Monthly Archives: September 2009

Flash reviews — September ’09

Title: The Gold at the Starbow’s End
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A very decent collection of stories, most of them somewhat long since there are only five in total. Not really a bad story in the bunch; I enjoyed them all, to varying degrees. Nothing here is probably going to strike you as a work of genius, or the best of what the genre has to offer. But all are satisfactory reads, for sure.

Title: Isaac Asimov’s Utopias
Editors: Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams
Year: 2000
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
This anthology contains stories originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction which ostensibly have something to do with the topic of utopias. My take goes like this: “Mountain Ways” by Ursula K. LeGuin is a halfway interesting look at different marriage customs, but the other eight entries are some of the most yawn-inducing stories I’ve ever read. And the utopian aspect is pretty vague in most of them.

Title: Science Fiction in the 20th Century
Author: Edward James
Year: 1994
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A highly readable account of science fiction — its history, culture, themes, and so forth. It’s probably hard to ever find a book of this nature that’s strikingly innovative; after all, any generalized critical work is going to cover roughly the same ground. But I did like the way the author expresses himself, and I did learn things I didn’t know before, so I consider it time well spent.

Immortality and its discontents

It was the same dream for everyone. The dream was complex, but the dream in its most fundamental form was a single thought, a question posed in six billion human skulls and more than three thousand languages.
The question was: Do you want to live?

Title: The Harvest
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1992
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

theharvestAs with most of Wilson’s other novels, this one is built upon a bold and compelling premise: what happens when aliens show up and offer us immortality? Some authors might use that premise as an intro to deception and alien invasion, but Wilson takes the idea at face value and treats it seriously. The offer is sincere and the immortality is real. The book is an exploration of humanity’s reaction to such an offer, and the changes that ensue. More specifically, it’s about those few people who turn down the offer, and how they deal with their decision in a vastly altered world.

After orbiting the Earth for a year, the Travelers decide to bestow a gift upon its inhabitants. On the day that comes to be known as Contact, every man, woman, and child is given a choice: to remain as they are, or to become like the Travelers, creatures with indefinite lifespans, roaming the galaxy in exploration. There are no strings attached to the offer; nothing is held back, and the extent of the change is made clear to everyone up front:

Do you want to live, they had asked, even if you change? Even if you become, in time, something no longer entirely human?

The vast majority of humanity accepts the offer; after all, it’s hard to turn down immortality. But approximately one in ten thousand do turn it down, for a variety of reasons. The novel revolves around a group of such people, lingering behind in a world being deserted. There’s John Tyler, a not-quite-sane Army colonel whose paranoia forces him to see events through the lens of invasion, and to do whatever he can to fight back. Joey Commoner is a rebellious youth with the word “worthless” tattooed on his arm; he doesn’t know if he deserves immortality, but even so, if everyone else wants it, then count him out. Miriam Flett is an old woman who has lived a life of faith, and who sees these changes as a test of that faith and/or a ploy of Satan. Tom Kindle is a hermit, a cantankerous old coot who doesn’t care for the company of others; the disembodied communal life of the Travelers appeals to him not one bit.

There are others, too, but the central character is Matt Wheeler, a small-town doctor whose decision to remain human will separate him forever from his teenage daughter. At first Matt’s motivations are not clear, and I don’t think he himself could put them into words. However, as he has more time to think about it, he figures out why he said no to the Travelers. He simply can’t bring himself to give up his humanity, and part of being human is coming to terms with the human condition:

What they had given up was something more subtle. It had taken Matt most of his life to learn to live in a world where everything he loved was liable to vanish — and he had never loved that vanishing. But he had learned to endure in spite of it. He had made a contract with it. You don’t stint your love even if the people you love grow old or grow apart. You save a life, when you can, even though everyone dies. There was nothing to be gained by holding back. Seize the day; there is no other reward.

