Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review - Tales from Super-Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg


Stories included:
Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg
Who Am I? by Henry Slesar
Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn
I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler (as George Whitely)
Song of the Axe by Don Berry
Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch
Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance
I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams
The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone
Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye
The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse
First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon
A Place Beyond the Stars by Tom Godwin
The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg (as Dan Malcolm)

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: It seems somewhat odd to think of it now, with only as handful of dedicated fiction magazines still publishing, but in the 1950s there was such demand for pulpy tales that publishers with no experience in genres like science fiction were moved to start their own science fiction magazines to capitalize on the market. In 1956, Harlan, a company whose experience in publishing included titles like Trapped and Guilty - magazines that specialized in juvenile delinquent tales - decided to throw its hat into the science fiction ring with the magazine Super-Science Fiction. Luckily, W.W. Scott, the editor of all three magazines, knew both Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg who had previously submitted stories of juvenile mischief and punishment to his other magazines. With the two of them helping him out (and earning themselves steady money by submitting stories to him), the result was a fun, if short-lived, magazine. In Tales of Super-Science Fiction Robert Silverberg takes the reader on a chronological journey through the three year history of the magazine, starting with the stories published in its earliest issues, and concluding with some monster oriented stories representative of those that made up the bulk of its later "SPECIAL MONSTER ISSUE" installments.

The fourteen stories included in this retrospective anthology are pretty much exactly what one would expect would be in a collection drawn from the pages of a pulpy magazine published in the late 1950s. Lantern jawed heroes, dorky scientists, and damsels in distress make up a substantial portion of the population of the stories, and they are opposed by bug-eyed monsters, computers run wild, or monomaniacal tyrants. As an aside, the cover picture is hilarious in its depiction of 1950s science fiction sensibility. A buxom woman threatened by a horde of aliens is clad in a leotard and space helmet, with the outfit, of course, prominently highlighting her breasts. But the outfit doesn't cover her legs. What sort of environment is she supposed to be in where she needs a space helmet, but can walk around with bare legs?

The first story, Catch 'Em All Alive by Robert Silverberg, is a classic tale of the hubris of human explorers who come across an alien planet that they think offers them everything they could ever want and consequently don't bother to investigate before they get themselves into trouble. The twist at the end of the story is somewhat predictable, but the story is well-executed. A second story about the dangers of human hubris is found in I'll Take Over by A. Bertram Chandler, in which the mechanical "brain" controlling a star ship tells the ship's crew that the craft is experiencing a malfunction, whereupon they land on an prohibited alien planet and have to deal with the comparatively primitive natives. The story has some twists and turns, including a hint of supernatural influence, but ends up as a fairly standard tale of technological paranoia. Broomstick Ride by Robert Bloch is almost exactly the opposite, taking place on a planet where witches are real. The explorers try to convince the local authorities that magic cannot be real while at the same time trying to find some logical explanation for the apparently supernatural phenomena. While I'll Take Over expresses man's fear of technology, Broomstick Ride expresses man's fear of the night and the supernatural horrors our imaginations have filled it with. A "space exploration" story with a twist, The Tool of Creation by J.F. Bone, is a variant on the "engineering puzzle" story. In the story a ship traveling at superluminal speeds suffers a malfunction that threatens to drop the ship into "normal" space, which would be fatal to the crew. They have to solve the problem of shedding enough speed to avoid this fate, with the added wrinkle of using the super science in the story to solve the mystery of where solar systems come from.

Several of the stories amount to mysteries with an exotic added element. Who Am I? by Henry Slesar is the first of these, as a pair of space traders rescue an unknown individual drifting in a space-sled. The simple act of getting the man they rescued to identify himself proves to be the central mystery of the story, as it seems that he doesn't really know himself. as it is a science fiction story, the answer turns out to be somewhat exotic. Song of the Axe by Don Berry is probably the most archetypal example of 1950s era science fiction. A disgraced (but still lantern jawed and manly) star ship captain is given another chance by his superiors when they ask him to try to locate the lost records of a dead civilization. The story includes a beautiful alien princess, exotic alien rituals, an invading alien army, and a hero who uses an axe in a battle where others are using high tech weaponry. The story is basically mindless action adventure, but it is fairly good action adventure. Worlds of Origin by Jack Vance is a mode sedate mystery centered on a murder at a space resort housing vacationers from various planets. Vance's recurring character Magnus Ridolph just happens to be on hand when the murder occurs and the resort owner asks him to investigate. Ridolph decides that unraveling the mystery will depend upon examining the worlds the various guests hail from (hence the title), and sets about solving the crime. The story is decent, and the mystery is intriguing, but the stereotyping of the aliens - effectively assuming that everyone from a given planet, or who has a given profession holds the same mind set - robs an otherwise good yarn of some verisimilitude.

A couple of the stories use the science fiction as a vehicle to comment very explicitly with the concerns that were hot topics in the 1950s, and Every Day Is Christmas by James E. Gunn is the most didactic of these. In his story Gunn posits that advertising had been perfected "scientifically" to the point where the populace has become mindless purchasing drones acquiring and hoarding massive piles of products that they have no real use for. A deep space explorer returns to this culture of insane consumption and struggles to fit in. The passage of time has made the story somewhat unintentionally humorous, but it is still disturbing and effective. Another story exemplifying this style of story First Man in a Satellite by Charles W. Runyon that takes place almost entirely aboard a tiny one man satellite housing man's first space explorer as it orbits the Earth: a dwarf from Vaudeville recruited to the the job because of his small size. A malfunction in the craft leads to those on the ground talking the protagonist through the landing procedures, a task made more difficult by the lousy communications between the ground and orbit. The story is one of the more thoughtful ones in the collections, and has a sad yet also triumphant conclusion.

