Visions of Paradise

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Selected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

I don’t recall what were the first Theodore Sturgeon stories I read, but since I was a fairly immature 15 when I discovered science fiction, I did not appreciate Sturgeon as much as the likes of Clifford D. Simak or Damon Knight.

But as I grew older I grew more interested in the likes of Michael Bishop and Ursula K Le Guin, and Sturgeon became steadily more interesting to me. Unfortunately, he died relatively young at the age of 67, and his books went quietly out of print, so I was left with 3 collections and 2 novels on my bookshelf. Recently North Atlantic Books began publishing the Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, which I believe has reached nine volumes already. And no matter how appealing an author might be, nine volumes is a lot of reading to invest in a single author.

So I was pleased at the publication of the one-volume distillation Selected Stories by Theodore Sturgeon. It consists of 13 stories running the gamut from Golden Age science fiction to fantasy to pure horror. It also runs the gamut from slightly-dated old fashioned scenarios to thought-provoking stories which would not be out of place in a current issue of Asimov’s.

Most of the stories should be familiar to long-time lovers of science fiction and, in fact, I believe I have most, if not all, of these stories scattered somewhere through my bookshelf. But it’s nice to have them together in one volume. What’s most attractive about Sturgeon’s stories is that even in the midst of his corniest old sf plot–such as “Thunder and Roses,” or “Killdozer!”–he still fills the story with thought-provoking ideas and philosophical musings and character analysis which makes you realize that, yes, the plot might be important–and Sturgeon can plot with the best of the classic old-timers–but that is definitely not the real reason he’s writing the story. He’s trying to make you think, and if you approach the stories from that viewpoint it is almost impossible not to come away from them with some thoughts in your mind which were not in it previously.

Such as “Killdozer!” On the surface a simple story about an ancient malevolent entity which takes over a huge bulldozer with the intent of killing every worker in a building crew on a deserted island. The story builds slowly and deliberately, and the action sequences are nicely done, but what really occupies Sturgeon’s interest–and ultimately the reader’s interest as well–is the interaction of the people trapped together under the most trying circumstances, all fearing they are going to die and not particularly happy about either their expected fate or about each other’s company during their death throes.

“The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” was my favorite story in the book, as well as the longest, toping 80 pages. It’s the story of the residents of a small boarding house, their interactions with each other and with the owners of the house who, besides apparently being alien beings involved in an experiment examining human life, serve as surrogate Sturgeons not only examining that life but using the Socratic method to improve it in some small way.

This is a highly-recommended book whether you’ve read the stories in it previously or not. And it might convince you to start buying the complete works as well.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Newford Stories

The first Charles de Lint story I recall reading was “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” in Asimov’s about a dozen years ago. It was a wonderful story, filled with magic and warmth so different from any science fiction story I’d ever read. Soon thereafter I read two of his novels, The Little Country and Spiritwalk, which were equally wondrous, but for some reason I did not read another de Lint book for a long time.

A few years ago the Science Fiction Book Club offered a three-in-one volume of Charles de Lint’s collections of short stories under the title The Newford Stories. Newford is an imagined city where much of de Lint’s short fiction is set. The city runs the gamut from high-tech yuppie areas to rundown artists’ enclaves to ruined areas of abandonment and crime. The city itself is one of the major characters of the book, living and breathing as well as anybody inhabiting it. Reading de Lint provides a variety of pleasures, including imagery, language, mood, and characters, and the wonderful Newford provides several of those pleasures.

I must warn you that you don’t read de Lint for plotting. His stories’ plots tend to be slender sketches rather than detailed paintings. They are frameworks in which the city and its colorful characters reside and go about their business. But the stories pulsate with magic. In “Uncle Dobbin” parrots are the living embodiment of rejected magic. In “The Stone Drum” skookins skulk in the Old City buried deep beneath Newford itself. In “Timeskip” a ghost is stuck in a rut between Victorian past and present, unable to escape into either. In “The Sacred Fire” vampiric freaks inhabit human bodies while seeking out humans whose fires burn the brightest.

