Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The New Space Opera, part 1

Traditional science fiction in modern clothing has become increasingly popular the past decade, a welcome change from the near-future emphasis which dominated the 80s and early 90s. What most critics and writers consider new “space opera” actually ranges all across the far-future, including space opera, planetary romances, and even Earth-based adventures. So long as it is wondrous and thought-provoking, I’m all for it.

That’s why I pounced on Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan’s original anthology The New Space Opera recently, and am now enjoying it immensely. While not all the stories maintain the same high level of quality, isn’t that typical of any anthology, original or reprint?

“Saving Tiamaat”, by Gwenyth Jones, is a planetary romance about a planet on which the Ki rose up against their masters the An, nearly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Apparently the An and Ki are subdivisions of the same race, which makes the An cannibalistic since they “raise” some of the Ki for food.

Humans are trying to mediate the war between the Ki and the An. The focus of the story is Pelé and Dubra who are serving as escorts for the An delegates to the negotiations. They are obviously woefully ignorant of An nature though, as a killing by one of the An delegates of–-what? An intruder? A suicide bomber trying to wreck the negotiations?–-shows their ignorance. This is a strong story, its primary interest being how Peleé and Dubra try to forward the negotiations while learning the true nature of the An and Ki at the same time.

Robert Silverberg’s “ The Emperor And the Maula” is a strong tale about an alien race which has conquered most of the galaxy, including Earth, and claim to be benevolent rulers. An Earth woman named Laylah travels to the aliens’ homeworld where she should be killed since maula (non-aliens, barbarians, beings of low intelligence) are forbidden to go there. But, as Laylah anticipated, she is brought to the attention of the emperor where she delays her death by telling him the story of why she came to him, stretching the story out night after night after night, a la Sheherazade. Her story both teases and intrigues the emperor, as it does the reader, providing glimpses into life under the alien rulers and an understanding of how such an invasion, peaceful or not, would affect Earth’s inhabitants. This story proves yet again that Silverberg has lost none of his talent over the years, and I wish he would write more fiction than he currently does.

Just as the constant in a Robert Silverberg story is a strong historical foundation, the constant in a Stephen Baxter story is a strong philosophical foundation. I do not recall any Baxter story which did not leave me thinking about the moral issues he raised, which is why he is one of my favorite current writers. “Remembrance” tells of a group of Earth explorers who find a Squeem colony near Saturn. The Squeem were a hivemind race which conquered Earth several centuries ago, controlling it until a revolution overthrew them. But apparently not everything about their era is known. A self-described Rememberer steps forward, claiming to be the latest in a long line of rememberers who have passed on important secrets about the Squeem dominance of Earth, secrets which might affect how the Earth authorities will deal with the newly-found colony. But there are actually two questions the authorities must consider: is this Rememberer what he claims to be, and does his secret merit consideration? The dual mystery makes the story stronger than either single mystery alone could have done.

Alastair Reynolds is, like Stephen Baxter, a strong storyteller steeped in the hard science tradition. But where Baxter’s stories tend to range across space and time, Reynolds generally limits himself to local regions in a moment of time. And where Baxter’s stories are philosophically-thought-provoking, Reynolds’ stories generally raise more emotional issues. “Minla’s Flowers” tells the story of Merlin, a lone space pilot whose ship is damaged. He seeks landfall on the nearest planet where he finds a huge life-supporting shell surrounding it, a shell which has been damaged by alien attack, huge chunks of which have fallen groundward. The people living on the shell are engaged in a brutal, senseless war with a nation on the ground.

Before his ship is repaired and he leaves the planet, Merlin discovers that the same cause of his ship’s damage will likely cause worse devastation to the planet’s sun in 70 years. In an attempt to save much of the planet’s population, Merlin shows the shell-bound natives sufficient technology to begin development of jet flight and, eventually, rocket flight to undertake a massive exodus from the planet before the disaster occurs. But he learns that sometimes people are not capable of following their own best interests, so even as the natives prepare for escape they still engage in petty selfishness which might doom those efforts. While the story is a bit glib, and some events happen too easily, the story is well-told and interesting.

Kage Baker is a delightful storyteller, combining local color, fascinating offbeat characters, and outstanding storytelling. Think of Poul Anderson without the scientific core. While her “Company” stories are universally-acclaimed, I prefer her stories set on newly-colonized Mars, including “Empress of Mars” and “Where the Golden Apples Grow”. “Maelstrom” is another story in that series, which concerns the creation of the first Martian life-performance theater. Its owner is infatuated with Edgar Allan Poe, so the first performance will be a newly-written version of “Descent into the Maelstrom.” The story involves the typical roadblocks a new theater faces, such as seeking suitable talent for the production, and truthfully most of the story could have been set in some backwater on Earth. But it was still great fun and I was pleased she set it on Mars where characters from the saloon Empress of Mars, could participate. Highly-recommended.

