The Anubis Gates

For no particular reason, I’m going to do a series on steampunk starting with some Raw Feeds on proto-steampunk, works written before Tim Powers’  friend K. W. Jeter jokingly created the very term “steampunk”.

Raw Feed (2002): The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers, 1983.Anubis Gates

This was an elaborate, intricate, action-packed mélange of Byron and Coleridge’s poetry, secret societies in Jacobean and Georgian London, time travel, lycanthropy, transvestism (the typical young girl disguised as a boy though, here, engaged in the atypical quest for vengeance for her dead boyfriend, killed by a werewolf), Egyptian mythology, literary studies, beggars, and gypsies.

From what I’ve read, this is the second of Powers’ secret histories (the first being The Drawing of the Dark) where he mixes history — cultural and political — with mythology to reveal the real story and motives behind famous events. The opening epigraphs of some chapters show this: a letter from Byron, where he remarks about how some thought they saw him in London when he was, in fact, in Greece; another epigraph has mention of the Italian physician, here the Egyptian sorcerer Romanelli, who talked the Pashah into massacring the Mamelukes — an event our hero Brendan Doyle aka William Ashbless barely escapes in his Mameluke disguise.

Standard Powers’ elements show up: magic described in physics terms, particularly in electromagnetic terms since the Anateus Brotherhood ground their boots to negate Romany and Fife’s spells; bodyswitching — a lot of bodyswitching here with Fife in his Dog-Face Joe incarnation forcing a lot of personalities to be evicted from their body; criminal undergrounds engaged in occult pursuits much like the hideous Horrabin clown here who mutilates people in his underground caverns; beggars; imbecilic immortals, and maiming. He uses a thriller format with scenes using not only his protagonist as a point of view character but also scenes built around his villains and minor characters. He often describes a startling or strange scene and then backtracks to give the setup for it. Humor shows up frequently, particularly, here, the ghastly dialogues with Horriban’s Mistakes in the basement of the Rat’s Castle. Continue reading

Winter Well

While I work on new stuff, you get new stuff. This retro review is from May 20, 2013.

The review copy for this anthology came from the publisher via LibraryThing.

Review: Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women, ed. Kay T. Holt, 2013.Winter Well

It’s a feminist collection, right? The publisher’s name, Crossed Genres, seems like a pun on “crossed genders”. And all the writers are women, right?

Well, yes and no. Crossed Genres seems, from my research and having read two of their collections, more a literary crossbreeding program to produce new and vital offspring than a feminist project. Here, three of the four stories are science fiction. The remaining one is fantasy.

Yes, all the authors are women. Yes, there are what I would broadly interpret as “progressive” and “feminist” themes and issues which show up in these stories. Frankly, my interest in seeking out either in science fiction is limited, but I like thematic science fiction collections enough that I’ll put up with most any theme.

My prejudices on the table, my short verdict on these stories, none by authors I recognized, was that half of them work well enough for me to call them good and even the others are not flawed enough to call bad. Continue reading

Frozen Earth

I studied a fair amount of geology in college, but I never fooled myself that I had the imagination or attention to detail to pursue it as a career.

However, I still like to read about it.

A retro review from April 27, 2013.

Review: Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages, Doug Macdougall, 2004.Frozen Earth

Considering what a radical notion it was when introduced, it’s appropriate that the first person to use the phrase “ice age”, German botanist Karl Schimper in 1837, died in a mental asylum.

Louise Aggasiz, better known for his work on fossil fish, was the first to seriously argue for glacial episodes in the earth’s past – even if he was curiously uninterested in the causes of those episodes. The forgotten James Croll, a self-taught polymath and Scotsman, put forth the notion of astronomical cycles which was further refined by Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch. Macdougall tells a lot of his story about earth’s ice ages through the biography of these men as well as the story of J. Harlan Bretz, the man who was denigrated by most of the geologic profession for his seeming violation of the cardinal principle of uniformitarianism (geologic forces of the past must be ones we see today) when he proposed that the enigmatic Channeled Scablands of America’s Washington State were created over the course of a few days when a massive glacial dam burst.

Macdougall’s presentation is smooth and clear from the graphs that illustrate earth’s five major ice ages – including the one that we are still in the midst of – to the reconstruction, through a variety of methods, of the climate of the last 1,000 years. He lays out clearly the analytical techniques used to establish earth’s climatic past – including what we are confident about and what we merely suspect. Continue reading

The Ripple in Space-Time

Back to proper reviews though this is actually a retro review from April 7, 2013.

The review copy came from the author via LibraryThing.

The author’s website says a sequel will be forthcoming.

Review: The Ripple in Space-Time, S. F. Chapman, 2013.Ripple in Space

Two Amero-Asian wars have wracked havoc on humanity. While it has spread throughout the solar system, most of humanity lives in nasty feudal states run by warlords. These are places of oppression, slavery, and poverty.

