Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review - Red Rising by Pierce Brown


Short review: Darrow is a Red working as a miner deep under the surface of Mars, oppressed by the system. Then his wife is killed for defying the law, and he turns his efforts to gaining revenge.

Haiku
First a Helldiver
Then flogged, hanged, and left for dead
But reborn as Gold

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: Red Rising is a dystopian novel set on Mars that tells the somewhat cliched story of how a member of the lower classes oppressed horribly by the system, chooses to act in order to take vengeance for the death of a loved one. But the story is much more than that, as it depicts the pervasively insidious nature such a system has upon those who find themselves at its highest rungs, tempting and seducing even those who are most dedicated to its demise and who have sacrificed so much to undermining it.

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in a highly stratified society in which people are categorized by color. Some people are Blues, Purples, Pinks, Greys, and Silvers. At the top of the pyramid are the privileged and powerful Golds, who run everything. But in Darrow's life, he has only seen other Reds, some Greys and Obsidians, and one or two Golds, because he lives deep under the surface of Mars, working in a colony dedicated to mining precious helium-3 to be used to help terraform the surface of the planet so that it can be made habitable for humans. Darrow is a Helldiver, with the manual dexterity to work dangerous mining equipment, but he is living in an intentionally unfair society in which the Reds are kept on short rations, and to obtain even basic medical supplies Red women must sell themselves to higher caste men. Even when Darrow's tribe produces the most helium-3, theoretically entitling them to bonuses, the spoils are instead given to another group. Despite this, Darrow is disinclined to fight the system, in part because all of the workers have been told that their sacrifice is a heroic effort to pave the way to making Mars a paradise for the benefit of future generations.

As a story in which a downtrodden member of the underclass accepts his position in a dystopia doesn't usually make for a particularly interesting story, there needs to be a catalyzing event that sets the protagonist into motion to change their society. In Red Rising, the catalyzing event takes the form of Darrow's beloved wife Eo. Being forced to work a dangerous job, live on the scraps of others, beg for medicine, be shafted out of rewards, and knuckle under whenever the authorities happen by is not enough to get Darrow to rebel. Not even the judicial murder of his father and the threat of being flogged and seeing Eo flogged for a trivial infraction is enough to spur him to action. But when Eo deliberately provokes the Gold overseer by singing a forbidden song and is executed for her crime, Darrow defies the law and buries her body, leading to his own execution, and through a series of events, to his joining a radical group of rebels known as the Sons of Ares and their enigmatic representative named Dancer.

Instead of being given the chance to throw bombs or launch a suicide attack on the oppressive regime, Darrow finds that the Sons of Ares have a longer term plan in mind for him. He is subjected to a series of harrowing surgeries, a grueling training regime, and extensive reeducation designed to allow him to pass as a Gold rather than a Red so that he can infiltrate the power structure and subvert it from within. Through this process it becomes clear that not only do the Golds occupy a higher status than the other castes, they are better, although whether this is due to genetic engineering, selective breeding, or some other process is not entirely clear. To complete the process, the Sons of Ares also give Darrow a falsified history, providing him with records detailing his family background and education so that he can gain admittance to the Institute - a training ground where the children of the elite Gold families are sent to receive their training. One might note that this raises a somewhat glaring question: If the Sons of Ares are able to subvert the ruling powers' records system this completely, why do they need someone to impersonate a Gold in order to undermine the system? Couldn't they already wreck the system if they have infiltrated it that much already?

Because this isn't a novel about brave computer system hackers infiltrating a secure network to destroy a government by corrupting their data, Darrow takes the entry test and is accepted into the Institute, where all of the candidates are drafted into various "Houses" that represent the Olympian deities. Because he has among the highest test scores of any candidate, Darrow is considered a juicy candidate for several houses, but because he is a member of the Red caste from Mars entering an establishment located on Mars, it makes thematic sense for him to be drafted into the House of Mars in order to load on even more symbolism, and so he is. After an initiation ritual in which half of the members of each house end up murdered by the other half, the real education of the Institute begins, which consists of the members of all the houses engaging in a months long conflict to establish dominance both within each house and between the various houses. This portion of the book feels a little bit like a mixture of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson mixed with The Hunger Games, with a little bit of rape and enslavement thrown in for good measure. Once this segment gets going, it dominates the rest of the book with the twists and turns of shifting alliances, reversals of fortune, and all-out battles.

As interesting as the fighting between House Mars, House Minerva, House Apollo, and all of the others is, it is secondary to Darrow's own internal struggle. Having been modified to have the body of a Gold, educated to have the mind of a Gold, and taught to behave as a Gold, Darrow, in a sense, actually is a Gold, despite having started as a Red. And this fact is a honeyed trap for Darrow, as he finds himself behaving like, and at times thinking like a Gold rather than an infiltrator sent to overthrow the Gold regime. Further, his attendance at the Institute places Darrow into close contact with many young members of the Gold caste, and while several of them are cruel and callous, many others are sympathetic, or even likable. He even finds that he may have romantic feelings towards a young woman dubbed "Mustang", a development that Darrow is naturally conflicted about and makes him feel as if he has betrayed Eo's memory. Darrow also discovers that the system is corrupt and unjust at all levels, and not merely for those on the bottom rungs. Through his time at the Institute he begins to slip into Gold ways of thinking, playing the internecine warfare game well, but initially, on their terms, a mistake that proves costly. It is only when Darrow violates, perhaps not technically the letter of the rules, but certainly the spirit of them that he is able to truly make his mark. It is these elements - Darrow's internal struggle against the temptation to accept his new position in life, and the humanization of the privileged oppressor class - that set Red Rising above the pack of dystopian novels, and makes it at least a little unique.

In the vast field of dystopian science fiction, it is difficult to be notable. By serving up a fast-paced and interesting story, Brown has managed to accomplish this feat. Red Rising establishes its setting, provides the reader with enough background to make you empathize with the protagonist, and then moves through the plot at a tempo that is rapid enough to keep the story moving, but not so rushed as to gloss over important developments in the story. Along the way,Red Rising also provides interesting characters, an action-filled plot, a little bit of political philosophy, and a fair amount of emotional impact. Overall, this is a decent book that is sure to please anyone looking to scratch their dystopian fiction itch.

Subsequent book in the series: Golden Son

Pierce Brown     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 28, 2015

Musical Monday - Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival


I'm going to wander away from putting together my perfect idea of a Five Year Mission set for a bit. I'll be getting back to that later, but today I'm going to use some Credence Clearwater Revival to commemorate last night's lunar eclipse and subsequent blood moon. Unlike many people I know, I was able to see the eclipse, as the sky was clear enough that it was visible. I'm not sure if that actually qualifies as a "bad moon", but I'm thinking it is close enough to make this song the right one to choose for today.

The fact that we are approaching Halloween and this song featured prominently in the movie An American Werewolf in London is purely coincidental. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. At least until next week.

Previous Musical Monday: Charlie X by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

Creedence Clearwater Revival     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Blogger Hop September 25th - October 1st: Construction of Hadrian's Wall Began in 122 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. 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.

This week Billy asks: Do you belong to Shelfari, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and other similar sites? If so, can you list all of the book sites you belong to so others can take a look at them?

I have a LibraryThing account, which I use as my primary book cataloging resource. I have just under ten thousand books cataloged there, and five hundred or so reviews.

I think I have a Goodreads account as well, although I can't remember if I actually opened one or just thought about doing so. If I do, it has been so long since I used it that I may as well not have one.

I'm certain I've never had a Shelfari account.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: 121 Is the Official End Score for Cribbage

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, September 25, 2015

Follow Friday - The 228 Incident Was an Anti-Government Uprising in Taiwan That Led to the White Terror


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 Featured Blogger of the week - There is no featured blogger this week.
  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: If you could have any job, what would you do?

I'd probably teach. Maybe history, possibly English, or economics. Or something like government or civics. I know, that seems like a kind of mild choice for a dream job, and one might even wonder why I'm not doing that right now instead of grinding away every day as a lawyer. The answer to that last question is that there are economic realities that must be dealt with that make tossing everything aside and taking up a teaching position somewhere unfeasible at the current time. On the other hand, most Federal employees do make plans for what they will do after they elect to retire, and right now, for me, finding a teaching position somewhere is on the short list.

I suppose, from a certain perspective, I already have this job, as I do tutor students on a part-time basis, mostly in history or English, but sometimes in economics or civics. It isn't really the same though, but it is something of a start.


Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review - Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon


Short review: Caine Riordan is involuntarily frozen in cryosleep for more than a decade. Then the people who froze him thaw him out and make him a secret agent. Oddly, Caine goes along with this.

Haiku
Reluctant agent
Best at almost any job
Plus some aliens

Full review: Fire with Fire is the first book in the Caine Riordan series, which, naturally enough, features the polymath and generally capable at everything hero Caine Riordan. The book seems to really be two books more or less smashed together with varying degrees of success. One of the two books is an interesting two-stage first contact story in which humans first make contact with another race, and then find out that they've been under observation all along. The other book is a military science fiction story that feels a bit like a high tech Frederick Forsythe novel that seems at times to be just a little too happy to gaze at its own very detailed navel.

