Reviews, February 2015

More SF about women, by women

More Women of Wonder — Pamela Sargent
Women of Wonder, book 2

1976’s More Women of Wonder followed Women of Wonder by nineteen months [1] and offered a second sampling of speculative fiction written by women. As did the first collection, this draws from work published over the previous four decades although this volume has a higher fraction of recent works than the first volume. The stories included are with a single exception novelettes, a form which, like the novella, is in many ways an ideal length for SF [2].

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OH ANDRE NORTON NO

Voodoo Planet — Andre Norton
Solar Queen, book 3

1959’s Voodoo Planet is the second half of the omnibus referenced in the previous review. I was a bit surprised to discover that this is one of the Solar Queen stories. I thought I had been sent all of the Solar Queen stories for review over the years, but I’d never seen this one. Having read it, I suspect I know why this is the Solar Queen tale Norton fans would just as soon pretend does not exist. I will reveal the secret if you follow me into the dark mysteries of a review I will call (borrowing Hradzka’s memorable title) OH ANDRE NORTON NO.

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Interstellar Confidence Game

Star Hunter — Andre Norton

I am reviewing 1961’s Star Hunter out of sequence because in the original ad for Andre Norton novels, the one that inspired this series, Star Hunter is listed as part of an omnibus edition also containing Voodoo Planet. That novel was published in 1959. This review and the one that follows constitute a review of the omnibus Star Hunter & Voodoo Planet. In cases like this, the publication date of the earlier work is the one I am going to use [1].

Discussion of one of the more interesting aspects of this book requires a pretty major spoiler, so … SPOILER WARNING!

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When is a translation not a translation?

The Blond Baboon — Janwillem van de Wetering
Grijpstra and de Gier, book 6

Back in the 1980s, there was a very good used bookstore on King Street in Kitchener [1], a store whose name I have forgotten but whose proprietor had an uncanny skill for pointing me at mystery series she thought I would like … and buy. Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and de Gier series was one of her recommendations. While I had read a number of police procedural series, I had never read anything like this one.

Although 1978’s The Blond Baboon is six novels (and three years) into the fourteen novel (and twenty-two years) series [2], I picked it for review because it had the unique property of being at the top of a stack of books, not trapped down where the stack would collapse if I removed it. I’ve often used this selection method and I stand by it, as do various stacks of books.

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A Tales of the Commons, Part Two

Black Brillion — Matthew Hughes
Commons, book 2

Black Brillion is one of those books I would never have thought to read if Science Fiction Book Club Senior Editor Andrew Wheeler hadn’t assigned it to me for review. I greatly enjoyed it, as did Andrew (if I am remembering correctly). Various other figures in the publishing industry loved it too, Alas, the readers, those bastards, ignored it.

It is a dismal fact that the set of the books I enjoy and the set of books that the great masses of SF readers favor do not have much overlap. [Imagine a Venn diagram where the circles do not overlap.] At times it seems like me as if me enthusing about a book is the kiss of death [1]. Surely hundreds of thousands of strangers across the world don’t buy the books they do (or rather, don’t buy the books I like) purely to piss me off?

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A Tale of the Commons, Part One

The Compleat Guth Bandar — Matthew Hughes
Commons, book 1

This week I planned a Rediscovery review of Black Brillion, a novel by self-confessed Canadian Matthew Hughes.You may notice that this is not a review of Black Brillion after all, but a review of The Compleat Guth Bandar.

This is because when I contacted Hughes, he said (in part)

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Back to Russell’s Attic

Half Life — S.L. Huang
Russell's Attic, book 2

2014’s Half Life returns the reader to the world of super-mercenary and mathematical genius Cas Russell. Rather to her own surprise, Cas is still friends with both detective Arthur Trestling and his hacker buddy Checker. Even more to her surprise, keeping Arthur happy matters a lot to Cas. In deference to Arthur, Cas has adopted all kinds of extreme restrictions on her behavior, like not killing people even when they get in her way. When the book opens, Cas has gone a whole sixty-three days without killing someone.

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Not the Tiptree I expected

Up the Walls of the World — James Tiptree, jr.

As noted in a previous review, many Disco-era critics and reviewers made fools of themselves by proudly claiming James Tiptree, Jr., one of the important new writers of the period, for Team Penis. As you know, Bob, Tiptree was the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon. She is still best known by her pen name, which I will use here.

James Tiptree, Jr. is remembered for classic short stories such as “The Women Men Don’t See,” “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” She did write two SF novels over the course of her too-short career; Up the Walls of the World was the first.

It’s an oddly Un-Tiptreeian work.

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By Women, About Women

Women of Wonder
Women of Wonder, book 1

Ah, the 1970s. Some later authors would have you believe that it was a vast wasteland until it was redeemed by the passage of time and the appearance of their first books. In fact, it was a vibrant period for science fiction, and one of the most significant developments was an influx of talented women into the field. As Damon Knight remarked in the early part of that decade, all the interesting new authors were women, with the exception of James Tiptree, Jr. It’s remarkable how often this sort of faux pas happened. If you were a person of the male gender commenting on SF in the 1970s, making some comment about James Tiptree, Jr. that would later appear to be hilariously misinformed would seem to have been de rigueur.

