Visions of Paradise

Sunday, July 26, 2009


There are several qualities which make good fiction, such as characterization, thought-provoking ideas, sense of wonder, outstanding writing. But there is one quality which, if done well enough, can trump all of them, and that is good storytelling.

Stephen Lawhead is a very good storyteller, and Byzantium shows him at the peak of his abilities. It was so enjoyable that, upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to buy more of his books, even his long series, and dive right into them. It did not hurt that the book was set during one of my favorite historical eras, the Middle Ages when European culture was disintegrating and all the interesting events were taking place in the Middle East and Asia.

The narrator of Byzantium was Aidan, an Irish monk who was part of an expedition to bring a gorgeous hand-written book to the emperor of Byzantium. However, the journey was disastrous as the participants were attacked by Sea Wolves–whom we know call Vikings because when they went on voyages of plunder they went a-viking–and Aidan became a slave to one of the Danes. This led to a series of events which eventually made him the slave of King Harald of the Danes who initiated a sea voyage to plunder the legendary city of Byzantium. However, after spending some time in the city, Harald soon realized that plundering it was a foolish endeavor, so instead he and his men became mercenaries in the hire of Emperor Basil.

The Sea Wolves’ first assignment was serving as bodyguards to a diplomatic mission into Islamic country, another mission doomed to failure as they were attacked by a large group of Saracens who took all the survivors, including Aidan, as prisoners and forced to be slaves in the caliph’s silver mines.

Lawhead keeps events moving swiftly, and changes occur at a rapid pace. He is obviously enamored with history, since whenever the novel changes location, from Ireland to Denmark to Constantinople to an Islamic city, he gives us a tour of each location and spends considerable time exploring its wonders and culture. In some ways, Byzantium is a written museum of medieval history and a tour of medieval civilizations. For a lover of history, the book is worthwhile for that aspect alone.

While characterization is not emphasized, we learn much about the nature of the Danesmen, the inhabitants of Constantinople, and the Arabs. While many seem totally evil when Aidan first encounters them (the viciousness of the Sea Wolves’ attack, their initial treatment of their captive slaves, the arrogance of the officials in Constantinople, a similar viciousness by the Arabs), as Aidan becomes close to individuals in each group we learn that a member of a vicious culture is not necessarily a vicious individual.

Obviously, Byzantium has flaws. Some changes in Aidan’s situation occur much too easily. He goes from being a slave in the silver mines on the verge of death to an intimate advisor of an amir almost overnight. But because of Lawhead’s wonderful storytelling abilities, these flaws are acceptable, similar to the one suspension of disbelief in a speculative fiction. And only once does a major character act in a foolish manner which forwards the plot unfairly. In all other instances, Lawhead creates believable people acting in logical ways.

I recommend Byzantium highly both for its storytelling and its glimpse at various medieval cultures. Its’ 870 pages literally flew by.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Charles Brown

I have been a faithful reader of Locus for 38 years, and I consider it an invaluable resource for serious readers of f&sf, both for its regular listings of forthcoming and recent publications, as well as its numerous reviews and various best-of-the-year listings and polls. For that reason, I considered Charles Brown an important person in the sf universe, and his unexpected death is a big blow to sf criticism and news. Fortunately, while there were few similar outlets such as Locus for many decades (Andy Porter’s SF Chronicle being one while it lasted), there are several websites which serve a similar purpose now. SF Signal is probably the most valuable daily outlet for news, while the number of current review sites far surpass the number of fanzines which carried reviews at any given time.

The editors of Locus seem willing and able to continue it, including Mark Kelly who runs the Locus Online website, all of which was apparently anticipated by Brown who arranged things so that Locus would survive him. That is good news for those of us who crave reviews and news about sf on a regular basis.

In some ways, Charles Brown was divisive in the sf community. There seemed to have been as many people who admired him as disliked him. From what I can gather, some of the latter people disagreed with Brown’s agenda for Locus, while others were jealous of his success in the fan community (such as his winning the Hugo Award virtually every single year). The latter is sour grapes, in my opinion, while the former is inevitable since, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, you cannot please all the people all the time.

My personal complaint with Locus has always been the fact that it tends to concentrate on certain sf writers while ignoring others who are equally deserving of attention. Considering the huge number of sf books published on annually, I understand that it is impossible to review every important book by every author, but some of the authors Locus ignored were winning awards on a fairly regular basis. I always thought that Locus favored “cutting edge” authors rather than traditionalists, an opinion which was apparently verified by Jonathan Strahan at his blog Strahan is a longtime acquaintance of Charles Brown who reviewed books for Locus before becoming its fiction editor. In his memorializing Brown, he made the statement:

He also did everything he could to influence [science fiction], to make it what he thought it should be. He published Locus to influence the field. He ran the Locus Awards to influence (by example) the Hugos.

I have no problem with that agenda, but it explains some of the trends and directions in Locus. I wonder if that agenda will change much, if at all, with new people having control of its contents.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Time Ships

I have been a fan of Stephen Baxter’s short fiction for nearly two decades, including his wondrous collection Resplendent. But, for some unexplained reason, I have never read any of his novels previously. I decided to start with The Time Ships, since it is a standalone novel while many of his others fall into various series. It was also an award-winning novel, taking the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1996.

