“Opening Minds”

The review series on the entries in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Literature continues with a look at the titular essay.

Review: “Opening Minds“, Brian Stableford, 1976.Opening Minds

Science fiction has, of course, long had a problem defining itself or now, with the blended genre crowd, wondering if it should define itself at all.

I say it should and that a definition is possible, but I’m not going to get drawn into that argument now.

Once you have a definition, the understandable tendency is to put writers on a spectrum of purity from defenders of the faith to those beyond the pale. I’m sure there are attempts to do this on more than just one-dimension. Stableford’s spectrum isn’t there as a genre purity test but to define two approaches to writing science fiction.

Others have created such continuums of genre purity. Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree put writers on the critic/daydreamer spectrum defined by H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, respectively. Stableford also uses Wells and the much more obscure Albert Jarry. Continue reading

An Island Called Moreau

Another posting about books related to H. G. Wells.

Raw Feed (1996): An Island Called Moreau, Brian W. Aldiss, 1981.Island Called Moreau

Sort of a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The founding conceit here is that there really was a Moreau or, rather MacMoreau who conducted vivisection experiments fictionalized by Wells. Aldiss brings the story forward to 1996 and keeps much the same plot: a shipwrecked (or rather spacewrecked) man lands on the island, is horrified by the experiments being conducted on beasts, and eventually watches the whole set up come crashing down.

However, narrator Edward Prendick of Wells’ novel is rather – in the world at large – insignificant. Aldiss’ narrator, Calvert Roberts, is an ambitious, self-important, rather pompous Undersecretary of State for the U.S. (Oddly, though his primary job is as negotiator, he is unable to reconcile the Beast People and Dart.) Moreau is a rather physically strong, imposing figure. Aldiss’ island is ruled over by Mortimer Dart, a man maimed by fetal exposure to thalidomide. Like Moreau, he has set himself up as a god over the Beast People (descendants of MacMoreau’s experimental subjects), and he gives the law to them in catchy rock tunes reminiscent of Moreau’s Law chants.

Dart is interested in the effects of form and attitude on behavior (the plasticity of flesh like Moreau). He sees himself as a victim though he is just as tyrannical as Moreau and experiments on human fetus’ to create Seal People. Like Wells’ novel, this book is concerned with animal and human nature. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the narrator tries, at first, to see a sharp distinction between man and beast then realizes much of the animal remains in man. In this novel, the narrator realizes there is a continuum of animal to human nature. Continue reading

The World Set Free


The H. G. Wells series continues while I’m off reading new stuff for review.

Raw Feed (1996): The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, H. G. Wells, 1914.World Set Free

“Introduction”, Brian Aldiss — Introduction that emphasizes that Wells’ claim to being a prophet (a reputation he garnered in his day) rests on his prediction of atomic warfare in this novel and tanks in “The Land Ironclads”. The technological inspiration came from the work of Frederick Soddy who won a 1921 Nobel Prize for radioactive chemistry. Soddy wrote a popular account of his work in 1909. Aldiss points out the technical flaws of story construction and character in the novel.

This novel gets much credit for being the first sf story to depict atomic warfare. Wells certainly shows warfare of incredible destructiveness and long lingering effects, but those effects are not from radioactivity but from continuous explosions, in effect perpetual volcanoes where the bombs land. I’m not sure if this accurately reflects the scientific opinion of the day. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading

Golem 100; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

I’m way behind in writing up the reviews I want to do and reading my regular list of blogs.

However, I want to call attention to some good stuff I have had a chance to read.

So, you’re going to get a series of Adventures in Reader Reactions.

First up is a blogger I came across the other day, Misha Burnett, and his review of an Alfred Bester novel.

Bester is an author I’ll be returning to at some point since I’ve read all his solo science fiction works and made notes on most of it.

Back when I first started reading science fiction regularly, I went through the library’s Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. “The Four-Hour Fugue”, Bester’s story expanded into this novel, appeared in Best SF: 1974.

Raw Feed (1990): Golem 100, Alfred Bester, 1980.Golem 100

In some ways, this is Bester’s most ambitious novel, and I liked it better the second time around.

In the notes of his Starlight collection, Bester explains he uses typography to make reading an experience beyond mere reading of words — a sensory experience of sight and sound.  The cartoons in this novel seem more integrated into the text, more comprehensible the second time around. But while the technique is ambitious and beyond anything Bester has ever tried, the story is in the same Freudian vein as much of Bester’s work. Here a dillettantish dabbling in black magic brings a creature from the idworld to the world of the future (more monsters from the id!). There is Bester’s usual wit, here more sparkling than ever. I particularly liked the jabs at comic book writing in the where Gretchen Nunn confronts sexually all sorts of quasi super heroes.

