Sunday, April 30, 2006

Planet Stories (One)

Cosmic Tales: Adventures in the Sol System (Baen Books, ISBN 0-7434-8832-6). Edited by T.K.F. Weisskopf.

Rummaging through your book collection is a dangerous thing. Before you know it, you start re-reading a book you've read previously and you are on your way!

McAndrew and The Law (Charles Sheffield): As I hinted above, I'm almost reading this book by accident. I had just re-read this story last year, as part of a re-read of all the McAndrew stories that had been published before Sheffield's death. Here's my review of the tales. An enjoyable little tale that explores The Law, a.k.a., The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Alas, re-reading it just makes me sad (again) that Sheffield is not around to give us more of these stories. And no McAndrew novel. Drat. Darn. Damn. Etc.

Jailhouse Rock (James P. Hogan): A story that introduces us to the character that Hogan uses in the novel Martian Knightlife. It had some echoes of classic short stories by Arthur C. Clarke, but I only enjoyed it to a extent. I'll probably like it more after I read the novel (so many books, so little time).

Windows (Jack McDevitt): A sad story that ends on a slightly hopeful note. Mankind explored much of the Solar System before pulling back and leaving the exploration to robots. A young girl wonders why we're letting robots do everything, why the spirit of adventure seems to have left humanity.

Cleaning Lady and Are We There Yet? (Travis S. Taylor): This was my first encounter with Taylor's writings, as a result of this story I picked up Warp Speed (in hardcover, something I almost never do for a new author!) and Quantum Connection. The story draws heavily on Taylor's real-life experiences in designing some "exotic" propulsion systems for NASA. It adds the danger of near-Earth objects, terraforming Mars (actually using those Earth-orbit crossing asteroids to a good use) and eco-terrorists. While I've enjoyed Taylor's other solo and co-written works, I wish he would visit this near-future, hard SF setting again with either more stories or a novel!

Communications Problem (Margaret Ball): I've got a vague recollection of reading other stuff by Margaret Ball, but nothing that has stuck. This one was a lot of fun. She takes the optimistic outlook of some of the High Frontier folks and takes it to a logical conclusion. Sure, every culture or splinter group can have an O'Neil colony. But does that mean they'll get along? The main character, Elaine, works as a combination traffic cop and resource allocator for communications bandwidth among the various colonies. When one broadcasts Hindu chants too much, another one complains, etc. Toss in a friend who is trying to fix her up, and a client from another colony who keeps sending her flowering trees and kittens (which drives her hyper-allergic boss nuts) and you've got an amusing and light (lite?) tale on the frontier.

High Roller (Allen M. Steele): This story is set in Allen M. Steele's future history of short stories (e.g., Sex and Violence in Zero-G: The Complete Near-Space Stories) and several novels (e.g., Orbital Decay, Lunar Descent, etc.). After pretty much swearing off the series some time ago, it is nice to see him make another contribution to it! How can you knock off the largest casino on the Moon owned by the largest crime the Solar System? And get away with it?

Moon Monkeys (Wen Spencer): Why would anybody send an alphabet's worth of monkeys to a lunar colony? The ultimate answer is less satisfying than this pretty funny story. Slipstick and macabre humor as various monkeys die in and out of the colony.

Earth's First Improved Chimp Gets Job as a Janitor (John Ringo): The only story in the collection that either does not take place in space or deals primarily with space. Nonetheless, it was a fairly good tale of a teenaged improved primate trying to fit in with normals and his friendship with an another improved primate. Ringo sprinkles the story with a lot of backstory that has you wondering if there will be a future installment to explore this setting at more length.

Time in Purgatory (Rebeccas Lickiss): When I first read this story, I thought it was the weakest story in the collection. This time through, the story fared no better. Sure, there is a strong analogy between settling the Solar System and the Old West or the American Frontier. But there's a fine line between what works in science fiction using that analogy and what does not work. The best example is probably the short-lived television series Firefly and its motion picture sequel Serenity. Some episodes of the show, heck, most episodes of the show used the Western motif and it worked. Others (The Train Job) did not work. This story is also set in that motif, and it just doesn't work. It seems just plain silly as a result.

