Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three Classic Novellas

I have always loved novellas more than any other length for all the traditional reasons: they are long enough to create a fleshed-out world with strong characters and an intricate plot, yet without all the padding that makes so many (although obviously not all) novels 20% lean meat embedded in 80% fat. In fact, I generally prefer “mosaic” novels which are groupings of several novellas/novelettes set in the same milieu, each exploring one facet of the created world, while all of them together form into a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

My science fiction collection is not immense compared to many other longtime fans, but it does contain several outstanding collections of novellas. The highlight is the two-volume Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Ben Bova, and containing 22 novellas which were the top vote-getters by the SFWA honoring science fiction published prior to the inauguration of the Nebula Awards in 1965. Other anthologies include two edited by Robert Silverberg, the relatively short Great Short Novels of Science Fiction (6 novellas) and the longer Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (15 novellas). An interesting fact is that all three books contain different novellas written by Jack Vance, none of which were his most famous novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle.”

Other gatherings of novellas include Isaac Asimov & Martin Greenberg’s series Mammoth Book of (fill in the adjective) Science Fiction, running from the 1930s through the 1970s, containing 10 novellas each. Gardner Dozois joined the bandwagon with Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction (13 novellas), as did Terry Carr with Great Science Fiction Short Novels of the Year (6 novellas) and recently Jonathan Strahan has edited a series of Best Short Novels, from 2004 through 2006 (with 2007 due to be published in May), having 9-10 novellas each.

More? In the 1970s it was fashionable for publishers to release original anthologies containing 3 novellas each. I have such anthologies edited by Terry Carr (An Exaltation of Stars) and Robert Silverberg (Three for Tomorrow, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Threads of Time, Chains of the Sea, The New Atlantis, The Crystal Ship and Triax). Recently the Science Fiction Book Club has revived that trend, although with 6 novellas each (Between Worlds, Down These Dark Spaceways, One Million B.C., and Forbidden Planets).

There are many other novellas in my collection; in fact, the 23 volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Best Science Fiction of the Year generally contain 2-4 novellas each. Just counting the volumes listed above, there are nearly 190 classic novellas in my collection (some repeats, of course) eager to be reread. And why not? Sometimes it’s easy to get so hung up trying to keep up with new science fiction that the classic stuff gets shoved into a corner and forgotten.

So recently I got an urge to reread some of those classic novellas. I guess the inspiration started when I reread Samuel R. Delany’s “Empire Star” in The Space Opera Renaissance (reviewed here 11/11/06). What a great novella that was, although it set a standard that few classic novellas could possible maijntain. Still, last week I arbitrarily selected Volume Two B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and picked out two novellas to read. Coincidentally, both of them were later expanded into book form, one as part of a four-volume “fix-up,” and the other as an expansion.

The first novella was James Blish’s “Earthman, Go Home,” part of his fabulous Okie series about gypsy cities which travel through space looking for work. I read the entire series 30 years ago, but not surprisingly I recall few of the specifics about it. In this novella, one such city’s spindizzies (the pseudo-scientific basis for the cities’ ability to travel through space) finally fail and the city is forced to make permanent landfall on a colonized world. Not only do colonies distrust such visitors, but there are intergalactic police which frown on Okies invading colonized worlds.

“Earthman, Come Home” is a combination problem-solving story (How do the Okies deal with the threat from the police since they are unable to leave the world?) and mystery (What is the origin of the world’s colonists and what are they hiding from the Okies?). The solution is fairly easy, more typical of 50s than of recent stuff, but it was all interesting reading.

The other novella was James H. Schmitz’ “The Witches of Karres,” whose title sounds like a fantasy, but in fact it was pure science fiction. When a few months ago I was reading old issues of Analog from the late 1960s I enjoyed several Schmitz stories, particularly “The Tuvela,” (which was released in book form as The Demon Breed), and I have fond memories of the novel version of “Witches.” This is the story of a space captain of a one-man trading vessel who encounters three very young witches Maleen, Goth, and the Leewit, who are slaves on one of the worlds of the star-spanning empire. They are each treated badly by their owners although, because of their supernatural talents, they successfully torment their owners as well. Feeling sorry for them, the captain purchases all three witches with the intent of returning them to their world of Karres.

