Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Distant Stars

Last week I discussed Empire Star, the centerpiece of Samuel R. Delany’s collection Distant Stars. Since then I have read the rest of the book, and it holds up very well indeed nearly thirty years after its publication.

Two of the short stories particularly impressed me. “Corona” starts out like typical Delany: Buddy is a mixed-up kid who works at the Kennedy space station, while Lee is a powerful telepathic girl who has experienced so much trauma in other people’s lives that she is wildly suicidal. After an accident at the space station, Buddy ends up in the hospital where his distress from the accident causes Lee to undergo a strong attack of emotional pain. In an attempt to stop his projecting his emotions, Lee sneaks out of her hospital room and goes to Buddy’s room.

Things change almost immediately at that point, as we realize that Delany is equally-capable of writing tender emotions as he is strong and violent ones. The ending of “Corona” was so touching that this is one of the finest short stories I have read in a long time.

The other impressive short was “Ruins,” which read like a rift on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, a tale of a thief who discovers an ancient city filled with treasures, and the lone woman who inhabits it. But the ending is much different than I expected, and more moving than sword-and-sorcery usually delivers.

Other short stories were slighter fun. “Prismatica” was a fantasy which reminded me of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It involves a young roustabout named Amos who is hired by an evil ship captain to seek the three broken portions of a magical mirror. Along the way he meets a captive of the captain who claims to be a prince who originally owned the ship until it was stolen by the current captain. It was a fun story about clever heroes using their wits to obtain the mirror portions.

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is a romp about a small-time crook who is friendly with one of New York City’s official Singers (a combination celebrity, entertainer, icon) who is harassed by the police department’s Special Services which only seeks to arrest small-time crooks on their way up to becoming major mobsters. Later the protagonist comes into a horde of valuable stones which he arranges to sell to a major mobster named the Hawk (as opposed to the Singer friend named simply Hawk) at a posh uptown party. Nothing much else happens, and the story combines NYC grittiness with overlays of space and near-future furniture in a story which is frothy fun compared to the denser Empire Star and “Corona.”

The concluding story is the well-known “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” which was a tribute to Roger Zelazny with a dedication in the beginning and an antagonist whose name was Roger “followed by something Polish and unpronounceable that began with Z and ended in Y.” This had been one of my two favorite stories in Driftglass, and I wondered if it held up well. Happily, it did, reading like a well-done Zelazny story, which is a very good thing considering that at the time the story was written–late 1960s–both Delany and Zelazny were writing their most stunning science fiction.

The story tells of a future in which global power lines provide nearly every need humans have so that famine, disease, poverty and war have basically been exterminated. By law, every human must have access to the power lines, which causes a problem when a traveling work crew–who live in a mechanical Gila Monster–learn of a small group living on the American-Canadian border. They are the remnants of a turn-of-the-21st-century motorcycle gang, but are now only 20+ members led by Roger. They live a primitive lifestyle, cooking their food over open firepits, and eschewing most, although definitely not all, modern conveniences. They consider the crew intending to lay power lines a threat to their way of life.

The protagonist is Blacky, who establishes a rapport with Roger and begins to understand the latter’s point of view. But Blacky is only second-in-command of the crew (although he is actually equal leader with Mabel, she has 21 years of experience while he has only been appointed a “crew devil” recently, so he accedes to her wishes), so when Mabel decides the law is more important than the rebels’ wishes, a power struggle commences between Roger and Blacky.

“Lines of Power” (the story’s abbreviated title when it appeared in F&SF) is not as rich a portrait of the future as other Delany stories, but Blacky is more nuanced and less a stereotypical rebel than other Delany protagonists. The story itself is also simpler, more straightforward plotting than nearly any other Delany story I can recall. In spite of that, or perhaps partly because of that, it is one of his finest stories, a fitting conclusion to a very strong collection.

If you do not have copies of either Empire Star or “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” then you definitely need to find a copy of Distant Stars. Reading it, you will see that both Cyberpunk and New Space Opera were direct descendants of Samuel R. Delany’s 1960s writings.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Empire Star

The late 1960s were my “Golden Age” of science fiction, and I discovered most of my favorite writers during that era: Robert Silverberg, Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Ursula K Le Guin, and the subject of this review, Samuel R. Delany. Delany has published the least f&sf of anybody on this list, but because of that his average quality has probably been higher than any of the above authors. I bought his first collection Driftglass in 1973, and loved it. A decade later he published Distant Stars, which contained 4 of the same stories, the short novel Empire Star, and several other then-recent stories. Because of the overlap, I did not buy it, a serious gap in my collection which I have recently rectified.

