Visions of Paradise

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favorite Books of 2009

I read 28 books and 13 prozines this year, probably a meager number compared to many fans, but a number which should increase next year when I have much more available reading time. By far, the best book I read this past year was the first one, Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained, a tale of Texan ranchers in the mid-20th century struggling to survive long droughts. I have long considered Kelton the finest writer of 19th century westerns, primarily concerned with people struggling under trying circumstances, but this novel raised him even higher in my estimation. He has won 7 Spur Awards for best western novels of the year, far more than any other writers, a kudo which he definitely deserves.

Other novels which impressed me this past year were Stephen Lawhead’s historical saga Byzantium, and Jack McDevitt’s Omega, the best novel I’ve read so far in his Academy series.

I was also impressed by three single-author collections, not too surprisingly since they were all career retrospectives by three of my favorite writers: Robert Silverberg’s Phases of the Moon, Poul Anderson’s Going For Infinity and Samuel R. Delany’s Distant Stars.

My favorite nonfiction book of the year by far was Bill Buford’s Heat, the story of a journalist who spends a year alternating between working in the kitchen of Mario Batali’s NYC restaurant Babbo and studying cooking in Italy. Perhaps you have to be a fan of cooking, or of Italy, or of Mario Batali, to enjoy this book as much as I did, but I absolutely loved it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Heechee Rendezvous

There are times I wonder what is the purpose of reading long series set in the same sf universe. Isn’t one of the primary joys of reading science fiction the sense of wonder of discovering new worlds which are considerably different from our own? That may not be true for all readers, but it is important to me. I started reading science fiction at a time in my life when I needed to escape from the real world, and the easiest escape was to bury myself in a book set in the far future.

And yet originality and creativity are surely not the only reasons for reading sf. I am a big fan of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, which offer a variety of delights. One of them is each book explores her creation a bit deeper, often discovering new aspects of it. A truly satisfying creation cannot be fully examined in a single book, so perhaps one of the purposes of reading a long series is that the truly deep worlds require more than a single book to explore fully.

Of course, discovery is not the only purpose in reading an sf novel. Storytelling is important as well, and a really good sf writer develops plots which utilize the created world in a way which makes it fundamental to the story. Thus in an extended series, each new novel stretches into a previously-unexplored corner of their world, amplifying the original sense of wonder while also telling a gripping story.

Which brings us to Heechee Rendezvous, the third novel of Frederik Pohl’s Heechee series. I reviewed the first two books last issue. Briefly, Gateway was one of my very favorite sf novels ever written, while Beyond the Blue Event Horizon was a worthy sequel. At initial glance, a third novel seems unnecessary, basically revisiting events which were mostly covered in the first two novels. But there were a few plot threads left unresolved in those books. At the end of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon we knew where the Heechee were hidden, but we still did not know why they felt obligated to flee the outside universe. Nor have we ever seen a Heechee or learned anything about them directly. And what about Robinette’s feelings towards the two women in his life: his current wife who is described as pretty much the perfect wife for him, and his former lover whose loss inside a black hole was the source of most of his trauma in Gateway. Although she was lost to him for all eternity, because of the time lag inside a black hole, she was actually fated to survive him by several centuries.

Pohl brings all these loose threads together in a well-plotted novel. Because he is a satirist at heart, his future Earth is a bleak world where governments bicker constantly, terrorists abound, and the population crunch has gotten so bad the entire world is a boiling kettle always on the verge of exploding. Robinette is obsessively determined to save as much of the world as he can, a situation hampered by seemingly everybody else’s selfish motives, as well as his own personal issues. Ultimately all those concerns pale next to the mystery of the Heechee, a solution which introduces new aspects to the universe and raises more sense of wonder than anything in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon did. It is gripping reading throughout, and Pohl does an even better job of tying everything up than I anticipated.

There are still three remaining books in the series, the novel Annals of the Heechee and two collections of ancillary stories The Gateway Trip and The Boy Who Would Live Forever. Since the latter two both contain several excellent stories related to the Heechee which I have already read and liked (such as “The Merchants of Venus”), I have not decided whether to read the novel of the collections next. In any case, I highly recommend the original Heechee trilogy to anybody who enjoys sf which combines original ideas and strong storytelling. I don’t see too many readers being disappointed by it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best SF Writer of the Decade, part 1

Recently I was reading the local newspaper and saw an article in which sportswriters voted for the outstanding Athlete of the Decade. So naturally my immediate thought was why don’t sf writers select the outstanding SF Writer of the Decade? Since they do not, nor does any fanzine that I know of, why shouldn’t I do it myself?

Rather than limit myself to the current decade, I will go back to the start of the 20th century and select decade-by-decade in two categories: my choice as the most important writer of each decade, and my personal favorite writer as well. One qualification: a writer’s importance had to begin during the decade selected, but his or her influence might have extended past the narrow confines of that ten-year period.

