Oaths and Miracles

The day is nearing when I’ll have a bunch of posts up. Until then, inspired by this news story about bioengineered plagues, I thought I’d post this . . .

Raw Feed (1997): Oaths and Miracles, Nancy Kress, 1996.Oaths and Miracles

In marketing (the spine says “thriller”) and style this is more of a contemporary suspense novel than sf. However, Kress once again takes her specialty – the consequences of genetic engineering – and makes a fast-reading, well-written (none of her usual problems with weak endings) novel dealing with a chillingly plausible bit of speculation – engineered cold viruses programmed to induce heart attacks in a specific individual.

Kress ends her novel with three news stories each illustrating a point about genetic technology.

The mobsters trying to develop the ultimate assassination weapon are indicted. However, the secret appears uncontained since the President of Mexico dies of a mysterious heart attack. The same knowledge also seems to promise a cure for cancer – neatly illustrating the double-headed nature of all technology.

This book is compelling though the usual elements of chase and on-stage violence are few (the assault on the Cadoc commune and the attempts on Judy Kozinski’s life), and Kress relies a bit too much on coincidence in having Kozinski duck her head unknowingly at a convenient time to avoid being shot. Continue reading “Oaths and Miracles”

Star-Begotten

This will be the end of my H. G. Wells series.

Back in 1996, I knew there were a few Wells fantasy and science fiction works I missed. I didn’t bother to read The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution. However, since I’ve seen the film based on it several times, Things to Come with a screenplay by Wells, I didn’t see the need to read it. (I’m quite fond of Raymond Massey thundering to the citizens of Well’s future city “Time enough to rest in the grave” after they bitch about their version of future shock.)

However, the “H. G. Wells” entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia shows  I missed several other titles — though I’m sure they are minor works. Either I wasn’t paying attention 20 years ago or just not that ambitious.

Yet another reading project to get back to.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at some Wells’ related novels, and yes, I am working on reviews of books actually published in 2017.

Raw Feed (1996): Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasia, H. G. Wells, 1937.Star Begotten

This 1937 novel by Wells evoked some of the same responses in me that his In the Days of the Comet did.

First, I liked Wells’ satire against everything from women’s fashions to politics and the psychology of his characters – particularly protagonist Joseph Davis, who vehemently writes propagandistic works of history to defend a sociopolitical order he has doubts about; Harold Rigamey, an “ultra-heretic” (I wonder if Wells had Charles Fort in mind) who writes wildly speculative essays throwing pseudo-science and science together; [I don’t wonder anymore.] Lord Thunderclap, a paranoid, conspiracy-mongering newspaper tycoon.

I liked several bits.

The public’s inability, due to the rapid rate of change even at the time of this novel’s writing, to give any but the most trivial and mundane reaction to even remarkable news (here the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence manipulating humans genetically) is mentioned. Wells sees Americans as too ready, in fits of anti-rational, anti-intellectual, misplaced egalitarianism, to denounce any new ideas and recognize no intellectual authorities over the common man and belittle ideas. Continue reading “Star-Begotten”

28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells

The H. G. Wells series continues with a look at his short works.

Yes, there are only 25 stories reviewed. I omitted “The Star” which I looked at recently and I’ve also covered Men Like Gods already, and the novel Star-Begotten I’ll be doing a future posting on.

Raw Feed (1996): 28 Science Fiction Stories of H. G. Wells, ed. Groff Conklin, 1952.28 Stories

The Empire of the Ants” — A creepy, frightening story about a race of large, intelligent, tool using ants that began to carve their own empire out of the Amazon jungle. As Wells points out, evolutionary forces threw up an intelligent, tool-using species in us so why not another species even better suited for survival, one that will supplant us? This is another example of Wells’ attacking human (particularly Victorian and Edwardian) smugness and also another example of the perils and wonders inherent in nature. This is another story that fits Orwell’s remark about Wells’ seeing a world subject to change instantly.

The Land Ironclads” — This story’s main claim to fame is its prediction of tanks being invented for military purposes. Wells also has a fairly accurate depiction of future trench warfare in WWI, perhaps based on his readings of the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War (though I have no basis for that observation). However, Wells tanks are used as a moving platform for rifleman and not artillery, and they don’t use a caterpillar tread but sort of mechanical feet. However, what this story is mainly about is Wells’ point that a seemingly effete civilization of “devitalised townsmen” is capable of beating a force from a rustic culture due to superior science. The “smart degenerates” defeat the “open-country men”.