Such perceptive insights into the human spirit form much of the strength of this novel, something that will come as no surprise to those familiar with Wilson’s work. He can do more to develop a character in a few paragraphs than some authors can do in a whole chapter (or even book!). Add to that his boldly imaginative story ideas, and it’s no wonder he’s one of my very favorite writers.

Through the wormhole 9/13/09

Linky time again.

Sci Fi Wire has a map of 68 must-see sci-fi sites around the U.S. (with a few in Canada as well). Museums, buildings and locations used in movies, that sort of thing. Some of them are pretty lame; and hey, what’s The Texas Chainsaw Massaacre doing in there? The Midwest seems under-represented, with only James T. Kirk’s birthplace in Riverside, Iowa. They forgot about the Superman statue in Metropolis, IL — not far from where I grew up.

Here’s a list of reality shows and mainstream dramas that could be improved with the addition of sci-fi elements. I like the Dirty Jobs in Space idea.

Star Trek aftershaves. “Smell like the future, because tomorrow may never come.”

Here’s a graph at io9 showing science fiction television trends over the last 40 years.

Physicist Michio Kaku is a really cool guy; I see him on a lot of science shows and documentaries (the History Channel’s series The Universe for instance). Here he discusses how many science fictional technologies — like invisibility, teleportation, and time travel — are actually closer to reality than to fantasy. I recently watched a few episodes of another History Channel program, That’s Impossible (narrated by Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes), which explores the same ideas — the growing reality of laser weapons, force fields, and other sci-fi staples. Interesting stuff.

Domed cities on Mars or other planets have long been a common image in science fiction. Could they actually be coming to Earth?

Ben Bova talks about science fiction and why politicians should read more of it.

Isaac Asimov’s phycohistory may have more of a basis in reality than you thought.

A galaxy full of SF/F/H sites

I guess I’m a little late in posting this, but here I am, doing my duty (I’m such a damned procrastinator). John at Grasping for the Wind went to the trouble of compiling this massive list of sites/blogs that include, as at least a portion of their mission, reviews of science fiction and/or fantasy and/or horror. Everyone’s been posting this on their blogs in order to expose people to some new review sources, and to generate a lot of cross-traffic. Here’s John’s master list. Take a look, and enjoy all this literary goodness.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Romanian French Chinese Danish Portuguese German

A


7 Foot Shelves
The Accidental Bard
A Boy Goes on a Journey
A Dribble Of Ink
Adventures in Reading
A Fantasy Reader
The Agony Column
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature
A Journey of Books
All Booked Up
Alexia’s Books and Such…
Andromeda Spaceways
The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
Ask Daphne
ask nicola
Audiobook DJ
aurealisXpress
Australia Specfic In Focus
Author 2 Author
AzureScape

B


Barbara Martin
Babbling about Books
Bees (and Books) on the Knob
Best SF
Bewildering Stories
Bibliophile Stalker
Bibliosnark
Big Dumb Object
BillWardWriter.com
The Billion Light-Year Bookshelf
Bitten by Books
The Black Library Blog
Blog, Jvstin Style
Blood of the Muse
Book Love Affair
The Book Bind
Bookgeeks
Bookrastination
Booksies Blog
Bookslut
The Book Smugglers
Bookspotcentral
The Book Swede
Book View Cafe [Authors Group Blog]
Breeni Books

C


Cheaper Ironies [pro columnist]
Charlotte’s Library
Circlet 2.0
Cheryl’s Musings
Club Jade
Cranking Plot
Critical Mass
The Crotchety Old Fan

D


Daily Dose – Fantasy and Romance
Damien G. Walter
Danger Gal
It’s Dark in the Dark
Dark Parables
Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews
Darque Reviews
Dave Brendon’s Fantasy and Sci-Fi Weblog
Dead Book Darling
Dear Author
The Deckled Edge
The Doctor is In…
Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
Drey’s Library
The Discriminating Fangirl
Dusk Before the Dawn

