Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 33, No. 12 (December 2009) by Sheila Williams (editor)

Stories included:
A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime by Benjamin Crowell
Some Like It Hot by Brian Stableford
A Lovely Little Christmas Fire by Jeff Carlson
As Women Fight by Sara Genge
Animus Rights by John Shirley
Angie's Errand by Nick Wolven
Leaving the Station by Jim Aikin
The Bride of Frankenstein by Mike Resnick

Poems included:
The Anti-World by Andrew Gudgel
The World's Ending Again in 2012 by Darrell Schweitzer
Shiner by G.O. Clark

Full review: The December 2009 issue of Asimov's is a decent mix of stories covering a broad range of the science fiction genre. Unfortunately, the mostly good stories are pulled down a bit by the inclusion of some mediocre ones featuring pretty worn out plots. On the whole, however, this is an above average issue of the magazine.

The first of the two anchor stories for the issue is A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime by Benjamin Crowell. The story deals with a human ambassador to the galactic culture on a ship traveling at relativistic speeds accompanied by the representatives of hundreds of other races picked up on the spacecraft's circuit of the galaxy. The story focuses on her attempts to negotiate with the most dissimilar race to humanity, and the horse trading she goes through to make this negotiation work on her way to becoming a major power broker among the alien races. The story is somewhat silly, and the ending is a little trite, but it is well executed and enjoyable.

The second novelette in the issue is Brian Stableford's Some Like It Hot, which is a near future hard science tale about political machinations concerning the impending global warming crisis. The protagonist takes a stand that some might find disturbing and outwits her more conventionally minded political opponent. The story is well researched and comes at the topic from an unusual angle, but the global warming story has been done to death recently, and maybe it should be retired for a while.

As Women Fight by Sara Genge is a strange tale about a collection of people who swap genders on a regular basis, and fight over the right to be the female member of their partnership. It deals with gender issues, but as one might expect, in a fairly blunt kind of way. Angie's Errand by Nick Wolven also deals with gender issues, in this case the responsibility a young girl feels to find a husband to help her take care of her younger siblings in a post-apocalyptic society. This story seemed a little clumsy to me, as the protagonist does some fairly obviously stupid things, some fairly obviously desperate things, and ends up making a decision that seemd preordained from the beginning. Also touching on gender issues, albeit in a humorous way, is Mike Resnick's Bride of Frankenstein, but in this case the bride is Doctor Frankenstein's wife, who doesn't understand her husband's work, or share any of his interests. The Frankenstein story told from her perspective in a funny way is diverting, but nothing more.

My least favorite story in the issue is Animus Rights by John Shirley, not because the story isn't well told, but rather because it takes the form of a very old and pretty worn out plot that follows the struggle between two alien entities using humans as the pawns in their tit for tat game of dominance. The only real twist to the story is the "human rights" advocate who intervenes on humanity's behalf. Super-powerful aliens mentally controlling humans in some sort of game or power-struggle with others of their kind has been done a thousand times, and this story isn't original enough to be anything other than a run-of-the mill example of the meme.

My favorite story in the issue is Jeff Carlson's A Lovely Little Christmas Fire, which is the December Christmas tale and returns to Montana and Julie Beauchain who was first introduced in Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy. Unlike most Christmas stories in Asimov's and Analog, this one doesn't seem forced, although that is probably because the Christmas element to the story is kept well to the background of the bio-engineered super-termite infestation main plot. It is fun, action-packed, with enough plot and intrigue to make the other elements hang together. Also quite good is Leaving the Station, a ghost tale about a woman who inherits an unusual antique store from her uncle. After trying to sell the store, she discovers the magical secret of the place, and stays to fulfill her destiny. It is sweet and touching.

With only one real clunker a bunch of good stories and a couple very good ones, this issue is a pretty good one. Even the stories that rely upon overused plots are written well, so if one can overlook the fact that they cover the same ground as many, many other stories, they are decent enough. Overall, this is well worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: October/November 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: January 2010

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

30 Days of Genre - What Is the Most Epic Scene Ever in a Genre Novel?

Ged's Confrontation With Cob in The Farthest Shore

I love Ursula K. Le Guin's writing, and of all her books, but I think I love her Earthsea books the most, especially The Farthest Shore. The book takes place at the end of Ged's career, when he is an aged Archmage with his famous adventures and restore the ring of Erreth-Akbe behind him. Strange things are happening in the world, as people forget how to do the kind of very day magic that gives their lives zest and color. The prince of the Enlades sends his son to Roke to ask the archmage to explain what is going on, and instead, Ged takes Arren and sets out to investigate the mystery.

The novel takes on a dream like quality at times during the quest, which seems almost more like aimless wandering than a purposeful journey. Eventually, Ged and Arren must cross into the land of the dead and confront the architect of the unmaking that has spread throughout the land. Their adversary is a wizard named Cob, who so feared death that he made a hole in the boundary between life and death so that he could return. But, as Ged points out, there is a terrible price to be paid for doing this:

"We meet as equals here. If you are blind, Cob, yet we are in the dark."

There was no answer.

"We cannot hurt you here; we cannot kill you. What is there to fear?"

"I have no fear," said the voice in the darkness. Then slowly glimmering a little as with that light that sometimes clung to Ged's staff, the man appeared, standing some way upstream from Ged and Arren, among the great, dim masses of the boulders. He was tall, broad-shouldered and long-armed, like that figure which had appeared to them on the dune and on the beach of Selidor, but older; the hair was white and thickly matted over the high forehead. So he appeared in the spirit, in the kingdom of death, not burnt by the dragon's fire, not maimed; but not whole. The sockets of his eyes were empty.

"I have no fear," he said. "What should a dead man fear?" He laughed. The sound of laughter rang so false and uncanny, there in that narrow, stony valley under the mountains, that Arren's breath failed him for a moment. But he gripped his sword and listened.

"I do not know what a dead man should fear," Ged answered. "Surely not death? Yet it seems you fear it. Even though you have found a way to escape from it."

"I have. I live: my body lives."

"Not well," the mage said dryly. "Illusion might hide age; but Orm Embar was not gentle with that body."

"I can mend it. I know secrets of healing and of youth, no mere illusions. What do you take me for? Because you are called Archmage, do you take mefor a village sorcerer? I who alone among all mages found the Way of Immortality, which no other ever found!"

"Maybe we did not seek it," said Ged.

"You sought it. All of you. You sought it and could not find it, and so made wise words about acceptance and balance and the equilibrium of life and death. But they were words - lies to cover your failure - to cover your fear of death! What man would not live forever, if he could? And I can. I am immortal. I did what you could not and therefore I am your master; and you know it. Would you know how I did it, Archmage?"

"I would."

