Bacterium

Theoretically, my hands will not be on a keyboard for Halloween so you get this retro-review.

Not really holiday appropriate. You get what you pay for.

A retro review, of a self-published work, from February 11, 2012. I got a review copy through LibraryThing.

Out of curiosity, I checked to see what Mr. Pennington has been up to. I found a curious lack of an internet presence for him now.

Review: Bacterium, Nathan Pennington, 2011.Bacterium

This book’s title is pretty much truth-in-advertising with the thriller part being more of the story than the science fictional end of the world.

After killing off the President of the United States in the first chapter, we are introduced to the young couple of Sveta and Derek Silverman of Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Pennington carries on the time honored tradition of authors trashing their hometowns in a disaster story.) After a late night run to an emergency room to get help for their very sick baby, they find a hospital full of dead people and others who have just keeled over in their cars.

After their baby dies and no real news to be found on the internet or tv, they think answers and help may be coming from a group in Madison, Wisconsin, but, when the hoped for rescuers show up with guns and murderous intent, the hunt is on. Continue reading

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The Skies They Were Ashen and Sober

No excuse for ignoring Halloween.

So, first here’s Jeff Buckley’s superb musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulalume”, a poem conceived as a rhetorical exercise by Poe.

And, since Halloween is all about the spirits of the dead …

Appearances of the deadRaw Feed (1993): Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts, Ronald C. Finucane, 1984.

I picked this book up on a lark and am glad I did.  I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, informative book.

The cultural history of ghosts is fascinating – from the gibbering spirits who hung about tombs in the Classical (they’re sometimes angry, often hideous in appearance) period, to the shades that early Christian writers puzzled over (demons? delusions? Or returning spirits of the dead?) to the blazing straw figures, disembodied hands, and other apparitions of suffering souls from purgatory in the Middle Ages to the debt, honor, and revenge obsessed characters of the Restoration, to the stupid, vague Victorian and modern ghosts.

I was interested to see how ghosts came into play in the arguments of the Reformation.  Catholics viewed them as proof of souls in purgatory.  Protestants as demonic or angelic apparitions (or perhaps as “aerial” spirits – that portion of the soul that hung about the Earth unlike the “astral” part that returned to heaven – a minority opinion).  Finucane does a nice job showing the social functions of ghosts.  In mediaeval times, they were object lessons of souls consigned to purgatory, sometimes pleas for social justice (admonishing charity to the poor, confession of crimes) and appeals for piety, crusades, and indulgences.  Many accounts of ghosts asking the living – almost always known to them – to perform acts that will shorten their time in purgatory.  Continue reading

The Affinity Bridge

Predictably, another series I haven’t gotten around to completing.

A retro review from June 16, 2009. I’m not working on other things — ’cause I’m holding an icebag on my face following some pre-Halloween surgery (with Dr. Frankenstein-like stitches).

Review: The Affinity Bridge, George Mann, 2009.Affinity Bridge

The first in a promised series of Newbury and Hobbes investigation, this is an enjoyable steampunk mystery.

For those unfamiliar with steampunk, don’t think an alternate history. Think an alternate aesthetic centering around Victorian electric and steam technology taken to levels not seen in our world (and usually impossible to have ever been seen in our world).

While Newbury is a student of the occult, this book is more about the sort of odd, baroque technologies you want in steampunk — airships, brass automatons, bizarre medical devices, and nifty weapons – rather than magic. While I might have wanted a bit more description of the fog-shrouded London of November 1901 where Victoria still reigns, Mann still does a good job building the atmosphere with descriptions – especially in the action packed final third of the book.

Newbury and Hobbes are well done, believable characters. Mann doesn’t make Veronica Hobbes a warrior babe. While a romance may be brewing between the two, Mann makes it seem credible and not a hackneyed mystery cliché. Continue reading

The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading

The Ramen King and I

Yes, I know, it’s not one of my usual sorts of books.

