Posts from June 2014
June 3rd, 2014
Our books today are yet another steady go-to choice for “summer books”: science fiction and fantasy novels, most of which I tend to read during the lazier summer months. Is there any point in concealing the fact that this is because the books themselves are often lazier? Most of them – even the best of them – ultimately fail at one of the hallmark tasks of the genre (considering them as one genre here, a genre in which there’s some version of a recognizably mundane world – even a future world, provided light and electricity and gravity all still work normally – over which is laid some kind of alternate layer of operant reality, be it faeries or faster-than-light travel): creating entirely convincing new worlds in which their action can take place. This is actually the task of any kind of fiction, but the failure of its authors to do it convincingly is more noticeable in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, because the worlds look so little like the day-to-day reality that obtains in Boston. Probably authors in other genres fail just as badly – there’s not much like normal human reality in the novels of Ian McEwan, for instance, or Andre Aciman, or Jonathan Franzen, all three of whom have been praised at one point or other by critics as “masters of realism” (book critics don’t get out much) – but when you’ve incompletely imagined the route your main character takes from W. 130th St. to the nearest faux hipster diner, you’re less likely to be called out by irate readers than if you incompletely imagine a world in which giant griffins regularly prey on humans – because we’ve all walked down the wrong New York street at some point or other, whereas when it comes to griffins, we can all agree with the not-so-great Jacobean poet Sam Daniel, who said, “I never saw scarce one in all my life.”
So we get a genre that’s lazy from top to bottom (the ordinary people in The Lord of the Rings hear of wizards, orcs, balrogs, and a Dark Lord but have not the smallest trace of religion, because their author didn’t think to supply the want)(the clones in Steve Kent’s “Clone Saga” are imagined much closer to androids than clones)(aliens are so, so, SO often reptilian), but that’s hardly reason to dismiss it, as literature snobs always do: as mentioned, it’s something of a widespread failing. And the best of the sci-fi/fantasy genre makes up for the lapses in comprehensiveness with narrative verve and sweep of imagination – two things very often missing from mainstream “literary” fiction. Scenes like the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring or the banquet scene at the beginning of Dune amply demonstrate that Tolkien or Herbert could have written fine parallel scenes in mainstream fiction – but how much grander are the stakes, how much more exciting the background, when worlds are in peril instead of Newark mortgages?
I mentioned “top to bottom,” and every summer I revisit both localities. Years ago I posted a “Best Of” list here at Stevereads, and looking over my plans for a summer of sci-fi/fantasy re-reading, I thought I’d like to update it. After all, when sci-fi snobs ask for such a list, it’s always good to have a up-to-date version they can ignore, and the old 2007 list necessarily has a few lacunae. So here’s a new, updated list for 2014 of the best science fiction and fantasy novels ever published:
50. Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith
49. The Pastel City – M. John Harrison
48. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
47. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
46. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
45. Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
44. Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
43. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
42. Gormenghast – Merwyn Peake
41. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wels
40. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula LeGuin
39. Up the Walls of the World – James Tiptree
38. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
37. Dune – Frank Herbert
36. Dracula – Bram Stoker
35. Silverlock – John Myers Myers
34. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle
33. The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany
32. Neuromancer – William Gibson
31. Shadow of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
30. The Worm Ouroboros – E. R. Eddison
29. Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
28. A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
27. Dhalgren – Samuel Delaney
26. The Once and Future King (and the Book of Merlyn) – T. H. White
25. Anno Dracula – Kim Newman
24. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
23. The Mabinogion Quartet – Evangeline Walton
22. Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
21. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt
20. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
19. On Wings of Song – Thomas Disch
18. A Million Open Doors – John Barnes
17. Glory – Alfred Coppel
16, The Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
15. Doorways in the Sand – Roger Zelazney
14. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
13. The Winter Queen – Joan Vinge
12. World War Z – Max Brooks
11. Hyperion – Dan Simmons
10. Damiano – R. A. MacAvoy
9. The Dragon Waiting – Robert Ford
8. Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller
7. 2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
6. Startide Rising – David Brin
5. Domesday Book – Connie Willis
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
3. Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey
2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
1. The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
But summertime doesn’t usually call for “Best Of” lists – as the heat and humidity worsen, my mind tends to crave the curious cooling effect of crap-genrework. And when that happens, I turn to, shall we say, off-brand sci-fi/fantasy, books that, while being no rivals to Tolstoy or Balzac, have just the same given me enormous amounts of pleasure over the years. Theres’ a peculiar mongrel joy to some crappy books, and whatever that joy is, it’s enormously enhanced when the genre is sci-fi/fantasy; the genre was founded, after all, on the cheeseball sincerity of the Victorian era and carried irresistibly forward by the lurid looniness of the pulp era. It’s true that things have moved on from the stamp of that lowly origin (though for the snob, it’s always a high noon of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters), but there are certain moods – certain seasons – that still crave cheeseball above all else. For me, summer is that season, and here are a few of the books I find myself enjoying despite themselves year after year:
The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath – I’ve gushed before about these two hugely corny, hugely thrilling Star Trek novels, written at the very dawn of Star Trek fiction, in which the stalwart captain and crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise square off against Omne, the towering rebel who’s figured out a way to use Federation transporter and replicator technology to create the Phoenix Device – a way to defeat death – and now wants to sell it to the highest bidder in an attempt to sow universal chaos. I love everything about these books, from the spot-on dialogue to the ripping action to the best-ever novel portrayal of the sultry Romulan Commander from “The Enterprise Incident.” I know every word of these two books by heart, and yet I keep reading them!
The Last Ranger by “Craig Sargent” – when you talk about ‘bottom,’ you can’t go much lower than this series (of which this is but the first volume) unless you start trafficking in quasi-porn like the Gor novels: these books tell the fervid, hyper-sexed story of a gorgeous, muscular young man, his savage pit bull, his motorcycle, and his endless supply of big guns as they all make their way across a post-apocalyptic America positively littered with power-mad warlords and slithering, deformed mutants. Stone, our young man, is always on some kind of quest or other, and he’s often captured and strapped to various tables by various sadistic madmen, and he always manages to both escape and find the one non-mutant buxom blonde within a hundred miles with which to “ease his burden.” Every line of these books is so hilariously over-the-top that I can never resist one each summer. Which shall it be this time? “The Madman’s Mansion”? “The Rabid Brigadier”? “The Vile Village”? Who can decide?
John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs – in my more enthusiastic moments, I’ve sometimes moved the first of ERB’s “John Carter” novels, A Princess of Mars, up to the other end of the spectrum, to the list of greats! Then I calm down, take a step back, and actually look at these books I love so much: the giant green Martian warriors, the radium pistols and antiquated Virginian dueling codes of honor, the leaping, adolescent narration, the gawd-awful plotting and pacing, the hysterical overwriting … and while all of that just stirs me to love these books a little bit more, it also serves to remind me how delusional it is to think of them as good science fantasy, let alone great. Because Burroughs was just making stuff up as he went along, very little in these books makes any actual sense even by the lights of the books themselves – but it doesn’t matter! When heroic Earthman John Carter unsheaths his sword and leaps into the fray to defend the honor of his beloved Dejah Thoris, I’m swept away again to the arid plains of Barsoom. Just as I am every summer.
Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard – and when I’m not being swept away to Barsoom, these dodgy sword-and-sorcery adventures of Howard’s towering barbarian warrior sweep me away to a mythical pre-history where fugitive surviving dinosaurs can be found in impenetrable swamps, where giant spiders and slugs from the stars prowl unnamed canyons, and where bloodthirsty warlords always manage to underestimate our taciturn hero. And just like Sherlock Holmes yesterday, when it comes to Conan, I’ll often supplement my re-reading of Howard’s original tales with any of the dozens of pastiche novels the character has inspired, many of which are good clean brainless fun.
Meg by Steve Alten - and speaking of good clean mindless fun! Books don’t get any more mindless than these giant-prehistoric-shark novels by the amiable Alten, starting with this one and continuing through several sequels, culminating (so far!) in that modern-day classic Hell’s Aquarium. Our summers for the last forty years have been largely re-defined by one certain book about a giant killer shark, so the season would feel undressed without an example of the breed.
There are other choice crapola candidates – far too many to list, of course. But these gems – and their more worthy brethren on the big list – will tide me over just fine until the cooler weather returns in late October.
August 5th, 2013
Our book today is Frank Schatzing’s 2004 doorstop eco-thriller Der Schwarm, which was translated into English (by Sally-Ann Spencer) in 2006 as The Swarm, and it just naturally calls up a line from Cooper’s Creek by that literary household name, Alan Moorehead: “Nothing in this strange country seemed to bear the slightest resemblance to the outside world: It was so primitive, so lacking in greenness, so silent, so old.”
Only imagine, instead of the vast expanses of the Australian interior, the incalculably vaster expanses of the Earth’s oceans – the ultimate alien world, despite the fact that some amiable scientists early on in Schatzing’s immense novel are thinking more about the other kind of aliens:
“ … Plenty of folk would rather we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. If other civilzations knew we were here, they might rob us of our planet. God help us, they might even eat us for breakfast.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
“Is it? If they’re clever enough to manage interstellar travel, they’re probably not interested in fisticuffs. On the other hand, it’s not something we can rule out. In my view, we’d be better off thinking about how we could be drawing attention to ourselves unintentionally, otherwise we could make the wrong impression.”
It turns out the wrong impressions have been made alright, but not upon space aliens – rather, it’s the disastrous damage humanity has done to Earth itself that has long since acted as a calling card to the yrr, an ancient ocean-dwelling species that has up till now been content to ignore the surface world. When that happy equilibrium begins to fritter away, opportunistic Vancouver whale-watch guide Leon Anawak is among the first to notice the outlying initial signs – and among the many, many characters in Schatzing’s book who think in blocks of exposition:
Although Anawak had turned his back on his homeland for the best part of two decades, he was well aware that industrial chemicals, like DDT and highly toxic PCBs, were transported by the wind and the currents from Asia, North America and Europe to the Arctic Ocean. They accumulated in the fatty tissue of whales, seals, and walruses, which were eaten by polar bears and humans, who fell ill. Breast milk from Inuit women contained high levels of PCBs that were twenty times higher than the amount listed as harmful by the World Health Organisation. Inuit children suffered from neurological impairments, and IQ levels were falling. The wilderness was being poisoned because the qallunaat still couldn’t, or wouldn’t, grasp the way in which the world worked: sooner or later, everything was distributed everywhere, through the winds and the water.
Was it any surprise that something at the bottom of the ocean had decided to put a stop to it?
Not surprising at all when you put it like that, and sure enough, mysterious attacks start happening to ocean-going humans all over the planet, from marauding fungi to ship-battering whales:
The Lady Wexham was seventy-two metres long, far longer than any humpback whale. She had a permit from the Ministry of Transport and conformed to the Canadian Coast Guard’s safety standards, which required passenger vessels to be able to withstand rough seas, metre-high breakers and the occasional collision with a lethargic whale. The Lady Wexham had been designed to cope with all such misfortunes. But she hadn’t been designed to contend with an attack.
In fact, very little of what Schatzing’s large cast of characters have handy is much use in contending against a coordinated attack by a species capable of militarizing the denizens of the deep. Schatzing uses his book’s great heft like a Sumo wrestler, spreading his pivotal scenes all around the planet in order to provide his standard-issue humans-versus-Bug-Eyed (or Tentacled)-Monsters plot with some real feelings of breadth. As with most 800-page novels, it’s really a 300-page novel on black-market Tour de France steroids: the result is gaudy and impressive but essentially fraudulent. An entire sizeable novel could have been excised from these pages and still left this novel completely intact, mainly because every single character just talks and talks:
I don’t know about noble. It’s pretty reprehensible to go around polluting the atmosphere with exhaust fumes, like we do – but what about breeding and manipulating other life-forms to suit your own needs? Is that any better? Anyway, what interests me is how they might perceive our threat to their habitat. We’re always talking about the destruction of the rainforests, Some people militate against it, others keep chopping. What if metaphorically speaking, the yrr are the rainforests? I’d say there’s evidence for that in the way they deal with biology, which brings me to my second point. With the exception of the whales, the organisms they’re using are almost exclusively creatures that live in shoals or swarms. Millions of creatures are being sacrificed for the yrr to achieve their goals. The individual doesn’t matter to them. Would humans think like that? Sure, we breed viruses and bacteria, but for the most part we use man-made armaments in manageable quantities. Mass biological weaponry isn’t really our thing. But the yrr seem fairly expert at it. Why? Well, maybe shoals and swarms are what they know best.”
“Do you mean …?”
(Oh yes, that’s just what we want – more elaboration)
Still, Schatzing’s done quite a bit of research into the state of environmental affairs from a decade ago, and even in purely historical terms, that ends up being interesting more often than it’s not (although sometimes from a bittersweet nostalgic perspective, since things are so very much worse environmentally in 2013 than they were in 2004; I think I remember that the yrr were recently found dead and shriveled at the bottom of an illegal Japanese line-net). And even in a somewhat tone-deaf translation, he’s got a very good sense of dialogue and pacing. Just as you might experience with other such quasi-nature thrillers (Michael Crichton’s Timeline and Steve Alten’s The Loch both come to mind), you’ll deplore the pedantic excesses of The Swarm – but the smart money is that you’ll keep reading anyway.
