News of the Black Feast and Other Random Reviews

Low Res Scan: News of the Black Feast and Other Random Reviews, Brian Stableford, 1992, 2009.

No, I am not going to review a collection of Stableford’s book reviews.

However, I will briefly note a few I found especially interesting.

His introduction notes that book reviews are mostly fillers that few people read. But authors do, and he apologizes for being hurtfully frank in some.

Continue reading “News of the Black Feast and Other Random Reviews”

“The River Styx Runs Upstream”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is Dan Simmons’ first published story.

Review: “The River Styx Runs Upstream”, Dan Simmons, 1982.PTBS1992

This, like Robert Silverberg’s classic “Born with the Dead”, is a resurrectionist story. Whereas that story’s returned dead stick to themselves and are oddly changed and not interested in their former lives, the dead of Simmons’ story function at a much lower level.

The story opens with a thematic statement from Ezra Pound’s “Canto LXXXI”:

What thou lovest well remains the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage”

The story is narrated by a young man looking back to his boyhood, and it starts when he is eight.

His mother has died and been brought back by the Resurrectionist movement. They are somewhat like a church. The boy’s father will be tithing 25% of his income to pay for the resurrection and the group’s activities. Continue reading ““The River Styx Runs Upstream””

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 6”

A Night Without Stars

Yes, it’s something new. There’s been some thick books read around here lately.

This one came from Amazon Vine.

Frankly, the review was banged out quickly. There’s some additional thoughts and observations with spoilers at the end.

Review: A Night Without Stars, Peter F. Hamilton, 2016.night-without-stars

It’s a night without stars on the planet Bienvenido because it’s far from the rest of galaxy, so far that the only sun in the sky is the one its planets revolve around.

It’s a solar system inhabited by members of the races doomed unsuitable for communion with the aliens that created the Void, that vast bubble of altered timeflow and physics busted up by industrialist Nigel Sheldon at the end of The Abyss Beyond Dreams.

Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten all you’ve read in Hamilton’s other Commonwealth novels or never read any at all.

Hamilton quickly brings up you to speed. In the first 41 pages, we get reacquainted with dictator Slvasta, obsessed with ridding Bienvenido of the Faller menace — nasty, irredeemable aliens who digest and mimic (except for the blue blood) a planet’s lifeforms. Except Bienvenido has discovered it’s sharing the solar system with an even nastier alien menace, the Prime from Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. Laura Brandt, from Abyss, dies yet again.

And we’re off to the usual compelling Hamilton mix of detectives, spies, revolutionaries, fanatics, astronauts, politicians, nasty aliens and naïve young people thrown in the mix. Masks will drop, factions will plot, alliances will melt away and reform. (The sex in this one is actually fairly low key and short.) Continue reading “A Night Without Stars”

The New Space Opera

Posting this retro review will be one of the few productive things I did today.

From July 18, 2009 …

Review: The New Space Opera, eds. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, 2007.New Space Opera

What is “space opera”? The introduction succinctly and accurately calls it romantic adventure science fiction told on a grand scale. It then traces the history of the sub-genre from its stirrings in the 1890s to its full-fledged birth in the 1920s to its nadir in the 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave made it unfashionable, to its rebirth, while American authors were developing cyberpunk, at the hands of the British in the 1980s and 1990s.

For that grand scale, I’d specify vast scales of time and space and weaponry. The fate of species – their lives or at least their sanity and cultural viability – should be at stake and not some mere individual’s happiness or survival. Some of the stories in this collection are good but not space opera. Some are both. But there aren’t enough good stories of any type to give this collection a higher rating. [I gave it three stars at Amazon.]