Empire Star is a major story which was originally published as half of an Ace Double, although I first bought it was one-third of an Ace book with the title The Ace Science Fiction Reader, along with Jack Vance’s “The Last Castle” and Clifford D. Simak’s “The Trouble With Tycho.” While that book is one of the highlights of my collection, I am pleased to finally have a copy of Delany’s book in his portion of my bookshelf.

Empire Star is the story of Comet Jo, a “simplex” youth living on a world which enjoys few, if any, of the technological advancements of the rest of the settled galaxy. He happens to be the only human nearby when a spaceship crashes, killing its two crewmembers, but not before one of them morphs into its crystalized jewel form, and the other instructs Comet Jo to take the jewel and an important message to Empire Star, but does not tell him what the message is.

Jo has no idea what those instructions mean, so he contacts his friend at the spaceport who has a “complex” mind with both knowledge and understanding of the rest of the galaxy. She sends him on a spaceship with his Jewel and devil-kitten Di’k (which has eight legs and horns) with the eventual goal of reaching Empire Star.

Aboard ship, Comet Jo becomes the protegé of San Severina who is transporting her group of nonhuman slaves to a group of devastated worlds which have been destroyed in wars and which the slaves will rebuild for her. The slaves–called Rll–are one of two thematic hearts of the story. For their own protection, they have been altered to emit protective pheromones which cause anybody near them to feel incredibly sad. Their owner, San Severina, feels even sadder from the moment she obtains them. Since she owns an unheard-of seven Rlls, she feels exponentially sadder to the seventh power than other owners of a single Rll would feel.

The other thematic heart of the story is Comet Jo’s growth from a simplex person to a complex person and, eventually, to a multiplex person questioning and understanding the world from many viewpoints. Since Delany always loves to play with story structure, the plot of Empire Star itself grows from simplex (a boy with a message to deliver tries to find his way to Empire Star) to complex (as he learns gradually about the message and the nature of the jewel) to multiplex (in a climax which springs from prior events in the story while simultaneously twisting them in various ways).

Empire Star was a grand story for its structure, its characters, and its color, a reminder of what a fabulous storyteller Samuel R Delany was, and how he was able to update pulpy old space operas into a rich, dynamic form . He also developed most of the machinery of cyberpunk in a far future which is much more interesting than the near future which dominated sf twenty years later. If you have never read this story, I strong suggest you find a copy of it somewhere and see what the quality of science fiction can be in the hands of a true master.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Phases of the Moon, part 2

In The Seventies we encounter “Capricorn Games,” which was a disappointment. Silverberg called this story one of his personal favorites, but it never really struck a chord with me. A rich, bored woman encounters an immortal at a party who announces that at the forthcoming new year he will select a handful of people who will receive immortality from him. Obviously the protagonist is anxious to be included in that group, but after a telepath at the party enables her to enter the immortal’s mind, she becomes disgusted by his extreme age and changes her mind. That’s it. No growth as I had expected in a Silverberg story of that era, on top of several unlikely premises strung together almost randomly.

In his introduction to “Capricorn Games,” Silverberg discusses how jaded he was becoming with writing science fiction, partly due to his extreme diligence the past decade, and partly due to the stresses in his own life at that time. He was growing bored with writing science fiction at the time, and that seemed to fill “Capricorn Games.” In the introduction to the next story, “Born With the Dead,” he tells how his personal trauma had grown so much worse that it took him nearly three months to finish the novella, while previously he had finished most of his novels in less than half that time. Under the circumstances, you might expect “Born With the Dead” to be similar to “Capricorn Games” in its lack of involvement, but somehow exactly the opposite occurred.

The protagonist Jorge is a recent widower, his dear wife Sybill having died three years earlier. But in this world, set twenty years in the future of the story’s publication, some dead people are revived in a state somewhere between that of the living (called “warms” in the story) and that of traditional fantasy zombies. They do not shuffle, they do not have hazy thoughts, but they are largely unemotional and choose to live mostly isolated from “warms”.

