QuikReview: The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton

This book is Space Opera–as written by one of the Old Masters, first of the breed, foremost among those that led the way and titan to those that followed–at its finest. I mean, his nickname was “World Wrecker,” you can’t get better than that. There’s a different adventure every 1.5 chapters, a space princess, a scantily-clad space-concubine, grizzled space-captains, battleships, cruisers, phantoms, cunning or treacherous advisors, quarrelsome barons, and grim and gallant fighting men. There’s the lurking menace of the Clouded Worlds’ rebel fanatics and the legendary, unknowable, unutterably fearsome threat of The Disruptor that keeps even their cynical leader in line. There’s also, to make sense of it all, a present-day (1949) protagonist who has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a star-Prince–and thence suddenly into the teeth of the action itself. But what can a man of Earth–our Earth–do when the stars themselves are at stake?

Aaaaand that’s basically it. If you feel you need to somehow know more about this book, then you ought to read it.

It’s a book that reads incredibly quickly and hits every single pulp fiction trope that it possibly can without changing genres (and that even includes the crashed ship being attacked by hostile natives….if there had been space for even a single chapter more there would have been some sort of sword-against-sword action going on.) –but yet there’s a consummate level of skill involved that carries it all off.

Partly, it’s the prose, which sells the sensawunda that can only be achieved by an active imagination, a yearning for stars yet-unreached, deep knowledge of the past that informs the actual doings and behaviors of mankind; and a nimble pen that doesn’t flinch from a little bit of mauve from time to time (see: scantily-clad space concubine.) The other part is that Hamilton actually did know his business, and, preposterous though the plot is, makes it proceed logically from the actions of intelligent and motivated actors, one of which is often–but not always–our hero.

A third and crucial part is that our hero is a hero. Starting out from an ex-soldier with a yearning for more than his old accounting job will offer him, and thrust abruptly into the whirl of galactic politics and treachery, he accounts himself well, never forgetting that he owes a debt to the true Zarth Arn, whose face he wears and whose place he has taken. Also, another tribute to Hamilton’s prowess, although John Gordon is an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the situation, never once does anyone to sit down and explain things to him (us) in simple language. While he’s no moron, he’s always scrambling to achieve an in-scene, in-person goal–to keep his cover, to bluff the enemy, to not break his morganatic wife’s heart–and he’s doing it with limited resources and high stakes.

The other characters suffer from the fact that this is a pulp novel at heart. They’re colorful, they’re placed to provide maximum interest, and they all give the impression that, given more time to navel-gaze, they could be turned into interesting persons indeed, rather than what is simply given them by their descriptors–space-princess, stalwart captain, sneaky advisor, cynical tyrant.

The one character who does do particularly well in this is, oddly enough, the cynical space-tyrant who leads the fanatics of the (?) Clouded Worlds. Shorr Kan is an odd duck of an antagonist, professing a fanatical hatred against the Empire that he in no ways feels; his own desire is for naked power alone. He’s cunning enough to seed the elitest ranks of the Empire with his own men, assassinate the Emperor and frame his own son for it, cold-blooded enough to use a brain scan device that, on uncovering neural connections, breaks them irreparably….and yet human enough to immediately switch the device off when it reveals that he’s got the wrong man. Mind you, he’s also dumb enough to let his suddenly-ultracooperative prisoner take his girlfriend along on a harebrained scheme that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so…perhaps his defeat was more inevitable than it seemed. Apparently he gets brought back for the sequel, so.

Rated: man once dreamed of the stars!

QuikReview: Boss Level (2021)

boss_level_ver3So due to hazardous road conditions in my area I’m stuck at home; and after receiving a ringing endorsement from film-authority for the rom-com Book of Love, I decided to watch Boss Level.

Overall….it’s fun movie. There are some directly meta bits (“Is that a katana?” “Psht, no, that would be Japanese.” “Let’s not bring racism into this.”) which don’t quite stick out like sore thumbs because the entire tone is so self-referential to begin with. There’s also a slam against “liberals,” which made me smile even though it’s the villain who makes it, so.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this movie that hasn’t been said already or made abundantly clear from the trailer. It’s a movie.