The Cutting Fringe and The Science in the Story (Paul Chafe): A updating, sort of, of Heinlein's classic The Man Who Sold the Moon. Instead of the Moon, we have a lot of cutting-edge science and technology and the asteroids. It's a enjoyable and fast-moving tale, weakened by a slightly silly government conspiracy sub-plot (which could have been excised from the story). The accompanying article does a good job of explaining the why to the gadgets. I'll be looking for more by Chafe in the future.

Blood's a Rover (Gregory Benford): An excerpt from his novel Beyond Infinity and probably the longest contribution to the collection. Beyond Infinity itself is an expansion of Benford's sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's classic Against the Fall of Night, a piece called Beyond the Fall of Night. Benford was apparently unsatisfied with the amount of space he had to explore the concepts he brought into the story, so eventually expanded it into the novel. The story is different from the others in the collection in that it is set much (much!) further into the future than any other story in the book. It has an interesting plot, but is weakened by the fact that it is an excerpt from a novel and you are dropped into the middle of the action. I enjoyed the story (and enjoyed the original version), but some will find it hard to get into, so it is a weaker contribution to the collection.

So there we have it. Overall a very good collection. Only one story that I was unsatisfied with. I'm happy to see that the series has continued with a second volume and I hope to see more beyond that! A collection of rousing hard SF. We need more of that!

Made up of: Introduction (T.K.F. Weisskopf); McAndrew and The Law (Charles Sheffield); Jailhouse Rock (James P. Hogan); Windows (Jack McDevitt); Cleaning Lady (Travis S. Taylor); Are We There Yet? (Travis S. Taylor); Communications Problem (Margaret Ball); High Roller (Allen M. Steele); Moon Monkeys (Wen Spencer); Earth's First Improved Chimp Gets Job as a Janitor (John Ringo); Time in Purgatory (Rebecca Lickiss); The Cutting Fringe (Paul Chafe); The Science in the Story (Paul Chafe); Blood's a Rover (Gregory Benford).

Counts as 13 entries in the 2006 Short Story Project.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Paying the Debt

Michael A. Burstein: Paying It Forward. I found this as an electronic text at the Fictionwise site. I bought it, to be honest, thanks to the price (I had an electronic "coupon"). I am, however, very glad that I bought it. It's a nice little narrative about a person who learns of the death of a favorite author. While cruising the information highway, he finds a website that the author maintained, and as a way of easing his grief, sends an e-mail into the aether. Oddly is answered. Hoax? A voice from the great beyond? An exchange starts, and the main character eventually learns the craft of writing thanks to the "ghost" of his favorite author.

O.K., that may not seem to be much. After all, there are a ton of post-Singularity tales out there that explore being downloaded, AI's and the like. But Burstein writes a tender little story of the relationship between a caring mentor and an attentive student. Highly recommended.

Counts as one (1) entry in the 2006 Short Story Project.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

An Essential Book for the Shelf

David Drake, Eric Flint and Jim Baen: The World Turned Upside Down.
(Several sections of the book are available for free at Baen Books site!)

A collection of short works that influenced the three editors when they first started reading science fiction. I'm familiar with most of the works at first glance (and may do a lot of "I remember this one!" when I read the ones that don't ring a bell). This appears to be a collection that any fan of science fiction should have on their shelves. It isn't an all-encompassing set of the most influential stories (that would be a job for Tor Books and their mega-collections!), but this is a good "core" collection of the science fiction "canon".

Arthur C. Clarke: Rescue Party. Nice twist to the end. Even a bit of humor. An star-spanning empire of alien aliens comes to the rescue of Earth when it is learned that Sol is going to go nova. Imagine their surprise when they find those backward humans don't need any help! (Online version here!)

