Gift From the Stars

Last summer, while I was waiting to get my hands on James Gunn’s latest novel, Transformation, I decided to fill in one of my few gaps in reading his fiction, so I took this one off the shelf.

It turns out it has some unexpected similarities to Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy and interesting on its own.

Review: Gift From the Stars, James Gunn, 2005.Gift from the Stars

As explained in Gunn’s preface as well as the introduction by Gregory Benford, this novel is part of a feedback loop with SETI research as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan was a great admirer of Gunn’s The Listeners, a set of novelletes turned into a novel which depicts the decades long quest for a signal from an alien intelligence and the effects of receiving one on humanity. Gunn took his ideas from SETI researcher Frank Drake as well as Sagan, and Benford says Gunn’s novel, in turn, influenced the paradigms of SETI efforts.

Sagan’s Contact was a response to Gunn’s novel, and Gunn started this novel, another one of his characteristic fix-ups of several shorter works, in response to the movie adaptation of Sagan’s novel. Specifically, Gunn didn’t find the end alien message or its purpose credible.

The result is an upping of scale from section to section. Benford says it puts him in mind of A. E. van Vogt’s famous method of writing 800 word scenes and then introducing a new wrinkle into the narrative. While that led, according to Benford, “gathering incoherence” in van Vogt, it leads to “expanding vistas” in this novel. Continue reading “Gift From the Stars”

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The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Seven: We Are for the Dark, 1987-90

I’ve never entertained the idea review all the works of Robert Silverberg. That would be a colossal undertaking given his volume of work even in science fiction.

But I do seem to have reviewed a lot of Silverberg’s short fiction.

And I read some more this past summer with more in the pipeline to review.

Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: We Are for the Dark, 1987-1990, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2012.We Are for the Dark

It’s a low res scan because I’ve looked at many of the ten works here before and don’t have much to add on re-reading.

Three of the pieces are novellas.

This time around “In Another Country”, Silverberg’s variation on the themes of C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”, reminded me just how many stories of his play with the motif of rich time traveling tourists (and, here, definitely white) from the far future visiting the past: “Sailing to Byzantium”, Up the Line, “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve”, and “When We Went to See the End of the World”. Granted, “Sailing to Byzantium” has super sophisticated reconstructions of the past, but it feels like time travel. “When We Went to See the End of the World” inverts the theme with near future time travelers.

Silverberg’s introductory notes for the story reveal his admiration of Moore. As to the story itself, this time I noticed Thimiroi, alone of the time travelers, finding beauty in the flat, discordant, unplanned beauty of the unnamed city of the late 20th century. To him, it’s the energy of a people who have survived the brutal horrors of that time. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Seven: We Are for the Dark, 1987-90”

Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

My concluding entry in a series of books touched on by the Wells works I’ve covered. This book is mentioned in Wells’ Star-Begotten.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the novel justice.

Another perspectives are provided by From Couch to Moon.

Raw Feed (1996): Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, Olaf Stapledon, 1930.Last and First Men

Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf motifs as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas, but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’. [Certainly, I would put Stapedon in the top five most influential science fiction writers.]

Wells, in The Time Machine and, to a lesser extent, “A Story of the Days to Come“, shows us humans evolved physically and socially. However, Wells does not dwell at length on the various stages of evolution. He contents himself with showing some final end stage like the Morlocks and Eloi and giving a brief explanation as to how they evolve. Continue reading “Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Another review connected to the recent H. G. Wells series.

Raw Feed (1996): War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. Kevin J. Anderson, 1996.Global Dispatches

“Foreword”, Kevin J. Anderson — An ill-conceived and badly executed conceit for this anthology: that all the stories represent a unified, expanded view of the Martian novel depicted in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. Anderson would have been better off presenting each story as a particular riff on Wells’ story, not part of a unified suite on Wells’ story.

The Roosevelt Dispatches”, Mike Resnick — Not one of Resnick’s better alternate histories involving Teddy Roosevelt. Essentially, this is about Roosevelt discovering a Martian scout and expressing optimism about the innate American ability to resist Martian invasion.

Canals in the Sand”, Kevin J. Anderson — This story features Percival Lowell (the spiritual godfather, in a sense, of Wells’ Martians and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom) and draws most of its strength by using the historical Lowell – a haughty, Boston Brahmin who spent most of his life as a professional diplomat to Japan and Korea amongst other places – rather than the current conception of him as a crazed astronomer drawing maps of a dying Mars canals. Haughty, rich, strong-willed Lowell spends a fortune constructing an excavation in the Sahara so the (he presumes) peaceable Martians will meet him there thus making him man’s ambassador to them. The Martians do come. Anderson doesn’t explicitly tell us what happens to Lowell when the Martians come, but, having read Wells, we can guess.

Foreign Devils”, Walter Jon Williams — An intriguing, well-done story in which the puppet Emperor (he is under the control of the military faction of “Iron Hats”) and Dowager Empress use the Martian invasion to free themselves from the Iron Hats, the Boxers (the story is set during the Boxer rebellion), and China from foreign influence. The Emperor will use his new power to modernize the hide-bound Chinese state. Continue reading “War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches”

Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF”

Year’s Best SF 2

The alternate history series continues with some qualifying stories buried in this review.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 2, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1997.years-best-sf-2

After a Lean Winter”, Dave Wolverton — This is the second time I’ve read this story, the first being in its original appearance in the War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. by Kevin Anderson. I still liked its story of Jack London, during the Martian invasion depicted in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, hiding out in the Arctic and watching a bloodmatch between dogs and a captured Martian. This time, though, (after reading Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth”, seemingly inspired by London’s The Sea Wolf), I was reminded that this is not only a clever use of London in the context of the central idea of alien invasion but also a further reworking of his theme of blood struggle in life and evolution.

