The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction

You won’t be surprised I first heard about this book from a review in Fortean Times.

Review: The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction: Charles Fort and the Evolution of the Genre, Tanner F. Boyle, 2020.

The price for the Kindle edition — $27.99 – was ridiculous. (Evidently, McFarland and other academic publishers think there are no non-academics who want to read their books.)

I’ve known about Charles Fort and his relationship to science fiction for 40 years since encountering Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve read Charles Forts four famous books. I’ve read Damon Knight’s and Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies of Charles Fort. I sought out the blatantly Fortean science fiction novels: Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary and James Blish’s Jack of Eagles. I’ve long known about the Fortean influence on Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve subscribed to Fortean Times for decades.

Was Boyle going to tell me anything I didn’t know?


Charles Fort was the father of what Boyle calls “maybe fiction” – all those “occult” and paranormal studies and personal accounts, all the hidden (and usually ancient) histories, and UFO abduction stories we’ve heard of, authors like Graham Hancock, Richard Shaver, and Whitley Streiber whose accounts we either believe, judge as innocent mistakes, or regard as works of insanity. These are tales we are asked to believe whether couched as academic works or autobiography.

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“The Mercenaries”

In between “Time and Time Again” and this story, Piper had two other works published: “He Walked Around the Horses” and “Police Operation”, both part of his Paratime series.

Review: “The Mercenaries”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.

First published in the March 1950 issue of Astounding Stories, this is not part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. 

Its central idea is intriguing. It’s 1965, and the world is divided into four power blocs: “the Western Union, the Ibero-American Confederation, the Fourth Komintern and the Islamic Caliphate.” 

Piper sold this story in 1949, so it was not influenced by a real-world echo of its central concern: treasonous scientists. In 1950, several arrests were made in connection with Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project – and there were many other agents not detected or arrested. The focus of this story is the disloyalty and treason of scientists working on sensitive projects of national security, and Piper anticipates the idea that some scientists will see themselves above the national loyalties they inherit. 

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The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

It was July 4th, and I wasn’t going to go through boxes of packed books on my day off to find something to read. So, I went through books on the Kindle and decided two Mark Samuels titles, Christmas gifts, seemed like just the thing.

Review: The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, Mark Samuels, 2011.

The stories of Mark Samuels are filled with perilous literary scholarship, sinister cartels, and encroaching decay of body and intellect – a mold of modernity. Yet, sometimes, hope is to be found in the alleys and wrecks of cities.

Some of the stories are homages or pastiches to dead writers of horror and the weird fiction: Poe, Stefan Grabinski, Karl Edward Wagner, Ambrose Bierce, and, of course, Arthur Machen. Bibliophilia, book collecting, and literary scholarship lead to strange places in Samuels’ fictions. Sometimes mere casual epigraphs from dead writers are surprisingly revelatory.

The first story, “Losenof Express”, is a fine example. Alcoholic horror writer Eddie Charles Knox hoists a shot of Jack Daniels to Poe as he drinks by himself in the obscure Eastern European capital of Strasgol. A well-paying career writing “the pulp adventures of Mungo the Barbarian and the sexual shenanigans of Mother Superior Lucia Vulva” seems like a waste of his talent, a betrayal of his one-time reputation as the “Berserker of Horror”. And when another man in the café seems to mirror Knox’s self-loathing, he becomes enraged and follows the man, eventually killing him. But things become strange when he hops the train out of town to flee arrest.  

There are probably some allusions I missed and elements I don’t appreciate in “The Man Who Collected Machen” since I don’t collect Machen and have only read half of his fiction. But I have read enough Machen, know enough of his life, to appreciate this story as a well-done pastiche and tribute. Machen enthusiasts will see elements of “N”, The Three Impostors, The Secret Glory, and “The Lost Club”.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter VI

My look at this work by Brian Stableford concludes.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter VI, “Conclusion: The Communicative Functions of Science Fiction”, Stableford puts forth some theories on sf’s communicative functions. 

Stableford notes that both Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell believed in the directive, i.e. didactic, function of sf.

