“Add title”

Some have broken the bounds of the narrow land

Laid open the book of dreams

Drawn doorways in the sand 

walked through Shadow to the many worlds

With fellowship and dread companions

From the last castle to the Gaean Reach

strangers and pilgrims in a strange land, 

progressing, our destination universe.

The farthest star but a mote in God's eye.


When the world turned upside down,

through a splinter in the mind's eye, recall

who goes there, out of the dark?

A star rider on a steel horse, 

a rite of passage through abyss of wonder,

shelters of stone to the starpilot's grave. // clan of cave bear to the lioness rampant

I saw the doors of his mouth open

and the lamps of his eyes shine.

A final rose bloom for Ecclesiastes,

and no night, ever, without stars.


What's it like out there -- Skagganauk, or the space beyond,

the birthplace of creation, or the crossroads of time?

There is time enough for love. 

Soul music in a minor key, sung by no woman born

In a many-colored land: red, blue, and green.

East of Eden, children of the mind await their childhood's end.

The player of games is gonna roll the bones.

Computers don't argue, the right to arm bears is in the bone

Equal rites are observed,

And no man sayeth call him lord.


There are Skylarks three in an alien sky;

from homely house to lonely mountain 

the long patrol guards moss and flower;

a stainless steel rat runs for president (to hell and back).

Sheep are electric. The horse and his boy

dream of dancing mountains.

All cats are gray, walking between the walls

To say nothing of the dog

that bays with five mouths

the fool moon.


Creatures there are of light and darkness:

When true night falls on the borders of infinity

two suns setting cast slithering shadows

across the long tomorrow. 

Ancient, my enemy, the old gods waken. 

Alas, Babylon! The city and the stars!

Wolves across the border

A feral darkness, the darkness that comes before,

Beyond the black river. 


I will fear no evil, 

not the hills of the dead nor the black god's kiss,

the wings in the night, or the red nails' gleam;

Daemon, sidhe-devil, or devil in iron

or the nine billion names of God,

for the stars are also fire

and the stars

burn.


Soldier, ask not 

of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.

Take iron counsel of the cold equations.

Till we have faces, lest the long night fall,

Raise the sword of Rhiannon

Set a fire upon the deep.

More than honor, we few,

Wee free men, the high crusade,

Seek Armageddon inheritance

In the service of the sword. 


Sleeper, awaken! from this alien shore

To your scattered bodies go

A citizen of the galaxy

and not this pale blue dot

Bid farewell again to the cool, green hills of earth

I have space suit and I will travel

The stars are my destination 

These stars are already ours.

B-Movie Review: Cosmic Sin (2021)

2_cosmic_sin__00060_zoomSurprising!

That’s not to say it’s actually good.

Just…that it surprises one who was expecting it to be a lot worse. But the actors (with the exception of Bruce Willis, who isn’t particularly happy about having to work for this particular paycheck) aren’t having to deal with dialogue that is completely cringily insane, and even manage to sell some fairly decent scifi exposition. They’re mainly character actors, with character-actor type faces, and when they get their chance a close-up, they’re good at it. And then you’ve got stuff like Frank Grillo rolling up to a firefight on a spacebase in a pickup truck, which is all kinds of unintentionally awesome and a wrench wench who is rather suspiciously fond of her motorcycle nevertheless being excellent at nervously-selling some technobabble to some other characters who are not really reassured.

Unfortunately, there is a point at which the concept of a semi-intelligent sci-fi First Contact And It’s Not Positive, What Do We Do (pssst the answer is genocide)?-movie (which had the makings of a good movie!) gets buried under a low-budget generic action movie which, well, the best I can say about it is that it did try, it just also didn’t succeed.

And, yeah, the alien-zombie infectees escape quarantine and kill their military guards, on a military base, with suspicious ease but the resultant firefight is actually quite well-done, including one character-based scene that would have been a genuine punch to the gut if there had been a little more setup for it. (In fact, that previous sentence kind of sums up the entire movie. If there had been a little bit better writing and a little bit more time to set things up it could have really, genuinely connected. Alas.)

Anyway, the titular Cosmic Sin is actually rather nicely explained as the peacenik doctor lady’s term for what humanity is going to have to do to survive first contact, which is completely destroy the other side or at least annihilate their capacity for harm. Something called a Q-bomb is going to be involved. (Bruce Willis’ character apparently lost his rank and pension because he dropped a Q-bomb on some planet that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been.) General Grillo decides that he is going to sin cosmically without waiting for official orders. (Which is a usually a huge no-no in the context of genocide but never mind.)

It might also be mentioned that at this point, in-story, four hours have passed since the actual first contact and fifty-three humans have been killed, and also the humans don’t actually know where the aliens’ home planet is. On the other hand, the aliens probably do know where Earth is.

(“Q-bomb, please.”)

So our heroes snickersnack themselves into armor/suits which actually look a lot less impressive than the costume designer probably thought they did, because they only cover the ribcage and forearms and they’re very bulky in those areas without seeming to provide any kind of benefit or support to the wearers. The team appears to be: Grillo, Willis, Peacenik Doctor, Grillo’s weedy nephew who demands in, two other miscellaneous guys, and Wrench Wench who gets drafted to handle the Q-bomb.