The Country of the Blind” — This is Wells’ classic allegory about people with superior, more complete knowledge being denounced as insane (and also being handicapped in certain situations). On this second reading, the ending seems ambiguous. Does Nunez live or die at story’s end?

The Stolen Bacillus” — This story reminds me of Wells’ “The New Accelerator” – a basically humorous tale about some invention that does not ignore the serious implications of it but just refers to them in passing. Here the science is bacteriology, and the plot involves a humorous chase to recover a stolen culture – which turns kittens blue. However, there is a decidedly serious undertone here since the theft is by an anarchist determined to gain fame and spread death, and the culture he thinks he’s stolen is Asiatic cholera. Biological-terrorism is certainly not a science fiction idea that has lost interest or plausibility since Wells’ wrote the story. If anything, it has gained both.

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” — Another typical Wellsian tale – though humorous – of a wonder of nature threatening man. Here a rather dull orchid grower runs across a blood sucking orchid.

In the Avu Observatory” — Another Wellsian tale of people discovering new threats in nature. Here a man in an observatory in Borneo is attacked by a mysterious creature.

A Story of the Stone Age” — I’m not a fan of prehistoric tales, and this seemed, at least for a Wells story, rather pointless unless it was intended to simply show the brutality – and incipient tenderness – that existed in stone age man. It also ends on ironical, fairy-tale like note of hero Ugh-lomi eventually being killed and cannibalized “in the fullness of time”.

Aepyornis Island” — The adventures of a man and the extinct bird he finds (unhatched), befriends, and lives with after being shipwrecked on an uninhabited atoll. Eventually, he has to kill the bird after it attacks him. (It’s about 14 feet in height.) The story is told in a humorous tone and seems to have little point (not that that’s bad, but Wells usually has a point) beyond saying that wild animals have violent instincts which can not be suppressed.

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” — This story operates in one of fantasy/science fiction’s older traditions (I don’t know how old): an adventure in alien dimensions usually rationalized by some mathematical talk of bent space and the Fourth Dimension. [The “Parallel Worlds” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says it’s one of the earliest tales where a character experiences alternate perceptions of the real world.] Here protagonist Davidson’s eyes are speculated to have entered the “Fourth Dimension” via the influence of a jolt of lightning on an electromagnet. Davidson goes blind in the usual sense of being able to see his surroundings, but he does visually see the landscape of a South Seas island. As he moves about – up, down, side to side – his vision shifts a corresponding amount on the island. Thus his vision sometimes goes underwater or into the blackness of solid ground. Eventually, normal vision returns. This is a neat, entertaining version of the Fourth Dimension tale.

The Plattner Story” — This story is closely related thematically to Wells’ “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”. Both feature displacement into the Fourth Dimension. Here a school teacher enters the Fourth Dimension via a chemical explosion in the lab. When he emerges, the external and internal features of his body have reversed symmetry, e.g. his heart goes from the left to right and his hands switch places. His adventures in the Fourth dimension have a creepy, vaguely proto-Lovecraftian feel to them. The “Other World” has dim, buildings that resemble sepulchers. It is inhabited by “Watchers of the Living”, creatures of human-like heads and “tadpole-like” bodies. They keenly watch the bright reflections of our world and protagonist Plattner speculates they are the dead who watch the consequences of their influence in the living. (A neat idea.)

The Argonauts of the Air” — A somewhat humorous story of the first powered, heavier-than-air flight, and its tragic consequences. I assume it was written before the Wright brothers made their historic flight. [The story was published in 1895.]

The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” — A competently told tale of body switching (involuntary) by an old philosopher hoping to avoid death. (The story ends on a farcical note with the young victim committing suicide, and the philosopher dying in a traffic accident.) There is enough talk of mathematical symbols and psychology to probably provide a science fictional rationale.

In the Abyss” — An effective story about the discovery of an intelligent race on the deep sea floor. (In retrospect, Wells’ bathyscaphe seems needlessly complicated with its clockwork and weights suspended by cords.) Wells provides a wonderful image of cities built with the wreckage of ships and the bones and skulls of their crew. To them, humans are gods that occasionally fall from above bringing useful artifacts, and protagonist Elstead is particularly revered for his brilliantly lit, alive presence and bright ascent.