Gernsback thought sf could educate people about science. Stableford says that goal was never really achieved. There is better evidence that sf did achieve Gernsback’s hope that it would inspire people to become scientists and inventors. It certainly did make more people interested in the future as Gernsback also hoped.

Campbell wanted people interested in realistic versions of the future. Stableford is not convinced this occurred. That’s not surprising. All other popular literary genres serve the maintenance and restorative functions. With the possible exception of rocketry, sf had no influence on the history of science and invention. (Post-William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it might be argued that computer applications and technology may have been influenced by that novel.) 

Stableford thinks a case might be made that sf did change attitudes (at least among some people) regarding technological innovation. He specifically notes that it may have primed the mind of people who joined Scientology or the Aetherius Society. After all, he notes, why did UFOS become almost universally (at least for decades) associated with alien spaceships? 

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Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.

Cover by Thom Tenery

”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”

So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.

Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.

Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career. Continue reading

Eric S. Rabkin’s Science Fiction Lectures

As a consumer of the Great Courses lectures, I’ve looked at Eric S. Rabkin’s Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works for a few years. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had the idea — maybe from paging through something he had written, that he was a dry writer full of tedious literary theory.

I was mostly right.

However, amongst all the Freudian references (how can anyone still use the old fraud’s theories for any literature written before he published his work?), post-modernism, and symbolism (does no one see that the surface details of a story can be worth studying?), there are some things of value. Maybe even enough to justify its current selling price of $29.95.

For me the deck didn’t really get cleared for service until lecture six, “H. G. Wells: We Are All Talking Animals”. The idea is proposed that The Island of Dr. Moreau is told by an unreliable narrator. (Personally, I see it as Wells’ unintended satire on the folly of blank-slatism. The flesh, in other words biological drives and identity, can not be molded by the surgery of Moreau’s mini-island state.)

It’s sort of a semi-arid spell to lecture 14, “Mary Shelley: Grandmother of Science Fiction”, where Rabkin puts forth the idea, I think plausible, that Frankenstein is about the dangers of putting yourself outside of the human community. Doctor Frankenstein choses to exile himself. His creation has no choice.

“Hawthorne, Poe, and the Eden Complexion” among other things talks about how Poe used the rhetoric of science (passive voice, precise and objectively quantified details) and romanticism.

“Wells — Industrialization of the Fantastic” actually convinces me that there are several Christian symbols in The War of the Worlds. (We are increasingly entering an age where people have to have even basic biblical allusions explained. In my English major days, a professor rightly said every one of us should have read the King James Bible so we knew the sources of allusions and phrases. If you were studying medieval lit, you had to read large chunks of the Catholic Vulgate.)

“The History of Utopia” actually mentioned in passing a couple of titles I hadn’t heard of and made Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We sound more interesting than it is (though it’s an important predecessor to more famous dystopias). However, I don’t buy the assertion that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to Thomas More’s Utopia.

“Science Fiction and Religion” is a good (and too brief) look at an important topic.

“Asimov and Clarke — Cousins in Utopia” provoked the thought that Judaism was a more important influence on Isaac Asimov than I thought. His Three Laws of Robotics (which he actually credited to John W. Campbell, Jr.) is rather rabbinical. And I certainly agree that Asimov was a believer in technoutopia. That seems to me a manifestation of the Jewish belief they should work to perfect the world. The theme of machines to beneficially manage our affairs is there in Asimov’s robot stories. But (and Rabkin doesn’t mention this) Asimov’s essay “By the Numbers” endorses the idea of rule by impersonal, bureaucratic computers.

“Cyberpunk, Postmodernism, and Beyond” is very wrong-headed. The influence of the spy and noir genres — John Le Carre and Dashiell Hammett– seem as important to William Gibson as postmodernism not to mention the fact that Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17‘s opening paragraph is rather similar to Neuromancer (and Gibson is a Delany fan). Claude Shannon’s information theory and digital technology, the idea that information can be easily recorded, edited, combined, analyzed, and synthesized, I contend is more important than literary theory to cyberpunk. On the other hand, Rabkin does make the intriguing observation that the plot and images of Neuromancer closely follow T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

Queen of Angels

Continuing with the Greg Bear Raw Feed series.