Apparently traveling to wherever they’re going doesn’t require a ship, just a spinny glowy thing and a platform. (“It’s just quantum displacement, it’s not…rocket science…”) Hah, lol.

And again, there are little touches that show me that someone at least wanted this movie to be a decent movie and thought about the actual characters, and thought about the actual setting. Willis and Peacenik Doctor used to have a thing and discuss maybe having a thing later again if they get through this. Grillo and his sidekick have a quick discussion about the philosophy of war and looking after the kid if one of them dies…and then his sidekick has a discussion with Wrench Wench that isn’t halfway bad, either. (“Apparently the Aztecs were doing quite well before Cortez showed up.” “Uh…are we the Aztecs or are we Cortez?” “We’re about to find out.”)

So they jump through hyperspace to planet Ellora, thirteen light-years from Earth. There’s some sort of space battle going on above the planet, which we see none of and by the time the team lands it’s been split up. Now…see, this is where the film’s ambitions outran its budget….and abilities. It’s still trying and here and there it has a bright spark, but it’s nowhere near able to pull off what it wants to pull off.–not without a way higher budget and some much better writing and a lot more time to set things up.

Anyhow, Weedy Nephew and Wrench Wench (and Q-bomb) plus the quickly-injured Sidekick (weird, given that he’s the only actual veteran in the group), land together, get into a firefight, and then get rescued by some local humans….who are mostly civilians who have been trying to protect their own homes and planets. (One of them is wearing a baseball cap with a thin blue line patch. I call that quality costume design and I’m only being slightly sarcastic.) Although a new character, a woman with very large braids and moderately-large boob armor and what looks to my inexperienced eye to be an entire 50-cal machine gun with extra stuff glued on it, is introduced. She’s an enthusiastic fan of ex-General Willis, it turns out. (“Do they not know it takes a monster to kill a monster?”)

He, it turns out, has also survived and landed, but he’s got a concussion (his suit helpfully informs us and him) and is also surrounded by low-budget-costumed menacing figures. Actually, this next few set of scenes isn’t half bad if you take into consideration that Willis is concussed and therefore a little bit of trippiness then works, theoretically. However, since none of the movie has been from his perspective before, it’s a little offputting.

But then the away team returns to a refugee center where the injured guy was taken and General Willis ….does something to his suit, killing him quickly. (“He was gonna die anyway.”) They then all brood about this for a moment, as though one of our major characters has not just murdered another one. What the hell?

Meanwhile: the aliens have a giant spinny teleportation gate in orbit which they can use to bring their entire fleet through and thence to Earth. The heroes will have reach orbit in order to use the Q-bomb safely (or shoot the Q-bomb into the space gate). However, without the ability to shut the gate down after they throw the bomb through, they will end up dead as well. Okay, so this scene? Got the point across and did it without involving a single scientist in a lab coat explaining it to the heroes. You have got to give credit where credit is due.

Willis has a monologue here to Wrench Wench that is supposed to be touching and meaningful, but I keep getting distracted by the way his armored crop top keeps bumping his chin.

Meanwhile, Grillo makes contact. He’s up in orbit with a damaged suit. He…tells her to send the Q-bomb to him via the orbital cannon. I think. (I initially thought he asked to be mercy killed.) –and not to tell his nephew that he’s still alive.

So our heroes are….I’m not sure what the plan re the Q-bomb is, but in the meanwhile there’s thumping music and they’re planning to make a “killbox” and the braids girl is up on a water tower somewhere, and everyone else in hunkering down behind those fiberglass tank things everyone tries to make garden planters out of and Bruce Willis pops open a flare and strides down the middle of the aisle and then, OHHHHH SNAP the aliens got to the peacenik doctor and she’s zombified now. Whoops.

But anyway, the aliens speak through the former-doctor and, eh, turns out they also think preemptive genocide is a fair response to first contact. So, first contact resumes and the aliens are suddenly ninjas for some reason and the rest of this firefight is distractingly bad. But Willis grabs on to the outside of the alien vessel as it flies off. I guess that’s one way of getting into orbit. But if he’s trying to rescue Peacenik Doctor, he’s way too late. She/it faces him and says “We never wanted peace.” And then things get wonky.

Grillo, meanwhile, is still in orbit and trying to take control of….something? But it’s not letting him override.
Wrench Wench launches the Q-bomb at the glowy teleportation gate.

Grillo sends her the coordinates for his suit and tells her to fire directly at him. He’s going to use what fuel he has left as the catalyst to, I dunno, make the Q-bomb go boom. His weedy nephew, who overheard, has a moment and then puts his hand over Wrench Wench’s and is the one to pull the trigger. Heavy, man. And ohhh, okay, that was the catalyst boom that closes the teleportation gate so the rest of the human planet doesn’t get sucked into a black hole when the Q-bomb goes off on the other side.

Weedy Nephew then goes and starts stabbing the hell out of the surviving alien ninja power ranger to the accompaniment of….harmonica music?

We cut to seven days after first contact, with the remaining cast drinking their sorrows away in a bar, the Alliance Senate taking credit for the attack’s success and announcing a dramatic military expansion, and Bruce Willis, who somehow survived being up in orbit when all the explosions started going off, fades out into the night like an old soldier always does.

