Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Alien Years

A master writer faces a problem when he releases a novel which is not the equal of his finest works. A novel which might have gotten generally strong reviews at the hands of an unknown writer instead is faced with the inevitable comparison to the author’s finer works. This is unfair to a reader looking for good reading rather than an instant masterpiece. And since no matter how superb a writer might be, not every work is going to be equally brilliant, so a reader might be cheated if reviewers only direct you to the “cream of the crop.”

Take, for example, Robert Silverberg. Not only is he one of the finest science fiction writers ever, but he might be the field’s greatest novelist. Consider that he had 6 novels nominated for the Hugo Award in a span of 4 years in the early 1970s, including some of his finest works: Up the Line, A Time of Changes, The Book of Skulls, and Dying Inside. In the half-dozen years on either side of those nominations came such works as Thorns, The Masks of Time, Nightwings, The Stochastic Man and Shadrach in the Furnace.

After Shadrach came a sudden retirement, a well-deserved one considering how many books he published in the 20 years prior. It lasted about four years, after which came a considerably slower stream of novels which, while only slightly below the master level of those prior novels, were in some instances not given their deserved acclaim because of comparisons to the pre-retirement novels: Lord Valentine’s Castle, Tom O’Bedlam, Kingdom of the Walls, The Face of the Water.

In the 1990s, Silverberg’s production slowed even more, and his novels became different in several ways. Hot Sky at Midnight was a near-future thriller. The Long Way Home was a juvenile. And The Alien Years was a contemporary saga.

In The Alien Years, a strange group of “entities” settle on Earth and immediately impose their control on the planet. There is no grand invasion, no warfare, merely vastly superior beings with the ability to coerce humans into doing whatever they wish. And what they wish to do is remove humans’ autonomy while basically ignoring most of their daily activities.

But the entities’ hands-off policies has its limits. When the American government retaliates by attacking an entity stronghold with orbital laser weapons, the entities release airborne germs and kill half the population of Earth. When a young Englishmen of Pakistani descent manages to kill one of the entities, they round up the inhabitants of all the surrounding villages, kill half of them and send the others to labor camps.

Much of the novel concerns Colonel Carmichael, a Vietnam War veteran, who in the aftermath of the alien takeover gathers all his family members on his huge estate in the San Bernardino Valley, and begins plotting the overthrow of the entities. This rebellion is the basic plot of the entire 500 page book, except the entities are so powerful that the rebellion consists primarily of waiting and watching, marked by two futile attempts at killing the “prime” entity. Because the rebellion is so static, much of the novel is also. Briefly we follow Khalid, the only successful murderer of an entity before he makes his way to the Carmichael estate, and we also follow Andy, a computer hacker who spends several years helping people escape from the clutches of the entities by foiling the entities’ computer assignments for those people. But ultimately these sub-plots do not really lead anywhere except back to the Carmichael estate and more waiting.

The novel’s climax is the second rebellion attempt, but it fails miserably with the result that the entities punish the Carmichaels by killing half their family and destroying much of their estate. Five years later, the entities abruptly pack up and leave Earth, a climax obviously influenced by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

While I enjoyed reading The Alien Years and would recommend it moderately, I would have been happier if it had more forward momentum and less of a static nature. And the abrupt purposeless of its ending tended to drain all purpose from all the prior activities of the Carmichael family. So while I do not wish to be one of those critics who steer readers away from good novels because they do not reach the level of an author’s master works, the amount of time needed to read The Alien Years would be much more fulfilling if instead you read Nightwings or Dying Inside or A Time of Changes or....well, you get the idea.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer reading

Today is the first day of summer vacation, so after ten months of having virtually no time to read more than a book or two a month, the prospect of reading at least a book a week is positively delightful! Here is my tentative reading list, books which hopefully I will be reviewing in these pages in the weeks ahead:

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks, a Culture novel
The Dragon’s Nine Sons, part of Chris Roberson’s delightful Celestial Empire series
• Ken Follett’s historical epic Pillars of the Earth
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See’s novel of 19th century China
Roma, Steven Saylor’s fictional history of Rome prior to the founding of the empire
The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow’s secret history of the Scientific Revolution

That is just for starters, after which I am flexible.

I really recommend the most recent post by James Harris at where he discusses exactly what aspects of a story most interest him in it. I’ve always been drawn to fiction seeped in history, whether real or future, but Harris wonders if perhaps the storytelling style is equally or more important than the story itself. As usual, his Auxiliary Memory is one of the most thought-provoking blogs around, particularly for lovers of books and sf, and is always highly-recommended.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Nebula Award Best Novella Winners

I have stated many times that novellas are my favorite length for an sf story because it gives the author room to explore a single concept in considerable depth. So here is the list of Nebula Award winning Best Novellas. Unlike the novels, these need to be sought out in various anthologies and collections, but the search should be well worthwhile.

