Visions of Paradise

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Four For Tomorrow

Continuing my dipping into fiction by my favorite authors (starting with Clifford D. Simak’s Strangers in the Universe, followed by C.J. Cherryh's Finity’s End), I reread Roger Zelazny’s first collection Four For Tomorrow, which contains four of his early novelettes, three of which rank among the best fiction he has ever written.

“The Graveyard Heart” is in the sfnal tradition of stories examining the lives of bored immortals, except it has typical Zelazny twists to it. The members of the Set are not really immortal; they undergo cold sleep for most of their lives, only awakening for brief interludes during which they are required to party before cameras for the rest of the envious world to watch them. They are the ultimate celebrities, living only for the adulation of others, yet membership in the Set is very exclusive. Money alone is not sufficient; all applicants must be approved by a single old-fashioned matron whose standards are both very high and totally unfathomable.

Zelazny’s strength is creating a milieu and exploring the emotions of his characters, but this story has somewhat more plot that usual. The main character Moore begins the story as an engineer anxious to join the Set for various reasons: the thrill of being part of such an exclusive group; the chance to live far into the future; infatuation with one member of the Set. Soon after joining though, he becomes more enamored with the Set than with the woman he had pursued, while she has fallen in love with Moore and wishes to leave the set and have his baby. “The Graveyard Heart” is a powerful story which illustrates all of Zelazny’s strengths without exposing any of his weaknesses as a plotter.

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” is a rousing adventure story which won the very first Best Novelette Nebula Award 45 years ago. Set on a classical ocean-covered Venus, it involves a hunt for a deep-sea creature which has never been captured, by a rich dilettante and her former lover who is the baitman. The story is equal parts love story, deep-sea adventure, and sense of wonder, the type of story which might have been a throwaway if written by somebody other than Roger Zelazny whose writing had the ability to make even the flimsiest plot better than enjoyable.

The last story in the book is “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” the first story which brought Zelazny to the attention of fandom, earning a Hugo nomination in 1964. It is the tale of a poet named Gallinger who is also a linguist, as well as a genius and an egomaniac. He is part of an expedition to Mars studying the few remaining Martian natives and their culture. He is the first human permitted to enter their sacred temple area and view their ancient texts. In a relatively brief novelette, Zelazny shows us the wonders of the ancient Martian culture, the Martian religion, the natives themselves, and the growth of Gallinger as he both immerses himself in the Martian texts and falls in love with a Martian girl. But the love story is much more than merely that, as it involves the fate of the entire Martian race.

“Rose” is one of the all-time finest science fiction stories, chosen by the SWFA as the sixth best sf story written prior to 1965, and if it were the only story Roger Zelazny had ever written, he would still be one of the giants of science fiction. If you have never read it, then find it somewhere. Four For Tomorrow is only available as a used paperback, although The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is in print.

However, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” and “The Graveyard Heart” are all contained in the recent NESFA Press edition of Threshold Volume 1: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, which also contains his other classic novella “He Who Shapes” and more than a dozen other early Zelazny stories. You cannot go wrong buying that volume instead.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Observations on the Hugo nominees

The list of Hugo Award nominations is often more interesting than the actual winners. This year there are 6 nominees in three of the four fiction categories; I wonder why that is. Was it an arbitrary decision of the con committee, or were there actually ties for the 5th slot in each category? It seems unlikely to have three such ties unless the nominations were so spread out that a relatively few numbers of nominations were needed to make the ballot.

The Best Novel category is probably most notable for the absence of both Charles Stross and John Scalzi on it. Stross had been nominated in this category six consecutive years, while Scalzi three of the last four years. However, neither writer was ignored by their considerable number of fans, since both were nominated in the Best Novella category, and Stross in Best Novelette as well. Robert Sawyer continued his string of nominations for Best Novel, with his 9th nomination in that category since 1995, including a win in 2003 for Hominids.