It’s not nearly as bad as anyone seems to think it is–and it has some aspirations of being great.

Rated: Hell, I’m a fan of all seven.

How’s that for exposition snippet

“You graduated from Hole in the Sky?”
Yulia tried not to sigh. “I’m from Mars. I had a two-parent family, but my mother died in an accident and my father was…also injured. He was not able to continue being my guardian. I had line relatives, but it would have been way too expensive to ship me off world to them, and I’d have missed my shot at the Academy that year. So I went to Hole in the Clouds for about eight months and I got my adult certificates out of there.”
“Wow. Was it…how was it?”
“I…I won’t say it was good–I did make friends there–but, y’know, mostly what I ended up coming out of there with is a really, really firm appreciation for the rules. I mean, rules beyond ‘do not punch smaller people in the face and take their chocolate, because you’re bigger.’ I mean, that’s a rule that any smaller person can see the value in following. And, y’know, if you bully enough people, the staff are going to step in and see that one of them gets a shock glove and combt training…and then that person is going to learn why he shouldn’t have done that.”
“That’s how they operate? Really?”
“They give you the tools. And they give you a hand. Then it’s up to you. But, y’know, I mean: the like, really old-fashioned rules that don’t have obvious consequences. Like, ‘chew with your mouth closed.’ ‘Do not have sex outside of an institutionally-approved relationship.’” Yulia hastened to add, “What I mean is, that’s a rule because it’s a good way to just be used and psychologically damaged by someone who doesn’t care, or even just likes to destroy people. Not to mention, there’s always the possibility of pregnancy, or getting someone pregnant.”
“Wait, don’t most creches sterilize?”
“Hole in the Sky doesn’t. Unless there is a medical necessity or prior reason.”
“Such as getting someone pregnant outside of wedlock?”
Yulia shrugged. “Chew with your mouth closed. Pay your debts. Have a reputation for reliability. So. Yeah. That’s what it was like.”
“Eight months.”
“Yeah.”
“Don’t they not graduate you until you have the ability to support yourself, or something?”
“Well, they get into the philosophy of it a bit more, but yeah: they give you the training and the tools. That’s why I am also cross-trained on maintenance and operation of three types of heavy ground equipment.”
J Eden actually grinned. “Cool.”
“Yep! Crawlers, wheels, and hovercraft.”
“Caterpillars or spiders?”
“Both. Same controls. Fun fact! Almost every human vehicle uses one of those three control systems.”
“What, all of them? No way. The military craft, too? You can just learn to operate any of them?”
“Well, the really big ones or the really specialized ones are their own skillset, of course. It’s a way different thing to be doing precision welds on a ship hull than buzzing down trees for power lines.”
“You did that?”
“Yeah! Our team from Hole in the Sky set the power lines from Dryas Station, I was on the aerial lines and then they had me watching the diggers…gosh, I’m seriously talking about this. Sorry. It was a lot of fun and we were really proud of ourselves. I’m gonna shut up now. But yeah, crawlers? Are really cool.”

The Stars, My Brothers – Edmund Hamilton – (Repost Review)

librivoxthestarsmybrothers500Edmund Hamilton was a Golden Age science fiction author who happened also to be the husband of Leigh Brackett. Lions mate with lions, I guess.

My personal favorite of his stories is the Starwolf trilogy–space opera starring a human pirate turned mercenary, outlawed from the race of nonhuman aliens, also pirates, who raised him. The books seem like trite trash, but there’s a genuine sense of wonder and excitement about them, along with solid prose and bold, memorable characters. This review also isn’t about them.

The Stars My Brothers is a very, very old novella. It’s so old it’s in the public domain–which is how I stumbled across it on the Librivox app. It’s so old it predicts that we would have a functioning space station in 1981 (well, ok; but it’s a lot less impressive), and that we would be working on interstellar FTL drives.

The hero of the story is Reed Kieran, a technician on Wheel Five of the international space station (see what I mean?). There is an accident, the Wheel is destroyed, but he is merely flash-frozen instead of blown up, dismembered, or disintegrated. Instead of shipping him down to Earth to bury, however, the high command chooses to make a public relations example out of him; he is kept frozen in a dedicated spaceman’s graveyard until the time comes that revivification technology advances sufficiently. (I.e., never: what’s the point? So the bodies pile up in the eerie floating ring of corpses, until…)

He’s our hero, though, so Kieran wakes about a century later, on a starship on the run.

He’s come into the hands of a group of political zealots who have chosen him to make a statement. About what? The state of affairs on Sakai.

Huh?

It takes him a while to get the details on the state of affairs on Sakai. Of the other characters, psychologist Paula thinks he can’t handle the details, while skeptic Webber thinks it’s a hopeless cause.

Well, first off:

Humanity has gone to the stars, only to find that in many places there were humans already–perhaps lower in technology, but still recognizably the same species.

Earth humans have shouldered the Earthman’s Burden, and begun to uplift those whom they can, teaching them about civilization and technology, and giving each human planet a place on the commonwealth government.

Sakai is the exception. There are humans on Sakai–but they are not the dominant species. A race of intelligent and highly civilized lizardlike aliens are, and they treat the humans rather the same way we treat Highland Gorillas–and for the same reason.