It has a beginning, an middle, a twist that raises stakes, and then an end. It has handsome and charismatic Frank Grillo, who handles the rather disappointingly basic action scenes with aplomb. It has Mel Gibson, uttering a performance that wouldn’t have gone amiss in a much better movie. It has about Michelle Yeoh, probably only present because someone in the production acquired compromising photos of her and negotiated her presence on set for an hour or two. I like to imagine she beheaded said producer with a prop sword when filming was done and left the set unchallenged. It has a cute kid who is not even annoying. It has an assassiness with her own tagline (“I am Guan Yin. And Guan Yin has done this!”) which probably really confused my coworkers when I added it to my email signature yesterday.

It’s a fun movie and I rather liked it.

Problem is: this could have been a serious, fun movie. It could have been a contender. It wouldn’t have been very hard, either. All it would have taken was a few more adjustments: a little bit less meandering during the first/discovery half of the movie, a little bit more earnestness during the action scenes, and a lot more focus on Grillo discovering the plot rather than getting humorously killed and reset dozens of times.

(There was also enormous potential for the damsel/girlfriend to be the ultimate villain/ess…given that she unhesitatingly and unapologetically used Roy and sent him to a horrible death literally hundreds of times, without his consent. Her character remains something of a blank because of this. Now, it could have been very simply solved by a very short line of dialogue along the lines of: “It’s been a long time since we were together. Would you still come and rescue me if I needed it?” “Of course!” Or, even with just the assurance at the end that “Hey. When I come back, will you go out with me again?” “Yes. Always.”

People complain about damsels having to be rescued. What they ought to complain about is damsels who don’t deserve to be rescued. As it is, lacking these notes, the damsel-mastermind came across [to me] as fairly unsympathetic, and this whole plot thread in my mind is simply fan speculation, adding depth and complexity to a script that doesn’t have and isn’t interested in such things. Oh well.)

Rated: an act of love and self-defense ought to be praised.

Also rated: I AM GUAN YIN AND GUAN YIN HAS DONE THIS!

Go to Your Mama: Mothers in Science Fiction

b66d58748dcbc67d0cded34fcf3c5f4dTLDR: It’s Jessica. Jessica is the coolest. Also Zamm, Agent of Vega. The Ripley picture is because there are no satisfactory images of The Lady Jessica.

Moms get the short end of the stick in fiction. Most of them just flat-out get killed in childbirth. Others are unceremoniously forgotten in the hero’s quest to Find Out About My Father, because….

Even if they survive, mothers tend to ignored by characters and story alike because they try to keep their kids from going on adventures, aka safe. (This is probably because mothers invest a hell of a lot of resources into their children and tend to want to collect a return on their investments.) Even if they are strong* characters in their own right/focus stories, once children get involved they tend to get pushed out of focus and not have a lot of impact on the plot or the protagonist. See: Padme Amidala. See also: every mother of a Disney Princess, ever.

* Emotionally resilient, self-motivatated, and, if a main character, actively plot-relevant (this is less important if it’s a side character.) Another important trait is: how cool are they?

Anyhow, when moms are recognized, they’re usually only counted when they assume an action role in the story–AKA, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. This is primarily because most people are fake nerds and heretics. It’s also because people like to focus on the fact that Ripley and Sarah Connor’s strength, in-universe, to survive and fight comes from the presence of a child to protect. It ignores the deeper reason that having an external motivation for their actions makes them more active and therefore more interesting characters.

Think about it. Ripley without Newt is a PTSD-riddled civilian tagging along on a military mission. She’s cannon fodder. She’s toast. Without Newt, Ripley doesn’t take as dominant a part in the decision-making and doesn’t survive because Burke forces the issue and everyone gets eaten. With Newt, Ripley has the additional motivation of another person to consider and protect. Ripley has a focus to control and override her impulses to freeze up. Ripley has a strong motivation to get everyone out of there and not stop until they are. Without John Connor, Sarah is the perky blonde who gets killed by the indomitable serial killer. With John Connor (and the fate of the human species, too) as her responsibility, Sarah has a serious motivation and more importantly, she has a reason for doing plot-relevant things. A hero or heroine who does plot-relevant things is a hero/ine doing interesting things.  And not, say, bumbling around an apartment building at night and getting stabbed to death by a bad guy. That is uninteresting.

bef1d0932ad9e3cb8abd91862f572714That all being said, it took me over a month to write this post because I couldn’t think of very many others. No, of course there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan. There’s Amanda Morgan. There’s Scaramouche‘s Comtesse de Ploughastel, but that’s not science fiction, even honorarily. There’s Eden Perdicaris from The Wind and the Lion, and that’s….well, hey, that’s alternate history! It totally counts! There’s…. uh…. Galadriel, whhhhattt, she’s Arwen’s grandma, come on! But most of these characters’ stories don’t focus on the maternal or nurturing relationship between them and their children. That actually seems to be quite rare.

