Showing posts with label Science Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science Fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Galaxy Jest

Like many Chicagoans of my generation, I grew up watching old science fiction movies after school. Invariably, the character playing a scientist offered up an explanation for whatever tragedy threatened to befall humanity. Usually this came in the form of a ravaging monster, and the explanation generally involved mutation caused by radiation.

Like a child, I always bought the explanation. Of course, at the time I was a child. Recently I encountered a book description in which the hero was the richest man in the galaxy. “Really?” I thought. “There are an estimated 200 billion stars in our galaxy. How could anyone determine who its richest man is? Sounds like bad science to me.”

Putting galaxies to extravagant uses is not unique to this book. Other examples abound. Like the movie, Interstellar, for example. Its story has astronauts taking a wormhole ride to another galaxy in search of a habitable planet.

I can’t understand why. Our galaxy is thought to be 100,000 light-years across. Given so much space there should be a habitable planet right here in the Milky Way. Some speculate that the nearest one could be just 13 light-years away. So why travel so far?

Apparently they decided to go to another galaxy so they could use a wormhole conveniently located near Saturn. But how do they know the wormhole leads to another galaxy? What’s to stop it from leading to a different location in our galaxy, or to another universe altogether? And if they knew they were going to another galaxy, why didn't they name the movie Intergalactic instead of Interstellar?

Like with other science fiction movies, a scientist offered an explanation. The scientist is theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne. He was instrumental in modeling the appearance of the movie’s black hole. Despite his efforts, I don’t buy the premise. To me it’s just plain stupid to go looking for a place to live in another galaxy when there’s plenty of nice real estate closer by. And that’s why I won’t be seeing Interstellar.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tastier than rhubarb pie

M.H. Van Keuren
Fiction 650 pages
CreateSpace, 2013

At 650 pages, a story becomes too lengthy, unless it’s skillfully told. And this book is very skillfully told. The characters and the future setting are believable and the story is interesting.

Part of this novel is set in space, however no light sabers are drawn and no ray guns fired. Indeed, the only instances of violence occur not in space, but in a Bangkok boxing gym and over breakfast in a refugee camp. Large battles are planned and fought, but the action doesn’t occur on battlefields. And the enemies do not readily show themselves. They mostly lurk unseen in cyberspace.

In some ways, Teague Werres, with his robotic lemur, reminds me of an early William Gibson cyberpunk. However, Teague is very much his own man, not Gibson’s. Son of American missionaries and self-raised in Bangkok, Teague is street smart and ambitious. Presented with an opportunity to study far from Earth, Teague finds himself among the wealthy and influential. If he is clever and lucky, he’ll survive with his integrity intact and avoid becoming their pawn.

Compared to Teague, Rob is less complex. He is somewhat naive, under-ambitious, and loves liquor too much. Yet his heart is pure. Before the two are through with each other, Rob and Teague will interact in complex ways leading to unexpected conclusions for both. The book ends where it should, however there remains much to learn about the fate of the two men. I hope there’s a sequel, and soon, because I really want to know what happens next.

I liked Van Keuren’s first book, Rhubarb very well. However, I enjoyed Legitimacy even more. While Rhubarb is a satirical romp, Legitimacy is wholly serious. While Rhubarb describes a simple man’s desire for romance and escape from a dead-end job, Legitimacy is more fleshed out and philosophical. Both books involve conspiracies. The one in Rhubarb involves space aliens, while the conspiracy in Legitimacy involves humans. You can imagine which conspiracy is more frightening. That’s right, people can do really scary things. What’s worse is that they can be subtle in how they go about it. This was an intriguing book. Like rhubarb pie, Van Keuren is addicting.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Space Jockey

Space Jockey (Science Fiction Short Stories)
Tara Maya, editor, multiple authors
Fiction 315 pages (estimated for Kindle)
Misque Press. 2013

As the title implies, each of these stories involves piloting a spacecraft. However, there the similarity ends. One craft is barely large enough to support a crew of two while several others have remote pilots. Just as the book supplies spacecraft in a diverse variety, it does the same with story plots.

Many of the stories deal with warfare, and some deal with military versus non-violent solutions. One such is Tara Maya's "Food, Peace, Power". In this story, two determined men, a military leader and a civilian pacifist engage in a contest of will and wits. You can't read this story without respecting both men, their differing viewpoints and their conflict resolution styles.

Philip K. Dick's "Mr. Spaceship" takes a different view of warfare. His protagonist views war as a bad habit acquired by humanity and never out grown. His solution involves a radical approach and a fresh start.

In her story, "Semper Audacia", M. Pax presents warfare at its grittiest. Leda is the lone survivor of her brigade and now her people depend on her to save their civilization. There's no room for hesitation or error, however Leda has ghosts her fallen companions' ghosts to guide her. Are the ghosts real or has Leda gone mad? This story packs action and suspense into a tight container.

