Science Fiction Trails 11

I read a fair amount of weird westerns in 2017, and most were from Science Fiction Trails or its editor and publisher David B. Riley.

With every annual issue, Riley’s Science Fiction Trails magazine (at least starting with issue seven when I started reading them) packed an impressive variety into its literary saddlebags. Surprisingly, a lot of its stories didn’t go with the old store-bought plots of time travel and aliens.

Eventually, though, Riley couldn’t find enough contributors and the magazine went on hiatus.

Low Res Scan: Science Fiction Trails 11, ed. David B. Riley, 2014.SF Trails 11

Editor Riley has his usual gang of tried-and-true contributors here and some new hands too.

The work is sound, not really awful and seldom outstanding. But they’re all good enough to push you along the trail even though the destination is sometimes is a bit dry at that end.

Star performance went to Jackson Kuhl’s “Red River”. That’s red as in anarchists and red as in Martians. Kuhl has the Martian invasion, complete with tripods and red weed, of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds turning the trans-Mississippi American West into a war zone. The red weed seeks out moisture everywhere and that includes human bodies when it mutates to a lethal infection. The U.S. Army in airtight, modified Martian tripods wage war on the infestation. But that army needs money, supplies, and men, and the locals start to become real resentful about supplying them. It’s a dark, mosaic piece of different scenes and points of view that carom from killer plague to killer anarchists.

Paradigm Lost” from R. A. Conine seems incomplete. If the subtitle, “Episode 1 of the Chronicles of Red Blade”, is a clue, that’s because it’s probably the first in a series of one about Sans Arc Sioux warrior Red Blade who finds himself whisked away from victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to a world where Indians and whites live at peace – because horrible critters from another dimension, the Dead, have wiped out most people in America and the survivors live in squalid bands. Blade meets the cause of this, and the story ends with him in yet another war in our timeline. Red Blade has, improbably, a degree in mathematics from Oxford though that’s of no relevance to anything in the story. Continue reading


The Empire of Ice

I’m putting it out just ’cause it’s cold outside.

There was, incidentally, a sequel to this novel, Earth Winter. As I recall, I have no notes on it, it wasn’t as good.

Raw Feed (1995): The Empire of Ice, Richard Moran, 1994.Empire of Ice

I used to think that if I didn’t read sf I could make a steady diet of books like this: a suspense novel with near future sf trappings – specifically my old favorite, a new ice age.

However, I didn’t find this novel all that satisfying.

There was the entirely predictable romance between hero Benjamin Franklin Meade and heroine Marjorie Glynn. The banter between these two got awful tedious.

Also, both seemed improbably young (34 and 31 respectively) to head major scientific enterprises (his own geothermal exploration company in Meade’s case and building Biosphere Britannica for Glynn), but, then again, scientists do their best stuff when young.

Also the novel’s end was very predictable with the use of superheated water via geothermal energy used to stop Irish tanks crossing the North Channel. Continue reading

The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond

I saw this book acknowledged in Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind, so, in a moment of rare impulse book buying and reading, I bought it and read it immediately.

Review: The War of the Worlds: From H. G. Wells to Orson Welles, Jeff Wayne, Steven Spielberg & Beyond, Peter J. Beck, 2016.The War of the Worlds

In 1895, H. G. Wells moved to Woking, Surrey. He was almost thirty, a journalist and writer on the make. Plagued by a kidney and liver injured playing football and with lungs that occasionally bled from the foul air of London, he wasn’t sure how much time he had left.

And he had bills to pay and a new wife, his second, to support.

His reputation wasn’t secure. The Time Machine had been critically acclaimed, but The Island of Dr. Moreau was not popular with readers or critics.

When he left Woking after finishing the first version of The War of the Worlds, his reputation was secured, and he became a writer with an international following. Money followed which was a good thing because he would need it for all his many mistresses and illegitimate children. (Wells’ stated cure for writer’s block was sex twice a day and that often was not with his wife.)

What Beck and publisher Bloomsbury Academic present is a literary biography of Wells’ novel and all its multimedia adaptations that followed Continue reading

The U.S.A Trilogy

If you’re a regular reader of science fiction reviews and criticism, you may have heard of the “Dos Passos technique”.

John Brunner was the first to use it in science fiction in 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes them as “modernist.

Other writers followed. Of the top of my head, I can think of Joe Haldeman’s “To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal” and David Brin’s Earth as using it. Some recent works by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I haven’t read yet, have been said to use it.

I’m a fan of the technique and think it quite effective, so, in 1997, I decided to let Dos Passos show me what his technique was.

The John Dos Passos memorial website says

Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”— and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of newsreels, songs, biographies, and autobiography to convey the frenzy of 20th century America’s industrialism and urbanism.

Dos Passos, incidentally, sort of fell out of favor with American literati because he stopped, unlike many of them, being a dupe of communist propaganda.