Cordelia Vorkosigan, although an extraordinarily strong protagonist, is not a major character after Miles comes along; she is more prominently a counselor to characters not her own biological son. Moreover, after Cordelia hands over the protagonist mantle to her son, she’s a fairly passive as far as plot-relevance goes. This doesn’t make her a weaker character, just a sidelined one, given that Miles’ focus is on military and political victories, while his mother has a complete disdain for the military and a distinctly apolitical/anti-political stance towards politics of the Barrayaran style. On the other hand, Ekaterin Vorkosigan nee Vorsoisson has a kid, has a close relationship with him, and is an active presence in her opening storylines. So she counts, even if her kid gets promptly sidelined in later books. And as far as action goes, counter-hijacking the doomsday weapon from a group of terrorists and smashing it into the ground until the rubble bounces is a pretty badass start to an awesome career of….being a loyal housewife and Countess and mother to a parcel of other Vorkosiganlings. Pwah. I guess there’s also Alys Vorpatril, but she kind of sucks.

Amanda Morgan is a borderline example, as the majority of her story-time is focused on the ruthless, pragmatic necessities of defending a planet against armed invasion; she has no time or attention for even the birth of her own grandchild. There are, however, hints of the past: she thinks on and deeply regrets the necessity of the strained, strict relationship she had with her own long-dead son….a son who, the text implies, was an unrecognized psychopath only just held to the right side of the law by his controlling mother’s iron will. (Is a good story, everyone should read.)

Family relationships in Tolkien stories aren’t given a huge amount of weight, and those that are are mostly paternal-focused. (Unless your name is Luthien Tinuviel.) That being said, mothers whose presence has a great impact on their children would include Morwen, Idril, Aredhel. And Luthien’s mother, Melian. And Erendis of Numenor, ouch. And Indis, I guess. Actually, come to think of it, Tolkien does do this quite a bit in The Silmarillion, although the narrative conventions and epic scope of that book keeps these relationships out of close focus.

So anyway, finally to the most triumphant example of my thesis: the Lady Jessica, of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Jessica is THE FREAKING COOLEST character in all of science fiction, and this is an opinion I have held since I was thirteen years old. Jessica makes Paul into the hero he is: what she has taught him makes him capable, perceptive, and able to use his powers when he comes into them. Jessica is instrumental to the plot both actively during their escape via the Voice, their initial manipulation of Liet Kynes, and then through the Missionaria Protectiva itself.–to the Bene Gesserit, it is their sister and agent who is the valuable one, not some half-grown boy of dubious potential. And yet through it all, Jessica is still vulnerable and sympathetic and cool. She is admired and respected by other characters, or through her actions and presence instills that respect in them. Also, she gets the last word (literally.)

In the same mould as Jessica is Delamber from Jack Vance’s The Faceless Man. Delamber is a distinctly more limited character than Jessica, as she is an indentured sex slave in a harshly misogynistic setting. She can only give general guidance to her son–but her warmth and courage prepares him for his heroic path throughout the next two books. As for emotional resilience: Mur/Gastel Etzwane is not her only child, and she refuses to attempt escape with him partly because she wishes to remain behind to protect her daughter; she also faces the loss of rank from “sex slave” to “work slave” and the attempted bullying of the priest-caste men with disdainful equanimity. As for plot relevance, the first book revolves around hero’s efforts to redeem her contract and rescue her (a time-honored SF plot, let us not forget.) Habits learned in the process drive him to eventually take on the responsibilities of leadership and protection for his world. There was no third book, shut up.

With a slight pivot to the least triumphant example: Empress Anais of The Braided Path by Chris Wooding. While this works technically–Anais is a major figure in the plot, is hugely motivated by her daughter and desire to protect her (daughter has magic, girls are not allowed to have magic. Magical girls, in particular, are not allowed to become Empresses. Magical girls are supposed to end up dead)–a) Anais does not interact very much with her daughter, b) Anais ends up dead. Also, c) these books weren’t very good.