Of the most critically-acclaimed novels of 2009, China Mieville’s The City and the City appeared on nearly every best-of-the-year list I saw, followed at a distance by fellow nominees Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest and The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Among the most acclaimed novels of 2009, only The Devil’s Alphabet, by Daryl Gregory, did not earn a Hugo nomination. That’s not a bad correlation between general acclaim and Hugo nominations.

Several perennial Hugo favorites received nominations, including Nancy Kress’ “Act One” and Ian McDonald’s "Vishnu at the Cat Circus” for Best Novella, and Mike Resnick’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” for Best Short Story.

I would assume that Jack Vance’s autobiographical This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is “I”) is the favorite in the Best Related Book category, although he is pitted against two other Hugo favorites in 5-time winner Michael Swanwick (for Hope-In-The-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees) and 3-time winner John Clute (Canary Fever: Reviews).

Many people have assumed that the Best Editor, Long Form category was created to reward David Hartwell for his excellence (and popularity), but he was not even nominated this year after winning it the past two years. 2007 winner Patrick Nielsen Hayden is presumably the favorite this year.

Only Gordon Van Gelder and Ellen Datlow have won the Best Editor, Short Form category since its inception in 2007, so presumably they are the co-favorites again this year.

The fan categories always lend themselves to evaluation. Last year’s Best Fanzine winner Electric Velocipede was not nominated this year, although perennial nominees File 770 and Challenger were. Three of the six nominees (File 770, Challenger and Argentus) are basically annuals, while Banana Wings and The Drink Tank are more regular, but I suspect the latter two have little chance of actually winning the award. The sixth nominee StarShipSofa is a podcast website, which should be an interesting vote considering last year’s winner was a webzine.

The biggest shock in the nominations is that Dave Langford is not on the Best Fan Writer list. He has not won the award the past two years (losing to John Scalzi and Cheryl Morgan), after having won it 21 of the previous 23 years. Interestingly, his early losses were to Mike Glyer who won the award three times, but he is not on the ballot either this year in spite of his fanzine File 770 being nominated for Best Fanzine. So there will definitely be a first-time winner in the category this year. Although Steven Silver has 11 total career nominations in this category and Best Fanzine and Chris Garcia has 6, I would guess that first-time nominee Fred Pohl, who earned a nomination for his popular blog, is the favorite to win.

Best Fan Artist has regular nominees Brad Foster, Sue Mason, Taral Wayne and Steve Stiles, although Foster and Mason have won it 8 times between them while neither Stiles nor Wayne have ever won it in spite of 8 nominations each. Inertia is often a factor in Hugo voting, so presumably Foster and Mason are the favorites here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Finity's End

I have more science fiction books by only two other authors than C.J. Cherryh, 48 books by Robert Silverberg and 35 books by Roger Zelazny. Cherryh is third with 30 books (and since she is still writing, she is probably destined to overtake Zelazny at some point, although his six-volume complete short fiction by NESFA Press might hold her off awhile).

While her fantasies are good (especially the Morgaine saga), and so are such series as The Faded Sun, Foreigner and Chanur, generally her books which I enjoy most are those set in the Alliance-Union war, stories such as Downbelow Station, Merchanter’s Luck and Cyteen.

Finity’s End
is set in that universe after the end of the Company War when various forces in the settled portion of the galaxy are struggling to co-exist somewhat peacefully. The novel has two main focuses. One is the struggle by the leadership of the merchant alliance warship Finity’s End to broker a more lasting peace than currently exists in the human-settled portion of the galaxy through economic negotiations. The other focus is a coming-of-age tale of young Fletcher, who grew up on Pell Station, an orbiting habitat around a world which contains the only known intelligent aliens in human space. Fletcher’s mother was a crewmember on Finity’s End, whose entire crew consist of a vast network of relatives, referred to onboard ship as “cousins”–which they mostly are. But for some reason she was sent to Pell Station when she was pregnant with Fletcher, and her dependence on drugs caused her to lose custody of her son who drifted from one foster family to another, all of them bad experiences. Thus Fletcher grew up an angry, disillusioned station dweller who for most of his childhood had no idea what, if anything, he wanted to do with his life.