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My Very First Norton

Galactic Derelict — Andre Norton
Time Traders, book 2

The 1982 Ace edition of 1959’s Galactic Derelict is billed as “Book #2 in the Ross Murdoch series.” That bit is misleading. While Ross does appear in the book, he’s only a supporting character; its true protagonist is Travis Fox. If Ace had billed this as Time Traders #2, that would have dodged the whole ‘who is the protagonist?’ issue.

I could give this book another blurb: “first Andre Norton SF reviewer James Nicoll ever read.” That was way back in 1972, an earlier edition of the book, another time. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … sorry, I get flashbacks.


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A world of ancient magics

The March North — Graydon Saunders
Commonweal, book 1


Few now live who recall the great days of USENET newsgroups such as rec.arts.sf-lovers, rec.arts.sf.fandom, and soc.singles [1]. Long ago, in that time mortal folk called the nineteen nineties, these groups were vibrant and interesting; we strode like gods across the internet. Well, we had even more arguments than the deities, but a lot less incest, which I think balances it all out. Graydon Saunders was one of the regulars, whom we called, in our quaint argot, ‘regulars.’ He became a writer of books. I became a reviewer of books. I am sure you can see where this is going.

2014’s The March North is set in a world where the written word has been around for perhaps a hundred thousand years, or perhaps even longer. Where magic has incessantly shaped and reshaped the environment (geological and biological). Where you cannot understand this world without knowing of magic and its history; it would be like trying to make sense of our world while ignoring the existence of grasses.

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His chief delight was to eat and sleep; and after that—he liked best to make mischief.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils — Selma Lagerlöf

I didn’t expect my second review of a novel by a Nobel Laureate to arrive so soon after the first but … not only did author Selma Lagerlöf win a Nobel, she was the very first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she accomplished in 1909. Go, Lagerlöf!

That’s not an approving gaze I am getting from the author


so let’s just move on to the review.

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Congress of Monsters

Zero Sum Game — S.L. Huang
Russell's Attic, book 1

2014’s Zero Sum Game, the first volume in the Russell’s Attic series by S. L. Huang (1), is a superhero novel of sorts. If protagonist Cas Russell were a member of the classic-era Legion of Superheroes, her place at the table would have the placard “super-math.” Except, to be honest, while her ability to carry out highly complex applied mathematical calculations is impressive enough to qualify as a bona fide superpower, the LSH would probably bar her from membership on the basis of the trail of bodies she leaves behind her. In fact, a neutral observer might be more inclined to classify Cas as something more along the lines of a supervillain.

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One of Yesterday’s More Interesting Tomorrows

The Shockwave Rider — John Brunner

John Brunner is perhaps best remembered for a quartet of novels: 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar, 1969’s The Jagged Orbit, 1972’s The Sheep Look Up, and 1975’s The Shockwave Rider. I have been known to call them the Morose Quartet. There’s an unsourced claim on Wikipedia that they are called The Club of Rome Quartet. I prefer my title.

Rather like the Pohl and Kornbluth garbageman [1] novels of the 1950s, each of Brunner’s four dystopias wrestles with a different Big Issue that society faced in the 1960s and 1970s (and arguably still faces). Stand on Zanzibar looked at a world crammed to the gunwales with Seven! Billion! People!, The Jagged Orbit looked at an America where racial hatred, paranoia, and violence provide an unparalleled opportunity for gun salesmen; The Sheep Look Up was concerned with pollution-driven ecological collapse. The final novel, the one I am going to review today, was 1975’s The Shockwave Rider, whose central concern was something pundit Alvin Toffler called Future Shock: the disorienting experience of being flooded with more information than one can possibly process.

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A simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong

The Escape Orbit — James White

I was very excited to be commissioned to review this novel. White is one of my favorite authors. Even his Sector General stories, which are not my thing, get points for having plots driven by something other than violence. Not only that, but this is one of the few James White novels that I had never read. What could go wrong?

Well, two things. First, 1965’s The Escape Orbit is as close to MilSF as White ever got. Second, there is one thing about White’s fiction that I often find troublesome. Unfortunately for me, that one thing is front and center in this novel.

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Cold War Time War

The Time Traders — Andre Norton
Time Traders, book 1

1958’s The Time Traders is the first of seven books featuring Ross Murdoch. Four of these (The Time Traders, Galactic Derelict, The Defiant Agents, and Key Out of Time) were written by Norton solo and three (Firehand, Echoes in Time, and Atlantis Endgame) were written in collaboration with other writers.

I could tell you a funny story about the series but … no, I will get to it later on.