My last and other triumphant example is that of Zamm, Agent of Vega (from The Truth About Cushgar) by James H. Schmitz. Zamm is an inverted example: she’s a mother who has lost her family. Zamm subsumes her grief and is firmly controlled by her intelligence and iron will. She uses her pain and longing as a weapon, against others–the (ice-cold manipulative spymaster) Third Co-Ordinator describes her as his “grand champion killer”–and against herself. Throughout the story, Zamm drives herself to look for more clues in her own mind and memories, even when this process could kill her or drive her insane. As for plot relevance, Zamm’s vendetta results in the Confederation winning an entire war…by accident.

And don’t ever try to go up against her with a pirate ship or a gun in your hand.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. Thoughts?

Readlist – The Durdane Duology and more

– The Durdane Trilogy (The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra) – Jack Vance. This is a trilogy that really, really should have ended with the second book. Or at least, had a hard-handed editor crack down on Vance, who allowed his cynicism and (apparent) dislike of the main character invalidate that hero’s entire arc, work, and struggles.

Books 1 and 2 set up a subtle parallel between the main hero, Gastel Etzwane, and the two most prominent supporting leads: the mysterious and neutral Ifness, and the fraught Jerd Finnerack. When Etzwane is a young boy, fleeing from mortal danger, he encounters Ifness–who (bound by a strict policy of neutrality!) refuses to help. Later, when Etzwane encounters Ifness again as an adult, Ifness–ostensibly for reasons of sheer pragmatism but, potentially, also as a subconscious or semi-conscious atonement–makes Etzwane his accomplice and sets the reins of power in his hands, before exiting stage left in the fashion of mysterious mentors.

Meanwhile, when Etzwane was also a boy, he did a great harm to Jerd Finnerack, who was attempting to help him; and when he is able to, recruits Finnerack as his assistant…and sets the reins of power in his hands.

Etzwane is not particularly bitter against the man who harmed him, or at least can control the desire to act on his dislike; Finnerack is, and might–or might not. The conflict between the two grows throughout book 2 as they both increase their abilities–Finnerack more so than Etzwane, and Finnerack with decreasing stability. It is one of the driving sources of tension in Book 2, as our heroes  clash even while they are attempting to unify the planet and destroy the barbarian hordes of invaders. –with heroic, protagonistic success, but not without incident–

And then, Ifness comes back and takes over (the neutrality policy has changed! Now his actions are, it is revealed, motivated by a desire to embarass and displace his superiors), and Gastel Etzwane’s time, efforts, sacrifice, struggles, worries, plans, and battles are completely forgotten or negated; Jerd Finnerack is destroyed as a character with an almost cruel abruptness. Several fairly important plot threads are completely abandoned in order to make this work. Worse still, this is all done together with a bait-and-switch moment that was aggravating just on the surface of it.

Still, Book 2 provides an overall satisfactory conclusion to the problems of the world Durdane and its leadership, and the journey of the boy Mur, aka Gastel Etzwane, the musician who became its leader.

The way Book 3 ends makes me assume Vance was forced to write another chapter just for the sake of it, disliked the obligation, and decided to deliberately make the readers suffer. Here’s how: he takes a bunch of standard SF tropes and our hero…and then (with malicious intent!) applies “Except Now Reality Happens” to what should be very simple tropes. Planetary barbarians capture spaceship to rescue their womenfolk!….ship is recaptured after a brief siege because the barbarians can’t make it go anywhere, up down or around, and all survivors (did we mention they started killing each other after a week or so, including the named characters that were specifically pointed out as knowing the odds and the risks of a rescue mission and went for it anyway because they loved their daughters) are enslaved along with the girls. Again, it’s not in the content–it’s in the execution; and it’s in the denouement, which is infuriating all on its own without adding the additional insult that it does have.

Will you look at that, turns out I did have something to say about this book. I think it sucked.

As far as the good stuff goes: Books 1 and 2 for the most part are standard and I did like them: they have characters, character arcs, development, motives, and a plot that allows the characters to be proactive and effective. Book 1 Etzwane is largely motivated by trying to redeem his mother’s slave-indenture, making his mother one of the more prominent female characters in the pulp scifi galaxy. And she’s a rather good character as well. Might have to make a “mothers in SF” post one of these days. And I will say that that’s an OK cover to book 3. If only it had a good book to cover. Damnit.

