Reviews, December 2014

The first Deverry novel, in more senses than one

Daggerspell — Katharine Kerr
Deverry, book 1

This is the first time I’ve read Kerr’s 1986 debut novel, Daggerspell. One major reason for that is that book distribution in Ontario in the 1980s was unreliable, even for books from major publishers like Del Rey and I never saw a copy to  read. Pity, because this is a solid little debut.

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A rare utopian future America

Imperial Earth — Arthur C. Clarke

1976’s Imperial Earth was published the year of the United State’s bicentennial. This wasn’t one of the USA’s better periods; oil shocks, stagflation, and political scandal had marred the first half of the decade. Other SF authors might have decided to revel in the doom and gloom of the era — and they did — but Clarke instead chose to take the reader on a tour of what is likely as close to a utopian US as any SF writer has ever imagined.

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Introducing the Solar Queen

Sargasso of Space — Andre Norton
Solar Queen, book 1

1955’s Sargasso of Space, which Norton originally published under the pen name Andrew North, is memorable because it is the first of the Solar Queen novels. These form a seven-book series1  about Dale Thorson and his fellow Free Traders, who ply their trade between the stars and scrabble for a living despite the fact the game is rigged against them.

The book is notable for me because it just so happens that I caused the text of the 2003 omnibus to be very slightly amended, a story I will tell later on.

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Interstellar Raconteur

Trafalgar — Angélica Gorodischer

Translated by Amalia Gladhart.

Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar: A Novel was first published in 1979 but in Argentina and in Spanish, which is why I missed it. The subtitle is a lie; this isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories. That the subtitle is a lie is foreshadowing; Medrano Trafalgar is a charming raconteur who entertains his friends with amusing tales of his adventures trading on alien worlds, rambling accounts told over endless cups of coffee, and he does not come across as a man much inhibited by the truth.

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In a galaxy not so far away

The Price of the Stars — Debra Doyle & James D. MacDonald
Mageworld, book 1

Back when I had my store, 1992’s The Price of Stars was pitched to me as the sort of book people who like Star Wars would like. It happens I don’t particularly care for Star Wars myself, although I am not hostile to the source material Lucas was — “inspired by” won’t attract lawsuits, right? Let’s say “inspired by” — but since my personal preferences have played almost no role in what I’ve read in the last thirteen and a half years, I have read many Star Wars novels. So. Very. Many. Stars Wars novels. Against my will, I am something of an expert in this field and so I can say with some authority that this should appeal to fans of Star Wars. Early Star Wars, that is. Not the current stuff.

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The sound of my lamentations

The Blue Place — Nicola Griffith
Aud Torvingen, book 1

Third in my “whoops, I appear to be rereading all of Nicola Griffith’s novels” series, 1998’s The Blue Place causes me to rend my garments and bitterly lament. Not because it’s a bad book — it’s pretty good — but because it is Griffith’s first non-science fiction novel. 

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The Ur-Space Colony Popularization

Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids — Dandridge M. Cole & Donald W. Cox

In memoriam: Roy Scarfo, whose art appears in this work, died of pancreatic cancer on December 8th of this year.

1964’s Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, by Dandridge M. Cole and Donald W. Cox, does not seem to have had many editions; I can only find references to two. However, even if you never saw a copy of Islands, if you were ever a space colonization fan you are very likely to have read books by people who were strongly influenced by Cole and Cox’s work.

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Suddenly Aaronovitch

Rivers of London — Ben Aaronovitch
Rivers of London, book 1

2011’s Rivers of London lives at the intersection of two popular British genres, fantasy and the police procedural. This is my first Aaronovitch; I would have read it sooner, but it turns out that getting the British edition of the book in Canada wasn’t as straightforward as I expected1. I did finally get my copy and I was not disappointed.

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Ad astra per aspera

The Stars Are Ours! — Andre Norton
Pax, book 1

1954’s The Stars Are Ours is, sadly, one of Norton’s minor efforts. Because I read this for the SFBC a decade ago I knew that going in  but  while this novel is something I am reading for completion’s sake, it does have its interesting elements1

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Jane Austen meets Genghis Khan

Jaran — Kate Elliott
The Novels of the Jaran, book 1

I picked up 1992’s Jaran in 1992 and what with one thing and another only just now got around to finishing this anthropological romance (as mandated by this very commissioned review). I have read the Crossroads series so I am not unfamiliar with Elliott’s fiction; it’s just this one I didn’t read at the time. Why? It tickled a peculiar and no doubt shameful prejudice of mine, of which more later0.