The “human” Sakai are pre-language, non-tool or fire using, and can’t think ahead far enough to counter ambush predators. What the dissident faction wants is for Famous and Respected Space Hero Kieran to join their cause and help sway public opinion. What they have been doing is secretly landing and…well, I’m not sure really. The group Kieran is with doesn’t try to do anything to uplift them, and other groups (Park Ranger Lizard Bregg takes pains to point out) have managed to introduce fatal diseases before.)

In fact, it mostly appears that the environmentalists are motivated by xenophobia rather than anything else–the distaste and disgust of seeing another species promoted over ones’ own. And it’s a feeling that Kieran, naturally–being a human, being a human of his time–shares.

And yet Kieran, in the time-honored pulp hero tradition of never quite doing what or reacting how he’s intended to, has this to say:

“[…] a man of my time was bound to feel just this way you wanted him to feel, and would go away from here crying your party slogans and believing them. But you overlooked something—you overlooked the fact that when you awoke me, I would no longer be a man of my own time—or of any time. I was in darkness for a hundred years—with the stars my brothers, and no man touching me. Maybe that chills a man’s feelings, maybe something deep in his mind lives and has time to think. I’ve told you how I feel, yes. But I haven’t told you what I think.”

This story isn’t the best Edmund Hamilton, or pulp fiction itself, has to offer; but it’s a solid, worthwhile little read that takes the time to think about things rather than throw them down blindly. There’s also a line that made me completely snort:

[Paula says:] “Back in your day women were still taking advantage of the dual standard—demanding complete equality with men but clinging to their special status. We’ve got beyond that.”

Yeahhhh….about that….

Rating: Three and a half anthropoids out of five.

The Nemesis from Terra – Leigh Brackett – Repost Review

Nemesis From Terra

The Nemesis from Terra, or, in what I suppose is its original and much better title, Shadow over Mars, was Leigh Brackett’s first science fiction novelwow. That simultaneously explains the slight discrepancies between this and her other Martian works, and is really impressive for a SF debut. Incidentally, excuse the slight incoherence. No coffee. Also spoilers will be casually dropped.

It’s a short work, less than 150 pages, and I finished it in under an hour.

The story is fairly straightforward: ambitious Ed Fallon and his enigmatic, brutal henchman Jaffa Storm own and run the Company that is eventually going to take over Mars. They aren’t gentle about it, either. Rick–Richard Urquhart–is introduced running for his life against Venusian anthropoid press gangs. He flees into a Martian house and is confronted by a creepy old woman who reads his future: that he is destined to cast his shadow over Mars–and then tries to kill him. Rick kills her and escapes the house, but is promptly caught by Jaffa Storm’s anthropoids and dragged to slave in the Company mines.

Meanwhile, for the people of Mars, their boy-king Haral and his grim and gallant general Beudach, the wind is rising….

The plot is straightforward–rebel-revenge-rescue-ride off into the sunset (or the Space-sunset)–with a few twists that are, while welcome qua twists, also quite straightforward. For instance, when it is revealed that Jaffa Storm has psychic abilities and has been using them to keep very close tabs on Rick, all the way up to the point at which the united masses are about to storm the Company compound, Rick doesn’t consider obfuscation. He merely changes his mind at the last minute and does something slightly different. It’s not unexpected for a hero to outmatch a villain with his wits, but something a little cleverer is usually expected. Not to complain about the end result–ramming an airship into an enemy compound to bring down the shield is a time-honored and worthy procedure. Ask Star Wars.* But it is a slightly less than clever solution.

Unusually with Brackett, the Martian setting does not wholly steal the show. If this was her first novel (I’m not bothering to dig and find out if she had other short stories/novellas in the setting before), this is understandable. This Mars isn’t choked with the dust of a billion years of human life, weary, sensual, wicked, barbaric, noble, and brutal, the haunt of Eric John Stark (who can be best and most accurately be described as Space Tarzan), resting place of Ban Cruach, warrior, god, and king, a million years guardian at the Gates of Death; the citadels of forbidden Shandakor and Jekkara of crumbling walls.

It comes close, mind you, and all of that atmosphere is there–but it’s slightly to the background and submerged against more modern concerns and more modern men–like Hugh St.-John (the guy who ends up running Mars after Rick’s shadow gets up and moves on) and his wonderfully pragmatic native sidekick (who melts the ancient and sacred relic of his people to get it off Rick and Rick out of their hair).

The characters are usually not the most interesting part of the pulp novel, but in this one they do well. Rick is a man who awakens from lifelong slumber and finds that he is great, capable of mighty deeds, casting a long shadow…but he’s not necessarily a good man–and the people around him know it.

Mayo McCall is a girl who epitomizes the pulp dichotomy (and there is a sentence I didn’t expect to see before coffee): a beautiful, smart, strong woman who influences the political and moral actions of the plot because of her own convictions, who is physically capable and hugely courageous and nevertheless still spends a chunk of the book as a damsel in distress. I’d say it was genius at work, but then again, at no point does she also end up scantily-clad, so it misses being a perfect tenner.

