The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories about the human colonization of Mars which were previously published in the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. The stories are arranged in chronological order with the dates of the events at the beginning of each story. In the first edition of The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the events took place in a future 1999-2027, but a reprinted 1997 edition pushes all events forward to 2030-2057. Because it’s a story collection, The Martian Chronicles has an episodic feel which has been made more fluid by connecting the stories with short vignettes, similar to the structure of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man.
In the first story, “Rocket Summer,” we visit a small town in Ohio while the first human exploratory spaceship takes off for Mars. Bradbury explains in the introduction to The Martian Chronicles that this small-town mid-America feel was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life which Bradbury admired and hoped to emulate.
The next two stories, “Ylla” and “The Summer Night,” show us what the Martians are like. They’re humanoid in form with brown skin and round yellow eyes. Like humans, they live in houses and towns, eat and drink, sleep, age, read books, study science, desire love, become jealous and irritable, and commit murder. (I find it amusing that the Martians have the same kinds of depressing marriages we see in Bradbury’s stories set on Earth.) But the Martians are telepathic and the humans’ approach is causing them to quote our poetry, sing our songs, and adopt other aspects of human culture without understanding why.
The first spaceship was unsuccessful, so a second expedition was launched a few months later (it seems reasonable for Bradbury to expect that by 1999 we’d be able to get to Mars a lot faster than we actually can). In “The Earth Men” we learn the fate of this crew and we learn that Martians, just like Americans in 1950, have to live with bad psychiatry and insane asylums. Stephen Hoye, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 version of The Martian Chronicles, was particularly brilliant with this story.
Next comes “The Taxpayer” in which an Ohio man is trying to get on the third expedition to Mars (the second one failed). This very short vignette tells us that things are going badly on Earth and that an atomic war is expected in about two years. “The Third Expedition” (originally published in Planet Stories as “Mars is Heaven!”) describes what happens when the third doomed mission lands on Mars. This story doesn’t quite work with the chronology of The Martial Chronicles because it portrays astronauts from 2030 growing up in the small Midwestern towns of early 20th century America. It also ironically highlights the biggest problem with The Martian Chronicles when one of the astronauts asks “Do you think that the civilizations of two planets can progress at the same rate and evolve in the same way?” Clearly the astronaut doesn’t think that’s possible, but in these early stories, Bradbury’s Martian culture is just too much like ours. Even so, “The Third Expedition” is a clever little horror story and one of my favorites in the collection.
“And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is the story of the fourth, finally successful, expedition to Mars. The Martians have mostly died of chickenpox — humans, in our blundering way, have inadvertently killed them off. Most of the men of the expedition don’t care, eager to begin exploration and colonization, but Captain Wilder and an archaeologist named Spender regret that humans have destroyed such a beautiful civilization, like they destroy everything else they touch. There’s a lot of social commentary about 1940s American culture in this story.
The next several stories are about the rapid spread of humanity on Mars. “The Settlers” and “The Shore” describe the type of people who came to Mars from Earth, “The Green Morning” follows a Johnny Appleseed type of character who plants trees to increase oxygen levels, and “The Locusts” and “Interim” describes how men and women made Mars look just like another Earth. In “Night Meeting,” we learn that “even time is crazy up here” when a colonist from Earth meets a Martian who seems to be in a different time-stream. This story also reminds us that civilizations both rise and fall and that perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the future of our own civilization.
I especially liked the next story, “The Fire Balloons,” in which a group of missionaries prepare to bring the Gospel to the Martians. They don’t know what the Martians will look like and must consider how a different culture, and even a different anatomy, might dictate the types of sin a society is prone to. (It seems unlikely that the missionaries don’t know what the Martians look like by now, but we must keep in mind that The Martian Chronicles is a story collection, not a novel with a continuous story.) When the missionaries meet the Martians, they have even more theological questions to deal with. “The Fire Balloons,” has a beautiful ending.
Male explorers and settlers have been the main characters so far but “The Musicians,” a story original to The Martian Chronicles, shows us what boys do for fun on Mars, “The Wilderness” features two women who are getting ready to emigrate from Earth, and “The Old Ones” focuses briefly on the elderly. Those first courageous men won’t be forgotten, though; in “The Naming of Names” we learn that they’ve been immortalized — many places on Mars have been named after them. These human names, and other industrial-sounding names, have replaced the nature-focused names used by the Martians.