Under the Knife” — The hallucinations of a man being operated on. At first, it seems like a post-life experience (proving the notion is an old one) but then is revealed to be just a hallucination. This story seems to have little point other than to show the vast scales of time and space in the universe.

The Sea Raiders” — Story of a group of newly-discovered octopi preying on humans.

The Crystal Egg” — Story of a mysterious crystal egg that is sort of a television transceiver to a world of intelligent, bird-like aliens on Mars. The story gets some humor from storekeeper Mr. Care being berated by his wife. Did this view of a small business owning family come from Wells’ youth?

The Man Who Could Work Miracles” — A fantasy of man who suddenly finds he can work miracles but gives the talent up when his miracles have disastrous, unintended consequences. This is a humorous story in which Wells tells the reader that he was “killed in a violent and unprecedented manner” by one of Mr. Fotheringay’s miracles.

Filmer” — This is another of Wells’ tales dealing with heavier than air flight (not strictly true since Wells postulates a hybrid lighter and heavier than air vehicle in which the volume – and, therefore, the density – of the air bags can be changed for control purposes like a fish ascends and descends using an air bag) and was written, I assume, before the Wright flight of 1903. [The publication date was 1901.] This is actually a character study in a shy, nervous scientist successfully obsessed with developing powered flight. (Wells interestingly has the principle tested on a radio controlled model first.) It is assumed by the public he will pilot the first powered flight. He is terrified to but wants to please his girlfriend. Ultimately, he commits suicide as a way out of the dilemma. Perhaps Wells was making a comment on the fragile personalities often behind great scientific discoveries and inventions.

A Story of the Days to Come” — This is a sequel of sorts to Wells’ “A Story of the Stone Age” (Stone age man Uyu is mentioned in both) and is an impressive story that reminded me of several other sf works. Critics have rightly noted (I don’t know the publication date of this story) [it’s 1899 so after 1895’s The Time Machine] that this story of the travails of a couple’s courtship and marriage depicts a polarized society reminiscent of the origins of the Eloi-Morlock split in Wells’ The Time Machine. Poor workers live in serfdom to the Labour Company and inhabit the gloomy lower levels of a vast city while rich people inhabit the sunny heights. This depiction of polarized class societies has made a modern comeback in Nancy Kress’ Beggar series and George Turner’s Drowning Towers and The Destiny Makers. When Mwnes and Denton go to the city’s lower levels, I was reminded of the former Turner novel. When the couple tries to live in the country and discovers they are not suited for a primitive rural life, I was reminded of the couple fleeing their city in the novel Logan’s Run. The public ways lined with human and electric billboards and mirrors reminded me of some cyberpunk visions of media saturation. Each section opens with some sociological predictions of the future in (I assume) the vein of Well’s non-fiction Anticipations. Wells’ predictions at the beginning of the century for increased urbanization made possible by new transportation technology and necessary for the industry proved correct. I liked the brief bit showing that medical men hope to build a utopia (shades of Wells’ later preoccupation). I also liked the cynical prediction of commercial religions with their banal tenets and easy penance.

The Magic Shop” — Gentle fantasy about a magic shop that sells real magic.

The Valley of the Spiders” — Another of Wells’ tales about strange lifeforms – here large spiders that ride the wind via bundles of their webs. There is an element of class struggle and aristocratic exploitation in the conflict between the party of three pursuers beset by the spiders.

The Truth About Pyecraft” — A fantasy about an obese man’s attempt to lose weight. He’s all too successful at losing weight but not his ugly volume. Wells does a good job evoking the character of a club bore in the obese man.

The New Accelerator” — As James Gunn notes in his critique [in his The Road to Science #2: From Wells to Heinlein] of this story, this is a light-hearted use of a new technology – a drug that speeds up the metabolism greatly. Yet Wells, in the conversation between the narrator and the inventor of the New Accelerator, considers in passing some of the drug’s many uses for good and ill. Wells expresses his typical attitude that change, however much feared or unpredictable, will happen when his narrator, at story’s end, says the drug will be sold in a few months “ … and, as for the consequences – we shall see.”