At the outset of the novel, Caine Riordan is a nosy reporter poking his nose into mysterious goings on on the moon. His investigations land him in trouble and lead to his being put into cold storage for several years. Eventually, Caine is thawed out by the very same people who put him on ice to be quickly trained as a somewhat unwilling intelligence operative and sent to investigate possible industrial malfeasance on a distant planet. This entire situation feels incredibly contrived, as several elements to it simply don't make sense other than as an artificial means to justify a reluctant protagonist for the story. Leaving aside the fact that the explanations as to why Riordan would consent to work for people who effectively imprisoned him for more than a decade seem quite flimsy, before he was taken out of circulation it seems that Riordan was reasonably well known. It seems quite odd that someone would try to organize a covert operation around a somewhat famous news reporter who suddenly turned up after being inexplicably absent for twelve years. The reasoning the Institute of Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security (IRIS) uses to justify using Riordan seems somewhat suspect as well: The claim is made that Caine is a "polymath", and thus suited to outside-the-box problem solving, but with the vast range of people available for them to recruit, it seems odd to pick someone who has a justifiable ax to grind against IRIS on such weak reasoning.

Riordan's assignment, which IRIS pulled him out of mothballs to send him on, is an investigation on the planet Delta Pavonis, at which point the dual nature of the book becomes apparent. On the one hand, Riordan finds himself embroiled in a cat and mouse game with both the corporate interests controlling the planet and at the same time presented with a collection of clues concerning the nature of the local inhabitants and some mysterious ruins of seemingly off-world origin. Oddly, Riordan's cover story is blown as soon as he reaches Delta Pavonis, rendering the reason that IRIS supposedly chose him for completely moot. He still forges ahead anyway, and after some moderately drawn out intrigue he gets to the meat of the mission, exploring the planet and making contact with the local fauna. But it is through this portion of the book that the cracks in the story begin to appear: The sections about making contact with alien humanoids and exploring strangely out-of-place ruins are excellent and interesting, while the at times incredibly (and almost tediously) detailed espionage story feels like it is simply an obstacle that sits in the way of getting back to the exploration and discovery parts of the story.

The dichotomy between the two elements of the book is what makes Fire with Fire so oddly frustrating. I have read many books by Frederick Forsythe, Tom Clancy, and others written in a similar vein and enjoyed them greatly. However in this book, the sections that are reminiscent of the novels by those authors seem flat and uninteresting, in way, almost intrusive. When Riordan sets out to return to Earth from his expedition to Delta Pavonis, the novel focuses heavily on the military intelligence aspect of the story, first covering the various attempts by shadowy forces to prevent the protagonist from delivering his report about his intriguing findings, and then the various other intrigues that result in assassinations, kidnappings, and rescues. These events are all presented with a fair amount of detail, but even so they lack impact. One weakness of the intrigue plot thread is that the villains opposing Riordan and IRIS are so far back in the shadows that not only is who they are unclear, what they want is entirely opaque, so when they show up, they seem to be almost a random occurrence rather than an organized force to be dealt with. There are a few points in the novel where the aims of this cabal could have been explained: A mysterious olive-loving assassin appears in a few scenes, and when one character is kidnapped, one of the kidnappers could have been used as a mouthpiece for the nefarious plotters. But the olive-lover brusquely bats away any inquiries of any kind, and the kidnappers are all mercenaries kept entirely out of the loop by their employers.

A small digression (but with a point): I have seen both the Western The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa movie it was based upon. I hold to the somewhat maverick opinion that The Magnificent Seven is a better movie, based mostly upon the existence of the character Calvera, who leads the bandit gang. There is no comparable character in The Seven Samurai, and the bandits who threaten the Japanese village in the movie are mostly presented as an undifferentiated mob. By including the character of Calvera, the makers of The Magnificent Seven gave the villains a face that the audience could latch on to and dislike. But Cavlera also gave the bandits a mouthpiece to tell their side of the story. Granted, their side of the story was reprehensible, but it was also understandable. When the bandit gang did the things they did, their actions didn't seem random or inexplicable - they had goals that the audience could see, making their actions seem more dangerous than they would have otherwise. To bring this back to Fire with Fire, one of the weaknesses of the book is the lack of any kind of Calvera style character to serve as a mouthpiece for the opposition. We are told that, for example, the evil-doers want to prevent Riordan from presenting his findings at an international conference of world leaders, but we have no idea what they hope to accomplish by doing so. Well, we know that they don't want Riordan to personally deliver the information (although they can't hope to prevent the information from getting to its destination by other means), but what benefit will accrue to the villains as a result is completely unknown.

Despite this weakness, Fire with Fire remains a good book, saved by the science fiction ideas at its core, and after meandering for a bit through the doldrums of military intelligence and intrigue, the story gets going again as the first contact elements return to the fore. After some seemingly needless secrecy, Riordan, along with a cadre of other characters, meets up with the alien Dornaani at a prearranged location deep in interstellar space. Although he is not a trained diplomat, or a government official, and has no real qualifications for such a task, Riordan's presence is justified by the first contact he made with the primitive denizens of Delta Pavonis, making him the only human to previously interact directly with an alien. Before too long, the human delegation finds itself embroiled in a diplomatic tug or war between a veritable menagerie of alien factions, with humanity's potential induction into an interspecies cooperative organization as the putative bone of contention. In contrast to the middle portion of the book in which the intrigue dragged, the interstellar diplomacy is riveting, despite the fact that most of the various players spend their time isolated from one another in sealed rooms. The only problem with this part of the book is that it ends too soon, and the action returns to Earth space for a bit more of the comparatively uninteresting human military intelligence intrigue in the final pages.

My mixed response to the book is in part due to the character of Caine Riordan. As noted before, Riordan is journalist with no particularly applicable skills and a legitimate grievance against IRIS, and yet the organization decides to assign him to one of their most critical missions. Riordan proves to be remarkably adept at pretty much everything, despite being at most a partially trained neophyte with respect to most of his endeavors. Riordan is almost preternaturally capable, and is able to make the correct deduction pretty much every time, outshining even experts in their own field on occasion. He is, in short, very close to the Platonic ideal of the competent man, which ends up justifying all of the contortions the others in the book go though to involve him in events that his actual resume doesn't really suggest he would be qualified to meaningfully participate in. At the same time, while we are told that Riordan is an independent-minded man who resents authority, he goes along with authority at almost every turn in the book - even when the enormous, and for IRIS pretty damning, secret of his mysterious missing one hundred hours is revealed he still elects to continue serving as an agency operative. The various contradictions resulting from the dichotomy between what we are told about Riordan and what his actions actually show him to be combined with his nearly supernatural ability to be right all the time make Riordan seem less like a character and more like a plot contrivance that the author pushes around to make the story move forward.

Fire with Fire is at times quite enjoyable, and at others quite frustrating. One can see why it was nominated for a Nebula Award, but one can also see why it didn't win. When the book is firing on all cylinders, as it does whenever dealing with the first contact story line, it is excellent. Whenever Riordan is driving the action, the story moves along at a fairly rapid pace. On the other hand, when the book runs off the rails, usually whenever Riordan is merely reacting to events, or when others are trying to manipulate Riordan, the story tends to run off into a ditch and get mired down in a morass of detail. The book contains tantalizing mysteries that beg to be followed-up upon, such as the mysterious ruins on Delta Pavonis and the primitive aliens who seem to know more than they should about humanity, but the book simply drops them to go back to the cloak and dagger plot, and the characters apparently forget about them as well. That said, even at its weakest, Fire with Fire remains fairly decent, and the high points of the novel more than make up for any deficiencies elsewhere. Overall, if you are looking for military science fiction with some interesting ideas mixed into it and an improbably competent and forgiving protagonist, then this is just the thing you are looking for.

Subsequent book in the series: Trial by Fire

2014 Nebula Award Nominees

Charles E. Gannon     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 21, 2015

Musical Monday - Charlie X by Five Year Mission


Unlike The Corbomite Maneuver, the song Charlie X isn't really a "funny" song, although given that the original Star Trek series was inherently campy, a lot of songs written about it have humorous notes. For example, I am reasonably certain that in the original episode whenever Charlie Evans (played by Robert Walker) rolled his eyes back in his head when he used his powers he was supposed to be scary and creepy. But now, whenever I see the episode, I can't help but find him hilariously silly. And when Kirk decides to teach Evans to be a man by taking him down to the Enterprise gymnasium for some wrestling, the sequence now appears to be both incredibly homoerotic and also incredibly goofy.

On the other hand, the episode is fairly creepy - Charlie is a petulant teenager with almost no impulse control and strange supernatural powers that allow him to lash out and punish those he takes a dislike to by stealing their voices, removing their faces, turning them into lizards, or simply making them disappear. In some ways, this episode of Star Trek is reminiscent of the 1953 Jerome Bixby short story It's a Good Life, which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name in 1961. It is probably no accident that Bixby later wrote four Star Trek episodes: Mirror, Mirror, By Any Other Name, Requiem for Methuselah, and Day of the Dove. The humor in this episode is tempered by the impending sense of horror as Charlie lashes out again and again, and even the best efforts of the Enterprise crew prove to be ineffective at stopping his rampages. Unlike It's a Good Life, this episode has a happy ending, as the aliens from Thasus show up to take Charlie into hand and fix all of the problems he caused (essentially pressing the reset button for the first time in Star Trek history).

