Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard



J.G. Ballard is a renowned writer across many fields of literature.  From science fiction catastrophes like The Drowned World to the highly experimental, post-modern literary collage comprising The Atrocity Exhibition, the semi-autobiographical The Empire of the Sun to the controversial social commentary of Crash, urban dystopias like High-Rise to free-form representation of the art and ideology of William Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company—Ballard’s oeuvre covers a lot of ground.  All novels, seemingly only people in the know are aware of what a powerful short story writer Ballard was.  The transition to short form not something every great writer can do, Ballard made it look easy—the ideas and themes of his novels deftly rendered in a dense, paucity of pages.  His 1964 collection The Terminal Beach contains some of his best.

Opening the collection is one of Ballard’s most straight-forward pieces of fiction: “A Question of Re-entry” starts in Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness mode, but quickly gets conspiratorial, science fiction style.  A UN agent named Connelly hires a boat captain to pilot him deep into the jungles of South America and find a crashed space shuttle. Arriving at their first waypoint, Connelly meets a half-crazed foreigner who lords over the village and its native inhabitants.  Something inexplicable about the foreigner, Connelly’s search for the fallen craft ends up turning over more than he expected.  The story lacking a lot of the psychology and symbolism Ballard is known for, the stripped down piece nevertheless reads very Ballardian, even as it represents humanity’s penchant for megalomania and criticizes the US space program.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of Brute Orbits by George Zebrowski

What to do with malevolent people? It is a question every society, no matter how big or small, must answer. Kill them? Incarcerate them? Let them go free? If incarcerated, in what conditions? Bare minimum? Luxurious? Average standard of living? What rights should they have? Education? Roof? Communication with the outside world? Time in nature? Three meals a day? Medical facilities? Daylight? And beyond, in the society they came from, does the threat of punishment in fact reduce malevolence? A short, bare-bones novel compared to the size of the subject matter just described, George Zebrowski’s 1998 Brute Orbits attempts to address these very questions.

It is undoubtedly the opinion of much of civilized society that the bad apples should be separated from the good. Taking this premise and running with it, Brute Orbits posits a near-future scenario where the world’s convicted criminals are packed aboard asteroids rigged up as living modules and sent hurtling into solar orbit. The groups segregated to some degree, one asteroid is home to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other violent criminals. Another is a mix of men and women convicted of white-collar crimes. And still another is teenagers and other delinquents who have broken the law in rash moments of youth. And there are other asteroids. The convicts told the length of their orbits before sent spinning into space, the isolation has a different effect on them all. But does it affect their humanity?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter



‘Savory’ and ‘gritty’ are not two words that typically go hand in hand describing a novel.  One rich and full and the other edgy and rough, casting through my thoughts trying to quantify Angela Carter’s magnificent The Magic Toyshop (1967), I keep returning to the dichotomy, however.  A fleshed out experience with detail that brings the story to life, the novel nevertheless possesses an edge of quotidian realism that grounds it in something wiser, more fatalistic, and more human for it. 

Gorgeous prose telling a gorgeously dark story, The Magic Toyshop is a few months in the life of young Melanie.  Eldest daughter to an upper-middle class British family, she and her younger brother and sister enjoy the comforts of life, even as her parents are not often around.  At fifteen, her body, and her thoughts regarding her physical self, are changing.  But nothing changes her as much as a tragedy that strikes one day.  Forced to leave her home and live with an uncle, Melanie’s youth takes a drastic, unexpected left turn.  The uncle, named Philip, is a surly toymaker and runs a strict, depressing home.  Philip married to an energetic Irish woman named Margaret, however, Melanie finds solace in the new situation through her aunt’s kindness.  It remains uncertain, however what Margaret’s two brothers, Finn and Francis, have to offer.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review of The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart



From setting to style, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds is one of those amazing novels that simply defies categorization.  ‘Comedy fantasy’ about the shortest one can describe it without descending into broader, vague descriptions, it is a wan term that doesn’t come close to clueing the reader in just how unique the novel is.  A success, Hughart looked to continue the story of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in 1988 with The Story of the Stone.  The humor returning in full form yet the story taken in a new, equally singular direction, the follow-up it is every bit the success of the original.

Set once again in a “China that never was”, The Story of the Stone, like Bridge of Birds, remains a wildly fantastical parallel to the Middle Kingdom.  The clever Master Li (the man with “a slight flaw to his character”) along with the young, strong Number Ten Ox are now a team, thus when a monk from a local monastery comes to the two’s home, telling of an inexplicable murder that occurred in the cloisters, the pair set out to investigate.  Discovering an apparently forged and therefore useless ancient manuscript beside the body, Master Li turns to rumors of the Laughing Prince having been at the scene.  The ghost of an evil prince who died centuries earlier, Master Li and Number Ten Ox dig into the Prince’s opulent tomb, only to have the intrigue heighten in what they find.  A trip to the capital required to answer further questions, the ethereal Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn join the team.   Master Li hot on the scent, he rides Number Ten’s shoulders, looking to get to the heart of it all: a mysterious grey stone. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P. Blaylock



James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives has quietly become of one the greatest fictional adventurers of all time.  Since 1978 his globe-trotting escapades featuring dirigibles and nefarious clockwork devices, time travel and giant kraken, space rockets and uncanny carp, have appeared in print in one form or another.  From short story to novel, fourteen different stories have appeared as of 2016, and likely more to come.  Subterranean bringing together the first set of adventures into an omnibus edition and adding a plethora of complementary artwork from J.K. Potter, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (2008) collects the stories that introduced the gentleman scientist and his trusty comrades to the fictional world.

