Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Standard Candles

It is obvious from reading numerous McDevitt novels that while he is a superb storyteller, his interests are more than merely plot. He is fascinated by history, as well as humanity’s place in the universe. His short fiction shows even more philosophical concerns such as the nature of humanity and relationships between humans and between humans and aliens.

Nearly every story in Standard Candles left me with some thought-provoking ideas, the type of sense of wonder which stays with me much longer than most other kinds. What good is it writing about such things as aliens and alien worlds if they are only stage settings for colorful battles, violence and killings? McDevitt realizes it is much more interesting to explore and think about them. In some ways, he is the philosophical heir to Poul Anderson whose stores always contained more than was apparent on the surface.

The title story “Standard Candles” was ostensibly about the search for astronomical constants, but really it examined one man’s obsession with science and how that affects his relationship with other people. “Translations From the Colosian” told of two humans who visit an alien world whose inhabitants were obsessed with art and culture. Watching one of their classic plays, they are struck with its incredible similarities with Sophocles’ Antigone, too much so, in their opinion, to be a coincidence.

“The Fort Moxie Branch” introduces a library a run by people who are either from the future or from another world entirely, and whose purpose is to save classic works of literature which were otherwise lost. Classical texts by Sophocles and Tacitus, but also works by Shakespeare (which apparently he considered too dangerous to stage), Melville (not good enough to publish, in his opinion) and Hemingway’s famous last novel. There are also complete collections by unknown authors who were unable to publish their works which were actually much better than the short-sighted publishing industry realized.

“Gus” is the story of a seminary which uses an avatar of St. Augustine as one of its teachers, but the new head of the seminary considers some of its beliefs heretical, even though its beliefs are “pure” Augustinian. But the beliefs of the Catholic Church have evolved considerably in the nearly two millennia since St. Augustine lived. Much of the story consists of conversations between the avatar and the head of the seminary, which are fascinating, but they also explore what it means to be human.

The first line of the story “Ellie” is “If the lights at Bolton’s Tower go out, the devil gets loose. At least, that was the story.” Why that is the story is what McDevitt examines here, combined with a human-interest story which complicates the situation considerably. Although McDevitt’s typical theme tends to be philosophical, he is equally adept with human emotions as well.

When a computer is fed all the data from every famous chess match of the century, and given a mathematical algorithm to determine the greatest chess player of the century, whose name would you expect it to spit out? Bobby Fischer? Jose Capablanca? Anatoly Karpov? Garry Kasparov? Will Ballard? Will Ballard? When that name comes out of the computer, the mathematician responsible for the program seeks out the man to determine who he is, and why he is supposedly the greatest chess champion ever.

“Cryptic” is the story of an astronomical array which formerly was part of SETI until the project was abandoned, a failure. Until the new director finds some buried data which seems to indicate that it had actually found precisely what it had sought, but the data was suppressed, never revealed to the world at large. Why would the most devoted seeker of alien life have possibly done that?

Finally, “Time Travelers Never Die” is the original novella version of McDevitt’s recent novel. I raved about the novel last year, calling it “delightful” in its combination of glimpses into history and a fascinating mystery. The novella is somewhat simpler, eliminating one of the major plotlines, but it is no less interesting.

While McDevitt is my favorite novelist, in some ways his short fiction is even better because it raises thought-provoking concerns. For me, that is what the best science fiction is really all about. You are likely going to roll yours eyes at yet another rave recommendation for a McDevitt book, but I cannot help it. He is that good.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Year's Best SF 16

I read two annual best-of anthologies regularly because they are the two which are devoted exclusively to science fiction: Dozois’ and Hartwell & Cramer’s. On my recent trip to Myrtle Beach, I read the 16th installment of Hartwell & Cramer’s Year’s Best SF 16, and it had the usual mix of stories from prozines, online zines and original anthologies, running the gamut of the entire sf umbrella.

The opening story, and one of the best, is Joe Haldeman’s “Sleeping Dogs,” about a war on a distant planet which, when it ended, all the Earth soldiers had their minds wiped so they had absolutely no memory of their wartime activities. Decades later, after security has loosened considerably, the narrator returns to the planet in an attempt to regain his memory of precisely what activities he had during the war. Both the glimpses of the planet, and the former soldier’s memories, are fascinating and well-told, as you would expect from Haldeman.