This retro review was written in May 30, 2009.

Review: The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life, Andy Raskin, 2009.Ramen King and I

Raskin, for me, wasn’t a particularly likeable companion as he goes on a journey of self-discovery that weaves skillfully back and forth in time. What Raskin tries to discover is why he’s so habitually unfaithful to his many girlfriends. The sayings and life of Momofuku Ando, the world renowned (ok, Asian renowned) inventor of instant ramen, become Raskin’s higher power on his road to recovery.

But a funny thing happened in the final part of the book. Oh, I consistently enjoyed reading about Ando, and I found the asides on Japanese matters (business etiquette, food-themed manga, puns, sushi, museums devoted to ramen or gyoza, and samurai movies) fascinating and often funny. Surprisingly a revelation about Ando’s life proves relevant to Raskin’s plight. And Ando’s Zen like sayings go from seemingly silly business platitudes or personal eccentricities to something profound and useful. They become another example of the transforming wisdom sometimes found in the unlikely places of popular culture or the lives of the eccentric.

Raskin has started an advice column using the sayings and life of Ando. That may be worth a look, and I definitely would like to see him do more Japanese related material.

Stealing Other People’s Homework: The Science Fiction of Jane Gallion

Over at Retro-Forteana, Andrew May looks at the 1970s science fiction/erotica of Jane Gallion which he compares to Barry Malzberg and Philip K. Dick.

The titles? Going Down and Beneath the Bermuda Triangle. 

Can you smell the patchouli oil?

The Imprinted Brain

It’s here, it’s written, and I’m doing other stuff, so you get this retro review from May 29, 2009.

I in no way claim a personal or theoretical knowledge of autism.

Review: The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance Between Autism and Psychosis, Christopher Badcock, 2009.The Imprinted Brain

Essentially Badcock argues that autism and psychosis, particularly schizophrenia, exist on a continuum. The autistic person and the schizophrenic contrast broadly in behavioral and organic ways. Some of them include trouble gauging the attentive gazes of others vs. delusions of being watched, inattention to others’ voices vs. hallucinating voices, difficulties in accounting for the different intentions of others vs. delusions of persecution or being the object of others’ sexual interest, an inability to share the object of attention with others vs. delusions of conspiracy, an extreme literalness and inability to lie vs. delusional self-deception, an early onset of autism vs. developing schizophrenia as an adult, acute visual and spatial skills vs. difficulty in visual reasoning and deficits in visual acuity, and brains with local areas over-connected with a neural network but an underdevelopment of global brain connections vs. the opposite in a schizophrenic brain. For Badcock `s argument, it seems one final contrast is the most important. The autistic has trouble modeling the minds of others. The schizophrenic obsessively models the minds and intents of others with frequent delusions of conspiracy.

Badcock doesn’t envisage a single brain system with autism and schizophrenia as its maladapted extremes. Badcock proposes two systems at work in the brain. One is a system devoted to things with its most extreme manifestation being in autistics. (It’s not for nothing that autism’s mildest form, Asperger’s Syndrome, is known as the “engineer’s disease”.) The second is a system devoted to social interactions with people. Badcock dubs this system “mentalism” but with none of the psychic connotations sometimes associated with that word – though Badcock argues that there are savants, “hypermentalists”, in this area just as autism produces savants. Humans, however, are generally evolved to deal with others of their species and not arithmetic, so the savant of mentalism does not seem as abnormal as the famous Rain Man. They may hide behind the reputation of a famous politician, artist, poet, con man, or prophet. Continue reading

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2

You get this retro review, from April 9, 2009, for the usual reasons:  I’m off working on new material.

Review: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2, ed. George Mann, 2008.Solaris Book 2

George Mann’s Solaris anthology series is one of several recent attempts to revive market for original, unthemed anthologies. I don’t know about the quality of the other series or even the first volume of this one, but, based on this installment, I hope Mann’s series continues. None of the stories are bad or boring. All, with one possible exception, are truly science fiction, and three stories are noteworthy.