To be continued...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Satan's World

Poul Anderson’s Satan’s World is a 1968 Polesotechnic League novel in which the unlikely group of heroes–fat, rich old merchant Nicholas Van Rijn, Kirk-like young explorer David Falkayn, Buddhist dragon Adzel, and predatory feeline Chee Lan-encounter a race of vicious herbivores resembling minotaurs. The novel contains mystery, adventure, and Anderson’s typical strong world and culture-building. Good fun.

I’ve gone on a bit of a shopping spree since school began a month ago. Here are my recent still un-read purchases:

Use of Weapons: A Culture novel by Iain Banks which I bought at a used bookstore on Fenwick Island

She, King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quartermain: a three-in-one from Dover Publications

Showcase Presents Adam Strange / Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown / Showcase Presents House of Mystery: three 550 page trade paperbacks collection of vintage DC comics in black-and-white

Roma: Steven Saylor’s historical novel purchased through the Discovery Channel Book Club

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: Michael Chabon’s recent acclaimed novel, purchased through a 50% Deal at the History Book Club

Collected Stories of Louis L’Amour, Vol. 4: the Adventure Fiction: another 50% Deal, this time through the Discovery Channel Book Club

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Best All-Time SF Novels Prior to 1990

In 1998 and 1999, Locus Magazine’s annual poll included several categories of Best All-time Science Fiction and Fantasy (restricting the results to works published prior to 1990, believing that recent works were too fresh in the voters’ memories to make reliable judgments about). The categories included Best SF Novel, Fantasy Novel, Anthology, Collection, Novella, and Short Story. While these results are certainly not definitive, they are interesting as a Recommending Reading lists of great science fiction. All the results are posted at the Locus Online website under their Locus Awards link if you wish to see more of them.

Best All-Time Science Fiction Novel (Prior to 1990):

1 / Dune / Frank Herbert
2 / The Moon is a Harsh Mistress / Robert A. Heinlein
3 / The Left Hand of Darkness / Ursula K. Le Guin
4 / The Foundation Trilogy / Isaac Asimov
5 / Stranger in a Strange Land / Robert A. Heinlein
6 / The Stars My Destination / Alfred Bester
7 / A Canticle for Leibowitz / Walter M. Miller Jr
8 / Childhood's End / Arthur C. Clarke
9 / Ender's Game / Orson Scott Card
10 / Hyperion / Dan Simmons
11 / Gateway / Frederik Pohl
12 / The Forever War / Joe Haldeman
13 / More Than Human / Theodore Sturgeon
14 / Lord of Light / Roger Zelazny
15 / Neuromancer / William Gibson
16 / Startide Rising / David Brin
17 / The Time Machine / H.G. Wells
18 / The Man in the High Castle / Philip K. Dick
19 / The Dispossessed / Ursula K. Le Guin
20 / Stand on Zanzibar / John Brunner
21 / 1984 / George Orwell
22 / The Demolished Man / Alfred Bester
23 / The Martian Chronicles / Ray Bradbury
24 / Starship Troopers / Robert A. Heinlein
25* / Downbelow Station / C.J. Cherryh
25* / Ringworld / Larry Niven
27 / 2001: A Space Odyssey / Arthur C. Clarke
28 / The War of the Worlds / H.G. Wells
29 / Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury
30 / The Mote in God's Eye / Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
31 / Way Station / Clifford D. Simak
32 / Star Maker / Olaf Stapledon
33 / Dying Inside / Robert Silverberg
34 / The City and the Stars / Arthur C. Clarke
35 / Dhalgren / Samuel R. Delany
36 / Rendezvous with Rama / Arthur C. Clarke
37 / Mission of Gravity / Hal Clement
38* / City / Clifford D. Simak
38* / Cyteen / C.J. Cherryh
40 / Flowers for Algernon / Daniel Keyes
41* / Double Star / Robert A. Heinlein
41* / Earth Abides / George R. Stewart
43* / The Door Into Summer / Robert A. Heinlein
43* / Last and First Men / Olaf Stapledon
43* / Ubik / Philip K. Dick
46* / Norstrilia / Cordwainer Smith
46* / The Witches of Karres / James H. Schmitz
48* / Frankenstein / Mary Shelley
48* / Have Space Suit -- Will Travel / Robert A. Heinlein
48* / Time Enough for Love / Robert A. Heinlein
51 / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Philip K. Dick
52* / The Gods Themselves / Isaac Asimov
52* / Riverworld series / Philip Jose Farmer