One of the best stories in the book, I Want to Go Home by Robert Moore Williams is a strange story about a seemingly insane youth who believes he is actually an alien from another world. The story is told from the perspective of a scientist brought in by the police to examine the boy, but by the end the reader is left wondering who has a handle on reality and who does not. As with most really good science fiction stories, the ending is ambiguous and slightly disturbing. The Gift of Numbers by Alan E. Nourse, on the other hand, is a blackly humorous story in which a hapless accountant is duped into accepting a gift from a somewhat colorful character who calls himself the Colonel. The "gift" is a seemingly inexplicable affinity for numbers that is accompanied by an ulcer and an uncontrollable (and unconscious) desire to use the newly acquired mathematical talents to commit petty larceny. The "gift" is a decidedly mixed blessing, and the protagonist is keen to get rid of it, but in the end it turns out that the tables are turned. The story is both creepy and darkly funny. Possibly the best story in the book is Tom Godwin's A Place Beyond the Stars, a tale possibly more relevant today than it was when written. A space scout tasked with preparing way stations for the following emigration fleet to resupply at lands on a planet controlled by a fascist government that strictly regulates everything, including scientific inquiry. The inimical government has banned all research of no seeming practical value, but seizes upon the scout as a potential source of technologically advanced weaponry. Using their own scientific myopia against them, the scout manages to turn the tables and secure a safe port of call for his fleet. The story is engaging, and in a world in which governments increasingly seem to disdain "blue sky" science, it is also a cautionary tale.

Late in its run, Super-Science Fiction began focusing heavily on "monster" stories in an effort to retain readers, hyping every issue as a "special monster issue". Hostile Life-Form by Daniel F. Galouye is a story that fell into that category. Human explorers on an alien planet find themselves besieged by monstrous alien beasts until they are apparently saved by the arrival of another species that preys upon their tormentors. As usual, the story takes a dark turn as the situation is not exactly what the explorers assumed it was. The story is somewhat predictable, but it is still fun to read, and does a good job at conveying a rising sense of horror and tension. The final story in the book is The Loathsome Beasts by Robert Silverberg, who wrote the story under the pen name Dan Malcolm to help disguise the fact that he had contributed so many stories to the magazine. The story itself is one of the weaker stories in the volume, with mindless alien monsters serving more or lass as ravening beasts that exist to fight and eat the colonists on a distant planet. The story starts with some (for the 1950s) salacious scenes of teenagers swimming naked and then getting eaten by giant sea monsters. The rest of the story details the colony's increasingly desperate battle against the encroaching horde until the final denouement that would have conservationists and xenobiologists howling. The story is a classic case of "kill the monsters" science fiction, and being a Silverberg story it is competently written, but it isn't anything more than that.

With the switch in focus to repeated "special monster issues", the writing was on the wall. Three years and eighteen issues after Super-Science Fiction was first published, it folded. But as this collection shows, what it left behind was a legacy of enjoyable science fiction stories, albeit stories that are firmly rooted in a 1950s mindset. Filled with an eclectic cross-section of the best stories the magazine had to offer, Tales from Super-Science Fiction offers a fun romp through science fiction history and should find a place on the bookshelf of any fan of classic science fiction.

Robert Silverberg     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 28, 2012

Musical Monday - Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac


I first read about a character named Rhiannon when I picked up Evangeline Walton's version of the Mabinogion in junior high school. It was when I heard Fleetwood Mac's song Rhiannon that the connection between the band (or more specifically Stevie Nicks) and mythology was cemented in my mind. In her introduction to the song, Stevie says that the song is "about an old Welsh witch", which is not entirely accurate, but it is more in keeping with Nicks' mystique to say she is singing about a Welsh witch rather than the divine consort of Arawn the Prince of the Dead, the Goddess of horses, and in a later incarnation, the wife of King Pwyll of Dyfed and mother of Pryderi. Even so, I love the ethereal quality of song, which makes me think of the misty night through which Rhiannon led Pwyll on a chase on horseback before he gave up trying to catch her and instead asked her if she would come to him.

Previous Musical Monday: In the Year 2525 by Zager & Evans
Subsequent Musical Monday: Skullcrusher Mountain by Jonathan Coulton

Fleetwood Mac     Musical Monday     Home

Review - Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall


Short review: The hominid family is enormously complicated and difficult to figure out. It is also endlessly fascinating.

Haiku
We are the last left
A tangled hominid web
What makes us human?

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: When I was young, one of the book sets my parents owned was the Nature Library series put out by the publishers of Life magazine. One of my favorite volumes in that series was Early Man, for the time a reasonably accurate presentation of the story of human evolution. That understanding is probably best exemplified by the "march of the hominids" contained on pages 41-54 of Early Man showing a fairly linear progression extending from Pliopithecus through the Australopthicenes through Homo Erectus until it reaches modern Homo Sapiens.  Although the depiction shows a couple of side branches, such as Oreopithecus and Panthropus, the overall thrust is of an orderly progression as one hominid evolves, holds sway for a period of time, and is then replaced by a successor species.

But even at that time, the story we had uncovered was not exactly linear, and the plate found on pages 74-75 of Early Man reveals this as a pair of advanced Australopithicines face off against a small band of Panthropus males - an imagined scene in which two hominid species are sharing the Earth and occasionally confronting one another. This image was fascinating to my young mind, and stuck with me ever since I saw it so many years ago. And in Masters of the Planet Ian Tattersall explains that over the last fifty years or so new discoveries have deepened our understanding of human evolution to the point where this scenario seems to have been more common than the present state in which a single hominid species stands alone. Rather than a trunk leading inexorably to us, hominid evolution seems to have been a bush, with many competing branches, in which all the others either died out (or possibly were pruned by our ancestors), leaving Homo Sapiens as the sole survivor.

In Masters of the Planet Tattersall lays out the fossil discoveries that have fueled our current understanding of the history that led to the current dominance of our species, along with the conclusions that have been drawn from those discoveries. The author walks the reader step by step through the history of anthropology, although because the oldest fossils were unearthed most recently, this tour is given in reverse order, with the most recent archaeological finds presented first and working backwards to the discoveries of the first neanderthal fossils in the nineteenth century. Through the journey through the fossil record, Tattersall explains the conclusions scientists have drawn from these artifacts and explores the various speculations engaged in when the available data is inconclusive. Most importantly, Tattersall explains the conclusions that previous evaluations of the data (which, at the time was even more incomplete than the incomplete picture we have now) led to, and how and why the general consensus has changed since that time.