Collecting two novels and four short stories, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives opens with the first-ever story published featuring Langdon St Ives.  “The Ape-Box Affair” (1978) has many of the trademarks of Golden Age fantastika yet bears a modern sensibility—an awareness of of what it’s doing.  An eccentric gentleman scientist, Langdon St. Ives, has built a rocket ship, and his test pilot is an orangutan named Newton.  Forgetting to fill the food box before lighting the fuse, however, has dire circumstances, as the ape, cheated of his vittles mid-flight, sets to pushing buttons, sending the ship careening back to London.  Emerging from the wreckage a smoldering, alien visage, London may never be the same as Newton wanders the city.  Quite simple a story that may define the word ‘uproarious’… 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review of The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

As of the beginning of the 21st century, it’s arguable whether or not Edgar Rice Burroughs predominantly influenced the American science fiction scene and H.G. Wells the British.  Cross-pollination of all styles and forebears the state of the current game, I would nevertheless point to the influx of sf fluff in the American market in the years following Burroughs’ success compared to the lack thereof in Britain as an indication, at least in the beginning, of such sway.  Simply put, as the early 20th century got on with itself, more considered, sophisticated sf material was coming from Old Albion.  Writers like Olaf Stapledon, C.S. Lewis, Naomi Mitchison, and others show clear influence of Wells.  As do later writers, including Brian Aldiss, D.G. Compton, Michael Coney, Ian Watson among them.  One other British writer influenced by Wells is Christopher Priest, and in 1976 he penned an open homage to the father of British sf called The Space Machine.

Young salesman Edward Turnbull has the meeting of a lifetime while on the road one day. Attempting to cash in on the trend for motor cars, he peddles goggles for the Sunday driver, and in doing so meets the lovely Miss Emily Fitzgibbons at an inn.  The young lady’s overseer ensuring the two spend as little time together as possible, a spark is nevertheless lit, and upon his return to London Edward receives an invitation to visit Emily at the estate of her uncle, a rich, eccentric inventor.  Over drinks, the young couple decide to test out his time machine to see a few years into the future.  The blind twist of a knob here and an accidental kick to an instrument there, and the two are winging their way through space and time to ends unknown.  Awaking in a strange place with red weeds and a strange, pallid coldness to the air, it takes the two some time to figure out where, in fact, those ends are.  It takes them even longer, a fact supported by the capture, enslavement, wars, and otherwise inadvertent detours the two are put through, to even consider getting back to turn of the 20th century England.  And when they do, well, it’s nothing like they left it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review of Lexicon by Max Barry

What are some standard tropes of fantasy? Wizards, incantations, duels of magic, schools for magic, numinous objects, farmboys with undiscovered powers, light romance, world traipsing adventures—they are on the list, right? And, what if we took this body of tropes and trotted them out dressed in the clothes of a 21st century conspiracy thriller? Why, we would have Max Barry’s 2013 Lexicon, wouldn’t we? Enough of the questions.

A secret organization known as the Poets scour the world’s cities looking for new members, all the while their Academy trains would-be members in the arts of personality recognition and neuro-lingual hacking. Yes, neuro-lingual hacking. By identifying a person’s personality type, poets are able to utter secret code words (handed down through generations, undoubtedly) matching said personality type to bring said person under their said control—a subservient automaton, as they say.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of Lord Kelvin's Machine by James Blaylock

Between the mid 70s and early 80s, James Blaylock occasionally played in a Victorian England sandbox of his own creation.  A short story here and short story there, the scientist cum adventurer Langdon St. Ives was having himself a variety of steampunk (before there was Steampunk) escapades around the globe.  The stories paving the way for a novel, Homunculus appeared in 1986.  A success, Blaylock looked to develop lengthier material in St. Ives’ world, and in 1992 extended the short story “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” into a novel of the same name.

A different approach to storytelling than Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine shifts away from the picaresque, and closer to the darker, more dramatic.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and other such stories of the late 19th and early 20th century whispering from the wings, Blaylock digs deeper into Langdon St. Ives’ head while expanding established material in highly adventurous, world-wheeling form.  From world destroying comets to time machines, volcano chases to doppelgangers, storytelling remains front and center even as mood darkens.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of Invisible Planets ed. by Ken Liu

Global diversity is a key term to discussing 21st century science fiction. From Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF series of anthologies to Afro SF, The Future is Japanese to Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, these and many other compilations of short science fiction from abroad, not to mention individual novels and short stories, have expanded English language readers’ perspective of what science fiction can be. Adding a strong voice to the contemporary field are Chinese writers. And a lot of the availability of Chinese sf in English is due to the work Ken Liu. In 2016 Macmillan-Tor/Forge compiled many of his translations into a single volume, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation the result.

Grouped by author, Invisible Planets contains thirteen short stories and three essays from Chinese writers, all originally published in Chinese and later translated by Ken Liu. Several of the stories already known to English language readers of short science fiction, Clarkesworld, Interzone, award nominations, and other venues are represented. Variety inherent to style and content, the stories run the gamut of cyberpunk to humanism, satirical to fantastical, soft to hard science fiction, which, aside the cultural aspect, is one of the main draws to the anthology.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye

The ‘brain in a vat’ scenario is a classic thought experiment rooted in inquiries into ontology, materialism, and epistemology. Positing the idea that it’s possible our brains are merely connected to neural stimulators which simulate reality, it asks: how can we know whether we exist in true reality or a simulated reality? While the Matrix trilogy of films is perhaps most famous for exploiting the idea in fictional form, brain-in-a-vat has been a part of science fiction for decades. Putting a dystopian, commercial spin on the concept is Daniel Galouye’s sound 1964 novel Simulacron-3*.

Researchers are hard at work developing a total environment reality simulator called Simulacron-3. Participation in marketing surveys mandatory for the populace, the simulator is intended to replace street corners pollsters who interrupt people’s daily commutes to gather information for companies seeking to better advertize and sell their products. Things take an unexpected turn when one of the simulator’s scientists, Douglas Hall, learns that the lead scientist Hannon Fuller has died under mysterious circumstances. Meeting with Fuller’s family to glean what he can from the dead man’s notes, Hall attempts to continue the research. Exasperating matters is that another scientist vanishes, seemingly into thin air. But when a man emerges from Simulacron-3 VR immersion claiming that Hall’s reality is also simulated, the rabbit hole truly opens, and there’s no looking back.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review of Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

The Lethal Weapon series of films in the 80s and 90s were quite popular. Epitomizing the action-comedy sub-genre, the series relied on the old-standby of a wise-cracking duo caught up in exciting chases and shootouts. While Lethal Weapon remains low-brow Hollywood fluff, the racial dynamics of the starring roles were far less common. Taking the cue from Riggs and Murtaugh, Joe R. Lansdale went about creating his own salt and pepper dynamic duo in 1990’s Savage Season, this time of the blue-collar Texan variety.

