Saturday, November 25, 2006

50 Books

There's a list of science fiction and fantasy books making the rounds. Let's see how I do. Bold means I read it and liked it, italics means I read it and did not like it, plain old text means I have not read it.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

Let's see...Sword of Sha-na-na. A great pastiche of both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. But...great fantasy? Wizard of Earthsea. LeGuin I either like or intensely get bored by. This was not one I liked. Interview with a Vampire? One of the more overrated pieces of bilge that I've ever read. Stephen Donaldson? I liked them the first time I read them. I couldn't finish the second set. I haven't bothered to buy the start of the third set.

I was asked by a person who left a comment why no mention of Snow Crash. Stephenson is one of those folks who I took several books to like. I tried Snow Crash and a few of his earlier books, but they left me cold. It wasn't until Cryptonomicon that I got hooked. If you'll look in the past Year in Books entries, you'll see that The Baroque Cycle became one of my picks for year's best (best in the year I read it, which is not the same as the best for the year of publication!). Someday I'll try Snow Crash again, but I was so underwhelmed by the first chapter or so that I have never finished the book.

The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith is only the latest collection of Smith's works. I recommend that you search his stuff out under any title.

Some day I'll get my own best fiction list finished. There are already more than 50 titles there.

Friday, November 24, 2006

West of Honor

West of Honor or Falkenberg's Legions, Part I, Jerry Pournelle. Also part of Falkenberg's Legions (Jerry Pournelle) and The Prince (Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling).

Pournelle's tales of John Christian Falkenberg have been appearing in various places (Analog SF magazine, various book formats) since the 19780's. These books are part of Pournelle's overall future history series (which includes the War World books, as well as the novels The Mote in God's Eye, The Gripping Hand and King David's Spaceship). Falkenberg was a member of the CoDominium Marines, a multi-national military based on the French Foreign Legion. In this part of Pournelle's future history, the United States and the Soviet Union have decided to partner up and control the world, imposing a peace.

Couple this with interstellar travel and an aggressive relocation policy, and you have worlds in constant need of military units. West of Honor (a portion of which can be found here, even more can be found here) details one incident in the early career of Falkenberg, told from the viewpoint of a newly commissioned lieutenant in the CoDo Marines, Hal Slater.

I generally find the tales of Falkenberg when he was in the CoDo Marines more interesting than the later ones, just as I found the tales of Hammer's Slammers (David Drake) to be more interesting before Colonel Hammer became President Hammer. Falkenberg doesn't have all the answers and spends a lot of time on the sharp end. Slater, the main character, is even more on the sharp end. It was interesting to see him develop in the course of the story. I appreciated this story a lot more this time around, having put twelve years of military service behind me since I last read it. While the book has a Korean War "feel" to it in terms of the military equipment used, Pournelle has a lot of "ground truth" here and there is a lot of timeless stuff that anybody with military experience, or a knowledge of military history, philosophy, etc., will appreciate.

Next up, but probably not until next year, The Mercenary and rest of the future history.
Civilian vs. Military

Forwarded to me by my former First Sergeant...

Civilian Friends: Get upset if you're too busy to talk to them for a week.
Military Friends: Are glad to see you after years, and will happily carry on the same conversation you were having last time you met.

Civilian Friends: Never ask for food.
Military Friends: Are the reason you have no food.

Civilian Friends: Call your parents Mr. And Mrs.
Military Friends: Call your parents mom and dad.

Civilian Friends: Bail you out of jail and tell you what you did was wrong.
Military Friends: Would be sitting next to you saying, "Damn...we screwed up...but man that was fun!"

Civilian Friends: Have never seen you cry.
Military Friends: Cry with you.

Civilian Friends: Borrow your stuff for a few days then give it back.
Military Friends: Keep your stuff so long they forget it's yours.

Civilian Friends: Know a few things about you.
Military Friends: Could write a book with direct quotes from you.

Civilian Friends: Will leave you behind if that's what the crowd is doing.
Military Friends: Will kick the whole crowds' ass that left you behind.

Civilian Friends: Would knock on your door.
Military Friends: Walk right in and say, "I'm home!"

Civilian Friends: Are for a while.
Military Friends: Are for life.

Civilian Friends: Have shared a few experiences...
Military Friends: Have shared a lifetime of experiences no Civilian could ever dream of...