The trip to Karres turns into quite an adventure since Goth is a kleptomaniac who keeps stealing riches for the captain as repayment for his purchasing them. Overall, this novella is an antic romp, whose rapid pace and exoticism are reminiscent of Jack Vance at his best (although ”The Witches of Karres” was originally published in 1949, while Vance did not make his first big splash in the genre until the publication of The Dying Earth in 1950). This was a much less serious story than “Earthman, Come Home,” but deliberately so and it succeeded excellently in its intent.

Next I switched to Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels for A. Bertram Chandler’s “Giant Killer,” since I have also been reading back issues of Worlds of IF from the 1960s and I enjoyed his serial “Edge of Night” (published in book form under the abysmal title Contraband from Otherspace). “Giant Killers” is Chandler’s most famous non-Grimes story, the tale of intelligent rat-like creatures living in the walls of a house inhabited by giant human-like beings. The rats live in tribes which fight amongst themselves while fearing the Giants living “inside” the building. The main character was born a “Different One” who normally would have been killed by the tribe and eaten. Instead he escapes and becomes one of the “New People,” outcast mutants who shun their fellow rats as much as they do the Giants.

The main character was named Shrick at birth, but NoFur among the New People because of his body’s hairlessness. When he encounters Wesel, who is seemingly normal and thus should be killed by the New People (who kill normals just as the normals kill Different Ones), her mutant mental abilities convince NoFur to keep her, and together they challenge the leader of the New People, kill him in battle, and become the leaders of the tribe. This leads to a war against all the other tribes, as NoFur attempts to become “Lord of the Outside.”

While “Giant Killer” seems destined to be a glorified sword-and-sorcery story, it changes direction abruptly when Wesel is captured by one of the Giants who prepares to dissect her as an experimental subject. Her ability to prophesize the future opens up the story into a much bigger, more thoughtful one involving the fate of the New People when the Giants realize they are overrun with vermin. What began as a fairly routine adventure grows into a taut, well-plotted thriller about survival and the inevitable fate when small encounters big. This was a better story than any of Chandler’s John Grimes stories, some of which were very good as well. But it is nice to be reminded that he was able to write serious fiction as well as adventure stories.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Her Majesty's Dragon

Naomi Novik made quite a splash in the f&sf genre a year ago with the publication of three novels in three consecutive months which combined C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. Their premise was that most nations’ military during the Napoleanic Wars featured an Air Force consisting of dragons. A few sub-species of dragons had their own natural weapons of breathing fire or spitting acid, but most of them were the equivalent of carriers and bombers, hovering above ships and land forces fighting against each other or dropping bombs on the enemy below.

The first novel is Her Majesty’s Dragon, although it had the title Temeraire in England, a title which now serves as the composite title of the Science Fiction Book Club edition which gathers all three novels under one cover. As the novel begins, a British navy ship is engaging in battle with a French ship, but the battle's outcome is foreordained by the terrible condition of the French ship and its occupants, so that the British defeat them easily. After taking the ship, the British forces find a box hidden in the ship's bowels which contains the ship’s treasure: a huge dragon egg. This is a rare find since dragons are not numerous and the French forces have many more fighting dragons than the British and their allies have. The egg is taken aboard the British ship where the ship’s surgeon realizes it is close to hatching. This is important since newly-hatched dragons typically bond irrevocably with the first person they see. So a ship’s officer is chosen by lot to wait for the egg to hatch, after which he will become the dragon’s mate and forcibly leave naval service to become an aviator.

But the dragon rejects the anxious youth and instead stalks across the deck, stopping in front of Laurence, the ship’s captain. They bond, and Laurence has no choice but to turn over the captaincy of the ship to his second-in-command, and begin the process of becoming an aviator.

Her Majesty’s Dragon is pleasant reading overall. While it is ostensibly a military novel, fighting actually occupies a small portion of the novel, so that the majority of it can best be described as “a man and his dragon”. While Laurence is the novel’s main character, the story is dominated by Temeraire, a highly-intelligent, English-speaking dragon. In fact, Temeraire is somewhat too perfect to be totally believable. Like all dragons, he is born already totally aware and fully-speaking (something to do with absorbing language while in the egg). Not only is he as intelligent as Laurence, but he is a voracious learner, who unfortunately is unable to read books because he cannot turn pages with his huge claws, so Laurence spends many long evenings reading to him. But what they often read are books too complex for Laurence himself to comprehend, such as a book on Laplace Transforms, so that while Laurence does the actual reading, often Temeraire serves the role of teacher.