Cob came a step closer. Arren noticed that, though the man had no eyes, his manner was not quite that of the stone-blind; he seemed to know exactly where Ged and Arren stood and to be aware of both of them, though he never turned his head to Arren. Some wizardly second-sight he might have, such as that hearing and seeing that sending and presentments had: something that gave him an awareness, though it might not be true sight.

"I was in Paln," he said to Ged, "after you, in your pride, thought you had humbled me and taught me a lesson. Oh, a lesson you taught me, indeed, but not the one you meant to teach! There I said to myself: I have seen death now, and I will not accept it. Let all stupid nature go its stupid course, but I am a man, better than nature, above nature. I will not go that way, I will not cease to be myself! And so determined, I tool the Pelnish Lore again, but found only hints and smatterings of what I needed. So I rewove it and remade it, and made a spell - the greatest spell that has ever been made. The greatest and the last!"

"In working that spell, you died."

"Yes! I died. I had the courage to die, to find what you cowards could never find - the way back from death. I opened the door that had been shut since the beginning of time. And now I come freely to this place and freely return to the world of the living.Alone of all men in all time I am Lord of the TwoLands. And the door I opened is open not only here, but in the minds of the living, in the depths and unknown places of their being, where we are all one in the darkness. They know it, and they come to me. And the dead too must come to me, all of them, for I have not lost the magery of the living: they must climb over the wall of stones when I bid them, all the souls, the lords, the mages, the proud women; back and forth from life to death, at my command. All must come to me, the living and the dead, I who died and live!"

"Where do they come to you, Cob? Where is it that you are?"

"Between the worlds."

"But that is neither life nor death. What is life, Cob?"


"What is love?"

"Power," the blind man repeated heavily, hunching his shoulders.

"What is light?"


"What is your name?"

"I have none."

"All in this land bear their true name."

"Tell me yours, then!"

"I am named Ged. And you?"

The blind man hesitated, and said, "Cob."

"That was your use-name, not your name. Where is your name? Where is the truth of you? Did you leave it in Paln where you died? You have forgotten much, O Lord of the Two Lands. You have forgotten light, love, and your own name."

"I have your name now, and power over you, Ged the Archmage - Ged who was Archmage when he was alive!"

"My name is no use to you," Ged said. "you have no power over me at all. I am a living man; my body lies on the beach of Selidor, under the sun, on the turning earth. And when that body dies, I will be here: but only in name, in name alone, in shadow. Do you not understand? Did you never understand. you who called up so many shadows from the dead, who summoned all the hosts of the perished, even my lord Erreth-Akbe, wisest of us all? Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a named? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there - there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn, and have no end, nor will there ever be an end. All, save you. For you would not have death. You lost death, you lost life, in order to save yourself. Yourself! Your immortal self! What is it? Who are you?"

"I am myself. My body will not decay and die-"

"A living body suffers pain, Cob; a living body grows old; it dies. Death is the price we pay for our life and for all life."

"I do not pay it! I can die and in that moment live again! I cannot be killed; I am immortal. I alone am myself forever!"

"Who are you, then?"

"The Immortal One."

"Say your name."

"The King."

"Say my name. I told it to you but a minute since. Say my name!"

"You are not real. You have no name. Only I exist."

"You exist: without name, without form. You cannot see the light of day; you cannot see the dark. You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw the world to you, all that light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness."

And at this point, although Cob still resists, and Ged and Arren must still struggle, the die is cast. Ged has exposed the hollow emptiness within their adversary, laying bare the meaninglessness of his preening and strutting.For all his assertions of majesty and mastery, Cob has become nothing more than a nameless shadow, desperate to fill itself with something, anything. And the critical element of the confrontation is that Ged reveals this to Cob, who doesn't even know it himself, and further, reveals that because Ged knows it, Cob has lost all power to affect him. It is this battle of ideas that makes this the most epic scene in a genre novel.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Follow Friday - The Empire State Building Has One Hundred and Two Floors

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 - Book Sniffers Anonymous and Insightful Minds Reviews.
  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: Tell us about the most emotional scene you’ve ever read in a book – and how did you react?

I've read so many books that trying to choose the most emotional scene from among them would be something of a fool's errand. But for a particularly emotional scene I will pick a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien's Return of the King during the climatic battle of Pelennor Field. After Théoden, the king of Rohan, is killed, and Éowyn has confronted and defeated the Witch-King of Angmar, she succumbs to the Black Breath and falls into a death-like coma. As she lays upon the field of battle near the dead king. Éomer, now king of the Rohirrim following his uncle's death, comes across the scene:

And those who stood by wept, crying: "Théoden King! Théoden King!" But Éomer said to them:

Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen,
meet was his ending. When his mound is raised,
women then shall weep. War now calls us!

Yet he himself wept as he spoke. "Let his knights remain here," he said, "and bear his body in honour from the field, lest the battle ride over it! Yea, and all these other of the king's men that lie here." And he looked at the slain, recalling their names. Then suddenly he beheld his sister Éowyn as she lay, and he knew her. He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white, and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.

"Éowyn, Éowyn!" he cried at last. "Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or deviltry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!"

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: "Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!"

And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.

The transformation of Éomer's mood from one of acceptance of the death of Théoden as an accepted cost of war to the sadness and despair at seeing what he believes to be his dead sister Éowyn lying next to the dead king is what makes this scene so intensely emotional. His mood goes from a kind of almost carefree battle lust to a reckless frenzy in the course of a few moments. He rallies his men not with courage and hope, but with anger and hatred.

I should note that this scene was almost entirely excised from Peter Jackson's film version of the Return of the King, an omission that is one of the many things that makes the film version far inferior to Tolkien's original work. Much of Éomer's battle speech is moved to Théoden's speech when the Rohirrim first arrive at the battle, but there it doesn't make much sense, and when placed there the call for death and a ride for ruin to the world's ending is drained of almost all of its emotional content. In Théoden's mouth it is a nice phrase that is all but empty of meaning. But when spoken by Éomer in a frenzied rage after his sister's apparent death, it becomes a powerful blow to the gut.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review - The Bible (Good News Translation)

I'm going to do something here that may be a bit controversial. I'm going to review the Bible as if I were reviewing a work of fiction. Because the Bible is not actually a single work, but is rather composed of a collection of works within it, I'll be reviewing each book of the Bible individually, and linking to all the reviews here. I'll be working this read and review process in with my regular fiction reading and reviewing, so I'll probably be going through one book a week or so.

Why am I doing this? The first reason is that the Bible is enormously important to American (and to a slightly lesser extent British) science fiction and fantasy. References to the Bible can be found in the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, Stephen King, and many other science fiction and fantasy writers. Some writers, like Orson Scott Card or C.S. Lewis, have written works of genre fiction that are basically allegories for stories in the Bible (or in Card's case, the Bible plus the Book of Mormon, which I may read and review at some point in the future). You simply cannot read classic science fiction and fantasy and not stumble into stories that can only be fully understood without the context of the Bible.