Although H.G. Wells’ most important novels were originally published in the late 1890s (The Time Machine in 1895, The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896, The War of the Worlds in 1898), his shadow towered over the early years of the 20th century so that he remained the most important sf writer of its first decade. And he continued publishing seminal sf during its years. The First Men in the Moon in 1901, In the Days of the Comet in 1906, and perhaps most importantly, "The Country of the Blind” was published in 1904. So it is easy to select H.G. Wells as the most important sf writer of the 1900s decade, as well as my favorite writer of it.

1912 saw the publication of two important serials in All-Story Magazine, Under the Moons of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These stories caused an immediate sensation, creating the genre of “scientific romances,” thrilling several generations of schoolboys, and influencing much of the development of science fiction. Burroughs is an easy choice for most important writer of the 1910s.

But my favorite writer of that decade is A. Merritt, whose stories were only slightly less-popular than those of Burroughs, but which were much better-written, as well as having a richer emotional punch. “The Moon Pool” appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1918, followed by “Conquest of the Moon Pool” a year later. Shortly after the end of that decade came such stories as The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss and The Ship of Ishtar, all in Argosy.

The 1920s saw the development of “space opera” in the hands of the phenomenally-creative E.E. Smith. Skylark of Space was one of the most important novels published by Hugo Gernsback in his seminal sf magazine Amazing Stories, its influence still being felt today in the form of “New Space Opera.” Equally influential was Smith’s Lensman series which began in 1934 with the publication of Triplanetary in Amazing Stories.

But my favorite sf writer of the 1920s was Murray Leinster, whose first sf story was “The Runaway Skyscraper,” in 1919 in Argosy, followed shortly by “The Mad Planet” in 1920 and “Red Dust” in 1921. Leinster was one of the very few writers able to make the leap from the general pulps popular from 1900-1920 to such specialized sf zines as Amazing and Astounding. His stories such as “The Runaway Skyscraper” and “Sideways in Time” in 1934 created many of sf’s most popular themes, plus he was a fabulous storyteller who never forgot the human element.

Two writers dominated genre sf in the 1930s, and I have selected Stanley G. Weinbaum and John W. Campbell as co-Writers of the Decade. Both writers pushed pulp sf in new directions which laid the foundation for the immense changes of the “Golden Age” which loomed at the end of the decade. Weinbaum popularized “planetary adventures” in such stories as “A Martian Odyssey” in Wonder Stories and “The Lotus Eaters” in Astounding. His premature death in 1935 surely robbed the sf field of one of its shining lights who would likely have published considerably more outstanding and influential fiction had he lived. I also selected Weinbaum as my favorite writer of the 1930s.

John W. Campbell started writing in the galaxy-smashing tradition of E.E. Smith, but under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart he wrote a series of softer, more thoughtful stories whose emotional impact was much softer and longer-lasting. “Twilight” in Astounding in 1934 is the seminal Stuart story, but “Who Goes There?” in 1938 proved to be the most popular.

To be continued...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction

I have been reading several issues of prozines recently, both current and vintage and, as is typical with prozines, there have been both excellent and mediocre stories.

The vintage issues I have been reading are the first two issues of Worlds of Tomorrow dated April and June, 1963. The feature story was a two-part serial People of the Sea, by Arthur C. Clarke, which was released in book form as the YA novel Dolphin Island. It does read like a YA novel as the protagonist Johnny Clinton is an orphan who dislikes his adopted family thoroughly, so he stows away on an international freighter (which floats above the ground or water) which crashes into the ocean near Australia. The crew escape on a small lifeboat before Johnny can reach them, so he is stranded on a piece of driftwood until rescued by dolphins who take him to a nearby island which is devoted to research on human-dolphin relations.

People of the Sea is a minor novel, but Johnny’s adventures on the island, as well as the scientists’ attempts to reach some type of pact between dolphins and killer sharks, are enjoyable throughout and worthwhile reading.

Other worthwhile stories in the issues include Robert Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man” (reviewed in VoP #146 as part of his collection Phases of the Moon), the always-reliable Robert F. Young’s “The Girl In His Mind,” Murray Leinster’s “Third Planet,” John Brunner’s “The Totally Rich” and Keith Laumer’s “The Long-Remembered Thunder” (one of his serious stories, which I enjoy much more than his humorous stories, such as “The Star-Sent Knaves” which was also in these issues).

The current prozine I read was the April-May 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the first issue under its new bi-monthly publishing schedule; yes, I am rather behind in my prozine reading, even though I only subscribe to that lone magazine. This does not bode well for my renewing my subscription in another 18 months.

