Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Homesteading in the October Country

Ray Bradbury: The October Country (Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-97387-1).

This probably represents one of my favorite Bradbury collections, along with The Martian Chronicles (a collection of short stories often marketed as a novel) and Dandelion Wine (a novel? a collection?). It certainly contains some of his creepiest work. Read The Jar and tell me that you don't get shivers! "Here kitty, kitty!" The Dwarf is probably not-PC but is a great look at the way us shaved apes abuse each other. Skeleton is one that gave me nightmares as a kid.

Made up of: Homesteading the October Country (introduction); The Dwarf; The Next in Line; The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse; Skeleton; The Jar; The Lake; The Emissary; Touched with Fire; The Small Assassin; The Crowd; Jack-in-the-Box; The Scythe; Uncle Einar; The Wind; The Man Upstairs; There Was an Old Woman; The Cistern; Homecoming; The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.

Counts as 20 contributions to the 2006 Short Story Project.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Dispossessed

Bookslut has a hilarious review of the various covers that have graced the Ursula K. LeGuin novel The Dispossessed.

This is the "Perennial Classics trade paperback"—which depicts, basically, Nevada. This is the edition that you will be assigned to buy if you ever take a class in "Myths of Dystopia/Utopia," since the text inside has nice fat borders with lots of room for scribbled notations. Plus it has the word "classic" on the cover in muted off-white text, so no one will be disrespecting you at the campus coffee shop and calling you Luke Skywalker and making Wookie noises.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Against the Fall of Night

A retro-review of Arthur C. Clarke's classic work. Hopefully you are all aware of Clarke's foreshadowing of Ron Moore's method of re-imagining an earlier work: Clarke expanded/rewrote Against as The City and the Stars. He tells an amusing tale of a psychiatrist and a patient that were convinced that the other was crazy, as each had read one of the books and was not aware of the other.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The New Sun

I've embarked on a reading/re-reading of Gene Wolfe's epic science fiction series, The Book of the New Sun. This is made up of what was intended to be a trilogy, but which became a tetralogy (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch), plus a sequel (The Urth of the New Sun) and an associational book (The Castle of the Otter). There are several books in a follow-on series, but for this entry, I'll restrict myself to these.

I expect that it will take me more than what time remains in this year to read this set, but I'll keep updating this entry whenever I complete one of the books.

First up was the associational book, The Castle of the Otter (SFBC/Ziesing Brothers, no ISBN listed, 1982 publication date).

This is a collection of essays about the tetralogy. It might seem odd that I started by re-reading this, but I was looking for something relatively short to read one night, this fit the bill, and it has now lead me to get back to the other books. The book is made up of a series of articles that Wolfe either wrote for various fanzines, or are original to the book. The title comes from a mistake in an article that appeared in Locus, when it was reported that the final book of the tetralogy would be called...The Castle of the Otter. Wolfe just couldn't let a good title like that go to waste!

There's a couple of articles that illuminate aspects of the tetralogy that I'll have to come back to once I re-read the books (it has been quite a while). For now, the best of the lot was one long piece outlining how the books came to be written and how they became a tetralogy (The Castle of the Otter) and what might be now called a FAQ or Frequently Asked Questions list (The Rewards of Authorship). Pretty amusing was a list of jokes (These Are the Jokes), proving that for such a grim set of books, there is humor in the universe.

Good luck finding a copy of this book. Considering some of the prices I've seen for books about Wolfe's work (try looking up the price of a tome called Lexicon Urthus, for example!), I suspect it will cost you a few pretty pennies.

Made up of: The Feast of Saint Catherine; Helioscope; Sun of Helioscope; Hands and Feet; Words Weird and Wonderful; Onomastics, The Study of Names; Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch; These are the Jokes; The Rewards of Authorship; The Castle of the Otter; Beyond the Castle of the Otter; Gene Rodman Wolfe: A Bio-Bibliography.

Counts as 13 entries in the 2006 Short Story Project.

(Addendum for 2007: Due to a variety of circumstances—work, family, moving my blog postings—I have not followed up on this book so far! But maybe by the end of the year?)

(Addendum for 2008: Sigh. I got through most of the first...but not all. These books require a lot of time, without distractions. Maybe when I get done with my end-to-end read of the Patrick O'Brian tales.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Riding Rockets

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle; Mike Mullane (Scribner, ISBN 978-0-7432-7682-5).

The latest in a series of biographies and autobiographies by various astronauts (a cottage industry in of itself), this one is markedly different from most that I've read in its brutal honesty about the manned space program.

