Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Some brief random comments

I have been a bit anxious following the announcement this past week about the huge publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann “overhauling” its book club business by eliminating 280 positions and 15% of is workforce, as well as closing several of its “niche” book clubs. I currently belong to 5 of its book clubs, 3 of which I really like, The Science Fiction Book Club, The History Book Club, and The Discovery Channel Book Club, any of whose demise would upset me, especially the SFBC! The fact that Andrew Wheeler’s SFBC blog has been silent for the past week is not encouraging.

I am having magazine subscription problems. I did not receive either the May or June issues of Locus, which inevitably has me wondering if somebody at the post office has absconded with them. I can understand one issue getting lost in the mail, but two consecutive issues? Meanwhile, I have not received the May-June issue of Archaeology Magazine either, and when I went to their website to check my account, no record of my name shows up at all! What is it with the gods of publishing these days anyway?

I have achieved my 15 minutes of fame in a book entitled Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction which I noticed at Barnes & Noble a few days ago. For each word or phrase listed, the book states the earliest usage the editors have found, and apparently the earliest usage of "sfnal" is by me in Science Fiction Review in 1981! "Sfnal" is an abbreviation I have always liked, but I have absolutely no idea whether I devised it myself or borrowed it from another source. Still it is nice to be recognized, even if only by the few dozen people likely to notice my name in the book.

I am currently reading a nonfiction history book which I am really enjoying. Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a nonfiction story about how autocratic pope Julius II summoned the most famous artist of early 16th century Italy to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There are many fascinating aspects to the book, including sections explaining how fresco painting is done, how various pigments are produced, how teams of artists work together to do such massive projects, plus all the politics in Renaissance Italy which involved both religion and art. Michelangelo and Julius are the main characters, of course, but other artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael also show up in Rome as rivals of Michelangelo.

This is fascinating reading, both for its main storyline and for all it shows about Renaissance Italy. I recommend it very highly.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fourth Planet from the Sun

A few years ago F&SF editor Gordon Van Gelder released three anthologies of stories published in that magazine during its nearly 60 years of existence. One of them contained alternate history stories (One Lamp), another sword and sorcery (In Lands That Never Were), but the one which intrigued me the most was Fourth Planet From the Sun, stories set on the planet Mars. Not because I have any particular fascination with the god of war, but because it was the most sfnal of the three books.

The book began fittingly with Ray Bradbury’s “The Wilderness,” one of his Martian Chronicles about two women debating whether to join their husbands on the Martian colony. While this story could as easily have been about immigrant women joining their husbands in America or 19th century New Yorkers joining their husbands on the frontier, it epitomized the personal side of immigration and colonization, especially to a new world so distant one cannot possibly return even for a visit. Bradbury’s sense of melancholy and nostalgia make this story more thought-provoking than it would have been as a pure plotted tale.

This was immediately followed by Alfred Coppel’s “Mars is Ours” which dwells on the darker side of colonization as it reminds us that the same petty feuds and wars which ruin life on Earth for so many people will likely follow humanity to space colonies, as Americans and Russians take their Cold War to Mars. This story was somewhat discouraging, if more factual than others in the book.

Two back-to-back stories were highlights of the book for overlapping reasons. Leigh Brackett’s “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” was rich in exoticism and alienness, as well as Brackett’s typical lush writing, in its glimpse at a visitor to Mars who tries to get past the accepted human regions and explore the “real” Martian society. What he finds is both horrific and a reminder that true alienness is indeed nothing that humans can really understand, or of.ten accept.

Following this was Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” which I admit outright is one of the finest science fiction stories ever written. The SFWA selected it as the 6th best sf story prior to 1965, praise which might actually underrate the story a bit. Gallinger, the arrogant genius poet, is one of the finest narrators ever devised for an sf story, and the story itself is equally worthy of his character. As is much early Zelazny, “Rose” is basically a love story, but embedded in a truly alien society as Gallinger, much like the protagonist of “Purple Priestess”, is invited into the depths of Martian society to observe and study where other humans have never gone. Zelazny’s society is more developed than Brackett’s, and while his writing is sparser, it is equally lush and exotic, leading to an ending which succeeds in being both upbeat and downbeat, a rare trick indeed. If you have never read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” it alone is worth the price of the book.

Two stories from the 1970s were concerned with the search for life on Mars, Gordon Eklund and Greg Benford’s “Hellas is Florida,” and John Varley’s “In the Hall of the Martian Kings.” “Hellas” is more serious, based on the modern view of Mars according to non-manned space missions sent there. “Kings” starts from that premise, but a more melodramatic story flows from it: after a mysterious explosion kills the majority of the crew, 5 people survive but are trapped on the surface of Mars without a trained pilot. They have resources for 1-2 years but rescue is at least 4-5 years away. What transpires is a combination of gritty survival mingled with a totally fantastic premise which somehow works.

The concluding novella is Alex Irvine’s “Pictures From an Expedition,” another story of–guess what?–an expedition to seek Martian life. The basic story is fascinating, a study of the interplay between five astronauts stuck together in a small, somewhat claustrophobic space capsule for nearly three years, two years in transit and one on the red planet itself. Where the story lets down is in Irvine’s decision to make the story a reflection of the celebrity cult on Earth. So one of the astronauts is sex symbol of the group, the only astronaut reporters on Earth seem concerned with, to the extent that when two other astronauts discover primitive Martian life, they are ignored so that “Barbarella” can be interviewed instead.