An average couple of Joes caught in a money grab gone wrong, Hap and Leonard exude every inch of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. A conscientious objecter during the Vietnam War, when Hap Collins is released from prison, he attempts to start over, and gets employment at a local rose farm in Texas. Meeting the surly Leonard Pine as a result, the two form a friendship based on common interests in martial arts, drinking beers, and taking the piss out of one another. Hap’s ex-wife coming back into his life unexpectedly one day, she brings in tow a get-rich-quick scheme. Hap enlisting the reluctant Leonard, the two join forces with the ex-wife and a pair of leftover hippy idealists, trying to find a cache of money supposedly lost by a group of bank robbers. It isn’t long before the tables start turning, and duo find themselves in over their head.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review of The Deathbird and Other Stories by Harlan Ellison

There are few writers in speculative fiction who have proven themselves as long-lasting as Harlan Ellison. An award nominated and winning career spanning five decades, the audiobook collection of his ‘best’ stories now stretches to four volumes. Voice from the Edge Volume 4: The Deathbird and Other Stories brings together the renowned stories from the latter phases of the author’s career. Unavoidable, Ellison’s unique narration stands front and center, and, as with the other three volumes in the Edge series, fully complements the original written material.

Autobiographical fantasy, the opening “story” in the collection, called “Ellison Wonderland”, likewise doubles as the collection’s introduction—or at least an imaginative glimpse into the mind (madness?) of a/the writer. Interesting enough (no coincidence intended), the story closing the collection, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”, also contains strong elements of autobiography. The story tells of a man who creates a 5-inch homunculus for his own pleasure, and the eventual public backlash (predominantly from conservative viewpoints) against the little guy. The tiny man purported to be a product of the devil rather than an individual right to create and own, Ellison, as he has done throughout his career, sets a major component of the establishment in his crosshairs to delightful, and dare I say upon the conclusion, sympathetic effect (*sniffle*).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of Version Control by Dexter Palmer



For most of us in the west, the manner in which life is channeled through the internet and the way media and people around us perpetually reinforce the perceived importance of science and technology, are now commonplace.  In tandem with our daily social interaction at work or school, we think nothing of maintaining a wide variety of online profiles/personalities, being social without being physically present, walking in a bubble of headphones, mobile phone or other gadgetry, and, generally speaking, existing at a virtual distance from tangible existence.  On the other end of that line, the related activities are being measured to greater and greater detail, to the point nearly everything we do is quantified in some fashion by somebody, often even ourselves.  Personal as well as Big Data being collected for a variety of purposes, our identities are scattered to social, corporate, consumer, and bureaucratic winds, and reconsolidated in one form or another for a variety of purposes.  Corporeal existence seemingly the last bastion for the idea of self as a whole, even self-perception renders that subjective.  Enter Dexter Palmer’s superb 2016 novel, Version Control. 

Rebecca Wright is an ordinary millennial.  Growing up in suburban New Jersey to a largely normal family, she goes to university, does relatively well, makes meaningful friendships while studying, and graduates believing a career is waiting for her.  Living with her parents while working a wide variety of part-time jobs throughout her 20s, Rebecca is nevertheless able to maintain her bffs from university.  The girls regularly going out for drinking and fun, the dynamic starts to change the older they get.  One by one the friends start relationships that slowly split the group apart, mostly through a dating website called Loveability.  Eventually, Rebecca gives in and creates her own profile.  Meeting the experimental physicist Philip Steiner, things take an unexpected turn in her life.  Phillip older than Rebecca by a few years, and possessing a personality far differently tuned from her own, Rebecca’s grounded, relaxed view contrasts heavily with his purposeful and abstract mindset.  But their marriage is only the beginning of changes in Rebecca’s life.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Perhaps no one was more surprised at the success of 2014’s Europe in Autumn than Dave Hutchinson himself. The novel’s ending what Adam Roberts described as a “knight’s move”, it did, however, give Hutchinson room—a lot of room—to expand the story. Opting for the series route, in 2015 a second novel appeared, Europe at Midnight. Running parallel to Autumn rather than extending its storyline, Hutchinson dug into the new setting presented by the knight’s move, while introducing other players in the game. 2016 sees the release of Europe in Winter (Solaris), the next (and penultimate?) novel in Hutchinson’s Fragmented Europe setting.

Rudi, the central figure of Europe in Autumn, was essentially a non-factor in Europe at Midnight. But he returns in Europe in Winter as the crux. While much of the narrative focuses on new characters and scenes, Rudi’s actions and decisions are the main river into which those tributaries dump their story. In fact, his drive to use the Coureurs to get into the nuts and bolts of the Community is the hinge upon which the novel swings. Perhaps the most plot-heavy novel of the series to date, Rudi’s deeper interest in the Community is triggered by a terrorist event on the Line at the outset of the novel. The Line a railway that is likewise as a polity, its autonomous traverse of the European continent is interrupted by a massive bomb. Not everything as it appears in the clean up, answers to Rudi’s questions are not readily available, and the further he digs, the larger the implications for Europe—fragmented, united, or alternate(d)—become.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye

With settings a toe or foot beyond the real world, science fiction is a literature which must often re-balance the elements of story in order to make room for itself. Character depth and rich verisimilitude the usual sacrificial offerings, science fiction can come across as a simplistic literature as a result. Golden Age sf is, indeed, so basic as to be fairy tale-ish. But in other cases, the simplicity can become something more; the author takes advantage of the possibilities inherent to their creation to assign additional levels of significance to its humble surface elements. Daniel Galouye’s Dark Universe (1961), as mythopoeic as the story is at heart, is one such novel. And did I mention setting?