October 21st, 2012
The age-old publishing maxim (it’s actually a maxim for everything, but we’ll stay on our home ground), “Stick With What Works,” has few starker applications than the books-in-series that have long afflicted the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Long after whole forests were pulped to make endless “Gor” and “Lensman” books possible (although nothing could make them readable), the series as an economic imperative is still going strong. New York Times-bestselling vampire-fraudling Justin Cronin was awarded a squintillion dollars not for one gawd-awful book but for a series of them. Fifty Shades of Grey (I’ve now finally read it, and hoo-boy, it belongs in the sci-fi/fantasy category if anything does) will inevitably be 50 books. Harry Potter stuck around for a shelf-full of interminable books (and will certainly return). Any open-minded reader browsing the New Releases shelves of the last few remaining bookstores will be hard-pressed to find a novel that doesn’t announce itself as “Third Book in the Galaxy Wives series” or some such – practically a warning that the uninitiated need not apply. And yet, there are great pleasures to be reaped from exploring the innards of books-in-series. There’s the cliffhanger element, of course, and in skilled hands, there’s a great deal of interest in watching whole casts of characters put through their paces. Books-in-series can indulge in the one thing even the longest stand-alone novels can’t: they can postpone ‘The End’ almost indefinitely. If you like living in fictional worlds, books-in-series are the ideal venue for you – here are six entry-points to such worlds:
Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg – this 1980 novel introduces readers to the immense world of Majipoor, a place of twenty billion living beings, some of half a dozen different races – all of them immigrants to the planet over the last few thousand years (except for the few scattered indigenous inhabitants who are – in a classic Silverbergian touch – shape-changers who can look like any of the other peoples). Majipoor is so big it’s sleepy; its sprawling oceans and massive continents have been visited occasionally by spaceships from other worlds, but it hardly causes a ripple; the billions of inhabitants of Majipoor live in blissfully seventh-century lifestyles punctuated by castles, overlords, mounted travel, sail-powered sea-going vessels, Renaissance faires as far as the eye can see. In Lord Valentine’s Castle Silverberg gives us a fantastic, panoramic introduction to this world and its people – and to his sexy, amnesiac wanderer Valentine, who could be a mere vagabond but could also be destined for stereotypical great things. Valentine’s adventures in this book reflect a bit too heavily on Silverberg’s fascination at the time with juggling, but it hardly matters: the real draw here is the world of Majipoor itself.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey – 1968 saw the first Anne McCaffrey’s dozens and dozens of novels set on the planet Pern which, when we get there in Dragonflight, has been settled for centuries into a fantasy pattern: quasi-medieval Holds go about their business in commerce and war, hardly giving any notice to the red star that glows so balefully in the morning sky and enduring with sullen grace the presence in their society of ‘dragonmen’ – riders of enormous winged dragons. The ancient lore of Pern warns that the dragonmen are the only defence against the threat of the Red Star, and there’s science buried underneath the lore: Pern’s orbit periodically brings it into contact with a cloud of spaceborn acidic spores – called Thread in the legends – and the dragonmen’s awesome mounts belch fire that can destroy Thread before it makes landfall and destroys all living material. Dragonflight tells the story of the young woman Lessa, who’s fated to lead the dragonmen when Thread returns – but the Pern books went on open-endedly to tell hundreds of stories about Pern, ranging from the very beginning (when human colonists first arrived there and began genetically adapting native lizards to fight spores) to … well, who knows when, since the late Anne’s son has undertaken to keep the series going indefinitely.
Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card – In Card’s beguiling 1988 novel, he presents readers with an alternate-history colonial-era America in which the Eastern seacoast is sub-divided into Crown Colonies, the United States, New England – and the western territories like Huron, Hio, and Wobbish are home to not only native peoples but to settlers pushing steadily into their territories. In Card’s imagining, it’s not just the history and the politics that’s different – the people are too: they have ‘knacks’ of various kinds. There are ‘torches’ who can see hidden things; there are ‘sparks’ who can mentally cause fires; and most importantly for these books, there are, once in a great while, ‘makers’ who can command and manipulate all matter on the subatomic level. The main character of these books, a boy named Alvin, is just such a maker, and the first three books in the series (before their content began to be watered down by the direct participation of fans – a deplorable thing that’s also happened to George R. R. Martin … these people really ought not to open their mail) grippingly show him coming to terms with his awesome power.
The Many-Colored Land by Julian May – This 1981 novel introduces May’s great concept of the Pliocene Exile, in which the disgruntled, disabused, or simply anti-social of 2034 have an option for the ultimate getaway: a time portal discovered in France that’s very localized and very specific, leading one-way six million years into the past, dumping its dazed passengers into the same area of France in the Pliocene epoch. Through this portal travels our core group of characters – some sane, some stable, others violently not – and when they stagger out of it on the other side, they make a stunning discovery: a group of aliens have crash-landed in Pliocene Europe, and they’ve been steadily enslaving all time-travellers who come through the portal. In 2034, mankind is a member of the galaxy-spanning Galactic Milieu, and humans have tapped their latent psionic abilities – abilities shared by those Pliocene aliens, abilities dangerously destabilized by passage through the time portal. May is the strongest prose stylist of our group today, and she has a slam-bang feel for action and drama, and it serves her throughout half a dozen further Galactic Milieu novels.
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – If Orson Scott Card opened a dangerous door by actually listening to his fans, Robert Jordan opened a far more dangerous one with this, the first book in his “Wheel of Time” series: the idea of an officially open-ended storyline. Jordan in fact opens his series with the explicit embracing of its own infinitude – the Wheel of Time turns, Ages come and go, stories are told and re-told. The particular permutation of the Wheel that concern him in this book (by far the most effective of all the books in this series) revolve around a trio of small-town boys who get caught up in a great war between good and evil – a conflicted boy named Rand, a band of heroic energy-wielders (wizards, if you would) called the Aes Sedai, and their requisite evil counterparts. Jordan had some distinct writing ability (some of his Conan novels are quite enjoyable), but he stabs it in the back by removing an absolutely crucial element of storytelling: plot. If you very consciously decide that your series of books will have no ending, you disable plot – and make it the sustained attention of your readers a purely masochistic thing, a pleasure-free endurance contest. Jordan freely proclaimed that he intended to keep writing these books until they nailed his coffin shut, and he did – his series is finally being brought to a close by another’s hand.
Meg by Steve Alten – This is the first book in what would go on to become a somewhat piecemeal but epic series, and in its thrillingly brainless pages, Alten gives us a great imaginative twist: what if Carcharodon megalodon, the prehistoric sixty-foot giant killer shark, somehow survived to the present day and were suddenly re-introduced into an ocean full of defenseless whales and fatty humans? Alten’s main problem is that if the ocean were still teeming with these monsters, people would have noticed them – and he comes up with the quickest convenient explanation: he blames the Mariana Trench. In its Stygian depths, megalodons have been grimly breeding and thriving and dying all this time, separated from the smorgasbord of the upper world by the crushing pressure variant. It takes Alten about five minutes to get around that, and then the feeding frenzy begins – and continues through five deliciously chompable books, most of them starring heroic marine biologist Jonas Taylor. In later books – in ways that, again, even a very long stand-alone book could do as well – Taylor is joined by his teen-himbo son in an apparently generational struggle against these giant killer sharks.
There are plenty of other series, of course – eventually, we’ll get to all of them here at Stevereads – but these six have plenty of reading joys to start you off … or at least their first books do.
September 26th, 2012
Our book today is James Hogan’s 1980 time-travel novel Thrice Upon a Time – the one with the, um, interesting cover by Rowena, featuring a suit of armor, a cat, a gorgeous young man, and a big honkin computer. As some of you will know from visiting the Ancient History wing of your local Old Things Museum, computers in 1980 actually looked like that – they weighed fifty pounds, came in that uniform beige casing, and had those black screens with neon green letters. They made a strange, alien addition to, say, a small-town newsroom – sure, they were neat to play with, but it hardly seemed possible they’d ever actually be useful – unlike suits of armor, which once were useful (or even cats, which are at least useful in filling up the world’s ‘Bad Pet’ quotient)(as for gorgeous young men, well …), much less the focal point of anything like drama. And yet Hogan’s novel effectively centers all of its drama around just such a computer, and such is his plodding determination that the reader doesn’t really notice.
This is a time-travel story as only a working scientist could imagine one: it’s just information that travels through time. And while the plot concerns a small group of nerdy protagonists sending messages backwards in time, the most noticeable time-travel element involves not the book’s plot but the book itself: it was published in 1980, but it’s set in 2009. In these pages, Hogan is envisioning a future that’s now our past. It’s both jarring and deeply nostalgic to read how a very smart man envisioned a future thirty years from when he was writing.
