Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

There is probably nothing more difficult in writing than following a classic, and I can cite numerous examples where the author’s next work, although good objectively, still suffered by comparison to the previous one: China Miéville’s The Scar (following Perdito Street Station), Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness (following Lord of Light), Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (following Nova), Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (first “adult” novel following The Left Hand of Darkness), and the list goes on...

An even more difficult challenge for an author is writing a direct sequel to a classic novel, because then he or she is not only competing with greatness, but trying to “continue” it to some extent. I enjoyed Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, but it was nowhere near the quality of Dune. Philip José Farmer pulled off a rare near-coup in that The Fabulous Riverboat was very nearly the equal of To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

And then along comes Frederik Pohl, a journeyman writer in the 1970s best known for his 1950s collaborative novels with Cyril M. Kornbluth whom many readers assumed was the “senior” member of their writing partnership. Pohl’s main acclaim was as an editor, first of the seminal original anthology series Star Science Fiction in the 1950s, and then as editor in the 1960s of the Galaxy stable of magazines: Galaxy, Worlds of IF and Worlds of Tomorrow.

So when he decided to retire as prozine editor after Galaxy was sold in 1969 and return to fulltime writing, few people had particularly high hopes for his fiction. His first splash was with the novella “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and the short story “Shafferty Among the Immortals” in 1972, followed by a surprising Nebula Award for his novel Man Plus in 1976. But what really blew the socks off sf fandom was the serial Gateway in Galaxy Magazine in late 1976. It swept all the major awards and was instantly considered a classic, an opinion I agreed with since I selected it as my favorite novel of the 1970s.

But Gateway was not a singleton. It was a sequel to the very good novella “The Merchants of Venus,” which was published in 1972 but was largely lost among the acclaim for “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and “Shafferty Among the Immortals.” What Pohl had in mind though was even more stories and novels which would continue the story of the quest to find the missing Heechee.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon was the direct sequel to Gateway, and it is actually a very fine novel. Its primary concern is an expedition to a Heechee artifact orbiting slowly at the edge of the solar system which produces enough food to virtually end poverty on Earth, except its discoverers cannot figure out how to move the artifact out of its orbit and bring it to Earth. They also encounter a boy Wan who lives in another Heechee artifact where he is advised by the minds of former Gateway explorers, one of whom was apparently his mother.

This is a considerably faster-paced novel than Gateway, and it features a somewhat more-mature Robin Broadhead, who was the protagonist of the former novel. There are political and personal tribulations in addition to the mission of exploration, as well as alien beings who might or might not be the Heechee. It all comes to a very satisfying conclusion. What is most fascinating about the novel though is that the search for the Heechee actually succeeds, and while the secret is held out until the very last pages of the book, there is still the novel’s title to consider.

If you have not read Gateway yet, then you definitely should. And once you are finished reading it, you can do a lot worse than reading Beyond the Blue Event Horizon soon afterwards.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Best Science Fiction of the Decade

This is the fifth time I’ve picked my favorite books of the preceding decade, and I cannot help but wonder how many more chances I will have to do so in the future? Twice more? Three times perhaps? Scary thoughts.

Before I begin, here is a brief review of my selections from past decades:

The 1960s:
Best Novel: Lord of Light / Roger Zelazny
Best Short Fiction: The Star Pit / Samuel R. Delany
Favorite Authors: Samuel R. Delany / Robert Silverberg / Clifford D. Simak / Jack Vance / Roger Zelazny

The 1970s:
Best Novel: Gateway / Frederik Pohl
Best Short Fiction: The Girl Who Was Plugged In / James Tiptree Jr.
Favorite Authors: Michael Bishop / C.J. Cherryh / George R.R. Martin / Robert Silverberg / John Varley

The 1980s:
Best Novel: No Enemy But Time / Michael Bishop
Best Short Fiction: Her Habiline Husband / Michael Bishop
Favorite Authors: Michael Bishop / Marion Zimmer Bradley / Orson Scott Card / George R.R. Martin / Kim Stanley Robinson

The 1990s:
Best F&SF Novel: Brittle Innings / Michael Bishop
Best Historical Fiction: Stones From the River / Ursula Hegi
Best Short Fiction: Story of Your Life / Ted Chiang
Favorite Authors: Michael Bishop / Andrea Barrett / Toni Morrison / Kim Stanley Robinson

