Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Is enough good original sf being published?

It has become commonplace in recent years for people to lament how few science fiction books are being published compared to fantasy and horror. For somebody who remembers how little sf was published 40 years ago by comparison, that lament is almost ludicrous. According to the February Year-in-Review issue of Locus, in 2007 2,723 genre books were published, of which 1,710 were new and 1,013 were reprints. That is the highest number of genre books published in any year ever. By comparison, in 1997 1,816 genre books were published, 999 new and 817 reprints.

Breaking down the original books only by category, in 2007 250 original science fiction novels were published, compared to 460 fantasy novels and 198 horror novels. There were also 90 anthologies and 100 collections published, which combine all three categories. Assuming the latter followed the same percentages as the novels, that breaks down to approximately 50 science fiction anthologies/collections to 140 fantasy and horror, for a total of 300 original sf books and 800 fantasy/horror books.

In 1999, the oldest year listed in Locus, 251 original sf novels were published compared to 275 fantasy novels and 95 horror novels. So while the latter categories have basically doubled in popularity, science fiction has remained steady.

300 original science fiction books published in 2007 is a lot of original science fiction. While I don’t have any records of publications 40 years ago, I suspect it was far less than 100 original sf books published the entire year. So while the total number of original sf books might pale besides fantasy and horror, how many of those 300 sf books can a single person read in one year (assuming they read zero fantasy/horror books, which is probably a rare occurrence among genre fans)?

That does not take into account quality, of course. Using Sturgeon’s Law as a guideline, if 10% of the original sf published in a given year appeals to an individual reader, that is 30 new books, admittedly not a lot for most avid readers. But surely some fantasy must appeal to those same readers. If only 5% of the fantasy appeals to that same reader (and no horror), that would be another 30 books.

Nor do these figures include all the short fiction available in prozines, semi-prozines and online, an estimated 2,109 stories in 2007 according to Locus short fiction guru Mark Kelly. So if 300 books is not sufficient reading for one year, surely an average of nearly 6 pieces of short sf per day would augment that reading considerably.

Overall, there is not much doubt that a sufficient amount of original sf is published each year to appeal to any genre fan, perhaps requiring a bit of work to find some of it online. Overall, that sounds like a good deal to me though.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Kragen / The Calorie Man

Some short fiction...

How many times have you read the following two statements: Short fiction is the lifeblood of science fiction and Novellas are the best length for a science fiction story. I don’t know if either statement is really true, but I certainly enjoy reading short fiction, especially novellas, at least as much, if not more, than novels. My favorite “novels” tend to be “fix-ups”, which use a series of novelettes and novellas to paint a deep portrait of a future world, rather than novels which are often so dependent on complicated plots that the development of the world is sometimes downplayed as a result.

There are a handful of sf writers who, in my opinion, have written more major novellas than any others, including Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, and Jack Vance. In the latter case, it is almost expected that periodically I will run across another Vance novella I had never read, likely never even heard of, but which impresses me considerably. Recently I was going through a handful of old Ultimate reprintzines from the 1970s where I found a Vance novella called “The Kragen.” The cover picture makes it look like one of those invasion thrillers that most other writers would have written for a story with that title. But not Vance. “The Kragen” is set on a water world populated by a relatively small number of settlers who apparently fled from a more populated world several centuries (millennia?) ago and who live under a rigid caste system. More importantly, they are in thrall to a giant sea creature, King Kragen, who eats much of their daily harvest as tribute for protecting the settlers from lesser kragen.

As is a popular theme of Vance novellas, “The Kragen” is set during a time of uprising, when a small group of settlers capture and kill a smaller kragen. This incrurs the wrath of both King Kragen–who apparently has no problem killing other kragen himself, but forbids humans to do so as well–and the leaders of the various castes. What follows is the exile of the dissidents and continuing conflict between them, the caste leaders, and King Kragen. The story’s ending was a bit abrupt, but overall it was a very intriguing story. It was later expanded into the novel The Blue World, which I might look up as well someday.

