Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 30, 2010

F&SF June/July 2009

Robert Reed is such a good writer; how many writers could possibly churn out as many stories as he does, with all of them being near or at the top of his talent? An example of why he is so good is the story “The Firehorn,” in the June/July 2009 issue of F&SF. The plot is simple: a group of children aged 8 through 13 have a secret clubhouse where they play the typical games children of that age play. Then the 13-year old boy teases the youngsters by claiming he saw a monster prowling nearby. The 13-year old girl plays along with him and names the monster the “firehorn.”

Somehow the firehorn takes on a life of its own. Soon all the youngsters in town believe in it, and are seeking it out, and even the adults play along. Then somebody actually sees a creature resembling the mythical firehorn, and the practical joke grows into a truly legendary creature along the lines of the yeti or bigfoot.

Fifty years after the “creation” of the firehorn, the originator is hired by a group of AI’s and cyborgs to help them hunt the firehorn, whose existence they truly believe. He wonders why artificial beings believe in such a chimera? This leads to an inevitable discussion about the genesis of both religions and legends, and a story which began as a lark turns into a philosophical treatise with an ending which was absolutely superb. While “The Firehorn” is not a classic story, it is definitely well worth reading.

Another very good story in the issue was Albert Cowdrey’s novella “Paradiso Lost,” a space adventure involving two raw officers who are part of a mission to find a missing space colony which was established by a religious cult several years ago, and now seems to have disappeared. The entire story takes place on the ship and its cast of characters include the arrogant general, his dwarf companion, the female second-in-command, and the grizzled sargeants who serve under the two lieutenants but are their advisors much of the time. While this might sound like military SF, a sub-genre which I generally dislike, it is much more of a human interest story wrapped around two intriguing mysteries. Good stuff.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jack Vance

At times it is difficult to determine the difference between a science fiction story and a fantasy. Perhaps the most influential writer in the blending of the two genres has been Jack Vance. His first book The Dying Earth was set on a future earth where magic has replaced science, and the individual stories consisted of a series of adventures reminiscent of the fantasy quest. Another early book was The Languages of Pao, perhaps the best science fiction novel ever written about linguistics.

In the Sixties Vance was most successful with three acclaimed novellas and a series of fast-paced adventures. The novellas were "The Moon Moth," a mystery that examined a society in which people communicate largely by wearing elaborate masks; "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle," were both sf stories which wore much of the paraphenalia of fantasy. Both stories won Hugo Awards and affirmed Vance’s reputation as one of the major writers in science fiction.

The adventure series told the adventures of Kirth Gersen who was orphaned as a child when his entire world was destroyed by a group of piratical "Demon Princes." Much like the Batman of comic book fame, Gersen devoted his life to avenging himself on the five callous murderers. While the individual novels such as The Star King and The Palace of Love can best be described as mystery adventures on the surface, they all featured the richness of worlds and characters that make all Vance novels joys to read.

In the past three decades Vance has concentrated most of his efforts on several well-received series. Such science fiction series as Planet of Adventure, The Alastor Cluster, and The Durdane Trilogy all feature typical Vance exotic settings wrapped around satisfying mystery and adventure plots.

Perhaps his best recent science fiction series has been The Cadwal Chronicles, consisting of the novels Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth, and Throy. The world Cadwal is an immense nature preserve whose sparse population lives in a rigid caste structure, with full Agency members on top, followed by semi-official collaterals, and finally semi-human Yips on the bottom. The stories are a sprawling canvas of detailed and exotic world-building, featuring lush adventures, biting satire, and rich characterization, all strongly-plotted both as mysteries and tales of political intrigue.

Vance also received acclaim in the 1980s for the pure fantasy Lyonesse series, containing the novels Lyonesse, Lyonesse: the Green Pearl, and Lyonesse: Madouc, the last of which won Vance a World Fantasy Award as Best Novel.

Although Vance is now retired as a writer, his vast backlog of outstanding stories continue to be reprinted both individually and in omnibus editions such as The Jack Vance Treasury and The Jack Vance Reader. Any reader who enjoys wondrous settings and beings in a fast-paced mystery setting should run–not walk–to wherever you can find any of the Jack Vance books mentioned above. You will not be disappointed.