In “Usher II” Bradbury returns to one of his favorite pet peeves — book burning. A man who has left Earth to get away from the “moral climate” police is angry that they’ve now shown up on Mars. To get back at them for outlawing Edgar Allen Poe’s work, he uses his fortune to build his own House of Usher and he invites them all to a party. This story is entertaining, but I’m not sure that Bradbury makes his case. After what happens, I think the moral climate police will feel they have even more grounds for banning Poe.
“The Martian” is a terrific horror story which shows us what becomes of one telepathic Martian when humans, full of painful memories and wanting to start over, arrive on his planet. This is one of the best stories in The Martian Chronicles.
The next few stories, “The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” and “The Watchers,” tell of the nuclear war on Earth that was predicted in earlier stories. It can be heard on the radio and seen from Mars and soon the colonists get an urgent message: “Come home.” And so they go back to Earth.
“The Silent Towns” tells the story of Walter and Genevieve, living hundreds of miles apart, who assume they’re the last humans left on Mars. This story is entertaining, but highlights the rampant sexism so often found in the science fiction written for pulp magazines. Where does Walter decide is the most likely place to find a woman? The beauty shop. (Genevieve, what the heck are you doing in a beauty shop on a deserted planet?) Then, after driving for hundreds of miles to find her, Walter rejects and runs away from the last woman on Mars because she’s overweight. Really.
Bradbury is back to doing what he does best with the next two stories. “The Long Years” tells of Hathaway, one of the crew of the Fourth Expedition, who stayed on Mars with his family when the rest of the colonists left. When Captain Wilder, his former commander, returns to Mars after exploring other planets in the solar system, he finds Hathaway and wonders how his wife and kids stayed young while Hathaway kept aging normally.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” returns us to Earth where the atomic war has wiped out most of the people. An automated house (common in Bradbury’s stories) still stands in California, going about its daily routines as if the family who lived there is still alive. This story was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s post-apocalyptic poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in which we see nature taking back the Earth after humanity is destroyed. This imagery in this excellent story is chilling and unforgettable. Unforgettable.
After all of the destruction that humans brought upon themselves (we nearly obliterated the population of two planets), the last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” offers a bit of hope as two families escape the devastated Earth and plan to start over. To ensure that humans don’t make the same mistakes we made before, they burn books, maps, files and anything else that contains the sorts of ideas that may have led to our destruction. (A little ironic, I think. Apparently, Bradbury thought it was noble to burn some of our literature.)
Whenever I read Bradbury, I’m struck by his lofty visions, in the early 20th century, for future technological developments and space exploration. He envisioned a degree of achievement by the 21st century that we’re not even close to yet. However, at the same time, it seems that he didn’t foresee how much American social culture would change even during his lifetime. Thus, in most of his stories set in the future we find the juxtaposition of robots and rockets with the same sexism and racism experienced in 1950. Fortunately, the nuclear world war that he and many SF writers imagined has also not happened. Perhaps we can give Bradbury some of the credit for warning us so vividly.
The Martian Chronicles is some of Ray Bradbury’s most-loved work and foundational reading for science fiction fans. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to try Blackstone Audio’s version.
Leaving behind a world on the brink of destruction, man came to the red planet and found the Martians waiting, dreamlike. Seeking the promise of a new beginning, man brought with him his oldest fears and his deepest desires. Man conquered Mars and in that instant, Mars conquered him. The strange new world with its ancient, dying race and vast, red-gold deserts cast a spell on him, settled into his dreams, and changed him forever. In connected, chronological stories, a true grandmaster enthralls, delights, and challenges us with his vision, starkly and stunningly exposing our strength, our weakness, our folly, and our poignant humanity on a strange and breathtaking world where humanity does not belong.
Originally posted at FanLit.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Warning: Contains spoilers for previous books.
In Diplomatic Immunity, Miles and Ekaterin are on the final leg of their interplanetary honeymoon and are anxious to return to Barrayar where their two full-term babies (one boy and one girl) are ready to be released from their uterine replicators. But, as usual, something happens to delay their return. In this case, it’s a diplomatic issue — a Komarran merchant ship with a Barrayaran military escort is being held up at Graf Station in Quaddiespace — and Emperor Gregor asks Miles to go straighten it out on his way home. When Miles gets there, he discovers that a Barrayan officer is missing and possibly murdered. His investigation eventually uncovers a conspiracy which could lead to bioterrorism and war.