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“Eliminate human tyranny! The world belongs to Trisolaris!”

The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu
Remembrance of Earth’s Past, book 1

First published in China almost a decade ago under the title 三体, Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem has finally been brought to audiences in l’anglosphere (at least the l’Amérique du Nord part). This is due to the efforts of translator Ken Liu, publisher Tor Books, and the China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation. In this novel, Liu grapples with a classic SFnal question — how might contact between two civilizations of vastly different technological ability go? — and the answer is, rather unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with terrestrial history, very poorly for the less advanced civilization.

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The Universe is Antagonist Enough

Deadly Litter — James White

I freely admit that this review of 1964’s Deadly Litter is a placeholder review. It buys me time until I can toddle over to Dana Porter Arts Library’s Rare Books room, where I hope to read and review their copy of Escape Orbit. I own a lot of White books but not, as it happens, that one. Deadly Litter won out over all of the other James White novels that I could have reread because I could not remember reading it at any point since the 1970s. Also, it was at the top of my stack of James White novels and if I picked any other book, the stack would have fallen over.

I have to say, that method handed me a better book than have many of my more intellectual approaches.

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Poindexters, Pointy-haired bosses, Villainous Third Worlders, and Dastardly Feminists.

Captain Empirical — Sam Nicholson
An Analog Book, book 2

According to ISFDB, Sam Nicholson was a pen name for Shirley Nikolaisen, about whom information is pretty scarce (Googling her name led me back to one of my own comments, which was not very helpful).What I can safely assert is that of the twenty Nicholson short works, twelve appeared in 1977, 1978, and 19791. Also, while her debut was in Jim Baen’s Galaxy, most of her short work appeared in an Analog then under the editorship of Ben Bova (ten stories) and  Bova’s successor, Stanley Schmidt (seven stories).

Today’s book under review, 1979’s Captain Empirical, is a result of the Bova connection. It was published in Ace’s An Analog Book series2, edited by Ben Bova.

Either Nicholson held views that appealed to Bova and his successor, or she adopted those views in her stories out of a keen appreciation of what Bova (and later his replacement) would buy. Bova was a lot friendlier to female writers than his predecessor had been; over the course of his tenure the frequency of women in the table of contents went from 6% to 18%3. It probably didn’t hurt Nicholson that her Captain Schuster stories steadfastly took the side of the embattled white senior employee, who is menaced on all sides by Poindexters, pointy-haired bosses, villainous Third Worlders, and dastardly feminists.

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An ecological SF novel

Slow River — Nicola Griffith

1995’s Slow River was Griffith’s second science fiction novel. It was also (at least as of this date) her final SF novel. Where Ammonite used an interstellar setting, Slow River is down to Earth, so down that it is positively subterranean in spots. Garnering both the Lambda and the Nebula, it is one of very few near-future hard SF novels that is focused on bio-remediation (this is to the best of my knowledge; feel free to comment).

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Imperial collapse, as seen from the bottom

Star Rangers — Andre Norton
Central Control, book 1

1953’s The Star Rangers takes us to a First Galactic Empire three thousand years old, just past the point where slow decline becomes rapid collapse. Central Control is no longer so central or so in control but the Patrol remains loyal to its former master. This makes the Patrol an impediment to Imperial functionaries trying to transition from regional bureaucrat to local warlord and so the Vegan registry Patrol ship Starfire finds itself ordered to chart uncharted worlds, a long term exploration mission whose real purpose is to keep the men of the Starfire occupied long enough to be killed in the course of their duties.

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The evil that men do lives after them

Collected Editorials from Analog — John W. Campbell, Jr.

