Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rock albums openings and closings

I doubt I will ever be one of those people who listen exclusively to songs downloaded from the internet. I enjoy complete albums too much, especially those albums which offer a complete flow from opening song through closing. Artists seemed to put more effort into complete packages in the 1970s than they do now, although some artists still care about albums as artistic creations rather than collections of songs, mostly progressive rock artists. Some recent examples of “complete” packages including the Decemberists’ masterpiece The Crane Wife and Green Day’s American Idiot.

Perhaps the most important parts of albums are the openings which, if well-done, pull you along into the rest of the music, and the closings which provide the lasting memories afterwards. Here are some of my favorite openings and closings of rock albums which were designed to be “complete” packages.

• Electric Light Orchestra was an outstanding prog rock band early in their career before becoming more mainstream as they got caught up in their commercial success (the fate of many prog rock bands). But their album Face the Music has one of my favorite openings, “Fire on High” (although admittedly the rest of the album does not quite live up to that intro);

• Pink Floyd is a band which never abandoned its prog intentions no matter how popular they got, which is why they are one of my favorite bands. They have two of my favorite openings as well, “Astronomy Domine” on Piper at the Gates of Dawn and “One of These Days” on Mettle;

• Few people realize the Moody Blues were primarily a prog rock band early in their career, the highlight being their masterpiece To Our Children’s Children’s Children with its fabulous opening “Higher and Higher”;

• Pink Floyd also had one of the best album closings on my favorite prog rock album ever, The Dark Side of the Moon with “Brain Damage / Eclipse”;

• The Kinks’ rock opera Preservation was erratic with some amazing high points intermingled with some areas which dragged a bit. But there is no denying the power of its closing anthem “Salvation Road’;

• One of the reasons I like U2 is their lead guitarist David Evans (“The Edge”) knows how to suck in the listener with music which is both insistent and powerful. Nowhere is that more evident than in the opening track “Where The Streets Have no Name” on their masterpiece The Joshua Tree.

Anybody have any other favorite openings or closings of rock albums?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Best f&sf of 2008

Here are the most acclaimed f&sf novels of 2008. As I did last year, this is a tally of books which received the most mentions by various critics and reviewers at websites and paperzines such as SF Site, Fantasy Magazine, Bookgasm, SFF World (which had lists by several critics), Fantasy Book Critic, Strange Horizons, Locus Online, Locus Magazine. I’m sure there are several worthwhile books for everybody’s taste here.

Title / Author / # of lists

Anathem / Neal Stephenson / 17
Little Brother / Cory Doctorow / 15
Matter / Iain M. Banks / 9
The Graveyard Book / Neil Gaiman / 7
Tender Morsels / Margo Lanagan / 6
The Quiet War / Paul McAuley / 6
Implied Spaces / Walter Jon Williams / 6
City at the End of Time / Greg Bear / 5
The Gone Away World / Nick Harkaway / 5
Sly Mongoose / Tobias S. Buckell / 4
Toll the Hounds / Steven Erikson/ 4
The Shadow Year / Jeffrey Ford / 4
Pandemonium / Daryl Gregory/ 4
The Steel Remains / Richard Morgan / 4
Liberation / Brian Francis Slattery / 4
The Dragons of Babel/ Michael Swanwick/ 4

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Going For Infinity

My “Golden Age” of science fiction was the mid-1960s, when the iconic Big Three of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein were no longer at their peaks. So the writers I considered Grand Masters were Clifford D. Simak–whose peak lasted much longer than his more-acclaimed peers–newcomers such as Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and veteran Poul Anderson.

Anderson did a lot of good stuff in Galaxy (his best being “To Outlive Eternity,” the novella which later expanded into Tau Zero) and Worlds of IF (I recall most fondly the serial Three Worlds to Conquer). I only read Analog occasionally when it was edited by John W. Campbell, Jr, but still there was some memorable Poul Anderson stuff (the novella “Starfog” jumping to memory).

Over the decades I have bought a lot of Poul Anderson books, including novels such as The Day of Their Return, The Byworlder, the aforementioned Tau Zero and the collection The Earth Book of Stormgate (which contained most of his Polesotechnic League stories). About a year ago I bought his posthumous collection To Outlive Eternity, which contained several very good long stories, such as the title novella, “[The Day] After Doomsday” and “The Big Rain.” Probably my favorite Anderson series though was Time Patrol, nearly all of which were collected in the two books The Time Patrol and The Shield of Time.

The book I never read though was his “career retrospective” Going For Infinity. The book was worth the wait though, since it contains several classic Anderson award-winners (“The Saturn Game,” “The Problem of Pain,” “The Queen of Air and Darkness”), as well as a mixture of other well-known stories and some lesser-known ones. The biographical material wrapped around the stories seems to indicate that Anderson selected them himself; if so, he has good taste in his own fiction, since the collection is superb reading.

My favorite stories in the collection include the Time Patrol story, “Death and the Knight,” set in medieval France at the time Philip II was battling the Knights Templar who had gotten very rich and powerful since their creation during the Crusades; “Kyrie,” an evocative story rich in sense of wonder; and a self-contained novelette excerpt from the novel Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Poul Anderson was one of the finest, perhaps the finest storyteller in sf, and his range was incredible, ranging from “hard science” to medieval fantasy to alternate history long before the genre even had a name. His overall quality is amazingly high, and while characterization is not his strongest suit, he does it better than a lot of other traditional writers of space opera and planetary adventures. I have 20+ books by Poul Anderson in my collection, a mere drop in the bucket since I also have another 30 of his books on my Recommended Reading list (including most of the Dominick Flandry books and the Psychotechnic League and Harvest of Stars series). There’s still a lot of great reading awaiting me. If you haven’t read Going For Infinity or, perhaps, not much Poul Anderson at all, then this book is highly-recommended reading.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction

I have always been a big fan of sf prozines. I cut my teeth on Galaxy and Worlds of IF and read them both faithfully until their demise (although they were never the same after Frederik Pohl quit as editor). I also read Analog when Ben Bova was editor, Asimov’s through most of Gardner Dozois’ regime, and Fantasy & Science Fiction from 1971 through the mid 1990s. In 1995 I underwent a “mid-life crisis” which, in my case, did not consist of riding motorcycles or spring flings, but giving up reading all sf for about a year. When I gradually returned to the genre, the prozines had fallen by the wayside.

