Way Station (1963) by Clifford D. Simak

waystation1stIf pastoral SF is a legitimate subgenre, Clifford Simak’s Hugo-winning Way Station (originally published as Here Gather the Stars) is at the top of its class, with its drowsy prose and idealistic plot. This is the science fiction book you read on your porch swing, sipping an ice cold lemonade in the dusk of a summer day, between periodic glances at Venus burning bright in the darkening sky.
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Moving Mars (1993) by Greg Bear

movingmars1stI was afraid this novel would fall short of its titular promise, a bait-and-switch piece that neglects the physical feat of relocating an entire planet from one part of the galaxy to another, for a politically-charged story about a radical movement on Mars. Sure, I love political science (it was my undergrad major, after all), but you can’t name a novel Moving Mars and not move Mars. But then the characters started talking about quantum physics, and…

*Spoiler Alert* Continue reading

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

A Nazi, a Roman, and an English poet walk into a bar set in the Void of the Universe…

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— Stop me if you’ve heard this one…–

That’s where Leiber starts his surreal tale about chronologically mismatched barroom patrons unwinding after a battle in the destructive Change War. It gets more bizarre as his Time Soldiers alternately carouse and argue with some lady “ghosts”, a fuzzy-tentacled moon alien, a satyr, and a Minoan warrior chick, with a devil horn hairdo and an atom bomb. Escorts are provided for amusement, one of whom narrates the story, in her unsophisticated and puerile way.  

The Change War is fought between cryptic rivals, the Spiders and the Snakes, within the Void of the universe. Leiber’s stage is the Void bar, his cast are the patrons, and, naturally, (although nothing about this book is natural), the hijinks ensue. Continue reading

Double Star (1956) by Robert A. Heinlein

Like the hero of Heinlein’s 1956 novel Double Star, Robert Heinlein is the master of dual identities.Doublestar

At least in my mind.

Robert Heinlein is the reason I avoided vintage SF for so long. His reputation as a writer of nerd-boy wet dreams was broadcast loud enough to hear over the grunge music blasting in my bedroom while I read quest-obsessed novels. I don’t know where I gleaned this bias against good ol’ boy Bob, but it’s accurate. His gruffness, his male chauvinism, his homophobia… I see it every day in my Texas town. Why would I want to read about it? Continue reading

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953)

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionThis mind-bendy SF crime drama is more howdunnit than whodunnit. The first to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester turns the police procedural genre on its head by employing SF tropes of futurism, telepathy, and space travel. The tightly-wound plot and dynamic, witty style earns its place as a classic in the genre.

This book is must-read for any fan of the genre, and not simply because of its place in SF awards history.

The Story

Hundreds of years into the future, ruthless business mogul Ben Reich decides to murder his longtime rival Craye D’Courtney but, in order to get away with it, he must outwit the telepathic Esper community, including tenacious Esper Police Prefect Lincoln Powell. How do you commit murder in a society that can read your thoughts? 

If you find yourself rooting for the villain in this novel, it’s only because Bester’s rapid pace and dry wit draw the reader into his evil protagonist’s drama, against their better judgment. Ben Reich is an egomaniacal lunatic, but he is also charismatically droll about the whole ordeal. Even his pursuer, the assiduous Detective Powell, can’t help but share a relationship of mutual respect with his quarry– a common device in crime fiction, but intriguing, nonetheless.

And even though the book follows Reich throughout the plotting and execution of his plan, some critical steps are withheld for later revelation. The lurking mysteries around this narcissistic killer keep the reader turning the pages. How did he manage this part of the plan? Why do people keep calling this asshole a good guy?

Playing with language is Bester’s best strength as a writer. On a fundamental level, brisk and efficient verbs punch up the action. The opening pages are a refreshing welcome, especially after my recent foray with Isaac Asimov and his lack of dynamism. On an esoteric level, the espers make telepathic conversation a high art with linguistically crafty designs that sprawl across their minds and into the pages of the story.

Bester’s use of psychology (albeit, old and icky psychology) to drive his characters to madness is the most critical component of the plot. Everybody knows Freud, and the old perv’s theories help to capture the primal, urgent tone of the novel. In some places, it may feel off-putting and unpleasant to the reader, but this ain’t no Dragnet. The Freudian principles fit well into the character dynamics, and the creepy feeling doesn’t linger long as the POV changes with regularity. Still, any reader with just a slight grasp of historical psychology will probably predict some of the “hidden” character motivations, long before they are actually revealed.

Regardless of all the good stuff, the fifties are still alive in Bester’s future world. Even the bleeps and blurps of “kittenish” computing machinery can’t mask the patronizing intersex exchanges that dominated the era. The men are gruff and prosaic. The women are sexy airheads. There is also a clumsy allusion to Reich as a “world shaker,” which calls to mind the fascist dictators that rocked Bester’s world in the prior decades. Still, Bester does his best to make it all work within his worldview, and the results are compelling sixty years later.