But the real question this episode raises is why, exactly, does Yeoman Rand have a button in her quarters that opens a communications channel directly to the captain's chair on the bridge? Is this a booty call button?

Previous Musical Monday: The Corbomite Maneuver by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Dream Five Year Mission Set

Musical Monday Playlists     Five Year Mission     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Blogger Hop September 18th - September 24th: 121 Is the Official End Score for Cribbage

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. 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.

This week Billy asks: Where do you keep your passwords for all of your different sites?

Mostly in my head. I know that is not an optimal method, but I haven't been able to come up with a better one that I can stick with. So that's how I keep track of them.


Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, September 18, 2015

Follow Friday - Cormac mac Airt Became High King of Ireland in 227 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 Featured Blogger of the week - I Heart Reading.
  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: Help us give our Feature Interview Questions a fresh look! What questions do you think we should ask our weekly features?

I'm sure there are going to be dozens of silly proposed questions like "If you were a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be?" or "What is your favorite non-chocolate based dessert?" I could probably reel out a couple dozen of those, but that's probably not a very helpful collection of answers.

On the other hand, coming up with serious questions is a lot harder, especially since most of the obvious one, being obvious, are already on the list of questions Parajunkee and Alison Can Read use. Here are a few I came up with:
  • How do you pick which books to review? Even if you restrict yourself to one genre or even one publisher there are probably more books available than you can ever read or review. How do you pare the list down?
  • Have you ever read a book intending to review it, and in retrospect decided not to? What was the book, and why?
  • Do you review anything other than books?
  • Do you do any writing other than reviews? What else do you write about?
  • Are there any kinds of books you would absolutely refuse to review?
  • What do you consider to be your best review? Your worst?
  • What makes you unique as a book blogger?

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Event - The Doubleclicks, Molly Lewis, and Joseph Scrimshaw at Jammin' Java, September 10th, 2015 and the Black Cat, September 15th, 2015

The Doubleclicks at Jammin' Java
The Nerd Night Out Tour, headlined by the Doubleclicks and featuring Molly Lewis and Joseph Scrimshaw, made a stop at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia on Thursday, September 10th, and another at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. on September 15th. As we love the Doubleclicks, the redhead and I went to both shows.

As one might expect, both of the shows were very similar. After all, it would be kind of silly to expect that two musical acts and a comedian would completely rewrite their routines for shows that were less than a week apart. There were some slight differences that mostly amounted to the Doubleclicks performing a somewhat different selection of their music at each show, and a skit in the spirit of Dr. Seuss that was only performed at the Jammin' Java show. In addition, Professor Shyguy made a guest appearance at both shows, but played different material at each, and Storm DiCostanzo of the musical act Paul & Storm appeared at the Jammin' Java show but not the Black Cat show. For the most part, I'll be focusing on the Black Cat show in this post, and simply noting the few points where it diverged from the Jammin' Java show.

The Doubleclicks opened with the song Cats at Parties, their tribute to the travails of introverted nerds at social gatherings, bringing the crowd in for the refrain of "Party, Parties". After this kick-off to get the crowd into the spirit of the evening, Molly and Joseph joined them on stage for a fantastic humorous skit in which they mentioned the names of all of their sponsors while Aubrey interjected silly (and perfectly in character) insults like "son of a breakfast muffin" and "toilet ponies". The skit was filled with silly jokes and asides, setting the happy tone for the entire show.

As soon as the skit closed, Angela introduced Molly Lewis for her set, and as one would expect Molly proceeded to sing about murder, vaginas, potential pregnancy, and penises. She led off with her song about killing people in video games by karate chopping them in the rear end called Chop, Chop. After explaining the genesis of the song, and the fact that she had performed it in front of him when he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Harvard Humanist Community, Molly performed her Open Letter to Stephen Fry, and at Jammin' Java she threw in some of the additional material she has added to the song over the years. Molly then talked a little bit about her musical Thanksgiving vs. Christmas, noting that she is firmly on the side of Thanksgiving, before singing the song The Pumpkin Spice Lament, bemoaning the fact that pumpkin spice seems to always be prematurely overwhelmed by Christmas-themed flavors. Molly then moved on the genitalia portion of the show, first singing Kapo, her song about the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and her flying vagina, which includes the hilarious lyric "clam slam John Hamm", and then sang what she calls her dumbest song ever titled Johnny Dicklegs, about a cowboys with two giant penises instead of legs.

Joseph Scrimshaw
at the Black Cat
Knowing that once one sings a song about a cock-limbed cowboy there's nothing that can really do as a follow-up, Molly ended her set there. That left comedian Joseph Scrimshaw to come on stage and try to pick up the pieces, a fact that he was quick to point out. Scrimshaw quickly segued to talking about how he's from Minnesota, a state with the claim to fame that Oregon Trail, a game in which people would rather die of dysentery than stay in Minnesota, was developed there. From that point, he moved on to a set full of references to William Shatner tweeting about Earthquakes, the differences between people named Joe and people named Joseph, the utter lack of caring displayed by restaurant websites, and the frequency with which people blow him off in real time using Twitter. Much of the set was focused on Scrimshaw's two favorite topics: Star Wars, and Social Justice. This led to jokes about Obi Wan Kenobi Yelp reviews, light sabers and mansplaining, dick pictures as a romantic gesture (and a digression about Emperor Palpatine sending dick pics), the benefits of being old, and how much Joseph Scrimshaw hates Kinkos, or as it is called now, FedEx Office. As a side note, for reasons best left explained by Joseph Scrimshaw himself, one way to show him some love via Twitter is to send him a nice tweet with the hashtag #ScrewYouJosephScrimshaw.

The show stepped to the side for a bit and had Professor Shyguy make a guest appearance. Professor Shyguy uses his Nintendo GameBoy to make chiptune music. In both shows he did a duet with Angela from the Doubleclicks, singing My Eyes from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog. At Jammin' Java he also performed a song in which all of the the words were first in alphabetical order and then in reverse alphabetical order, while at the Black Cat he performed a song that may have been called Turn Back Around, but to be honest, I didn't hear the title so I can't be sure. The redhead doesn't like chiptunes music, so she's not particularly enthusiastic about Professor Shyguy. The only real issue I have with his act is that he always seems to have his music just slightly too loud for the venue he is playing in, and it kind of overwhelms the lyrics. If he just reduced the music volume by a slight bit, he would be much more enjoyable.

After Professor Shyguy, the show got to the main event as the Doubleclicks took the stage. The main difference between the two shows was mostly in the number of songs the Doubleclicks performed. In the Jammin' Java show it seems that a portion of the time that would have otherwise been used for songs was instead devoted to a Dr. Seuss style skit involving everyone on the tour plus special guest Storm DeConstanza. It was a funny and fairly cute skit about sexism, but I liked the Black Cat show in which Aubrey and Angela played more music just a little bit more, mostly because I can't ever gwt enough of the Doubleclicks' music. That said, both shows had an excellent selection of the duo's music, including Cats and Netflix, President Snakes, Really Big Chickens, This Is My Jam, Nothing to Prove, Tabletop Games, and Clever Girl. At the Black Cat they pulled Maximilian the keyboard cat out to perform an adorable meowing version of the Doctor Who theme song, while at Jammin' Java they performed a spontaneously written song in which they took lyric suggestions to fill in to a Mad-Libs style form. As always, their performance was fantastic, full of wonderful geeky fun mixed with some pretty strong feminist themes.

Following the Doubleclicks set, Scrimshaw and Lewis came back to the stage with Aubrey and Angela for a round of Truth and Dice, a routine in which Scrimshaw rolled dice to determine which random somewhat silly question he would ask the other members of the tour with the goal of getting to know them better. So Aubrey was asked questions such as what kind of YouTube show Black Widow would have, or whether she would rather shoot fire or printer ink out of her hands (she picked printer ink when it was revealed should choose what color she could shoot), while Angela was asked what cool battle phrase she would shout ("Suck it patriarchy") and which Muppet would be most likely to send a dick picture (Gonzo). Molly was asked if she would accept a Candy Crush invitation from Wonder Woman, or if she would buy life insurance from George R.R. Martin (she opined that the policy would take so long to read that you'd die before you could sign it). The only problem with this segment is that because he was doing all of the dice rolling, Scrimshaw didn't get asked any questions, leaving a rather obvious gap in the "getting to know one another" portion of the show. On the up side, at the Jammin' Java show Molly put on her Eeyore outfit for this segment, and did the politest mike drop in history, which was incredibly adorable.

Sadly, like all shows, Nerd Night Out came to an end. On the upside, the show was closed out with a rousing rendition of Love You Like a Burrito performed by all four members of the tour, although Scrimshaw's contribution to the song was mostly humorous rather than strictly musical. At Jammin' Java, Storm joined the group for the final song as well, playing the keyboard cat. And with that, the show, and on September 15th the tour, was over. It was a great pair of shows, and I can't wait to see all of the performers again.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review - Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons by Tom Purdom


Stories included:
Fossil Games
Haggle Chips
Dragon Drill
Canary Land
Research Project
Sheltering
Bonding with Morry
Sepoy
Legacies
A Response from EST17
The Path of the Transgressor
The Mists of Time

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: Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons is a collection of twelve of Tom Purdom's pieces of short fiction that were published between 1994 and 2012. The stories in the volume are quite eclectic, ranging from a story about Prussian soldiers facing off against a dragon to a story about a divided humanity making first contact with a divided alien race, to stories about genetic engineering, the alleged humanity of robots, and time travel. The only real unifying theme to the stories is that they were all written by Purdom, and thus are all pretty good.