My main complaint with F&SF is that it is a lot heavier on the F than it is on the SF, but I subscribe to it rather than either Asimov’s or Analog because its stories tend to be better overall. This issue had 6 novelettes in it, four new ones and two reprints as they were celebrating their 60th year of publication. One of the reprints was Thomas Disch’s classic “The Brave Little Toaster,” which I had not read since its original appearance in 1980. It is a pure children’s tale, but told straightforward without condescending and deserves its near-cult status. I even enjoyed the animated version which my sons and I watched numerous times when they were young.

The other reprint was Edward Jesby’s 1963 story “Sea Wrack,” which was well-written, although its ending was somewhat abrupt.

Of the original novelettes, my favorite was the lone sf story of the group, Deborah J. Ross’s “The Price of Silence.” I had never read a Ross story before, only knowing her as one of the writers carrying on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series after the author’s retirement and eventual death. Since I have never read stories by authors in somebody else’s classic series, I did not expect much from this story. It told of a spaceship investigating a space colony which had stopped communicating with Earth entirely. I was not expecting the direction the story eventually took, but found it strong and convincing. Perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh on writers such as Ross, Adrienne Martine-Barnes, Mercedes Lackey (the Darkover crew), Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert (the Dune crew), but I still hesitate to read any of their recreations.

Of the fantasies, I most enjoyed Ellen Kushner’s novelette “A Wild and Wicked Youth,” which was apparently a prequel to her novel Swordspoint, telling how an innocent child became a gifted swordsman. It was good enough that I am interested in reading the novel too.

Of the short stories, worth mentioning is Jack Skillingstead’s “The Avenger of Love,” which was dedicated to Harlan Ellison and has the same effect as a typical Ellison story: punchy, dramatic writing, intended to achieve a quick emotional impact without much depth or standing up to much thought. I have always considered Ellison stories enjoyable reading but more like a sweet dessert than a fulfilling meal, and Skillingstead’s story had the same effect on me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

I read a headline recently that declared science fiction is dying, being replaced by fantasy. This spurred several thoughts in my overactive brain. It is undoubtedly true that fantasy dominates the genre these days. Locus reports in their November issue that as of September, 2009 there have been 142 sf novels published this year but 259 fantasy and 145 horror novels. That is a wide differential, which raises the obvious question: what does fantasy offer to its readers than science fiction does not?

One possibility is that much contemporary sf is near-future, high-tech stuff, and has been so ever since the rise of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. Many of these novels are thrillers rather than future speculations, which do not have the feel of getting away from reality, which is one of the lures of speculative fiction. Especially during economic downturns, people crave total escape from the “real” world, and nowadays fantasy seems to give that feeling much moreso than contemporary sf.

Another possibility is that the best science fiction is thought-provoking as it speculates on the historical and sociological processes which created the future being explored. Its sense of wonder is largely intellectual rather than purely emotional. Fantasy has little of that depth, instead concentrating on creating characters whom the reader can identify with, then staying with those characters for several volumes. So where science fiction often has a feeling of disjoint, forcing the reader to adapt to a strange new world with a strange foundation in each individual novel, fantasy offers a comfortable familiarity which is something many readers crave in trouble times.

Of course, in spite of some people’s fears, this does not mean science fiction is actually dying. There is still a decent amount of far-future sf being published on a regular basis. Writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jack McDevitt, Julie Czerneda, and Mike Resnick are all prospering in the marketplace. I suspect that a look at the number of sf books being published in 2009 compared to, say, 1975, will show a huge increase. So while the number of fantasy readers and fantasy books being published are increasing by huge numbers, the number of sf books and readers are also increasing, just at a considerably slower rate. Which hardly spells doom for science fiction, merely a much bigger publishing ghetto than existed in the 1960s.


Have you noticed how bestselling writers often try to distance themselves from fantasy and science fiction? Kurt Vonnegut started the trend fifty years ago, and recently such diverse writers as Margaret Atwood and Terry Goodkind have joined the trend. I wonder what benefit they get from their disclaimers? Does it increase their popularity to alienate one of the largest niches of the reading public? Hmm, my blog is not very popular, if the number of reactions I get from it is any indication, so perhaps such a disclaimer would help me as well?

So here it is: I am officially announcing that the blog Visions of Paradise has absolutely NOTHING to do with either fantasy or science fiction. I am discussing pure literature which merely happens to be set in the far-future or on impossibly-imagined worlds. Just consider the works I have discussed recently: Gateway? A psychological study of a delusional man. Phases of the Moon? Historical fiction, merely set in the future rather than the past. Empire Star? Beyond the Blue Event Horizon? The fact that scientific speculation is at the heart of both novels is purely coincidental. Totally.

Henry James forever! *boo hiss* to H.G. Wells. Grow up, Chabon!