The underlying theme of the book, as one might guess from the subtitle "The Search for Our Human Origins" is to explore exactly what makes us "human", and an attempt to determine at exactly what point in our evolutionary history we stopped being pre-humans or proto-humans, and actually became fully recognizable as human. Building his case on studies of our closest living relatives, the physical structures revealed by the fossils of our ancestors, and some faint traces of evidence about how those ancestors lived, Tattersall sorts through the various signature features that have been advanced in efforts to define what makes a human a human, and attempts to evaluate the points at which those traits may have arisen, and whether those traits are, in fact, the critical defining characteristics of our humanity. By the end of the book, the current picture of human origins is filled out, even though that picture, based as it is upon the fragmentary data that has made it through the eons to us, is blurry. It turns out we are not so much inevitable, as we are simply the strain of hominid that got lucky and outlasted its relatives.

What Masters of the Planet shows brilliantly is that while dimwitted creationists and "intelligent design" advocates are obsessing over irrelevancies like Piltdown man and trying to get their fairy tales into high school curricula, real scientists are ignoring their inanities and keeping busy doing actual work to uncover our true origins. And the picture they have uncovered, although more chaotic and confusing than the previous orderly progression from an ape-like ancestor to us, is also more interesting and most critically, more accurate. While there is nothing in this book that one could not have found out elsewhere, this book compiles all the material into one place so it can be seen as a whole, and the interconnections can be made readily apparent. Anyone interested in human origins will find this book both engaging and illuminating.

Ian Tattersall     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Blogger Hop May 25th - May 31st: The Triluminary Is the Most Sacred Artifact of the Minbari

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: How do you handle the writing of a negative review?

I generally don't like writing negative reviews, writing a negative review means that I have had to read a lousy book, and I would much rather read good books. However, if I am reviewing books, I owe it to anyone who reads my reviews to be honest about my views on a book, so if I read a book that I think was sub par, then I believe that it is my responsibility to say that I didn't like the book. The key, I think, is to explain why you didn't like a book rather than simply saying "this book sucked, don't read it". I want someone who reads my review to know exactly what I disliked about a book. That way, someone reading the review will understand what caused the negative reaction in me, and be able to evaluate whether the book would likely draw a similar negative reaction in them.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - Boudica Rebelled Against Roman Rule in 61 A.D.


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Underworld Love Addiction and Charissa Books.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Activity! Dream cast your current read.

Jewel Staite
My current read is Naomi Novik's Crucible of Gold, but I'm only about four pages into it, which means that I only know enough to cast only those characters who I suspect will return from earlier books in the series and the one character who has shown up in the book thus far. I suppose I could try to cast my last read, which was Gaelen's Gold by M.K. Flowers, but I hadn't really thought about any actors to play the various dwarves, elves, giants, and wizards that make up the roster of characters in the book, and no one really comes to mind. Given that Gaelen, the main character, is supposed to be 16 when the events of the novel take place, one would assume that a younger actress would be the obvious choice to play the role, but there is a combination of innocence and toughness to the character that reminds me of Jewel Staite, so even though she is technically too old to play the role, I'll pick her anyway:

I really have no idea who else I'd cast for the book, and once you've cast Jewel in a role, you don't need to worry about anything else, so I'll stop there.

Go to previous Follow Friday: There Are Sixty Carbon Atoms in a Buckyball
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Sixty-Two Scared Sigmund Freud

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review - White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina


Short review: Horrible monsters are released upon Vraigo's world by a deathless sorcerer and the only weapon that can stop them is the magical sword Urart. But Urart is now in the twenty-first century and Vraigo has to find it.

Haiku
Horrble monsters
And a lost magical sword
Quest in the future

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: White Raven is a young adult fantasy that is somewhat notable because Irina Lopatina is Russian. This has the beneficial effect of making the fantasy slightly unusual, as all of the fantasy elements are derived from Russian folklore as opposed to the more common Tolkien derivatives that dominate standard fantasy novels. On the other hand, this has the somewhat less beneficial effect of making some of the language used in the book somewhat less than artfully composed. Whether the awkward language was the result of a non-native English speaker writing in what for Irina not her mother tongue, or the result of her first writing the book in Russian and then having it translated is not clear. These bits of clumsy phrasing aside, the book is an enjoyable folklore laden tale about a magically gifted hero who must overcome his uncle's disdain as well as magically endowed monsters to recover the one weapon that has the ability to stop the sorcerous assault upon his homeland.

The hero of the novel is Vraigo, the nephew of Vlady, the Grand Duke of Areya. His father, the Grand Duke's brother, died when Vraigo was young, and the young prince was raised alongside his two cousins Tagas and Seles. But Vraigo is something of an odd duck, not content with the sword practice of the training field, he runs off every day to study under the tutelage of Agar, a friendly magus who helps awaken the ability to see the "blue veil" in the young prince, which is how humans see and interact with the magical realm. Agar is visited by a mysterious magus and vanishes in short order, leaving Vraigo to mature into a wielder of magical abilities on his own.

The story then jumps forward several years where we find Vraigo and his cousins have grown into men. Tagas and Seles have both joined their father's fighting forces, but the magically endowed Vraigo prefers to walk the paths of the nearby forest with his druid friend Belsha tracking down and dealing with the more inimical denizens of the wood: Pikshas, rusalkas, werewolves, yagas, and worse. Vraigo's choice of vocation is a great disappointment to his uncle the Grand Duke, because in the Grand Duke's estimation if Vraigo were brave, he would join the army and lead men on the battlefield. This is based upon the Grand Duke's suspicion that the powers asserted by magi are just made up, which seems to be an odd objection given that the Grand Duke lives in a world in which exotic monsters like werewolves and witches are demonstrably real. This objection seems even odder when it is revealed that the Grand Duke relies upon magical griffons to guard his treasure room, including his magical sword Urart. In our own history, being interested in learning was often seen as "unmanly" by those of a more brawny inclination. But in a world in which the magically inclined can summon fiery salamanders to burn their enemies, it seems like the military applications of knowledge would alter this perception.