Extrapolate the instant feedback of popularity polls, add “sensate matter” which can be reprogrammed to assume any configuration, and you have the sport of “competitive urban planning” which is the subject of Paul Di Filippo’s humorous “iCity”. The hero of Kay Kenyon’s “The Space Crawl Blues” is facing, like many a science fiction protagonist before him, technological obsolescence. Personal teleportation is on the brink of rendering starship pilots like him unnecessary. Teleportation converts the body to mere information, but whom do you trust to edit that information and based on what criteria?

Chris Roberson’s “Line of Dichotomy” is part of his alternate history imagining the past and present dominated by the empires of Mexica and the Middle Kingdom. Here their struggle comes to Fire Star, our Mars. It’s a classic story of a group desperately fleeing pursuit across hostile terrain. The unresolved ending tries too hard for something else, but, apart from that, the story was enjoyable. Robert Reed’s “Fifty Dinosaurs” really only has three dinosaurs, some giant microbes, and one human. Their response to their peculiar origin has a charming, surreal quality to it.

Many of these stories mix humor and action. More on the humor side are two installments in Neal Asher’s Mason’s Rats series. Here the English farmer and the intelligent, tool-using rats on his farm have to battle pushy salesmen and bureaucrats in “Mason’s Rats: Black Rat” and “Mason’s Rats: Autotractor”. The “Evil Robot Monkey” of Mary Robinette Kowal resents his freak status as neither monkey nor human and just wants to be left to his pottery. Martial arts, a giant mech fighting machine, a classic western plot, and a wry take on fathers, sons, and their expectations of each other make up Dominic Green’s “Shining Armor”. I’m not a fan of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius series, but I did like the latest installment, “Modem Times”. Maybe it caught me in the right mood or maybe I’ve just read enough to know what to expect – and what I’m not going to get – from this incarnation of the Eternal Champion. If you like the Cornelius series, you’ll probably enjoy Jerry’s quest for the lost spirit of the 60s even more than I did.

Slick and pleasant enough and not overstaying their welcome – but not sticking in the mind either – are Brenda Cooper’s “Blood Bonds” about twins, one still living a normal life in the flesh and the other paralyzed and only living in a virtual reality, getting embroiled in a rebellion of artificial intelligences. Eric Brown’s “Sunworld” is a rather standard tale of a young man in a medieval-like setting, complete with a theocracy, being initiated in a startling truth. The nature of that truth is somewhat interesting but not really that exceptional.

Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” is the one oddity of the book. Arguably, it’s not even science fiction. Set in Italy shortly after the Black Death, its hero, accompanying a member of the Inquisition, investigates a merchant woman with uncanny business success and some possibly subversive social ideas. The story revolves around a real idea, Cicero’s Theatre of the Memory, though Schroeder, I think, extrapolates an improbable degree of efficacy for it. Still there is a science fictional air about the story, indeed it rather reminded me of some Robert Anton Wilson, with talk of using Cicero’s memory training to reinvent ourselves and civilization.

Peter Watts’ “The Eye of God” is one of the anthology’s highlights. Set in a near future of ever more sophisticated brain scanning and hacking via electromagnetic radiation, it’s narrator, on the way to the funeral of a possibly pedophilic priest, contemplates the dark desires of his own mind – and how they will soon be revealed to all.

The other exceptional stories of the book, David Louis Edelman’s “Mathralon” and David Abnett’s “Point of No Contact”, both take two old science fiction cliches and use them to clever effect in stories that break rules of fiction. The first has something to say about economic forces becoming as mysterious and inhuman as natural forces with its account of the trade activity around the fictional element mathralon. Abnett’s tale is about the startling insignificance of alien contact.

 

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Sinister Barrier

Presumably, I’m off actually catching up on making my notes for my next article.