You start barking your shins on things right away. In the book’s opening chapter, for instance, the main character (and cover-hottie) Murdoch Ross is waiting at a U.S. airport for the arrival of his friend Lee so they can both travel across the ocean to Scotland – trivial distances, we’re told, because the planes propel themselves sixty miles almost straight up and then come down in a tight parabola to their destination. The airport is buzzing with groundcars and also (inevitably) air-cars as Murdoch waits, but it’s tough to know which is more halting: the air-cars, or the fact that when Lee arrives, he lights a cigarette inside the terminal.
Murdoch’s grandfather in Scotland has had an amazing breakthrough. By harnessing something called ‘tau’ radiation, he’s managed to get his laboratory computer (powered by stacks of processors) to send a six-character message up to two minutes back in time. Hogan may be a thorough wonk, but he’s fairly effective at setting up a tense scene, and the novel’s first few moments showing our heroes receiving these cryptic texts from their future are very well done – especially when it becomes apparent that the future doing the sending isn’t their present, if you follow. The word ‘quantum’ is never used in Thrice Upon a Time, but much of the nonsense of quantum ‘physics’ is here just the same.
An eerily familiar note is struck – accidentally? – when Hogan tells us about young Murdoch and Lee directly after college:
Lee’s main interest lay with computers, an addiction he had been nurturing since an early age. He didn’t find the executive image challenging or inspiring and, like Murdoch, was preparing to go his own way; again like Murdoch, he didn’t know where to. After completing their courses at the university they had stayed for a while at FEC, and then left to set up the consultancy at Palo Alto, on the bay shore a few miles south of San Francisco.
You almost want to substitute the real-world names: they’d fit virtually without alteration. Except that nobody in Thrice Upon a Time actually owns a computer in 2009 – there’s no miniaturization, no conception on the author’s part that computers would ever be anything other than the heavy pieces of lab-equipment they are for Murdoch’s grandfather (it’s a mystery to me why Hogan felt he needed to set this thing in the future at all – perhaps he thought Del Rey wouldn’t consider it ‘sci fi’ enough if he didn’t).
Of course the book’s somewhat nominal plot involves a catastrophe that only the future can help the past prevent, and Hogan deploys half a dozen time-travel cliches to good effect. But a 21st Century reader will still find himself smiling at places the author didn’t intend. Like when our heroes get an expanded message from far-distant 2009 telling them they’ll need to increase the storage on Murdoch’s grandfather’s super-advanced computer in order to receive a bigger temporal transmission. Somehow, they’re going to have to get that baby up above 50 Megabytes …
August 6th, 2012
Our book today is another one that doesn’t exist yet, The Collected Stories of James Tiptree, Jr., put out in a big, beautiful deckle-edge brick of a paperback by Random House just in time for Christmas – some Christmas – when every science fiction fan can give it as a present to those one or two open-minded readers they know who’d read more sci-fi if only it were good. When Tiptree – the most prevalent pen-name of Alice B. Sheldon – turned to science fiction comparatively late in her life, she went at it with the same thoroughness and daunting skill with which she’d done everything else in her life, and the result was a body of work equalled by virtually no 20th Century practitioner of the genre.
She also went at it with her typical zeal for privacy, which is why those early stories – submitted to editors under the name “Tiptree” from a Post Office box, with never so much as a phone call from the author – incited so much speculation. The most famous example of that speculation must infamously be laid at the feet of another giant of the genre, Robert Silverberg, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Tiptree short stories called Warm Worlds and Otherwise in which he made the kind of straight-up “This Dickens person will never amount to anything” pronouncements his long-time friends know and love him for: he flat-out declared that the underground speculation of James Tiptree being a woman simply couldn’t be true – that (shovelling steadily deeper) there was an ineluctable quality of masculinity about these stories, that they could no more have been written by a woman than the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man.
It was the kind of stuff that’s virtually guaranteed to blow up in a person’s face, and it promptly did, when James Tiptree, Jr. – whose works would be collected in such volumes as Ten Thousand Light Years from Home, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Crown of Stars, Out of the Everywhere, and Star Songs of an Old Primate – was revealed to be a soft-spoken middle-aged woman named Alice Sheldon. It was as if the gods decided to gift-wrap a ready-made lesson in writing and gender assumptions and hand it to the science fiction community.
As Tiptree’s friend (and yet another sci-fi titan) Ursual LeGuin later commented, plenty of people thereafter claimed that they’d known all along that Tiptree was a woman – that they’d been able to tell from the stories. That’s of course every bit as much hooey as the ‘ineluctably masculine’ line. It’s true that women (alien and human) play consistently large and sympathetically portrayed parts throughout these stories, but that alone doesn’t prove any suppositions that Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert don’t immediately dis-prove, although it does lend a certain playful edge to such famous Tiptree story titles as “The Women Men Don’t See.”
What these glorious stories do have in common is the thread of – no clever word-play intended – alienation that runs through all of them. In classic tale after classic tale – “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “I’m Too Big but I Love to Play,” “We Who Stole the Dream,” “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” “She Waits for All Men Born,” “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – the reader is shot through a prism of sad and lonely intelligence into the kinds of brutal and unsafe thought-worlds relatively few sci-fi authors dare to create, even though it’s the purpose of their genre. There’s a savage bleakness at the heart of so many Tiptree stories (the tragedy at the heart of the sublime “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is so simple and stark that an entire fantasy-land is needed just to obscure it), but there’s a very grown-up and satisfying version of hope as well (caught wonderfully, for instance, at the very end of “Beam Us Home,” the single greatest Star Trek story ever written, and yet – in classic Tiptree fashion – also not a Star Trek story at all).
Virtually none of James Tiptree, Jr. is currently in print, and oddly enough, this almost certainly would have pleased the author. “If you’ve got me taking up shelf-space,” she might have said, “you’ve got no room for some smart new writer whose name starts with ‘t’.” But maybe some day an enterprising publisher will create The Collected Stories of James Tiptree, Jr. and hope its diffident author’s shade doesn’t mind too much. Myself, I hope the book is called Star Songs of an Old Primate – when you’ve found a perfect title, stick with it.
August 3rd, 2012
Considering the comic, nearly tragic number of books piled all around me, on every flat surface, it sometimes surprises even me to realize how much short work I read. Alongside the innumerable magazine articles that have been fodder for In the Penny Press for the last six years, there are also dozens and dozens of short stories. Of course I slog through the “Best American” every year like every other dues-paying member of the Republic of Letters, but it’s more than that: I read publications too. The story quarterlies (the bearable ones, anyway), the few mainstream magazines that still run original fiction … and, centrally, the genre-organs: Ellery Queen, the Strand, Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hitchcock (the late, lamented Omni, where it might even have been possible for a hung-over Boston freelancer to prevail upon a friend to write a story for him, back in those wild days) … and my current favorite, Asimov’s Science Fiction.
All such genre magazines have pages to fill, and not every story can be an Asimov’s instant classic like “The Man Who Bridged the Mists” (which was given the industry’s most coveted nod by inclusion in the latest Gardner Dozois anthology) … so every month, a certain amount of filler gets in. Some of these magazines (ahem, Analog) seem to run a lot of filler, but then, who knows what their submissions piles look like. I consume these things like M&Ms, usually reading the stories seriatim regardless of speed bumps – but I’m well aware of the fact that the approach enables bad writers. The late, great short story master Frank O’Connor used to say “In a novel, I take your coat, and I enquire about your mother, and I usher you to the parlor, and I heat some tea. In a short story, it’s straight to a glass of the plain, and fisticuffs.” Translated out of the Irish, that means: a short story doesn’t have the luxury of time – it has to go straight to first effects.
