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.

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

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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... Read More

Raft: A provocative amalgam of sub-genres

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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, ju... Read More

Dark Integers and Other Stories: Humanism and hard science

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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 sho... Read More

The Dispossessed: Not simply an anarchist utopia/capitalist dystopia

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

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 a... Read More

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

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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 racia... Read More

The Traveler in Black: Short stories by Brunner

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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 esch... Read More

The Empire of Ice Cream: Dynamic range and dynamic prose

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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? Read More

Labyrinths: Each selection takes the reader on a winding path of ideas

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

An appropriate title for any Jorge Luis Borges collection, Labyrinths is that selected by Penguin for their ‘best of’ printing of the author. Containing short stories, essays, and parables, each selection takes the reader on a winding path of ideas that seems to branch off infinitely into the wonder of reflective thought. Surreal in concept rather than imagery, it’s no surprise many of the most intelligent writers of fantasy and science fiction cite Borges as one of their significant influences. Erudition is on full display, so the reader should come fully prepared to wade in over their head in abstract allusion and references — known and unknown.

With its limited accessibility, Labyrinths is the opposite of mainstream fantasy. ... Read More

The Saliva Tree: A tribute to H.G. Wells

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The Saliva Tree by Brian W. Aldiss

In 1966, with the 100th anniversary of H.G. Wells’ birthday approaching, Brian W. Aldiss wrote a story in tribute of one of, if not, the genre’s grandfather. The resulting novella, The Saliva Tree, distills elements of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a suspenseful horror story that has just the socio-political agenda ‘grandpa’ would have approved of.

Set in the late 19th century, The Saliva Tree opens with two “scientifically enlightened” young men standing in the countryside of rural England, watch... Read More

The Shockwave Rider: An important SF work from a lesser known writer

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The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, John Brunner is one of the more intriguing though lesser recognized figures in science fiction history. Much the same as Robert Silverberg, he cut a path for himself in genre writing that is essentially pulp sci-fi but later began introducing novels of significantly greater depth to his oeuvre. Stand on ZanzibarThe Sheep Look Up, and The Jagged Orbit are some of the most important novels the field has produced. Drastically elevating the form above c... Read More

The Jagged Orbit: A dark, unsettling read

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The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner

The 1950s and 60s was a time in the US rife with social tension and conflict. With unpopular wars being fought on foreign soil, blood was also being shed on American streets as ethnic, gender, and counter-culture concerns often turned to violence. Partially a reaction to these social issues, the New Wave science fiction movement, spearheaded by such writers as Ursula Le GuinSamuel DelanyRobert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Joanna Russ, and others shifted the genre’s gears, moving away from a hard science, extra-terrestrial focus toward Earth-side concerns. John Bru... Read More

Stand on Zanzibar: It’s time for everybody to read it

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Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two writers who initially established themselves not only in the world of realist fiction, but also as effective observers on society. As a result, their later novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are heralded as two of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, with literary purists even willing to make allowances despite the sci-fi leanings. Perhaps it is John Brunner’s misfortune that his career was established in the world of science fiction. When Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1968, only those within the genre took notice of its qualities. As poignant literature that transcends genre, it too comments with profound relevance on the human condition.

The book’s title is based on the idea that 7 billion people ... Read More

The High Crusade: Science fantasy silliness

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The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In his wonderful breakdown of the genre in The Strategies of Fantasy, Brian Atterbery devotes an entire chapter to the sub-genre of science fantasy, stating that of the “works that mingle the rhetoric of science fiction with that of fantasy, nearly all can be classed as either humorous or mythological.” Though citing a scene from A Princess of Mars wherein love develops between a human male and an egg-laying Martian, what Atterbery is too coy to say directly is that humor and absurdity go hand-in-hand. But he does not mention Poul Anderson’s 1960 novel The High Crusade, which may, in fact, be the po... Read More

The Unlimited Dream Company: More art than story

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The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

Looking at the spread of colors, shapes, and lines smeared across the canvas that is J.G. Ballard’s 1979 The Unlimited Dream Company, it’s easy to get lost in the details, the view to the whole submerged. Superficially disorienting to say the least, the narrative packs a bewildering visual punch while beneath the surface lurk the powers of nature, myth, and beast — the book is certainly art more than story. Surreal is only the beginning of the description. For those uninitiated to Ballard, strap yourselves in and prepare for a ride — on erotic wings.

The Unlimited Dream Company, if it were the work of a visual artist, would be part of Dali, Paalen, or Ernst’s portfolio. With imagery jumbled and intense in semi-... Read More

Tau Zero: A mythological journey in hard SF form

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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is, and mayhap always will be, the speculative fiction writer who most integrates myth and legend into fantasy and science fiction. The former is relatively easy given that myth and legend are typically already half fantasy, the latter is the more difficult given that one of the aims of science fiction is believable futuristic extrapolation. Failing spectacularly with The High Crusade (a novel that sees Medieval knights take a space ship to another planet to fight blue-skinned aliens), his 1970 Tau Zero is a more subtle mix. While lacking in fully humanized characters, it nevertheless captures the ideal of a mythological journey in hard SF form.

Tau Zero is the story of a group of fifty astronauts on a mission to a distant star system. The journey was planned to tak... Read More

Non-Stop: A classic that is vivid, brisk, entertaining

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Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss

Number 33 of the Science Fiction Masterworks series, Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop is indeed a classic of the genre (variant title: Starship). Standing well the test of time, the story is vivid, brisk, and entertaining — facets complemented nicely by intelligent commentary and worthwhile purpose. With Aldiss examining human nature in unusual circumstances to say the least, the underlying assumptions nevertheless exist closer to reality than the majority of sci-fi. Readily enjoyable on the surface, there remain several thought-provoking undercurrents waiting for the reader to explore.