Civilian Friends: Will take your drink away when they think you've had
Miitary Friends: Will look at you stumbling all over the place and say, "You better drink the rest of that, you know we don't waste...that's alcohol abuse!!" Then carry you home safely and put you to bed...

Civilian Friends: Will talk crap to the person who talks crap about you.
Military Friends: Will knock them the hell out for using your name in vain.

Civilian Friends: Will ignore this.
Military Friends: Will forward this.
David T. Wenzel

Some interesting stuff here.
Dan Alderson

I am shocked (still) to find that the person who made such a major contribution to several of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's books (especially The Mote in God's Eye and the other books in that series; Exiles to Glory, where he appears as a character; and Lucifer's Hammer, where he appears as a character) still does not have his own Wikipedia entry. Surely somebody who knew him at JPL or in fandom in California can do something about this!

(2007 Addendum: A stub of an entry is better than none!)
First Manga

Sometime last school year my daughter started getting interested in Pokemon. It was partly due to her peers, partly just due to exposure (the beforecare and aftercare programs showed videos on Friday).

She's been bugging us for a Pokemon Gameboy and we'll probably (with great trepidation) grant her wish for her birthday.

Today since I had to go into work and she was off, I brought her along. We stopped at Barnes and Nobles on the way in and I asked if they had any Pokemon books in the kid's section. One book we picked up was Let's Find Pokemon!, which seems to be a book of activities, mazes, puzzles and the like.

The other book was The Best of Pokemon Adventures. Manga. Yes, her first manga.

And so it begins...

Monday, November 20, 2006

New Pynchon

A new Pynchon book? Hmmm...Of course, this description could be my dorm room in college, if you remove the bong (allergies):

All of this appealed immensely to the stoners of the 1970s. It was a time of The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and Godel, Escher, Bach—books which linked quantum engineering to eastern religion, to be discussed over a well-stoked bong with a side of Tangerine Dream playing in the background. The Illuminatus trilogy was big at that time, too, with its talk of cabals and "immanentising the Eschaton" (maybe a young Dan Brown was taking notes). Literary criticism meantime was turning towards scientism. The Derrida school of deconstructionists drooled over Pynchon while semioticians sharpened their troping-shears.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I Want to See eBook Publishers Match This!

One more reason by Baen Books is not only one of the best SF publishers, but the best eBook publisher around. Bar none. Now all their books are free to disabled readers. Let's see the other distributors of eBooks match this.
The Venus Equilateral

Wikipedia casts its net further and further. Here is an entry about one of my favorite "Golden Age" science fiction series.
Four for Callahan

The Callahan Touch; Spider Robinson (Ace Books, ISBN 0-441-00133-5).

Callahan's Legacy; Spider Robinson (Tor Books, ISBN 0-812-55035-8).

Callahan's Key; Spider Robinson (Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-58060-4).

Callahan's Con; Spider Robinson (Tor Books, ISBN 0-765-34165-4).

When we last saw the gang at Callahan's, they had just foiled an invasion of the Earth by setting off a "borrowed" atomic bomb (it was a small one!). However, as a result, Callahan's Place was destroyed.

We then went off on a multi-book side trip through Lady Sally's Place, a brothel that was the equivalent of Callahan's Place. (All the earlier books were reviewed by me in past years, just thumb back in the listings.)

We now have the stories of Mary's Place and The Place. This set opens up with Jake Stonebender putting the finishing touches on Mary's Place, the replacement for Callahan's Place. In addition to trying to build a place where the gang can once again hang out, Jake is trying to open what is essentially a school for telepaths. The gang used telepathy to defeat the alien invasion that destroyed Callahan's Place; they're hoping to get that feeling back again. Much of the first book revolves around the opening of Mary's Place, the long jam session that started the place off, and Jake finally getting love into his life again.

This was a pretty lightweight entry into the series. However, it is redeemed by those unique Robinson touches, little details that he tosses in that have you wondering "gee, that could really happen". My favorite was his tale of the man who opened a shop where he made you the perfect cup of coffee. He was wealthy, so could afford to take the time to craft every cup. Eventually he built The Machine, which would make the perfect cup of coffee, or, by extension, the perfect Irish Coffee (known at Callahan's and Mary's as God's Blessing). Jake ends up with the prototype, in a tale that has you wishing, "if only..."

