Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Great Science Fiction Short Novels, part 1

Groff Conklin was one of the finest and most important anthologizers of pre-1960 science fiction, and it is unfortunate that he has been mostly forgotten since his death. Starting with The Best of Science Fiction in 1946, through The Classic Book of Science Fiction in 1982, he edited or co-edited more than 45 reprint anthologies, the majority of which were science fiction. A contemporary reader could not do better discovering the history of the sf genre than by reading a selection of Conklin’s anthologies, such as Six Great Science Fiction Short Novels, which was originally published in 1960.

The opening story is Isaac Asimov’s “Galley Slave,” one of his robot stories which, as usual, explores the ramifications of the Three Laws of Robotics. This story is primarily a courtroom mystery about a university professor suing U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. since one of its robots allegedly destroyed his career by deliberately changing his career-defining paper during the editing process. As usual, this was a clever, although not particularly deep, story that was fun reading.

Judith Merrill’s “Project Nursemaid” is the longest story in the book, at nearly 35,000 words. Although it was originally published in F&SF in 1955, it is a definite precursor of the 1960s New Wave since it is primarily a character study of several people seen through the eyes of the narrator, who also develops as a person during the long novella. The story is only borderline science fiction, since it is concerned with a project which is selecting babies to be raised in space under lesser-gravity conditions, as well as women to serve as their nursemaids. But other than this premise, the story could easily have been revised to be a mainstream story. In any case, it was very well done, and very enjoyable reading, one of the highlights of the book.

Of my very favorite writers–Silverberg, Bishop, Robinson, Simak, Zelazny, Cherryh–the one who speaks to me most personally is Simak. Very frequently while reading one of his stories I find myself nodding in agreement, thinking about how what he says relates to my own life. Such is true in “The Final Gentleman.” It is the story of a famous writer who decides he cannot write any longer, and almost immediately afterwards all he recalls about his past life is turning out to be false. This is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, except Simak resolves the whole situation in a very sfnal manner. Not top-notch Simak, but even mid-level Simak is better than most other writers.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Three Hugo-nominated novellas

After I downloaded the Hugo-nominated stories this summer, I started reading the novellas first. Unfortunately, I did not finish reading them until after the voting deadline passed, because reading them on my computer was inconvenient and I did not buy an e-reader until September. So, better late than never, here are my comments on three of the nominated novellas.

The first one I read was Nancy Kress since she is my favorite among the nominated authors. “Act One” was reminiscent of her brilliant “Beggars in Spain,” which was both a plus and a minus. A plus because this was also a strong, thought-provoking story with a well-developed point-of-view character. A minus because “Act One” had several noticeable flaws. The premise was that an illegal underground movement was gene-modifying children to be empathetic to the point of nearly reading people’s minds, hoping to eventually spread the ripples through the entire population. The tension arises when the group develops a faster way of infecting the entire population with an urge for nurturing.

The main character is the agent for a fading movie star who is to play the lead in a movie about this movement, and who thus contacts members of the illegal Group to research her role. The story is typically well-written for Kress, and the plot develops well and interestingly. However, Kress tries a bit too hard to jack up the story’s importance by giving the protagonist an emotional sub-plot all his own. He is a dwarf who has been alienated by his wife and normal-sized son since the birth of the son. I was never convinced of the rationale behind the dwarf’s actions which alienated his wife, nor of the subsequent effect on the son. A more jarring flaw though was that the Group, whose main goal is to spread empathy and nurturing through the entire population, so tightly-controls their members that anybody who proves dissatisfactory to their needs is immediately and viciously killed. Kress needed to show more of the Group’s motivations for this seemingly contradictory behavior to be believable. “Act One” had enough strengths to be a worthy Hugo nominee, but too many questions to be the winner.

Next I read Kage Baker’s “The Women of Nell Gwynne,” which is set in the currently-popular era of Victorian London. This setting—as well as similar settings around the world during the same era—have grown so popular in recent years that they have been given the name Steampunk, as if they are an actual movement, akin to Cyberpunk or New Space Opera. I have not really seen anything deserving of a movement since these stories share only a setting and some sfnal tropes rather than any philosophical basis. Still I have found most stories set in this milieu to be generally interesting. As was this story of a house of prostitution which serves as spies for the government. Baker was a very facile storyteller whose plots were generally fast-paced and interesting, with characters easy to relate to. Nothing major—or, in this case, award-worthy—but recommended for light reading.

Next I read John Scalzi’s “The God Engine.” This is the first Scalzi I have ever read, although I am familiar with his reputation for writing Heinlein-type fiction. This story did not remind me of Heinlein so much as a 1950s Ace Double or perhaps a story from the pages of Worlds of IF in the 1960s. The title is precisely the premise of the story: the universe contains numerous “gods” whose followers apparently warred many centuries ago until one god won out. Now he is the Lord who rules the galaxy while the other remaining gods are enslaved as some type of propulsion for starcraft. This premise is not particularly believable, nor is any attempt made to explain or justify it. The entire premise seems to be merely a convenient foundation for the story.