The volume opens with Fossil Games, a story title that works on two levels, one literal and one metaphorical. In the future, advances in genetic modifications have created severe dichotomies between generations of humans. People born in one generation wind up intellectually so far behind those of the succeeding generations that they simply cannot meaningfully contribute to society. Morgan is one such antique individual who decides to band together with a collection of others of varying degrees of obsolescence and head out of the Solar System to spend their extended lifespans exploring other stars. Through their journey, Morgan applies his energies to manipulating the interpersonal conflicts between the various inhabitants of the converted asteroid they all call home, trying to defuse disagreements between groups with wildly different philosophies concerning the relationship between humans and the rest of the universe. Everything comes to a head when fossil evidence of life is found an a desolate planet and the ship's complement erupt into almost open war about how to deal with the discovery. Morgan tries to use his finely honed political skills to navigate a compromise and winds up making everyone involved annoyed with him. The story is an interesting exploration of the dangers of meddling when others have dug into their own intractable positions, but also ends on a note of equanimity, as only one who knows that they have hundreds of years ahead of them to play with could display.

On the surface, Haggle Chips is about a fairly run-of-the-mill political dispute that the protagonist becomes embroiled in as the result of being kidnapped. While Janip is on his way to deliver high-tech replacement eyes to a wealthy client named Elisette, he is abducted to be used as a bargaining chip by his captors, a collective that opposes the development of a dam financed by Elisette. In order to try to make Janip more sympathetic to his captor's cause (and provide a way to watch Janip more closely), the collective's leader Sivmati induces a young member of the group named Farello to strike up a relationship with him. Although Janip does not explicitly know that Sivmati used technology aimed at manipulating emotions to make Farello more receptive to Janip's advances, both Janip and Elisette assume this to be true. While the story uses the political dispute and Janip's confinement as a vehicle, the story is really about the deeper question of how one relates to an individual who has had their mental state rigged in this manner. Janip makes some escape attempts, and it becomes clear that Farello is attached enough to him that she wants to accompany him in his flight. But given that her affection for Janip is at least partially the result of what can only be called brainwashing, is it fair to allow her to run away from her whole life to be with him? Janip and Elisette engage in some rather facile reasoning to decide that taking advantage of her conflicted nature is ethical, but in the end Janip is at least self-aware enough to wonder if they made the right choice.

Purdom takes a break from stories about genetic enhancement and pharmaceutical manipulation with Dragon Drill, the tale of a confrontation between Frederick the Great's disciplined Prussian soldiers and a dragon. Unwilling to allow the sacrifice of a Hapsburg princess to save his newly conquered province of Silesia, Frederick sends two battalions of infantry, one battalion of grenadiers, squadrons of cavalry, and three artillery pieces to engage the mythical beast. Using the princess as bait, the Prussians engage the creature in a lengthy battle in which modern firepower and military discipline triumphs. As usual for these stories, the outcome of the fight is merely a vehicle for the real point: The now safe Hapsburg princess notes that her family had saved a land they held by inheritance at the cost of a single life once every fifty years, while it cost the Prussians more than a hundred men to retain a province they claimed by force. The Prussians reply that there are no monsters resulting from reason similar to those such as the dragon produced by belief in superstition and myth. But the reader may note that the product of reason (at least in this story) is that men have been turned into the monsters, sacrificing one another, or even killing one another in the name of discipline and enlightenment. Superstition conjures monsters to harry humankind, reason makes humankind behave like monsters.

Canary Land tackles the question of immigration, and human obsolescence as it follows George Sparr, an American genetic engineer who emigrated to the Moon in search of a better life. Unfortunately, the Techno-Mandarin program he had purchased when he made his move provided him with only the barest rudiments of the language, and he found himself working the most menial of jobs playing the viola as live entertainment in restaurants. George is strong-armed into breaking into a research facility ostensibly at the behest of one of the owning company's board of directors who supposedly wants to check to make sure the lead researcher (and fellow board member) isn't lying about their research. The story moves along in a somewhat confusing manner - mostly due to the fact that George doesn't really understand what is going on, as he only has a worm's eye view of the events triggered by his actions. The story flips the usual immigrant narrative, showing the reader a story in which someone from Delaware County is unskilled labor, highlighting his relatively dismal options which include being little more than a relatively well taken care of lab rat. The central question posed boils down to this: How much human potential would be wasted if the difference between being useful and not useful is how effective of a translation program one can afford? If humans are defined by what they can afford, how does one bridge the divide between have and have not? By the end of  Canary Land George is able to come to a reasonably happy resolution to his situation, but it isn't what he intended, and it seems clear that it is in large part due to some unexpected patronage. But what, one wonders, will happen to the thousands of other immigrants who aren't quite as lucky? Purdom poses disturbing questions, and offers few answers.

For most first contact stories, the danger posed is that a breakdown of relations will result in war between the two species. But what if war was an effectively unknown concept to the alien species? What would the failure state of a first contact situation look like then? Research Project, a story told from the perspective of nine-year old Jinny as she studies the first contact between humanity and Ifli, focusing specifically on the alien Postri-Den and the human Orlando Mazzeri, both experts in alien psychology, using notes from their writings to set them up as viewpoint characters as well. The Ifli are a herbivorous pacifistic race, and are shocked and appalled by the murderous and predatory ways of humanity, but seem willing to negotiate some sort of agreement with us despite their distaste for human proclivities. The problem is that despite both species doing their best to negotiate a compromise, the assumptions each relies upon turn out to be so different that what seems like a reasonable course of action to one proves unacceptable to the other. Woven into the story is the personal journey of Postri-Den, and just how high the price is that he pays for his affinity for humans. In the end, the failure of negotiations results in the Ifli simply leaving, metaphorically burning the bridge between humanity and their society. The story highlights the fact that even with good intentions, cultural differences can make agreement impossible,  but what makes it truly disturbing is how blasé the various characters in its "present-day" are about the fact that humanity had fumbled away its chance to make a beneficial alliance with another race - to the point where some of the adults don't even recognize Postri-Den's name when Jinny brings it up, making his noble sacrifice seem like an almost futile gesture.

Sheltering is an interesting story in that the science fiction element is almost entirely off-stage. Pearson is an old war game enthusiast hiding in a bomb shelter with several other people while the outside world falls apart. To pass the time, Pearson plays wargames on his computer, drawing the attention of a young boy who is sharing the shelter, and the ire of the boy's parents, who think that play-acting at war while there is real war happening is morally repugnant. The story is fairly straightforward and serves mostly as a vehicle for Purdom to muse on how we regard war, and how we let children know what kind of monstrosity there is in the world, although there is some interesting commentary on the development and historical use of wargames as well, including what can be learned from them, and how those who don't absorb those lessons can suffer disastrous consequences when called upon to face the real thing.

Science fiction is rife with stories about the developing humanity of mechanical creations, usually focusing on the unexpected development of sentience in robots. Bonding with Morry follows in this tradition to some extent, as Morry obtains a mechanical personal companion to help him around the house. Morry intentionally chooses an inhuman looking model and names his companion "Clank" so as to ensure that he will continue to regard it as a machine and not a person. At first Morry uses Clank mostly for housecleaning, cooking, and other relatively simple household chores, but as the story progresses and Morry gets older, he becomes more and more dependent upon his mechanical assistant. Eventually Morry succumbs to pressure from machine rights activists, renames Clank to Clark, and updates the robot's body to be more human in appearance. The story seems to be moving along in a fairly conventional manner as Morry ages, becomes infirm, and finally is left with only Clark to care for him on his death bed, but in typical style for Purdom, the story pulls back just at the end and the author reminds the reader that no matter how human looking Clark is, an no matter how caring and thoughtful he seems to be, he is still an amalgamation of engineering and software that had to be put together by human hands. The denouement of the story is an interesting reversal on a well-worn science fiction trope, and a nice tribute to engineers and software programmers.

