Friday, May 24, 2019

Birthday Review: Threshold Shift, by Eric Brown

Today is Eric Brown's birthday -- he becomes another writer who just caught up with me in age again, at 59. For his birthday, I've reposted my review of his collection Threshold Shift, from the October 2006 Locus, and I've appended a couple more reviews of short work by him.

Threshold Shift, by Eric Brown (Golden Gryphon, 1-930846-43-6, $24.95, 218pp, hd) September 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

When considering single author collections, the “theme” is not so much the concern. Often, indeed, one wants the opposite: a representation of the writer’s range. Especially with an author’s first American collection. This book does a good job representing Eric Brown’s range: it depicts him doing what he does best very well. And what he does best is colorful, unabashedly story-centered, rather old-fashioned in settings and plots, but if old-fashioned on the outside still quite thought-provoking on the “inside”.

Brown has been a very prolific writer of short fiction over the past 20 years or so, but he is not very well-known in the U. S. The great bulk of his stories have appeared in British magazines: mainly Interzone, but also Spectrum SF, Postscripts, and others. (He was also a regular in the US magazine Science Fiction Age before its unfortunate death.) He has twice won the British Science Fiction Award. This fine collection will hopefully introduce him to a new set of readers: it is his first to appear in the US (he has had two earlier British collections).

I’ve long enjoyed the best of Brown’s stories, while finding him a bit uneven. Threshold Shift is a strong selection, featuring his two BSFA winners. One story, BSFA winner “Hunting the Slarque”, is from an extended series documenting the last years of the planet Tartarus, whose sun is about to go nova. I thought the series a bit repetitive, but selecting one story avoids that problem. “Hunting the Slarque” is Brown at his most, well, lurid, but still satisfying, about a Hunter hired to track down the two surviving legendary Slarque, creatures native to Tartarus, creatures who (along with some humans) wish to stay on Tartarus and perish with the planet.

Three stories come from a long series of stories, collectively my favorites among Brown’s work, concerning the alien Kéthani, and their gift to humanity: immortality. Brown’s usual concern with the stories is the ethics of immortality, as opposed to the Kéthani themselves. For example, “Thursday’s Child” very movingly considers a couple with opposing views: the husband is in favor of accepting the Kéthani offer, and indeed he works in “collection”: picking up the dead and sending them via Onward Station to the Kéthani planet for resurrection. But the wife is opposed, and she has resisted allowing their daughter to be implanted with the chip that allows resurrection. But then the daughter becomes ill … In “The Kéthani Inheritance”, it is the man of a couple (in this case a new couple) who resists implantation, partly because he’s not sure bad people should live forever. But his new lover doesn’t want to lose him, and when both lose their parents, their perspective is altered. The other Kéthani story is a bit different. “The Touch of Angels” is the only original in this book, a murder mystery which ends up giving us a bit more insight into Kéthani motives than previous stories. 

Other highlights include the other BSFA winner, “The Children of Winter”, a colorful romantic story of an alien planet with multiple races, including of course the mysterious humans; and a collaboration with Stephen Baxter, “The Spacetime Pit”, which reminded me of an old Algis Budrys story, “The War is Over”, as it told of a woman crashed on a primitive planet, and her long wait for the inhabitants to develop the capability to save her.

The rest of the collection is also entertaining. Eric Brown is a so far underappreciated writer – perhaps because he’s not really flashy and new, perhaps because his lesser works are sometimes disappointing. But he does what he does best very well, and work like that showcased here is very fun – and also thematically engaging.

From my summary of Spectrum SF for 2000

The two novellas published this year were "Destiny on Tartarus" by Eric Brown and "Great Wall of Mars" by Alastair Reynolds.  Both are colourful and exciting, well worth reading, but not quite Hugo material.  The Brown story is the first (in internal chronology) of his Tartarus stories, about the planet of a Sun which is about to go nova.  This story is set a century before the nova, so it's not about the impending nova like the other stories, which I think may be why I liked it the best of all the Tartarus stories.  (For one thing, it avoided repeating the same plot elements and thematic elements that several other stories had.)