Some of our favorite characters are missing from Diplomatic Immunity, but fans will be happy to get reacquainted with the gene-manipulating bubble-dwelling haut ladies of Cetaganda; Bel Thorne, the Betan hermaphrodite who Miles had to ask to resign from the Dendarii Mercenary Fleet at the end of Mirror Dance; and Nicol, the Quaddie musician we met in the short story “Labyrinth.” We learn a lot about the Quaddie culture in this novel.
Roic, the big buff armsman is also a main character here and we see him rapidly and gratefully developing into Miles’ right-hand man, a situation that he would never have foreseen after that embarrassing buttered underwear scene in A Civil Campaign. We also once again see Ekaterin as a cooly level-headed woman — something that Miles appreciates immensely. She is important to the resolution of the story in Diplomatic Immunity but, unfortunately, Bujold doesn’t show us some of those important scenes.
Compared to the earlier VORKOSIGAN books, Diplomatic Immunity, a mystery, is darker and more serious. The plot is slower and it lacks the situational comedy elements we’ve seen in previous books. I should think this is a good change since I complained (just a little) in my review of A Civil Campaign that Miles wasn’t acting his age. On the other hand, the comedy is a part of what makes these novels so entertaining and I missed it in Diplomatic Immunity.
This is a solid but not stunning VORKOSIGAN novel. Grover Gardner continues to excel with his narration of the audiobooks. I highly recommend this series in audio format.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Time for the Stars is one of my favorite Heinlein Juveniles, and I like his juveniles better than his books for adults, so I guess that makes Time of the Stars one of my favorite Heinlein works. It’s got everything that makes his stories so much fun to read, especially for kids. Likeable heroes, sweet relationships, real emotions, a touch of romance, a bit of physics, spaceship travel and exploration of distant planets. (And also, as usual, there’s a hint of incest — romance with a cousin — and a few complaints about taxes. It is a Heinlein novel, after all.)
In Time for the Stars, twins Tom and Pat join an experimental scientific study to see if telepathy might be a viable way for Earth to communicate with her exploring spaceships. It’s thought that if telepathy could work for anyone, it would be identical twins. Tom and Pat are excited to be involved, but they know this means that one of them will get to explore space while the other one has to stay home to be the other end of the telepathic line. This fact has a lot of ramification for the brothers. First of all, the boys have to decide who gets to go. Second, the one who leaves will probably never see his family again. Third, the boys will now age at different rates because of relativity, so even if the one who leaves ever comes back, he will be much younger than his twin.
All of this gives Time for the Stars an emotional texture that makes this story feel weightier than your average YA SF adventure. Also, Time for the Stars is not just a story about exploring space — it’s about family, friendship, loneliness, love, guilt, and the power of the human mind. In fact, I think Heinlein spends more time exploring the brain than exploring distant galaxies.
Time for the Stars is an entertaining and moving YA space adventure that will probably please most adults as well as kids. I listened to Barrett Whitener narrate Blackstone Audio’s version. I thought his voice, tone, and cadence were perfect for this emotional story.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Scepter of the Ancients is the first book in Derek Landy’s children’s series called SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT. The story follows 11 year old Stephanie Edgley who inherits her eccentric uncle’s property after he dies. Stephanie gets involved with some supernatural goings-on when a thief breaks into her new house (the one her uncle left her) and nearly kills her. To her rescue comes Skulduggery Pleasant — a man who used to be alive but is now a magically animated skeleton. Stephanie and Skulduggery set out to solve a mystery and end up saving the world.
Stephanie is a great little protagonist — she’s smart and logical and mature. Skulduggery Pleasant is also a great character — he’s unusual and amusing, always cracking jokes in a dry but kind of obvious way that should appeal to the target audience of this book (ages 9 and up). Here’s an example from the very end of the book where Skulduggery Pleasant is being interviewed:
"Interviewer: How would you describe yourself in five words?
Skulduggery Pleasant: Five words? Right, here goes, in no particular order, least of all alphabetical: Charming. Witty. Lethal. Brilliant. And modest."