* means two works were tied in points received

Of my personal favorite 12 sf novels, 8 were sf published prior to 1990, but only 5 made the above list: Lord of Light, Gateway, The Stars My Destination, Way Station and Dying Inside. The unfortunate 3 were Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (which I consider far superior to Ender’s Game, which did make the above list), and Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poul Anderson

Ever since life evolved on Earth our planet has been within range of a vast galactic cloud which has inhibited the development of intelligence. Recently Earth has begun moving out of the cloud's influence. The effect on life has been startling and immediate. Animals are developing rudimentary intelligence. Retarded people are becoming normal, while normal people are becoming geniuses.

This was the plot of Poul Anderson's 1953 novel Brain Wave. Following the initial premise, the novel examined in great detail what effects such increased intelligence would have on culture, religion, and society as a whole. In one of the best scenes a ten-year old schoolboy playing with algebraic equations begins developing differential calculus in much the same way it was originally developed by such mathematical giants as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.

If there was a prototypical science fiction writer of the post-Golden Age era it was Poul Anderson. He was a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in physics, when he published his first story "Tomorrow's Children." After graduating he published a few more stories each year until 1953. That was the breakthrough year for Anderson. Besides the classic Brain Wave, he published 19 pieces of short fiction and two other novels. Demonstrating his mastery of all aspects of the science fiction genre, one of the novels was a highly-regarded alternate world fantasy Three Hearts and Three Lions.

During the next forty+ years, Anderson published hundreds of science fiction stories and dozens of novels. Refusing to be typed, he tackled virtually everything the genre had to offer: action/adventure, "hard" science, space opera, problem-solving stories, farce, sociological and political science fiction, heroic fantasy, high fantasy, and undoubtedly a few I've left out.

Among science fiction writers and afficionados Anderson was regarded as one of the most highly-regarded authors in the field. He won seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. In keeping with his overall output his award-winning stories ran the gamut of science fiction: "The Longest Voyage" is a melding of medieval saga and science fiction; "Goat Song" is a retelling of the Orpheus legend; "Saturn Game" is pure science fiction form used to study the basis of mythology; "The Sharing of Flesh" has a shocking beginning which then evolves into a classic problem-solving story.

Influenced by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, as well as by his interest in history and Scandinavian culture, Anderson developed his own "future history" which was the setting for many of his novels. His future fell into several distinct eras. First comes the Polesotechnic League, a loose alliance of merchants based on the Renaissance-era Hanseatic League. After its collapse comes the Terran Empire, a future version of the Roman Empire. As representatives of these eras, Anderson created two memorable characters: Nicholas van Rijn, a colorful Renaissance merchant, and Dominick Flandry, an aloof military man.

Perhaps Anderson's best novel was Tau Zero, the story of a long distance spaceship which experiences mechanical difficulties and is unable to stop its acceleration. As the ship's speed approaches the speed of light external time passes faster and faster. This has the effect of sending the ship far into the future.

The main focus of the novel is the attempts to slow the ship, but that problem generates others. The passengers witness the universe rapidly deteriorating around them. How can they deal with the realization that their entire civilization is lost to them? Can they cope with the fear and trauma of knowing they can never return home? And can the captain possibly prevent a total breakdown of his small ship society?

Tau Zero is typical Anderson in that the "hard" science fiction is the basis for sociological and humanistic concerns. It is a novel that combines scientific creativity, sense of wonder, human interest and philosophical speculation. It is plotted very carefully, the tension building steadily until reaching a logical, although not predictable ending.

Anderson's immense popularity in the science fiction community did not translate into a corresponding popularity with the reading public. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that his stories fall into so many different series (of which the Polesotechnic League and Terran Empire are but two of nearly half a dozen) that it is hard for the casual reader to keep track of all the cross-references in his novels.

A more likely explanation is that Anderson's breadth of vision was as much a commercial weakness as it was a critical strength. Casual readers like to know what they are buying. All Isaac Asimov novels are of the same general type. So are all Robert A. Heinlein novels, all Arthur C. Clarke novels, and the novels of most popular novelists, science fiction and otherwise. Poul Anderson novels were so varied that a reader of "hard" science fiction might dislike The High Crusade while a fan of Nordic fantasy might reject The Byworlder. Anderson would probably have been better off commercially if he stuck to one of his many different voices. Of course, those who enjoy breadth and scope would then have been denied a full appreciation of the wide talents of Poul Anderson. And the general reading public's loss was our pleasant gain.