Visions of Paradise

Monday, September 26, 2011

Favorite short f&sf stories

I do not believe I have ever posted my favorite short fiction list, so here it is.

Ranking / Title / Author
1 / Her Habiline Husband / Michael Bishop
2 / A Rose for Ecclesiastes / Roger Zelazny
3 / The Star Pit / Samuel R. Delany
4 / The Girl Who Was Plugged In / James Tiptree, Jr.
5 / The Last Castle / Jack Vance
6 / The Persistence of Vision / John Varley
7 / Story of Your Life / Ted Chiang
8 / Green Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson
9 / Blue Champagne / John Varley
10 / The White Otters of Childhood / Michael Bishop
11 / April Fool’s Day Forever / Kate Wilhelm
12 / The Visitor at the Zoo / Damon Knight
13 / Hawksbill Station / Robert Silverberg
14 / The Custodians / Richard Cowper
15 / The Dead Lady of Clown Town / Cordwainer Smith
16 / This Moment of the Storm / Roger Zelazny
17 / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line / Samuel R. Delany
18 / Fire Watch / Connie Willis
19 / The Empire of Ice Cream / Jeffrey Ford
20 / Zima Blue / Alastair Reynolds

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alpha One

The science fiction field has a long history of original anthology series, including Frederik Pohl’s Star series for Ballantine Books in the 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s came Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, the three most renowned series.

What the field does not have though is a long history of reprint anthology series other than best-of-the-year series. And while I have enjoyed several best-of-the-year series (especially those devoted exclusively to science fiction by Terry Carr, Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell), it would be nice to have a series devoted to the entire history of science fiction, rather than being restricted to a single year’s stories.

Apparently Robert Silverberg felt the same way, since in 1970 he released Alpha One, the first volume of 9 devoted to stories he felt were either neglected, or deserved renewed attention. He also released many stand-alone volumes of reprinted sf, my favorites being the immense The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction and its companion The Arbor House Treasury of Great SF Short Novels. But for some reason, the Alpha series hold a special place in my heart.

Ironically, one of the best stories in Alpha One is also one of Jack Vance’s finest novellas, “The Moon Moth.” In it he sets up one of the strangest societies in science fiction, a world where people wear masks in public constantly, since to not do so is the ultimate obscenity. They also speak exclusively with musical accompaniment, which requires them to learn how to play a variety of different instruments, since each one portrays a different mood and attitude.

The new ambassador from Earth struggles to fit into Sirene society, upsetting more people than he impresses. Then he receives an urgent message that a violent criminal is landing on Sirene and must be apprehended and imprisoned. But how is he to catch somebody whose face is always hidden? This is an excellent story, from its fascinating society to its clever and believable interactions between people, and even the denouement of the mystery. Anybody who has never read it should consider that a worthwhile reason to seek out Alpha One.

Equally good is Roger Zelazny’s “For A Breath I Tarry.” I think it is safe to say that Zelazny’s burst of stories from 1965 through 1968 are as outstanding a four-year creative period as that of any sf writer ever. This story takes place in the distant future when humans are extinct, and two ancient machines continue their task of maintaining the Earth. But they are competing for the role of being sole guardian, a struggle which involves Frost, another machine which was created by one of the competing machines named Solcom during a period of unprecedented solar flareup which made it temporarily mad. Frost develops a deep interest in the extinct humans, and sets out to learn as much about them as possible in the hopes of understanding them. This story has all the mythic overtones which Zelazny did better than anybody else, while also being an absorbing story.

There are other excellent stories as well:

● two stories about time travelers struggling to survive in ancient times: Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” set in 10th century Iceland, and Ted Thomas’ “The Doctor,” set during prehistoric times;
● R.A. Lafferty’s “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” which examines the difficulties of altering the past;
● Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” which examines a man obsessed with balancing all the asymmetric events which happen in the world;
● and others by C.M. Kornbluth, J.G. Ballard, Barry Malzberg, Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Larry Eisenberg and Charles L. Harness, a worthy group of authors.

This is a highly-recommended anthology, which makes me wonder why nobody is editing such a reprint series now.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Jack Vance is one of the most idiosyncratic science fiction writers, perhaps along with Cordwainer Smith, whose writing is totally unlike any other writer (excluding the writers influenced by him who deliberately mimic his style). He excels at building colorful worlds filled with offbeat characters, and his names–both people and places–are always wonderful.