Jorge has mourned his wife’s death for three years, and has not yet fully-healed. So where normally he would have forcibly begun the process of healing emotionally, the fact that his wife has been reborn has caused him to become fixated on her, wanting desperately to rekindle some semblance of their former relationship. Sybill, however, is so unemotional that she has no interest in him, nor any desire to see him. But the more she rejects him, the more obsessed Jorge becomes, and each rejection only drives him more determinedly on. While his fixation is emotionally pathetic, a living reader can understand his obsession, and feel empathetic to his quest, futile though we know it is.

Where “Capricorn Days,” a story about the living, was cold and largely unemotional, “Born With the Dead,” a story about the dead, is emotionally-charged. The scenes of the dead on a safari shooting extinct animals is the most chilling, since the animals are, like their predators, revived in a way from the dead, only to become the prey of other dead. And whenever Jorge breaks one of society’s biggest taboos that the living avoid the dead who have no desire to intermingle with them, the story’s tension heightens.

This is a strong story with an inevitable conclusion, yet it succeeds well. Coming on the heels of two of Silverberg’s finest novels Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls (and he comments in his introduction on the pattern of death in all three stories, including their titles), it proves that even as he found himself pulling away from the science fiction field per se, his talents remained at their highest peak.

One other comment in the introduction to “Born With the Dead” seems worth mentioning. The story won a deserved Nebula Award, and was runner-up for the Hugo Award. That near double coup should have pleased the story’s author, but Silverberg was becoming more and more alienated from the science fiction field. He first rose to prominence during the New Wave period during which a handful of sf writers had tried to move the genre away from its pulp roots in the direction of more literary fiction. The early-to-mid 1970s saw a resurgence of traditional sf, adventure fiction and space operas, a trend which became overwhelming when Star Wars burst into the public consciousness a few years later. Like Silverberg, I was very disappointed in this turning away from the advancements of the past decade, and at the time I considered most of the 1970s sf inferior to that of the 1960s. Silverberg’s disillusionment combined with his being burnt out for several reasons, so he saw the Hugo runner-up for “Born With the Dead” as a rejection of his type of science fiction by the genre readership, advancing his growing alienation from them. At this point, it is not surprising that his second retirement from the field lay only a few years ahead.

Knowing all this, it is easy to read “Schwartz Between the Galaxy” as autobiographical. Its protagonist is growing increasingly disillusioned with the homogeneity of Earth’s cultures, dreaming of riding on a gigantic spaceship filled with diverse alien races, as he becomes increasingly distressed and dominated by emotional turmoil. It was a strong story then, and perhaps a stronger story in its position in Phases of the Moon, serving as a coda to Robert Silverberg’s personal Golden Years as a writer of science fiction.

In 1979 Silverberg returned triumphantly to science fiction with the publication of Lord Valentine’s Castle. In many ways it harkened back to a simpler Silverberg, less composed of interior monologue and growth in favor of traditional storytelling. At the time I recall thinking the novel might have been influenced by the recent republication of several 1950s Silverberg Ace Doubles in solo form, which might have elicited some fond memories in him of when writing was pure pleasure and science fiction was a joy rather than a chore. While I still do not know if that opinion is true or not, there was surely more pure fun in 1980s Silverberg science fiction than there was in most of his 1970s output.

The first story in The Eighties shows that. “The Far Side of the Bell Curve” is a pure romp as its two characters jaunt through history, visiting famous event after famous event, seeing such notables as Shakespeare, Robespierre, Charlemagne, Kublai Khan, a history lover’s delight. The story also drips love of culture in its fictional references, and was an absolute delight to read. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of Silverberg’s earlier time travel romp, the 1969 novel Up the Line. If nothing else, this story on the heels of Lord Valentine’s Castle seems proof that Silverberg had indeed returned to writing and his talent was no worse the wear for his angst-driving retirement.

“The Pope of the Chimps” is a very atypical Silverberg story. It reminded me of one of Greg Benford’s stories about the workings of modern scientists. It tells the story of scientists working with a group of chimpanzees who communicate together via sign language. These studies have been going on for several chimp generations, so the chimps are getting progressively brighter each generation.

Although chimps have died during the studies, they have no knowledge that humans are also mortal, until one scientist develops leukemia and uses the opportunity to show the chimps the gradual decay and dying of a human. This has profound effects on the chimpanzees, as indicated by the story’s title, but what they choose to do with their newly-developed religion is very disturbing and leaves the scientists in a dilemma both practical and philosophical. A very thought-provoking story.