With the second book, Mary's Place comes to an abrupt end. Juggling the impending birth of his wife's child, another alien invader, and an implacable bureaucracy, the gang manages to birth the baby and save the world, but loses out to the county code. A short entry, compared to some of the Lady Sally books, but this one felt more like "old times" to me.

With the third book, the gang emigrates, en masse, to the Keys where they find a more suitable environment (no snow!) for drinking and trying for the telepathic touch. The trip down is a hoot, Robinson manages to work in a few characters from other author's works, and we even get to save the world (this time from mankind).

Finally, with the fourth book, two ghosts of the past revisit in the form of the son of Tony Donuts (from the Lady Sally tales) and a relation of the unstoppable bureaucrats of the second book of this sequence. The problems are again solved and the gang is one step closer to that telepathic goal. However, in a very moving sequence, they lose one of the oldest members of the original group from Callahan's.

I've been reading these stories since they first appeared in Analog mumble mumble years ago. While I prefer the short stories to the novels, I found this quartet to be, overall, a lot closer to the original tales than the Lady Sally books were.

Now I just have one problem. I've run out of Callahan tales to read! Get on it, Spider!
The Writer Williamsport Forgot

H. Beam Piper. The Terro-Human Future History. The Fuzzies. The Paratime Police. Well, Williamsport (Pennsylvania) may have forgotten him (and the local paper has forgotten that if you put up a link, it ought to stay up!), and that's probably why this profile is so late in coming. I wish that somebody reprint these (maybe Baen in their classic SF line or one of the small houses).

Addendum (December 28, 2006): "You know, most of the wars they've been fighting, lately, on the Europo-American Sector have been, at least in part, motivated by rivalry for oil fields." (H. Beam Piper, Temple Trouble, 1951)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

An Exchange at the Gunroom

A recent exchange of items on the list devoted to the works of Patrick O'Brian:

"Further, I wonder why my Gunroom messages are now being flagged as 'Bulk' by my server?"

"I resent the implication, sir. My 18+ stone are carried very trimly."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jack Williamson

I have just received word that famed science fiction writer Jack Williamson passed away.


Betty Williamson has sent a message today to friends and relatives that Jack Williamson has passed away.

Betty writes:

Hello dear friends and family,

This is to let you know that our beloved Jack Williamson died this afternoon at 3:22 p.m. He was in his study, surrounded by people he loved who loved him. It could not have been better.

Jack consented to a memorial service because I told him there were a lot of people who would want to get together to share wonderful memories. We will let all of you know when that is set.

Thank you for your friendship and love to Jack. He will be missed by all of us, but he was very ready to die. He has told me many, many times, "I have lived a wonderful life and I will die with no regrets."


Jack was wonderfully kind and generous to me since I began publishing books of his works in 1998, and I will miss him and his geniality more than I can express.

Stephen Haffner

As for me, I probably started reading Jack Williamson with the "Galaxy Novel" (remember those?) version of The Humanoids. Soon after that I came across The Legion of Space, which still remains my favorite, and is just about my favorite novel in the space opera genre (even surpassing E.E. "Doc" Smith's works!). I still remember the thrill I had tracking down Barnard's Runaway Star in my telescope from my backyard. The thrill came not so much from a successful hunt, but in looking at the home of the dreaded Medsuae, the implacable aliens from The Legion of Space. It is amazing to look at his output, from early works inspired by A. Merritt to space opera worthy of the likes of Campbell, Hamilton and Smith, to cutting-edge hard science based on the latest information, such as Beachhead.
The Essential A.E. van Vogt

Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt (NESFA Press, ISBN 1-886778-34-5).

Thanks to a tip from a reader at Ye Olde Blog (remarking about my review here), I pulled this volume off the shelf. It has a couple of the pre-novel versions of the stories that appeared in Voyage of the Space Beagle, so I'll be able to do more comparing when I get to them.

Introductions: The first introduction makes it clear how much effort goes into such a fan-based product. Once again, buy these books from NESFA Press! Support these folks! These should be on the shelf of every SF fan! For the second introduction, I'll have some thoughts, below.

I'll have more thoughts on van Vogt's writing style after I get through a few more stories, but this bit from the Introduction by Hal Clement sums things up nicely:

His tendency later on to base story ideas on more controversial aspects of science, such as the Bates eye-exercise fad and the non-Aristotelian aspect of "general semantics," sometimes made me a little unhappy, but did little if any real harm to the stories themselves. This, it seems to me, was because van Vogt had mastered, or possibly was born with, the most basic technique essential to science fiction and fantasy writers. He could work in the key details of a non standard background situation without slowing the pace of his story.