I also began reading Gardner Dozois’ 2006 Best Science Fiction of the Year, Twenty-third Annual Collection, which I will review piecemeal over the next few weeks. I am mostly skipping stories I have read previously, such as Ian McDonald’s Hugo-winning “The Little Goddess,” not because I did not enjoy it, but because I have too much unread fiction to spend a lot of time rereading stories for completion’s sake. If you have not read McDonald’s story, I recommend it, although perhaps not quite so much as to consider it award-worthy, since McDonald is much better for his sense of wonder and world creation than for his story sense.

I did read Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man.” The first story of his I read was “The Fluted Girl” a few years ago, and it was a very powerful, somewhat depressing tale, a good description of both “The Calorie Man” and perhaps all Bacigalupi fiction as well. He neither pulls punches nor has a particularly optimistic outlook for the near future of humanity (an outlook which I share somewhat, which is why I generally prefer fiction set farther in the future past the inevitable near-future decline). “The Calorie Man” hypothesizes huge agribusinesses controlling the production of all food products since they have basically replaced “natural” plants with sterile crops which they control and which nobody but they can produce. The story involves the search for a scientific genius who perceives himself as another Johnny Appleseed spreading fecund plants to replace the sterile crops. The story is partly a thriller–although slower-paced than usual, which I found more appealing to my taste–and partly a portrait of a dark, dismal world. At least the ending held out a ray of hope and sunshine for the future. While I doubt I would enjoy reading an entire book of Bacigalupi short fiction in succession, such as his new collection Pump Six, in small doses he is a very thought-provoking writer who is highly recommended.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


A few weeks ago I was looking to buy a science fiction book at Barnes & Noble. I browsed the sf shelves awhile, and decided which book I wanted to buy, but I still had some time to waste, since my wife had dropped me off in the car while she went shopping elsewhere. So I spent the time browsing the historical fiction awhile.

Since I love both history and books, a novel which has intrigued me for several years is Ross King’s Ex-Libris, but I had never actually seen a copy of it anywhere. Until that night at Barnes & Noble where it was sitting peacefully on the shelf. Immediately I grabbed it, all thoughts of a science fiction book gone from my mind. The novel is set during Restoration England where a bookseller named Isaac Inchbold–who lives above his shop set on London Bridge–is hired by a mysterious Lady Marchamont to locate a missing book The Labyrinth of the World which vanished along with her entire collection during the Cromwell years when her house was overrun by Cromwell loyalists destroying all remnants of Royalist supporters.

A secondary plot-line which was told in alternating sequences took place forty years earlier during the Catholic-Protestant wars when the king and queen of Bohemia fled along with their own extensive book collection. This section illustrated more of the importance of books in 17th century Europe, and also provided background information on how the missing Labyrinth of the World arrived in England originally.

While the novel is ostensibly a thriller, that aspect was secondary in my eyes to the book’s main concerns, its discussions of rare books and their importance to that era. The historical setting itself was also absorbing, so that overall Ex-Libris was a good combination of plotting and history, culminating in a long, over-the-top scene in which Inchbold and Lady Marchamont frantically flee three Spanish agents intent on murder through the corridors of an ancient house sitting atop an underground river which is rising to the surface and claiming the house in the midst of a horrendous rainstorm. While they flee, she explains the history of the Labyrinth of the World which involves the Protestant Reformation, Galileo, Copernicus, Sir Walter Raleigh, popes and Spanish kings, a sprawling historical epic which carries enough elements of truth to be fascinating and makes the scene rapt reading and the entire book highly recommended for both book and history lovers.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson

Anybody reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s first published stories in 1975 knew immediately that he was equally comfortable in both the science fiction pulp tradition and the literary tradition. His stories straddled both genres, concentrating on characterization and mood, but were also well-plotted with strong science fictional bases and sense of wonder.

"Venice Drowned" was a look at life in the fabled city at a future time when the seas had risen to swallow it. "Black Air" told the story of the Spanish Armada from the point of view of a young boy able to sense the impending death of other people. "The Lucky Strike" was an alternate history story of the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

The story that most resembled core science fiction was "Green Mars," a tale of colonization, politics, and mountain climbing. The story belonged fully in the science fiction tradition, yet was as strongly literate as all of Robinson's works.

In 1984 Robinson’s first novel The Wild Shore was released as the first of the revived Ace Science Fiction Specials edited by Terry Carr. A rite of passage novel, it was set in a near-future California struggling to recover from a limited nuclear attack against the United States. The novel had the misfortune to be released in the same year as William Gibson’s groundbreaking Neuromancer, denying it of much of the attention it deserved.

