Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, July 27, 2012

1965: A Plague of Pythons (Pohl, Frederik)

The Corruption of Plague and Power (4/5)

Among all of Pohl's novels I've read, only Gateway (1977) ranks highly... this indicates some intrinsic aspect of Pohl's focus into his longer works that has either been lost upon me or has been numb to me. Condensing the length of his works, Pohl's short stories, novelettes, and novellas tend to be well thought out and enjoyable, as is the case in Pohlstars (1984) and Man Who Ate the World (1960). The funny thing is, Pohl produced a large number of novels through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s--all with some interesting premises. When I see a previously unknown Pohl novel, I can't help but pick it up even though I know I'll be leery about opening it up. This sums up my expectation for A Plague of Pythons (alternative title: Demon in the Skull): an inherently bad novelist who has the unfortunate ability to drag out a perfectly good novelette into a trialing novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The World Was Possessed

Rapists, killers, and mass-murders were everywhere. Once ordinary people, they were suddenly possessed by some inexplicable force that controlled them, enslaved them, and made them commit the most horrible crimes imaginable.

Chandler had already raped and brutally assaulted a helpless creature and the town had put him on trial for his life. No was did they believe his story that he couldn't have stopped himself, that he was merely a prisoner in his own body, a slave of whatever force was turning the world upside down and making criminals out o common men.

Desperate for freedom and hungry for revenge, Chandler knew he would travel to the ends of the Earth to find his tormentors and destroy their power forever."


Chandler is an electric engineer in a society which has eroded into the sad, hermetic state of not needing any electrical engineers. The survival of the community had become more important that the success and justice of the individual. Towns, like Chandler's in California, became scattered, limited in number and strict in its growth:

"There was real fear, well justified, of living in large groups, for they too were lightening rods for possession. The world was stumbling along, but it was lame in all its members; a planetary lobotomy had stolen from its wisdom and plane" (30).

His wife having been murdered by his best friend and filled with the guilt of not mourning her death, Chandler now stands trial for a crime his body committed, but his mind had not. The enemy who hi-jacked people's mind suddenly struck on one day murdering others and the bodies they possessed, reeking havoc in the cities, altering the path of humanity's shared destiny of greatness. Now Chandler found himself a victim of "Demons? Martians? No one knew whether the invaders of the soul were from another world or from some djinn's bottle" (17).

Chandler was acquitted of his crime through odd circumstances during his trial; his banishment marked by the branded "H" on his forehead. Traveling by train, he is adopted by a mountain people who live in perpetual pain with barded wire anklets and deeply burned tissue to ward off the many names possessors: "the imps, the `flame creatures,' the pythons, devils, incubi or demons" (42) who have been infecting the minds of the innocent. Their prophet Kahlil Gibran and his words are their mental salve in the time when pain is their talisman against the evil possessors.

Soon, Chandler finds himself among the physical presence of the possessors, the same dreadful being who have been committing acts of "murder, rape, arson, theft, sodomy, vandalism, assault and battery or a dozen other offenses" (15) across the world. Oddly enough, the crimes witnessed first in America (on Christmas during nationwide television) were never perpetrated within the walls of agricultural or medical establishments (nor were the citizens of Russia ever assaulted, but the West's nukes took care of that). His expertise is a valuable trait to the possessors and to his life, which becomes more complex yet more important than ever.


A Plague of Pythons starts out strong and mighty with an enticing plot and a conundrum, which is hale and hearty. The reader remains in the thick for so long that time passes by, seems to evaporate--and I thought to myself, "Wow, I can't believe Pohl wrote this!" Mysteries multiply as Chandler follows a jagged path of revenge, some paths chosen by him but other paths being shifted into Chandler's own agenda. The revelation of "python's" was a bit of a let down, but Pohl masterfully constructed a morality tale reflecting John Dalberg-Acton's quote, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It's odd of Pohl to have setting outside that of New York, near-space, or Chicago. The backdrop for Pythons is the American western coast at a point which is "nearly three thousand miles" (40) from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania... which actually puts it at a distance closer to Quito, Ecuador or Reykjavik, Iceland or the Yukon than it does to anywhere in California. Anyway, the important factor is that the Californian setting puts it close to the isolated base of the possessors; it's there that Chandler sees beyond the insidious crimes and absorbs the scene of wholesale slaughter. Pohl really takes a grim view with Pythons, an angle I haven't seen before in, with maybe just a hint of uneasy horror of Reefs of Space (1964) and his later Man Plus (1976). I love horror/sci-fi and this is quite the penultimate novel for the earlier days of the sub-genre.

The conclusion is well deserved and satisfactory, but it doesn't resonate until you recall some of the earlier quotes from the characters, both of the innocent party subjected to the possessors' ill-will and of the possessors' themselves. If the reader is able to suspend one notion in regards to the possessors' ability to infiltrate minds, then welcome to the dystopia Pohl has created, a world oppressed by the brutal crimes of an unseen force acting through the familiar faces of a village's populace.

Perhaps I simply stumbled upon a Pohl novel in his prime, the time prior to 1965; where after he wrote a smattering of short fiction but nothing substantial his 1976 novel Man Plus. This is one of the best of seventeen Pohl books I've read besides Gateway, The Man Who Ate the World, and Merchants War (1984). I won't go out on a limb and say Pohl has reignited my interest in his bibliography, but I will maintain a keen eye out for his earlier titles like Drunkard's Walk (1960), Slave Ship (1957), and Age of the Pussyfoot (1969). After those years there's not much to interest me.

1965: The Drought (Ballard, J.G.)

Timeless--stunner from creation to conclusion (5/5)
From April 7, 2010

Written in an era witnessing ecological change (James Lovelock's "Gaia Hypothesis" and Buckminster Fuller "Spaceship Earth"), the 1960s & 1970s hosted a plethora of excellent novels about this eco-transformation. Included in this repertoire are such classics as Brian Aldiss' two novels Long Afternoon of Earth (1961) and Earthworks (1965), John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972) to name a few. J.G. Ballard's The Drought is a short but powerful tale of a seemingly temporary drought turning into a decade long struggle of survival on the eastern coast of America.

After reading this novel, I've been further exposed to Ballard balletic short story collections of The Terminal Beach (1964) and Vermilion Sands (1971)--both of which showed nearly unparalleled beauty in setting in prose without dragging the reader down in paltry descriptions of color and texture. I've been very, very keen on getting my hands on everything Ballard!

Rear cover synopsis:
"Rain is a thing of the past.
Radio-active waste has stopped
the sea evaporating.

The sun beats down on the parching earth,
and on the parching spirit of man.
A warped new mankind is bred
out of the dead land--bitter, murderous,
its values turned upside down.

Idiots reign. Water replaces currency
and becomes the source of a bleak new evil...

If it ever happened, it could be very like this."


