Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Favorite Books of the Year

I have only a single requirement for books to make my best-of-the-year list. I must have read them in 2007. Publication date does not matter, nor does subject matter or type. These are my favorite books read during the year, not the best books published:

1 Look To Windward / Iain Banks
2 The Judgment of Caesar / Steven Saylor
3 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon
4 Infinity Beach / Jack McDevitt
5 Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling / Ross King
6 Galactic North / Alastair Reynolds
7 Roma Eterna / Robert Silverberg
9 Fourth Planet from the Sun / Gordon Van Gelder, editor
10 Helix / Eric Brown

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was one of my favorite novels of the past decade, so I approached The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with considerable anticipation. The novel was a combination alternate history / noir mystery told in Chabon’s typically fine language that is itself worthwhile reading.

The novel is set in Sitka, Alaska, a Jewish settlement since their relocation there during World War II and the remaining Jews were driven out of Israel in 1948. Except the Jewish relocation was originally set for 60 years, and it has never been made permanent, thus is due to end in a few months as most Jews prepare for another relocation to places such as nearby Canada, Argentina and Madagascar.

The protagonists are two sour homicide detectives Berko and Landsman trying to solve the inexplicable murder of a drug-addicted member of the local chess club who was not only a chess-playing prodigy but might also be the Messiah. Berko is half-Indian, who control most of the land surrounding Sitka, while Landsman’s father was a devoted chessplayer who inadvertently turned his son rabidly against the game. The novel’s involvement with chess, while a major aspect, tends to be less passionate than most novels of this type because of Landsman’s disillusionment with the game. The two detectives investigate the underbelly of Sitka and the eccentric members of the chess club as their superior, who happens to be Landsman’s former wife, insists that their unsolved twelve cases must be flagged as closed before the U.S. marshall takes over her office in another two months.

Chabon manages the rare trick of writing some very intriguing scenes–Landsman’s visit with the Rebbe of the Verbover sect who are the novel’s equivalent of mobsters, his “visit” to the Youth Camp–without losing the novel’s main focus, which is the search for the murderer. As in many genre mysteries, the investigation gradually broadens into conspiracy theory as Landsman uncovers evidence that the murder is only a small aspect of a much wider plot involving the would-be Messiah.

But Chabon has a higher goal than solely writing about a mystery. He is interested in relationships, both that of specific characters–Landsman with his former wife, his partner Berko with his father, the murdered man with his parents–and, to a lesser extent, the various relationships of the Jews of Sitka with each other. He also tries to create a realistic setting, a job of world-building which is one of the key facets of good alternate history. All of these goals Chabon does with varying degrees of success and no blatant failures.

One of the novel’s strengths is its immersion in Yiddish culture and terminology, a richness which helps create the setting and increases its level of interest. Admittedly there were times I did not totally understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase, but those moments were rare, and I was usually able to understand it through its context.

There were some weakness in the novel, primarily Landsman’s uncanny ability to be rescued from several dangerous situations in the most unlikely ways, deus ex machina moments in a novel immersed in religious belief. They were minor distractions more than anything else, and since the novel’s main focus was the characters and setting, those moments were jarring without being major hindrances.

Overall, I enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and recommend it highly to fans of alternate history, noir mysteries, and Chabon fans.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Three novellas

I have been reading some Poul Anderson novellas lately, enjoying his particular brand of historical development and storytelling. The first story “The Big Rain,” was in an old anthology Farewell Fantastic Venus, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, a tribute to the pre-Mariner spacecraft which forever destroyed the traditional, romantic vision of the planet. It is also in a recent Anderson collection To Outlive Eternity, which also contains two excellent short novels “The Day After Doomsday” and “To Outlive Eternity,” the original version of Anderson’s best novel Tau Zero.

“The Big Rain” is the story of the colonization of Venus. Anderson views the planet as a desert world, devoid of water and the ability to sustain agriculture. The planetary government is totalitarian, with most colonists having few, if any, civil rights. The title refers to a long-range plan to terraform Venus, a plan which will take several hundred years, and for which the current colonists are struggling to achieve for the sake of their grandchildren.

The Venusian colonists are in a struggle with Earth to maintain their independence from the homeworld, a struggle which they seem destined to win since Earth is not willing to expend the money necessary to send a fleet to distant Venus to retain control over it. So why is the Venusian government so totalitarian? The main character of “The Big Rain” is an Earth spy, studying the government and determined to overthrow it somehow. This story was written in the mid-1950s, so neither the characters nor the milieu are as well-developed as they might have been in later Anderson. There was a bit too much emphasis on the plot rather than on the world and its people, but overall it was interesting reading.

