Reviews, January 2015

a thousand lances of energy intolerable

Grey Lensman — E.E. Smith
Lensman, book 4

Doc Smith isn’t one of my favourite authors. Recently, someone else’s review led me to wonder why I can ignore archaic writing styles to enjoy other pulp authors, but cannot do so for Doc Smith. One way to answer the question is to reread the very first Smith I ever read, Gray Lensman. This book was originally serialized in Astounding in 1939; I read a 1970s reprint of the 1951 novel version. I now know why I didn’t like Smith. I have to warn you, it’s a pretty stupid reason.

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Return to Astra

Star Born — Andre Norton
Pax, book 2

1957’s Star Born returns to the universe of 1954’s The Stars Are Ours! It is not a long book, but Norton manages to get more value out of her limited page count than later authors could do with much longer narratives.

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I will speak in the bitterness of my soul

Job: A Comedy of Justice — Robert A. Heinlein

I could tell, even before opening my mass market paperback of 1984’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, that it documented my increasing disenchantment with Heinlein, once one of my favourite authors. (You might not have guessed that from my recent reviews.) Rather than buying the book new, I had purchased a used copy from Mike’s Bookstore [1]. Whoever owned it before me had left it worn and dog-eared before selling it. That person must have liked it more than I did. I don’t think I have reread it once since that first time in the mid-1980s. It’s not that it’s the worst thing Heinlein ever wrote; it’s more of a funny once and by funny once I mean “meh.” How the mighty are fallen.

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Mischief up his sleeve

The Magic Stone — Leonie Kooiker
Magic Stone, book 1


Leonie Kooiker’s 1974 children’s novel De Heksensteen, offered to Anglophone audiences in 1978 under the title The Magic Stone, makes an interesting palate-cleanser after this week’s snarkfest. I am not familiar with the body of Kooiker’s work and all information available about her seems to be in Dutch … so I would guess that, for some reason, this book and its sequel, Legacy of Magic, weren’t big hits in the English-reading world. Pity.

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Frontiers of the Mind

Someone to Watch Over Me — Tricia Sullivan

I find Tricia Sullivan’s work interesting (even if I do not always like it) and collect her books when I can. Unfortunately, only a few of her books have moved to e (and even then they can be difficult to purchase [1]). Her non-e books aren’t easy to find [2], which is why it took me so long to get around to reviewing a second Sullivan. To my great pleasure, I recently came across a copy of 1997’s Someone To Watch Over Me, a book which had been on my possibles list for the next Sullivan review. So … After an all too long delay, my second Sullivan review.

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A colossal waste of time

1985 — Anthony Burgess

Yesterday I complained about a novel that was more obscure than it merited. Today’s review features a book that should be more obscure than it is, Anthony Burgess’s 1985, a thematic sequel of sorts to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. What this book deserves is 1111 words of me screaming incoherently. That would be a suitable riposte to a book that consists of a book’s worth of an elderly1 conservative moaning on about how the trade unions, women’s lib, gay homosexuals2, and Those Darn Kids ruin everything, leaving poor Britain supine before the virile might of the Islamic world. That might relieve my feelings, but it would not be amusing or instructive to read. So, have a review! A review resentful that I read this crap at all. 

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The anti-Lovecraft

Way Station — Clifford D. Simak

Clifford D. Simak’s 1963 Hugo-winning novel Way Station in many ways exemplifies the strengths for which Simak was known, as well as some of his characteristic weaknesses. Way Station is also an example of something that is quite rare amongst Hugo-winning novels: it is very much out of print, along with most of Simak’s oeuvre, a development that has left it  undeservedly obscure. I may not be able to place the book in your hands but at I least I can remind people it exists.

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Go to the ant, thou sluggard

Herland — Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman's Utopian Trilogy, book 2

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915’s feminist utopia Herland is the middle volume of a trilogy, being preceded by Moving the Mountain and followed by With Her in Ourland. I had not previously read this book and didn’t know what to expect. Well, given the time when it was written, I did expect some form of genteel racism, perhaps coupled with eugenics, and I wasn’t wrong. But there’s more here than that.

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The long con of Oliver VII

Oliver VII — Antal Szerb

Antal Szerb was a major figure in the Hungarian literature of the first half of the 20th century, and his 1942 novel Oliver VII is a perfect confection of a comedy. It seems a great shame, therefore, that the novel was not translated into English until 2007 — although Len Rix’s translation is a fine one — and an even greater shame that the forty-three-year-old Szerb, who refused to be run out of his homeland by jumped-up thugs, was beaten to death by a fascist in 1945.

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The Apocalypse Will Be Unevenly Distributed

Coyote — Regan Wolfrom
After the Fires Went Out, book 1

2012’s After the Fires Went Out: Coyote (Book One), Regan Wolfrom, is one of those rare Canadian post-apocalyptic novels, to be shelved with such works as The Last Canadian1 and Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse. The comet came, the effort to divert it failed, a lot of people died, and now that the dust has settled, visionaries like Ryan Stems have a grand ambition: to give the people of the Mushkegowuk Nation a place safe from the marauders and biker gangs that have overrun much of what was once Northern Ontario.

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Aud Returns

Stay — Nicola Griffith
Aud Torvingen, book 2

2002’s Stay picks up some months after events at the end of The Blue Place. Still haunted by the memories of her dead lover Julia, Aud Torvingen has no interest in helping her friend Dornan track down his missing fiancée. Somehow, finding out what happened to Tammy Foster is exactly what Aud finds herself doing.

