Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Best Short Novels 2007, part 2

Science fiction writers generally postulate two diverging near futures. The technophiles believe science and technology will continue to thrive and grow stronger and more dominating in our lives. William Gibson was in the forefront of that movement until time caught up with his future. Vernor Vinge and Alastair Reynolds are two other adherents to this viewpoint.

But some writers see an inevitable decline in our future. They foresee some economic or ecological crash tearing down the very fabric of modern civilization, causing a simplified lifestyle forced by decreased population and lessened sources of energy. I am definitely no a technophile myself, preferring to read about change rather than “more of the same but worsened”, so I usually find such futures more thought-provoking and, to some extent, inevitable.

Robert Charles Wilson’s “Julian: A Christmas Story” portrays such a future. It hints at the causes with the statement “Millions had died in the worst dislocations of the End of Oil,” but that is not the crux of the story. It is a coming of age story involving a working class youth Adam and his best friend Julian, a member of the elite ruling class whose family has controlled the presidency (which is really a dictatorship) for generations. Now Julian’s uncle is president, and he has forced the execution of Julian’s hero father, fearing him a threat to the uncle’s power, and is looking to eliminate Julian as well.

The United States has expanded into Canada, indicated by a 60-star flag and an ongoing war in Labrador against the invading Dutch. Government reserves come to Adam’s hometown to forcibly enlist youths into the military, so Julian and Adam flee, since if Julian entered the army it would give his uncle an easy opportunity to arrange his death.

“Julian” is a good story but it reads a lot like an unfinished opening of a novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the story.

I have always thought that Michael Swanwick writes fabulous scenes, but his stories generally do not hold together very well either structurally or thoughtfully. In this regard, he is the sfnal heir of Roger Zelazny, who suffered from the same weakness. Still, both authors’ stories usually offer so much pizzazz and wonder it is easy to forget the logical flimsiness and just go along for the ride.

“Lord Weary’s Empire” is quintessential Swanwick. It opens with a silly fight scene between Will, a protagonist whose essence contains some type of “dragon-darkness within him”, and a big, hulking brute of low intelligence. I rarely enjoy stories built around such violence, and the only reason I continued reading at this point was because I decided to trust Swanwick.

I was glad I did. “Empire” is the story of a ragtag band of fantasy beings, elves and the like, whose actions are decidedly human. They live far beneath a teeming city in subway tunnels and deeper, imagining themselves the Army of Night and dreaming of fomenting a rebellion against the government aboveground. Sometimes such pipedreams make quirky but fascinating reading, and that was the case here. The characters in the self-proclaimed army were fascinating, although mostly underused, and some of the scenes were fairly inventive. Captain Jack Riddle, a disguise used by Will to torment the aboveground authorities, was the highlight of the of the story, but after one dynamic use that identity was mostly abandoned. I think the story should have focused on Captain Jack far more than it did for best effect.

I had mixed thoughts about the story’s ending, partly thinking it fitting, partly thinking it a cliché copout. Overall “Lord Weary’s Empire” was a fun story which could have been better thought-out as well as expanded somewhat.

When I think of the writers who best combine f&sf with literature, I think of Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Chabon, and Jeffrey Ford. “The Cosmology of the Wider World” and “The Empire of Ice Cream” are two of my half-dozen favorite pieces of short fiction this entire decade. “Botch Town” is not far behind them.

Like “Julian,” “Botch Town” is a rite of passage story, but this one is set in the past, concentrating on a family in the 1960s. The narrator–whose name is never mentioned; at least I have no idea what his name was– has an older brother Jim in middle school and a younger sister Mary. His father works three jobs to keep the family fiscally above water, and the mother works one job, then comes home and proceeds to get drunk every night while the father works his night job. But don’t get the idea this family is either dysfunctional or stereotypical. Ford is much too serious a writer to fall into that trap. The family is loving and fully-supportive, although it does have some disputes typical of such families, especially occasional sibling rivalries.