Jumping ahead to very late Anderson is “The Bog Sword,” which appeared in Harry Turtledove & Noreen Shaw’s anthology First Heroes, stories devoted to adventures in the Bronze Age (a period which varied worldwide, but was generally set between 2,000-500 B.C.). This story was published after Anderson’s death, so it was written nearly five decades after “The Big Rain” and represents a lifetime of writing growth. Two of science fiction’s core foundations are historical development and societal change, and “The Bog Sword” represents both of them well, since it is set in a Bronze Age Scandinavian society which is having its first encounter with Celtic invaders wielding iron swords. The protagonists are relatively peaceful people, while the Celts are relatively hostile, a true historical reflection as the iron-wielding Celts ravaged much of Europe before being stopped by the Germans and, ultimately, the Romans.

“The Bog Sword” is a tale of conflict between the old and the new. Its characterization is far beyond that of “The Big Rain,” and its historical setting is much more fully-developed. It has enticed me to read more latter-day Anderson as well as more of First Heroes.

I also read “The Funeral March of the Marionettes,” by Adam-Troy Castro, an acclaimed novella in July 1997 F&SF which reminded me of Michael Bishop’s classic story “Death and Designation Among the Asadi.” It is anthropological sf about a bizarre race of aliens who resemble giant bowling balls with dozens of flexible tentacles who gather in the thousands each year to commence a long, graceful group dance which only ends when each participant dies from exhaustion. Watching the annual spectacle are dozens of anthropologists and linguists, and one year as they are watching they see a human girl has joined the dance.

The story is concerned with the protagonist’s attempt to save the girl from death in the funeral dance, as well as his attempts to understand both why she should would willingly die for the dance as well as why the Vlhan do their deathly dance at all. The story successfully combines anthropological exploration with an exciting plot, and overall was a great novella which should be a classic for many years to come.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Robert H. Davis

Editors have always been a major influence on the shape of science fiction. Editors such as John W. Campbell, Jr., Hugo Gernsback, and Donald A. Wollheim have been major influences on the shape of modern science fiction. Perhaps the most obscure blue-pencil wielding titan who guided the careers of talented writers while greatly influencing the reading taste of young readers was Bob Davis.


Although Bob Davis is almost unknown among the names of science fiction's leading editors, his influence was second to none in the era when the field was first developing its loyal readership. Davis was a newspaperman who left San Francisco in 1896 for New York City. There he became a feature writer on such major publications as The New York World and The New York Journal. Eventually he caught the eye of Frank Munsey who made him fiction editor of the influential Munsey’s Magazine.

With the advent of the all-fiction pulp magazines around the turn of the century, Davis soon became editor of Munsey's All-Storv Magazine. Soon afterwards he also took on the editorship of The Cavalier, another fiction pulp which eventually merged with All-Story Weekly as All-Story Cavalier Weekly in 1915.

The period from 1905-1920 was the Golden Age of pulp magazines. Under Davis All-Story Weekly was the leading publisher of science fiction in that era (known as “pseudoscience stories”, a phrase created by Davis himself). Davis' most successful writer was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Under the Moons of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes both appeared in All-Story. The vast majority of Burroughs' output was published by Davis over the next decade.

But Burroughs was just one of many important science fiction writers published by Davis. The entire list reads like a Who's Who of pre-Gernsback science fiction: A. Merritt, Garrett P. Serviss, George Allan England, Charles B. Stilson, J.U. Giesy, Max Brand, Ray Cummings, Homer Eon Flint, and Austin Hall.

Davis was not a passive editor who merely sat back and waited for stories to cross his transom. He was as active an editor as John W. Campbell himself, providing many authors with the plot outlines of stories. George Allan England even dedicated his classic trilogy Darkness and Dawn to “Robert H. Davis, Unique Inspirer of Plots.”

In 1920 All-Story Weekly was absorbed into part of Argosy All-Story Weekly. Shortly thereafter, without any fanfare, Bob Davis abruptly left Munsey and vanished completely from the genre, never to be heard from again. Yet he was the main shaper of a large readership that was tapped by Hugo Gernsback a decade later. Modern fans and writers of science fiction should all be familiar with his name.

1869 / Born March 23 in Brownsville, Nebraska
1904 / Becomes fiction editor of Munsey's Magazine.
1905 / Becomes editor of All-Story Magazine.
1908 / Becomes editor of The Cavalier.
1911 / Garrett P. Serviss' The Second Deluge published in The Cavalier.
1912 / Under the Moons of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in All-Story.
1912 / George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn published in The Cavalier Weekly.
1914 / All-Story Weekly begins weekly publication.
1918 / The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt, published in All-Story Weekly.
1919 / Ray Cummings’ The Girl in the Golden Atom published in All-Story Weekly.
1920 / All-Story Weekly merges with Argosy to form Argosy-All-Story Weekly.
1920 / Bob Davis leaves Argosy-All-Story Weekly.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Books Purchased 2007

Here is the list of books I purchased or received as gifts this past year. So far I have read about 27 of them (which leaves about a dozen unread so far. *sigh*).