The second reason is that I want to. It is a fictional work, and more or less falls into the category of fantasy fiction (the fact that some people have gotten caught up in the fantasy and think the Bible is somehow factual is neither here nor there). And since this blog is dedicated to reading and reviewing fiction, I'm going to read and review it.

The third reason is that Isaac Asimov wrote guides to the Old and New Testament, and I own both books. At some point in the future, I'll be reading and reviewing those books, and to put them into context, I need to have the Bible itself examined and analyzed first.

Old Testament

RuthSong of SongsNahum
Samuel 1JeremiahHabakkuk
Samuel 2LamentationsZephaniah
Kings 1IsaiahHaggai
Kings 2JeremiahZecheriah
Chronicles 1LamentationsMalachi
Chronicles 2Ezekiel

New Testament

LukeColossiansPeter 1
JohnThessalonians 1Peter 2
ActsThessalonians 2John 1
RomansTimothy 1John 2
Corinthians 1Timothy 2John 3
Corinthians 2TitusJude

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Musical Monday - The Prisoner Opening Theme

The next Musical Monday selection based upon my list of the Top Ten Science Fiction Television Shows is the opening theme to the 1960s classic of dystopian paranoia The Prisoner. The show itself depicts a surreal Orwellian nightmare, as an unnamed secret agent who has resigned is taken captive and transported to a strange resort like prison where he is interrogated in bizarre ways for the "information", although he isn't really told what the "information" his captors are looking for actually is.

This opening credit sequence sets up the rest of the show pretty well on its won, without further detail needed within the show itself. Like most British shows, it had a relatively short run - only seventeen episodes - but as a result there is almost no flab in the episodes. Through the episodes, the prisoner, dubbed Number Six by his captors, is subjected to questioning under the direction of Number Two, schemes to try to escape, and generally tries to maneuver his way through the Kafkaesque world that he has found himself living in.

The first half of the opening theme song is definitely a creature of the 1960s spy show genre and an era in which one could get away with driving automobiles that looked like rolling death traps. But the second half transforms the show into something more than the standard issue British spy show, into the insane psychedelic triumph of countercultural science fiction.

Previous Musical Monday: Red Dwarf Closing Theme by Jenna Russell
Subsequent Musical Monday: Dead Puppies by Ogden Edsl

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

30 Days of Genre - Who Is the Best Hero in a Genre Novel?

I'm going to cheat a little bit with my answer here, and pick the protagonist in a work of shorter fiction than a novel. Specifically, I'm choosing Ted Long, the protagonist in the Isaac Asimov novella The Martian Way.

In the story, Long is the character who pays attention to the politics that will affect him and those around him. He is bookish and doesn't really fit in with the other hardened space scavengers that collect cast off iron from ships leaving Earth and ship it to the foundries in Mars. In most science fiction stories, the bold space hand would have been the hero, solving all of the problems posed with a monkey wrench, some elbow grease, and a heavy application of spit and wire. But the problem faced by the characters in The Martian Way isn't a problem that can be solved by grit, determination, and a little bit of luck.It is a problem that can only be solved by thinking at right angles to the conventional wisdom.

The various hardened space hands in the story are not stupid. Nor are they incompetent at their jobs. They are simply used to certain ways of doing things, and following certain accepted pieces of lore. And among those accepted ways of doing things is acquiring water from Earth. So when a politician named "Hilder" starts blaming the off-world colonies for Earth's alleged water shortage, and threatens to cut off all shipments, most of the characters keep thinking of how to continue to use Earth as their water supply - either by negotiating some sort of settlement with the Earth government, or by stealing the water from Earth's oceans, or some other means. Long has a different idea, and that is what makes him my favorite genre protagonist.

Long suggests that instead of continuing to look to Earth for water, the Martians should instead travel to Saturn and get their water from the ice in its rings. When the objection is raised that the "manual" says that humans cannot stand space travel for more than six months, Long points out that the inhabitants of Mars live in essentially space ship conditions for their entire lives. It is this sort of lateral thinking, or rather, this sort of imaginative thinking that takes the tools at hand and asks why people always use them the same way, that makes Long such an interesting character. Granted, the science in the story is a little outdated - we now know that the ice in the rings of Saturn is in much smaller chunks than what people believed at the time the story was written - but the essential point of the story remains.

Ted Long isn't the stereotypical hyper-competent science fiction protagonist of the sort that so often populates the pages of genre fiction. He's not a particularly good spacer, although he does know how to handle himself reasonably well. He's not brilliant at any particular thing, nor is he a master of several skills. He hasn't invented some radical new piece of machinery. He is just a guy who looked at the world, and looked at the technology on hand and asked "why aren't we doing this instead of that?" And those are the guys who change the world. Those are the guys who drive civilization forward. In a sense, when I pick Ted Long, I'm picking a type of protagonist, and not really a specific one. But he represents the type of protagonist who sits at the core of a whole lot of great science fiction, and who I wish we had more of in real life.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Random Thought - A Funeral: Infinity and Meaning

Today I went to a memorial service for a man I never met. He was the husband of a woman I worked with for several years before she recently left the agency where I work to go to a position with a government owned corporation. Until his death, I don't think I even knew his name. I knew she was married, and I had met her daughters, but the mental space he occupied in my head was simply "Laura's husband". I don't know for certain, but I would guess that he probably never heard my name or knew who I was. If our paths had crossed while walking on the street, we wouldn't have known each other. So why did I spend most of my Saturday at a Unitarian Universalist church at his memorial service? Because funerals and memorial services aren't for the dead, they are for the living.

One question that I have seen posed by believers to atheists is why we would mourn the dead. Why, they ask, would you hold a service for someone who is dead if you don't believe in any kind of afterlife? And I have to wonder how warped their minds truly are. Even if one believed in an "afterlife", such a function is clearly not for the deceased. Whether there is a "life eternal" or not, they aren't affected by what we do any more. If there is actually an afterlife, then they know it, and they've headed off to whatever existence such an afterlife entails, whether we sit around and think about them or not. No, a service for the dead is to help those who are left behind to cope with the loss. And even if you don't believe in a life after death, that doesn't mean you can't feel for the loss of a life, or offer support to those who have suffered as a result. I wasn't there for Dan, who I didn't know and as far as I can tell, is beyond caring about such things, but for Laura, who has to deal with being a relatively young widow with three teenage daughters.

During the service, one of the speakers told a story about how Dan, who apparently had some musical talent, had taken up the saxophone relatively recently because one of his daughters was learning to play the saxophone and he wanted to be able to help her. And this reminded me of the most important thing about a memorial service: it reminds us that we are finite, and as a result, our lives have meaning. Because infinity renders life meaningless.

