Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Golden Globe

In the 1970s and 1980s, John Varley was one of the finest science fiction writers. His strength was his short fiction, with nearly every one of his stories overflowing with creativity and fast-paced narrative. His novels suffered slightly in that he was not strong enough as a plotter to carry a novel, but he still wrote such exciting scenes that his novels flowed wonderfully. Perhaps the best example of this was his Gaea Trilogy consisting of Titan, Demon and Wizard, three novels whose plots were almost incidental compared to the explosion of ideas which issued forth page after page.

After a decade spent playing around in Hollywood, Varley returned to science fiction with decidedly positive results. First came Steel Beach, which I thought showed signs of Varley shaking off the creative rust. Its successor The Golden Globe showed a step forward in Varley’s development though since it holds together as a novel better than any previous Varley book. It is not tight with multiply-intertwined plotlines, and the individual scenes themselves are still its main strength, but the fast-pacing is wrapped around a storyline whose denouement is both satisfactory and mostly successful.

The story concerns Sparky Valentine, an itinerant and slightly-disreputable actor who works the Pluto circuit of legitimate theater. Somehow he incurs the wrath of a world of gangsters who send a hired killer after him. Meanwhile, Sparky receives an offer to play the lead role in King Lear back on Luna–the “center” of the solar system since Earth is off-limits to humans in Varley’s future history–provided he reaches Luna in time for rehearsals. That is not an assured thing considering (a) Sparky’s lack of funds for spacefare and (b) the urgency of keeping one step ahead of the hired killer.

Most of the book features two parallel stories: how Sparky struggles to reach Luna alive and on time, and flashbacks telling Sparky’s life as a famous child star. The former story is much more interesting. At times the latter story dragged endlessly, and for most of the book does not seem too important. Only as the novel reaches its climax does Varley gradually reveal the importance of his childhood on Sparky’s future life, but I still would have been happier if the novel was 100 pages shorter.

As I mentioned earlier, Varley writes terrific scenes. The novel’s opening scene of Sparky playing two roles simultaneously in Romeo and Juliet, one female, the other male, is hilarious. I cannot imagine anybody who reads that scene not finishing the book. And scenes in which Sparky visits his Uncle Ed for help and goes to the artificial wheel-shaped world Oberon are nearly as good.

And I cannot forget to mention Toby, his dog and best friend, and ultimately one of the most important characters in the novel.

There are a few weaknesses in the novel. The extended backstory. The various confrontations with the Charonese killer prove that too many writers are frustrated thriller authors. But overall the novel should satisfy all Varley fans and make them anxious to read his next novel Red Thunder as well. It certainly had that impact on me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

In the Heart of the Seaa

I’ve never been a big fan of adventure thrillers, whether sfnal or mainstream. Such stories tend to be filled with straw dog characters whose main functions are to serve as victims or aggressors rather than people, and events which stretch credibility in their attempt to continually shock the reader or stun them with fear or heartbreak. For somebody who prefers character-driven stories, adventure thrillers are generally shallow reading.

But awhile ago National Geographic Adventure picked their choices as the 100 best nonfiction adventure books of all time. I bought and read that issue, and was enthralled by their descriptions of those books. These were real people undergoing real adventures for various reasons, whether exploration (such as the popular arctic sub-genre), thrills (which dominated the mountaineering books), or accidental side effects of “routine” jobs (which occurred frequently in the oceangoing books).

My fascination with these books caused me to seek out a few nonfiction adventure books to read. The first book I bought was called Points Unknown, which contained excerpts from various nonfiction adventures, such as Apsley Cherry-Garraud’s The Worst Journey in the World and Ernest Shackleton’s South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition. Both were exciting excerpts, but a bit too damned cold for me.

I mulled over some other popular sub-genres, such as mountaineering (too high!) or desert-crossing (too hot!) before deciding that the books which most struck my fancy were oceangoing adventures. So I bought Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea. This is the story of a whaleship which was attacked in the midst of the Pacific Ocean by a huge sperm whale, destroying the ship and sending its crew fleeing thousands of miles across the ocean in three tiny whaleboats. It was a true ordeal since the survivors (only 8 of the original 21 crewmembers) spent 3 months on the water subsisting on little more than water and hardtack.