Since I covered another Russell novel in the last post, here’s another.

Sinister Barrier

Raw Feed (2002): Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell, 1939, 1948?.

“Introduction”, Jack L. Chalker — Brief introduction about Eric Frank Russell, who was one of John W. Campbell’s favorite short story writers before writing, at Campbell’s suggestion, his first novel, Sinister Barrier.  It was published in the first issue of the fantasy magazine Campbell started, Unknown.  Chalker also talks about Russell’s interest in Charles Fort’s works and the debt this novel owes Fort as well as Russell’s involvement with British Forteans.

Sinister Barrier  — After first reading this novel about 15 years ago, and I read it over again because, having recently read the works of Charles Fort, I wanted to spot the full amount of his influence on this novel.

Fort would be proud.

Not only is he explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph, but the novel may be the most Fortean of all sf works.  The whole premise is taken from Fort’s remark that “I think we’re property.”  Russell mostly uses the metaphor of humanity as cows to serve alien masters, our emotions of violence and anger and agony being milk and meat to them.  (And the question as to the origin — extraterrestrials or native to Earth — of the Vitons is never answered.  It is suggested at one point that humanity is a cattle species brought by the Vitons to Earth from elsewhere.)

But Russell wraps up a lot more Fortean items in his story:  the wonders and miracles of psychics and religious figures may be a Viton disinformation campaign to discredit paranormal observations (sort of the “occult police” idea from Fort’s Lo!); ball lightening is dying Vitons; UFOs are observed Vitons (Russell may have pioneered the idea of alien abduction in this book); odd coincidences of death and odd disappearances; the allegedly superstitious coastal dwellers and sailors are able, because of a diet high in iodine, able to see the Vitons more often; feelings of dread may be Viton tendrils drinking your emotions.

Russell uses other Fortean paraphernalia:  the Fortean magazine Doubt is mentioned, and, after the knowledge of the Viton’s existence is widely disseminated, the U.S. government and newspapers look through newspaper files to spot formerly hidden references to Vitons.  Russell mentions some things (like spontaneous combustion and psychic powers) that are included in Fort’s works. Other mentions of Fortean knowledge postdate Fort’s death in 1932.  I suspect they are real, and Russell used his Fortean Society membership to gain access to them.

I’m curious as to when this novel was revised.  Chalker’s introduction just says it was after WWII which is obvious due to references to Hiroshima and the 1947 harbor explosion in Texas City.  On the other hand, there are some odd omissions, the main one being no explicit references to the Japanese in WWII though, especially since an Asian Combine fighting the West features them, kamikazes are mentioned.  Other signs of post-WWII revision are a reference to Pakistan and UFOS over North Ireland in 1942.  An odd bit of prose is a reference to the 1938 disappearance of a ship Anglo-Australian and Professor Beach saying “no solution had been found in ten years” — an odd thing to say for a story set in 2015.  (I wonder if it originally had a contemporary setting with the war breaking out between American and some portion of the Axis given an original publication date of 1939.)

Russell’s prose is pulpy, sometimes carrying his metaphors on too far, sometimes it has a melodramatic vigor like the first line from Chapter 1:  “’Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,’ mused Professor Peder Bjornsen.”

The plot is roughly similar to Russell’s other Fortean novel, Dreadful Sanctuary.  Both start out with a string off odd, seemingly coincidental events.  Here it’s the seemingly natural deaths of several prominent scientists.  In Dreadful Sanctuary, it was the destruction of several spaceships bound for Venus.  In both cases, the protagonist uncovers a vast conspiracy of possibly extraterrestrial origin (though in the revision of Dreadful Sanctuary the Martians are really an Earth cult and here the Vitons may be native to Earth).  In both, the protagonists meets a babe related to a dead scientist.  This novel is much more involving and epic with America embroiled in a war with the Asian Combine while simultaneously trying to defeat the Vitons and a deadline counted down in hours (though Dreadful Sanctuary with its rocket launch, also has that).

