Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stephen Whitty, movie critic

Dave Langford runs a feature in Ansible entitled “How They See Us,” which gives tidbits of derogatory opinions of genre science fiction from people steeped in so-called literature. But not everybody has that same attitude. Stephen Whitty is the movie reviewer for the Newark Star-Ledger, who tends to champion the literary side of movies. But in his review of Never Let Me Go, based on the best-selling literary novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, he made two comments I found particularly interesting. First…

I don’t know writer Kazuo Ishigura’s feelings about science fiction, but his “Never Let Me Go” is a bit of speculative fantasy whose ideas and characters pale next to those of far less acclaimed authors.

Then he ended his review with…

Ishiguro is a fine writer … but science fiction doesn’t need his intervention. Because, in the end, there is no division between “literary” works and “genre” entertainment. There are only stories—well or badly told.

Recently, Whitty began his column selecting his favorite movies of the year as follows...

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Credit that inelegant but absolutely defensible observation to Theodore Sturgeon, a smart sci-fi writer who regularly beat those odds in his own work. Tired of being told that most of his genre was garbage, he finally famous replied that most of everything was garbage.

He was a talented man though (and old-time Trekkers can credit him for one of the best episodes, “Amok Time”), and he sure knew how to do percentages.

It’s nice to know that at least one movie reviewer, who probably gets to see more bad science fiction on film than most people, is still open-minded enough and apparently knowledgeable enough to appreciate sf for what it is and not for what they imagine it is!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ensign Flandry

Baen Books might be the most important current publisher of science fiction, since they have been making a determined effort to keep many science fiction writers of the past in print in comprehensive collections. Writers they have rescued from oblivion include Christopher Anvil, Murray Leinster A. Bertram Chandler, Keith Laumer, Andre Norton, Cordwainer Smith, James H. Schmitz, and, perhaps most importantly, Poul Anderson. Baen is nearing the end of publishing all of Anderson’s Polesotechnic League and Terran Empire stories in 7 huge books. While I had a decent selection of those stories previously in my collection, the lure of having all of them in chronological order was too good to pass by.

I decided to start reading the four Flandry books first, since I have much more familiarity with the Van Rijn stories, so figured they could wait awhile. The first volume is entitled Young Flandry and contains three novels detailing the early years of his career. The first novel is suitably entitled Ensign Flandry and discusses one of the earliest incidents of his career, perhaps the earliest. As a 19-year old ensign, Flandry is part of a group attached to Commodore Mark Abrams who are sent to the planet Starkad where the alien Merseian (who are the enemies of the Terran Empire throughout the series) have established a stronghold and are interfering in the natural rivalry between a land-based race and an ocean-based race.

The main plot concerns a high dignitary Lord Hauksberg from Earth who is convinced that the Merseians desire peace as much as the Terran Empire does, and who considers Abrams a warlike radical who refuses to accept the Merseians as peace-loving. The novel is partly a power struggle between Hauksberg and Abrams that inevitably involves Flandry who (and this is a bit of a SPOILER) gets branded as a traitor to the empire when he uncovers hidden evidence of precisely why the Merseians are on Starkold and why their negotiation tactics are deliberately stalling.

Somebody without prior knowledge of Poul Anderson’s fiction might presume that a series of stories involving a military man in the Terran Empire was basically military fiction, with the plot little more than an excuse for elaborate scenes of warfare. In fact, there is as much pacifism evident in the philosophy of Ensign Flandry as there is war. Flandry is not a hawk, and neither is his mentor Abrams, but they are realists. So much of the novel is a philosophical battle between Hauksberg’s naivité in refusing to admit that an alien race might have a different philosophy than the Terran Empire, which at its heart is not warlike, and Abrams’ hard-nosed reality that the facts do not support Hauksberg’s claims.

Ironically, Hauksberg does not have any particular feelings for the two races on Starkold, treating them as little more than pawns in a power struggle, while Flandry realizes they are breathing, thinking beings who deserve survival for their own sake.

There is only one battle scene in the novel, a battle between space-traveling destroyers, and during most of it Flandry is hidden deep inside a ship, a non-participant. And when the Merseians’ plans are ultimately foiled, Flandry is too emotionally involved with one alien race whose lives have been totally uprooted to feel any pleasure at what has happened.

Ensign Flandry deals well with the realities of war from the viewpoint of a military officer who desires peace moreso than fighting, and features a well-thought-out plot that is both absorbing and interesting throughout. All in all, typical high-level Anderson fiction.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stone's Fall

The last two historical mysteries that I read by Iain Pears were both my favorite books in the year they were published: An Instance of the Fingerpost (2002) and A Dream of Scipio (2003), with the latter also being my favorite historical fiction of the decade. So naturally that created huge expectation for his latest historical mystery, Stone’s Fall.

