Jesse Hudson (GUEST)

JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

They Shall Have Stars: The technical details of how we’ll achieve this dream

They Shall Have Stars by James Blish

The optimism of Modernism expressed itself in a variety of fashions. Silver Age science fiction perhaps the grandest of them all, the infinite potential of technology was a playground which hundreds of writers rushed to frolic on. Jaunts to Mars, telekinetic communication, robot servants — a universe of ideas was the genre’s oyster. Space flight perhaps the most utilized trope, there was no shortage of schemes and inspiration about how mankind could achieve the stars. Approaching in realist mode (chronologically, that is), James Blish and his CITIES IN FLIGHT sequence posited that discoveries in mathematics and solar system exploration would be the ticket to the galaxy. After publishing a series of short stories wherein mankind’s urban environments were ‘launched’ into space, he realized the larger potential... Read More

The Penelopiad: A razor-sharp retelling

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.

Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizes not only The Odysse... Read More

No Enemy But Time: Reveals new layers with each fresh realization

No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present. Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage — all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species. Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus. Our primitive roots are left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks. Dinosaurs seem to get more attention than Cro-Magnons. But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapiens to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what humans evolve into.

Extending... Read More

Prador Moon: Grimdark space opera

Prador Moon by Neal Asher

In his far-future POLITY series, Neal Asher writes consistent, dependable, grimdark space opera. Prador Moon is one of three POLITY books that came out in 2006, and the fifth overall. It’s the first in the in-universe chronology, though, telling of the first meeting between the Prador and humanity. To say things don’t get off on the right foot would be to sell the opening scene (and the several novels which follow) short. Prador-human relations tumble to bits in the aftermath of “diplomacy,” and all-out space war erupts.

Asher, as is his custom, provides viewpoints into all sides of his conflicts. Scenes from the Prador general Imminence’s ship grotesquely describe what happens to the humans captured, including the rudimentary research into thrall technology as war increases the pressure on the lab. Meanwhile,... Read More

Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories: Leigh Brackett’s fantasy stories

Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett

As NASA’s Curiosity rover trundles about the surface of Mars today, another page turns on the glories of pulp science fiction. Leigh Brackett’s vision of a land populated with humans and aliens, ancient cities and creatures, long-buried secrets and mysterious deserts fades a shade closer to pale as one desolate desert image after another is beamed back to Earth. But there was a day when her works shone with the hope and possibility of life on the planets beyond Earth. In 2005, Gollancz brought together the best of these stories as part of their Fantasy Masterworks collection. Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is an imaginatively nostalgic look back to a time when the solar system held more possibilities.

The collection contains five nove... Read More

Marcher: Possesses bite and purpose

Marcher by Chris Beckett

In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim. A later release, Dark Eden (2012) met a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), and Beckett decided to thoroughly revise his earlier novel and re-release it. Using his five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished Marcher in 2014. With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more paring-down than anything. Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen in SFF.

Social work is perhaps far... Read More

Black Amazon of Mars: Exceeds its inspiration

Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett

While credit is certainly due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more. Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic. But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas. Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark — similar in name to John Carter — features in some of her SEA KINGS OF MARS stories. More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in ... Read More

The Atrocity Exhibition: Fascinating, disturbing, and informative

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Pablo Picasso had his “blue period,” Max Ernst his “American years,” and Georgia O’Keeffe her later “door-in-adobe” phase. For J.G. Ballard, the early part of his career could be called his “psychological catastrophe years.” Using environmental disaster as a doorway to viewing minds under duress, novels like The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World unpacked the underlying subject matter. For the next phase of his career, Ballard moved into the world of celebrity, media, violence, sexuality, and how the... Read More

The Drought: A solid novel, but not among his greats

The Drought by J.G. Ballard

Fully believing that “the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, and an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game,J.G. Ballard set about writing his third of four disaster novels. The first featuring a world inundated with water, for the third he went the opposite direction: drought. The Burned World (1964) its apposite title, human reaction to extreme environmental conditions is once again the subject under examination. Ballard would later revise the text, and as a result it has come to be known most predominantly as The Drought.


The Drought is the story of Edward Ransom, a doc... Read More

Transfigurations: A classic

Transfigurations by Michael Bishop

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is one of science fiction’s landmark works. A philosophical and psychological study of a man confronting the inherently unknowable, the imagery, events, and overall experience of the novel lodge in the mind, begging questions for which one uncomfortably has no immediate answer. So strange and haunting, a person can only think of the main character’s experiences as the most figurative representation of ‘alien’ possible.

