Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 28, 2009


When Harry Harrison was selected as the next SFWA Nebula Grandmaster, my first thought was that he did not seem to have the credentials for such a status. In my column The Old Kit Bag for The Reluctant Famulus I decried Harrison being so honored instead of more deserving writers such as Greg Benford (16 Hugo and Nebula nominations, 2 wins), Michael Bishop (24 nominations, 2 wins), C.J. Cherryh (9 nominations; 3 wins), Samuel R. Delany (30 nominations, 6 wins), Joe Haldeman (17 nominations, 10 wins), George R.R. Martin (30 nominations, 6 wins), Larry Niven (27 nominations, 6 wins), John Varley (24 nominations, 5 wins), Kate Wilhelm (24 nominations, 5 wins) and Gene Wolfe (28 nominations, 2 wins).

I have always considered Harry Harrison a typical example of a “B” writer, whose fiction is enjoyable but not in the category of a Grandmaster. Other examples of “B” writers are Christopher Anvil, Chad Oliver, John Barnes, A. Bertram Chandler, Michael Coney, Suzette Haden Elgin, Randall Garrett, Keith Laumer, James H. Schmitz, Bob Shaw, James White, S.M. Stirling, and David Weber. Enjoyable work, but generally not the type of “A” material as can be expected by such grandmasters as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Simak, Norton, Bester, Silverberg, you get the idea.

My immediate second thought was that I had read less of Harrison’s fiction than of several other “B” writes listed above, most of it in Analog in the late 1960s when he was one of John W. Campbell’s stable of authors. Stories with titles such as “The Man From P.I.G.” and the serial The Horse Barbarians (which I believe became Deathworld 3 in book form). Enjoyable stuff, but not the type of fiction I would rave to my friends about.

To be fair though, I decided I should read more Harrison fiction, see if my impression of him based on a handful of Analog stories perhaps underrated him. People who responded to my column in TRF unfavorable mentioned such Harrison works as Make Room! Make Room! and his Deathworld series. Since both were currently available in the Science Fiction Book Club, I decided to read three Harrison novels and ordered Deathworld.

The first book, aptly entitled Deathworld 1, started out simply enough as the protagonist, a professional gambler Jason dinAlt, is basically forced by a man calling himself a planetary ambassador to win a billion credits which the man plans to use to buy weapons for the settlers on his planet to use against the native plant and animal life in their struggle to the death to survive on their adopted world. Initially the story is an easy-paced thriller which bore resemblances to Jack Vance’s Galactic Cluster stories. I anticipated this was how the entire novel would be, nor was I surprised when it sequéd into a Vance-like mystery as to why the nonintelligent life on a planet world is continually mutating into more deadly forms for the sole purpose of destroying the human inhabitants.

Unlike Vance to some extent though, the mystery was not just a thin hook to hang a planetary adventure on, but was the main focus of the novel, and a fairly interesting mystery at that. DinAlt dealt with the inhabitants of the deathworld’s only city as they were inundated with plant and animal attacks daily. He found a way to leave the city and contact the “grubbers,” whom the city dwellers considered savages who had somehow found a way to survive in the midst of the native life. DinAlt was surprised to find they were not savages at all, nor were they under attack, but instead had found a way to live peacefully alongside the native life whose only attacks were focused on the city dwellers.

While I enjoyed Deathworld 1, it was still a “B” novel which did not stand up to a lot of thought. How could a mere gambler suddenly become brilliant enough to determine the solution to the inhabitants’ endless war with the native life, when for generations they had not only been unable to reach any similar conclusions themselves, but had also devolved almost into fighting machines virtually unable to handle any thoughts not completely related to their survival? This was not a deep book, nor was it intended to be, but the type of light reading good for passing a few evenings after work is over. I recommend it to people looking for enjoyment on the level of Chandler/Schmitz/Laumer/White who will not be disappointed in it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some observations on the Hugo nominees

As usual, there were some nominations which pleased me, and some which I consider questionable.

In the Best Novel category, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow were three of the four most acclaimed f&sf novels of the year (along with Iain Banks’ Matter), so it is good to see they all made the Hugo ballot.

Charles Stross (Saturn's Children) and John Scalzi (Zoe's Tale) make the ballot every year without yet winning the award, which seems to indicate they both have a devoted core of followers who like and nominate whatever they write, but their overall popularity is not high enough to translate those nominations into an award. On my list of most acclaimed novels of the year, neither of these two novels even made the top 25 most recommended novels of 2008.