Dos Passos himself may have disagreed with my wish that more writers take up his style. In a 1918 letter, he said:

“About style—I think that reading people in order to get ‘style’ from them is rather soft-headed. Your style is like the color of your hair or the cut of your pants—half accident, half act of God—to take thought to change or improve it results usually in rank affectation.”

Raw Feed (1997): The U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos, 1930, 1960.USA

I read this trilogy — The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting.

I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy.

The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).

These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place (I was particularly interested in the accounts of labor agitation and Wilson’s Versailles negotiations), it doesn’t work as drama.

Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. (The most memorable was Charley Anderson from Fargo, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a setting of some of the story). All were on the make – at least in The Big Money.

Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal, and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the fictional characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.

I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned. However, the trilogy didn’t work as drama.


While I continue to write up new material, I thought I’d return to an associate of Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter.

Raw Feed (1999): Noir, K. W. Jeter, 1998.Noir

This is the first Jeter I’ve read.

I enjoyed it, but I found it an uneasy and not totally successful amalgam of satire of what some might call “corporate capitalism” — though Jeter doesn’t use the term, horror, and straight sf.

Jeter was a friend of Phillip K. Dick and wrote, in two novels, sequels to Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the movie Blade Runner and this friendship and work shows up here.

There is the characteristic confusion of humans and their simulacrum in the “prowlers” who evidently serve, in Jeter’s future, as risk-free sexual surrogates who gather sexual experiences in the Wedge and download into human minds.

Unlikeable protagonist McNihil (whose name, a play on nihilism, is the first clue to the satirical nature of the narrative) is, like Dick, an opera buff. German abounds, including an explanation as to the derivation of McNihil’s old job title – asp-head (a German pun on ASCAP – whose copyrights McNihil ruthlessly enforces — translated back to English). A sort of Dick-like (in the sense of a largely ignored and prolific author of paperbacks and lover of music) author and idol of McNihil shows up in Turbiner. (Jeter wryly notes that authors were particularly “mean bastards” in regard to copyrights.) Continue reading

The Cosmic Puppets

And, with this, the PKD series ends.

Once upon a time I wrote a proper review of this, but it seems to have been swallowed by Amazon and left no trace.

So, you get my notes as a …

Raw Feed (2005): The Cosmic Puppets, Philip K. Dick, 1957.The Cosmic Puppets

An adequate and rare novel length Zoroastrianism fantasy by Dick.

The use of a Virginia milieu was interesting.

By coincidence, this book also uses the idea of buildings that are either fake or mutable in their temporal identity just like Dick’s Ubik.

I note that, even in this short of a novel, Dick seemingly couldn’t resist having a protagonist with marital troubles.


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The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 5: The Eye of the Sibyl

For the concluding volume in the this series on PKD short stories, you get a retro review from 2004.

Retro Review: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 5: The Eye of the Sibyl, 1987.PKD 5

Like the rest of this series, this fifth and last volume has most of the material arranged chronologically. If you didn’t know that, though, you’d think this was a book of ephemera, some literary odds and ends from a has-been author, some products that fell between the cracks during a distinguished career, a book only for Dick completists.

That’s a valid and a wrong impression. These stories from 1963 to 1981 come from a time when Dick was still producing great novels or, at the very least, interestingly quirky novels. Yet many of the stories here seem departures in theme and form and skill from Dick’s earlier works and even most of his novels from those 18 years. Many have never been published before; many were published in atypical venues, and many don’t have a lot of interest for those who don’t know about Dick’s life.

That’s not to say there aren’t strong stories here.  “The Little Black Box” introduces some of the ideas, with its religion of Mercerism — technologically mediated empathy and communion without salvation, that show up in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Those who see Dick as sort of a modern gnostic will find “Faith of Our Fathers” evidence of their belief. Its protagonist meets up with what seems an evil Demiurge who is masquerading as the ruler of world ascendant communism. “Not By Its Cover” is a humorous story about sentient wub pelts that insist on altering the texts of books they bind. And “Holy Quarrel” sees Dick at the top of his paranoid form as a computer repairman seeks why a military computer wants to launch a nuclear strike on Northern California. The answer may involve the sinister conspiracy of a gumball salesman. Continue reading

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

And the PKD series continues with a look at the second volume of his collected short stories.