When it came to short stories, O’Connor understood that better than almost any other 20th century practitioner of the art (when it came to novels, most of his understanding, art, patience, and sobriety fled from him), but I’m realistic about these things: I don’t expect to find Frank O’Connors in every issue of Asimov’s.And even though I’m going to read every story right to the end, I still form first impressions almost instantly, as all readers do.
Take this current issue, the one with the utterly incredible deserves-an-award-of-its-own cover illustration by Marc Simonetti. It’s got six short stories (Asimov’s loves giving their categories fanciful names like ‘novella’ and ‘novelette,’ but trust me: these are all just short stories), and readers less time-rich than I am will be making several crucial decisions based on just the first few lines of each of those stories. Here’s the breakdown.
“The Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous” by Dale Bailey start like this:
They’d come to the Cretaceous to save their marriage.
“Why not the Paleogene?” said Peter, who had resolutely refused to look at any of the material Gwyneth had sent him. “Or the Little Ice Age, for that matter? Some place without carnivores.”
“There are only two resorts,” Gwyneth said, waving a brochure at him. “Jurassic and Cretaceous. People want to see dinosaurs.”
The story’s title, plus this opening, makes it clear that this first story is the inspiration for Simonetti’s slam-bang cover illustration of a charging T. rex, and as lugubrious and old-fashioned as that illustration is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Bailey’s description of the T. rex, once unhappy Gwyneth finally sees one. It’s a description that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pulps of a century ago – in fact, I’m still not certain it isn’t an intentional send-up of them, except that the rest of the story (self-absorbed yuppie couple, wordly-wise other couple, older and sexy big-chief-bwana trail master, etc) is so very, very earnest. That set-up isn’t bad, although it might make the reader immediately wonder if the gimmick of having a quarrelling couple try to time-travel their problems away might end up being thin enough to get tiresome. Those readers would be right to wonder that. And the story’s last paragraph is a slap in the face of every reader who reaches it.
Then there’s “Star Soup” by Chris Willrich. It opens like this:
The shooting star burst upon the world of Dimhope, which is to say it plunged within five klicks of Veiltown. For if a meteorite falls in the forest and no Dimmer hears it, does it make a sound?
Readers more watchful of their time than I am can stop right there. This isn’t really writing of any kind – this is the story’s author masturbating at his computer. It shouldn’t be published, so it stands to reason it shouldn’t be read.
Next up there’s “The Last Islander” by Matthew Jonnson:
Saufatu stood neck-deep in the water, watching the dawn arrive over the great empty ocean to the east.
Obviously, that’s very good, as an opening line. And the story that follows – about global warming, rising ocean levels, and the pitfalls of virtual tourism, doesn’t disappoint the set-up. This is just about the best that any other science fiction magazine can regularly do.
The great thing about Asimov’s is that almost every month, it exceeds those other magazines – and this month is no exception. The next story, insufferably titled “Noumenon,” does just that. It’s dense, lyrical ‘hard’ science fiction, and it starts like this:
The signal was feeble but intriguing – a twenty-hertz radio source tied to an ice-clad world orbiting an M-class star. A xeno-researcher named Mere was dispatched to investigate a deep warm ocean full of vibrant life. But what looked intriguing at a distance proved tragic. The cold white crust of the world hid nothing but cold acid and sluggish bacteria. An alien species one tried to colonize the planet but failed miserably and subsequently went extinct. All that remained was an automated station broadcasting bold, impossible plans. Yet the human remained upbeat: In her final transmission, Mere reminded her superiors – the lordly captains – that she still had plenty of time to wander.
You can tell even from he opening that this story will hit on all kinds of fun sci-fi stuff – and do it quickly, economically. Once again, the story lives up to its start: it gives readers a full-fleshed and bracingly complex world and some refreshingly three-dimensional characters, with some quick bits of sub-atomic physics worked in for the extra-nerdy folk to enjoy.
There’s a glorious profusion of ideas in “Noumenon,” which is just the way science fiction should be done. The issue’s next story, “Adware” by Suzanne Palmer, is just the opposite, as you can tell from its opening:
I was finishing up the last programming touches on lunch when Jake came into the kitchen with Mr. Tater, his stuffed bunny and best friend. He tugged on my pant leg. “Mommy,” he said, “have you considered trading in our old flier for the new Neptune wagon? Their brand-new, just-released ’44 deluxe model has over fifty-seven state-of-the-art safety features to help keep me and your other loved ones safe.”
My hand froze halfway toward ruffling his golden hair, and instead I grabbed Jake and pulled him close. “Ted!” I shouted. “Ted, get in here! Jake’s caught an ad!”
What follows is amiable enough, but there’s no denying that stories like “Adware” ultimately do more harm to the genre than good, mainly by accurately writing down to the weakest pretension of the genre and thus reinforcing those weaknesses in the minds of the non-genre-reading public. I understand that little ditties like “Adware” are primarily meant to be fun little observational riffs on the way we live now, but when they’re so little, they make the whole genre look trivial and gimmicky. Writing a ten-page story because you one day wondered “hey! what if people got pop-up ads?” is a harmless enough diversion; publishing that story is an active disservice.
All the more ironic when it’s followed by the highlight of the issue, a story by William Preston with the wretched title “Unearthed” (what is it with titles these days? The proper title of this piece is very obviously “The Stone Avenger,” and yet Preston gives it this snoozer instead – maybe he didn’t, though: maybe some corporate suit at Asimov’s did over his protests. I’ll allow myself to hope so.
And in any event, the story is fantastic, a tense, fast-moving tale about mine collapse in the jungles of South America, an unlikely but very winning partnership between a feisty young Mohawk woman and a character who seems like a college-age version of Doc Savage, and the thrilling discovery of an odd and eerie cave-dwelling life-form. It starts like this:
My words are cicadas. They struggle up through packed earth after too many years underground. Then they shriek.
Without a voice, without a teller, events are lost. People vanish from history. I learned long ago that every awful moment lingers. But what of kindness and compassion?
Cannot good deeds also endure?
The words end up resonating powerfully at the story barrels to a climax – it all works even better on the second reading than on the first, for exactly that reason. I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing this one in next year’s Dozois volume.
The rest of Asimov’s, the balance of it, is taken up with some book reviews, some industry news, and another one of Robert Silverberg’s meandering columns, same as every issue. The editors seem to know perfectly well that their readers are mainly coming here for the same reason I am: for the new fiction every month, and for the quiet thrill of some of those new stories being memorably good.
Although I love the American Museum of Natural History so besottedly that I’d probably have bought this issue just for that cover – talk about a picture being worth a thousand words!
July 14th, 2012
We last left Star Trek fiction in a state of what the show’s techno-babble experts might call ‘temporal flux.’ After a long period wandering in the wilderness (sustained only by the manna of sometimes spotty and often manic fan fiction, fanzines, and fan conventions), the old cancelled TV show had at last reached the promised land of a big-screen Hollywood movie, and although reviews of that movie were decidedly mixed (as were reviews of the Gene Roddenberry novelization), it unleashed a shock wave into Trek continuity that changed everything. Before that movie, the fanzines could speculate all they liked about the future of our beloved U.S.S. Enterprise and its valiant crew, but all we knew was what the three seasons of the original TV series had shown us. That series showed us neither the beginning of Captain James T. Kirk’s five-year mission in deep space nor, more importantly, its ending. There was all the room in the galaxy to wonder what those familiar characters were doing – most fans imagined an endless sequence of planet-hopping adventures, and most fans imagined nothing more.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (movie and book) shattered the static peace of such a situation, and it did this by bringing one previously minor element to the fore: time. In the original series, characters had pasts (Spock served for a long time with the Enterprise‘s former captain, for instance, and Kirk and Scotty, we knew, had had many service postings before they joined the ship), so time was always a background note. But in the new movie, we’re dunked in it: years have passed since the time of the original show’s setting. When the movie opens, Kirk has taken a desk job at Starfleet, and both Spock and McCoy have left the service – and perhaps more importantly, the whole world of those original TV adventures is over: the captain is an admiral, the bridge crew is visibly older, the celebrated five-year mission is completed … time has passed, and unlike in so many sci-fi series, it’s passed inside the story, not just outside it.
