A collection of science fiction by Chinese authors, translated by Ken Liu.
Recent Chinese science fiction essentially came to my notice via Ken Liu's translations in Clarkesworld. I enjoyed what I found, and picked up this book with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was largely, but not entirely, satisfied.
I don't speak any form of Chinese, and certainly don't read it, so I'm dependent on translation for my access to Chinese works. That's always frustrating; no matter how good the translator, there's a lot of nuance that's lost, and much is dependent on the translation approach. I've found Liu's translations to be literate and intelligent, but dry. That's largely true of his own English fiction as well, and it's true of the stories here - to an extent that 340 pages of it felt more flat than exciting.
The stories are virtually all well written, but Liu's introduction sets the somewhat clinical tone that much of the book follows. He argues that there is no such thing as 'Chinese science fiction'. The argument is fair enough, but is so academic that I wondered exactly what audience he had in mind, and he repeats the point several times. The discussion would have been better off in the essays at the end of the book, which are equally aggressive about not taking a firm point of view, and which engage a far different part of the mind than the one that reads SFF for fun.
So, a slow start, but the stories themselves are more enjoyable, and the thumbnail sketches of each author were helpful. The best of the book were:
The Fish of Lijiang, by Chen Qiufan. In a controlled society, what choices do we really have? While the story could have used a stronger ending, it's still a good read.
TongTong's Summer, by Xia Jia. A look at remotely guided elder assistance. This was one of the stories I'd read before, and it stuck with me. Unlike the preceding story in the anthology by Xia Jia, it's focused, well-rounded, and moving.
The City of Silence, by Ma Boyong. A study in censorship. Very reminiscent of 1984 in both tone and concept, but still effective and interesting.
Invisible Planets, by Hao Jingfang. A description of selected planets. Very reminiscent in tone and structure of Liu's own story, "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species", but with more of a resolution.
The Circle, by Liu Cixin. An analog approach to computing and duty. I've read this twice before - as a standalone, and as part of Liu's book Three Body Problem. I like it a lot (and wish the novel itself had been better).
Taking Care of God, by Liu Cixin. Earth's creators come back to visit. While the concept here is a very familiar one, the tone of Liu's story makes this work.
Other stories were also generally good, and only one, by Tang Fei, really didn't work for me. If you haven't encountered Chinese science fiction in translation, pick this up. However, as another commenter noted, keep in mind that the stories are overwhelmingly male-oriented. As the translator and authors argue so hard, this may not be representative of Chinese work, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.
Claudio Bianchi is a grumpy, lonely farmer and poet, whose only visitor is Romano Muscari, the mailman. Until suddenly3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Claudio Bianchi is a grumpy, lonely farmer and poet, whose only visitor is Romano Muscari, the mailman. Until suddenly a unicorn turns up on the farm, involving Bianchi, Muscari, and Muscari's gentle sister in situations they'd never imagined.
Peter S. Beagle seems to have a thing for unicorns. There's his most famous book, The Last Unicorn, and a handful of others. Now, In Calabria brings the unicorns back again.
There's nothing really new here; we've seen this same kind of story many times before. Beagle does a nice job with it - it's all well written, the characters work, and there's just the right balance of disbelief and acceptance. It's a slight book, at just over 100 pages, but that works in its favor; the main weakness of the book is that it's predictable. There's no surprise in how it works out, and that's clear right from the early chapters. The short length works well for it on this front.
If you're a Beagle fan, and can't get enough of his unicorns, by all means, pick this up. It's a pleasant, unsurprising tale, well-told. But if you're fairly well read, and not convinced just by Beagle's name, this is more light pastime than revelation.
Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.
Half-elf half-human Rigel is the elf-prince's bodyguard, but quarreling with the queen, and there's another elf-noble2.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Half-elf half-human Rigel is the elf-prince's bodyguard, but quarreling with the queen, and there's another elf-noble looking to kill them all and take over the kingdom. Rigel recruits another half-elf from Earth, which brings its own complications.
I was thoroughly bored by the prequel to Queen of Stars, King of Swords, and didn't open this book with much enthusiasm. For most of its length, my opinion didn't change. Rigel sells the elfin Starlands as 'better', but we have to assume that means 'despite the required servitude, second-class status, and people trying to kill you'. It's a lot to swallow.