E


Enter the Octopus
Erotic Horizon
Errant Dreams Reviews
Eve’s Alexandria

F


Falcata Times
Fan News Denmark [in English]
Fantastic Reviews
Fantastic Reviews Blog
Fantasy Book Banner
Fantasy Book Critic
Fantasy Book News
Fantasy Book Reviews and News
Fantasy By the Tale
Fantasy Cafe
Fantasy Debut
Fantasy Dreamer’s Ramblings
Fantasy Literature.com
Fantasy Magazine
Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin’ News and Reviews
Feminist SF – The Blog!
Feybound
Fiction is so Overrated
The Fix
The Foghorn Review
Follow that Raven
Forbidden Planet
Frances Writes
Free SF Reader
From a Sci-Fi Standpoint
From the Heart of Europe
Fruitless Recursion
Fundamentally Alien
The Future Fire

G


The Galaxy Express
Galleycat
Game Couch
The Gamer Rat
Garbled Signals
The Geeky Bookworm
Genre Reviews
Genreville
Got Schephs
Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
Grasping for the Wind
a GREAT read
The Green Man Review
Gripping Books

H


Hasenpfeffer
Hero Complex
Highlander’s Book Reviews
Horrorscope
The Hub Magazine
Hypatia’s Hoard of Reviews
Hyperpat’s Hyper Day

I


I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away The Ending
Ink and Keys
Ink and Paper
The Internet Review of Science Fiction
io9

J


Janicu’s Book Blog
Jenn’s Bookshelf
Jumpdrives and Cantrips

K


Kat Bryan’s Corner
Keeping the Door
King of the Nerds

L


La Bloga
Lair of the Undead Rat
Largehearted Boy
Layers of Thought
League of Reluctant Adults
The Lensman’s Children
Library Dad
Libri Touches
Literary Escapism
Literaturely Speaking
ludis inventio
The Luminous Page
Lundblog: Beautiful Letters

M


Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf and Book Review
Mari’s Midnight Garden
Mark Freeman’s Journal
Mark Lord’s Writing Blog
Marooned: Science Fiction Books on Mars
Martin’s Booklog
MentatJack
Michele Lee’s Book Love
Missions Unknown [Author and Artist Blog Devoted to SF/F/H in San Antonio]
The Mistress of Ancient Revelry
MIT Science Fiction Society
Monster Librarian
More Words, Deeper Hole
Mostly Harmless Books
Multi-Genre Fan
Musings from the Weirdside
MyBlog2.0
My Favourite Books
My Overstuffed Bookshelf

N


Neth Space
The New Book Review
NextRead
Not Free SF Reader
Nuketown

O


OCD, Vampires, and Rants, o my!
OF Blog of the Fallen
The Old Bat’s Belfry
ommadawn.dk
Only The Best SciFi/Fantasy
The Ostentatious Ogre
Outside of a Dog

P


Paper Spaceships
Paranormality
Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist
Patricia’s Vampire Notes
The Persistence of Vision
Piaw’s Blog
Pizza’s Book Discussion
Poisoned Rationality
Popin’s Lair
pornokitsch
Post-Weird Thoughts
Publisher’s Weekly
Punkadiddle
Pussreboots: A Book Review a Day

Q


R


Ramblings of a Raconteur
Random Acts of Mediocrity
Ray Gun Revival
Realms of Speculative Fiction
Reading the Leaves
Review From Here
Reviewer X
Revolution SF
Rhiannon Hart
The Road Not Taken
Rob’s Blog o’ Stuff
Robots and Vamps

S


Sacramento Book Review
Sandstorm Reviews
Satisfying the Need to Read
Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics
Science Fiction Times
ScifiChick
Sci-Fi Blog
SciFiGuy
Sci-Fi Fan Letter
The Sci-Fi Gene
Sci-Fi Songs [Musical Reviews]
SciFi Squad
Scifi UK Reviews
Sci Fi Wire
Self-Publishing Review
The Sequential Rat
Severian’s Fantastic Worlds
SF Diplomat
SFFaudio
SFFMedia
SF Gospel
SFReader.com
SF Reviews.net
SF Revu
SF Safari
SFScope
SF Signal
SF Site
SFF World’s Book Reviews
Silver Reviews
Simply Vamptastic
Slice of SciFi
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Solar Flare
Speculative Fiction
Speculative Fiction Junkie
Speculative Horizons
The Specusphere
Spinebreakers
Spiral Galaxy Reviews
Spontaneous Derivation
Sporadic Book Reviews
Stainless Steel Droppings
Starting Fresh
Stella Matutina
Stomping on Yeti
Stuff as Dreams are Made on…
The Sudden Curve
The Sword Review

