Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Eclipse Two

I have always enjoyed original anthologies series, having been a faithful reader of Orbit, Universe and New Dimensions during the height of such series in the 1970s. Two years ago I bought George Mann’s Solaris Book of New Science Fiction and enjoyed it enough that I plan to continue the series.

When Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse One was published a year ago, I did not buy it for two reasons. First, the reviews indicated it was heavily fantasy-oriented rather than science fiction, and I am not so much a fantasy fan as an sf fan. Second, while I share much of Strahan’s taste in fiction, he is much more likely to be enamored by a story which is primarily surface flash and clever writing than I am, so that each of his Best Short Novels volumes contained a few such stories. So those two facts made me wonder how much I would actually enjoy in Eclipse One.

Eclipse Two, however, had a considerably higher percentage of science fiction stories, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, my reaction to the book is mostly positive. Strahan manages to get stories from some of the biggest names in f&sf and, not surprisingly, they provided most of the book’s highlights.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” is a SETI story set around two brothers’ sibling rivalry. One brother Wilson is part of a project set on the far side of the moon which has received a one-second message six thousand light years away near the core of the galaxy. The message is repeated once a year, as if it were being sent by a rotating lighthouse-type signal. But in that second is compressed more data than the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

The storyline about the signal is Baxter’s strength as a writer, scientific extrapolation which blends into philosophical extrapolation. The pinnacle of the story takes place in the passage

We don’t know anything about what they look like, how they live–or even if they’re corporeal of not. But they are old, vastly old compared to us. Their cultural records go back a million years, maybe ten times as long as we’ve been human...But they regard themselves as a young species. They live in awe of older ones whose presence they have glimpsed deep in the turbulent core of the galaxy.

If that paragraph excites your sense of wonder, then Baxter is the writer for you. While personal interactions are his weakness, the brothers’ sibling rivalry does not interfere with the thought processes at the heart of the story.

An Alastair Reynolds story is generally part police-procedural and part human interest story, and “Fury” is both. Mercurio is the security expert for an emperor who has ruled all the colonized worlds in the galaxy for tens of thousands of years. So when an assassin inside his own palace shoots him through the head, it assassinates his body, but his mind is quickly downloaded into one of dozens of available replacements.

However, investigation of the assassination attempt soon indicates that the bullet had the potential of being lethal to both emperor and body, but was not used so. Obviously, Mercurio is anxious as to why the assassin would commit such a half-hearted murder and sets out across the galaxy to learn why. What he uncovers is totally unexpected, and raises ethical issues which Mercurio must deal with. The story raises the question of how much punishment for an evil deed is just, especially when that punishment might causes repercussions far worse than the original evil act. And is there a statute of limitations not on legality but on justice and morality?

“Fury” is a more thought-provoking story than usual for Reynolds, almost slipping into Baxter territory, and still manages to include a satisfying ending.

Richard Parks usually writes fantasies set in the Far East, but “Skin Deep” is a rural tale about a young witch who, in addition to her herbs and medicinals, also has inherited from her grandmother four skins, each of which infuses the girl with the body and traits of its original owner, such as a worker and a soldier. But the girl has never worn the fourth skin sitting high on the top shelf, and she has no idea of its power even as it calls to her repeatedly to don it.

Several short stories are also enjoyable. Margo Lanagan’s “Night of the Firstlings” tells about a strange plague which strikes all the first-born sons of families, leading into a famous scenario climax. Nancy Kress’ “Elevator” is a Thomas Disch-like story about seven people trapped in a stalled elevator overnight, while one of them, a senile old lady, babbles comments which have particular resonance to each of the other people trapped with her.

Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” was a serious look at a robot who led a nation’s forces in war, and it was interesting more because Ford is an excellent writer rather than for the story itself. Ted Chiang’s “Exhalations” creates a fascinating world whose beings replace their lungs periodically when they run out of air. While the story is not as detailed as Chiang’s best stories, nor as outstanding as many critics have claimed, it is still a worthy addition to his slender group of superb stories.

And then I reached Peter Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby.” It began as a cute story about a 12-year old boy studying for his Bar Mitzvah with a rabbi, but the boy is not particularly thrilled about learning Hebrew, nor is he very good at it, while the rabbi is both patient and demanding. Then they both discover a thirty-year old magazine cover with a beach scene where off to the side of the scene a not-particularly-pretty girl strikes both their fancy.

Thus begins a mystery as the rabbi and boy try to learn the identity of that girl. They learn the name of the photographer and that he kept precise records of all his models, yet for some reason there are no records of the mysterious girl. Although the photographer is dead, they contact his daughter who gets drawn into the mystery and goes through her father’s records and contacts his friends, eventually finding another photograph with the same girl off to the side of the picture.