Bringing the idea closer to home corporeally but no less existentially is Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi” (1973). The premise so fertile, he revisited the novella years later... Read More

End of the World Blues: Grimwood is a superb stylist

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Roger Zelazny, on top of writing a number of immensely popular books and stories, was one of the genre’s great stylists, with noir minimalism utilized in nearly all his works. He was likewise predictable for his main characters, often world-weary men with personal issues who find themselves facing situations they would rather avoid. I have come to think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who bases his fiction on these two same elements, as a successor to Zelazny, but significantly upgraded for the (post-) modern world. An exemplary text, his End of the World Blues (2006) possesses a sophisticated sense of noir that does not lack for eye-kicks (to borrow a phrase from Read More

Lord Foul’s Bane: A character study of alienation and vindictiveness

Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

Stephen Donaldson’s opening volume in THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANTLord Foul’s Bane, is divisive for fans of fantasy. It strictly follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which some readers may see as comfortably familiar, and others may see as unoriginal, especially when set alongside the plethora of epic fantasy available today. Parallels to THE LORD OF THE RINGS may also entice or put off readers. What’s not discordant, however, is the moral message burning at the heart of Covenant’s story. Still poignant today, it and the quality of the writing are the main reasons Donaldson’s series was once king of the fantasy charts.

Lord Foul... Read More

Riders of the Purple Wage: One of the most unique SF texts

Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer

At the risk of being overly simplistic, Jacque Derrida’s concept of deconstruction/post-structuralism (whichever you want to call it) is at heart the perspective that any ideological paradigm can be picked apart, bone by bone, until the skeleton lies in shambles on the floor. The purpose is not nihilistic in nature; it is intended, rather, to cast a wrench of relativity into such lofty ideals as modernism, and the rigid mindset of structuralism that came in tow. In practice, I have yet to read a science fiction text that deconstructs the Silver Age better than Philip Jose Farmer’s 1967 Riders of the Purple Wage. From its irreverent title to the telling conclusion, the bones are dust.

Anything but a modernist vision of man as hero among the stars in his gleaming space ship... Read More

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus: An all-star lineup

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian W. Aldiss

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus (1973) is a compilation of three short story anthologies: Penguin Science Fiction (1961), More Penguin Science Fiction (1963), and Yet More Penguin Science Fiction (1964), all edited by Brian Aldiss. Presenting an all-star lineup of established Silver Age and burgeoning New Age writers, most all are well known names in the field, including Isaac AsimovArthur C. ClarkeJ... Read More

Raft: A provocative amalgam of sub-genres

Raft by Stephen Baxter

What if we exponentially reduced the scale of the galaxy so that the sun was only 50 yards across, extinguished its raging burn so that only a solid metal lump remained, and set a chain of a few hundred dwellings to orbit around the cold sphere that remained? Imagining as such, you would have the opening of Stephen Baxter’s 1991 Raft. By its conclusion, however, Raft reveals itself as a highly original mix of science and fantasy that continues playing with the scale of the universe while telling an uplifting yet sobering tale of personal and societal evolution.

The title of the book comes from the remodeled spacecraft that hangs above the mini-ringworld orbiting the dead star. Exactly like a raft in space, this large disc of metal is home to a few thousand that depend on the metals the miners extract below, just as the miners depend on supplies from th... Read More

The Long Tomorrow: Leigh Brackett’s magnum opus

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what then is the value of scientific pursuit? If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’? Is it just to give us something to do with our time on Earth? Is it an innate, unavoidable aspect of being human we should shun? Is it just false hope? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? These questions and more Leigh Brackett examines in her oft-overlooked 1955 magnum opus The Long Tomorrow. A simple tale, it nevertheless lays bare one of the most fundamental questions we face: to what goal should humanity strive?

Post apocalypse, The Long Tomorrow posits an America where technologically advanced civili... Read More

Dark Integers and Other Stories: Humanism and hard science

Dark Integers and Other Stories by Greg Egan

Though the count may not be high (five stories all told), Greg Egan’s Dark Integers and Other Stories packs a theoretical punch, quite literally. Novellas and novelettes only, the 2008 collection is filled with the author’s trademark hard science speculation. The selections were published between 1995 and 2007; one pair of stories is set within the same universe as his 2008 novel Incandescence, another pair within a near-future Earth setting, and the fifth is set on a water world. The quality of this collection is contentious, and certainly those who appreciate abstract theorizing will enjoy it the most.