Locus, July 2006

Cemetery Dance remains perhaps the most reliable source of well-written contemporary horror. In #54 I was taken with a clever story from Eric Brown, “The Man Who Never Read Novels”, in which a horror novelist meets a man on a train who confesses to not reading contemporary novels – for an interesting reason. Of course the writer is compelled to press his new manuscript on him … with amusingly mordant results.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Lesser-Known Philip K. Dick Novel: Time Out of Joint

Time Out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick

a review by Rich Horton

No Philip K. Dick novel can be called "forgotten", but it seems to me that this novel has become less known than it deserves, because I think it's one of his best novels, and probably his very best novel prior to The Man in the High Castle. Here's what I wrote about it some time ago, a fairly brief look at the book..

One of Philip Dick's more noted early novels is Time Out of Joint, from 1959. This was originally published in hardcover by Lippincott -- perhaps Dick's first appearance between boards. Lippincott was at that time publishing the occasional SF book -- A Canticle for Leibowitz was another -- though carefully disguised. For instance, Time Out of Joint was not presented as SF, but as "A Novel of Menace".

The setting is what seems a first a slightly altered 1950s. The main character is Ragle Gumm, who makes his living solving a puzzle for a newspaper. Ragle lives with his sister and her husband. He carries on a somewhat unsatisfying affair with the rather immature wife of a not very pleasant neighbor. And he worries about his curious standing as the reigning puzzle-solving champion.

Slowly we realize that his world is somehow artificial. He (and his brother-in-law) uncover curious buried items, occasionally see strange things that seem to imply most everyone in the town is artificial, hear odd transmissions via crystal radio, and so on. One of the most symbolic findings is slips of paper with names of objects -- "the word is the thing", anyone? Most significant is when Ragle stumbles across newspapers and magazines from the future (1998 or so -- why is 40 years such a  common SF near future?)

The general outline of what's going on with Ragle and his family should be relatively clear -- I'll leave the specific solution and the motivations for readers to discover. The basic idea is, then, familiar enough -- redolent of Daniel Galouye's slightly later novel Simulacron-3, just to name one. What makes the book stand out is for one thing the way Dick uses the 50s setting to comment, as if from the future, on the 1950s (and to do so with an aspect of nostalgia that almost makes the book seem as if written in 1998), also the portrayal of the characters, and finally a certain charged feeling of strangeness -- very much a central feature of much of Dick's work -- that gives the idea of inhabiting an artificial world -- "word as thing" or "signifier as object" if you will -- real psychological immediacy.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Adam-Troy Castro

Today Adam-Troy Castro once again is as old as I am. Every October I inch ahead of him, but every May he catches up again -- I just can't shake him! Anyway, he's one of the SF's finest storytellers, and a writer intimately concerned with moral questions, always wrapped in story. He also has exceptional range, of both tone (he can be silly funny and sharply funny and tragic and coolly logical) and genre (he's arguably more at home with horror than anything else, but he also writes fantasy, and SF (sometimes hard SF), and YA fiction, and mysteries, and exceptional pop culture exegesis, and more. So here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his short work.

Locus, July 2002

Analog's yearly July/August double issue is out. Adam-Troy Castro's "Unseen Demons", a related story to his earlier Nebula nominee "The Funeral March of the Marionettes", is long and intriguing but also a bit frustrating. Andrea Cort has been brought to the planet Catarkhus to determine what to do with a human who has brutally dismembered several members of the indigenous species. The problem is, settled law demands that he be tried under the indigenes' laws, and nobody has been able to communicate with the Catarkhans.  This is a political issue because humans have a reputation for violence, and the other alien species on Catarkhus seem convinced that the humans are going to try to let the criminal get away unscathed.  The problem is further complicated by the Catarkhan nature: they are almost unaware of their surroundings, and indeed the victims may well not have even known they were being murdered.

So we have a setup for a nice Analog-style problem story, interesting enough though as usual the alien species seems a bit too specifically created to set up the problem.  The other interesting part of the story emerges slowly, and it involves Andrea Cort's personal history, which, too coincidentally for my taste, also involves brutal murder of aliens.  The solution was somewhat disappointing – basically, the central problem is pretty stupid, and the solution is common sense. Other aspects of the problem were solved nicely though – such as establishing at least a very rudimentary communication with the aliens.

From my review of Imaginings, Locus, October 2003

Two stories struck me as particularly good.  First, Adam-Troy Castro, a writer who is always a threat to do something really good. "Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" seems to me among his best few stories.  A man escapes his boring job to an exotic and romantic destination, and once their meets a sexy and willing woman who only enhances his enjoyment. But there's a catch -- visitors must stay the full duration, and the tenth day is given over to horrible experiences of war and suffering.  Is it worth it?  This is a sort of "Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" variant, with a twist to be sure, and Castro does an excellent job portraying both the idyllic and horrific aspects of this experience, and of asking but not answering his central question.