The main plot of the story concerns a prowler who is seen periodically peeking in windows around town. The three siblings act as detectives trying to find the identity of the prowler. They achieve a breakthrough of sorts when the narrator realizes that Jim’s miniature town in the basement–the Botch Town of the title which contains all the town’s houses and neighbors in miniature–also contains a prowler who mysteriously moves to the location where he is seen in the real world.

“Botch Town” is a very spooky story, much more effectively emotional than a blood-and-gore horror story. The scene when the narrator encounters the prowler in the library is genuinely scary, as is the story’s climax. But the story is much deeper than only an excuse to be spooky. Ford fully develops both the characters and the town itself, so that “Botch Town” lives and breathes as if its setting is a real place. Rarely do I finish a story and wish it were longer, but this was one of those cases. For the second year in a row, Jeffrey Ford has written my favorite novella of the year, and both instances with pure fantasy stories, while I am primarily an sf fan. In my mind he is the heir to Michael Bishop’s position as my current favorite literary sf writer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

26 alphabetized observations

I have been posting 26 alphabetized comments this past week. The non-sfnal comments are at my blog at Here are the sfnal comments:

A: I was definitely a child of the New Wave, favoring writers such as Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg and Samuel R. Delany when I was in my most impressionable reading years. That was one reason I tended not to read much fiction by more traditional writers such as Poul Anderson. In some ways that was a good thing, since now that I realize how well-rounded a writer he actually was, I still have several dozen books of his unread which I can enjoy for the first time.

C: Clifford D. Simak was my first favorite science fiction writer. I discovered him in the pages of Worlds of IF, January 1963, the first sf prozine I ever read, and again in Galaxy, February 1963, my second prozine. A few months later came the serialization Here Gather The Stars (a much more evocative name than its book title Way Station) and from then on I have loved Simak’s fiction.

G: I love reading comic books, but except for Green Lantern, most of my favorites are not super-hero comics but sf or fantasy: Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar and Mike Grell’s Warlord are two particular favorites, as was Roy Thomas’ Conan (and, no, I do not particularly like reading sword and sorcery books also).

H: I have never considered myself one of Heinlein’s children. I did not discover science fiction through his juveniles, nor did I read them until I was well into my second decade as a science fiction fan. By the time I discovered Heinlein, I was taking all his supposed innovations for granted since they were pretty much being used by all the writers who were indeed his children. Instead I got to read him first at his post-1960 worst.

I: In the 1960s Galaxy Magazine pretty much dominated the Hugo Awards with more nominations than any other magazine. Yet it never won a single Best Magazine award while its adventure-oriented stablemate Worlds of IF won three consecutive awards. I never understood why that happened until recently reading a memorial by Frederik Pohl about Robert Heinlein. He reminded me that If won those three awards following the publication of three Heinlein serials in 5 years, and immediately after the publication of his last acclaimed novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Those Heinlein children are a loyal family.

Q: I have been a fan of the science fiction book club on-and-off for 40 years, and I have mostly enjoyed their omnibus editions and original anthologies. I do not understand the politics behind their forcing Ellen Asher and Andrew Wheeler out, but I will reserve judgment on new editor Rome Quezada until he has had some time to prove himself.

R: I am not a big fan of genre mysteries, but Steven Saylor’s The Judgment of Caesar was a wonderful book, primarily a good historical novel with the mystery as an incidental aspect of it. It convinced me to buy Saylor’s acclaimed new novel about ancient Rome called, fittingly, Roma.

T: Tales of the Unexpected was the first comic book I ever read, and its sfnal stories were wonderful for somebody on the cusp of teenagedom. In a way, I regret that I gave up anthology comics for the more popular super-hero comics, such as Green Lantern and Justice League of America.

U: For me, the most important part of a story is often the universe in which it is set, and the background history of that universe. At times I can be so enthralled by the background that I lose interest in the story itself.

W: When I turn on the computer every morning, the first thing I do is check the latest science fiction news. Locus Online is my homepage, but the website which I enjoy reading the most is SF Signal, a highly-recommended site for up-to-the-minute sf news.

