Tag Archives: science fiction

Princess of Mars / A rose for Ecclesiastes

A review in two parts.

Part I

Princess of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs

A rose for Ecclesiastes / Roger Zelazny

Princess of Mars is a story about imperialism and how assuming indigenous cultures are ignorant savages rules by their superstitions just waiting for a white man to come rescue them is foolish in the extreme.

Wait, I think I may have things slightly wrong here. Let me consult my notes.

I’ve been informed that the above description of this classic pulp adventure is totally backwards. Let me try again.

A Princess of Mars stars a soldier who has recently taken part in a treasonous uprising. The revolt having failed, he decides to invade a sovereign nation in search of gold. Upon finding it, he is shocked to discover that the inhabitants take issue with his plan to rob them of their natural resources. Trespassing on sacred ground to avoid capture, he finds himself transported to Mars. There he protects the local settled, agricultural population from the nomadic Green Martians (race being the determiner of virtually all individual characteristics), rescues the (nude) princess and becomes a prince, using his superior strength and intellect to negotiate a truce between the Green and Red Martians. At this point I feel obliged to point out that this story was the inspiration for the movie Avatar.*

So it’s pretty much your standard colonialist white savior narrative that has been done ten thousand times. Yes, it’s an uncomplicated adventure story but at this point more than 100 years after its original publication there are so many other stories that don’t drip unexamined racism there’s not really any point to reading this for entertainment. It’s definitely valuable for its historical importance and those wanting to experience the history of the genre should check it out.

*I was incredibly disappointed when I discovered that it was not, as I initially thought, a movie about Krishna. The promotional stuff I initially saw only showed an eye on an apparently blue skinned face and I was really excited that there was going to be a big budget movie featuring the eighth avatar of Vishnu. That would have been an amazing movie.

Part II

So what about my earlier description? That’s more suited to A rose for Ecclesiastes, a story that almost didn’t get published because Zelazny, more than 50 years ago, knew that the “dying Mars” subgenre was outdated and somewhat embarrassing.

To describe A rose for Ecclesiastes as an anti-imperialist take on Burroughs isn’t really accurate. Still, Zelazny does an excellent job of subverting the standard planetary romance tropes while crafting the best example of the genre I’ve ever encountered. So read that instead.

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… and call me Conrad

This immortal / Roger Zelazny

This immortal was originally published in a somewhat shorter, serialized form under the title “… and call me Conrad” which was apparently Zelazny’s preferred title for the work and may or may not be the title it is currently published under? Apparently the “complete” version wasn’t actually published until 1980. I read the 1974 Ace edition so there are (once again, apparently) about ten paragraphs that I didn’t get.

It’s been hard for me to find the right angle to approach this one from. This review will probably come across as more negative than this book warrants considering its publication history but so be it. I’ll just say for the record that I do like Zelazny’s work, including this book.

Also the aliens are from Vega so they are, naturally, referred to as “Vegans” which has great comedic potential.

Plot summary

Conrad Nomikos is apparently ageless and possibly a god. Conrad is ugly, clubfooted and with a face covered in some sort of fungal infection. The Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, the vast majority of the population has moved offplanet to serve as menial servants to the Vegan people. The Vegans are fascinated with how humanity has managed to destroy their planet and view the Earth as an intriguing holiday destination.

Years previously, Conrad was the leader of the Radpol movement, the center of the Returnist movement that attempted to convince human expatriates to return to their homeworld and used terrorism to prevent the Earth from being entirely turned into a tourist trap for the Vegans.

Now, Conrad has been charged with escorting the wealthy Vegan Cort Myshtigo on a research tour of prominent locations in human history. Myshtigo claims they are writing a book, but the current Radpol leadership sees Myshtigo’s trip as a fact-finding expedition to enable complete Vegan domination of the planet.

Continue reading … and call me Conrad

Dr. Adder

Dr. Adder / K.W. Jeter

So. Doctor Adder is one of those classic books that nobody seems to have heard of. I know I hadn’t. I’d say that’s because it’s a definite “go for the extremes of content” style book but as it’s sf it doesn’t get the credit that stuff like American psycho does. I myself had only heard of it recently, and a friend who Is a huge fan of 60s-80s sf hadn’t heard of it either.