“Needle in a Timestack” is another time travel romp. A malicious time traveler changes the past life of the protagonist repeatedly with the goal of eventually winning his wife for himself. Nothing too profound, but fun stuff.

Which brings us to “Sailing to Byzantium,” a story of which Silverberg is justifiably proud. What he has accomplished in this novella is a full-scale historical epic a la Cecil B. DeMille but in print and at considerably shorter length, an astounding feat. It tells the story of a contemporary man who is somehow whisked millennia into the future when Earth is sparsely-populated by immortals who spend most of their time recreating 5 historical cities in random sequence and exploring them at length. Silverberg delights with travelogues to Alexandria, Mohenjo-Daro, and a futuristic New Chicago, all of which were absolutely delightful and worthwhile in themselves. But it is also an emotional story about the relationship between the contemporary Charles Phillips (ironically the name of my father-in-law) and the future Gioia, and their evolving relationship which is based somewhat on their differences, not only from each other, but from the other immortals. This story ranks with “Nightwings” as one of Silverberg’s finest stories, as well as one of the most evocative sf stories I have ever read.

The last story in this section has the unwieldy title “Enter A Soldier. Later: Enter Another.” Silverberg’s introduction explains how he wrote it as the opening story in a “shared world” series which was devoted to pairs of historical personages having dialogues. This story shows the science behind the pairings, and matches the conqueror Pizarro versus the philosopher Socrates. The story is cute, and their interaction is interesting, but as a story it never really struck me as more than a well-done curiosity.

Which brings us to The Nineties. Silverberg spent a lot of time in his introductions discussing his reduced production the past 20 years, and only 5 stories represent the recent two decades, while he selected18 from the first 4. However, there has been no noticeable lack of quality in the recent stories, so while he might be semi-retired, he has matured nicely from young turk to grand master. “Hunters in the Night” is a brief but interesting story about a time traveler who visits the Cretaceous age with hopes of encountering danger and jolting himself out of his too-comfortable life. While there he meets another time-traveler who has abandoned her vehicle with the intention of living in the age of dinosaurs permanently, and who encourages Mallory to do the same. This is an interesting look at a man from a privileged existence who claims to want to live dangerously, and how he faces the ultimate offer to do so.

“Death Do Us Part” is one of Silverberg’s frequent musings on life and death in the form of a thirtyish woman’s marriage to a three-hundred year old near-immortal. The story’s main concern is the woman’s dealing emotionally with a husband who is so much older than she is and who has seen and done so many things in his centuries of life that she feels like a mere child by comparison. This is one of Silverberg’s stronger character studies, and while it is told exclusively from the point of view of the woman, he also shows us some of the emotional trauma the husband undergoes because his wife is so much younger than he is. In some ways this story is a counterpoint to the earlier “Sailing to Byzantium” and it might have been more thought-provoking because of its emotional similarities to the earlier story.

The last story from this decade was “Beauty in the Night,” which was one of several stories Silverberg carved out of his novel The Alien Years, which I reviewed in 2008 and called middle-level Silverberg, not one of his major novels (which differs from the author’s opinion, since he calls it “one of the most successful novels” of his post-retirement period). This small excerpt is an interesting look at life on Earth under the heels of an alien conqueror, more interesting as a character study than as part of the bigger novel.

Finally we go to The 2000s and “The Millennium Express,” a story set in the year 2999 when cloned versions of Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway are international terrorists determined to destroy all cultural vestiges of the past. A police investigator follows them around the world as they blow up the Washington Monument, Mount Vesuvius, the Sistine Chapel, and many more famous monuments, until he finally confronts them as they are plotting to destroy the Louvre. Other than the illogic of his watching them destroy a good number of the world’s artistic heritage before trying to stop them, the story’s eventual theme is questioning whether humans can actually progress culturally or artistically living in a perfectly safe, perfectly comfortable environment, or whether progress is innately connected to chaos. I have actually considered this question myself and have wondered is there a perfect balance between comfort and growth, something which Silverberg himself considers in this story as well.

