Georgia on My Mind and Other Places

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Georgia on My Mind and Other Places, ed. Charles Sheffield, 1995.GRGNMYMNDN1996

Introduction” — Short, no nonsense, no-frill introduction for a collection of stories ranging from “silly to personal and serious.”

The Feynman Solution” — This is a fantasy. The mechanism of time travel is never rationalized beyond the point of artist Colin Trantham saying he’s a sort of positron which physicist Richard Feynman described as an electron traveling back in time. The story involves Colin, suffering from a brain tumor (the major scientific interest of the story is the descriptions of cancer therapies, their successes, methods of operation, and failings) and seeing visions of increasingly ancient and mostly extinct life which he draws with his usual precision. The relationship between Colin and his paleontologist sister Julia and his oncologist James Wollaston (eventually Julia’s lover) was well handled. The Tranthams, like Bey Wolf in Sheffield’s Proteus novels, love to quote all kinds of things from Samuel Johnson to movies. I suspect Sheffield does this too.

The Bee’s Kiss” — Like Sheffield’s “C-Change”, this story involves aliens who are concealing things. A very skilled voyeur is forced by a tyrant (after the voyeur is caught spying on him) to spy on some enigmatic aliens, the Sigil. It turns out the aliens have become alarmed after learning humans use sexual reproduction. The Sigil are asexual and use a parasitic means to reproduce like Earth’s sphinx wasp. This story has good psychological insight into a voyeur. Continue reading “Georgia on My Mind and Other Places”

Steampunk Trails 1

I’ll be doing an actual review of the Steampunk Trails 2 in the future, so I thought I might as well put up this Retro Review.

From 2014 …

Retro Review: Steampunk Trails 1, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2013.515em6axcVL

“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.

“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.

Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading “Steampunk Trails 1”

Oath of Fealty

The Jerry Pournelle series concludes with one of my favorite Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and, I think a book of some political prescience.

The desire to retreat from crime and social chaos is still with us: gated communities and billionaires buying bolt holes in New Zealand, and survivalist compounds in South Dakota.

And Alphabet’s plans for its workers sounds like a return to feudalism which, of course, is what this book is about.

This is the only work of Niven’s or Pournelle’s to appear in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985).

Pringle exhibits a bit of snark in his capsule review of the novel when he says

 . . . memories of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise intrude; but that is a novel which Niven and Pournelle are unlikely to have read.

I suspect that’s true of Pournelle, but Niven’s essay, “The Words in Science Fiction“, hints at fairly broad tastes in the genre.

This was the next novel Niven and Pournelle started after The Mote in God’s Eye, but it was put aside for other novels.

For the 2008 edition, they wrote an introduction, but I have not read it.

If you go to Pournelle’s website and patiently read the search results for “Oath of Fealty”, you’ll find many references to people still thinking about an urban arcology as a shelter in turbulent times.

Raw Feed (1998): Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1981.Oath of Fealty

This book was certainly shorter and better than the last Niven and Pournelle collaboration I read, Footfall.

It also stands as the most explicit endorsement of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of Pournelle’s solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and a type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from medieval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield, Higher Education.

The title derives from the medieval feudal oath between vassal and lord, and the novel’s plot of Todos Santos fighting for legal and economic independence from LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords. [Yes, I’m aware that some medievalists argue that feudalism never existed. I just don’t accept the argument.]

That independence is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles’ reliance on Todos Santos (an emerging economic and social unit like the medieval towns) economically is used as leverage against the city. Continue reading “Oath of Fealty”

Fallen Angels

The Jerry Pournelle series continues.

I’ve been to a few science fiction and “dark fantasy” conventions since writing this and am a bit more kindly disposed to fans now. However, my earlier feelings did color my feelings about this novel.

Raw Feed (1991): Fallen Angels, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn, 1991.Fallen Angels

This novel was a big disappointment.

All these authors are capable of good work and Niven and Pournelle together have done some great stuff.  It’s not that I think these authors can’t work together; it’s that I don’t like what they set out to do — and probably succeeded in doing.

This book is dedicated to “Science Fiction Fandom” and that is the main focus of the book. I think that focus will get this book at least nominated for an award. I’m not particularly fond of sf Fans (with a large F as opposed to people who just like the stuff).  Die-hard enthusiasts of any streak  make me nervous. And I’ve found many sf fans I’ve met obnoxious and obsessed with showing off their self-perceived cleverness. So, I’m not at all comfortable with the book’s focus.

