Let there be indexing

I’ve just finished creating an index of all my full-length reviews (see tab at the top). Been meaning to do it forever, but somehow my good intentions usually end up losing in the never-ending battle with procrastination. Anyway, it’s done now and I hope it’s helpful.


The Wilding — a “so what?” sequel

For a moment it seemed like she hesitated. “There is a way,” she whispered at last. “A Braxaná custom you can invoke. I researched it. It’s called the Wilding. Do you know it?”

Title: The Wilding
Author: C.S. Friedman
Year: 2003
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Have you ever read a sequel and then asked yourself, simply, “why?” Indeed, that is the question here. Why did Friedman, seventeen years after writing the quite solid In Conquest Born, choose to follow it up with a piece of work that seems so weak compared to the original? Was it pressure from fans to write again in the same universe? Did she feel there was unfinished business to attend to? It doesn’t seem to me that there were any loose ends left at the end of the first novel. Was this simply an attempt to recapture past glory, or a nostalgic effort to revive a cherished accomplishment? Whatever the case, I’m sorry to say I didn’t care much for The Wilding. I know Friedman can write better than this, so it’s a shame she spent some portion of her energy on such an unnecessary and disappointing sequel.

I won’t delve into the details all that much. The story takes place a couple hundred years after the events of the first book. The Braxins and Azeans are still engaged in their perpetual war. Both societies have undergone some changes, but the basic situation is still the same. Except that the remaining telepaths have scattered to parts unknown and are now distrusted by everyone. One piece of the plot involves an Azean’s quest to find the hidden psychic community in search of a long-lost sister. Another piece involves a Braxin’s mission (the “Wilding” of the title) to find new genes to refresh the dwindling Braxaná genetic pool, and to avoid execution at the hands of his enemies. These two characters meet up and find their quests are leading them to the same place. Of course there are numerous other characters in the mix. There is much traveling, scheming, fighting, death, and general adventure. The end.

OK, I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not, really. It’s just that I didn’t feel any of the spark I got from the earlier book. Nothing about this story made me feel it really needed to be told, and nothing about the way it was told really compelled my attention. The characters were less vibrant, the plot was clumsier, and the entire style was less stimulating. So to anyone out there who has read and enjoyed In Conquest Born, I’d advise against expecting the same quality level from this follow-up. As sequels go, I have to say I’ve read better ones.

Flash reviews — January ’10 (Happy New Year to all!)

Hello my fellow sf fans! Just in case anyone was wondering, I’m still alive and kicking. You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything in a couple of months. Actually, I haven’t been online much, and haven’t even been reading much lately. There are several reasons for this, but I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty details of my life. All that matters is that I’m going to try and get back into the swing of things now. Never fear, I still have a couple of shelves of books awaiting my attentions, and I just came from the bookstore with more. I’ll get some full reviews going again soon. For now, let me just quickly dispose of a couple of items from a few months back:

Title: The Dark Light-Years
Author: Brian Aldiss
Year: 1964
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
This book starts with a premise that I generally admire — that communication with alien species will likely be far more difficult than anyone imagines. The mindset and cultural foundations of the Utod are so utterly alien that humanity can’t bridge the gap; after all, the Utod wallow in their own excrement and consider it one of the good things in life. However, Aldiss does very little to explore or develop the premise in any interesting way, and the story and characters fall completely flat.

Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Year: 1963
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
After seeing the movie so many times, I thought I’d check out the source and see how they compare. I have to say the book is better, though perhaps not by a wide margin. One of the central points — that humanity is not as distinct from the other animals as most would like to think — is made more clearly in the book (especially in the stock exchange scene). The movie focused more on the other main theme, that of another species taking over after humanity destroys itself. Both forms of this classic story have their strengths, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure.

Flash reviews — November ’09

Title: Breaking Point
Author: James E. Gunn
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Short story collection with your standard range of quality: some good ones, some average ones, some poor ones. Solid reading, but nothing overly memorable.

Title: In the Problem Pit
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Another collection, same situation as above. I really hated the title story, but some of the others made up for it. Most were fairly average. Also contains a short essay, “Golden Ages Gone Away,” about some of the early decades of sf. It’s always fascinating to me to hear about sf history from the people who were there making it, which leads to the next book……

Title: The Way the Future Was
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1978
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The memoirs of a man who fell in love with science fiction, and spent his life as a fan, writer, editor, literary agent, speaker, and anything else that could be related to sf. Throughout much of sf’s history, Pohl was there, right at the center of it all, and this account of the genre and the people in it is absorbing from first page to last. Very much recommended.

Nojiri offers a solid first contact story in Usurper

Something bizarre, bigger than anyone could ever build, was protruding from the surface of Mercury. She was not sure whom to tell. She was not even sure she should tell anybody at all.

Title: Usurper of the Sun
Author: Housuke Nojiri
Year: 2002
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

usurperVIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint has, for a while now, been publishing English translations of Japanese science fiction in order to bring it to a wider audience. Since I have no familiarity with Japanese sf, I thought it was time to dive in and have a closer look. My first taste of the Haikasoru library is Usurper of the Sun, a first contact story in a hard sf vein with a compelling premise.

Aki Shiraishi is a precocious member of her high school’s astronomy club. While observing a Mercurial eclipse with the school’s telescope, she discovers something unexpected: an apparent structure on the planet’s surface. A huge structure. What is it? How did it get there? Maybe more importantly, who put it there? As Aki’s observations are confirmed by the scientific community, these questions rage around the world as seven billion people debate the meaning of what may be the most important event in human history.

