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.


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.


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.


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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

July/August Column Up

My column in the July/Agust 2009 issue of Analog is up here.

The theme this time around: literature vs SF. Books reviewed:
  • The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
  • Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe
  • We'll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury
  • The Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.

Friday, May 8, 2009

October Column Turned In

Early yesterday morning I finished my October 2009 column and transmitted it to Analog.

Now to start reading for next month....

June Analog Column

My June 2009 Analog column is up here. Books reviewed:
  • The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko
  • City at the End of Time by Greg Bear
  • All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
  • Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress
  • The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
  • Death From the Skies! by Philip Plait, Ph.D.

Comment here or on the Analog Reader Forums.