His plots tend to be simple, either mysteries or routine adventures, but you do not read Vance fiction for the plots, but rather to explore his wondrous worlds and spend time with the fascinating people. Occasionally though, a Vance story does have a plot worthy of its setting, or even a thought-provoking theme. The Domains of Koryphon (aka The Grey Prince) was such a novel. And so is one of his finest novels Emphyrio.

The setting is a world in which every citizen is provided welfare vouchers for all the work they do, although they are watched over closely by the Welfare Agency to make certain they are working to their capacity, as well as not doing any unacceptable behavior. The world has a caste system in which lords and ladies are given 1.18% of all the vouchers earned by the workers for their own use, which provides their wealthy lifestyles. However, the lords and ladies have no authority, serving as ceremonial nobles as a reward for their service centuries ago when they rescued the world from devastating wars.

The novel centers around Glyph and his father Amiante, wood-carvers and, in the case of Amiante, a very good one. But he is not particularly motivated to work harder than necessary, thus earning fewer vouchers than he might, as well as antagonizing the local representative of the Welfare Agency, most importantly by his secretly making illicit duplicates (which is forbidden worldwide for any items as simple as printed text, since most of the planet’s trading profit comes from original crafts). The novel’s main concern is Glyph’s childhood and coming-of-age, as he first notices his father’s dissatisfaction with their society, and eventually comes to share it as well. The actions which Glyph takes as a reaction to his dissatisfaction are both drastic and life-changing.

Were I to rank all of Vance’s novels, Emphyrio would sit near the top for its successful combination of the color, originality and wondrousness of Vance's best work, as well as having one of his most interesting and thoughtful plots. I recommend this book highly.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Retirement has given me the free time to see a lot more movies than I ever saw previously. Our cable-internet-phone triple package enables us to see free movies every Tuesday as well, which is another incentive. Still, I will not go to movies that I have no interest in seeing, which unfortunately is the majority of movies since I have fairly narrow interests in movies, and the movie chain which honors our free pass (it’s actually owned by the cable company) tends to show popular movies rather than serious or indie movies. So I’ve skipped all special effects extravaganzas, juvenile comedies, mindless thrillers and movies whose basic premise is people trying to kill other people.

That has actually left a half-dozen genre movies though, about which I had generally positive reactions:

The Adjustment Bureau, starring the always-good Matt Damon, was a decent and fairly-thoughtful adaptation of a Philip K Dick story;
Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhal, was an interesting thriller about a man whose mind is sent back in time to uncover the bomber of a Chicago train before he can perform the terrorist act. In some ways, this movie was the dark side of the wonderful Groundhog Day;
Green Lantern is one of my favorite comic books, but his movie was mediocre mostly because it was dumbed-down for the ignorant viewer rather than appealing to people who understood the character and preferred seeing Green Lantern himself rather than swell on a rather wimpy version of Hal Jordan;
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, part 2, was similar to other movies in the series for the opposite reason as Green Lantern: it was basically aimed at viewers who had read the book and understood all the motivations and nuances of what was happening. I have not read the books, so while the movie was enjoyable watching, the logic behind much of it was skimpy.

But the best movie I’ve seen all year, genre or not, was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. First, I was amazed at how good Owen Wilson was in a serious role. He played a man with a successful career as a Hollywood rewrite screenwriter, but whose heart and soul were truly that of a novelist. As the movie opened, he was in Paris with his fianceé’s family. They were rich and uppity though, and did not understand Owen’s love of Paris and particularly his obsession with the Paris artistic community of the 1920s.

I cannot explain why this movie was a fantasy, since those elements snuck up on both Wilson and the viewer, but they became the central element of the movie, and were very successfully done. The fantasy helped Wilson grow and evolve as he learned what was wrong with his life and his dreams, and what he needed to do with his life.

I realize that part of the reason I loved this movie was because I can certainly relate to Wilson’s obsession and frustration with his writing, but I suspect anybody with an artistic passion would enjoy the movie as much as I did. It is the finest Woody Allen movie I have ever seen.