Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Assorted nonfiction

While fiction occupies about 80% of my reading, and science fiction about 60%, I do read some occasional nonfiction. Here are some of the gems from my collection:

Chinese Civilization and Society, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, is a college textbook intended for a course on Chinese history and culture. It consists of translated Chinese writings, ranging from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 - 1100 B.C.) through the People's Republic. The writings run the gamut of fiction, documents, nonfiction, anecdotes, speeches, and letters. Some are quite dry, but others are very revealing about the nature of Chinese culture and its people. This is highly recommended for any Sinophiles out there.

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould, is one of many collections of his columns from Natural History magazine. I subscribed to the magazine for several years, but was never able to keep up with it (a fate which eventually befalls all my magazine subscriptions!). So while I discontinued the magazine, I still buy Gould's collections periodically. They are quite interesting reading, especially since natural history is one of my favorite sciences.

Chaos, by James Gleick, is devoted to one of the newest branches of mathematics. I found this book fascinating reading, but perhaps it is a bit dry for the non-mathematical reader. I generally enjoy reading math more than I enjoy doing math problems, but then again I have always tended toward the philosophical side of math rather than the application side of it. However, I found this book to be a bit too much of an overview with virtually none of the mathematics behind Chaos Theory. So I followed it with The Turbulent Mirror, by John Briggs & F. David Peat, which was a bit more mathematical in its exposition on Chaos Theory.

Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, by Deepak Chopra. A fellow teacher recommended this book. I have always believed in the strong connection between the mind and the body, so I enjoyed what Dr. Chopra had to say. While other of his books were somewhat far out in New Age space, this book struck a responsive chord with me.

Eyewitness to History, by John Carey, is like Chinese Civilization and Society in being a collection of translated writings from throughout history. The essays tend to be short, averaging about two pages each, so that they are much better at giving the feel of particular civilizations than at actually teaching any facts about them. The book includes such topics as an excerpt from the travels of Marco Polo, memoirs of a prisoner of the Inquisition, a speech by John Wesley, a reminiscence of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, an essay by Charles Darwin, the murder of Abe Lincoln as recounted by Walt Whitman, and many more equally diverse. This is highly recommended for lovers of history of any type.

The 100, by Michael H. Hart, contains brief essays on the hundred most important people in history, ranked in descending order of importance. This was fascinating reading as much for Hart's defense of his rankings as for the brief history lessons themselves. This book was an influence on my own book Who Shaped Science Fiction? which ranked the 100 most important influences in English-language SF.

The Crown Crime Companion, edited by Mickey Friedman and Otto Penzler, compiled by the Mystery Writers of America, contains short essays on the top 100 mystery novels of all time, many of which offer some interesting reading insight into the books themselves. In case anybody is interested, the top choices were The Complete Sherlock Holmes (which is cheating to treat it as a single book), The Maltese Falcon, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (how is this a novel?), and Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (a fabulous historical mystery).

A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton, is my current nonfiction reading, and already is my very favorite travel book. It combines fascinating looks at various famous sites in Rome, the Italian people themselves, and a strong dose of the history which occurred at those sites. Someday I hope to read Morton’s companion book A Traveler in Italy.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Forbidden Planets (ed. by Peter Crowther)

Ironically, I am reviewing a book with the same title Forbidden Planets as a book I reviewed here last Dec 2. Where the former book was the latest SFBC original theme anthology of 6 novellas, this book is the latest theme anthology edited by Peter Crowther. Crowther is one of the finest editors working in the f&sf field currently. He first achieved fame editing a series of original novella chapbooks for PS Publishing–several of which have been gathered in book form with titles such as Cities and Futures before moving onto the quarterly prozine Postscripts and a wider range of books, including single author collections and novels.

Simultaneously, he has edited an annual series of original theme anthologies for DAW Books with titles Moon Shot, Mars Probe, Constellations and now Forbidden Planets. The previous collections have all garnered positive reviews, and provided more than their fair share of recommended short fiction.

The premise of this collection is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1956 movie Forbidden Planets. My initial thought reading the book was bemusement that nearly all the authors in the book expressed considerable fondness for the movie, going so far as to credit it as a major influence on them as sf writers. Certainly Forbidden Planet was one of the more interesting sf movies of the 1950s, perhaps one of only two that broke the mold of sf movies as either horror or thriller movies with as much depth as the first thin sheet of winter ice on a pond (the other such movie being The Day The Earth Stood Still). But as science fiction, the movie was little more than a typical Analog-style planetary mystery in which a group of spacemen land on some forgotten planet and spend 30 pages trying to decipher exactly what-the-heck is happening here?