Do you ever read a story when abruptly halfway through it you realize that this story really appeals to you, that for some reason it has struck a particular emotional chord? That happens to me occasionally. In recent years I got that feeling from Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” and Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain.” I had it again with “The Rabbi’s Holiday”, beginning when the photographer’s daughter took a plane flight to bring the rabbi and the boy something special she had found. And the story continued on that high level the rest of the way. For me, at least, “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is worth the entire cost of the book.

As in previous Strahan volumes, I could not finish reading several of the stories in Eclipse Two, struggling through several pages before it became obvious that in those stories the medium was the entire message. Still, the good stories by Baxter, Reynolds, Park, Lanagan, Kress, Ford, Chiang, and, especially, Beagle made for a worthwhile volume, especially if you enjoy the wordplay stories as well.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tally of Hugo-Nebula nominations

This is a listing of f&sf writers by number of Hugo and Nebula nominations in fiction categories only. It is an interesting list with a few surprises on it, at least for me. While I expected Robert Silverberg to top the list, I did not expect Mike Resnick and Michael Swanwick to be among those tied for second place. I make no comment on how this list relates to an author’s relative talent.

Name / Total nominations

Robert Silverberg / 45
Connie Willis / 37
Ursula K Le Guin / 37
Mike Resnick / 37
Michael Swanwick / 37
Harlan Ellison / 33
Gene Wolfe / 30
George R. R. Martin / 29
Roger Zelazny / 28
Frederik Pohl / 28
Poul Anderson / 27
Larry Niven / 27
Fritz Leiber / 24
Orson Scott Card / 24
John Varley / 24
Kim Stanley Robinson / 24
Michael Bishop / 24
Bruce Sterling / 24
Nancy Kress / 23
Kate Wilhelm / 23
Lucius Shepard / 21
James Tiptree, Jr. / 19
Joe Haldeman / 18
Lois M Bujold / 18
Samuel R Delany / 18
James Patrick Kelly / 18
Greg Bear / 17
Jack McDevitt / 17
Greg Benford / 16
Gardner Dozois / 16
Howard Waldrop / 16
David Brin / 15
Walter Jon Williams / 15
Isaac Asimov / 14
Robert A Heinlein / 14
Clifford D. Simak / 14
William Gibson / 14
Robert Sawyer / 14
Jack Dann / 14
Vernor Vinge / 13
Vonda N. McIntyre / 13
Michael Burstein / 13
Terry Bisson / 12
Geoffrey A. Landis / 12
George Alec Effinger / 12
Karen Joy Fowler / 12
Maureen McHugh / 12
Thomas M. Disch / 12
Joanna Russ / 11
John Kessel / 11
R.A. Lafferty / 11
Charles Stross / 11
Gordon R. Dickson / 10
Allen Steele / 10
Jerry Pournelle / 10

Here are the top nominees by award. First the Hugos...

Name / Total Hugo nominations
Mike Resnick / 26
Robert Silverberg / 23
Connie Willis / 23
Michael Swanwick / 21
Ursula K Le Guin / 20
Larry Niven / 19
Harlan Ellison / 18
George R. R. Martin / 16
Poul Anderson / 15
Orson Scott Card / 15
John Varley / 15
Roger Zelazny / 14
Fritz Leiber / 13
Kim Stanley Robinson / 13
Bruce Sterling / 13
David Brin / 12
Robert Sawyer / 11
Nancy Kress / 10
Lois M Bujold / 10
Michael Burstein / 10
Robert A Heinlein / 10
Clifford D. Simak / 10
Charles Stross / 10
James Tiptree, Jr. / 10

And next the Nebulas...

Name / Total Nebula nominations
Robert Silverberg / 22
Gene Wolfe / 21
Frederik Pohl / 19
Kate Wilhelm / 18
Ursula K Le Guin / 17
Michael Swanwick / 16
Michael Bishop / 15
Harlan Ellison / 15
Jack McDevitt / 15
Connie Willis / 14
Roger Zelazny / 14
Jack Dann / 13
Nancy Kress / 13
George R. R. Martin / 13
Lucius Shepard / 13
Poul Anderson / 12
Greg Benford / 12
Gardner Dozois / 11
Fritz Leiber / 11
Mike Resnick / 11
Kim Stanley Robinson / 11
Bruce Sterling / 11
Samuel R Delany / 10
Karen Joy Fowler / 10
Joe Haldeman / 10
James Patrick Kelly / 10
Walter Jon Williams / 10

Here is the ranking by total number of wins. Notice that Silverberg, the top nominee, is tied for 9th place here, while Poul Anderson and Joe Haldeman, who are among those tied for second most wins, are in 11th and 23rd place in nominations. Obviously the relationship between being nominated for a major f&sf award and winning one is a tenuous one.