Jared is one of the most daring members of his underground group of survivors. Enjoying his time alone in the pitch black caves and caverns they call home, he is experienced in echo reading and killing soo-bats. Click-stones constantly in hand sounding the way ahead, he tells no one that his real quest in life is not mere survival, but also to find light and darkness—concepts his group discuss only in religious tones. Believing demons of radiation haunt the under and overworld, the elders chastise Jared upon discovering the extent of his explorations, warning him of inhuman monsters in the depths and the dangers of another group of mutant humans called zivvers roaming the caverns. But Jared’s biggest problem may be the social pressure to unify. A girl named Della proposed for him, Jared initially feels the relationship will be unhelpful, a burden hindering his quest. That is, until he discovers more to Della than meets the ear.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Non-Fiction: Review of Sailing Alone around the World by Joshua Slocum



Sailing is one of civilized society’s most romantic endeavors.  Plying the world’s blue waters with nothing but a warm breeze and a sunset on the horizon brings cozy, enviable images to mind.  And sailing alone around the world?  Like scaling the highest peaks or cave diving to the deepest depths, such individual accomplishment appeals to the Western mind.  In the 21st century, world records for sailing solo around the world seem a contest of time (youngest, oldest, fastest, etc.…), but toward the end of the 19th century, apparently nobody of any age had done it.  Accomplishing the feat between 1895 and 1898, Joshua Slocum wrote about his experiences in the mysteriously titled Sailing Alone around the World.

Full of can-do American spirit, in 1895 Joshua Slocum looked to translate his many years of merchant marine experience into a solo sailing experience around the globe.  After refurbishing a 36 foot sloop named the Spray, Slocum set out from Boston for Europe one fine summer day, and never looked back.  Returning to Boston by way of Gibraltar, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego, Samoa, Australia, and Cape Horn, his was a long trip, during which a lot of interesting people were met with, and, as seems natural, the occasional adventure.  (The goat may be the best.)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney

Gritty, realistic, violent, pseudo-Spartan—these are the main adjectives characterizing Paul Kearney’s Macht series to date. Plot-driven worldbuilding, The Ten Thousand and Corvus have been prime examples of grimdark without the standard, medieval sword & sorcery fa├žade. The conclusion of Corvus requiring an additional novel, Kings of Morning (2011) completes the trilogy, though not in a manner the reader might assume.

Reversing the tables of The Ten Thousand, Kings of Morning opens in Kufr, and rumors of a massive Macht army approaching, bent on conquer. The situation in Kefran royalty anything but stable, the old king watches his two sons position themselves to kill the other and take his place as next in line, all the while his estranged wife plays political games behind the scenes, maintaining her own realm of power. Corvus, with the hardy Rictus among his generals, does indeed have his sights set on Kufr, and one city after another makes steady progress toward the capital, Ashura. The Kefran king, ignoring his familial troubles, musters the troops in response and rides out for a clash that will decide the kingdom.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

I am often a visual thinker, and upon completion of the third and final book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: Southern Reach trilogy called Acceptance, I’m left with the image of a person standing. Annihilation forms one leg and Authority the other, while Acceptance forms the remainder of the body. Another way of saying this is, where Annihilation and Authority are capable of standing alone, Acceptance is built on the two novels, and in turn gives the overall storyline its complete visage.

And I have this image in mind for a few reasons. Annihilation, while flashing back to the Biologist’s life in the real world, was primarily set inside Area X. Authority was the opposite; Control read accounts and saw video of others’ experiences inside the strange region, but his story was set in the real-world, the world outside the physics-defying barrier separating Area X from normality. Acceptance is set in both, as well as stretches the timeframe to the series' max.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

There are a lot of ways to get yourself out of a hole. Get a dog, drown yourself in work, take up a new hobby, and if all else fails, become a Christian—ha!, just kidding. (Buy a motorcycle; it will be more fun.) Another common enough approach is writing; keeping a journal is one way to get the funk out. Writing fiction is another. Surely there are many writers who have taken their frustrations with work or marriage out in their stories. But perhaps no one knows the cathartic value of writing better than Fritz Leiber.

The death of his wife, problems with alcohol, and a career not exactly sparkling with new book sales, in the mid-70s Fritz Leiber turned his issues over to the typewriter. Our Lady of Darkness (1977) the result, Leiber put on the page what had been ailing him—not in self-abusing, self-pitying form, rather in a semi-autobiographical, occult quest. What else would a writer of the supernatural do?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review of The Exiled Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood



Rather than volumes or books, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy has been divided into acts. And it’s an important detail.   Reflective of the operatic mode, Act I The Fallen Blade introduced the characters and setting, and set them in motion; Act II The Outcast Blade dug deeper into the characters and issues between them, all the while setting the stage for Act III, The Exiled Blade (2013), to bring everything to a rousing conclusion.  Grimwood apparently possessing a solid knowledge of the art of theater, The Exiled Blade does not disappoint.

Drama is abound at the outset of the novel.  Alonzo, in a fit of potentially conceived rage, is exiled to Montenegro.  While this would seem to bring calm to Duke Marco’s court, there are rumors Alonzo is amassing forces of the Red Crucifix. In his wake, Alonzo leaves a corpse, a tiny corpse—Leopold, Giulieta’s son.  Tycho enraged at the death of his lover’s child, the young man with uncanny powers sets out on Alonzo’s path, intent on finding and killing him.  Meanwhile, Emperor Sigismund has his sights once again set on Venice, and sends his son Frederik as ambassador.  Frederik wooing the Lady Giulieta in Tycho’s absence, consoling her in her loss, matters are anything but settled in Venice…

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review of Authority by Jeff VanderMeer



One of the strongest impressions left by Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, first in the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy, is the numerous avenues possible to understanding the text.  A psychological journey, treatise on subjectivity, metaphor for existence, or just plain Weird fiction—these are just a few of the major possibilities.  (Minds more critical than mine will find other significant paths winding through the novel.)  Continuing with the existential outlay, the second novel of the trilogy, Authority (2014), introduces the reader to an entirely new perspective on Area X, even as the subjectivity of perception digs its hooks deeper into the psyche of its characters.

In Authority, we get the main character’s name: John Rodriguez.  But for the majority of novel he is called Control—ironic given he is not a dominating personality.  Control begins the story taking over the recently vacated role of director at the Southern Reach.  While getting to know his new work environment and colleagues, he is tasked with interviewing a recent returnee from Area X, a biologist.  Her responses to his questions anything but coherent, Control’s understanding of Area X only becomes further clouded learning that the previous director disappeared under mysterious circumstances, possibly an illicit excursion into Area X.  But capping off the growing paranoia at the new job is the fact Control is required to give a daily report through a special mobile phone to something he dubs the Voice.  Seemingly on the edge of madness, the Voice makes odd demands, its emotional highs and lows erratic.  The mundanity of his life outside work clashing ever harder with the strain and oddness brought of Area X at work eventually take their toll on Control.  Something has to give.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford

What are you checking out this review for? Go read Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell (2016, Small Beer). Each of Ford’s collections to date has been a unique mix of all things fantastical, written in the most dynamic yet readable prose, and told in the voice of a man born to write, so what made you think his latest collection would be any different? Did you need a review just to make sure? Consider it confirmed…

But in all seriousness, A Natural History of Hell is yet another great collection of stories from Ford. In fact, the reader must nitpick in order to determine which of his collections—now five and counting—is the “best”, such is the consistency. It’s therefore ironic that Natural History is a very typical collection. The odd bits of autobiography and reminiscence, the real-world realities taking left turns, and the Weird, the fantastical, and the Weirdly fantastical—all continue to exist. But given the author seems to balk at familiar modes and tropes—flee, in fact—it all feels fresh and distinctive. Just another Ford collection...