T


Tangent Online
Tehani Wessely
Temple Library Reviews
Tez Says
things mean a lot
Tor.com [also a publisher]
True Science Fiction

U


Ubiquitous Absence
Un:Bound
undeadbydawn
Urban Fantasy Land

V


Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
Variety SF
Veritas Omnia Vincula

W


Walker of Worlds
Wands and Worlds
Wanderings
Wendy Palmer: Reading and Writing Genre Books and ebooks
The Weirdside
The Wertzone
With Intent to Commit Horror
The Wizard of Duke Street
WJ Fantasy Reviews
The Word Nest
Wordsville
The World in a Satin Bag
WriteBlack
The Written World
The Wry Writer

X


Y


Young Adult Science Fiction

Z


Romanian


Cititor SF [with English Translation]

French


Elbakin.net
Mythologica

Chinese


Foundation of Krantas
The SF Commonwealth Office in Taiwan [with some English essays]
Yenchin’s Lair

Danish


Interstellar
Ommadawn.dk
Scifisiden

Portuguese


Aguarras
Fernando Trevisan
Human 2.0
Life and Times of a Talkative Bookworm
Ponto De Convergencia
pós-estranho
Skavis

German


Fantasy Seiten
Fantasy Buch
Fantasy/SciFi Blog
Literaturschock
Welt der fantasy
Bibliotheka Phantastika
SF Basar
Phantastick News
X-zine
Buchwum
Phantastick Couch
Wetterspitze
Fantasy News
Fantasy Faszination
Fantasy Guide
Zwergen Reich
Fiction Fantasy

A B C D E F G H <a I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Romanian French Chinese Danish Portuguese German

Disch presents a ruinous anthology

While most of us listened, enraptured by the siren-songs of Technology, they [the authors included in this volume] have never ceased to warn of the reefs awaiting us on the other side of the song.

Title: The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future
Editor: Thomas M. Disch
Year: 1971
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

ruinsofearthThe stories in this rather dark anthology were chosen for their relevance to its central theme. That theme is the catastrophic consequences of human behavior; it is the idea that through our own stupidity, we might have a very negative impact on our world, and possibly bring ourselves to ruin. In his introductory essay, “On Saving the World,” Disch presented some of his own observations of the foreboding changes in the human world during his lifetime:

One learned to live with the bombs largely by looking the other way, by concentrating on the daytime, suburban side of existence. [....] Now, in 1971, it isn’t possible to look the other way. It is the daytime, suburban side of existence that has become our nightmare. In effect the bombs are already dropping — as more carbon monoxide pollutes the air, as mercury poisons our waters, our fish, and ourselves, and as one by one our technology extinguishes the forms of life upon which our own life on this planet depends. These are not catastrophes of the imagination — they are what’s happening.

The sixteen stories herein are largely concerned with problems such as growing separation from nature, increasing industrialization and urbanization, overpopulation, pollution, and similar issues. Disch divided the anthology into four sections: The Way It Is, Why It Is the Way It Is, How It Could Get Worse, and Unfortunate Solutions. I was sometimes unsure why a particular story was put in a certain section, but I do like the overall structure. I also like the way Disch prefaced each story with a snippet of some real-life news or journal article or other scholarly work relating to the story’s subject.