Name / Total wins
Connie Willis / 16
Poul Anderson / 10
Harlan Ellison / 10
Joe Haldeman / 10
Ursula K Le Guin / 10
Fritz Leiber / 9
Roger Zelazny / 8
Lois M Bujold / 8
Robert Silverberg / 8

And finally here is the unfortunate list of the writers with the most nominations without any wins:

Name / Total nominationss
Michael Burstein / 13
Thomas M. Disch / 12
Jerry Pournelle / 10
Norman Spinrad / 9

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Anthologies and magazines

The past few years I have been compiling critics’ lists of the best f&sf books published during the previous year and ranking the works in order of how many lists they have made. In 2007 the top two vote-getters were Ian McDonald’s Brasyl and Patrick Ruthfuss’s The Name of the Wind. I have not finished compiling the 2008 books because lists are still being published on the internet, but there is no doubt the top two vote-getters by an overwhelming choice will be Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

The only Stephenson book I read was Crytonomicom, which I enjoyed a lot, but I shied away from his massive Baroque Trilogy because of its 3,000 page length. Anathem is short by comparison, barely 900 pages, so I’ll read it and, if it is nearly as good as many critics claim it is, I’ll take a serious look at the Baroque Trilogy.

Cory Doctorow is on the cutting edge of technology, and his fiction tends to be near-future techno stuff, but the few stories of his I’ve read in anthologies–with titles such as “I, Row-Boat” and “When Sysadmins Ruled the World”–were actually very enjoyable, so maybe Little Brother is good reading. Ironically, it was published as a young adult book, but no review has indicated there is anything juvenile about it except the youthful protagonists.


I have always enjoyed reading original anthologies. The 70s were the Golden Age of anthologies, both series such as Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, and also numerous collections of original novellas, many edited by Silverberg (Chains of the Sea, The Crystal Ship, The Day The Sun Stood Still, Three For Tomorrow, The Threads of Time, Triax, etc.). The current decade has seen a revival of such anthologies, including a series of annual one-shots edited by Peter Crowther (Forbidden Planets, Moon Shot, Mars Probe, etc.), another series of original anthologies, mostly published by the SF Book Club (Between Worlds, Forbidden Planets, One Million A.D.), and three original annual series (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann, Flash Forward, edited by Lou Anders and Eclipse, edited by Jonathan Strahan).

I have most of the original anthologies listed above, and I have enjoyed nearly all of them. Currently I am reading Eclipse 2 and so far it is very good as well. Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” was a typical Chiang story (which means very high-quality), and Karl Schroeder’s “Hero” was a good introduction to his Virga series. I don’t need to read much further to recommend the book, since upcoming are stories by such superstars as Stephen Baxter, Nancy Kress, Peter Beagle and Alastair Reynolds, but I’ll review the entire book as soon as I finish it.


Being a lover of history, I have sought out magazines devoted to history for many years. None of them have really satisfied my history craving though. History Magazine has no depth, too many very short articles, and lots of overview. Natural History is interesting, but it is primarily a science magazine which I grew tired of after a few years of reading it. Smithsonian has some fascinating history, but mingled with other articles which are not history-related at all. I’ve never read BBC History Magazine, but it does look fascinating and I might pick up an issue someday.

But the magazine which I do enjoy reading a lot is Archaeology Magazine. Granted its focus is as much on the discovery of history as on the history itself, but I enjoy its breadth of topics and its blending of past and present. The article I am reading currently discusses how the attempt by the Italians to build a subway system in Naples is being delayed interminably by the constant discovery of ancient ruins beneath the city, as well as discussion of the history being uncovered there. Good stuff.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

If I Selected the Hugo Awards

Several years ago, Richard Lupoff edited three volumes entitled What IF? whose premise was stories which were worthy of winning the short fiction Hugo Awards but did not do so. The books were most interesting for their great contents (Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Golden Helix,” Shirley Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,” Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” and Thomas Burnett Swann’s “Where Is the Bird of Fire?” are just a few of the stories included), but they also laid the groundwork for a lot of speculative thought.

Like most critics, I don’t agree with a lot of the selections the voters have made for the Hugo Awards. And why should I? Winners of awards are made for various reasons, not all of which have to do with the overall quality of the nominees. For example, the Australian voting system which distributes votes to the second, third, fourth and even fifth choices of most voters guarantees that hardly any voters’ first choice wins the Hugo Award. So the winner might actually represent the story which has actually alienated the least number of voters, rather than excited them.

And what about all the voters who select winners based on name recognition, choosing authors whose stories they have enjoyed in the past, or even authors whom they have met at previous worldcons and like personally? You think that is not an important factor? I do. Authors’ coattails can be an important factor too. Consider in the 1960s when Worlds of IF won three consecutive Hugo Awards as Best Prozine in spite of the fact that its companion magazine Galaxy was dominating the short fiction categories. So why did IF win instead of Galaxy? Because IF had the good fortune of publishing three Heinlein serials in that decade, and Heinlein’s children are about as loyal a group of fans as you will find in sf.

