (and so far only) sf writer to found a serious religion. Others -- Heinlein, Herbert, Zelazny -- have their cult followings, but none can match Hubbard's accomplishments. Beginning with a series of articles in 1950, Hubbard laid out the tenants of his science Dianetics, which became gospel to the religion of Scientology. There are over a million Scientologists worldwide, and Hubbard is Pope, guru, and High Priest of the church.

Following Dianetics, Hubbard fell away from the science fiction world. His name became something of a standing joke in science fiction fandom, and apocryphal stories hold that he spent his last years in the field cynically telling other authors that they could make more money by "applying their ideas to the real world."

Hubbard, meanwhile, laughed all the way to the bank. Rumor makes him a multi-millionaire; certainly he no longer had to write to keep himself comfortable.

In 1980 Hubbard burst on the science fiction scene in a most dramatic fashion -- with the publication of the massive and highly-successful bestseller Battlefield Earth. The book owes much to Hubbard's pulp background, but it is a fast-paced and surprisingly readable story of alien invasion in the year 3000. Hubbard's return to writing was explained as a celebration of his fiftieth anniversary as a professional writer.

Rumor and controversy continued to dog Hubbard's heels, though. Despite the publication of Battlefield Earth, many began to believe that Hubbard was dead. He had not appeared in public nor granted interviews since 1966; finally, Hubbard's own son started court action to have his father declared either dead or mentally incompetent.

The court eventually settled the question of Hubbard's status through written documents and the testimony of his associates. To the popular imagination, though, the question still nags: is Hubbard indeed dead?

Now this mythic, almost fictional character has produced another science fiction book, probably destined to become as much a bestseller as its predecessor. It's just a pity that the book doesn't live up to its promise.

The Invaders Plan may be the finest science fiction novel of 1933. Certainly it has nothing -- in ideas, plot, characterization, or writing -- to commend it to an audience in the 1980s.

This book, itself almost as long as Battlefield Earth, is the first volume in a promised (or threatened?) series of ten billed as "the biggest science fiction dekalogy ever written." No one can deny that the book is big; even promotional literature from the publisher does not claim that it is good.

The plot is simplistic. The 110-planet Volatrian Confederacy is involved in an endless interstellar war of conquest -- but the nefarious Lombar Hisst has plans of his own. Hisst heads the Apparatus: a division of the Confederacy government that seems devoted to torture, espionage, and other dreadful doings. Hisst sends the narrator, one Soltan Gris, to the planet Blito-P3 (Earth) in the company of a virtuous Space Patrol agent named Jettero Heller. Gris and Heller are supposed to infiltrate Earth's society and turn our world into a weapon for Hisst's dastardly schemes.

The rest of the story is as pathetic as it is predictable. Noble Heller defeats the scheming Gris at every turn, remaining perfectly loyal to the Confederacy and derailing the Apparatus plans.

Whatever its other flaws, Battlefield Earth was written in a fast-paced adventure style. The writing in this present novel is worthy of a talented ten-year-old. Hubbard's paragraphs are sprinkled with childish outcries, exclamation points, and clumsy sentences that outdo the worst excesses of early pulp writers like E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton. Hubbard uses a number of devices that will drive the modern reader to distraction: the worst of these is the "(Bleep)" behind which he conceals his expletives.

The writing is fit for the nineteen-thirties; today it is helplessly dated and pathetically funny.

There is no real characterization -- the actors in Hubbard's interminable drama are cardboard cutouts of Virtue, Vice, Cruelty, and others that would be at home in a medieval morality play.

Hubbard's sense for scientific plausibility -- usually rather keen although understated -- went on vacation while he was writing The Invaders Plan. It is clear early on that he doesn't understand quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the other staples of modern physics; soon enough it becomes painfully obvious that he doesn't bother to understand nineteenth-century physics or biology or psychology, and is hazy on such matters as meteorology and elementary astronomy. A science fiction writer does not have to be a scientist, but he must be able to speak the language of science convincingly. Hubbard couldn't convince a bright high-school Freshman.

The flaws of the book -- its primitive language, lack of characterization, simplistic plot and total disregard of modern science -- are flaws appropriate to the novels of the thirties. The same criticisms can be levelled against any number of books that are classics of the field. The Invaders Plan may be the best sf book of 1933, but in 1985 it is almost unreadable. This might almost be a manuscript that Hubbard completed in the thirties and never sold.

Which brings us back to the question of Hubbard's current existence. On the basis of Battlefield Earth, many concluded that Hubbard was alive and well. The Invaders Plan may cause people to change their minds -- what living author with a shred of self-respect would allow this trash to be published without massive revision? It might be persuasively argued that this book could only have been released by people who did not know the field, and had not done any reading of contemporary science fiction at all.

Hubbard's life has been one of surprise after surprise, of applying science fiction's sense of wonder to real life. Might he not have more surprises waiting for us? L. Ron Hubbard has been laughing for a long, long time -- living or dead, he may have the last laugh yet.