It's my opinion that Ballard is one who took up the challenge to bring science fiction from the pulpy novels to the land of literature, a task which little have achieved before him. Granted, many of the sci-fi masters have created works which have wowed the limited community but the ripples of these works have little effect on the greater literary ocean. With sci-fi's tendency to include more recent cultural changes (stemming from a notion than SF must be modern to sell), Ballard has taken a different route and created his novel in a timeless period devoid of 60s overtones (the sexual revolution, rise in drug culture, anti-war sentiments, etc.). THIS is what many of the authors of the time failed to do and hence have been lost their mediocre novels to the sands of time (some Pohl, much of Silverberg and a few others).

What Ballard has created is simply impressive because of the aforementioned fact but also because he actually has included some luscious language never before seen in sci-fi before his heralded "New Wave of science fiction" came around. Two excepts impinged a rich sensory stimulation: "She moved along at a snail's pace, her tiny booted feet advancing over the cracked sand like timorous mice." and "His eyes hovered below his swollen forehead like shy dragonflies." There are other such passages which are equally as descriptive and lush as the latter two. The similes, metaphors and third eye observations by the author are like those never seen before 1965 sci-fi.

The story itself invites the reader to explore the community of Hamilton at the end of a summer drought where the river and lake has nearly dried up; the population has fled to the oceanic coast and the remaining citizens dealing with their own inner demons. Castor has remained behind to coddle his mementos and look after his loose alliances with brachycephalic-skulled sidekick, a feral river-touring boy and the increasingly rouge-like town minister. Later in part two, the story jumps forward ten years where we find the drought still in situ; the ocean has receded, replaced by miles of salty earth. Communities dotted along the coast cope by herding tide pools of water and herring back to their camps consisting of restructured heaps of automobiles. When worse comes to worse, the hope arises that there may actually be water a hundred miles back inland, which is where part three begins and where you may find yourself at the mercy of a truly talented author.

From here on... I am a Ballard fan, yet to be tried-and-true, but this novel has won me over in so many ways.

Monday, July 23, 2012

1950: I, Robot (Asimov, Isaac)

Superficial threading of mixed bag of robo-stories (3/5)

It's no secret I don't like Foundation (1951). Some could interpret this as a distaste for Asimov himself or for 1940s-1950s science fiction... but they would be wrong. I like Asimov's short stories in collections such as Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) but I think it prose is usually flat. Asimov's popularity rests on his inventiveness rather than his use of the English language, something which tends to drag down even the best of his stories. Lyrically flat but infused with creativity, Asimov is a must read (even I admit that) but it's not the most enjoyable reading in science fiction. However, the most irksome quality springs up in Asimov's dialog. Foundation had some terrible ejaculations with "Oh, space!" and  "Great galloping galaxies!" dotting the conversations; I, Robot isn't as annoying but it still shows Asimov's juvenile use of English: "Sizzling Saturn!", "Jumping Jupiter", and "Great Galaxy!" being among the cheesiest.

Required reading some may say... I would agree. I, Robot is collection of stories that first places robots at the moralistic center of society (even though the robots are later displaced from Earth, their interaction with humanity persists). The three laws are inseparable from the positronic brains of the robots, a dogmatic template which is a danger to the robots as much as it is a savior for humans. A dilemma between the laws can destroy the robot, which the company sees as an occasional necessity. Some of the robots exhibit personality and passion, dedication and cleverness, but the staff of the U.S. Robots company never see themselves in a dilemma--spare the robot death or drive it mad. Are the dogmatic morality and secret reasoning of the robots more favorable than the overt indifference and freedom inhibiting of the humans?


Robbie (shortstory, 1940) - 4/5 - When a little girl's heart is broken, stemming from the loss of her nursemaid robot Robbie, a dog is simply not a replacement for the non-vocal are Robbie once showered upon the growing girl. 19 pages ----- A cute, fairly juvenile start to the collection, one which doesn't rely on any of the three laws, but highlights the intrinsic humanity the robot Robbie is endowed with.

Runaround (novelette, 1942) - 5/5 - Gregory and Mike need selenium for their Mercury-based laboratory's cooling system, but their only errand running robot, Speedy (S.P.D. 13), seems to be running circles so they must go to rescue him before time and life elapse. 19 pages ----- Ping-ponging between the second and third laws, Speedy is caught in a conundrum which reveals a hazard for their isolation.

Reason (shortstory, 1941) - 5/5 - The field engineers are supervising a new, more intelligent robot (QT-1) which will one day single-handedly run the solar energy transmitter, but the robot starts to contemplate his own existence and that of his maker. 19 pages ----- Though Gregory and Mike are the experts in robotics, Cutie the robot seems to violate the second law but they must have faith in the laws.

Catch the Rabbit (shortstory, 1944) - 2/5 - The mining robot (DV-5) is in charge of six subordinate robots, but the squabbling field engineers can't figure out why the team lapses into a field march every time they're without human supervision. 20 pages ----- Dave is more complicated than Cutie and the engineers are even more stumped with seven times the number of robots violating the second law.

Liar! (shortstory, 1941) - 3/5 - The thought reading one-of-a-kind robot RB-34 is a whiz at mathematics but loves to read fiction, yet the robot is being uncooperative on the math problems but remains oddly congenial when it comes to the heart-to-heart. 18 pages ----- Breaking no laws but simply wanting to please the humans, RB-34 dangerously plays with confines of the first law.

Little Lost Robot (novelette, 1947) - 3/5 - When robot NS-10 of the Nester branch takes a "get lost" command too literally, robotists Susan Calvin and Peter Bogert must concoct elaborate tests to sniff out the rouge robot out of the sixty-three. 27 pages ----- Wishing to obey opposing commands, NS-10 confuses the duo but the couple prove to be too clever for the limitations of an amended set of laws.

Escape! (shortstory, 1945) - 3/5 - The U.S. Robots' competitor Consolidated Robots seeks assistance with the calculation for a hyper-atomic drive, something which crashed their "Super-Thinker" but are still hopeful of U.S. Robots' "Brain" and the two field engineers. 22 pages ----- The three laws are expanded from robotic bodies to the supercomputers which govern the success of each company.

Evidence (novelette, 1946) 4/5 - Francis Quinn has it in his mind that the district attorney and mayor-hopeful Stephen Byerley is a non-sleeping, non-eating, non-drinking, and non-violent robot and sets out to prove it to the entire electorate. 24 pages ----- Aiming to frame the man as a robot, Quinn proves that a polite robot is just as good as decent human.

The Evitable Conflict (novelette, 1950) - 3/5 - Discrepancies in production in the solar system and within the world's four super nations are denied by the same nations' Machines, but Susan and Stephen think the ignored errors are part of something bigger. 24 pages ----- The mega-minds' seemingly secret scheming raises questions which only thorough investigation of the laws and data can cover.


Some of these stories are perfect with clear inventiveness, purpose, execution, and conclusion. But scattered through the collection are a few stories which are afterthoughts, additions based on a simple idea without the reflective complexity that the others are embedded with. The thread binding the stories (that umbrella story of interviewing Susan Calvin) is superficial at best, with a hearty introduction and paragraph or two between dedicated to the stories' suturing.