In the Upper Room“, Terry Bisson — I originally read this story in its first publication in Playboy. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it the second time around. It was not interesting. It wasn’t an insightful story about lingerie fetish or any other type of sexual fetish. It wasn’t erotic. It wasn’t satirical — at least not in any way that mattered.

Thinkertoy“, John Brunner — It was a nice surprise to see one of John Brunner’s last stories here. It was written for the Jack Williamson tribute anthology The Williamson Effect. According to his introductory notes, Hartwell says Brunner died before he could write the afterword for the story, but Hartwell speculates that it was inspired by Williamson’s “Jamboree”, a story I have not read. That may be true, but I also was reminded of Williamson’s classic “With Folded Hands” since, like that story, we have a man coming across a vendor of wonderful robotic merchandise, robots which eventually turn out to be very sinister. Here a widower buys the remarkable Tinkertoys which are clever, highly adaptable robots which can (rather like Legos) be assembled into several different shapes and do all sorts of wonderful things: answer the phone in several, customizable voices with Eliza-like abilities to keep the conversation going, integrate various household electronics, serve as worthy opponents in various games, and household inventory control. His withdrawn son, traumatized by the death of his mother in an auto accident, takes a real shine to the toys and programs them for all sorts of things, helped by his older sister. The protagonist finds out that the chips used in the Thinkertoys were originally designed as a Cold War weapon. They were to be dropped behind enemy lines to conduct various acts of subtle industrial sabotage: jam electronics, loosen valves, start fires, and mess up bearings. The children eventually use the toys to try and kill their father (The cold, impatient, malicious intelligence of the children reminded me of those in Brunner’s Children of the Thunder.). As to why, they explain, simply, “He was driving.”, referring to the auto accident that killed their mother. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 2”

Year’s Best SF 4

The alternate history series continues though there are only two stories in this book that fits that description.

Hartwell’s series is the only one I followed fairly consistently apart from Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Best SF series which was started me reading science fiction regularly.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 4, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1999.years-best-sf-4

Market Report”, Alexander Jablokov — I like Jablokov, but I didn’t think this story was good enough to be included in this anthology (of course, I didn’t read all the sf short fiction published in 1998). Still, on skimming the story again after reading it, I appreciated it more. It has a wry humor about it with its portrayal of retired suburbanites hanging out in a planned community which they’re planning to restock with Pleistocene flora and fauna and the women have primitive rites in its jungles, and the narrator’s parents, members of that community, try to comprehend his job as a spotter of self-defined groups that need to be marketed to. At first glance, the story doesn’t seem to be about much apart from its near-future extrapolation of sociological-based marketing and Pleistocene hobbyists. But, with its plot of a man finding a home amongst parents he’s spent a lifetime trying to understand, to “catch” the meaning of their conversation and the same narrator getting over a failed marriage, I suspect Jablokov was trying to do a sf imitation of John Cheever or John Irving, writers, I believe, Jablokov has expressed an admiration for. However, not being sf writers, my exposure to them has been minimum.

A Dance to Strange Musics”, Gregory Benford — This is a brilliant, austere, unsentimental, humbling, Stapledonian, classic sf tale. Its classicism is that it’s pure hard sf, a detailed working out of a surprising ecosystem in our galactic backyard — the Alpha Centauri star system — and little emphasis on individual characters (though Benford does put in some wry bits about how scientists relate to one another). The plot progresses from one hard sf wonder to another. A vast, elevated lake is found on a planet in the star system. It seems to be formed in the remnants of a crater and literally floats kilometers above the surface, the power to do so coming from the piezoelectric forces generated by tidal stresses from the three suns in the system. The planetary system is covered by tile-like creatures who constantly move about, dancing to “strange music”. Eventually, it’s speculated that their movements (they, and the whole ecology of the planet, feed off electrical energy rather than chemical energy) represent some giant, planetary computer at work. A manned probe into the atmosphere finds, before the pilot dies, surprising levels of electrical power and a sort of memory in the system. The giant, floating lake turns out to be a giant laser system which periodically sends messages to other star systems. More die exploring the planet, learning that the tiles feed on electricity and exchange, in sophisticated protocols, data with each other, and that planet fires off messages into space not intended for man. The first expedition descends to the planet but not before they realize that the lifeforms on the planet are engineered, that the intelligent life there has either left for space or engineered themselves into the tiles. Another expedition is sent from an Earth where people live in the “disposable realities” of computer created environments. They meet odd, disconcerting facsimiles of the first expedition. The facsimiles are a disturbing group mind with facial expressions that flicker at precise intervals and who each speak separate words in their sentences while inviting man to join their Being Suite, their bodies precisely spaced in a hexagon. The humans are appalled by what they see and, out of fear, do not go to the surface. They don’t know if the first expedition was seduced or raped into becoming part of the Being Suite. The second to last paragraph has a classic passage about the unknowability of the universe, its forever closed community of sentience: “It is one thing to speak of embracing the new, the fresh, the strange. It is another to feel that one is an insect, crawling across a page of the Encyclopedia Britannica, knowing only that something vast is passing by beneath, all without your sensing more than a yawning vacancy. Worse, the lack was clearly in oneself, and was irredeemable.” A classic sf statement, a classic sf tale. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 4”