While this aspect of dragon intelligence seemingly from the moment of its birth is a bit unbelievable, I was able to accept it since it simplified the story not needing to ground the novel’s first half in raising a dragon baby. But it is not the book's only simplification, but rather a template for the entire novel. For example, Laurence was a devoted navy man, having risen to captain while fairly young, and throwing all that away to become the nursemaid for a dragon should be a somewhat traumatic change (which even he realizes at the outset of his switch to aviator). But we see no trauma at all. Almost from their first day together, Laurence and Temeraire are like an old married couple (even to the extent that Laurence nearly always addresses the dragon as “dear”). There is no emotional tugging in Laurence, nor is their any emotional growth or development in his feelings toward Temeraire. Novik needed the “man and his dragon” aspect for her novel, so it happened immediately.

Nor is there any equivocation in Laurence’s feelings towards Temeraire. His dragon is his all, so much so that he immediately attacks anybody, either verbally or physically, who dares to say anything less than wonderful about Temeraire. Alas, this is not characterization, it is simplification.

I have a few other complaints: for a novel set during the Napoleanic Wars, there is very little sense of either place or time in the novel. Novik so devotes herself to watching Laurence and Temeraire that she ignores the wonders of the early 19th century world surrounding them. Even the plotting is paper-thin: Napoleon wants to invade Europe, so the dragons are training to defend the isles against him; and the story’s one attempt at a true villain is telegraphed almost from his first appearance.

And yet, after all these complaints, in one late scene in which a dragon actually dies, I was genuinely touched, moreso than I am in most novels entirely about humans. I am still not sure if that was because of the author’s successful manipulation of my emotions, or the pet lover in me being affected by those damned dragons!

Overall Her Majesty’s Dragon was enjoyable in spite of its weaknesses, ideal for late nights after a long day or work. Since this was Novik’s first novel, there is hope she will grow as a writer so that subsequent novels in the series will show increased emotional depth and plot development. For now, I enjoyed the ride upon a dragon’s back and should be better prepared for the next novel with lesser expectations than I had for this one due to all its critical hype.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Unconquered Countries

Geoff Ryman has had a stellar reputation in the science fiction field ever since the publication of his novella The Unconquered Country in 1986. So when his hardcover collection of four novellas entitled Unconquered Countries showed up in my favorite remaindered catalog for a price of $4.95, I gobbled it up.

The collection displays several obvious strengths of Ryman as a writer: a superb writing style, powerful allusions, well-developed themes. It also shows off one obvious weakness: weak plotting. I learned quickly that one does not read Ryman for his storytelling, but for the literary merits of his stories. Once I accepted that premise, the collection's four stories were well-worth reading, although none were totally successful.

A Fall of Angels is a tale of genetically-engineered space explorers who contact an alien and then find themselves unable to prevent the exploitation of that alien by unscrupulous authorities, even at the cost of their own lives. It is a bit simplistic, and the characters of the angels were not totally convincing.

The Fan is a character study of a misfit who falls hopelessly in love with a reclusive singer, an obsession so all-encompassing it totally dominates her life up until the time she determines to meet him. This type of personality is not unusual in science fiction, and Ryman had little new to add to the character, but the story was worthwhile for the ending which was a fascinating look at the creation of media superstars.

O Happy Day! is pure allegory about how people forced into degrading political confinement do not support each other but rather contribute to each other's increasing degradation. It contained some scenes which were somewhat offensive but actually added to the overall effectiveness of the story. However, the ending was far from convincing, seeming almost like an add-on to please the reader.

Overall, O Happy Day! was the most powerful of the four stories, in spite of the fact that The Unconquered Country has been universally hailed and won several awards. It is a good story though, describing the effects invasion by outsiders has on a rural country. The story contained several outstanding scenes set in a rich, gripping milieu, but its focus was too wide, ultimately draining some of its overall effect.

Ryman does not write routinely-plotted stories, and obviously falls well within the literary end of the SF spectrum. He is a very talented writer who deserves a wider audience, although he will certainly not be to everybody's taste. Fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Bishop, or James Morrow should give Geoff Ryman a try.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Galactic North

After I finished reading Stephen Baxter’s superb collection Resplendent, I moved onto another “New Space Opera” collection, Alastair Reynolds’ Galactic North. Keep in mind that I began this series with high aspirations for several reasons: I really loved Reynolds’ trilogy Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, to which this collection is closely related, and I have read several Reynolds’ short stories previously and I enjoyed all of them a lot.