Fans were slow to adopt this new reality – not just because they weren’t in any way finished with the old reality but also because they weren’t alone in this new one: they had corporate suits as company. Paramount had invested a lot of money in STTMP and its various movie tie-in products – and investments need to be watched by trained, responsible adults. Suddenly Star Trek was too important to be left in the hands of the people who’d safeguarded it all those hopeless years: the fans.
This very much extended to the series of Star Trek novels that was given renewed energy (and funding) with the launch of the movie. The movie could clearly stand as the beginning of a franchise, which meant, among other things, that corporate creatures who knew nothing about Star Trek would now have the authority to dictate the very parameters of the concept. You can tell by the book-covers: the drawings of our familiar characters are patterned (traced?) on the appearances in the movie – older, weather-beaten, clearly no longer the same people who went on all those original adventures.
A new fictional reality obtained. From a corporate standpoint, the first movie in a new franchise establishes the shape of that reality, the tenor, everything. In STTMP, our heroes re-unite to save the Earth from an alien space probe of awesome power. They succeed, and they all decide to stay on the newly-refitted Enterprise and head out for more space-adventures. In Paramount’s consideration, those future adventures will be movie-adventures, so writers of Star Trek books now faced two huge obstacles: they had to set their novels in the new ‘present’ of the movies, and they couldn’t radically change things without having corporate suits shutting the whole thing down.
Two of the earliest of these new Trek novels didn’t quite manage to clear either of these obstacles. mainly because they were written by the writing team least likely to adapt to this radical new reality. Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath had been among the original organizing forces behind written Star Trek adventures – they were gathering fan fiction, polishing fan fiction, and essentially writing fan fiction long before there seemed to be any hope of such fiction ever having a market, and so their roots were deep in the fanzine world – which, as we’ve seen, could get a little rough. In the early 1980s, Marshak and Culbreath wrote two books – The Prometheus Design and Triangle – that could fairly be called the last Star Trek fanzine stories ever published. The characters might have been wearing those periwinkle new uniforms on the covers, but these stories belonged to an earlier era.
That earlier era had some defining writing-tics. It was fond of racy sadomasochism, for instance – characters are frequently either naked or tortured or tortured while naked. It was also fond of Spock-worship, making the Enterprise‘s half-Vulcan science officer into a kind of super-powered demi-god who routinely through the rest of the crew into the shade. These things are true in both these novels – Spock (and, in The Prometheus Design, the Vulcan admiral Savaj) is repeatedly shown to be much stronger and faster than Kirk and his fellow humans, but unlike in all future variations of Trek (where the fact that Vulcans are much stronger than humans is still true), in the world of these novels, Spock’s Vulcan strength always seems to matter more than it should. Fan fiction was also enamored of the idea that Spock’s suppressed emotions were always on the verge of breaking free; Marshak and Culbreath did more than anybody to create that idea, and they’re doggedly faithful to it in these pages, where Spock is always coldly furious (a faint echo of this tic lasted for decades and turned up in Tim Russ’ portrayal of Commander Tuvok onStar Trek: Voyager, as we’ll see).
In The Prometheus Design, the Enterprise is threatened by a race of super-beings who are using sentient life throughout the galaxy in an enormous experiment involving aggression and risk. The ship has been commandeered by Admiral Savaj and placed under the command of Mr. Spock, both Vulcans having decided that poor, human Kirk is too weak to withstand the aliens’ influence. Fans of Trek fiction – especially present-day fans who’ve been spoon-fed corporately-vetted Trekkie-baby food for twenty years – have always found the undertones of this stuff unpalatable, and I admit, our authors lay it on a bit thick in this book, contriving their plot in such a way that not only does Spock spend a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting that he’s wearing) large prosthetic horns on his forehead, but Kirk spends a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting he’s wearing) a virginal white speedo and nothing else. But the fans who complain about Marshak and Culbreath’s oft-displayed willingness to humiliate Kirk aren’t reading far enough into the novels – these authors are at their best in celebrating the inner qualities of their heroes, the inner conflicts that make them who they are, as even Savaj is forced to admit in one nifty scene in which he confronts the super-aliens:
“Why do the subjects choose to return to the danger-aggression zones?” Savaj asked very clearly.
Trath stopped in midstride and turned to look at Savaj.
“Is it possible,” Savaj asked, “that the greatness cannot exist without the violence?”
“Who has raised with you such questions?” Trath said dangerously.
“I have,” Savaj said. “We have.” He indicated Kirk. “They are implied in the oldest fire myth of these Humans’ world.” He nodded then toward Spock. “This one, bred to their world and born to mine, went out to the stars to investigate the duality of his heritage, and his soul, in the zone of danger – and greatness. This one” – he indicated McCoy – “is a born healer who chooses to fight death in the battle zone. The three together may be a lesson neither I nor my world has yet learned fully.”
That same inquest is very much taking place in Marshak & Culbreath’s next novel, the much-mocked Triangle, in which Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew are caught in an invisible war between two group-mind entities, each one determined to co-opt these starship crewpeople, the foremost avatars of rugged individuality. Both the Oneness and the Totality try to practice mind-control on various crew members, and Kirk and Spock are distracted by the arrival of Sola Thane, an alluring Federation Free Agent who (here we go again) has the authority to relieve Kirk of his command and take over the Enterprise herself – and our two heroes aren’t just distracted by her power-play: they’re also both attracted to her, setting up the lust-triangle of the book’s title. That part of the plot is more than faintly ridiculous, and yet Triangle is full of the break-neck action and exotic scenes that are these authors’ signature – and again, the inner qualities of heroism and individuality are the things ultimately being celebrated here:
“Why?” Kirk asked suddenly. “Why should plurality and diversity mean enmity? Even we singletons have learned friendship, love – a oneness which does not have to mean Oneness. For us, at least, Oneness means the end of the unique entity – dehumanizing, depersonalizing loss of identity. But our kind of oneness” – he gestured toward Sola and Spock – “is a celebration of individual identity, of difference. There is no love, passion, no friendship, no ultimate personal choice which does not depend on the unique, irreplaceable one. It is what we would miss in Oneness, and why we have fought against you with our lives.”
That kind of stuff may be dorky, but there’s an unapologetic grandeur to it as well – a boldness and a willingness to grapple with big ideas, all the mongrel energy of the old fanzines and decked out in new uniforms (and sporting footnotes – our writing team loved annotating their references). The small canon of Marshak and Culbreath – a short story in The New Voyages 2, The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, and these two novels – is fairly small, and much as I love these books (I re-read them all far more often than I re-read any other Star Trek fiction), I realize it couldn’t ever have been much bigger. If the cautious, corporate exponents we saw last time – lifeless things like The Abode of Life – represented one path Star Trek fiction could take as it expanded into the strange new world of successful franchise-support, The Prometheus Design and Triangle represented another path, equally untenable: from this point on, fan fiction must go back underground where it began, and Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath disappear from the Star Trek story.