Early in this decade, I subscribed to F&SF again for a year, and enjoyed it, but did not enjoy being committed to a monthly reading schedule (especially since, by that time I had purchased all the 1950s issues of Galaxy and I was slowly going through them at the rate of about one issue per six months). I really enjoyed what Gordon van Gelder was doing with the zine though, so after my subscription expired I kept buying their annual double issue, although mostly I put them aside unread. When F&SF cut back its frequency from monthly to bi-monthly recently, I decided it was time to renew it again, but before reading the current issues I decided to go back and read those annual double issues first.

So this week I have been reading the October/November 2005 issue. It has 3 long novelets about which I have mixed feelings. Paolo Bacigalupi’s (and what kind of a name is that anyway? When I was growing up in an Italian-American community, we used the word “bacigalupi” as a derogatory for a person of low intelligence) “The Calorie Man” is a depressing look at a rather dismal near-future, the kind of story I did not enjoy during the Cyberpunk heyday. It is well-written, but not my thing. Matthew Hughes’ “Help Wonted” is one of his Vancian stories about ne’er-do-well Guth Bandar trapped as a slave and trying desperately to escape by any means. Like most Hughes stories I’ve read, it was enjoyable but slight.

The highlight of the issue though was Peter Beagles’ “Two Hearts” which deservedly won a Hugo Award in 2006 as Best Novelette. The story is a sequel to the famous novel The Last Unicorn, and it is marred slightly by a blatant deus ex machina ending which is probably the reason the story is so famous since it is a direct reference back to the novel. But in spite of that flaw, or perhaps partially because of it, this is Beagle at the peak of his considerable talents.

A few more annual double issues and I’ll start on the current issues. Now I need to find a way to fill in the gaps in my collection. ☺

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Murray Leinster

The Virginia State Legislature has declared June 27, 2009 as Will F. Jenkins Day, a deserved honor for a man who, writing as Murray Leinster, was one of the true grandmasters of science fiction since his writing not only predated the development of the genre, but who was responsible for many of the iconic ideas in the field.

Although science fiction has always been a fiction of change, only the most talented writers can often keep up with the rapidly evolving eras. Clifford D. Simak first wrote for F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding in the early 1930s, then adapted his writing to such changing markets as John W. Campbell's Astounding and H.L. Gold's Galaxy. Jack Williamson began his career writing for Hugo Gernsback's Amazing and outlived the "Golden Age," "New Wave," and "Cyberpunk."

But in some ways the most remarkable of all was Murray Leinster whose first published science fiction story appeared in 1919, nearly a full decade before the birth of the science fiction prozines. At that time, the most popular writers of science fiction included such pulp greats as Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Allan England, Garrett P. Serviss, and A. Merritt.

Into this select company came twenty-two year old Murray Leinster with the story "The Runaway Skyscraper". It appeared in Argosy, perhaps the most successful general pulp of the early Twentieth Century. It was quite an imaginative story, far ahead of its time in its depiction of an alternate dimension. Due to the impact of Leinster's story that concept has been a science fiction staple ever since.

For the next dozen years Leinster was one of the leading science fiction writers in Argosy. It did not take him long to discover the science fiction pulps though, and his talent served him well there. Previously he had been used to the freedom of the general pulps, where science fiction was an expansive amalgam of SF, horror and fantasy. The SF pulps were a much more restrictive market, insisting on strict adherence to scientific principles and extrapolation. Leinster adapted smoothly, and by 1930 he was the most notable writer to bridge the gap from the general pulps.

In 1934 F. Orlin Tremaine, editor of Astounding, deliberately tried to nurse the field away from its strict adherence to Hugo Gernsback's scientific extrapolation. Leinster provided Tremaine with many important stories, most notably "Sideways in Time," another innovative story about alternate branches in the time line.

When John W. Campbell, Jr. took over the editorial reins of Astounding, he searched for new, creative writers to write stories reflecting his personal philosophy of the future of mankind and the purpose of science fiction. Leinster, who had no trouble adapting to the SF pulps previously, adapted a second time, and wrote side by side with such younger writers as L. Sprague de Camp, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Isaac Asimov. In 1945 Astounding published his classic "First Contact," a serious examination of humanity's first meeting with a technologically-superior alien race.

Another decade later, at the age of 60, Leinster published the Hugo-winning novelette "Exploration Team" in Astounding. In 1963 he was the Guest of Honor at the Washington, D.C. World Science Fiction Convention, after which his production decreased drastically. But decreased production did not mean eroded talent. He still published several superb "Med Ship" stories in Galaxy in the early 1960s, and the excellent satire "Lord of the Uffts" in Worlds of Tomorrow.

Several of Leinster’s important works are currently available in paperback through Baen Books, including Med Ship (containing the complete series), A Logic Named Joe (containing the novels The Pirates of Zan, The Duplicators and Gateway to Elsewhere as well as the title short story), and Planets of Adventure (a collection which includes the Hugo-winning “Exploration Team”). You cannot go wrong honoring Will F. Jenkins Day by reading one of these books.