Questionable Practices

a2fb17d09dfdf7d596b6e6d6951434d414f4141I decided my science fiction genre education was lacking without reading some of the acclaimed Eileen Gunn.

Review: Questionable Practices by Eileen Gunn, 2014.

Titling a collection “Questionable Practices” is just asking for it.

 I, however, am a kind reviewer not given to snarky comments. I will not sacrifice accuracy for cheap sarcasm.

It is a clever title, though. Would that all the stories were clever or funny. Continue reading

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Double Star

fc07f9aa13b053b5936326d5551434d414f4141This one I read because it was a Heinlein I hadn’t read and is explicitly referenced in G. David Nordley’s “The Fountain” from the June 2013 Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, 1956.

Sure, there are Martians and Venerians and Outer Jovians, but the last two are never on stage and the first isn’t very alien.

Sure, the story starts in Missouri (maybe) and goes to Mars and the Moon, but the settings usually have the exoticness of a beige office cube or, to be exact, of the many rocket ship staterooms where most of the action is set.

Sure, it all seems vaguely 19th century with an Empire ruled by a constitutional monarch, King Willem of the Habsburg lips and Windsor nose. That’s because it’s yet another version of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Continue reading

The Best of Frederik Pohl

Fred Pohl and Me

I met Pohl once. It’s actually a pretty short story.

In November 1988, I attended a talk by Pohl at the University of Minnesota. After the talk, whose subject I have totally forgotten, I handed him my slightly battered, old second hand copy of The Age of the Pussyfoot. Not only did I have the indecency to have him sign such a book. It wasn’t even something he considered one of his better works. Sign it he did, though, and he also answered a question from my callow 25-year-old mouth. I asked him why he had chosen to write a biography of the Roman emperor Tiberius, to me the most interesting of the lot, and do it under the pen name Ernst Mason. The answer to why went something like “I wanted to write about someone who had all that power and still led a miserable life.” As to the pen name, he said he came from a poor background and a name (his mother’s maiden name was Mason) was the only inheritance he had.

In my case, Pohl certainly lived up to his reputation as a gentleman.img054

Frederik Pohl is an author I’ve been aware of and reading on and off for a long time. Looking through the reference works The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in my early days of reading the genre, he was there.  In my hometown’s Ben Franklin store and drug store I remember seeing his Jem, its paperback cover a stark red with the title embossed in gold. (Some kind soul donated old issues of Galaxy magazine to our high school library including an issue that serialized the first part of that novel. It wasn’t until 2007 that I actually read the whole book.) I also was aware of his famous Gateway when it came out though I still haven’t read it.

It wasn’t until the early eighties that I actually read some Pohl. I have fond memories of reading, on a bus trip back to college, his Demon in the Skull aka A Plague of Pythons, a minor, but enjoyable, novel of possession. A few years later I read Midas Worlda collection of his work which included “The Midas Plague” which I’ll get to. Next was The Coming of the Quantum Cats, a memorable alternate realities farce.  I followed that with the excellent novel The Years of the City which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is sort of a modern, very readable utopian work.

I found Man Plus superb and deserving of its acclaim, a work combining 1970s pessimism with an earlier anticipation of the cybersphere we have now as well as being a pioneer transhumanist work. I found the sequel, Mars Plus, co-written with Thomas T. Thomas, less compelling. Next was Pohl’s most famous work, the justly celebrated The Space Merchants (first edition, not the updated version done a few years before his death) co-written with C. M. Kornbluth and The Merchant’s War, both of which I’ve commented on.

In all those years I’ve read a fair amount of Pohl’s stories, but there’s a lot of his work, including some of his most famous work, that I haven’t read yet. And the influence of Pohl as a fan and editor flows through a fair chunk of significant science fiction history. He brought back Robert Silverberg back into the science fiction writing fold in 1962. After the crash of the science fiction market occasioned by the bankruptcy of magazine distributor American News Company, the market for Silverberg’s fiction greatly contracted. In 1961, after Horace Gold left the editorship of Galaxy magazine, Pohl took over. Aggravated by Silverberg’s hack work and thinking him capable of better, Pohl agreed to buy all Silverberg’s short fiction — even if he didn’t publish it — and only require, at most, one rewrite.