Duncan spends a lot of the first quarter of the book providing an infodump about the prequel. It's well-handled, but it goes on for a long time. I'd actually have preferred a less-sophisticated but shorter lump of backstory. For those who start the series here, though, it should work well.
Much of the book is a continuation of the theme of the prequel - good-hearted, knows-his-place Rigel will do anything for the beautiful queen. It's so syrupy that it's hard to slog through. Much to my surprise, though, the book ends well - with some genuine pathos and a close that finally caught my interest. My copy contains an excerpt of the next book, Knave of Imps, which answered a key question, but still left me wanting to know more.
So, a slow book with a surprising upturn. It's a strange thing, but after pretty heartily disliking most of the first two books, I could see buying the next. ...more
An unusual teenager gets swept off to another dimension by elves - and find's he's half elf himself.
I bought King of Swords and its sequel, Queen of Stars, without even thinking, just because I like David Duncan. I'm one of the long-term fans he refers to in the dedication. Unfortunately, either Duncan is in a slump recently, or I am. He's been producing a lot of new books, and I've liked very few of them very much. One of my key gripes about this book is its premise - discontended human goes through portal to a happier world - I've read a lot of books along those lines, and they very rarely work. There's just something about the idea I don't care for. This one is no different.
Part of the problem is that regular humans are slaves in the elfworld (and genetically degenerate enough to deserve it, apparently). Halflings like our hero Rigel don't do much better, but that suits him just fine, because ... I'm not sure. The main thing seems to be a beautiful woman, who he makes it his life's ambition to kiss (that just sounds creepy to me). Duncan doesn't do much to establish the world, and it frankly feels like he's not trying very hard. There's a lot of exposition, but even so, some of the characters' actions are unfounded. It has a facile feel that didn't interest me much. Throughout the book, whenever I put it down, I tended to forget I was reading it. Definitely not one of those books I like awake thinking about, or can't wait to pick up again. By the end, I pretty much didn't care about any of the characters.
Duncan has written much better books in his time; just not lately. This one, unfortunately, is eminently forgettable. Also unfortunate, I have the sequel already. ...more
At the close of the 20th century, Julia Huntington is searching for the genetic basis of serenity - more precisely, wh2.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
At the close of the 20th century, Julia Huntington is searching for the genetic basis of serenity - more precisely, why some soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress and some don't. In the 19th century, her ancestor is struggling to find purpose in her life. Both face difficulties in their marriages, and find solace in other men.
I downloaded this free from Tor some years back. I was under the strong impression that it was SFF. I dipped in, didn't care for it, and set it aside. This time, I persevered, but I can't say I cared for the book much more.
I like some romance in my SFF, but this more an SFF sheen on bodice-ripping erotica. Learner is quite a good writer, if one with a very casual attitude toward punctuation. However, I couldn't generate much interest in her subject matter. There's far too much sexual detail for my taste; it's just one of those things that's more interesting to do than read about. I quickly grew tired of heavy-handed references to men's masculinity and women's beauty, and of the idea that a woman groping a man in public is seductive rather than crude. Even in the present day segments, there's some uncomfortable sexism in the views of gender roles and needs.
Learner leans too heavily on pop culture references; I was particularly irritated by coy references to Arnold Schwarzenegger, identified only as 'the Candidate' for governor. She does better in the past, though she's a little too eager to immerse us in the careful research she's clearly done.
The two marital relationships at the core of the story are too overwrought to be really credible, and just not very interesting. It's only Learner's skill as a writer that carried me to the end, but her rejection of standard comma use and the occasional clumsy prose made even that a tenuous journey.
Mostly, though, I was disappointed in the plot. Not only is there no real speculative element, the title Soul has virtually nothing to do with the plot. The element that's meant to be the thematic linchpin - a genetic predisposition to tolerate violence - is essentially just color for the romantic elements. There's a slight mystery element - why 19th century Lavinia killed her husband, but it turns out to be even more trivial than the science. The book never really comes to any conclusions about any of it.