Locus, April 2009

So far the two remaining monthly (or almost) magazines forge on. Analog’s April issue’s lead novella, Adam-Troy Castro’s “Gunfight on Farside”, is the “real story” of the only Lunar gun battle, reluctantly told by the aging survivor of that battle to a persistent … well, why she’s so persistent is a cute secret of the story. Analogies with Wyatt Earp suggest that the legend has outpaced the facts – except that the “real” facts turn out to be even stranger than the legend. To be sure, as readers of the linked story “Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s” will remember, these “facts” are fantastical, despite Analog’s hard SF reputation.

Locus, September 2010

Lightspeed in its third issue features two original stories distinguished by the originality of their ideas, and by some distinctiveness in the telling. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Arvies” has a truly striking central idea. Arvies are human bodies grown to be hosts for unborn humans in the far future, who live for centuries serially riding and wearing out host bodies. This story in particular focuses on one such “human” and her latest arvie, and her perverse decision to bear a child in this latest body. Castro tells the story quite straight-facedly, and the horror but plausibility of the central idea is thus well depicted. Full marks for that – alas, the very effectiveness of the dry depiction of the morals of that future also, to me, made the story a bit hard to like, as opposed to respect.

Locus, October 2012

Adam-Troy Castro's “My Wife Hates Time Travel” (Lightspeed, September) is very sweet, about a couple that learns that one or the other of them is fated to invent time travel, and the logical consequences of such an invention. Castro cleverly ramifies these consequences and paradoxes … and also makes the story a love letter to the wife of the title.

Locus, February 2014

The best stories at Lightspeed for January are very odd pieces. Adam-Troy Castro's “The Thing About Shapes to Come” is easily enough described – it's about a girl who gives birth to a cube, amid a rash of births of geometric figures – it's Castro's deadpan description of the child (called, of course, Di) and of the working out of the whole situation that makes the story strangely effective.

Locus, September 2016

Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Assassin’s Secret” (Lightspeed, August) is amusing as well, a slightly over the top tale of the world’s greatest assassin, who can kill with a stroke of his pen. Castro has a fair amount of fun describing his way of life, and his ways of death, but the center of the story is how the assassin deals with those who come asking for his services, and in particular the one secret he holds.

Locus, February 2018

One more issue from 2018, then a look at some of the later work from 2017. The January Lightspeed is full of fable-like pieces – even the SF, as Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Streets of Babel” is presented. It’s clever work, about a man living in the wilderness who is captured by a living city and made to endure the most dehumanizing aspects of city life for some months. Clever, as I said, with a distinct satirical point, though it didn’t quite sell me.

Locus, August 2017

Lightspeed for July includes a fine Chinese-flavored fable – or morality tale – from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Adam-Troy Castro (conspiring as ever to make me misplace the hyphens in one of their names!), “A Touch of Heart”. Dou Zhuo is a farmer whose land produces little, and he becomes envious of his more successful neighbor. Eventually he finds the means to hire an assassin of the notorious Black Touch, which endeavors to fulfill their contracts with the least possible effort. When Dou asks for his neighbor’s death, the assassin arranges to kill him, by removing one second from his life span. Dou is furious, but learns to make his requests more specific – and eventually learns what will satisfy him with the least effort expended.

Locus, January 2018

Adam-Troy Castro and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro give us another of their Chinese-flavored morality tales in the November 21st issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The Mouth of the Oyster” tells of a fortunate couple who fall victim to a terrible plague, that leaves the husband blind and his wife somewhat crippled. But their love is if anything intensified, and so is their commercial success. Then a magician offers his product – eyes that can restore sight to the husband – but only one facet of sight – he might ask for beauty, or the ability to see deceit, or anything he can think of. But will the effect of this special sight be an unmixed blessing?