Jaffa  Storm is an excellent antagonist: fearless, ruthless, as smart as and more prepared than the hero–and physically stronger and more capable. There is a real sense of menace whenever he’s around, but at the same time he’s easy to root for. A scene of him stalking the streets to slaughter the secret war-council of the Martian king–alone–at the dead of night–while bystanders slink away or bolt their doors–was really thrilling.

Even the minor characters–boy-king Haral, who summons up the rebellion to rise over Mars with a political savvy beyond his years; his loyal general, the wolflike Beudach, whose last moments are filled with a desperate nobility and dignity that makes him vie for spot of the most memorable character; Llaw the insane and vengeful dwarf–are clearly delineated and written.

I’m out of time.

tl;dr: Rick rises to revenge and rebel on Mars. Not all of Mars wants him to.

Rated: Four and a half ancient cities out of five. Good book. Read it.

* This review was written before The Last Jedi. This review does not constitute an acknowledgment of any sort that The Last Jedi did anything well. This review would prefer to take the stance that The Last Jedi does not exist. Anyhoo, Leigh Brackett rocks.

Book Review – Dread Companion – Andre Norton (repost)

42439752-dread_companion_1980_24321-4Dread Companion is a 1970s SF/Fantasy fusion novel by Andre Norton that suffers mostly from a lurid cover blurb and having a title like “Dread Companion,” which is a phrase that occurs near the end of the novel. Something like, “A Stargate to Elfland” or “Star-Changeling,” or even “Turn of the Space-Screw.” would have been better. Sure, I’m second-guessing the Grande Dame of Science Fiction, but that’s my perogative.

Anyhow, the setup is similar to Turn of the Screw. Kilda c’Rhyn, a young woman with few other palatable options for her future (born from a contracted marriage later dissolved, raised in a creche and about to hit the age of mandatory discharge), takes a job as governess to two children on an outpost colony planet.

And that’s where the dread (and/or screwing turn) part starts to come into play.

Oomark, the younger boy, is normal and docile and completely cowed by his sister Bartare. Bartare is creepy as all get-out. She exhibits powers not within the realm even of known parapsychology, and is able to partially dominate even Kilda.

Bartare’s powers and knowledge come from The Green Lady, who–long story short–is one of the Folk, of another World. In the year 2400 After Flight, Earth has all but been lost, and no one remembers the even more ancient stories of the places and the People like this. Places where time is distorted, weird nightmare creatures walk and talk like humans, strange bodily changes (no not those!) distort the shape, and if you eat the the there food you cannot go home.

Guess where Bartare, Oomark, and Kilda end up?

Guess who eats the food?

It’s up to Kilda–and an unknown creature that once was a man, who has been trapped in Faerie for a very, very long time–to rescue the children, break Bartare free of the Folk’s programming, and somehow find the Way back home. And Kilda won’t ever give up on the children she was given to guard.

When I initially wrote this review, it was as much to explain and justify things to a non-SFfian roommate who saw the back cover and got very, very worried for her friend Riders. Still–I have to say that everything I said then is totally still true now.

I really liked this book–because it’s really and truly wholesome. I don’t have much time to read, and so try to limit my time to purely informative (non-fiction), or purely worthwhile. I don’t want things that depressing, scary, or grimy. I don’t want to be left with a tarnished and ugly feeling when I read a book.

I found this book uplifting and I enjoyed it because of that.

It has decent characters doing the decent, right thing at all costs. Kilda won’t give up on the children, even when Bartare seems beyond all hope and Oomark has turned into a faun. Kosgrove stays with and helps Kilda even though his odds would be better just stealing her food and haring off on his own.

It has characters I like and respect struggling against almost overwhelming dangers, giving up, persevering, fighting, and succeeding through courage and resourcefulness. It’s the risk that makes the reward worthwhile.

Oh yeah, and it’s well-written, well-paced, well-narrated, evocative and descriptive without falling into the Lovecraft/Dunsany purple prose quagmire. Another reviewer mentioned that this book had notes of C.S.Lewis. This is a perfect comparision. Faerie feels a less oceanic (and far less Edenic) version of Perelandra–completely strange, teeming with alien life, bound by inexplicable rules that have incredibly harsh penalties for breaking…and incredible help and kindness from unlikely sources when least expected. (…well…it’s from a tree. But you get my point.) And also slightly psychedelic.

Not letting it be a straight-up fantasy works in the book’s favor. Kilda’s hard-SF background allows her to be detached and clinical about the weirdness she is presented with. A lesser heroine (in the hands of a lesser author!) would have had far less fortitude and vastly lesser problem-solving skills.

As usual, I’m running out of time. Last comment:

The only real problem I have with the story is that it’s left ambiguous how the magic of Faerie works. Although it’s implied that both the Folk and their long-departed enemies were Sufficiently Advanced aliens, it’s left ambiguous. For the purposes of the story, it might as well truly be magic. The fact that this story is SF indicates that it probably isn’t…but not getting a solid hint either way is a bit disappointing.

Last last comment: Kilda winding a bandage around a shambling, hoary, barely-bipedal monsterand pinning it in place with his Survey flight insignia badge–gave me chills.

Rated: these stars are ours.

QuikReviews – Serpent & Dove, The Cruel Prince, Skyward, Starsight

mahurin_serpent-and-doveSerpent & Dove, Shelby Mahurin – puerile, juvenile, and terribly written.

