I've been dipping into this short story collection for about two years, and I've finally finished it. Howard is definitely one of my literary heroes,...moreI've been dipping into this short story collection for about two years, and I've finally finished it. Howard is definitely one of my literary heroes, mainly for 1) his ability to effortlessly create iconic, primal characters, 2) his talent for painting pictures with words, and 3) his use of an underlying philosophy that informs all his fiction without ever becoming preachy. Namely: that civilization is an aberration, and savagery is the natural state of mankind.
Some of these stories were so familiar from comic book adaptations (both Marvel's and Dark Horse's) that I felt as though I was re-reading them even though I hadn't before. Favorite story in this collection: "Black Colossus," since it's one that actually allows for growth in Conan's character (he goes from being a hired thug to a general with responsibility for lives other than his own) and it has one of the best battle scenes ever put to pen in a fantasy story.(less)
"I am tired, Gray Mouser, of these little brushes with Death," Fafhrd the Northerner said, lifting his dinted, livid goblet and taking a measured sup...more"I am tired, Gray Mouser, of these little brushes with Death," Fafhrd the Northerner said, lifting his dinted, livid goblet and taking a measured sup of sweet ferment of grape laced with bitter brandy.
"Want a big one?" his comrade scoffed, drinking likewise.
Fafhrd considered that...
(from "The Frost Monstreme")
Two books in one, so:
SWORDS OF LANKHMAR The only actual novel in the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series, in which the city of Lankhmar is threatened by invasion from an overwhelming army - its own rats! The Mouser may have the power to save the city, but he'll only bother if he can impress the Overlord while doing so.
SWORDS AND ICE MAGIC The stories here fall into two groups: First, a series of bouts with Death, who comes across as a beurocratic Wile E. Coyote in his attempts to snuff out the two heroes. Second, an extended "Icelandic" saga in which Fafhrd & Mouser thwart the ambitions of an evil wizard, a barbarian horde, and the gods Odin and Loki, all in such an irreverent way as to make Tolkien spin in his grave.
If there were any justice in the world, Lieber would be a lot more well-known and well-read than he is. Highly, highly recommended.(less)
The second of the Conan anthologies presents Howard at the peak of his craft, featuring some of his long-form work in a novella, a single short story,...moreThe second of the Conan anthologies presents Howard at the peak of his craft, featuring some of his long-form work in a novella, a single short story, and Howard's only completed novel. While Howard didn't write the Conan stories in anything like chronological order, the barbarian of these adventures is clearly older, cannier, and more wise to the world than the young, thieving slayer of his earlier tales. The opening and closing stories of this edition feature Conan as a war-chief of various mid/far east nations (blatant analogues of Persia, Afghanistan, and India) where the hero is honing is skills not just as a mercenary but as a leader of men.
The showpiece, though, is The Hour of the Dragon, the perfect King Conan movie that we're never going to see - in which Conan is deposed from the throne of Aquilonia by a resurrected wizard from Acheron and must travel far and wide to gather the allies and magical defenses he will need to reclaim his kingdom. Not only is it evident that Howard was more comfortable with his writing and his character, but also with the breadth of mythology he'd created. Few, if any, of the Conan short stories make reference to any of the others, yet in Hour of the Dragon you can feel Howard dipping into the rich history he'd already established for the character as Conan, now in middle-age, returns to many of the places he'd adventured as a young man to call in old debts make use of his decades of experience. He's even tempted to turn his back on politics and monarchy and return to the simple life of a roaming warrior, but Conan the King is not the same man as Conan the Barbarian, and his growth over the series as a whole, if anything, makes Conan unique in the realm of pulp sword-and-sorcery.(less)
I enjoyed re-reading E.R.Burroughs so much last summer, that this year I decided to dive into some classic Asimov. Of cou...more(2013 Asimov Re-Read, book 1)
I enjoyed re-reading E.R.Burroughs so much last summer, that this year I decided to dive into some classic Asimov. Of course, I begin with Foundation. I haven’t read the Foundation novels since high school, and mostly what I remember is the opening story in book 1, then a little bit about the Mule and Arkady from the later volumes, so it’s not quite like coming to it fresh, but its close.
The story is rightfully a classic, and I was amazed how well it still holds up. Yes, there’s the standard pre-50s misunderstanding about what nuclear power is and what it does, but that’s not the point. The point is Asimov’s take on the grand sweep of history: what forces are beyond anyone’s control and what role and value an individual life can make in the grand scheme of things. He trods a lot of the same ground that Frank Herbert would later revisit in Dune, re: the pitfalls and promise inherent in knowing the future too closely, and possibly being trapped by it.
Also, I appreciated the idea he discusses toward the end of Book 1 that the solutions of one era can become the problems of the next, especially if they become enshrined into dogma. (God, how I wish today’s politicians had read Asimov as teenagers instead of Ayn Rand.)
P.S. I’ve spent some time diving back into old pulp these last few years, and you usually have to do that with the understanding that you’re going to have to forgive some really shoddy writing in order to enjoy a good story. Asimov is, in my opinion, the earliest of the 20th Century SF writers (save maybe Bradbury) for whom there’s nothing to forgive. Not that he’s a master stylist or anything, but in comparison to his contemporaries, Asimov’s words slide right off the page with nary a clunk.(less)
Life and circumstances may have derailed my original intention to re-read tons of Asimov over the summer, but damned if I...more(2013 Asimov re-read, book 3)
Life and circumstances may have derailed my original intention to re-read tons of Asimov over the summer, but damned if I’m not going to at least get through the Foundation trilogy.
