Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Analog, circa 1970-75

In the early 1970s, after Galaxy had been sold to Universal Publishing, the quality of its fiction began to deteriorate slowly but steadily. In an attempt to regenerate some of the sense-of-wonder missing from its pages, I sought out other sf prozines to read. I started buying Analog which was surely the most professional-appearing zine, and its covers seemed more sfnal than any other prozine available.

For some reason though, I never really connected with Analog. Yes, its stories were often the type of far-future stuff I enjoyed, but much of it was too technological and based on scientific content for my taste. I stuck with the magazine for about a decade, because there was always a few good stories in each issue, especially when Ben Bova was the editor. I recall such serials as Robert Silverberg’s Shadrach in the Furnace, and George R.R. Martin’s After the Festival (which became Dying of the Light in book form), and Roger Zelazny’s novella “Home is the Hangman.” But–and here’s the problem–I do not recall much else from that entire decade of reading Analog.

This past year some of my readers know that my reading taste has changed slightly. For decades I shied away from reading anything resembling adventure sf and only read the more-literary sf. This past year though I have been enjoying both ends of the sf spectrum, including some of the “New Space Opera” being published. I have been reminded of how some sf writers do a good job of blending adventure with sense of wonder, solid storytelling, and even thoughtfulness, so that at times an adventure story is actually a good framework for a more satisfying reading experience.

Recently I was browsing through the overflow part of my sf collection, which is the stuff sitting in boxes in the basement. That includes my 35-year collection of Locus, my 40-year collection of Gradient / Visions of Paradise, and all those issues of Analog. Our basement has a dehumidifier, so they have all stayed in excellent condition, but they are the most unread portion of my collection. So after browsing I took a handful of issues of Analog and read them during the winter months when I am so busy with schoolwork that I have little time to read the type of “serious” fiction which I prefer. Gordon R. Dickson’s serial Wolfing was light, but pleasant. So was James H. Schmitz’ serial The Lion Game. Next I went upstairs to my 1960s collection of Worlds of IF and read A. Bertram Chandler’s Edge of Night, which was much better than I recalled his fiction being. I am currently reading James H. Schmitz’ Analog serial The Tuvela, which is the best of the entire group. And there are some Poul Anderson novelettes waiting to be read in those issues of Analog.

I realized recently that my main bookshelves contain several items that I am unlikely to ever read again, including non-sf magazines Chinese Literature and Granta, as well as several fanzines which I only kept because they contain columns written by me. I am thinking about moving those items into boxes in the basement and bringing the issues of Analog upstairs, and then going back to read some of them again. Who knows what wonders are hidden in their pages that I did not realize the first time around?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Recommended reading

I go through phases in my reading. The mid-90s was a time of historical fiction. I returned to science fiction in the late 90s, and the past decade I primarily read near-future and historical sf, mostly near the literary end of the genre. Now my mood has shifted to far-future sf, including both “serious” and lighter space operas. As I usually do, I have compiled various lists of books I would like to read someday. One of those lists contains stories by both older and newer sf writers that I somehow missed over the years (not surprisingly, since there is far more f&sf published nowadays than any single rational person could possibly read).

So here is that list. Any recommendations either pro or con toward some of these books or authors would be appreciated:

John Barnes (I read A Million Open Doors several years ago and enjoyed it, but for some reason I never pursued the series further): Orbital Resonance / Earth Made of Glass / Kaleidoscope Century / Candle / The Sky So Big and Black

Gregory Benford (I always enjoy Greg’s fiction, so why did I miss these recent novels?): Cosm / The Martian Race / Eater / Sunborn

A. Bertram Chandler (I always dismissed him as a simple adventure writer, but John Clute really gave him a strong recommendation in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. These titles are all SFBC omnibi of John Grimes novels): Lieutenant of the Survey Service / Survey Captain / Tramp Captain / Reserve Commodore / Rim Runner / Rim Commander

Gordon R. Dickson (I have several Childe series books, but not all of them): The Spirit of Dorsai, Lost Dorsai, Young Bleys, The Final Encyclopedia, The Chantry Guild