The exception is Free City – whose location on Earth is never precisely given. It’s the destination for the oppressed – like its famed Inspector Ryo, a clone who came to the city an orphan. The city is also home to the Enlightenment Crusade, an idealistic movement of mostly young people trying to bring human rights to the benighted human settlements on Earth and in space. It’s also home to CRAMP, a dirty-tricks secret agency dedicated to the same end through more direct action.

It’s a world of clones and debt slavery and nasty trade guilds and fearsome weapons. Just the sort of setting of intrigue I like. Throw in some plausible sounding physics and technology involving space travel and antimatter use and gravitic astronomy, and I found this an engaging story.

The characterization is not deep, but sufficient for the characters. The plotting doesn’t drag and is not predictable. While the technology seems a bit conservative at times for four centuries in the future, that can be rationalized by those wars which killed billions.

I would say that, if you appreciate the sort of science fiction adventure tales Analog magazine does occasionally, you will like this story. I certainly am interested in reading more stories set in this future.

My only real quibble would be that this is, in terms of length, more a novella than a novel.

 

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

Ambrose Bierce the Accidental Legendmaker

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I have reached the pinnacle of my blogging career.

Screw page views and numbers of follows and retweets.

I’ve been footnoted in the Fortean Times.

Specifically in issue 335’s “Nightmare Before Christmas: The Strange Disappearance of Oliver Lerch” by Theo Paijmans and Chris Aubeck which references my Reading Bitter Bierce: Was He a Proto-Fortean?.

Ok, lots of people with widely varying amounts of rationality, credulity, credibility, and coherence get footnoted in the Fortean Times. And I didn’t really offer a definite answer to my question.

Quibbles. Quibbles.

That particular posting on Ambrose Bierce mentioned his story “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, part of a trio of stories first presented in the entertainment section of the 14 Oct. 1888 issue of the San Francisco Examiner as “Whither? Some Strange Instances of Mysterious Disappearances”.

Marian Kensler’s article “The Farmer Vanishes” in the 12 May 2008 edition of Strange Horizons looked at how “Charles Ashmore’s Trail” and another of the Bierce stories, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, were the wellspring of Stuart Palmer’s “How Lost Was My Father?” in the July 1953 issue of FATE magazine. Kensler showed how this allegedly true account of a farmer vanishing as he walks across a field can be traced to Bierce. (She gets footnoted by Paijmans and Aubeck too.)

She also mentions the legend of Oliver Lerch which got its fame — if not its start, in another “true story”: Joseph Rosenberger’s “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?” in the September 1950 of FATE.

Kensler cites Algernon Blackwood as patient zero for the mutated viral version of Bierce’s tale that became “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?”, specifically in his 1914 story “Entrance and Exit”.

Paijmans has been doing a semi-regular column, with more than 60 installments so far, for Fortean Times called “Blasts From the Past”. Basically, it’s armchair Forteanism which takes advantage of the huge online newspaper archives that now exist thus leading to Paijmans re-telling tales of Parisian child torture rings and mad scientists making monsters and Louisiana devil men.

In the article he pushes the origin of the Oliver Lerch all the way back to Irving Lewis’ “The Man Who Disappeared” which appeared in the Dec. 25, 1904 edition of New York City’s Sunnday Telegraph. Lewis’ has all sorts of good hoax details — the names of specific parties who witnessed Lerch’s disappearances and their residence. Well, good hoax details for 1904.

In the age of online census records and Ancestry.com, they didn’t withstand Paijman’s efforts at verification.

 

More Bierce related is available on the Bierce page.

 

 

Moment of Battle

You should get some new content shortly.

Until then, here’s a retro review from April 12, 2013.

Review: Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, Jim Lacy and Williamson Murray, 2013.Moment of Battle

This is the latest updating of Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo.

The battles range from Marathon in 490 BC to Operation Peach of the Iraq War in 2003. The authors opt for a specific criteria – not battles that changed the course of a war but ones that fundamentally altered the future influence of nations and cultures. Most of the time that criteria is met even if it means we get four from WWII (the Battle of Britain, Midway, Kursk, and Normandy). The inclusion of the Iraq War is, as the authors acknowledge, somewhat questionable given that history is only beginning to work out its effects. It seems there to mainly lend novelty to the latest entry in this military history sub-genre and to take advantage of the authors’ own contributions to scholarship on the war – in this case a fascinating look at Saddam Hussein’s decisions in response to the invasion of his country.

