Welcome to Starfarer Science Fiction, an amateur fan site for SF literature. Under the various links you can find bibliographies of certain authors, various 'feature articles' including award lists, a few personal lists of recommended reading, reading order of SF book series and other SF book trivia that I've compiled as part of my hobby and enthusiasm for the genre. I predominantly read the 'classics' of the genre, so information and reviews will tend to focus on well established and 'classic' authors. As a reviewer for Tangent Online, my reviews of current SF magazines can be found on the Tangent site, but summaries and links to the full reviews can be found if you hit the Magazines link.
Biographical information, book reviews and bibliographies of some of the great SF writers
Recommended reading - the best novels, short stories and SF anthologies ever published
Recommended reading order of your favourite SF series - a useful resource
Explorations of SF magazines from the 'golden age' onwards & current magazine reviews
MINI AUTHOR PROFILE 7 October 2021
Fool Killer was published in Astounding Science Fiction in May 1958, and I read it as part of my read-through of the magazine issues in that year. Having started as a fairly typical SF story off-world, it turns into a classic of SF drama and speculation. A computer decides the right justice for an innocent man who's life was ruined when he was wrongly punished for committing murder. It's deemed fair that, as he paid the price for a murder he didn't commit, he now gets one 'free murder' he can commit without penalty. The inventive premise and the exploration of ideas here, presented through SF, is excellent and I think this a classic SF story, though I'd not heard of it before I came across it.
Stanley Mullen was born in 1911 in Colorado Springs and died at a relatively young age in 1974. In addition to his artwork and his publication of the fanzine The Gorgon, Mullen was principally known for his short stories, which saw print between 1947 and 1959. John Campbell published four stories by Mullen in Astounding, one in 1957 and 3 more in 1958. He never won a Hugo or Nebula Award, though he was a finalist for the 1959 Hugo for his short story, Space to Swing a Cat. His sole novel was Kinsmen of the Dragon, published in 1951. All of which suggests he was a minor name in SF, and it's undoubtedly the case that he is largely forgotten. So why the short feature? I recently read a short story of Mullen's and was extremely impressed and would go so far as to suggest it should be a classic.
Mullen's Hugo-nominated tale, Space to Swing a Cat ( Astounding, June 1958) is also worth a read. In this story, animals have been mutated to express intelligence, so they can act as pilots in space. The improved reflexes and single-mindedness of different species are explored (dogs are too stupid, lions too lazy), and it's found that tigers are the best. It's not up to the standards of Fool Killer, but it's not bad. His novel probably isn't worth investigating, however, as it received very poor reviews from the likes of Damon Knight and James Blish upon publication.
NEW FEATURE 8 September 2021
Dangerous Visions - Ed. Harlan Ellison
Published in 1967, the SF anthology Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, has legendary status in the genre as being probably the finest and most influential anthology of new SF stories ever produced. It set a very high standard, several its stories won major awards and the author list read like a who's-who of 20th-century SF.
I recently acquired a near-mint condition first edition of the book (see photo) and have enjoyed reading through it. Ellison wrote interesting and generally quite edgy introductions to each story, which also featured afterwords by each author. My review of each story in Dangerous Visions can be found as a new feature article here.
The finest stories were submitted, in my opinion, by Robert Silverberg (Flies), Philip K. Dick (Faith of Our Fathers), Larry Niven (The Jigsaw Man), Sonya Dorman (Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird), R. A. Lafferty (Land of the Great Horses) and Norman Spinrad (Carcinoma Angels).
REVIEW 22 August 2021
The Hemingway Hoax - Joe Haldeman
Haldeman's short novel or novella, The Hemingway Hoax (1990) won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella, and it certainly confirms Haldeman as being one of the finest and most literary SF writers of the modern era. Haldeman draws on both his love of Hemingway's work, and his own awful experiences from the Vietnam war, to provide a rich, interesting and entertaining story. In 1922, Hemingway's first wife Hadley famously lost most of his unpublished fiction on a train at Paris Gare de Lyon station. This tragic episode set Hemingway back in his writing, and was chronicled in his autobiographical book, A Moveable Feast, which covered his early writing life in Paris, as part of the 'Lost Generation'. As it happens, I read A Moveable Feast immediately before I read Haldeman's work, which set me up beautifully to enjoy this book. I'd recommend reading them like this, if like me you're a Hemingway fan. (A Moveable Feast is itself wonderful, by the way, as George R. R. Martin recently reminded us on his Not a Blog website) .
Haldeman's tale considers whether someone could write a pastiche of some of Hemingway's lost fiction. A Boston university professor decides to see if it is indeed possible to produce a hoax manuscript, which in theory could net millions of dollars. However, as soon as he begins the project, he is visited by a mysterious figure, who takes the guise of Hemingway himself, and who tells him he should not continue with the venture. Hemingway's works are clearly important to the stability of the multiverse; universe-hopping and time travel provide speculative elements, and these are dealt with expertly by Haldeman and whole is neatly drawn.
Haldeman is clearly a bit of a Hemingway scholar, and he says he's been interested in Hemingway's work and life for 25 years; in his afterword, he notes that, like the central protagonist of the story, he also was a Boston literary professor, and also vacationed at Key West. As a result, this short novel not only provides a lot of fun for Hemingway and SF fans, but adds detail to one's understanding and knowledge of the great writer. All-in-all, a super short read, that's highly recommended.
SHORT REVIEW 15 August 2021
Into the Storm - Taylor Anderson
Into the Storm is the first in Taylor Anderson's ongoing alternate history Destroyermen series. The concept is that an old and ill-equipped WWI-era destroyer called into action in WWII encounters a Japanese fleet of ships in Asiatic waters, and looks doomed, until it passes into a strange squall, which transports the ship and everyone on it to a parallel Earth. This is a very different Earth, in which dinosaurs did not die out, and humans do not appear to exist. The sentient species of the the planet appear to be an aggressive descendent of velociraptors, and a lemur-like mammalian species, which are at war with each other.
The book starts at a cracking pace, which Anderson handles well, maintaining intensity while also deftly providing interesting background on the old destroyer, USS Walker, and its crew. One of the joys of alternate history is that you learn as you're entertained; with Into the Storm, the old 'four-stacker' destroyers are interestingly brought to life. The invented elements here, such as the evolved sentient species are also well-thought out and make reasonable scientific sense.
This falls into the SF sub-genre of 'alternate history', as it's set in 1942, but it also reads like a cross between Harry Harrison's West of Eden, and The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Overall, it's a satisfying novel, though it does read as the first book in a longer series; the conclusion cannot wrap everything up, and much is left unresolved for subsequent books. There are now 15 books in the ongoing series and whether I ever read them all is far from certain, but the second book, Crusade, has at least joined my to-be-read list. These books should certainly be read in order, judging by Into the Storm, so if this sounds of interest, be sure to begin with this first book.
MINI-REVIEW 8 August 2021
A Call to Arms - Alan Dean Foster
A Call to Arms is the first book in the Damned trilogy, by Alan Dean Foster. A war is raging across the Galaxy, between the friendly alliance of independent races, called the 'Weave', and the evil, squid-like mind-controlling 'Amplitur', who are intent on converting all races to their 'purpose'. Humans are found by the Weave and encouraged to help in their war. But the Weave discover that we are the most violent, war-mongering, illogical, and self-destructive race ever encountered. This first volume in the trilogy was an entertaining romp, and sets up the following books in a satisfying manner.
Several things raise this book above the average for fun-filled space opera. On the one-hand, it was a novel and interesting idea to make humans unique, as a result of the unusual evolutionary pressures brought to bear by Earth's fractured geography. Secondly, the difference in human outlook compared to other alien races, our tendency to war against our own kind, and our illogical view of many issues, are given a canvas here upon which Foster is able to make many important points. Overall, the idea of humans being the 'bad-asses' of the galaxy is therefore not only a fun concept that Foster plays with, but it offers an opportunity for a discussion of human nature.
CLASSIC MAGAZINE READING 1 August 2021
Astounding Science Fiction - 1958
Alongside SF novels, and my reading of current magazines and e-zines for Tangent Online (see here), I'm also working my way, slowly, through a reading of the 1958 issues of Astounding Science Fiction. These are very enjoyable, and include all the big SF names of the era, that will be familiar to many. The review of the 1958 issues can be found here, and will hopefully be of interest. Some interesting serials are published, including Poul Anderson's The Man Who Counts, and Hal Clements Close to Critical. It is enlightening to see how high the standard was at the magazine in the late 1950's.