Those were merely the crême de la crême of the previous decades. Here are my complete selections of the favorite books I read (not which were necessarily published) in the 2000s. The selection in boldface is my overall favorite work in each category:

Best F&SF Novels:
Look to Windward/ Iain M. Banks
Resplendent / Stephen Baxter
The Etched City / K.J. Bishop
The Last Light of the Sun / Guy Gavriel Kay
Seeker / Jack McDevitt
Perdido Street Station / China Miéville
The Shadow Year/ Jeffrey Ford

Best Historical Fiction:
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay / Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon
The Time It Never Rained / Elmer Kelton
An Instance of the Fingerpost / Iain Pears
The Dream of Scipio / Iain Pears
The Judgment of Caesar/ Steven Saylor

Best Short Fiction:
The Potter of Bones / Eleanor Arnason
The Fluted Girl / Paolo Bacigalupi
The Chop Line / Stephen Baxter
The Rabbi’s Holiday / Peter Beagle
Hell is the Absence of God / Ted Chiang
The Empire of Ice Cream / Jeffrey Ford
The Cosmology of the Wider World / Jeffrey Ford
Good Mountain / Robert Reed
Zima Blue / Alastair Reynolds

Favorite Authors:
Stephen Baxter / Michael Chabon / Jeffrey Ford / Jack McDevitt / Iain Pears / Steven Saylor

Of the 16 f&sf selections, 8 are sf and 8 are fantasy, which surprised me somewhat since I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy. Overall, this was a good decade for fiction, although it was a bit harder seeking out the best short fiction since I read few prozines the past decade years than anytime since I became a fan of f&sf in the early 1960s.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Recently I received in the mail 17 issues of Worlds of IF, all published from 1952 through 1961. I have the complete run of the magazines from 1962 through its demise in 1974, and it is one of my favorite fiction magazines ever (along with Galaxy of which I have the complete run from 1950 through 1980). I currently have slightly more than 1,200 issues of fiction magazine, nearly all of them science fiction magazines. The exceptions are 16 issues of fantasy magazines and 17 issues of Chinese Literature. In some ways I prefer reading fiction magazines and fiction anthologies than I do novels, which tend to be bloated rather than concise. Here are the magazines of which I have the most issues in my collection:

Fantasy & Science Fiction / 1969 - current / 407 issues
Galaxy / 1950 - 1980 / 247 issues
Asimov’s / 1977 - 2008 / 207 issues
Worlds of IF / 1952 - 1974 / 148 issues
Analog / 1967 - 1986 / 56 issues
Worlds of Tomorrow / 1963 - 1971 / 26 issues
Ultimate reprint titles / various dates / 22 issues
Amazing / 1957 - 1983 / 21 issues
Tomorrow / #1 - 19 / 19 issues
Chinese Literature / 1993 - 2000 / 17 issues
Science Fiction Age / 1992 - 1996 / 13 issues
Postscripts / #1-8 / 8 issues
Realms of Fantasy / 1994 - 1995 / 6 issues
Interzone / various dates / 5 issues
Paradox / various dates / 5 issues
Venture / 1969- 1970 / 5 issues

And here are the series of anthologies which I have the most volumes of:

Dozois, Gardner (ed) / The Year’s Best Science Fiction / 25 volumes
various editors / Nebula Award Stories / 19 volumes
Carr, Terry (ed) / The Best Science Fiction of the Year / 15 volumes
Carr, Terry (ed) / Universe / 14 volumes
Asimov & Greenberg (ed) / Science Fiction: The Great Years / 13 volumes
Silverberg, Robert (ed.) / Alpha / 9 volumes
Carr & Wollheim (ed) / Year’s Best Science Fiction / 7 volumes
Knight, Damon (ed) / Orbit / 7 volumes
Silverberg, Robert (ed) / New Dimensions / 5 volumes
Asimov, Isaac (ed) / The Hugo Winners / 4 volumes
Asimov & Greenberg (ed) / Short Novels of the Decade / 4 volumes
Strahan, Jonathan (ed) / Best Short Novels / 4 volumes

Sunday, November 08, 2009


My friend George reads a lot of science fiction, and we have regular discussions about the genre. Ironically, he is the only friend I have ever had that I can share my love of sf with, and I hope I do not lose touch with him after I retire at the end of this year.