The following is a brief summary of the five pieces:

“Luminous” (1995): In a shocking opening scene, a man awakes to find h... Read More

Undertow: Mediocre

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1976) is a (novella extended into a) novel that features an alien planet invaded by humanity and exploited for its resources, the natives forced into labor. An open allegory regarding the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, it is a compact novel that remains focused on three main points throughout: corporate/political greed, respect for traditional cultures, and the need to find reconciliation between the two. Elizabeth Bear’s 2007 Undertow is precisely the same story, but with additional focus on science fiction/fantasy concepts, added character viewpoints, and all upgraded ... Read More

The Sword of Rhiannon: Classic planetary romance

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

Lightning-cracked time portals. Secret tombs. Slave ship mutiny. Snake men. Buried alive. Parlays with kings. These are just some of the adventurous elements of Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon. (Though initially published as Sea Kings of Mars, it quickly changed names, and in reprintings since has consistently been known as The Sword of Rhiannon.) Written in 1953, it was one of the last threads of the pulp era yet benefits from increased expectations regarding prose and characterization. It never, however, fails as an adventure.

Matt Carse, Earthman and grave looter on Mars, meets with the opportunity of lifetime one evening walking the streets of Jekkara. Shown the mystical sword of the mighty and long dead sorceror Rhiannon, ... Read More

The Water Knife: Bacigalupi’s formula is getting a little old

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s official. I hereby dub Paolo Bacigalupi, Captain Grimdark of science fiction. Uncontent to swerve in and out of dystopia when telling his near-future stories of the Earth gone to hell, he rubs the reader’s face in the grime every step. Scenes of violence and human misery, both manipulative and informative, string along stories of good people stuck in bad times. Formula? Set in the near-future, mix in some stereotypical characters, use a few simple environmental destruction plot devices to build sympathy, make cutting, realistic, and informed comments about contemporary politics and corporate greed that allowed the situation to happen, and voila, Captain Grimdark. (Science fiction has captains, and fantasy has lords, natch.)

Yes, Bacigalupi has struck upon a blueprint, and his 2015 The Water Knif... Read More

Osama: Ambitious pulp, indeed.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

From pulp-minded cynics there is the impression that the literati like nothing more than a book which presents fractals of reality impressed upon social and cultural situations — the more politically and historically significant, the better. If you can somehow throw in the values of literature (meta or otherwise), well, that’s just ink for the Nobel. Post-modern the name of the game, numerous are the works of serious literature (no quotes needed) attempting to portray existence as ever deconstructing relativity for critical acclaim. Speculative fiction is not well known for its forays into this realm of literature, but there have been successful attempts. Jorge Luis BorgesJ.G. BallardM. John ... Read More

The Dispossessed: Not simply an anarchist utopia/capitalist dystopia

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed is a perfectly achieved thought experiment, perhaps Ursula K. Le Guin’s greatest achievement, but there is little I can say that hasn’t been said more eloquently, forcefully, thoroughly, or knowledgeably by other reviewers. It transcends genre as a Novel of Ideas. It explores with great intelligence anarchism-socialism vs capitalism; freedom/slavery in terms of politics, economics, society, intellectual endeavor, and personal relationships; the struggle to perfect a scientific theory that unifies time and space; whether human nature inevitably corrupts all political ideals; whether political utopias can ever be achieved to a meaningful degree; whether only hardship and privation can support socialist sentiment; and whether we must therefore settle for capitalism and the pur... Read More

The Squares of the City: Addresses racism with a chess metaphor

The Squares of the City by John Brunner

In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba. One of the deciding matches, so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history. (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.) Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel. 1965’s The Squares of the City tells of a city experiencing a strong racial divide, with each character representing a piece in the game. With the premise both strengthening and weaken... Read More

The Traveler in Black: Short stories by Brunner

The Traveler in Black by John Brunner

Breaking into the business with Silver Age space opera but putting himself on the map by writing intelligent dystopia with a social conscience, for a brief moment John Brunner put aside science fiction and dabbled in fantasy. After the success of Stand on ZanzibarThe Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, he wrote the four novelettes starring the other-wordly traveler in black. Unconventional to say the least, the eponymous collection is fantasy without being fantasy. A wizard (of sorts) may be the common thread binding the stories together, but humanity is at stake. The novelettes thus embrace the general idea of genre, but eschew its epic-ness in favor of parables.
... Read More

The Empire of Ice Cream: Dynamic range and dynamic prose

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford

Emerging in the late morning of an overcast day (one novel in 1988 and a handful of short stories over the decade that followed), there was not much indication Jeffrey Ford would become as prolific as he has. In 1997 he produced THE WELL-BUILT CITY trilogy which did well critically, but was not a commercial success. A deluge of short fiction followed, however, and since 2000 he has produced more than ninety stories amidst a couple of novels. Quantity and quality often quarrelsome bedfellows, Ford proves harmony is possible, a fact wonderfully exemplified by his second collection The Empire of Ice Cream: Stories (2006). What else do you want on a warm, sunny afternoon?

The best of the second quarter of... Read More

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