NEW FEATURE 19 July 2021
Foundation Series Publication History
The Foundation series of books, by Isaac Asimov, of course started life as individual short stories and novellas, published over an 8 year span in Astounding magazine. This pictorial feature outlines the publication history of the popular series from 1941 until the present day, showing which editions contain which books. For collectors of either the original Astounding magazine issues containing the stories, or of particular paperback editions, this feature may be of some use, as well being an interesting diversion for fans of the Good Doctor's most famous work. Click here for the feature article.
SHORT REVIEW 1 July 2021
Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky
Children of Time is a modern SF novel (2015) which has garnered very positive reviews, averaging a whopping rating of 4.27 out of 5.00 on goodreads at the time of writing. Tchaikovsky has come up with some great ideas here and its these quite novel SF concepts that have led to the general appreciation, I suspect. In the future, advanced stellar ships set out from Earth to terraform and seed other planets. The 'seeding' was to take place using monkeys, coupled with a 'nanovirus' that would speed up their evolution. Unfortunately the seeding expedition succumbed to terrorism at the critical juncture. Jumping forward thousands of years, humankind has essentially ruined the Earth, and the few survivors of the human race, in cold-sleep aboard a slow ark ship, arrive at the same planet to find that all is not well. The principle species to have been influence by the nanovirus on the terraformed planet are actually giant spiders. So, regarding ideas - especially the idea of huge amounts of time passing for the arc crew between the occasions they wake up - it is interesting, and the novel starts brightly and engagingly. Unfortunately, it gets slower and less engaging as it progresses. The book alternates between chapters concerning the human crew of the ark ship, and chapters concerning the spiders on the planet. The humans are not appealing, and the spiders are not consistently interesting. As such long passages of time occur between sections of the book, the same individual spiders are not present from one section to another. Tchaikovsky gets around this problem by giving spiders from different eras the same name, to try and deliver some continuity, but for me it doesn't really work. The book also spends far too long bringing the two races together, so that the alternating chapters are almost completely unconnected for hundreds of pages. This is a long book (600 pages), and frankly it became a slog to keep going. It took far too long for any payoff to occur, and the way the characters were drawn, I found I couldn't care what the conclusion was going to be, anyway. I got close to 400 pages through the novel, but couldn't actually bring myself to finish it, which tells you all you need to know, I think. My recommendation: give it a miss, there are better SF books out there.
NEW FEATURE 16 June 2021
SF Book Cover Art and Artists
A new feature has been added to the site (see here), in which I take a look at 7 of the best and most recognizable SF book cover artists of the last 30-40 years (i.e. in what I consider the 'modern era'). Included are examples of work by Michael Whelan, Bruce Pennington, Chris Foss, John Harris, Peter Elson, Chris Moore and Jim Burns. I may well add others as I come across them and I'm reminded of their work.
MINI-REVIEW 16 June 2021
Podkayne of Mars - Robert A. Heinlein
Podkayne of Mars (1963) was not one of Heinlein's Scribner juveniles, though it does have quite a YA feel to it. Characterisation is good, the plot was ultimately interesting and Heinlein's intelligence comes across as strongly as ever, with many sharp observations.
The final two chapters are especially strong and I enjoyed the little philosophies that Heinlein offered up in the penultimate chapter.
Podkayne is famous for having an original published ending (where the editorial impact is clear) and a better, shorter ending which was Heinlein's preferred conclusion. Find a copy with both endings if you can.
SHORT REVIEW 12 June 2021
The Legacy of Heorot - Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Steven Barnes
Published in 1987, just a year after Aliens was released, this is a hard SF novel with many similarities to that film. Niven, Pournelle and Barnes collaborated to produce an entertaining book that ratchets up the challenges of colonizing a new planet by populating that planet with horrific carnivorous aliens. It starts out as a typical 'bug-hunt' kind of storyline, but just when you think its not going to provide further surprises, the human colonists decipher the biology of the aliens and the stakes are raised, very effectively. Indeed, the xenobiology idea is really neat, and makes this an interesting study in what goes wrong when you mess with an ecosystem. In addition, the characterisation is quite good, making this a fun, but not dumb, read.
The Legacy of Heorot and its sequel Beowolf's Children have recently been re-published by Baen alongside the new publication of the final book in the Heorot series, Starborn and Godsons. This final book was close to complete at the time of Pournelle's death in 2017, but has only recently come to print.
COMMENTARY ON MAGAZINES 12 June 2021
SF Magazines and E-zines: Thoughts on first half of 2021
Over the last 6 months I've read and reviewed many SF magazines and e-zines for
, and the reviews can be found here. It's been interesting to see which magazines publish the better content, and which magazines set a weaker 'batting average'. Of the traditional print magazines, I've found Analog has published the best content on average in the first 6 months of 2021. Of the e-zines, Lightspeed (especially May 2021) has been strong, Clarkesworld more mixed (some great content, but a lot of poor content also), Tor.com has been very so-so, and Strange Horizons has been weakest, with not a single a story I've enjoyed or appreciated. Ten stories to seek out, from Jan-Jun 2021, are:
Obelisker Adrift in the Desert by K. H. Meridian (Clarkesworld, Feb 2021)
The Bletted Woman by Rebecca Campbell (F&SF, Mar/Apr 2021)
Tail Call Optimization by Tony Ballantine (Analog, Mar/Apr 2021)
Invasive Species by Catherine Wells (Analog, Mar/Apr 2021)
Sarcophagus by Ray Nayler (Clarkesworld, Apr 2021)
Refugees by Robert Grossbach (F&SF, May/Jun 2021)
The Plus One by Marie Vibbert (F&SF, May/Jun 2021)
Hypnopompic Circumstance by Gene Doucette (Lightspeed, May 2021)
Little Animals by Nancy Kress (Clarkesworld, June 2021)
Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, June 2021)
SHORT REVIEW 22 May 2021
Camouflage - Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman is an accomplished author, having obtained a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was made a SFWA Grand Master in 2009, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. His first novel, The Forever War, won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award for best novel. His books, exemplified by The Forever War, often reflect his experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam war. A popular figure among his SF writing peers, Haldeman's work is worthwhile and enjoyable.
Camouflage is no exception - this highly engaging and exciting book won the Nebula Award in 2006. The novel is written with great pace and deals with one of the most popular tropes in SF: aliens among us. An artifact is found on the ocean floor at incredible depth, buried under a million-year-old coral formation. Once the spaceship-like artifact is brought up and beached in Samoa, researchers find it has an unearthly density, resilience and origin. What the researchers don't know is that the artifact came from another star, and brought an alien with it - a changeling that has been living on Earth for a million years, existing in the guise of many different species. Now it's finally taken human form and is attracted to the artifact.
To make things more complex, the alien is not alone. A second, and more mysterious alien of unknown origin - a chameleon - is also stalking the Earth, full of evil intent, killing for pleasure whenever it can. The story is told in an open, clear manner, making it easy to follow. The 'changeling' and 'chameleon' abilities of the two aliens are used as plot devices throughout in a satisfying and clever way, and the conclusion is quite strong. This novel is highly recommended, and would be a good book to recommend to new readers who wish to dip their toes in the SF literary waters. One can't help noticing that many other authors might have wrought a long novel series from the idea, but Haldeman has shown a restraint I appreciate, writing a solid novel that stands alone and doesn't require a sequel.
SHORT REVIEW 11 May 2021
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
Cutting to the chase, Aurora is a very good, beautifully-written and thought-provoking book. This is Robinson's take on generational ships, and humanity's dream to travel to and colonise worlds outside our solar system. This is, as ever with Robinson, 'hard SF' and he pulls no punches when it comes to outlining the problems that would be faced with such ventures.
It's hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling the story for new readers, but suffice to say, he's not positive about the chances it will ever really be possible. However, this is ultimately a cry for us to preserve what we have - an argument that Earth is perfect for us, and nowhere else will be.
As well as clearly outlining our need to properly appreciate Earth, and not rely on unlikely dreams of living elsewhere as a last resort to climate change and overpopulation, this book has many other qualities. The greatest of these is undoubtedly the development of the consciousness and 'voice' of the book's main narrator: the ship itself. This is quite possibly the best story arc and emotionally-charged representation of an artificial intelligence yet written in SF.
So, this book is highly recommended. That said, its likely to be one that splits readers - some won't like it that Robinson so effectively dismantles the SF dream of space travel, and its seriousness and message can appear coldly rendered at times. This is not exactly escapist literature (which is one reason many of us love SF), though it is very good literature, and is a compelling read. Whether Robinson is right that space travel to other stars is a silly pipe dream, or will in fact become a reality, is not ultimately that important. The message that we should care for Earth foremost, is what counts here.