– The Blue World – Jack Vance – See, Vance did know how to write pulp-action scifi. He just had to layer it in elaborate worldbuilding and add sly layers of humorous backstory. I read this one as a palate cleanser. (Literally: I stayed awake another two hours to read it, just to get The Asutra out of my head.)

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – This one has definitely entered the rotation as one of my go-to relax reads, and I’m glad to say it’s held up on each repeat.

– The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett – “Vimes in Uberwald will be more amusing than an amorous armadillo in a bowling alley.”

Poetry Corner – Shai Dorsai

Stone are my walls, and my roof is of timber,
 But the hands of my builder are stronger by far.
 The roof may be burned and my stones may be scattered,
 But never her light be defeated in war.

 	 I am the heart and the core of the Morgans.
 Many the battle, around me, was fought.
 Many the year has gone by since my building.
 Each of my stones, by a life, has been bought.

 	 Long was the work and hard was the building
 From under the hill and the forest so wide.
 My stone, that is piled in the place of her choosing,
 Is mortared with bone of the men who have died.

	 Blood paid the price of this hill that I rest on
 And blood pays the price of these lands that I see.
 The price; it is fair for the rights that it purchased.
 Within my gray walls, ye shall ever stand free.

 	 I am the heart and the core of the Morgans.
 Amanda; she built me and I shall remain
 A home for the heart of the men that may leave me;
 A beacon for bearing their way home again.

 	 Stone are my walls and my roof is of timber,
 But the hands of my builder are stronger by far.
 The roof may be burned and my stones may be scattered,
 But never her light be defeated in war.


- Gordon R. Dickson, The Spirit of Dorsai

12 Rules for Life: Science-Fiction Solutions to Chaos (repost)

So inspired by (a 12 Rules list which was made by someone who hadn’t very read much science fiction) and the fact that I occasionally remember this is supposed to be an SF book blog, here’s my brilliant, science-fiction infused Antidote To Chaos.

Rule One: Never act incautiously when facing a small wrinkly bald smiling old man!
b88b64994c83bc8f1b9ea3a8fd4d6952-memes

Hokey religions and ancient prophecies are no match for a good blaster at your side. 

When in doubt, take off and nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. 

– Learn the attitude of the knife–of chopping off what’s incomplete and saying ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’ 

Good engineers build triple redundancy. 

Do not call up that which you cannot put down. 

Beware of spaceships bearing gifts. 

When you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.” Also alternatively stated: Make ye no truce with Adam-zad! 

If someone asks you for a cracker for their oontatherium…give it to them. 

Evil is treating people like things–including yourself. 

Fuck subtle. 

All things strive. 

Runners up:
“You can’t trust anybody any further than you can throw them and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”

– Make ye no truce with Kings!

Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF – Parts 2 and 3

As mentioned, Part I is the stuff I actually read (and most of it, liked enormously.) Part II is stories I didn’t bother reading before.

Davy Jones’ Ambassador – Ramond Z. Gallun – This is one of the very few stories you will ever read where “They’ll put you in a box and study you!” is met with a calm, “Yes. I intend to study them, as well. It will be interesting.” So in this case there are two steely-eyed resourceful engineer heroes….and one of them is a Deep Thing.

The Weather Man – It’s actually a three-fer, as it has a smug politician, a mad (female) scientist, an elderly retired scientist (I was waiting for him to be consulted about the developments, but this did not transpire) and an invincible space engineer.

The Singing Diamond – Eh. This is what I have against most space babes: they’re kind of wimpy and will, at the drop of an ultradense gravity bomb, give up on space exploration and hover around Earth to listen to microscopic alien motes buzz. Sing. Whatever.

Exposures – Greg Bear – This one is quite good once you get to the meat of it, but it’s slow and dense and it took some effort to get into.

Down and Out on Ellfive Prime – Dean Ing – This one’s quite good in theory (and has two Competent Space Heroes), but it’s sloppily executed.

Prima Belladona – Uh. Okay.

The Land Ironclads – H. G. Wells invents tank warfare. He doesn’t quite get it all right, but he got the snivelling journalists bang-on.