This book is quite risque and funny in its use of sex. Interestingly, Bester, in the notes of his Starlight collection, says he feels uncomfortable in writing such nearly pornographic things. The smelly world of the Corridor is vintage, baroque decadence in Bester’s typical style (though the world doesn’t seem quite as dangerous as we’re led to believe). Continue reading

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3

The outside project has been sent off to an editor, so the new reviews should be more frequent. There’s certainly a backlog of titles I’ve read.

For now, though, you get another retro review.

This one is from May 6, 2010.

Review: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 3, ed. George Mann, 2009.Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

The third and final in this artistically, if perhaps not commercially, successful series doesn’t disappoint. There are no truly bad stories, just a few that didn’t do much for me. Most I found good and one truly memorable. Mann lives up to his writ of widely varied stories that diverge from near future dystopianism.

Curiously, many of the stories seem twinned, thematically or in images or feel, with other stories. The “gothic suspense” of John Meaney’s “Necroflux Day” with its story of family secrets in a world where fuel and information are stored in bones is also conveyed, better, in the gothic “A Soul Stitched in Iron” by Tim Akers. The latter story has an aristocrat, fallen on hard times, tracking down a putative murderer that’s upsetting a crime lord’s plans. That murderer happens to be an old friend of the protagonist, and the killer’s motives involve subterranean secrets that underlie the status of a noveau riche clan. Meaney’s story didn’t do much for me. Akers interests me enough to that I’m going to seek out his Heart of Veridon set in the same city.

Alastair Reynolds’ “The Fixation” and Paul Cornell’s “One of Our Bastards Is Missing” are both, loosely defined, alternate history. Reynolds’ story has a scientist restoring the Mechanism, very much like our Antikythera Mechanism – an ancient clockwork computer. In her world, while the Romans found no practical use for the Mechanism, the Persians did and founded the predominant power of the world. However, other universes are also interested in their versions of the Mechanism and prepared to vampirically leach its information structure from other universes to facilitate a complete restoration. The central idea is interesting, but the alternate history speculation is at a bare minimum. Not even really alternate history but an annoying, distracting mélange of medieval European, Renaissance, and 19th century politics, Cornell’s story features personal teleportation, so called “Impossible Grace”, that binds the solar system together and greatly complicates the balance of power in the royal houses of Europe. For me, its plot of political intrigue was ruined by the story’s capricious use of history. Stephen Baxter’s “Artifacts” is Baxter in his deep cosmological mode. Its scientist hero, provoked by the religious ideas of his father and early death of his wife, ponders why our brane (if I understand the concept correctly, a cluster of universes) has time flowing in one direction and the consequence of death. His discovery oddly echoes the theme of Reynolds’ story, but I also liked the story’s near future Britain noticeably not affected by any Singularity and poor enough to have to recycle computers for rare metals. Continue reading

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Since the recent Harry Harrison stuff was popular, I give you another of his titles.

Tranatlantic Tunnel

Raw Feed (1996): A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, Harry Harrison, 1972.