SHORT REVIEW 11 May 2021
Seeker - Jack McDevitt
Seeker is McDevitt's third novel in the Alex Benedict series after A Talent for War, and Polaris, and it won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2006. I read this just before reading Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (reviewed alongside) and its interesting to compare and contrast the two novels, as they are both good, but are 'chalk and cheese' in many ways.
In this novel, Alex Benedict and his associate Chase Kolpath come across an ancient plastic mug stamped with the logo of a colony ship, Seeker, which was lost 9000 years ago. This is a major find, as Seeker was used to populate the lost colony world, Margolia, which has by now attained mythical status, like Atlantis.
The book then follows the detective work, and much necessary flitting around the galaxy to try and find first the Seeker itself, and then if possible, the colony of Margolia. In addition to the trail being 9000-years cold, they are also hampered by present day villains who wish to beat them to their find. The novel is freshly-written, exciting and characterisation is good.
This is very different to Robinson's Aurora, of course, though there are similarities of theme. Both books feature early efforts to colonise a planet outside the solar system. But McDevitt is not so concerned with hard science and technological problems. While Aurora is a literary, contemplative, and realistic vision of the future, McDevitt's book is all escapism and the can-do possibilities of a bright future for humanity. That doesn't make it lesser - it's a blast - just different. The world needs both types of SF (at least, I do). Interestingly, Seeker has, to date, been the only Alex Benedict novel to win an award, though three of the following four books in the series were nominated for the Nebula Award.
SHORT REVIEW 26 April 2021
Alone Against Tomorrow - Harlan Ellison
This 1971 collection of Harlan Ellison short stories carries the subtitle Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction, and collects previously published SFF stories on the themes of alienation, isolation and loneliness. While it is not a 'best of' collection, a lot of Ellison's best work dealt in these themes, so the collection is a good one, gathering many of his famous works published prior to the end of the 1960's. Among the most famous stories are I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream (1967) and "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman (1965). The former of these is a very well known SF story, providing genuine horror - and if you've not read it, seek it out (it's widely available in many SF short story anthologies). The latter is more whimsical and jokey, but is highly effective. Both these stories won the Hugo Award and "Repent..." won the Nebula as well.
The other stories in the collection span from 1956 through to 1969. It might be assumed that the more well known stories from the mid-late '60's would be the finer work here, but in fact some of the older stories are very effective. As a tale of isolation and the loneliness of deep space the tale Night Vigil (1957) is successful and enjoyable. Likewise, The Discarded (1959) and Are You Listening? (1958) worked well for me.
Overall, this is a pretty strong collection. It is out-of-print currently (and not likely to be reprinted) but is widely available from used book sellers and easy to find on sites such as eBay. Fans of SF should read Ellison fairly often, perhaps, as you're reminded when doing so how inventive and striking SF short stories can be. Ellison doesn't always hit a home run, and in any collection there will be stories that don't satisfy, but his batting average is pretty good, and when he's good, he's very good. Recommended.
SHORT SERIES REVIEW 24 April 2021
Riverworld Novels - Philip José Farmer
I first read the Riverworld series, by Philip José Farmer in about 1986. It left a mark on me as a super piece of SF and I'd long looked forward to re-reading it. The concept Farmer presents is that everyone who has ever lived on Earth wakes, thousands of years after their deaths, all at the same time on the banks of a great river that crisscrosses an entire world. Nearly 20 million miles long, the river is now home to 36 billion people from all times on Earth, going back to the stone age.
The second novel, The Fabulous Riverboat, does not include Burton much, but switches focus to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his reluctant ally King John, in their attempts to build a great riverboat from a fallen asteroid. Twain has, like Burton, been approached by a renegade 'Ethical' who wishes certain select resurrectees to travel to the headwaters of the river in the arctic circle to reach the stronghold of the Ethicals. Twain, wishing answers, and also wishing to become a riverboat captain again, agrees to the challenge. The story of Twain building his boat, and his tussles with King John are very readable, but it is a shame the book does not link up with Burton more and bring the two story threads together further. A lot of the book's charm comes from the background information on Mark Twain.
The first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, is the best in the series. Each book follows different characters, with some intermixing of their storylines, and the first novel concentrates on the the Riverworld life of several well-known figures from history: Sir Richard Burton (the Victorian explorer and linguist), Alice Liddell (The real-life inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Herman Goering. Winning the Hugo Award for best novel in 1972, its an absolute cracker of a book. Part of the enjoyment comes from the background that is supplied on the historical figures, which is presented in an interesting and thoughtful way. This first novel describes Burton's attempts to understand how and why humankind has been resurrected, and he learns a fair bit about the 'Ethicals' who have engineered the world over the course of the book.
The third book, The Dark Design, is fatter and slower. While Twain is back, he's a minor character, and Burton does not appear at all. The main characters are imagined persons, rather than historical figures, and the plot is starting to go over much of the same ground covered previously. In this book, a dirigible is being built to reach the Ethicals at the pole faster than Twain's boat, and it seemed a mistake on Farmer's part to enable this solution to the problem of how to get there. While historical figures do appear (Tom Mix and Jack London, notably), they are not fleshed out as well as Burton and Twain in the previous books. In many ways this book is not nearly so successful, and the aims of previous book protagonists to solve the riddle of the Riverworld are not advanced, despite the greater length of this book. The fourth book, The Magic Labyrinth, answers the questions regards the Ethicals and the purpose of their resurrection experiment, but I have not yet read it in this re-read. So, how does the series rate, and what books are recommended? Certainly the first book is recommended, and it actually stands alone fairly well. The second is also a pacey and fun read, and while it will not answer all the queries one would have about the Riverworld, and ends in a rather abrupt and sudden manner, it is worth a read to continue after book 1. Just be warned, if you like Burton, he's not in it much - but if you love Mark Twain, its enjoyable to read a story featuring him. Reading further than this is not necessarily recommended. The third book is weaker, and doesn't advance the series story much. However, the fourth is - if memory serves - a little better and does provide some resolution to the series, so if you're really into the series, you'll want to read book 3 simply to get to book 4. A fifth book, The Gods of Riverworld, was a late add-on, and is not I believe essential reading.
SHORT AUTHOR PROFILE & STORY REVIEW 6 April 2021
Jack McDevitt & Voice in the Dark
I recently undertook an interesting reading exercise, in which I read through all the Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine issues from 1986. For the purpose of the exploration, I assigned each story in the issues with a 'reputation score', with marks given for awards won, award nominations, subsequent inclusion in anthologies, etc. I then read the top 3 reputation score stories from each issue. This feature article can be found under the magazine tab above, or click here. The reason I mention this, is that the finest story I read in these old magazines did not obtain a high 'reputation score', though it was excellent and recommended reading. The story was the novella Voice in the Dark, by Jack McDevitt. This novella is an extract from his 1986 first novel The Hercules Text, which I have not yet read. In the tale, a signal from a distant pulsar suddenly stops, and then returns, but with gaps that fit mathematical sequences, providing proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. When the messages become more complex, information is transmitted that could threaten our survival, given humankinds proclivity to self-destruct. What should those who received the information do with it? The story explores whether all information should be shared, and whether we are capable of surviving increasing technological advances as a race. The implications of the story are profound and frightening. This is a very, very good SF novella - one of the best I've read, and will join the short list of stories I advise new readers seek out. It wasn't even nominated for either the Hugo or Nebula Awards, but it deserved to have won both. So, if you're looking for a great hard SF novella to read, look out for Voice in the Dark.
Jack McDevitt (born 1935) is a very good SF writer, though not someone I've featured on the site before. He writes in a smooth and accessible manner, while maintaining smart plots and thoughtful ideas. He is perhaps most famous for two ongoing series of books, that feature returning characters - the Alex Benedict series and the Priscilla Hutchins series. While they cross-reference events in other books in the same series, books from these series all standalone well. His signature plot device is the discovery of alien artifacts, and first contact - themes he has written about in numerous quality novels. I have read several of McDevitt's books, from the two series mentioned, and also a few of his non-series SF novels.
Books by McDevitt that I've particularly enjoyed include:
Eternity Road (1998) - Far future Earth novel in which survivors explore an Earthly wasteland
Infinity Beach (2000) - great far future first-contact novel
A Talent for War (1989) - First Alex Benedict novel - alien archeology
Polaris (2004) - Second Alex Benedict novel - more alien archeology and mystery
The Engines of God (1994) - First Priscilla Hutchins novel - contains very big SF ideas
While I mentioned the novella Voice in the Dark did not win any awards, McDevitt did win the Nebula Award for Seeker, the third Alex Benedict novel, and eleven of his other SF novels have been nominated for Nebula Awards.