Procreation – Gene Wolfe: Okay. This one misses out on being straight lit fic mostly because it involves parallel universes and the ingress and egress of the protagonists from them. Nevertheless….

Atomic Power – John W. Campbell: For someone who repeatedly insisted Tom Godwin not rescue the girl in The Cold Equations, Campbell is pretty cavalier about hitting the reset button after life on Earth as we know it is irreparably altered and untold billions of people have died horribly.

GiANTS – Edward Bryant – guess what this one’s about. No, go on. Guess. No, you were actually wrong, because it’s a philosophical romance shot through with elements of science and morbidity. Also, the square-cube law is weaponized.

Day Million – Frederik Pohl – Dude, freaking chill. Seriously.

Weyr Search – Anne McCaffrey – Why are the Pern books regarded as either scifi or good? This story sucked, the characters were repulsive, and the writing was bland.

The Hungry Guinea Pig – Miles J. Breuer, M. D. – I read this story and I regretted it. You have two guesses as to why, and here are three hints to help. One is the title, and the second is the fact that the mad scientist also won a medal in WW2 in the artillery. The last hint is that the square-cube law is gleefully violated and no one seems to really care.

Kyrie – Poul Anderson – Ugh. See, I can handle alien star systems being supernova’d. I can handle the Earth getting blown up. I can handle the girl getting spaced, because that’s a quick death. I can even handle the Earth being torn apart atom from atom and life as we know it being slowly and painfully extinguished. But being crushed to death in a black hole while your dilated sense of time registers it for eternity and you are telepathically linked to someone on the outside who is going be to hearing your screams for eternity–that’s a no from me, dawg.

Dolphin’s Way – Gordon R. Dickson – I read this, or I must have, because it’s Gordon R. Dickson. But I can’t really remember it and I don’t particularly want to try.

The Life and Times of Multivac – Isaac Asimov – I think I read this one. It was aight.

Drode’s Equations – This is goddamn lit fic, what the hell. Get outa here.

Making Light – James P Hogan – Hehhhhhh.

The Last Question – Isaac Asimov – Also heh.

And then there’s Part III – These sound boring, and their first few paragraphs don’t help, and I didn’t read them ever and probably never will.

The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats – James Tiptree, Jr. – Oh, no. I read the guinea pig story. You are NOT getting me on this one.
Cage of Sand – J. G. Ballard. Considering this is where not one but two bookmarks have ended up, it gets to stay on this list. Also the title sounds like Rope of Sand, a vaguely homoerotic film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Henreid (not a bad film, BTW.)
No, No, Not Rogov! – Cordwainer Smith – I vaguely remember skim-reading this one–the title is the last line–but everything Cordwainer Smith has always left a bad taste in my mouth.
Mammy Morgan Played the Organ, Her Daddy Beat the Drum – Michael F Flynn – Is there, possibly, anywhere, somehow, a title less likely to attract a scifi reader’s attention? I mean, I’m not demanding “Blood Swords of the Gods of Death Against the Dying Suns,” but if you’re writing in the genre at least try. At least Carnacki the Ghost-Finder knew to be properly evocative. “The Thing Invisible,” “The Gateway of the Monster.” “The House Among the Laurels.” Refer to the monster, not to what the monster does…especially if the monster/ghost is doing something as mundane as playing piano. Organ. Whatever.
The Pi Man – Alfred Bester – Bester is a complete meh at the best of times.
– A bunch more that I’m not bothering to list out because….they sound boring.

Review – The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF – Pt I

The Ascent of Wonder: the Evolution of Hard SF is an anthology with a hard-SF theme compiled and edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. The copy I have is still stamped with COUNTY REGIONAL LIBRARY and we picked it up off the hardbacks-for-one-dollar table, quite a few moons ago. Not nearly so long ago as that, I found myself frantically trawling through online bibliographies in search of *cough* evocative titles that, more importantly, meant something to me. This was one of them, and I recently re-read (most of) the book to figure out why.

Why? It’s hard or hard-ish SF, but also: deeply psychological. There are a lot of steely-eyed missile man space heroes. Also, this book is very female-centric. There are a lot of cool dames–and a smattering of mad scientists–in this, and they come in more flavors than the space heroes do.