This book reads like fanfiction from the heyday of insane Harry Potter fangirls who have just discovered social media. Not AO3 even. This is fanfic.net level stuff. And not any of the quality, either, where the author is some kind of intelligent adult amusing themselves by running an alternate scenario in their favorite playground. The other kind. That’s how bad this book is. I couldn’t get more than two chapters into this, and I deleted it with extreme prejudice from all devices.

Now, I know that “fantasy romance” isn’t a terribly demanding genre, let alone YA fantasy romance, which comparatively speaking is the fawning lackey of the romance genre and the resentful bootlicking toady of fantasy. The absolute best this story could aspire to is moderate charm and perhaps, maybe, if the author accidentally got a dash of testosterone in their Starbucks that day, a thrill or two.

I’m all in for charm. It was, in fact, what I was hoping for. I hoped that the vapid premise (witches, witch hunters, party A marries party B) would achieve some sort of balance, humor, or sweetness.

Boy was I disappointed. This is one author who deserves to be thrown into a pit and not let out until she swears never to touch a typewriter again. For that matter, we should also devise some kind of cunning punishment for whatever editor signed off on this book, too, because if ever anyone deserved to be hung by their toenails in a vat of octopus ink….

the2bcruel2bprinceThe Cruel Prince, Holly Black – puerile, juvenile, and poorly-written. Albeit, I will be honest here: this one is much better-written than S&D. I made it about five chapters. Holly Black does have a certain amount of talent: her prose is definitely readable and her characters, while they start out sketchy and conforming to cliche, have a tendency to shake themselves out into a more relaxed, interesting, colorful existence.*

Problem: this doesn’t happen to her main, viewpoint character.

The next problem: five chapters in, there is no plot and no momentum indicating what direction it will be moving in.

The other problem: The characters aren’t enough to carry the story until the plot does get started, because the ones we get a focus on are obnoxious, ugly, and lacking in redeeming values. See, Madac? The guy who I’m-sure-a-lawyer-could-classify-it-as-self-defence kills his ex-wife and then adopts and raises her children, who is a strong general to the King, a loyal advisor to the Prince? Who teaches and advises his children but also lets them get into and out of trouble on their own? That guy is interesting. Why isn’t the book following him?

Instead, we get Jude, and she’s an unattractive character. She’s a powerless mass of resentment and thwarted fury. That’s not the bad part. The bad part is that she’s weak. Not physically (although that’s up for debate as well, since although she insists she’s been trained in swordsmanship, it’s all been told us rather than shown…in any fashion)–Jude is weak where it matters: in principle. She has none. She has nothing she believes in, nothing she really wants to achieve–just a vague and generalized longing for power, to settle scores.

Here’s the other thing: Jude really comes off extremely poorly, because the next book I read had a very similar character, done well.

 

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Cover too arty, not enough explosions, energy lassos, or spacefighters.

Skyward, Brandon Sanderson – juvenile, yes, but this is superbly written.

 

And it’s not just that sci-fi is an innately superior genre to fantasy (it is, though). It’s the fact that Brandon Sanderson is apparently just a really, really good writer. I didn’t know that myself, to be honest; I’d only read Warbreaker before, and wasn’t impressed with that.

This one is, in fact, so good I’m going to try to write a full review of it later. Anything that starts off with a homage to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (humanity stays underground and keeps its populations small, or else alien bombers strike; outcast girl discovers powerful ancient weapon-ship and mysterious but cute critter sidekick) is OK in my book–and Sanderson makes his heroine, grandiose, bellicose, cocky, understandable, endearing…and completely heroic.

Starsight, Brandon Sanderson – Also very good, but its adherence to genre conventions (only the main character can do things, insanely compressed timelines, mecha-anime soft sci-fi instead of military hard SF), slightly hurts it.

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This is not a good sci-fi cover.

* Also, this post may or may not have been written under the influence of a mild fever. Serpent & Dove really is that bad, though.

Book Review – A Wizard in Bedlam – Christopher Stasheff

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The cover to the edition I originally read. It’s…hideous.

Christopher Stasheff (who sadly passed away in 2018) usually wrote more light-hearted SF and fantasy that revelled in cunning acronyms, pulpishly flat but vivid romances, and puns which escape being horrible by dint of being, well, kinda funny instead. (“Paying tacks,” “no rest for the wicket,” etc.) A Wizard in Bedlam is grittier and more serious than its sequels; only subsumed hints of romance; and the prophetic doggerel poetry has a solid reason for being included.There’s no mention of the alphabet soup of acronyms, either; and if there were any puns, I totally missed them. Still, there is the same wry narrative voice and witty in-character humor, carefully-described action scenes and plenty of thrilling escapades.

Actually, I’d forgotten how much I’d forgotten about this book–the only impression I still carried was “this one was the serious/good one.” This impression is kind of misleading: they’re all pretty good, this one one is just about .5 degrees higher up on the hard/soft SF thermometer than the rest.

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Slightly better.

Plot: Dirk Dulaine is an agent returned to his home to carry word to the rebel leaders: when they are ready, the promised Towers (ships) shall drop down from the skies to support their brothers’ uprising. He only has two problems–One, who are the rebel leaders? Two: How to know when The Time is, or convince them that it is now?