I decided to read this book to see how it influenced Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s The Two Georges since Harry Harrison is specifically mentioned in the acknowledgements of the latter novel.  This novel is better than that one, and there are enough similarities between Harrison’s alternate universe and that of The Two Georges to show Turtledove’s and Dreyfuss’ debt is great.
Both feature worlds dominated by French and English Empires and lacking united Germanies though Harrison’s novel mentions Russia very little.  Both novels feature relatively genial worlds spared our two World Wars; indeed, one of the final scenes in Harrison’s novel is a psychic viewing our world and horrified by what she sees.  Both have North Americas with prominent Indian and Irish populations.  While both novels feature Iroquois Indians, Harrison’s novel mentions several other Indian tribes in North and South America who seem to have maintained sovereignty or, at least, respect and power.  Still, as befitting the pseudo-Victorian tone of this novel, the Irish and Indians are mainly there to be colorful, humorous characters.  The Two Georges really only mentions the Iroquois and the Irish but treats their situation (possible cultural death in the Iroquois case and discrimination and appalling labor conditions for the Irish) in a much more realistic manner.  Both novels postulate worlds more technologically backwards than ours though Harrison (as befitting the author who put steam powered robots in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels) creates some delightful variations on current technology – typically large, unique, and underemployed.  His hero, Augustine Washington, travels by huge “helithopter”.  Large, mechanical computers and their new electronic counterparts are rare and unaccountably referred to as “Brabbage” engines not Babbage engines.  Transoceanic flight exists but in large, very ornately decorated airplanes owned by the Cunard line which views them as they once did ocean liners.  They prefer to go for quality of passenger and not quantity.  Both novels also feature the American Revolution as never (at least successfully) occurring.  In Harrison’s novel, unlike The Two Georges, Washington is a reviled traitor.
However, this novel features another turning point.  In the year 1212, Crusaders in Spain do not defeat the Moslems at Navas de Tolosa, and the nations of Spain and Portugal never come into being.  England discovers the New World and seems to have settled North America much more slowly.  Indeed, Washington works on the transcontinental railway when a young engineer though the novel takes place in approximately 1973.  Both novel feature a typical humorous aside of alternate history novels – characters alluding to or reading alternate histories describing our world.  Thomas Bushell in The Two Georges dismisses an alternate history describing WWII as absurd.  Here Harrison alludes to his friend and literary colleague Brian Aldiss.  Here he is the Reverend Aldiss who writes “popular scientific romances”.  While I normally don’t like fannish allusions to other sf authors, the joke and idea is much more palatable in alternate histories since part of their charm is seeing literary and historical characters in a new light.  As befitting Harrison, this novel features many humorous scenes using this element.  Another Harrison friend, colleague, and author is mentioned – Kingsley Amis, here Lord Amis, “foreign minister”.  The engineer who enthusiastically talks Washington into being the first human to cross the Atlantic via rocket bears the name Clarke, a suspiciously close resemblance to Arthur C. Clarke.  Dick Tracy even shows up and economist Keynes is mentioned.
This book is a quick, concise, charming read.  Harrison proves he can do the hard science when describing strange Victorian vehicles (I liked the carriages hooked up to electric cars controlled by horse reins.) and, of course, the charming and plausible seeming centerpiece of the novel:  the transatlantic tunnel (Though Harrison does a mighty bit of hand waving when explaining how his bridge across the mid-Atlantic fault zone will accommodate mid-ocean spreading).  Critic J. J. Pierce called this sort of story (he was talking about another novel featuring a transatlantic tunnel), “industrial science fiction”.  That’s a good description though there’s action and a bit of intrigue here too.
 More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology

Another retro review while I work on something for another outlet.

From January 12, 2010 …

Review: DAW 30th Anniversary Science Fiction Anthology, eds. Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, 2002.DAW 30th Anniversary

Apart from the introductions by Wollheim and Gilbert covering Donald A. Wollheim’s contributions to American publishing culminating with his founding of DAW Books, there’s nothing that makes this book stand out from DAW’s many other anthologies except it doesn’t have a theme. The ratio of good to adequate to bad stories is pretty standard – not nearly high enough for a celebration of 30 years of quality publishing. That’s probably inevitable for a group of all original stories, but this anthology, which features installments in several DAW series, also doesn’t serve as much of an enticing sampler of DAW’s goods.

The two stand out stories are Tad Williams’ “Not With a Whimper, Either” and Ian Watson’s “The Black Wall of Jerusalem”. Williams’ story is told through newsgroup exchanges as various users try to figure out what is behind several disruptions of communications and utilities. It’s a worthy and ambiguous addition to a science fiction tradition of sinister machines including Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands”, Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, and, especially, Frederic Brown’s “Answer”. Watson’s story is surprisingly Lovecraftian in structure and theme. Its poet narrator is troubled by dreams he’s been having since returning from Jerusalem where he went for inspiration to write a William Blake style work of religious mysticism. There he encountered the Black Wall, a gateway that pops up in different parts of the ancient city, and goes beyond it to investigate the lethal beings of another dimension. Continue reading

The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.

However, I only reviewed this volume.

A retro review from September 2, 2003.

Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.Road to Science Fiction

Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.

That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star”. The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.

As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Continue reading

Stealing Other People’s Homework: James Joyce and Science Fiction & Alternate Histories of the American Revolution

Andrew May looks at references to James Joyce in SF with attention paid to Philip K. Dick, James Blish, and Brian Aldiss.

Razib Khan looks at the complicated consequences of the colonies losing their war with Britain. I’ve reviewed one such alternate history, Robert Conroy’s Liberty: 1784. There are others: