Steven Harbin

Guest reviewer STEVEN HARBIN is an educator who is currently a counselor at an alternative school. He was formerly a world history and literature teacher. He lives with several cats and dogs, two children, a loyal saint of a spouse, and a large number of books scattered all about his house. He discovered science fiction and fantasy in the 1960’s when his school librarian suggested he read the works of Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and J.R.R. Tolkien. While the librarian’s name has been forgotten, her recommendations led to a life of reading “well-spent” and Steven hopes to pass along the favor by recommending good books to others in the hopes that they will find enjoyment. Steve prefers books with strong character development, well-turned phrases, and a touch of irony and humor. Among his favorite authors are Jack Vance, Terry Pratchett and Robert E. Howard.

The Caves of Steel: An SF mystery story

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

In 1966, Isaac Asimov’s first three FOUNDATION novels won a one-time Hugo Award as the “Best All Time Series” for science fiction. While I still think the award was a reasonable (albeit highly subjective) one for the time, I’m becoming more and more convinced that Asimov’s three “Robot/Mystery” novels starring Earthly detective Elijah Bailey and his partner R. Daneel Olivaw (the “R.” stands for Robot, naturally) are better books, and quite possibly would have been a better choice for the award. Having just re-read his original FOUNDATION trilogy, I think I’m in a good position to compare it to the ROBOT novels.

The Caves of Steel is the first book in the ROBOT series. The setting is a densely populated Earth, a few millennia in the future. Our home planet has become a backwater, looked down upon by the rest of the human galaxy, and humanity... Read More

The Green Hills of Earth: A still enjoyable sojourn into Heinlein’s early work

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

I grew up a part of the baby boomer generation of young geeks that discovered science fiction around what the famous quote (attributed to one Peter Graham, later publicized and re-quoted by many, many others) said is the best age: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” For me and many others it was around that age that I was voraciously devouring a host of science fiction and fantasy writers, including Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Andre Norton, just to name a few. I loved each of the authors whose works I discovered during my pre-teen reading years, and it would probably be hard to say who my favorite is now that I’m older and look... Read More

Foundation and Empire: One of Asimov’s better books

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

This is the second book in Isaac Asimov’soriginal FOUNDATION trilogy, which later became the FOUNDATION series. It first came out in book form in 1952, but it originally saw print in the form of two novellas, “Dead Hand” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1945) and “The Mule” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in November and December, 1945).

Like the first book in the series, Foundation, Foundation and Empire  isn’t a true novel, but rather a collection of linked stories. The first story in the book, “The General “ (renamed from its magazine title) tells the story of Bel Riose, a young, rising star military commander who is trying to make a na... Read More

The Space Merchants: A classic science fiction satire

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth
It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country. ~Raymond Chandler
I read The Space Merchants, a classic science fiction satire about advertising and consumerism run rampant in a future world, before my sister got me to watch the popular cable TV show Mad Men, which was a shame in a way, since the show set in the 1950’s-60’s era of advertising run amok has a lot in common with the world predicted by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.

As Pohl actually worked in the advertising business for several years while researching and working on the novel (Kornbluth would collaborate with him later in its development), one could probably say that the real world advertising executives of the “Mad Men” era would seem... Read More

The Complete John Thunstone: Too good to not be read

The Complete John Thunstone by Manly Wade Wellman

One of the subgenres of fiction that I’ve always been interested in is that of the “supernatural detective,” also sometimes known as “occult detective fiction.” Recent examples of the trope include the TV show The X-Files and the paranormal detective comic book character John Constantine, one of whose creators was Alan Moore. The stories in The Complete John Thunstone center around another character named John, one John Thunstone, a wealthy man-about-town occult detective created by fantasist and regional writer Manly Wade Wellman in the 1940’s.

John Thunstone made his first appearance in the November 1943 issue of Weird Tales with “The Third Cry to Legba,” a tale wherein Thunstone matches wits with a malevolent modern day “sorcerer” named Rowley Thorne (suppos... Read More

Foundation: A seminal work in the history of science fiction

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation probably sometime around 1970. I've also owned several copies in my life. It is the first book of the famed FOUNDATION trilogy, later known as the FOUNDATION series after various sequels and then prequels were published. I actually read the second book of the trilogy Foundation and Empire before this, sometime in the late 60's.

I just recently re-read this slim volume for about the fifth or sixth time, although this was probably the first time I've gone back to this volume in over a decade or even two. Asimov still holds up for me, though I can't say how much of that is due to nostalgia on my part. Certainly early on in his career as an author, Asimov could sometimes be a bit wordy and plodding. He wasn’t much on action or character development in these first Foundation stories, and there’s not a female character anywhere in sight in this... Read More

Hadon of Ancient Opar: Farmer plays in Burroughs’ world

Hadon of Ancient Opar by Philip Jose Farmer

To most general readers of science fiction, Philip Jose Farmer is probably best known as the creator of the RIVERWORLD series, and possibly also as the Golden Age writer who brought sex into the Science Fiction scene through his stories “The Lover” (1952) and Flesh (1960). He also loved to dabble in other author’s created universes, to the extent that he wrote numerous pastiches and fictional “biographies” purportedly by and about such characters as Edgar Rice BurroughsTARZAN, Kurt Vonnegut’s KILGORE TROUT, and DOC SAVAGE, just to name a few. Fans of Burroughs’ Tarzan books will probably remember that the erudite “ape-man” visited a lost city known as Opar in several of the b... Read More

Big Planet: Disappointing compared to later Vance works

Big Planet by Jack Vance

Big Planet is an early work by Jack Vance, and like much of Vance’s early output is a little uneven in quality. The plot is fairly straightforward. Centuries before the events of the story take place, a huge planet is discovered in a neighboring solar system. Despite its size (around 25,000 miles according to a later novel set in the same setting) the planet is of low density, with earthlike gravity and atmosphere, but lacking in metals, making ownership of any metal object valuable.