All in all, both not to my taste, and a wasted opportunity to tell an interesting story in any genre. ...more
Calhoun is a Med Ship man, responsible for human health across a wide swathe of space. But now he's been called out to3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Calhoun is a Med Ship man, responsible for human health across a wide swathe of space. But now he's been called out to a sector where the Med Service screwed up, badly. With one world starving to death, and the other deathly afraid of plague, Calhoun and his alien pet and partner Murgatroyd will have to find a way to save both.
As with The Mutant Weapon, another in Murray Leinster's Med Ship series, This World is Taboo is surprisingly well thought out. It's a creature of its time, replete with strong men, protected women, and sexist assumptions, but Leinster takes some digs even at some of those stereotypes. There's a romantic element that we're simply supposed to assume, but most of the plot follows a fairly reliable internal logic. The science is more suggested than described, but it doesn't get in the way of the story. Calhoun is a likeable hero, and while he's thoroughly competent, the Med Service he works for isn't - a refreshing touch of gray for the era.
The firm backseat role for women is a little hard to get past in places, but aside from that, this is a novel that has held up fairly well. It's fun, solid, and undemanding. ...more
A reluctant war hero sought out a posting running a remote asteroid beacon, but it turns out not to be quite as lonely a3 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
A reluctant war hero sought out a posting running a remote asteroid beacon, but it turns out not to be quite as lonely as he'd hoped.
Hugh Howey got his start writing episodic novels, and Beacon 23 clearly shows that heritage. That's not necessarily an issue; I very much like Roger Zelazny's Dilvish, the Damned, for example. Howey doesn't pull the trick off quite so well. There's a certain amount of repetition at the start of each section, and it's not handled as smoothly as I'd have liked.
To some extent, that's true of the overall story as well. Howey's prose lacks the subtlety that would have made this a really good novel. We're not allowed to forget for a moment that the protagonist was a soldier - with frequent and somewhat clumsy slang, and military terms. Similarly, the beacon acts as a lighthouse for passing ships - a metaphor that's hammered into us over and over. There are several infodumps that get in the way of the story, and there are some aspects where the story's logic simply doesn't work. Over all, it feels like Howey is trying too hard, not trusting his readers enough. I found Wool to be much more effective.
All that said, this isn't a bad story. The protagonist is engaging, and the action is generally interesting. It's not a story you'll likely remember long, but it's a pleasant short read. ...more
An assortment of indirectly linked residents of a small town interact with a mysterious stranger.
From what I've read of Theodore Sturgeon's work before, Robert Heinlein and Stephen Donaldson seemed unlikely choices for, respectively, the foreword and afterword. On dipping into the novel, however, it began to make sense. Sturgeon's Godbody is in some ways an amalgam of Heinlein's own two Smiths - Woodrow Wilson and Valentine Michael, and the focus on a 'free love makes everything better' theme fits nicely with Heinlein's late period wish fulfillment stories. Donaldson's is a more intellectual and reasoned commentary, but also more interesting.
I agree with Donaldson that Sturgeon's premise is weak. Essentially, the title character, Godbody, helps people realize their true selves by freeing them from sexual repression. That's not a spoiler - it happens to the first character, in the first chapter. Sturgeon writes unselfconsciously about sex, and he approaches it from a variety of angles. It's reasonably well done, but not particularly interesting. What works better is the character studies that form the basis of the book's individual chapters. It's the fact that these characters grow that's interesting here, not how they do it.
Godbody himself is a mild cypher that comes clear without much surprise at the end. The most interesting thing about him is the very down-to-earth tone that Sturgeon has given this mystical central figure.
While the book has a strong defining theme, it lacks a clear plot, and the chapters follow each other in something of a jumble. The middle of the book slows considerably, in part because Sturgeon is so busy describing each character's attitudes toward sex that he forgets to move the story forward. The book does improve thereafter, with a satisfying, if simplistic ending.
Unlike the characters in the story, your life won't be changed by meeting Godbody, but you might spend a pleasant afternoon with him and his friends. ...more
A young woman in the depths of the Russian forest faces temporal and supernatural challenges, especially with respect2.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
A young woman in the depths of the Russian forest faces temporal and supernatural challenges, especially with respect to household spirits that few others can see.