1951: Foundation (Asimov, Isaac)

Classic to some, past its atomic half-life for others (2/5)
From September 1, 2010

My dislike of a few of the genre's most famous works has not been popular. When I gave Dune three stars in 2008, I was being generous. I can't recall exactly what rubbed me the wrong way. When I finally picked up Foundation, I decided to keep notes to see exactly where the novel went wrong. My documentation and opinion stating may never suit the most die-hard Foundation fan, but I merely want everyone to acknowledge that all books have faults--my favorite novels are probably hated by some, just as some of your favorite books are hated by others. Hugo and Nebula awards don't justify a book's greatness; I typically disagree with many of the award winners. I guess my idea of science fiction doesn't meet the more popular view of the genre.

Foundation is the epitome of the ideal of the pessimistic technocratic utopia. Strange as it may sound, the plot is as follows: pseudo-science finds a way to predict future, politicians banish scientists, scientists establish new citizenry, trade flourishes, scientists gain control through pseudo-religion. This supposedly tried-and-true pseudo-science is a way to predict the future by way of studying human behavior (an oddly fatalistic view of a scientific universe). However, I disagree with the notion and invest my interest in the rival fund of the "Crazy Eddie" effect of Niven & Pournelle's Motie series where an individual can make the most drastic difference.

I must further state that I was born in 1980 and began reading SF in 2007 with the likes of Niven, Bear, and Brunner. I like my complex Iain Banks, voluminous Alastair Reynolds, mind-bending Greg Egan and ever-changing Brunner. Now while many of the so-called old timers have proclaimed Foundation sacred like the novels of Dune, I am of the new generation and of the new voice, which can't be held to the same standard as the last generation (or two). Times changes, ideals change, perspectives change, terminology changes, tolerable prefixes change, and personal development changes. While Dune may have been impressive in style and scope, it did not satisfy me in content, interest, and follow through. To these effects, I wish to express my dissatisfaction with Foundation.

To paraphrase an excellent book about the relationship between psychology and musical composition entitled Of Mind and Music, the author states that repetition is an exploitation of human emotion causing the listener (or in this case, the reader) to fall into a collective primal rhythm with fellow listeners (read: readers). Like in Foundation, the amount of repetition is akin to the acute attack of bass at a rave: theories are repeated endlessly, idiosyncratic allegories are scattered through every chapter and the word "atomic" was shotgun blasted, litter strewn, scattered to the winds, chucked without consciousness onto nearly ever page (sign of the times, I presume?). Here is the alphabetical list of "atomic" phrases found in Foundation:
Atomic blaster, atomic drill, atomic drive (also the hyperatomic drive), atomic fire, atomic force, atomic force-shield, atomic gadgets, atomic generator, atomic knife, atomic power, atomic shear, atomic ships, atomic specialists, atomic techniques, atomic washing machine (bwah!) and atomic weapons.
If "style" could mean the expressed use of repetition, then Asimov has easily seduced the science fiction reader of the early 1950s. With the blossoming (pessimists read: destructive radiation) of the atomic age, the dream of an atomic future must surely have seemed to be an optimistic fantasy. Nowadays, the equivalent would be a novel which is saturated with micro- and nano- prefixes. Thus, it seems as Asimov had the initial bug of beginning of the "atomic" prefix fixation. Did Asimov overdo it? In these regards, I stand to say that Asimov had a single-tracked mind.

While reading the sciences and unfolding plot of the pseudo-science, I was constantly remained of the "Seldon crisis" and the mightier-than-thou proverb "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." As an educated reader, I only need to be reminded once to have the full effect of conveyance and depth. Throw in the tame pre-censor curses of "Oh, space!" and the cringe-worthy "Great galloping galaxies!" and you have for yourself a novel which is mildly aggravating, almost maddening. Repetition doesn't mean a solid follow through. Rather, it just means the author is either under-evaluating the reader of filling up word space.

Additionally, the characters were as bland as cardboard for breakfast. Everyone seemed to be a utopian plutocrat or an idealistic capitalist in a struggling capitalist society. Scientists know best, so scientists so rule, right? It's ONE vision of style of government but the path Asimov takes is one of superiority and, ultimately, disagreement. The approach is too preachy to the benefits of an ideal technocratic civilization. Throughout, I understood the relationships and the dealings between opposing parties, but I found the unraveling as tedious as the usage of the word "atomic." Politico scenes compounded by feudal titles bored me to bits, much like Herbert's Dune, Tepper's Grass and some of Wolfe's Long Sun series. While the over-all feudal scene works well with the future technocratic/religious society, I find the kowtowing to be overwhelming (more so considering I already live in a fairly visible feudal society).

Inevitably, as these words and review suggest, I must say that the novel has failed to impress me in the year 2010 after 30 years of mortality and four years of reading science fiction. Surely, many modern novels must have been based off the ideals presented in Foundation, but from my standpoint in the year 2010, I fail to see the greatness which was intrinsically embossed upon it during its publication and further years of intense readership. In the year 2010, the novel does not stand the ultimate test of time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

1987: The 1987 Annual World's Best SF (Wollheim, Donald A.)

Ride the wave of highs and lows from 1986 (3/5)

All of these stories were first published in 1986, in the middle of a decade which fellow blogger Joachim detests (hence his pre-1980s SF reviews). With the publication of this collection, his opinion is cemented in the many poor choices for this anthology. I don't think I've ever been so disappointed with an anthology, but this 1987 collection of 1986 stories had more lower lows than its highs. For the sake of academic reference I'll keep this on my shelves, but I'd prefer to find other collections that have the same great stories reviewed below.

Zelazny's "Permafrost" was nominated for the Nebula best novelette but won the Hugo award, Pat Cardigan's "Pretty Boy Crossover" was nominated for the Nebula best short story, and Lucius Shepard's "R&R" was nominated foe the Hugo best novella but ended up winning Nebula award instead.


Roger Zelazny: Permafrost (novelette) - 5/5 - On an adult entertainment planet experiencing a fifty year winter, Dorothy and Paul are the sole inhabitants acting as caretakers along with the human mind-based computer, Andrew Aldon. With ever-approaching glaciers and a frightening weather system, Aldon is the defender and supervisor for the town of Playpoint. When a particular weather system seems to be steering Paul to a specific destination, Aldon warns the man but the latent planetary prowess proves too manipulative for Aldon's protective circuits. 25 pages ----- This is the first Zelanzy I've liked. It's got a enticing detailed background with a cast that's interesting and headed into an odd peril. This is by far the best story in the collection, so from here onto page 303 it's bumpy ride.

Doris Egan: Timerider (novelette) - 3/5 - Brian Cornwall is being evaluated in 1957 by a team of time travelers. Their mission is to secure the Japanese swan sculpture at the museum Brian works for. Ceece is part of the team geared towards contact and influence. Due to the high cost of physical time travel, only holograms and likenesses are typically sent through, but Ceece's increasing interest in Brian peaks when the death they have planned for him tugs at her heart. The alien D'drendt overlords feign interest. 57 pages ----- This is fairly detailed, too, with the human race having been defeated by an avian alien race. The enticement lays in the mysterious motives of the aliens and the fate of the pawn of Brian.