Recently he was raving about how much he loved the Gateway trilogy: Gateway, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, and Heechee Rendezvous. I told him in reply that Gateway was one of my favorite sf novels ever (I picked it as my best novel of the 1970s), but that I had never read the concluding novel in the series, nor any of the three follow-up books (Annals of the Heechee–a fairly universally-disliked book–and the two collections of Heechee stories, The Gateway Trip–which includes “The Merchants of Venus,” the first Heechee story I ever read, and a very fine one at that–and The Boy Who Would Live Forever).

The next day in my mailbox was a paperback copy of Heechee Rendezvous, so I decided this was as good a time as any to read the entire trilogy. I actually read Gateway twice, first in serial form in Galaxy Magazine (one of the last great stories in it before it totally fell apart after Jim Baen quit as editor), then again a few years later when the paperback version came out. But while my memory of the book still considers it a masterpiece, we all know how thirty+ year old memories have a way of letting us down.

Fortunately, Gateway held up very well. The novel has two simultaneous storylines: one of them tells about Robinette Broadhead’s weekly trips to a psychiatrist to deal with his depression. Gradually, his discussions with the psychiatrist–which is a machine–reveal that he is repressing some deep secret from his past, and that it likely has something to do with the time he spent at Gateway.

Gateway is an asteroid which was hollowed out millennia ago by the mysterious race known as the Heechee, and then filled with survey ships. Humans have not yet learned much about either the survey ships or the Heechee, except how to launch a ship. Volunteers then go in the ships to wherever they are programmed to go. If they are very lucky, they discover some ancient Heechee artifacts for which they are paid generously, but those are rare instances. In the majority of instances, they either return empty-handed or, a large percentage of the time, die.

So Gateway mostly attracts the down-and-out, people unable to succeed either on Earth or Venus, and whose desperation takes them to a place where they are more likely to die than to get rich. Such as Broadhead. Soon after he reaches Gateway, his fear of death holds him back from actually signing up for a survey ship for a long while, but we still follow his interactions with other gold-diggers, as well as his exploration of Gateway itself.

Gateway is an intriguing place. Broadhead’s time there is fascinating, and many of its inhabitants truly come to life. The survey trips, both Broadhead's and those of others, are also fascinating. Pohl has successfully created a locale which is rich in sense of wonder, yet a launching site for a gripping yarn. The scenes between Broadhead and the psychiatrist are also interesting and form a very involving mystery.

After thirty years, I still recommend Gateway highly, and still consider it one of the finest sf novels I have ever read.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Dark Heaven

Before the Science Fiction Book Club fell victim to a “re-organization” by their new owners a few years ago, assistant editor Andrew Wheeler was publishing a series of original collections of novellas that contained some of the best stuff being published at the time. They included four volumes of Jonathan Strahan’s Best Short Novels as well as such original novella collections as Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds, Gardner Dozois’ One Million A.D. and Galactic Empires, Marvin Kaye’s Forbidden Planets and Mike Resnick’s Down These Dark Spaceways and Alien Crimes. For some reason, I bought the first 9 volumes in the series, but I never bought the last one, which is now unavailable through the club.

Fortunately, two of the stories in the book are available in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 25th annual collection, covering sf published in 2007, including Gregory Benford’s superb novella “Dark Heaven.” This story impressed me in several ways.

The story is a noir mystery featuring a hard-boiled Louisiana detective named McKenna investigating a series of drownings which have all the earmarks of homicide, including mysterious marks on the arms of the victims. The fact that two such drownings occur within a few days of each other push the deaths past coincidence into probable murders. But there is so little evidence that McKenna seems to be spinning his wheels futily as his superiors wait impatiently for him to turn his attention to other crimes awaiting resolution.

In the background of “Dark Heaven” are a race of aliens who have come to Earth and established a basehead on an island near the murders, totally isolated by federal agents who pretty much bully anybody who dares to come near them, including local police investigating crimes. At first, the aliens seem to be mostly background, the sfnal ingredient in the story but, knowing Benford’s fiction, I knew that would not last for long.

I won’t say much more about the story without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that both the mystery aspect and the sf aspect were well-thought out and very successful. "Dark Heaven" certainly encouraged me to go read some more Benford sf. My collection of Benford books is weaker than it should be, consisting of his Galactic Cluster series and three other novels (including the fabulous Timescape). Whenever I get back to actually buying some more sf books, Benford’s stuff should percolate to the top of the list.