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review of Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

It’s no secret, Harlan Ellison is one of the most controversial writers in fiction. And the reason is clear: he doesn’t pussyfoot around opinions. Most interesting is, perhaps, that his fiction walks the talk. Some of the sharpest, most incisive speculative fiction about humanity has come through the man’s typewriter. Something like quintessential Ellison, the 2011 collection Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, read by the author himself, portrays precisely the voice (literally and figuratively) that is so contentious, but is yet so adept at laying bare the most basic conundrums of existence. Whether you agree with Ellison’s hardline or not, the collection contains foundational speculative fiction material, and for that alone is worth reading/listening to.

Kicking things off is one of Ellison’s most famous works, the title story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. The bizarre (emphasis on “bizarre”) tale of a surviving band of humans after an apocalyptic event, it describes the whim of a deeply cynical super-computer as their master. Ellison perfectly capturing the neurosis of the situation, madness pervades, leading one to wonder what, exactly, the computer is a stand-in for… The second story, despite being set in an entirely different setting, confirms who. More suffering, this time indirectly at the hands of a particularly regimented government, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” may be the most representative Ellison story in the collection. Telling of a non-conformist and his experiences at the hands of an extreme-rote ruling body, the man’s ultimate fate in the system falls somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-four and A Clockwork Orange.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of Technologies of the Self by Haris A. Durrani

I ordinarily go unfazed by cover copy. We’ve reached the point where publishers seem to have a machine (the Hyperbolic 4X?) capable of spitting out cookie cutter statements—“magnificent”, “superb”, and other such giddiness—at the drop of a hat. But in the case of Haris A. Durrani’s Technologies of the Self (2016, Brain Mill Press), there was a concatenation of names difficult to ignore. John Crowley, Sofia Samatar, and Paul Park among them, all exuberantly vouched for the quality of Durrani’s debut, forcing me to rethink skipping the book.

In writing a debut novel (or in this case, novella), aspiring authors are advised to keep things simple. To some extent Durrani follows this advice: Technologies of the Self is the coming-of-age story of a young man named Jihad (or as he prefers to be called Joe) living in contemporary NYC. Post-colonial literature an established form, Durrani follows suit. Foregrounded are Joe’s Dominican-Pakistani heritage, time with family, and religious inclinations, all of which fit and clash, to larger and lesser degrees, with the so-called American norm. Where Durrani breaks the mold (at least partially so) is in using the devices of metaphor and symbolism to fantastical effect. Certainly more at home in literary fiction than cheap fantasy, the colorful interplay of what is real with what is not forms the backbone of the story. Joe recalls times with his uncle Tomas, an untamed man with uncanny stories of a demon. The demon appearing as a knight, woman, and other guises, and seemingly able to travel through time, Joe is awe-struck by Tomas’ stories, all the while bothered by problems in his daily life. The gears in his gearbox turning in different directions, Joe struggles to bring the workings of his soul/personality/identity into some semblance of united purpose.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review of The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan

I once taught a college course on Business Ethics (not exactly an oxymoron). Most of the course modules were rooted in basic philosophical principles, one of which being Bentham's utilitarianism. Inevitably I busted out the classic scenario: do you kill one little girl to save hundreds, or let the hundreds die. (Believe it or not, yes, this gets a few minds turning.) Rendered semi-relevant to contemporary concerns regarding immigration and reparations for government crimes commited centuries earlier, Greg Egan's The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred (2016, Subterranean) is a novella exploring a similar ethical/utilitarian quandary, but thankfully in a more interesting scenario.

Life and commerce are up and running in the solar system, and two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, have agreements in place to supply each other needed amenities. On Vesta, the initial arrangement that got life and technology kickstarted is beginning to crumble, however. Rebelling against the intellectual property rights held by one of the aristocratic families, the group in power has begun pushing for elimination of said rights. Whether it wants to be or not, Ceres is impacted by the upheaval. Asylum seekers and immigrants have begun strapping themselves to pieces of ice and other objects to cross the dangeroius void of space to the neighboring asteroid. Politics coming to a head, the people on Ceres are eventually faced with a tough decision.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review of The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker



When it was announced in late 2015 that the third and final book in R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect Emperor series was going to be published in 2016 but split in two pieces The Great Ordeal and The Unholy Consult, the latter of which would be released in 2017, I thought to myself: “At last, it’s finally going to be published.”, and then: “I’ve waited five years since TheWhite-Luck Warrior, what’s another year to have both novels at one time? After all, weren’t they conceived as one book…  But one gentle nudge later from the people at the Second Apocalypse forum, and I went scurrying to get a copy.  The temptation to know is just too much…

If you’re reading this review, there’s a 99% chance you’ve read all of Bakker’s Second Apocalypse books to date and are wondering if The Great Ordeal is worth it.  Short answer: definitive yes.  Long answer: the end of The White-Luck Warrior saw the death of Maithenet—lynch pin to Kellhus’ control back in Momemm.  It also saw the death of the non-men king Nilgiccas—after the appearance of a dragon (a dragon!).  The march long, but the Great Ordeal finally clashed with sranc hordes.  Sorweel exited the Ordeal with two of Kellhus’ children, only to witness an act of incest, the madness of the Anasurimbors becoming all the more apparent.  This is all an indirect way of saying The White-Luck Warrior took the overall Second Apocalypse storyline to unprecedented heights; The Great Ordeal takes it higher.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

As a grown man, I find myself occasionally dipping into the recent decade’s flood of YA genre fiction.  While I’m not always sure that the term ‘YA’ is being used along common lines (i.e. it seems a lot of books marketed for adults should be considered YA), the fact remains, as a youth I would have thoroughly enjoyed much of it.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is classic juvenile adventure updated for the 21st century.  Though a bit jaded, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle has the right pique of humor and teenage male worldview.  And still others—Pratchett, Pullman, Gaiman, among them—write with sentiment and appeal I can easily see my younger self delving into, not to mention recommending to my children when they are old enough.  My most recent dip into YA is Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (2011).