NEW FEATURE ARTICLE 13 March 2021
Astounding/Analog Authors Through the Decades
Ever wondered which authors have had the most stories published in the most famous and historically-important SF magazine, Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed to its current title Analog Science Fiction & Fact)? By collating author data for each decade, I have arrived at some interesting statistics. The article can be found via the features link above (or click here).
The top ranking 15 or so authors for each half-decade are listed (see '30-'34 table shown here as an example), along with a final top 10 for each full decade. At the end of the feature article, summary statistics for all time are presented.
One of the nice things about the undertaking of collating every author's input to the magazine, from every issue, has been learning more about some of the classic and well-represented authors, especially from the early years. I have a new-found respect and knowledge of the likes of Nat Schachner, Raymond Z. Gallun and others as a result. It was interesting, in researching the early magazines from before the 'Golden Age', to learn about F. Orlin Tremaine's 'thought variant' story initiative that ran from December 1933 to mid-1937. These 'thought-variants' are discussed and described in another article under the 'magazine' link above, for those who are interested.
SHORT REVIEW 28 February 2021
Slan - A. E. van Vogt
Slan was a hugely popular and well-regarding novel in the 1940's. Originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction (Sep-Dec 1940) it was first published as a novel in 1946. The story concerns the racial enmity and fight for supremacy between 'normal' humans and a race of super-human, named 'slans', after their originator Samuel Lann. In this future, the world is run by the original human race, under a dictator, who runs an autocratic 'antislan' world government. One young slan, Jommy Cross, escapes detection and destruction by the humans and, with the aid of secret technology developed by his late slan father, tries to protect and and improve the position of slans in the world. Like most van Vogt books, Slan is a frenetically-paced book, full of action and ideas. This very pace doubtless helps the reader from inquiring too deeply how well it all fits together. No sooner do you read through a highly fortuitous and previously unsignaled plot device or some hand-waving technological description and start to think, "Hey, now, wait a minute..." than van Vogt sweeps you off again with the next improbable development and you kinda forget the issue you had. At the end of the day, van Vogt is about cramming multiple science-fiction ideas into fast-paced adventures, and Slan delivers on that front.
REVIEW 11 February 2021
Timescape - Gregory Benford
Timescape, by Gregory Benford (1980) won the Nebula Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. It's a magnificent achievement and thoroughly recommended, not only for lovers of SF, but also for those who are thinking of trying out the genre. Benford is an astrophysicist and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. As a significant and accomplished physical scientist in his own right, he was able to create not only an intelligent hard-SF novel that makes good internal sense, but also the best novel about science that I have ever read. As a scientist myself, I'm well aware how wrongly it is often portrayed in books and film. The scientific process, the need to publish in scientific journals, the inter-relationships between scientists, and the uncertainties behind scientific theory are all captured perfectly.
This is a time-travel story; but the difference here is that the time travel is conducted only through messages, sent from 1998 back to 1963 by way of tachyon transmissions. The attempt is being made, from Cambridge in the UK, as the world in '98 is suffering an ecological disaster. If only a message can be sent back to '63 to warn scientists then of the impending disaster, perhaps they could amend their experiments on crop optimisation - experiments that ran out of control. The method of messaging is very clever, and the dual perspective - half told from Cambridge and half from the receiving laboratory in La Jolla in 1963 - works very well. The storyline in La Jolla chiefly concerns the interpretation of the nuclear resonance 'messages' detected in a lab sample of indium antinomide and reads like a detective story. The '98-based scenes in the UK offer a counterpoint to this storyline, by providing pathos and urgency.
Overall, this may be the finest hard science-fiction story I've read. Gregory Benford is not the household name in the genre he perhaps should be. This novel alone would make him a worthy recipient of the SF Grand Master award.
SHORT REVIEW 7 February 2021
Wild Cards II: Aces High - Edited by George R.R. Martin
Wild Cards III: Jokers Wild - Edited by George R.R. Martin
The Wild Cards Universe books are inventive and enjoyable, and are the only form of 'superhero' fiction I indulge in. Edited by Martin, there are 'mosaic' novels written with some flair by a cast of highly competent contributing writers. Volumes II and III, which I recently read, included contributions from Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, Jon J. Miller, Walton Simons and Melinda Snodgrass among others. Each author has developed their own superhero 'Aces", villains, or 'jokers' and then contribute those sections in each book. Cadigan invented "Water Lily", who graces the cover of Aces High, for instance.
In Aces High, the Aces of Manhattan have to deal with the invasion of Earth by The Swarm, a disaster which a supervillian (The Astronomer) wishes to use to his advantage to gain ascendency over the world.
In Jokers Wild, with The Swarm defeated, the Astronomer uses the annual Wild Card day to enact a terrible revenge upon the Aces who helped defend the Earth and disrupt his plans in the previous book. The Astronomer is a genuinely evil creation. Indeed these books offer up great characters throughout - not simply paper-thin superhero pastiches, but fully-fledged adult characters one engages with. I'll be reading more Wild Cards books, I'm sure. For a list of the books, which are collected in story-arcs, see the reading order page for these books, here.
NEWS 1 February 2021
Joined Tangent Online Review Team
I'm delighted to announce that in January 2021 I joined the review team at Tangent Online. I'll be reviewing current print and e-market short story publications for the online magazine. My reviews won't be posted here, but links to them can be found through the Magazines link provided above.
One of the first reviews I've provided is for Clarkesworld #173 (Feb 2021), which can be found on the Tangent Online site, here.
REVIEW 18 January 2021
Destiny Doll - Clifford D. Simak
Destiny Doll is, one the one hand, quite unlike much of Simak's output, and on the other, still very recognisably 'Simakian'. If you wanted an example novel to go along with a definition of what is science-fantasy (rather than straight SF), here it is: Destiny Doll. A young, rich woman hunter of alien big game (Sara) obtains the services of a cynical starship captain (Mike), who is himself on the run from his misdeeds, to seek out a fabled adventurer (Lawrence Knight) who left known space many years ago in search of something. Sara and Mike are guided across the galaxy by a blind telepath, George, who hears a voice telling him where to go, and George's helper, an apparently weak and possibly fraudulent religious man, 'Friar Tuck'. Upon reaching the planet of their destination, they find they are held captive by the planet, and undertake a quest across its surface in search of Knight. On the face of it this sounds like a fairly standard SF plot, until you encounter the characters and witness the scenarios that befall the troupe. Helped by a strange alien (Hoot), our heroes are at first waylaid and then helped by hobby horses (yes, that is indeed rocking horses), meet centaurs, a robot who speaks almost entirely in rhyme, and are attacked by trees. And ultimately the destiny of our heroes is deeply affected by an ancient wooden doll. To say more would enter spoiler territory, but the fantastical elements here are clearly stronger than the SF elements. But as strange as all this is, Destiny Doll is a compelling read, and internally consistent. Reading like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Through the Looking Glass, Simak uses his full imagination here to weave an intriguing plot, and inquire: what is it we are searching for and why? Is it a place, a thing or a feeling, and can our greatest desires fulfill us if they are isolated wishes, rather than being part of a social or group destiny? The allegories here give this book a depth and thoughtfulness that raises it above many SFF novels and Simak's prose is clean and clear as usual. Moreover, we are aided in accepting the utter strangeness of the planet by the cynical captain, who finds it all quite as strange as us and looks on it as a bizarre place he wants to escape. Also noteworthy is the fact that Simak's captain Mike Ross is a cynical no-good (at least at the start) which is unusual for Simak, but it allows the character to be the be both the foil to our disbelief in the planet and also provides Simak a flawed character who can ultimately find redemption. So, this novel is recommended - suspend your SF disbelief and enjoy the ride.
MINI-REVIEW 14 January 2021
Exceptions to Reality - Alan Dean Foster
This 2008 collection of short stories by Alan Dean Foster is a delight, containing well-written tales spanning SF, fantasy, magical realism and mainstream genres. The most successful stories are The Muffin Migration (alien colony-world SF), Wait-a-While (magical realism set in the Queensland rainforest), The Short, Labored Breath of Time (super; either SF or fantasy, it's your choice) and The Last Akialoa (non-genre really, but an excellent story). These stories are beautifully done, and it's a wonder that Foster's work hasn't attracted more awards over the years - several here are Hugo or Nebula Award quality pieces in my opinion.