In the Best Novella category, Ian McDonald’s "The Tear" has been widely-acclaimed as the best novella of the year, so it would seem to be the favorite in this category. Ironically, when I reviewed Galactic Empires, that was the only story which I found mostly unreadable and, in fact, I abandoned it about 1/4 the way through it. Besides making the Hugo ballot, the story has been selected for several best-of-the-year volumes, so I guess I should try reading it again, hoping that after the first1/4 it gets better.

The other novella nominees included regulars Nancy Kress ("The Erdmann Nexus") and Robert Reed (“Truth”) as well as relative newcomers Charles Coleman Finlay ("The Political Prisoner") and Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow ("True Names"). While newcomers do win occasional Hugo Awards (such as Elizabeth Bear’s win last year for “Tideline” over a slew of big name authors, including Stephen Baxter and multiple winners Mike Resnick and Michael Swanwick), that was more the exception rather than the rule, so the latter authors might have to wait awhile before winning the award itself.

Overall, the short fiction nominees include 9 stories from the traditional prozines (7 from Asimov’s and 2 from what I consider the superior F&SF), 5 from original anthologies, four from continuing series (Eclipse, The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, and Fast Forward), one from one-shot Galactic Empires, and one from the online zine Baen's Universe. This differs from the best-of-the-year volumes which have been gradually leaning away from the traditional prozines and towards various small-press anthologies and online zines. I do not know whether this means the Hugo Award nominators are more conservative, or that the other outlets do not have audiences large enough to receive enough nominations. In any case, I wonder if the Hugo Awards are actually honoring the “best” stories of 2008 or just the best wide-spread stories?

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is an interesting group of nominees: Two incredibly popular super-hero movies (The Dark Knight and Iron Man) which are only f&sf peripherally; another popular movie which is more sfnal if less omnipresent when it was released (Hellboy II: The Golden Army), an audio group-novel by well-known f&sf writers (including the very popular John Scalzi and former nominees Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, and Tobias Buckell); and one of the most acclaimed sf movies of recent years, WALL-E. While I lean towards the latter nominee, its heavy competition might knock it out of the running.

I have always had issues with the “continuing” categories Best Editor--Short Form, Best Editor--Long Form, Best Professional Artist, Best Semi-Prozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist, since from the beginning the awards have tended to go to the same small handful of winners every year. While there are some fine nominees this year, there is not much difference in this year's ballot than those of recent years, so is there much chance the winners will not be repeats from past years as well? For what it’s worth, were I attending the worldcon in Montreal, my ballot would be topped with Gordon Van Gelder, Lou Anders, The New York Review of Science Fiction (I love Locus, but enough is enough!), Steven H Silver (because I favor sf reviews and criticism rather than faanish talk), Challenger (my choice as the best overall genzine), and Brad Foster (I know he won last year, but he does such excellent work, some of it for my own zine; is this bias? If so, I never claimed to be without sin myself).

Good luck to all the nominees!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Favorite F&SF Movies

I am not a huge movie fan, partly because I don’t have a lot of available time to watch them (without depleting my limited reading time), and partly because when I do watch them I rarely like them as much as I do a good book.

So when I was selecting my favorite f&sf movies recently (with the intention of perhaps watching them again sometime), the list was not a particularly long one. Not included on this list are animations or superhero movies which, in my opinion, are an entire different category (which might appear here at a later date). Here is my list in roughly descending order of favorites:

1 The Wizard of Oz
2 Groundhog Day
3 The Time Machine (1960)
4 Dark City
5 Blade Runner
6 Forbidden Planet
7 King Kong (1933)
8 2001: A Space Odyssey
9 Star Trek: First Contact
10 Dr. Strangelove
11 Frankenstein
12 A Clockwork Orange
13 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
14 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
15 War of the Worlds (1960)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

travel books and pulp adventures

I am a bit fan of history. Invariably, when I read a nonfiction book, it is history-related somehow. Travel books, in particular, are only as enjoyable for me as the amount of historical content they contain. My touchstone for travel books is H.V. Morton’s A Traveler in Rome whose main concern is discussing the historical background of each site Morton visited.