Non-Stop is the story of Roy Complain, a disgruntled hunter of the Greene Tribe in Quarters. His brother was lost to the tangles years before and, in the first few pages, his wife is ab... Read More

Helliconia Winter: Deserves the BSFA award it won

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Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss

Like an architect seeing a cathedral they’ve designed have the steeple raised, or an engineer watching the bowsprit attached to a ship they’ve built, so too must Aldiss have felt writing the final chapter of Helliconia Winter (1985). The orbits within orbits, themes revolving around themes, and characters caught in the cycle of life, come to an end. But only on the page.

The series has covered millennia. The third and final book, Helliconia Winter, continues to tell a human-scale tale in harmony with the larger forces at play — geology, astrophysics, and biology all heavily influencing the narrative. This time around, however, Aldiss wields a heavier thematic hammer. The understated Gaian theme of Helliconia Spring and Helliconia Summer i... Read More

Helliconia Summer: The big ideas punch deep

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Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss

The shape of Brian Aldiss’s SF Masterwork HELLICONIA could be said to be parabolic. If Helliconia Spring is the slow, curving entry point, then Helliconia Summer, the middle volume, is the zenith story-wise. Or at least that’s the feel two-thirds of the way through the series. As Aldiss is trying to paint a historical and evolutionary picture of humanity’s existence on a distant planet, Helliconia Summer’s narrative does not pick up where the first volume left off, and instead focuses on a point in the society’s development loosely equivalent to the Baroque Era many centuries in the future from Helliconia Spring. Were the lives of the kings and queens the onl... Read More

Helliconia Spring: A battle for survival on a fantastic planet

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Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss

What if the planets orbited not only the sun, but the whole solar system orbited another, even larger sun? Cycles within cycles is the basic premise of Brian Aldiss’s HELLICONIA trilogy, of which the first installment is Helliconia Spring (1983). A planet of the fantastic, Helliconia is home to a diverse variety of imaginative flora and fauna a la Jack Vance. The sentient life, however, bears comparison to our own. Struggling Darwinian style, humans and a species called Phagors inhabit the planet, the latter forming a group which thrives in the ice ages that cover Helliconia in the millennia its meta-orbit moves through aphelion. Humans likewise having their moment in the sun (forgive the pun) in perihelion, this ongoing cycle highlights ... Read More

The Futurological Congress: An endlessly imaginative novel

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The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Numerous are the stories in science fiction in which populations have been brainwashed to believe an ideal, most often the opposite of what we hold dear. A sub-genre in itself, advertisements have been used (The Space Merchants), narcotics (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), propaganda (We), technology (Brave New World), emotions (The Giver), totalitarian control ( Read More

The Cyberiad: The joy of reading

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The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

“Mighty King, here is a story, a nest of stories, with cabinets and cupboards, about Trurl the constructor and his wonderfully nonlinear adventures.”

I can think of no better introduction to Stanislaw Lem’s 1967 The Cyberiad (Cyberiada in the original Polish) than the line above taken from the text. Capturing the atmosphere of storytelling, the quirky, entirely singular imagination behind it, and the meta-human perspective suffusing every word, thought, and concept innate to the stories, the quote is a mini-excerpt of one of the most timeless, creative, and insightful collections science fiction has ever produced. There is nothing like the constructors Trurl and Klaupacius in literature, and never will be.

With imagination oozing off the pages and pooling on the floor, ... Read More

Port Eternity: Arthurian legend in space

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Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh

The history, legends, and myths surrounding the man known as King Arthur are some of the most enduring and inspirational material in the English language. Like Robin Hood, Arthur’s name resonates in modern history. The number of books, fiction and non-fiction, which have been spun off the man is increasingly difficult to quantify. Appearing in such a wide variety of Western media and culture, most people, in fact, have only a hazy idea of who he was or might have been (including this reviewer), Disney being as much a teacher as high school history class. C.J. Cherryh is an Arthurian aficionado, so she applied her interests in a science fiction novel. Knowledge of the legends is required for a full appreciation of Port Eternity (1982), a survival in space story that uses a strong sense of character to play with Arthurian myth to a satisfying deg... Read More

Thirteen: A story with conflicting agendas

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Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan

Like drugs for techno-action junkies, Richard K. Morgan did the futuristic, world-weary warrior story well in his TAKESHI KOVACS series. With a Wild West-style of justice continually seeping through the scenes of blood and gore, Morgan also indicated there may be a little more on his mind than just action. The nihilism was left without an explicit voice, so Morgan set out to rectify this in his 2007 Thirteen (Black Man in the UK*). Slowing the plot to allow ideological exposition a place, the novel finds the author highlighting the prevalence of vice in unabashed, overt style. The thematic content does not always match character representation and premise, so the result is a story with conflicting agendas.

Read More

Ash: A Secret History: One of the most important books in the genre

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Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

I have long had a debate in my mind about the place of the woman warrior in fiction, particularly the type most often presented in epic fantasy/sword & sorcery. Robert E. HowardJoe AbercrombieGeorge R.R. MartinDavid Gemmell, and Tobias Buckell, for example, have all included the undaunted, sword-wielding, occasionally bra-defying warrioresses in their tales of adventure and battle. But in these stories, the women are most often just men with breasts. A distracting veneer i... Read More

The Wasp Factory: A flash piece of entertainment

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The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Read More

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