Where the previous two were set hundreds of years ago, Pear's latest novel is set in three relatively-recent eras. The novel’s first portion is set in London in 1909 and concerns the abrupt death of financial magnate Lord Ravenscliff who falls out of his second story window (his real name is John William Stone, hence the title pun). His will leaves most of the money to his young wife, but there are two strange bequests: one is to a mysterious woman living in France, and the other is to an unknown child. Lady Ravenscliff, somewhat confused over these bequests, hires crime reporter Matthew Braddock to investigate both bequests at a very large annual annuity for seven years.

What then ensues is Braddock’s investigation of the will, which expands into investigating all of Lord Ravenscliff’s financial dealings, and his vast shipbuilding empire. There are wheels and wheels turning in the plot as Braddock and the reader learn much about early 20th century London’s financial institutions and also political dealings. Braddock eventually solves the mystery in a very satisfying way, if he does indulge in several leaps of deduction worthy of another detective of that milieu, Sherlock Holmes.

One of the people he encounters in his investigations is a mysterious government agent named Henry Cort who apparently has enough power to intimidate nearly everybody he encounters. Braddock is forced to deal with him at the section’s climax, and ultimately Cort leaves his personal journal to Braddock after both Cort’s and Lady Ravenscliff’s deaths many decades later.

The reading of Cort’s journal involves his own younger days in 1890 Paris, which comprises the second portion of the novel. It was Cort’s first dealings with spying for the British government and also involves financial dealings, specifically a plot to undermine the Bank of England. Cort proves to be nearly as deductive as Braddock was in the first section, and there are again wheels within wheels which provide a fascinating plot.

The third portion of the novel is John Stone’s journal about his younger days in Venice, including his dealings with both the builder of a prototype torpedo and the wife of a failed architect. The characters in this section are the most interesting in the book, running the gamut from a seer to a wraithlike figure who claims to be the walking incarnation of Venice itself. More financial dealings here, although less stretching of believability and deduction on the part of the narrator. And Pears manages to bring the entire novel full circle by showing how events in Venice impacted events in London thirty years later.

Stone’s Fall was a worthwhile book, mostly for its insight into the financial and banking structure in the late 19th century. If some of the novel was a bit too clever for its own good, the pace never lagged and the characters were all interesting people to read about. Its major failing was that it was unable to maintain the masterful level of the author’s previous novels.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Favorite books of 2010

Traditionally, I post my favorite books of the year at the very end of December, but since I already know my choices for this past year, why wait?

This year I made a determined effort to cut back on my book-buying so that I can hopefully make some inroads into my huge pile of unread books (395 fiction books and 47 nonfiction books). I bought a total of 20 books, a slight increase from 2009 when I bought 18 books (but a large drop from 2005-2008 when I bought an average of 28 books each year).

The fly in the ointment though was Paperback Swap, where I replaced unwanted books with used books that were new to me. In 2009 I got 27 books in trade, and this year I got (or will get; some are still pending) 13 books.

This year I have read 31 books (so far; 2 more should follow before the end of the year) and 13 prozines. I reread 2 classics (Roger Zelazny’s Four For Tomorrow and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars), but of the books that I read for the first time, 4 of them stood out.

Jack McDevitt continues to be my favorite current writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed two of his books: Cauldron (the fabulous climax of the Academy series) and the delightful Time Travelers Never Die .

I was thoroughly surprised by how much I enjoyed Sir Walter Scott’s classic adventure novel Ivanhoe, and I hope to read more of his books, as well as more classic adventure novels, in the future.

But my favorite Book-of-the-Year was C.J. Cherryh’s Finity’s End, which was not a new book, having been published in 1997, but it was new for me. This is the third time I have selected a C.J. Cherryh book as my favorite book of the year, the others being Brothers of Earth in 1976 and Downbelow Station in 1981. Not surprisingly, when I list my favorite all-time sf writers, both she and McDevitt make the list (along with the above-mentioned Zelazny and Robinson).

It was a strong reading year and I look forward to reading even more good books in 2011 since I will be relatively free the entire year (rather than half the year as I was in 2010).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Thieves' World

There is generally a different pleasure in watching a weekly tv series than in watching a movie. The weekly series has a continuing cast of characters, and if the series is well-done, its characters grow steadily through the series as the viewer relates to them more and more as well. There is also a sense of familiarity with the show’s setting, which should itself grow richer and deeper as the series progresses.