The stories included in this volume are:

“Deer in the Works” — Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Three Million Square Miles” — Gene Wolfe
“Closing with Nature” — Norman Rush
“The Plot to Save the World” — Michael Brownstein
“Autofac” — Philip K. Dick
“Roommate” — Harry Harrison
“Groaning Hinges of the World” — R. A. Lafferty
“Gas Mask” — James D. Houston
“Wednesday, November 15, 1967″ — George Alec Effinger
“The Cage of Sand” — J. G. Ballard
“Accident Vertigo” — Kenward Elmslie
“The Birds” — Daphne du Maurier
“Do It for Mama!” — Jerrold J. Mundis
“The Dreadful Has Already Happened” — Norman Kagan
“The Shaker Revival” — Gerald Jonas
“America the Beautiful” — Fritz Leiber

As with any collection or anthology, there is quite a range of quality here. Let me mention what I consider to be the successful stories. Houston’s “Gas Mask” is about the modern phenomenon of the traffic jam, and about how far people will go for their love of those hunks of metal called automobiles. Brownstein’s “The Plot to Save the World” is a neatly efficient encapsulation of how people can’t resist the allure of “progress,” even if that progress ends up destroying them. Philip Dick’s “Autofac” (for “automated factory”) is about the disastrous consequences of turning too much power over to machines. “Do It for Mama!” by Mundis looks at urban crowding — not only crowding of people, but of pets as well. “Roommates” is the basis for Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room!, and is a dismal portrayal of overpopulation. Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” was also of interest, combining several related issues — distance from nature, out-of-control industrialization, and the displacement of ordinary human values in favor of corporate values.

Some of the remaining stories fall into a middle area of mediocrity. Some had interesting points to make, but were poorly written. Others were written with adequate skill, but lacked any point I could discern. And then, finally, a few of these stories were downright horrible; one I would even label “unreadable.”

The whole thing averages out to an average anthology, with both highs and lows of quality. But that’s how most anthologies work out, in my experience. I did like the overall theme and structure of this one, and count it as a satisfactory reading experience.

Book meme: My Life as Literature


Here’s a fun book meme I recently saw somewhere — I don’t recall exactly where. I wish I knew where it started so I could give proper credit. Oh well, such are the vagaries of the blogosphere. Copy the following questions, and answer them using only the titles of books you have read in 2009! Have fun. If you join in, or have already done so, please leave a link so we can all see your answers.

___________________________________

Describe Yourself: Man Plus

How do you feel: The Hollow Man

Describe where you currently live: The Ruins of Earth

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The City and the Stars

Your favorite form of transportation: Star Bridge

Your best friend is: Lady of Mazes

You and your friends are: The Immortals

What’s the weather like: A Deepness in the Sky

Favorite time of day: From This Day Forward

Your life has been like: A Bridge of Years
(I re-phrased this one; the original read, somewhat clumsily, “if your life was a”.)

What is life to you: The Gold at the Starbow’s End

Your fear: Anachronisms

What is the best advice you have to give: Consider Phlebas

Thought for the Day: This Is Not A Game

How I would like to die: The Demolished Man

Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t build utopias… or something like that

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

Title: We
Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin
Year: 1924
Rating: 4 stars

weWhen you think of the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, there are a few that will come to everyone’s mind. Zamyatin’s We, however, may not be one of them, for the simple reason that many people don’t know about it. (I had never heard of it until about a year ago.) Depending on one’s personal tastes, the book may or may not measure up to the quality of those other, more widely known, dystopian works; nevertheless, We is worthy of attention for its stark depiction of social conformity and control taken to an extreme. Zamyatin’s credibility in writing this type of novel is hard to dismiss. As a Russian writer working during an age of revolutionary upheavals, and having spent time in prison under two different regimes, Zamyatin witnessed first-hand the brutality that can result from the flawed human urge toward utopia-building.

The novel takes place some six hundred years in the future and is set within the One State, a society that denies human individuality, imagination, and spontaneity, and puts in their place an ideal of rigid conformity and mathematical precision in all aspects of life. For example, here is how the members of the One State create music:

“Simply by turning this handle, any of you can produce up to three sonatas an hour. Yet think how much effort this had cost your forebears! They were able to create only by whipping themselves up to fits of ‘inspiration’ — an unknown form of epilepsy.”