Locus, March 2018

Analog opens 2018 with “Blurred Lives”, a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest in his stories of Draiken, formerly an operative employed in a number of interstellar conflicts. He had retired to an out of the way planet, trying to avoid the attention of his former employers, but was unsuccessful. Here he and one of his former enemies, Thorne, are joined in hunting the “puppet masters” who directed their operations, and who thus forced them into complicity in what they now see as crimes. Thorne’s escape over time has been pure escape – into a sensory deprivation box, and she remains more likely to simply want to forget, while Draiken is driven by a desire for something like justice. This leads them to Liberty, a cylinder world whose inhabitants live luxurious lives, but who are subject to random selection for “disposal” at the behest of the rulers, one of whom is the man Draiken and Thorne seek. And they find him – ready to die – and he offers Draiken a deal: enter one of the – call them “prisons” -- and escape, and Draiken can have what he wants (freedom for all the prisoners). But if he doesn’t escape, he stays there forever. This is the occasion for one of Castro’s specialties – particularly inventive horrors that humans can inflict on others, and I’ll leave the nature of that to the reader to discover, but it’s horrifying and morally awful. There is also a nicely put dilemma at the resolution. Strong stuff, with perhaps a hint of over-constructedness to the setup – but that’s in service of a worthwhile moral.

Locus, October 2018

I also liked Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Unnecessary Parts of the Story”, which cleverly deconstructs an all too familiar scenario: the Spaceship with the Captain and the Professorial Type and the Hot Girl and the Forgettable Guy etc. etc. as they deal with a horrible alien plague in mostly very stupid ways. Point of view is everything in this story, and that leads us down a path to a not quite expected conclusion.

Locus, February 2019

In the January-February Analog there is also a novella from Adam-Troy Castro, the latest of his Draiken stories, “The Savannah Problem”. I was particularly struck by the structure here – the story seems all exposition, in a way, as Castro depicts Draiken’s pursuit, capture, and extraction of a gangster thug from a space station. All this is interesting – Castro is good at action and tactics – but it seems extended, as we wait and wait for his purpose in capturing this man. A risky tactic in a storyteller – but Castro pulls it off with a brilliant rapid thematically relevant conclusion.

Locus, March 2019

Speaking of “challenging”, the January/February F&SF, which is through and through a strong issue, has several stories that are borderline horror, with the horror turning on the question of personal responsibility. Adam-Troy Castro’s “Survey” is one of those stories told entirely in dialog, depicting a college student taking a survey, seemingly one of those psychology research projects, this one an “exploration of stress on the human animal”. The means of putting stress on the young woman in the story is quite horrifying (I leave it to the reader to learn it), and when it’s married with a certain ambiguous offer of a kind of power, the questions the story asks – about the nature of responsibility, I suppose – become even more queasy-making.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Answers: Science Fiction Planets

A couple of days ago I posted a quiz on the subject of Science Fiction Planets. I promised the answers, so here they are. (If you want to see the quiz first unspoiled, here it is.)


SPOILER SPACE








Quiz: Science Fiction Planets




1.  This image is based on a Star Wars prequel film, and portrays the capital city of the Empire, which is an "ecumenopolis," or planet-spanning city. Many people think that an inspiration for this city is the capitol city/planet of the Empire in Isaac Asimov's Foundation seriesName either planet/cityClick here .  

Coruscant, Trantor


2.  Pierre Boulle, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, also wrote a novel set on a planet of the star Betelgeuse, and it too spawned a successful movie (and eventually many more.) Name the first movie made from that book. (Note that the movie, unlike the novel, is revealed to be actually set on Earth in its famous final scene.)

Planet of the Apes


3.  Planets of this three-star system are understandably a common site for science fiction stories. Examples include Robert Silverberg's first book; the planet Rakhat in Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow; as well as the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar. This star system was also the original destination of the Robinson family before they became Lost in Space (in the '60s TV series.) Name this star system.

Alpha Centauri


4.  This planet with a mysterious worldwide intelligence is featured in films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, based on a novel by a Polish science fiction writer. Name both the planet (which has a name recalling our sun) and the author (whose name might recall our moon, or at least our lunar exploration).

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

5.  N. K. Jemisin made history when she won the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years running, for each volume of a trilogy. Most of the action is set on a continent called the Stillness. Per the title of the trilogy, on which planet is this continent located?

(Broken) Earth


6.  The late great Ursula Le Guin set much of her science fiction in a future sometimes called "Hainish". She won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the notably cold planet Gethen. What is the English name for that planet (supposedly also the translation of Gethen into English?) (That English nickname is also used in the title of a short story set on the planet.)

Winter


7.  Perhaps the most famous planet located outside our Solar System in TV is Vulcan. In which episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Theodore Sturgeon, did Spock's undergoing pon farr force the Enterprise to return to Vulcan.

