Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Panverse One

Panverse One is an anthology of 5 original novellas edited and published by Dario Ciriello, a young Clarion graduate who in the introduction states that he has “a burning desire to promote a form I’ve personally always loved and enjoyed.” Since novellas are my favorite form of fiction as well, I bought this book eagerly (in spite of the fact that the editor rejected my own submission to it. *sigh*).

Three of the stories were enjoyable reading. Andrew Tisbert’s “Waking the City” is a far-future story in which a rivalry exists between people living in a city, those in a small town, and those living in the jungle between. The main character Kuyo is proclaimed by his mentor Geo to be the likely person to seize control of the city, but things are not so clear, especially when Kuyo’s best friend Castor seems to be associated with the beasts in the jungle.

“Fork You” is a terrible title which I am surprised the editor did not change. But it is a good fantasy about a wild girl in the thrall of two ancient magicians who is adopted by a large, inbred family of hillbillies who begin the process of taming her. Their 30 acres contain a huge, ancient tree which seems to have some type of magical power itself. A lot of clichéd ideas, but the story is done well for most of its length, only faltering a bit at its conclusion.

Jason K. Chapman’s “The Singers of Rhodes” is set on a huge alien space station which rival groups of humans are exploring. One group is the Uni, a military group which has previously invaded and basically destroyed the civilizations on several human colonies, and is threatening the other groups on the station. Inhabiting the space station’s inner walls are huge grasshopper-like beings who do not speak, but sing, and are considered unintelligent by most humans on the space station. But, of course, the narrator and reader suspects otherwise. This story is obviously strongly-influenced by C.J. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance stories, which is an unfortunate comparison since it cannot possibly live up to that inspiration, although the story is enjoyable reading.

My favorite story in the book though is the longest story, nearly double the length of any other, Alan Smale’s “Delusion’s Song.” It is set in Victorian England in the small town of Haworth which has been mysteriously cut off from all surrounding civilization, and is instead set in the midst of endless fields and mountains. The story is centered around a family whose father Patrick is a preacher struggling to maintain the values of a town whose citizens are slowly sinking into an uncivilized state. His son Branwell is a drunk and drug addict ever since his older sister Maria died at boarding school several years ago, and he has antagonized both the women and the men who are determined to teach Branwell a lesson. Patrick also has three surviving daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, each with different strengths: Charlotte has taken over the role of head of the family with their mother and two elder sisters dead; Emily is strong-willed and helps the men patrol the perimeter of the town lest occasional wild stragglers enter it; Anne is learning to be a midwife. All three sisters love books and fiction, and spend much of the story discussing with each other the novels they each hope to write someday.

I have probably given enough spoilers already, but most readers will realize the true identity of the family early in the novella, and then watch their lives develop in the midst of the town’s traumatic situation. This is a very strong novella which should have gotten recognition as one of the best stories of 2009.

Overall, I recommend Panverse One and look forward to other volumes in the series.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Forbidden Planet

It has been many decades since I saw the movie Forbidden Planet, so I was interested in how well a movie from the 1950s would hold up. From the first scene it was obvious that it predated movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey which upped the visual ante considerably for sf movies. And some of the acting was “over the top,” especially in the romantic scenes and Walter Pidgeon’s death scene.

But as for the plot and sense of wonder, the movie still held my attention totally. Forbidden Planet was the antithesis of so many mindless thrillers which masquerade as science fiction. It was thoughtful, with a plot totally dependent on the speculative element, which was the fact that the planet had been the home of an ancient race which had achieved an intellectual level far beyond that of humans before mysteriously dying off. The tension arose from the invisible monster which had picked off all the original colonists 20 years ago, with the exception of Walter Pidgeon and his daughter (played by Anne Francis). After being quiescent for 20 years, it was now doing the same with their relief group, which was led by captain Leslie Nielsen (who was very young and incredibly serious for somebody who became a slapstick actor late in his career) and many other recognizable faces from early tv.

At first I thought the romance between Nielsen and Francis was an unnecessary flourish, but the movie’s creators proved me wrong. Every scene in the movie was relevant to the plot and done well. There was an exciting last scene as the monster chased Nielsen, Francis and Pidgeon through the ancient catacombs, but it was resolved in a satisfactory manner which was totally fitting with the tone of the rest of the movie.

I cannot recommend Forbidden Planet highly enough. I can only think of a small handful of sf movies which entertained and impressed me as much (the 1960 version of The Time Machine, Blade Runner, Dark City and 2001). If you have never seen it, and can ignore the dated visual effects and lack of thrills-and-chills, you should enjoy this movie immensely. It is definitely one of the classics of sf cinema.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Altar at Asconel

John Brunner is one of the forgotten masters of science fiction. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s he published an amazing group of mature sf, starting with The Whole Man and The Squares of the City and continuing with a series of near-future dystopias which were as biting and thought-provoking as anything being written at that time: Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider.