This novel ends happily with the old problem of man’s violent emotions solved (now that we’re no longer provoked by aliens we can all live in rational harmony — indeed the Asians are not subjected to vengeance but education).  Like Dreadful Sanctuary, this novel also seems to make reference to the quack theories of Albert Abrams with its reference to “shortwave therapy”.

 

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Dreadful Sanctuary

In honor of Megan’s review of Three to Conquer at From Couch to Moon, and to note my return from travels during which, I will add, only one book was purchased (though many magazines — think of it as an alcoholic dropping the bourbon for lager), I give you more hard-bitten Eric Frank Russell.

Dreadful Sanctuary

Raw Feed (2002): Dreadful Sanctuary, Eric Frank Russell, 1948, 1963.

I decided to read this book because, like Russell’s Sinister Barrier, it is inspired by Fortean ideas according to an article on Charles Fort and Erick Frank Russell by sf author and critic David Langford. The specific inspiration was, according to Langford, Fort’s lost manuscript (written prior to his Book of the Damned) X. (Oddly enough, Damon Knight, in his biography of Fort, doesn’t mention this connection though he talks about Russell’s memberships in the Fortean Society and Sinister Barrier and also about X).

The novel is written in sort of a not always successful, sometimes forced sounding, wise-cracking style of hardboiled detective stories. The basic premise — that Earth is literally an insane asylum for the dregs of the Solar System — certainly is Fortean. (The specifics are that each of the four inner planets of the Solar System evolved separate humanoid races roughly equal in development and intelligence. Blacks evolved from Mercury. Brown-skinned people evolved on Venus. Earth natives were Orientals, and whites evolved on Mars. This also sounds a little like Theosophy.) The Martians discover space travel first. All the non-Terran humanoids discover a way of proving definite sanity, and exile (humanely in their eyes) all their insane people, the ones stopping the development of further civilization, to Earth. Sanity is a dominant gene, and some people, members of the international conspiracy known as the Norman Club (dedicated to destroying rocket expeditions to Venus in order to keep the insane Earthmen from breaking out) know their extraterrestrial origins. Some religious figures were missionaries from other planets (except the native born Confucius).

The Norman Club is in occasional contact with the Martians. At least, this is the story big, quick shooting, quick punching protagonist (and inventor — Russell has lots of radio and electronic jargon in this story set in 1972 where videophones and tv delivered papers exist) John J. Armstrong uncovers at both ends of various interrogations. However, at the end, it is strongly hinted that Dr. Horowitz, who claims to be a Martian, is really just a clever, power-hungry scientist who has talked his way into the leadership of the deluded Norman Club. Langford claims that, in editions prior to this 1963 revision, Armstrong gets to Mars and proves no society of white Martians exist. In this edition, he fails in his mission to show a Venus journey is possible and dies in space. (Talk of creating a “new psychic factor” by making this journey is very typical of sf from the 40s and 50s — the date of this novel’s original composition — since it carries a implication of a true social science.) The cult of the Norman Club is triumphant. The exact rationale of making the desperate Venus voyage at novel’s end was lost on me. If the fuel supply has been sabotaged, the extra fuel for a test flight might make a journey to Venus possible, but, given the facts presented, it would seem the spaceship would still blow up on the return trip. I’m now curious to read an earlier version of the novel. All in all, while Russell kept the plot going with conspiracy (and the rather deus ex machina super lie detector called the “schizophraser”) and lots of action, I don’t think it worked as well, especially in its hurried ending, as Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

I also found the reference to a “short-wave therapy set” peculiar. Did Russell, in 1948, somehow think the quack radionics of Albert Abrams, thoroughly discredited in the 1920s, would really pan out? On the other hand, variations of Abrams’ ideas were being sold (and scientifically tested) in the late 40s and 50s.

 

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