Amok Time


8.  Samuel R. Delany gave one of his novels the subtitle "an ambiguous heterotopia". The novel's protagonist, Bron Helstrom, lives on a moon of the planet Neptune, though he was born on Mars and visits Earth during the novel. Name either the original title of the novel or Delany's preferred title.

Triton, Trouble on Triton


9.  A long series of novels beginning with Dune,by Frank Herbert, centers around control of which planet(also sometimes called Dune), the source of the spice mélange, which among other things is used to help navigate starships. If you don't remember the novel, you may remember David Lynch's film, or the SyFy Channel miniseries. (And, reportedly, Denis Villeneuve is working on a pair of films based on Dune.)

Arrakis


10.  Cixin Liu (or Liu Cixin), was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, not to mention gaining fans including Barack Obama. The novel in question concerns invaders from the planet Trisolaris, so-called because its system has three suns. What is the title of the novel, in its English translation, based on the difficulties caused by the complex orbit of Trisolaris due to those three suns (and also representing a system in Newtonian mechanics that is not amenable to a closed-form solution?)

The Three-Body Problem


11.  In recent years a great many extrasolar planets have been detected by various means, and science fiction writers are beginning to use those planets in their novels. Allen Steele has written a long series of novels set on a (as yet undetected!) moon of one of those extrasolar planets, 47 Ursae Majoris b. The planet is called Bear (for obvious reasons) – what is the trickier name of the moon which Steele's characters colonize?

Coyote


12.  While more famous for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis also wrote a trilogy about a man named Elwin Ransom, with books set primarily on Malacandra, Perelandra, and Thulcandra (the Silent Planet.) Give the usual English names for these planets (in the above order.) 

Mars, Venus, Earth




13. The planet Mesklin is noted for its unusual shape, which leads to a very strange gravity gradient. The novels set there were written by a high school science teacher named Harry Stubbs, who used this name as a pseudonym.

Hal Clement


14. On which planet is the title structure of Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel, Icehenge, found? (Well, at least it was a planet when the book was published!)

Pluto



15. Leigh Brackett wrote a number of stories and novels about this recurring character. Though he is most associated with Mars, his adventures also took him to Venus, and out of the Solar System to the planet Skaith, and he was actually born on Mercury. His last name might suggest the nature of the landscapes of, at least, Mars and Mercury. Who was this character?
Eric John Stark

Old Besteller: The Rose and the Ring, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Old Besteller: The Rose and the Ring, by William Makepeace Thackeray

a review by Rich Horton

I've previously written about Thackeray, in the context of his great novel Henry Esmond -- in my opinion one of the very best novels of the 19th Century. This time around I'm covering something much lighter -- the last of several "Christmas books" he wrote under the name M. A. Titmarsh, and generally the best regarded of those. These were more in the vein of entertainments appropriate for reading at the Christmas season than, necessarily, books that directly concerned Christmas. At any rate, I'll begin with the biographical snippet I wrote before.

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India in 1811 -- his father was a secretary for the British East India company. William came to England in 1815 after his father's death. He was educated at Charterhouse School and at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He spent the next several years more or less wasting his time -- some travel, some apparently desultory studies of law and art, failed attempts at starting two newspapers. His family had money, but Thackery lost some of it by his own efforts and more after a couple of Indian banks failed. So upon his marriage in 1836 he had to support his family, and he turned to writing. He wrote for various magazines (Fraser's and Punch among them), doing reviews, satirical sketches, and some travel writing. He published a couple of novels (Catherine and Barry Lyndon) before becoming famous with the publication of Vanity Fair in 1848. He and his wife had three daughter. One died in infancy. The eldest, Anna Isabella, became a well known novelist in her own right. The youngest married the famous critic Leslie Stephen. After the birth of their third child, Thackeray's wife succumbed to depression, and eventually had to be committed to an asylum. Thackeray died quite young, in 1863. (Indeed his wife, still insane, outlived him by over 30 years.)

The Rose and the Ring is the last of his "Christmas novels", published at Christmas, 1854. (The previous set, totalling five, I believe, dated to the 1840s.) It's a very short novel, something less than 40,000 words by my estimate. It's copiously illustrated, by Thackeray himself. My copy is the Wordsworth Classics edition.