I am not usually a big fan of Vernor Vinge, too much high-tech wet dreams, but “A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equations...” was a more traditional story about exploratory missions to distant worlds seeking alien life. In the middle of the story was a short anecdote which, by itself, would have been one of those perfect, memorable sf stories such as Fredric Brown or Bob Leman wrote regularly. As good as the overall story was, that anecdote was even better.

Cat Sparks’ “All the Love in the World” is set in a near-future post-apocalyptic Australia where a group of people have blocked off their small community from the craziness outside it. They have become most self-sufficient with one exception. They have exhausted their supply of medicine. So when the narrator leaves their community in search of some badly-needed medication, she finds that things are considerably different than she expected. This is a moving and hopeful view of the future.

Alastair Reynolds’ “At Bukokan” hypothesizes that the public eagerness for bigger and more extreme thrills will take some unexpected directions in our high-tech society. While its premise is a bit outrageous, Reynolds makes it both believable and interesting.

If you enjoy a good mystery based on determining the validity of an historical event, then Jack McDevitt is the writer for you. His series of mysteries set hundreds of years in the future featuring Alex Benedict is my favorite recent sf series. His story “The Cassandra Project” is based on the resurrection of America’s space program a few years in the future, just as the Russians release a series of pictures taken by their 1960s space program, one of which seems to show a dome on the far side of the moon. When a public relations agent for NASA compares the picture to one taken by the Americans, he finds no dome there. The solution to what seems a minor mystery at first proves to be anything but minor.

There are other good stories by writers such as Terry Bisson, Vandana Singh, Michael Swanwick, Greg Benford, Robert Reed and Paul Park, 21 stories in all. While I did not think this volume was quite as good as the previous 2 in the series, some of that might just be my specific taste as opposed to that of other readers. Overall, it is definitely recommended reading.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Andre Norton

Many lifelong readers of science fiction entered the genre through one of several authors, such as Robert A. Heinlein or Andre Norton. In my case, I sequed from Tom Swift Jr. books right to Galaxy and Worlds of IF magazines. I became acquainted with Heinlein since he was publishing his 1960 novels in IF, including Podkayne of Mars, Farnham’s Freehold and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

But Andre Norton never made the jump to prozines in the 1960s, so I read basically none of her fiction until very recently when I decided to see what I was missing. Recently I began reading Star Born on my e-reader, and my immediate impression is that it is typical of the quality of fiction published in IF in the 1960s. So I wonder why Norton never made the extra money by serializing some of her novels along with the paperback sales.

I know—my first suspicious thought is that she was a woman, but since her pseudonym was male, why would that scare an editor away? My second thought was that she was considered a “young adult” writer, but her fiction was certainly comparable in quality to many of the other serials in IF, such as Poul Anderson’s Three Worlds to Conquer, Keith Laumer & Rosel Brown’s Earthblood, John Brunner’s Altar at Asconel and A. Bertram Chandler’s The Road to the Rim, so that hardly seems a valid reason not to publish her fiction.

Is it possible that she never considered submitting to prozines? I assume she was aware of them, but that may not be true. From my own point of view, that was too bad since I think I would have enjoyed her fiction when I was a teenager more than as a jaded adult. Still, I plan to read some more of her fiction when I finish Star Born, and think I will enjoy them in spite of my age.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ratner's Star and Useless Things

Some random thoughts.

Awhile ago I read an online interview with Samuel R. Delany, but while I do not recall where I read it, one part of it stands out in my mind: Delany was in a bookstore watching an employee shelving an early novel by Don DeLillo called Ratner’s Star. Delany commented that the novel was science fiction, since its plot involved contact with aliens from another planet. But DeLillo is one of the darling of the “literati,” and the woman became visibly distressed at Delany’s observation.

