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.

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

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This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L.”

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

Looking for a good book to read? Here are my next reads for October

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Since taking on this blog, I’ve managed to complete about one book per week, so I thought it would be a good idea to plot out my books for the month, in case someone wants to read along. Besides that, I thought it would be considerably easier to have them all ready to go on my Kindle, rather than finish a book and think, “Oh, crap, what am I going to read next?” and then shuffle through the Hugo list and curse the lack of availability of vintage sci-fi downloads.

So, these are the books I plan to read this month, and the order in which I expect to read them:

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin- Vintage sci-fi, Hugo Award winner (1975). Already reading it and I am in love with Le Guin’s prose. Jo Walton’s Among Others inspired me to give Le Guin a shot because she was the favorite author of the lead character. Her writing is beautiful and philosophical. It’s about an alien physicist who visits the planet from which his people emigrated thousands of years prior. His world is anarchical, whereas the world he visits is much like Earth, with a variety of social and economic systems. His reaction to these money- and law-based systems is enlightening.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison- I’m excited to read this 2011 Hugo nominee that lost to Connie Willis’ Blackout/All ClearI know little about it, but it seems to be about gods that walk around on earth, and are used and manipulated by the people. It seems like it might be a combination of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (read but not reviewed) and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest- This 2010 Hugo nominee lost to both China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. While I enjoyed The City, but strongly disliked The Windup Girl, I have been curious to try this novel, which appears to be a steampunk Civil War novel with zombies.

Neuromancer by William Gibson- It’s been a while since I’ve read some real hard sci-fi, and this 1985 Hugo winner seems perfect. It popularized the cyberpunk craze that drove a lot of nineties sci-fi.

Rendevous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke- In the past few months, I’ve read Asimov and Heinlein, so I better round out my vintage sci-fi reads by adding the final author of “The Big Three.” This space exploration novel won the 1974 Hugo Award and is considered one of his finest works.

I’m excited! New month, new season, and a new “stack” of books to explore.

 

All Clear (Blackout #2) (2010) by Connie Willis

ImageThe strangest thing about All Clear by Connie Willis is that, despite the accolades won by its predecessor (see my review of Blackout), this “sequel” to the 2011 Hugo Award winner for best novel is entirely absent from the big SF award listings. Despite its major flaws, it’s a great story, so I can only guess that the publication dates for both novels were so close — within the same year– that it only made sense to nominate the first book.

That observation alone perfectly demonstrates the main criticism of this series– this is supposed to be one book.

It feels like one book. The pacing is quick enough that it was jarring to reach the end of Blackout and discover there was an entire novel’s worth of conclusion in a second book. I try to go into books without much preparation or research, so I was completely unaware that Blackout had a sequel. And it was an unnecessary sequel. I would have preferred a much longer, but edited, one-book novel.

The All Clear follow-up was great, but it included a whole bunch of middle stuff that is interesting, but unnecessary. The story continues about the three primary characters, time-travelling Oxford historians from the year 2060, who go back to WWII England and get stuck. The second book continues a pattern from the first book that I was already frustrated with– the three characters separating to go do things, then stressing out about being separated in the middle of the Blitz, then finding each other again, and learning that their separation did not do much to improve their circumstance. You get a sense that Willis was so enamored with the era, that she constructed these moments just to expose the reader to all the research that went into the book. I certainly walked away from Blackout/All Clear feeling much more knowledgeable of and impressed by the people of the London Blitz, but the extra subplots didn’t do much to drive the plot forward. Essentially, the bridge between Blackout/All Clear was just a whole lot of bombs and running around.

Then again, maybe that’s what it feels like to live in the middle of a war. It’s just a multitude of unnecessary events that impact the people, but usually have no real impact on the ultimate conclusion of the war. Bomb all you want, but we all know that economic might and diplomatic prowess are the actual tools that win wars.

In my review of Blackout, I warned that some readers might dislike the lack of explanation about time travel, but it didn’t really bother me. By the second book, though, I did take issue with how little the historians (and even their professor!) understood of mechanics that governed time travel, even though it appears to be driven by a computer that one assumes was designed and controlled by humans. However, it’s almost as if they characterize time travel as being a separate intelligent entity– fixing things and preventing things that are beyond the understanding of the humans using the technology. In my mind, I’m wondering, “Forget the Blitz! Why aren’t these people studying this mysterious, intelligent force behind time travel?” I find it hard to believe that these scholars would demonstrate such willful ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity about the technology that they rely upon. In the real world, all scholars are expected to know as much about their tools as they do about their disciplines. Wouldn’t that be an OSHA standard, anyway?

Finally, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the characters start out with more dimension than they end up. Is that something else that war does to people? Devolve them into flat personalities? From the first book, I loved Eileen, but I hardly know her now. In my mind, she started out as the main protagonist, but lost that throne to Polly somewhere in the middle of the first book. I think Eileen could have lent more strength to the story if she had remained as the primary perspective. It’s obvious that Willis’ love for the background overshadowed her need to develop the characters, and it’s a shame. There were so many outlying characters and so much potential for emotional interaction and investment, but much of those opportunities were sacrificed in order to sprinkle in more research.

As cranky as this review sounds, I loved this series. These are minor complaints compared to my level of enjoyment of the story. It was suspenseful and engaging, and I was eager to pick up the book every day. Some potential was drowned in the length of the series, but I still believe this was one of the best stories I read all year. I would recommend it to anyone.