Robert A. Heinlein: The Menace from Earth. There are no strong female characters in SF, especially in "Golden Age" SF! Bull****! (Online version here!)

Rick Raphael: Code Three. This story was a new one to me. The author spent a bit too much time, to my taste, in describing the background technology of the fictional universe and not enough time either talking about the implications (for example, having a extra-national superhighway that stretches from Mexico to Canada...what does that do to immigration, trade, smuggling...) or the characters. It's a good story, but might have been made better with the one aspect trimmed and the other expanded. It would make one heck of a movie! (Online version here!)

Robert Sheckley: Hunting Problem. Sheckley is one of those authors that seems to have faded from the catalogs, alas. This story is proof that he ought to be back in print. Maybe Baen Books will remedy this, or NESFA Press. This is a hoot of a story that could be read with appreciation by kids or adults with a very lovely twist to the end. (Online version here!)

A.E. van Vogt: Black Destroyer. I've written about the fix-up novel that this story is a part of, so I'll give you a moment to read those comments. Of historical note, the issue of Astounding that this first appeared in is considered by many to have been either the start of the Golden Age or a key factor in the creation of the Golden Age. (Online version here!)

(In reading this story, I decided to compare it with the version that appeared in the novel. I ended up re-reading the whole book.)

Fritz Leiber: A Pail of Air. A family manages to survive with little technology after the Earth is wrestled away from the Solar System by a dead star. If that ain't a cool idea, then you have no business reading science fiction! One of the classics. I seem to recall reading comments by Leiber that this was going to be a series, too bad that never materialized. (Online version here!)

Robert Ernest Gilbert: Thy Rocks and Rills. I have never read anything else by Gilbert that I can recall and I'm undecided as to whether I would seek him out. This was a strange sort of-post-Holocaust tale involving conflicts in the US plus mutated talking animals and bull fighting. Will have to let this one sit for a spell. (Online version here!)

L. Sprague de Camp: A Gun for Dinosaur. I've read it before and it was funny. It was twice as funny, now, since I've started reading stories such as Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the various Jorkens tales by Lord Dunsany. The story is told in narrative form by a person who runts a safari operation that travels through time to allow hunting of some really "big game". He is trying to explain to a potential customer why he won't take him back to hunt dinosaurs. He relates an incident involving two clients, one who was rather trigger happy and a second who had inherited a fortune and was trying to get a head for his new lodge. The invaluable NESFA Press recently came out with a collection of de Camp's time travel stories (which I picked up before The Big Whack), so I'll have to add that to this year's To Be Read pile for more chronological amusements!

James H. Schmitz: Goblin Night. This is one of Schmitz's tales of Telzey Amberdon, a heroine worthy of anything that Heinlein ever came up with. The stories are fun, but you have the usual problem of picking something out of a series: can you find one that gives enough background information not to confuse people, that can stand on its own and won't give away anything really essential to the suspense of the rest of the series. The editors did fairly well in finding a "typical" Telzey story. You can read more about James Schmitz and Telzey Amberdon here. I highly recommend that you pick up the books by Schmitz that Baen has republished. They are a lot of fun and would be among the titles I would "inflict" on a young reader who is just starting out in science fiction.

C.M. Kornbluth: The Only Thing We Learn. Kornbluth was one of science fiction's absolute masters of short fiction. The only tragedy greater than his early death is the fact that mainstream publishers have let his stuff go out of print. Thank goodness for this collection as well as efforts by NESFA Press! Perhaps stories such as The Marching Morons make people feel too uncomfortable?

Well, if being uncomfortable means you are thinking, then we need more Kornbluth! This tale will also make you feel uncomfortable. Should you cheer for the plucky rebels who exhibit behavior that is less than sterling? How about the corrupt and deteriorating empire? Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? And in the end, in a twist worthy of an O. Henry, the worm turns.

