Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Essential Reading

School’s out for summer ... School’s out forever!!! While there are certainly negatives to this fact, one positive about it is that now I can spend a lot more time reading. Considering that my Books-to-be-Read list include 298 works of fiction and 45 works of nonfiction, as well as the bundle of Hugo nominees which I recently downloaded from Aussiecon (which all supporting members get free as part of their $50 membership fee; I recommend doing so very highly), that’s a lot of reading to do.

I’ve scanned the unread books and made the following list of Essential Reading which I hope to tackle first:

Science Fiction and Fantasy:
Vacuum Diagrams / Stephen Baxter
Sea-Kings of Mars / Leigh Brackett
Stories of Your Life / Ted Chiang
Year’s Best SF 26 / Gardner Dozois
Best SF #13, 15 / David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Time Travelers Never Die / Jack McDevitt
Cauldron / Jack McDevitt
Northwest Smith / C. L. Moore
Federation / L. Beam Piper
Galileo’s Dream / Kim Stanley Robinson
Julian Comstock / Robert Charles Wilson
Anathem / Neal Stephenson

Historical Fiction:
Jerusalem / Cecelia Holland
Cider House Rules / John Irving
The Last Witchfinder / James Morrow
Empress / Shan Sa
Ivanhoe / Sir Walter Scott

The Creators / Daniel Boorstin
From Stonehenge to Samarkand / Brian Fagan
Terry Jones’ Barbarians
Under the Tuscan Sun / Frances Mayes
Full Circle / Michael Palin
The Search For Modern China / Jonathan Spence
The Italian 100 / Stephen Stignesi
The Distant Mirror / Barbara W. Tuchman

Any suggestions where I should begin?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Aussiecon and e-readers

The last worldcon I attended was in 1981, the first one I attended with my wife who was totally bored the entire weekend. While I have yearned to attend another one, it has never seemed fair to do so. I’ve been fortunate to receive copies of all the Memory Books through friends and APAs that I’ve belonged to.

Other friends have encouraged me to join worldcons for the purpose of voting for the Hugo Awards, but as the cost of Supporting Memberships has escalated, it never seemed worthwhile to spend $40-50 just to vote for the Hugo Awards and receive a few Progress Reports, when I was fairly certain I would get a copy of the Memory Book for free.

Until this year. Aussiecon is providing a bundle of electronic versions of all the Hugo nominees. That includes novels and novellas, a package which itself is certainly worth the $50 cost. So I joined a week ago, and this morning I downloaded the bundle of nominated novels. Of course, being largely apathetic about technology–I use it similarly to how I use my car, great for driving but who cares about the functions under the hood?–I have not yet figured out how to access those novels. Fortunately, my computer guru is coming visiting today, so I assume that problem will be solved imminently.

Since I will be retiring from my job in one more week, I anticipate actually having time to read the Hugo nominations this year, and hopefully vote before the deadline next month. That would be my first Hugo vote in nearly 30 years, not that I expect it to have any influence on the outcome. I wonder if I’ll feel more disappointed in the award results when I actually participate in them?

I’ve been considering reading more e-books rather than keep filling up my house with paper books, but I have not yet determined the best format for doing so. I tend to oppose the Kindle, because it does not seem as if I would actually have possession of a book, rather paying for access to a book which would be “stored” at I want an e-reader which enables me to keep a copy of the book I purchase on my computer. Is that asking too much, or too antiquated a need? I’m not sure, but right now that is one of my requirements for an e-reader.

I’ve never been one to jump on new technology, so I’m waiting patiently for the new e-readers to work out their bugs until I make a purchase. While it will not be overly-convenient reading the Hugo-nominated works on my computer, that will do until I work out exactly how I want to enter the e-reading era.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cat Tales

I do not receive review copies of books from publishers, probably because I do not publicize my review blog to them. But for some reason about a year ago Wildside Press sent me a copy of their original anthology Cat Tales, edited by George H. Scithers. Recently I was looking for some easy reading, so I took that book with me. My expectations were not particularly high, but I am a cat lover, so how bad could the stories be? Especially since one of Scithers’ requirements for the stories was “to avoid cats coming to a bad end on stage.” That was fine with me.