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From the world of Mesoamerican myth

The Bone Flower Throne — T.L. Morganfield
Bone Flower Trilogy, book 1

2013’s The Bone Flower Throne, the first book in the Bone Flower Trilogy, is set in the world of Mesoamerican myth, specifically, the story of the great Priest-King Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. (In an afterword, the author compares him to King Arthur, which I think is off the mark for reasons I will explain later). I enjoy works set in or drawing on the Pre-Columbian cultures of the New World, but have been unable to find more than a few such works. Fortunately, the author of this book, T. L. Morgenfield, is on my Livejournal friends list, which made finding her book just that wee bit easier.

Of course, just because a work falls into a genre I find interesting and just because I know the author doesn’t mean I have to like the book. I could be the sort of monumental dick who asks for a review copy and finding it not to his taste, rewards the courtesy with a scathing review [1]. Or I might not be. Let’s find out!

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Good not to be always mindful/ Of our torpid transmigration

Aniara — Harry Martinson

I could be mistaken, but I do believe that Harry Martinson’s 1963 poem Aniara is the very first science fiction novel by a Nobel Laureate that I have ever read [1]. It’s also the very first work of poetry I’ve ever reviewed [2] (that is, all poetry rather than just containing poetry).

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Back to the Raksura

Stories of the Raksura: Volume One: The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud — Martha Wells
Raksura, book 4

Well’s 2014 collection Stories of the Raksura: Volume One: The Falling World & The Tale of Indigo and Cloud shares a setting, the Three Worlds, with some of Wells’ previous works: The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths.

I should admit, up front, that this review isn’t really a Tuesday Rediscovery so much as it is a review of a book I had intended to review long before now. I am using my Rediscovery slot to highlight a book that, IMHO, deserves highlighting.

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Why I collect James White books

Monsters and Medics — James White

This short collection—just 266 pages, 109 of which are taken up by a single short novel—will always have a special place in my heart. This was the second White I encountered [1], but it was this collection that turned me into a James White fan.

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Dark Reflection

Star Gate — Andre Norton

1958’s Star Gate is a standalone novel, but it foreshadows later works by Norton. Here, she tries out new themes: magic and interdimensional gateways. Although this novel’s setting features hi-tech devices like blasters, there is also magic. Starships exist, but the main characters reach their destination via interdimensional gateway.

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Cobwebbed Solar System

Metaplanetary — Tony Daniel
Metaplanetary, book 1

Tony Daniel’s 2001 novel Metaplanetary was the first volume in a trilogy. It was followed in 2004 by Superluminal, which was followed in turn by … nothing. For some reason—not, as far as I can recall, for poor sales—Eos declined to publish the final volume in the series. Having read both novels in the existing series (in the wrong order, an approach I cannot recommend), I can authoritatively report that every strength and weakness in Metaplanetary was present in greater degree in Superluminal. Whether that means you should buy both books depends on how you feel about Daniel’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

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The Dead Man’s Story

Told by the Death’s Head: A Romantic Tale — Mór Jókai

Mór Jókai’s 1879 Told by the Death’s Head: A Romantic Tale was inspired by an encounter the author was kind enough to describe in his preface:

In Part II, Vol. 2, of the Rhenish Antiquarius, I once came across a skull that is said—see page 612—to swing, enclosed in a metal casket, from an iron bar in the foundry of Ehrenbreitstein fortress. Distinction of this order does not fall to an ordinary mortal. Yon empty shell of human wisdom once bore the burden of no less than twenty-one mortal sins—the seven originalia trebled. Each crime is noted. The criminal confessed to the entire three-times-seven, and yet the death sentence was not passed upon him because of the twenty-one crimes. His fate was decided by the transgression of a military regulation.
What if this skull could speak? What if it could defend itself?—relate, with all the grim humor of one on the rack, the many pranks played—the mad follies committed, from the banks of the Weichsel to the delta of the Ganges!
If my highly esteemed readers will promise to give me their credulous attention, I will relate what was told to me by the death’s head.

And so he does, in a tale that takes us across Europe and beyond, a tale of love, adventure, and casual anti-Semitism.

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Not quite the Traveller novel I was expecting

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet — Becky Chambers

2014’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is Becky Chambers debut novel.

I picked it up because, over on Livejournal, Heron61 said

It’s basically what you’d get if you took Firefly (minus the unfortunate Civil War metaphors) or an average campaign of the Traveller RPG and focused more on interpersonal dynamics and character’s emotional lives, while substantially reducing the level of violence.

Traveller was the first table top RPG I played extensively and I still remember it fondly. Yes, this book reminds me of Traveller; it even begins with an event that could very well be someone failing their low passage roll [1]. That said, while I see the similarities that Heron61 mentions, I was more strongly reminded of James Tiptree, Jr.’s short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” … that is, if James Tiptree, Jr. instead of being relentlessly, inexorably depressing, had been a cheerful optimist. The book isn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a refreshing change of pace.

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