Another strong female protagonist can be found in Ethan Rodgers' "Farsider". This tough pilot makes the best of her exile on Titan and finds comfort where she can.

Other stories in this collection address artificial Intelligence, quantum physics, quests to explore deep space, and the loss of one's humanity. There's quite a range of topics packed into one collection.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Touring the stars with Myron and friends

Ports of Call
Jack Vance
Fiction 300 pages
Tor, 1998

Jack Vance
Fiction 204 pages
Tor, 2004

Myron Tany longs to visit other worlds. When the opportunity arrives at last, he readily agrees to captain his great-aunt’s space yacht. When she strands him on Dimmick, he demonstrates the resourcefulness typical of Jack Vance heroes—he joins the crew of a space freighter.

Now Myron begins the series of minor adventures that fill out Ports of Call and its sequel Lurulu. While some Vance stories are filled with adventure and danger, others are closer to a P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy of manners. This story is one of those.

Although Myron Tany is the central character, the books are not entirely about his doings. Their episodes also involve the ship’s crew members and its passengers. In the end, two themes emerge: 1) lurulu, an undefinable state of self-realization and contentment, and 2) the friendship of the freighter’s four crew members.

When Vance wrote these stories, he was well into his older years and had already lost his eyesight. The two books are uniquely Vance, however their characters are not the plucky heroes of earlier Vance novels. Myron is unexciting and conventional, yet displays enough wanderlust to join a ship’s crew. The other crewmembers are neither dashing nor daring, except perhaps Fay Schwatzendale, who compensates for his good looks with his cautious and skeptical manner.

Vance, himself, spent time on freighters. And while his freighters plied the seas, rather than the stars, Vance experienced his share of distant customs and vistas. He lived and wrote abroad with his wife during various periods. Some of the exotic customs which make their way into Vance’s fiction may be parodies of customs he encountered abroad. In his autobiography, Vance describes of a port in Chile where the strict enforcement of laws parallels their enforcement on one of Lurulu’s worlds. In many of his novels, Vance tells the story through a single perspective. Here he employs the perspectives of multiple characters of varying ages. These are books to be sipped rather than gulped.

The two women who play important parts in these books include Myron’s great aunt and the captain’s mother. Aunt Hester is depicted as vindictive and vain, while the captain’s mother is frivolous, vain, and senile. Both refuse to let go of their youth, and one wonders if they may have been modeled after some of Vance’s contemporary female acquaintances.  Another elderly character, Moncrief, is a showman who manages to muster enough of youth’s second wind to hold his troupe together.  Unlike the captain’s mother, or Aunt Hestor, Moncrief demonstrates the possibility of aging with dignity.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amazon – It’s a jungle out there

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury
Fiction 256 pages
Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition. 2012

Out of curiosity, I looked up Ray Bradbury’s, “The Martian Chronicles” on Amazon. I read it as a child and enjoyed it immensely. However, even then, I could spot Bradbury’s inconsistencies and deviations from his basic milieu. Still, there are those who consider it a classic, so I looked.

This book, published in 1950, includes stories published during the later portion of the 1940s. That explains the inconsistencies—Bradbury didn’t set out to write a book. It emerged from his stories. Actually, that’s part of its charm. The Mars in one story isn’t quite the same as the Mars in another. And, there’s no great effort to be scientific. That’s not what Bradbury is about.

The book has 391 reviews and well over half of those display five stars. However, I was more interested in the nine one star reviews and perhaps a few of the twos. Two of the one star reviews, and at least five of the two star reviews, were written by A Customer—amazingly all on the same day. It makes one wonder how many Amazon accounts A Customer has, or perhaps multiple people use that handle and write reviews at the same time.

Two of the reviewers found Bradbury’s language graphic and/or offensive. At least three reviewers found the book dull. One called it far-fetched and another said it was the “worst non-fiction book i ever read.” Did he mean to write science fiction?

After reading some of the reviews, I’ve come to several conclusions: 1) some people don’t proofread, 2) some people are offended by 1950s era profanity, 3) some people found the book dull. Regarding the second two conclusions, I further conclude: 1) some people don’t see many movies, at least not those without G ratings, and 2) if you prefer science fiction with more special effects, you should probably stick to movies.

Before Amazon, books didn’t get 391reviews. That’s because there were only a handful of people with literary credentials available to write them. Now you don’t need literary credentials to write a review. There’s been a revolution and the people have taken the power from the critics. There are good aspects to the democratization of opinion. However, without experts to tell us what to like, we may sink to the depths of bad taste. Therefore, we still need literary critics, unless something high-minded emerges to take their place. Luckily, civilization generally survives temporary lapses of good taste.