The Demolished Man is a quick, dark, and engrossing tale, with nuggets of dry wit scattered throughout. I highly recommend!

Dragonflight: (The Dragonriders of Pern #1) by Anne McCaffrey

It’s about humans who leave Earth for a new planet, shun existing technology, adopt feudalism, breed lizards into genetically enhanced dragons, and even figure out teleportation and time-travel (by way of the fire-belching dragons).

And beat their women.

Unfortunately, I read these books out of order. I tend to do this a lot, normally by accident. Other times, I think I can get away with reading the meat of the series, without the appetizer. In this case, I really thought that Dragonflight, born of McCaffrey’s Hugo Award winning novellas, was an appetizer and would be absorbed into the follow-up novel Dragonquest. I was correct in my assumption, sort of, but it was bland and unsatisfying, so I went back and read the first novel, and I’m so glad I did. Dragonflight is time-jumps more enjoyable than its sequel, the 1972 Hugo Award Best Novel nominee, Dragonquest.

DragonflightDragonflight is a combination of the 1968 Hugo Award winning novella “Weyr Search” and the 1969 Hugo Award nominated novella “Dragonrider.” In the far distant future, humans leave Earth for a new planet called Pern. They adopt an agrarian, feudal society and, after many passing centuries, all advanced technology is completely forgotten. (Where are the science rebels? Surely some surly teen, angry at his/her old-fashioned parents, might dig up an old spaceship artifact and start asking questions. Or uncover steam technology or penicillin, something…) Shortly after settlement, the strange phenomena of Thread, silver strands that fall from the erratically orbiting Red Star (a planet, not a star, dammit) pummel the land and destroy all organic material. For defense against the Thread, the Pernese decide to breed dragons from lizards, to whom they feed firestone, which gives the dragons indigestion and makes them belch fire, which burns the harmful Threads.

Dragonflight is about Lessa, a young woman who is discovered on a weyr search (sort of like “American Idol” for dragon riders, but with possible bodily injury). We learn that she can communicate with all dragons and related animals, and can even psychically manipulate humans into doing her bidding. (Why not just use this power to make the evil overlord kill himself and get her kingdom back?) She impresses the newborn queen dragon, Ramoth, and her spunk and sass bemuse the macho dragonriders. While she is settling in at her new home with the dragonriders, the first Thread attacks in four hundred years become a looming threat, but forgotten knowledge and a dwindling dragon population cause the dragonriders to scramble for ideas to defend their planet. Oh, and there’s time-travel!*

I poke fun at this story, but it was an enjoyable read. Lessa is a fun character, and her antics distracted me from the constantly occurring writing mistakes. This novel is flooded with clunky dialogue, jarring perspective changes within chapters, misused words (bemused, ahem), and an overuse of adverbs. McCaffrey often ruins the flow of dialogue by interrupting sentences in awkward places to give directional cues. But, the concept is intriguing, the action is strong, and the plot moves smoothly enough. The characters were likable, albeit the supporting cast was a little 2-dimensional, but I liked Lessa enough to overlook it.

However, I did take issues with a few things. Sensitive readers need to beware of the archaic male/female relationship behaviors, which I attribute to the feudal structure of Pern. In Dragonflight, we see domestic violence, references to forced sex, and sexual double standards. There is, however, a strong feminist element in Lessa’s character that I hope will result in some progressive changes throughout the series. (Unfortunately, the second novel, Dragonquest, seems to take a few steps back in this regard.)

I was also bothered by the mobster-like tactics among the dragonriders in their demand for tithes, while they contributed nothing to society. They stood by while Fax ransacked Lessa’s home of Ruatha and murdered her entire family. I couldn’t blame the lords for balking at the tithe requirement, when there had not been Thread to fight for over four hundred years. In fact, I most identified with the lords who lacked the blind faith to believe in the absent threat of space spores. Four hundred years is a long time to financially support a gang of dragon dudes who do nothing but warn of a vague, impending apocalypse. Couldn’t the dragonriders implement some sort of security task force, or offer labor services during the non-Thread years? Hell, my lawn guys are off-call firefighters.

But my main issue with the whole story: I just don’t buy the concept of a society that successfully purges itself of technology and scientific knowledge.  Science is too resilient, and no society is impervious to the birth of willful scientists. Some curious, rebellious mind is going to be born and turn the world upside down. I hope this is addressed somewhere in the sprawling Pern series. It would make some for interesting, and necessary, conflict.

Regardless of these major problems with the story, Dragonflight is a pleasurable read, with its interesting take on dragon lore, and a fun main character. And it is much better than its successor, Dragonquest. I’m actually sorry that it’s over, and I look forward to reading more about the Pern world.