This is what I consider to be one of the great tragedies of the religious idea of an eternal afterlife - it robs us of our mortality, and as a result it robs us of our ability to make our lives have meaning. Because meaning comes from choice, and eternity eliminates choice. Dan chose to spend time learning how to play another instrument in order to connect with his daughter. By doing this, he made a choice to do that and not something else. He made a sacrifice of his time to show that he cared about his child. But if his life were infinite, as many religions promise, then his choice has no import at all. He could spend any amount of time learning the saxophone and still have just as much time left to do something else. Anything you wanted to do, you could do, take as much time as you wanted doing it, and still have an eternity of time ahead of you. Spend a hundred years learning an instrument? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend a thousand years mastering all of the intricacies of quantum mechanics? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend a hundred thousand years dancing? You still have an infinite amount of time left. Spend an infinity of time playing video games? You still have an infinite amount of time left. No choice has any consequence, so no choice has any meaning. If you read a book now, or read a book ten thousand years from now, it is all the same.

Eternal life, in short, eliminates all possible meaning to anything that we could ever do. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in The Last Answer, the only conundrum that has any content that matters is "how do you end eternal life", because that's the only thing that would require a real investment of ourselves. Any other question would be trivial, because no matter how long it took to find an answer, no matter how long it took to accomplish something, no matter how long we took to do something, we would always have the same amount of time left stretching out before us: eternity. Our decisions have meaning, our lives have meaning because we will die. Where does an atheist get meaning from? From the realization that this is all we have, and as a result, the decisions we make matter.

Every person has roughly twenty-two thousand days allotted to us. Every decision that we make eats up a little bit of your time available. Choose to do one thing, choose to spend time with one person, and you are closing off other options. It's like we all have a pile of coins in our hand, and every day we spend one coin. And once we are out of coins, we are finished, and our run is complete. And we don't know how many coins we have. So every coin is important. Every choice matters. Every decision has meaning.

How will you spend your coins?

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Follow Friday - Winston Smith Was Sent to Room 101 to Be Tortured with His Greatest Fear

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 - Shiloh Walker and Cherie Reads.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is your guilty pleasure as far as reading? Is it a genre, or is it a certain type of book?

Crappy books. I don't mean any particular genre or any particular style of book. Every genre I have read has its share of good books, and yes, that even includes the romance genre. When I say crappy books I mean crappy books. I mean books that have ridiculously stupid plots, horribly cardboard characters with names like "Brick" or "Steel", and really awful writing. And it isn't a case of me picking up a book and not realizing it will be terrible before I read it and discovering that it is awful while reading it. Sometimes I just like reading a really putrid book.

I have a couple of theories that may explain why I enjoy these books. One possibility is tied to the fact that I review almost every book I read. When I am reading a lousy book, it is fun to map out in my head how I will write my review. In many ways, writing a review lambasting a really awful book makes reading the book worthwhile. Another possibility is that by reading really crappy books once in a while, it makes the other books I read seem that much better. reading junk places the better books into context and highlights their excellence. If one reads only the top range of books, then one runs the risk of having a skewed sense of scale where you consider books that are still among the best available to be quite poor, because you haven't read any truly poor books. That's kind of a weak reason, because I'm pretty sure I'd know what a poor book was like without reading them.

The real reason is almost certainly this: I just like crappy books sometimes. I know people who like to watch awful movies. I like to read lousy books. Not all the time, but once in a while, it is fun to take a really rancid book and read through its fetid pages.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review - TV: 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg (editors)

Stories included:
Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell
Dreaming Is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov
The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch
The Jester by William Tenn
The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg
I See You by Damon Knight
The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley
Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II
Mercenary by Mack Reynolds
Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn
The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg
And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
What Time Is It? by Jack C. Haldeman II
Interview by Frank A. Javor
Cloak of Anarchy by Larry Niven
And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon
Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing
Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert

Full review: TV: 2000 is an anthology of science fiction stories ostensibly tied together by the common theme of being stories about television. And while some of the stories are indeed science fiction stories about television, the theme seems to be more honored in the beach than in the observance. Even so, this is a fairly good collection of short fiction.

The first story in the volume, Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell, kicks off the extremely tangentially television related stories. In this tale a human scout has crash landed on an uncharted alien planet and been captured by the local authorities. He is condemned to death, but due to a quirk of alien law, he is allowed to play a game before he dies. It doesn't matter if he wins or loses, when the game ends, he will be executed. So, of course, our hero picks a game that will take an interminably long time to complete, the better to give a relief ship the opportunity to rescue him. The only television connection in the story is that the contest is apparently televised for the populace to watch as entertainment, but that doesn't actually have any real bearing on the plot of the story. The story, like many other Russell stories, is darkly humorous and fun to read, but it isn't really about television, or the effect of television on society.

This being a collection edited in part by Asimov, one would expect an Asimov story to be included, and one is in the form of Asimov's Dreaming Is a Private Thing, which is another story that is not about television. Instead, the story is about "dreamies", a posited future technology in which people can experience the dreams of others as entertainment. The story more or less walks through the typical day of an executive running a "dreamie" production company as he negotiates with new talent, deals with old talent, and frets about the competition. There's not really much to the story other than the observation that the artists who create the product are more or less compelled by their nature to do so, unable to function in society due to their constantly overactive and vivid imaginations. The story is an interesting idea, but it isn't really developed into much more than a series of vignettes that discuss the idea and don't really go anywhere with it.

Unlike the first two stories, The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch is definitively about television, but it doesn't have much in the way of science fiction. The story takes the form of a dialogue between a father and daughter, with the father revealing that the reason humans have never heard from alien civilizations is that broadcast radio and television cause cancer, and smart civilizations figure this out and stop using it, while stupid civilizations don't and die off as a result. The narrator explains that he and some like-minded people that know about the connection between broadcast television and cancer have been trying to reduce the use of the medium. Unable to shut it down at the source, they have decided to reduce demand by intentionally making television programs worse and worse so no one will want to watch. This is an optimistic idea, but it seems more like fantasy than science fiction, given that the television viewing public seems to have demonstrated with shows like Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, and Dance Moms that there is no bottom below which the quality of television programming could sink that would keep droves of people from watching.

The Jester by William Tenn is set on television, but it isn't really about television. Lester the Jester is a comedian on the down side of his career, so he acquires a robot named Rupert that is programmed to come up with original jokes. Lester's idea is to use Rupert's capabilities to acquire witty one-liners and revive his flagging career as a television personality, but Rupert's humor circuits work too well, and it turns out he is an uncontrollable practical joker. Things go poorly as Rupert first alienates Lester's fiance and then hijacks the television broadcast Lester is appearing on, but it turns out that Rupert's jokes are wildly popular, and before he knows it, Lester finds himself relegated to managing his metallic contraption's career. The story plays upon human fears of being replaced by a machine, but unlike a story like The Darfsteller, which portrays the dislocation of humanity as a tragedy, The Jester relates this story in the form of a bitterly satirical farce.