The first story in Galactic North was “Great Wall of Mars,” which was the first Reynolds story I ever read a half-dozen years ago in a Gardner Dozois-edited Year’s Best Science Fiction. The story has even more resonance now since it is the first story about Nevil Clavain, the main character in the Revelation Space trilogy. As the story opens, Clavain is on the side of the Coalition in their Cold War with the Conjoiners, those enhanced humans whose minds are interconnected almost like a hive mind. Clavain is on a diplomatic mission with a representative of the Demarchists, a third group of humans who remained neutral during the recent Coalition-Conjoiner war who hope to bring peace to the solar system.

Besides introducing several of the important characters in the series–such as Clavain, Galiana who is one of the Conjoiner leaders, and Felka, a brain-damaged Conjoiner child–this story also shows how Clavain, one of the leading members of the Coalition, is practically forced into the Conjoiner camp by the double-dealing of his brother Warren who seeks a resumption of the war more than the chance of peace.

“Great Wall of Mars” exhibits Reynolds’ strength at telling a full story rich in technological development while keeping the pace moving briskly. This early story boded well both for Reynolds’ career as a writer and for the rest of the collection.

“Weather” is one of the new stories written for this volume, and it shows Reynolds’ growth as a writer. It is basically a love story. A ship transporting frozen humans to a new home is threatened by a pirate ship, and manages to not only fight them off but destroy the pirate ship itself. The only survivor is a Conjoiner who was a captive of the pirates. She is taken aboard the trading ship where one of the crew members–who are Ultras, humans who live exclusively on ships in space and have adapted to that lifestyle by becoming almost a distinct group of humans besides Conjoiners, Demarchists, and the Coalition–falls in love with the girl. The love affair was not totally convincing; Inigo, the Ultra, fell in love with Weather, the Conjoiner, much too quickly and easily, and he let his feelings cause a rift between him and his captain much too quickly as well. This process needed to be drawn out a bit more, and examined more in depth, to be totally successful.

However, accepting the depth of the romance, the story still had an exciting plot as the trading ship’s engines were damaged in the battle with the pirate ship, and they were at risk from another approaching vessel unless Weather can somehow help them repair the engines, since all engines were built by Conjoiners who protect the secrets of their inner functions closely. There is also a scene of true humanity, one of Reynolds’ best human interest scenes ever, when the ship’s captain confronts his own prejudice against Conjoiners in a meeting with Weather. This scene was the highlight of the story, followed closely by the secret of the ship’s engine, and made for a successful story overall.

Alastair Reynolds enjoys mixing genres, and the two genres he seems to enjoy the most are noir mysteries and horror fiction. Both novellas new to this collection “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” and “Nightingale” show strong elements of horror, but fortunately both stories are also stronger and deeper than the typical “fear for the sake of fear” of many horror stories.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” is the story of a collector of rare beings gathered from the entire settled region of Reynolds’ future history. The story has a Vancean quality as it tours what is in effect a freak show of Reynolds’ future. Grafenwalder is part of a “circle” of collectors whose main raison d’etre seems to be one-upping each other with the exotica gathered into their collections. Grafenwalder’s main objet d’art is a denizen, a creature so renowned none of the collectors are sure whether it is real or a creature from legend.

This story is primarily mystery for its first two-thirds, as we wonder why Grefenwaler desires a denizen so, and how his arch-enemy will one-up him when he obtains one. The ending is a clever construction on Reynolds’ part, combining equal parts horror and artistic justice, a fitting conclusion for a Vancean story.

“Nightingale” tells of a famous hospital ship which was a port of neutrality during a long interstellar war, a place where combatants from both sides went for healing before being returned to the war. Now, years later, a group of former combatants are returning to the ship seeking the body of perhaps the most infamous war criminal who is apparently hiding on the now nonfunctional ship. The middle portion of “Nightingale” is primarily horror, as the group travels through what borders on being a haunted ship, but it returns to mystery and an ending both gruesome and, like “Bestiary,” fitting, with a strong anti-war message. Another good story.

The final story in the book is “Galactic North,” which like the last story in Stephen Baxter’s wonderful collection Resplendent, roams from the relatively-near future into the depths of eternity in its tale of two former lovers who became foes after being captured by space pirates when one of them betrays the other seemingly to save his own life. For various reasons both their intelligences are grafted into different spaceships, which leads to a chase through the millennia and ultimately a place in future legend for the starcrossed lovers. This is another romance by Reynolds and, while not the finest story in the book, it does provide a fitting coda for all the precedes it.