Among its advantages, Amazon, provides a path to publishing that some authors would not otherwise have. It also provides a platform for hacks and lack wits. Still, there are some self-published gems out there. There are also thousands of me-too opinions, uneducated opinions, and trolls lurking about. In fact, it’s a jungle—so one must tread carefully. In time, the jungle will become more manageable. Let’s just hope it isn’t destroyed in the process.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Instant Karma

The Tea Goddess
Dekker Dreyer
Fiction 156 pages
Fringe Majority LLC. 2010

Kai and Ceire died before revealing their secret. A generation later, the Tea Goddess sends Remy a book—a book that profoundly affects his future. Soon he’s running for his life without knowing why.

Soon he’ll learn about his karmic debt and will need to repay it. But in order to do that, he’ll need to survive.

In this brief novel, few words are wasted. It takes off like a shot and races to its conclusion with just enough character development and world creation to make it believable. Personal dilemmas and violent action keep the tension high until the end. That end brings peace to several of the characters, but torment to another.

The book length of 156 pages is somewhat misleading since there’s a lot of white space throughout (I read the Kindle edition). Although not necessary, readers will take a bit more from this book if they have some familiarity with Chinese Buddhism.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Well, duh

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy
Orson Scott Card
Non-fiction 140 pages
Writer's Digest Books, 2001

 Ever read something so obvious that you go, “Well, duh?” Maybe you reacted that way because the information was so right, so intuitive, and so self-evident that you thought you already knew it. Perhaps you did, or perhaps the information arrived so naturally that you failed to realize you received a lesson. That’s how this book works.

Card begins with an explanation of what constitutes science fiction or fantasy, and the differences between the two genres. On the surface, it seems obvious, but there’s more to it when you look a little deeper. Readers may not care what genre they’re reading, but it’s important for authors to know what genre they’re writing. This is especially true now that mixed genres are becoming popular. However, mixing genres is not the same as muddling genres. Muddling results in genre pollution. For example, I can’t think of anything vaguely scientific about zombies, yet there they are muddling up the science fiction genre.

Authors also need to know the difference between genres in order to set, and follow, the rules pertaining to the worlds they create and write about. Knowing how starships travel, or how magic is worked, brings credibility to stories, even if the information is never mentioned in the story. This principal applies to other elements of a story as well. When an author knows his character’s background, the history of the story’s milieu, etc., then his story is more believable, even if this information is not shared with readers.

There are four story types, Card maintains. These are: milieu, idea, character, and event types. Authors need to know the differences between each type, and must be certain that the type they start a story with, is the same as the type with which it ends. Otherwise readers are baffled and disappointed.
Story worlds should be built with exposition techniques that don’t interrupt story action. Card uses another author’s story to explain how effective and unobtrusive exposition is accomplished.

The final quarter of the book addresses a writer’s lifestyle and business practices. Although Card offers good advice, similar advice is available in other writing how-to books. Some of the information is outdated and fails to address the rapid changes occurring in the publishing industry. But don’t let that stop you from reading an otherwise excellent book.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tightrope Ride

Farewell Horizontal
K. W. Jeter
Fiction 249 pages

There is only the building, cylindrical and huge. And, choices are few. Most live a dull and conventional life on one of the horizontal levels. Others live a creative, yet precarious, vertical existences on the building’s exterior.

Ny Axxter has chosen a freelancer’s life on the vertical. It has its risks, including starving or drawing fire from a corporate tribe fighting for control of the building. The vertical life offers hope as well, hope of fortune and hope of freedom.

There is much that Ny doesn’t know. He knows there are stars above him, but he does not know what lies beneath the cloud wall below him. He doesn’t know what’s on the night side of the building, or what horrors live within its sealed center. He sees angels flying in the distance, but knows little about them.

However, Ny is no more ignorant of the building’s secrets than the majority of its other denizens. This is how things have been since the war. No one seems to know how things were before the war. Moreover, no one seems interested in finding out.

Ny Axxter lives in a cyberpunk world, dystopian and corporate controlled. He’s just another gutsy punk trying to cut it on the fringes of a society run by faceless corporations. His journey is fueled by the need to survive. If he’s lucky, he might learn something on his journey, but in the end his hard gained knowledge will only scratch the surface of the unknown. However, only by surviving another day, and growing slightly wiser, does progress occur. It’s an exciting journey. Come along for the ride.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An excellent sampling of Richard Purtill’s fiction

Parallel Worlds of Richard Purtill
Richard Purtill
Fiction 404 pages
AuthorHouse. 2011

This collection contains a full-length novel, “The Parallel Man” and ten additional stories, including some never before published. Some of the stories are science fiction, some fantasy, some combine elements of both. Regardless of genre, they are all delightful. For example:

What would it be like to be so empathetic that it causes emotional distress, or to see the world through the eyes of others instead of one’s own? Richard Purtill addresses extreme empathy in “The Chrysenomian Way”, and the second theme in “Other’s Eyes”. The situations in both stories, like those of most Purtill stories in this collection, have unexpected, yet satisfying, solutions.

