Visions of Paradise

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Green Mars

I’ve been rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series, starting with Red Mars (which I reviewed on 9/25/10), and now the second title Green Mars. I selected both books as my book-of-the-year in 1992/1993 respectively, so that brings high expectations when I reread them, as well as several risks. How many books maintain their excitement the second time around? That fear has kept me from rereading several favorite books from the 1960s, when I was much younger and perhaps had different expectations and wonder levels than I do now. But the Mars series is less than 20 years old, so I might have similar expectations now as I had then.

In my review of Red Mars last September, I stated I see no reason to change that high opinion of the book upon this latest reading of it, which is as good an evaluation of Green Mars as well. The book shows Robinson doing what he is best at:

• detailed worldbuilding, including much attention spent on both the physical terraforming of Mars, as well as the diverse societies being developed on it;

• a finely-detailed political plot as the various groups of immigrants struggle to impose their different values on the planet (from the extreme reds who want to maintain Mars’ distinctive landscape to those who hope to transform the planet into a clone of Earth) while struggling against the giant transnational corporations from Earth who each have their own weapons and military forces, as well as the technology to enforce their own desires onto the planet against the opposition of the people already living there;

• details of a proposed revolution whose plans are hindered both by memories of the 2061 fiasco in Red Mars as well as the different aims and inflexibility of many diverse groups;

• well-developed characterization, especially four main characters: Art who arrives from Earth hoping to unite the diverse groups of the underground; Nirgal who becomes his closest friend and co-advisor; Sax who is one of the First Hundred and part of the underground, but who is living in disguise among the scientists working on the terraforming; Maya who is another of the First Hundred who has so much emotional baggage from her early years on Mars.

Green Mars is slow-paced, but moves inexorably forward as does the terraforming and political situation on Mars. Not being particularly science-oriented, I preferred the political maneuvering more than the physical terraforming itself. One of my favorite portions of the novel was the thirty-day gathering of representatives of the various underground groups to see if they can find common cause to unite them against the transnationals who have taken over much of the planet. Another very strong scene was the novel’s climax which, without giving too much away, reminded me of the most powerful scene in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

For a middle novel in a trilogy, Green Mars was a very absorbing book that I recommend highly. And next on to Blue Mars, the concluding novel in the series.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Visible Light (continued)

“A Thief in Korianth” is a novella about ... well, you obviously know what it’s about. ☺ Gillian is a young girl caring for both herself and her younger, precocious sister as a pickpocket, hoping eventually to accumulate enough money to save her sister from either of the two lives available to her, thievery and prostitution. But when she steals a sealed cannister thinking it contains money, she finds herself in the midst of a struggle between powerful forces in Korianth, a series of events far out of her control. This is the type of fantasy I enjoy most, a story either set in a real historical setting or an alternate historical setting, in which the only difference between fantasy and reality is either the “alternate” event or the presence of magic. Think of Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser or anything written by Guy Gavriel Kay.

In many instances, the magic is actually a red herring, placed in the story to earn its status as fantasy, but either unused or so minor the story could just as well been straight historical fiction. This was such a story, with the magic used sparingly and not totally necessary to the story's denouement. Overall it was gripping reading and typically well-done.

The final novella is “The Brothers,” a long fantasy about two warring kingdoms separated by a wooded area controlled by the Sidhe. The “evil” kingdom is ruled by the brother of the rightful king, who killed his sibling to achieve the throne. The son of the former king had been sent away to live with relatives as protection against his uncle, but when he comes back to reclaim the throne, he finds that circumstances might be considerably different than he had thought. And when the Sidhe interfere in his quest, his situation becomes even more difficult. This is a good story, not as strong as “A Thief in Korianth,” but a worthy conclusion to the book.

As I said when reviewing Sunfall, the first portion of The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh, this portion alone made the overall collection worthwhile reading. And I still have several hundred pages of newer fiction to go!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Visible Light (The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh, part two)

The first portion of the massive Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh consisted of her 1981 collection Sunfall (which was reviewed here on 9/4/10). The second portion is her 1986 collection Visible Light, consisting of three novellas and three short stories.

The lead story, which, as far as I can tell, is the first piece of short fiction Cherryh published, is “Cassandra,” which won a Hugo Award as Best Short Story. It was a deserving winner, the story of a woman who sees future dead people superimposed on the present, and what happens when she meets a man who is part of both images. A chilling story.

The longest novella “Companions” is nearly a novel at 140 pages. It concerns an exploration mission to a planet which immediately discovers a total absence of all animal life. Shortly thereafter, a devastating disease affects all the members of the crew, quickly killing all but one member, Paul Warren. Before he died, the captain decided the planet is too dangerous for other visitors from Earth, so he rigged the ship never to take off again without exploding. So Warren is trapped on the planet with only an AI for company. The AI hovers over him like a guardian angel, providing less than ideal companionship.