The planet has for many years been viewed as a place for outcasts and odd groups and individuals to go if they wished to escape the rigid constraints of the stellar areas under the direct rule of Earth. While this has worked out for the many groups and cults who emigrated to Big Planet, their descendants in many cases are trapped in various pockets of anarchy and slavery that exist on the ungoverned... Read More

Kull, Exile of Atlantis: Howard was a superb storyteller

Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard

When the August 1929 edition of Weird Tales magazine appeared, it contained a story titled “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard, which introduced his character Kull, a barbarian adventurer from Atlantis who had risen to the kingship of an ancient kingdom Howard called Valusia. Kull was a precursor to Howard’s more famous later character, Conan, who of course later became well known through comic and movie adaptations, but the Kull character had some distinct differences from the later, lustier, rowdier Conan. For one thing, Kull was much moodier and given to introspective musing and philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality and his own existence. Only three stories in the Kull series were published during Howard’s lifetime (he died by his own hand in 1936), but Howard wrote or started at least nine other Kull stories and a poem about the brooding warrior king before aborting the se... Read More

The Jack Vance Treasury: A wide array of Vance’s oeuvre

The Jack Vance Treasury by Jack Vance (edited by Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan)
While I don’t think there’s any one novel or short story or even collection of Jack Vance‘s work that comes close to capturing all the best aspects of his writing, I do think that this 633-page Subterranean Press collection does a fairly good job of exposing the reader to a wide array of Vance’s oeuvre. In addition to eighteen stories that span much of Vance’s writing career, there’s a brief comment from Vance himself after each story that gives a little view into how his mind worked while in creative mode, as well as some of the authors and factors that had a major impact on him in developing his writing (note to self after reading one of his comments: re-read P. G. Wodehouse, then find and read some Jeffrey Farnol, two of the writers he says influenced him). There’s also an “Appreciation” by Read More

The Dragon Masters: Great characterization in the Vancian style

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Jack Vance
won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for this little gem of a tale which is a favorite of many of Vance’s fans, your present reviewer included. The story takes place vast millennia into the future on a planet known to its inhabitants as Aerlith. Aerlith is a harsh world, where slow rotation leads to long nights and days (analogous to several “earth” days). The human beings living on the planet are descended from spacefarers who fled an earlier interstellar war and who have lost all industrial knowledge as well as the capability of space flight. They may or may not be the last remnants of humanity. Every few generations or so, alien spaceships descend and wreak havoc, capturing as many humans as they can, leaving those who escape to try to rebuild their backward civilization among the rubble. The invaders are the “Dragons” of the title, intelligent lizard-like creatures known as greps or ... Read More

Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie

Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie
by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian is a Conan story collection recently published by Del Rey/Ballantine as a tie-in to the 2011 Conan movie. It has the same title as a story collection published in 1955, a movie novelization by L. Sprague de Camp in 1982, and a movie novelization by Michael A. Stackpole published in 2011 concurrently with the movie.To add to the confusion, Conan the Barbarian is also the title of the Marvel comicof the 1970’s. All of which is to say, if looking for this mass market paperback, make sure you’re getting the right book.

This particular collection contains six of the better original CONAN stories written by Robert E. Howard and publ... Read More

The Languages of Pao: One of my favorite Vance books

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance

Jack Vance
is known as a master stylist who, at his best, has an exquisite way with the written English language, a tribute in many ways to his idols P.G. Wodehouse and the unjustly forgotten Jeffery Farnol, among others, but Vance is also a writer of thought-provoking and unique ideas. The Languages of Pao is Vance at the top of his game as far as exploring unusual concepts. The premise of the story is based on a theory known as “Linguistic Relativity” or the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” and in layman’s terms it basically means that the language a person speaks shapes human thought patterns and behavior, in both individuals and societies. Vance has here taken the theory to its logical extreme conclusion in a far future time, where a group of “wizards” use the method to attempt to change the mindset of an entire planet to suit their own agenda.

Young Beran Penasper is heir to... Read More

Maske: Thaery: Fun and quick

Maske: Thaery byJack Vance

Jack Vance was a fairly prolific author during his writing career, publishing over sixty novels and various short stories in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. During the 1960’s and 70’s many of his science fiction stories were set in a far future milieu which he termed the Gaean Reach. In these stories interstellar travel is common place, as is colonization of a multitude of solar systems throughout the galaxy. While some of the colonized planets contain alien life forms with which the human colonies have to co-exist, the majority of Vance’s works in the Gaean Reach deals with the many unusual human cultures that have developed over the many centuries of colonization. Vance is never what can be termed a “hard-science fiction” writer, but he shines at the “softer sciences” especially when coming up with strange and varied types of future human cultures a... Read More

The Graveyard Book: Some of Gaiman’s best work

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

In many of his books Neil Gaiman delivers a fantasy version of the type of story that is usually known as a “coming of age” work of literature. His children’s book Coraline is an obvious example, but so in a unique way are his adult works American Gods and its companion Anansi Boys. In each of those novels, the main character is initially naïve and ignorant of their own personal abilities as well as the motives and agendas of many of those they meet or encounter, and their adventures through the story lead to their own awareness of the world and their rightful place in it. The Graveyard Book was marketed as a young adult novel, and went on to win the Newbery Medal for that category, but it also won the Hugo Award, and I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t “just” a young adult ... Read More

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