The book is broken down into Parts I, II, and III. I don’t know why because I never have bothered to read the editors’ notes or forwards and I refuse to do so now. It doesn’t seem to be a chronological order, because Part III contains stories by Rudyard Kipling and Jules Verne as well as the likes of Vernor Vinge and Cordwainer Smith.

Not coincidentally, though, this review is also broken down into three parts: stories I’ve voluntarily read before, stories I made myself read this time through, and stories that I’m probably not going to read no matter what. Oddly enough, they kind of trace over the parts I, II, and III as well. Is that significant? I dunno.

So, Part I – stories I’ve read before and most of them I liked.

Nine Lives – Usula K. Leguin – kind of exemplifies the theme of this collection. Hard SF, with the grit of hard, dangerous labor in space and on alien worlds, with a deeply psychological thrust. Two miners on a far-off world have lived with each other long enough to develop a rapport, which is disrupted by the entrance of another personality….lots of another personality. Standard stuff. But then, for the gripping hand: how do you expect someone to react to losing themselves in a mining accident….nine times over? In other words, it’s long on the psychology and short on the blasting action, but it’s also written by a Grande Dame of SF and quite readable regardless.

The Star – Arthur C. Clarke – Heh.

Rappaccini’s Daughter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – How this is supposed to be Hard SF eludes me, but remember the 18th-century Gothic poetic flavor, it’ll be back later.

Mimsy were the Borogoves – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore – Parenthood also seems to be one of the themes of this anthology. Is this significant? I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. Perhaps reviewing SF shouldn’t be done while I have a fever. I should stick to chick-flicks.

Beep – James Blish – I only just realized on this read-through how female-centric this collection actually is, which is probably one of the reasons I tend to like it so much. The central (not POV) character in this story is a woman, and it turns out that (spoiler), she’s got all the answers. And will provide them to the very much not-hapless but in this situation basically helpless, heroes, for the appropriate price. Really, the only way this story shows its age is through the assumption that a professional journalist is going to have anything resembling ethics or patriotism. The actual S in the F here isn’t all that plausible, but said heroes are first-rate mid-century Honest and Competent Bureaucrats….so quaint. So cute.

Transit of Earth – Arthur C. Clarke – The actual reason I was never that impressed by The Martian.

To Bring in the Steel – Donald M. Kingsbury – My actual favorite. This entire 1000+ page book is worth hauling around for this one novella. What’s it about? Well, there’s this girl. And there’s this guy. And there’s an asteroid with ten billion tons of steel, being slowly guided on its way towards Earth. Guy (Kell) is an engineer on the asteroid colony. He’s an old-school space hero of the steely-eyed missile man with a heart of gold and an exterior of plastic and tungsten: AKA, a cynical, arrogant jerk that no one likes but everyone depends on because he really is that good. He wants custody of his seven year old daughter and, when it’s denied him by the other residents of the colony–who quite rightfully doubt that he’s fit to care for a child–comes up with an ironic revenge: hire Lisa Maria Sorenti, the most (in)famous, expensive, and sought-after courtesan in San Fransisco, as her nanny and thereby unleash hell in the erstwhile close-nit community of the mine colony. Kell is valuable enough to the company that the CEOs comply with his idea….except that Lisa Maria’s contract has an extra clause in it: she’s only allowed to focus on Kell.
So, yes, I know, so far it sounds like a maybe-above-average arranged marriage-type romance novel or a very, very sub-par setup for a scifi book, even when you factor in the portrayal of Kell an asocial, physically unattractive loner with a high IQ-, obsessive personality. (It’s really quite impressive writing, at least to my maladjusted nerd brain). It’s a portrait of The Ideal SF Hero…and what he’d really be like to be around–and what kind of woman it would take to put up with him. (In Lisa Maria’s case, seven million dollars.)
Where it comes into its own is turning Lisa Maria Sorenti from a helpless damsel incapable of functioning without her manager (aka: abusive pimp) into a heroine capable of saving the day with space suit, rocket ship, and laser gun….a heroine who is not only capable of handling the roughneck hero, but of learning how to match him jet for jet as well.

Waterclap – Isaac Asimov – This is a very feminist story. It says so. It’s character say so. And my oh my are the author’s unspoken assumptions adorably dated.