I bought this one in hardcover when in came out even though I didn’t have a lot of money. That’s how enthusiastic I was about reading it.

And, yes, I know my reactions sound a bit like a Dhalgren fan — and they annoy me.

Raw Feed (1990): Queen of Angels, Greg Bear, 1990.Queen of Angels 2

This book was a grueling read not because it wasn’t well-written or enjoyable — it was — but because it was very complex, and I’m not sure as to what its answers were to the thematic questions it raised — if there are any final answers.

This is an extremely literary book. It has, at times, a James Joyce like run on prose with its lack of punctuation which causes words to be juxtaposed with either of two phrases or words. In effect, each sentence can have a variety of meanings depending on what you think a modifier should modify. There are four parallel plots (I liked the plot with Richard Fettle, failed writer, best.) which are all different reflections on the themes of self-awareness and punishment and crime. This is also one of those novels of character where much of the plot is concerned with why a character did what he did. In this case, we know immediately that poet Immanuel Goldsmith killed eight of his friends and admirers. Like Ben Reich in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, we don’t know the motive for the murder.

The influence of other sf works seem to be present. The questions of crime, punishment, and therapy as reform are reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The exploration of a mind as symbolized by archetypal symbols is like Roger Zelazny’s “He Who Shapes”. The vodoun references follow those of William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. Bear has sometimes been lumped with these cyberpunks. There use of voodoo in the future may have inspired Bear.

Part of my reaction to this novel stems from what I expected of it. Given an interview with Bear I read, it seemed the novel would be a police procedural set in a Haiti fifty years in the future. The police procedural part of the plot actually takes up very little of the novel’s beginning. Bear does some interesting extrapolation of forensic techniques involving biology (I found tracing people using the mitochondrial DNA of their symbiotes quite interesting) and nanotechnology (Bear’s use of the technology is interesting: nanoven, food, self-cleaning carpets, human “transforms”, nano build buildings, and weapons that assembles themselves from goo. It at first seems quite conservative but, on second thought, it is just a naturalistic treatment of a future technology.) Goldsmith’s guilt is quickly established.

Bear plays off the “conservative” view of punishment as deterrent and social vengeance against willful criminality against the “liberal” view that criminality springs from an unconscious malfunction of the mind that would respond to therapy. In Bear’s future, which to me, sounds like an intrusive, manipulative hell of involuntary and coerced social conditioning, most people undergo therapy to conform to an accepted definition of well-adjusted. I agree with Richard Fettle and his literary circle in seeing this as intrusive and sticking to their natural weaknesses. They see therapy as a destruction of personality, which it is. However, I confess this is not a rational view. As Fettle realizes, weaknesses can be quite dangerous, and when we seek therapy for ourselves we are attempting to change our nature. Bear, however, does not dwell overlong on these opposing views of therapy).

The punishment is represented by the Selectors, self-appointed vigilantes who punish through hellcrowns — devices that enhance and extend in subjective time harrowing personal nightmares with devastating psychic effects. The government prefers therapy. Putting aside Bear’s apparent — if it is a personal view — optimism in arriving at a rational, complete model of the mind and assigning criminality to its involuntary, unconscious malfunctioning, that model seems very reliant on a computer paradigm with its talk of programs and subroutines.

The book’s main theme, though, is the nature, qualities, and origins of self-awareness. That is the theme all four subplots revolve around. Bear uses the two metaphors of possession (Richard Fettle in, to my mind, the best writing of the novel, feels possessed by the spirit of Goldsmith when, through writing, he explores Goldsmith’s motives for murder) and the mechanistic, computer like model of the mind to explore this question. The subplots are reflections and contrasts of each other.

Mary Choy, human transform, derives her identity from her sense of duty as a policeman. That identity causes her to temporarily fall out with her boyfriend. She also (though this is not emphasized much — I found, in many ways, the Choy subplot of the novel to be the least interesting one) seems to have trouble reconciling her outer, “transformed” body with her inner self vision. Here Bear seems to be dealing with the role the physical self plays (and Choy is particularly sensitive to other’s reactions — she’s wildly different but wants to be treated normally) in self-image and awareness. As if to emphasize the point, Choy is a “natural” — well-adjusted without therapy.