Pat Cadigan: Pretty Boy Crossover (shortstory) - 3/5 - Allowed to bide one's time as one sees fit, the uploaded personality of Bobby relishes an existence spent in the narcissistic limelight of an eternity dancing in front of a crowded club. Referred to as a Pretty Boy, Bobby attracts a fellow Pretty Boy who adores his attention and gyrations. However, the small crowd gathered at the foot of the stairs and the mohawked bouncer aren't the people they appear to be. 12 pages ----- This had an odd, odd start. The initial flavor of cyberpunk was irksome, but the conclusion set it above the bar with the rest of the 80s sub-genre.

Lucius Shepard: R&R (novella) - 1/5 - Mingolla is stationed in Guatemala with his desertion daydreaming army friends Baylor and Gilby. Given their prolonged service with the surety of death in he Latin American war, escape to Panama becomes a reoccurring fantasy, a fantasy which becomes personified when Mingolla meets a fellow sixth-sensing lady who foresees his grisly death on the battlefield. Skirting the issue and her company, Mingolla sticks with the boys. 87 pages ----- There's a war in Latin America. That's about as far into science fiction this story gets. It's tediously long and really has no place in this collection. HOW this is one of the best SF stories of 1986 is beyond me.

Suzette Haden Elgin: Lo, How an Oak E'er Blooming (shortstory) - 4/5 - On a chilly February day in Madison, Wisconsin, a lecturer begs for a miracle, for the oak tree outside to burst into blossom. With more than fifty witnesses to the miracle, mob mentality regarding the sudden growth is nulled. All the sciences throw every test at the tree and yet it continues to regenerate its blossoms and stave off death by poisoning. Society embraces the miracles but the military, as always, feels threatened. 10 pages ----- The science isn't as paramount as the reaction to the impossible. The miracle isn't what shines, but it's the social impact of the certified mystery.

Jerry Meredith & D.E. Smirl: Dream in a Bottle (shortstory) - 4/5 - Approaching a nebulous cloud of interstellar hydrogen, a ramscoop ship opens its magnetic maw to accept the fuel while en route to Zeta Reticuli IV. Piloted by catatonic minds living in their own deceptive cerebral fantasies, a rotating crew monitors the ship's and pilot's progress. To bide their time en route, the crew, too, delve into their own personal fantasies. When one pilot awakens on the bridge, Michael slips into other's realities. 15 pages ----- The hardest science fiction in this collection, it's a little hard to grasp just exactly what's going on. A tad on the cyberpunk side, the immersion of the cast into virtual reality creates alternate realities, some of which overlap.

Tanith Lee: Into Gold (novelette) - 2/5 - From the East come the traveling caravan of a miller and his daughter. The prince of the village doing the trading wishes to marry the daughter, whose ability to render all things into gold makes believers of some and skeptics of others. Draco's captain Skorous takes a disliking to the witchcraft the woman performs but remains loyal to his prince even through the birth of the couple's son. When a neighboring village requests her healing gift, Skorous closely follows. 34 pages ----- Wollheim said it best in his introduction, "...if you want to dispute that this is science fiction, take it up with the world's most popular science writer [Asimov]" (206). This story was later published in a collection of fantasy. Verdict granted.

Howard Waldrop: The Lions are Asleep This Night (novelette) - 1/5 - Robert Oinenke is growing up in Niger with mere pennies to spend on printed books and plays. His mother sees the purchases as a waste of money and his headmaster sees the matter as a waste of time. Robert discovers that classic English playwrights sell for cheap and becomes inspired to write his own play. With no one to mentor his elemental growth as a playwright, Robert sees to it himself that his play is not only read, but also published for all to read. 23 pages ----- Something here about an alternative history and playwrights. Lost on me.

Robert Silverberg: Against Babylon (novelette) - 3/5 - Carmichael flies into southern California to pilot a DC-3 during a spat of wildfire. Having been out of touch for the last three days, Mike learns that the three wildfires were caused by the three UFOs that ignited the brush with their exhaust. Oddly less worrisome is not being able to contact his eccentric L.A.-loving wife Cindy. When news comes of her kidnapping, he seems happy for her new placement. 23 pages ----- This story has elements the reader will later find in Silverberg's novella "Hot Times in Magma City" (1995) and his novel The Alien Years (1998), neither of which I liked. But like The Alien Years, the ultimate reasons for the aliens' visit is left unknown.

Damon Knight: Stranger on Paradise (shortstory) - 4/5 - Biographer Howard Selby attains permission to visit the planet of Paradise only after an exhaustive physical examination, disinfection, and blood replacement. Paradise is the only inhabitable planet ever found, where all diseases are unknown and the native life prove ineffective with Earth life. The idyllic planet was once home to a famous poet, the same poet whose work Howard is trying to dive into. When he comes across a cryptic sonnet, his opinion of the planet plummets. 18 pages ----- A great start but a kind of sloppy ending, the sonnet separated a great shortstory from a decent short story. The motivation for the conclusion was weak but its effects were great. Good conclusion for the collection, in general.

1996: Year's Best SF (Hartwell, David G.)

Symptomatic of science fiction in transition (4/5)
From March 30, 2010

Compared to the collection New Legends (edited by Greg Bear, but published in 1995), this collection is briefer and inferior. However, the stories "Evolution" and "The Ziggurat" are very much noteworthy. It's still better than most anthologies out there.

Hartwell doesn't stick to any specific sub-genre of science fiction as he highlights a wide range of the art from 1995 (all stories were published in 1995). This is Hartwell's first of a series of "Year's Best" anthologies which seem to be growing thicker and thicker each year. This is the first of the series and it jam-packed with big names: Silverberg, Baxter, Benford, Haldeman, Le Guin, Zelazny, Kress, Sheckley, and Wolfe.

Hartford states in his introduction that 1995 was a revival year for novellas, yet he only included three novellas with only one, Wolfe's "The Ziggurat," being the most hauntingly memorable. Hartwell also includes introductions to each story, which just looks like academic name dropping. Poul Anderson is misspelled TWICE is these introductions as "Paul Anderson" (135, 203). I haven't the faintest clue how an editor who actually KNOWS science fiction could possibly have let this slip by! David G. Hartwell (editor) may have a Ph.D. in Comparative Medieval Literature and may have been nominated for a Nebula award fifteen times but, honestly, how can you misspell the name of a science fiction master like Poul Anderson?


James Patrick Kelly: Think Like a Dinosaur (novelette) - 3/5 - A transmitted translight traveler stops over at a dino-like alien base inhabited by a single human who assists other humans on the journey. The process is know to be destructive and without failure... until now. The human fixture and dino must think of a unilateral solution. 26 pages ----- It may not have been a particularly fanciful read at the time but it remains one of the stories that sticks on the mind. Kelly's collection by the same name seems to have a small cult following but I haven't been able to procure a copy in two years.

Patricia A. McKillip: Wonders of the Invisible World (shortstory) - 4/5 - A lá Connie Willis, a time traveling researching places herself in a situation where she must conform to licensing standards yet perform as an angel would. 14 pages

Robert Silverberg: Hot Times in Magma City (novella) - 2/5 - Recovering addicts of various sorts volunteer to extinguish volcanic uprisings in the southern California valleys or whatever the hell else is included in Cali-geography because as a non-Cali resident, all the Cali-name dropping was just superfluous and the characters were f-l-a-t. 64 pages ----- If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you could have predicted that I would've disliked anything produced by Silverberg... this is no exception.

Stephen Baxter: Gossamer (shortstory) - 3/5 - Wormhole traveler is accidently dumped on Pluto where she makes a fragile and possibly climatic discovery which impinges on her sole survival on the desolate planetoid. 23 pages

Gregory Benford: A Worm in the Well (novelette) - 4/5 - A solar phenomenon beckons the employment of an ore tug, but further in the appointment finds that the prize is much, much bigger than she bargained for and must confront qualms concerning debt payment and scientific discovery. 33 pages

William Browning Spencer: Downloading Midnight (novelette) - 3/5 - Mostly indecipherable and full of capitalizations, a sort of futuristic cyberpunk world is being havocked by a rouge avatar. The digital hunt spills into reality as the Net becomes more and more disrupted. 33 pages ----- A cyberpunk story during a period when cyberpunk was being replaces by post-cyberpunk. This is an awkward insertion into the collection, but the collection has a cyberpunk representation.

Joe Haldeman: For White Hill (novella) - 4/5 - Otherworldly artists gather on a sterilized, scorched earth to erect a combined monument in memory of earth's once greatness and hence destruction during multiple century alien war. Befallen by an unprecedented calamity, the artists strive to complete their works whether to be eternal or not. 56 pages

William Barton: Saturn Time (shortstory) - 4/5 - A fine alternate history of what the US space program would have looked like if it weren't for all the cutbacks since the Apollo missions, misguided leaders, and the evolution of spacecraft design. 21 pages

Ursula K. Le Guin: Coming of Age in Karhide (novelette) - 1/5 - I read The Left Hand of Darkness and gagged my way through it as it's not my particular sub-genre of science fiction (that being xeno-sociological science fiction). I wasn't especially keen on going further than the first page as I had already trudged halfway through the short story in Greg Bear's collection of New Legends. It's not my specialty but some people actually like it. 25 pages ----- I still can't touch this stuff. I'd rather tenderize my fist on a wall than trudge through this again. However, her novel Lathe of Heaven was masterful.

Roger Zelazny: The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker (shortstory) - 3/5 - Black hole delving man discovering, inconveniently, that his ship isn't up to par with the tidal pulls and bails out. An energy-like alien being assists the spaceman during their experiments with the spin of the void and its effects on space-time. 10 pages ----- Zelazny is apparently loved by the masses for some trait I have yet to discover. His Damnation Alley was ghastly and this shortstory doesn't inspire me either.

Nancy Kress: Evolution (novelette) - 5/5 - An antibiotic resistant bug rears its ugly head in a New York and some citizens don't take kindly to doctors persistent in administering the antibiotic endozine. When a mother catches word of her son's antidisestablishmentarianism she confronts the doctor and father of her child about the situation and therapy. 30 pages ----- I don't have any Kress novels but this was excellent! Another of her stories, "Inertia" was published in the Wastelands anthology but it wasn't as impressive as this. She's at the top of my to-buy list, for sure.

Robert Sheckley: The Day the Aliens Came (shortstory) - 3/5 - When aliens arrive on earth, there's a windfall of unexpected situations an author finds himself in, including writing a novella for an alien audience (with a cast of love-inducing pretzels) and a group which focuses their effort in composite alien life forms, which just sounds like a giant alien orgy. 14 pages ----- Mmm, not my favorite Sheckley. His earlier work from the 1960s is highly, highly recommended, however.

Joan Slonczewski: Microbe (shortstory) - 4/5 - A planet with genetic material and bodies like zooids (circular, donut-shaped), the research team is stunned and must investigate for themselves. When the flora and fauna prove to be difficult and zooidal, one member takes it one step further to probe the mystery at the cost of the team. 16 pages

Gene Wolfe: The Ziggurat (novella) - 5/5 - A soon-to-be divorcee in the wintery woods in being harassed by his nagging wife, three children (one of his own) and three creepy scouts of unknown origin. The harassment turns to theft and kidnapping, which is where the decision is made to take the offensive. 92 pages ----- This must be the scariest story I've ever read; I still get creeped out simply thinking about it. My eyes were glued to the pages like no other story had done before. This is why I started reading Wolfe and while not everything he's created as been great (like the stories in Starwater Strains) his novels allow the reader to reflect on what wasn't mentioned... Wolfe would rather than gaudily drop obvious details onto the pages.

Friday, July 13, 2012

2009: Look at the Birdie (Vonnegut, Kurt)

Come for the humor, stay for the humanism (3/5)

There are a select few science fiction authors who I know by reputation alone. For one reasons or another, I haven’t procured any novels from the same authors: Robert A. Heinlein, Ben Bova, and Philip José Farmer among them. Kurt Vonnegut comes very, very close to being one those “reputation alone” authors, if it weren’t for the fact that I once read the first two or three chapters from Timequake (1997) in 2005, two years before I became serious in reading. Timequake remains one of two books that I started and never had the wish to finish… the other being Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune (1985). Perhaps after reading this previously unpublished collection to short stories of Vonngut’s, I may venture back to Timequake and a few of his other sci-fi-esque novels… but definitely not Child of Fortune (jeez, what a piece of crap).

Rear cover synopsis:
“Look at the Birdie is a surprising and often hilarious collection of stories set in post-war America, a world of squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town Lotharios. Though written early in his career and never published before, these stories showcase all Vonnegut’s trademark skills—a deep sense of humanity, a sharp eye for the absurd and humour in the most unlikely places.”

Not all of the short stories in Look at the Birdie of are of the science fiction persuasion, but the ones that are SF-esque deserve a rightful place on my shelves (too bad this is a borrowed book, however). The stories that ARE sci-fi have a double asterisk and the ones that are sci-fi-esque have a single asterisk.