Why would somebody become upset when an obvious sf novel was identified as such? Because there are two totally different classifications of science fiction. “Insiders” might disagree on specifics, but generally agree that any novel which contains plausible speculative elements beyond our accepted world falls somewhere under the sf umbrella. But “outsiders,” whether lovers of literature or merely people mostly unfamiliar with written science fiction, tend to view it as fiction which resembles the type of popular special effects thrillers which masquerade as movie sf. If there are not big, bold battles and lots of pyrotechnics, it is not science fiction, no matter how speculative it might be.

I wonder if that is not the reason why Margaret Atwood has made statements distancing her fiction from sf in the past. She does not seem deliberately insulting or narrow-minded, and several of her novels certainly qualify as science fiction, but I think that she has no idea that sf is more than Star Wars and The Matrix, and if she did so she would certainly accept that, at least in part, she is a science fiction writer.


I recently read a very good story “Useless Things,” by Maureen McHugh, which was first published in the original anthology Eclipse Three, but I read it when it was reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection. The story examined the effects of the recent economic downturn on average people. The main character lives with her two dogs in a small house in the New Mexican desert, making a meager living by sculpting lifelike dolls which she sells online.

The story mostly examines the woman’s life, the sole excitement taking place when her house is broken into and one of her dogs runs away. Eventually an old man living in a trailer park finds the dog and phones her, so she goes there and retrieves it.

And that is the entire story. I really enjoyed the views McHugh gave of the depressed lifestyle, as well as the development of her character. And the scenes about the missing dog were genuinely heartrending. But I could not help but asking myself one question when I finished reading the story: Why was this story selected by Dozois for his collection?

There is basically no plot and very little resolution except for some development in the woman’s character. Nor is it recognizably science fiction, except for a brief mention of Tom Cruise undergoing a scientific treatment to extend his life by 40 years. Gardner Dozois is a leading proponent of “core science fiction” as opposed to slipstream, magic realism, and all the other types which tease at being science fiction without ever really doing so.

“Useless Things” does not fall into “core science fiction” and probably had no right being in The Year’s Best Science Fiction except for one weakness of Dozois which I share: it was very good reading, and sometimes that trumps everything else.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


It is generally more common for a science fiction writer to switch to fantasy since that is where the sales and subsequent *big bucks* usually are. China Miéville seems to have taken the reverse route. He achieved fame with three wondrous fantasies Perdito Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, then shifted to a noir detective novel The City & The City, which still perched on the edge of fantasy, and a horror thriller Kraken.

But his newest novel Embassytown is pure science fiction concerning a human colony on a world inhabited by strange beings known as the Ariekei (but called the Hosts by the colonists). The novel’s primary concern is the attempts by the humans to learn the Hosts’ language, not merely to understand them, but the much more difficult task of carrying on a conversation with them.

You see, the Hosts have two mouths, and they speak through both of them simultaneously. After the original linguists learned their language, while they could understand the Hosts’ portion of a conversation, the Hosts could not understand the human portion, or even recognize that a dialogue was being held with them. Until the humans raised pairs of Ambassadors, two cloned beings who nearly share one mind and who are able to communicate in the same simultaneous manner as the Hosts.

Embassytown is told from the point of view of Avice, a girl who was raised on the colony world, then went into space for several years before returning with a linguist husband fascinated with the language of the Hosts. The novel then follows their lives on the colony world, particularly the relationships between humans and Hosts, especially involving the Ambassadors.

Things reach a head when a new Ambassador EzRa is introduced to the Hosts, the first one who was raised offworld, rather than in Embassytown. The Hosts immediately react badly to EzRa, and there are fears among the humans of trouble between the two groups, especially when thousands of Hosts leave their homes surrounding Embassytown and swarm into the streets of the human enclave.

I cannot say much more about the plot of Embassytown without giving away important details, but it is a rich novel whose world becomes more defined as the novel progresses, as do the characters themselves. As in most Miéville novels, the various plot lines grow more tangled but ultimately reach a rousing climax which is totally satisfying.

Linguistics involving communication between humans and aliens is a fairly popular theme for science fiction, and some outstanding stories have been written in this area: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Embassytown is another welcome entry in this sub-genre, and is a typical high-quality China Miéville achievement which ranks with The Windup Girl and The City & The City as the best novels I have read so far this year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Favorite short f&sf stories

I do not believe I have ever posted my favorite short fiction list, so here it is.