In contrast to this, space probes AXIS and Jill achieve self-awareness through, grief, mourning, depression, and a sense of betrayal. They are superior intellects who must be hurt enough to feel indignation which engenders (or perhaps the order is reversed) self-awareness. In the story of their psychological development, Bear emphasizes his computer inspired model of the mind.

The other view, the spiritual, emotional view of possession as criminality is played out in the book’s most interesting part: Richard Fettle’s attempt to understand Goldsmith’s behavior. (One can’t help but wonder if the power of this character and his description is due to a fear in the writer Bear of being a failed, burned out writer.) Fettle’s self-image is a function of his relation to his friend and idol Goldsmith. Fettle feels betrayed by Goldsmith. All of a sudden, breaking a writing block of years, he tries to understand Goldsmith by writing, in first person, his story. In the book’s best writing, a riveting psychological study, Fettle begins to feel possessed by Goldsmith. He contemplates emulating Goldsmith and murdering Nadine Preston, his occasional lover. Eventually, in a stunning scene of memory and self-awareness, he realizes his inner strength and exact relationship to Goldsmith — an old friend who is now gone but fondly remembered. He reconciles himself to life, is now peaceful and content. (Unlike the above artificial intelligences who are decidedly discontent.).

Straddling the two sides of the possession and computer metaphors of mind is Martin Burke. He seems to draw his identity from his work. He is an expert in the computer model of the mind but finds, in Goldsmith’s mind, a desolation unexpected and evidence of a possession which eventually takes root in him. The question of criminality and its causes is suborned to this theme of identity and self-awareness. Bad self-modeling is the mechanist’s view of the mind’s answer to crime’s causes. The vigilantes see willful behavior (or maybe possession, Bear doesn’t make this clear) as the cause. In effect, the therapists see un-self-awareness, bad internal models of personality, as the beginning of crime. The Selectors seem to think crime involves full self-awareness that can be deterred by the hellcrown.

My problem and uneasiness with the novel lies in my inability to see Bear’s answer to the question of crime, its relation to self-awareness and the latter’s nature. I’ll be egotistical and view the failure as Bear’s inability to quite achieve the grand scheme he set himself rather than my failure as a reader. It may be Bear intended only to provoke thought and not give answers. Yet, the novel seems incomplete in its thematic exploration though that exploration is sophisticated and diverse. The last chapter throws out the possibility of guilt and sin being part of awareness. (Earlier Bear brings up insult as being a sign of self-awareness.) Guilt, Bear suggests springs from self-awareness; Yet, guilt hurts; self-analysis is necessary but injures.

My view of Bear’s ultimate failure is, I think, supported by others instances of incompleteness. We never get a clear explanation of the society of the shades and combs (or even a clear physical description of the latter’s architecture). We are not told the economics of a society with nanotech. (There also seems to be not much point to meeting Colonel Sir John Yardley’s or even to the constant references to him. His main function is as an icon in Goldsmith wasted mind.). We are not even told what IPR was or its scandal with President Raphkind. Nor do we ultimately see why Goldsmith murders. Was it an attempt to remake himself (self-awareness as a prelude to destruction) by irrevocably cutting off his past? Was it a strangely twisted mind devoid of a “prominent personality” as Burke suspects? Or was his act the outcome of a long process that began with an abusive father?

I enjoyed this book immensely, it was well worth reading, very well-written. But I find it a puzzle without an answer. I just don’t know if I can’t find the answer or if Bear didn’t provide one.


More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.

“Press Enter █” & “Hawksbill Station”

More Silverberg, this time mixed with some John Varley.

Press Enter


Raw Feed (1992): “Press Enter ”, John Varley/”Hawksbill Station”, Robert Silverberg, 1990.