Letter from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to Miller Marris, 1951 – 5/5 – Rebounding from the rejection of an extra-curricular graduate study, Kurt reflects on a writer’s choice to write for himself or to write for the publishers, a dichotomy splitting him from self-actualization and financial renunciation. 3 pages

** Confido – 4/5 – Henry Bowers tinkers away at a hearing-aid company but one day stumbles upon his greatest invention yet. Showing it to his wife Ellen, Henry dubs the device Confido, which he hopes will be “bigger than the television and psychoanalysis combined” (13). However, Confido’s earbud input into Ellen irks her but also snidely entertains her. The comments become too much when their son announces his once adoption. Henry must decide whether or not to junk his billion dollar idea—the confidence companion. 14 pages

F U B A R – 4/5 – Fuzzy Littler works in the PR department of a large company. He simply returns letters to customers which defy categorization. The PR department has no room for him so he is given an office in Building 181, but when his burns down along with his paperwork, he is given another office at the end of the company’s bus line—building 533, the company gymnasium. Work is scarce and the gym’s opening hours are outside of Fuzz’s working hours, so he and his new secretary find a way to release his pent up, guilt-ridden soul. 15 pages

Shout About It from the Housetops – 3/5 – Elsie Strang Morgen is a published author with movie rights already sold for her novel. However, she and her school teacher husband have become a recluse couple in a farm home, both miserable and uncommunicative. One day a storm window salesman comes by seeing their house in improperly shuddered, but ignorant of her book and their situation, the salesman receives an earful regarding their history—the revelations of which are innocuous for himself, but startling for the couple. 13 pages

Ed Luby’s Key Club – 3/5 – Harve Eliot and his wife Claire patronize an out-of-town fancy restaurant once a year for their anniversary, a restaurant owned by an old bodyguard for Al Capone. The couple is rudely turned away after they are informed of the establishment’s new reputation as a private club, The Key Club. Harve and Claire witness Ed Luby, the club owner, hit and kill a woman on the steps of the club but are later detained in the murder of the same woman. Harve seeks justice from the town of cronies Ed has built but even the residents are pawns to Ed’s larger game of corruption. With circumstances as wild as they are, even a head injury can be seen as a fortuitous advance. 52 pages

A Song for Selma – 4/5 – Helmholtz is the band director and tutor for the 16-year old musical prodigy Schoeder, composer of a many marches. The big dumb drummer, Big Floyd, hands Helmholtz a poem/composition inspired by his lab partner Selma. Helmholtz tracks Selma down to the high school’s office where she’s copying IQ data from the file of the band director. He spots an error in her deduction and rallies the three students together. 17 pages

* Hall of Mirrors – 4/5 – Detectives Carney and Foltz investigate the house of a hypnotist who is suspected in the disappearance of four women. Weems, the hypnotist, has an uncanny ability to steer the conversation and the actions of the detectives in self-proscribed ways, yet the police duo still persist on seeing the mirrors where the women walked through and disappeared. Continuing his illusionist subterfuge, the hypnotist concocts his own truth out of the precarious situation in the mirrored attic. 17 pages

** The Nice Little People – 5/5 – Lowell Swift (a nod to Jonathon Swift of Gulliver’s Travels) casually picks up a paper knife from the roadside to find its rightful owner. Unable to locate them, he returns home to find an opalescent stud on the knife to have popped out of its mounting. Six black-clad miniature humans descend from the hole. At first shocking, literally and in size, they idolize him because of the bounty of food he offered. His life takes an unexpected turn when his wife returns home after a real estate deal. 11 pages

Hell, Red – 3/5 – After eight years of mercantile shipping, a collection of tattoos, and one leg short of a pair, Red Mayo returns to his hometown. Establishing himself as bridge operator, Red sees the village sunk in self-delusion as he steps up to find the truth of his departure years ago. The red-headed girl near the bridge is hat drew him to the bridge, but it’s the father that he must confront. 15 pages

Little Drop of Water – 5/5 – Larry’s a bachelor, plain and simple, and wishes to remain that way. With a steady stream of “talent” in his studio, Larry is spoilt for choice and pursues who he wished. Only when the girl mentions starts talking of marriage does he let her go… this is where his fellow bachelor friend comes into the scene to consul the poor girl. One girl takes the break-up pretty hard but refuses to donate a tear to the cause; she’d rather connivingly inject into Larry’s well-known weekly routine as a way of revenge. 17 pages

** The Petrified Ants – 5/5 – Peter, the discoverer of the government rebuked “warlike, slave-raiding ants found under hedges” (186), and his partner Josef are brought to a remote mine which houses an amazing discovery: petrified ants from the pre-Mesozoic era. Looking more closely they see the ants without pincers but oddly carrying items such as a book and a bass fiddle. As their investigation continues, strata above the previous discovery highlights a change in the ants’ society—one that may not be greeted well by the Soviet government. 18 pages

The Honor of a Newsboy – 2/5 – The death of a waitress raises suspicions towards the local bully, Earl Hedlund. The police chief visits the house to question the man but finds the paperboy bravely riding up to house with Earl’s mutt snapping at his heels. Just then, Earl comes home to his 5-day outstanding pile of newspapers and verbally challenges the sheriff, the newsboy, and the boy’s father. Behind the importance of the murder lays the defense of the honor. 10 pages

* Look at the Birdie – 4/5 – Contemplating the hatred of his enemy, up pulls a man by the name of Felix Koradubian, a convicted malfeasance psychiatric practitioner. Having interviewed scores of patients but burning his records, Felix keeps a secret list of paranoiacs to “do” his work for him. For the man at the bar, this unintended blessing takes on a different face very soon. 7 pages

King and Queen of the Universe – 2/5 – The inherently rich couple of 1931, Anne and Henry, stroll through a park speaking absentmindedly when Anne glorifies the freedom of hobos and describes the penniless lifestyle a fun and heaven-like. Just then, a man detaches himself from the shadows and approaches the couple because of the woman’s ignorant statement. That man, Stanley Karpinsky, is jobless but talents in industrial chemistry… and his mother is dying. It’s in his power to shift points of views and, perhaps, to make the world a more just place. 19 pages

The Good Explainer – 3/5 – Joe and his wife Barbara travel from Cincinnati to Chicago to see a “specialist” about their childless ten years of marriage. Admittedly a general practitioner, Dr. Leonard Abekian is a little confused as to why anyone would recommend his services as a sterility specialist. As Joe’s wife is out shopping during his doctor visit, Joe lets slip his wife’s name and occupation, something which he promised not to do. As Barbara approached the office, the doctor understands the nature of the problem. 11 pages

1955: Citizen in Space (Sheckley, Robert)

Entertainment and imagination like no other! (5/5)
From December 5, 2009

This was my very first Sheckley collection and I savor the sight of it as it graces my wooden shelves. Equal in greatness is his other collection Store of Infinity. Sheckley knack for creating whimsical, silly, and fun stories is unparalleled. I'd go so far as to say that whatever Sheckley you shake a stick will be the next best thing to science fiction you'll ever get. Before Red Dwarf and before Hitchhiker's was Sheckley--the man, the legend. Open and indulge!


