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The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
by Cordwainer Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars Enter a future where, much like here, cats are everywhere for reasons that don't necessarily have anything to do with being cats, October 15, 2015
What are the chances that a professor with a PhD in political science and an expertise in the Far East would be able to write even one excellent science-fiction tale? There's probably a good chance that he might be able to crank out one or two decent ones in his spare time, but what if he was able to churn out over thirty of them in the course of his relatively short career, not only making each one noticeably different but also putting together a rather detailed future history on the sly, the scope and texture of which was only apparent when you read a whole bunch of them at once?

That probably only describes one person, and that person has a fake name of Cordwainer Smith.

Born Paul Linebarger, he wasn't the most prolific of SF authors (probably due in part to the day job, I imagine) but his thirty-odd stories have an astoundingly high hit-miss ratio, enough to propel his relatively slim repertoire of SF tales (for comparison's sake, Theodore Sturgeon, who had a longer career but also was apparently a writing machine in human form, has a complete stories series that numbers into the double digits) to one of the top collections the genre has ever seen, ranking up there with the greats like Sturgeon and Kornbluth/Pohl despite only kicking around for ten or fifteen years. He's one of those authors that is pretty close to being essential and while he's not a household name like Heinlein or Asimov, it's probably fair to say that you won't completely understand SF without having at least a passing knowledge of his stories.

But what makes them so essential? A lot of it comes down to the construction of them, not just the stories themselves but the framework they rest in. Unique to a lot of authors working at the time, all of his stories exist in the same universe, just at different points in a timeline that extends tens of thousands of years into the future, to the point where humanity has been dispersed over the stars. At some point, the Instrumentality rises and starts to bring everyone back together again (hence the "Rediscovery of Man" title) and you get to see all the wackiness that occurs when everyone gets separated by large distances and centuries (imagine a family reunion with very little common ground, or to make it easier, just imagine a family reunion). Meanwhile the Instrumentality, run by people who can live for centuries, attempts to keep everything in order and more often than not succeeds, either by being craftier or just one step ahead of everyone. But a lot of times they seem to do things just to see how it plays out. The closest setting I can compare it to is Iain Banks' Culture series, which has the same spirit and feel of a boundless future where some rather unpleasant things are capable of occurring (even if the underlying politics might be slightly different) but even after the first few stories it becomes clear that Smith's stories are their own animal entirely.

To me what gives them a different feel is the mythological structure that many of them take (something that is probably the influence of Linebarger's Asian studies), coupling that with the overall scope gives them a flavor that seems completely out of place for the times. A number of them are presented as histories, with character names from one story appearing as an aside in a later story to give the impression that it's all part of the same fabric, as well as implying a general progression of events due to actions seen in earlier tales. Smith apparently put a lot of thought into this and the best stories are the ones obsessed with the progress of time and culture, showing how a people might get from one point to another, even if he has to carry those elements from one story to the next (most notable with the animal based underpeople, who are treated as second class citizens early on and gradually get more freedom as the stories go on). But what's fascinating about his approach to the history is what he doesn't say, showing us the results of actions through oblique asides and letting us fill in the blanks. We aren't presented with a strict timeline of what happened (although those exist) but are allowed to sort of look in the spaces he's coloring in and figure out where the lines are. It's a remarkably change from other future histories (like Heinlein's or Poul Anderson's, or even big thinkers like Stapledon) where we can figure out from the course of things when people left Earth and when colonies were established. Here it's both clear and jumbled at the same time.

But by far the most impressive aspect of these stories is how deeply strange they are. The most famous story here "Scanners Live in Vain" was infamous rejected by several editors (among them John Campbell, who reportedly said it was too extreme) and you can almost see why as it depicts a future where space travel is so physically painful that the pilots have to have their sensory perceptions severed from their brains in order to function and are only able to feel like regular people in certain schedule moments. It pretty much sets the tone for what you're going to experience in later stories . . . absolutely fantastic elements and mad ideas that border on the brutal set in an extremely grounded future that mixes optimism (most of these stories have happy endings of some sort) with deep, deep cynicism at a universe that even lets matters get this far. What's amazing is how Smith can take a seemingly tossed off idea and use it as a background element amongst other background elements (planoforming, the underpeople, mental powers, the entire weird planet of Nostrilia, intelligent surveillance cameras hidden inside idiots), mixing and matching and bringing those elements forward as he sees fit, giving you a cohesive experience over the course of a bunch of stories that were never meant to be read all in a row.

Smith's writing has a playful poetic quality that works well for the mythological slant the stories take and gives the best stories an eerie and claustrophobic feel, whether you're watching people fight terrifying invisible space dragons ("The Game of Rat and Dragon") or invaders ("Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons") with the best use of cats you'll see outside the Internet, or he's breaking your heart with a love with between time and species ("The Ballad of Lost C'Mell), or he's just being psychedelically weird before it was cool ("Drunkboat"), or he's messing with gender norms (the bizarrely extreme "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal") . . . and even if you've gone through all those without blinking or batting an eye and ignoring the fact that most of these were published in the relatively conservative 1950s where they must have seemed the product of an insane person if they weren't so well done . . . even after all that, nothing can prepare you for "A Planet Named Shayol" which takes probably the most messed up premise I've ever seen in SF (criminals are sentenced to a planet where the inhabitants continuously cause them to grow extra body parts, including baby heads, which are then sawed off and sent back for medical purposes) and turns it into a rousing optimistic tale despite most of it being as bleak as anything you'll ever read. It makes "Scanners Live in Vain" seem like one of those small books with the chewy covers that babies like in comparison . . . it's one of those stories upon which reputations are made and the fact that he wrote plenty of other ones that are nearly as good and as shocking makes him as close to a genius as SF will see.

Later stories delve into the mythological elements further (the four "Quest of the Three Worlds" stories) while also sneaking in a persistent Christian element, which suggested that he was going to start tackling the place of older religions in this new future where people were rediscovering everything (with hints that the Instrumentality was trying to keep it somewhat suppressed). Unfortunately, he died before he ever got to pursue those ideas further in his future milieu (if he was ever going to). But his balance of cynical brutality and hopeful optimism in a future that suggested we'd always still be around, if not always happy about it, along with the sometimes experimental subject matter and structures prefigures a decent amount of SF that would come along later and even if those weren't directly influenced, a lot of writers can certainly point to him as a spiritual antecedent. He's not the kind of writer that they go and make bombastic sexy movies out of his stories but it's difficult to say you'll be able to understand SF (or at least the branch that deals with the possibilities of humanity's future) without having some passing acquaintanceship with him and frankly it's probably safe to say that he's so quintessentially what you want SF to be about that if you don't like him, then it may not be the genre for you.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 10, 2016 1:36 PM PST


Norstrilia
Norstrilia
by Cordwainer Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars The story of a man who stayed alive and didn't laugh, accidentally bought the world, and became a cat, roughly in that order, October 2, 2015
This review is from: Norstrilia (Hardcover)
Cordwainer Smith was an odd anomaly of his time in the world of SF. An expert on East Asia and the author of a pretty well regarded book on psychological warfare, he basically wrote SF in his spare time (along with some other scattered novels under other pen names) and didn't accumulate many of them in his somewhat short life (he died in his early fifties in 1966) . . . all of his short SF works can be found in a single six-hundredish page volume and he only had one slim SF novel to his credit.