 

Because, no one will act until DeCade has rungen the bell.–and though it’s hard for Dirk, who left the planet as a child, to understand, every churl of the planet Melange really is genuinely waiting for DeCade, the centuries-dead leader who almost led them to glorious freedom once before. He, with the help of a mysterious Wizard, promised to return someday. How is a matter slightly beyond Dirk’s paygrade.

There’s also the matter of a mysterious giant named Gar, an offworlder and who is also searching for the rebel leaders for reasons of his own, and asking a lot of pointed political questions along the way. He and Dirk fall in together, fight together, and when he’s captured by the mustache-twirlingly spiteful Lord Core, Dirk decides that one good turn deserves another. He and his contacts–which are mostly the beautiful peasant spy maiden, Madelon–can’t directly rescue Gar. They will have to wait until the Games and make a break for it then.

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Solid ’80s art. At least Dirk isn’t doing a leg cling.

Escaping the Games necessitates our heroes take temporary shelter in a Bedlam House–a madhouse. And Dirk finds, slightly too late, something really important about his friend Gar. He’s a telepath…and this was the worst of all possible places for a telepath to be.
A handful of outlaws, outlaw villages, cavalry chases, hidden caves and sacred tombs later…DeCade returns. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but there you have the gist of it.

 

Overall, this is a decent soft-serve SF; the science might be lightweight but is treated seriously, and the points that are expanded upon are well-thought out. Such as:

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It’s like the worst of Baen plus the worst of ’90s Tor got drunk and made an art together.

– Melange was originally settled by a very small, very eccentric colony group. There were the Lords (or, their ancestors), and then there were their servants. Twelve of them, to be exact. And then they cloned them–time after time after time. I remember this plot point giving me the creeps, and it’s still creepy years later with the description of how townspeople had a distinct “blended” phenotype….every town the same.

– The Games isn’t just a source of random cruelty. It’s actually a multi-level control mechanism: it gives the Lords a way to filter the hot-headed and rebellious churls, the ones who aren’t quite smart enough to keep their mouths shut–out of the gene pool; it shows the rest of the churls what happens to those who run their mouths….and it tends to destroy any tendency to liberalism in the young Lordlings who get to face off against a horde of berserk churls bent on smashing a skull or two before they go down.

– What sort of society is a very, very, very homogenous population going to settle on once they have the ability to decide for themselves? And what view are they going to have on of their own cloned race who are even slightly out of sync with the rest of them–say, a group who left the planet in childhood and were educated off-world?

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No. Nope. Nuh-uh.

The main characters–Dirk and Gar/Magnus–play off each other very well. Dirk is almost a classical Campbellian hero: a hypercompetent Agent of Science…given some more depth by the fact that he’s destined to be the sidekick, rather than the hero, his crush on Madelon, his sly sense of humor, and an inability to figure out what exactly the what big guy’s deal is for most of the book. Gar/Magnus slides into the “mysterious and quiet hero” role, and–impressively–does it while someone else is piloting his body.

Hm, what else?

Action: there are some detailed fight scenes that I mostly skipped over completely. The rest of the action is on the “action-adventure” level, with only occasional touches of grime and gore.

And that’s basically what I’ve got.

Rated: For DeCade!

Book Haul

Due to a very generous tip from some people who really oughtn’t’ve, I was able to hit up a bookstore that has been on my list for a long time. So we’re looking at:

  • Agent of Chaos – Norman Spinrad (never heard of it, looks interesting)
  • The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (Needed an extra copy since I’m giving my illustrated edition to my niece. Have offered it to one of the other interns who inexplicably likes the movie.)
  • The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton (Don’t have)
  • Great Science Fiction Adventures – Edmund Hamilton anthology (Don’t have)
  • The Star of Life – Edmund Hamilton (Don’t have)
  • The Ginger Star – Leigh Brackett (Never, um, finished)
  • Roadmarks – Roger Zelazny (Didn’t have)
  • Warriors of Blood and Dream – Zelazny-edited anthology (It’s got Zelazny’s name on it, it ought to be good, right?)
  • A Wizard in Bedlam – Christopher Stasheff (Sometimes you just want to spend time with your old friends.)

At least some SF book reviews to appear shortly!

The Haunted Stars – Edmund Hamilton

thhntdstrs2008Instead of a square-jawed space hero–such as the impetuous ex-military second in command DeWitt–or a square-jawed, reluctant yet capable science hero–such as the commander, Christiansen–this one stars (geddit? Stars? Sleep deprived me slays me) a nerdy academic without even the past background of baseball or football scholarships. He’s not even a physicist or a mathematician or an engineer–he’s a linguist: Robert Fairlie.

Why has a linguist been lured out to Washington under the pretense of headlining a conference at the Smithsonian, greeted by military security, and then slapped on a supersonic jet to New Mexico, at a time when it appears the greatest problem of the age is diplomatic?

The Other Side has been complaining about the American moonbase in Gassendi Crater–complaining that no neutral inspections have been allowed and it is obviously therefore a military installation.

It is a military installation.

It was not built by the Americans.