Mountain Without a Name (1955, shortstory) - 3/5 - A terraforming company is struck with bad luck and the failure to destroy the huge mountain is the last straw. Who or what is making these setbacks occur and why is Earth having the same poor luck? 16 pages

The Accountant (1954, shortstory) - 4/5 - A hopeful wizard-to-be boy is failing his witchery class and his parents are concerned about his adept accounting. This calls for strict measures and maybe even a demonic intervention. 10 pages

Hunting Problem (1955, shortstory) - 4/5 - Avian alien `boy scout' hunts a trio of humans on a gem expedition. If he returns with a pelt he will be rewarded but will he be able to outwit the human animals? 13 pages

Thief in Time (1954, novelette) - 4/5 - University professor is visited by a time traveler who says he's guilty of theft. Not only that, but he is also the inventor of the time machine. When the professor escapes and finds that his future self has left him a hoard of stolen good to facilitate a new escape into the future. Whew! 26 pages

Luckiest Man in the World (1955, shortstory) - 3/5 - A weatherman learns to be a dentist, plumber, carpenter among other things during his solitude. But hey, he's lucky he likes to be alone! 4 pages

Hands Off (1954, novelette) - 4/5 - Humans land on a planet after discovering an alien craft. They force their way inside while the alien finds ways to survive outside his own ship. The ethical alien confronts himself while the human tackle their stupidity. 25 pages

Something for Nothing (1954, shortstory) - 4/5 - A djinn-like machine, the Utilizer, appears in Collin's room. It seems to grant him any wish he desires- something for nothing. But wait, Collin doesn't have a Class-A rating! 13 pages

Ticket to Tranai (1955, novelette) - 5/5 - You're perfectly safe as long as you pay your taxes, but the rumor of a far-flung utopia takes one man takes him beyond the galactic rim. When there is no crime and no poverty yet the immigration official has a scoped and silenced rifle over his desk... yes, be apprehensive. 40 pages

The Battle (1954, shortstory) - 3/5 - The military prepares its Final Battle with Satan and his forces in the Sahara desert. After the robotic battle has been won, what should one wear when meeting Him? 6 pages

Skulking Permit (1954, novelette) - 5/5 - A colonial planet of Imperial Earth is requested to present itself to an Earth conformity inspector. Having 200 years of hermetic harmony, the colony naively creates a jail, white roofed church, red roofed school and a post office... even though they have no use for these things. And if there's a need for a jail, there MUST be a need for a criminal. Hence, Tom becomes the government sanctioned criminal in which he's legally required to break the law by thieving and murdering. 27 pages

Citizen in Space (1955, shortstory) - 3/5 - Sick of `big brother' and their infernally noisy cameras, a man takes his new found freedom to the stars. Unfortunately, his stowaway and hitchhiker are both spies from Earth. When finding a lone Earth-like planet for themselves, will Earth finally leave him alone? 11 pages

Ask a Foolish Question (1953, novelette) - 5/5 - The alien constructed Answerer knows all the answers. Two species of aliens confront the Answerer with their most important questions and yet are turned away because they didn't ask the right question. Will the humans be able to properly approach the delicate situation? 42 is NOT the answer! 10 pages

Thursday, July 12, 2012

2012: Existence (Brin, David)

"...the humans are up to something." (4/5)

My exposure to David Brin has been limited to five novels: the three Uplift series novels from Sundiver (1980), The Postman (1985), and Earth (1990). So Earth is the most recent novel of Brin's which I've read and given its twenty-two year age, Brin's style still resonates with me--a style which is cleanly composed and indulgently intelligent. The 244,000 word novel is hefty in page count and even loftier in the implementation of the imagination; each page blossoming with careful thought, each idea stewed in applicable thought... the combination invigorates the mind of the reader. With the keen eye of a science fiction aficionado, there's even more thought behind the tome of Existence than the plot and ideas, but there's also a slew of backslapping towards the greats of science fiction (some subtle, some blatant). The title of the review is a quote from the book (490-22) which gave me a chuckle and quite tidily summed up the entire novel.

Inside flap synopsis:
"Telepresence. Global security. Everyone is watching everyone, all the time. Anything interesting draws a flash crowd of ten million eyes. One man in Afghanistan live-tweets a special forces attack, and the world tunes in. Revolutions coordinate online. And that's today! Tomorrow, you'll wear the Web, immersed in augmented overlays. Your aiware glasses will ID, name-tage, and tattle on each person you walk by, in a global village of ten billions souls.

"But instant access to all of human knowledge only widens the gulf between those eager for tomorrow... and those fearing an end to human existence.

"Gerald Livingston is an orbital garbage collector, clearing a hundred-year mess, when we spots something unexpected--a glinting crystal, unmapped and strange. An hour after he captures it, rumors fill Earth's infomesh about an 'alien artifact.'

"Peng Xiang Bin is a shoresteader off the Chinese coast, salvaging homes abandoned to the rising tides. Under one mansion, Bin finds a secret treasure cache. One box bears a warning: Inhabited by demons.

"Tor Povlov is a new-era reporter, a genius at trolling Web and street for exciting and heartbreaking 'you are there' reports. On a cross-country zeppelin tour she documents an America and world fracturing apart, torn between a future promising godlike powers for all... and a beguiling past that might offer the only sanctuary. She does not expect to find herself--and her million-member smart posse--snagged by the biggest story ever.

"From a tribe of beleaguered dolphins to the highest mountain observatory, Existence asks the question: Are we alone in the universe? Does every bright new race stumble over the same pitfalls? The same, entrapping seven hundred ways to fail?

"Thrown into this maelstrom of worldwide shared experience and tension over human destiny, the Artifact is a game changer. A message in a bottle; an alien capsule that wants to communicate... but for good or ill? The world reacts as humans always do: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence. And insatiable curiosity."


With the book's own synopsis covering nearly the entire plot, I have little more to add to it. However, the book is awkwardly split into three notable time periods:

(1) Parts 1-6 [pages 7-420] revolve around Earth's reaction to the artifact found in Earth's orbit. There are actually two crystal artifacts found and both tell different stories about their history in the system, in the galaxy. Collaboration is needed to filter the truth from the lies, a tricky process when dealing with alien intelligences. There is open hostility towards the alien probe but there is also open, progressive dialogue with it in an attempt to learn what is needed. Unfortunately, the probe is unwilling to divulge any technological information, an earlier promise which was conveyed through the discoverer, Gerald Livingston. The personal message, however, does not apply to everyone. Revelation after revelation, human begin to understand the true nature of the probe.

(2) Part 7 [pages 421-508] shifts its timeframe tens of years after the discovery of the probe. For want of limiting spoilers, I may simply add that the once Earth-based plot shifts, like the timeframe, beyond the touch-base of Earthly domain. It's an uncomfortable transition. The idea of the second plot is wonderfully interesting but a little too action-packed, yet feels artificially inserted into the flow of the entire novel. Brin admits in the acknowledgments section that an earlier version of the adventure in this section was previously published in the 1980s under the title "Lungfish." So, there's little doubt why the first and second section feel like stitch-up story!

(3) Part 8 [pages 509-553] takes another leap into the future, yet another gap which leaves the reader uncomfortable. Like section two, the third plot is wonderful in its ideas of hard science and the importance to the greater plot. When Brin states that "...the humans are up to something" (490-22), he really goes all out with what humanity will possibly be capable in the future. Where the aliens races found in the crystal were clever in their own right, humanity finds that curiosity won't be the trait that kills them; rather, it'll be the trait that propels them above the technological plain above all other galactic races.

Studded throughout section one, Brin prints excepts from a fictional books in the book's history, the most notable is Pandora's Cornucopia, which reads like Brin's fascination with all that could go wrong that leads to Earth's demise: "...our means of self-destruction seem myriad" (13): "Surviving as a technological civilization is like crossing a vast minefield [...] too many mistakes and pitfalls lie in wait--bad trade-offs or ineludiable paths of self-destruction" (345).