The Time Ships is a direct sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, beginning soon after the nameless Time Traveler’s return to late 19th century England, so a knowledge of that earlier novel is necessary to fully appreciate what takes place in Baxter’s novel. But considering that The Time Machine is one of the seminal novels in sf, it is hard to imagine readers of this blog not having read it at some point in their lives. And if you have not read it, why not? Wells is the father of science fiction, and all of his early novels are worth reading for several reasons: their historical value to the sf field, their introduction of most of sf’s major themes and, most importantly, they are all damned good novels. Both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are necessary reading, but nearly as important are The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, The Island of Doctor Moreau, In the Days of the Comet and The First Men in The Moon.

But great as Wells was, a direct sequel to one of his novels would be boring if it were merely more of the same, especially at 500+ pages. Fortunately, Stephen Baxter is much too good a writer to fall into that trap. A Baxter story is typically based on a scientific notion whose philosophical and speculative effects he then examines. In The Time Ships the narrator (the time traveler) returns to the future but encounters a totally different future than he found on his first trip. The Morlocks are no longer degenerate humans, but a race which is highly-advanced both technologically and philosophically. After spending time there, he escapes back to the 19th century with one of the Morlocks named Nebogipfel where they meet the young narrator in 1873 and ultimately the three of them are trapped in 1938 during the 24th year of a brutal world war which began between England and Germany in 1914.

The Time Ships is primarily concerned with the many worlds theory of Physics, which postulates that every action a person performs creates several possible universes, in each of which the person actually performed a different action, or else the one action caused several different possible outcomes. This theory is discussed by the narrator and Nebogipfel at length–and Baxter’s discussions are invariably fascinating reading–and mathematician Kurt Godel even shows up as a character in the book. The narrator’s adventures during the Morlock-dominated future are interesting, but even better are when he and Nebogipfel return first to the 19th century, then to 1938, and eventually fifty million years in the past where they create a new settlement of trapped humans which they name First London.

Most of the novel is fascinating reading, both because of Baxter’s story-telling skills, but also for the interplay between the narrator and Nebogipfel who serves as a brilliant mentor to the narrator’s simple student. While The Time Ships is not a classic as was its prequel The Time Machine, it is still very interesting and always enjoyable reading, and I recommend it highly.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Time Traders / Hugo nominations

Recently I have been reading fiction by some classic sf writers whom I have somehow missed over the past 5 decades. Med Ship, by Murray Leinster was one of those books, and I was incredibly-pleased by it. Next I decided to read some Andre Norton, a Nebula Grandmaster whose audience is as devoted as almost any science fiction writers. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Norton’s baby boomers equal Heinlein’s children for fervor and loyalty.

I started with her four-book Time Traders series, since those are among her most acclaimed books. The first volume is entitled The Time Traders and it tells the story of a small-time punk named Ross Murdoch who has already served some minor jail time and is on the verge of doing more time until he is recruited by an organization which travels back in time engaging in a Cold War against the Russians (not the Soviets, since Norton was clever enough to foresee the breakup of the Soviet Union). It is a fairly routine pulp adventure, with minimal characterization, and plotting which seems almost made up as the author went along. While it was enjoyable reading overall, it was more on the level of such writers as Mack Reynolds or C.C. MacApp than comparable to Murray Leinster’s Med Ship series, and certainly did not seem representative of a Nebula Grandmaster.

But, of course, one novel is certainly not representative of an author’s entire career. Imagine if the first Roger Zelazny novel I had read was A Night in the Lonesome October, or the first Samuel R. Delany was Equinox. And this novel was the first of a series, so it is entirely possible Norton had not reached her stride with it yet. So I’ll read the series–the novels are short, typical of ‘50s sf–before a make a value judgment on whether I want to read more Norton sf.


Hugo voting has closed, so I can make some observations on the nominees without risk of influencing anybody’s ballot. While I have not read much of the fiction yet, always being a year or two behind in current fiction, only 3 nominees seem to be serious contenders for best novel: Stephenson’s Anathem, Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Doctorow’s Little Brother. Both Stross and Scalzi have loyal followings who nominate them routinely each year for Best Novel (this is Stross’ 6th consecutive nomination, while Scalzi has been nominated 3 of the past 4 years), but so far those followings have not translated into a Best Novel Hugo. Anathem has certainly garnered the most positive reviews of any 2008 sf book–along with a handful of negative reviews–but Gaiman has a very loyal following, so it should be an interesting choice.

In the short fiction categories, based on reviews and author popularity, I think the favorites are Ian McDonald’s “The Tear,” Paolo Bacigalupi’s "The Gambler," and Ted Chiang’s "Exhalation." I’ve read both the McDonald (which I found tedious) and the Chiang (which was good, but not as much as some of his exquisite previous stuff), while Bacigalupi’s form of near-future-dismal rarely excites me (the exception being “The Fluted Girl”).

Lois McMaster Bujold’s popularity should result in a Hugo for The Vorkosigan Companion: The Universe of Lois McMaster Bujold in the Best Related Book category, while The Dark Knight should beat Wall-E for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, even though the latter is much superior as sf, and, in my opinion, the much better movie overall, since much of the success of The Dark Knight depends on its special effects and Heath Ledger’s performance.