Forbidden Planets, an original anthology edited by Peter Crowther
Survey Captain, an SFBC omnibus of 4 novels by A. Bertram Chandler
Look to Windward, a Culture novel by Iain M. Banks
Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, an original anthology edited by George Mann
Rosetta Codex, a novel by Richard Paul Russo
Queen of the South, a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Fourth Planet from the Sun, stories from F&SF, edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Rediscovery of Man, the complete short fiction of Cordwainer Smith
Judgment of Caesar, a historical mystery by Steven Saylor
Helix, a novel by Eric Brown
The New Space Opera, an original anthology edited by Dozois and Strahan
Roma Eterna, a mosaic novel by Robert Silverberg
Best Short Novels 2007, a reprint anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan
Year’s Best SF - 24th Edition, a reprint anthology edited by Gardner Dozois
Crystal Rain, a novel by Tobias Buckell
Chindi, an Academy novel by Jack McDevitt
Deepsix, an Academy novel by Jack McDevitt
The First Heroes, an original anthology edited by Harry Turtledove and Doreen Shaw
Use of Weapons, a Culture novel by Iain M. Banks
King’s Solomon’s Mines, an omnibus of three novels by H. Rider Haggard
Showcase Presents Adam Strange, a collection of comics from 1950s-1970s
Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown, a collection of comics from 1950s-1970s
Roma, historical fiction by Steven Saylor
Showcase Presents House of Mystery. a collection of comics from 1950s-1970s
The Yiddish Policemen's Union, alternate history by Michael Chabon
Sea-Kings of Mars, a reprint collection of short fiction by Leigh Brackett
Collected Stories of Louis L’Amour, Vol. 4, his non-Western short fiction
Farewell Fantastic Venus, a reprint anthology edited by Aldiss and Harrison


Sailing From Byzantium, history by Colin Wells
Heinlein’s Children, a book about Heinlein’s juvenile novels, by Joseph Major
From Stonehenge to Samarkand, archaeology by Brian Fagan
Terry Jones’ Barbarians, history by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
World Encyclopedia of Animals
Out of My Life and Thought, the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer
The Chinese in America, nonfiction by the late Iris Chang

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Scout's Progress

Scout’s Progress is the second novel in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden Universe omnibus Pilot’s Choice. Where the first novel in the book Local Custom is an elaborate novel-of-manners novel, this second book is basically a romance between Daav, the delm (head) of the most important family on Liad, and Aelliana, a brilliant mathematician who is kept subjugated by her brother, the egotistical nadelm (heir) of her own lesser family. Both of them have secret lives outside their families. Daav is an experienced spaceship pilot, a scout, who sneaks away from his family to work at a spaceship repair shop with some of his former mates from his days as a fulltime pilot. Aelliana wins a spaceship through gambling–using her mathematical talents to win the game–and begins training as a pilot under Daav with the goal of fleeing Liad entirely in her ship when she is fully certified as a pilot.

Daav, meanwhile, is betrothed to another woman, for the sake of his family’s future, a woman he neither loves nor particularly wants, but family duty has dictated the choice. That was fine before he met Aelliana when both of them started gradually and steadily becoming more and more attached emotionally.

Neither Daav nor Aellianna know the other’s real identity, so their individual plots weave in and out before finally meshing at the end. Occasionally the novel is frustrating as Daav and Aellianna’s secrecy complicates their situations, but never too much so. The novel’s ending is very fast-paced and dramatic as Aellianna’s situation with her brother reaches a critical and dangerous level.

My main complaint was the black-and-white nature of several characters in the book. Daav is too perfect as the head of his family, displaying few shades of gray even in his dilemma choosing between his betrothed and Aellianna. The worst character is Aellianna’s brother who is so totally evil as to be almost a charlatan. And the people at the repair shop display so much camaraderie and bonhomie serving as the stereotypical “nice guys” of the novel, creating a womb where both Daav and Aellianna could feel totally comfortable in their second home. Obviously the authors prefer the simpler, lower-class scouts to the upper-class members of the powerful families. Depth of characterization is not Lee & Miller’s strength as writers, although they are somewhat better at showing people in conflict (Daav and Aellianna).

From a purely personal viewpoint, this is one of the rare science fiction novels where a protagonist, Aellianna, is a mathematician, and that talent serves as both her major strength and, ultimately, her salvation. A math teacher myself, how could I not like such a character? Overall, I enjoyed Scout's Progress a lot, and I look forward to reading more novels in the series.