Another story that is only tangentially related to television is The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg, which, to the extent that it touches on media issues, centers on the phenomenon of the media sensation. John Burkhardt, a colonist who has spent the last twenty years farming on a distant plant, has returned to Earth, becoming the first of those participating in this government program to come back. When it is revealed that he returned to win the hand of the woman he left behind all those years ago, he becomes a romantic hero. And when it is revealed that this woman is now a famous actress, he becomes a media darling. But the story takes a left turn into the real plot when it turns out that Burkhardt has picked up a little bit more than people suspect during his sojourn on an alien world, raising questions about the nature of love, free will, and, in my mind, rape. In short, if you mind-control the love of your life into loving you in return, how can it possibly be love, and isn't that a form of rape? The story is deeply unsettling, and clearly intended to be so, and the creepy nature of its plot has only become more so with the passage of time since the story's publication.

One of the best stories in the volume is I See You by Damon Knight, however the story is yet again, not really about television. Instead, the story centers on the development of a new technology that could best be described as a "time telescope" that allows the user to look backwards at any previous point in time, and pretty much at any point in space the viewer might select. The new technology spreads like wildfire, as people realize they can look back to learn the truth about mysterious historical events like unexplained shipwrecks. But before too long, people realize they can turn their time telescopes on their kids, their neighbors, their parents, and their enemies, and all privacy becomes a thing of the past. Children look back to watch their parents conceive themselves, the police look back to solve crimes, obsessed fans look back to watch their favorite stars or starlets have sex, and so on. But then comes the realization: people from the future are certainly looking back on the people of the present, and no one is safe. The story is both humorous and frightening.

Among all the stories in the book that aren't about television, one that was turned out to be remarkably prescient about the direction television programming would go in the future. Though it was first published in 1959, The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley seems to have predicted the rise of reality television. In Sheckley's imagined future, Jim Raeder is participating an the most popular show on the air: A reality show in which a single "ordinary" person agrees to be hunted by condemned criminals for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. The only catch is that if they track Jim down before the end of his week on the run, his pursuers will kill him. The story digresses to show Jim climbing the ladder of potentially crippling or deadly reality programs until he got his shot at the "big time". In a twist that also seems to be disturbingly prophetic, the viewing audience is invited to become part of the action, with the opportunity to help or hinder Jim, which seems to presage the behavior of audience members on shows like Do You Want to Be a Millionaire where some people will deliberately try to steer a contestant away from the correct answer if they can. Science fiction is not an attempt to predict what will happen in the future, but rather an attempt to tell enjoyable stories that may examine the effects of particular types of technology or social changes to the world, but in this case, Sheckley hits pretty close to home with an imagined reality that seems all too familiar, and all too depressing.

Another story involving the potential of death on television is the humorous Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II, although the story isn't so much about television as it is about sports, and specifically baseball. In the story, a team of humans has lost a critical baseball series to a team from Arcturus, with the stakes being that the winner gets to eat the loser, all reported by a newscaster who seems remarkably similar to Howard Cosell. The fans vote on which human gets eaten first, and the entree selected is something of a surprise, but the story contains one even further final twist at the end. The story is somewhat surreal, and fairly funny. Haldeman has another story in the volume, the very brief What Time Is It?, which imagines a use for faster than light travel to indulge the nostalgic feelings of wealthy men who yearn for the television programs of their youth.

Continuing with the "at best tenuously related to television" theme, Mercenary by Mack Reynolds posits a future in which treaties have limited warfare to only those technological advances invented prior to the twentieth century. In a further oddity, this rather quaint albeit bloody form of warfare doesn't merely take place between nations, but also between corporations. In a final quirk, society in general seems to have reverted to nineteenth century sensibilities, and social class has become almost a caste system. The protagonist in the story is Joe Mauser, an ambitious veteran mercenary who has participated in numerous corporate engagements. He signs up with the Vacuum Tube Transport corporation, a company that is tangling with a larger and better financed rival, a decision that is seen as a bad move as Continental Hovercraft had retained the services of the legendary commander Stonewall Cogswell. But Mauser has a trick up his sleeve that he thinks will turn the tide of the battle in favor of the hopelessly outclassed Vacuum Tube Transport. The story is about television to the extent that such conflicts are apparently televised, but it is mostly about class conflict, and human ingenuity even in the face of severe societal restrictions. The story is one of the best in the book, but the television angle is so tangential, that one wonders why it is included in this particular collection. Moving from the field of warfare to the field of warfare by other means, Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn imagines what would happen if the functions of the Department of State were handed over to an advertising firm. The story imagines how international diplomacy might be conducted if one of the parties pursued it like a business, complete with propaganda, coupons, and discount offers. On the surface the story is merely a piece of satirical humor, but it also imagines a better future in which the relations between nations might be ruled by law and contracts rather than chaos and disorder.

The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg is definitely about television, but only to serve as a vehicle for the real story. A television producer named Howard has an idea that is described as "educational", but which is resisted by everyone he pitches it to. Eventually the idea is made into a television pilot, and it bombs horribly. Howard's wife watches it, curses him and leaves with his children. He is sued as the "man who almost destroyed America", and at the end his lawyer tells him that sometimes an idea comes before the world is ready for it, and the messenger is then vilified. And this is what the real story is about: what happens when an idea comes along that the world is not ready for, and what happens now that we have the means to distribute that idea widely. The story stops just short of really examining these questions, content to merely raise the idea that men with ideas ahead of their time are despised by those around them. The implications of the ability to rapidly disseminate information via television is explored more fully in Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert, in which a rancher named Custer stumbles upon a new piece of technology that seems like it will revolutionize the world, and he uses a Congressional hearing on grazing rights to make it public. The actual technology at issue - easy to make and powerful portable lasers - alters the balance of power in the world from the group to the individual, but what makes the new technology capable of such a paradigm shift is that Custer is able to spread the knowledge of the advance in an egalitarian manner, and that is accomplished via live television.

Although And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. isn't really about television per se, it is about the dangers posed by a society that relies too much on technology to replace human interaction. Mildred Boltz is a teacher from off-world who has returned to Earth to take a lucrative position. She discovers that she is expected to teach students via television, and she will be judged on her ratings. She is determined to actually try to teach her students, whereas many of her fellow teachers have resorted to providing nothing more than salacious entertainment for their students. But Boltz is determined to teach her students, and to do so she reintroduces classroom instruction, much to the dismay of her superiors. The story illustrates both the power of television, and its severe limitations. The story is not so much about television itself, but about how a tool is used, and why it is the user of the tool that is important and not the nature of the tool.

Interview by Frank A. Javor is a brilliant piece that is actually about television and how those who present information to us via that medium lie to us, and how advances in technology may make it possible for them to lie even more. Given the myriad ways that newscasters often dishonestly manipulate what they are reporting via selective editing, reverse cuts, and reordering clips, one has to be somewhat disturbed by the addition of the emotional manipulation technology imagined by Javor, and makes one wonder whether the disclaimer the broadcaster is required to give at the end of his piece would actually be imposed should such technology ever come to actually exist.