Joe Haldeman (read my comments to Greg Benford above): The Coming / Guardian / Camouflage / Old Twentieth

Jack McDevitt (one of my favorite current writers, but for some reason I missed most of his Hutch series): Deepsix, Chindi, Omega

Robert Silverberg (he was my very favorite sf writer for several decades, yet somehow I missed three of his books as well): Starborne, The Alien Years, Roma Eterna

Clifford D. Simak (another old favorite who wrote so many novels it was almost impossible to keep up with all of them. These seem to be the most acclaimed of the ones I have not read already): They Walked Like Men, Mastodonia, The Visitors

Charles Sheffield (these books were published after I took some time off from reading sf): Tomorrow and Tomorrow / Aftermath / Starfire / Dark as Day

Robert Charles Wilson (an author I have not read much of, probably because the first book of his I read, Darwinia, disappointed me. I recently bought Spin, but have not read it yet): Bios / The Chronoliths / Blind Lake

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Beyond Infinity

In his Afterword to his novel Beyond Infinity, Greg Benford comments that “Years ago...David Hartwell used the term ‘transcendental adventure’ and I thought...this novel might be an example.” That is probably as good a description of Beyond Infinity as anything I can say about it beyond describing it as a thought-provoking blending of Olaf Stapledon meets Arthur C. Clarke.

The setting is a far-future Earth populated by numerous intelligent races, all of them either evolved from humans or other current inhabitants of Earth, including:

• Cley, the main character, who is considered an “Original,” although she seems somewhat further advanced than 21st century humans;
• Supras, the ultimate in human evolution, who tolerate Originals as we would tolerate children;
• Seeker, who resembles a highly-involved raccoon, yet shows depths of intelligence beyond Originals and perhaps even beyond Supras.

There are two main plot threads throughout the book, the first being Cley’s attempt to deal with the Supras who treat her gently and caringly, but for some reason refuse her the type of freedom she craves; the second is the mysterious threat of an interstellar entity called the Malign which killed all the remaining Originals and seems determined to eliminate Cley as well.

Seeker rescues Cley from an attack which destroys the Library of Life while killing the other Originals, then leads her on a frantic chase through a 4-D portal, which sets the tone for much of the book by involving lots of higher-dimensional mathematical speculation, and then into near-Earth space aboard a living gargantuan spacecraft.

Along the way we learn much about the millions of years of history between our era and the setting of the book, including the history of the Malign and its nemesis, another interstellar entity known as the Multifold, both of which were apparently created by humans. We also encounter other living beings such as:

• pinwheels, which are living transportation systems;
• semi-intelligent animals known as semisents;
• living gargantuan spaceships such as jonahs and leviathans;
• skysharks which live in space and prey on the gargantuan spaceships.

Once Seeker and Cley arrive in space, the novel tightens as the Supra and Malign both close in on Cley, the former to use her as part of an elaborate defense against the latter. The ultimate battle scene between the forces of good and evil certainly qualifies as transcendental adventure, and requires more than a grain of suspension of disbelief, but Benford pulls it off about as well as possible.

Overall, this was a strong novel, equal parts sense of wonder, thought-provoking ideas, and exciting plot. It was supposedly based on Benford’s earlier novella “Beyond the Fall of Night,” which was written as a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “Against the Fall of Night.” Not having read Clarke’s novella in several decades, and never having read Benford’s sequel, I cannot comment at this time on the connections. However, such lack of knowledge seemed to have no impact on my enjoyment of this splendid book.

I guess an old-timer can still show the “radical New Space Opera” writers a trick or two.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Approximately one year ago in this blog (5/14/05, to be precise), I reviewed C.J. Cherryh Foreigner, the first volume in her long-running atevi series, and my comments on it included “...Foreigner finds Cherryh at the top of her form” and “In some ways, it represents the best of both styles, being a slow-paced analysis of cultures and society wrapped around a thrilling plot. C.J. Cherryh has proven to me at least that she has lost none of her edge as a writer, so I await the story's continuation in Invader eagerly.”