Gomez – C. M. Kornbluth – Eh. Too much math, too little blowing stuff up, and Gomez rejects his destiny as a science hero. Can’t really blame him much, though, given the circumstances…

The Cold Equations – Tom Godwin – Apparently, John Campbell rejected this story three times because Godwin kept coming up with ingenius ways to save the girl. Which, given that this story is good physics and bad engineering, including y’know, social engineering, would have been somewhat impressive in and of its own. Nevertheless, it’s a classic of the genre for a reason: she dies, and there is nothing that could be done about it.

The Hole Man – Larry Niven – This is an entry in the Astronauts Are Maladjusted Psychos genre much beloved by Hollywood scripts. However, it manages to stick to its literary roots by making them competent and intelligent maladjusted psychos who can do the math properly, rather than the total screwups that we usually see in space movies.

The Xi Effect – Earth goes poof and a snide professor told you so.

The Beautiful and the Sublime – Bruce Sterling – Remember what I said about the 18th-century Gothic lit? This is the counterpoint to it.

Heat of Fusion – John M. Ford – I keep forgetting what this story actually is about. I recognize the title. I remember I kind of liked it. I look up the first page in the book and go “oh yeah, that one.” And then by the time I get back to this part of the review I’ve forgotten again. So it’s pretty okay, I guess?

All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe – So….what? This is my problem with Gene Wolfe’s stuff and other such deeply subtextual and meaningful and double-meaningful things written by geniuses for geniuses: it doesn’t actually offer anything to me, a non-genius reading at the surface level. So why should I bother with it? And so I don’t. That being said, I read this one again, hoping it was going to be clearer this time. Nope.
Well, actually, that being said, this one does have a pretty understandable surface-level storyline. It’s just densely buried under the in medias res style that doesn’t provide any context whatsoever, heaps of subtext and globs upon globs of narrative filligree. Oh well, whatever. The turtle moves and so does the fetus.

Occam’s Scalpel – Theodore Sturgeon – This one I also like, because it’s also a portrait of An Ideal SF Hero….and why he’s really, realllllly scary to people who are paying attention. (And it’s what I always flash back to whenever I hear news of Elon Musk getting up to new business.) But it transcends the Beware the Superman theme by allowing both the ubermensch and the regular-man POV character to have and showcase the very best intentions and motivations. The final twist, of course, was put there to punch up the end of an almost-pure character study with overtones of horror and turn it into a scifi thriller…but I would seriously be down for the sequel starring any combination of these characters or ideas.

Time Fuze – Randall Garrett – I regularly get into arguments with the Father of Skaith over whether or not characters should be killed off. He says no: they need to stick around, because when you sign on to a book or a series with a main character, that is who you want to read about. Your main characters should be awesome enough that people like them, and they should be smart enough to keep themselves alive and victorious (in-story). Hero fights, hero wins, hero lives happily ever after. I say that, awesome or not, sometimes you need to kill off characters if that’s the natural result of their course of action, or if the plot / character development of others (AKA: dead wife syndrome) requires it. As long as a hero gets to live happily ever after, that still counts.
Nevertheless, we are agreed on one thing: it’s Bad Form to blow up the Earth.
BAD FORM, RANDALL!

Desertion – Clifford Simak – I’m going to spoil it right here, because: “They would turn me back into a man.” “And me, into a dog.” –is awesome.

The Person from Porlock – Raymond F. Jones – Another story about a socially maladjusted engineer is ruined by having the (literal) people from Porlock be space lizards.
Space lizards–with exposition.

The Planners – Kate Wilhelm – I read this story before, and I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it this time. If you want to write dreamlike, hallucinogenic prose, kindly don’t. I was going to write an entire ‘nother clause to that sentence, but y’know…

Light of Other Days – Bob Shaw – It aight.

Chromatic Aberration – I liked it, possibly because it’s one of the few stories in Part III of this book to feature, even vaguely described, action.

In a Petri Dish Upstairs – George Turner – This one is kind of the antithesis to proper SF, and not because the theme is bleak and the characters are repulsive. It’s because (however realistic this may be), the authorities’ solution to a tribe of orbiting barbarians is to make it somebody else’s problem….in the future. We don’t get to the future by having this attitude, and I don’t like reading about it.

Johnny Mnemonic – Vernor Vinge – Eh, it’s OK.