In any event, Vraigo must deal with his uncle's disapproval and his cousins' mild derision while going about protecting Areya from the various magical threats that lurk in the nearby forest,  swamp, and mountains. After an expedition to an abandoned gnomish city with Belsha where they pick up some finely crafted gnomish castoffs. Vraigo meanders through the first half of the story trying to figure out why the gnomes and other "peaceful" magical inhabitants of the forest and mountains seem to be disappearing. During this section, one of the weaknesses of the book crops up as characters seem to amble into and out of the story more or less at random. Vraigo starts with Belsha as his sidekick, but later Belsha is incapacitated and Vraigo takes up with a dravalyanka named Shi-Shi. Along the way a werewolf named Kenush shows up to befriend Vraigo, help him out of a tight scrape or two, and then wanders out of the narrative. The Grand Duke's magically inclined youngest son Rohan pops up along with the scholar Estevah to help Vraigo track down the source of the mysterious influx of evil creatures, and then both characters are sidelined. While some of this character shuffling is probably attributable to the fact that White Raven is intended to be the first book of a planned trilogy, and as a result, some characters and story lines need to be introduced at this stage that will only pay off in later books, this game of musical characters is still distracting.

Vraigo determines that a koschei - a magus who has figured out a way to use his magical gifts to make himself immortal - is responsible for all the troubles. But his search for the evil magus is interrupted when the magical sword Urart, the only weapon that seems to be effective against the strange new magical beasts that have shown up to terrorize the populace, is stolen from the Grand Duke's treasury. While the Grand Duke and his soldiers set off to engage in a futile fight against the invading monsters, Vraigo heads off to try to track down the location of the sword. Of course, since Vraigo is trying to locate the only weapon that can actually damage the monsters rather than charging off to get killed in a pointless act of machismo like the rest of them, the Grand Duke and all of his soldiers sneer at Vraigo and call him a coward. While this does build a little bit of dramatic tension, it mostly makes the "martial" characters seem somewhat dim-witted.

While chasing after the sword, Vraigo is directed to a lair of tanars by the gnomes who originally stole it and plunges headlong after them. After locating the sword, Vraigo and Shi-Shi charge into a mob of tanars and are quickly overwhelmed and knocked out. Inexplicably, the two wake up in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the details of how getting knocked on the head in a cave causes Vraigo to be thrown forward several hundred years in time will be explored in a later part of the series, but in this volume, he simply gets knocked out and wakes up to find himself in our world. Note that although I said that he is thrown forward in time from his fantasy medieval home into the twenty-first century, this is only an assumption on my part, and an assumption that the characters in the book make as well. There are some hints that Vraigo may have actually gone backwards in time, with our familiar modern world serving as the mysterious ancestors of Vraigo's time.

Whether his trip to the twenty-first century is a trip to the future or the past, it is also the weakest part of the book. Although Vraigo's turn as a fish out of water seems somewhat promising, Nik and Lera, the two characters he befriends in his search for Urart, are fairly bland and uninteresting. This is not surprising, since almost everything in the generic unnamed city that Vraigo knocks about in is bland and uninteresting. This may have been an intentional choice on the part of the author, to try to contrast the magical nature of Vraigo's home epoch with the more mundane modern era, but if so, it was done in such a subtle way as to be almost invisible. The modern era portion of the book does provide an interesting twist when it is revealed that even though there is almost no magic in our world, that the various magical beings that Vraigo is familiar with still lurk in our society, even if they themselves don't realize their true nature: a collection of street thugs turns out to actually be a pack of werewolves, an aging nightclub owner is revealed to be a yaga, and so on. This, plus Vraigo's observation that the movie posters in Nik's room depict the magical creatures of ancient Areya, serves to connect the two portions of the story. But this connection doesn't really go anywhere other than to reinforce that Areya and the unnamed city Nik hails from coexist in the same geographic location, albeit separated temporally.

The plot in the modern era proceeds fairly rapidly. Nik and Vraigo first stumble about trying to raise some cash, then they join up with Lera and head off to an antiquities museum. After a little bit of internet research and a lot of serendipity the trio engage in an improbable heist to recover the sword and then Vraigo walks off into the woods, at which point the book ends abruptly. Given that this is the first book in a planned trilogy, leaving plot points unresolved is to be expected. Even with that caveat, however, White Raven seems to cut off prematurely as soon Vraigo has gotten his hands on Urart. This abrupt ending, combined with some fairly awkward phrasing that likely resulted from being translated from Russian to English, makes for a jarring finish to an otherwise enjoyable adventure.

Overall, White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors is a pleasant although oddly flawed book. While one generally expects that the opener to a trilogy will contain a fair amount of exposition and unresolved story lines, White Raven seems to have entirely too much left up in the air when the reader arrives at the final page and Vraigo has not even formulated a plan for returning to his own time period and yet leaves Nik and Lera behind as he walks off into the woods. It is quite possible that once the remaining two installments of the series are published that the complete story will turn out to be excellent, however, based solely on what is in this volume, it can only be described as a pleasant but merely average book.

Irina Lopatina     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 21, 2012

Musical Monday - In the Year 2525 by Zager & Evans


Sometimes a band appears out of nowhere with a single song that dominates popular music for a time and then vanishes. In 1969 Zager & Evans did just that, sweeping to the top slot on the U.S. and U.K. charts, holding that position on the U.S. charts for six weeks. It was the number one song in the U.S. on July 20th, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and stayed at the top of the charts while Woodstock was going on. The song was nominated for (but did not win) a special Hugo Award that year (instead a special Hugo Award was handed out to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins for "Best Moon Landing Ever").

Born in the sixties amidst fears of impending nuclear war, the song paints a vision of a progressively more dystopian future. By the year 3535 humanity's thoughts and actions will be controlled by a daily pill. By 4545 humans will no longer have a need for teeth or eyes. By 5555 our arms and legs will be atrophied to uselessness while machines handle all chores for us. By 6565 marriage will be a thing of the past and children will be produced "in the bottom of a long glass tube". In 7510 God returns and contemplates Judgement Day, and in 8510 he decides whether he is pleased with humanity or will destroy it and begin again. The song wonders if humans will still be around in 9595, having consumed all that the Earth has to offer and failed to replenish it. In the end, man's suzerainty is over amidst a billion tears.