Mullane was in the initial class of shuttle astronauts. Too late for Apollo, he was part of the TFNG, which sometimes means the Thirty-Five New Guys. Mullane was from the Air Force and claims that he was also from Planet AD, or Arrested Development.

Chapters describe his life in and out of NASA, focus on his three shuttle missions (two of which were military missions, so he is somewhat scarce with details), detail the Challenger accident and aftermath. There is quite a bit on NASA's broken culture, problems with the shuttle and more.

The book would be worth buying for any of these things:

Priceless gems such as details on the development and testing of vital shuttle systems...like the zero-gravity toilet. Would you like some of the development or test details in your personnel file?

A description of all the aspects of NASA's broken culture, management problems, leadership problems, communications problems and more. It is amazing that we did not lose more shuttles than we have so far. Dan Goldin, John Young, George Abbey and others are all outlined in gory detail.

Great character sketches of various astronauts that Mullane worked with.

Wonderful descriptions of what the Earth looked like in space and what being in microgravity was like. We may not have had any poets in space yet, but Mullance does a fine job at times.

There's a lot of humor here, running from coarse to high levels of farce. For example, for both of his military missions, Mullane received awards from the "black community" (and I'm not talking about race, but secrecy). Then he goes on to say that he could not take the medals out of the vaults and had to have the celebration dinner in those vaults. (The existence of the medals was declassified, hence his ability to write about it eventually.) There is lot of old boy/frat house/military humor, but it is clear that many of the targets (female astronauts, astronauts from scientific backgrounds) could give as much as they got.

Good stuff. Recommended. You probably won't see another insider view of NASA as brutally honest as this one for quite a while.

Addendum: A review by NASA Watch's Keith Cowing that appeared earlier this year.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Enterprise Without Kirk

Frustrated by the way my local station (and my satellite provider) have conspired to screw up the "new" Star Trek for me, I've turned to a couple of Star Trek novels to fill the need. I don't have many since the Great Purge, but I'll re-read one every now and again and post a review. Here's the first.

Vulcan's Glory; D.C. Fontana (Pocket Books, ISBN 0-671-65667-8).

Until recently, this was (as far as I know) the only book in the Star Trek novel genre that dealt with the earlier adventures of the good ship Enterprise, when it was commanded by Christopher Pike. We saw Pike on the screen in the episode The Cage. That episode never really flew with the network executives, so we never saw Pike and the enigmatic Number One again (at least not in that form). I was always sorry that happened.

D.C. Fontana apparently felt the same way. Instead of writing another book about the familiar trio (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), she wrote a book about an earlier group. Spock is there, but on his first mission on the Enterprise. Scotty is there, just starting out in engineering. Commanding the bridge is Christopher Pike, his executive is Number One, the "perfect woman". We get some background on Spock (which ties into episodes from the original series and the animated series; as well as some good stuff original to the book), have a couple of adventures, and tie it all up neatly.

Fontana tosses in elements as diverse as Romeo and Juliet and The Maltese Falcon. My only regret is that she never did another one. There is a new(ish) book out that deals with Pike, but it is by a Star Trek author that I never much cared for. Given the Great Purge, I'm not going to buy a book by that author.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Scribble, Scribble

"Ah Mr. Gibbon, another damned, fat, square book. Always, scribble, scribble, scribble, eh?"

(The Duke of Gloucester, on being presented with Volume 2 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

On the Back of the Turtle

The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett (HarperTorch, ISBN 978-0-06-1-2-71-1).

For years now, I've been seeing this guy Pratchett taking up more and more space in the shelves of the Fantasy & Science Fiction sections of your average bookstore. Friends would tell me how good the books were, how funny, how many references to literature were in them. I stayed away as I'm not as much interested in fantasy as I am in science fiction (unless it is older fantasy), I generally don't like humorous tales (but for a few exceptions) and I did not want to get involved in Yet Another Endless Series.

That was the main reason. Fantasy seems to churn out a lot of these things. You never know when the damn things are going to end. Then the author's go off on tangents, write branching tales, fill in the gaps, throw in prequels and never finish the darn things!

But...one by one the reasons for not to read these books fell. I started reading "new" fantasy (starting with Tim Powers, and eventually branching out into Neil Gaiman and others). I started reading more and more humorous stuff. And...given the number of endless science fiction epics that have grabbed my attention over the years, what's an endless fantasy series. As long as it is well written, that is.

O.K., so I threw in the towell. I picked up The Color of Magic. And was hooked (line and sinker, probably as well).

This entry is less a novel than four connected stories (and I'm entering it as four contributions to the 2006 Short Story Project).