That same year Robinson released Icehenge, a science fiction mystery involving space exploration and the discovery of strange structures at the edge of the solar system.

Not content to fit into any mold Robinson stretched his talents with his next two novels. The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge were both near future novels set in California, but they were philosophical opposites, the first being a realistic dystopia while the latter was a hopeful utopia.

The greatest acclaim came for Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, a trilogy examining the colonization and terraforming of the red planet. Rich in both characterization and political intrigue, the first two novels in the series received awards for Best Novel in the same year. The trilogy was followed by a collection The Martians, stories which filled in gaps of the trilogy itself.

Next came two stand-alone novels. Antarctica told a story similar to the Mars Trilogy in miniature about near-future colonization of Earth’s frozen continent. The Days of Rice and Salt took as its premise that the Black Plague wiped out nearly 100% of Europe’s population, so that the history of the past 500 years was dominated by Islam, India, and China instead of by Western Europe. The novel was strongly influenced by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

Robinson then released a near-future trilogy about the conflicts between science and politics in dealing with the impending ecological crisis. Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting combined the best aspects of Robinson’s political insights (strong element of both his Mars Trilogy and Antarctica), characterization, and ecological thriller.

For readers who enjoy the more literary end of the science fiction spectrum, as well as an interest in history, Kim Stanley Robinson is truly one of the genre’s giants.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Galactic Empires

In 1976, Brian W. Aldiss edited a two-volume compilation entitled Galactic Empires, featuring classic stories by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (the original “Foundation,” one of the proto-type galactic empires), Cordwainer Smith, Clifford D. Simak, A.E. van Vogt, James Blish, and Harry Harrison. Galactic Empires have long been one of the staples of far-future sf, a sub-genre which I often prefer to “space opera” since it does not carry with it all the baggage of warfare and fast-paced thrillers (which, admittedly, does not describe all space opera, but a much higher percentage of that sub-genre than galactic empire stories in general).

Now Gardner Dozois has published an SFBC collection of 6 original novellas under the same title Galactic Empires. Considering the high quality of other recent SFBC collections (including Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds and Dozois’ own One Million A.D.) as well as the excellent authors included in this collection, I ordered it as soon as it was announced, then waited two months for it to arrive.

The first novella in the book is Peter Hamilton’s “The Demon Trap.” Hamilton writes very interesting sf mysteries, such as “Watching Trees Grow,” a PS Publishing chapbook which was reprinted in the excellent four-novella collection Futures. However, I was not as enamored by his hard-science story “Blessed By An Angel” in The New Space Opera.

Fortunately, “The Demon Trap” is another mystery involving a galactic Confederation dominated by a handful of rich families, and one world which has been using terrorist tactics to force the Confederation to let it secede. A detective named Paula is investigating one of the terrorist attacks, and is determined to solve it even after Merioneth has achieved its goal of secession. Several subplots float through this mystery, including Paula’s own background connection with the Merioneth Forces, but Hamilton juggles all the various elements well, as well as providing sufficient teasers about his Confederation to make me want to read more about it (which is apparently the setting of his massive Night’s Dawn trilogy).

I’ve never read a Neil Asher story before, but “Owner Space” is an interesting story about a ship filled with escapees from a repressive government called the Collective. The Collective, in addition to repressing and enslaving much of its own population, has been waging war with an alien race called the Grazen, whose powerful empire borders that of the Collective. So when the escapees find themselves on the border of the two empires, caught between two dangerous enemies, they suddenly receive a mysterious invitation from a third source hidden within an unexplored portion of space under the control of a mysterious “Owner” who was never been seen by humans.

Both the Collective ship pursuing them and a Grazen dreadnought follow the escapees to an amazingly Earthlike world inside Owner space, where all three groups encounter the mysterious Owner himself. The story’s climax is a scene out of either a wish fulfilment or a comic book, and while it is mostly satisfying, it does rob the story of any power it might have otherwise had.

My other minor complaint with the story is Asher’s tendency to describe every technological aspect of the spaceships’ functions whenever they operate. It’s as if the driver of a car feels obligated to discuss pistons and crankshafts everytime a car tools down Route 80. Such descriptions might entertained a technogeek, but they were mostly irrelevant to the story itself.