Tim Severin has a very good reputation as a travel writer, so I bought his book In Search of Robinson Crusoe which is not really a “search” for Crusoe himself–after all, how can you seek a purely fictional character?–but an investigation into similar shipwrecks and people trapped on deserted islands. Much of the book concerns pirates, as well as Severin’s own experiences in Nicaragua, and some of it, although not all, is fascinating reading. Severin tends to go on too long with a single topic, so that occasionally you wish one of his characters would get off the damned island! But overall, I am enjoying the book.

I’ve been catching up on some short fiction recently. The October-November 1999 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction had quite a few outstanding stories:

• Kate Wilhelm’s “The Happiest Day of Her Life” started out as a Connie Willis throwaway (I am not a big fan of Willis’ comedies) but sequed into an interesting story about how genetic mutations protect themselves.

• Ursula K Le Guin’s “Darkrose and Diamond” was a bittersweet Earthsea story which should appeal to all Le Guin fans (and which is in her book Tales of Earthsea).

• Robert Silverberg’s “A Hero of the Empire” is a portion of his fascinating alternate history Roma Eterna in which the Roman Empire in the West did not fall but remained intact until modern times.

• Lucius Shepard’s “Crocodile Rock” was a typical Shepard tale involving Third World culture and legend and a main character who gradually gets drawn into a situation far over his head.

I’ve also been reading the December, 1951 issue of Galaxy (yes, I am crawling through the entire run of the magazine), whose centerpiece is a Damon Knight novella “World Without Children,” a story about near-immortal humans (a topic Knight has used several times) becoming sterile as a side effect of the longevity treatment. But the government has forbidden childbirth since increasing population is a serious threat to a world where nobody dies, so an underground movement tries to encourage clandestine births in order to protect humanity from gradual extinction. My only complaint with the story is its blatant deus ex machina ending, which seems a bit strange for a writer who is renowned for his careful deconstruction of famous sf stories because of flaws such as illogic.

The highlight of the issue for me was Fritz Leiber’s short story “A Pail of Air,” which told of the survival of a family in a future in which Earth is pulled out of its orbit and ends up orbiting far beyond Pluto. This story is available in The Best of Fritz Leiber (assuming you can find a copy!).

Finally, British publisher Gollancz has released as series of books under the cumulative titles Fantasy Masterworks, one of which is a huge collection of the best of Leigh Brackett entitled Sea-Kings of Mars. I’ve been reading the book in spurts, since 650 pages of pulp adventures can get a bit blurry at times. Many of Brackett’s famous books are here in their original novella form, such as “The Sword of Rhiannon” and “The Road to Sinharat,” as well as her famous collaboration with the young Ray Bradbury, “Lorelei of the Red Mist.” They are all enjoyable stories so long as you are looking for color and sense of wonder rather than intricate plots and characterization. They reminded me of such early Zelazny stories as “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and, especially, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” with somewhat less poetry, but they are all enjoyable stuff. When I finish the book, I might reread her John Stark on Skaith trilogy from the 1970s.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Favorite Rock Artists

Here are my favorite rock and roll artists in three categories. With each artist I have listed two albums which, in my opinion, represents them at the top of their form. Happy listening!

Favorite Classic Rock Artists:
1 The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies / Arthur
2 The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper / Revolver
3 Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run / The River
4 Chris De Burgh: Man on the Line / This Way Up
5 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes / Mudcrutch
6 U2: The Joshua Tree / All That You Leave Behind
7 Van Morrison: Saint Dominic’s Preview / The Philosopher’s Stone
8 Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo’s Factory / Chronicle
9 Dion DiMucci: Yo, Frankie! / King of the New York Streets
10 The Waterboys: Fisherman’s Blues / This Is The Sea

Favorite Progressive Rock Artists:
1 Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon / Meddle
2 The Moody Blues: To Our Children’s Children’s Children / Seventh Sojourn
3 The Strawbs: Hero and Heroine / Halcyon Days
4 Yes: The Yes Album / Close To The Edge
5 Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Trilogy / Brain Salad Surgery
6 Supertramp: Even in the Quietest Moments / Crime of the Century
7 Electric Light Orchestra: El Dorado / Afterglow
8 King Crimson: Cirkus / Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson
9 Frank Zappa: Hot Rats / Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar
10 Dream Theater: A Change of Seasons / Live Scenes From New York

Favorite Folk Rock Artists:
1 Richard Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights / Watching the Dark
2 Simon and Garfunkel: Bookends / Old Friends
3 Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick / Aqualung
4 Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited / Blood On the Tracks
5 The Band: The Band / Stage Fright
6 Steve Forbert: Streets of This Town / Young, Guitar Days