But what sets his writing apart from his peers who were operating in the genre at the time was his dedication to a very wide-spanning and elaborate future history featuring what he called "The Instrumentality" . . . pretty much all of his stories can be set somewhere on that chronology which he had seemed to work out to a fairly thorough extent. But if all he was capable of doing was coming up with great ideas for a future history that wouldn't have been too notable, bargain basement SF and fantasy authors do that kind of thing all the time. Without having the stories to back up the weight of the history, he probably would have faded into obscurity (well, more than he already has . . . while he's highly regarded among people familiar with the history of the genre, it's not like he's a household name) but those stories do exist and they are strange things, infused with an off-kilter sensibility that can be oddly playful or vicious in equal measure and featuring that seems to be truly alien, as weird to us as this century would be for someone born a hundred years ago and transplanted suddenly into today.

The best place to experience him is probably in the short stories but with only this novel to his credit it's fair to say that pretty much everything he did is worth exploring. Reading the short stories first probably will expose you to that history and let you settle in easier but in my case I read the novel first (hey, it was shorter) and while some people seemed to have issues settling into the setting, it didn't throw me too much. Smith tends to write in an elusive, strangely roundabout style that feels ahead of its time but never self-consciously literary or stiflingly academic. He's not experimenting or being overly lyrical for the sake of trying to impress us with his education, it seems that he found this was the best way to tell the story. It feels much less forced than later attempts in the 60s and 70s by other authors to prove that incomprehensible writing was the sign of great intelligence and that being willfully obscure was no longer purely the domain of post-modern writers.

Smith presents his tale at the start as almost mythology and one gets the sense that he's immersed his characters in traditions that long pre-date them and are the result of strange societal circumstances. To that end, we encounter the planet of Norstilia, an out of the way world where everyone lives forever thanks to their ill sheep (as goofy as this sounds, the novel plays it straight and succeeds brilliantly at it). The production of this immortality granting substance has made everyone on the planet stupidly rich but thanks to extraordinarily high taxes nobody lives like an endless production of "Wolf of Wall Street" but basically makes their living as ranchers with noble titles. Because of this longevity some decisions have to be made, and there's a test all the young have to go through where if they fail they're poisoned in such a way that they die in hysterics, so at least they go happy. Oh, and everyone's telepathic.

This is all background for the novel that Smith manages to convey in about twenty pages, with a lyrical economy that is quite stunning. Other authors would have based entire series around this scenario but he merely uses as the jumping off point to show us Rod McBan, who after passing the test after his third attempt (thanks to wonky telepathy), manages to become the richest person of all time by basically gaming the stock market and appears to buy the entire planet Earth in the process. Being a proud new owner and needing to get briefly out of Dodge, he heads over to Earth to find that being rich is a little more complicated than having a lot of money and gives the Instrumentality some headaches in the process.

One thing interesting about the novel is that for a relatively simple plot (it boils down to Rod becomes richer than he expects, has some adventures on Earth and feels bad about screwing someone over who is trying to kill him and seeks to make it right) Smith invests it with a lot of complexities, not only from the differences in the societies of the two planets but even within the planets themselves . . . Earth features "underpeople" basically augmented animals and everything is fairly stratified unless you're somehow affiliated with the Instrumentality in which case it sort of shifts how everyone reacts to each other. The underpeople alone could probably populate their own volume (and probably feature in some of the short stories) but we spend a lot of time here with them while Rod gets turned into one so he can go into disguise (he also gets chopped up for shipping purposes but seems cool with that). Meanwhile we're treated to interludes in various segments of society (or back in Norstrilia) to give a more complete picture of what's going on (along the lines of what John Brunner often did) and what impresses is how completely Smith seems to have worked everything out . . . all the background material seems to extend off the edges of the pages, as in the best fictional worlds and even the moments that seem to be satirical (the intersections of the economies and how Rod may not be as rich as he thinks he is) have a weight to them.

On the surface the tale is a lark, with the drama sometimes seeming episodic (perhaps reflecting how long it took him to write it . . . it was eventually published as two separate volumes, one of them posthumously) but there's an underlying seriousness to the affair that suggests even if the story never seems to be taking itself seriously (for all his travails, Rod never really loses his cool and maintains a steady aura of pluck and confidence) the transpired events are serious indeed (if the story can be "about" anything, it's as much about the underpeople trying to be recognized as more than second-class citizens and the efforts of some of the Instrumentality to take advantage of the chaos Rod causes to further that end), as are all their resolutions. Even Rod's inability to properly use telepathy is treated as nearly crippling in a society where such things have evolved to be nearly commonplace.

For all its seeming simplicity, there's a scope to it that demands closer reading. It's rare that SF from this era is this immersive and this strange yet clear enough in how it relates to us. It brings us a future that is alive in every way, one that we glimpse the smallest fragment of its numberless dramas and lets us be content with that, while it continuously spreads out of our view both forwards and backwards. To that end, the ending is perhaps the starkest slap of all, calm yet heartstoppingly sad and not tragic at all in this context. Because as lighthearted as this story can be on the surface, as much fun as everyone seems to be having at times (he's big on songs and poetry, most of which is not bad), the ending seems to take place in a field as wide as forever where the gathering of everyone you know is still very small indeed compared to it, and reminds us of the one fact that we all have to endure, now and in the future, in light or in darkness, on our street or in a world so far away that we can't even see where we once came from: life goes on no matter what and sometimes it isn't very fair. But it's the same for us all, and that's the fairest thing about it.


The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
by Arthur C. Clarke
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.51
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5.0 out of 5 stars So large it could be literally be the cornerstone to your giant house of science-fiction, September 28, 2015
If you're a SF fan and I have to explain to you who Arthur C Clarke is, then this may be the greatest gift anyone can give you beyond a time machine that will take you back in time to explain who Arthur C Clarke is to your past self so that when I ask you about him in the future you don't give me a blank look and I don't subsequently make fun of you. It's nice that one book can prevent all that.

When you come up with a short list of SF authors that pretty much defined the genre back when it was starting to codify into an actual genre and not just a series of weird stories that sometimes involved aliens coming to Earth to steal their women, most people will include Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke. And while all three had their successes, Clarke seemed to stake out a nice clear-eyed middle ground between Asimov's thoughtful slabs of ice water and Heinlein's quick tales of pluck and radical derring-do, relaying an optimistic view of the future that didn't shy away from the new dangers that would have to be faced but balancing all the far-flung science with a humanistic bent that kept it grounded in a reality that just happened to include spaceships and aliens. And while his best known works are probably novels "(Childhood's End", "Rendezvous With Rama", "2001", "The Fountains of Paradise"), he also wrote an incredible number of short stories over the course of his extremely long career, many of which acted as staging grounds to be expanded into novels.

This collection, probably the only Clarke short story collection you will ever need, contains over a hundred of his short stories, from his first in 1937 to the first SF story published in "Nature" magazine in 1999. There are probably omissions here and there and some of those omissions might be someone's favorite but for the most part all the hits are here, and quite a bit more besides. While some people complained about rampant typos, I didn't notice more than a few here and there and considering how many short story collections you'd have to acquire to get all this, it's probably safe to say that it's essential.

One of the interesting things to note is that out of the whole, there are very few duffers in the bunch, implying that he was remarkably consistent over the course of his career, even if not all of them hit with the same impact. Another thing to note is how his style falls into place fairly early and really doesn't change too much over the course of the decades, there are very few radical leaps into experimentation (one late story plays with format slightly, and not completely successfully) and his prose remains amazingly clear and functional, never delving into pure robotic conveyance but only rarely making the leaps into pure poetry that his contemporaries were sometimes capable of.

