Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award was established in 1975 to honor the memory of Campbell, the long-time editor of Astounding Stories (whose title he changed to Analog in 1960). It is a juried award whose choices have generally fallen into the “traditional” end of the sf spectrum, although there have been a few notable exceptions, such as the very first winner, Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, whose self-doubting astronaut was an atypical protagonist for a novel associated with Campbell.

Because the Campbell Award is not selected by popular vote, many of the winners have been deserving novels which have not gotten as much acclaim as they often deserved. The following list of winners might serve as a good “Recommended Reading” list for serious sf fans.

Year Winning novel Author
1973 Beyond Apollo, by Barry N. Malzberg
1974 (tie) Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke / Malevil, by Robert Merle
1975 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick
1976 The Year of the Quiet Sun (published in 1970), by Wilson Tucker
1977 The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis
1978 Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
1979 Gloriana, by Michael Moorcock
1980 On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch
1981 Timescape, by Gregory Benford
1982 Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
1983 Helliconia Spring, by Brian W. Aldiss
1984 The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe
1985 The Years of the City, by Frederik Pohl
1986 The Postman, by David Brin
1987 A Door into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski
1988 Lincoln's Dreams, by Connie Willis
1989 Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling
1990 The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman
1991 Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson
1992 Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well, by on Ganymede Bradley Denton
1993 Brother to Dragons, by Charles Sheffield
1994 No award
1995 Permutation City, by Greg Egan
1996 The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter
1997 Fairyland, by Paul McAuley
1998 Forever Peace, by Joe Haldeman
1999 Brute Orbits, by George Zebrowski
2000 A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge
2001 Genesis, by Poul Anderson
2002 (tie) Terraforming Earth, by Jack Williamson /The Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson
2003 Probability Space, by Nancy Kress
2004 Omega, by Jack McDevitt
2005 Market Forces, by Richard K. Morgan
2006 Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

In lieu of subscribing to prozines–which tied down so much of my reading that it left me little or no time for books–I read several best-of-the-year and original anthologies each year. Recently two new publishers issued anthologies of stories mostly by their own writers, Pyr’s Fast Forward and Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. I bought the latter book because most of its authors are barely-familiar British names that have long interested me, but whom I have read little or nothing by. And it’s always nice to try new authors.

I started the book reading a story by one of my favorite current authors. Stephen Baxter is seemingly omnipresent in every anthology published nowadays, and his story “Last Contact” is a quintessentially-British story about a cozy end-of-the-world, in which the main characters are primarily concerned with having time to care for their garden before the end comes, as compared to a similar American story which would probably descend into hysteria and violence. Although the story was basically pointless beyond displaying the advantages of calmness in the most violent-prone situations, it was pleasant-enough reading.

Mike Resnick and David Gerrold combined for “Jellyfish,” which for nearly half its length seemed little more than a spoof on the nature of science fiction writers. It was not until the authors started dropping a bunch of names and descriptions obviously based on famous sf writers that it dawned on me that the title character was a spoof as well, so I checked back on his name–“Dillon K. Filk. The K stood for Kurvis”–and I belatedly realized this story was not merely a spoof on all sf writers, but specifically a satire on Philip K. Dick. That has been done several times before, perhaps most notably in Michael Bishop’s superb novel The Secret Ascension (Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas) which is a heavy shadow to crawl out under from. While Resnick and Gerrold did a decent job of satire, it was hard to see where the emotional stake in this story was. A good tribute should have some depth besides mere cleverness.

Paul DiFilippo’s major strength as a writer is also his major weakness: his imagination is so fertile that his stories tend to run all-over-the-place, sometimes even changing direction abruptly between start and finish. You never know what to expect in one of his stories, some of which are clever but shallow, while others show surprising depth. “Personal Jesus” posits that everybody in the world is permanently connected to personal godpods, which enable them to talk directly to God. Because of this, the world has become virtually idyllic as God advises people while also keeping them emotionally stable. The story was cute until a totally unexpected ending gave it a much tangier bite than I expected, and a fairly successful bite at that. I cannot say much more without giving away the ending, except perhaps that the moral of the story is TANSTAAFL.

Three stories stood out as my favorites in the book.

