Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Paperback Swap / Heat

About a year ago, a friend recommended the website Paperback Swap to me, where I could trade unwanted books for books I selected. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but for some reason I did not pursue it until recently. When I finally joined, I posted a list of 38 books that I wanted to get rid of, including sf, historical fiction, and nonfiction. So far I have mailed 7 books to other members and, because of that, I now have credit to select 9 books myself (including 2 books for joining the website). There are literally thousands of books available, including many which are on my own Recommended Reading list, so I have ordered the following books:

• Poul Anderson’s career-spanning retrospective Going For Infinity (already received);
• A. Bertram Chandler omnibus Lieutenant of The Survey Service, containing 5 John Grimes novels. Light reading, but enjoyable (received);
• Andre Norton’s complete Time Traders series in 2 hardcover books (ordered);
• James White’s second Sector General omnibus Alien Emergencies (mailed). Books about other than war/crime/thrillers appeal to me a lot, and these novels are always intriguing;
• the concluding 2 novels in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days And Counting (one mailed, one ordered). Robinson is one of my 5 favorite sf authors (Silverberg, Bishop, Zelazny, Simak being the others), and I invariable love all his books;
• Murray Leinster’s complete Med Service stories Med Ship (ordered. see my comments on White’s book above ☺);
• the lone historical fiction, Stephen Lawhead’s Byzantium, a historical era I have grown very interested in recently, having enjoyed Colin Wells’ nonfiction Sailing From Byzantium and Eric Mayer and Mary Reed’s historical mystery One for Sorrow.

A quick review: If you like Italian cooking, and are a fan of Mario Batali like I am, you will enjoy the book Heat, by Bill Buford. Buford worked for the New York Times before quitting his job and becoming a low-level slave in the kitchen of Babbo, Batali’s famous NYC restaurant. The book’s setting is about equally-divided between Babbo’s kitchen and Italy where we follow both Batali when he learned how to cook Italian several decades ago, and Buford as he strives to do the same recently. Its themes are equally-divided between how one becomes an Italian chef, what it is like behind the scenes in the kitchen of a popular restaurant, and the legend of Mario Batali himself.

This book is partly humorous, partly head-shaking, and thoroughly absorbing throughout. I recommend it very highly.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Roger Zelazny was probably the most frustrating of all my favorite sf authors. I can split his career into three distinct eras: From when I first discovered him in 1965 through about 1969 he was incomparable, towering over the sf field with such works as This Immortal, Lord of Light, The Dream Master and short fiction such as “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Mortal Mountain.”

From 1970 through 1978 he was a very good writer who never quite regained the brilliance of his first years. Highlights included the original Amber series, Jack of Shadows, Today We Choose Faces and Doorways in the Sand.

But after 1978 his fiction tended to be throwaways that he seemed to write without either thinking or revising. I totally disliked the second Amber trilogy, and most of his non-series novels were collaborations with Thomas T. Thomas, Fred Saberhagen Robert Sheckley and Gerald Housman. Probably the only true Zelazny-quality story he wrote in that period was the novella “24 View of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai.”

So when he announced in the 1990s that he was going to write two standalone sf novels, it was a major announcement, if a wary one, since there was equal likelihood the novels would be “latter-day” Zelazny rather than vintage Zelazny (or even 1970s Zelazny, which would be welcome as well). Then, of course, came the sad news that Roger Zelazny died in 1995 and his companion, writer Jane Lindskold, completed the two novels Lord Demon and Donnerjack. For years I did not read either one, memories of his collaborations with Robert Sheckley in my head. But when I found a copy of Donnerjack in a used bookstore, I figured I might as well give it a try.