But they laid the groundwork for a third way before they disappeared. In the wake of the big movie (and borne aloft by the subsequent ones), Star Trek fiction was now a vital, paying concern – it wouldn’t take long for such a venue to attract writers who not only embraced the new fictional reality of the movies but also embraced the need – the freedom – to move well beyond the hell-bent shoot-em-ups of our retiring team, however entertaining those shoot-em-ups were.
Star Trek fiction so far had known passionate amateurs and dispassionate professionals. Up next: the passionate professionals!
May 31st, 2012
It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.
Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:
At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.
But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.
I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.
So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:
Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.
Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.
Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”
So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.
The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.
That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genres – can inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).
And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?
That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.
And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …
April 2nd, 2012
The long hoped-for explosion of Star Trek – The Motion Picture sent out shockwaves that would make the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis look like a New Hampshire firecracker. Suddenly, everything about both Star Trek and Star Trek fiction had changed, and the writers of the latter found themselves scrambling to catch all the whizzing and bouncing ramifications. And as we’ve noted, those writers weren’t alone in their endeavors anymore: STTMP had turned an obscure, cancelled network TV show into a multimillion-dollar property, with abundant ancillary licensing rights that Paramount Pictures took very seriously – not artistically, mind you, but as a source of revenue. It took about a nanosecond for the powers that be at Paramount to realize that their Star Trek movie could also be the start of a franchise, and when you’re supporting a franchise, consistency becomes everything … grey, lockstep consistency.
A key pillar of that consistency was of course the new continuity established by the movie itself. In that new continuity, our familiar Enterprise characters are no longer young – they’re distinctly middle-aged, and they’ve already gone on their famous five-year-mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. They’ve come back from that mission, split up, experienced utterly undocumented ‘lost years’ (like Jesus!), then reunited to save Earth itself from a super-powerful space-probe. At the end of that first movie, our crew is cleaned up, outfitted in ridiculous space-pajamas, and sent off into space to have, we presume, new adventures. When you think about it for even two seconds, you realize what an utterly impossible burden it is for any new novel to bear.
Who are these people, now? What have they gone through, about which we know nothing? At the beginning of STTMP, Spock and McCoy have both resigned from Starfleet, for Pete’s sake, and Kirk has taken a desk-job, which is almost worse. Any novelist with even a speck of imagination (in later years, this would rule out many Star Trek novelists, alas) is going to look at the set-up for STTMP and immediately think the same thing some of us thought while we were sitting in the movie theater watching it for the first time: something happened to this crew, something at or around the end of that five-year mission, something deeply and profoundly personal and traumatic. But no Star Trek writer was allowed to ask that question, let alone answer it – such things were ex cathedra until such a time as a big-screen Star Trek movie clarified them (many’s the time I myself have sat down and started to write that novel – Mission’s End was always my working title, and I knew exactly which original-series character I’d need to make the whole thing gel … but then I’d always remember the fugitive state of Star Trek fiction)(I should dust off my notes and post the whole thing on Fanfiction.net). Instead, those writers were handed a nascent ‘book’ of the new franchise, a rule book of things they were and were not allowed to do.
Is it any wonder, then, that most of those earliest novel-adventures weren’t particularly satisfying? True, Paramount and Pocket Books started off the new, official run of books on the best possible foot: they got the mighty Vonda McIntyre to write the novel that came out directly after Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of the movie itself. McIntyre hit the ground running with that novel, The Entropy Effect, giving us not only a couple of memorably drawn Enterprise crew members (and throwing in what is surely Star Trek‘s first – and only? – mention of The Tale of Genji) but also a female ship’s captain named Hunter, a character so popular half a dozen other Star Trek novelists have name-dropped her over the years. The Entropy Effect revolves around a former teacher of Mr. Spocks’s who now appears to be a dangerous criminal whose experiments in space-time have warped the nature of reality – and caused, among other things, the unthinkable:
The turbo lift doors opened. Pavel [Chekov] stopped whistling.
Mr. Spock walked onto the bridge, and Uhura knew immediately, with an overwhelming wave of despair, that everything had gone terribly wrong.
Without a word, Spock stepped down to the lower level of the bridge. He stopped for a moment, and then he sat in the captain’s seat.
Uhura clenched her long fingers. She had an irrational urge to leap up and run away from her post, to a place where she would not have to hear what Mr. Spock was about to say.
But Spock had opened the emergency paging circuits: when he spoke, everyone on the Enterprise would hear him. There was nowhere to run. Pavel turned around: he too sensed disaster and his face had paled to a sickly shade.
The silence and the tension increased.
Spock closed his hooded eyes, opened them again, and gazed straight ahead.
“This is Commander Spock.”
He hardly ever refers to himself by his rank, Uhura thought, only by his position, science officer, first officer –
“It is my duty to tell you that a few minutes ago, James T. Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, died …”
Under the new circumstances, the book is better than it has any right to be, but it’s nonetheless handicapped by its own vague back-story. At no point in the narrative do readers feel like they’re watching the new, movie-versions of these old characters; despite the silly costumes our heroes are wearing on the book’s cover, the contents feel like they could just as easily apply to 1962 as 1982.
And talk about jarring covers! The cover of Robert Vardeman’s The Klingon Gambit makes a new precedent: it’s just a painting of one of the new-style Klingon warships from the original move – no Enterprise, no Starfleet heroes – just the bad guys. In Vardeman’s largely uninspired book, a marauding Klingon warship seems to have slaughtered a group of Vulcan scientists on a distant planet – and perhaps unleashed a new weapon designed to work like an intoxicant. That latter old chestnut of a device gives license for our characters to be wildly out of character without prompting every reader from here to Argelius to cry fowl. The action turns out to be ploddingly predictable, and in between pokey action scenes we get excruciating out-of-character sequences involving everybody on board the Enterprise, as when Kirk interrupts his own staff meeting to catch Lieutenant Uhura daydreaming:
“What were you thinking about, Lieutenant? A few minutes ago.”
Uhura looked at the table, a shy smile on her lips. “I was thinking about Doctor M’Benga. Isn’t he handsome?”
Several around the table suppressed laughs. A cold stare from Kirk stilled them. “I see nothing funny in Lt. Uhura’s reply. I asked her a question and I received an honest response. You all know your duties. Go about them. Dismissed.”
Kirk watched his senior officers depart. A cold shiver raced up and down his spine. He felt control of his ship slipping from his grasp, and he didn’t know why.
Readers will know the feeling, on display yet again in Howard Weinstein’s The Covenant of the Crown, in which Spock and McCoy are stranded on a bleak distant planet with the vivacious young heiress to that world’s throne, and they all have to survive long enough to see her come to power. On some level, Weinstein must have known he was writing a strictly average roughing-it adventures story (and one that for long stretches could just as easily feature Flash Gordon and Dale Arden as Spock and McCoy), but he has the dilithium crystals to stake out the loyalty high ground in his Author’s Note:
Gene Roddenberry did a wonderful job of creation, and we have done a wonderful job of being loyal, creative, and critical fans. We managed to keep Star Trek alive through the years of struggling to bring it back, and through whatever disappointments the movie or the other books may have caused.