In the One State, there are no names; people are identified by numbers, or generically referred to as “unifs” (uniforms). These unifs go about their daily lives according to the Table of Hours, which tells them when to work, when to sleep, when to take recreation, even when to have sex. All buildings are constructed of glass, so that everyone can see what everyone else is doing and there’s no way to hide anything. The city is surrounded by the Green Wall which keeps out the chaotic force of Nature, and everything is designed with straight lines and right angles; there’s no deviance from mathematical perfection. When people walk through the streets, they walk in exact formation, in groups of four, at the same pace. And all this is watched over by the Benefactor (a dictator unanimously “elected” every year) and the Guardians (his secret police). Anyone who defies the social order meets their end on the Benefactor’s Machine, while the crowds look on approvingly and poets recite odes of praise for the event. The One State is predicated on the idea that happiness and freedom are at odds, and that freedom is the more expendable of the two:

Just think! Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative. Those idiots chose freedom, and what came of it? Of course, for ages afterward they longed for the chains. The chains — you understand? That’s what world sorrow was about. For ages! And only we have found the way of restoring happiness….

This denial of freedom is entirely acceptable to most unifs. Few of them can even conceive of the idea of their rights being violated, since the very concept of rights is seen as “one of the absurd prejudices of the ancients.” Individualism is nothing, collectivism is everything. The book takes its title from a brief summation of the basic attitude of collectivist societies: “‘We’ is from God, and ‘I’ from the devil.”

The story is told in a diary format by D-503, the lead engineer working on the Integral, the One State’s first spaceship. This ship is to travel to other worlds and spread the message about how great their society is, by force if necessary (see quote at top of review). A group of underground rebels conceive the idea of stealing the Integral on launch day and making an escape. So they target D-503 and try to tempt him into joining them. He falls in love with one of them, I-330 — a big no-no since love is a primitive and uncivilized emotion — and finds himself becoming more and more open to their point of view. Most of the book is about D-503’s agonizing battle with himself, as he yearns for freedom, while at the same time feels disgusted with himself for betraying the One State. He flip-flops on the issue over and over, but gradually he comes to see the serious flaws in his society. When people are told to gather in the auditoriums to undergo a new operation to remove the part of the brain that controls imagination, D-503 observes some of the first patients:

In the auditorium in the corner the door is gaping wide, and a slow, heavy column of some fifty people emerges. “People?” No, that does not describe them. These are not feet — they are stiff, heavy wheels moved by some invisible transmission belt. These are not people — they are human tractors.

Eventually D-503 is also forced to submit to this operation, which solves his indecision once and for all. At that point he watches his love, I-330, tortured and executed, but just like the other “human tractors,” it doesn’t bother him at all.

George Orwell published a review of We (which you can read here) in 1946, three years before the publication of 1984, in which he theorizes that Zamyatin’s novel was an influence on Huxley’s Brave New World. That’s probably true, but it also seems very likely that Orwell himself drew some degree of influence from the book. For example, Zamyatin’s One State refers to an execution as a “celebration of Justice” — sounds a lot like Newspeak, doesn’t it? At any rate, I have to agree with Orwell’s general opinion of the book: that it’s full of political and social ideas relevant to the modern world, but that the plot is not quite as strong as it could have been. Also, even though We seems pointed at conditions in Russia, and is eerily predictive of the horrors of Stalinism to come later, I also tend to agree with Orwell that Zamyatin’s focus was probably meant to be broader than that. Orwell describes the book as a response to “the implied aims of industrial civilization…. a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.” Look at the shutting out of nature, the rigid obeisance to the clock, the propagandist terminology….. this novel speaks to various problems ranging all over the modern world, not just to those parts ruled in a totalitarian manner. We is a thought-provoking novel still very relevant almost 90 years later, and it should get more attention than it does.