It's a wholly satirical story, concerning the countries Paflagonia and Crim Tartary. The two countries have been at war often, but now are expecting a marriage between Angelica, the only daughter of the King of Paflagonia, and Bulbo, the son of the King of Crim Tartary. The complication is that both Kings are recent usurpers. In Paflagonia, the new King took over when his nephew Giglio was only an infant; while in Crim Tartary Duke Padella rebelled against the rightful (but not very good) King, and the toddler Princess Rosalba was thrown into the woods and eaten by lions. All this, it turns out, was the doing of the Fairy Blackstick, who, in the way of fairies, was offended by the royal families. But, we are told, Blackstick, who has noticed how bad all these royal people turn out, has decided that a bit of misfortune in the lives of the young children will be good for them.

So you can see what's going on -- the Princess Rosalba was not actually eaten by lions, but managed to wander into Paflagonia, where she became the much put upon maid to Princess Angelica. As for Prince Giglio, he has grown up, still rather spoiled, in the Palace, with the expectation of marrying his cousin and becoming King in the end anyway. But now that Angelica will marry Bulbo, his hopes are dashed. Which, in reality, after a bunch of events, means he'll notice the virtuous maid (now called Betsinda) of Angelica ...

The plot is driven to a great extent by more mischief from the Fairy Blackstick, in the form of a rose and a ring, each of with renders the bearer attractive to all who see them. Those work well enough that when Angelica and Bulbo have them, they are happy to be engaged to each other ... but as the objects move on to other people, complications ensue.

But no more about the plot. Suffice it to say that all works out well at the end (except for the people who end up killed!) But in the mean time there are amusing issues such as the King's Butler being turned into a doorknob, and his unpleasant wife, now the Countess Gruffanuff (Thackeray has lots of fun with names -- there's also a General Hedzoff) plots to marry Giglio. And Betsinda/Rosalba is thrust out of the palace again. Giglio himself end up in exile. There are orders to execute Giglio and (by mistake) Bulbo as well. And in the end inevitably war.

So, a fairly conventional fairy tale plot. The pleasure -- and there's a good deal of pleasure -- is in Thackeray's exaggeratedly satirical view of everything. The writing is very funny throughout. I noted the fun with names, but also the characters are depicted with a nasty joy. Certainly the pretensions of aristocracy are mocked, and indeed the foolishness of almost everyone. But it's mostly somewhat gentle under the surface (the story is nominally for children, after all). The drawing -- also by Thackeray as I note, are fun as well. This is a slight book, of course, but a fun one.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Quiz: Science Fiction Planets

Recently I wrote a quiz for a trivia site I am a member of. The subject was Science Fiction Planets. I prepared 15 questions -- only the first 12 were used, but I'll add the other three at the end. If anyone wants to email me their guesses at the answers (no cheating please!) I'll try to compile a list of who got the most right. (I expect a fair amount of 15s, actually!), and I'll publish the answers in a day or two. (email: rrhorton@prodigy.net)

Thanks to Steven Silver, by the way, who helped with some of the questions.

1.  This image is based on a Star Wars prequel film, and portrays the capital city of the Empire, which is an "ecumenopolis," or planet-spanning city. Many people think that an inspiration for this city is the capitol city/planet of the Empire in Isaac Asimov's Foundation seriesName either planet/cityClick here

2.  Pierre Boulle, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, also wrote a novel set on a planet of the star Betelgeuse, and it too spawned a successful movie (and eventually many more.) Name the first movie made from that book. (Note that the movie, unlike the novel, is revealed to be actually set on Earth in its famous final scene.)

3.  Planets of this three-star system are understandably a common site for science fiction stories. Examples include Robert Silverberg's first book; the planet Rakhat in Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow; as well as the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar. This star system was also the original destination of the Robinson family before they became Lost in Space (in the '60s TV series.) Name this star system.

4.  This planet with a mysterious worldwide intelligence is featured in films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Stephen Soderbergh, based on a novel by a Polish science fiction writer. Name both the planet (which has a name recalling our sun) and the author (whose name might recall our moon, or at least our lunar exploration).

5.  N. K. Jemisin made history when she won the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years running, for each volume of a trilogy. Most of the action is set on a continent called the Stillness. Per the title of the trilogy, on which planet is this continent located?

6.  The late great Ursula Le Guin set much of her science fiction in a future sometimes called "Hainish". She won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the notably cold planet Gethen. What is the English name for that planet (supposedly also the translation of Gethen into English?) (That English nickname is also used in the title of a short story set on the planet.)

7.  Perhaps the most famous planet located outside our Solar System in TV is Vulcan. In which episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Theodore Sturgeon, did Spock's undergoing pon farr force the Enterprise to return to Vulcan.