By comparison, 2006 is also the 50th anniversary of Alfred Bester’s landmark novel The Stars My Destination in its original serialization in Galaxy, but I have not seen any tributes to that fabulous novel. Now granted, I am prejudiced since Alfred Bester was one of my favorite sf writers during my personal “Golden Age” in the 1960s, and The Stars My Destination is still one of my all-time favorite novels, but does the movie Forbidden Planets really deserve memorialization with two 50th anniversary collections while The Stars My Destination deserves none?

Anyway, putting aside that quibble, I found the overall quality of the anthology Forbidden Planets worthwhile reading, if several of the stories had little, if anything, to do with the source material.

The first two stories I read were two of the better stories, not surprisingly since they were written by two of sf’s current superstars: “Dreamers’ Lake,” by Stephen Baxter, and “Tiger, Burning,” by Alastair Reynolds. While both authors are considered writers of “New Space Opera,” their stories are very different in both intent and execution. Reynolds is perhaps the finest creator of wondrous future, and his stories generally push the very limits of technological development. “Tiger, Burning” uses the relatively new science of branes (which, as simply as possible, are parallel universes to our own which occasionally brush against our universe, causing “big bangs”) and how humans might possibly explore and settle them in the future. Like much of his fiction, the story is primarily a mystery.

Baxter, on the other hand, does not use technological ideas quite as cutting-edge as Reynolds does, but his storytelling is more involving and his stories tend to examine big philosophical ideas which leave both the characters and the reader deep in thought. “Dreamers’ Lake” is concerned with non-thinking life forms which still have feelings, and how this impacts on a group of scientists visiting a world all of whose lifeforms are soon to be demolished by a crashing meteor. Both stories were interesting, although they suffered slightly compared to the collections both authors have released recently.

Matthew Hughes’ “Passion Ploy” is a typical Hughes story, a lighthearted Vancean adventure about a con artist trying to carry out a sale which causes ramifications far beyond his control. The underlying theme of the story is greed and its occasional unintentional effects. Good, light fun.

Jay Lake’s “Lehr, Rex,” a rather cheesy title blatantly pointing at Shakespeare and the movie Forbidden Planet, tells an interesting planetary adventure about a space captain named Lehr who fancies himself king of a planet occupied by his crew. It reminds me of an old A. Bertram Chandler story, and competes fairly well on that basis.

Paul McAuley’s “Dust,” is a story about an attempted rescue of stranded explorers on an inhospitable planet which turns into a trap. I was not impressed by the ending, too much about inevitability rather than anything resolved by the actions of the protagonists, but otherwise the story was interesting.

Ian McDonald is one of the finest writers of contemporary sf, but occasionally he stumbles when his playful language and love of exoticism overwhelm the story itself. In such stories I find myself reading sentences and descriptions written in such a pell-mell manner that the story, whatever it might be, gets totally lost. That was my opinion of “Kyle Meets the River,” which was enjoyable reading but, ultimately, enjoyable words about nothing much at all.

The final story in the book is a novelet “Me⋅Topia,” by Adam Roberts, which has some very strange premises: a group of neanderthal scientists in a spacecraft abruptly crash on the surface of a planet which seemingly appeared out of nowhere directly in front of their ship. The scientists behave in a totally non-scientific manner while periodically reminding themselves that they are scientists in spite of being neanderthals (evolved neanderthals who apparently have anxiety about not being truly intelligent, something I cannot imagine modern humans ever doing), and the world has a sun which rises in the west and sets in the east, while the night stars do not move at all.

All these strangenesses give the story a sense of not being taken seriously by the author, but in fact it is a gripping scientific mystery which was probably the most interesting story in the book overall. It does reach a conclusion, albeit a not very scientific one, and raises a few questions about the nature of modern humans.

Overall, Forbidden Planets resembled a good issue of a prozine. I think what held it back from being truly outstanding was the lack of a single top-notch story, but overall it was a typical Peter Crowther quality anthology, which I recommend. So where is the memorial to The Stars My Destination?

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Like most science fiction fans, I bemoaned Roger Zelazny's abandoning serious novels for light, fast-paced throwaways the last decade of his career. Practically everything he wrote after 1982's Eye of Cat was basically a non-thinking book: the second Amber series (which made me yearn for the original series, which itself was not top-notch Zelazny!), the collaborative farces with Robert Sheckley (If At Faust You Don't Succeed, etc.), the juvenile A Dark Traveling, the humorous horror genre tribute A Night in the Lonesome October. Only a few short stories examined the human soul, particularly the novella "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai."