While Galactic North is not as stunning as Reynolds’ three novels in the same future, several of the stories fill in some gaps in the future history, while others are fine stories regardless of what universe in which they are set. This collection reinforced my opinion of Alastair Reynolds as one of the finest sf writers of the current decade.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Science Fictions

What do we mean when we use the phrase science fiction?

I am not referring to a definition of science fiction here. Been there, done that, with varying degrees of success. Besides, a definition is as really more of a marketing term than a purpose or defining force. Hugo Gernsback, the sometimes father of science fiction, invented the phrase, as he invented the prior phrase scientifiction which he lost with the rights to the magazine Amazing Stories. That is just as well, in my opinion, since the former name was more of a tongue-twister than the simpler science fiction. In a talk at MIT in 1963, Gernsback stated what he considered science fiction to be:

I insist that science fiction should and must have true science in its content. If it degenerates into fantasy sans science, then it should not masquerade as science fiction.

But as science fiction magazines proliferated in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, they spread their tentacles wider than Gernsback’s scientific and technologically-based fiction, enveloping Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “scientific romances,” as well as tales of future history based on sociology rather than hard science. Steadily the field spread wider, taking in tales of alien contact, stories set in the past or present concerning evolved super-humans, time travel and interstellar military adventures. In the 1980s near-future cyberpunk crowded under the umbrella. Soon alternate history was swallowed by the omnivorous phrase science fiction (although some historical fiction fans consider alternate history to be a sub-category of historical fiction rather than of science fiction; personally, I think they might have more validity in their claim than sf has in its claim).

The truth is that science fiction, which began as a convenient title for Hugo Gernsback’s favored stories about the development of science and technology, has become less of a self-contained genre and more of an umbrella title for various forms of fiction which happen to be enjoyed by many of the same readers. Is there a commonality in all these science fictions? Probably the answer to that question tends more towards yes than towards no; the very validity of the question explains the difficulty critics have had for decades attempting to define science fiction as if it is a singular name rather than a plural one.

This situation does not occur in other genres such as mysteries (which are invariably based on learning the identity of some perpetrator of a crime), westerns (all of which take place in the developing lands of early America), romances (*sigh*) or pornography (make up your own description here). Those are specific genres, which science fiction definitely is not. Which is why the phrase science fictions is probably more accurate if, admittedly, not as natural rolling off the tongue.

To illustrate some of the disparate types of science fictions, here is a partial list of some widely-different types of stories currently published under the marketing phrase science fiction. When you consider the wide range of stories, is it any wonder why most sf fans do not enjoy every type of sf novel found under that title in the bookstores?

List 1: Old-timers

Title /Author / Description
Neuromancer / William Gibson / Near-future technological advances
Dune / Frank Herbert / Culture-building
The Dying Earth / Jack Vance / Far-future culture-building
Tau Zero / Poul Anderson / Extrapolation of scientific theory
Skylark of Space / E.E. Smith / Military adventure
The Space Merchants / Pohl & Kornbluth / Satirical dystopia
The Man in the High Castle / Philip K. Dick / Alternate history
A Princess of Mars / Edgar R. Burroughs / Planetary romance
The Time Machine / H.G. Wells / Future sociological study
Childhood’s End / Arthur C. Clarke / Alien contact

List 2:New-timers

Title / Author / Description
Accelerando / Charles Stross / Near-future technological advances
Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh / Culture-building
Book of the New Sun / Gene Wolfe / Far-future culture-building
Revelation Space / Alastair Reynolds / Extrapolation of scientific theory
Barrayar / Lois McMaster Bujold / Military adventure
Forty Signs of Rain / Kim Stanley Robinson / Satirical dystopia
Ruled Brittanica / Harry Turtledove / Alternate history
Titan / John Varley / Planetary romance
The Dispossessed / Ursula K Le Guin / Future sociological study
Learning the World / Ken MacLeod / Alien contact

That’s a fairly wide list of story types, and I’m sure there is something on it appealing to all readers of science fiction. Or perhaps something that does not appeal to each reader. Personally, I do not enjoy the near-future technological advance stories of Gibson or Stross. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. If every type of science fiction story appealed to every single reader, the field would be reduced to a lowest-common denominator field with nothing written on the fringes. And wouldn’t that be somewhat dull?

The above article originally appeared in slightly-altered form in The Resplendent Fool, Tom Sadler’s wonderful fanzine.