Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 26, 2008

S is for Space

I am a lifelong science fiction fan who does not favor the “hard science” end of the spectrum, so Ray Bradbury is one of my “Big Three” of science fiction’s Golden Age (along with Clifford D. Simak and Alfred Bester). I have read many of his books over the years, but a few years ago a good friend of mine gave me a few I had not read. So I read The Illustrated Man immediately (and posted its review on 1/14/06) and now I have read S is For Space, a collection of unrelated stories from the 1940s through the early 1960s.

The stories are typical Bradbury, running the gamut from horror stories of the creepy, quiet variety (“Chrysalis,” “The Screaming Woman” and “Come Into My Cellar”) to the type of wistful fantasies in sf clothing which made Bradbury’s reputation. “The Man” tells of an obsessed spaceship captain frantically racing from planet to planet seeking a Messiah whom he just seems to miss, while many of his crew know exactly where to find him. There were two Martian Chronicles. “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” and “The Million Year Picnic” were two of the best stories in the book (with the latter seemed strange here since it also appeared in The Martian Chronicles as well), both fitting reading in the early 21st century when humanity seems to be racing pell mell towards self-destruction. If only Bradbury’s fanciful escape was available to some–but not too many–of us!

Perhaps the most moving story was “The Smile,” which was published in 1952 and seems to come out of the same deep-seated Bradbury fear as “The Fireman” (Fahrenheit 451 in book form). It tells the story of a post-disaster Earth in which all remnants of the pre-catastrophe civilization are shunned or destroyed, and of a queue of people waiting for a chance to spit at a famous, ancient painting of a woman having a secretive smile. Here Bradbury evoked in less than 10 pages the same emotions as “The Fireman” did at considerably longer length, with the boy Tom serving much the same role as the title fireman of the more famous story.

While I certainly do not recommend S is For Space over The Martian Chronicles or even The Illustrated Man, it is still good Bradbury worth reading.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My favorite books ever

I rank the books I read from A (highest) to D (lowest), so a listing of the books which I have given A rankings constitutes my favorite books ever. Here is that list in alphabetical order by author. Perhaps someday I’ll sort the top 50 books into a ranking by preference.

Aldiss, Brian W. / Helliconia Spring
Anderson, Poul / Tau Zero
Iain M. Banks / Look To Windward
Barrett, Andrea / Voyage of the Narwhal
Baxter, Stephen / Resplendent
Benford, Gregory / Timescape
Bester, Alfred / The Stars My Destination
Bishop, K.J. / The Etched City
Bishop, Michael / Brittle Innings
Bishop, Michael / No Enemy But Time
Bishop, Michael / Unicorn Mountain
Bradley, Marion Zimmer / The Mists of Avalon
Bradley, Marion Zimmer / The Forbidden Tower
Card, Orson Scott / Ender’s Game
Card, Orson Scott / Speaker for the Dead
Carroll, Jonathan / The Bones of the Moon
Chabon, Michael / Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Chabon, Michael / The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Cherryh, C.J. / Brothers of Earth
Cherryh, C.J. / Downbelow Station
Cowper, Richard / The Road to Corlay
Crowley, John / Little, Big
Denton, Bradley / Buddy Holly is Alive and Well...
Delany, Samuel R. / Nova
Doctorow, E.L. / Ragtime
Farmer, Philip José /To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Farmer, Philip José / The Fabulous Riverboat
Hegi, Ursula / Stones From The River
Kay, Guy Gavriel / Last Light of the Sun
Keyes, Daniel / Flowers for Algernon
King, Stephen / The Shining
Kress, Nancy / An Alien Light
Le Guin, Ursula K / The Dispossessed
Le Guin, Ursula K / Left Hand of Darkness
Lynn, Elizabeth A. / The Sardonx Net
Martin, Geo R.R. / The Armageddon Rag
McDevitt, Jack / Infinity Beach
McDevitt, Jack / Seeker
McIntyre, Vonda / The Moon and the Sun
Merle, Robert / Malevil
Mieville, China / Perdito Street Station
Morrison, Toni / Beloved
Panshin, Alexei / Rite of Passage
Pears, Iain / A Dream of Scorpio
Pears, Iain / Instance of the Fingerpost
Pohl, Frederik / Gateway
Robinson, Kim S / The Wild Shore
Robinson, Kim S / Icehenge
Robinson, Kim S / Red Mars
Robinson, Kim S / Green Mars
Sargent, Pamela / The Shore of Women
Saylor, Steven / The Judgment of Caesar
Silverberg, Robert / Dying Inside
Silverberg, Robert / Nightwings
Silverberg, Robert / The Book of Skulls
Silverberg, Robert / Shadrach in the Furnace
Silverberg, Robert / The Masks of Time
Simak, Clifford D. / Way Station
Simmons, Dan / The Fall of Hyperion
Simmons, Dan / Hyperion
Stewart, Sean / Mockingbird
Tepper, Sherri S. / Grass
Tey, Josephine / Daughter of Time
Vinge, Joan / The Snow Queen
Vonnegut, Kurt / Slaughterhouse 5
Wilhelm, Kate / Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Xueqin, Cao and Gao E / Dream of the Red Chamber
Yan, Mo / Red Sorghum
Zelazny, Roger / The Dream Master
Zelazny, Roger/ This Immortal
Zelazny, Roger / Lord of Light