Wyman Guin, writing as Norman Menasco: Trigger Tide. Well, I'll admit to not knowing Wyman Guin, either as Wyman Guin or when he is writing as Norman Menasco. This seemed to be a fairly straightforward adventure story, somewhat akin to Asimov's psychohistorical stuff in that an agent is sent to a planet to get rid of one man in order to prevent a war. It's a bit more grim than a lot of Golden Age SF, but did not strike me as mind-bending/altering as some of the other tales.

Murray Leinster: The Aliens. Murray Leinster had a long and distinguished career as a science fiction author, and it would be easy to pick out a "turned upside down" tale from his body of work. Instead of picking out one of the obvious possibilities (for example, First Contact), the editors went with a first contact tale that is not as well known (at least, not to me). A Terran ship is looking for an elusive alien race that appears to have been responsible for some attacks and losses. They encounter a ship in a lonely solar system, but through a freak mischance, are bonded to the other ship on a path towards the system's star. Can the humans overcome their mistrust of the aliens in order to save both ships. A couple of interesting twists here, plus some ideas that were explored more fully by other authors (for example, Joe Haldeman and C.J. Cherryh).

Michael Shaara: All the Way Back: Michael Shaara is better known as a writer of historical fiction, even if you probably don't recognize the name at all. He "burst on the scene" with the movie Gettysburg, having written the book the movie was based on (The Killer Angels). I'll bet most folks who saw the movie did not bother with the excellent book. And I'll bet those who have read the book, for the most part, did not know that Shaara also wrote science fiction. All the Way Back could be taken for a fairly mundane science fiction tale. We've got the superior galactic federation confronting members of a upstart race. Except that the upstart race is us, we're in the middle of the "galactic desert", the superior galactic federation are those aliens and...we've got an awful secret. A very well-written story.

Keith Laumer: The Last Command: One of Laumer's tales of the Bolo, super tanks that were run by cybernetic intelligences. As David Drake points out in his commentary, Laumer's tales were less about war and technology than about the soldiers (biological or artificial) that fought in them. Good stuff.

John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing as Don A. Stuart): Who Goes There?: Oops, I read it in 2004. Oops, I'm reading it this year. Oops, I read it again. Possibly the most suspensful piece of fiction that Campbell produced, either as himself or any of his alter egos. And, despite two attempts in Hollywood, several quantum leaps better than what we've seen on the screen. I dare you to read this at night, during a storm. Heck, I double-dog-dare you to read this at night during a winter storm. Go ahead! Equal to anything that writers such as Lovecraft ever produced, a masterful blend of horror and science fiction themes. Much better than most horror produced today because it was the first, and touched our primal self first.

Ross Rocklynne: Quietus: Rocklynne is not as well known as many of the other authors in this collection (as can be seen by this rather sparse entry at Wikipedia), but don't let that stop you. Set on a post-holocaust Earth, it's short, but has the impact of longer works such as Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon or George Stewart's Earth Abides. It's also an excellent tale of misperceptions, as two well-intending aliens complete the work that the holocaust that wrecked the Earth started.

Frederic Brown: Answer and Isaac Asimov: The Last Question: These two are best read back-to-back because they explore similar themes and come to opposite conclusions. Brown was a master of the ultra-short tale, similar to Lord Dunsany. Asimov walked longer paths and usually more optimistic and broader sweeps. In Brown's tale we hit that Singularity (and people think all this recent stuff is cutting edge!) and things don't go so well. In Asimov's tale, humans become part of the Singularlity and all the computronium that is produced goes towards saving the Universe. Two classic tales.

Tom Godwin: The Cold Equations: This entry is definately one of the better known parts of this collection. Even if you haven't read much science fiction, it is more than likely a story that you have encountered. Despite having read it dozens of times since I first encountered it, it still has great impact on me. How would you have acted in such a situation?

C.L. Moore: Shambleau: I first read this tale when I was young, but the opening lines have certainly haunted me since then:

"Shambleau! Ha...Shambleau!" The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol's narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undernote to that swelling bay, "Shambleau! Shambleau!"