Like I said, kind of obvious. But I will admit to snickering several times. (The above example wasn’t one of them.) The characters, the humor and the creepy atmosphere are the defining features of this novel. Unfortunately, the plot seems to be of secondary importance to Landy’s writing process. It’s fast-paced but it’s also predictable and full of clichés and cheesy villains. I thought it was bland and forgettable. Fortunately, this is something that can be fixed in future stories. I haven’t read any of them (there are eight full novels so far and four novellas) and I’m not going out of my way to find book two, but if it appears on sale at Audible, I might pick it up. Or I might not.
Most children and many adults will like Scepter of the Ancients a lot more than I did. Those who are enamored by the cool characters and creepy atmosphere are likely to forgive or not even notice the lackluster plot. I have a feeling that I’ve simply read too many fantasy novels to find this unique and I’ll bet there’s a negative correlation between how many fantasy novels a person has read and how well they like this book.
With all that said, I want to heap tons of praise on the audiobook version of Scepter of the Ancients. It was truly an excellent production with some original music and chilling sound effects between the chapters. Rupert Degas, the narrator, was brilliant. I loved his voice and his interpretation of the story. This book was worth my time mainly because of Rupert Degas. Audio readers, do not skip the interview with Skullduggery Pleasant at the end of the novel.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave has a great premise — for millennia, unknown to scientists, the Earth has been under the influence of some sort of field that dampens the speed of neurons in the cortex. But now the Earth has suddenly passed out of the field and immediately neurons start working faster, making everyone’s IQs (man and animal) escalate dramatically. This sounds like a good thing to me, but perhaps it’s not in Poul Anderson’s mind. In his story, human civilization changes drastically, and mostly not in positive ways.
The story follows several characters: a physicist named Peter Corinth; Sheila, his timid and dull-witted housewife; a mentally-handicapped farmhand named Archie Brock; and an official named Felix Mandelbaum. Each of these characters experiences a large jump in IQ which causes a change in their circumstances. Each of them deals with this change differently as Poul Anderson explores what might happen to a society that is suddenly full of people who are geniuses and animals who are rising up to challenge us.
Actually, though it’s a really cool thought experiment, Poul Anderson’s story is not as interesting as it sounds like it should be. The first problem is the characters — none are likeable or inherently interesting with the possible exception of Archie Brock. Sheila, the vapid housewife, is especially odious (but I tend to bristle at all vapid housewife characters written by old male SF writers — is that really how they thought of women back then?).
Another problem is that I had a hard time believing in the consequences that Anderson foretells for a world with smarter people. He seems to be suggesting that the only people who will be truly happy in their jobs will be scientists and artists for these are the only rewarding jobs for really smart people. Therefore, blue-collar workers who are now suddenly smart will abandon their jobs and society will collapse. He seems to be suggesting that laborers are not as smart as scientists, which is kind of pretentious and certainly not accurate. There’s a big difference between intelligence and education. He is also obviously suggesting that a smart person can’t find meaning and reward in a lower status job, something else I don’t believe is true. Surely these more intelligent humans will realize that farming is still a necessary occupation and there will be people who still enjoy farming even if they’re geniuses. (Or, if not, they can invent machines to do it for them.)
I agreed with Anderson on a couple of important points — a new psychology would be needed for a human race that is smarter than ours. And even though I didn’t believe in Anderson’s story, I still think it’s a great premise and thinking exercise. If the purpose of intelligence is to adapt to the environment, what happens when the environment has to adapt to intelligence? A fascinating idea.
I listened to Tom Weiner narrate Blackstone Audio’s version of Brain Wave. Weiner has a great voice for old science fiction.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Suze is a mediator — she can see the ghosts of people whose souls have not been able to move on. She helps them resolve their earthly issues so they can go wherever they’re supposed to go. She doesn’t know what happens to them after they go — just that it’s her job to facilitate their departure.
Because of her weird ability, Suze is not a normal teenager. People find her a little strange and she has trouble making friends and fitting in. Now she’s moving away from New York, where she grew up. Her father died several years ago and her mother has married a man in California. She will have a new family, a new school, and a new life. Her mother, who doesn’t believe in the ghosts, hopes the changes will be beneficial for Suze.
