Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book-buying is a disease!

Book-buying is definitely a disease! I was determined to buy no more than 12 books this entire year, finally making a dent in my huge pile of books waiting to be read. However, I have already passed that many purchases in less than six months. So far in 2007 I have bought 17 books but have only read 12 books! *sigh* Here is the tally of my total books bought the past half-dozen years:

Year / Fiction / Nonfiction / Total
2001 / 13 / 5 / 18
2002 / 19 / 2 / 21
2003 / 21 / 1 / 22
2004 / 20 / 0 / 20
2005 / 23 / 6 / 29
2006 / 25 / 3 / 28
2007 / 13 / 4 / 17 (by June 29, 2007)

As a result of this out-of-control buying, my Books-To-Read list has grown larger too:

SF Novels (including series) 34
SF Short Fiction 16
Historical Fiction 37
Nonfiction 25
Total 112

At my current rate of reading about 25 books per year, if I do not buy another book for the next 5 years, I might get caught up on all my reading. But if I continue buying more books each year than I can possibly read–as I have done the past 3 years–then the list will grow and grow and grow...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Planetary Romances

The phrase space opera has undergone considerable change the past 60 years. It was invented by Bob Tucker as a derogatory term for the lowest form of hack science fiction which was no better than hack westerns transported into space. By the 1970s it was being used to describe any science fiction adventures set between worlds in spaceships. But with the advent of new space opera, the term seems to have been broadened as well. Look to Windward, one of the seminal works of the “new” space opera by Iain M. Banks, is almost entirely a planetary romance, as was the first story I read in the new collection edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, The New Space Opera, “Saving Tiamaat”, by Gwenyth Jones.

Not that I am complaining, since I actually prefer planetary romances to other forms of space opera. But there are considerable differences between the two forms both in theory and in execution. Jonathan Strahan, one of the editors of The New Space Opera mused over those theoretical differences on his blog Notes from Coode Street ( as follows:

“On space opera: space opera happens in space. If it’s not in space, it’s not space opera. Also, no, planetary romances are not space opera. They come out of a different tradition–as Charles [M. Brown, editor of Locus] completely correctly pointed out to me today. A planetary romance comes from the lost civilisation tradition, while space opera grows out of both the western and the naval action adventure. The new space opera–a group to which [Scott] Westerfeld’s novel clearly belongs–is “new” because it’s darker, it doesn’t necessarily involve the triumph of man or humanity, it has nifty new technology, and it has actual characterisation.”

In execution, planetary romances tend to involved anthropology and society, the exploration of alien races and societies. C.J. Cherryh is probably the master of such stories (her recent 9-volume Foreigner series being a prime example), while space opera tends to be more concerned with politics and warfare (such as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation series). While I prefer the former to the latter, if including planetary romances under the space opera umbrella causes more of it to be published, I’m all for it, even if they are basically different types of animals.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Far Traveler

Far Traveler is the next A. Bertram Chandler novel in Survey Captain. It is actually a series of planetary adventures as Grimes, who was stranded on a “lost colony” at the end of The Big Black Mark, escapes possible court martial for his inadvertent role in the mutineers’ escape by becoming captain de jure if not de facto on the luxurious space yacht of a very rich, very arrogant woman who is a minor royalty on her home planet and insists on being addressed at all times as “Your Excellency.” She is also a researcher exploring lost colonies whose societies evolved, for one reason or another, out of contact with the mainstream of galactic life. Each planet they visit poses a problem for Grimes and the ship owner, and the ship intelligence, Big Sister, who is one of the major characters in the novel.

The worlds they visit include Far Haven, populated by drugged religious zealots; a world whose young inhabitants re-enact a centuries’ old battle between human invaders and the native humanoids (which, when Grimes realizes no humans remain on the surface, reveals who exactly were the winners in that ancient battle); and Morrowvia with its “underpeople” descended from genetically-enhanced cats and its North Australian setting, all of which reveals Chandler as a fan of Cordwainer Smith.

The individual stories are always interesting, tending to be mysteries in nature, some of which are solved by Grimes, but as often by Big Sister as well. Chandler never pushes disbelief too far,and is never predictable or boring. While these stories could never be classified with the likes of modern writers such as Stephen Baxter of Alastair Reynolds, they are always pleasant and worthwhile light reading, just the type of stuff I look forward to after a long, tired day of work.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

John Grimes: Survey Captain

I tend to read science fiction which is on the more serious side, emphasizing characterization and thoughtfulness, moreso than simplistic adventures. That is why I prefer the “new space opera” rather than the old-fashioned type of shoot ‘em ups in space. But there are still times when I enjoy some lighter entertainment. I subscribed to Worlds of IF from 1963 through its demise in the mid-70s, and it was usually pleasant reading, a light-hearted counterpart to the more serious Galaxy.