Culturally we are disposed to despise collaborators. Quisling, traitor, and turncoat, are among the severe epithets uses to describe such individuals. So when Purdom tackles the question of humans collaborating with aliens in Sepoy, the reader starts the story firmly convinced that the protagonist Jason should not betray the New England Confederation to work with the Tucfra Hegemony when it is suggested in the opening paragraphs by their recruiter, a pretty woman named Marcia. After all, despite being disabled, Jason has conveniences that make his life easier and an occupation that he is good at and which he can do from his own home. He is human. He is a free man, not beholden to some alien government. But when William and Jeanette show up from the Department of Internal Security looking to use Jason as a witness against Marcia, the story takes a dark turn. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the New England Confederation, and by implication all of the other human governments on Earth, is rotten to the core, and not worthy of Jason's loyalty. It is at this point that the story loses much of its impact, as Purdom has to ramp up the villainy of the two security agents to almost cartoonish levels of evil, and at the same time make the Tucfra paragons of virtue in order to make Jason's final decision seem palatable to the reader. To cap everything off, the story makes clear that Jason doesn't even really have a choice at the end, which makes much of the plot leading up to that point seem like a set of railroad tracks. The real problem with the story is that it presents Jason's moral dilemma as being not really much of a moral dilemma at all, and as a result it is not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

Legacies is a military science fiction story, but it approaches the topic from an unusual angle: What happens to the children who are left behind to pick up the pieces after their parents head off to fight gloriously in battles in the coldness of space. The central character in the story is Medical Captain Dorothy Min, an officer charged with ensuring the emotional well-being of Deni, a child with both parents deployed in a conflict against the breakaway asteroid metropolis known as Akara City. When the news that Deni's mother has been killed in the conflict, Min ramps up her attempts to get the child's remaining parent to consent to a procedure that will allow Deni to come through the crisis with his emotional core intact. Hemmed in by regulations and bureaucratic foot-dragging, Min finds herself caught in the middle between her rules-be-damned civilian medical mentor and her buttoned up former senior NCO father, both of whom are sympathetic to the needs of the child, but who have very different ideas about the proper course of action for Min to take. Through the story, Min struggles with what to do, but in the end she does the only thing she can do, even though it is a tragic and almost entirely unfair outcome. In the end, Purdom reminds his reader that not only is life harsh, but as irrational creatures humans have a tendency to make it worse than it has to be even though no one actually intends to do so.

Many first contact stories are fairly straightforward when it comes to who humanity should speak to: The duly authorized human envoy speaks with the representative of the alien authority and they either overcome the cultural differences and come to some sort of agreement or they don't and conflict ensues. The question A Response from EST17 poses is more complex: Who should humanity speak to, the local authority or the dissident? And which one has humanity's interest in mind? Further complicating the issue is the fact that the story features not one, but two human probes, each of whom contests the other's authority to speak for humanity. The back and forth between the two human probes, their respective contacts with the aliens, and the different factions among the aliens raise a myriad of questions, many of which remain unresolved at the end of the story. Everything revolves around a message the aliens intend to deliver to humanity providing the combined learning of more than two dozen alien civilizations that serve as a gateway to immortality, unlimited energy, and a host of other benefits. But the message is a honeyed trap which some within the alien society want to want humanity to eschew, both to save humanity from the turmoil of assimilating the knowledge, and to possibly shake up what they see as their own moribund society. Like many of Purdom's stories, A Response from EST17 seems predictable at first, but then turns one's expectations completely on their head by the end, offering a delicious reversal and leaving the reader with numerous disquieting questions.

Another story that seems at first to be about one thing and then turns on its heel in the middle is The Path of the Transgressor, which starts off focused on a researcher named Davin who is studying some otter-like alien life forms that live in large colonies on the shore of a lake, but then changes to a struggle for survival when Lizera, Davin's wife, is set upon by pack hunting animals while returning to the couple's shared dwelling. Although they are both armed and armored, and accompanied by genetically engineered guard cats, the pack's numbers prove almost overwhelming, and then the real meat of the story rears its head: The insidious divisiveness of human prejudice. Lizera, it turns out, is a genetically engineered "geisha", designed to serve the needs of others, and mentally conditioned to love Davin and place his needs above her own. Prejudice against people like Lizera is apparently widespread, which is why Davin chose to conduct his research in a remote area, far from anyone else. Now, surrounded by predators, Davin finds that the prejudice against his wife runs deep as he meets obstacle after obstacle in arranging with the colony's administrator for a rescue. The story wends along into the dangerous twilight as the politics swirl about the characters, until eventually Davin and Lizera's predicament is resolved in a somewhat satisfactory manner, but even the modest victory turns out to be tainted when Davin discovers the true nature of his wife: Despite the risks he ran for love, her self-abnegating nature prevents her from appreciating, or even comprehending, his actions. Love with a "geisha", it turns out, is a one-way street to a certain extent.

A time travel story involving a form of time travel that allows for observation but not interaction The Mists of Time recounts the documentation of a historical event by a pair of observers who have wildly differing ideas regarding how to frame what they see. The event being observed is the capture of a Portuguese slave ship by the British HMS Sparrow on slate patrol under the command of John Harrington. One observer is Emory FitzGordon, a descendant of Harrington who is mostly motivated by hero-worship for his esteemed ancestor. Accompanying and technically running the observation expedition is Giva Lombardo, who has a very different view of the historical events, colored by her focus on the monetary reward offered to the British crewmen for delivering liberated slaves to the authorities, a moderate amount of distaste for the British sailors themselves, and sympathy for the perspective of the slaves at issue in the conflict. The story alternates between Harrington's viewpoint and FitzGordon's viewpoint, making the reader feel a fair amount of empathy for their points of view, but as the plot progresses one starts to think that Lombardo has the better arguments. The real thrust of the story is that even when directly viewing a historical event, two people can have radically different interpretations of it, and one has to always have to take into account the viewpoint of the reporter, and even time travel won't solve that problem.

Overall, this volume is an excellent survey of Tom Purdom's fiction over the last two decades. Every story is at least good, and a couple are excellent - most notably Fossil GamesA Response from EST17, and Bonding with Morry. But it isn't just the uniformly good quality of the stories in this volume that makes it so good: The stories also cover almost the full gamut of science fiction ideas, touching on so many different facets of the genre that this is almost a single volume primer on modern science fiction. For anyone who is a fan of Tom Purdom, or anyone who is a fan of science fiction in general, this book is an excellent read.

Notes: This volume contains the Hugo- and Locus-nominated story Fossil Games, as well as the Locus-nominated story Sepoy.

2000 Hugo Award Nominees

1993 Locus Award Nominees
2000 Locus Award Nominees

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Musical Monday - The Corbomite Maneuver by Five Year Mission


Continuing the run of humorous songs from Five Year Mission, here is the quirky and silly tribute to the invented material behind Kirk's greatest bluff. Confronted by a superior adversary, Captain Kirk resorts to fabricating an imaginary material that he tells his mysterious adversary is built into the hull of the Enterprise and will explode and destroy any attacking ship with an equal and opposite reaction to any offensive weapon used against it. So, of course, Five Year Mission had to write a song from the perspective of the future salesman who would actually sell such a material for use in star ships in the Star Trek universe. Never mind that it is supposed to be imaginary even in the imagined future: Just sit back and listen to the future equivalent of a used car salesman pitch products from the hair club for men of the future.

Previous Musical Monday: I, Mudd by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Charlie X by Five Year Mission

Dream Five Year Mission Set

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Blogger Hop September 11th - September 17th: "120" Is a Turkish Film About Children in the Battle of Sarikamish

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. 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.

This week Billy asks: What is most rewarding about being a book blogger?

I originally started this blog as a way to document my own reading, and it still primarily serves that purpose. The reviews I write about books, movies, and television shows are there mostly for me. Any benefit anyone else gets out of them is entirely a beneficial and mostly unintended side-effect. I suppose that being part of the ongoing conversation about books and other media is also something that is pretty rewarding, but that is mostly just another beneficial side-effect of the primary purpose of blogging for me.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: 121 Is the Official End Score for Cribbage

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Follow Friday - An Earthquake Destroyed the Colossus of Rhodes in 226 B.C.


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 - Romance Dreamland Book Corner and My Random Book Thoughts.
  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: Undiscovered talent – tell us about a book you loved but no one else seems to have heard of. It can be new or old, any genre. Let’s spread the love.

I'm going to pick the books of John Bellairs, none of which seem to get much love these days. Bellairs, who died in 1991, wrote multiple series of young adult mysteries laced with some fantasy and science fiction. His most prominent set of stories featured the young Johnny Dixon paired up with his eccentric neighbor Professor Childermass, but Bellairs also wrote several other excellent series one featuring the protagonist Lewis Barnaveldt, another centered around Rose Rita, and a third focused on Anthony Monday. In most of his book series, a preteen protagonist is paired with an adult mentor who is usually quirky and kind, and the duo is presented with some sort of strange happening that must be investigated. The stories are not quite scary enough to rise to the level of "horror", but probably could best be described as "gothic fantasy", although in some cases evil robots or time traveling trolley cars have been known to show up. I have read almost all of Bellairs' books, and I love all of them, but particular standouts include The House With a Clock in Its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, The Trolley to Yesterday, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring. The books are all great fun, but no one but me seems to even know about them any more, let alone read them.


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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review - The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I, 1929-1964 edited by Robert Silverberg


Stories included:
A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum
Twilight by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey
The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein
Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
The Weapon Shop by A.E. van Vogt
Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett
Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak
Arena by Fredric Brown
First Contact by Murray Leinster
That Only a Mother by Judith Merril
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith
Mars Is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury
The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth
Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson
Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber
The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher
Surface Tension by James Blish
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke
It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester
The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny

Full review: During Robert Silverberg's tenure as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the members decided to honor a selection of works of science fiction that had been published before the organization established the Nebula Awards. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame series was the result, and this volume was the first to be made. Consisting of stories selected by a vote of the then-members of SFWA that were both under fifteen thousand words and published before 1965, this volume puts on display what the established science fiction authors of the late 1960s regarded as the fundamental works of the genre. With the addition of some relatively light editorial selection by Silverberg, this book is essentially the cream of the science fiction genre as drawn from a thirty-five year period extending from 1929 to 1964.