As soon as Suze enters her new bedroom overlooking the ocean, she realizes that her “problems” have not gone away. There’s the ghost of a hot guy named Jesse in her room and she’s having trouble dislodging him. Then, on her first day of school at a Catholic mission, the ghost of a girl who recently committed suicide is haunting her locker. So, right away, Suze has two new “clients” to take care of. Fortunately, she also discovers that she’s not the only person who can see ghosts — the priest who runs the school can also see them and he says there are other mediators besides the two of them. He promises to be a helpful resource.
Shadowland is the first book in Meg Cabot’s MEDIATOR series. I enjoyed spending a few hours with Suze. She’s a pleasant protagonist who’s brave, tender-hearted, confident and interesting. There were a few other admirable characters in her story, though some were also stock YA characters (e.g., the beauty queen). Perhaps the most interesting character is Jesse, the ghost in Suze’s room. He’s a young man from the 19th century. We don’t know much about him yet, but I think his storyline, which takes place in the past, will give this series more depth.
I think the best thing I can say about Shadowland is that even though it’s a little shallow and predictable, it didn’t annoy me like most other YA paranormal fantasies do. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much of a commendation, but coming from someone who hasn’t been a teenager in over a couple of decades and who thought teenage girls were annoying even back then, that’s something. Shadowland should be quite appealing to teenage girls (or even boys) and it features a likeable heroine who, so far, is fun to hang out with and makes a respectable role model.
I read the audiobook version of Shadowland which was produced by Recorded Books and narrated by Johanna Parker who I liked quite well. I picked it up on sale at Audible and liked it well enough that I’ll be on the lookout for the rest of the series in future Audible sales.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
I believe I’ve come to the point in my life where I need never pick up another lost world pulp fantasy novel. Seriously, they’re all running together in my mind.
In Journey to the Underground World, Lin Carter is (as usual) channeling Edgar Rice Burroughs. In Carter’s version of an underground world, an adventurer named Eric Carstairs meets up with a paleontologist named Dr. Potter who thinks he knows how to find a legendary land under the earth. They fly a helicopter down a volcano and discover Zanthodon, a world where dinosaurs, wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers threaten the Neanderthals and Cro-magnons who also live there. There are creatures to fight, “savages” to outwit, and (of course) a beautiful maiden with a “lithe young body,” “perfect breasts,” “smooth thighs” and “supple flanks” to rescue.
The plot of Journey to the Underground World is fast-paced and sometimes exciting, though it differs little from similar stories of this type except perhaps that it has some things to say about the evils of racism. (This is notable since many of these types of books are Euro-centric in a very ugly way.)
Lin Carter maintains his bad habit of writing his stories in first person but showing us plotlines of the other characters when the point-of-view character isn’t present. This is confusing and sloppy but typical of Carter.
I liked Matt K. Baker, the narrator of Wildside Press’s audio version, but I can’t recommend Journey to the Underground World unless you’re new to the lost world genre — everyone should read a couple of them. But even then I’d suggest that you read Edgar Rice Burroughs instead.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
John Taylor has been hired by The Unnatural Inquirer, the gossip magazine of the Nightside, to find a stolen DVD that allegedly contains a recording of a transmission from the afterlife. His investigation will take him all over the Nightside where we’ll encounter old and new friends (and enemies).
The Unnatural Inquirer is the eighth book in Simon R. Green’s NIGHTSIDE series. If you’ve read all the previous books, you know what to expect here and, depending on your tastes, that’s either a good or a bad thing. If you just want to hang out with John Taylor and his friends in the Nightside, The Unnatural Inquirer will probably please you. It’s got everything we expect from a NIGHTSIDE book — a fast-moving romp through a decadent parallel world with some of the strangest people and creatures you’ll ever meet.
Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned in my reviews of the past few books, this formula has become stale and repetitive and I’d say it’s intolerably so in this novel. Again, something is interfering with John Taylor’s power so that he’s forced to do old-fashioned detective work rather than use his magic to solve the crime. Again, the power comes back when the plot needs it to. By the way, I’m still confused by John’s magic. Everyone is afraid of him because he’s the most powerful entity in the Nightside, yet the way he uses his magic seems arbitrary. Why can he sometimes do amazing world-bending things with his power, but other times he seems to forget he has any?
