Visions of Paradise

Sunday, February 25, 2007

f&sf links for the serious reader

To some extent we are currently enjoying a Golden Age of science fiction criticism. There are more f&sf-related websites now than there ever were either semi-professional or amateur zines devoted to f&sf in my sfnal lifetime (which dates back to the late 1960s). It has become so easy to keep up with everything from news and opinion to reviews and interviews on science fiction and fantasy. All it takes is a computer and a browser and you can be connected to the entire science fiction world.

Here are my favorite such f&sf-related websites, most of which I check either daily or at least weekly. Enjoy them!

Three daily news sites: the blog of SFBC editor Andrew Wheeler which he updates Monday through Friday with numerous links to reviews, articles and interviews; not quite as extensive as Wheeler’s site, but publishes on weekends and is just as essential; the online sister of Locus Magazine.

My favorite review sites: publishes twice-monthly, recently published its editors’ choices as the best sf books of 2006 with the reader choices to follow; media news as well as a handful of new book reviews each week by the likes of Paul DeFilippo and John Clute; reviews of both books and movies; reviews sf, fantasy, mystery, horror and comic books; http:/ interviews and reviews divided into U.S. and U.K. releases; a British site with reviews on many authors and books not so well known in the U.S.; devoted entirely to prozines and short fiction

Finally, a few miscellaneous links: a website which is home to dozens of f&sf fanzines, many of them well-worth reading (my own monthly Visions of Paradise is published here); a site containing complete bibliographies for thousands of authors, listed by series, an incredibly-valuable site for any serious reader of f&sf

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Infinity Beach

I had a four-day weekend recently, so I decided to indulge myself in one of my very favorite authors, Jack McDevitt. While Infinity Beach is not part of his Alex Benedict series, it is still a far-future sf mystery will all the ingredients which push my entertainment buttons:

• the mystery is basically historical in nature, although while the Alex Benedict stories involve mysteries hundreds of years old, this one is only two decades in the past, but solving the mystery requires the same type of historical research as McDevitt’s other novels;

• the far-future setting is fascinating enough to be wondrous without being so intentionally cutting-edge as to be slightly offsetting in its strangeness; for me, at least, too much deliberate strangeness interferes with my ability to relate to the book’s main characters and their world;

• there is almost a total lack of action/adventure, nor any thriller aspect, so that the mystery’s thrills all come from its thoughtfulness;

• I love sf stories based on passionate people, whether artists or scientists; Infinity Beach concerns space exploration, specifically searching for extraterrestrial lifeforms.

Kim Brandywine is a scientist serving as a public relations spokesperson for a scientific organization, one of whose main functions is seeking nonhuman life. Twenty years ago, a small expedition consisting of four people returned from such a mission, and immediately afterwards two of the crew vanished mysteriously while a third died in an equally-mysterious explosion. One of the crew who vanished was Kim’s older sister Emily.

For two decades Kim has missed her sister terribly, but never considered pursuing her disappearance until a former professor contacts Kim with circumstantial evidence that the mission actually did encounter something, but for some reason repressed it. At first Kim makes some half-hearted attempts to investigate, but as the circumstantial evidence grows stronger, so does Kim’s determination to learn what really happened on the mission, and why her sister vanished as well. Typical of a McDevitt book, the mystery slowly unpeels like an onion, growing more gripping as it does. As Kim learns more and more about her sister's mysterious disappearance, she also begins to unravel what exactly happened on the ship's mission seeking extraterrestrial life.

The novel is not perfect. Some of Kim’s information comes a bit too easily, and at times the consequences of her actions should be stronger than they actually are. Nor is the characterization terrific, but that seems to be an overall weakness with space operas in general, shared with McDevitt by the likes of Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. All these flaws fade away under McDevitt’s strong storytelling ability and his talent for combining a gripping historical mystery with steadily-growing sense of wonder.

What is most impressive about Infinity Beach is how naturally both the mystery and the growing sense of wonder converge at the same point, achieving an emotional and successful denouement to all that happens previously.

It is easy to see why McDevitt novels seems to be a regular presence on the Nebula Best Novel lists. He is perhaps the finest pure storyteller working both the traditional end of the sf spectrum and the sf/mystery overlap. He might not have the range of a Poul Anderson, but his novels provide just as much satisfaction. I recommend this novel as highly as his Alex Benedict novels.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SF Signal Meme:

I don’t usually play along with these things, but this one is irresistible.

Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror?
Science Fiction

Hardback or Trade Paperback or Mass Market Paperback?
Trade paperback

Heinlein or Asimov?

Amazon or Brick and Mortar?
Brick and Mortar

Barnes & Noble or Borders?

Hitchhiker or Discworld?
Never read either (I’m not big on humorous sf)

Bookmark or Dogear?
Bookmark! Dogear is blasphemous

Magazine: Asimov's Science Fiction or Fantasy & Science Fiction?

Alphabetize by author Alphabetize by title or random?
By author

Keep, Throw Away or Sell?
Keep (unless I did not like it, then give away)

Year's Best Science Fiction series (edited by Gardner Dozois) or Years Best SF series (edited by David G. Hartwell)?

Keep dustjacket or toss it?

Read with dustjacket or remove it?
Remove it

Short story or novel?

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket?
Harry Potter by default; never read Lemony Snicket

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks?
Chapter breaks

"It was a dark and stormy night" or "Once upon a time"?
“It was a dark and stormy night”

Buy or Borrow?

Buying choice: Book Reviews, Recommendation or Browse?
Book Reviews

Lewis or Tolkien?