The following stories fall in the unsuccessful and not even space opera category. The setup for Gwyneth Jones “Saving Timaat”, the narrator helping in the negotiations between representatives of two warring groups, the one cannibalistic predators on the other, is good, but the emotional connection of the narrator to the cannibal chief and her motivations are too oblique. James Patrick Kelly’s “Dividing the Sustain” is a would-be comedy of manners about a courier aboard a ship of communist colonists and the steps he takes to get close to the captain’s estranged wife, subject of an unaccountable infatuation, and to avoid getting “stale”, a consequence of longevity treatments. Not at all interesting.

Nancy Kress has put out some wonderful work, particularly when she engages in speculating about the consequences of biotech. However, her “Art of War” seems just a writerly exercise in developing the title phrase into a story and playing around with the cliché of stern military father (here a stern military mom) and a disappointing son. The story’s war between alien Teli and humans and the place each species’ art plays in the struggle just didn’t have the grand feel of space opera. Continue reading “The New Space Opera”

The Terror

In honor of NOVA’s “Arctic Ghost Ship” episode, detailing the solution to one mystery of John Franklin’s famously doomed Arctic expedition, I give you a retro review of Dan Simmons’ fictional take.

From January 20, 2010 …

Review: The Terror, Dan Simmons, 2007.The Terror

On July 26, 1845, the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror, bound on yet another journey to discover the theoretical Northwest Passage, left two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay. These ships and the hundred odd men of the Franklin Expedition were, as the saying goes, never seen again – at least not by any white man. The Franklin Expedition became a legend in the annals of polar exploration. Discovering what happened to it became the object of many other journeys into the Arctic down to our day.

Franklin’s men faced the horrors of the polar cold, starvation, food poisoning, scurvy, and cannibalism. Did Simmons really need to add mutineers? No, but he gets away with it, makes it seem natural and not unnecessary sensationalism.

And did he need to add a monster to the horrors of real history? Well, no, but I probably wouldn’t have read this novel if he hadn’t given my impatience with most historical fiction. I’d have just read another nonfiction book on the expedition. And, while he gives several possible explanations for the monster, the one he goes with at novel’s end is probably the one most likely to appeal to the fan of historical fiction. Or so I imagine.

It’s a long novel, but Simmons grabs you from the beginning. The first chapter starts out with the trapped ship, shivering men, the mysterious and tongueless Eskimo woman Lady Silence, and a monster. To be sure, Simmons does repeat himself sometimes, perhaps more than he needs to even to keep track of over a hundred characters. There is a bit of cleverness involving a work of Edgar Allan Poe, but Simmons engages in some too obvious and unconvincing, in context, explanation of his allusion.

More serious is that I don’t think he quite lays the psychological foundation for the decisions and fate of one of his characters at novel’s end. And I think he waits too long to reveal a crucial characteristic of that character. But that is, relatively speaking, a minor flaw in a novel that should appeal to all but the most diehard disciples of realism in their historical fiction. Simmons blending of horror and history works, his jumping back and forth in time never confusing.

 

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

Black Hills

It was time for one of my visits to family in the Black Hills of South Dakota, so I decided to pull Dan Simmons’ Black Hills off the shelf.

I bought it a couple of years in a Hill City gallery. (You may know Hill City as the site of the Black Hills Institute of Geology which was at the center of a custody battle over a T. Rex skeleton.) I’ve been impressed enough by the few Dan Simmons works I’ve read — Song of Kali, Lovedeath, Carrion Comfort, and The Terror — to decide, eventually, to read the rest.

Review: Black Hills by Dan Simmons, 2011.

Like Frederik Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, this is a thriller whose plot is bounded by the historical record. In the Forsyth novel, we know the Jackal’s plot is not going to succeed. Charles de Gaulle is not going to be assassinated. And here we know that our hero, Paha Sapa (“Black Hills” in Lakota) is not going to destroy Mount Rushmore.

0316006998.01._SX140_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_This is not an alternate history. It is not a secret history in the style of Tim Powers with secret groups and motives of historical characters not those on record.

It is the sort of historical novel in which our hero careens through some iconic and important historic events or hears about them secondhand: the Battles of the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Continue reading “Black Hills”