1916 / Born August 28 in San Francisco, California.
1945 / First published with “The World Thinker” in Thrilling Wonder Stories.
1950 / First book The Dying Earth published.
1957 / Publication of Big Planet.
1958 / Publication of The Languages of Pao.
1961 / “The Moon Moth” published in Galaxy .
The Man in the Cage, by John Holbrook Vance, wins Edgar Award as Best First Mystery Novel.
1963 / “The Dragon Masters” wins Hugo Award as Best Short Fiction.
1964 / The Star King serialized in Galaxy.
1967 / “The Last Castle” wins Nebula and Hugo Awards.
1976 / Publication of The Best of Jack Vance.
1984 / Receives World Fantasy Convention Life Achievement Award.
Publication of Lyonesse.
1988 / Araminta Station published.
1990 / Lyonesse: Madouc wins World Fantasy Award as Best Novel.
1992/ Guest of Honor at Orlando World Science Fiction Convention.
1996 / Publication of Night Lamp.
1997 / Receives Nebula Grandmaster Award from Science Fiction Writers of America.
2007/ Publication of The Jack Vance Treasury.
2008 / The Jack Vance Reader published.
2009/ Publication of Wild Thyme, Green Magic.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Year's Best SF 14

In the mid-1990s I read several annual best-of-the-year anthologies until I went through a year-and-a-half sf burnout during which I stopped buying all f&sf, including those annual volumes. When I gradually returned to reading sf, I resumed buying Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, even filling in the missing volume #13. But I never resumed buying David Hartwell’s Year's Best SF (which, by this time, was co-edited by his wife Kathryn Cramer), although I did eye it occasionally. I guess the main reason I did not do so was that I was now also reading historical fiction, thus not buying as many f&sf books as I did previously, and there were too many worthwhile volumes being published each year for me to commit to a regular annual purchase.

This past Christmas though one of my gifts was Year’s Best SF 14 which I immediate began reading, and I am glad that I did. Lately I have grown weary of much of what goes under the guise of “science fiction” but is really anything but: contemporary fantasy, slipstream, magic realism, basically mainstream fiction which pokes around the edges of science fiction. Thus it is good to read a book which is unpretentious science fiction, running the gamut from traditional problem-solving, hard sf, space opera, future history, and everything else which filled the pages of magazines such as Galaxy, Worlds of IF and Worlds of Tomorrow when they were my favorite zines in the 1960s.

The book opens with Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “Arkfall” which tells of a strange world where everybody lives in underwater habitats, and the protagonist is trapped on a runaway habitat with an offworlder whose attitudes are considerably different than natives who have centuries of training in being non-selfish and nonviolent. This story combines storytelling, a wondrous world tour, and a character study, three ingredients in the very best sf. It also passed the test of a great sf story: it convinced me to read one of Gilman’s sf novels as well.

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the finest new sf writers, but at times his version of near-future dismal sf turns me off as much as his writing interests me. My favorite story of his was “The Fluted Girl,” which was one of my favorite sf stories of the past decade (or current decade, depending on whether you accept that 2010 is a new decade or not). “Pump Six” started out as if it was going to bore me with its recitation of calamities in a near-future New York City, but Bacigalupi’s writing kept me intrigued as the story itself grew more and more interesting. It reached its peak when it skewered post-collapse education with a visit to Columbia University.

Cory Doctorow is an anomaly, an author totally consumed with high tech whose stories always appeal to me. He obviously knows the difference between gushing about his love of technology and story-telling, and “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” (an unfortunate title which has no effect on the story itself) is a strong story about a bastion of anti-social nerds locked away from society whose main function is keeping tabs on society for the over-protective post-9/11 government, and what happens when one of its members temporarily leaves the hideaway and visits the bigger world. Good stuff.

Ted Kosmatka’s “N-Words” is a story about racism, but not the type its title might lead you to believe. The “N” referred to are neanderthals who have returned in the same manner that dinosaurs returned in Jurassic Park, but the neanderthals turn out to be considerably different than anthropologists have surmised. The story’s last line is a classic and worth the entire story.