What sets Clarke apart for me is his vision of the future. Without staking out a formal "Future History" like Asimov and Heinlein and others did, he posits a future that ranges from the twenty-first century to centuries later that speak of a calm optimism, a sense of mundane wonder where travels between planets and visits to the stars are commonplace, where even the dangers have an aura of "Wow, how is that possible?" about them, where contact with aliens is a cause for a leap forward, and contemplation. He creates futures that you want to live in and puts people in the jobs we can see ourselves doing, stripping them of heroics and turning them into amazing experiences that are still all in a day's work. With Clarke, you feel the stillnesses between the stars and the gritty winds of Mars, the quiet hum of a functional space ship, and the groaning tick of rapidly dwindling time when it's clear the universe isn't waiting for you. In a present where fiction seems to be fascinated by psychological distortions or formal rules breaking, his stories are a call back to a time when it seemed like the future was a vast country that held nothing but infinite possibilities if handled right and we weren't on a one way trip to Dystopia-ville (though more than one story features aliens assuming that we're a threat to everything and wiping us out). He's straightforward and tricky at the same time, earnest but never cloying, insistent that technology can help us reach that future while never forgetting that it depends on the people managing it.

His bread and butter stories seem to involve people dealing with new technologies or encountering problems specific to the future and forced to use their wits or rely on luck to get them out of the jam (a man stuck on the hot side of an asteroid, another trapped in a ship that is going to orbit straight into the surface of the moon), their plights dependent on us buying the context of their well sketched and grounded future, a place where anything could happen, even the bad stuff. But in Clarke's stories, the nimble mind can always find a way out.

For me, his best stories involve an underlying spirituality that is based more on wonder at the workings of the universe than a faith in any specific god (he didn't subscribe to any religion), something that suggests that God is in the details and that the universe is a far more fascinating place that we can ever imagine, even with the assistance of a higher power ("The Nine Billion Names of God" most notably, both serious and playful about the concept). His stories nod toward history not in the sense of what we see in our lifetimes but the slow drift of evolution ("Guardian Angel", the kernel of what would later become "Childhood's End") and in that sense set him apart from his more serious minded colleagues, who tended to be about all science all the time . . . Clarke never dove completely into the paranormal but was clearly fascinated by all that we could never understand.

In that sense, this tome is full of riches, from the aforementioned stories to the lyrical gems like "The Distant Songs of Earth" and a host of classics too many to name. If there's any quibble it's that there's almost too much to digest here and it's best taken in small doses, especially since while his subject matter varies wildly, a lot of the stories are often written in a "Twilight Zone" type format, presenting a scenario and then upending it with a conclusion that brings an unexpected twist to the proceedings (the "White Hart" tales, while clever, also seem to be somewhat endless in number and after what feels like the fiftieth one in a row you may find yourself begging for mercy, even if in a minor fashion). Later in his life he seems more concerned with the Earth falling to pieces, but he never loses sight of the future as a place that we can all live in, that we're living in every day. While some of the predictions here (as much as they are predictions and not just dramatic license) can come across as dated, especially the stuff about the other planets in the solar system (and you also start to wish for a female lead character, as it's a boy's club with a few rare exceptions) one thing the stories never come across as is hokey. No matter what era they're written in, Clarke's voice keeps them from achieving the corn that so many of his peers were unable to shake and while some of the science dates the era of the tales (as well as all the Cold War concerns, though Clarke was also daring enough to depict the Russians in a sympathetic light), the tales themselves achieve an odd timelessness. At times Clarke seems to be trying to write the future he wanted to see, all the while understanding that if he wouldn't be around to see it then he could bring it about for us by inspiring us to see the stars as more than twinkling points of light, understanding as less an obstacle and more a goal, and the space between planets as no different than the spaces between each other, more fascinating the closer you get and fraught with challenges that both must overcome for progress to occur, and a trajectory that bends ever upward if only we never lose sight of what it means to be truly boundless.


The Tunnel
The Tunnel
by William H. Gass
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.89
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5.0 out of 5 stars An unprecedented collection of prose and metaphors and imagery that unfortunately leaves out one key ingredient . . . the plot, September 14, 2015
This review is from: The Tunnel (Paperback)
There are novels that that are gloriously proud of their complete lack of plot (Renata Adler's "Speedboat" comes immediately to mind) and there are novels that base the entire plot on a single character's thoughts as he does what could be considered a mundane task (Baker's "The Mezzanine", about what a fellow thinks about as he rides to the top of an escalator on his lunch break) and while those novels have their pluses and minuses, neither of them quite matches the ambition of William Gass, who attempts to weld both concepts together and make it last for six hundred and fifty pages.

Gass is one of those authors who you can't tell if he's highly regarded because he's tremendously talented or just somewhat obscure. Both are true to an extent, as a prose stylist he is extremely talented as anyone who read his first novel "Omensetter's Luck" (which had its experimental moments but also is about postage stamp sized compared to this one) and his assorted short stories can attest. But his output is extraordinarily sparse, making fellow low output authors like Thomas Pynchon and Joseph McElroy to be practically garrulous in contrast. He only three novels to his credit, and the third one came out a few years ago. Currently he's in his eighties. This is not a man who bangs out a rough draft over the course of a long weekend, clearly.

This one apparently took about thirty years to write and presents us with history professor William Kohler, who has just finished a book about Nazi Germany and is attempting to write the introduction to it, but gets sidetracked with documenting his thoughts as they occur to him. By the time he starts to dig a tunnel in his basement for reasons that don't make a whole lot of logical sense unless you start assuming that pretty much everything everyone does in this novel is metaphorical, and that you're never going to see that introduction (um, spoilers, I guess).

This sounds like a grand idea except a) its six hundred and fifty really dense pages (and just to make it more fun, Gass seems to have a great time playing with the font and layouts of some pages, perhaps as a way to keep himself interested in a project that has last almost as many years as my current time on this earth) and b) our narrator is a nearly detestable character, with sympathetic views toward Hitler at times and not very fond thoughts about anyone except maybe the students that he perhaps convinces to sleep with him. The fact that a plot barely exists goes without saying, and the closest the story gets to one is the aforementioned tunnel that Kohler is digging, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular except down and gets brought up again pretty much at random intervals. Needless to say, the bones of this do not make for gripping material.

Yet, there is a certain draw to stuff like this, and not just because there are a subset of readers out there who like to undergo literary challenges (like those races people do where they run past pits of fire and under barbed wire in the name of exercise) or are just downright masochistic. I'm not going to pretend this is for everyone, or even people who like difficult books . . . the overall payoff seems somewhat vague so if you're into this then you're in for the ride and not the destination. But be prepared to devote an inordinate amount of time for get through this . . . I've made it through Faulkner and Joyce and Proust without too much trouble beyond just buckling down and these pages required almost absolute focus, with a density that demands you read each page twice to peel back all the details and sort it before moving onto the next one. To read for two hours and realize that you've barely cleared a hundred pages is dispiriting enough, to realize that you still have over five hundred pages to go is an extremely daunting prospect . . . and with the promise of only more plotlessness dictated by a fairly unpleasant narrator to come, its understandable how people might just decide to give up. There were moments when I looked at how much I had to go and thought "What am I doing?"

What saves this from being a complete waste of your time is twofold. One, my God can Gass write. Sure, it may have taken him thirty years, but even if I spent twice that long on a novel I don't think I could have come up with prose that unspools as beautifully as his does, where metaphor after brilliant metaphor parades before you, each more dazzling than the next, with descriptions so vivid that it starts to verge on the sensual, where everything is balanced so perfectly that the fact that the prose is genius never calls attention to itself, it supports what the novel requires at all times while never becoming flashy or showy. The little layout and typography tricks are beside the point and barely necessary, as the prose does more than it needs to in order to carry the day. Some might say its about the only redeeming quality in the entire work.