I am not sure why I took a year to read the second volume, but by the time I did I needed to reread the last chapter of Foreigner for continuity’s sake, since the first three volumes (Invader is followed by Inheritor) form one long novel much as the three Faded Sun books formed one novel which were originally cut for marketing purposes. Apparently, the entire atevi series follows this pattern of each three books forming one novel. This type of extended series is more to my liking than series such as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice or Robert Jordan’s World series which, according to the reviews, seem to be one long, endless novel over several thousand pages. At least in Cherryh’s atevi series, I only need to read three books to complete a single storyline, rather than spend several decades waiting to see how a single intertwined plot ends. And imagine how frustrating that must be for the authors to spend seemingly their entire lives writing one novel!

Anyway, Invader is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. It is primarily a political novel, focused on Bren Cameron, the paidhi who serves as intermediary between the human-populated island Mosphiera and the nonhuman native atevi who, while humanoid in appearance, are totally nonhuman in philosophical outlook and emotional makeup.

Besides Bren, the main characters include:

1. Tabini, the aiji of the atevi, which translates into English as “lord of the local association,” but which more resembles a monarch who was elected by the other lords upon the death of his father;

2. Ilisidi, Tabini’s grandmother who was overlooked for aiji twice, and resents that double slight enough to be one of Tabini’s main foes whom he and Bren suspects as dealing with the rebels struggling to overthrow Tabini;

3. Deana Hanks, who was passed over as paidhi for Bren, and represents the ultra-conservative faction in the Mosphiera government; when Bren is presumed dead near the end of Foreigner, she is sent to Tabini by her faction, and refuses to leave when Bren shows up alive and well;

4. Jago and Banici, Bren’s bodyguards, whose relationship with him deepens and, in one case, veers into a direction totally unexpected by him.

Besides the political struggles between atevi and humans, Invader introduces a third element in the form of the original human spaceship returning after two hundred years. This was the colonizing starship from Earth which two centuries previous jumped into normal space and realized it was totally lost and in dire trouble. Most of the would-be colonists emigrated to the nearest habitable world, which was inhabited by the atevi, while the others left to find another suitable home. Now they have returned and begin negotiating both with the humans and with the atevi through Bren. Much of Invader concerns plans for the ship to send two emissaries to the planet, one to negotiate on Mosphiera, and the other with Bren and the atevi.

However, the civil war which always lies close to the surface worsens as the rebels, who apparently now include Hanks as their own paidhi, make assassination attempts on either Tabini or Bren, or both, and also seem determined to interfere with the arrival of the two emissaries from space.

This might all sound like a fast-paced, action-filled adventure, but long readers of C.J. Cherryh novels realized it is anything but that. A typical Cherryh novel is like an onion, intended to be peeled slowly and carefully as more and more of the culture and history of the atevi civilization is revealed to Bren and, through him, to the reader. The entire novel is told through Bren’s point of view, much of it consisting of his inner dialogue through and around all the events taking place. We learn much about the atevi race and their culture, and the human society on Mosphiera through Bren, but we also learn much about his emotions, thoughts, beliefs, emotional strengths and weaknesses and, perhaps most importantly of all, the loneliness of being a paidhi stuck between two worlds. As he develops closer ties to the atevi, his actions and public words displease the conservatives back home more and more, until their displeasure at him is taken out on his family and friends who try to shield Bren from all of this by hedging whenever he speaks to them by phone.

While some of this might sound like a liberal’s subtle attack on the political differences which have divided America since the disputed election of 2000, keep in mind that Invader was published in 1995, before our country split into pro-Iraqi War conservatives and anti-Iraqi War liberals. Ironically, though, the factions which divide the humans on Mosphiera are a fairly accurate prediction as to what has transpired in America in the past half-decade.

Anybody who likes carefully-developed alien races, well-thought-out cultures, and a slow-paced, thought-provoking look at human-alien relations should enjoy Invader, and its predecessor Foreigner, as much as I did. I await the third volume Inheritor eagerly, and hopefully will not wait an entire year to finish this wonderful trilogy.