There are some classic science fiction authors who seem to be the darlings of the libertarian crowd. Heinlein is one of them. Larry Niven is another. And when I read their fiction I can't help but thinking that the libertarians aren't paying attention. In this volume, Niven offers Cloak of Anarchy, a story about what seems to be a libertarian's fantasy, but because Niven isn't an idiot, he presents the fantasy for what it really is: a nightmare. In the future, when cars are no longer useful, the San Diego freeway has been turned into a huge "free" park. The only rule is a prohibition on hurting other people, enforced by floating cameras that stun any participants in violent acts. People accept that they can do anything they want in the park, and it is a place for people to act out whatever desires they have, from merely having picnics, to strolling around naked, to throwing rocks at the cameras. But when someone disables all of the cameras as a social experiment, things are suddenly not quite as idyllic. Gangs assert their authority over the only sources of water, extorting favors in return for a drink. Women who had previously felt comfortable ambling through the park naked find themselves hunted by would-be rapists, and so on. The libertarian anarchist fantasy devolves into a dystopian terror in just a few short hours, and the fact that it does seems to be a clear message of Niven's thoughts: libertarian anarchist societies are no place that anyone would actually want to live.

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon is another story only tangentially related to television, but is even more insightful now in the age of the internet than it was when it was first written. MacLyle is an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life until he becomes obsessed with reading the news in newspapers, listening to the news on the radio, and watching the news on television. The overload of information drives him mad, although it is a very peculiar form of madness that is particularly polite. He makes provisions for his suffering wife and then retreats to the countryside to become a hermit. A well-meaning psychiatrist journeys out to find MacLyle and attempt to cure him. It turns out that MacLyle has lost the ability to speak or read, but via intensive work, he is cured, with somewhat disastrous results. With the volume of information pouring in to the typical person's head via twenty-four hour news channels, the constant stream of data from the internet, and updates via smartphones, it seems like most people are now in MacLyle's position, which is a somewhat disquieting thought.

In contrast to Sturgeon's story is Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing, which focuses on attempts to cut off the flow of information purportedly in the name of security. Everett is a officer working for the FCC charged with attempting to prevent terrorists from getting their actions on television, with the government more or less operating on the theory that terrorism thrives on publicity, and therefore to starve them of publicity will cause terrorism to dry up. After being almost blown up in the course of his regular duties, Everett gets involved in a project to discredit the terrorists by putting on a program that makes fun of them while at the same time suppressing any real reporting on terrorist activity. The program more or less works, but it isn't without cost as the villains respond rather disagreeably, resulting in a back and forth of intrigue and violence. The story seems in some ways to presage the modern paranoid attitude towards terrorism, including the idea that the media needs to be reigned in in the interest of security. The only real difference is that rather than having the government's paranoia imposed upon them, the entire media apparatus essentially voluntarily agrees to be muzzled by the authorities, more or less drawing a strained equivalency between the threat of terrorism and the U.S. national mobilization for the war effort in World War II.

Overall, this collection is an interesting read, although several of the stories have been overtaken to some extent by developments in technology. Stories that have televisions and radios that require their vacuum tubes to warm up before they operate seem rather quaint now, but in most of these tales the form of the technology is not as important as the effect that technology might have on humans, both individually and as a society. And the insights that are presented here are, for the most part, still fresh and just as insightful and chilling now as they were when these stories were first written. Granted, a fair number of the stories in this book are only about "television" in the most tangential way, but the truth is that most good science fiction isn't really about technology anyway. Science fiction at its best is about us, and these stories, full of questions and speculations about how humans interact with one another through mass media, are definitely about us.

1977 Hugo Award Nominees

Isaac Asimov     Charles G. Waugh     Martin H. Greenberg     Book Award Reviews

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Musical Monday - Red Dwarf Closing Theme by Jenna Russell

A couple years ago I made a list of the Top Ten Science Fiction Television Shows. I still stand by that list, and the reasons that I gave for placing each show on the list. So for the next several Musical Mondays, I'm going to be going through the theme music for all of these shows. Why? Because I like the shows and I like their music.

So I'm starting with number ten on the list - the British science fiction comedy Red Dwarf. While I am planning on highlighting the opening theme for most of these shows, for Red Dwarf, I'm going to go with the closing theme. Because, as with so many other elements of the show, Red Dwarf took the opportunity to make even its credits, and the order they were shown in, part of the spoof. The opening credits for the show are dull, and the music that accompanies them has changed almost every season. But the real theme song of the show, sung by Jenna Russell, is played over the closing credits. It's not a huge joke, but running the theme song at the end of the show, more or less backwards from what most shows do, is just one more little bit of humor thrown in by one of the most biting and hilarious works of televised science fiction satire that has ever aired.

Previous Musical Monday: X-Men Animated Series Opening Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Prisoner Opening Theme

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Jenna Russell     Musical Monday     Home

Friday, March 15, 2013

Follow Friday - The Hundred Days Campaign Ended with the Battle of Waterloo

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 - Pinkindle Reads & Reviews and Bookaddict Bieke.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Activity! Hopefully warm weather for most of us is here soon . . . so tell us about your favorite outdoor reading spot. Or take a picture.

I do a modest amount of reading outside, but generally not by choice. I do a lot of my reading while commuting, and as a result, I spend a fair amount of time reading while waiting for buses and trains, both going to and coming home from work. But standing at the bus station or on a train platform isn't really where I'd prefer to be when I'm reading. It just happens that those are places that I have the time to read and they happen to be outside. Of course, I also read when I'm actually on the bus or the train, but that's not really outside.

 Other than that, I generally don't do much reading outside. I don't really have anyplace that is a good spot for it, and I'm generally more of an indoor reader by temperament. Generally, if I'm not reading on my commute, I'm reading sitting on the couch or at my desk, and every now and then, at the library. So I guess I don't really have a favorite outdoor reading spot.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Agent 99 Was Played by Barbara Feldon

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review - The Slither Sisters by Jason Rekulak (writing as Charles Gilman)

Short review: Robert and Glenn foiled Tillinghast's plans in the first book, but Sarah and Sylvia Price have been possessed by horrible monsters and have a plan to take over Lovecraft Middle School.

A fake twin sister
Runs to head student council
And she must be stopped

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: The Slither Sisters is the second book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series by author Charles Gilman. The story is a Lovecraftian horror story aimed at middle-grade readers, which at first glance seems somewhat inherently self-contradictory. Gilman manages to keep the story is somewhat Lovecraftian, so that it retains the creepy and lethal nature of his works, but is also toned down just enough to be acceptable for its intended audience. In some ways, the series occupies the same territory as the various light horror series by authors such as Bruce Coville and John Bellairs, and happily, it holds up well to the comparison.