The book begins with an examination of Nantucket, the center of the American whaling industry in the early 19th century. The inhabitants of Nantucket were primarily Quakers, peaceful religious people in their everyday lives who became rabid killers in their whaling zeal. Life on the island mainly consisted of women running local businesses and raising large families while their husbands were away at sea 90% of the time, often dying in the rigors and dangers of whaling. Their lives alone were often heartbreaking and set the foundation for a very emotional book.

Philbrick told his story in a very dry, factual manner which managed to be as gripping as a fictional thriller without being exaggerated or sensationalized in any way, and which made the events even more thrilling than they might otherwise have been.

From Nantucket he takes us on a voyage on the whaleship Essex. We view life among the crew as they begin their two year whaling trip. We see them seek out whales, and I could not help empathizing more with the majestic mammals than with the crew members themselves (which, I admit, is purely a personal preference which might not be the same for other readers). What solidified this pro-whale stance was a detailed telling of a successful whale kill. It was fascinating reading, but I could not help wondering why whales did not merely dive under the sea when they were caught by a harpoon. As Philbrick told it, the harpoons did not kill, or even weaken the whales, in any manner. They were merely the method by which the whalers “lassoed” the whales, beginning a frantic race across the water in which the whale tried to outrun its pursuers, dragging them along with it until it tired, enabling the whalers to move close enough to begin the actual killing process. Wouldn’t a prolonged dive beneath the water drown the pursuers effectively, thus freeing the whale?

After the successful kill comes the incident where a huge sperm whale attacks the Essex, seemingly unprovoked and, in the eyes of both the first mate and the cabin boy–both of whom wrote detailed logs which were the basis of both the popular 19th century book which made the incident famous and Philbrick’s contemporary book as well–was obviously a deliberate attack. The whale destroyed the ship, sending the crew into the whaleboats–which were little more than large rowboats–for safety. They escaped with only water, hardtack, and three tortoises each as their basic subsistence for their voyage.

The bulk of the book was the saga of the crew members’ voyage across the Pacific, a voyage which would have been considerably less strenuous had they not made a basic initial mistake. They assumed that traveling west toward Asia would have brought them to islands filled with cannibals, a thought which frightened them. Instead they headed in the direction of South America, an unnecessarily-long route which proved deadly to 13 crew members.

Over the next three months we see the captain prove an ineffectual leader, letting both mates overrule his decisions, often with disastrous effects. We see a detailed picture of how dehydration and starvation gradually destroy a human body. We see occasional events which raise their hopes only to be shattered soon thereafter. This occurred most noticeably when they reached a small island, hoping to find shelter and food there. Instead the island was mostly uninhabitable rock with little or no food and water. After a few days eating whatever animal and plant life the crew could find, they returned to their voyage. However, three crew members could not bear returning to the endless ocean and stayed behind on the island. Ultimately, while they also suffered from dehydration and near-starvation, those three men were among the eight eventual survivors.

And then we see the most brutal part of the voyage. Out of food, men begin dying, and the survivors make the forced decision to extend their own lives by eating their fellow crew mates. This sad development reaches its nadir on one of the three whaleboats when a handful of survivors, desperate for sustenance, are forced into the traditional practice of “casting lots” to determine which of them would be the source of food for his fellow desperate survivors.

In the Heart of the Sea is a gripping book which provides food for thought [pun unintentional], both in its depiction of the whaling life and its depiction of men trying to survive under stressful conditions. First mate Owen Chase becomes the hero of the book as his harsh disposition on the whaleship adapts to the forced voyage across the Pacific as a combination of toughness in distributing their meager rations–which the captain was unable to do on his whaleboat, forcing the “casting of lots” to survive–and compassion and inspiration in encouraging his fellows to survive. Three members of his whaleboat survived, the largest group of any of the three.