MINI-REVIEW 14 January 2021
Ellison Wonderland - Harlan Ellison
This is an early collection of Ellison's work, mainly containing stories from the late 1950's. Read immediately after the Foster collection reviewed here, it was interesting to see that, despite his mercurial reputation, Ellison's stories were much more mixed. Some of the stories here were weak offerings, though some others were great and gave a sense of what was to come in his later work. The finest stories here (all worth seeking out) were Commuter's Problem, Do-it-Yourself, All the Sounds of Fear (the most shocking and best story in the collection) , The Sky is Burning and Nothing for my Noon Meal.
REVIEW 10 January 2021
Fire with Fire - Charles E. Gannon
Baen book covers are all bright, with high colour, jazzy type and suggest old-fashioned, rip-roaring SF with a military bent. This doubtless works well for them in sales, but to have such a singular publication style does seem to throw all the books into one basket. A casual reader could be excused for thinking they are all rather similar, pulpy and/or low-brow. Thankfully, Baen books are much more varied than this, and this book by Charles E. Gannon is a great example of "don't judge a book by it's cover". Fire with Fire (2013) is an intelligently written novel of first contact and alien world exploration, but also a tightly plotted thriller. Reading like a cross between a fast-paced Robert Ludlum novel and one of Jack McDevitt's ancient alien discovery books, this is a superior SF novel. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and quite rightly so. Gannon combines a sharp intellect with well-researched science and political machinations that ring true. His characterisation is also good, with the protagonist, Riorden Caine, proving to be a likeable hero.
This is a good sized novel (about 650 pages) but it reads quickly and is well written. One of Gannon's strengths throughout the book is the suggestion that there is more to come, and bigger things to be discovered and revealed, without ever giving the game away. His aliens, as we see more and more of them, are also interesting and well conceived, reminding me of the deft touch Cherryh always has with aliens. The only downside for some (it will be an upside for many) is that while the book is complete, it is clearly the first in a longer series. If you want a book that is entirely standalone, this may not be for you - it's clearly leading into a greater confrontation between humans and the other alien races. There are four sequels: Trial by Fire (2014), Raising Caine (2015), Caine's mutiny (2017), and Marque of Caine (2019).
The fact that 4 of the 5 novels in the Caine series have been nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel should demonstrate these are more than just pulpy fast reads. Incidentally, Gannon would appear to be a smart cookie: a Distinguished Professor of English, Fulbright Fellow and expert consultant for national media (e.g. Discovery Channel) and intelligence and defense agencies, including The Pentagon, Air Force, NATO and NASA.
BLOG ENTRY 29 December 2020
My Year of SF in Review
2020 has of course been a very difficult year for many, with a pandemic virus causing untold harm and preventing normal travel and activities. I've been very lucky to be in New Zealand at this time, and the only impact on my life has been to be house-bound at times. I know I'm lucky. These changes have meant a lot of time for many to read, however, and I'm hopeful that some have taken up reading SF. This year I've read reasonably widely, but I've still focused on 'classic' (i.e. older) SF in the main.
Earlier in the year (and before I started this website) I read several classic SF novels which I am able to heartily recommend including The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg, The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke, Healer by F. Paul Wilson, Merchanter's Luck by C. J. Cherryh, Between the Strokes of Night by Charles Sheffield and Footfall by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle. These were all good, and worth seeking out. Two of these probably deserve further mention:
The Stochastic Man, by Silverberg may be my favourite book to date by this author. It posits the question, if you know exactly the time and manner of your death, even if it's years in the future, how would that affect how you lived your life? I love stories that are about something, and this queries a basic fundamental to human life - that the requirement to strive and endure to unknown ends is essential to life's journey and to the value of our existence. In essence, its an existential novel, such as might have been written by Camus. A fine short novel.
Between the Stokes of Night by Sheffield is great, because it's space opera with big and novel ideas. In this book, the method of interstellar travel is enabled by the crew and passengers slowing their body clocks so much that their relative appreciation of time is massively reduced. But eons pass outside the ship. In looking at the relative time shifts between those travelling and those staying in one place, the book looks at how this affects humanity and relationships (in a similar way to Haldeman's Forever War). It was also a great plot and well written - I'll be seeking out more Charles Sheffield in future.
In addition to some great older books, I also read a few newer SF books. The book most worth mentioning here is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. This is not a perfect book, and falls short of being in my list of all-time favourites, but it did win this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it certainly had positive qualities. The imago devices provide an interesting plot and they are a great SF idea. In addition, the characters are roundly drawn and appealing. There's more than a hint of Cherryh's Foreigner books in the dense political aspects to it, and this will be good or bad, depending on your view of those rather slow books. Much is achieved through subtle influence and pressure by certain individuals upon other individuals to bring big changes in the Empire. This gives the book a sense of depth and maturity, but I'm not sure it quite rings true - political change is actually more complex and harder to redirect than is implied. The apparently fluid sexuality that the main characters display is fine, but to have many of the main characters bisexual seemed unnecessary and artistically suspect. Lastly, my main reservation is in the pacing; while it has periods of excitement, it is patchy in this regard. In short, it read like a first novel, by a talented new author who's still refining her trade.
Coronovirus put paid to the usual Worldcon this year (CoNZealand 2020), which was hugely disappointing to me, as it was to be in Wellington, here in New Zealand. I had booked flights down, a hotel, membership of SFWA, etc. Instead, I watched it avidly online. The organisers did a good job providing a virtual con, and I enjoyed what we did get enormously. As mentioned in the original post on the Con, the chats between the likes of Silverberg, Martin, Dann and Haldeman were the highlights for me, and judging from the number of attendees to these online sessions, they were generally popular. One positive outcome to this was that it inspired me to seek out some of George R. R. Martin's earlier SF work. As a result I've read a number of his famous short stories, as well as made a start on the Wild Cards mosaic novels that he edited. Reading this earlier work has reminded me just what a fine writer he is. I became a bit frustrated with his Game of Thrones fantasy books, but his early SF is super - find it and read it if you can.
The Worldcon is the event in which the Hugo Awards are announced of course. They were notable this year, I felt, for two reasons. Firstly, George Martin, as toastmaster, came in for a heap of criticism for mispronouncing the names of some nominees. He was called a racist and other unpleasant things, which I felt was highly unfair. Admittedly, he pronounced several names wrong, but of various people from different nationalities and genders, and there was no suggestion to me he did anything other than make some honest mistakes. In all other ways, he was charming and entertaining as toastmaster - in contrast to the self-serving and highly ungracious speech made by Jeanette Ng which was a disgrace. But the Hugo's and their organisation have got a little lost, it seems to me, with 'diversity' and political correctness being taken to extremes these days. This brings me to the second issue I noticed regarding the Hugo's: the nominees seemed, more than ever, to offer diversity for the sake of it. If you are writing SF from one of the majority groups (e.g. male, white and straight), the message is clear - don't get your hopes up too high. If the nominee stories were all excellent (as they should be) this would be a non-issue - it shouldn't matter a jot to which background or group the authors affiliate of course. Except there are two inconsistencies here: firstly, the short story nominee authors were not actually a very diverse group, but a rather narrow group (predominantly LGBT women) which rather undermines the point of championing diversity; and secondly, the short stories themselves were simply not very good. I didn't rate any of them highly, and I'm quite sure none of them would have won a Hugo Award 10 years ago. This suggests to me they were nominated on the basis of the author, not the story. It's a shame, I think, as there is still good SF out there, but if your face isn't 'diverse' enough, your work seems less likely to achieve recognition in the current climate. I'm hoping this is a temporary trend, reflecting current social pressures and the laudable imperative to undo some of the misogynistic, male-oriented and predominantly white background of SF literature's past. Fairness to all, and genuine diversity, is of course a positive advance, and should be supported. But current efforts in this regard seem to have overshot what was required, and the end result smacks of minority "social-justice warriors" now running the show; it would be nice to see SF work lauded whatever the gender, race, and sexual persuasion - even if that means the author happens to be, for instance, white, male and straight. I live in hope.
Finally, I should note in reviewing the year that I've started to read a lot of old magazines, especially Analog (and now Asimov's) from the 1970's and 1980's. The quality of science fiction in these magazines was truly excellent, and I encourage all to find older issues of these magazines. I've recently re-subscribed to Analog and Asimov's and I'm hoping to get more enjoyment from the current issues in 2021. Reviews of stories and articles from these magazines will continue to appear here (under the magazine tab) over the coming year.
REVIEW 7 December 2020
A Time of Changes - Robert Silverberg
Very much a product of its era, this novel comes from the middle of Silverberg's most productive period of quality, award-winning SF. Published in 1971, A Time of Changes won the 1972 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and was also nominated for both the Hugo and Locus Awards. On the world of Borthan it is forbidden by religious covenant to use personal pronouns, a moral crime known as 'self-baring'. Use of I or me is dreadfully rude and can lead to arrest. The Septarch's (monach's) younger brother, Kinnall Darival tells his tale by way of an autobiography.