Classic science fiction was heavily populated with stories about exploring Mars, and A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum is a fairly imaginative example of this type of story. Although science has overtaken the story - Mars' atmosphere is far thinner and colder than was believed when Weinbaum wrote the story, one can easily mentally transpose the action to a different, more hospitable planet without doing substantial violence to the tale. What makes A Martian Odyssey special is that for a story originally published in 1934, it describes a fairly imaginative cadre of alien life-forms, including one that might not even be considered to be "alive", so much as a mobile automaton. The story does have some issues though: It is told in retrospect as the protagonist recounts his adventures to his fellow explorers, which pretty much drains any real drama out of the account. Weinbaum also engages in a little bit of misdirection near then, as it turns out that a fair amount of the troubles faced by the protagonist are the result of his own perfidy, making him far less sympathetic of a figure. In the end, however, the story is saved by the diverse set of exotic aliens described.

It seems that using a narrator to recount previously occurring events was a common device used in science fiction in the 1930s, as Twilight by John W. Campbell also uses this device, but does so at an even further remove from the actual action by having the narrator tell a story that the actual protagonist told him. In Twilight, Jim Bendell tells the story of how he picked up an odd hitch-hiker who claimed to be a time traveler from a thousand years in the future who told him the story of how he had journeyed even further into the future to the twilight of man. Of the stories in this volume, this is one of the weakest, as it ends up being mostly descriptions of the empty cities and their mindless caretaker robots encountered by the time traveler. The time traveler does encounter some of the last vestiges of humanity in his travels, but as they have lost their curiosity and ambition, nothing much comes of this meeting, which more or less sums up the weakness of this story. Quite simply, not much happens. The time traveler goes five million years in the future, sees a dying world in which nothing much happens, and then comes back to tell a real estate agent about the nothing that happened. The imagined future is somewhat beautiful and somewhat depressing at the same time, but it amounts to a fairly limp story.

Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey is ostensibly about two men who build a robot, but it really tackles the question of what it means to be human and what it means to fall in love. The titular character is the robot created by the narrator and his best friend, who are merely trying to create a responsive domestic robot that can learn how to cater to its owner's needs. Almost by accident, they create something much more - a construct that, if it isn't actually sentient, is so close as to be indistinguishable from sentience, and which falls madly in love with the narrator's friend, a development that frightens both of the android's creators. In lesser hands this story would have likely turned into a "robot gone mad" tale, but del Rey takes the next step, treating the love-struck android like a real character (albeit a fairly sexist depiction of a character by today's standards), and this is what sets Helen O'Loy apart from the run of the mill stories of its day.

Although I don't think The Roads Must Roll is Robert A. Heinlein's best work of short fiction, it is his most famous, and one of the ones that probably gives his libertarian fans fits. Heinlein was rather famously disdainful of automobiles, considering them to be wasteful and inefficient, and in this story he constructs an alternative: Moving highways that people can step onto and off of for their transportation needs. This massive infrastructure requires a massive labor force to maintain it, and unrest among this labor force is where The Roads Must Roll transforms from a description of possible technology to an actual story. The interesting thing about the way the story plays out is that Heinlein seems to condemn both labor unions and individual autonomy in favor of service to a corporate government. The workers, striking to claim a greater share of the economic wealth their services provide and also to claim overall political power, are forcibly put down by the protagonist, who extols the virtues of working for the common good - with order to be kept at gunpoint if necessary.

Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon is one of the few stories in the volume in which the protagonist simply cannot be described in any way other than as a monstrous villain. Actually, there are two central characters - a scientist and a banker - and both of them are horrible people. The primary character is a scientist who figures out a lazy man's way to come up with new discoveries and ends up being one of the wealthiest men in the world. The other central character is the scientist's banker, who decides that he would like to have a greater share of the money his client's inventions bring in. Lost in the conflict between the two are the scientist's creations, forced to labor for his benefit under the pain of death should they disobey. The story builds to a climax and then ends somewhat ambiguously, although the central moral question of whether it is ethical to create and enslave life for one's own curiosity is left entirely unaddressed, which gives the story more than a little bit of an unsatisfying feel.

Of all the stories in this volume, the most famous among science fiction fans is probably Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, which posits a planet with multiple suns that only has night come once every thousand years. I'm not sure if the physics works out entirely correctly - it seems from the description Asimov gives that night would only fall on part of the planet during the story, and not the entire planet as all of the characters state that it will. Leaving that aside, the story takes on the question of what a culture growing up in this sort of environment would be like - with natural light a constant in their lives, they appear to have never developed much in the way of artificial light sources. The planet's inhabitants seem to have also struggled to discover the theory of gravity, as the multiple suns make such calculations quite difficult. But the most important element of the culture in Nightfall is that everyone is terrified of the dark, and this terror drives the entire story forward. It should come as no surprise that the central characters are scientists, trying to pass on a better future to their descendants by applying reason to the problems they face, and their foils are a collection of religious cultists and the mob whipped up by the cultist's fiery rhetoric. As with many great works of short fiction, the ending is somewhat ambiguous, although it is at least somewhat hopeful.

Beloved by libertarian science fiction fans, The Weapon Shop by A.E. van Vogt is built around the phrase "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free". In the story, a loyal subject of the Empress is outraged to discover that a weapon shop has shown up in his town. He rages against the interloping business and raises the populace of the town against it, all to no avail, as the weapon shop is impervious and its wares are impossible to use for nefarious purposes. Despite his steadfast loyalty, our hero's life goes sideways and he ends up losing his life savings, his business, and his home before discovering that the weapon shops are merely a front for what amounts to a shadow government opposed to the tyranny of the Empress. In the end, the protagonist's life is restored to him by the influence of the weapon shops and his ability to purchase a gun for self-defense. The problem with the story is that even though it holds that the weapon shops offer freedom, they really don't. They just offer a choice of which unassailable force one can choose to align with. In the end, the story says far less that it thinks it does, and what it does say is not particularly reassuring.

Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (writing as Lewis Padgett) is one of the few stories in this volume that involved a female author. The story features the question of how an advanced culture can inadvertently, almost thoughtlessly, affect a less technologically developed one as a researcher from the far future tests his newly developed time machine by putting some of his son's discarded toys into it before sending it back to the twentieth century, and then moves on to deal with how children learn when a seven year old boy finds the box full of toys from the future. The only problem with the story is that it seems to be almost entirely set-up with very little payoff. The toys affect the two children who use them, but adults, having learned conventional logic, are unable to understand the alien logic the toys rely upon. One might expect that this would result in some sort of world changing development, but basically the kids pretty much vanish without any real impact. In a sense, the story felt like it was heading somewhere big, and ended up going somewhere small.

Huddling Place by Clifford D. Simak was later incorporated into his novel City, and details a story of how men lose their ambition. This story covers much the same thematic ground as Campbell's Twilight, but because Simak personalizes the ennui and helplessness into an identifiable character, this story is much more effective. Jerome Webster is a world-renowned surgeon who lives on his traditional family estate, where his ancestors have lived for at least three generations following mankind's mass exodus from the now-abandoned cities. But Webster has grown comfortable in middle-age, with the years of sedentary life in the familiar halls of his family home looming large in his mind. When a crisis occurs that requires that he travel to Mars to save the life of an old friend, he finds that he is unable to even contemplate leaving his cozy nest, no matter how much he wants to, and no matter how many others exhort him to. The story offers a possible glimpse into how mankind might die with a whimper, fading into small circles huddled around comforting campfires. Huddling Place is both deeply troubling and absolutely brilliant.

One of the more viscerally gripping stories in the collection, Arena by Fredric Brown posits a situation in which the fate of the entire human race depends upon the fighting skill and ingenuity of a single man. At the climax of a war between humanity an an implacable alien foe, a race of transcendent power intervenes and plucks a single human pilot and a single alien representative to fight one another in an extradimensional space, with the fate of each race at stake. The winner's race will survive. The loser's will be destroyed. The transcendent beings will move on to another universe. The story itself is framed as a puzzle solving exercise, as the hero has to figure out how to overcome the obstacles placed in his way and defeat his opponent with little more than his bare hands and ingenuity. One might note more than a slight resemblance between this story and the Star Trek episode Arena, which is not entirely accidental. Brown's story has some issues - the alien race is presented as being entirely hostile, with no possibility of peace between them and humanity, making the choice to kill them all one that entirely lacks any moral ramifications - but the struggle presented is riveting, and that raises Arena from merely average to quite good.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the topic of Murray Leinster's story First Contact is given away by the title, as humanity comes across a ship from an alien civilization for the first time. The crew of the Llanvabon, including photographer Tommy Dort, are exploring the Crab Nebula for scientific purposes when they encounter a ship crewed by an unknown race. After communication is established, the captains of the two vessels each realize that they cannot allow the other to leave if there is any chance that their counterpart will be able to track their ship to the other's home planet. Eventually, the Dort comes up with a solution to the dilemma, and the matter is resolved peacefully. First Contact is an enduring story because it is one of the few of the era that depicts an encounter with an alien race in manner that is both hard-headed and practical, and yet optimistic at the same time. There are some elements that seem to be glossed over a bit to quickly - establishing communication between humans and a trace that uses microwave emissions to talk to one another seems like it should have required more than an off-stage hand wave, and it seems odd that two races that are as different as humans and the depicted aliens would be able to intelligibly swap dirty jokes, but these quibbles aren't enough to really pull the reader out of the story. There is a rather nasty instance of anti-Japanese racism that is inserted into the story in an off-hand manner, but this could possibly be excused by the fact that the story was written in 1945, and emotions were running high at the time. It is, however, an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise excellent story.