And despite its completion in 74 and publication in 84 Dr. Adder is still a 60s book.

It’s one of those books that took forever to publish because it was “ahead of its time”, initially because of the explicit content but lit crit types who call it “ahead of its time” now generally refer to how it prefigures what became cyberpunk.

Adder is contrasted with John Mox, televangelist extraordinaire and a sworn enemy of Adder, whose MoFos (moral forces) roam the streets in an attempt to “clean things up” while LA’s denizens entertain themselves by murdering Mox’s minions.

Plot summary

Allen Limmit is ready for bigger things. Approached by a representative by megacorp GPC with an offer he can’t refuse, Limmit heads to LA to sell the contents of a mysterious case to  counterculture icon Dr. Adder,  master of elective surgery.

Dr. Adder specializes in body modification of prostitutes. Using a drug that allows him to see into their unconscious minds, Adder can discover what extreme bodymod will most satisfy both the prostitute and their customer. Usually this involves amputation.

Continue reading Dr. Adder

Gateway

Gateway / Frederick Pohl

Since it’s the day after Christmas I’ve decided to feature a book about how we live in a desolate, dangerous universe where everyone you love will most likely die an arbitrary and meaningless death.

Yay!

Gateway is an interesting book to read in 2015. It has a lot of good and interesting ideas, but the plot is predicated on a psychological model that feels horribly outdated.

There are some other novels set in the same universe but so far Gateway is the only one I’ve read so I can’t really speak to its value as an entry point.

Plot summary

Robinette Broadhead, former worker in the “food mines” is rich and famous. After multiple successful interstellar journeys he has retired to Earth. Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he avails himself of a computerized therapist.

So how is it?

It’s very good but deeply flawed. Gateway’s portrayal of space exploration is fascinating. Interstellar travel is possible only via the use of alien craft of unknown origin. It’s not even known how to refuel the craft or even how to figure out how much fuel is remaining. The vast majority of expeditions find empty space or don’t return at all. It’s an enigmatic setting and the way Pohl tells an entire story without ever giving any real answers is masterful.

Fully half the novel consists of Broadhead’s therapy sessions. Broadhead is deeply suspicious of his AI therapist and the AI’s motives remain in question for the vast majority of the book. That might turn some readers off, but it follows the “alternating chapters in two timelines” approach that helps keep things fresh. Interspersed throughout are personal ads, lecture transcripts, and other “primary source” documents that do a great deal to illuminate the culture of Gateway and the background of the story itself without too much exposition.

But…

The biggest issue with Gateway is that it is, like all things, a product of its time. The core of the book is an exploration of Broadhead’s psychology. What that means is that some of the “explanations” we get later on are predicated on what are now largely discredited ideas about sexuality and psychological development. Published only two years after the APA statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and four years after the other APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, Gateway’s portrayal is fairly progressive but is deeply rooted in Freud’s theories on human development – theories that were 40 years out of date when Gateway was published.

I can appreciate Gateway for what it is but its reliance on an outdated theory of mind in a book featuring a high-tech future therapist breaks the immersion somewhat. It’s still a good book and one I enjoy but for that one thing.

This is an issue that happens frequently – see also the extremely 1950s social roles of Asimov’s The caves of steel. It’s not terrible but books like Stand on Zanzibar were able to portray a changing cultural landscape far more effectively.

Gateway is a book about exploration. The text itself is an exploration, both of Gateway and of Broadhead himself. The actual exploration that the characters themselves do is essentially meaningless and largely fruitless. It’s a book that paints a decidedly pessimistic picture of space exploration but for all its bleakness the book manages to avoid being depressing, on the whole.

Recommendation

Gateway is like Way station. It’s a book that I highly recommend to people looking for classics but otherwise I tend to stay away.