The Stolen Body” — A tale of astral projection and possession. As in his “The Plattner Story”, Wells’ presents an alternate dimension full of mysterious inhabitants, malignant entities waiting to snatch the bodies vacated by astral travelers. I liked the idea that these entities are “the rational souls of men … lost in madness … “

A Dream of Armageddon” — I suspect, given the description and nomenclature used for “flying machines”, that this story was written prior to 1903. [It was published in 1901.] It also features a common feature of Wells’ early fantasy and sf story – transport mentally to another dimension. Here we are clearly to believe that the dreamer actually lives vicariously in the future. Wells’ theme of a man who may very well doom civilization in order to live with his lover fits in well with his call for utopian reforms in later years. Wells seems to think his future diplomat should lead the selfless life of the samurai of Wells’ A Modern Utopia. This point is further driven home by having the diplomat and his lover die in the resulting war.

 

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

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

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 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”

Alternate Kennedys

No, I am not doing a tie in to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

This will be a set up for a future posting.

Raw Feed (1992): Alternate Kennedys, ed. Mike Resnick, 1992.alternate-kennedys-2

“Introduction”, Mike Resnick — Goes into the myth of the Kennedys and some interesting facts about them: the Kennedy daughters, JFK’s son who died, Bobby Kennedy’s wiretappings, Joe Kennedy Sr’s disgrace as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the valid contention that the Kennedys were the last politicians (except Ted Kennedy — and even he tries) to control the press.

A Fleeting Wisp of Glory”, Laura Resnick — An amusing and grim post-holocaust fable where the Kennedy Camelot and the Arthurian Camelot are being strangely mingled into a legend that explains the poor state of a post-atomic war future yet gives hope to the survivors by reminding them the world wasn’t always so bad.

In the Stone House”, Barry N. Malzberg — Generally I haven’t liked Malzberg’s stories. But he’s done some good work with the alternate president idea. His “Kingfish” in Mike Resnick’s Alternate Presidents was good and this story is too. I don’t know if Malzberg tapped into some conspiracy theories which have the Kennedy family behind the assassination of JFK (I’ve just seen such publications sold but have never read them), but I liked the bizarre notion of ex-president Joe Kennedy, Sr gunning for his president brother JFK. One can argue with the plausibility of an ex-President with Secret Service protection being able to plan the assassination of another president, but the story seems very realistic from a psychological standpoint. I don’t know how closely Joe Kennedy, Sr.’s actions, attitudes, and motives match the same man in our history, but he seemed a plausible mixture of man obsessed with slights to his family and Irish heritage, a man driven to make his sons presidents, and a domineering, inconsiderate, bullying father. Joe Kennedy, Jr. and his relationship to his father seemed quite believable. Junior goes along with all his father’s requests. He sometimes resents his father’s demands but always complies, seldom rebels. JFK is the rebel, the man who breaks free of his father’s psychological grip to destroy the latter’s plan. And, as Junior realizes, there is ambiguity in his assassination of JFK. It may be to please his father, punish JFK’s betrayal. Or it may be to punish his father by killing his president son. There is something to remark on in this story, common to a lot of alternate history story. Authors seem to feel it necessary (perhaps as an inside joke, perhaps just to provide a reference for the reader) to put alternate historical events in places famous in our time. For example, why have Joe Jr kill JFK in Dallas at the Texas Book Depository? Is it really credible to believe that events would have worked out so neatly in another world, that JFK wouldn’t have been a better target (or Joe Jr. had a better opportunity) somewhere else? I think the obvious answer is no, but the ploy is used in alternate history stories for historical reference and irony and reader identification.

The Kennedy Enterprise”, David Gerrold — A funny story of JFK and Bobby Kennedy in Hollywood and an alternate history of Star Trek or, rather Star Track and those associated with it. We also get alternate versions of some famous movies. Some of the better bits: Harlan Ellison as a laidback, compliant (hardly a word associated with Ellison) writer for Star Track; Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner fired from Star Track and replaced by JFK (and other changes are made to the show which make it like Star Trek: The Next Generation; JFK as a bad actor (who never meets Marilyn Monroe). I also liked the irritable, conversational style of this piece. Continue reading “Alternate Kennedys”

What Might Have Been, Vol. 3

The Raw Feeds continue on this anthology series.