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade is the second novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in which airborne dragons serve as an early air force during the Napoleanic Wars. While large parts of the first novel Her Majesty’s Dragon was primarily concerned with the bonding between the dragon Temeraire and his companion Laurence, the second novel avoids all that slow-paced backstory and jumps right into the main storyline.

Temeraire originally fell into the hands of the British navy when Laurence’s ship defeated a French ship carrying the soon-to-be-hatched dragon egg. After the egg hatched, it was learned that Temeraire was a rare Chinese celestial which had been given to Napolean as a gift. When the Chinese learned that Temeraire was now fighting for the British, the emperor’s brother Prince Yongxing traveled to Britain to demand the return of the dragon.

The Chinese Empire at the time was powerful, so the British did not want to risk its joining the Napoleanic wars on the side of the French which would surely shift the balance of power so drastically that defeating Napolean would become nearly impossible. Instead the British government sent Temeraire and Laurence aboard a huge dragon-carrying ship to China for negotiations. Almost as soon as the ship departs, Prince Yongxing informs Laurence that he is not worthy of flying with a royal dragon, and upon reaching China he will be dismissed. This so distresses Temeraire and Laurence that the voyage becomes a three-way power struggle between the Chinese ambassadors, representatives of the British government, and Temeraire and his crew.

A handful of Chinese play important roles on the shipboard portion of the novel, including imperious Prince Yongxing, reserved scholar Sun Kai, and cheerful old Liu Bao. One of the novel’s highlights is the Chinese New Year’s celebration, and one of its major threads is the prince’s own attempts at bonding with Temeraire–although on a considerably inferior level to Laurence’s lifelong bonding with the dragon. The prince initiates a series of discussions with the dragon, reading to him in Chinese much as Laurence had always read to him in English, and ordering his cooks prepare the dragon a series of gourmet meals, a vast improvement over the raw cattle and fish he was used to being fed.

Traveling across several oceans involved considerable danger. There is an attack by a group of French ships, aided by their own rare fire-breathing dragon (which proves no match for Temeraire and his equally-rare divine wind), a storm so powerful Temeraire must be chained onto the deck of the ship lest he be dragged into the ocean, and an attack by an 85' long sea serpent.

The last third of the novel takes place in China where Laurence and Temeraire must deal with the renewed efforts by the Chinese to separate him from his dragon, since they are apparently not pleased with Temeraire being used for warfare, or bonded with Laurence. Several attempts are made to assassinate Laurence, twice on ship and once on land when a group of several dozen men lay siege against the tiny island where Laurence and his companions are kept isolated.

We meet several additional important Chinese in China, including the emperor’s son who is the heir to the throne. The novel’s climactic scene includes a one-on-one duel between two Celestial dragons which is far more interesting than any of the prior battle scenes.

All in all, I preferred this novel to Her Majesty’s Dragon for several reasons. Throne of Jade was more plot-oriented, it examined the culture clash between the British and the Chinese, and it had an interesting mystery at its core. This novel is recommended even to readers who, like me, were slightly disappointed in its predecessor.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Beyond the Aquila Reef

Another fine story from Gardner Dozois’ 2006 Best Science Fiction of the Year, was Alastair Reynolds’ “Beyond the Aquila Reef.” Reynolds is one of my favorite “new space opera” writers, because his stories are always so rich in sense of wonder and emotional content, whether they are mysteries, thrillers, or horror stories (or a combination, as all three aspects ran through his Galactic North trilogy Revelation Space, Absolution Gap, Redemption Ark). “Reef” is the story of a three-man spaceship which through some unavoidable accident ends up beyond the “bubble” surrounding civilized space and at a place too far to possibly return home. The scenario is highly-charged emotionally, since the captain’s wife has been dead for two hundred years by the time he awakens, and his first officer cannot deal with the trauma of the accident at all, and it is hard to imagine where the story is heading. The scenario does not take too much thinking about, as it seems highly-unlikely that as many spacecrafts would have ended up at that precise location as seems to have happened, nor does the comfortable lifestyle of the survivors seem all that likely. But Reynolds is too smart to push the fabric of believability too far, since he has obviously considered the same flaws in his story logic and uses it to twist the reader’s preconceptions nicely at the end.

"Beyond the Aquia Reef" also appeared in Reynolds’ excellent collection Zima Blue, so I recommend you look for it in at least one of those two sources.