I’ve encountered a couple of essays lately about how young people today don’t read “the classics”. I think one of them was by Scalzi. Both of them presented complaining about how “kids these days” just don’t get “the classics” and how that’s somehow dumbing down the world of sf fandom. I’m glad, since it’s a ridiculous proposition and the reliance on using works 40+ years old to try and win new readers to the genre seems misguided at best. Sf is aggressively a product of its own time and in that light attempting to canonize some “golden age” and treat the genre like it needs to be experienced chronologically seems doomed to failure.

The point is I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend anything older than 5-10 years when asked for generic recommendations, especially when it’s a recommendation for a young person. I could barely make it through Astronaut Jones in 1993; more than twenty years later the book has even less cultural relevance. I make partial exceptions for people who have actually lived through the era in question as they will generally have the first-hand experience of the cultural context necessary to truly get into the work.

To put it succinctly, as a rule generally avoid recommending books to people that are older than they are. The older the reader the more you can get away with bending that rule, and if you know the reader very well then obviously that knowledge should take precedence. There was one person I know, born in the 1990s, who refused to read any sf published after the mid-80s because they felt like more recent sf suffers from a “longer is better” mindset. They aren’t as restrictive now but that’s the type of person I recommend books like Gateway or Way station to.

Way station

Way Station / Clifford D. Simak

Way station is what happens when you write a pastoral science fiction novel set in the present [at time of writing] on Earth.

It’s most definitely not a novel about ray guns and spaceships and things that go boom, although pretty much all of those things are there. I’d compare it with This Immortal/Call me Conrad by Zelazny. It’s a book that takes the assumptions of golden age science fiction and inverts them in interesting ways.

Brief plot summary

A Confederate soldier is chosen by aliens to run Earth’s way station, a sort of highway rest stop for interstellar travelers. Only aging when he ventures into the outside world, he collects the stories of the aliens he encounters.

So how is it?

I really enjoyed it but it’s a book where not much happens. It’s a fairly quick read though and that saves it from being too boring.

Way station is a gentle novel. It’s about a guy who lives a lonely life, going for occasional walks but generally keeping to himself. There’s an overarching plot but it’s really not very important. The resolution of the plot itself is fairly underwhelming which would be a problem in another novel and will certainly disappoint readers looking for a golden age sf adventure story.

It’s a simple book with a big heart and as a horrible sentimentalist I like it for that. It’s about as far opposed to something like Wasp factory or The boys as it’s possible to get.

Recommendation

Way station is a book I recommend relatively often to specific people. It’s short and not very stressful, so it’s good for people who don’t want to have to invest a lot of time and effort into it. It’s very much an old school science fiction novel though so I generally only recommend it to people already looking for something in the genre.

I’ve found that many fans of old school sf haven’t actually read this one, so it’s also a fallback for those looking for classics they somehow missed.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice / Anne Leckie

There’s a reason Ancillary Justice got nominated for every sf award under the sun. It’s because Leckie is the first real successor to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Plot summary Setting

The Raadch Empire is constantly expanding. Most Raadchai have never seen the Dyson sphere that is the empire’s center. The ruler of this empire, Anaander Miannai, personally rules uncountable systems via her vast numbers of clones linked together by cybernetic implants. The Raadch’s vast expansion has been enabled by the use of ancillaries – human bodies whose personalities have been erased and who are controlled by hyperintelligent ships.

Continue reading Ancillary Justice

The boy with the porcelain blade

The boy with the porcelain blade / Dev Patrick

The boy with the porcelain blade is a book that wears its influences proudly: Gormenghast, Dune, We have always lived in the castle, etc. The author and the blurb both claim inspiration from Scott Lynch but I don’t really see it.

Anyways, it’s a sf novel (whether it is better classified as “science fiction” or “fantasy” is ambiguous).

Brief plot summary

The Orfani are a group of disfigured children who live a fairly comfortable life under the king’s protection. Inhabiting a spider-infested castle, the Orfani are sponsored by the various Houses and overseen by the mysterious Majordomo. Life for the Orfani is a series of plots and counterplots as they try to do away with each other, but the reasons why are unclear. A fencing master with a grudge against Lucien, one of the elder Orfani, will soon set into motion a series of events that will reveal the secrets of the Orfani, the never-seen king, and the kingdom itself.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good. It took me a while to get into though, as I was initially expecting something quite different from what I got, and the structure is such that vital information about the characters’ motivations is not revealed until very close to the end.