One member of the crew went crazy before dying, killing a number of his fellows before fleeing the ship. Warren decides to search for him outside the ship, causing great discontent to the AI whose robot form cannot accompany him across a river due to its great weight. So Warren is alone when he encounters a presence with no corporeal form and the ability to invade his mind totally. “Companions” is the type of adventure story C.J. Cherryh does as well as any writer. It is carefully-paced (no action-packed thriller here!), based on the thoughts and actions of the main character as he tries to maintain his own sanity in the face of possible lifetime isolation, while also trying to solve the mystery of the mysterious entity. This is very good stuff which deserved an award nomination.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Pritcher Mass

Since I retired I have been reading and re-reading old prozines, enjoying its short fiction which seems much more sfnal than much of the short fiction being published currently (much of which tends toward the fantasy and slipstream variety). This month I picked up three issues of Analog from August, September and October, 1972. I only subscribed to Analog for a few years in the 1970s when Galaxy was degenerating under editors Ejler Jacobssen and John J. Pierce (with a few years’ spurt between them under Jim Baen), but I was also given a box of Analogs in the 1980s by a Biology teacher who was cleaning out his dad’s attic. Since Analog almost always had part of a serial in each issue, I kept the issues which had serials I did not already have in book form (which was 14 serials total), and gave my friend George, a Physics teacher and SF fan, the issues which either had incomplete serials or serials I already owned). I was left with 56 issues overall, which I have been reading occasionally (but much less frequently than I read 1950s issues of Galaxy and IF, which are more recent additions to my collection).

I selected the three issues I did this time because they contain a serial by Gordon R. Dickson, The Pritcher Mass, which I have never read. Dickson is one of the grandmasters of SF by whom I have read sadly-few books, only 2 in fact: Three To Dorsai! (which contains three novels in his most famous series: Necromancer, Dorsai! and The Tactics of Mistake) and the standalone novel Time Storm (which, for some reason, I have never read).

But I actually have 2 Dickson serials in Analog, the other being The Outposter and, based on my enjoyment reading The Pritcher Mass, I hope to read that serial as well in the near-future. The Pritcher Mass is about a near-future, overpopulated, polluted Earth, in which the majority of people live in domed cities, never daring to leave the domes because of “the rot” which is a mutated plant life which enters the lungs and grows until the person chokes to death. But life in the protected cities is dominated by The Citadel, a massive crime syndicate whose tentacles stretch even into the government itself.

But there is hope for humanity in the form of the Pritcher Mass, a giant “structure” being built purely by telekinetic-like abilities of the rare people who possess that talent, its purpose being to seek out planets where humanity can emigrate. The main character has been trying to qualify for the Pritcher Mass, since its workers live on a space station away from the crowding and pollution. But he has been failing his tests by the slimmest margins until he finds a “catalyst” in the form of a rock outside the dome. Subsequently, he encounters a female witch whom he believes is actually a telekinetic talent. He also learns that the Citadel is opposed to his being involved with the Pritcher Mass for reasons he does not know.

The novel combines fast-paced adventure with thought-provoking elements about the future of humanity and the polluted Earth. It was a good, if although great, novel which was both worthwhile reading and encouragement to read more by Gordon R. Dickson.

The three issues of Analog also had several enjoyable novelettes, some by well-known writers (James H. Schmitz, Christopher Anvil) but others by unknowns which, in some instances, is the real joy of reading prozines. The October issue had a novelettes by a writer I have never heard of previously. David Lewis’ “Common Denominator” was a novel about space soldiers. The narrator is a war ace flying solo fighter ships in a war on a distant planet. While the story is ostensibly about the invasion of a planet which is an enemy stronghold, it is really about the attitude of soldiers, both the narrator’s companions as well as the enemy, and how there are times when perhaps the enemy is actually more noble than members of one’s own race, in spite of the extreme differences which are the foundations of the war.

The August issue had a novelette by “old reliable” writer James H. Schmitz. “Symbiotes” is one of his Hub series featuring Trigger and Telzey, two women who are involved with the Psychology Service. Recently I read Schmitz’ huge collection Eternal Frontier, which was very enjoyable, but contained only non-Hub stories. Baen Books has published 4 collection of Schmitz’ stories which contain primarily Hub stories: Telzey Amberdon, T‘n’T: Telzey and Trigger, Trigger and Friends and The Hub: Dangerous Territory. If “Symbiotes” is any indication, those books should be as good as Eternal Frontier and definitely worth reading.

“Symbiotes” tells of Trigger at a shopping mall when she encounters an 8" high man on the run from somebody who has apparently kidnapped him and two friends who are inhabitants of a distant world which was designed hundreds of years ago as a possible outlet for overcrowded humanity by having its émigrés shrunk so that more of them could fit on the planet without crowding. But apparently somebody has found a profitable way to kidnap some of the tiny people and sell them for considerable profit. In the process, Trigger encounters three of the most intriguing aliens I have seen in a long time. Good stuff.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Hugo nominating ballot

In my email box this week was a ballot for nominating the Hugo Awards for the best of 2010, so I need to think about my choices...