One of the stalwarts of IF was A. Bertram Chandler with his John Grimes space adventures. Having not read any of those stories for 40 years, my memory of them was not particularly flattering: simplistic plots with stereotypical characters engaging in Ludlum-like adventures. But recently the Science Fiction Book Club released all the Grimes stories in a series of 6 volumes. These were accompanied by some rave reviews by assistant editor Andrew Wheeler who is one of the underrated editors working in the sf field. He has created quite a few outstanding compilations of classic f&sf, such as the Fritz Leiber Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser stories, collections of all the Heinlein juveniles, as well as a collection of all the Heinlein non-Future History short fiction. Wheeler also created a series of anthologies containing all original novellas on broad-based themes, written by the top writers in the field. Unfortunately, Wheeler seems to have lost his job recently in the midst of all the changes undergone by the book clubs as one of their parent company’s money-saving moves. Hopefully he will pop up somewhere else in the sf-publishing world.

Wheeler’s raves about A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories encouraged me to reread one of them. I dug out two 1966 issues of IF containing Chandler’s serial Edge of Night, which was more interesting than I had expected. Grimes and his crew accidentally slip into an alternate universe where mutated rats have formed a society which endangers all human life in the settled galaxy. True, the characterization was thin, but the plot was both logical and enjoyable, and there was genuine thoughtfulness beneath it all.

Thus encouraged, I bought one of the SFBC compilations entitled John Grimes: Survey Captain. The first novel The Broken Cycle did not appeal to me much. It was mostly a case of not much happening of interest. But the second novel The Big Black Mark was much better indeed. Grimes is given the captaincy of a ship of malcontents who have always been thorns in the side of the military, and who have been grouped together to hopefully keep them out of trouble. Obviously that is not the case as they end up mutinying against Grimes’ leadership so they can emigrate to a world of free spirits more to their liking. The characterization is still thin, with only Flannery the telepath showing much growth as a person, but the story is interesting and non-clichéd, and there are some moments of real drama and pathos.

I liked The Big Black Mark enough to anticipate the last two novels in Survey Captain and to consider buying more Grimes compilations. Good, fun stuff.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a fascinating 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. It covers the entire four-year period which Michelangelo spent in Rome, and spreads its concerns across all aspects of 16th century European life affecting the historic events taking place in the chapel.

A large part of the drama in the book comes from the conflicting personalities of temperamental artist Michelangelo and autocratic pope Julius. Michelangelo was sullen, self-indulgent, having little concern for the people he dealt with on a daily basis. This is shown best in his dealings with the artist Raphael, one of Michelangelo’s rivals who was painting the walls of a Vatican bedchamber simultaneously while Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. Raphael is portrayed as sociable and popular, the yin to Michelangelo’s yan. According to the author:

On one occasion, legend has it, Raphael was leaving the Vatican in the company of his vast entourage when he encountered Michelangelo–who, typically, was alone–in the middle of the Piazza San Pietro. “You with your band, like a bravo,” sneered Michelangelo. “And you alone, like the hangman,” retorted Raphael.

Julius was as much feared for his temper and domineering personality as he was respected as pope. Perhaps the best scene in the book was in the chapter “The Warrior Pope” when Julius summoned the College of Cardinals and announced to them they he and they were going to lead an army against the city of Bologna to win it back from its rulers. And they did precisely that, with Julius at the head of the army. Imagine what a wondrous scene that would make in an epic movie.

The book offers fascinating lessons in art history, especially religious and Renaissance art. The author spends time explaining precisely how fresco painting is done, including how various pigments are produced, and how teams of artists work together on such a massive project as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He shows Michelangelo’s growth during the period he worked on the ceiling, developing from primarily a sculptor to the most influential artist of the era, perhaps in history.

We also learn a lot of European history of that period, and the intricate relationship between Italian city-states, European powers all of whom were anxious to control portions of Italy themselves, and the Catholic Church which not only strived to dominate them but, in several instances, actually control them. Although this was the time of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps the height of European culture, it was also an era of bickering powers, conflicts between religion and governments, and seemingly a constant state of warfare.

Several famous historical personages have walk-on roles in the book, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, another rival of Michelangelo. At one point those two artists are placed into conflict painting frescoes on different walls in the same building, but through circumstances neither artist ever finishes his work. And a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luthor travels to Rome to speak with one of Pope Julius’ closest advisors concerning proposed reforms within the Augustinian order. Luthor has considerable time to explore Rome and

grew steadily more disillusioned with the city...It allowed him to see for himself, he claimed, how Rome was the seat of the devil and the pope worse than the Ottoman sultan.

All of this was told in story form rather than as dry historical facts. The 300 pages flew by, always interesting, and always intriguing. By the time the book was finished, I had a much better understanding of the importance of Michelangelo in the history of art than I did previously, as well as understanding how life during the Italian Renaissance was certainly no luxury compared to the Middle Ages which preceded it, but I also enjoyed a fascinating story set in a wondrous era. This book should appeal to many readers, and is highly recommended for all of them.