Overall, the stories were delightful. While the book’s subtitle was “Fantastic Feline Fiction,” relatively few of the stories actually fell into a sub-genre of the fantastic, which did not affect their overall quality at all. Nor were the stories upbeat–in fact, I would put the majority in the downbeat category–but the delightful cats made up for that. Highlights include:

• Nancy Springer’s “American Curls,” a mystery about an old lady with 90 cats who is mugged for no apparent reason;
• Fritz Leiber’s “Kreativity for Kats,” which is about precisely what the title describes;
• Sandra Beswetherick’s “Angelique’s,” in which a wandering lover is lured back to his former girlfriend by her cat;
• Pat Esden’s “Black Pumps & A Skanky Tom,” which told of a down-and-out drunk living in a trailer park whose cat leads him to clues about a particularly gruesome murder, but the police do not believe he is a reliable source of information;
• ShereemnVerdem’s “Dragon Dreams,” about a veterinarian and her two cats who slip into an alternate dimension where they provide medical assistance to a dragon whose baby is having trouble trying to crack its shell;
• K.D. Wentworth’s “Cat Call,” which is a murder mystery told from the point of view of the cat, which actually solves the mystery and then somehow tries to point out the clues to his rather clueless owner;

Fred Chappell’s “Creeper Shadows” is the longest story in the book (over 17,000 words, where no other story is longer than 8,000 words) and also the most substantial one. It is a medieval-type fantasy involving two mysteries. The first involves a pair of twins who only share a single shadow, while the other involves a man whose voice has been stolen from him. The style of the story seems to fall into the sub-genre of Vance’s Dying Earth-influenced stories, but it is well done and very interesting, a fine capstone to the collection.

Now here’s the real creepy part about this book: halfway through it, I had decided that it was enjoyable enough that I intended to purchase the sequel Cat Tales II from Wildside Press. The very next day in the mail came an envelope containing that very book! Unordered, without any chance of the publisher having seen my review of the first book since it had not been written yet.

What is going on here? Buy the book; you’ll enjoy it, but be prepared for supernatural effects to follow.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Science Fiction Book Club

I joined the SFBC for the first time in 1967 and my initial selections were Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions. In those early years, nearly all the choices in their monthly catalog were science fiction, with an occasional fantasy to break the monotony. There were always so many good choices that it was possible to maintain a science fiction book collection entirely through purchases from that club.

But now? I am sitting with the most recent SFBC catalog. Its cover is from David Weber’s latest Honor Harrington novel Mission of Honor, but when I scanned the contents of the catalog, it seemed that book was in a definite minority of sf books offered within. All I noticed were endless fantasies and contemporary and near-contemporary thrillers about vampires and such. But was that observation a fact or perhaps my prejudiced view of books I had no particular interest in? So I went through the entire catalog and categorized each book in it. There was considerable overlap, but I tried to select which genre each book fit best. Here are the results:

Genre / Total / percent of overall total
Fantasy / 65 / 44%
Science Fiction / 50 / 34%
contemporary & near-contemporary thrillers / 23 / 16%
Horror / 5 / 3%
Media/comics tie-ins / 3 / 2%

While I am not surprised that fantasy and contemporary & near-contemporary thrillers total 60% of the books offered, 34% is actually a higher percentage of science fiction than I would have guessed before I began my tallying. However, most of the books in all categories are not new to the catalog. So considering only new books, I found the following sf books which I believe appeared in the SFBC catalog for the first time:

Mission of Honor / David Weber
Ship Breaker / Paolo Bacigalupi
Deceiver / C.J. Cherryh

Can a science fiction fan still maintain a collection exclusively through the SFBC? It is unlikely that all three of the new sf books would appeal to each reader (I personally have no interest in the Weber military sf book), so 2 books per catalog seem a fairly skimpy amount. Thus, as the amount of published science fiction continues to grow (in total numbers, albeit as a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall genre market which grows even faster), the amount offered through the SFBC does seem to be shrinking.

How long will it be before the powers-that-be decide to rename it the Fantasy Book Club to better reflect their main concern?