As suggested, this is a product of its time - the novel explores the idea that psychotropic drugs can expand consciousness and be highly beneficial and it also contains a good deal of sexually-explicit scenarios. These are both hobby-horses of Silverberg, of course, so it's not surprising to come across such themes by him in a book from this era. Silverberg always manages to write about such themes from a very adult perspective, however, so they rarely seem at all gratuitous.
During his travels through the northern continent of Velada Borthan, the prince encounters a man from Earth, who introduces him to an illicit drug from the less-developed southern continent of Borthan. This drug opens up a connection between mutual takers of the substance. This connection reveals to Kinnall the benefits - love, respect and togetherness - that self-acknowledgement can bring.
The setting for the novel is unusual. It's certainly SF, as Kinnall meets an Earthman, Schweiz, and also discusses the historical settling of Borthan by those who came from Earth and spread across the galaxy. However, the culture seems quite primitive in most respects, and in tone and setting it bears resemblance to fantasy. In this respect, it shares some similarity to Silverberg's own Majipoor books. Overall, this is a well-written, thoughtful and successful book. Silverberg tackles some interesting themes, and his idea of a culture that bans consideration of 'self' is certainly thought-provoking. The cover of the edition I read (shown here) shows the skeletons of a hornfowl and its human prey in the Burnt Lowlands of Velada Borthan.
FEATURE UPDATE 6 December 2020
Reading Explorations of Old Analog Magazines
As mentioned on the 6th November, I read and reviewed one story per issue from each month of Analog published in 1983. I've since extended this reading exploration to 1973, bringing the years reviewed in this manner to: 1973, 1976, 1979 and 1983. I was very impressed with the quality of the material in these magazines from this decade. In fact, I was so impressed that I wondered how and why it does not garner the awards it used to. To this end I also carried out the same exploration of one story per issue from 2014. My review of 2014 and conclusions can be read here, but the short answer is that, with rare exceptions, I believe the top authors are simply not writing short fiction for the magazine anymore. 1973 was notable for excellent early SF short fiction from George R. R. Martin.
The magazine was of course edited by Ben Bova from January 1972 through to November 1978. Mr Bova very sadly passed away last week from complications arising from Covid-19 infection. I have very much enjoyed his books over the years, as well as appreciated his fine editorship of magazines, including Analog. His passing is a sad loss to the SF world.
SHORT AUTHOR PROFILE 29 November 2020
Gordon R. Dickson
Gordon R. Dickson may be best known for his military SF novel Dorsai! (1976) and its numerous sequels that make up his Childe Cycle of novels. However, Dickson wrote an awful lot of other good SF. Born in Alberta, Canada in 1923, Dickson was inducted into the SF Hall of Fame in 2000, the year before his death. He collaborated a good deal with Poul Anderson (notably on their Hoka! books) and won 3 Hugo awards, and 1 Nebula. His Hugo awards were for the short story Soldier, Ask Not (1965), and in 1981 he won both the best novella category (for Last Dorsai) and best novelette (for The Cloak and the Staff). The Nebula award was won with his novelette, Call Him Lord (1967). Why bring Dickson up now? I just read a serial (novel) by this author that was published in Analog between August and October 1973, entitled The Far Call.
The Far Call is a terrific short novel, serialised in 1973 Analog, that was later expanded into a longer novel in 1978. This is great hard SF and if you like reading tales of realistic solar system exploration in the near future, you would enjoy this. The action is split almost 50:50 between Earth (Kennedy control and the political difficulties behind a manned-voyage to Mars), and the action on board two spaceships who are making the first Mars-bound trip. This story is as much about the way in which political pressures can adversely affect practical outcomes as it is about going to Mars. And yet, there is plenty of action to enjoy too. Due to an over-crowded experimental schedule, agreed to by political committee, the astronauts ('marsnauts') are over-worked and start to make minor mistakes. When disaster strikes, their problems are compounded. The serialised version of this story is I believe only available from Analog, but the expanded 1978 novel (well reviewed upon its publication) may be easier to find. Warmly recommended.
While on the subject of Gordon Dickson, it may be interesting to those who have not previously heard the suggestion, but he is believed to have 'invented' the idea of Star Wars' lightsabers! Whether George Lucas was aware of Dickson's novel Wolfling (1969) or not we cannot know for sure, but the description of an alien weapon called a 'rod' would be unerringly familiar to Star Wars fans. Wolfling was serialised in Analog in 1969 and illustrations on the cover of the January 1969 issue and in the March 1969 issue show the alien rod weapons (see below).
The artwork for Wolfling certainly looks as though it could have provided inspiration to a young George Lucus, who has commented that he read a good deal of SF in his younger days.
Other works by Dickson that I've read include Dorsai! , the first of the Childe Cycle novels. I read this a year or two ago and certainly enjoyed it and would recommend the book. The Child Cycle was an ambitious writing project, and was never completed. The series title is an allusion to "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", the poem by Robert Browning and was conceived by Dickson as a long allegory of human evolution. Planned to extend from the 14th century through to the 24th century, the published novels only begin in the 21st century with Dorsai!
Artwork for Wolfling (Analog 1969)
SHORT REVIEW 23 November 2020
The Shrinking Man - Richard Matheson
The Shrinking Man is of course, a SF classic, so it's not surprising that I enjoyed it and thought it was pretty good. It's as much a nice metaphor for losing control and dignity from disease and the effects on personal relationships of catastrophe, as it is a simple SF adventure romp. It is quite exciting however, and it's an engaging and fast read. Matheson writes well and is good with his characterisation. Told from the perspective of the shrinking man Scott Carey, in close third person, it shuttles back and forth between two time periods: (i) from when he first notices his height diminishing to when he gets stuck in the cellar (roughly from 6 feet until he's under 1 foot), and (ii) his time in the cellar as a very small figure (under one inch). This way of jumping back and forth in time, each time period progressing and showing the effect of his shrinking is very effective. He spends a lot of his time in the cellar waging a long-drawn out war with a black-widow spider. From a scientific perspective, it's all rather silly of course, with the cause of the shrinking stemming from a sudden dose of 'handwavium', and many simple physical effects at a minute level are ignored (such as surface tension). But the positives are much stronger than the negatives, and one doesn't read books like these in expectation they will 100% concur with physics text books. That said, the conclusion, in the sense of what happens to Scott when he reaches zero inches, didn't entirely work for me. A solid recommendation, overall, however.
The Shrinking Man was published in 1956 and has been adapted for film more than once, most famously in 1957, as The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal Pictures). The film was well received, and starred Grant Williams as Scott and Randy Stuart as Scott's wife Louise. Following the success of the film, several reprintings of the book have used the extended title.
The novel is included in the Library of America two-volume boxed set American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary Wolfe.
SITE FEATURE/UPDATE 22 November 2020
Great Women SF Writers
Given the authors I have read the most books by happen to have been predominantly men, this website might give the impression that I don't appreciate women writers of SF, or that I may be ignorant that there are great female SF writers out there - and that there have been since before the golden age. To offer a counterpoint to this, I have drawn up a (non-exhaustive) list of a selection of the women writers who are perhaps the best recognised and respected in the genre. I've tended to limit myself to authors I have read something of, and have liked their work. They are presented in birth order, from earliest (Mary Shelley) to the youngest writer in my current list (Arkady Martine). The list may well grow as I read more female SF authors in future. There are probably many current best-selling female authors not yet in the list who deserve to be there, but this will doubtless be because I'm not (yet) familiar with their work. The annotated list itself can be found by following the Recommendations link above or simply click here. For those who just want the bottom line: my favourite female SF authors currently writing and publishing new work are probably Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Moon, C. J. Cherryh, Martha Wells and Arkady Martine.