The cover of Katherine Arden's The Bear and the Nightingale caught my eye at NetGalley. A closer look suggested it wasn't my kind of book, but then I got several e-mails from the publisher suggesting I try it. They compared Arden to Robin Hobb, and Hobb herself blurbed the book, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Guess which of us was right.
The book draws on traditional Russian fairy tales, and that's its downfall in a nutshell. The stiff, mannered voice that seems quaint in a fairy tale is wearing at book length. Constructions like "in arguing, pleading, and speculation, the evening passed" lose their charm fairly quickly. By a few chapters in, I was already tired of the voice, and of the thin characters that might have worked in a short story.
Arden adds color by including occasional Russian phrases. Happily, I speak Russian, but even so I found the additions more irritating than interesting. As Arden herself admits in an afterword, she's inconsistent in her transcription and usage. I think most readers won't benefit from the distinctions between, e.g., devachka and devushka, and I simply didn't see a logic to the language.
The setting, deep in the Russian woods does feel credible, though the characters don't work as well. The story takes places in a prior century, but that doesn't entirely excuse some of the attitudes. "Long-limbed for a girl", "he kissed her until defiance turned to passion", etc. There's not a lot of this, but I found it unappealing, especially because the characters are so shallow. The story's turns to politics in the second section doesn't help, though it does recover somewhat at the end, with a return to relationships and magic.
I still like the cover, and it seems clear that Arden is a capable writer, but for this story, she's equally clearly chosen the wrong approach. I found the voice stiff, and the story relatively tedious. Even for Russophiles, I can't recommend it. ...more
An anthology of speculative fiction edited by Mike Allen.
I didn't care much for the first Clockwork Phoenix. While some of the stories were good, others felt forced. Overall, they all sounded similar. This second collection is more varied, though few of the stories really stand out. There's less 'grotesque for the sake of grotesquerie', but more pretentious and more experimental work. At least two of the stories were thoroughly irritating in their snobbish in-crowd feel.
Here are the stories I found most interesting:
Three Friends by Claude Lalumiere - archetypal children in a mysterious setting
Six by Leah Bobet - what happens to the sixth of seven sons of a seventh son
Angel Dust by Ian McHugh - exotic fantasy brings statues to life
The Pain of Glass by Tanith Lee - high desert fantasy
The Fish of Al-Kawthar's Fountain by Joanna Galbraith - fish plot to save the world from neglect
This volume has a less cohesive voice, but it also includes more accessible stories, and they work better. It's not enough to make me forgive the stories that I found profoundly aggravating, but it's a step up. If the series follows this trend, the fifth book may well be quite good. This volume, though, is a decidedly mixed grab bag of stories - some interesting, many not....more
Leah, once a foreign spy in Malinqua, has come home to Welce, dominated by the Five Families and the magic powers of the3 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Leah, once a foreign spy in Malinqua, has come home to Welce, dominated by the Five Families and the magic powers of the primes. She plans to reunite with the daughter she once abandoned, but also misses the close friend she made while away. When the Welce regent asks her to keep an eye on some foreign visitors, Leah finds herself drawn back into intrigue and danger.
I like Sharon Shinn's work in part because she's an unabashed romantic, and interesting romance just isn't that common in fantasy (Mary Stewart and Melanie Rawn aside). Unfortunately, her stories sometimes stray too far from romantic (characters with strong feelings) and into commercial romance (unlikely coincidences, happy endings). Worst of all, those detours often carry strong tones of sexism. I stopped following her work closely midway through the Twelve Houses series, but when I saw Unquiet Land, I thought I'd give the new Elemental Blessings series a try. Plus, I happened to meet Shinn a while back, and she just seems nice - one of the intangibles that do sometimes affect a reader's perception.
There's always a danger coming into a series in progress. There's a lot of backstory, the worldbuilding is already done, and it can be hard to pick up on relationships. Shinn makes a fair attempt (albeit sometimes with infodumps) at setting things up here, but it's a complex world - lots of names and networks, to say nothing of the magic system. While the story was readable from the start, I had a clear feeling of being behind, and of missing elements that would have been clear to longer-term readers. A lot of what I took to be rehash of prior books was boring even for me as a newcomer. I can't recommend starting here, but then I'd say that about almost any ongoing series.