Planesrunner the first in the Everness trilogy, we meet Everett Singh walking down a busy London street with his father Tejendra, who is one of the world’s top physicists.  In the flash of an eye Tejendra is kidnapped, and Everett is left alone, holding a mobile phone.  Smart enough to remember to take photos of the black Audi as it drives away with his father, he meets with the police before heading home to re-think the incident.  No time to adjust, however, a strange email arrives quickly therafter, containing an unheard of thing called an infundibulum.  Seemingly a map to parallel worlds, it isn’t long before Everett is drawn into realities he never knew existed—a group of shady characters that want him for reasons unknown chasing him every step of the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of Bridging Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan

The series a success, the 2016 release of Bridging Infinity (Solaris) ups the count of editor Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity science fiction anthologies to five. Driving a strong, hard sf agenda for this volume, in the introduction Strahan drops big names in galactic scale imagination—Clarke, Asimov, Campbell—before moving on to the focus of the anthology: “Is solving problems still integral to science fiction? Do we still believe problems are solvable?”. Such an outlay would seem to make the reviewer’s job easy: does the author tackle a significant issue facing mankind with the tools of extrapolative science while using the techniques of fiction to best advantage? Let’s see…

Bridging Infinity features fifteen stories from a wide spectrum of science fiction authors, from well-known (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, etc.) to lesser-known (An Owomoyela, Thoraiya Dyer, and Karin Lowachee), those who’ve been around a while (Pamela Sargent, Robert Reed, Gregory Benford, etc.) to those not (Charlie Jane Anders, Ken Liu,e tc.) male to female, British to American to beyond, and even a few collaborative efforts (Tobias Buckell & Karen Lord, Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, etc.). If anything, the anthology is variegated from the authorial perspective. In terms of content, there is likewise a variety, from previously established story settings (Reed’s Great Ship, Allen Steele’s Coyote universe, and others) to new settings, far to near future, Earth-based to solar system scenarios, and real-world to purely fictional concerns.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville



Quietly but noticeably to the so-inclined, elements of the visual arts have formed parts of China Mieville’s fiction.  Monsters and monster stories forming the lion’s share, hiding in the interstices are uncanny things like the flexible streets of “Reports of Certain Events in London” and the Borges’ influenced imagos of “The Tain”, the intangible crosshatching of The City & the City and the floating icebergs of “Polynia”.  Sometimes an accent and sometimes a set piece, surrealism has been a key artistic informer to Mieville’s fiction to date.  But nothing has to appeared yet like 2016’s The Last Days of New Paris.  Lion’s share and interstitial resident, Mieville fully immerses himself, and thus the reader, in the artistic form.

Outlay to 20 th century French surrealism in an alternate history WWII setting, The Last Days of New Paris portrays a 1950s scene wherein a group of bohemiam artists in Paris have accidentally set off an S-blast—a shockwave of surrealist force—that has brought to life imaginings hitherto limited to paint and canvas. Reactions to the explosion differing, some, like the character Thibault, try desperately to escape the queer, ethereal, and sometimes horrific manifestations now appearing on the streets.  The Nazis, who still occupy France, have walled off Paris in an attempt to contain the blast, all the while trying to harness the power of some of the more demon-like manifestations.  And still some people try to capture the chaos.  The American photographer Sam is as much fascinated by the manifestations themselves as she is in documenting them.  Coming into to contact with Thibault, the pair end up doing their best to spoil Hitler’s plans for S-blasted Paris.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer



A lot of novels over the years have dealt with the subjectivity of existence.  Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and its perpetual lack of resolution. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, and its exploration of the tricks memory and thought play on self-perception.  Camus' The Stranger and its expression of absurdity in realist form.  Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and its portrayal of the disillusion of the illusion of teleological certainty.  Adding his name to this who’s who list of superb talent is Jeff VanderMeer and his Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation (2014), is the first volume.  Fitting snugly into the tiny niche between comprehensible and incomprehensible reality, and thus making for an uncomfortably pleasurable reading experience, Annihilation presents an extremely human story ripe for the more disparate, 21st century possibility for differing perspectives.

A nameless biologist, along with an anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist—all women—have signed up to explore the mysterious Area X along the north Florida coast.  The twelfth such expedition, the group at least feels secure at the outset knowing the atrocities of the early expeditions are a thing of the past.  Well prepared, they come with training, consumables, and a mandate: to pick up where previous expeditions have left off exploring, documenting and studying Area X.  Coming across what the others perceive as a tower but the biologist a tunnel, the group set up camp and begin their work.  Strange things happening in evening sessions with the psychologist, the group quickly fragments, however.  Exacerbating matters is the discovery of bizarre wall writing and even more bizarre iridescent spores.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review of Realware by Rudy Rucker

They thought it was over at two books and released the omnibus Live Robots. They thought it was over at three books, and released the omnibus Moldies & Meatbops. But they were still wrong: there was yet a fourth book to come in Rudy Rucker’s Ware series: following upon Software, Wetware, and Freeware is Realware (2000).

Three years since the publishing of Freeware, and a total of eighteen years since the publishing of Software, Rucker once again took his time, thinking of original material and interesting directions to take his robot-human-moldie scenario. Thus, point blank, if you’ve read the three books to this point (or the omnibus containing said three books, natch), then Realware is more of the same stuzzidelic, Rucker-licious stuff. Not a droning on or a plateau of conception, Rucker continues to push the limits and break fresh ground in clever fashion in his wacky wacky world. Reality, and the possibilities for reality that the aliens at the completion of Freeware brought, completely change things. Caught up and pulled in their own direction by it, the group of characters that has amassed in the series to date, return. Yes, the king of the cheeseballs, Randy Karl Tucker, is back to set the reader rolling in the aisles…

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood catches a lot of flack from the genre community for a quote regarding science fiction—“that it’s just a bunch of squids in space” (I paraphrase). Mainstream genre fans taking it as a shot across the bow, they react in different ways, from pointing out she misunderstands the fundamental definition of ‘science fiction’ to outright insults and refusals to read her work. While Atwood does have her own definition of what science fiction is, there’s no denying her attempt to clarify what is significant literature in the genre (no matter your definition) and what isn’t—an attempt to keep the bar high, as it were. Her 2011 bric-a-brac collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination helps to explain why.