Surprisingly, or maybe it shouldn’t be, Donnerjack is a very good novel. The opening pages are typical Zelazny, if a bit dense, and the first few chapters are mostly scene-setting without much obvious purpose. But soon the story gets moving and there are echoes of early Zelazny in it, circa To Die in Italbar. The story is set in two worlds, Verité (which is our world) and Virtù (an artificially-created virtual reality). The main character is John Donnerjack, a programmer in Verité but a legendary figure in Virtù. Among other denizens of Virtù, he encounters Avra who is a being of that world rather than being an avatar of a human from Verité, and whom he has the misfortune to fall in love with. Knowing that humans cannot interbreed with beings from the artificial world of Virtù. Donnerjack makes a deal with Lord Death to bring Avra to our world. The deal, of course, involves giving their first-born son to Lord Death, a deal which Donnerjack scoffs at because of the impossibility of a human from Verité mating with a being from Virtù, but which becomes the novel’s main focus as Avra somehow becomes pregnant.

The plot becomes more developed as Donnerjack vanishes from its pages. His son Jay is raised in Donnerjack’s Scottish castle (which he builds himself on the site of his ancestral home) by robots and “ghosts” from Virtù, while struggling to stay out of the grasp of Lord Death who wishes to claim his portion of the bargain made before Jay’s death. Other characters enter the novel, including:

• Lydia, a young girl from Verité who becomes impregnated by Ambry, a being from Virtù who is either one of that world’s gods, or a legendary figure who has become godlike;
• Link, a reporter investigating the Church of Elish, which worships the gods of Virtù who are apparently the same gods of ancient Sumer and Babylon and who, Link learns, are plotting to “cross over” into Verité where they can have another universe to rule;
• Drum, a private investigator who works with Link on his investigations.

Link and Drum become involved with Lydia and Jay in what is a full-scale war brewing between deities in Virtué. While it sounds confusing, the book’s near-600 pages give ample room for all the interwoven complications to stretch out and be both comprehensible and reasonable. It ends up being a thriller which is neither mindless nor too fast-paced to be absorbing.

Large portions of Donnerjack are obvious Zelaznyish. Verité is inhabited by a banshee and various ghosts, while Virtù can be accessed from Verité through a strange region accessible through underground caves beneath Donnerjack’s castle. There are wonderful scenes of pure Zelazny, and it is obvious throughout the novel that this was not just another 80s/90s throwaway, but a novel of serious intent.

Donnerjack’s plot is considerably more complicated than typical Zelazny, which I credit–perhaps erroneously–to Lindskold. But the combination of Zelazny wonder and Lindksold story-telling is very efffective, and makes this the most interesting Zelazny book I have read since 1976's Bridge of Ashes. I definitely plan to read Lord Demon sometime, and perhaps even Zelazny’s collaboration with Alfred Bester Psychoshop. It’s nice to know that even after years of Zelazny squandering his talent, it was still there when he needed it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Awhile ago I read the anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, and it contained a story entitled “The Farewell Party,” by Eric Brown. It was a very slow-paced, deliberate story about Earth being visited by an alien race called the Kethani who offer all humans the option of being implanted with a device which will enable them to be resurrected after death, at which time they will have the choice of either returning to life on Earth or serving as emissaries of the Kethani to distant stars.

I learned soon afterwards that “The Farewell Party” was part of a series of stories about the Kethani which were recently released in book form as Kethani. All the stories take place in the same English village where a small group of people meet every Tuesday night at a local pub. Each of the group gets their own story in the book, which is a traditional fix-up which works very well. One man is a “ferryman,” the name given to humans who work for the Kethani transporting deceased people to the “stations” where they are revived. Another lost his wife shortly before the arrival of the Kethani, thus she was never implanted or revived. He buried his grief in an affair with a student who planned to study philosophy in college but had no intention of being implanted herself. Another member of the group was never implanted himself, and we learn why in a long story about his falling in love for the first time at middle age.

All the stories in Kethani are slow-paced character studies examining how the lives of typical humans have been affected by the arrival of the Kethani. Although we have glimpses of the Kethani in human form, they still remain mysteries to us as well as to the people in the book. But it is not their identity which is the issue, but rather their effect on humans. As the stories accumulate, gradually we get a stronger picture of how life on Earth has changed due to the miraculous intervention of the Kethani.