The writing is, as always good - the prose is smooth, the characters are engaging, etc. Unfortunately, the book draws on some of Shinn's worst impulses. There's a distinct lack of credibility to the plot, and a concomitant smoothing over of details. For example, Leah's cover for her activities in Welce is as a shopkeeper. She's backed by apparently limitless funds, and promoted by prominent figures, but her shop is nonetheless astonishingly successful. She virtually never has a slow day, despite the fact that we know her suppliers also supply other stores in town. It might not have bothered me, but for the fact that so much of the action takes place in the shop, and that we constantly hear how it's making money hand over fist, despite there being no clear demand or market gap.
The emotional angles are predictable. That's largely alright, because the characters are strong and interesting to follow. It's all too simple, though. Shinn creates obstacles, but they're easily overcome, and there's no great tension to them. With one exception, there's never really a credible chance that things will go wrong. In part, that's because, despite what would seem some pretty bad choices in life, everybody loves Leah, and they all love each other. It's happy all the time in Welce.
That may be because for virtually all of the book, we only see the wealthy. There are a few poor wretches thrown in for color, but there is apparently no middle class in Welce's capital city. There are slums, and there are the mansions of the nobility. No one else really exists. 'As unpretentious a group as anyone could have hoped' doesn't seem to notice that it's gathered in a large mansion at a meal laid out by servants. Rather than focusing us on the story Shinn wants to tell about Leah and her friends (who happen to be wealthy and powerful), the approach undermines the credibility of the society.
The early portion of the book is also fairly heavy on politics. While writers like Katherine Kurtz have done well by this, I just don't find fictional politics interesting. In broad strokes, it's fine - it sets forces in play - but the fine details of who's married to whom, and how it affect the succession are generally dull, and that's true here. That dullness extends to inheritance in the world's otherwise workable magic system.
The world itself is a vague nod toward steampunk, with neon thrown in (though not explained and not very credible). It is, unfortunately, also seemingly based on traditional gender roles. A key element of the story is that two parents abandoned their child and now want to reclaim it, but it's taken for granted that the mother is the one to decide how. There's a nominal equality, but it's all women doing the shopping, and mostly men doing the protecting.
One of the most interesting elements is the Karkans, who have an unpredictable moral code. I hope that it's explored in more detail in other books, because here it gets relatively short shrift. Frustratingly, it's also inconsistently applied - a key confrontation simply doesn't take into account everything we and the book's supposedly smart characters have learned about the Karkans.
In short, this is a smooth but not satisfying read - well-written but shallow. I won't be digging deeper into the series....more
Three men and a dog take a boat vacation on England's waterways, with amusing results.
I've always confused Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat with the nursery rhyme "rub a dub dub, three men in a tub". Knowing little of either, it took me years to realize they were different things. I thought I should make the effort to actually read the novel, once I realized there was one.
The book is much funnier than I anticipated, though it has its weak spots as well. The main conceit is a conceited, unreliable narrator. He and his fellows frequently err, though the errors are described in a dry tone that pretends to be reporting success (at least on the part of the narrator). It's very well done, and the result is not only witty but occasionally laugh out loud funny.
Occasionally, Jerome allows himself to be distracted by detailing the cities and sites they pass through, rendering the book less novel than travelogue. Wikipedia tells me it actually went the other way - originally intended to be a travel guide - in which case its success as comedy is even more surprising (though it suggests that the sappy, serious sections, were not intended to be overwritten). Even allowing for the travel guide, there's a long middle section on a historic battle that the book would have been better without. The book never really goes anywhere - the three men (and the dog) take their two week trip, and then they go home - but the trip is a fun one.
The book is dated in social attitudes (race, gender), but the great bulk of the humor holds up well. The version I read suffered from Open Road Media's often lackadaisical approach to proofreading.
Overall, a fun and funny book, worth reading. ...more
A collection of mostly science fiction stories by Clifford Simak.