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Panicky teenyboppers stampeded in tight circles, shrieking, “Dig it! Dig it! Dig it!” and knocking unwary tourists off their feet.

The Butterfly Kid — Chester Anderson
Greenwich Village Trilogy, book 1

1967’s The Butterfly Kid, first volume in the Greenwich Village Trilogy, is perhaps the finest science fiction thriller in which a ragtag group of hippies and hipsters (based on real people) save the world from blue meanies. While that’s not a huge field, it’s one with surprising stiff competition.

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His Girl Friday

Friday — Robert A. Heinlein

For many fans of Robert A. Heinlein, 1982’s Friday was the book in which Heinlein recovered, at least to a degree, from the literary nadir of Number of the Beast1. For me it will always be the one with the Michael Whelan cover where the toggles on the zippers of the protagonist’s jumpsuit are little penises.

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But their adventures were only beginning

Plague Ship — Andre Norton
Solar Queen, book 2

1956’s Plague Ship returns to the adventures of the Free Trader Solar Queen in a little tale that illustrates the fundamental rule of the Solar Queen stories: Then Things Got Worse.

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A Gaslight Fantasy

The Death of the Necromancer — Martha Wells
Ile-Rien, book 2

1998’s The Death of the Necromancer was Martha Well’s third novel, following 1993’s The Element of Fire and 1995’s City of Bones. Like The Element of Fire, Necromancer is set in the city of Ile-Rien, a city that seems to be a bit like a gaslight era Paris, but which has the extra fun element of magic.

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A lesser-known classic from the 1970s

The Gameplayers of Zan — M. A. Foster
Ler, book 2

M. A. Foster published seven novels and a collection of short stories between 1975 and 1985. Despite having been intermittently out of print since first publication, his work still has its fans1. The Gameplayers of Zan was only the second of his seven novels, but, if you find someone who still remembers Foster’s work, it’s very likely that the book they will mention first is Gameplayers. It’s one of those curious gems the mid-1970s2 produced, a science-fictional anthropological exploration slash Kafkaesque political thriller that probably wouldn’t see print in today’s market.

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In the Future We Will Land a Man on the Sun

Sundiver — David Brin
Sundiver, book 1

There’s always a certain risk inherent mentioning this author or his books because he is known to show up in online venues to offer unrequested commentary should the review deviate from truth as he sees it. However, it seems a pity to skip a book I enjoyed just because of a minor authorial quirk1. So, allons-y!

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Crosstime Adventure

Crossroads of Time — Andre Norton
Crosstime, book 1

1956’s Crossroads of Time is in many respects another straightforward, serviceable little adventure novel that I would have found unremarkable except for an interesting choice of protagonist and a date of publication that makes the previous even more interesting. These two points cause me to stroke my beard in a thoughtful manner, which I believe makes me look intellectual rather than itchy.

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“Different is dead”

Ingathering: The Complete People Stories — Zenna Henderson

Zenna Henderson’s 1995 single-author collection, Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, assembles, I think for the first time, all of her stories about the People. The People are aliens forced to flee the only Home they knew when it decided to pull a Krypton. Although I’ve owned this volume for twenty years (when did 1995 get to be so twenty years ago?) I’ve never actually read it or any Henderson at all1, so this was a welcome chance to sample the works of a noteworthy author hitherto unfamiliar to me.

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An interbellum satire

War with the Newts — Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek’s 1936 satire War with the Newts was published towards the end of Czechoslovakia’s inter-war golden age, a time when the writing was already on the wall for unfortunate Czechoslovakia. One can sense from the novel’s wry, often bitter, humour that Čapek had pretty clear views about what people were really like and those views were not positive ones. Čapek is often funny but it’s a dark funny.

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2015 is off to a good start

Earth Logic — Laurie J. Marks
Elemental Logic, book 2

Second in the Elemental Logic series, 2004’s Earth Logic answers the question “Was Fire Logic a fluke or can Marks write that well consistently?” Answer: “Marks can write that well consistently.” So yay, one more review for 2015 without hitting a dud.

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Also, I liked the cover

The Way into Chaos — Harry Connolly
The Great Way, book 1

2014’s The Way In to Chaos had the working title Epic Fantasy With No Dull Parts. That’s a goal ambitious enough to make this the first new book that I have read in 2015. The sunniness of my outlook and the degree of malice I will bear toward the hundreds of books by hundreds of authors I will read over the next twelve months may well be affected by my reaction to this book. But no pressure!

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Man versus Motie

The Mote in God’s Eye — Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Moties, book 1

1974’s Mote in God’s Eye was the first collaboration between Niven, by then a winner of multiple Hugo Awards, and Pournelle, the winner of the 1973 Campbell for Best New Writer. Readers could be excused for expecting a lot from this novel given who wrote it. They must have liked what they found, because this earned nominations for both the Best Novel Hugo (losing to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed) and the Best Novel Nebula (losing to Haldeman’s The Forever War). Forty-one years later, does it still stand up?

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Before the fall

Star Guard — Andre Norton
Central Control, book 2

1955’s Star Guard is a prequel to Star Rangers. Although this book is set thousands of years before Star Rangers, Star Guard’s galaxy is ruled by the same Central Control that is in the process of falling apart in Star Rangers. The difference is that Star Guard’s Central Control is dominated by the galaxy’s elder races and humans are an ill-regarded junior race. Humans struggling for freedom in a galaxy set against them is a familiar story, but Norton provides a fascinating, if very dark, twist by placing this in the same universe as Star Rangers.

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