Nor is the religion of the victorious Lord developed any more than a bunch of typical clichés: autocratic leaders who seem more concerned with power than faith, followers who automatically spout the “official” beliefs, and a main character who is naturally skeptical about all of it. If a story based on religion is to be taken seriously, its beliefs and followers must display at least some philosophical depth or conflict. That does not exist at all in this story which, combined with the illogical background of the gods themselves, reduces this novella to little more than traditional pulp fiction.

I do not mean to disparage Scalzi’s writing, since a pulp homage might have been his intent for the story. It is fast-paced adventure, enjoyable so long as I did not take any of it too seriously or look for any depth beneath the surface plot. This type of story would have fit nicely besides the light adventures of writers such as Keith Laumer, Christopher Anvil and Mack Reynolds, all of whom were staples of the 1960s prozines. But these stories were never considered award-winners, nor should this one be on the Hugo ballot.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Godlike Machines, part 3

Sean Williams’ A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure (and the Threat It Entails)” is a complicated title for an equally-complicated story. On a future Earth people live in layers beneath the Earth. Two detectives are investigating the death of a person who is actually one of the two detectives. The other detective is apparently a spy from space sending back information he is garnering about life beneath Earth. Most of the story consists of the two detectives wandering aimlessly in the various levels beneath the surface while a mysterious entity called the Director is randomly killing people on each level, somehow related to the arrival of the two detectives. And the detective who is fated to die seems unconcerned either about her own death or the Director, but instead is seeking some mysterious being she calls Trelayne.

Sound confusing? The climax of the story does not really explain any of it, but introduces an explanation equally as complicated as the story itself. While I actually enjoyed reading this story, ultimately it was more senseless than satisfactory.

Robert Reed’s “Alone” is a tale of the Great Ship, his fabulous series about a gigantic ship which was apparently built by an ancient alien race, then abandoned and claimed by humans for a trans-galactic tour. Its inhabitants are members of numerous alien races, and their interaction provides much of the basis of the stories in the series. “Alone” is about an ancient being who has been hiding in the great ship for millennia before being sighted by one of the ship’s numerous captains, who considers the being a danger to the entire ship. The being’s efforts to elude the captain and survive are interesting, if not particularly gripping. While this is not one of the highlights of the series (such as “The Remoras” or “Marrow”), it is still typically-good Reed.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Godlike Machines, part 2

The second story in the original anthology Godlike Machines is Stephen Baxter’s “Return to Titan,” which is related to the Michael Poole sub-series of his Xeelee series. I have not read the Michael Poole novels, although I know who he is through being mentioned in several stories in Baxter's Xeelee anthology Resplendent. This story reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Meeting With Medusa” and Rendezvous With Rama, since its primary emphasis was on exploring Titan and featured much scientific talk and discovery.

But since this was a Baxter story, rather than a Clarke story, there was also a strong human-interest aspect. The three explorers of Titan brought along a fourth member who was “gang-pressed” into joining them against his wishes, and the explorers were also breaking the law in disrupting a place which might contain sentience. Early in their exploration, their vehicle is destroyed first by being forced to crash on the surface by creatures resembling giant birds, and then it is totally torn apart for its metal by giant spider-like beings.

This was a good story along the lines of one of Clarke’s 70s “grand tour” stories, and while it is not Baxter at the top of his form, even middle Baxter is enjoyable reading.

Next came Cory Doctorow’s “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow / Now is the Best Time of Your Life.” Doctorow is one of the few writers obsessed with technology whose fiction I enjoy, largely because he never forgets to tell a human-interest story which uses technological advances to set the background. In this story, Jimmy is a near-immortal boy who for most of the story remains physically 10 years old even though he has been alive for four decades. At the story’s start, Jimmy and his dad are two of the few humans living in a shattered Detroit, using giant mecha in their struggle to keep the remnants intact against attacks by equally-powerful wampuses determined to destroy all remnants of the great cities.

After Jimmy flees Detroit, he spends the next twenty years living in a commune whose members are artificially joined in a common emotional-bond through wires in their head, but Jimmy’s immortality prevents him from total connection to the others. Still he lives there peacefully until Jimmy’s childhood friend from Detroit shows up, who happens to be daughter of the man who destroyed the city. This is a good story about people’s motives and relationships in the midst of constant warfare between city and country. The story got a bit muddled at the end though, when the technology got out of control and the storyline got buried as a result, but most of it was worthwhile reading.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Godlike Machines, part 1

I have mixed feelings about anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan. I like the fact that he tends towards longer, novella-length stories in books such as the four volumes of Best Short Novels and the new Godlike Machines. I dislike the fact that he tends to mix fantasy with science fiction indiscriminately. I liked the fact that he has a predilection for science fiction set in the far future off planet Earth. I dislike the fact that he has a weakness for stories steeped in technological ideas wrapped in fancy language to the exclusion of characterization and strong plotting.