Sadly, Earth for Inspiration is largely uninspired. With a couple of exceptions, these are not stories that will stick in your mind, and while some start well, they tend to fade toward the end. The inclusion of two of Simak's westerns, both pleasant but formulaic, thins the quality even more.
Simak wrote many of his short stories between the 30s and 60s, and while most of his stories are nice and thoughtful, contemporary prejudices do sometimes sneak in. Women tend to take a largely secondary role, for instance, and at least two of his westerns rely on surprise that a Chines servant would take steps of his own. The bias is seldom obtrusive, but in this volume, 'Indian savagery' and women who 'knew their place' stood out - perhaps because the stories here didn't hold the usual contemplative Simak magic.
The best stories included: Honorable Opponent - Why do aliens always want to fight? A slight but fun concept.
Carbon Copy - Multiple dimensions put to an unusual use. The story peters out at the end, but the bulk of it is strong.
Desertion - Humans attempt to mimic Jovian forms to explore Jupiter. An unusual ending for a Simak story, but one of the few in this book with an ending that fits.
Overall, a run-of-the-mill selection of stories from an author that usually did better. ...more
A young man wanders around Boston over the course of a day and a half, worrying vaguely about an ex-girlfriend.
I've been hearing about Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but it didn't hold much appeal for me. When I saw this book available and listed as a prequel (it doesn't seem to be), I thought I'd give it a shot.
The book is easily summed up - it's a sequel to Catcher in the Rye, with some quotes thrown in. The book follows a wan Caulfield wannabe, detailing the quotidian minutiae of two days in which very little happens. That's a format that has worked for others, but it doesn't even come close here. The hero, Hollis, never comes close to being interested, and he mostly walks around aimlessly, acting mostly at random, the dullness enlivened only slightly by quotes and inventions that are apropos to his situation. His compatriots, save one woman, are equally neurotic and equally sophomoric would-be intellectuals. That one woman is cast as 'mysterious pixie', and has very little to do. Even Grossman hints ("Same old Caulfield") that he recognizes the essentially derivative nature of the book, which is evident within the first dozen pages.
Grossman himself clearly has some talent with prose, but this book is the perfect example of a good writer with nothing to say, and a determination to say it. While the closing line does provide a faint level of satisfaction, it in no way makes up for the plodding sameness of the preceding 132 pages. I never for a moment was able to care about any part of the story, which inverts the standard of storytelling by leaving out all the interesting parts, and focusing on the boring ones.
Grossman knows how to write. What I'm not convinced of is whether he knows what to write about, or whether he has anything of his own to say. As for this book: if you want to read about Holden Caulfield, read J. D. Salinger. Warp has nothing to add. I hope the Magician books are better. I won't be checking them out; the fact that they're described as "The Catcher in the Rye for devotees of alternative universes" suggests that Grossman's later books may just be more successful retreads of the same tired theme. ...more
Generations after global war, the United States has banned cities, and people live in small, self-sustaining communiti3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Generations after global war, the United States has banned cities, and people live in small, self-sustaining communities with limited trade. Len Colter and his cousin Esau feel constrained by the strict rules of their New Mennonite community, and eventually break away, looking for the legendary Bartorstown, said to retain knowledge of science and technology.
I haven't read a lot of Leigh Brackett - an adventure novel or two. I think of her as a solid, but uninspiring pulp author. The Long Tomorrow changed some aspects of my view.
The writing is stronger than I anticipated/remembered, and Brackett does a nice job of concisely conveying an interesting post-apocalyptic world, and of creating credible, engaging characters to follow. She does a great job of showing us Len's moral and emotional struggles, with turning him into a caricature. While Len is the core character, Esau gets fair treatment as a secondary character, and the two are interesting throughout. There's a fairly strong Tom Sawyer feel throughout, though of course the plots are entirely different.
The book was written well over half a century ago, but stands up remarkably well, in most ways. While the concept is by now a very familiar one,the focus here is on Len and his maturation. Where Brackett fails substantially (though slightly mitigated by the book's age) is in the treatment of women. While there are important female characters, they're entirely designed as plot mechanisms, rather than real people. Both of the boys' love interests are manipulative and needy. It makes a little sense in the male-dominated world of the book, but it's still unpleasant to read. Pretty much the only positive female characters occur early in the book, in the form of standard mother and grandmother types. Given the quality of the rest of the writing, it gives the feel of a writer trapped in the pulp conventions of the time, or unwilling to fight against them.