Again, we go to new places and meet new characters and organizations who are so important or powerful in the Nightside that we should have heard of them before now. In every book we meet a character (a “Major Player”) like this. In The Unnatural Inquirer it’s the Removal Man — a man that everyone is afraid of because he can remove someone from the world with just a thought. Yet we’ve never heard of him before now. And why have we never heard of The Unnatural Inquirer, a magazine that’s very influential in the Nightside? The fact that we haven’t indicates that Green is making it all up as he goes along. That’s fine, but it makes his world feel very thin. It’s all quite inventive — Green frequently gives us new lists of all the weird people who exist, and weird stuff that happens, in the Nightside — but it’s paper thin. He may describe ten characters in thirty seconds and we’ll chuckle and think “that’s cool,” but we’ll never hear of them again.
Again, Green uses the same wording over and over and I can even predict some of the things he’s going to say (“I opened my eye, my private eye… and it was the easiest thing in the world to…”). This is perhaps what bothers me most — the fact that so much of the wording is the same in every book.
I keep reading NIGHTSIDE because I purchased all the books on audio when they were on a sale at Audible. The narrator, Marc Vietor, is wonderful and I don’t regret reading them — they’re entertaining — but Green seems creative enough that they could be so much better.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
As much as I dislike the man personally, I have to say that Harlan Ellison writes great stories. Even the stories that I don’t like — because they’re violent, gory, gross, or full of others varieties of ugliness — are good stories. And if there’s anything that Harlan Ellison does better than write great stories, it’s narrate them. He’s a superb story teller. That’s why I’ve picked up all of his Voice From The Edge recordings at Audible.com. Each is a collection of Ellison’s stories which he narrates himself. This second volume, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral, contains these stories:
“In Lonely Lands” — (first published in 1959 in Fantastic Universe) This very short story is about loneliness, companionship, and dying. It’s touching and thought provoking.
“S.R.O” — (1957, Amazing Stories) A down-and-out producer wants dibs on the exploitation of an alien spaceship that has landed in Times Square. I saw where this was going, but it was still entertaining. Perhaps most entertaining his how Harlan Ellison narrates it with New York City accents.
“Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral” — (1995, Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy) A man whose father died in an industrial accident before he was born meets him again in the Bermuda Triangle. Atmospheric and creepy.
“The End of the Time of Leinard” — (1958, Westeryear anthology) This story was written for a Western themed anthology, so it’s not speculative fiction. It’s a thoughtful piece in which a town decides that it no longer likes the frontier style of the sheriff they hired years ago. They don’t like him because they think he’s uncivilized, yet he’s the reason the rest of them are civilized.
"Pennies, Off a Dead Man’s Eyes — (1969, Galaxy Magazine) When a white man goes to the funeral of his black friend, he sees a white woman steal the pennies off the dead man’s eyes. The friend of the dead man wants to know why.
“Rat Hater” — (1956, The Deadly Streets) After 18 years of waiting for revenge for the murder of his sister, a mob boss tortures a man with a rat phobia. This story is extremely unpleasant. It’s hard to imagine why Harlan Ellison would think this was fun to write or entertaining for the reader. Yuck. I wish I could wipe it from my mind.
“Go Toward the Light” — (1996, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) Physicists have learned how to use light to travel through time. After an argument with a fellow Jewish scientist about believing in miracles and what it means to be a “good Jew,” a man goes back to ancient Jerusalem to witness a miracle. I like this story.
“Soft Monkey” — (1987, The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction) A homeless black woman carries around a doll who she thinks is her baby who died years ago. When she witnesses a gruesome murder on the streets, she finds the extraordinary strength required to protect her “baby” from the white men who want to make sure she can’t talk. This story is named after Harry Harlow’s “Soft Monkey” experiments which Ellison explains at the beginning of the story. Ellison has the science backwards, though — it’s the baby who needs the soft mother, not the mother who needs the soft baby. That error doesn’t at all affect the story, but I’m a psychologist, so I just couldn’t let it go by…
“Jeffty is Five” — (1977, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) The narrator grows up while Jeffty, his childhood friend, remains intellectually five years old which is devastating for Jeffty’s parents. This story is so heartbreaking, but it’s also a gleeful nostalgic stroll through the mid 20th century (especially for geeks). This was my favorite story in the collection. I loved it. (If it wasn’t so cliché, I’d say “I laughed, I cried” because I did.) I wasn’t surprised to find out that “Jeffty is Five” won the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy, and Locus Poll Awards. You really don’t want to miss this one.
“Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” — (1982, Shayol) In the introduction, Harlan Ellison tells us that “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” is meant to be listened to, not read. In this frantically-paced run-on-filled story about hotdogs and Dostoyevsky, the narrator (probably Harlan Ellison himself) is arguing with a hotdog vendor about the characters in the cannon of “the fabulous Fyodor” when a man in an ice cream cone suit walks up to tell them the story of how all his girlfriends have died tragically. It’s pretty amusing.
“The Function of Dream Sleep” — (1988, Midnight Grafitti) Most psychologists would say that the function of R.E.M. (dream) sleep is to help us consolidate memories, but in 1983 Mitchison and Crick proposed that it also functions to remove certain (probably weak or unnecessary) memories from the brain. This story about a man who believes he has a sharp-toothed mouth in his side that opens when he’s asleep, addresses this idea. In the author’s note at the end of “The Function of Dream Sleep,” Ellison explains that this story is autobiographical. The narration gave me chills.
The Voice From the Edge, Vol 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral is definitely worth a look — or should I say listen? (If you’re going to read Harlan Ellison’s stories, which you should, you must, I insist, try the audio versions.) Be warned that his stories are visceral and there is a lot of ugliness here — a gruesomely described industrial accident, torture, murder, violent acts, repulsive language. Most of these stories won’t make you think pleasant thoughts, but they will make you think. Most won’t make you feel good, but they will make you feel.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Lin Carter wrote derivative pulpy adventure stories in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and others. I think of these as second-rate but I pick them up when I find them cheap at Audible — they’re short fast-moving stories with imaginative scenery and lots of action. In a Lin Carter novel you’re sure to find a sword-wielding man with sweaty “thews,” a scantily-clad girl who needs to be saved, and lots of scary monsters. Usually this takes place in some fascinatingly impossible setting such as on the boughs of gigantic trees, under a volcano, in a lost city, or on an uncharted planet.
In The Warrior of World’s End, a down-and-out godmaker and his wife are traveling through a desert when they find a large young man wandering around. The young man has no idea who he is or where he came from, so the couple adopts him, names him Ganelon, and puts him to work in their shop. Ganelon seems a little dull-witted and doesn’t have the skills necessary to be a successful merchant, but when war comes to their town, it’s Ganelon who goes out on the front lines and saves the day. Soon he is apprenticed to a magician who takes an interest in him and he leaves his family behind. Under the magician’s tutelage, Ganelon has a series of adventures and is shown to be extraordinarily bright after all. And, as the magician suspected all along, Ganelon may be a whole lot more than he seems.
The Warrior of World’s End, the first novel in Carter’s GONDWANE epic, is better than most of the books I’ve read by Lin Carter (though I’ve only read seven so far and he’s written so many more than that). Carter’s always got a cool (if not original) setting, but I especially liked this one which is a Dying-Earth-style story where society has regressed to a nearly medieval state but there is magic and remnants of technology to be found, including cloning and constructs. The Warrior of World’s End is a nice blend of science fiction and fantasy and there are lots of little imaginative details that enrich the story — metal automatons, tiger-men and other hybrid creatures, gigantic bubbles of vacuum that threaten to destroy whole towns, a floating island in the sky.
Carter also does a better job with characterization here than in the other stories I’ve read, especially with secondary characters. They’re still somewhat sketchy, but people are given more backstory and personality than I was expecting based on my previous experiences with Carter. There are actually a couple of admirably strong and intelligent women in this story — something that’s hard to find in pulp adventures which seem to be written mainly for adolescent males. (Or maybe it would be more tactful to say “men who are young at heart if not necessarily in body.”) (Or, maybe better yet, “men who still have lots of testosterone rushing through their thews and other regions.”) But, anyway, don’t worry, guys — there’s still a hot young warrior chick in The Warrior of World’s End!
Also better is the tone of this story, at least at the beginning of the book. There’s an omniscient narrator who gives us amusing tidbits about the characters and their society and Lin Carter actually made this cynical reader smile and smirk several times during the first half of the story. I am pretty sure that’s never happened with a Lin Carter novel before. Later, when Ganelon was out on his adventures, the humor unfortunately becomes a little silly and slapstick, but Carter was in top form at the beginning. (Or else I was drunk, but if I was, I don’t recall.)