C. L. Moore
SF NEWS 19 November 2020
Disney Withholding Royalties from Alan Dean Foster
A news story outlining dreadful mistreatment of one of my favourite SF writers by a media giant has broken in the last day or so. It was revealed in a press conference held by SFWA President Mary Robinette Kowal, Alan Dean Foster and Foster's agent Vaughne Lee Hansen, that since acquiring the rights to both his old Star Wars novels and more recently his Alien novels, Disney have not been paying Alan royalties for his books. This is in apparently clear contravention of his royalty contract. Bizarrely, Disney claim they acquired the rights to the books, but not obligations to pay royalties. This sounds patently ridiculous of course. Alan has apparently been trying to raise this with Disney for a long time but has had, to date, no joy other than a recent offer to meet under an NDA, which would be highly unusual before any discussions have even started. Hopefully it will be resolved soon, and Disney will either pay the back-royalties and royalties going forward, or pay the back-royalties and hand the publishing rights back to Alan. In the meantime, I'll be avoiding Disney products where possible, and buying and reading Alan's non-Disney-owned books with increased fervour. As such, I ordered Alan's 2008 short story collection, Exceptions to Reality immediately after watching the press conference. The full announcement from SFWA, along with an opportunity to view the press conference can be found here . Thankfully, this issue has received a lot of coverage on the net, with articles on The Wertzone (where I first heard about it), Deep Dark Space, and in numerous twitter feeds from sympathetic fellow authors such as Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, N. K. Jemisin and others, with the hashtag #DisneyMustPay. Hopefully all the media attention will force Disney's hand.
CURRENT READING 06 November 2020
Reading Through Analog Magazine, 1983
I'm currently reading through the issues of Analog Science Fiction & Fact from 1983. I have all these in paper copy, and from each one I'm selecting a single story, novelette or novella to read. The selection is based either on which story garnered the most awards historically, on personal preference of certain authors, or occasionally, entirely randomly. I've conducted the same exploration of Analog magazine issues from 1976 and 1979 also, recently. Reviews and comments from these old magazine readings can be found through the Magazines tab above in the menu, or for this current read through you can simply click here.
I've found that reading a selection from each issue means you end up reading some of the less well known stories by famous and/or favourite authors, but it also 'requires' one to read stories by authors who were well regarded in the 70's and 80's but which have been largely forgotten, except by the most avid SF fans. From 1976, 1979 and 1983 Analog issues I've lately enjoyed stories by authors such as Hayford Pierce, Arsan Darney, P. J. Plauger, Michael McCollum, and Thomas Easton. These have all been to a large extent 'discoveries' for me.
APPRECIATION 29 October 2020
Fredric Brown & his novelette 'Arena'
Today marks the 114th anniversary of the birth of the 'Golden Age' SF writer Fredric Brown, perhaps best known for his novelette, Arena. I thought it might be nice to pay brief homage to the author and his famous story. Arena was published by John Campbell in the June 1944 issue of Astounding magazine. A human scout ship pilot, Carson, finds himself transported to an arena on an alien world by a god-like third party 'entity'. In this arena he must pit his wits, strength and resilience against a representative of the alien race with whom the humans are currently warring. The stakes are survival of either species, the loser of the personal combat dooming his race to oblivion. It's a cracker of a story. Coming before the advent of both the Nebula and Hugo Awards it didn't receive any gongs upon its publication, though it is widely regarded as one of the great, classic SF stories. It has been anthologised many times by the likes of Asimov, Aldiss, Conklin, and Silverberg (notably in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology), and its been translated into at least 10 languages. Star Trek used the main plot idea in Episode 18 of Season 1 of the original series ("Arena", which first aired 19th January, 1967), in which Captain Kirk faced an alien (a 'Gorn' in the TV show) in similar circumstances of personal combat. I've read several other Fredric Brown stories and I generally enjoy them, though none so much as Arena so far.
Fredric Brown seems to have been an interesting figure. By all accounts he didn't like writing much, and this may be why he became most well known for short fiction, publishing only five short SF novels between 1949 and 1961, but over 100 short SF stories between 1940 and 1967. Philip K. Dick was very complimentary of his 1945 short story The Waveries (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1945), and it has been anthologised to a similar degree as Arena. I've read The Waveries, and it's an excellent short story, about an invasion of earth by waveform 'aliens' that render electrical technology impossible, sending humanity back to a nineteenth century way of life. Likewise, The Star-Mouse (Planet Stories, Spring 1942), Pi in the Sky (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter 1945), and Sentry (Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1954) are other highly regarded stories worth seeking out. In total, six of Brown's short SF stories have been short-listed for Retro-Hugo awards in recent years. In addition to SF, Brown wrote a lot of detective and suspense fiction with considerable success. Happy birthday, Fredric! (Fredric Brown died in 1972 at the age of 67, but perhaps the powerful entity that arranged Carson's test in Arena will be able to pass on the birthday greetings somehow).
SHORT REVIEW 11 October 2020
The Hard Way Up - A. Bertram Chandler
The Hard Way Up is the third volume in the John Grimes series of space opera books by Australian writer Chandler (see reading order here), and unlike the first two (which were novels) this comprises seven linked short stories. The Grimes books are invariably fast, entertaining reads with humor, surprises and interesting ideas and this was no exception. Back in the day (this was published in 1972), the Grimes books were well regarded and popular, being positively reviewed and compared to Asimov's Foundation universe, and Heinlein's Future History by Analog magazine. While these comparisons have not stood the test of time, its a slight mystery why these books are not more popular now. Of the seven stories here, I probably enjoyed The Wandering Bouy and What you Know most.
REVIEW 09 October 2020
The Man Who Melted - Jack Dann
With The Man Who Melted (1984), Jack Dann wrote an ambitious and thought-provoking novel. Dense, and requiring of close attention, this is not an effortless read, though it does ultimately pay off. Set in the 22nd century, the protagonist, Ray Mantle, spends the book searching for his wife, who he lost during the outbreak of 'The Scream' - a breakdown of civil order through crowd-based telepathic panic, brought about by dystopian changes to society. Mantle's undertaking to find his wife is made more difficult due to his almost complete amnesia regarding her.
The world in which Mantle lives is very different to ours, and Dann goes out of his way to challenge our assumptions and and offer a different world view. Sexuality is somewhat fluid and faithful monogamy seems uncommon. The wealthy and bored get their kicks by gambling on their organs or taking the re-enacted maiden voyage of the Titanic. The key technological advance is the psi-connector, a way to plug into other peoples thoughts and minds. Through use of psi-connections and telepathic links, Mantle searches the 'dark spaces' of reality to look for his wife, who may or may not be dead.
While the writing is dense and the plot is involved, the book is not that hard a read. It's well written, and manages to keep the reader's attention. This is just as well, as it does take some concentration. I had thought as I neared the end that it would not perhaps end very satisfactorily, but in fact, it has a rather good denouement that ties things up quite neatly. However, while I've read some very positive reviews of this book (and it was nominated for the 1985 Hugo Award for best novel), it is somewhat flawed and has a couple of important detractions for me. Firstly, the two main characters (Mantle and Pfeiffer) are not at all likeable, and the reader is given little reason to hope Mantle will indeed find his wife - I think this is a problem, as one wants to invest emotionally in the hopes and aims of at least one character in a novel. Secondly, the nature of the plot is such that we spend a lot of time in Mantle's or someone else's mind, navigating the dream images of these characters, and the connections brought about by the strange 'circuit fantome' psi-link between characters. The problem here is that describing dreams or thoughts in an engaging manner is next to impossible. Its similar to the thankless problem of writing about new or alien music - its not possible to really grasp and imagine what such experiences are like and thereby it's not possible to engage emotionally with the images or outcomes described. Given the book spends a lot of time describing these semi-conscious telepathic states, the end result is one of disconnection from the writing and the novel. In short, its an ambitious and intense work, well written and with much to appreciate, but which is nonetheless somewhat flawed due to unlikeable characters and too much telepathic hand-waving.
SHORT REVIEW 1 October 2020
The Reefs of Earth - R. A. Lafferty
I read the The Reefs of Earth in a couple of days. That indicates it's a quick read, which further suggests it's very readable. But as it's Lafferty, that only tells a small part of the story. I'm not sure what I think of it, which I expect is a common response from readers of this most eccentric of writers.
Its odd, I think I can say that without hesitation. I suppose its humorous, but in a surreal, wry way, not a chuckle-some way. It's about a family of Puca people (from another planet) who are living in the mid-west of America at an indeterminate time, who think nothing of killing 'Earthers', who they don't much like or respect. The children of this family (6 young children and one ghostie) run off from their parents and swan up and down small tributaries of the Missouri, communing with dead "Indians" (who they do like), and chatting about how they will kill everyone on Earth, without really getting on with it.
And that's about it. There is no real denouement and nothing that is set up at the start really comes to pass. People get chased, several get murdered, and the Puca sing there way through the events by way of four-line rhyming poems that are supposed to act as spells, but which never actually seem to do anything at all. In many ways, it's a load of old rubbish. And yet, I think I liked it. The language is kinda fun (it's written in a folksy manner that seems to place it in the past, though its set in modern times) and Lafferty trips you up constantly with non-sequiturs and strange observations that may or may not be wisdom.