8.  Samuel R. Delany gave one of his novels the subtitle "an ambiguous heterotopia". The novel's protagonist, Bron Helstrom, lives on a moon of the planet Neptune, though he was born on Mars and visits Earth during the novel. Name either the original title of the novel or Delany's preferred title.

9.  A long series of novels beginning with Dune,by Frank Herbert, centers around control of which planet(also sometimes called Dune), the source of the spice mélange, which among other things is used to help navigate starships. If you don't remember the novel, you may remember David Lynch's film, or the SyFy Channel miniseries. (And, reportedly, Denis Villeneuve is working on a pair of films based on Dune.)

10.  Cixin Liu (or Liu Cixin), was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, not to mention gaining fans including Barack Obama. The novel in question concerns invaders from the planet Trisolaris, so-called because its system has three suns. What is the title of the novel, in its English translation, based on the difficulties caused by the complex orbit of Trisolaris due to those three suns (and also representing a system in Newtonian mechanics that is not amenable to a closed-form solution?)

11.  In recent years a great many extrasolar planets have been detected by various means, and science fiction writers are beginning to use those planets in their novels. Allen Steele has written a long series of novels set on a (as yet undetected!) moon of one of those extrasolar planets, 47 Ursae Majoris b. The planet is called Bear (for obvious reasons) – what is the trickier name of the moon which Steele's characters colonize?

12.  While more famous for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis also wrote a trilogy about a man named Elwin Ransom, with books set primarily on Malacandra, Perelandra, and Thulcandra (the Silent Planet.) Give the usual English names for these planets (in the above order.) 


13. The planet Mesklin is noted for its unusual shape, which leads to a very strange gravity gradient. The novels set there were written by a high school science teacher named Harry Stubbs, who used this name as a pseudonym.


14. On which planet is the title structure of Kim Stanley Robinson’s first novel, Icehenge, found? (Well, at least it was a planet when the book was published!)


15. Leigh Brackett wrote a number of stories and novels about this recurring character. Though he is most associated with Mars, his adventures also took him to Venus, and out of the Solar System to the planet Skaith, and he was actually born on Mercury. His last name might suggest the nature of the landscapes of, at least, Mars and Mercury. Who was this character?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Four Zelazny Capsules

Roger Zelazny would have been 82 today, but, dammit, he died way too young in 1995. I loved his short fiction but I haven't written a lot about it, so instead I've taken four rather short bits, capsules, really, that I did of four of his novels, for my SFF Net newsgroup a while ago, and in once case for  Black Gate retro-review of an issue of Galaxy.

I also reviewed Lord of Light for SF Site some time ago: Lord of Light review.

This Immortal

(cover by Gray Morrow)
Having just reread Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, I decided to go ahead and reread his other award-winning novel, This Immortal.  The serial version of This Immortal, "... and Call Me Conrad", won the very 1966 Hugo, in a tie with Dune.  I have the Ace first edition paperback of This Immortal. The book version, at about 58,000 words, is perhaps 8,000 words longer than the serial, but I've compared the two, and the changes are a mix of some excisions, and some expansions, and some phrasing changes. Incidentally, the copy on my Ace edition states that the book version, due to its changes, was still eligible for a Hugo, and they suggest it might win two Hugos in a row. (Of course, it didn't, and wasn't even nominated, but, interestingly, the actual winner, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, had been nominated the previous year on the basis of its (technically not yet finished) serialization.)

This Immortal is a good read, with plenty of Zelaznyesque brio. But it's not as good as Lord of Light (many, I should note, disagree,) and actually, it seems a bit, well, slight.  The ending is a distinct anti-climax.  It's still a book you ought to read, mind you, but it's just real good, not great. The storyline concerns Conrad Nomikos, one of about 4 million people still living on Earth centuries in the future, after a Nuclear war, and after the bulk of the population has gone to the stars to work for the advanced, civilized, Vegans.  Conrad and some of his friends had years before been involved in the "Returnist" movement, urging people to return to Earth, and resisting the Vegans' moves to buy up the best Earth real estate.  Nowadays, the situation is a stalemate, with Earth's exile population preferring not to return, but with the Vegans' not buying any more of Earth either.  But Cort Mishtigo, a high status Vegan, has come to Earth to tour some of the ancient sites.  Conrad, who seems to have some mysterious past identities that go back a long way, is recruited to guide Mishtigo, and to protect him from assassins.  He is in danger because the more radical Returnists believe that his "tour" is a pretext for evaluating more real estate, in advance of a renewed Vegan buying campaign.  Conrad is unsure of Cort's motives, and anyway unhappy with the idea of murder. The novel consists, then, of Cort's tour, and a number of well-done battles between Conrad and a variety of monsters and mutants.  The fight scenes, and the descriptions of the mutants (based on Greek mythology), are really good.  It's only the eventual revelation of the Vegan motives that's a bit pat and anti-climatic.