When live actors perform in the space faring Universal Commonwealth, their psionic technique creates rapport with their audience. In “Blackout” an actor learns that gods can also use psionic rapport. Will he be able to face down a god and stop its killing spree?

Can a vampire live a comfortable life on a Greek island among malicious and superstitious neighbors? Is the arrival of a beautiful stranger his key to escaping an eternity of lonely despair?

The final four stories in the volume are adapted from Russian folk tales. Although each of the four stands on its own, together they form a suite of related stories. Several feature a knight named Karl, a war veteran now weary of killing, who seeks nothing more than a worthy cause to serve. Karl’s heroic humility will charm those who read his adventures.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is science fiction a dead genre, or is it merely un-dead?

As a science fiction fan, I follow several sites that post about eBooks. Of late, I see many new titles about werewolves, vampires and zombies. Such creatures are fine when they keep to their proper genre, but when they masquerade as science fiction I get irritated.

I like the end of the world as well as anyone, but does it always have to be the same zombie stuffed, vampire ridden post-apocalyptic world? Why can’t you authors write stories like those in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth”? Vance mixes crumbling technology and magic without resorting to un-dead or dog-eared characters. Why can’t you guys?

Occasionally one of you gets a vampire right, but werewolves? Come on. And, zombies—plah-eze—they are so implausible. I mean, can a walking sack of rotting flesh get readers to suspend disbelief? Let’s try something new, something with at least a trace of science in it, not another werewolf story. Is the world going to the dogs, or what? 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Demons Hide Their Faces

Demons Hide Their Faces
A. A. Attanasio
Fiction 183 pages (Kindle)

This collection of short fiction for Kindle contains seven stories which appeared in print in “Twice Dead Things”. As a shorter collection, “Demon’s Hide their Faces” provides a good introduction to A. A. Attanasio for those not yet familiar with his writing.

In general, Attanasio writes science fiction and fantasy — but not always — and both can be found in this volume. Two of the stories, however, don’t strictly meet my criteria for either genre. I consider “Death’s Head Moon”, like Attanasio’s novel, “Kingdom of the Grail”, to be historical fiction, albeit tinged with the fantastic and mythical. Attanasio’s character, Richard Malone, is plunged into ancient Irish myth while fighting alongside Seamus Doyle during the First World War. When the war ends, he carries his ghosts and a volume of Nietzsche, through a rough and tumble life until a hobo translates a few words of the book he carries.

Malone’s life takes several more turns and he ends up in Hawaii. Here too, he encounters the mythical, only now it wears new masks. What begins as a war story ends as a detective story and in a surprise. There is no escaping the Death’s Head Moon.

My favorite story, “Ink from the New Moon,” takes place in an alternate history in which Chinese, rather than Europeans, were the first to settle the U.S.A. In this alternate history, Attanasio is able to bring a westerner’s interpretation to Buddhist concepts while preserving the story’s Chinese sensibility. This melancholy story of love and loss opens the collection and primes the reader for the stories that follow — stories that engage both emotionally and philosophically.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Jack Vance
Fiction, 204 pages

Over his long career, Jack Vance has been a prolific science-fiction writer. Sometimes his writing is exciting, sometimes subdued. His 2004 novel, "Lurulu" is of the latter sort. But what it lacks in treacherous villains and dangerous situations, it makes up in its richness of detail and pursuit of meaning. Lurulu is a mystical place, or perhaps state of being—a concept that means something different to each person. The book speaks of friendship and of the adventure of everyday living—at least everyday living for spacemen.

This sequel to "Ports of Call" begins after Myron Tany has offended his eccentric aunt and been put off her ship. Being a resourceful youth, he quickly finds employment on another. As the Glicca travels from star to star, Myron and his colleagues encounter interesting characters, societies, customs and beliefs. Although nothing much actually happens, the writing is superb, the dialog, sparkling. The pace is perfect, the content entertaining and the style satisfying.

Future critics may not consider this to be Vance's best work. But it's not his worst. Vance, writes in his preface to the 2007, "The Jack Vance Treasury", that he considers, "Lurulu" to be his, "final book." Vance, born August 28, 1916, was 89 when he penned that June 2006 preface. The writing in "Lurulu," like the texture of fine old wine, is mellow. Some things do improve with age.
Check out this entry on VanderWorld for a bit more on Jack Vance.
Photo by David M. Alexander. Taken in the early 1980s.
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