Black Destroyer: See my comments here and here.

The Monster: An amusing little twist to the standard Earth-is-invaded-by-aliens tale. I also see echoes of some of the "Don A. Stuart" writings of John W. Campbell, Jr. Earth is invaded by an alien race. They find the world dead except for plant life. They use their advanced science to revive the remains of several humans. Alas, the last one they revive turns out to be more than they can handle. I liked the tale for that, and the fact that van Vogt did not embellish this tale with some of the fringe stuff that was ladled onto other tales. It's a fairly straightforward "Golden Age" story and a good one, at that.

Film Library: A man who rents out films for educational and entertainment use finds that the films in the canisters are not what the label says they are. They all seem to be films for maintaining a advanced engine, or travel to Venus and the like. A somewhat intriguing idea, poorly executed by van Vogt. Later incorporated into the book Quest for the Future.

The Enchanted Village: The survivor of the first expedition from Earth to Mars finds an abandoned village on Mars. He tries to get it to adapt to his needs, it ends up adapting him to its parameters. A pretty nifty story with a Ray Bradbury style to it. I first read this one years ago and had totally forgot it until I got to the last paragraph and it all came back to me.

Asylum: A pair of vampire-like creatures descends upon Earth where they look forward to a feeding frenzy on the unsuspecting inhabitants. Their only problem: getting past one of the galactic watchers that is protecting the planet. Some nifty stuff here (hiding a spaceship under a restaurant), but suffers from some of van Vogt's "surprises" (instead of sprinkling clues, you drop a major plot twist down). Still a good story, but would have been more of a major classic but for that.

Vault of the Beast: Another famous tale by van Vogt. Suffers from too much "ultimate" (ultimate metal and the ultimate prime number—there can't be such a thing!) and some more "surprise" plot twists. It's interesting to see echoes of this story in today's science fiction (especially filmed SF).

The Ghost: First appearing in the short-lived Unknown Worlds (companion magazine to Astounding Science Fiction), this is just about the most "straight forward" story by van Vogt that I have come across. True, there is some meddling with the plot by having the "ghost" of the title have some powers that deal with time, but there are no major 180-degree gut-wrenching plot twists or appearances by super-beings, etc. A pretty good tale, and makes you wonder what would have come from van Vogt in this sub-genre had the magazine lasted longer.

The Rull: A story set in one of van Vogt's most famous creations. The tale pits a sole human against humanity's greatest enemy, the implacable and mysterious Rull. This tale and others were later gathered in a "fix-up" book. Still one of my favorites of all his works, but every now and again you come across a passage that makes you go "huh?":

The will to death is in all life. Every organic cell ecphorizes the inherited engrams of its inorganic origin. The pulse of life is a squamous film superimposed on an underlying matter so intricate in its delicate balancing of different energies that life itself is but a brief, vain straining against that balance.

But never mind that. We need to overcome the pattern that the Rull are trying to impose on us, charge our antigravity drive and engage in battle with their supercruisers!

Recruiting Station: A very long entry in the book, dealing with a war across time. Contains some elements (probably small) that were later incorporated into van Vogt's Linn series. (I haven't read them in a couple of decades, but they are included in the Baen Books edition of Transgalactic, which is on next year's Mount Toberead.)

A Can of Paint: A pretty funny tale about an intelligence test being administered to the first human to land on Venus. Also, a very straightforward story from van Vogt. No galaxy-shattering plot twists and some good physical humor.

The Search: One of the best tales in the book. A man loses his memory and goes on a search (aha!) to find out what happened to him. He encounters a strange saleswoman, her father, and a mysterious agency.

Dear Pen Pal: Another humorous tale about an alien who starts a correspondence with a human with the evil purpose of switching bodies. The joke is eventually on him, though.

The Harmonizer: Less a tale than an evolutionary narrative about an alien plant that comes to Earth. Might have worked better as a shorter story.

The Great Judge: Another body-switching tale. Not as good as the above-mentioned one.

Far Centaurus: A fairly traditional plot here with the first ship to the stars being overtaken by ships going faster than the speed of light. A lot of super-science substituting for plot development after the initial part, which showed a lot of promise.