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun's grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth's latest colony on Mars—a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did. But Northwest Smith, whose name is known and respected in every dive and wild outpost on a dozen wild planets, was a cautious man, despite his reputation. He set his back against the wall and gripped his pistol, and heard the rising shout come nearer and nearer.

Then into his range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street. It was a girl—a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance. She ran wearily, and he could hear her gasping breath from where he stood. As she came into view he saw her hesitate and lean one hand against the wall for support, and glance wildly around for shelter. She must not have seen him in the depths of the doorway, for as the bay of the mob grew louder and the pounding of feet sounded almost at the corner she gave a despairing little moan and dodged into the recess at his very side.

When she saw him standing there, tall and leather-brown, hand on his heat-gun, she sobbed once, inarticulately, and collapsed at his feet, a huddle of burning scarlet and bare, brown limbs.

Not since Cordwainer Smith's Scanners Live in Vain (certainly a story that turned my world upside down) did an opening of a story grab me. What or who was "Shambleau"? Was Smith going to shoot her? Would the mob attack him? What was going on? A great mix of pulp science fiction and pulp horror, with some wonderous phrasing going on here. C.L. Moore's tales of Northwest Smith are terrific, it's a shame that her estate apparently is asking outrageous prices for the works and we only can see an occasional bit like this one.

Poul Anderson: Turning Point: It would be very hard, for me, to pick out one story by Poul Anderson for such a collection. It it be a tale of the Trading Teams? A story of master spy Flandry? One of his collaborations with Gordon R. Dickson? One of the non-series tales? The editors managed to find one that I had not read before, about the encounter between a team from an Earth-based empire and a newly discovered planet. Which are the primitives? Does "primitive" equate ignorant? Stupid? And how does one protect one's culture from a superior race? Some of the answers may surprise you.

Lee Gregor: Heavy Planet: Eric Flint points out in his afterword to this story that Gregor (actually Milton A. Rothman) was a minor science fiction author, with a dozen or so titles to his name. Despite this, Heavy Planet has been anthologized almost as many times as some of the major works in the collection. Why is that? It is definately pulp in feel and style, but Gregor (or Rothman, if you prefer) manages to convey a very alien planet and very alien aliens extremely well.

H. Beam Piper: Omnilingual: For my thoughts on this story, see this posting. What posting? Well, I'll have to dig it out of the archives first! ;)

Christopher Anvil: The Gentle Earth: Instead of picking one of Anvil's more populare works (such as his Interstellar Patrol tales), the editors went for this amusing piece about an invasion of Earth. Too bad the invaders did not do their homework before they landed in the middle of the United States! This one was good for multiple chuckles and even a few belly laughs.

Chester S. Geier: Environment: Another story by a mostly-forgotten author, but it is a story that has been told again and again in science fiction. Some good descriptions here, as well as a good mystery.

Jack Vance: Liane the Wayfarer: As with Poul Anderson, I'd be hard-pressed to pick out just one Jack Vance story to represent his body of work. His opulent words, his baroque stylings, his wonderful characters and plots. Which to choose? Here's a tale set in his Dying Earth sequence, when advanced technology is thought of as magic and people scheme and counter scheme as the Sun swells to swallow our planet. Good stuff, and makes me want to read the whole sequence again. Maybe next year...

P. Schuyler Miller: Spawn: O.K., sorry, but every anthology has one story that just didn't work. For me, this was the one. Sorry guys, I just don't understand why you picked this one!

Gordon R. Dickson: St. Dragon and the George: Fantasy, not science fiction, but a classic humorous story in the vein of de Camp and Pratt's tales of Harold Shea or today's stories by folks like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett. Two people from our world are transported into a world of wizards and dragons. Unfortunately, one of them appears in the other world as a dragon. Then there's this knight who has sworn to kill all dragons... Good stuff, and I'm not sure which is better, this work or the later (expanded) novel. If you can't have one of Dickson's Childe Cycle works, this would work as well!