Irvine also sprinkles the story with extensive exerpts from online forums (in which we see the most obnoxious side of its participants) and betting odds for such things as
• Odds that a crew member will be murdered: 12 to 1
• Odds that the murdered crew member will be Jami Salter: 6 to 5

Such interruptions add little to the story, but do take away from its serious analysis of the breakdown of the relationships among the crew. Perhaps if such snippets had been done as well as John Brunner did in his classic Stand on Zanzibar, they would not have been so annoying and unnecessary overall. Fortunately the story itself was strong enough as to withstand the intrusions.

Overall, Fourth Planet From the Sun was a strong, highly-recommended collection, so long as you do not tire of repeated searches for life on Mars. If nothing else, this collection proved there is sfnal life in the red planet still.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Recommended Reading

Saturday, May 12: Here are the highlights of my current recommended buying lists:

Science Fiction:
The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan
Best Short Novels 2007, edited by Jonathan Strahan
The Year’s Best SF 24th Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois
The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter
Helix, by Eric Brown
Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

Historical Fiction:
The Magician’s Death, by Paul Doherty
A Winter in China, by Douglas Galbraith
Imperium, by Robert Harris
Ex Libris, by Ross King
The Girl Who Played Go, by Shan Sa
Roma, by Steven Saylor

Around the World in 80 Days, by Michael Palin
Heat, by Bill Buford
Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
A Traveler in Italy, by H.V. Morton
Dances with Luigi, by Paul E. Paolicelli
Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria, by Mark Rotella

Any advice?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Farnham's Freehold

Recently I took one of my periodic cruises through old prozines, which are inevitably fascinating voyages. This time it was Worlds of IF circa 1964, where I reread Robert A. Heinlein serialized novel Farnham’s Freehold, which I first read forty years ago. This was typical of late career Heinlein: as much polemic as story, with paper-thin characterization, many characters being little more than stereotypes, but such natural storytelling that it was still enjoyable reading.

The premise is that Hugh Farnham builds a shelter beneath his house during the height of the Cold War, which becomes useful when the bombs drop a few miles away on a government defense complex. Somehow, in the story’s major imaginative leap, the Farnham family find themselves transported centuries into the future, long after Earth has recovered from the war which destroyed virtually all life north of the equator.

What they find is a society ruled by blacks in which the few remaining whites are slaves. The society is rigid and totalitarian, virtually a mirror image of our own sexist society, but with a secret at its core which ultimately makes it worse than our own flawed society (seemingly a necessity for Heinlein who, at least in this story, cannot accept a black society being less evil than a predominantly white society).

The story is worthwhile reading, mostly fast-moving plot stopped for occasional lectures. Most of its flaws are characterization problems. The narrator Hugh needs to be reliable for the reader to place any trust in his narration, and mostly he is, but he is also an obsessive-compulsive control freak whose behavior is occasionally so illogically emotional that it brings the story to a jarring halt. Ponse, the authority figure in control of Farnham’s family in the future, veers between totalitarian and supportive, also exhibiting behavior that is often unbelievable but convenient for forwarding the story.

Hugh’s family members are primarily stereotypes who serve the author’s purposes in the polemic aspect of the story. Hugh’s wife is a drunken, self-absorbed bitch. His son is selfish to the point of arrogance, and a lawyer as well (I guess Heinlein is taking no chances that the reader might actually like the boor). Both Hugh’s daughter and her sexy friend are near-perfect ideal women, one of whom dies horrendously in childbirth while the other becomes Hugh’s mistress.

There is also Joseph, the Farnham family servant who in the story’s beginning talks in an almost-slave patois, although Heinlein describes him as a valued member of the family. In the future Joseph is immediately accepted by the black ruling elite, but he still remains loyal to the Farnhams, helping them as much as possible until Hugh’s anger and jealousy virtually drive Joseph away emotionally.

Keep in mind that I did not enter sf through Heinlein’s young adult novels, so the first Heinlein stories I encountered were his Sixties novels Stranger in a Strange Land, Podkayne of Mars, Farmham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The first three were all seriously-flawed, and all the major innovations which Heinlein brought to sf in the “Golden Age” were so commonplace by the 1960s that I found nothing particularly innovative or awe-inspiring in latter-day Heinlein. My initial impression of his fiction forty years ago was wonder at why he was considered the finest sf writer ever. Later, when I learned more about the history of sf, and read early Heinlein as well, I was able to appreciate what he brought to the field in the late 1930s. But my relative objectivity at reading his fiction often enables me to view his mid-to-late career fiction with a different point of view than readers who are Heinlein’s children.

So while I enjoyed rereading Farnham’s Freehold, I see nothing in it which makes it any more a major novel than his other Worlds of IF serial, Podkayne of Mars, or makes either of them the strongest prozine serials I have read in the past year. Consider Farnham’s Freehold slightly below Poul Anderson’s Three Worlds to Conquer, James H. Schmitz’ The Tuvela and A. Bertram Chandler’s Edge of Night.