The same is true with standalone books as compared to long-running series. My favorite series was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, and while the characters were generally different from book-to-book, the world itself and its culture developed continuously through the books, so that Darkover itself was actually the main character in the series.

A popular trend in f&sf in the late 1970s and 1980s was “shared world” universes, in which an editor created a setting and then asked various writers to write stories set in that world. Thieves’ World was the first popular series which pretty much created the framework for those which followed. What helped make the series particularly interesting is that individual authors created their own characters and follow their exploits in each story they wrote. So while the town of Sanctuary itself developed steadily under the hands of various writers, different characters flitted in and out of stories along the way. Other writers were able to use any creators’ character, but only their creator had the option of causing them irrevocable change and developing them through the series.

There were 9 Thieves’ World books originally, of which I read and enjoyed 5 of them. Now, nearly thirty years later, I’ve decided to go back and begin the entire series again. The first book, entitled Thieves’ World, features some of the finest writers in the entire f&sf field. The first story which sets the tone for all that follows is “Sentences of Death,” by John Brunner. Brunner was a schizophrenic writer. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s he wrote 4 of the best dystopic sf novels ever (Hugo-winner Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider), but he was primarily one of the finest adventure writers the sf field has ever known. He wrote dozens of space operas and planetary romances in the 1950s and 1960s, an era when such novels were generally looked down upon as lower-level stuff, thus Brunner was largely underappreciated until he started writing serious novels in the mid-1960s such as The Squares of the City and The Whole Man. His story established the milieu of Sanctuary and the people living in it, while telling an absorbing tale of a young woman whose childhood was destroyed by a soldier in the employ of the emperor, his men killing her parents and raping her multiple times. While she is working for a translator in Sanctuary, she sees that soldier who is now in the retinue of the emperor’s younger brother who has recently become governor of Sanctuary, and she realizes this is perhaps her only chance to earn her revenge. This was a strong story and a fitting introduction to Sanctuary.

Lynn Abbey’s “The Face of Chaos” tells of a card-reader Illyria and her metal-working husband whose anvil shatters on the same day that Illyria becomes involved with a strange young woman who is destined to be sacrificed to the gods as part of the laying of a cornerstone for a new temple. A magician informs Illyria that she must find some way to save the woman’s life for her own safety’s sake, so she sets out to do precisely that with the aid of her skeptical husband.

The next story is by Poul Anderson, a classic “hard science” writer who was equally comfortable working with fantasy. “The Gate of the Flying Knives” tells of a priest of the old religion of Sanctuary who resents the imposition of new religions by the governor prince, so he kidnaps the wife of a rival priest. The kidnapped wife has an attendant whose young lover is distraught, so he and a swordsman friend enter the temple itself seeking the 2 women. This is the first true sword-and-sorcery story in Thieves’ World, and the two heroes bear a (likely deliberate) resemblance to Fritz Leiber’s classic heroes Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser. Their tale is very entertaining.

The next two stories introduce two of the recurring characters in Sanctuary. Andrew Offutt’s “Shadowshawn” is about a brazen young swordsman who finds himself in the midst of double-dealings between one of the prince’s concubines, one of his guards (known as hell-hounds) and the emperor himself. Each participant believes they have the upper hand in the dealing, but the ending is surprising and well-done.

Robert Asprin’s “The Price of Doing Business” introduces Jubal, a former gladiator who is now one of the wealthiest and most evil merchants in Sanctuary. He learns a lesson about the dangers of treating all people as mere pawns in his scheming, and about the character of his enemies as well.

Joe Haldeman’s “Blood Brother” is the roughest of the stories in terms of violence, cruelty, and the low value of human life in Sanctuary. One-Thumb is the owner and bartender of the Vulgar Unicorn, the inn in the center of the Maze, the roughest area in Sanctuary. As a payment for a killing, One-Thumb received a block of a drug which is now missing, while his associate who runs a brothel is missing a similar block of drug which seems to be the same one. Somehow they trace the mystery to Sanctuary’s strongest wizard whom they must approach to try to solve the mystery. Other than the violence, my main concern with this story is its ending, which did not totally explain exactly what had happened previously.

The last two stories feature my favorite two characters in this first Thieves’ World book: Myrtis, the madam of the brothel, and Lythande, the magician of the blue star. Christine DeWeese’s “Myrtis” concentrates on the madam, while Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Secret of the Blue Star” tells precisely what the title implies, the secret which each magician wearing a blue star on his forehead possesses as their Achilles’ heel. This last story was the best one, along with Brunner’s first story, and altogether I finished the book highly-entertained and anxious to read the next book in the series.