Kethani is far from being a classic, with several obvious flaws. The individual stories tend to have a sameness about them. People who refuse implants gradually become alienated from those who have them. Divorces among the core group in the pub are all too common, and they demonstrate very few strong emotions other than love. But still Kethani is a very interesting book, resembling fix-ups such as Pavane and A Canticle For Leibowitz in its structure, although not in its theme, being a much more optimistic book than either of the others. While it is certainly not on the level of those two classics, it does compare favorably to them in enough ways to make it highly-recommended.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Four qualities of Great SF

My favorite type of science fiction has always tended towards the slightly-more serious end of the genre, writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson and the like. While I read “adventure” sf at times, and even pulp magazines such as Worlds of IF, they are more guilty pleasures than serious reading.

But recently I have been reading Harry Harrison’s entire Deathworld trilogy, and while obviously it is anything but serious, I have enjoyed it too much to stop after any of the individual novels, which had been my original intention. The important question is: will I follow this book with a more serious novel, or with another pulp adventure? And what will the answer to that question say about the current state of my reading taste?

In an attempt to study the answer to that question further, when I look back on the sf of the 1960s, my first decade reading it, here are the stories which bring to me the most fond memories:

• Jack Vance’s novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle”;
• Clifford D. Simak’s serial “Here Gather the Stars”–which became Way Station in book form;
• Roger Zelazny’s beautiful short fiction, especially “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” “This Moment of the Storm” and “This Mortal Mountain”;
• Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings” and its sequels “The Road To Jorslem” and “Perris way”;
• Damon Knight’s “The Visitor At the Zoo”–expanded into The Other Foot in book form;
• Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man”;
• Samuel R. Delany’s “Lines of Power,” “The Star Pit” and, especially, Nova;
• Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness;
• Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and Norstilia;
• Philip K. Dick’s “All We Marsmen”–Martian Time Slip in book form;
• Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld stories in Worlds of Tomorrow (“Day of the Great Shout,” “Riverworld,” “The Suicide Express”) and Worlds of IF (“The Felled Star” and “The Fabulous Riverboat”);
• Roger Zelazny’s groundbreaking novels This Immortal and Lord of Light;
• Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels The Star King and The Palace of Love.

If I could categorize the twenty-six stories listed above, I would place 4 of them into the lighter story category (“The Dragon Masters,” “The Visitor At the Zoo,” and both Demon Princes novels), while all the others have at least some components of seriousness. Of course, only The Left Hand of Darkness would qualify in most critics’ view as literature, so what I consider “serious” science fiction might actually be “semi-serious” sf. And how much of a gap is there between the semi-serious (such as Farmer’s Riverworld stories) and the pure pulp (such as Keith Laumer’s Retief stories which I don’t like at all)?

More importantly, does the gap even matter? Just because I prefer characterization and thoughtfulness in my sf, is it innately any better than fiction which eschews both those qualifies for color and sense of wonder? And which pair of characteristic are actually more important in my own selection of “great” science fiction”?

So let’s think back again, but this time over the entire past 40 years, to try and select sf stories which in my opinion contain all four of the qualifies characterization, thoughtfulness, color and sense of wonder. Probably not too many.

• Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy;
• Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time;
• Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed;
• Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy;

I could easily name dozens of other sf stories which, in my opinion, are classics, but at a rough glance all the others lack at least one of the qualities listed above. Does this mean that I have been spending most of the past 40 years reading inferior fiction? Probably not. Few sf stories likely aim for mastering all four qualities, having their emphasis on one or two of them. And a story which succeeds on one or two levels is likely to be nearly as entertaining as a story which satisfies on all 4 levels. In fact, I dare say that a story might be more enjoyable if its aim is lower rather than higher. Objective appreciation is not necessarily as enjoyable as subjective pleasure, and sometimes it is better to be swept along with a colorful novel than it is to sit back and nod one’s head in appreciation of a slower-paced tome.

Which begs the following question: I know for certain that I could not be satisfied with a steady diet of simplistic, one-quality sf. Could I be satisfied with a steady diet of great four-quality sf? That’s probably a question that will never be answered unless I am willing to cut back the quantity of my sf reading drastically (which I am not).