Previous Musical Monday: Do You Wanna Date My Avatar by The Guild
Subsequent Musical Monday: Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

2012 Nebula Award Nominees

Location: Arlington, Virginia

Comments: In 2012 Kij Johnson completed a brilliant three year run, winning her third Nebula Award in a row. In many ways, Johnson represents both the strengths and the weaknesses of the science fiction field. She is a brilliant writer, whose history includes numerous brilliant works of fiction, resulting in a number of well-earned awards. However, outside of the dedicated fans of the genre, she is relatively poorly known. This is to a certain extent the result of the decline in reading among the general public, but it is also the result of the decline of short fiction.

While the position of short fiction is certainly stronger in genre fiction than in literary fiction (where short fiction is essentially dead as a commercial item), it is definitely much weaker than it has been in the past. And so when an author like Johnson comes along, who has a masterful touch with short fiction but has written relatively few novels, they simply don't get the recognition they deserve. And the decline of short fiction is problematic for the genre, since short fiction has been the crucible in which emerging writers could hone their craft. And now that this market has dwindled to almost nothing, there seem to be few avenues for a new writer other than to try to complete an entire novel and hope that you can catch lightning in a bottle.

Best Novel

Winner:
Among Others by Jo Walton

Other Nominees:
Embassytown by China Miéville
Firebird by Jack McDevitt
God's War by Kameron Hurley
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

Best Novella

Winner:
The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

Other Nominees:
The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Kiss Me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
With Unclean Hands by Adam-Troy Castro

Best Novelette

Winner:
What We Found by Geoff Ryman

Other Nominees:
Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky
The Migratory Pattern of Dancers by Katherine Sparrow
The Old Equations by Jake Kerr
Ray of Light by Brad R. Torgersen
Sauerkraut Station by Ferrett Steinmetz
Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders

Best Short Story

Winner:
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

Other Nominees:
The Axiom of Choice by David W. Goldman
The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu
Her Husband's Hands by Adam-Troy Castro
Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son by Tom Crosshill
Movement by Nancy Fulda

Ray Bradbury Award

Winner:
Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife written by Neil Gaiman; directed by Richard Clark

Other Nominees:
The Adjustment Bureau by George Nolfi
Attack the Block by Joe Cornish
Captain America: The First Avenger written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; directed by Joe Johnston
Hugo written by John Logan; directed by Martin Scorsese
Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen
Source Code written by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones

Andre Norton Award

Winner:
The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Other Nominees:
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson

Go to previous year's nominees: 2011
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2013

Book Award Reviews     Home

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Blogger Hop May 18th - May 24th: Salusa Secundus Is the Training Ground for the Sardaukar

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: How many books do you own? This can include books in your to-be-read (TBR) pile(s) and books you have already read that are on your keeper shelf.

Because I keep a count of my books, I can answer this one pretty easily as of the current date: 7,906 books. This number is good for this date only. It may be more by tomorrow. It will certainly be more in the future.

Go to previous Book Blogger Hop: Three Dog Night Says One Is the Loneliest Number

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - There Are Sixty Carbon Atoms in a Buckyball


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Addicted to Heroines and Tribute Books Mama.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Summer Break is upon us! What would be the perfect vacation spot for you to catch up on your reading & relax?

This may sound odd, but I have found that during the summer, Scout Camp is the best place to get a bunch of reading done, at least since my son switched from being a Cub Scout to a Boy Scout. Going to Cub Scout camp is a lot of work for the adult leaders who attend because the boys need almost constant supervision and guidance. At Boy Scout camp, on the other hand, the adults are mostly there just to prevent the boys from killing themselves, and there is a lot of down time. Because you are at a Scout Reservation, you are far away from distractions like work, television, and the internet. I usually pack several books for the week-long trip, and usually read most, if not all of them.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Boudica Rebelled Against Roman Rule in 61 A.D.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review - The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs


Short review: Two wizards must stop a mysterious menace. Both creepiness and silliness ensue.

Haiku
Two wizard buddies
A bitter foe, cold winter
Defeat him on Earth

Full review: This is the first Bellairs book I read, after locating it in the "Recommended Further Reading" appendix to the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. The Face in the Frost is one of Bellairs' earliest works, and one of his best. While his later books were aimed at the juvenile market, this book is not. Uninhibited by the need to make the book palatable for the younger set, Bellairs let loose with the full range of creepiness that his mind could come up with while leavening it with a fair amount of almost silly fantasy.

The story revolves around the wizards Prospero and Roger Bacon who find themselves beset with an unseen and unknown enemy. The two flee (in sometimes humorous ways, including shrinking themselves to fit on a model ship), while trying to get information to identify their assailant and figure out why he is pursuing them. The attacks become more and more dangerous and frightening, and the entire world seems affected as an unseasonable winter seems to grip the land. Prospero is informed at one point that Bacon is dead and finds his own life threatened by some extremely creepy villagers.

While the structure of the story itself is fairly simple - wizard is attacked, wizard investigates while on the run, wizard defeats enemy - the atmosphere described in the book is what makes it so good. Bellairs makes each scene a little bit scarier than the last, starting with a somewhat lighthearted tone, and eventually building to a frozen and eerie denouement, albeit somewhat of an anticlimactic one. Eventually Prospero figures out who his antagonist is, and why. He manages to foil what could be the outbreak of a war, but that doesn't really seem to help overcome the villain. Eventually, Prospero finds himself in another universe, and finally manages to defeat the villain.

The slight weakness of the finale aside, The Face in the Frost is everything a fantasy novel should be: funny, scary, and packed with wonder. Unlike many of the door stoppers produced today, in which multiple ponderous seven hundred page tomes advance their story in halting baby steps, The Face in the Frost establishes its setting, its characters, and its villain as well as establishing and resolving its conflict in under two hundred. Many modern writers would do well to look back upon Bellairs' work and see how he managed to create such a memorable story in so many fewer pages.