But some sections are just plain brilliant in their evocations. You may not find much interest in his thoughts regarding his wife, his children and his colleagues but sprinkled throughout each section are supremely detailed observations and nuggets of offhand insight that may not give you a deeper examination into the human condition but get you far closer to this man's ragged psyche that anyone would possibly want to be. Yes, he's an extremely unpleasant person and spending six hundred pages with him may be five hundred and ninety nine pages too many . . . yet I don't think its necessary to admire or identify with a main character to appreciate what the novel is trying to do. I don't feel a need to spend anymore time with him than I have to, but the time spent with him isn't completely worthless by any means.

The best moments often come in his detailed recollections of his childhood, with an alcoholic mother and a tough father suffering from severe arthritis . . . seemingly taken from Gass' own life they acquire a resonance far beyond anything else the rest of the novel can promise, achieving that rare sense of what childhood actually feels like (even if this one isn't any fun) where the only comparison I can think of us is director Terence Malick's recent film "Tree of Life", where it manages to evoke equal impressions of wonder and darkness in realizing that just because you don't fully understand what's going on doesn't mean you don't understand that it's bad on some level.

But much like Malick's polarizing work (which, if for nothing else, can be watched in far less of a time than it takes to read this novel), this one surrounds those moments of sheer writerly brilliance with sections that fall with a thud as Kohler goes on and on about his colleagues (only one section, depicting an older professor's slide into sickness and death really made an impression) and his wife and everyone else with a scorn that is sometimes self-directed but never seems entirely self-aware of how hypocritical he's being. It almost dares you to stick with it and for those who do, there's some debate as to whether the effort is worth the payoff. For me, whether a "difficult" novel is successful (or has a chance at being considered such) has to do with how well it creates its own world inside the pages and in doing so engenders a sense of immersion. I think this novel accomplishes that to a healthy degree, where Kohler and his past and present come across as astonishingly real, even if the world it creates is bleak and somewhat smothering in its relentless distaste for anything resembling a cheerful human emotion. But in creating its own reality so completely it makes the novel harder to dismiss than a book that's difficult for the sake of being difficult. There are moments that strike me as unbearably personal and while those moments may be far fewer in number than most readers would want, it does suggest that a human heart, black and shriveled as it may be, beats somewhere within this novel and makes it tread uneasily on the line that separates things that need to be experienced from things that exist purely to be endured.


Corrupting Dr. Nice
Corrupting Dr. Nice
by John Kessel
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.95
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5.0 out of 5 stars All the wholesome goodness of time travel without all the pesky scientific facts about accidentally negating your own future, September 4, 2015
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This review is from: Corrupting Dr. Nice (Paperback)
I think by this point its safe to say that I am a sucker for any book featuring a dinosaur, no matter how prominently, on the cover. I'm pretty sure I first spotted this in a bookstore about ten years ago and the whole package is intriguing, to say the least. An interesting title, with a plot synopsis that promises time traveling misadventures and several bits of praise from noted SF writers (Ursula Le Guin, for one, and an extremely long quote from Connie Willis), while the book itself makes it seem like Kessel is one the most frequently honored authors in SF ever (which was especially intriguing, since I'd never heard of him). That's half true, as it turns out, since he's been nominated for various awards quite a few times, generally for short stories, but his novel work is very scant. This was his second solo novel (one of his three was a collaboration) and he's written nothing else of novel length since this was published in 1997.

Still, with all that completely necessary background, does the book live up to the fact that there's a great big dinosaur looking all "Lost World"esque on the cover? Actually . . . it comes pretty close. Kessel's bright idea was to apparently combine the wacky SF madness that's inherent in time travel with the screwball comedy genre (specifically "The Lady Eve", which I've never seen . . . which is probably a good thing since reading over a summary of the plot it pretty much steals the entire thing, including the last line, so if you're not into spoilers and you've already seen that movie you may want to let a few more years go by to let the memory get cloudy before diving in) and proposes a future where time travel has been made pretty routine, to the point where communities have been set up in various eras with tours and resource mining becoming more prominent. Also, no one is concerned much about paradoxes since whenever someone is taken from their time or things are altered, it creates another Moment Universe and events proceed along the new line, leaving the future intact. This also allows them to steal the same people over and over again at different stages of their lives, or visit events like Caesar's assassination repeatedly without all the tourists bumping into each other.

Into this mix comes a father and daughter con artist team, Genevieve and August, who are having fun making a living out of getting the best out of people. When their next con involves the hapless but extremely rich Dr Owen Vannice, who is bringing a dinosaur he was studying forward from the Cretaceous, it seems like a piece of cake until Genevieve winds up falling for his innocent niceness and starts to rethink the con game, until circumstances conspire to cause a falling out that leads her to rethink how to render the best revenge. In the meantime, the zealot Simon, making do in a past Jerusalem that has been made near unrecognizable from the cultural exchange with the future, tries to make his life better by figuring out how to overthrow the whole system despite the fact that Jesus has gone ahead to the present and appears to be doing rather well for himself (there are also several versions of Jesus from various stages of his life wandering about).

The idea of turning history into a playground for everyone isn't something entirely novel, with recent examples being Michael Swanwick's "Bones of the Earth" (which played this much more seriously but also included dinosaurs and was thus awesome) and an Eighth Doctor novel "The Last Resort" which took a cool concept and drowned it in incoherence. Kessel manages to maintain a fairly light tone that doesn't skimp on the seriousness of some of the underlying issues but also keeps things moving enough that you probably won't actively question the lapses in story logic that occur here and there (the biggest one to me was how no one from the characters' futures ever showed up to steal their famous people or just to sightsee . . . though you could claim they were doing it and were just better at hiding). But the basic concept is fascinating enough that being shown the mechanisms of this future world, how they interact with the past and strip-mine it for stuff, how they tend to alter it through contact and the moral obligations involved in screwing up the past, even if it doesn't really have any consequences because you just creating more parallel timestreams.

Considering how dense the scenario can be, he doesn't entirely let it overwhelm the plot and the whole affair feels charming for the most part, with not much at stake beyond screwing over a rich guy, while the con artists aren't totally bad people since they're not out to hurt anybody, they just like ensnaring people in scams. Being able to let the fairly simple screwball plot play out against the backdrop gives him room to explore some side issues, mostly dealing with the aforementioned alterations of cultures of the past and whether we have the right to go snagging things from prehistory to study. Sometimes it feels he has too much to stuff in there and at points you get the sense he really wants to examine the effects of the media on societies of the future (especially how public sentiment can be manipulated for ratings) or the protest organizations that are against all the time-snagging (though they seem to have their own agendas). The one section that actually feels serious are the scenes dealing with Simon, which are heart-breaking in a sense because he's a broken down man who's lost the one man he respected and is in the process of losing his family while he has to grit his teeth and do menial work for the people of the future who he feels are ruining everything. If the book had made his struggle the center of its emotional core it would have for one thing been a completely different book but the seriousness might have helped anchor it slightly better.

As it stands the book rises and falls based on how fast he keeps the plot moving and, more importantly, how much you buy the romance between Genevieve and Owen and then their changes of heart and subsequent actions once they have those changes of heart. For me, the book doesn't succeed as wildly here, and while it remains charming he doesn't seem to be able to justify the characterizations as much, with people doing things more because the plot demands it (or, in this case, because the plot of a 1941 comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda demands it) . . . and while the addition of the stuff with Simon helps (although the grimmer tone isn't always a good contrast), it isn't enough at times to distract from the fact that the romance sort of sputters into something not quite as compelling and he's not able to totally fuse the elements of comedy and satire and science-fiction into one delicious pot, instead giving us something with a weird crust and a semi-tasty filling that has a bit of an odd aftertaste.