X: I always thought that a large part of Marvel Comics’ success came from mimicking DC Comics’ characters (Superman begat Spiderman; Batman begat Captain America; Legion of Super-Heroes begat X-Men), so their success was based far less on the originality of their heroes and villains, but on the human characteristics given to them.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Best Short Novels 2007, part 1

I am an admitted lover of novellas, so this is the best-of-the-year anthology most anticipated by me. While editor Jonathan Strahan’s taste overlaps mine, it is not totally similar, so invariably there are some stories in each edition which do not suite my taste. That is why I do not take the collection’s title "best..." too seriously, but rather consider it an annual anthology of new novellas. Under that expectaction, I have not been disappointed in the series yet.

Kage Baker is a natural storyteller who shows up in "best of the year" volumes regularly. So far I have liked all the stories of hers that I have read, whether Company stories or her Anvil of the World fantasies, or her two tales about colonizing Mars. "Where the Golden Apples Grow" is set in the same world as "Empress of Mars" and is as good as that award-nominated story. It is the tale of two boys growing up on Mars. Ford belongs to MAC, which is a group struggling to terraform Mars. Bill is the son of Billy, a largely-irresponsible independent long-distant hauler, who travels to the poles fetching water to sell to MAC. When Ford runs away from his family after his father and older brother have a fight which is broken up by Mother’s Boys security, he is rescued by Billy and joins them for a long-distance haul.

Bill and Ford are opposites. Ford is a dreamer who loves the wide open spaces which he has never experienced. Bill is a strait-laced know-it-all who is hoping to get a real education. When Billy has an accident, the two boys are left to complete the haul alone, each one getting a chance to learn life from the other’s perspective.

This is a strong story combining the boys’ joint coming-of-age with an adventure on the Martian surface, set in the same world. While it was originally written for Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann’s young adult collection Escape From Earth, the only concession it makes to that format is the juvenile protagonists. Ultimately it is a story all readers can enjoy.

Robert Reed’s "A Billion Eves" is one of two outstanding novellas he published in 2006 (the other being "Good Mountain") and a deserving Hugo winner. Its premise is that scientists invent "rippers," machines capable of opening doorways into alternate universes which are created continuously from events in our world. An undergraduate physics major has the inspiration to put a ripper in a truck which he nestles against the wall of a female sorority, opens the doorway and immediately sends himself and dozens of young women into another universe where he anticipates living happily with his harem. While events there do not go precisely as he anticipates after his mass kidnapping, ultimately it leads to a progression of societies created by other "Fathers" creating their own worlds using rippers, many as parts of groups of volunteers, others by kidnapping wives in the same manner as the First Father.

The societies created in the alternate universes all have a rigid religious foundation based on the fervent belief that founding new societies in alternate universes is the primary function of people. Another assumption in the story is the rather simplistic belief that because the first world was settled by one First Father kidnapping a group of women, then all subsequent worlds will adapt the same laissez-faire attitude towards such kidnappings. "A Billion Eves" is not long enough to explore the reasons behind these assumption, so the story needs to be taken with some serious swallowed disbelief. Fortunately, Reed’s story is fascinating and, once you accept his assumptions, believable, so I was able to enjoy it without questioning its foundations too much.

"The Voyage of Night Shining White" is part of Chris Roberson’s Celestial Empire alternate history series in which the Chinese empire is the pre-eminent power in the world, and how it expands its empire into space. This novella tells of a fleet of ships traveling to Mars in an attempt to colonize the planet. The ship Night Shining White is captained by Zheng Yi, a totally-inexperienced sailor whose main qualifications for the role seems to be his abilities as a conductor and his being a eunuch from the Forbidden City. The relationships among the 7 men on the ship–three officers and 4 crewmen–follows strict Confucian principles, and Physician Xiang Du is a Daoist as well. Xiang becomes Zheng’s confidante when they each discover that the other is an accomplished musician, so they spend their subsequent evenings playing together (which is probably not an accidental similarity to Patrick O’Brien’s Maturin-Aubrey books).