John Bellairs     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, May 14, 2012

Musical Monday - Do You Wanna Date My Avatar by The Guild


>As most people who read this blog probably know, The Guild is a web series about the off-line lives of a group of MMO gamers who play a fairly thinly disguised version of World of Warcraft together. I have never actually played World of Warcaft but have logged quite a few hours in virtual Middle-Earth playing the Lord of the Ring Online game.

Fairly early in the run of the web series, the members of the cast established a practice of making a funny game-related song and accompanying video. All of them are good, but the one that launched this practice into an internet meme is Do You Wanna Date My Avatar, featuring Felicia Day dressed as her in-game character Codex musically asking if you would like to date her computer persona. Every member of the cast gets involved, including Amy Okuda showing off her dance skills and Jeff Lewis and Sandeep Parikh rapping and showing of their . . . um . . . dance skills.

Previous Musical Monday: Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel) by Kansas
Subsequent Musical Monday: In the Year 2525 by Zager & Evans

The Guild     Musical Monday     Home

Random Thought - Library Book Sales!

I love library book sales. Spring is library book sale season, which is why my posting has been so limited for the last few weeks. All Spring long I get incoming waves of books that need to be sorted, cleaned up, added to my master spreadsheet, and then cataloged on LibraryThing, which takes up a substantial chunk of my spare time. The downside of this book bonanza is that I end up getting behind on my reading and reviewing this time of year. I know, I could simply not make the rounds of the book sales, but that is just crazy talk.

The weekend before last I went to the Centreville Library book sale and made out reasonably well getting 81 books including 38 hardbacks. This past weekend I went to the Purcellville Library book sale and picked up 89 book, although only 17 were hardbacks. These are actually fairly modest hauls for me, as owning almost 8,000 is making it harder to find books in my preferred genres that I don't already own. I usually make an effort to try to avoid unnecessarily buying duplicate copies of the same book, but even so, I ended up with quite a few these past two weekends. Because there are usually a lot of people at these sales, I try to move through the stacks quickly so as to not be in the way of other patrons and prefer to err on the side of getting a book if I'm not sure whether I have it or not, resulting in a fair amount of unintentional duplicate purchases. That said, I sometimes intentionally purchase duplicates of books that I know I own if I find a copy that is in particularly good condition or if I find a hardback version and I only have a mass market paperback.

For me, the best part of a library book sale is the hunt: looking through boxes and boxes of books and pulling out the ones that look good, and the joy of finding a copy of a book that you've been wanting for a while. When I go to a library sale I always go without looking for a any particular book, because like a used book store, you can never be sure what they will have, but when I get lucky and find something I've been wanting, or come across an obscure science fiction title from the 1950s that I had never heard of before, it makes me feel unreasonably happy. The second best part is that you can get books ridiculously cheap: I have gotten books at library book sales for as little a a quarter of a cent each. The books I got these past two weeks weren't quite that cheap - averaged out, I spent just under $1.00 per book - but they were still a great deal.

If you love books you should go to your local library book sales. You will get some good books and the money you spend will go to help out your local library. If you don't know when your local libraries have their book sales, you should find out and try to go.

Random Thoughts     Home

Monday, May 7, 2012

Musical Monday - Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel) by Kansas


Sometimes an idea that spins into an entire story or gaming setting is sparked by a single song. Last week, I was listening to Icarus (Borne on Wings of Steel) and was hit by an idea that I am going to grow into my next D&D campaign setting that I have tentatively called the Floating Islands. If you care, you can follow along as I noodle through its development over the next couple of months on my hitherto sadly neglected role-playing blog Playing in Other Worlds.

The Kansas song itself is fantastic, referencing the ill-fated Icarus from Greek mythology and comparing his story to the joys of flying an airplane (hence, the "wings of steel"). But for me this song has always sparked powerful images in my mind of flying through the clouds unaided by anything other than willpower and magic and literally climbing mountains floating in the sky. I imagine myself soaring over golden clouds that are reflecting the setting sun as I cruise through the air to towering black mountains that float atop the shining mist. In my mind, it is glorious.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Do You Wanna Date My Avatar by The Guild

Kansas     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Blogger Hop April 28th - May 4th: Three Dog Night Says One Is the Loneliest Number

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books has restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them. A complete explanation of the history and the rules of the Hop can be found here.

This week Jen asks: Are you attending the Book Blogger Convention (aka Bea Bloggers) and/or Book Expo America in New York City in June? If not, will you participate in the online event called Armchair BEA?

Sadly, I will not be attending either the Book Blogger Convention or Book Expo America this year. It will probably lose me book blogging credibility to admit this, but until very recently I didn't know that conventions and other events dedicated to book blogging actually existed. I might try to go in the future, but right now, I just don't have the free space in my schedule that would allow me to go.

I suppose that it will also do me no favors to admit that I was similarly unaware of the Armchair BEA. Happily, because I would not have to travel to participate, I can certainly join in there so I'm penciling in the dates on my calendar and making sure my laptop is ready.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Follow Friday - I'm Feelin' Groovy, Let's Go to the 59th Street Bridge


It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Ali's Bookshelf and The Housework Can Wait.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is one thing you wish you could tell your favorite author?

Many of my favorite authors are dead: Andre Norton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey, and so on. But if I could, I'd probably tell them the same thing I tell every author I've met whose books I have enjoyed: Thank you.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: There Are Sixty Carbon Atoms in a Buckyball

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2012 Clarke Award Nominees

Location: Sci-Fi London at the Apollo Piccadilly Circus in London, United Kingdom.

Comments: In 1987, Margaret Atwood won the first Clarke Award with The Handmaid's Tale, a harrowing vision of a dystopian future in which women were reduced to little more than breeding stock. Atwood presented this misogynistic dehumanizing of women as a nightmarish turn of events. Twenty-six years later, Jane Rogers on the Clarke Award for The Testament of Jesse Lamb, which presents a vision of history in which the female protagonist turns herself into a brainless incubator for a fetus - an act that is presented as one of selfless nobility. Somehow, over two decades of science fiction, it seems that the status of women in science fiction has gone from an oppressed group struggling to be more than their wombs, to being defined entirely by their wombs. It seems to me that this is a step backwards.