But it's a quick read and a nice homage to a decent movie and a classic Hollywood era with a creative SF twist and even if he can't completely stick the landing (the ending definitely seems to make more sense in the movie, but maybe it didn't work there either) the journey itself is nice with quite a few entertaining sights (a showdown between Jesus and Lincoln isn't as epic as you'd hope but it comes close), and frankly even this slightly flawed effort is still better than most attempts at this type of time travel story I've seen (avoiding a really gritty tone and not taking itself too seriously probably goes a long way here). There are definitely worse ways to spend three hours or so, and maybe it will give you an excuse to check out the film it's homaging as well.


His Master's Voice
His Master's Voice
by Stanislaw Lem
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.02
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5.0 out of 5 stars The very exciting diary of a retired person whose job in retirement is to write a diary about being retired, and aliens, September 3, 2015
This review is from: His Master's Voice (Paperback)
While Stanislaw Lem was not known as a writing man of action, neither was he Samuel Beckett for the most part either. But my goodness there is such a thing as taking it to extremes. Fortunately, Lem was a thinker on such a ridiculously intense level that if you're the right kind of SF reader then this is come across like manna from heaven. If you're the kind of person who seeks out authors based on George Clooney's starring film choices, you're going to be in for a bit of a surprise, because this novel makes that one look like "The Fast and the Furious" from an action perspective.

Lem was always more concerned with ideas and telling stories that allowed those ideas to coagulate and circle each other and debate. He's a writer of sharp satire and criticism, and you can somewhat get the sense from several of his novels that a) he didn't think much of what was commonly accepted as SF "tropes" and b) he wished more people were doing what he did instead of writing stories where bare chested heroes wrestled with bug eyed aliens on completely illogical worlds. Though there's a place for that sometimes too.

The biggest criticism Lem seems to have of SF, and I only say this because it seems to crop up repeatedly in novel after novel, is that time and again there is a assumption that if we were to run into aliens we are going to be able to communicate and find some common ground. Lem seems to suggest in his novels that it isn't that easy and question where we're even smart enough to pull off such a task, even if the aliens practically gift wrap their message to us. It's almost like he perceives the human race as having a history of continually misinterpreting messages or signals and allowing rather unpleasant disasters to happen because of it. Oh wait, he's probably right.

So in this novel you get what is probably as close to a cliche as Lem will ever get, which is the Alien We Do Not Understand situation. A signal has been received from outer space from a certain constellation and the US government has tasked several scientists of various disciplines to try and decipher it and see if it's something useful, like recipes, or something completely dispensable, like reality TV or movies starring their version of Adam Sandler. As it turns out, the signal is neither of those things but the scientists aren't exactly sure what the heck it is and thus spend the entire book debating theories that say more about themselves than it does about the signal in question (dubbed "His Master's Voice" because somebody has a sense of humor) without ever actually figuring out what the signal means or if it's even really a signal sent out by aliens and they're just spending all this time attempting to decode a star burp as something intelligent.

Noting that they don't figure it out isn't really a spoiler since it's pretty much the culmination of every Lem novel that deals with aliens (plus it's noted in the first chapter) but what Lem does here is turn the book into an almost extremely meditative essay on the nature of science and its theories as well as the relationship between science and the outside world as well as the sometimes unwelcome influence of the military. The book is structured as a memoir of one of the scientists who is brought onto the project and throughout his recollections of the events that led up to them not accomplishing much of anything are numerous asides sprinkled about the other scientists and their relationships to each other as as well as the government's attempt to get something useful out of all these brain trusts, preferably something that explodes (they do manage to synthesize a compound from the signal but if you think it leads anywhere vital this must be your first day at Cranky Polish SF Authors 101).

This approach to the novel means that its just nothing for first person recollections and musings for two hundred or so pages, subtracting all those pesky things like action and even dialogue for the most part . . . if Asimov could sometimes be construed as the narrative equivalent of ice water, this is probably closer to permafrost. There is a plot but the plot is almost about how there is no plot as everyone chases ideas down their own personal rabbit holes without actually coming to any real conclusions. Do not mistake this, however for a light beach read about physicist hijinks . . . for all its brevity it's a dense book and once you get the hang of the narration then the musings and ponderings and the process of trying to discover something unprecedentedly new while everyone around you is either falling prey to their own biases while insisting that isn't the case or the nice people in the uniform are dropping stronger and stronger hints that what they'd really love out of all this is a nice large bomb are actually quite fascinating. Lem is no slouch as a writer and knows how to keep the ideas flowing and also how to keep his target in sight at all times. While the book is most definitely a satire, its even closer to a condemnation of how everyone pretends the scientific process is above politics when that clearly isn't this to anyone with a functioning pair of eyes and while he's not as savage as he could be in other novels, this isn't exactly the book you want to give someone who is looking forward to a career working in the government sponsored sciences, unless their goal is to be completely at the mercy of everyone in charge.

The format hamstrings the book slightly in terms of impact, as it mostly consists of someone describing not very exciting events a long time after the fact, but for those willing to dig into it there's quite a bit to recommend it as Lem clearly never stopped thinking, not only about the ideas his books presented but how those ideas as presented. In its own modest way its successful and while it probably shouldn't be anyone's first choice (I'll go with the crowd on this and say "Solaris" and "The Cyberiad" are the go-to's, with the Pirx the Pilot stories a pleasant runner up), if you're willing to meet it on its own terms you'll find that it does what it sets out to do almost completely, and if the conclusions he draws aren't exactly cuddly, he states them so strongly its worth questioning how close to the truth he is, and from there how we let it get that bad.


The Probability Broach
The Probability Broach
by L. Neil Smith
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The only other time I will write "Libertarian" more times in a single day is if I change my first and last name to "Libertarian", August 26, 2015
I'm sure that someone out there has already titled a review like this "Ron Paul's favorite SF novel!", which would be funny except a) it probably isn't and b) something tells me he doesn't read a whole lot of science-fiction anyway.

If that poor attempt at a joke didn't clue you into what you're in for, or for those coming into this via a book that has the front and back cover and the introduction torn out entirely, L Neil Smith is a SF writer that hails from the Libertarian political party, something he is quite proud of, and honestly the party seems proud to have him. For those who possess an intact copy of the book, the front trumpets it as "the quintessential Libertarian science-fiction adventure" while the back cover comments that he's the foremost Libertarian SF writer today. Meanwhile the introduction is written by the president of a publishing company of libertarian literature and basically talks about how Smith went and created the best world ever.

The short version of this: if you're aligned politically with this, you're going to feel right at home joining in all the congenial backslapping going on here while if your politics tend to fall somewhere toward the leftward side of things you may yourself yelling at an inanimate object on occasion, or being very cross with a book that won't let you argue back at it. As an aside, one thing I found amusing is that while the cover copy notes that Smith won the Prometheus Award for best Libertarian fiction (three times, to be exact), it doesn't note that he established the award himself and while I'm sure he recused himself from voting on his own book that is kind of like me creating an award called "The Best Books Written in My Style" and being astounded when I turn out to be the best candidate around for the book.

But enough background . . . how is the book? It's actually quite entertaining in an earnest and breathless kind of way. Denver police detective Win Bear is investigating a murder in his own world where the ideas of those rotten liberals have been given free reign, thus trapping everyone in a nanny state where cigarettes are wink-wink contraband and it's illegal to hurt someone's feelings. It's of course the most miserable place ever so it's to his benefit that in the course of that investigation he winds up being triggering a probability broach and is transported to another Earth, one where the US has been replaced by the North American Confederacy, every single person is armed to the teeth, the government is happy to be perfectly useless, individuality is paramount and thus everything is indeed, awesome. There he encounters that world's version of himself, a hot girl with a healing touch and an old lady who is like your grandmother in that she's always right but unlike your grandmother in that she never buys treats. But she is armed, baby. In a world where George Washington was executed during the Whiskey Rebellion and thus depriving us of President's Day auto sales, together they have to stop a conspiracy involving people who are mad that nobody listened to Alexander Hamilton and instead went with that old buzzkill Thomas Jefferson . . . there's a plan to invade and a lot of gunfire is exchanged, while in between the old lady explains to Win why this world is so much better than his despite the fact that both worlds lack "The Bachelor" and are thus cultural black holes.