Besides the Iraq War, there are other deviations from the stated formula. The “Annus Mirabilis” chapter actually covers two 1759 battles, one on land and one on sea, that determined the British, and not the French, Empire would dominate the world and lay the groundwork for modern globalization. We get Vicksburg and not Gettysburg for the American Civil War – thus running counter to the authors’ wry observation that historians looking for a quick payday can always whip out a book on Hastings, Waterloo, or Gettysburg. (Hastings is here, though.) Continue reading

Human Error

It turns out I had no additional Greg Bear material in the archives, so I’ll conclude my Greg Bear series by comparing another novel to his Blood Music.

Raw Feed (1994): Human Error, Paul Preuss, 1985.Human Error

While it probably has been done already, this novel and Greg Bear’s Blood Music naturally suggest a compare-and-contrast essay.

Both were published in the same year (though Bear’s novel was based on an earlier short story of the same title which may or may not have inspired Preuss – there is a blurb from him on Bear’s novel) and both are based on the same idea: biological computers that develop sentience and become, as Bear’s novel has it, an “intelligent plague”.

Both novels have ugly, social misfit scientists who unleash – accidentally – the plague on man (both are even from the South). Vergil I. Ulam is a reckless, selfish, impractical man who foolishly – and unmindful of the dangers of infection even his non-scientist mother immediately sees – unleashes the noocytes in Blood Music. Adrian Storey of Human Error is less irresponsible, less criminal (Ulam tampers with computer records and tries to steal work from his employer) than Ulam but more careless in managing his Epicell work.

Both novels feature profound, scary, transcendental changes in man. A Locus reviewer very rightly compared the tone and emotion of Blood Music to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Continue reading

Heads

Apart from some appearances in some anthologies, this marks the end of the Greg Bear Raw Feed series.

Raw Feed (1992): Heads, Greg Bear, 1990.HEAD1992

A tale of Bear’s that mixes religion and politics to good effect.

I liked the central point that even libertarian minded scientists, businessmen, and technicians who despise administrators and politicos have to pay attention to politics – not only the external threat of foreign governments but the ability of a government to hold a community together, to help it resolve disputes between citizens. The lunar syndicates learn that politics “is the art of avoiding disasters, of managing difficult situations for the benefit of all” in their political fight against a domineering Earth and the Church of Logology.

The Church is quite obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard’s movements and Mormonism, a satire against both. The Mormon parallel is founder K. D. Thierry being handed a crystal rock by a huge female figure (the “last of the True Human”). The rock is supposedly encoded with the secrets to free the mind and body from its shackles (like Dianetics). Like Hubbard, Thierry expounds his doctrines with many books while wondering about the world and eventually retreats into seclusion. Like Hubbard, Thierry sponsors a contest for budding Lit Vid stories. Linking these two is an eerie program by one of the moon syndicates to interrogate some severed heads for archaeological knowledge. (Cryonics was popular in the early twenty-first, but no one figured out how to thaw them out, so – and I liked this feature – keeping the frozen corpsicles around became a real nuisance. They’re frequently sold.) Specifically, the head of one Thierry. The Church of Logolists objects strongly, eventually turning to violence to stop the program. The project is partially run by the strange artificial intelligence QL (for quantum logic) – built by a singular Chinese genius. The QL works beyond regular logic and in the post Boolean realm, completely in tune with the “Planck-Wheeler” continuum. (Bear is a master of creating plausible sounding history, science, and technologies with just a few words.).

The ending was weakened a bit by the almost mystical violation of time and space, the creepy speaking of the dead frozen heads to our narrator. Still, Bear does a nice job melding science, religion, and politics.

 

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

Anvil of Stars

More things can influence a review than just what’s on the page.

I suspect recovering from a car accident while I read this — and the resulting soreness and napping — lessened my appreciation of this book.

That and not having read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books.

Raw Feed (1992): Anvil of Stars, Greg Bear, 1992.Anvil of Stars

I found this, a sequel to Bear’s very enjoyable – and different – The Forge of God, to be surprisingly slow going, tedious. The book seemed to move slowly yet not provide much of the nitty-gritty detail of shipboard life on the Dawn Treader. Much of the technology was of the superscience variety (the ladders, the fields, the ship which could – presumbably through a form of nanotechnology – reorganize its mass and shape) and, not having reread The Forge of God, the weapons were little more than names since their function was little described. In fact, through a long book, Bear’s style was altogether too sketchy for me.

I did like isolated elements (the struggle between flaky prophet Rosa and Hans was interesting and reminded me of the mediaeval struggle between Church and State; ruthless, intuitively correct, obsessive, man-of-action Hans was an interesting portrait of an effective but tyrannical, deceitful leader as opposed to the fair-minded but somewhat ineffective Martin; I liked the anti-matter converting trap of the Killers and their elaborate system; the information theory enabling manipulation matter; the elaborate system of the Killers; I even liked the Brothers. Continue reading