Winner
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Shortlist
Embassytown by China Miéville
The End Specialist by Drew Magary
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
Rule 34 by Charles Stross
The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper

What Are the Arthur C. Clarke Awards?

Go to previous year's nominees: 2011
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2013

Book Award Reviews     Home

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review - That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis


Short review: All learning since the middle-ages is evil and the scientists are trying to destroy humanity. The good guys sit around and wait for magic to save them. Surprisingly, this works.

Haiku
Jane and Mark Studdock
Separated at the start
By N.I.C.E.

Full review: That Hideous Strength is the third and final book in C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy” and is also the best book in the series. This assessment is, however, damning with faint praise. As with the rest of the series, the book is mostly weak religious polemics coupled with a generous amount of misogyny. What places this book above the previous two installments in the series is that there is actually something of a story contained in its pages, and although the story is somewhat weak, it is still better than either the rambling travelogue of Out of the Silent Planet or the unadulterated tedium of Perelandra. As has become the pattern for Lewis thus far, his apologia in favor of his Christian faith are weakened by his apparent lack of understanding of the arguments of his ideological adversaries and his own inability to formulate a coherent reasoned argument on behalf of his chosen creed.

The central characters of the book are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young married couple living in the fictitious university town of Edgestow where Mark is a sociologist and a fellow at the fictitious college of Bracton. One oddity about the book is that despite the fact that Lewis attempts to make the Studdock's marriage a central element of the story, the reader never gets to see the Studdock's interact with one another. They open the book going their separate ways, and soon Mark is whisked away by Lord Feverstone, who happens to also be Devine from Out of the Silent Planet, to the headquarters of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E., at Belbury which is the villainous organization that the heroes of the book have to save the world from. The N.I.C.E. is a confusing place for Mark, as the deputy director says he is to be hired, but the head of the sociology section has no knowledge of Mark's appointment and has no need for another sociologist. Mark bounces about the confusing place trying to figure out if he has in fact been hired and if so for what position and at what salary but is given a run-around every time he tries to figure out his status, and is eventually sternly warned that he is annoying important people at N.I.C.E. It seems that this sort of confusion about organizational structure is intended as a commentary on the disordered nature of modern thinking, but all it really does is make the N.I.C.E. seem like a fairly ineffectual villain. If the N.I.C.E. is this disorganized one has to wonder how they would be able to execute their purportedly nefarious plans.

Jane, on the other hand, putters around Edgestow for a while before going to St. Anne's and joining up with the somewhat ineffective assembly that the "Director", in the form of a wounded Elwin Ransom, has gathered around himself to oppose this supposedly existential threat to humanity. Much of the machinations of the villains rely upon attempting to manipulate Mark in order to secure Jane's services as a prophetic dreamer, the various bits of advice that Ransom, a confirmed bachelor, gives to Jane on how to repair her marriage, and Mark coming to realize that he really does love his wife, but by giving so very little attention to developing the relationship between the two characters, the reader ends up not caring very much whether they do actually reconcile or not. This problem does not seem to be confined to the Studdock's. Although there are only a handful of married couples in the book, they are either separated throughout the entire story or interact with one another only very briefly.

Although one might be able to make the argument that Lewis keeps Mark and Jane apart through the narrative in order to build up tension that is to be resolved by their dramatic reunion, the fact that none of the married couples seem to have a shared relationship that is presented with any kind of depth in the story makes one think that perhaps Lewis's experiences with women were so lacking that he simply didn't know how to write scenes involving a healthy relationship. Not only that, when the time comes for the emotional payoff at the end, Lewis has it take place entirely off stage, meaning that two people with a poorly developed relationship have a dramatic reunion out of sight, leaving the reader to simply not care about what is clearly, in Lewis' mind, one of the critical developments of his book. As I have noted elsewhere, it seems that the misogynistic sentiments that seem to ripple throughout Lewis' books were driven not by an active dislike for women, but instead by Lewis' limited contact with them, and a resulting lack of familiarity with actual women and lack of understanding of how men and women actually interact. All of the women who appear in the book are portrayed as petulant children, dutiful wives, matronly mothers, or awful harridans. Apparently, there are no other choices for women.

Women, it seems, were strange beasts in Lewis’ mind, and while he might have conceded that they were human, it seems that he was inclined to regard them as never being fully adult. Nowhere is this more apparent in That Hideous Strength than in the character of Jane Studdock, who Lewis treats as some odd combination of a wayward child and a recalcitrant brood mare. When the story opens we are told that Jane is pursuing graduate studies of her own, presumably intent on following her husband into academia. But almost immediately the narrative (and Jane herself) dismisses her aspirations as being both dissatisfying and childish. Jane wanders through the opening chapters more or less bewildered and confused until she encounters Ransom, whereupon she is informed that her mental anguish would be ameliorated if she simply submitted herself to the authority of her husband. In other words, a fully grown woman capable enough to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree is advised by an unmarried male character in a book written by an unmarried man that her best course of action is to be obedient to her husband. To reinforce this point, when Jane states that she would like to take the Director’s side and join his motley crew at St. Anne’s Ransom instructs her that he is not inclined to accept her unless she first gets permission from her husband even though Mark has already gone to Belbury and more or less joined the enemy. In effect, all of the other characters treat Jane as more or less an extension of Mark – even the forces of evil that represent the modernity that Jane has supposedly been misled by only recruit her husband Mark because they presume that if he is on their side then Jane will surely follow.

And Jane is critically important to both sides of the conflict in the book because she has prophetic dreams, the disturbing nature of which are the source of her disquietude at the start of the book. Apparently it would be a disastrous turn of events for N.I.C.E. to get hold of Jane and use her dream visions to their advantage. Since Jane’s dreams seem mostly to convey information that N.I.C.E. already knows, this seems to be a dubious proposition, but even so, it makes Ransom’s refusal to allow Jane to join with St. Anne’s until after she is captured and tortured by the N.I.C.E. security chief “Fairy” Hardcastle (revealing Hardcastle's sadistic and apparently Sapphic tendencies) seem shortsighted and foolish. Eventually Jane does join with Ransom’s merry little band despite not obtaining Mark’s permission first and proceeds have incredibly cryptic dreams that tell Ransom that the N.I.C.E. is doing exactly what he thought they were doing: Buying property from Bracton College so they can dig up an ancient grove of trees and try to locate the buried but not dead body of Merlin.