The boy with the porcelain blade is structured similarly to The dispossessed. Chapters alternate between the “present” of the book and the protagonist’s past. What this means is that the entire plot remains fairly obtuse until the very end, when the “flashback” chapters start to reveal Lucien’s discoveries that cause him to behave the way he does in the “present” chapters. This means that it’s a book that you have to take on faith and trust that the things that don’t make sense now will be explained eventually. Lucien starts out seeming like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, which was one of the reasons this book took me far longer to finish than it would normally have. In the end though it felt worth the read.

As I said, I was  initially expecting something very different – largely because the book cover and the acknowledgments referenced Scott Lynch three times. But there’s none of Lynch’s sense of humor here, none of the playfulness. So I had some trouble initially trying to figure out the funny parts. Once I realized that a far, far better comparison would be Gene Wolfe’s Book of the new sun. Reading it with that perspective I started to enjoy it much more.

Taken as a whole, I really do think it was a good book. It’s not exactly a light adventure story though. It’s more of a “literary” work. Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe are the closest comparisons I can find.

Recommendation

This book was published only recently, but I’ve recommended it a few times already. So far nobody has been able to find a copy (I guess I was just lucky that my public library had it) so I can’t say for sure how successful those recommendations were.

Still, it’s a good recommendation for fans of Herbert and Wolfe. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t explicitly a fan of one of those books. It’s “literary” enough that people looking for “fun” reading will probably be disappointed. There’s also some body horror here, but it’s not too extreme and it shouldn’t be off-putting for anyone who has the stomach for Book of the new sun.

The hunger games

The hunger games / Suzanne Collins

The hunger games was a series that I actively resisted reading for quite a while. I’m not sure why – I think I expected it to be something like The maze runner (which I didn’t read until after I had read The hunger games, so it’s not exactly a perfect comparison). I didn’t get into the series until the first movie came out. It was a friend’s birthday and they wanted to go see it so we went and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, so I decided to read the books.

Brief plot summary

In a dystopian future, what was once the United States is now Panem, a collection of 12 carefully segregated Districts all serving the Capital. As punishment for an earlier rebellion, every district must send one boy and one girl as “tributes” to participate in The Hunger Games, where they are thrust into an arena filled with weapons and traps and forced to kill each other until only one survives.

Katniss Everdeen is a teenager from District 12, which is primarily known for its coal mines. Alongside baker’s son Peeta Mellark she finds herself in the unenviable position of being one of the tributes from district 12.

Continue reading The hunger games

Bad monkeys

Bad monkeys / Matt Ruff

Bad monkeys is a weird novel to categorize. The author describes it as being inspired by Philip K. Dick, and I guess the influence is there, but it is more heavily plot-driven than Dick’s work and thematically it’s completely opposed to Dick’s work. There’s something of a twist ending which I will discuss but I’ll save that part for the end and leave it clearly marked.

Plot summary

Jane Charlotte has apparently murdered a man named Dixon. The bulk of the book occurs in the context of Charlotte’s interview with a psychiatrist, Dr. Vale, as she explains the justification for her actions as she claims to be an operative of the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons. Charlotte explains significant events in her life with a special emphasis on her relationship with her younger brother.

Continue reading Bad monkeys

Kindred

Let’s go now to something painfully serious.

Sorry.
Kindred / Octavia Butler

This is one of those classic sf books that appears to get overlooked with depressing frequency due to the authors twin failings of being neither white nor male. It’s too bad because it’s exactly the kind of depressing uncomfortable stuff that awards committees love (and I mean that in a good way).

Seriously the basic premise isn’t that different from Slaughterhouse Five but Kindred is way more impactful.

Plot summary

Kindred is the story about a young woman who finds herself “unstuck in time”. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, instead of randomly traveling throughout her own life she finds herself being continuously transported to a plantation in the antebellum South.
Continue reading Kindred