Thirty thousand years have passed since Gassendi Base fell, in the midst of a doomed evacuation; and after it was broken, it was stripped, the machines destroyed, the weapons confiscated, the dead–removed. Only words remain, spoken–or sung–and written. And, naturally enough, it turns out that at least one of the written texts contains, presumably, the entire instructions to build a functioning starship. Well, progress was fast during the 1950s. And, as youngest and most successful of the linguists, Fairlie is on board when it ion-beam propels off for Altair.

He’s not a space hero; he’s not a soldier or an adventurer or even just lacking in imagination. He’s scared stiff. But he’s going to have to find it in himself to stand up, not only for the sake of Earth and the crew, but for the (SPOILER, yeah right, as if) all too human Vanryn of Altair. You see, the commander, Christiansen, is a level-headed and thoughtful man, who has considered the impacts of their recent discovieries to men–to America–to Earth. He also has a weak heart (literally, not metaphorically.) Meanwhile, the second in command, DeWitt, is a fanatic, single-mindedly obsessed with the fact of this new technology and the thought of the stars. But DeWitt is also a strong man–strong enough at every stage of the plot to push through objections, to decipher, uncover, build, to aim for the stars, and–at almost every stage–to hit them. Is he, however, strong enough to throw his weight around against the Vanryn? When the weight of thirty thousand years’ traditions, an ancient fear, and the merciless prohibitions of the ancient enemy are against him, will DeWitt conquer? Or can he be stopped–in time?

The Vanryn were once a proud people, whose dream and aim and thought were the stars. But the battle with the Llorn broke their ambition and their will. They are a peaceful–an aimless, and passive–people now, without technology, or weapons, electricity–or spaceships. Over the millenia, they have even convinced themselves that this is what they always have and must desire. For the fear of the Llorn still resides among them. And now the Earthmen have come through the stars and broken the commandment of the Llorn!
So, not even the nubile star girl is particularly friendly, this time.
Will DeWitt succeed? Or–will the Llorn come again to Ryn, cloaked in their cold shadows and fear? And when they come–what will they do?

Authors usually have a stable of character types that they rely on for their stories. The barbarian warrior. The laughing, dangerous minx. The tall, laconic, green-eyed man with an unspoken past and enormous strength and hidden powers. The Competent Introvert. The superman whose powers place him apart from humanity, who loves and values people but cannot join them.The despicable SOB who exists to be despicable and provide catharsis by being disposed of horribly, either by chance if the heroes can’t get their hands dirty, or more satisfyingly by them if they can. (This one in particular is a pet peeve of mine.) Note that none of these are actually bad, if your skill level is high enough to make the plots interesting and the characterization flow naturally within the structure of that plot. I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a Zelazny hero being really tall, really strong, and extremely sarcastic.

But to continue: some authors can create many, complex, varied characters with each new book. Some, on the other hand, are bound to stick strictly and only to their little repertoire of archetypes, which can sometimes work just fine but sometimes also be wearying and predictable; it just depends on the skill level. Some authors, however, have or develop the ability to use their repertoire in a different way–to tell stories from non-standard points of view (such as the love interest narrating in The Grey Prince), or to make a putative hero into the villain, or something of that nature.

Something of that nature is done here–in fact, it’s a twofer. The book is not only narrated,as mentioned before, by the quiet, peaceful academic Fairlie rather than the starseeking DeWitt–[SPOILERS AHEAD] but the ultimate villainy is that same starseeking, glorious ambition that both DeWitt and the ancient Vanryn held–to conquer the stars at any cost, to place the imprint of the hand (boot?) of Man on every world in every system. The Llorn have no problem with other species’ space flights or colonizing other worlds; it’s the fact that men came on as though they had a right to those worlds that disturbed them.

Hamilton is critiquing the basis of his own genre and own work, and it’s an interesting thought. Can we trust the secrets of the universe to the impetuous heroes? Are immediate results all that matter? Is one man’s vision all that matters? What good is the will and the determination to crush opposition if there is no foresight or humanity beside it? Most of these questions are left open-ended in Fairlie’s mind, as the book ends with the party regrouping and preparing to attempt the return to ship and home.
The Llorn, meanwhile, are able to state their position in very straight terms: expand all you like, but mess with us or any other species, and we end you.
Humanity semper excelcior (or, in this cruder age: Humanity F*ck Yeah!) it is not–not really.

….and….

…they’ve got a point.

Highlights: Fairlie packing for the trip….what does one pack for a trip to Altair? Well, to start with, a shaving kit, toothbrush and aspirin. Better make it a big bottle….
– There’s a nice nod towards verisimilitude–the effects of unknown bacteria on a distant planet are considered and antibiotics are being administered. (Although really, pro-biotics would be a better choice, you’d think. Less chance of having a deleterious effect on the taker, not to mention how incredibly broad-spectrum these antibiotics would have to be to be useful.)
– Aral being the one to stab DeWitt, after he has forced her and her boyfriend into a number of dangerous situations and is trying to make them stay and face what for all she knows are the devils themselves–is appropriate but also a bit sad, given that at this point everyone realizes DeWitt is slightly crazy.
– Kipling is always appreciated.
Rated: These are the four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
And the hands of the Ape
And the Eyes of Man.