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.


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

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.