Perhaps the finest story in the book–as well as the longest–is “The Wishing Well”, which examines the life of a very insecure woman who has been suffering ever since her childhood was shattered by a father who suicided when she was very young. Her emotional problems have taken such forms as excessive neatness in her home but incredible chaos in her financial life, compulsive chain-smoking, and eating disorders. The story dramatizes her descent into total emotional chaos, alternating her own point of view–if I could only lose a few more pounds–with those of her friends and a would-be lover. It is a chilling story which happens to be quite sad and all too true-to-life (as I’ve seen happen too many times).

And there are others: “Mr. Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery” explores the fate of childhood imagined worlds after we outgrow our need for them, while “Waifs and Strays” looks at the natural conflict between one’s worldly responsibilities and one’s familial concerns.

De Lint successfully creates both people and a setting which feels warm and inviting. One cannot help but be drawn into the warmth and caring which Newford’s continuing cast exude as their lives take twists and turns from tale to tale. Ironically, in some ways this massive collection contradicts everything I’ve always read good f&sf for: the sense of wonder gradually loses its exoticism as it becomes familiar, the conflict becomes washed out when you realize everything will inevitably work out for the best. Yet somehow in de Lint’s hands it still succeeds almost every time. It’s certainly not what I would want to read a steady diet of, but its strengths have made me go back periodically to experience more of de Lint’s magic.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jack Faust

Some writers are more natural short story writers while others are more gifted novelists. Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Roger Zelazny are prototype short story writers. Zelazny wrote many novels, most of which were quite wonderful reading, but they generally lacked the development and continuity to really be successful as novels; rather they were elaborate fix-up, or mosaics, a collection of related scenes illuminating a central theme rather than developing it.

What separates a true novel from a fix-up are two traits. The first trait is continuity. A novel is like a continuous function. Each scene follows directly from the scene behind it and leads naturally into the subsequent scene. A fix-up, however, features individual scenes which are separate from each other and serve as portions of a longer background story which is never told.

The second trait is development. A novel has a central focus that is developed steadily and completely throughout. A fix-up does not usually have that focus, but rather a background setting, several aspects of which are illustrated during the book’s length.

This is not intended to be a value judgment in any way. Development is not necessarily the best way to examine a particular scenario. In fact, there is some argument that a single plotline is a terrible way to examine a created world since it concentrates too much on plot development to the exclusion of the world underlying it. Consider, for example, Keith Roberts’ classic Pavane, which examines different aspects of a wonderful world. Had he created a continuous novel instead, much of what he revealed about his alternate universe would have been missing through his concentration on plot instead.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to Michael Swanwick. I’ve always felt that Swanwick is a short story writer rather than a true novelist. His first novel In the Drift was a traditional fix-up, being constructed from several individual novelettes each of which was set at different points in a longer, more elaborate story. His subsequent novels have been published–and presumably written–as novels, yet they still demonstrated more of the qualities of fix-up. Both Stations of the Tide and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter were composed of many little scenes examining the marvelous world Swanwick created, but there were few of the traditional traits that made those books novels per se.

Perhaps his most successful fix-up book is Jack Faust. It is ostensibly a retelling of the Faust legend, how he sells his sold to the devil for knowledge. Swanwick gives it a science fictional basis in which the devil is a denizen of another universe who hates humanity because of our race’s long lives which will enable us to outlive it’s superior race’s relative brevity. Thus the devil gives Faust as much knowledge as he needs to fast-forward humanity’s progress through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, all intending for humanity to destroy itself with its arrogance and selfishness.

Reading Jack Faust left me with two main impressions of the book: first, it is not a coherent novel with a steadily-developed central focus. It is a series of scenes illuminating various stages of humanity’s race through technological progress as spurred by Faust’s intellectual gifts; and second, those scenes run the gamut from good to truly outstanding. What we have here more resembles a collection of stories stitched together by a connecting framework rather than a novel. But that in no way takes away from the enjoyment of those individual scenes themselves. They are fun, often provocative, frequently illuminating, and providing a satirical overview of the development of the modern world, as well as examining the emotional development of a passionate scholar from student through stardom through powerful icon. For all its lack of coherence, this is probably Swanwick’s best novel, which combined with the high quality of his short story collections, Tales of Old Earth being perhaps the finest, truly marks him as one of the best writers currently working in science fiction.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Science Fiction Cornerstone

The student is a professor of literature at a local college. A friend is on the board of the local library, which was just burned. All the records about the library’s history were destroyed. In the ruins, the original cornerstone was found. Inside the cornerstone is a collection of literature. The friend feels confident that this collection will be key in determining when the original library was built. The friend asks that the professor identify when the literature was written. In addition, the cornerstone is to be reused in the reconstructed library. The student is asked to suggest a collection of literature to be placed in the cornerstone that best reflects the late twentieth century in American history and letters.