But such works were actually a minority among Brunner’s fiction, most of which were sprightly adventure stories, loosely falling under the then-denigrated form of “space opera,” but always well-plotted, literate and more thoughtful than the lower end of that sub-genre which unfortunately tended to set the standard in the eyes of many readers.

The Altar at Asconel took place in Brunner’s mini-series about a galactic empire which flourished when humans found the technological debris from a former greatly-superior race which had left its discarded spaceships behind when they fled the galaxy for unknown regions. In this novel, the human empire has begun disintegrating, so that piracy and invasions are commonplace.

The three main characters are the sons of the former ruler of Asconel who has been overthrown by an invasion fleet which has established a repressive religion that has won over the hearts and minds of nearly the entire populace of the planet. All three sons are living offworld at the start of the novel, but they soon gather along with two women, one a telepath, and determine to regain their homeworld from the invaders.

The Altar at Asconel is briskly-paced with sufficient character development to be believable. There is no doubt it is a space opera, but a good one. Ironically, it was published in 1965, the same year as Brunner published The Squares of the City, so it was apparent that he was no longer content to be “merely” a writer of space operas and planetary adventures, but this novel was good enough that he had nothing to be ashamed of. Its ending left open the possibility of more novels in the series but, alas, they were apparently never written. This was good, fun stuff.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Year's Best SF: 13

If you need any evidence that the science fiction field is changing, look at the “Story Copyrights” page of Year’s Best SF 13, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The book contains 25 stories first published in 2007 and here are their original publication sites:

• 7 were originally published in traditional prozines (4 in Asimov’s; 2 in F&SF; 1 in Analog);
∙ 5 were published in other magazines (2 in Nature and 2 in Foundation 100 and 1 in Subterranean 7);
∙ 10 were published in anthologies (5 in Fast Forward 1, 2 in The SFWA European Hall of Fame, and 1 each in Eclipse 1, The New Space Opera, and The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction);
∙ 2 were published online (Flurb #3 and Strange Horizons);
∙ 1 was published in a single-author collection (William Shunn’s An Alternate History of the Twenty-first Century.

This might not mean much to you, but compare it to the original publications from Year’s Best SF 1 whose 14 stories first appeared in 1995:

• 10 appeared in traditional prozines;
• 4 appeared in original anthologies.

70% of the stories in 1995 appeared in the traditional prozines, down to 28%. 32% now appear in sources other than prozines /original anthologies, compared to 0% in 1995.

There is little doubt that the traditional prozines have decreased in importance to the sf field when the annual best-of-the-year containing the most traditional type of science fiction has largely moved away from the prozines. I suspect that if we compare the original sites of publication in another decade–assuming the series is still in existence then–we will find even fewer stories from prozines and more from online sources.

Fortunately, the redistribution of original sources has not affected the quality of the stories themselves. They are still all “pure” science fiction (thankfully, since I have wearied of contemporary fantasy, medieval fantasy, Tolkien fantasy, slipstream, magic realism and every other type of fiction which might be good but is definitely not science fiction), running the gamut from near future dismal (not my favorite type) through planetary adventures and space opera. As is typical in any anthology, some stories fell into my personal “blind spot,” but overall the stories were very enjoyable.

The longest story in the book is Gene Wolfe’s “Memorare,” a mystery set amongst personal mausoleums in space. It is a fairly routine story for Wolfe, which is not a bad thing at all. I must confess that some of his multi-layered stories read more like literary exercises than true pleasures.

Tony Ballantyne’s “The Aristotle OS” was an amusing story of a computer operating system which is a lot more rigid than practical. John Kessel’s “The Last American” took a jab at politicians by showing what it really takes to become president of the United States, no matter how unsavory a person one might be. Stephen Baxter’s “No More Stories” tells of a prodigal son who returns to his dying mother’s bedside and finds things considerably different than he expected (or could have expected).

Nancy Kress’ “End Game” is about a scientist who devises a method to devote 100% of a person’s concentration to the task at hand, and the implications this has for such a person’s life. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Always” is a story about immortality and cults.