Hard SF or Space Opera?
Space opera (the modern definition; NOT the Tucker definition)

Collection (short stories by the same author) or Anthology (short stories by different authors)?

Hugo or Nebula?

Golden Age SF or New Wave SF?
New Wave; I’m a child of the 60s

Tidy ending or Cliffhanger?
Tidy ending

Morning reading, Afternoon reading or Nighttime reading?
Nighttime reading primarily

Standalone or Series?

Urban fantasy or high fantasy?
Historical fantasy

New or used?

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
A Dream of Scipio

Top X favorite genre books read last year? (Where X is 5 or less)
1. Resplendent, by Stephen Baxter
2. Seeker, by Jack McDevitt
3. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson
4. Revelation Space / Redemption Ark / Absolution Gap, by Alastair Reynolds

Top X favorite genre books of all time? (Where X is 5 or less)
1. Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop
2. The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
3. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
4. Gateway, by Clifford D. Simak
5. The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

X favorite genre series? (Where X is 5 or less)
1. Darkover, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
2. Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
3. Polesotechnic League, by Poul Anderson
4. Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Top X favorite genre short stories? (Where X is 5 or less)
1. Her Habiline Husband, by Michael Bishop
2. The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree, Jr.
3. Lines of Power, by Samuel R. Delany
4. The Last Castle, by Jack Vance
5. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, by Roger Zelazny

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Guilty Pleasures

Like most readers, not everything I read is award-worthy sf or thought-provoking nonfiction. I read some things purely for pleasure, but those items rarely get mentioned here. So it’s time to air out the dirty laundry and let you all know what I do when I want total relaxation.

Green Lantern comics. About a year ago I started with issue #1 from 1961 and have gone through several series since. However, I plan to stop when I reach the last Hal Jordan series which was discontinued in 1992. Whoever that Kyle Raynor guy is, he is not my Green Lantern!

Worlds of IF magazine. Slowly I have been reading the entire series of Galaxy starting with its first 1950 issue, but I have been taking side-trips into IF starting in 1962 when it was taken over by Galaxy. Not all of it appeals to me–I am not a fan of Keith Laumer’s repetitive Retief stories at all–but much of it is very entertaining. One of the authors who did not particularly impress me 40 years ago was A. Bertram Chandler, but upon rereading his John Grimes stories, I find them much better-written than I recalled. I recently bought one of the Science Fiction Book Club collections of his stories, Survey Captain, and am currently enjoying the first novel in the book.

Deal or No Deal. I rarely watch television because it interferes with my reading, in spite of several highly-acclaimed series currently being aired (such as Battlestar Galactica and Heroes), but I have become addicted to the only show being aired which combines pure greed with probability and statistics, all held together by one of the best game show hosts ever, Howie Mandel. At least I always watch it either with a set of papers to grade or a magazine to read, but I rarely miss this show.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Leigh Brackett

One of the staples of the science fiction and fantasy genres is sword-and-sorcery. Its swashbuckling characters race through frenzied plots which are often little more than an endless series of colorful adventures, daring rescues, and exciting sword fights. This sub-genre's major influences include Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Barbarian, C.S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower novels, and Leigh Brackett's tales of Eric John Stark.

Although Leigh Brackett's first genre publication was in Astounding Stories in 1940, she soon switched to Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, two publications where her exciting “science fantasies” were a more natural fit. In 1949 she began her colorful Eric John Stark series set on fantastic versions of Mars and Venus similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ images of those planets. Her original novellas, such as The Secret of Sinharat, Enchantress of Venus, and People of the Talisman were colorful adventures much more literate than anything written by Burroughs. Brackett was also a master of imagery, immersing the reader in the feel of exotic, wondrous worlds. When she resumed the series in 1974, scientific plausibility made it impossible to continue it on those same two planets. Instead she set The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith on the imaginary planet Skaith.

Leigh Brackett was a major influence on at least two other important science fiction writers. In 1941 she met the young Ray Bradbury. She soon became his advisor and teacher, helping him immensely in his fledgling writing career. In 1946 their collaborative story, "Lorelei of the Red Mist," was published in Planet Stories, one of the finest stories ever published in that magazine. It has since been reprinted in The Best of Planet Stories, edited by Brackett in 1975.

In 1946 Brackett married science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, which influenced both their writing. One tangible result was that Hamilton expanded The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman into novels which were published together in one volume as Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars.

Perhaps Brackett’s best works were published in the late 1940s and early 1950s when she released her most successful novels, the space opera The Sword of Rhiannon, and the optimistic post-holocaust novel The Long Tomorrow. Much of her best short fiction was published in The Best of Leigh Brackett in 1977.

However, by the mid-1950s Leigh Brackett became a victim of her own versatility. Her first published novel had been a hard-boiled detective novel No Good From A Corpse, published in 1943. It led to a screenwriting role, which became her major writing career for the next twenty-five years. She authored or co-authored screenplays for such acclaimed movies as The Big Sleep (1946 with William Faulkner), Rio Bravo (1958), Hatari! (1962), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Empire Strikes Back (1979). By 1955 Brackett’s screenwriting commitments took up so much of her writing time that she did little science fiction afterwards, until she returned to Eric John Stark in the 1970s.

Leigh Brackett was one of the most multi-talented writers to work in the science fiction genre. She wrote successful space operas, swashbucklers, detective novels, screenplays, even a western novel. Her death in 1978 was a stunning blow and a major loss for the genre. A major retrospective of her finest work is long overdue from one of the sf specialty publishers.