A fairly traditional story was Mary A. Turzillo’s “Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads.” Turzillo is one of those writers whose stories appear very infrequently, but when one does it is inevitably a notable event. One of her novelettes, “Mars is No Place for Children” was a Nebula Winner in 2000, and this latest is another story about the difficulties of settling Mars. It is a strong adventure about how a radical Land Ethic Nomad tries to drive off-planet all settlers by seemingly sabotaging their nuclear plants. In some ways it reminded me of Cyril M. Kornbluth & Judith Merrill’s 1951 serial Mars Child (which has been republished under several lesser titles since) in that it combined strong plotting (Kornbluth) with sensitive characterization (Merrill), but Turzillo seems to have the entire package. This story intrigued me enough that I looked up Turzillo’s bibliography. Besides a handful of short stories, she has published one serial An Old Fashioned Martian Girl in Analog which, unless my search engines fail me, has never had a book publication. That seems very strange for a Nebula winner. I recommend this story highly.

I was a big fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of their greatest strengths was the ability to devise an outlandish situation and then push it as far as possible while faithfully taking the premise seriously each step of the way. Rarely have I seen a story which demonstrates that same ability, but James Lovegrove’s “The Bowdler Strain” succeeds at it very well. The premise is that a deep secret British research lab has discovered a virus which prevents people from swearing. The virus is so contagious that anybody who listens to anybody stricken with it trying to swear is immediately infected. Soon after the virus leaks out of the lab, it spreads across the entire country within days. It is a ludicrous premise, but Lovegrove plays it totally straight, as he does its equally-outrageous consequences, so that “The Bowdler Strain” ends up being a very effective satire on obscure scientific think tanks.

Eric Browne’s “The Farewell Party” is a very intriguing story about a mysterious race of aliens named the Kéthani who resurrect all humans who die, then give them the option of either returning to Earth or beginning a new life among the stars. The setting for the story is a bar in a small English village where a group of friends meet each Tuesday night for drinking and camaraderie. A writer from London moves to the village and joins the group, and soon thereafter the other members begin reading his books, which are all about the Kéthani. They become enamored with the books, with the mysterious aliens, and with the fact that more and more people who die are choosing to remain among the stars rather than return to Earth.

Then the writer gives them copies of his latest book The Suicide Club, in which a group of friends similar to them decide they are finished with life on Earth and wish to join the other resurrected humans traveling through the universe. You can guess what happens from there without my giving a spoiler here. The story is not totally successful in that the weekly group makes its own momentous decision too easily and too glibly. Plus the skepticism of one group member is an obvious hint of what lies ahead. Sometimes an extensive reading of prior science fiction can be a hindrance as memories of Damon Knight’s classic “To Serve Man” fueled my own natural cynicism while reading this story. Still the story was interesting reading, and a good closer for the collection. It seems that Browne has written other stories about the Kéthani as well, and a collection of those stories will be published sometime soon. That is definitely a book worth looking for.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Look to Windward

For over a decade I have been reading excellent reviews of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, many of them describing it as intelligent, thoughtful, literary space opera. Since that covers both aspects of the sf spectrum that I typically enjoy, Banks was one of the first authors I decided to read when I began looking for more futuristic sf about a year ago. Since the back cover blurb of Look To Windward described it as “an excellent hopping-on point,” I decided it was as good a place as any for me to start.

The Culture is a vast, sprawling agglomeration of worlds with 31 trillion inhabitants which eight centuries ago inadvertently sparked a devastating civil war among the Chelgrians. Relations between the two are still fragile, although generally-peaceful. Windward is set on the Masaq’ Hub, a huge orbital structure which resembles a ringworld and contains 50 billion inhabitants. Among them are two nonhuman visitors: Kabe is a journalist sending back regular observations to his homeworld; and Ziller is a Chelgrian composer who defected to the Culture. The two of them are told that a Chelgrian ship is approaching Masaq’ Hub containing an emissary whose assumed purpose is convincing Ziller to return home. What they do not realize is that the emissary is carrying in his brain the mind of a dead general from that 800-year ago war.

Look to Windward is a very introspective novel, using the characters’ thoughts and conversations to develop both their personalities and the universe of the Culture itself. The novel is paced very deliberately, its main concern being to use its plot to develop both the setting and its many inhabitants, both humans and fascinating nonhumans. While the pace lends itself to depth and thoughtfulness, it never slows down or holds up the story, a talent not all writers of such types of serious fiction possess.

The main storyline running through the novel is a mystery based around one question: Why is there so much secrecy in Major Quilan’s mission to convince Ziller to return to Chel, when it seems so straightforward on the surface? Interwoven into the main events is a series of scenes examining Quilan’s past, including how he was chosen for the mission to the Culture, but even this portion does not get to the root of the mystery for several hundred pages.