It seems clear that Judith Merril intended That Only a Mother to be disturbing, and it is. However, I think that what is disturbing about the story to modern eyes is not what Merril intended to be the disturbing part. The central character in the story is a woman who is at first pregnant and later a mother. The hinted background suggests that there is a war going on that has turned nuclear, and newborn babies with mutations resulting from radiation are common. Throughout most of the story the child's father is away from home, presumably due to the ongoing war, but near the end he gets leave and returns to rejoin his wife and meet his daughter. Once there he discovers the truth - his daughter is brilliant, with the mental development of a four year old before her first birthday, but limbless. At the end of the story it is strongly implied that the child's father has decided to murder his mutant daughter, and this is the truly disturbing turn. Merril clearly intended for the revelation that the daughter was a mutant to be the terrible secret that would horrify the reader and the father's solution was merely a regrettable necessity, but looking at the story now, one has to gape at the casual dismissal of the humanity of an obviously bright child on the basis of a mere physical deformity.

Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith is an extremely quirky story that manages to cram more imaginative ideas into its relatively limited length than most novels do. Martel is a scanner, someone who has gone through the "halberman process" that disconnected his mind from all of his senses but sight so as to allow him to endure the pain of traveling in the "up and out" of outer space. Most of those who undergo the process are condemned prisoners forced into servitude, but Martel and the other "scanners" are men who volunteered for the process and are trained to fly the ships that traverse the reaches of space and oversee and care for the halbermans who serve as their crew. In the opening pages, Martel is in between voyages at home with his wife when he elects to "cranch", a process that temporarily allows him to experience human sensation again. Unfortunately, while he is in this state, he is called to an emergency meeting of the scanners, where those present debate what to do to deal with an apparent threat. As the debate continues, it becomes unclear as to whether the scanners are acting in defense of humanity and civilization, or merely in their own self-interest, and Martel's cranched status gives him a unique perspective on the issues not shared (or even understandable) by his fellow scanners. The story itself is fairly simple, and most of its length is dominated by what amounts to a committee meeting, but the world-building that underlies its straightforward narrative is what makes this a superior work of fiction.

Most people think of Ray Bradbury as a science fiction author, and he definitely is that, but I have come to regard Bradbury as first and foremost an author at his best when writing horror or psychological thrillers, with Mars Is Heaven! being one of the prime examples supporting this belief. Ostensibly a science fiction story in which seventeen brave explorers set out for Mars resulting in sixteen arriving at their destination, Mars Is Heaven! then takes an unexpected turn as everyone meets their dearly departed relatives in a landscape that looks much like a town plucked from the American Midwest. Bradbury takes this perfectly ordinary set piece set in an entirely incongruous location and sets about building an increasing level of unease while at the same time tempering that unease with the idyllic nature of the setting. Even though the final revelation requires some rather improbable deductions from the protagonist, it is still a brilliant piece of horror fiction.

In The Little Black Bag by C.M. Kornbluth first imagined the future he would describe fully in The Marching Morons, in which the vast mass of humanity had become stupid while overseen by a handful of intellectual elites. In this story, a medical bag designed to allow a not very smart future doctor still practice medicine is accidentally sent into the past, where an alcoholic down on his luck doctor named Full finds it. Full first thinks to pawn the unexpected find for some quick cash to fuel his liquor habit, but runs into some complications along the way and eventually turns his life around and establishes a successful medical practice using the fool-proof devices from the bag. Unfortunately, he is forced into a partnership with a rather unscrupulous young woman and things go awry, eventually resulting in murder and accidental suicide. The story has a version of time travel that has some fairly interesting implications which are not built upon, but otherwise is an exploration of the effects resulting from sending a piece of advanced technology to the past. It isn't as good as Mimsy Were the Borogorves in this respect, but the quirks in the story differentiate it enough that it is still a fun read.

At just under four pages, Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson is the shortest work in this volume. It is also one of the creepiest. Told from the perspective of an unnamed and mostly undescribed child kept locked away by its parents, the story details its curiosity and the abuse it suffers whenever it does something that displeases its parents. Most of the transgressions committed by the protagonist involve pulling its chain from the wall and letting itself be seen by others. Matheson never actually explains what is wrong with the narrator of the story, and never gives a full description of what it looks like, although it is clear that its parents regard it as monstrous. Even so, the figure is sympathetic enough that at the end when the story appears to be about to turn, one roots for it and hopes that it will be able to turn the tables on its parents. Despite this tale's brief length, Matheson is able to construct one of the most brutally effective horror stories that I have read.

Some of the stories in this volume have not aged particularly well. Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber is one of them. The strength of the story is in its world building, both explicit and implied, which creates a setting in which the mores of a strangely puritanical United States dictate that women should wear masks for modesty, but accepts the idea that they would also wear clothes putting their breasts on display. The United States has apparently become much more of a police state - as evidenced by the fact that obtaining the proper papers to leave the country is apparently nigh-impossible, a change possibly driven by the fact that a nuclear exchange had taken place some years prior to the events of the story. This element of the piece is quite good, but it is accompanied by a fairly thin plot involving a young American woman named Theda begging the British protagonist for passage to the United Kingdom to get away from an abusive situation. In the end, however, all of the events in the story turn out to have been a psychological con job intended to allow the "abused" woman to satisfy the proclivities of her violent boyfriend Zirk. In a sense, the entire story is a con job on the reader, first pointing one direction and then jerking away in the other, and it is a con job with misogynistic overtones to boot. Lieber created a beautifully atmospheric background for this story, I just wish he had come up with a plot more worthy of it.

Imagining a future run by the godless Technarchy, The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher follows the trail of Thomas, a devout Christian priest sent by the Pope to locate the body of Saint Aquin. To aid him in his quest, the Pope has secured the services of a robass - a mechanical donkey that Thomas can use as a conveyance and turns out to be intelligent as well. The robass serves as a counterpoint to Thomas, arguing with the priest on matters of theology and logic throughout the book, challenging Thomas' beliefs and assumptions as they travel. As the odd pair journey, Thomas' faith is tested, he strays from the path of righteousness, is rescued by an unlikely benefactor, and finally completes his quest, although the end result is not at all what he expected. The most interesting thing about the story is that the robass is entirely correct in every argument it makes, and yet completely wrong at the same time. Further, Thomas' completion of his quest is actually not particularly important for anyone except Thomas - he could have abandoned it at any time and no one except Thomas would have been any wiser. Overall, this is a beautiful deconstruction of what we mean when we say "truth" and "reality" that is sure to make the reader think long and hard about their own assumptions.

After crash-landing on an inhospitable planet, a crew of explorers has to figure out a way to complete their mission of seeding human life, all the while knowing they will not survive to see their creations come to life. And although these clever individuals are able to construct a version of humanity that can live in the watery environment they must cope with, the thrust of Surface Tension by James Blish is that despite their best efforts, even those with the best of intentions are blinded by their own biases. In short, although the designers spent much time thinking of how to best physically adapt their progeny to their world, they neglected to note that these changes would mean that the new humans would view the world in a very different way than their creators. Much of the story is dedicated to the efforts of the tiny aquatic humans as they struggle to understand the to them cryptic messages left behind by their designers, and then try to come to grips with the nature of the world, reaching beyond their parochial view of the universe. Along the way, the story touches on other issues, such as what hindrances an aquatic race might face in attempting to develop technology, and the fact that the wisdom of one set of humans might be entirely inappropriate for a mostly alien set of other humans. In the end, this story is a brilliant exploration of how alien a mind can be and still be human, as well as an example of how many commonalities we might still share with even as different as the microscopic denizens that populate the oceans of a faraway planet.

I first read The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke when I was about twelve years old, and it is still as sublime a piece of fiction now as it was then. As with many Clarke stories, it is built around a scene in which the characters stand about and gaze in awe at some amazing sight. In this story, a collection of monks in Tibet purchase a computer and hire the services of some engineers to set up a program aimed at printing out the nine billion permutations of letters that make up all of the names of God. About halfway through the story the engineers discover that the monks expect that once the project is completed, the world will end, and figure that they need to arrange to be absent at that time lest the outraged monks turn on them when their hopes are dashed. The entire story is a set up for the big reveal at the end, which is one of the great final lines ever used in any story, let alone a science fiction story. The Nine Billion Names of God is incredibly simple, with characters that are little more than props to push forward the thin plot, and yet it is almost a perfect example of the Platonic ideal of a "big idea" science fiction story.