The above assignment given in a recent book devoted to educational assessment sparked considerable thought on my part. How wonderful it would be for the person fortunate enough to select which books representative of the late Twentieth Century should go into the cornerstone. Alas, my knowledge of contemporary literature is not sufficient for me to make such a selection. But science fiction – ah, that is another situation entirely! I feel quite qualified to select the science fiction books which would be placed inside a cornerstone as representative of the entire genre in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

But how many books can I select? Assuming the cornerstone must contain a cross-section of all literary genres of the past half-century, and the size of the cornerstone approximates 2' by 2' by 2', a bit of elementary geometry determines 180 books can fit snugly into the cornerstone. How many genres must that total be divided amongst? Science fiction (including fantasy), mystery, adventure, popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction – and how many genres of nonfiction can there be? Let’s estimate a dozen genres have been chosen to share the cornerstone equally, which divided into 180 yields 15 books in each category.

Fifteen science fiction books to represent the entire second half of the Twentieth Century for future generations of readers? Fifteen books that may be all a generation of future readers might discover should some cataclysm befall the world in the immediate future. Fifteen books. And I get to select which ones they will be.

First I need some guidelines for my selections. Novels only? No, science fiction is as adequately represented by its short fiction, maybe even better represented in many instances. Primarily groundbreaking works that pushed the genre forward, or superior works that represented SF at the top of its form.? That seems an easy choice: if I could choose a much larger sampling, perhaps 50 books, then I would have space to define the entire history of late Twentieth Century science fiction by selecting several dozen groundbreaking books. But being restricted to fifteen books only, better to limit myself to the very best books the genre has to offer.

What else? No author should be chosen more than once – although that restriction should not apply to authors appearing in anthologies. I will try to restrict my selection of anthologies to those with minimal overlap. The books chosen should cover as many different aspects of the science fiction genre as possible, without locking myself into lesser selections that represent a particular sub-genre that perhaps is better off not being represented in the cornerstone.

And no series. Placing three volumes into the cornerstone would take up too much valuable space, and it would be senseless to place only a single volume from a series unless that volume is a self-contained masterpiece that generated a subsequent series afterwards.

All right, enough ruminating. What should the honored books be? I will list my selections by the decade they were originally published:

The Fifties
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.

The Sixties
Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Dune, by Frank Herbert
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

The Seventies

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg
The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley

The Eighties
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The Wild Shore, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Nineties
Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop

Any comments?

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Sean Stewart is one of my very favorite writers, and his recent novel Perfect Circle is on my summer reading list, perhaps the next book I will read. In the meantime, I thought this would be a good time to recommend one of his outstanding previous novels. Galveston is a typical Stewart novel in outline: Galveston Island in the mid-twenty-first century hovers precariously between a rational “real” world struggling on the remnants of the Twentieth Century’s lost technology and an irrational “magical” world dominated by the evil god Momus. The magic is segregated in a carnival area called Mardi Gras, where most people who enter it are trapped to spend their days endlessly in mirth and gaming–which doesn’t sound too bad until thinking about year after year after year of walking the midway. Occasionally the magic leaks over into the “rational” world, usually as harmlessly as the ghost of the hero’s mother warning him about roads he is taking in his own life, but occasionally in stranger, more dire ways.

The main plot concerns two people who were brief friends as children until the family of one of them is forced out of the circle of the powerful on Galveston Island when the father gambles away his property and they drift into genteel poverty instead. Josh–the son–spends his life as a pseudo-witch doctor struggling to be a pharmacist, while Sloane is the daughter and heir of the ruler of the island who indulges herself in wild nights at the Mardi Gras. Until Josh’s friend rescues Sloane from an attempted rape and brings her to Josh for healing, whereby they become reacquainted until she disappears and Josh is arrested by a seedy bunch of cops for her murder.