*Interesting tidbit: The time-travel element was actually a suggestion by the editor, and not part of McCaffrey’s original idea. In 1967, it was probably brilliant, but it might seem a bit hackneyed to modern readers. Still, it helped to give the story a neat and tidy ending, with a few WTF twists, which sort of reminded me of the TV series Lost. (And, considering the poor writing style, I’m shocked an editor was involved at all. Apparently, ALL he cared about was the time-travel.)

**Avoid the Kindle ebook version of this novel. It is riddled with errors. Half the periods are missing and even Pern is misspelled in some places.

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest

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I was all pumped up for this ambitious mash-up of historical fiction, zombie lore, and steampunk, but I went in with caution just because it was so ambitious. I’m glad I was cautious, otherwise I would have been severely disappointed.

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest is an alternate timeline, Civil War-era novel that takes place in and around Gold Rush-settled Seattle. (The Klondike Gold Rush takes place a bit earlier in this timeline). Seattle’s citizens have been forced out of the main city due to damage caused by Leviticus Blue (ha ha, Levi Blue… jeans, get it?) and his Boneshaker machine, which he created for the Russians to drill through Alaskan ice. But the Boneshaker went berserk and gobbled up much of underground Seattle, causing cave-ins, unstable foundation, and a release of a toxic gas called “the Blight.” It’s not explained how, but the Blight causes zombies, so downtown Seattle is walled up and neglected as the Seattleites escape to the outskirts. Oh, and the Blight can be manufactured into a nasty recreational drug, too.

Ezekiel Wilkes wants to know all about his father, the infamous, but dead, Leviticus Blue, so he runs away from home and sneaks into Blight-ridden Seattle. His mama, the calloused but tiny Briar Wilkes, follows after him. The story alternates their perspectives as they ride airships, outrun zombies, and hang out underground with a colorful cast of characters– the peculiar and bold folks who never left Seattle.

Sounds amazing, right? Here’s what I liked:

1. Diverse and interesting cast of characters The residents of the Blight are a tough and resourceful lot, all of whom try to maintain normality by adapting to underground living. Some of the characters are trustworthy, and some of them are baddies, but it’s not meant to be a mystery. Most of the time you can figure out who’s who.

2. Women rule. Few women populate the Blight underground, but those who do are some of the most powerful characters in the story. I loved Lucy, the bartender with one mechanical arm. I was also intrigued by the princess Angeline, an elderly Native American loner who seems to know everything that happens in the city.

3. Steampunk technology It was interesting to see how Priest’s characters applied steampunk technology to deal with the Blight and the zombies. A complex system of towering yellow tubes and giant billows operated by Chinese settlers pumps the Blight out of the living quarters and into the atmosphere. Also, Dr. Minnericht’s Doozy Dazer (Daisy, for short) is a pretty ingenius stun weapon against the zombies (but we don’t know how it works).

What I didn’t like:

1. Overreaching and contrived. Like I said, this is an ambitious story, but it felt almost like Priest just cherry-picked everything she likes about SF and crammed it all into one big story. It didn’t feel organic. Zombies? Check. Airships? Check. Drug abuse? Check. Oh, random airship battle over swarms of zombies? Check.  It seems like a great combination of elements, but the story lacks the depth to explore them all. Maybe apple-cherry-rhubarb pie is good, but it’s the nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar that brings it all together.

Ultimately, the world of The Clockwork Century seems implausible based on what can and cannot be done. Why is it that steampunk technology can create a delicately manufactured robotic arm, but it can’t develop a weapon to annihilate the “rotters”? We can mass-stun them, but we can’t mass burn them? Really?

2. Lack of historical fiction. When I discovered that this book took place in a Civil War alt timeline, I was expecting it to match the hist-fic complexity of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but this story takes place on the west coast, outside of then-United States. It’s on the skirts of the Civil War, so don’t expect a zombified Robert E. Lee to show up at Appomattox.

3. It’s just boring, but I can’t explain why. I was surprised at how slowly I read this book. I think it’s a relatively short book, compared to most of the books I read, but I was never eager to pick it up each day. Finally, I just binge-read the final 30% on Saturday, just so I could move on to a new book. I enjoyed some of the peripheral characters more than I did the main characters, so maybe a book about Lucy would be better. I read that the sequel is from someone else’s perspective, so perhaps that will refresh the series.

Ultimately, I expected more from this book than what I got, but I wasn’t surprised. That seems to be my typical reaction to zombie-related stories, although I’m still pulling for something to surprise me. Interestingly, this whole Civil War-era with zombies and/or steampunk mash-up seems to be a developing into an actual sub-sub-genre, but how many times can you beat that undead warhorse?

Next read: I move from steampunk to cyberpunk with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.