A horror-filled story later converted into one of the best episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby details the lives of the inhabitants of an Ohio small town named Peaksville as they struggle to deal with the dangerous powers displayed by a young boy named Anthony. Except that Peaksville isn't in Ohio any more, Anthony moved it somewhere else, shut off all of the electricity, and reigns over the town in a manner that only a three-year old with godlike powers could. Through the story, Bixby conveys a sense of mounting horror, as the pervasive nature of Anthony's influence is seen, forcing the other characters not merely to say and think positive things lest Anthony become upset, but also prevent themselves from thinking anything should change for fear that Anthony might try to "help", and in helping, make things so much worse. And the fact that the source of the fear in the story is simply a child is what makes it that much more terrifying. The horror is not caused by some sort of evil force, it is instead caused by the almost unthinking whims of someone who doesn't even truly understand the consequences of his capricious and cruel actions, which makes the events in the story that much more horrific. And to put a capstone on the macabre, the characters feel compelled to put a happy face on and not even think sad thoughts, for fear that they will spark a reaction from their tiny tormentor. Filled with dread and hopelessness, It's a Good Life is simply one of the best examples of the horror genre that has ever been written. One thing is certain: The reader will never think about cornfields quite the same way again.

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin is perhaps the most famous classic work of engineering science fiction, and it succeeds admirably well at its apparent goals. The point of the story, hammered home time and again, is that humans are subject to the cold, harsh realities of the universe, and those laws are unyielding and implacable. The narrator is the pilot of an Emergency Dispatch Ship, launched in a drop-and-go maneuver from one of the great deep space cruisers to deliver a cargo of needed medications to the workers busy making a hostile planet fit for human colonization. Along the way, he discovers a stowaway, a teenage girl named Marilyn who only wanted to see her older brother who is working at one of the camps on the destination planet. But due to the limitations on carrying lots of liquid rocket fuel, the EDS ships are only provided with a bare minimum of fuel needed to get to their destination, and Marilyn's unexpected added weight throws off the calculations such that the ship will crash if she stays on board. Much of the story is taken up with first attempts to figure out a way to keep Marilyn alive, and then finding a way to allow her to say goodbye to her parents and brother before ejecting her out of the airlock. The story has been criticized on a number of grounds - one has to wonder how the pilot is to return from his journey as there seems to have been no provision for this. Is he expected to simply join the survey crew for a couple of years until the next time a cruiser is scheduled to stop by? One also has to question the safety procedures surrounding the launching of a ship built with such low tolerances for error that don't include a comprehensive sweep of the type that reveals Marilyn's presence before the ship is launched. And, of course, one may question the wisdom of building a ship with so little margin for error in the first place. As a polemic, the story is effective, albeit fairly heavy-handed, but it is flawed in some rather obvious ways that become painfully apparent once one sits and thinks about it for a while.

While It's a Good Life is a fairly straightforward, and almost cheerful tale of horror, Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester is a much more subtle, and in many ways more macabre work. Vandaleur owns an android, the only thing he inherited from his father. Lacking in any skills of his own, he hires his android out and lives off of the proceeds. Unfortunately, the android has developed a nasty tendency to engage in criminal activity, and by the start of the story has escalated to murder. Unwilling to part with his sole means of support, Vandaleur has gone on the run, changing his identity and setting up a new life every time the android commits a crime. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is more going on than merely a greedy man with a defective android that goes haywire when the temperature gets too high - and one begins to question whether the android committed the crimes attributed to it, or whether it was picking up on Vandaleur's desires. The story shifts rapidly from viewpoint to viewpoint, until it is difficult to determine who the narrator is, and which speaker is android and which is human. But it is not merely unclear to the reader which is the android and which is the man, which is more or less the point of the story: The horror contained in the story is the horror of insanity, and the loss of self-identity. By the end, it is impossible to tell who is the killer and who is the victim, or if there is even a victim and not merely two faces of a single serial murderer. As a frightening depiction of the ravages of criminal insanity, this story is beautifully and deliciously cruel with a perfectly proportioned  side-helping of paranoid confusion.

How does a society that has eschewed violence deal with a violent criminal in their midst? In The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight, the answer appears to be to ostracize the offender and allow them to do whatever they want, so long as they do not physically harm another human. In the story, the narrator is a murderer that has been excommunicated by society, free to do whatever he wants and only constrained from harming others by epileptic seizures that are induced whenever he turns his hand against them. He declares repeatedly that his freedom to vandalize, steal, and otherwise engage in any other kind of property crime he chooses to makes him the king of the world. But as the story moves on, it becomes clear that this is just the false bravado of a man desperate to elicit a reaction - any reaction, from anyone so they can join him in his rebelling against what he frames as the dull conformity of passive kindness, although one might find the connection the narrator draws between violence and art to be somewhat dubious. The cruelty of the "kindness" is highlighted in sharp focus, but the story doesn't sugarcoat the depravity and violence of the narrator making the whole story an unsettling experience.

Wile Nightfall may be the most famous story among science fiction fans, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is certainly the most famous genre fiction story outside of the genre fiction world. Told in the first person via a series of journal entries, the story follows the mentally retarded Charlie Gordon as he participates in an experimental procedure aimed at increasing his intelligence. The procedure works incredibly well, and the reader can follow along as Gordon's journal entries shift from simplistic sentences filled with misspelled words to erudite prose that becomes almost insufferably supercilious. But on the journey Gordon loses his innocence: He realizes people he thought were his friends were merely making fun of him, and the people he had regarded as perfect people and geniuses were really just flawed humans who were struggling to get by. What makes the story tragic is that after his meteoric rise, Gordon falls, and knows it is happening because during his brief period as a supergenius he did the research into his own condition. As he slides back from being the smartest man in the room to the dumbest, he empathizes with a mentally challenged boy working in a restaurant, but is also terrified at the prospect of losing what he had always dreamed of having. Things become darker and sadder, and when the laboratory rat Algernon dies, it is clear what is in store for Charlie, and that he knows it. The tragedy is that Charlie falls, but the sorrow that he knows he is falling and desperately tries to hold back the inevitable. In the end, Gordon's essential goodness comes through, but he breaks your heart with the final, haunting line, on its face a request for the departed Algernon, but in truth a plaintive plea that he be remembered as well.

Authors are fond of casting writers as the heroes of their stories, and in A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny, a poet named Gallinger is the central figure in establishing relations between humans and the denizens of Mars. In the context of the story, however, this choice does not seem either forced or artificial, but is the natural result of dealing with a Martian culture that is steeped in the poetry of its own mystical union of history and religion. Gallinger has been busy translating human poetry and scripture into the Martian language, and as a result of his efforts the Martian matriarch M'Cywie invites him into their temple to learn the deeper mysteries of their culture. There Gallinger is introduced to the fatalistic Martian religion and learns of their extensive tradition of religious dance, eventually faling in love with and starting a sexual relationship with the beautiful dancer Braxa. As a side note, there is something decidedly quaint and faintly ludicrous about the notion that species from two different planets would find one another physically attractive, would be sexually compatible, and would be interfertile. These elements are all critical to the development of the story, however, so one must accept them as facts, however improbable they seem. In an effort to bring beauty to the Martians, Gallinger has the expedition's biologist grow a rose, so they can see what a flower looks like. After he learns the awful truth, Gallinger makes a desperate gambit and flouts all Martian tradition to enter a temple service and harangue the assembly there while reading from a translated copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes, drawing upon his memories of his own father's evangelical zeal and inverting it, becoming, as the Martians call him, the "Sacred Scoffer". The story is beautiful and tragic, with duty colliding with love and producing both hope and despair.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 is an essential collection of some of the foundational works of science fiction. While your favorite science fiction author may not be represented within its pages, the chances are fairly high that your favorite science fiction author cut his or her teeth on, and was heavily influenced by many of the stories contained in this book. This is not to say that the book is flawless: Out of twenty-six stories, there is only one by a woman and another co-written by a woman, and none of the stories were written by a nonwhite author, facts that often result in stories that have a moderately sexist and  paternalistic feel to them. Even so, these stories display an amazing panoply of ideas, tackling difficult and sensitive subjects and often cutting straight to the heart of what makes us human, and what sort of society we might shape for ourselves. The stories in this book form an important strata of the bedrock of modern science fiction, and are a must-read for any serious science fiction fan.

Note: The entire volume won the 1971 Locus Award for Best Anthology or Collection. In addition, this volume contains the following Hugo winning and nominated stories:

The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein, 1941 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
First Contact by Murray Leinster, 1946 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
The Little Black Bag by Cyril M. Kornbluth, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Novelette winner
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Novelette finalist
Helen O'Loy by Lester del Rey, 1939 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber, 1951 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, 1954 Retro Hugo Best Short Story winner
It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby, 1954 Retro Hugo Best Short Story finalist
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, 1960 Hugo Best Short Story winner
A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny, 1964 Hugo Best Short Story finalist

1939 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette: Rule 18 by Clifford Simak
1954 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette: Earthman, Come Home by James Blish

1951 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: To Serve Man by Damon Knight
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: Allamagoosa by Eric Frank Russell (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

1959 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 and Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 116, No. 3 (March 2009))
1961 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story: The Longest Voyage by Poul Anderson (reviewed in The Hugo Winners, Volume 1)

1976 Locus Winner for Best Anthology: Epoch edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg

Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette
Hugo Award Winners for Best Short Story

1941 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2016)
1946 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 1996)
1951 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2001)
1954 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2004)
1960 Hugo Award Finalists
1964 Hugo Award Finalists

1971 Locus Award Nominees

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