Every volume of Best Short Novels had a few stories I could not finish, as did The New Space Opera, co-edited with Gardner Dozois. I do not read his annual Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, because I can get two volumes devoted exclusively to science fiction (edited by Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer).

But I jumped on Godlike Machines as soon as it was released, because it certainly excluded fantasy, and likely cyberpunk (near future dismal) in favor of large concepts sf, which I like a lot. Plus it contained three of my very favorite authors (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter and Robert Reed), as well as Cory Doctorow, Sean Williams and Greg Egan, all excellent writers.

The first story in the book is “Troika,” by Alastair Reynolds, which has lots of elements to it, including two parallel storylines:

• In the “present,” a former cosmonaut escapes from a mental institution and risks his life in a raging Russian snowstorm to find an aging astronomer and tell her that what he discovered on his last mission verified her theory for which she had been vilified and humiliated publicly;

• In the “past,” that mission is shown, as three cosmonauts explore this story’s Big Dumb Object, which had appeared inside the solar system and to date has resisted examination. But they succeed in entering it and learn amazing things as their lives change drastically, explaining why they end up as inmates in an insane asylum.

Both storylines are interesting, the one in the “present” having more characterization while the one in the “past” has more plot tension. They both mesh together eventually, and the story reaches a totally unexpected but believable ending. This is not Reynolds’ best story, nor his most technological, but still a good one. Then again, I have never read an Alastair Reynolds story that was not good.

As I finish each story, I will post its review here.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Reprint anthologies

One of my favorite ways of keeping up with the sf field’s diversity and authors I might have missed is by reading reprint anthology series. I enjoy original anthologies, but those tend to be a mixed bag, not much different from an issue of a prozine with highs and lows, fantasy and science fiction all mixed together.

Reprint anthologies tend to be more exclusively science fiction, some of them restricted to specific themes or periods of time, but others which sprawl over the entire genre both thematically and temporally. Here are some of my favorite series. I will begin with best-of-the-year anthologies, of which there have been numerous series in the past 60 years. Recently, many of them tend to combine f&sf in the same volume, which disappoints me a bit. While I enjoy reading occasional fantasy, too much of it falls into one of my blind spots: either it is contemporary, or deals with tedious tropes such as vampires, zombies or werewolves, or is too close to horror fiction. So the best-of-the-year series I have read have always been pure sf:

The Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Terry Carr (15 volumes before he combined it with fantasy);
Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr (7 volumes before they went their separate ways);
Science Fiction: The Great Years, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg (my collection runs from 1951 through 1964, although the series actually started with 1939);
Nebula Award Stories, various editors (I have 19 volumes of the 46 years the series has been published; recent editions have been too idiosyncratic with too much nonfiction, poetry, and non-nominated fiction);
The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois (27 volumes to date; perhaps not as high an overall quality as Carr’s series, but its huge size enables it to contain many outstanding stories, including several novellas each year);
Best Short Novels, edited by Jonathan Strahan (4 volumes; although this series contains both f&sf, my love of novellas trumped that weakness);
Year’s Best SF, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (15 volumes; this series is narrower in focus than either Carr’s or Dozois’, but its choice of traditional/hard sf is invariably good reading);

Sometimes the other reprint anthology series are even better than the best-of-the-year ones:

The Hugo Winners, various editors (I only have 4 volumes edited by Isaac Asimov, and since they are limited to winners only, they are all worthwhile reading);
The Mammoth Books of [Short Novels of the Decade], edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg (5 volumes from the1930s through the 1970s; a lot of very good stuff, although the stories might not represent the absolute best of any decade);
▸ various compilation anthologies edited by David G. Hartwell (I have 4 of them covering sf: The Ascent of Wonder, The Science Fiction Century, The Space Opera Renaissance and The World Treasury of Science Fiction; 2 fantasy: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment and Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder; and 1 horror The Dark Descent; all of the mare highly recommended);
Alpha, edited by Robert Silverberg (9 volumes which tend to emphasize the 1950s, but cover the entire pre-1970 history of science fiction; since Silverberg’s taste tends to parallel my own, I enjoyed this series a lot);
▸ various compilation anthologies edited by Brian W. Aldiss (I have 5 of these so far: Galactic Empires 1 & 2, Farewell, Fantasy Venus, and Decade the 40s / 50s, co-edited by Harry Harrison; I’m looking to find used copies of his 1970s anthologies Space Odysseys, Space Opera, Evil Earths, Perilous Planets, and Decade the 60s, with Harry Harrison).

There is a ton of great reading in this volumes; sometimes I seriously consider not buying any new books and just reread all this great stuff I already have!