Robert Adams and Glenn Torkells are students at Lovecraft Middle School, and they have troubles. In the first book they apparently learned that their school was built from the ruins of the physicist Crawford Tillinghast's mansion, and that it was apparently destroyed when Tillinghast delved too deeply into the secrets of the universe, opening a gate to an otherworldly dimension. Adams and Torkells stumbled across the truth: that the mansion still exists, but it was moved to another dimension. Having been built from this world's scraps of the mansion, Lovecraft Middle School is riddled with gates between the two places, and Tillinghast is using these links to try to stage an invasion of horrible Lovecraftian creatures so he can take over the world. Along the way, Adams and Torkells befriend a ghost named Karina who is tied to the school's location. Most of this background was laid in the first book, which is one of the weaknesses of this book. Gilman does a decent job of recapping this material in the early chapters of Slither Sisters, so reading the first book is not absolutely required, but I suspect it would make the story in this book much more enjoyable.

The plot revolves around the Middle School student council elections and the titular sisters, two twins named Sarah and Sylvia Price. It turns out that Sarah Price is running for student council president, which is something of a problem because Adams and Torkell know that she and her sister are not human at all, but rather merely shells that used to be the Price sisters, but which are now occupied by horrible monsters from beyond. Not only that, Adams is dealing with being the teenage son of a single mother who is struggling to help her only son deal with adolescence. But this is just a secondary plot point at best, the meat of the story is Sarah Price's run for student council president, which is part of a plan by Tillinghast to take over the school's student body. This seems to be a fairly impractical plan, since it relies upon the idea that all of the middle school students would follow the student council president like lemmings, which seems somewhat implausible. The plan is supposedly bolstered by the Price sisters being very popular among the student population, but it seems odd to think that getting elected as student council president (which is more or less just a popularity contest anyway) would make their popularity so much greater than it was already that the allure of any plan they proposed would be irresistible.

The implausibility of the plan aside, Adams and Torkell decide that Sarah Price's campaign must be derailed, but since her only announced opposition is the nerdy and disabled Howard Mergler, they have to come up with an alternate plan. After Adams and Torkell befriend the elderly Mrs. Lavinia, who turns out to be Tillinghast's resentful sister, she convinces them that Adams must run for student council president himself. Unfortunately, Adams is not a particularly popular boy, and so they have to figure out a way to make his public profile more visible to make his campaign viable. Mrs. Lavinia introduces the boys to her husband, and after he reveals that his own investigations have uncovered some disturbing events that have the potential to affect far more than just Lovecraft Middle School, he agrees to help with Adams' campaign.

The story winds its way through the eventful campaign, with the sisters attempting to foil Adams, Torkells, and Karina, frequently even issuing lethal threats, and everything eventually comes to a head at the school's annual Halloween dance. The ending of the campaign starts off fairly predictably, but then Gilman pulls off a twist ending, and then does it yet again, which is a pretty difficult trick to pull off. Given that this is a series, it should come as no surprise that this book sets up the plot for the next installment, but it does it without making this story feel incomplete. The Slither Sisters is a very enjoyable book that captures the distinct mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that made Lovecraft's tales so intriguing, and manages to put everything into a package suitable for younger readers.

Previous book in the series: Professor Gargoyle
Subsequent book in the series: Teacher's Pest

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Musical Monday - X-Men Animated Series Opening Theme

I love the DC Animated Universe. I love Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and all of the other shows that were produced featuring DC super heroes. But for the Marvel fan in me there was also the X-Men Animated Series, and I loved it. Sure, the animation seems kind of weak in retrospect, and the voice acting sometimes left something to be desired, but the show was one of the first times I had ever seen comic book super heroes and their fans treated with anything approaching respect.

Super heroes had been a staple of Saturday morning cartoons for a lot longer than I can remember, but they have always been presented as silly and somewhat childish. The classic example of this sort of thing is the Superfriends shows, which transformed the most popular and longest running DC heroes as a band of silly, wise cracking goofballs with even sillier villains to contend with. But when the X-Men series aired, it took a different approach. Yes, the characters still wore funny looking spandex outfits, but the stories that the series told were, in many cases, drawn directly from the comic books themselves. Granted, the stories presented in the 1980s era X-Men comic books were sometimes a little on the frivolous side, but the series included the entire Dark Phoenix saga, a version of the Days of Future Past story, and other quite involved and serious story lines.

I will say, however, that I was never a big fan of Jubilee as a regular character. If given the choice to replace her with a different regular female character I'd have preferred someone like Shadowcat or perhaps Polaris. And leaving out Nightcrawler and Iceman as regular members of the team was, in my opinion, a bad move.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Red Dwarf Closing Theme by Jenna Russell

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Follow Friday - Agent 99 Was Played by Barbara Feldon

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 - Readiculously Peachy and Gone Bookserk.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What is a book you didn’t like that all your friends raved about or what book did you love that wasn’t popular?

I rarely meet a book that I don't like, and usually when I do, it is because it is actually pretty awful. And most of the truly awful books I have read don't have a wide enough distribution for most people to have established an opinion on them. After all, most people have never read PureHeart (read review), Alternating Worlds, or Seven Wings and the Bleeding Twin Flowers (read review), and as a result most people have no opinion on those books one way or the other and thus have no way of knowing whether or not they share my distaste for them.

That said, there are a fair number of books that I like that many others do not. I tend to read a lot of older science fiction, and in some cases people look at those books with something of a jaundiced eye. I like Starship Troopers. Many science fiction fans do not. I like the Foundation books (read reviews). Many science fiction fans do not. I like the Lensman series (read reviews). Many science fiction fans do not. On the other hand, many science fiction fans love all of those books, so I am far from alone in my affection for them.

I guess this is more or less a long winded way of saying that I simply can't think of any books that I am alone in either hating or liking. It seems that the books I like are either too obscure for many people besides myself to have read, or even if I am in the minority in my like or dislike for a book, I am not alone in my preferences.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review - Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

Stories included:
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Near Zennor
Hungerford Bridge
The Far Shore
Winter's Wife
Cruel Up North
The Return of the Fire Witch
Uncle Lou

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: Errantry: Strange Stories is a collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Hand. The dominant theme of the collection seems to be melancholy and regret, and the stories mostly seem to occupy that netherworld that exists right on the edge between fantasy and reality. In many ways the stories in this collection reminded me of the stories from John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, or perhaps Ray Bradbury's Medicine for Melancholy. The end result is a beautiful collection of strange and sad stories.

The opening story is The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a story about the kind of regret that comes with middle age, when someone realizes that the dreams of their youth have faded to grey while there is still a lot of life left in front of them. The protagonist is a widower raising his son following the untimely death of his spouse. He works a menial job to make ends meet and keeps loosely in touch with a couple of people from his halcyon days working as a security guard at the National Air and Space museum. This meager, decades-old connection results him setting out on an expedition to North Carolina's outer banks to fly a model of the titular aircraft in honor of a dying woman who worked as a researcher at the museum. The ties between the characters in the story are whisper thin, but they are all any of them has, so they engage in this crazy and quixotic quest. The only trouble with the story is that the fantastical element seems almost pointlessly thrown in and more or less irrelevant to the plot in any substantial way.