“Hawksbill Station” — This was a relatively simple plot moodily told.  Silverberg postulates a government tyrannical enough to want to suppress dissent but wimpy enough not to kill people.  It just exiles them via time travel to the Late Cambrian.  Silverberg’s love and knowledge of paleontology and geology works well in setting the mood of the tale.  He also does a nice job portraying a diverse group of men (the women dissenters are in another era) banding together to fight the enemies of despair, madness, loneliness, and loss of purpose, and how some must prepare for the sudden shock of freedom.  A simple but well done story.  It’s also interesting to see in this 1967 story how vital Marxism was presumed to be in the future – right down to having splinter schools like Khruschevist.

“Press Enter █” — Samuel Delany has talked about Varley’s love of strong, competent women and prosthetics.  Here the character of computer whiz Lisa Foo with her large, silicon augmented breasts fits the bill on both counts.  This story is well-written:  fast-moving, slick, exposition which slides down easy.  Even the romance works here, and it’s an exciting.  This story won a Hugo and a Nebula.  However, reading it eight years, I suspect the effect is dulled.  This story was published in 1984.  The eighties saw the dangers, transcendent potential, and wonders of the cybersphere excitingly explored in sf.  The awareness even crept into the general public consciousness.  However, this tale has parallels to other sf tales in its plot.  Computer whiz Patrick William Gavin is the stuff of modern hacker legend and, I suspect, myth.  His gathering of confidential material, financial manipulations, creation of wealth by fiat, his cloak of invisibility in a computer age, his privileged position as one of the architects of important private and governmental information systems was in part reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s protagonist in My Name Is Legion, a book from the seventies.  The specter of a maleovelent artificial intelligence haunting the cybersphere shows up in the slightly earlier Vernor Vinge short novel True Names.  As in that story, the murderous artificial intelligence is escaped from a National Security Agency project, an experiment gotten out of hand.   However, in True Names the artificial intelligence was much more murderous, and, after manipulating people, came out in the open for battle.  The AI of this story seeks, above all, concealment.  His shadowy presence is reminiscent of Wintermute, the artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, also from 1984 and also the AI of Roger Zelazny’s “24 Views of Mt. Fuji by Hosaki”.  So, the basic story is not new.  Varley adds two new elements though.  One, the idea of a computer intelligence generated by a critical mass of microchips in the cybersphere connected (the analogy of neurons in the brain is made) by radio waves, telephone lines, and electrical lines.  This leads to the compelling final scene where the protagonist guts his house of all the electrical trappings of modern civilization to escape the murderous power of the AI.  That murderous power is Varley’s second new element.  The AI can compel people to commit suicide.  How is never explained but it provides the air of menace and gruesome, mysterious death required.  I suppose it was also added as a thematic complement to the narrator’s experience with Chinese Communist attempts at brainwashing as a prisoner of war in Korea.  How exactly it developed the theme of psychological coercion is unclear to me.  Perhaps to show that the machine is more terrifyingly effective at it then Chinese communists or, for that matter, the Khmer Rouge that imprisoned Lisa Foo.  Or, perhaps much more speculatively, it’s a comment on the innate capability of sentience to be evil.  Foo chides the narrator (and her lover) for only thinking Nazis, South Africans, and Americans are racist. She rightly points out that Asians have a long history of racism.  Perhaps this is Varley’s way of showing that humanity may not be the only intelligence capable of murder and coercion.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City“. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth“. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night“. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication. Continue reading

Memorable First Lines in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I thought it might be interesting to start a list of memorable first lines in science fiction and, yes, fantasy novels.  By “memorable”, I mean memorable to me. And having the first line of a work stuck in your brain doesn’t automatically make the novel good. Conversely and obviously, not having a memorable first line doesn’t make a novel bad.

  • “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than me. So, if he’d ever killed a man, silently or otherwise, he’d done it as an infant. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman.
  • It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their household animals, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me. The War Hound and the World’s Pain, Michael Moorcock.
  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying … but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice  … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks … but nobody loved it. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester.
  • The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel. Neuromancer, William Gibson.
  • They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. Count Zero, William Gibson.

Various speculative fiction authors chime in with their favorites at I09.