Besides Pandora's Cornucopia highlighted between chapters, there are other tasty orts of perspective from the "Toralyzer," quotes from Professor Noozone, news briefs, dialogue from the Scanalyzer (à la Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar) quotes from other fictional sources, and even quotes from modern sources. These perspectives lighted upon the nuances of the plot are more relevant that Brunner's Stand on Zanibar, which had a plethora of data and snippets to overwhelm this reader. Brin's perspective additions were pertinent to the greater picture he was trying to paint within.

In the introduction, I mentioned the backslapping performed throughout the novel towards science fiction greats (which I'll soon address), but Brin also dips his metaphorical toes into the waters of modern thinkers and morals: Ralph Nader's environmentalism, Adam Smith's moral sentiments, anti-technological Luddism, and Ted Kaczynski's neo-Luddism. Brin also refers to other scientists: Carl Sagan, Akimasa Nakamura, and Allen Tough; other author's ideas: Brunner's Scanalyzer, Charles Stross's Singularity Era, and Kim Stanley Robinson's shying away from extremes; and modern references to Paul the Octopus of 2010 World Cup fame (351-355) and cheeky nudge towards Charlton's Heston's role in Planet of the Apes (1968).

The real geeky delight found in Existence is when it comes to blatant and subtle references to other science fiction authors and their respective works, some great, some obscure. For the sake of science fiction history, I'll recognize the novels below, but if this isn't your field of interest then you might as well pass this section up:
Greg Bear's Slant (1998) [p. 64]
Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (1950) [p. 96]
Frederik's Pohl The Cool War (1981) [p. 142]
Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye (1974) [p. 218, 489]
George Orwell's 1984 (1949) [p. 246]
Iain Banks' The Business (1999) [p. 284]
H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) [p. 286]
Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet (1963) [p. 286]
Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) [p. 286]
John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) [p. 401]
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951) [p. 431]
James Blish's They Shall Have Stars (1956) [p. 489]
Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide (1979) [p. 490]

One most notable backslaps is with Iain Banks' The Business. In a Scanalyzer sequence, a person using the pseudonym of Hagar describes a scene at the Holy Kaaba which is beginning to glow because of the meteorite its made from... the aliens begin to wake up to the fact that another crystal has been found on Earth. This is the exact scenario which is found in a fictional movie plot in The Business, which Jebbet Dessous outlines. A small tribute to Banks... or just a coincidence?


Even including all the geek-dom wonderfulness and the opinion that each section, in itself, is a great read, ultimately the three section don't mesh together very well. I would have loved to have seen the first section have a conclusion in its own timeframe, rather than having to jump decades at a time to some far-flung conclusion. The first 420 pages are captivating and rightly deserve five stars for the detail and effort within, but the follow-up detachment is disappointing.

Existence could quite possibly be the best subjective SF novel of 2012, a close contender with Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth and the future releases of Iain M. Banks' The Hydrogen Sonata (October 4, 2012) and Peter Hamilton's Great North Road (September 27, 2012). Nothing this year has really astounded me, but many parts of Existence surely had be pleasurably wallowing between the viscous pages of Brin's tour de force.

2010: Surface Detail (Banks, Iain M.)

More glitz of SC and Minds, less of The Culture in general (3/5)

From December 1, 2010

Having read the entire Banks sci-fi catalog and a smattering of his fiction, I haven't come across a novel of his which didn't have a deeply woven tapestry with subtle accents. His prior novel Inversions didn't impress me much as I found the feudal kingdom a bit tedious to tackle, and the posh lifestyle of the king somewhat dull, but I did find the darkness and humor to my liking yet still received 3/5 stars. Of a similar raring, Feersum Endjinn didn't have voluptuously complex characters or a grand epic-ness. Surface Detail (SD) takes negative aspects from both of these novels and shares the similar rating of 3/5 stars... which I thought I'd do for the release of SD.

Inside flap synopsis:
"Lededje Y'breq is one the Intagliated, her marked body bearing witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power it without limit. Prepared to risk everything for her freedom, her release, when it comes, is it a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture.

"Benevolent, enlightened and almost infinitely resourceful thought it may be, the Culture can only do so much for any individual. With the assistance of one if its most powerful--and arguably deranged--warships, Lededje finds herself heading into a combat zone not even sure whichside the Culture is really one. A war--brutal, far-reaching--is already raging within the digital realms that store the souls of the dead, and it's about to erupt into reality.

It started in the realm of the Real and that is where it will end. It will touch countless lives and affect entire civilizations, but at the center of it all is a young woman whose need for revenge masks another motive altogether."


Typical of Banksian SF is the plethora of characters strewn across the galactic plane, who have a unique plot line and are fated to be joined together in extreme circumstances in the last 10% of the novel. That sounds about right, doesn't it? Most characters in SD are somewhat flat: generically evil like Veppers, fairly morbid yet motivated Quietus agent Yime, the sarcastic and blood-thirsty AI of Demeisen and the sulky yet revengeful Lededje. The real highlights of the spread of aliens, humans and pan-humans are the hellish plights of Prin and Chay (escaped from hell and stuck in hell for perspective lifetimes, respectively) and the trials and mindset of the cute and conniving Culture-fan of the GFCN species, Bettlescroy. Two separate books could have been written about these characters alone!

Veppers annoyed me the most, undoubtedly. I've read enough of easily unlikable characters that I now know it's pretty simple to create such a beast (aggressive sexual acts ala The Algebraist or maniacal single-mindedness ala Dark Background). Veppers takes on both these traits as well as being filthy rich like King Quience of Inversions but also has an added distasteful trait of acting just like and amoral, spoiled king. This character has been made again and again by Banks and the current version of evil in the guise of Veppers is tried, tested and now getting quite dull.

As for the supposedly galaxy-spanning plot... well, not so much in SD. There's a brief scene on a Hub, horrific depictions of a virtual hell, uninspiring terrestrial life on a bland planet which Veppers resides and a vague description of a series of orbital factories abandoned by an extinct alien species which isn't explored to its fullest. Most of the novel is aboard a few Culture ships or alien vessels, where the plot is talked about and their intentions laid out in full. There were no large surprises behind the intentions of the major caste and the only excitement rally came about via the war-loving, sardonic AI named Demeisen. There are some frivolous and interesting scenes of exotic alien architecture (like the said Tsungarial Disk orbital factory and another derelict monstrosity).

Granted, there were a number of exotic ideas which held my interest and imagination even while at work or exercising, but most of the novel was just uninspiring and untried: the virtual hells should have been better explored to a greater degree but Banks limited it to a single hell, the NR level 8 species is of similar level as the Culture but was left wholly undetailed, and the broader greatness and sustaining quality of the Culture wasn't delved into.

If another Culture novel is written, I do hope Banks steers away from the "glitz and glamor" of Special Circumstances and sticks to grassroots Culture civilization, which is what is draws me back to his universe again and again. Thankfully, Banks has had his fingers diligently pecking away at the keys and has another Culture novel coming out on October 4, 2012: Hydrogen Sonata. I'll be first in line.