In case you haven't figured it out, there's an awful lot of wish fulfillment going on here and if you listen closely enough you can hear the sound of heels constantly clicking together while the author whispers "There's no place like home, please let this be home". While I can sympathize with some aspects of the Libertarian Party they aren't where I hang my hat politically and that makes me either the target audience or absolutely not the target audience. Unfortunately, as a tract to convince people that the foundations of Libertarism are the best means to run a country, it falls a bit short . . . while converts may nod in appreciation every time author mouthpiece Lucy speaks, in a world where intelligent gorillas and dolphins are the norm you're not exactly going to be greeted by stunning realism and even if he was writing a strictly realistic version of the real world he'd run into the same problem that Ayn Rand (who is President at some point) had . . . just because everything works out perfectly in your fiction doesn't mean your ideas are right, it just proves that when you write the story, things tend to work out the way you want them.

Fortunately Smith does bother with an actual plot in between careening through the Libertarian Party's greatest hits, and it's the kind of story that works purely on momentum alone, where it seems like everyone is constantly running or shouting, preparing for imminent danger or escaping from peril, where every line of dialogue is delivered breathlessly while over the shoulder. The breaks for chapters seem more for the reader's benefit than anything else. Meanwhile, everything is progressing so rapidly that there's barely any time for characters to develop, with Win mostly acting confused as he tries to figure out the rules of the world, the hot girl falling for him despite the fact that his more in shape twin is right there all the time (wish fulfillment in itself, especially since she basically throws herself at him despite their introduction to each other coming after him proving that he's no good at dodging bullets . . . but he's the hero so that's cool) and everyone else falling into the camps of either being Libertarian and awesome or backing Allie Hams and thus trying to federally reserve you a coffin.

It reminds me of nothing more than a Heinlein novel in that period where his novels were transitioning from the juveniles to his own well tailored brand of libertarianism (q.v. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress") and Smith's novel features many of the tropes that Heinlein practically invented, an Everyman hero who is able to survive in an unfamiliar place based on his wits and pluck, a world run by controversial values where everything is amazingly better than here and of course the grizzled yet awesome old person who knows all and is never wrong and acts as the mouthpiece for the author, explaining to the hero how everything he believed is wrong and everything they believe is true without question. In the midst of this the plot is almost secondary to the grand tour of All Libertarian All The Time and there are moments where the balance between "telling us a story" and "telling us how to fix the country" is very wobbly and he doesn't always fall down on the right side.

Better people than me can chime in on whether what the author feels is Hamiltonism actually relates to things Hamilton believed. Still, it makes for a grand fantasy (his amazing world of many guns and no government seems to work perfectly as long as things like racism or poverty or, um, people with disabilities don't exist) and it definitely wants to be the kind of thing you either read in your early twenties that shapes your worldview forever or the book you read in your thirties and forties when you want to be reminded of all the cozy values you feel this country has forgotten . . . and while it works to a great extent it also comes across as watered down Heinlein, perhaps lacking some of his crazier excesses but also lacking the "whoa did he just go there?" swaggering verve that made "Starship Troopers", "Stranger in a Strange Land" or the aforementioned "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" such necessary reads even if you didn't agree with the politics (of course that approach also gave us stuff like "Farnham's Freehold" which takes "did he just go there" to somewhat disturbing heights). Here, for the most part the story is a vehicle for the politics where he gives us a premade world without depicting any of the blood or sweat or disagreements or compromises that got this alternate world to that point . . . everyone in the world is so sure of themselves and never doubts, which as we know in the real world from past experience, it'd be nice if people making big decisions once in a while stepped back and said, "Gee, is this really the right thing to do?" By giving us a world that lacks the mess of the real world, it delivers a nice pulp story but underneath the gleaming sheen everything is so smooth and polished that without the friction to make it stick, all the important stuff the author wants to convey just lands in a gooey puddle on the floor. You can study it, you can nudge it with your foot, but it doesn't necessarily convince you that you want to get any of it on you.


The Worm Ouroboros
The Worm Ouroboros
by E. R. Eddison
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where the demons are men and the witches are men and everyone really looks forward to being invaded, August 21, 2015
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This review is from: The Worm Ouroboros (Paperback)
Reading any fantasy before JRR came in and starting flooding the world with tiny men and their hairy feet is sometimes a dicey proposition. Not because most of it is bad (probably no better or worse than any fiction written in the 1920s) but because the sensibility is so vastly different. The idea of what fantasy "should" be hadn't exactly been codified so you mostly get people's attempts at trying to figure their way around a genre that hadn't really coalesced into the various styles that we know today. If you're lucky, then you can get someone like Lord Dunsany, who could write compelling about fairies and the like with some of the most elegant prose to be put to paper and still manage to tell his story in less than epic length. Other times, you wonder if they're getting paid by the word (in the case of stuff that made it into pulp magazines, they probably were).

I went through a phase where I decided to find the semi-major works of early fantasy, most of which aren't real well known today. I've tackled Lord Dunsany already and I have "The Well at the World's End" and "Lud-in-the-Mist" floating around somewhere, and while I'm sure those will have their challenges, none of that quite prepares you for what you're going to experience in "The Worm Ouroboros", probably ER Eddison's best known work.

You know you're in for a good time when the introduction goes out of its way to point out the flaws of the book as a way of telling you to look past and forgive all that (my edition is from Replica books, which I didn't buy because it was printed in my home state of New Jersey, but it's certainly a nice touch) before the book even starts, and honestly the two things they highlight (the first chapter and Eddison's apparently overly rich descriptions of banquet halls) aren't even anywhere near deal-breakers. Amusingly, the one line description of the plot doesn't even come close to depicting what happens in the rest of the book. It's not a package really designed to sell people who wouldn't normally be interested in proto-fantasy literature from the early part of the 20th century on the concept. So let me try and do a better job.

So what the heck is all this about? In a nutshell, the dominion of Witchland coverts nearby Demonland and after getting rebuffed decide to go all out, kidnapping one of the main lords and scattering the rest, forcing the good men of Demonland to raise an army, get their dominion back and vanquish their foes in Witchland, all of whom are pretty decent warriors led by a king who seems to both a sorcerer and a Time Lord at the same time.

A couple things are worth noting before you even start. For one, Eddison came up with a lot of these concepts when he was a child and as an adult didn't bother to change any names when he wrote his book out, thus if you're thinking that a book populated by people from the nations of Demonland, Witchland, Goblinland and Impland might have been conceived by a twelve year old, you aren't that far off (oddly enough, everyone in those places are just regular people, though there's a stray reference the folks in Demonland having tiny horns that is never mentioned again). However, the book is much more sophisticated than that, having a pretty decently worked out history (given in the backpages of the book) and a fairly realistic set of relationships between the nations as well as a good amount of shared history from the main characters (years before "Games of Thrones", Eddison's book has the characters reminiscing about the time they engaged in a genocidal war with the population of Ghoulland, eventually wiping them all out) that helps flesh out the proceedings and give some weight. All this helps because instead of trying to write a book that children could read, he decided to write it in a 16th century style of writing, meaning that the only people who would be able to fathom what was going on are readers with a lot of patience, or contemporaries of Chaucer (indeed, letters the characters write to each other that are quoted in the text are as Olde English as ye can get). It's not the worst style in the world to handle, but it is a bit of an adjustment, although I think ultimately the archaic style fits the story he's telling here. For me, it was like watching a Shakespeare play, where the language can come across as gibberish until you start to get into the rhythms of it, then it sounds perfectly natural (it wears off, though, so unless you're able to read the book in one fell swoop be prepared to flail about for a bit everytime you dive back into it while the brain makes the necessary changes). He commits to this pretty much a hundred percent, which is impressive in itself, although a few stray references to tennis balls nearly took me out of the text (this happens at least twice).