Foundation and Empire does just what it says on the tin, and marks the point in the story where Asimov throws a big old monkey-wrench into the gears of Hari Seldon’s master plan for the future, probably sensing (and rightly so) that predestination can only take you so far before it gets boring. The second volume in the trilogy contains two longer novellas (as opposed to the multiple short stories of book 1) that focus on the Foundation’s encounter with not one, but two empires – the last gasp of the Old and the sudden, unexpected new Empire of the Mule. In the former, the inevitable Sweep of History wipes the threat of the dying Galactic Empire off the board despite the futile efforts of the story’s players. In the next half, things get a little hairy as the Foundation runs into something that Seldon’s psychohistory could never have predicted – a genetic mutation that changes the rules of the political-historical game.
Once again, Asimov’s ideas take center precedence over his characters, but his characters are more than simple mouthpieces to spout theories (a common failing of most of Asimov’s contemporaries). They fare better here than in Pebble in the Sky, though F&E does share that book’s unfortunate lack of a narrative through-line. Introducing the Mule and undermining the basic premise of the series – that an individual cannot affect the tide of human history – was certainly a gamble on Asimov’s part, but it paid off by preventing the series from falling into formula, removing the “security blanket” of the Seldon Plan, and letting book 2 end on an existential cliffhanger for the Foundation and the whole of human civilization.
Seriously, you’d have to wait thirty years for Dune to come back around to this level of High Concept.(less)
So I finally finished the Asimov re-read I started over the summer, although I never got around to any of the Galactic Empire novels I wanted except ...moreSo I finally finished the Asimov re-read I started over the summer, although I never got around to any of the Galactic Empire novels I wanted except Pebble in the Sky. It took so long to get through this last volume partly because of National Novel Writing Month, and also because Second Foundation doesn’t hold up as well as the first two volumes. Gone is the optimistic, rip-roaring exploration and Machiavellian problem solving of Foundation, and also gone is much of the tension of the Seldon Plan running off the rails in Foundation and Empire. The main driver of the action in book 3 is solving the mystery of the titular Second Foundation, and it all hangs on a final plot twist that only carries weight the first time through.
The first novella, “Search by the Mule,” fares better because the Mule and the Foundation are such clear antagonists. Viewing the problem from the point of view of the Mule’s own agents puts the reader in the place of empathizing with the bad guys, which is never not fun. The second half of the book, “Search by the Foundation,” lacks that driving punch because it’s never really made clear why the conspiracy of Foundationers (and we, the readers) should view the Second Foundation as an existential threat. Sure, the First Foundation would like to control its own destiny, but its own mythology is based on the idea that that can’t happen anyway. Since the conspirators’ motives are apparently selfish (they want power) it makes it hard to empathize, and they don’t have the Mule’s charisma as a villain.
The saving grace of the last Foundation story from the Golden Age of SF is the character of Arkady Darrell, the plucky daughter of the conspiracy’s leader who outthinks the adults at every turn and could easily have been the star of her own series of YA novels. I’d have read them, for sure. (less)
Dystopia’s been quite the rage lately, what with the overall feeling that civilization’s about to slide into an energy-starved, polluted, underfed apo...moreDystopia’s been quite the rage lately, what with the overall feeling that civilization’s about to slide into an energy-starved, polluted, underfed apocalypse (see: the works of Paulo Bacigalupi), but science fiction isn’t just about providing dire warnings; part of its job is also to propose hypothetical solutions.
Metatropolis reads as a semi-hopeful rebuttal to The Windup Girl. The authors admit that yes, human civilization cannot and will not survive indefinitely in its present form (it never does) but the five authors also make the assumption that people Will Find A Way to survive and thrive in the future, and they try to work out what that way is.
A lot of it hinges on “distributed resources” and such that sounds more than a little like communism without the charismatic dictators, a la Lenin or Mao. Jay Lake addresses the Charismatic Leader problem right away, but his personality cult – an overt Christ-figure – has the decency to inspire for a while and then get out of the way. In Tobias Buckell’s story, he introduces a couple of fun ideas: the conversion of disused skyscrapers into vertical farms and gardens and the idea of “turking” as a way of dividing complicated tasks between dozens of unconnected individuals who individually have no idea of whatever kind of scheme they’re a part of. Elizabeth Bear provides the closest thing to a weak point in the anthology with a story that rehashes some of the themes from the first two, yet is heavy on preaching and low on story.
John Scalzi, as can be expected, brings the snark and delivers the most fun (and blue-collar) addition to the book with a story about high-tech, near-future pig farming (which I enjoyed all the more because I was recently made to read Robert Heinlein’s dreadful Farmer in the Sky). Karl Schroeder provides the capstone with a story that earns Metatropolis a five-star-rating all on its own, by proposing cities within cities and virtual parallel worlds layered on top of our own by taking social networking and MMORPG concepts to their logical next steps. Schroeder’s story in particular offers a world that I can easily see becoming a reality with only a little more technology than we have at present, but with a social order so alien as to make it seem like diving through the layers of reality in Inception while fully awake. (less)
I've noticed these Writers of the Future volumes in bookstores for years, but I never actually read one until I started entering the contest myself. (...moreI've noticed these Writers of the Future volumes in bookstores for years, but I never actually read one until I started entering the contest myself. (That pretty much sums up the market for short fiction: like poetry, it's only read by those who want to write it.) Anyway, given that these are all previously unpublished writers (at least in the pro markets) the stories here are fairly outstanding - better overall quality than the average issue of Analog or Asimov's.
My faves in this volume: "Bitter Dreams" - a Gunslinger-style take on the Australian Outback, "Hangar Queen" - an old-school Artificial Intelligence/space battle story, "Circuit" - in which a subversive book is the main character, and "The Girl Who Whispered Beauty" - a story that's practically a Brian Froud painting come to life.(less)