Halfway to Mars, Night Shining Light experiences a serious problem which requires two men to enter the radioactive core to repair, sacrificing their lives in the process. Afterwards, the remaining 5 men are trapped in two forward compartments as protection against rising radiation levels elsewhere. At first they bond from the closeness, and the rigid protocols slowly drop away, but gradually, with the two men lying dying elsewhere in the ship from radiation sickness, their camaraderie twists into resentment.

"The Voyage of Night Shining White" is stronger emotionally than Baker’s story, and does not have the logical flaws of Reed’s (although, not being a scientist, I might easily have missed such flaws). Its ending is strong and fitting, and the twin philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism serve the story well. This is the second story in Roberson’s Celestial Empire series that I have read, and I have liked them both a lot. I plan to seek out some of his novels in the series as well.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 09, 2007


I generally give books I have read a rating, so I have decided to include those ratings in this blog. For starters, here are the ratings for the books I read this summer. "A" ratings are highlighted.

Book / Author / Rating
Ilium / Dan Simmons / B+
Olympos / Dan Simmons / B-
Inheritor / C. J. Cherryh / B+
Roma Eterna / Robert Silverberg /B+
Crystal Rain / Tobias Buckell / B-
The Rosetta Codex / Richard Paul Russo / B+
Helix / Eric Brown / B+
The Judgment of Caesar / Steven Saylor / A
The Engines of God / Jack McDevitt / B+
Children of Thunder / John Brunner / B-

Children of the Thunder

This review contains spoilers!

The last book I read this summer vacation was John Brunner’s 1988 novel Children of the Thunder. This novel was written a decade after Brunner’s famous series of near-future dystopias (Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider), but it shows as much influence from those books as it does from his more traditional science fiction. The setting is a near-future England which, along with the rest of the world, is slowly sinking into economic and environmental chaos which neither politicians nor regular people seem to be trying to rectify as they pursue their own greedy agendas.

Much of the book combines two alternating sequences. In the first, a group of evolved youngsters gradually realize that they are able to coerce people into doing precisely what they want them to do, and they each use that power differently, often for selfish reasons. One of them, a boy named David, is also a genius who realizes others like him exist, so he sets out to bring them all together with his family.

The other storyline involves Peter Levin, a news journalist who, along with an American scientist Claudia Morris, realizes from their researches that these evolved children exist and they set out to learn why so many evolved youngsters have suddenly appeared.

Intermingled with these storylines is the growth of fascism worldwide as a reaction to the spreading-rapidly chaos. Brunner shows snippets of the fascism, but does not really explore whether it is a natural human trait which manages to stay suppressed during times of plenty, or whether it is a reaction to the chaos as people instinctively point fingers at "others" for the growing problems rather than admit they are part of the problem themselves. A decade earlier, before Brunner felt obliged to write more "popular" novels for the sake of marketability, he might have explored that issue further rather than merely use it as a framework for what is basically a thriller.

Much of the novel consists of both David and Peter striving to find the mysterious L. Parker whose sperm donations to an artificial insemination clinic are the most likely root of the evolved children. However, it was fairly obvious to me early in the novel that Parker is really not the father of the children, a fact which becomes more obvious after Peter’s estranged daughter Ellen shows up at his doorstep.

Early in the novel Brunner seems to strive to show the evolved children as evil, outside the mainstream of humanity. However, I could not help but think of the food chain which humans have sat atop for several millennia. We have no qualms slaughtering all forms of life beneath us, whether for food or for sport (hunting, fishing, bullfighting). If these children are indeed the new "top" of the food chain, should they feel any more protective of we lower lifeforms than we feel of, perhaps, dolphins? Does that make them any more evil than humans are, or merely embracing their role in the food chain?

As the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that Brunner’s intent is not to create a race of evil mutants, but to explore, if briefly, the drastic measures which must be taken to save humanity in the form of the children of the thunder. He does not succeed totally in that regard, although he does tie up the various storylines rather nicely. What this book really needs is a sequel to explore the intentions of David and the evolved children to see what, if any, steps they actually take towards reclaiming the planet from the human-induced chaos. While I enjoyed reading this book, my last book read during summer vacation, it was definitely not a case of last but not least.