I recommend In the Heart of the Sea highly. It has encouraged me to seek out other nonfiction adventure books as well as other seagoing sagas.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Books To Read

I keep two lists of books on my computer. The first list contains books I have bought but not read yet, a list of nearly 100 books. The second is recommended books which have struck my fancy and which I hope to buy and read someday. This latter list comes primarily from book reviews in such magazines as Locus, Historical Fiction Review, and Bookmarks, or at websites such as Emerald City, SF Site, and numerous sfnal blogs and personal websites.

So I am going to enlist all my readers in a chore here. During the next week I will post both my lists, and ask those of you who particularly loved any of the books on the lists to recommend them to me. First is the Books-To-Read list, and any recommendations I receive will move that book to the top of the list to be read asap.

So here are the books which are all waiting patiently on my bookshelves to be read:

Science Fiction:
Etched City, by K.J. Bishop
Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke
The Year’s Best Science Fiction 21, edited by Gardner Dozois
Black Seas of Infinity, by H.P. Lovecraft
Science Fiction 101, by Robert Silverberg
Ilium, by Dan Simmons
Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
Ports of Call & Lurulu, by Jack Vance
Castle of Days, by Gene Wolfe

Historical Fiction:
Shogun, by James Clavell
Spartacus, by Howard Fast
Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings
Aztec, by Gary Jennings
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurty
The Source, by James Michener
Turbulence, by Jia Pingwa
Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund
The Silent Cry, by Oe Kenzaburo
Accordian Crimes, by Anne Proulx
The Ground Beneath her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie
Midnight’s Children, by Salmon Rushdie
Sarum, by Edward Rutherford
The Virginian, by Owen Wister
The Republic of Wine, by Mo Yan

The Seekers, by Daniel Boorstin
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, By Annie Dillard
The Great Movies, by Roger Ebert
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, by Ross King
A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton
Full Circle, by Michael Palin
Points Unknown, edited by David Roberts
In Search of Robinson Crusoe, by Tim Severin
The Empire of Genghis Khan, by Stanley Stewart
Frontiers of Heaven, by Stanley Stewart
Mountain of Fame, by John E. Wills
God’s Chinese Son, by Jonathan Spence
History of God, by Karen Armstrong

The House of Earth, by Pearl Buck
Homecoming Series, by Orson Scott Card
The Brothers of Gwynedd, by Edith Pargeteer
Long Sun Series, by Gene Wolfe
Short Sun Series, by Gene Wolfe
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guan Zhong

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Last Castle

In my opinion, this is one of the finest stories of any length ever published in the science fiction field. It is Vance’s most serious story, at least of those I have read, yet it still retains all the color of his adventures.

In the far-future, Earth is dominated by gentlemen who returned from space hundreds of years ago and established castles where they live in royal splendor. They have brought with them slaves from several races who have been genetically altered to serve the humans’ needs:

1. meks who are the equivalent of serfs doing all the manual labor which the gentlemen would not lower themselves to do

2. birds, who are semi-intelligent and used as transportation as well as messengers

3. phanes, who are ethereal beings bred only for their beauty

Earth also contains several groups of humans who have rejected the castle society:

4. nomads, who were the natives of Earth before the gentlemen returned from space

5. expiationists, who rejected the feudal society of the castles, especially its dependence on slave labor.

After centuries of peaceful coexistence, the meks abruptly desert their castles en masse and proceed to attack and destroy each castle and its inhabitants one-by-one. The lesser castles with the least formidable defenses fall first, until only two remain, the powerful and well-protected Janeil and Hagedorn.

The first line of the novella sets the tone for what follows:

Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed.

“The Last Castle” is thus Hagedorn, and this is the story of its inhabitants’ attempts to survive the Mek rebellion. It is a story similar in parts to the French Revolution, when the landed aristocracy had developed such a leisurely lifestyle during the preceding centuries they had absolutely no understanding of the common people and, in fact, centuries of their royal lifestyle had bred out of them the ability to cope with the growing revolution.

Thus it is in Castle Hagedorn. The main character Xanten tries to organize a resistence against the Mek, but on one hand he meets opposition from his fellow nobility who seem more prepared to die with dignity than actually do anything physical to protect themselves, and on the other hand his own narrowmindedness foils his ability to rouse support among the nomads and expiationists.