But this reveals the weakest element of the book, which is the idiotic resolution to the plot. All of the misogynistic and anti-reason messages contained in the story would possibly be excusable if Lewis had provided a moderately interesting story. But the ostensible heroes are more or less superfluous to the plot: Ransom has gathered about him a collection of faithful followers, but they don't actually do anything at all except wait around until Merlin shows up. Ransom does send a cadre of his followers out to try to find Merlin, but they prove to be wholly incapable of completing this task and Merlin arrives on Ransom's doorstep on his own and identifies the philologist as the "Pendragon", heir to the authority of King Arthur and rightful ruler of Logres, which is more or less "magical" Britain. Once Merlin has submitted himself to Ransom's authority, the two of them sit around waiting until the eldils of the heavens arrive to endow Merlin with their powers and send him out to do battle with the supposedly terrible forces of the N.I.C.E. Once Merlin has gone off to fulfill his destiny, the women of Ransom's merry band play dress up (because women always want to play dress up) and then everyone has a nice dinner. In short, despite everyone being told that they have a critical role to play in saving the world, what really happens is that Lewis pulls out a literal deus ex machina ending by having a magic man from the past show up and destroy the evildoers with the powers of angels. In the end, N.I.C.E. isn't defeated by reason, or courage, or any kind of human response, but instead because God decided to arrange things so he could smite them into oblivion. Instead of a call to action or an argument for faith, Lewis basically says that one should sit around doing not much of anything until divine intervention saves the day.

But what makes the story even weaker is that the N.I.C.E. doesn't seem to be all that effective or evil of a villain. Despite repeated admonishments about the horrible nature of the N.I.C.E., the only large scale "evils" that the organization seems to actually do are manipulating the news, buying and then tearing down a copse of trees, and arranging for a riot to break out in Edgestow. On a smaller scale, the N.I.C.E. more nefariously murders a scientist who wants to leave the organization and imprisons Mark. Even though there are clearly nasty acts, they aren't any more villainous than those performed by a run of the mill organized crime gang. As a result, it is difficult to see the N.I.C.E. as some sort of looming threat to humanity itself. There are a myriad of hints and dire warnings that the N.I.C.E. is up to far worse activities, but even the one thing that is supposedly truly evil – reanimating the head of their dead leader Alsacan – seems fairly trivial, especially when it is revealed that Alsacan as not actually been reanimated. This act seems to be little more than misusing a cadaver, and certainly not as horrific as Mark makes it out to be when he is confronted by the sight. Later, Lewis reveals that the real evil in the action results from the fact that the animating force is actually "macrobes" or evil eldil. But this removes the evil from being the work of men to being the result of supernatural influence. Despite Lewis' repeated railings against any field of academic study of more recent vintage than the 13th century, by making all of it the influence of otherworldly macrobes, Lewis effectively removes human agency from the equation. The plot of That Hideous Strength ends up being benign supernatural forces lining up to destroy malicious supernatural forces with the various human characters taking the part of pawns or bystanders. It is clear that Lewis desperately wants to convince the reader that the N.I.C.E. is a looming threat that will transform England into a dystopian nightmare, but the Keystone Kops nature of the organization coupled with the relatively bland nature of the evil deeds attributed to them makes this attempted characterization simply fall flat.

As the book winds its way through its poorly thought out plot to its unsatisfying conclusion, Lewis has to throw in a number of jabs at his ideological opponents and an additional helping of misogyny to go with them. Lewis tries to include criticism of various non-Christian philosophical positions, but ends up revealing that he simply doesn't understand the arguments advanced by their proponents. For example, the character of Frost adheres to the nondualistic view of the mind, an argument that holds that the human mind is entirely a product of the brain. But Lewis mutates this into a denial of the existence of the mind and writes frost as merely wandering about as his body does things. In the book, Frost is well-aware that he has a mind, but he has his mind merely observe as his body "instinctively" wanders about doing things on its own. But this sort of characterization of the philosophical position doesn't even rise to the level of being a straw-man and just makes Lewis look ill-informed and makes his counterarguments look ridiculous. Alongside this sort of ham-fisted attempts to make ideological points, Lewis adds some ham-fisted misogyny, most notably in the form of N.I.C.E. security chief "Fairy" Hardcastle who is portrayed as a heavyset, crude, and overtly sexual (and possibly bisexual) woman, and therefore she is sadistic and evil. The clear message sent by Lewis' characterization of women in the book is that unless a woman fits into the category of subservient baby-maker, she has gone astray and must be herded back into the fold or condemned to damnation.

Even the emotional payoff at the end of the story is poorly executed. When Mark does get free of the clutches of the N.I.C.E. having learned his lesson about foolish ambition and rekindled his love for his spouse, one would expect him to head straight for Jane. Instead he stops off at an inn near Jane and has himself a nice breakfast, spends the day reading the entirety of Curdie, and then tucks in for a nap. For a man who has been separated from his wife for some weeks and who is desperate to reconnect with her, this seems like an odd course of action. At the other end of the equation, Jane is instructed by Ransom to go to her husband and in the future "have babies instead of dreams". The overt message here is for Jane to cease having prophetic dreams, but the underlying message appears to be that Jane should give up her ambitions of academic accomplishment and take up the proper role of a woman as a dutiful wife and brood mare. At the very end, it is Jane who has to do the work and walk into the inn room where her husband has gone to sleep, at which point the book ends just before the emotional scene in which the couple are reunited. And at this point, both this book and the entire Space Trilogy mercifully come to an end. Unless one is interested in a deus ex machina plot laden with terribly weak theological arguments, spiced up with a screed against learning and reason, and topped off with a generous coating of misogyny, then That Hideous Strength is a book to be avoided.

Previous book in the series: Perelandra

1946 Hugo Award Nominees
2003 Prometheus Award Nominees
2008 Prometheus Award Nominees

C.S. Lewis     Book Reviews A-Z     Home