Year / Title / Author
2008 / "Fountain of Age" / Nancy Kress
2007 / "Burn" / James Patrick Kelly
2006 / "Magic for Beginners" / Kelly Link
2005 / "The Green Leopard Plague" / Walter Jon Williams
2004 / Coraline / Neil Gaiman
2003 / "Bronte's Egg" / Richard Chwedyk
2002 / "The Ultimate Earth" / Jack Williamson
2001 / "Goddesses" / Linda Nagata
2000 / "Story of Your Life" / Ted Chiang
1999 / "Reading the Bones" / Sheila Finch
1998 / "Abandon in Place" / Jerry Oltion
1997 / "Da Vinci Rising" / Jack Dann
1996 / "Last Summer at Mars Hill" / Elizabeth Hand
1995 / "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge" / Mike Resnick
1994 / "The Night We Buried Road Dog" / Jack Cady
1993 / City of Truth / James Morrow
1992 / "Beggars in Spain" / Nancy Kress
1991 / "The Hemingway Hoax" / Joe Haldeman
1990 / "The Mountains of Mourning" / Lois McMaster Bujold
1989 / "The Last of the Winnebagos" / Connie Willis
1988 / "The Blind Geometer" / Kim Stanley Robinson
1987 / "R&R" / Lucius Shepard
1986 / "Sailing to Byzantium" / Robert Silverberg
1985 / "PRESS ENTER[]" / John Varley
1984 / "Hardfought" / Greg Bear
1983 / "Another Orphan" / John Kessel
1982 / "The Saturn Game" / Poul Anderson
1981 / "Unicorn Tapestry" / Suzy McKee Charnas
1980 / "Enemy Mine" / Barry B. Longyear
1979 / "The Persistence of Vision" / John Varley
1978 / "Stardance" / Spider Robinson & Jeanne Robinson
1977 / "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" / James Tiptree, Jr.
1976 / "Home Is the Hangman" / Roger Zelazny
1975 / "Born with the Dead" / Robert Silverberg
1974 / "The Death of Doctor Island" / Gene Wolfe
1973 / "A Meeting with Medusa" / Arthur C. Clarke
1972 / "The Missing Man" / Katherine MacLean
1971 / "Ill Met in Lankhmar" / Fritz Leiber
1970 / "A Boy and His Dog" / Harlan Ellison
1969 / "Dragonrider" / Anne McCaffrey
1968 / "Behold the Man" / Michael Moorcock
1967 / "The Last Castle" / Jack Vance
1966 / "The Saliva Tree" / Brian W. Aldiss
(tie) "He Who Shapes" / Roger Zelazny

Saturday, June 07, 2008


While Jack McDevitt is one of my very favorite current sf writers, I prefer his Alex Benedict series of historical mysteries to his Academy series of space operas. Chindi is the third book in the latter series and it illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the series.

Protagonist Priscilla Hutchins–Hutch–wants to retire from the Academy but is encouraged to go on one last mission, taking members of the First Contact Society on a wild goose chase looking for aliens. Her passengers consist of a variety of alien seekers, particularly George. the wealthy owner of the yacht and organizer of the trip; Alyx, a gorgeous actress who immediately attracts the interest of the men on the trip; and Tor, an artist who still loves Hutch years after their relationship ended.

All three of these main characters start out as stereotypes but gradually develop more depth and believability as the novel progresses. Their hunt for aliens leads them to a series of stealth devices watching a neutron star which are sending a series of transmissions which Hutch’s group follows across the galaxy. First they discover a dead world in the aftermath of an ancient nuclear war, then they hit the jackpot when they find a world inhabited by angels with fangs and claws who behave in a decidedly un-angelic manner. Their most important discovery is a huge spaceship–a chindi–which seems to be the hub of the information-gathering system involving the stealth devices.

As usual for an Academy novel, the heart of the novel is a scientific mystery involving the source of the stealth devices and the chindi, as well as artifacts from ancient races on the various worlds they encounter. But unusually for McDevitt the mystery does not rise to the forefront of importance but tends to fade a bit into the background in favor of the exciting scenes which always spot a McDevitt novel. In this instance though, those scenes grow uncontrollably until they dominate the novel, particularly the last rescue scene which is the entire focus of the novel’s last hundred pages.

So while I recommend Chindi as enjoyable reading, it does not have nearly the depth of interest as such novels as Polaris, Seeker and Infinity Beach. It is mostly an interlude between other, better McDevitt novels.