So we watch the rebellion grow as the Meks surround Castle Hagedorn and begin their assault on it, an assault which seems destined to succeed. “The Last Castle” is a story of the nobility trapped within their own royal cocoon, and the seemingly-futile attempts of a few of them to build a resistence. Two possible endings loom for this story, neither of which would be totally satisfying, and Vance manages to avoid being trapped by either one. If you have never read this story, I recommend it very highly. It succeeds in entertaining while also providing food for thought. Isn’t that what great science fiction is all about?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Book of the Year

A reviewer is only as useful as the rapport he or she establishes with his readership. If a reader does not understand what makes a reviewer tick, then somebody raving about the splendors of The Starflame Trilogy is useless, since the reader cannot be sure if he appreciates the same aspects of science fiction as the reviewer does.

So with the goal of helping my readers familiarize themselves more with my personal taste, here is my annual list of Book of the Year. One book per year, a novel whenever possible, selected in the year I read the book, not the year of publication. Until recently, all the selections were science fiction or fantasy, but in the past decade I began intermixing historical fiction with genre fiction, so the choices are more varied.

Year Book/Author
1966 The Dream Master /Roger Zelazny
1967 Lord of Light / Roger Zelazny
1968 Nova / Samuel R. Delany
1969 Nightwings / Robert Silverberg
1970 Downward to the Earth / Robert Silverberg
1971 To Your Scattered Bodies Go / Philip Jose Farmer
1972 Dying Inside / Robert Silverberg
1973 Malevil / Robert Merle
1974 The Dispossessed / Ursula K Le Guin
1975 Ragtime / E.L. Doctorow
1976 Brothers of Earth / C.J. Cherryh
1977 Gateway / Frederik Pohl
1978 Dreamsnake / Vonda N. McIntyre
1979 The Road to Corlay / Richard Cowper
1980 The Snow Queen / Joan Vinge
1981 Downbelow Station / C.J. Cherryh
1982 No Enemy But Time / Michael Bishop
1983 The Armageddon Rag / George R.R. Martin
1984 The Wild Shore Kim / Stanley Robinson
1985 Ender’s Game / Orson Scott Card
1986 Speaker for the Dead / Orson Scott Card
1987 The Shore of Women /Pamela Sargent
1988 An Alien Light / Nancy Kress
1989 Grass / Sherri S. Tepper
1990 The Fall of Hyperion / Dan Simmons
1991 Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede / Bradley Denton
1992 Red Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
1993 Green Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
1994 Brittle Innings / Michael Bishop
1995 Wild Swans / Jung Chang
1996 Beloved / Toni Morrison
1997 Dream of the Red Chamber / Cao Xueqin and Gao E
1998 Ship Fever / Andrea Barrett
1999 Stones From the River / Ursula Hegi
2000 The Moon and the Sun / Vonda N. McIntyre
2001 Perdido Street Station / China Miéville
2002 An Instance of the Fingerpost / Iain Pears
2003 A Dream of Scipio / Iain Pears
2004 The Last Light of the Sun / Guy Gavriel Kay

Multiple Selections by Author:
3 Kim Stanley Robinson / Robert Silverberg
2 Michael Bishop / Orson Scott Card / C.J. Cherryh / Vonda N. McIntyre / Iain Pears / Roger Zelazny

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Dragon Masters

When I discovered Galaxy Magazine in 1963, Vance’s “The Dragon Masters” was already a famous story in its pages, even before winning that year’s Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction. This novella is considerably more serious than most of Vance’s short fiction. It still contains the characteristic Vance color, but Vance’s usual humor is augmented by a seriousness of purpose.

The story is set on two settlements of a sparsely-settled world. The settlement in Happy Valley is ruled by a harsh tyrant named Ervis Carcelo whose actions are dominated by a lust for power and a need to overthrow his nearby rival whose ancestors overthrew Ervis’ own ancestors several times.

Ervis’ rival is Joaz Banbeck, ruler of Banbeck Vale, and a scholar who rules out of necessity, seemingly not caring for personal power in any way.