Soon, though, it becomes clear what the structure on Mercury is doing. The very material of the planet is being ejected, launched into space, and is slowly being assembled into a gigantic ring around the Sun. All the previous questions of who, what, and why are now transferred to the Ring, whose purpose is unknown. What is known is that the Ring has already begun blocking part of the Earth’s share of sunlight, and things will only get worse as the object grows.

This is a wake-up call for humanity to grow up fast, to stop all its petty bickering and fighting, and to join together to address the common threat. Over the course of several years, a spacecraft is built and a mission planned to investigate the Ring at close range. During this time, Aki has become a world-famous figure. Her discovery sparked in her an unquenchable passion to uncover the truth, and after an intense college education in the sciences she has become the world’s foremost “Ringologist.” So it’s no surprise when she is chosen for the mission.

Upon reaching the Ring, Aki succeeds in discovering it’s purpose — or at least a part of it — which leads to an even bigger revelation: our solar system is going to have visitors. This leads to a whole new set of questions. What will these aliens be like? Why are they coming here? Is it an invasion? Do they even know there’s life on Earth? How can we communicate with them?

The book’s cover blurb compares it to the work of Clarke, and I do get a vague sense of that, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why. I was reminded more of Lem, actually, in that one of the main themes of Usurper is the unlikelihood of any truly meaningful communication with an alien species.

This is a well-told and engaging story with a fascinating premise that takes a mature approach to the well-known first contact scenario. My only complaint might be that there’s a certain innocence to the whole thing, a kind of airy, Young Adult style to it. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, or if maybe that’s a general Japanese aesthetic, or what. I just would have preferred a bit more sophistication in some of the story’s aspects, particularly in the characterization department. But minor complaints aside, it’s a good fun read, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Revisiting an old favorite — Friedman’s In Conquest Born

The K’airth-v’sa — literally, “mate of the private war” — was as attractive to the Braxaná warrior as he or she was deadly. And it could be a woman. Yes, though years of male dominance had buried that fact. And if any woman deserved the title, this one certainly did.

Title: In Conquest Born
Author: C. S. Friedman
Year: 1986
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

conquestbornI don’t often re-read books because there’s too much out there I haven’t read yet, and I don’t like to spend time retreading old ground. I pulled this old favorite out for a re-read for two reasons. First, I hadn’t read it since back in the 80’s. I recalled it as one of my very favorites, but my recollection was becoming hazy, so I wanted to see how it compares to my memory. (As it turns out, it’s not quite the masterpiece I remembered from my teen years, but it’s still a very strong novel.) Second, I only recently noticed that Friedman wrote a sequel which was published a few years ago (The Wilding, 2004), so before reading that I needed to get back up to speed.

In Conquest Born is a tale of obsessive personal vengeance set against the background of a never-ending war between two divergent branches of humanity. Zatar is a Braxaná, one of the ruling class of the Braxin Holding. Braxin society is male-dominated, racially segregated, highly warlike, and regards cruelty and hatred as virtues, the softer emotions as disabilities, and barbarism as a desirable aesthetic value. The Braxaná are their rulers, a different racial strain that perpetuates an image of superiority over the masses. They have almost unlimited power — they can put ordinary Braxins to death on a whim, take over command of military fleets, or raze entire planets that oppose them. Their philosophy might be summed up like this:

We recognize that in man’s nature there is a drive to oppress others, be they truly alien or his own women. Perhaps the true measure of his power is how openly he can indulge in this.

Anzha lyu Mitethe comes from the Azean Star Empire, perpetually at war with the Braxins. The Azeans pride themselves on their egalitarian society with total equality between the sexes, so different from their enemies. The Azeans put more emphasis on the mind than on brute physical force; over the generations, through their understanding of genetics and a program of breeding, they have produced a small population of telepaths. This is one of their prime tools in the war, to the disgust of the Braxins, who see psychic ability as an abomination. As a child, Anzha witnesses the death of her parents, in a particularly gruesome manner, at the hands of Zatar. Her desire for vengeance will change the very course of the war. And she just happens to be the most powerful telepath to come along in a long long time.

The personal vendetta between these two is the fuel that drives the story, and it’s fascinating to follow the course of their rise to power as a means of pursuing it. Interestingly, they eventually come to feel more connected to each other than to others of their own kind. Both are misfits in their own way, trying to find a way to succeed in the societies into which they are born.

Those societies themselves are also an interesting study. On a surface level, Friedman sets them apart visually: the Braxins are white-skinned and dark-haired and of medium height, while the Azeans are tall, golden-skinned and white-haired. But it immediately becomes clear that these are not white and black hats to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” These two societies certainly see themselves differently, but at heart they both fall prey to the same kinds of flaws. The Braxins openly practice discrimination based on sex, class, and race, but the Azeans are really no better. Azea long ago decided on their ideal physical form, and babies are genetically manipulated so as to match that ideal. In fact, it’s a requirement for citizenship — one which Anzha doesn’t match and must struggle against. Their practice of racial conformity is no less repugnant than Braxin practices. I suppose the point is that every culture has problems, no matter how self-righteously it views itself.

This is a very enjoyable novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the sequel has to offer. Friedman is a highly capable writer whose output has been less than I could wish for; but given a choice between quality and quantity, I’ll take quality, and fortunately Friedman provides it.

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970’s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.