In the first story, The Color of Magic, we meet the wizard who failed out of the Unseen University, Rincewind. He manages to hook up with a tourist from another land, one Twoflower, who dabbles in strange magics such as "insurance" and "economics" and travels about with The Luggage, a very loyal piece of storage filled with gold and very big teeth. During the course of this adventure, they set fire to the city of Ankh-Morpork as Rincewind starts a tradition of getting out a fix...by creating an ever bigger disaster. We also run into Death. Death, you see, personally attends the demise of any wizard. He is often disappointed by Rincewind!

We also run into Discworld analogues of Fritz Leiber's most famous creations, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, here named Bravd and the Weasel.

A real hoot, this tale was.

The rest of the books is made up of The Sending of the Eight, The Lure of the Wyrm and Close to the Edge. These equally amusing tales have us encountering a Conan analogue, Pratchett's takeoff on McCaffrey's long-running dragon series, and a finish at the edge of the Discworld, where an attempt is being made to explore the nature of the giant turtle that the disc ultimately rests on (no, I'm not forgetting the elephants!).

Read more about Pratchett here and here, and about the Discworld here and here. I'm sure I'll be back for more volumes of this series. (I am also sure that most of you out there already know about Pratchett and his tales and I'm the last to know!)
Tripping the Light Fantastic

The Light Fantastic; Terry Pratchett (HarperTorch, ISBN 0-06-102070-2).

Given events of late, I wanted something light to read during my visit to my parent's. I started reading this book before traveling to the wilds of Pennsylvania and discovered two problems with it:

First, it is not a book to be read at night, when your wife is sleeping in the bed next to you. You might strangle if you keep trying to suppress the laughter that keeps bubbling up!

Second, there are no chapters. Yes, the scene changes every several pages, with obvious breaks, so I guess that is the equivalent. But when you are reading at night and keep saying "I'll stop at the end of the chapter", suddenly you find that you've read half the book without finding one of those chapters!

Light Fantastic is the second (according to one series order list that I had come across) installment in Pratchett's long-running series. I had read the first installment (again, according to that list) earlier this year. In it we continue the adventures of the wizard Rincewind and his charge Twoflower and his faithful Luggage on the disc-shaped world of...errrr...Discworld. Pratchett takes us to the Unseen University, where power struggles are coming to a head (or are they?). Death stalks several characters. A strange star is seen in the sky. Wizards are hunting Rincewind and Twoflower (and the Luggage!). We meet the world's most famous barbarian, Cohen. He's survived the longest, often has trouble with his joints (especially his back), but like John Wayne in The Shootist, he might be old, but he still has his skill. And let's not forget various secondary characters, including one hilarious depiction of a female assassin (I hope she appears in a later book) who, due to typecasting, wears leather even though it is uncomfortable, because it is what is expected of her.

Good stuff. Hilarious stuff. Why didn't I start reading these earlier? Two down, thirty-three novels (and various associational works) to go!

Friday, October 06, 2006

They're Made Out of Meat

An online version of Terry Bisson's classic tale. I had seen (earlier this year) an online short film, but that seems to have gone poof.
That Darned Cat (2.0)

And speaking of Schrodinger's Cat (yes, I was speaking of Schrodinger's Cat), here's a list of popular references to that famous abused kitty. I've seen a few of these references, only a few!
The Planck Dive

The Planck Dive is a short story by Greg Egan. You can read it online here. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Dang. Where to start. I liked this story. But...it should have been a heck of a lot longer. Heck, I'll like any story that has Feynman Diagrams in it. Egan crams in a lot of physics, and does a good job of explaining it. (In fact, there's so much physics flying around, that I suggest you take a look here and here for more information and explanation.) But it comes at the cost of the characters and what seems to be an interesting background. How about more on the two cultures depicted? Why are they so different? Is the culture of the visitors the exception rather than the rule in that future? I was left wanting a lot more detail.

Counts as one (1) entry in the 2006 Short Story Project.
Enter a Silverberg. Later: Enter Another.

More electronic vacation reading (wrapping it up). These were two wildly different tales by one of science fiction's best writers, Robert Silverberg.

The first was Gilgamesh in the Outback. I recall reading this in one of the many shared-world anthology series that spawned during the 1980's, in this case the so-called Heroes in Hell series. Unlike Thieves' World or Wild Cards, this one really did not seem to produce many classics, and unlike those two shared-world anthologies, Heroes in Hell has not been revived.