I was impressed with the beginning of The Warrior of World’s End but my good will began to decline about halfway through because the little adventures that Ganelon had lacked any real tension — things were resolved quickly and easily and by the end it feels like Carter was more interested in showing off his imagination than forming a compelling plot. Still, I’m willing to read the next GONDWANE novel, The Enchantress of World’s End. I have no reason not to continue with the audio version of these which were produced by Wildside Press and narrated by Dan Wallace who does a fine job.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
The Sandcats of Rhyl, Robert E. Vardeman’s first novel, is possibly the worst novel I’ve ever read. It is bad in every sense — so bad that I wondered if it might be a parody of bad science fiction. Apparently it’s not a parody; it’s just simply bad.
So how did I end up with this awful book? It was one of those daily ebook deals at Amazon. I think I paid 99¢ and then added the audio narration for 99¢ more. Before I bought it I checked the star ratings at Amazon just to make sure it wasn’t something everyone hates. Well, according to the average rating at Amazon (4.5 stars at this moment), readers love The Sandcats of Rhyl. So, a 4.5 star ebook and audiobook for $1.98? A no-brainer, right? I bought it. What I realize now is that I looked at the average rating but didn’t bother to read the reviews. If I had done that, I might have figured out that readers who love The Sandcats of Rhyl probably do not have the same criteria for excellent science fiction that I do. Lesson learned.
So, The Sandcats of Rhyl is about a man named Roderick Nightwind who discovered that there’s something very valuable hidden on a harsh desert planet named Rhyl. Off he goes to Rhyl with his cyborg companion. Along the way he meets a beautiful woman who is trying to discover his plans and is willing to seduce him to get information. When they get to Rhyl, Nightwind and the cyborg hire a guide to take them to the place where the treasure should be while the beautiful woman and her sociopathic goons secretly follow them. Then there’s the inevitable showdown between all the characters and some large telepathic cats who have their own reasons to defend the treasure.
The first problem I noticed with The Sandcats of Rhyl was the writing style. The imprecise use of language, the clunky dialogue, the awkward sentence constructions and the insipid figures of speech were impossible not to notice. Here’s an example from the first chapter:
“The vise grip on his forearm stopped the man as surely as the cold words, “Don’t even think of hitting him again,” pouring like melted snow from Nightwind’s thin lips.
Even the very first paragraph should have warned me to stop immediately, but instead of quitting I just sat their gawping, feeling cheated out of my $1.98, and planning to get my revenge by diluting the 4.5-star Amazon rating with my own 1-star review.
The next noticeable problem is the characterization. At first our hero Nightwind seems aloof, cool and mysterious as he dramatically orders a drink, brushes off a beautiful woman, and easily disarms the goons in a bar. At that point I was hoping he might be interesting, maybe even sexy (as you can see, I’m still hoping to salvage this story!). Like maybe he’d be smart or witty or have a cool job — but… no. The characterization of the two villains (the goons accompanying the woman) is worse. Their only emotions are hate, greed, and lust. They’re big dumb oafs who say things like “What’ya mean?” and “Huh?” when Nightwind speaks to them in sentences containing more than one prepositional phrase. It’s really hard to be scared of these guys. The narrator, Stephen Bowlby, makes it worse by giving them oafish voices. That’s probably what the author intended, but it’s eye-rollingly over the top.
That brings me to the plot. It was obvious where it was going from the very beginning. It’s one of those bad-guys-follow-the-good-guys-to-the-treasure kinds of plots with the weird addition of telepathic tigers. I foresaw every “twist,” including the one where the bad guys double-cross the woman and plan to rape her instead of help her. By this time I was really disgusted with myself for continuing to listen to this stupid book, and I was certain that I was losing one IQ point per page (which would have been a total of about 100 IQ points so far, something I definitely can’t afford), so in an attempt to regain the points, I challenged myself to predict the rest of the plot. Which I did. As just one of several examples I could share, I guessed correctly that the bad guys would put Nightwind and the girl in a pit for the sandcats to come along and kill. Oh, come on! Haven’t these idiots seen any Bond movies?! This never works!
Save yourself $1.98 and skip The Sandcats of Rhyl. I can’t speak for any of Robert E. Vardeman’s later novels but, based on this one, I’m not eager to try any more.
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