Raw Feed (1991): What Might Have Been, Volume 3: Alternate Wars, eds. Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg, 1991.Alternate Wars

And Wild for to Hold”, Nancy Kress — This is not a kind story to Anne Boleyn, its focus. Usually Anne Bolyn is portrayed as a sympathetic woman who is interested in not only maintaining her station and virtue but ambitious, willing to rift Henry VIII away from the Catholic Church and, in the future, cause another secular/temporal rift between the Church of the Holy Hostage and the Time Research Institute. Kress does a nice job setting up another historical analog with Mary Lambert’s infatuation with Michael Culhane and Culhane’s infatuation with Boleyn mirroring Henry’s love of Boleyn. She is determined to live her life and have the drama of her averted death and she callously does not care who gets hurt in either of her time streams. Her supporters in England may be appreciated, but she is willing for them to die like her for the sake of drama and stubbornness. As the constable in the Tower of London says, “This lady hath much joy in death.” This story does something not done too often in the time travel and alternate history sub-genres. It gives us the vision of a person contemplating her own alternate history and being made responsible for deeds she did not — but was definitely going to — commit in another time stream. The weird sensation of seeing the actions and consequences of a life you did not live is well portrayed.

Tundra Moss”, F. M. Busby — In his introduction to this anthology, Benford talks about how the fate of an entire society can depend on a single line of infantry. This is a story built around that theme. I didn’t find it that compelling. Its historical turning point has Franklin Roosevelt getting a heart attack and not making, immediately, his “Day of Infamy” speech. Public sentiment demands immediate vengeance on Japan, and Roosevelt is politically unable to first direct his efforts to defeating Germany. The story centers on a small group of men on the Aleutian island of Amchitka trying to counter Japanese sabotage of the Alaskan Communication System. The ACS is needed to get a secret message from Russia to MacArthur’s forces. They have been waiting for Russian permission to use Russian landing fields for bomber flights to Japan. By this communication and an accident the Japanese are defeated. Then Busby throws in some cheap irony and reveals that Germany has detonated an atomic bomb. I don’t really see how tackling Germany second would have gotten them the A-bomb any sooner. I also found the tech talk about ACS incomprehensible. I did like the image of Dwight D. Eisenhower rearing to go in the second most important theater of the war. Continue reading “What Might Have Been, Vol. 3”

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”

Year’s Best SF 3

I’ve read and liked most of David Hartewell’s Year’s Best SF (which is no longer published) but reviewed few of them.

Here’s one.  A retro review from July 28, 2003 …

Review: Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1998.Year's Best SF 3

The one piece of dross comes from an unexpected source: William Gibson and his story “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City“. It’s a minute, camera-eye examination of a cardboard structure in a Tokyo subway and obviously inspired by J.G. Ballard’s work. I detected no point to the series of descriptions, or, indeed, anything of a fantastical or science fictional nature.

Nancy Kress’ “Always True to Thee, in My Fashion” gives us a witty satire with a world where the seasonal variations of fashion cover not only clothes but also your pharmaceutically modulated attitudes.. The caged dinosaur of Gene Wolfe’s “Petting Zoo” represents not only the lost childhood of the story’s protagonist but a vitality lost from the race of man. Tom Cool gives us “Universal Emulators” with its future of economic hypercompetition that has created a black market for those who impersonate, in every way, the few employed professionals. In effect, the emulators grant them an extra set of hands. Its plot and characters would have done Roger Zelazny proud.

The voice of past science fiction writers echoes through many of the anthology’s best stories. Jack London’s The Sea Wolf provides the inspiration for Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth“. Its heroine realizes, despite whatever dangers she overcomes guiding posthumans through the Pennsylvania’s jungles, she will never bootstrap herself into being their equal. H.G. Wells looms over Robert Silverberg’s “Beauty in the Night“. Its child hero undertakes the first successful assassination of the brutal aliens that have occupied Earth, but his reasons have more to do with his oppressive father rather than the aliens’ behavior. John C. Wright’s “Guest Law” is a welcome return to the flashy decadence of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction. Its hero, a slave-engineer, watches in disgust as his aristocratic overlords corrupt the customary requirements of hospitality to justify piracy in deep space. Gregory Benford’s “The Voice” responds to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here the convenience of implanted intelligent agents, hooked up to a computer network, led to literacy fading, and not a repressive regime of firemen. Benford agrees with Bradbury about literacy’s value but also undercuts him on the supremacy of writing as a means of communication. Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 3”