That event unleashes a fast series of events which sees Josh and his lifelong friend marooned off the island in cannibal land, a gale force hurricane sweeps the island and opens the way for the escape of the entrapped magic, and the struggles of all the main characters come to a climax. The novel is simultaneously fascinating and thoughtful, with characters both exotic and realistic. Overall the novel is successful in all it attempts to be. My only complaint–and it is not a major one–is that an important element of the novel is how the people of Galveston view Josh, yet I was unable to view him that way myself, although I am not sure if that is my own bullheadedness or Stewart’s failure to portray him accurately enough.

If you’ve never read a Sean Stewart novel, Galveston is an excellent starting point, and a strong sample from a major writer's output.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Robert Silverberg

A quick glance at the fifty year output of Robert Silverberg’s portrays him as the quintessential genre writer, producing a seemingly endless series of stories based on the traditional topics and themes in science fiction. But a closer reading reveals an amazing depth and seriousness. What Robert Silverberg has done with incredible regularity is take the hoariest old cliches of SF and reshape them into serious, modern fiction. His influence can be seen in such writers as George R.R. Martin and C.J. Cherryh who have also embraced the long traditions of science fiction and updated them with great success.

Perhaps Robert Silverberg’s greatest importance lies in the overall high quality of his fiction, perhaps the highest overall quality of any science fiction writer ever. He was first published in 1955 with the juvenile novel Revolt on Alpha C, and for the next half-decade was one of the stalwarts of the science fiction prozines. He churned out an incredible number of stories, under both his own name and numerous pseudonyms, filling the pages of nearly every minor science fiction magazine and several major ones as well. His overall quality was quite high considering his amazing proclivity. And yet, except for a Hugo Award as Most Promising New Author in 1956, he was not considered one of the major stars of the SF firmament.

In the mid-Sixties, after a brief retirement from science fiction, Silverberg upped his level of quality considerably with no decrease in his quantity of stories published. During the period from 1967-1976, Robert Silverberg produced a body of work possibly unequaled by any science fiction writer in any ten year period ever.

Silverberg's decade of excellence began modestly in 1967 with the mosaic novel To Open the Sky, gathered from a series of novelettes originally published in Galaxy. While higher in quality than typical Silverberg to date, it gave little indication of what was to follow. Shortly thereafter came the novel Thorns and the novella "Hawksbill Station". Both were widely acclaimed as two of the most thoughtful and best-written stories of the year. A year later came the Hugo-winning novella "Nightwings" and the equally-acclaimed novel The Masks of Time.

The steady progression of major stories continued: the psychological adventure novel The Man in the Maze; the time-travel slapstick comedy Up the Line; the philosophical Downward to the Earth; the multiple character study The Tower of Glass; the Nebula-winning novel A Time of Changes; a novel examining the lure of immortality, The Book of Skulls; a classic study of telepathy and loneliness, Dying Inside; a serious look at reborn humans, "Born With the Dead,"; a story of politics and mental powers, The Stochastic Man; and, finally, his last novel before retirement, Shadrach in the Furnace.

It was a ten year period during which Robert Silverberg earned more major award nominations than any other writer ever. Overall, he received five Hugo and Nebula Awards during this period, before burning out and retiring in 1976.

But writing stayed in Silverberg's blood, and three years later he returned to science fiction with the adventure novel Lord Valentine's Castle. Slightly less serious than his stories prior to his retirement, it was still superbly written and served as a popular return of perhaps the genre's best overall writer.

In the twenty-five years since, Silverberg has alternated between science fiction and historical fantasies, earning three more Hugo and Nebula Awards in the process. His best stories of this latter period include the Nebula Award winner "Sailing to Byzantium," a look at bored future immortals. To the Land of the Living was a mosaic novel about the adventures of the historical king Gilgamesh in the afterlife. His short series At Winter's End and The New Springtime was a far-future saga about the resurgence of intelligent life on Earth long after a cataclysmic destruction of human civilization. The Face of the Waters and Kingdom of the Wall returned to the type of philosophical speculations of Downward to the Earth and A Time of Changes.

While Silverberg's production during this latter phase of his career has not equaled that of the first two phases of his impressive career, the quality has remained consistently high. Overall, it has been an impressive thirty years. Perhaps the highest tribute

that can be paid Robert Silverberg is that more so than any other science fiction writer, readers and critics expect each of his stories to be as good as every other. Lesser writers, perhaps all other writers, are allowed to stub their toes occasionally. Robert Silverberg is not permitted such a luxury.