Alastair Reynolds is one of my two favorite hard science / space opera writers (along with the multi-talented Stephen Baxter) and “The Fury” is a very good story which is part police-procedural and part human interest story which ends up being more thought-provoking than a typical Reynolds story. It tells of a security expert for a near-immortal emperor who investigates an assassination attempt which would have succeeded except the emperor’s mind was quickly downloaded into one of dozens of available replacement brains. The story’s main concern though is questioning how much punishment for an evil deed is just, especially when that punishment might causes repercussions far worse than the original evil act.

There are numerous other good stories as well, such as Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s “Boojum”, Robert Reed’s “The House Left Empty” and Ann Halam’s “Cheats’ (a rare VR story which I actually enjoyed). All right, now I regret having never returned to buying this series, and I’m wondering if it is possible for me to fill in my collection with the missing 10 issues.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Writers I Would Like to Read More By (part 3)

A little over a year ago (October 4/9, 2008) I wrote two columns on writers whom I wished to read more books by in the near future. Let’s see how I’ve done with that wish list:

Stephen Baxter: I read The Time Ships last year and really enjoyed it as a sequel to H.G. Well’s classic The Time Machine. Flood is on my list of books to buy when it is published in paperback this Spring.

Arthur C. Clarke: I read A Fall of Moondust and it was a very good example of problem-solving sf. More of his early-50s space fiction is on my Recommended Reading list.

Elmer Kelton: The Time It Never Rained was a fabulous book about ranchers coping with a long drought in post-World War II Texas. I selected it as my favorite book read in 2009, and one of my favorite of the decade. Sadly, Kelton died recently at the age of 83.

Andre Norton: I read the first two novels in her Time Traders series, and found them enjoyable, if not outstanding. Eventually I will finish the series and read the Wizard trilogy, which I also have.

James H. Schmitz: I read his huge collection Eternal Frontier, published by Baen Books as part of the series of complete Schmitz fiction. Except for the concluding title novel (which I found a routine military adventure), the rest of the collection was outstanding.

Of the other 5 authors on my list (Kage Baker, E.L. Doctorow, Cecelia Holland, Robert Sawyer and Jack Williamson), I have read nothing yet.

Now it is time for me to select another group of authors whom I would like to read several books by:

1. I really loved Julian May’s four-volume Pliocene Exiles series, but for some reason her subsequent sf slipped below my radar. I would really like to read either her Intervention and Galactic Milieu series (which are both related to the Pliocene Exiles series) or her Rampant World trilogy.

2. I read and enjoyed Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women, selecting it as my favorite novel of 1987, but for some reason I have never read any other of her works. I have seen many excellent reviews of her Venus trilogy, and I would like to read either it or one of her recent historical fictions, Ruler of the Sky (about Genghis Khan) or Climb the Wind (an alternate history of 19th century America).

3. I read Michael Coney’s The Jaws That Bite, the Claws That Catch and Rax many years ago, and enjoyed them both a lot, but then Coney kind of vanished, eventually publishing several of his novels on his website before he died. I copied those novels (I Remember Pallahaxi and Flowers of Goronwy) onto my computer and would like to read them sometime.

4. Whatever short fiction I have read by Sheila Finch has always been enjoyable, especially those set in her Guild of Linguistics series. I look forward to reading her collection containing all those stories, as well as her other book Reading the Bones.

5. Peter Ackroyd has an excellent reputation for both his historical fiction and his nonfiction biographies of such famous people as Shakespeare, Poe, Chaucer, Newton, and More. I am most intrigued by his novels The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein and The Clerkenwell Tales.

6. Wilkie Collins was one of the most popular writers of the 19th century, and a popular competitor to Charles Dickens, whose seminal mysteries such as The Moonstone and The Woman in White are still highly-regarded. I would like to read at least one of them as soon as I catch up on more of my Dickens’ reading.

7. Rafael Sabatini is the grand master of swashbuckling fiction with novels such as Captain Blood, Scaramouche and Bellarion (supposedly the inspiration for Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe Cycle). I have read some of his short fiction and enjoyed it as more than mere mindless adventure, and I would like to try one of the novels.