Raw Feed (2000): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, 1987.PKD 2

Introduction”, Norman Spinrad — A very useful introduction in which Spinrad points out how Dick’s short stories, right from the beginning (these stories are from 1952 through 1955), were different artistically and thematically from other sf writers. While author collections, as Spinrad rightly notes, often have a sameness of style, incident, theme, and character and Dick was no exception, his sameness was unique. Spinrad sees Dick’s overarching theme to be a concern with empathy, the quality that distinguishes man from the mechanical, sometimes thinking, “pseudo-life” (particularly weapon systems) that menace his heroes. And those heroes are usually ordinary people trying to survive worlds of time paradoxes and shifting realities or the menacing security state. Spinrad notes that Dick didn’t do “action-adventure formula” stories or space operas or mad scientists or “fully-developed alien civilizations” or stories with “real good guys versus bad guys”. Dick did not write stories in a consistent universe or future history or feature recurring characters. But the most interesting claim by Spinrad (and I tend to believe he’s studied the matter) is that he invented the multiple viewpoint technique in sf (a technique Spinrad is fond of, indeed he took it to its extreme in “The Big Flash”). Spinrad claims “few if any writers” used it before Dick and that all writers who used it afterwards owe a debt to Dick.

The Cookie Lady” — Fantasy tale of vampirism by the title character who lures a boy with cookies and steals his life. Continue reading

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

I’ve already reviewed later volumes in this series, so I thought I’d go back to look at the first two.

Raw Feed (1991): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1:  The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, 1987.PKD 1

Preface” — This is an interesting piece by Dick on what he valued in sf. Dick makes the valid point that all fiction involves dislocation from the reader’s world but that sf involves a major conceptual dislocation. Dick eloquently speaks of the joy in reading sf coming from the “chain reaction of ideas” set off in the mind while reading good sf. What is good sf to Dick? New ideas or new variations of old ideas. He quite clearly says it isn’t just the future or advanced technology. I disagree with this view. To me Dick is guilty of committing a variant on the sin of many other sf critic/author: he insists that sf meet some functional definition (define man’s relation to technology, the effect of change, prepare man for change, the dreams of technological society) and not assign a descriptive definition like it being fantasy with a pseudo-scientific or technological or scientific or pseudo-technological rationale. [I think younger self missed the importance of “good” in Dick’s argument. He may have considered a lot of things sf — just bad sf.] Many sf critics and authors seem quite content to denounce large parts of the sf genre as unfit for the label. I can’t see the need for this.

Foreword“, Steven Owen Godersky — It occurs to me in reading the Philip K. Dick Society’s Newsletter (and biographies and interviews of Dick) that the quality and character of Dick scholars varies greatly: some examine his mystical visions and religious themes for signs of mental illness, philosophical speculation, or divine revelation; some proudly point to him as one of sf’s best, others — scornful of most sf — point to him as a wasted gem in the garbage of sf; some see him as liberal, others as paranoid. Godersky sees a major theme — which he obviously, in a liberal way, likes — of anti-military, anti-war. That may be true but I suspect this strain in Dick’s work has more to do with living in the tense 1950s and having a strong distrust in authority.) Dick may be one of those rare authors that many a critical theory and observation could apply to. Dick’s contradictory statements, the philosophical/religious speculations, his concern over the small, his characterization and empathy, his distrust of authority and descriptions of reality all mesh to create a multi-faceted and complex man and body of work that can be described in political terms (such as Cold War satires), religious terms (the gnosticism of later books), and philosophy (e.g. Paul Williams description of the I Ching‘s influence on Dick). In some sense, most of these views are right, provide insight, and can be supported (and almost all contradicted) by evidence. Godersky makes the valid observation that Dick’s fiction has cosmic struggles between good and evil, death and life, order and entropy, callousness versus empathy often taking place in out of the way corners in a muted, hidden way between rather small, ordinary figures. The everyday, the mundane in Dick can have cosmic significance. Continue reading

Our Friends from Frolix 8

The PKD series continues with, frankly, bottom drawer work.

Raw Feed (1990): Our Friends From Frolix 8, Philip K. Dick, 1970.Our Friends from Frolix 8

I seemed to recall reading interviews with Dick stating this book represented a time of extreme creative fatigue in Dick’s life and that he regarded this book as totally lacking merit. It’s largely true this book reads as if Dick is trying to just fill up white space with something, as if it’s an attempt to meet alimony payments.

This book makes Dick seem very tired at the time.

The book’s plot holds together better than Dick’s other bad book, The Simulcra, but it is much more boring.

There are occasional flashes of Dick’s traditional humor, wit, and power in the poignancy of the novel’s end, the short, whimsical discussion of cats, and the oh-so-Dickian character of Charlotte Boyer, a neurotic, insightful, passionate, damaged girl of the kind that often shows up in Dick’s work and, it seems, he was attracted to in life.

But Boyer is not as well-realized a version of the “Dark-Haired Girl” as say Pris Frauenzimmer of We Can Build You. (It is interesting to note that Dick postulates an early life of abuse as an explanation for girls like Boyer. They can’t form relationships, are neurotic, and have a core of emptiness while desperately wanting love.)

Gone are reality shifts and perceptual questions. Dick gives us a pale tale of political intrigue in which he half-heartedly poses moral questions of revolution and revenge. He doesn’t even use the tension of the question of Frolixian motives to good effect.


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