One thing I can say, Lafferty is a true original. You would think SFF, by its nature a genre of imagination, would be replete with myriad true originals, but in fact there are only a few I think. They derive from and follow no-one else, they plow their own literary furrow and they have a signature style of writing that surely was never taught. I can only think of two authors who definitely fit this description: Lafferty and Cordwainer Smith, and you could perhaps include PKD as an honourable mention. We perhaps need to read the true originals now and then to remind us of the infinite scope of SFF writing, which can sometimes seem rather derivative.
SHORT REVIEW 15 September 2020
God Emperor of Didcot - Toby Frost
There actually isn't an awful lot of humorous SF out there. The yardstick by which humorous books get compared is inevitably The Hitch-Hiker's Guide the Galaxy, and that's perhaps unfair, but the choice of comparators is not great. Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith books actually stack up pretty well. This, the second book in the series, concerns the invasion of Urn by the evil Ghast Empire. This is a disaster, as Urn provides the British Space Empire with most of its tea, which as we all know, provides the Moral Fibre upon which the people of the Empire depend.
This is an overtly English book, aimed at the English and full of British in-jokes and cultural references. That's not to say it couldn't be appreciated by those outside Britain, but many jokes won't warm the heart of the non-British as they did for me. The jokes come thick and fast, but not at the expense of the characters and their development, and the plot is well paced and engaging. Rarely do I actually laugh out loud when reading, but this did have me spraying my tea in sudden amusement more than once. Ultimately, funny books will always struggle to offer the depth and resonance of more serious works, and this is indeed the case here. But it is nonetheless a wry, clever, and well-observed satire of the British (and their fascination with tea).
SHORT NOVELLA REVIEW 11 September 2020
The Queen of Air and Darkness - Poul Anderson
This novella, or iginally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 1971, went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novelette that year and both the Hugo Award for Best Novella and the Locus Award for Best Short Fiction in 1972. Quite how it won in different story length categories is a mystery (its a novella). What is not in doubt is its quality though. A woman hires a private detective, on the colony world of Roland, to find her young son who suddenly disappeared. The boy has been taken by the natives of the planet - the 'Outlings'; rumour and myth has been growing that these creatures are elvish or faerie creatures of celtic or norse mythology who live in the far north.
Sightings of Outlings have not been made in the main centres of human civilisation, but in the arctic border communities the rumours grow and gain strength. As the mother and the detective travel north, the truth behind the disappearance of human children and the nature of the Outlings becomes clearer. This is a good story, exploring the clash between cultures, between modern rationalism and natural mysticism. This cultural clash does not resolve to a single truth, rather it implies that different outlooks shape one's truth, without rendering other outlooks impossible. I liked the story very much, and by switching between the rational immigrant humans and the 'faerie' Outlings, Anderson gets to write successfully in both genre's at which he was a master, in the single story.
REVIEW 5 September 2020
The Eleventh Gate - Nancy Kress
The Eleventh Gate is a new space opera from the multi-award winning author Nancy Kress. I'd previously only read some of her short fiction, which I've been very impressed with. This novel follows the political and military fall-out that results from the discovery of a previously unidentified interstellar gate, leading away from the 10 inhabited worlds of humankind. Since the fall of Earth most people have either lived on Polyglot (a neutral, politically moderate world), on one of three worlds run by the Peregoy Corporation (a benevolent dictatorship) or on one of the three worlds run by the Landry Corporation (an extreme 'libertarian' meritocracy). Both the Peregoy and Landry systems are of course deeply flawed, though the Peregoy's seem have the moral high-ground in the main. How this all plays out was quite interesting, and the writing here is fresh and pacy. I enjoyed the characterisation, and Kress does a good job of presenting some characters as initially appealing, until we learn more and more of their moral failings and eventually learn to despise them, which provides a sense of growth to the story arc. Where the book was perhaps slightly less successful for me, was in the slightly simplistic sociopolitical ecosystems that are presented. It's difficult to clearly convey sociopolitical complexities in a SF novel where you also want to present and explain so much else (such as interstellar gates). But I struggled with the idea that whole planets (or collections of planets) could ever accept a unified culture. While the plot concerns rebellion against these unified cultures at the time of the book, they have been stably in place for 150 years by that time, which seemed a little hard to swallow. We have hundreds of languages, cultures, religions and political systems here on Earth - why when we get to new planets do we all buckle down to the same planet-wide beliefs? This is not a particularly pointed criticism of Kress' novel, as it is perennially a problem in SF, which often pitches planet A at war with planet B - I've only chosen to raise it here - but the issue did strike me as I read this book. On a positive note though, some aspects of the novel, such as corporation-led government rather than nation states, and the use of biowarfare, rang true.
Interestingly, this book looks at the ramifications of losing connectivity between star systems. The same broad idea was also key to the plot of Scalzi's Interdependency Trilogy and its hard not to make a few comparisons between the books as a result. Scalzi's books are very smoothly written and accessible, but The Eleventh Gate was not less satisfying overall for being less punchy. In fact, in some ways, I liked this novel slightly better. I found Scalzi's construction of the Interdependency challenged credulity more than Kress' unified planet-wide cultures and I also marginally preferred Kress' characterisation, I think.
So, all-in-all, I'd recommend this, with minor reservations. It's a well-paced and engaging story, with good characterisation and a satisfying story arc. On the flip side, it won't win awards for startling originality, the sociopolitical construction did not entirely work for me, and the story doesn't exactly go where I thought it might, beyond the eleventh gate (it would be hard to say too much on that front without giving away spoilers). Finally it's worth noting, this reads as a complete story. Kress may conceivably write sequels to this book in due course, but they are not necessary, so if you are looking for a standalone 'military' space opera with some interesting ideas, this would be a worthwhile book to try.
SHORT REVIEW 25 August 2020
Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch
I don't read a huge amount of fantasy, especially not urban fantasy, but this was really rather good, and I enjoyed it immensely. Aaronovitch writes fluidly and well, and introduced some engaging characters here that I'd like to revisit (there are many sequels). The history of London is also well captured and the fantasy story arc is well thought through and interesting. This is a SF website, while this is fantasy, but the genres are so closely related, recommending some fantasy occasionally is fine and I'll get over it. So, warmly recommended.
OPINION 22 August 2020
CoNZealand: 78th 'Virtual' WorldCon
I 'attended' CoNZealand last month and enjoyed it very much, in the main. There was much wailing and nashing of teeth by a vocal minority following the Hugo ceremony (in which George RR Martin mispronounced some nominee names), which I think was probably misplaced, but I hope that won't for long overshadow what was otherwise a successful, virtual, WorldCon.
The panels I enjoyed most were actually those where GRRM chatted and reminisced with old friends Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman and Jack Dann. These discussions were a fascinating insight into the SF scene in the 1960s and 70s - just my cup of tea. Joe Haldeman and Jack Dann came across as engaging and likeable too, and it's encouraged me to seek out more of their work.
SHORT REVIEW 15 August 2020
Shipwreck - Charles Logan
This is essentially a Robinson Crusoe-style adventure of a lone survivor from a spaceship accident on an alien planet. It's hard SF, describing the day to day trials and tribulations of the surviving pilot. It's a sad tale, well told; at times gripping, at other times full of pathos. If you read this book you'll also be able to say you have read the entire published output of Charles Logan as he never published anything else! Recommended.
SHORT REVIEW 8 August 2020
Infinite Dreams - Joe Haldeman
This was a good collection of short stories originally published between 1972-77, and is recommended, despite the rather dated cover on my paperback edition. The best story here is probably Tricentennial, which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1976. Haldeman introduces each story with interesting asides about how they came to be, or what they mean to him. A superior, very readable collection.
SHORT REVIEW 20 August 2020
Interdependency Trilogy - John Scalzi
The Collapsing Empire - The Consuming Fire - The Last Emperox
Like most books by John Scalzi, these are well written and easy to digest. Scalzi gets on with things in his novels, avoiding padding, and as a result they come out at reasonable lengths - a rarity these days. I enjoyed the overall concept behind the collapsing empire, which seemed novel to me and the characters were on the whole engaging. One gripe would be that certain characters went out of their way to be obnoxious and vulgar. While I don't mind vulgarity per se, where it adds to the plot or mood, I felt here it was rather gratuitous, and conducted to make the characters simply appear 'cool'. We are invited to appreciate their direct manner and side with them, but I personally found the approach missed the mark. That said, this is a minor gripe ultimately, as the good in these books far outweighed the bad for me. Recommended for lovers of space opera with only slight reservations. Those who are already fans of Scalzi will eat these books up.