Let's face it, the series wasn't very good. Luckily, there were a few bright spots, such as this story. Gilgamesh is one of the old dead. When he died, Hell wasn't that bad a place. You could still hunt. However, as time went by and newer and newer dead came crowding in, each "generation" tried to remake Hell in their own image. When those pesty Christians moved in, Hell went to, well, Hell in a handbasket.

Toss in various historical figures as Julius Caesar, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft, and you've got one of the better entries in that series. Lots of amusing bits like various historical figures complaining about how they have been portrayed in history or fiction, clashes between the various eras of dead and more.

In Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another, Silverberg takes a completely different tack and combines cutting-edge computer theory (artificial intelligence) plus two widly different historical figures. It's more a series of clever dialogues and monologues, but he manages to create an interesting little tale that examines what "life" is.

Both purchased at Fictionwise.

Counts as two (2) entries in the 2006 Short Story Project.
A Galaxy Called Rome

Another electronic vacation read. Not as successful as some of the others, alas.

I recall reading this story by Barry N. Malzberg when it first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction (1975). I remember being somewhat puzzled.

Later it appeared on its own, as a very slim book. I bought it. There had to be something there! I was still puzzled.

Third time the charm? Nope, sorry. Still puzzled. Ah well...

Another Fictionwise purchase.

Counts as one (1) entry in the 2006 Short Story Project.
Out of All Them Bright Stars

A short story by Nancy Kress (purchased electronically via Fictionwise.com). Kress is a new author for me; all I really knew about her is that she had been married to the late Charles Sheffield.

A fairly humanoid alien shows up at a diner and orders a plain salad. The story is a study in the reactions of the several people at the diner and told from the viewpoint of one of the waitresses. The reactions depicted are probably a lot more realistic than that (for example) depicted in Larry Niven's The Fourth Profession.

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

Another short story by Geoffrey Landis. Like the previous tale, this can either be found in the collection of the same name or in a variety of electronic formats from Fictionwise.com.

What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end in a few short days? Get permanently drunk or high? Engage in endless sex using credit cards that will shortly expire? Wait it out calmly? The characters in this tale face just that decision.

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

This short story can be found either in Geoffrey Landis' collection Impact Parameter or via outlets such as Fictionwise.com. It's told as a historical narrative, where the main character outlines how his great to the nth grandparents met when Mars was turned into a penal colony. He questions the identity of his great to the nth grandfather.

Counts as one (1) story in the 2006 Short Story Project.
A Year in Linear City

Another electronic vacation read.

I'll admit to not being very familiar with Paul Di Filippo's works. Most of his books seem to come out from small presses, and I'm always hit or miss with that market. Based on what I read here, I'm going to have to start hitting his publishers!

This long tale was very enjoyable, our universe...but different. The characters inhabit a universe that is a city and a city that is a seemingly infinite narrow strip, with heaven on one side and hell on the other. Underneath? The Worm Ouroboros perhaps?

The main character is a writer of what we might call science fiction. He deals with an editor that strongly resembles John W. Campbell, Jr. in many ways. He eats foods that we mostly recognize, has friends with problems (like heroin addiction) that we recognize. But then you run across the differences. Why is the city the world and the world the city? What lies beneath? Are there other worlds? Is ours just a fictional exercise by the main character?

Di Filippo seems to have written this one not only as an exercise in creating a very odd atmosphere and setting, but as a way of exercising his ability to make up odd (but appropriate) words and use many obscure (but real) words. Good stuff, here. May we have a novel, please?

Another Fictionwise purchase.

Counts as one (1) entry in the 2006 Short Story Project.
That Darned Cat (1.0)

I just finished reading George Alec Effinger's Schrodinger's Kitten. A story that involves Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their theories? Cool!

Another purchase from Fictionwise.com and counts as 1 entry to the 2006 Short Story Project.
A Colder War

Another tale read electronically while on vacation. Appropriately enough, it was read while Tropical Storm Ernesto was making his appearance, adding to the atmosphere of the tale!

This story is available in several places online as well as in at least one collection by Charles Stross. It's a pretty creepy tale that crosses the Cold War of our reality with the cold terrors of H.P. Lovecraft and his tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. You'll lose a couple of SAN points with this one, so be warned!

Counts as one (1) story in the 2006 Short Story Project.
da Vinci Rising

This was one of several stories I read electronically while on vacation. It's a novella that Jack Dann won the Nebula for (in 1997) and is related (I assume, but can't be sure, since I have not read it) to his novel The Memory Cathedral. It's a story of Leonardo da Vinci and his efforts to develop a flying machine. Great characterizations and a great story. I'm no longer familiar enough with the details of da Vinci's life to know how much of the story is "real", but Dann does an excellent job here. Purchased at Fictionwise.

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