In later years, as a book editor, Pohl discovered new talent including Joanna Russ and Samuel R. Delany. It was, in fact, Pohl who pushed Bantam Books into publishing Dhalgren. I think it a lapse of judgment and taste. Others disagree.

After looking at the Pohl tributes in the October 2013 Locus, I decided to — finally — finish The Best of Frederik Pohl. I started it in November 1988 shortly after finishing Pohl’s The Age of the Pussyfoot.

Thus I have an answer to a question in a recent SF Signal posting: how long do you have a book before you read it?  The answer in this case, at least, is 9,354 days. Continue reading

Dueling Heinlein Bio Reviews

I’m not a super Heinlein fan. I didn’t read more than a couple of his juvenile novels or short stories in my teens and twenties.

Looking at my notes, I see it’s been almost seven years since I’ve read any. While I’ve read a fair amount of Heinlein, I haven’t read all of him though it’s another reading project I hope to complete some day.

As I have mentioned before, I am a perverse and contrarian reader. Tell me, as my high school friend Doug did, that I have to read Heinlein (and Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany) is a good way to push me in the opposite direction. As it turns out, I did read two Heinlein novels in high school: Starship Trooperswhich I liked, and Stranger in a Strange Land, which I found very tedious even in the short version.

For a mercifully short and coherent sense of what the youngsters today whine about regarding Heinlein, I refer you to episode 185 of the Coode Street Podcast.

I do, though, feel a little kinship with would-be students of science fiction being told they have  to read any author.  However, really, to know something of English language science fiction and its history, you should read at least some Heinlein short fiction.

The second volume of William H. Patterson’s Heinlein bio (I will not read any bios of Heinlein until I actually read all of Heinlein) is reviewed by Jeet Heer at the New Republic. I suspect Heinlein was, as he claims, a bit of a solipsist. Generally, though, I’m more sympathetic to the Steve Sailer review and rebuttal to Heer.

I was rather unkind to Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour when I reviewed it. In retrospect, it seems a better — and certainly more memorable — book than I thought. Amongst other actual literary figures, Robert Heinlein makes an appearance in it.

And, if you want to follow up my advice on reading Heinlein short fiction, here are my reviews of some of the stories in his Future History series:

 

The Future Is Now

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I was beginning to question my taste, my abilities as a “critic”.

Do I just like anything I read? Sure, I read slow and not as much as I like so I’m somewhat careful what I chose, but still …

The Future Is Now has reassured me that I have retained some powers of discernment. Its execrable collection of stories cleared my palate and reminded me what crap tastes like. Continue reading

“A War of Passion”, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 4

If Purdom hadn’t said that this story was set in the same universe as Five Against Arlane and “Haggle Chips”, I wouldn’t have known. Granted there is the element of long-lived humans which is in those stories, but that has been and remains a Purdom fascination along with the wargame simulations mentioned here.

The trouble with this story is, while I know what Purdom was trying to explore, the details are too vague.

Protagonist Vostok is over 1,200 years old and assigned to seduce Larina Makaze. The why involves some political conflict between the normals and long-lived like Vostok on the planet Shuguro. The 268 year old Larina has been the blackmail tool of Hamanaka (a vaguely Japanese name along with Shuguro which, I assume, is Purdom’s suggestion the planet was settled by Japanese) who leads the faction of long-lived against the normals lead by David Fuchida.

Larina has been used for 37 years as a prostitute for men in “their middle hundreds” to rejuvenate their flagging sexual desire through whipping, chaining, caging, and humiliating her. Hamanaka seems to use what she discovers about these man as blackmail material against members of Fuchida’s faction. Her “last so-called lover” tortured her with laser shocks so she came to associate sex with pain.  (Why she didn’t make that connection before or why she went along with this for 37 years is unexplained.) Fuchida wants him to bring back joy to her sex, presumably for altruistic reasons or he’ll “start burning out memory cells” from her brain.