After his mother’s death, Fletcher made a determined effort to find a role at the station, and studied planetary science while spending time on the planet below studying the hisa and becoming particularly close to two of them. Just when it seemed as if things were going well for him though, Finity’s End returned to Pell Station and, as part of a larger political dealing, regained custody of Fletcher and brought him onboard the ship. The novel examines how Fletcher fits in with a crew consisting of people who all grew up together and who understand ship life intricately, while he knows none of them, has no wish to be part of them, and also understands nothing about life aboard ship.

He is immediately put into a group of four other seventeen-year olds, the “junior juniors” of the crew; however, they have spent considerable time in transit so the other three are physically twelve-year olds, and tend to act it at times. However, they have a much deeper knowledge base about life on Finity’s End, so Fletcher is in a situation where he spends most of his time with much younger kids who know more than he does. He rooms with Jeremy, whose closest family all died in the recent war, so he immediately attaches himself to Fletcher as an older brother. Vince, another of the four, dislikes Fletcher and goes out of his way to annoy him.

The four “junior juniors” are under the direct control of J.R., who is the leader of the “senior juniors,” who are all older than Fletcher but physically similar to him. Some of them resent Fletcher’s joining the crew, and the tension boils over several times into fighting, especially between Fletcher and Chad, his nemesis on the ship. But Fletcher has another unknown enemy on Finity’s End who is determined to undermine his efforts to become part of the crew and bond with the other cousins.

Finity’s End is a strong novel, equally divided between character study and political maneuvering. Much of it is devoted to showing what life is really like on a spacecraft, considerably more complex than is shown in most other space operas. Cherryh continues to grow as a writer, and while I enjoyed the first three Foreigner novels, I am glad she has returned to Merchanter space with her recent novel Regenesis, which I hope to read soon as well. Finity’s End is highly recommended.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Strangers in the Universe

My first favorite science fiction author was Clifford D. Simak. I discovered him on Christmas morning, 1963, in the January issue of Worlds of IF with a short story “The Shipshape Miracle.” The next day when I ran to the candy store to buy the February issue of Galaxy, he also had a novelette “Day of Truce.” A few months later Galaxy serialized his classic novel Way Station (under the title Here Gather the Stars).

Later that year I bought my first sf collection, Simak’s Strangers in the Universe, a brief book containing 7 stories which I have recalled fondly for nearly 50 years. As I mentioned last time, I recently decided to devote the next month or so to reading books by my favorite authors, so this was the first book I selected. It is not always wise to reread something which made such an impression on me when I was a teenager, but happily this book well-rewarded my rereading of it.

I love Simak’s approach to storytelling. Not a lot of action or violence, mostly people trying to figure out a mystery logically. Often the mystery is philosophical in nature. “Retrograde Evolution” is concerned with why an intelligent race of aliens deliberately abandoned their level 10 culture to regress to a level 14 culture. “Beachhead” deals with first contact with aliens who calmly tell the humans they will never leave that planet, but take no action to deter them.

Simak’s fiction has its share of villains, such as the two guides in “Mirage” who abandon an archaeologist in a brutal Martian desert to seek out ancient treasure. Some villains are merely misguided, as in “Target Generation,” when inhabitants of a generation ship have forgotten all about their centuries-long mission, and consider one man’s attempts to land the ship pure blasphemy which they fear will destroy them all.

The stories are always fascinating, usually gentle–Simak’s trademark–and invariably thought-provoking. They generally contain a satisfying resolution, even if it is not always a pleasant one. I cannot think of another sf author who so consistently combines speculation, thoughtfulness, and an overriding philosophy that goodness will generally overcome evil in the long run. If only the world was more of a Simakian one.

I can’t wait to start reading another of his anthologies.