Damnation Alley

(This review is actually of the original 31,000 word novells, which appeared in the October 1967 Galaxy.)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
“Damnation Alley” is of course a pretty famous story, especially after it became a novel (in 1969) and a film (in 1977). The film is by all accounts only loosely based on the novel, and Zelazny is said to have disliked it. I had, I confess, never read the novel or novella, nor seen the film. Barry Malzberg is quoted in Wikipedia as calling the novel “a mechanical, simply transposed action-adventure story written, in my view, at the bottom of the man’s talent” – a judgement with which I am inclined to agree. It’s set in a rather ’50s-ish postapocalyptic world. Hell Tanner is a criminal living in the nation of California. He is offered a pardon in exchange for taking some medicine across the former US to Boston.

This passage is called “Damnation Alley,” and it is full of bandits, radioactive craters, storms, giant gila monsters, bats, snakes, and other menaces. Tanner starts out in a convoy of three tank-like vehicles, and over time the other drivers are killed, including Tanner’s unwilling partner. He picks up a girl (from a motorcycle gang), and seems to slowly gain something of a conscience. None of this is surprising, and much is silly, especially the square-cube law violating monsters. That said, Zelazny could write action well, and there are bits that work nicely, even some lyrical bits. It is what it is – reasonably well done but not particularly original action-adventure. The problem is, I expect a lot more from Zelazny.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

(Cover by James Starrett)
One of the Roger Zelazny novels I had never read was Creatures of Light and Darkness, from 1969.  I've had a copy for a while, and I finally got around to it.  It's a rather strange story, based, as far as I can tell, on Egyptian mythology, though set, again, as far as I can tell, in the far future in space.  A man is awakened by Anubis, and sent on a mission to find and kill the Prince Who Was a Thousand, in order to restore Anubis and Osiris to power over the Midworlds.  The story rather obliquely follows this man, called Wakim, and Thoth, who has been given the same mission by Osiris, and the magicians Vramin and Madrak, and various other Eqyptian gods.  A battle rages across many worlds, and backward and forward in time. The gods betray each other, and the reader's loyalties to the characters are forced to switch quite a bit.

I have to admit, it didn't work for me at all.  I don't know enough Egyptian mythology to follow any of the stories, if they are actually based on such stories.  Much seemed deliberately obscure.  The SFnal bits are profoundly unconvincing, and the characters are given powers which seem to be very arbitrary, and just what is needed at any given time.  Of course it is well written, in Zelazny's trademark mode -- elevating contemporary language, complete with slang, to an epic/poetic level -- that's all well enough done, and there are some nice ideas, but overall it was a mess, and rather boring. Zelazny was certainly one of the greats, but for me, at any rate, this is a disappointment, nothing to compare with Lord of Light or This Immortal or the best short stories.

Doorways in the Sand

(Cover by Ron Walotsky)
My rereading project isn't really meant to focus exclusively on Roger Zelazny, or even primarily, but Doorways in the Sand, a favorite of mine since I read it in the Analog serialization in 1976.  It was pretty much as good as I remembered.  Fred Cassidy is a permanent student, partly because he likes learning, partly because he continues to draw from his rich Uncle's trust fund as long as he is in college.  Meantime various advisors scheme to get him to graduate, while Fred, an acrophiliac, climbs all over the roofs of the college town.  But all of a sudden he has a lot more to worry about.  Various beings seem convinced he knows the whereabouts of the alien "starstone", a cultural artifact given to Earth in exchange for the British Crown Jewels and the Mona Lisa, and the maintenance of which in good condition is essential to Earth's nascent status in Galactic civilization. These folks memorably include some alien cops who like to dress up as marsupials. Follows a lot of action, all well done if sometimes a bit implausible, and a decent resolution involving a not absurd view of our place in the universe, etc. etc.  It's not a great novel, but it's really great fun.