Opening with recollections of her childhood reading and creative writing experiments, moving through reviews of classic sf, and closing on a miscellany of short fiction, In Other Worlds is as much a response to people who accuse Atwood of misunderstanding science fiction as it is a memoir of one person’s experiences with the genre—as fuzzy as its definition may be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories by C.M. Kornbluth

Rampant commercialism, news rendered to entertainment, fiction without substance, corporate greed, social class issues—these are some of the problems being discussed in the 21st century. Not in fact new issues, it seems the technological advancements of 20th century spawned a variety of opportunities that allowed human vice to manifest. Thus, while not all contemporary fiction is empty (indeed, one can still find literature attempting to address said issues), one can go back and find them being discussed in genre more than half a century ago. The mode satirical, look no further than C.M. Kornbluth, his 1959 collection The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories the reference point.

The collection beginning innocently enough, the potter Efim Hawkings is rooting through fields behind his house when he comes across a body in a tank, suspended in animation. Apparently the result of a bizarre accident at the dentist many years prior, the man, John Barlow, is welcomed to the future, and immediately introduced to the problem of overpopulation. A highly simplified version of Brave New World with a strong satirical twist, it is one of Kornbluth’s most celebrated stories, but perhaps not his best. A story with a very similar twist of fate for its protagonist as “The Marching Morons”, “Dominoes” tells of a greedy stockbroker and the lengths he goes to stay one step ahead of the market. Getting involved with time travel, he goes two years into the future to learn what’s best to buy and sell. He does pay for his knowledge, however—but not in a way most readers could predict.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review of Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Most series, regardless of the number of volumes, run linearly. A single story stretched over numerous pages, the end of an individual volume is just a convenient waypoint to starting the next. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias/Orange County trilogy is so unique. Like an apple tossed in the sky and shot with arrows from different sides, he presents three futuristic perspectives to one region. The Wild Shore a post-apocalypse society re-building itself and The Gold Coast an autopia of hyper-commericalism, no one could predict what scene the third arrow through Robinson's SoCal apple, Pacific Edge (1990), would present, except that somehow SoCal would be involved.

Pacific Edge indeed portrays a near-future, Southern California scenario. Surprisingly utopian (not a utopia), however, it is one only slightly shifted from our own reality. That small shift the key, Robinson posits the dissolution of major corporations into small entities and the return of major resource management to government (water, electricity, fuel, etc.). That’s it. By dissolving the big, multi-national corporations, money and profits stay local, and by returning major resource control to government, less commercial and more humane decisions regarding usage and planning are made. It should be stressed that Robinson is not in the game of utopia building, rather in utopia striving. Openly stating utopia is an impossible ideal, he puts his money where his mouth is by imagining simple, possible changes, then exploring them fictionally to see what benefits might be derived in comparison to the present system.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a wonderful piece of journalism recounting the civil conflicts in Spain prior to WWII.  Detailing the plights of the communists, marxists, fascists, anarchists, nationalists, and the conservative and liberal sub-units each consist of, it provides a fascinating view into how complex political ideologies can be in practice.  The Spanish civil wars something little discussed globally in the years since, they have become almost a footnote to the world war erupting soon after. Another politically complex conflict nearly elided by time is the happenings in the Free State of Fiume in the years directly following the first world war.  Likewise a milieu of anarchists, liberals, fascists, etc., the small region was a hotbed of human political interest for a short period of time, and almost as a natural expansion, military tension.  The 1920s simultaneously blustering for the wonders of the future modernism seemed to promise, it was wild times in Europe.  Satirically glamorous, Bruce Sterling's Pirate Utopia (2016, Tachyon) captures a comically refined view of the proceedings as only Bruce Sterling can.

Pirate Utopia presents a view to the short history of the the Republic of Carnago (stand-in for the Free State of Fiume) through the kaleidoscope of Futurism—capital ‘F’.  The scene motivated by the horrors of WWI and the burgeoning achievements of science, it was a time people dreamed big politically.  Utopia a believable possibility, Carnago is Sterling’s staging ground.  Presented as something of a silent film, the story features intentionally madcap heroes and villains, generals and poets marching toward ‘utopia’.  Lips moving silently as dialogue appears, arms gesticulating overtly, and all moving at 1.5x normal speed—the blips and scratches of light are almost visible on the celluloid, even as subversive films like Buster Keaton’s The General motivate the politics sluicing beneath the surface.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review of An Unreliable Guide to London ed. by Kit Caless & Gary Budden



There is a handful of world cities that even though a person may never have been, there are enough novels, news events, magazine articles, history texts, and various other forms of media available that a person feels like they know the place.  And London is for sure one.  Most everyone in the Western world knows Big Ben and Sherlock Holmes, red phone booths and the Queen, double-decker busses and the Thames, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace.  But what of the unknown streets of the vast city?  What of the neighborhoods and everyday places not seen in crime novels and fashion magazines?  And what of the little secrets, even if a step or two beyond reality, that linger in its nooks and crannies?  Featuring twenty-three stories, An Unreliable Guide to London (2016, Influx Press) gives a glimpse of such places, and is one of the surprise anthologies of 2016.

Divided into the compass points: west, north, south, and east, An Unreliable Guide is a bric-a-brac account of London’s locales and people rarely, if ever, seen in the news or fiction.  Generally written in quality prose, the stories cover material from local legends to quotidian street scenes, surreal wishes to existential quantity.  Most stories only a few pages in length, the overall result is a patchwork of architecture and style, culture and society that feels more like what London really is.  Or least I guess so; I’ve never been there.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review of Freeware by Rudy Rucker



If the release of the omnibus Live Robots is any indication, publishers thought that Rudy Rucker’s Ware series was at an end.  Software and Wetware capable of being seen as something resembling a closed loop, Rucker nevertheless returned nine years after Wetware to continue the story of the world turned upside down by wild technology.