The last story in the book is “With Caesar in the Underworld,” one of his Roma Eterna series, which shows one of the crucial points of divergence from our history. It is set during the mid-6th century (our calendar) when barbarians are threatening on the northern borders of the western Roman Empire, but Emperor Maximilianus is old and dying, and neither of his two sons seems qualified to assume the throne and fight back the expected barbarians incursion. An emissary of Justinianus, the Eastern Emperor, has recently arrived in Rome to negotiate the marriage of Maximilianus’ older son with Justinianus’ younger sister, in return for which the Eastern emperor is expected to send troops to aid in the defeat of the barbarians.

Much of the story centers around Faustus, a mid-level Roman official, who has been given the task of escorting the emissary while the older son has fled to his northern estate for hunting in lieu of his responsibility negotiating. In his place, the younger son, also named Maximilianus, a noted wastrel and party-goer, escorts Faustus and the emissary into Rome’s notorious underworld. On its surface the story seems like a travelogue into the seediest parts of early-medieval Rome, but beneath that it examines the transfer of power and how important a role the quirks of chance played in the survival of the Roman Empire. This is one of the finer stories in Silverberg’s last “novel” (although a mosaic novel), and a fitting capstone for his entire collection.

Some final observations on Phases of the Moon. This is definitely a major collection, one of the handful of finest single-author collections I have ever read. It shows one of my favorite sf writers at the top of his form, but it also shows his growth and maturing through the decades. The story introductions are very extensive, and serve as a mini-autobiography of Robert Silverberg, which themselves are very interesting. I recommend this book very highly, even for readers such as myself who have most of Silverberg’s output over the decades. I am sure even such readers will find some undiscovered gems in addition to the biographical material.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Hugo Award observations

As usual, there has been much discussion about the recent Hugo Awards and, also as usual, I have my own observations about them. The Best Novel win is not particularly surprising as a battle of the Nei[a]ls. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book were the heavy favorites in this category, in spite of the fact that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother easily had the most nominations. The group of fans who nominate for the Hugos are not the same group who vote for the winner, and it is easier for a core group of fanatics to nominate their favorite author than it is to actually win the award. Thus John Scalzi and Charles Stross make the ballot virtually each year, but neither has the broad support to actually be contenders in this category.

I think two factors led to Gaiman’s surprisingly easy win: his novel is considerably more accessible to the typical reader, and his personality makes him a more popular person than Stephenson. Those are two important factors in the annual Best Novel race, perhaps the most important factors, and so while Stephenson's was far and away the most critically-acclaimed novel of the year, it had many detractors as well, while Gaiman’s novel appealed to practically everybody.

It is also important to consider the popularity of fantasy versus science fiction nowadays. The fact that the number of fantasy books being published almost outnumber the number of sf books two-to-one nowadays indicates the popularity of the genre, and that is seemingly reflected in the Hugo voting as well. In this decade, there have been 9 Hugo Award Best Novel winners, 5 of them outright fantasies (The Graveyard Book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Paladin of Souls, American Gods and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), while only 3 have been outright sf (Rainbows End, Spin and Hominids) and one (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) was a noir alternate history which could easily fall into either the fantasy or sf category.

There were no surprises at all in the short fiction categories, which itself I found surprising in a convention held outside the United States, since the most unexpected winners usually come in other countries. Nancy Kress (Best Novella “The Erdmann Nexus”), Elizabeth Bear (Best Novelette “Shoggoths in Bloom”) and Ted Chiang (Best Short Story “Exhalation”) are all repeat winners, the latter two having now won in consecutive years. I thought the out-of-country location of the worldcon might lend itself to a slightly out-of-the-mainstream winner such as John Kessel’s acclaimed “Pride and Prometheus” (which did manage a second place finish for Best Novelette).

Much of the discussion following the worldcon has centered on the Fan Awards, but my philosophy has always been that diversity in those winners is definitely a very good thing. While such perennial winners as Locus, Dave Langford, and File 770 are surely the most popular entries in their categories (and arguably the best as well), is it necessary to remind fandom of that year after year after year? I was actually pleased at the number of winners this year who asked their names to be withdrawn from their categories next year. It is a good trend. Quite frankly, I read neither Electric Velocipede nor Weird Tales, so I do not know if they are really the best fanzine and semi-prozine respectively, but their wins do open up the categories for other potential nominees in the future, and that is a good thing.

Of course, there is no guarantee that this diversity will continue when the worldcon returns to the United States, but since it seems to be held outside this country one year out of three, occasional diversity is better than none at all.