Ranking / Title / Author
1 / Her Habiline Husband / Michael Bishop
2 / A Rose for Ecclesiastes / Roger Zelazny
3 / The Star Pit / Samuel R. Delany
4 / The Girl Who Was Plugged In / James Tiptree, Jr.
5 / The Last Castle / Jack Vance
6 / The Persistence of Vision / John Varley
7 / Story of Your Life / Ted Chiang
8 / Green Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
9 / Blue Champagne / John Varley
10 / The White Otters of Childhood / Michael Bishop
11 / April Fool’s Day Forever / Kate Wilhelm
12 / The Visitor at the Zoo / Damon Knight
13 / Hawksbill Station / Robert Silverberg
14 / The Custodians / Richard Cowper
15 / The Dead Lady of Clown Town / Cordwainer Smith
16 / This Moment of the Storm / Roger Zelazny
17 / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line / Samuel R. Delany
18 / Fire Watch / Connie Willis
19 / The Empire of Ice Cream / Jeffrey Ford
20 / Zima Blue / Alastair Reynolds

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alpha One

The science fiction field has a long history of original anthology series, including Frederik Pohl’s Star series for Ballantine Books in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s came Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, the three most renowned series.

What the field does not have though is a long history of reprint anthology series other than best-of-the-year series. And while I have enjoyed several best-of-the-year series (especially those devoted exclusively to science fiction by Terry Carr, Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell), it would be nice to have a series devoted to the entire history of science fiction, rather than being restricted to a single year’s stories.

Apparently Robert Silverberg felt the same way, since in 1970 he released Alpha One, the first volume of 9 devoted to stories he felt were either neglected, or deserved renewed attention. He also released many stand-alone volumes of reprinted sf, my favorites being the immense The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction and its companion The Arbor House Treasury of Great SF Short Novels. But for some reason, the Alpha series hold a special place in my heart.

Ironically, one of the best stories in Alpha One is also one of Jack Vance’s finest novellas, “The Moon Moth.” In it he sets up one of the strangest societies in science fiction, a world where people wear masks in public constantly, since to not do so is the ultimate obscenity. They also speak exclusively with musical accompaniment, which requires them to learn how to play a variety of different instruments, since each one portrays a different mood and attitude.

The new ambassador from Earth struggles to fit into Sirene society, upsetting more people than he impresses. Then he receives an urgent message that a violent criminal is landing on Sirene and must be apprehended and imprisoned. But how is he to catch somebody whose face is always hidden? This is an excellent story, from its fascinating society to its clever and believable interactions between people, and even the denouement of the mystery. Anybody who has never read it should consider that a worthwhile reason to seek out Alpha One.

Equally good is Roger Zelazny’s “For A Breath I Tarry.” I think it is safe to say that Zelazny’s burst of stories from 1965 through 1968 are as outstanding a four-year creative period as that of any sf writer ever. This story takes place in the distant future when humans are extinct, and two ancient machines continue their task of maintaining the Earth. But they are competing for the role of being sole guardian, a struggle which involves Frost, another machine which was created by one of the competing machines named Solcom during a period of unprecedented solar flareup which made it temporarily mad. Frost develops a deep interest in the extinct humans, and sets out to learn as much about them as possible in the hopes of understanding them. This story has all the mythic overtones which Zelazny did better than anybody else, while also being an absorbing story.

There are other excellent stories as well:

● two stories about time travelers struggling to survive in ancient times: Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” set in 10th century Iceland, and Ted Thomas’ “The Doctor,” set during prehistoric times;
● R.A. Lafferty’s “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” which examines the difficulties of altering the past;
● Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” which examines a man obsessed with balancing all the asymmetric events which happen in the world;
● and others by C.M. Kornbluth, J.G. Ballard, Barry Malzberg, Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Larry Eisenberg and Charles L. Harness, a worthy group of authors.

This is a highly-recommended anthology, which makes me wonder why nobody is editing such a reprint series now.