As usual, Hartwell selects enjoyable stories overall, something for everybody who still enjoys science fiction in the face of the tsunami which fantasy has become.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


I did not begin reading Ivanhoe with particularly high expectations. After all, it was written nearly 200 years ago, and was filled with such clichéd characters as the outlaw Robin Hood, his Merry Men, the noble Richard the Lionhearted, and the evil Prince John. At best I expected it to be light entertainment, but I have been deliberately seeking out classic adventure novels, and the unread portion of my collection also contains such novels as The Hounds of the Baskervilles, The Man Who Was Thursday, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Three Musketeers, The Maltese Falcon, King Solomon’s Mines, The Call of the Wild, Treasure Island, and a few others as well.

I decided to start with Ivanhoe since I have considerable interest in medieval times, having already read several nonfiction books about that era, and having purchased three sets of lectures from The Teaching Company about that era, from the dawn of the Carolingian era to the dawn of the Renaissance.

The overriding story of Ivanhoe is the conflict between the Saxon people of the England and the Norman conquerors, one hundred and thirty years after William of Normandy conquered the country and became King William 1. The current king is Richard the Lionhearted who was been taken prisoner in continental Europe while returning from the Crusades. His deceitful younger brother John has been doing whatever he could to make sure Richard remains a prisoner, while he plans a coup to seize the throne himself. Meanwhile, a group of Saxon lords try everything in their power to regain control of the country from the Normans.

The novel begins at a jousting competition organized by Prince John and featuring several of his primary supporters, including a Templar knight named Brian who is apparently undefeated in such competitions. But he meets his match in two anonymous knights, one of whom is Ivanhoe, the disinherited son of a Saxon lord because of his support of King Richard, and the Black Knight, whose identity becomes obvious very early in the story. Another participant in the competition is an archer named Locksley whose identity also becomes obvious when he shoots an arrow through another arrow into a bullseye.

There are many major characters in the novel, including:
• Cedric, the Saxon lord who is father of Ivanhoe;
• Rowena, the gorgeous young ward of Cedric who is intended to marry another Saxon lord for political purposes, but who loves Ivanhoe;
• Isaac, a Jewish moneylender who is one of Prince John’s major sources of funding;
• Rebecca, his daughter who is a healer responsible for bringing Ivanhoe back to health after he is nearly killed;
• The Templar knight Brian who falls in love with Rebecca, a twice-forbidden love because of his vow of celibacy and their different religions.

There are also many minor characters who play important roles in the novel, including:
• Wamba, who is Cedric’s jester;
• Gurth, a servant of Cedric who, against his wishes, becomes Ivanhoe’s squire;
• the Norman prior of a nearby abbey;
• Friar Tuck.

The pacing of the novel never slows down in spite of long periods of discussion among the characters, and there are several scenes which are outstanding in themselves. One such scene is the battle between the Norman forces who have kidnapped Ivanhoe and taken over a Saxon castle against those who are fighting to recapture it, led by the Black Knight and Locksley. Another climactic scene is the trial of Rebecca for witchery.

It is not surprising that everything works out well in the end, and both the anonymous Black Knight and Locksley become fast friends, while King Richard and the Saxons bury the hatchet between them. There are definitely historical inaccuracies in this book, and much of it is over-the-top, but it was so much fun I recommend it highly.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

In the Company of Others

Julie Czerneda’s In the Company of Others is reminiscent of the Union/Alliance novels of C.J. Cherryh with the emphasis on politics replaced by a biological mystery. Earth’s emigration to other planets was stopped abruptly by an alien entity called “the Quill,” sending all the colonists fleeing to various space stations since Earth refused their return because of fear of contamination by the Quill. All the stations are vastly overcrowded, with their inhabitants forced to live on an alternate-day cycle, sharing work, beds, etc. Food is imported from Earth and tensions are regularly quite high.

The novel’s plot is complicated, but fast-paced, involving an attempt by Earth scientist Gail Smith to eliminate the threat of the Quill. But her arrival on an Earth ship at one station has disrupted the delicate balance between various aspects of the station’s inhabitants, so the novel deals equally with her struggle against the Quill and the intricate relationship between groups of people on the station, including its longtime residents, the offspring of the stranded immigrants, and the Earthers. The main characters are Smith and two of the stationers Pardell and Malley, all of whom are fairly well-developed, having both positive aspects the reader can related to, and weaknesses which affect their behavior and the development of the plot.

Important minor characters include Commander Grant (the leader of the security force on Smith’s ship who balances his duties with his loyalty to the scientist), Tobo (the ship’s captain), and Rosalind (an old-timer on the station). These characters also have balanced personalities, especially Grant who plays a very important role in the events. This was a very satisfying novel which compares favorably to Cherryh’s novels. I believe this is Czerneda’s only standalone novel, but it has encouraged me to try one of her trilogies as well.