Fuchida also wants Vostok to prove that he’s temperamentally still with the world of recognizably human appetites. If he doesn’t, Fuchida will kill him and go to war against Hamanka’s fashion with the only “competent tactical brain” he has, Vostok’s, gone.The long-lived are, expectedly, a whole lot more ruthless and powerful and wealthier than the normals. They’ve “reduced their personalities to the presexual passions of survival and power.”

Vostok himself has, to keep up with improvements in human biology, had his head expanded to twice its original size and is 250 centimeters tall. Vostok, sexually quite practiced and adept, tells Larina to just relax and he’ll take over so they can prove to Fuchida their both normal enough. He even gives her an aphrodisiac thus bringing up the question, with them available, why the men of their middle hundreds need to abuse Larina to stay sexually interested though I’m sure there are men who do the same in our age of Viagra.

They both, as humans often do in Purdom stories, have some advanced degree of control over their nervous systems. While he’s trying to prolong Larina’s sexual pleasure, Vostok’s mind begins to wander. He thinks not only about his past, but, suspecting Fuchida’s men are even then surrounding the house and preparing to kill him out of suspicion, starts to run elaborate political, military, and economic simulations in his head. (He reminded me of the fascination the protagonist of Purdom’s “Fossil Games” also has for those sort of simulations.)

Angered by this distant, Larina suddenly rebuffs him. “You’re dead already. You’re a corpse,” she tells him in disgust. Vostok rapes her in a legal sense, forcibly penetrating her. She tries to cut off her pleasure centers but can’t. Alluding to the extreme caution and conservatism of the long-lived, he tells her “I’m risking my life. I should be manning my defenses. They may be attacking me right now. I’m risking eternity so we can both go on being human.”

The story ends with Vostok thinking they were both now fighting the only fight that mattered – the fight to stay human.  The last line is “He pressed her against the couch and held her while she writhed.”  Earlier in the story’s climax, “she shuddered”. But, in typical Purdom fashion, that and “writhed” are ambiguous words and could designate not some cliched tranformation of rape to erotic bliss, but discomfort and pain and terror for Larina. It is only Vostok that makes the statement that what he is doing is a fight for both. Larina does not voice agreement.

It is another exploration of Purdom’s fascination with how advanced humans, able to control their biology, would deviate from us and whether that’s a good thing. It could also be viewed as a metaphor (though Purdom seems to eschew science fiction as a metaphorical tool) for a social split along generational lines, vitality and youth and poverty and ignorance and passion vs. wealth, cunning, and survival.

However, I still think the story is marred by vagueness in its setup. It is a clever and appropriate title for the story.

It appears in William F. Nolan’s anthology The Future Is Now which I will be reviewing shortly. Let’s just say I’ve been brushing up on the fine distinctions between the words “execrable” and “feculent”.

 

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

The Cusanus Game

Cusanus GameThe Cusanus Game was not my first encounter with Jeschke. I had read his “Loitering at Death’s Door” in James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction Volume 6: Around the World. Unfortunately, that was at a time I had given up making notes on my reading as a time wasting compulsion. And now I don’t remember what it was about. Thus the compulsion has been resumed.

I do like to read the occasional non-Anglophone bit of science fiction.

It’s not a guilt thing. It’s a novelty thing.

I’m curious as to what people with different histories and living in a different part of the world will due with the themes and motifs of science fiction.

So, I’d heard of Jeschke and wanted to read some more German science fiction. (No, I have not read Perry Rhodan. If life were longer, perhaps I would.)

ReviewThe Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

The greatness of this book lies in its novel mechanics of time travel, its structure, its setpieces, its mixture of alternate history and time travel, its poignancy and paradoxes, and the fate of a heroine whose voice is so appealing. Continue reading