Look to Windward contains considerable sense of wonder in its rich and exotic universe, and much depth in the nature of its inhabitants. An examination of religious belief is a major focus of the novel, and much of the underlying rationale of the plot is in the nature of a jihad. Interestingly, Windward was published in 2000, a year before 9/11, and Banks himself lives in Scotland, so I suspect its impetus springs from the struggles in Northern Ireland rather than in the Middle East.

As the novel progresses, the tension increases steadily, but Banks wisely resists any urge to succumb to the type of mindless thriller which is so popular, but which I find ultimately boring. Instead Windward's climax is as deliberate and thought-provoking as the rest of the novel and, in my opinion, succeeds totally.

For me Look to Windward succeeds on nearly every level, and I feel confident it will appeal to all readers who enjoy literate, thought-provoking science fiction set in an exotic future. It is one of those rare novels that successfully combines sense of wonder with successful plotting, characterization and considerable thoughtfulness. Since I began my search for wondrous science fiction approximately one year ago, I have been thrilled to discover works by Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jack McDevitt, and now Iain M. Banks, who might be the finest writer of the group. I await more Culture novels eagerly.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Three books about China

When I am not reading science fiction or historical fiction, I am reading nonfiction, often about either history or China. Here are three highly-recommended books about the Middle Kingdom:

Wild Swans is a nonfiction memoir by Jung Chang about three Chinese women: Yu-fang, who was born in 1909 and became the wife of first a warlord and later a doctor; her daughter De-hong, a Communist official in urban Chengdu; and her granddaughter, who is Jung herself.

The events in Wild Swans describes events in China from the turn of the century through modern times. While it describes much of the history itself, its primary concern is how events affected Jung's family. The book is told in a very calm, very restrained manner which makes its emotional impact even more powerful. And the book is very emotional indeed. I was totally absorbed by the tale of Yu-fang being held prisoner in her own house while her warlord husband was away for years at a time. Or the story of De-hong and her husband Shou-yu, a dedicated Communist official whose belief in the revolution was so strong that he routinely put the cause ahead of the welfare of both his wife and children.

The most intense passages in the book are the chapters on the Cultural Revolution. They comprise one-third of the book and are among the most chilling and affective writings I have ever encountered in my life. This was true horror indeed, paling to insignificance the imaginary horrors created by writers of horror fiction. It was the horror of innocent people being forced to live in constant fear, of not knowing who to trust and who to beware, of being brutalized and terrorized by mobs run amuck, of an entire country being savaged because of one megalomaniacal dictator who was seemingly insane with power.

This book should be required reading for all those pampered Americans (myself included!) who live in relative comfort, mostly ignoring the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves, whether in this country or abroad. I recommend this book very highly indeed.


Betty Bao Lord was born in Shanghai in 1938. In 1946 her father was sent to New York City as a diplomat for the Chinese nationalist government. He was supposed to go alone, but he insisted on bringing his wife and two older daughters, Betty included, with him. His youngest daughter stayed behind for the supposed two years.

While he was in NYC, the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War, and Bao could not return to China with his family. None of them saw the youngest daughter again until 1962. Meanwhile, Betty married Winston Lord who later became U.S. Ambassador to China under Ronald Reagan. They returned to China several times, during which she interviewed many Chinese people on life in the People's Republic, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. She was also a witness to the protests in 1989 which led to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Legacies is the result of those interviews and her experiences, both growing up in China and returning home. Bao is an excellent writer. Besides Legacies, she is the author of Spring Moon, a bestselling novel about China. While Legacies is depressing at times, overall it is a very moving experience which I recommend highly.


Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, is the author's memoirs about growing up during China's Cultural Revolution. Naturally I could not help but compare this book to Wild Swans, an unfortunate comparison since Min is nowhere near the writer that Chang is. But once I overcame that disappointment I enjoyed Red Azalea tremendously since it is a strong, gripping book itself.

Like many young Chinese of her generation, the author was sent to live on a farm commune, a move designed by Chairman Mao to isolate the Red Guard he had stirred up so much that even he feared their uncontrollability. Min's time on the farm was very depressing, buoyed only by a tender love affair with a fellow female worker. Then Min was fortunate enough to be selected for a screen test to play the title role in Madame Mao's movie Red Azalea. But in Maoist China even testing for a screen role was complicated by politics and ambition and another bittersweet love affair, this time with the movie's male director. But it all became fruitless when Mao died and his wife and her Gang of Four were subsequently arrested by the new government and the movie was cancelled.

All three of these books provide a good introduction for people who want to learn more about life in 20th century China, especially during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.