Theodore Sturgeon: Thunder and Roses: As David Drake points out in his preface to this story, the concept of nostolgia for the 1950's is a pretty strange concept. After all, readers of science fiction knew that atomic war was going to break out anytime. We might survive, but there would be horrid mutations and we'd have to live a primitive (but lusty) existence. Some stories, like Ward Moore's Lot and Lot's Daughter, took an opposite tack. The war would not be a good thing. Sturgeon takes a similar approach, but in all the horror, finds hope. An excellent way to end the collection.

The collection overall: Hey, the title of the review says it all. This is an essential book for your bookshelf, if you are a fan of science fiction. The editors do a good job of pulling together many of science fiction's essential themes and many of science fiction's best authors (many of them founding mothers and fathers of the field). I can only hope that Baen Books can come out with another collection as fine as this one!

Made up of: Preface (Eric Flint); Rescue Party (Arthur C. Clarke); The Menace from Earth (Robert A. Heinlein); Code Three (Rick Raphael); Hunting Problem (Robert Sheckley); Black Destroyer (A.E. van Vogt); A Pail of Air (Fritz Leiber); Thy Rocks and Rills (Robert Ernest Gilbert); A Gun for Dinosaur (L. Sprague de Camp); Goblin Night (James H. Schmitz); The Only Thing We Learn (C.M. Kornbluth); Trigger Tide (Wyman Guin, writing as Norman Menasco); The Aliens (Murray Leinster); All the Way Back (Michael Shaara); The Last Command (Keith Laumer); Who Goes There? (John W. Campbell, Jr., writing as Don A. Stuart); Quietus (Ross Rocklynne); Answer (Fredric Brown); The Last Question (Isaac Asimov); The Cold Equations (Tom Godwin); Shambleau (C.L. Moore); Turning Point (Poul Anderson); Heavy Planet (Lee Gregor); Omnilingual (H. Beam Piper); The Gentle Earth (Christopher Anvil); Environment (Chester S. Geier); Liane the Wayfarer (Jack Vance); Spawn (P. Schuyler Miller); St. Dragon and the George (Gordon R. Dickson); Thunder and Roses (Theodore Sturgeon).

Counts as thirty (30) contributions to the 2006 Short Story Project.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Black Friar of the Flame

Isaac Asimov: Black Friar of the Flame. I'll have to dig around in Asimov's autobiography to learn more about this story. I had first read it years ago, and I'm afraid that time has not been kind to it. I thought I had remembered a kind of homage to John W. Campbell's various tales (written in the guise of Don A. Stuart) such as Cloak of Aesir. Instead we have a somewhat pedestrian tale of rebellion against ineffective alien overlords. The greatest puzzle to this tale is the title. Asimov indicates that this was one foisted upon him, one of the things I'd like to find is what the original title was. More of historical interest than anything, it mentions, for example, the planet Trantor (the name was later recycled for the Foundation tales).

The story was written around the time that Asimov started producing the Foundation stories that later became (along with his Robot stories) his most famous work. Black Friar was not produced under the guidance of John W. Campbell, Jr. (and say what you may these days, Campbell formed much of what we know as science fiction!), so it may be that it would have been a much better tale with Campbell's guidance.

Part of the 2006 Year in Shorts.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Arcosanti Rising

During high school (about the time I discovered the female of the species, read much more "adult" science fiction and realized that there were Geeks Like Me out there), I had a brief dream of becoming an architect. Primarily through a book called Urban Structures of the Future, by Justin Dahinden, I became interested in the work of Paolo Soleri and his arcologies. Amazingly, Soleri is still at it. Sadly, he seems no closer to finishing his dream.

Addendum (September 24, 2008): Amazingly, another reference (besides my posting) about Justin Dahinden (scroll down to the Partial Bibliography)!