Near Zennor also deals with loss and a quest following a wife Anthea's death (a grief further compounded by the fact that their only daughter had previously died as an infant), but this time the protagonist, Jeffrey, goes in search of answers to a mystery that hovered about his spouse. It seems that his deceased wife was a fan of the obscure children's book The Sun Battles by the now disgraced author Robert Bennington. Bennington's reputation has been tarnished by accusations of pedophilia, and his writing career was ruined as a result. But in looking through Anthea's effects, Jeffrey finds that she and three of her friends seem to have contacted the author when they were young girls. Searching deeper, he finds that they went to see him, and something terrible appears to have happened that Anthea and her friends never spoke about. Jeffrey goes to England to search the area where Bennington lived, and where the mysterious event seems to have happened, and has a series of odd things happen. None of them are odd enough to definitively declare them to be otherworldly, but they do give the story and eerie and haunting quality. The story meanders at times, but the final pages are so creepy and effective that they make up for it.

Hungerford Bridge is a story that seems like it could have been written by John Collier, and it depicts a reality that could be our reality and we would never know it. The story is short, detailing the passing of a beautiful secret from one person to another. It is one of the few stories in the collection that doesn't deal with death and loss, but rather a shared knowledge, but it still manages to be melancholy. More fantastical than Hungerford Bridge, is The Far Shore, a story about an aging ballet instructor who moves into an off-season summer camp after losing his job with the ballet company he has been part of for his entire career. The story contains many themes, most of them about coping with injury, the loss of the dreams of our youth, and the inevitability of age, but it also contains the joy of finding a new love. The only thing that was somewhat disappointing about the story was that having a male ballet dancer turn out to be gay seems so predictable and stereotypical that the protagonist seem almost to be a caricature rather than a well-developed character.

Winter's Wife is a story featuring folk tale elements set in a rural Maine county. Told by a fatherless teenage boy who has struck up something of a foster relationship with a quirky nature-loving man named Winter, the narrative tells of Winter's conflict with a wealthy local named Tierny over a group of ancient trees in a nearby wood. As the title would suggest, Winter's wife, a tiny Icelandic woman who spends much of the story pregnant,  features prominently in the plot. The story deals with the arrogance of wealth and how nature might respond if it had the power to do so with the fate bestowed upon the villainous Tierny being poetic, albeit somewhat gruesome, justice. But the story is also about families, and how the family we choose is just as important as the family we are born into. Following immediately after Winter's Wife is Cruel Up North, the shortest and one of the most mysterious stories in the book. Taking up a mere three pages, the story tells of a woman's exploration through a city block and the odd discovery she makes.

The most perplexing story in the collection is Summerteeth, which seems to be an odd mixture of a mood piece and the first half of a summer horror film. Set on an island retreat frequented by artists and writers and told in punctuated, and at times seemingly unrelated, vignettes, the whole atmosphere of the story is one of confusion, loneliness, and despair. The story feels almost as if Hand was trying to convey the angst that an artist feels while immersed in the creative process, but layered over this are the hints of a mysterious danger stalking the individuals who sojourn on the island. Like several other stories in the volume there's nothing explicitly supernatural about any of the happenings that take place during the tale, but the odd happenstances give it an unsettling, albeit confusing air.

In contrast to the off-kilter reality of Hungerford Bridge, Near Zennor, and Summerteeth, The Return of the Fire Witch is the most unabashedly fantastical story of the bunch. In the tale a fungus witch named Saloona is roped into helping her neighbor, the fire witch Paytim's quest for revenge against the freshly crowned Paeolina of the Crimson Messuage. Paytim has acquired an extraordinarily powerful and lethal charm to accomplish this goal, but she needs Saloona's aid to pull off her objective. Unlike so many of the other stories in the collection which include only a sparing dash of fantasy or science fiction, The Return of the Fire Witch is filled with huge ladles full of magical elements. Both Saloona and Paytim live surrounded by magical charms, magical devices, and magical beasts to such an extent that these surroundings begin to seem almost mundane as the story goes on. Both of the women make their way to the Crimson Messuage, and begin to carry out their plan, although there are a couple complications and a betrayal along the way. In the end, this story seems to be a commentary upon the absurdity of many fantasy tales as well as the pointlessness of revenge.

As with many of the stories in this book, Uncle Lou is focused on the tiredness that comes with age. The titular character is an irascible old bachelor now retired from a long career of writing travel guides aptly named the "By Night" series because they tell people where to find the best night spots around the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of his favorite niece who seems to be a frequent caller upon the old man. Uncle Lou invites his niece to accompany him on a trip to night time benefit for a zoo. This being something of a modern fairy tale, the trip takes an unexpected course, although it seems that the unusual retirement that Uncle Lou enters into is one that he not only anticipated, but prepared for.

Errantry is at the same time the strangest and the most mundane story of the collection. A group of three friends, including a musician named Tommy who is obsessed with a fictional woman named "Estelle", set out on the trail of an unknown person they only know as "the folding man", so named for his proclivity for leaving little folded paper sculptures behind wherever he goes. None of the trio have ever actually seen the folding man, and they only know of him as a result of occasionally finding his creations in local bars and restaurants. The story details their pursuit of the mysterious origami aficionado through several venues until they wind up in an abandoned house in the countryside. Exploring the house only results in more mystery, as it seems that the long gone occupants hoarded everything, and most notably piles and piles of newspapers. Eventually they uncover something even more disturbing than piles of trash, which seems to connect to Tommy's obsession with "Estelle", although not in such a way that would confirm that anything supernatural was taking place. The story is somewhat unnerving, but not because of anything that might be definitely called magic, rather because it seems so close to what reality would be if seen through a distorting lens.

Filled with stories that seem to exist just to the side of reality and laced through with themes of loss, loneliness, sadness, and death, Errantry: Strange Stories is an engaging and sometimes disturbing collection. Every story in the volume is interesting, even if some of them seem simply inexplicably odd, and a few, notably Winter's Wife, Near Zennor, and Errantry, are excellent. Overall, this is a lovely collection of stories that will leave the reader feeling full of melancholy, full of sorrow, and full of wonder.

Note: This volume contains The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon, a 2011 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette and a 2001 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novella. This volume also contains Winter's Wife, a 2008 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novelette as well as Near Zennor, a 2012 nominee for the Locus Award for Best Novella. The entire volume as whole was nominated for the 2013 Locus Award for Best Collection.

2011 Hugo Award Nominees

2008 Locus Award Nominees
2011 Locus Award Nominees
2012 Locus Award Nominees
2013 Locus Award Nominees

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