He’s daring you to tell him that his novel is disappointing, and to be fair, some parts of it aren’t; the book’s main action is both tedious and predictable, but Weinstein manages to work in some interesting ‘character’ moments during the quiet bits:
McCoy had met his wife at a square dance the summer after his first year in medical school. They’d walked down the road that led away from the old Simpson barn, on the dust and gravel still warm from a day filled with sultry July sunshine. By the time they’d reached the cool sweet air of the woods and sat on the bed of pine needles and kissed, he’d suspected he might be in love. Across the hills, they’d watched the freighters and shuttles lift off, headed out to orbital stations around the globe – that had been their excuse for the walk, that and getting away from the noise and bustle of the dance – but the launches weren’t all that frequent, and they’d had lots of time to chat and spark.
There was a great old word – sparkin’. He sighed again, and remembered where he was now. What’s it all worth in the end, anyway?
That last line is a dead give-away that the author knows he’s dealing with an older version of McCoy but isn’t sure of much else. Weinstein would go on to write a good deal of Star Trek, but this first novel can’t help but raise the same questions the others raise: who are these crew members? How might they have changed with time and unrevealed experiences? And one more question, perhaps, that many of us were asking as soon as we walked out of the movie theater that first time: is this it? We worked and dreamed and strained to get our original crew back together, to make Enterprise fly again, and this is what we get? Planet-of-the-week adventures, like the least imaginative instalments of the old TV show? Somehow, it began to feel anti-climactic. By surviving and being reborn in a bigger format, Star Trek somehow seemed made now for bigger things, and this wasn’t it. Instead, this was too often feeling like reheated James Blish, as was certainly the case with Lee Correy’s novel The Abode of Life, in which a crippled Enterprise limps into orbit around a distant world full of isolationists who don’t believe in extraterrestrial life. The thing had one of the most unintentionally hilarious covers of any Star Trek novel before or since, a lethally dull title, and an opening paragraph that seemed designed to stop even die-hard fans from reading any further:
“May I call to your attention, Captain, that our present course takes us disturbingly near the reported gravitational turbulence reported by Federation ships in this sector of the Orion Arm?” As usual, Spock was both punctilious and logically correct in his assessment of the situation.
Once upon a time, Star Trek fans would have forced down prose like that, a do-nothing novel like this, out of simple hunger: we had no TV show adventures anymore, and we were desperate to keep this imaginative universe alive. But the arrival of the Star Trek movie signalled a fundamental change: Star Trek was back, and some of us couldn’t help but feel (perhaps without even articulating it to ourselves at the time) that some deep aspect of the game had changed. Of course at the time we had no idea how right that feeling was – as mentioned before, a new element had been introduced into Star Trek, and it had the potential to change everything about the concept. That element was time – we now had glimpses of the Enterprise crew in two different times in their lives. It seemed like a tiny detail at first, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
And in the meantime, we would hurry to Trow’s bookstore for the latest Star Trek novel, troop our beagles back home to consume it, and as often as not feel disappointed in a way that even the rankest fanzine had never made us feel. These books may be Star Trek in look and label, but far too frequently their heart was missing.
Fortunately, help was on the way! And at first, it would come from a very familiar source.
February 6th, 2012
Our book today is Derek Bickerton’s King of the Sea from 1979, when its author was a hale and hearty linguist and rhetorical trouble-shooter who gave off a veritable corona of creativity in virtually everything he did. Bickerton went on to carve out a prestigious name for himself in the world of linguistics, writing a few popular and well-regarded books on the subject. I’ve read those books and very much enjoyed them, but as far as I know, the fact that he ever wrote novels is largely forgotten, and in the case of King of the Sea, that’s a shame. Before he started devoting all his time to examining how stories are told, Bickerton was one hell of a story teller.
This book turns on the oldest trick of sci-fi: the fish out of water (so to speak), the first contact, the emissary to a strange and different world, the drama of aliens meeting – especially when the drama is enhanced by the well-imagined detailing of the alien world. With all due respect to H. G. Wells, Victor Hugo, and my beloved Jules Verne, it was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first taught that trick to the modern world, first in gloriously straight-up terms by magically transplanting an Earthman to Mars and then subversively, by having Tarzan be first the visiting alien to the world of the apes and then again the visiting alien when he returns to British society. Science fiction over the ensuing decades has played with that trick in infinite diversity – Bickerton adds to a rich tradition.
This is the story of Andy Holliday, handsome hot-shot Honolulu grad student who works at the Dolphin Experimental Station by day and parties with drugs, drink, and women by night. But Andy isn’t purely feckless even when we first meet him: he’s driven, and he’s perpetually at odds with his superiors, who are trying to teach an artificial language to the Station’s captive dolphins. Andy begins to wonder if the dolphins already have an equally-complex language of their own, and gradually he manipulates both his instructors and the nearby Naval authorities to let him test his ideas in the ultimate laboratory: the open ocean. Armed with a state-of-the-art oxygen breather and a small propulsion unit, he gets himself dropped into the sea near a pod of stenos dophins (bigger and bulkier than their more familiar tursiops kin made famous by “Flipper” – stenos have only ever been made into villains, as anybody who’s read David Brin’s Startide Rising will vividly recall)(the illustrator of the paperback edition of King of the Sea obviously hadn’t read that far into the book, so trusty old tursiops appears on the cover). His first contact with them couldn’t be more extensive:
Only now they were no longer merely locating me; again, this time much more strongly, I had the spooky feeling of being able almost, but not quite, to read their minds. For sound waves, unlike light waves, are not stopped by our envelope of flesh. Their sonar was going through me like X-rays; the shape of my skeleton, the branching tree of my nerves, the coils of my guts, the puddles of air in my lungs and belly – all those parts of myself secret even from their owner – must now lie revealed to them as clearly as my outer form.
Slowly, Andy learns to recognize the individuals who constitute the pod that ‘adopts’ him, and slowly, he acclimates to living on open water for extended stretches (Bickerton very cleverly makes this process exactly mirror the stages a baby dolphin would go through). To his amazement, he finds that the stenos have not only their own language but an amazingly complex and enlightened society amongst themselves. He begins to share in their play, their happinesses, and – in some of the book’s most exciting sequences – their dangers:
The folklore claimed there were no recorded cases of a killer whale attacking man. And it interpreted this fact, if fact it was, as a sign that Orca, being highly intelligent himself, automatically recognized the King of All the Species and treated him with appropriate deference. I could think of a better explanation. We only know of shark attacks because of the botched jobs, the swimmers who, mangled or merely scared, succeed in getting away. But who would get away from this monster? He wouldn’t just take an arm or a leg; he was big enough to swallow you at a single gulp.
Even in this brief throwaway encounter, Bickerton can’t resist providing deeper psychological shading for this main character who clearly fascinates him:
What was most awful, awful beyond any fear, was knowing that if anyone had come and said, “Do X and I will make the whale go away,” I’d have done it. Whatever X was. Killed, tortured, betrayed. And embraced the one who demanded it as my deliverer. When you’ve known fear like that, you’re never quite the same again. And there was no rational basis for it. What faced me wasn’t a bad death as deaths go. Instantaneous extinction in that tunnel. Better than a shark mangling me. And at least I’d have been killed by an intelligent creature rather than some mud-brained automaton.
In inevitable steps, Andy’s familiarity with his wild dolphin family ripens into contempt for his own species. He thinks of the exploitation, the cruelty, the abuse humans deal to ocean creatures on such a wide scale (in one heartbreaking sequence, he rushes to the Station’s captive dolphins in order to use his new-learned language skills with them – and learns, to his shock, that the endless boredom of their confinement has long since driven them incoherent), and he picks a side in what he views as a war. The novel’s last sixty pages are one enormous gulp of a climax.
The result is a true unsung classic of science fiction – well worth your time, and well worth a nice sturdy reprint, one of these days.