Secret Unattainable: A series of memos, letters, transcripts and the like that describe a secret Nazi weapons program during World War II. A good mixture of real people and made-up personalities.

Future Perfect: Probably the weakest tale in the story, written in 1973. It appears to be an attempt by van Vogt to ride the "New Wave".

The Great Engine: A man finds a mysterious artifact while looking for junk to salvage. He gets caught up in a conspiracy.

Dormant: Inspired by Theodore Sturgeon's Killdozer? A mysterious alien force is found on a Pacific island. Unfortunately, efforts to destroy it end up activating it.

The Sound: A short story that was later incorporated into van Vogt's The War Against the Rull. The story has potential (using children to help battle alien infiltrators), but weak points as well (what the heck is the sound?). Interesting to see how this (plus stories that Baen Books has reprinted in Transgalactic) were incorporated into the novel.

The Rulers: A man stumbles across the true rulers of the world. Confused plotting.

The Final Command: A war between humans and robots is barely averted.

War of Nerves: Another story in the saga of the voyage of the Space Beagle. See my notes on Black Destroyer, above. Written well after the other two entries in the series that appear in this book (1950 vs. 1939), it shows some major changes from those two entries. For one, the story has the Nexialist, Elliot Grosvenor, whereas the other two tales do not. Does his presence make it a better story? A worse story? I think it makes it a weaker story. The original versions of the other two tales, compared with the book version, work just as well, heck, better, without Nexialism's mumbo-jumbo than with it.

Don't Hold Your Breath: A somewhat mediocre tale about a change in the atmosphere of Earth.

Discord in Scarlet: van Vogt's second tale, and continues the story of the voyage of the Space Beagle. See my notes on Black Destroyer, above. One of his best early tales. A very nicely realized monster, one that still gives me the shudders!

Afterword (Ric Katze): Mostly thanks for those who worked on the book.

Made up of: The Man in the Labyrinth (Joe Rico); Alfred E. van Vogt (Hal Clement); Black Destroyer; The Monster; Film Library; The Enchanted Village; Asylum; Vault of the Beast; The Ghost; The Rull; Recruiting Station; A Can of Paint; The Search; Dear Pen Pal; The Harmonizer; The Great Judge; Far Centaurus; Secret Unattainable; Future Perfect; The Great Engine; Dormant; The Sound; The Rulers; Final Command; War of Nerves; Don't Hold Your Breath; Discord in Scarlet; Afterword (Ric Katze).

Counts as six (6) entries in the 2006 short story project.

Counts as twenty-two (22) 2007 Short Story Project.

Next year? Transgalactic!
Bored Out Of Its Mind

Is Spirit starting to show more than wear and tear on Mars?

"Once, when we radioed her to please leave the lecturing and hypothesis-making to the mission project team, she responded by forming her robotic arm into an obscene gesture," Banerdt said. "That arm contains a state-of-the-art spectrometer meant to provide crucial mineralogy data."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Wonder Spyglass

A retro-review of science fiction and fantasy from the 1980's. I still have the Bob Shaw volumes mentioned, but must admit that most of the other stuff passed me by.

Addendum: The view from the oughts. The 1990's retrospective. I'll keep watching for the 1970's retrospective.
The Return of Elric

Via the Del Rey Internet Newsletter, news of a newly packaged set of Michael Moorcock's Elric series:

Del Rey Books is proud to announce the acquisition of a portfolio of Michael Moorcock's original Elric novels plus stories, essays, a comic book script, and other material featuring Moorcock's famously tormented antihero, Elric of Melnibone. The works will be released in matching trade paperback omnibus editions, illustrated throughout by well-known fantasy artists. Included are the following titles: Elric of Melnibone, Stormbringer, The Fortress of the Pearl, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Vanishing Tower, The Revenge of the Rose, and The Bane of the Black Sword. The books will be published in the order in which they were written, rather than in the chronological order in which they have appeared since the 1970s. Moorcock will be writing new introductions for each volume.

The first volume, to be titled The Stealer of Souls, will be illustrated throughout and with cover artwork by award-winning artist John Picacio. Five additional omnibus volumes will follow.

So it appears that this will include most, but not all, of the recent novels in the series. Hopefully they will finish the series; I wish that they had plans to do hardcover versions as well as the trade paperbacks.