It's also a novel completely comprised of action. In a world where we're used to learning about everyone's deepest thoughts, Eddison's characters keep those thoughts to themselves. Unless it's said in the dialogue, the motivations of each character can only be judged by their actions alone (typically involving a sword) and except for a few weak stabs at introspection you've got nothing but raw action and people talking about what they're going to do when it's time for raw action.

With all those caveats, though, is any of this worth it? Surprisingly, for those who have the wherewithal to withstand the battery of really ancient sounding prose, yes. Once you get into the story the prose is extremely well written, able to set atmosphere and mood extraordinarily well. While most writers would take scenes and ramble on for pages of description, Eddison for the most part keeps it fairly normal (for the style, you'll never mistake this for Hemingway) and there are scenes that are completely immersive, not even the battle scenes but some of the quieter moments give him a good opportunity of showing off his skills at painting with color and tone. The plot itself is one overarching event (getting Demonland back and stopping Witchland) with a lot of little events and sideplots going on in the meantime, with alliances bouncing off each other as people weigh loyalty and vengeance and power, the costs of it and what all that means to them. He gives ample time to the folks at Witchland and while some of them have names that make it hard to tell them apart you can also see where he strives to give everyone distinct personalities, even the ladies (not an easy feat for this part of the century) who in some instances are even more bloodthirsty than the men.

He makes some interesting storytelling choices, sometimes taking major events and having them occur offscreen, which at times can give a fairly slow moving book a surprisingly breathless pacing, as if it's always trying to catch up with itself. Magic is mostly kept to a minimum but always present as well, with the characters calling on gods and sometimes seeing those prayers answered in unusual ways. But it doesn't trumpet the weirdest parts of the book, taking them in stride as if this is everyday (the king of Witchland is apparently the same person reincarnated in different guises repeatedly, changing from a wrestler to a sorcerer . . . nobody involved seems to think this is strange) and mythical creatures are treated with equal parts awe and "well, here's another tool for the toolbox".

It's epic event after epic event piling on top of each other so by the time you reach the climax, all the elements have been building to a fever pitch that goes nearly gonzo in how far the book is willing to go to resolve or completely obliterate obstacles in the way of getting to the ending. Those who soldiered bravely through the reams of prose in the earlier pages are rewarded with scenes that are just as off the scale epic as anything ever written in fantasy before and even once everything is resolved (while Demonland are technically the good guys, the book is refreshingly evenhanded in how it treats everyone) you're not prepared for the kind of ending he gives you, which is unlike anything I've read before in its magical strangeness, a kind of "Finnegans Wake" for fantasy that seems to be conscious of not only its own nature but our relationship to myths and legends and how we perceive them. It doesn't seek to elevate the common man as much as depict how we needs lords and kings to fight for us and have all the fun. Its an odd story that has no idea how odd it is, and still retains complete confidence in itself and for the most part justifies that. It's definitely not for everyone, even people who really like fantasy, but for someone able to immerse themselves in it, chances are it'll be nothing like anything they've ever read.


Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia
Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia
by Samuel R. Delany
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.97
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5.0 out of 5 stars The best part about a perfect society is that everyone is too polite to give you a good smack when you're being a dope, August 17, 2015
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What a lot of people forget sometimes that SF at its best isn't about bug eyed men with rayguns threatening buxom women while spaceships crash together overhead and time travelers from the past wander around in the future all confused . . . it's a genre that when done properly is obsessed with ideas, using the framework of SF to extrapolate trends in society to what the author sees as logical conclusions (which is different than trying to predict the future, which decent SF never actually tried to do, leaving that task to consummate professionals like Nostradamus), or taking aspects of human behavior and using a bizarre setting as a background upon which to work out the interplay, or even use hard science to take something that should be considered impossible and give it a realistic grounding to say that even the unlikely is still possible in a universe of endless possibilities. You read enough SF and the sheer amount of potential ideas is dizzying.

But the author has a kind of unspoken contract with the reader in that they can use the story as an avenue for whatever ideas they feel necessary to work out and the reader will go along with them, at least initially, but at the very least they can't forget to write an actual story to go along with those ideas. Otherwise, it should properly be called an essay and there's an entire other section of the bookstore for that kind of thing. Even the best writers are guilty of it now and again, as monumental as Robert Heinlein was to SF, there are a few of his novels late in his life that consist of vaguely drawn characters acting as mouthpieces for his ideas, which is great if you're in tune with them, but if you're not you'll be crying for mercy fairly quickly.

Delany can generally strike a nice balance between ideas and plot . . . his early novels like "The Einstein Intersection" and "Babel-17" were quite capable of giving us rather exciting SF plots while dazzling us with the weight of his ideas. Later on the balance started to shift slightly as he began more obviously interested in exploring questions of gender and sexuality in the context of science-fiction. When it worked ("Dhalgren", which is both wearying and exhilarating in equal measure and is so massive that it probably defies any attempt to break it down) the results were like nothing else in the genre, or American literature in general. When it didn't entirely work ("Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand", in my opinion) you felt that he was consumed with working out whatever literary theory he had become fascinated with that the plot was kind of secondary.

"Trouble on Triton" (altered on republication from its original name of simply "Triton") skews a bit more toward plot than ceaselessly communicating ideas but there are moments when it comes perilously close to falling over the edge onto the wrong side of storytelling. In this future, we visit the utopian society on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune and thus decently far away from Earth, which works out nicely because we're apparently in the midst of or about to go to war with them. Into this we follow recent resident Brom Helstrom, who does not front for the galaxy's greatest metal band as you might assume but is a former prostitute from Mars that now works in the field of metalogics but seems to work mostly at pissing off everyone around him by being completely self-absorbed and not having the slightest bit of self-awareness of why he ticks off nearly everyone he comes into contact with, assuming its everyone else's fault or just not even realizing how much he's making them angry, even when they go and say things to him like, "You make me so angry that I never want to speak to you again."

Delany seems to be using Brom to dissect assumptions about gender and sexuality in his future utopia (apparently the whole novel is a sort of response to Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed", which is also highly recommended but really nothing like this at all), mostly by having Brom make the wrong assumption about everyone and thus have to be corrected, whether it's his coworkers or the theatre lady he met recently that should be totally into him and for some reason isn't, even when he's made it clear he's totally into her. But in Delany's Triton sexuality is somewhat fluid, with people changing genders at the drop of a hat (which made this more like a response to "The Left Hand of Darkness" for me, but that's neither here nor there) and able to change their preferences for gender whenever they want if they're willing to spend the money for an operation . . . you have essentially a very libertarian society where pretty much anything goes and the government really doesn't get to have much say in anything (in an early scene, it's clear you can check at a booth exactly what information the government has on you at any time you want).