And this book panders to fandom’s lofty notions of itself. To be sure, fans are shown as bickering, silly, obnoxious but ultimately effectual. Continue reading “Fallen Angels”

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”

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”

Demolishing “Show Not Tell” and “What Is Science Fiction For?”

Two worthwhile additions to the Coode Street Podcast recently. They even manage to almost not mention any awards.

Episode 198 features science fiction critic and encyclopedist John Clute.

I could do without him evoking Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance”. (What a convenient rhetorical device, completely unfalsifiable. You only think you’re free when really, you know, the Man has you all tied up.)

And science fiction itself has the start of an attack on idea of the world’s elite being engaged in a monolithic conspiracy in Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind.

But Clute is interesting on how he thinks science fiction and other fantastic literature of dreams aid us, unlike mimetic literature, as we navigate the bewildering modern world.

I also realized that Clute isn’t being pretentious in the sometimes opaque vocabulary that he uses in reviews. (I confess I find Clute more useful in encyclopedia entries than reviews. They force him to be concise and trim the metaphors.) He really does, off the cuff, speak precisely. Sometimes the terms he coins are clunky. Other times they are useful. In this talk, I like his casual throwaway term “starter dystopia”. (I have no idea if it was unique to him.)

Episode 200 was recorded at the latest World Science Fiction Convention and has guest appearances by Kim Stanley Robinson, Jo Walton, and Robert Silverberg.

It’s always good to hear one of Silverberg’s appearances. I’m an admirer of him and, to a lesser extent, Kim Stanley Robinson despite being, I suspect, in opposition to almost every one of Robinson’s political notions. (And, no, I have not consumed the entire works of either one.)

Walton I’ve never read though I have heard her on the podcast before. She’s an interesting critic and reviewer even if I don’t always agree with her assessments of books I know. And I’m pretty suspicious of her claims that award nominations are a fairly reliable guide to quality and significance. Still, I’d like to see her Tor columns on the subject collected for a book.

Walton does confirm, from her own experience, my own snobbery for science fiction over fantasy. She says that, for her, fantasy is way easier to invent than science fiction set in the future.

Best of all, the three demolish that hoary critical notion, that admonition to writers to “show not tell”.

Finally, I feel ashamed, again, that I haven’t quite read all of Olaf Stapledon’s science fiction. I still have not read Star Maker and Nebula Maker. I do consider him one of the five greatest science fiction writers of all time.

Oh, H. G …

No, if human beings were cleverer. It would be a good thing to invent a Five-Year Plan for the reconstruction of the human brain, which obviously lacks many things needed for a perfect social order.[Laughter]

 

That would be one H. G. Wells chatting with one Joe the Georgian (to reference an Al Stewart song) in 1934. You can see the whole interview here.

Nothing really shocking here.  Wells was a Fabian socialism so you’d expect him to argue with the Man of Steel about the merits of violent revolution. And Wells the political thinker was not unknown to me. I’ve talked a bit about the politics of Wells in his fiction, particularly in his When the Sleeper Awakes and, much more in his A Modern Utopia. The latter is, as far as utopias go, better than most in holding your interest. However, William Morris, definitely not a Fabian socialist, wrote a more interesting utopia with News from Nowhere.  He was with Uncle Joe on the need for violent revolution.

I think of Wells’ as being a sort of Dr. Moreau. He couldn’t ultimately tame the beasts of his island through laws and surgery. Wells never figured out how to reconstruct human brains to create his utopias either.

Stalin and Wells make reference to the organizing talents of Henry Ford. The matter of Soviet imitation of centralized capitalist systems is briefly covered in Michael Flynn’s Babbage Engine secret history, In the Country of the Blind.

We Soviet people have not a little experience of the technical intelligentsia. After the October Revolution, a certain section of the technical intelligentsia refused to take part in the work of constructing the new society; they opposed this work of construction and sabotaged it.

That’s the most jolting bit in the interview. As Greta Garbo said in Ninotchka, “Fewer but better Russians.”

Of course, the bright world glimpsed in 1934 never really panned out.  There or anytime since then.