When I learned in 1994 that Zelazny published a western novel Wilderness in collaboration with Native American expert Gerald Hausman, I assumed it was another light adventure that happened to be set in the American West rather than space and time. But still, it was Zelazny, which guaranteed that at least the writing itself would be enjoyable, even if the rest of the novel demonstrated no other redeeming qualities.

Wrong! Wilderness was easily the most thoughtful Zelazny novel since Eye of Cat, and actually succeeded better than that one. The novel stems from two historical facts recounted early in the novel: in 1808 a mountain man named John Colter ran one hundred and fifty miles, half-naked, while pursued by several hundred Blackfeet warriors; and in 1823 an injured hunter named Hugh Glass crawled over one hundred miles through the wilderness from the Grand Valley to the Missouri River. What followed was a story of survival, two men struggling against the untamed American wilderness in the face of incredible odds, and surviving!

The novel is anything but an adventure. It explores the human spirit more deeply and more successfully than any Zelazny work since "Home is the Hangman" twenty years prior. It is also a wondrous novel, since man versus nature can be every bit as wondrous as man versus the unknown. I recommend this novel highly, not just for Zelazny fans, but for all science fiction fans. I know Roger Zelazny published novels after this one, but this is the one I will remember as the capstone of a wondrous writing career.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

My Science Fiction Year

I reviewed 29 books in this blog last year, 22 of which I read in 2006. So I guess it is time to select my favorite books of the year. I can easily condense the list to 6 books which highlighted the year for me.

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo-winning Spin was a strong combination of characterization and thoughtfulness in its depiction of how humanity would cope in the face of a “big dumb object” which alters life on Earth. The book avoided many of the traditional faults of such a premise by actually reaching a denouement in which the origins of the “big dumb object” were found.

I have been a lover of history my entire life, so my favorite type of science fiction has generally examined future developments in culture and society, the more historical-based the better. Think of Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings, Ursula K Le Guin’s Ekumen and C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun and you have a good idea what I love most in sf. Happily, and probably not surprisingly, the other 5 favorite books of 2006 fell to some degree into this category.

Jack McDevitt has been one of my favorite “traditional” writers for many years, going as far back as his first book The Hercules Text, but I really started to like him with the publication of A Talent For War. That was his first book about Alex Benedict, a far-future antiquities dealer whose job tends to involve him in solving historical mysteries involving some of the antiquities he is trying to sell. 2005's Polaris was a strong entry in this series, but last year’s Seeker was even better, perhaps the highlight of the series so far.

The other future-history books also fell into another popular category of sf, “new space opera”. When I started reading sf in the 1960s, “space opera” was a pejorative term which had been coined by Bob Tucker in the 1940s to refer to pulpish, childish adventures with little redeeming value. That began to change in the 1960s when writers started using space opera settings–adventures set far from Earth, primarily on spaceships traveling between worlds–to write serious sf stories. Writers who influenced the evolution of space opera included Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17 and Nova), Larry Niven (Known Space series, especially Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Galactic Cluster series).

By the 1990s, a new generation of writers adopted the “space opera” format to tell thoroughly modern sf stories involving serious characterization and detailed future development, without sacrificing any of the expansiveness and sense of wonder of the original. It took me nearly an entire decade to discover these stories for myself, but thankfully various best-of-the-year collections contained some fabulous stories by writers such as Alastair Reynolds (“Great Wall of Mars”) and Stephen Baxter (“Mayflower II”), so that after reading Jack McDevitt’s far-future Polaris in 2005, I decided to try books by each of them.

That was the most fortunate reading decision I made since buying books by Andrea Barrett and Iain Pears nearly a decade ago. Alastair Reynolds’ Conjoiners-Inhibitors series was absolutely wonderful. Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap were rich in future development and sense of wonder, while telling serious, well-plotted stories, generally mysteries, about real people.

Even better though was Stephen Baxter’s recent collection of Xeelee stories Resplendent. While his use of technological ideas is not quite as cutting-edge as Reynolds, his storytelling is more involving and he bases his stories on big philosophical ideas which leave both the characters and the reader deep in thought. A fabulous book which has me practically salivating to read more of his various interwoven series about the Xeelee.

2007 looms as a great reading year!