Robert Reed’s “The Man With the Golden Balloon” is one of his Great Ship stories, which are usually among his best stories. “The Remoras” is still my favorite Reed story ever, and this story features the same two main characters as that previous story, the rich immortal Quee Lee and her young, non-immortal lover Perri. At a party, they encounter a man who tells them rumours about a distant corner of the great ship which has never been mapped by the ship’s captains’ extensive surveying. Considering this a grand adventure, Quee Lee and Perri gather a small group of explorers and seek out that hidden corner. While they do find such an unexplored place, it is little more than a cave hidden among a labyrinth of caves. In that cave they encounter a strange being who claims to be a representative of a galactic union which secretly controls galactic affairs without the knowledge of most of its inhabitants. He tells them a story about an Earthlike world which may or may not be true, but which becomes increasingly believable to Quee Lee and Perri as he tells it.

This is not one of Reed’s major stories, but it is interesting and the story told by the unseen man never lags. However, I am not sure Reed achieved his main goal in the story, which seems to be instilling a sense of awe and wonder, and perhaps a bit of trepidation, that the world as we know it is only a facade lying over a secret world of which most people are unaware.

Alastair Reynolds’ “The Six Directions of Space” begins as a tale of espionage as a secret agent from the headquarters of a huge galactic empire visits one of its outer worlds where the government’s control is not as tight as it might like to be, so the agent falls into the clutches of a mostly-independent warlord who treats her more like an enemy than an ally.

The tale of espionage becomes a story of first contact from the point of view of a repressive totalitarian state and ultimately veers into a tale of parallel universes in which different groups have built galactic empires: Mongols in one, Moslems in another, Nestorian Christians in a third; but other universes have non-human empires whose brutality make the human ones almost acceptable. Overall, this is a fascinating look into the many-worlds which cries out for sequels.

Stephen Baxter’s “The Seer and the Silverman” displays his usual bravado in a tale of the hostilities between the human Third Expansion and the aliens known as Ghosts, although they more resemble floating eggs, on the precipice of intergalactic war. The story is set on the Reef, an artificial world built from numerous spaceships somehow linked together, and which was independent until a self-proclaimed Commission for Historical Truths rose to power in human space fueled by their belief that a galaxy not dominated by humans has no reason to survive.

The narrator is Donn, a young trader who serves as a liaison between Ghosts and humans. The story begins as a series of abductions have taken place on the Reef, which most humans assume was done by Ghosts. A Ghost ambassador comes to the Reef along with a virtual version of a long-dead human to ask Donn for help, telling him he is needed. Before he can protest he is abducted and ends up on a Ghost world living among other abductees–self-proclaimed “rats”– surviving by waging an underground war against their Ghost captors.

The theme of the novella is that the Ghosts are abducting humans to study them, because they do not understand humans any more than humans understand Ghosts. As the Ghosts are portrayed in the story, and in other Baxter works in which they appeared, they are so inhuman that they do not understand humans’ instinctive need for expansion and attempts to control the galaxy. While they are very advanced, likely far beyond humans, they seem totally unprepared for warfare so that fleeing is their only option against the Third Expansion if they are to survive as a race.

There are a few problems in the novella, such as one long section devoted to Donn and the Ghost ambassador babbling scientific theory to each other inside a giant sun on the verge of turning into a supernova, and Donn seems incredibly brilliant, perhaps too much so for a simple trader. Fortunately, neither of these flaws matter since Baxter, as usual, is primarily interested in the big picture and his story’s philosophical implications more than the nuts and bolts which drive it.

The only story I could not finish was Ian McDonald’s “The Tear,” which on one hand offered some of McDonald’s evocative writing and flurry of ideas, but on the other hand also showed his occasional tendency to so overload the story with those ideas and writing that whatever point he was trying to make was mostly lost to me.

Overall, Galactic Empires was a worthwhile book with two superior stories (Reynolds and Baxter) and three mostly enjoyable ones (Hamilton, Asher, and Reed). I would recommend you wait for the paperback, except since it is a Science Fiction Book Club book, that paperback might not be forthcoming. So wait for one of their Buy 2 – Get One Free online offers instead.