To that end, Delany has clearly thought out the intricacies of the society and part of the fun of the novel is that going along with Brom as he not only explores the structure of the society but the culture of it as well, so that we get to see the mindset of the people that would live in this kind of place . . . it's a welcome contrast to Brom getting everything wrong pretty much all the time and he's able to construct his future world with such detail that even when it doesn't seem much is happening he's introducing a new concept that has you pondering exactly how it all fits together. It's a society of moving parts, not just socially but politically as well, and if nothing else the driving force of the book is the slow escalation and then breakdown of the situation with Earth, a constantly lurking background presence that looms to the forefront in sometimes surprising ways (a sudden gravity reversal, a trip to Earth that Brom tags along for and doesn't go well at all), proving that no utopia is perfect if there's someone who can come around and wreck it at any moment. The changes of scenery are useful as well, with the aforementioned sidetrip to Earth being a highlight (despite it also featuring Brom failing to score again, and failing to understand why he fails to score) and all of it is so interesting that you almost really don't need Brom around at all. Amusingly, he seems to write himself into the novel, unless a bisexual black character named Sam is somehow a strange coincidence. He also gets a bunch of the good lines, but then that's what I would do, too.

Alas, as the book goes on you do get the underlying sense that Delany is constructing an argument toward a theory that isn't entirely clear and while it never threatens to overwhelm the book it acts like an anchor around certain parts of it, weighing the plot down until it becomes nearly inert, so much that the scenes that are supposed to be the driving intellectual focus of the book don't ever catch fire like the best exchange of ideas can (and the mock essays at the back "Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus" don't exactly clear matters up) though part of that is the delivery system, which Brom too busy acting as the Charlie Brown of the future to really convey his fundamental flaw (which appears to be that he's just dense) . . . it's telling that the best parts of the novel are the scenes dealing with the war with Earth, conveying an exotic menace and mundane danger that is recognizable even today, with the destruction being senseless and the toll as random as any war. These sections have a momentum to them that the rest of the novel sometimes lacks, where scenes float in and out without it ever really being clear what the point is. We're supposed to take Brom's eventual decision (described in the cover copy of my edition but I suppose I won't spoil it here) as the ultimate in misunderstanding, he so fundamentally fails to grasp what the problem that he goes for the wrong solution entirely and then can't figure out why it doesn't actually work. And then after briefly exploring the ramifications of that decision, the book pretty much just ends, as if Delany had reached the end of his essay and didn't care if he had more plot.

It doesn't quite qualify as a failed experiment (and as a reading experience it's several lengths more entertaining than "Stars in My Pocket") since the richness of the ideas still shines through the at times less than exciting story. But then when the story gets exciting it starts to mask the intensity of the ideas, resulting in an uneasy see-saw balance that the novel isn't quite able to resolve by the end. What we're left with is fascinating enough but considering how bold some of its ideas are (especially in the 1970s, where literature was only just starting to face this stuff head-on) it's clear that it doesn't have the impact that it should, and it's not for lack of trying. What we have is a story that isn't quite plot-stuffed enough to act as a story and an essay that isn't structured well enough to get its ideas across clearly so that even people who are thinking about this stuff hard may not be able to decipher it. It definitely has its merits, especially in a world where questions of gender and sexuality and where the lines are drawn (if indeed there need to be lines at all) are more relevant than ever, but it seems at times that the work is intent on speaking its own language, and not completely concerned if it's a language we're fluent in, or showing us how to learn it.


Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel
Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel
by Kate Wilhelm
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.01
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5.0 out of 5 stars The story of how, in the not too distant future, the ability to propagate the sheer proliferation of boy bands will save us all, August 11, 2015
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Living in a world where everyone looks like you and your four or five closest friends is probably the dream of an extreme narcissist (or a certain family that currently stars in a reality TV series) but it probably presents a multitude of problems beyond trying to coordinate who wears what outfits on which day and how to get someone who likes the same stuff as you a surprising birthday present. The idea of cloning is something that has seemed less like SF with each passing year but even though we've had some success with sheep and dogs and whatnot, we're still a decent ways off from creating a viable human clone. But in the 1970s cloning was definitely something you really only saw in SF and while you had scenarios where old rich people created clones of themselves to harvest organs so they could bwah-ha-ha live forever (or create armies, although if your clones grow at an ordinary wait, you're really looking into the long game unless you figure out a way to take over using homicidal infants) there were plenty of instances where authors looked at the moral or ethical implications of cloning and how that would impact humanity in the future, changing our perceptions and definitions on what it means to be human.

Wilhelm's novel (a Hugo winner for that year as well as a Nebula nominee) isn't so much a look at those elements as extrapolating the concept of cloning and trying to figure out if it's a good idea or not when in the service of keeping mankind alive in one form or another. Here we have an Earth in the not-so far future where climate changes due to pollution are starting to make food very scarce, and while the government is insisting everything is a-ok even as all the McDonald's start to go out of business, a group of scientists is realizing that a lack of food and rampant infertility is going to send humanity to hang out in whatever existential waiting room holds the dinosaurs and passenger pigeons (the latter probably looking forward to the opportunity to go "See how it feels, suckers?") and the only way out is to create a bunch of clones to keep the species going. As far as long shots go, I've heard worse.

While the story touches on the environmental issues, a couple of folks have mentioned Wilhelm's choice of drama over sound ecological theory (if nothing else, the elimination of nearly all animals would send almost any ecosystem into a downward spiral of a tailspin that would take forever to recover from, if it ever did) and while it underscores the proceedings, her focus is really on the concept of cloning and how clones would develop in this new world as humanity seeks to rebuild itself. She structures the story as a three-part linked series that could almost stand as novellas on their own (the first ends in such a way that the whole book feels like a short story that she went and expanded on), with characters from the previous story taking the lead in another section as the years go on, giving the novel a slight sense of sweep, although we're not talking about hundreds of years going by, more like decades.

To that end, Wilhelm explores the evolution of a future society filled with clones and how that society would might revolve around a preference for more clones versus natural births and if society would start to stratify in the process. Her focus seems to be on whether by making tons more copies of ourselves if we would start to lose our individuality, with future people forming tight knit groups that are dependent on each other, a sense of community that come out at the expense of things like innovation or even self-preservation. Her depiction of the lengths a future society would go to keep things just the way they like it never goes as far as Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (although one section comes close, but the aims of the two novels are quite different) but her insights into the mindset clones might have in terms of what they'd prefer make for interesting tensions, especially when pockets of individuality start to crop up and disrupt things.

She has a way of making a story that consists almost entirely of Asimovian levels of action (i.e. none) move very quickly, with the arguments keeping the story in constant motion and yet never making the story dry . . . for all the science that flies around, the story never loses its sense of humanity and the emotions at stake here, never shying away from the cost of living in a society where everyone has a best friend who looks just like them and what it means for everyone else reacting to someone who likes to do absolutely crazy things like go for walks by themselves. It winds up turning into a debate of individuality versus the good of the collective, but unfortunately she stacks the deck more than slightly, not only extrapolating the problems of the clones into lengths that sometimes come across as absurd but by making the remaining clones go to sometimes villainous lengths to keep society just the way they like it, and clearly showing the benefits of being the lone gun versus being bogged down in fiddly groupthink.

But even with those problems there's still a weight to the science (necessary when you're doing a story about humanity running out of food that doesn't involve the food being you or the raw power of Matthew McConaughey's abs saving the world) and a quiet sweep to the proceedings that borders on elegance, the feel of a world shaking off the damage that was done to it, settling down for a somber nap to heal and allowing us to finally realize how large the world truly is and how small we are faced with the expanse of it, an expanse that's humbling whether we face it with numbers in the hundreds or the millions, and a reminder that if we treat each other properly we don't stand alone even when the face next to us isn't the same as ours. If anything, it's a reason to stand ever nearer.


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