Both rulers breed stocks of enormous dragons, unwinged and Earthbound, more resembling dinosaurs with their powerful horns and tails, lumbering across the ground like army tanks. And both rulers are stumped by the existence of sacerdotes, a human-like race who go naked with waist-length hair, preaching pacifivity, only speaking when questioned directly, and then required by their philosophy to answer truthfully, but literally to the point of intentional evasiveness.

Several times in the past their world has been invaded by Basics, a race of space invaders who each time destroyed the cultures of the dragon masters and took their citizens as hostages. Joaz has been studying history and astronomy, and theorizes that the Basics invade when a certain star swings close to their own, an event which has happened recently. To begin preparations for mutual protection he tells Ervis that he anticipates another attack, but his sworn enemy ignores the information as foolishness.

An early scene in the story pits Joaz in a battle of words with a sacerdotal, as Joaz strives to learn if the pacifists hoard powerful weapons which might help him resist the impending invasion of the Basics. For awhile the questions-and-answers seem almost a game, until Joaz veers near some secret knowledge of the sacerdotals and it abruptly dies.

Because of this incident, both Joaz and the leader of the sacerdotals independently of each other begin to question their own beliefs and actions.

The latter half of the story is filled with battle. First Ervis attacks Banbeck Vale in an attempt to seize control of it, but in the middle of his second wave the Basic invade. Since Ervis had discounted their return, Happy Valley is totally unprepared and quickly overrun.

But Joaz has indeed prepared, and he fights a strong holding action against them, although he seems unable to do more than merely delay the invasion.

For awhile it seems as if the novella will end with resolution to the invasion only, but just as he has done in many of his novels, Vance’s story contains unexpected depth in addition to his color and sense of wonder. Thus "The Dragon Masters" ends with serious questions about smugness of purpose and racial memories, as well as the eternal questions about can you ever go home? Although this story was short compared to Vance’s novels, it was equally thought-provoking with its ending, and very successful as a result.

“The Dragon Masters” well-deserved its Hugo Award and its status as one of the classic science fiction novellas of all time. I was struck by the similarities between the setting of “The Dragon Masters”and that of Anne McCaffrey’s famous Pern series, whose first story “Dragonflight” was published a half-dozen years later. It seems obvious where her inspiration came from.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Year in Review

The Year in Review: My recreational time is primarily spent reading books and magazines, and listening to music, almost to the total absence of watching television and movies. So here are a few observations on the past recreational year:

I bought or received 25 books this year, starting with the historical novel Star of the Sea in January and finishing with sf novel Etched City in December. I have read 16 of them entirely, and portions of three omnibus volumes (Jack Vance’s Demon Princes Volume 1, James White’s Beginning Operations, and Dimensions of Sheckley). The best book I read all year was Guy Gavriel Kay’s alternate history novel The Last Light of the Sun, with runners-up being Jennifer Vanderbe’s historical novel Easter Island, Jonathan Strahan’s collection Best Short Novels of the Year (2003), and–for pure fun–John Varley’s The Golden Globe and Jack Vance’s The Star King.

I bought or received 19 music compact disks or boxed sets this year, starting with Fairport Convention’s live Cropedy and finishing with a Christmas present from Andy, John Fogarty’s Deja Vu All Over Again. This was definitely the year of retrospective music, since my favorite cd was Cropedy, with runners-up being two “greatest hits” packages, John Mellencamp’s Words and Music and Jackson Browne’s The Very Best of. I also enjoyed a nine-cd set The Folk Years, which contained primarily folk-rock of the 1960s, everybody from Dylan to Mamas and Papas and everybody inbetween.

I subscribed to 6 magazines this year: Locus (the newsletter of the SF field), Bookmarks (containing reviews of a wide variety of book genres), Tracks (a serious music magazine), Historical Fiction Review/ Solander (4 issues of endless reviews of novels and 2 issues of fascinating essays about historical fiction), SFWA Bulletin (useful articles on the professional side of writing), two semi-annual f&sf fiction magazines (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Postscripts). For 2005 I have added Paradox (a magazine of historical and speculative fiction) and plan to renew Locus, Tracks, and possibly Postscripts. The others were worthwhile reading, but I rarely dwell on the same magazines for too long (except Locus, which has been invaluable to me for the past 30+ years).