Switching gears, Freeware (1998) breaks new ground in the Ware world.  Set many years after Wetware, the boppers have been destroyed by humanity, and a new form of sentience has appeared.  Something akin to algal-plastic beings, “moldies” live alongside standard humans, but not always in friendly or approved fashion.  A traditional religion based on Christianity called Heritagism rising to power, followers disapprove of human-moldie relations, and have even been known to burn the smelly beings in public.  But the real tension in the novel results from the development of a new form of imipolex—a substance key to moldie existence.  A complex, crystalline plastic, when a new form of the product slips onto the market, the world, and universe, really opens up.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson



The thimbleful of readers who frequent this remote corner of the web are aware that Speculiction is no friend to H.P. Lovecraft.  His political views (which in fact do not often appear in his fiction) are only one of the reasons however.  More off-putting are the man’s writing style and relative cheapness of ideas.  The irrelevance of humanity in the vastness of the universe is interesting subject matter, but when presented in the guise of cosmic horror (kettle drums roll…) is, well, cheap.  And the prose…  Thus, when hearing Kij Johnson was attempting a revisioning of Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, my ears perked.  Johnson’s versatile sense of style, not to mention ability to keep her stories human-centric despite the abstract nature of the imagination, seemed to promise an interesting riposte to Lovecraft’s lunge.  With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016, Tor.com), I was right on one account…

Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” tells of Randolph Carter, an everyday man who wants something more.  Dreams give him distant views of the majestic city of Kadath, however, he is never allowed close enough to see its true splendor.  Frustrated, Carter calls upon the gods for assistance, but is likewise denied.  Taking matters into his own hands, Carter enters the Enchanted Forest to find the city.  Descending into a dreamland of surreal visions, he wanders among strange and bizarre things, and eventually finds Kadath, just not in the visage he imagined.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review of The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Picking up where The Fallen Blade left off, Act II of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy, The Outcast Blade (2012), is more of A Game of Thrones meets Twilight. Major characters falling, cabals for Marco’s throne revealing themselves, and more bits and pieces of Tycho’s backstory revealed, the stakes only get higher.

Following upon the battle for Cyprus at the end of The Fallen Blade, The Outcast Blade opens with Tycho’s return to Venice. Thrown under the bus by people he thought friends, what should have been a triumphant return as a hero quickly becomes a fight for his life. Not all is as it seems with Prince Alonzo, and only Tycho’s physical abilities allows him to live another day. But Tycho’s return likewise has an effect on his friends. Atilo’s relationship with Desdaio takes a new spin as Tycho begins spending more time with Venice’s most desirable bachelorette—a fact that others in power would seem to try to exploit. With the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund waiting on the wings with a mind to annex Venice, the city is a fire keg ready to explode.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of The Unexpected Dimension by Algis Budrys

In a broad sense, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs should be considered the foundation stones of contemporary science fiction: Burroughs writes the highly fantastical side and Wells the largely realist (or at least human-centric) side, while Verne represents a kind of middle ground, a fascination with the possibilities of technology and science as it plays against both sides. The fathers of space opera, soft science fiction, and hard sf, respectively, they have directly or indirectly influenced science fiction since. Squarely in the Wells’ camp, and thus the most likely to transcend his time yet be forgotten, was Algis Budrys. Largely overlooked when 50s’ sf is discussed, the descendants of Burroughs and Verne (e.g. Asimov, Heinlein, etc.) hog the spotlight all the while Budrys, along with a handful of other writers from his era, remain deserving of further discussion. Pulling together the best stories from the first eight years of his career, Budrys’ The Unexpected Dimension (1960) is as much representation of Wells’ legacy as it is engaging soft science fiction in its own right.

While reviewers today would be likely to call the story Dickian, “The End of Summer” was before Philip K. Dick’s time. About memory editing on an Earth where life has been extended near to indefinite, the novelette opens with a man returning to his US home after hector-years living in Europe. Having reviewed his memories of his previous time in the US on the flight over, he takes his time getting to his home, enjoying the long drive from the airport. But once at his old apartment and back in society, not all is calm and certain. Budrys’ sparse style suiting the story being told, he portrays the man, and the people around hinm, as more dependent on the memory vaults they carry than actual memory itself. Loss of the man’s memory vault a natural springboard into interesting story, what happens after examines—yes, like PKD—memory, perception, conspiracy theories, and the surreal, resulting in powerful, if not Brave New World-esque, ending. The title literal and figurative, “The Distant Sound of Engines” is another piece about memory. A short work, it tells of a driver who lost his legs in an accident and is now convalescing in a hospital room, listening to the sound of cars and trucks on the highway outside his window. About what the brain retains as long term and short term memory, Budrys writes subtly but powerfully.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology ed. by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

As editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel admit in the opening line of the introduction to their 2006 anthology Feeling Very Strange, the term ‘slipstream’ may be the most subjective in genre. Working with Bruce Sterling’s initial stab at a definition, as well as some of their own ideas, the pair do, however, come up with a comprehensible set of parameters that may corral the term into a semi-manageable space. Namely a literature of “cognitive dissonance and strangeness triumphant”, they equate the ability to understand two realities within a story to a post-modern cognizance of different levels or perspectives to reality. Selecting fifteen previously published stories they feel representative of the notion, regardless whether the reader agrees with the definition of ‘slipstream’ provided, the stories offered are quality reading material in their own right, even as much as they are dissonantly strange.

A strangeness not always readily accessible, the warning flag waved at the anthology’s opening ‘Beware! Not all is normal!’ is “Al” by Carol Emshwiller. On top of being a superb specimen of writing, it is likewise a James Hilton Lost Horizon conceit covering art, the motivation to create, and the humanity surrounding them both. Existing at the edge of complete comprehension, as perhaps do life and art, it’s a great note on which to open the anthology. Closing the anthology (and the only original story in the anthology) is M. Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here”. Shifting between fictional and non-fictional perspectives, and, as the title hints, often using the second-person, it’s an hourglass tale—the grains of sands shifting quickly and steadily, rearranging themselves indefinitely. While perhaps lacking the depth of Emshwiller’s story, Rickert readily portrays the subjectivity of existence with appropriate mode and mood.