Best Novel. Going through my list of novels which I read in 2010, only two were actually published in 2010–I tend to be a few years behind in my reading–and only one of them seems worthy of a Hugo nomination to me, Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die. So that was the extent of my ballot.

Best Short Fiction. I am even farther behind in reading short fiction than reading novels. I have not read a single issue of F&SF from 2010 yet, and all my other short fiction reading comes from best-of-the-year anthologies, which obviously have not been published yet.

Best Dramatic Presentation. I do not watch much television at all, except for Jeopardy, which cannot be classified as f&sf no matter how wide I stretch the category. So that eliminates Short Form. For Long Form, I saw about a half-dozen movies this past year, the best one being The Social Network, again not being f&sf by any description (although it might have had it been released 15 years ago, lol). But two of the movies I saw do qualify for the Hugo Awards, and both were excellent movies: Toy Story 3 and Tangled, so they made my ballot.

Fan Categories. There are too many outstanding fanzines, fan writers and fan artists to fit onto a ballot. Since several of my favorites make the ballot fairly regularly (Challenger, Argentus, Lloyd Penney), if I have to leave anybody off my ballot, I might as well leave them off since they do not need my support as much as some other deserving nominees. So my fan ballots looked as follows:

Fanzine: Visions of Paradise / The Reluctant Famulus / Lofgeornost / Feline Mewsings / Trial and Error. I admit that one of the five nominees is far from a major fanzine, and likely does not belong in the august company in which I placed it, but since I am the editor (and mostly sole writer) of VoP, I would not mind getting at least one nomination for a Hugo Award in my lifetime, so now I have it, lol.

Fan Writer: Fred Lerner / Dale Speirs / Gordon Eklund / John Purcell / Tom Feller. Four of these are fellow members of FAPA, and all are outstanding fanwriters who deserve a bit of recognition. It would be nice to see at least one of them actually make the final ballot.

Fan Artist: Brad Foster / Taral Wayne / Alan F. Beck / Terry Jeeves / José Sánchez. These are the artists who have given me illos for Visions of Paradise in the past year, so I wanted to honor them in a small way by nominating them. Actually, Foster (22 nominations, 7 wins), Beck (1 recent nomination) and Wayne (9 nominations) probably do not need my support, but they’ve earned it, as have all five artists.

Unless Renovation gives me a reason to join this year's convention, such as sending me all the Hugo nominations again as Aussiecon 4 did last year, it might be too expensive for me to join as a Supporting Member, so this could be my last time nominating the Hugo Awards for awhile (unless I convince myself I should attend my first worldcon since 1981). Oh, well...

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Rebel Worlds

The second novel in Young Flandry was A Circus of Hells, which was a fairly routine adventure novel, enjoyable reading but not up to Anderson’s highest standards. However, the last novel in the book, The Rebel Worlds, is as good as Ensign Flandry, exploring some of the philosophical implications of rebellion: when the emperor and his regional governor are both incapable of enlightened leadership, the former being totally incompetent, the latter being equally amoral, do their highest-ranking military leaders have the right, or even the obligation, to rebel against them, knowing that their leadership might ultimately serve the sprawling Terran Empire better?

The story opens as Governor Snelund, for his own greedy purposes, arrests Admiral McCormac and kidnaps his wife for his own sexual pleasure. But he underestimated McCormac’s popularity; the admiral is soon freed and encouraged by many of his supporters to declare himself emperor. After much consideration, he does so, thus beginning a space war in one region of the sprawling Terran Empire.

Meanwhile, Dominic Flandry is now a special investigator with the rank of commander and captain of his own vessel. He travels to the troubled area and, of his own volition, successfully frees the kidnapped Kathryn McCormac, then travels with her to the would-be emperor’s home planet. But since he is traveling in an imperial war vessel, McCormac’s barbarian mercenaries shoot him down. Thus begins a journey cross-planet where Flandry encounters one of the most original and thought-provoking alien races Anderson ever produced, a tripod creature which consists of three beings, one resembling a rhinoceros, a second avian, a third monkey-like. Individually, they are basically dumb animals, but when they join together they form a highly-intelligent hive mind.

While the novel is primarily plot-driven, much of it concerns the emotional and philosophical concerns of McCormac (does he really want to become emperor? Are all the deaths in the rebellion really his responsibility?) and Flandry (should he be trying to end the rebellion, or support McCormac himself? Because Snelund, besides being thoroughly evil, is the closest advisor to the emperor and striving to become the power behind the throne). There is also considerable emphasis on the changing relationship between Flandry and Kathryn as they travel across her home world.

In the background of the novel is the impending space battle between McCormac’s forces and those of his former underling, but Anderson manages to bring the novel to a suitable climax without a single battle or weapon being fired, mostly due to the machinations of Dominic Flandry (totally against his official orders, of course!).

In his career- spanning collection Going For Infinity, Poul Anderson discussed how much he was influenced by the New Wave in the late 1960s. The Rebel Worlds, first published in 1969, certainly shows that influence, as it is a strong, enthralling space opera which holds up well even forty years later. I recommend both the novel The Rebel Worlds and the entire book Young Flandry.