Anyway, I am not adverse to a bit of speculation myself, so here is my fantastic premise: What if the Hugo Awards were not voter-selected, but selected by committee, as the World Fantasy Awards are selected? I will allow the voters to select the nominees, but I will represent the committee in choosing one winner each year. Since nobody is on the awards selection committees every year, I will only choose a winner in years in which I actually attended the Worldcon.

1967 (Nycon III). This was my first convention at which I only spent a single day, driving into NYC to see what the heck a “Worldcon” was all about. The fiction winners were Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Jack Vance’s “The Last Castle,” and Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star.”

I have no problem with Vance or Niven, but much as I enjoyed Mistress, I thought two nominees far surpassed it in quality: Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 and Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon. Much as I loved early Delany, I will give the edge to Keyes’ masterwork as my choice.

1969 (St. Louiscon). I thought three of the nominees were deserving: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (although I personally preferred Delany’s Nova, objectively the two novels were both worthy), Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings” (one of my favorite all-time stories) and Poul Anderson’s “The Sharing of Flesh.”

But Harlan Ellison has a history of winning Hugo Awards for reasons of personal popularity and the fact that his over-the-top writing style appeals to many fans. “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” was not nearly as good a story as either Terry Carr’s “The Dance of the Changer and the Three" or Damon Knight’s “Masks.” Either one would be a worthy winner, so I will select “Masks.”

1971 (Noreascon I). Two good winners here: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Theodore Sturgeon’s “Slow Sculpture.” But Fritz Leiber won Best Novella for his sword-and-sorcery tale “Ill Met in Lankhmar” which, quite honestly, was enjoyable but nowhere near the top of his form. My choice among the nominees was Clifford D. Simak’s “The Thing in the Stone,” a much stronger, emotion-packed story.

1973 (Torcon II). Four good winners and one of the worst Hugo choices ever. The good ones were Ursula K Le Guin’s “The World For World is Forest,” Poul Anderson’s “Goat Song.” and a tie for Best Short Story between R.A. Lafferty’s “Eurema’s Dam” and Pohl & Kornbluth’s “The Meeting.”

But Isaac Asimov’s comeback novel The Gods Themselves won the Hugo Award, in my opinion, for a single reason: it was his return to science fiction after decades of writing only nonfiction, and the voters were so thrilled to have the good doctor back that they rewarded him in the only way they knew, give him a Hugo Award. Any of three nominees would have been a much more deserving winner: The Book of Skulls, by Robert Silverberg, A Choice of Gods, by Clifford D. Simak or Dying Inside, also by Robert Silverberg. Dying Inside was Silverberg’s masterpiece, and one of the most unfairly-unawarded novels in Hugo history. I select it happy for my imaginary Hugo Award.

1974 (Discon). One outstanding winner (James Tiptree’s masterpiece “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” which beat out two wonderful novellas by Michael Bishop, “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” and “The White Otters of Childhood”) and three so-so winners: Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird” and Ursula K Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, true evidence of the Hugo Awards’ predilection towards BIG NAME WRITERS.

Of the non-winners in those three categories, probably the most deserving were Poul Anderson’s novel The People of the Wind and Vonda N. McIntyre’s "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand." In a close choice, I’ll give the Hugo to Anderson.

1976 (MidAmericon). Unusually, I have no major gripes with any of the winners, JoeHaldeman’s The Forever War, Roger Zelazny’s “Home is the Hangman,” Larry Niven’s “The Borderland of Sol” and Fritz Leiber’s “Catch That Zeppelin!”. My gripe is with the fact that three of the novellas were slightly better than Zelazny’s winner (and it hurts me to admit that, since I really loved Zelazny’s fiction): The Custodians", by Richard Cowper, "The Silent Eyes of Time", by Algis Budrys and "The Storms of Windhaven", by Lisa Tuttle & George R.R. Martin. Probably the best of them was Cowper’s “The Custodians”, so give it the imaginary Hugo Award.

1980 (Noreascon II). This was my last worldcon, so this is the last time I’ll bug you with my Hugo choices (for now!). I actually disagreed with three of the Hugo winners, only agreeing with George R.R. Martin’s novelette “Sandkings.” I disagreed with Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (Clarke won more Hugo Awards for career recognition than any other author), Barry Longyear’s overemotional “Enemy Mine” and George R.R. Martin’s “The Way of Cross and Dragon.” Probably the two most sadly-overlooked nominees were John Varley’s Titan and “Options,” so I’ll give the Best Novel award to Varley for Titan.