Reading this collection won’t make your life better; on Facebook I compared it to eating a whole box of bon-bons, if said bon-bons were not in fact candy but deceptively-shaped pieces of dog-shit. What it will do is give you a pretty good idea what sort of person John W. Campbell, Jr. was — terrible — and if you’re an SF fan that matters because Mr. Campbell, he was influential within the world of science fiction. Very influential.

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A Jinn Bildungsroman

HWJN — Ibraheem Abbas & Yasser Bahjatt

2013’s HWJN offers a glimpse of contemporary Arabic fantasy in the form of a romance featuring Hawjan son of Meehal al-Fayhee, a love-smitten Jinn obsessed with a Human woman of good character. For various right and good reasons such things are frowned on but this particular example is complicated by certain facts about Hawjan’s family of which the young Jinn is not fully apprised.

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To Outlive Eternity

Tau Zero — Poul Anderson

1970’s Tau Zero (an expanded version of 1968’s “To Outlive Eternity”) comes almost exactly at the mid-point of Poul Anderson’s 54-year career. Someone familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre could make an educated guess about when this was written just from the female characters, something more than the trophies seen in earlier Anderson’s, combined with the absence of the libertarianism0 seen in later Anderson but such a reader could also make a pretty guess as to when this had to be written based on the device that literally drives the plot. 1970 was the apex of the heyday of the Bussard Ramjet and this novel is the Bussard Ramjet novel.

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Why aren’t we all atomic ash?

The Wizards of Armageddon — Fred Kaplan

l1983’s The Wizards of Armageddon documents America’s1 long struggle to come up with a conceptual framework for the effective conduct of nuclear war. An awful lot of people, including a number of the people who were actually the ones who would be calling the shots during WWIII, assumed that nuclear war would be a matter of throwing as many nukes at the other guy as possible while trying to survive what the enemy tossed back, However, at least one community of intellectuals yearned for something more nuanced. Many of these people ended up at a think tank called RAND and had a hand in shaping the Cold War that those of us from the Before Times lived through.

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Classic Norton

Daybreak—2250 A.D. — Andre Norton

Originally published as Starman’s Son, 2250 A.D., Norton’s first science fiction novel has been also titled Daybreak — 2250 A.D. (the version I have) and Starman’s Son. Ace seems to have preferred the Daybreak variant and I think it is because they were worried readers might be misled by the title. This is not a world where young men [1] find their destinies between the stars. It is one where they struggle to find a better way of life on the radioactive ruins of Earth.

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Adapt or Die

Ammonite — Nicola Griffith

Although 1992’s Ammonite1, winner of the Lambda and Tiptree awards link], was not Nicola Griffith’s debut, most of her short fiction to that date had been published in David Pringles’ Interzone, which, despite efforts on my part, I have never been able to find on this side of the Atlantic (not even the issue in which my work turned out — to my surprise — to have appeared). For people like me, for whom Pringles were unpalatable snacks in tubes, this novel would have been the first time we encountered Griffith. It was a strong debut.

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Who to turn to but the French?

Dreaming 2074

The shared world anthology Dreaming 2074: A Utopia Created by French Luxury puts its central conceit right there in the subtitle. Commissioned by the Comité Colbert—“78 firms from the French luxury sector and 14 cultural institutions, which have joined together through common values”—the anthology (comprising short stories and other works) uses a shared universe to paint a picture of a 2074 that has weathered calamity to become a world materially and culturally superior to our own.

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And now for some hard SF

Banner of Souls — Liz Williams

2004’s Banner of Souls’ distant future features Martian warriors, malevolent ghosts, and kappa. Despite these fantasy elements, it amuses me to point out that this is a hard SF novel, if weighed on the same balance that declares Ringworld or Pandora’s Star to be hard SF.

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The Tyne Tug Caper

The Eppleton Hall — Scott Newhall

1971’s The Eppleton Hall: Being a True and Faithful Narrative of the Remarkable Voyage of the Last Tyne River Steam Sidewheel Paddle Tug Afloat — Newcastle-upon-Tyne to San Francisco, 1969–1970 delivers exactly what it promises in the title. However, despite the title’s remarkable lack of brevity, it neglects to mention that the Eppleton Hall’s voyage came exactly 150 years after the first paddlewheel crossed the Atlantic (a feat performed by the Savannah in 1819).

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