8. George MacDonald Fraser is a modern heir to Sabatini, writing lighthearted historical novels in his Flashman series, or standalone novels such as The Candlemass Road and Black Ajax. People whose opinion I respect absolutely love Fraser’s fiction, certainly an impetus to try them myself.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Best Writer of the Decade, part 2

It will come as no surprise that Robert A. Heinlein was the most important writer of the 1940s. His influence grew through that decade and the 1950s when his series of young adult novels created an entire generation of “Heinlein’s children.” However, my favorite writer of the 1940s was Clifford D. Simak, whose pastoral science fiction appealed to me much moreso than any pre-1960s writer. It is perhaps best seen in his fixup novel City about the future of Earth under the care of evolved dogs and robots.

The most important writer of the 1950s is Arthur C. Clarke, who is rightfully remembered as one of the “Big Three” of sf’s Golden Age (along with Isaac Asimov who wrote most of his groundbreaking stuff in the same two decades as Heinlein and Clarke). Nobody popularized science or created so much sense of wonder about the future as Clarke in novel such as The City and The Stars and Childhood’s End.

But my favorite writer of the 1950s is Poul Anderson whose hard science fiction, fantasies, and future histories combine thoughtfulness with outstanding plotting more than almost any other sf writer. I am very pleased that Baen Books is currently reprinting all of his Polesotechnic League and Terran Empire stories.

Onto the 1960s where the most important writer and my favorite writer as well is Roger Zelazny, who melded science fiction with fantasy better than anybody before or after. Novels such as Lord of Light and This Immortal also featured the writing style of a poet whose love of words made every line glow. It is hard to imagine the “New Wave” having as much influence as it did without the fiction of Roger Zelazny to popularize it.

After the experimentation of the 1960s, the 1970s were a decade of “retrenching,” in which science fiction more resembled the period from 1940-1960 in form and themes, yet was still influenced by the literary experimentation of the 1960s. The most important writer of that decade was Larry Niven, whose “known space” stories, highlighted by Ringworld, were as much responsible for the renewed popularity of traditional sf.

My favorite writer of the 1970s was Robert Silverberg whose sense of storytelling, and tales of self-discovery were at their peak from 1966 through 1975, a period during which he wrote a seemingly endless stream of thoughtful science fiction such as “Hawksbill Station,” “Nightwings,” Dying Inside, A Time of Changes and so many more.

I was disappointed in science fiction in the 1980s since it was the beginning of nearly 20 years in which sf mostly ignored the far-future and concentrated on the present and near future, usually dismally. The most important writer of the cyberpunk era was William Gibson, whose Neuromancer set the tone for what I consider near-future dismal sf.

My favorite writer of the decade was Michael Bishop, who blended sfnal speculation with literary ideals better than any other writer besides Ursula K Le Guin. My favorite stories of his included “Her Habiline Husband,” No Enemy But Time and Brittle Innings.

The late 1990s and 2000s saw the revival of traditional science fiction for a second time, originally in the pages of Interzone, although it gradually spread through the sf field. Perhaps the most important writer in this movement, and thus the most important writer of the 1990s, was Stephen Baxter, whose xeelee stories and H.G. Wells’ tribute The Time Ships were major reasons for that revival (which has recently been referred to as “new space opera”).

Much as I enjoy Baxter’s fiction, my favorite writer of the 1990s was Kim Stanley Robinson, the heir apparent to Robert Silverberg and Michael Bishop with his character-driven storytelling in such novel as the Mars trilogy.

It is too soon to designate any writer as the most important writer of the recently-concluded 2000s, so I will defer that decade for a later time.

Decade / Writer of the Decade / My Favorite Writer
1900s / H.G. Wells / H.G. Wells
1910s / Edgar Rice Burroughs / A. Merritt
1920s / E.E. Smith / Murray Leinster
1930s / John W. Campbell, Stanley G. Weinbaum / Stanley G. Weinbaum
1940s / Robert A. Heinlein / Clifford D. Simak
1950s / Arthur C. Clarke / Poul Anderson
1960s / Roger Zelazny / Roger Zelazny
1970s / Larry Niven / Robert Silverberg
1980s / William Gibson / Michael Bishop
1990s / Stephen Baxter / Kim Stanley Robinson