Despite its flaws, this is an interesting book deserving of a read. ...more
An essay by Harlan Ellison followed by his short story about totalitarianism and independence.
Had I realized this book contained only two short pieces, I'd have passed it by. It's a good sampler size, but I'd already decided to dig further into Harlan Ellison's work, so this was frustratingly little. Not only that, but I wasn't highly impressed, and if I really had been sampling, I might have stopped here.
The book contains a brief and not very absorbing essay in which Ellison discusses, in poetic terms, his soul's desire to rebel. It's fine, but as with most such efforts, it didn't move me. It strikes me that it would only really resonate with committed fans. I'm not (yet) one, and I shrugged and moved on to the main event.
"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a look at the costs and consequences of thought independent of the customs and norms. It cites George Orwell's 1984, and in fact in many ways, the story is a conscious revision of that book - a summary version. Unfortunately, Ellison's prose is less balanced than than Orwell's. He begins pretentious and opaque, then spells out his theme quite bluntly, and then fades into a seeming stream of consciousness approach. It didn't work for me.
While the theme is derivative, there are interesting elements (authority's power to ensure obedience by subtracting moments of life), and I wish Ellison had done more with those, and either left 1984 to itself, or done something innovative with its ideas. A decent story, but not the masterpiece it's claimed to be. ...more
Sophie is the eldest of three daughters, and therefore destined to fail first and worst. Soon enough, her stepmother sen4 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Sophie is the eldest of three daughters, and therefore destined to fail first and worst. Soon enough, her stepmother sends her sisters off to safe places, and Sophie has been cursed by a witch. She takes refuge in the castle of an infamous wizard, and things get stranger from there.
I'd only heard of Howl's Moving Castle in recent years, but I'd heard only good of it. So much so, in fact, that I was sceptical, as I tend to be about anything with lots of hype. Diana Wynne Jones' book, however, was one of those exceptions to the rule. It's as good as I heard, and much better than I'd feared.
Howl isn't a perfect book - it follows a standard fantasy romance trajectory - but Jones both acknowledges the formula, and has fun with it. In fact, the defining characteristic of the book is its light-hearted fun, never taking itself too seriously, but never forgetting to tell a good story. It's a story that ends well, but not necessarily one I'll follow, for all the good writing. I'm not confident of the story stretching well enough to cover two more books. While Jones writes well, she also takes some shortcuts with the plot. For example, we're introduced very early to an urgent and important bargain between Sophie and a fire demon. Then the bargain essentially disappears, except for sparse and cursory reminders that it's there, and that Sophie has no plans to do anything about it. It's an unfortunate gimmick that undermines the otherwise credible action.
I enjoyed the read, and am pleased to have (quite late) discovered Ms. Jones' work. The edition I bought includes excerpts of three other works, of which only one interested me, so I'm not sure that I'll be diving into Jones land soon. This book, however, was a whole lot of fun. ...more
Flannery's grandmother is a witch. Charms, herbs, cottage on the edge of town, and all the trimmings. Flannery, on the3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Flannery's grandmother is a witch. Charms, herbs, cottage on the edge of town, and all the trimmings. Flannery, on the other hand, is not so keen - until a younger boy with a crush gets hurt running after her, and a handsome fairy on a motorcycle rescues her from death's dark clutches. Then it gets complicated, and both she and the boy must work to find a way out of fairyland.
I'm not a fan of urban fantasy or supernatural romance, and this is both. On the other hand, it's also A. A. Attanasio. The result is a surprising, poetic, and intelligent but flawed story built from off-the-shelf ingredients. Attanasio gets a little carried away with the language, and parts of the story are overwritten, which is unusual for him. It's distracting and unfortunate, but not a major barrier to enjoyment.
I'm not too sure Wiccans would appreciate their characterization in the story, and it again feels like an unusual misstep for the tolerant, progressive Attanasio. In addition to using standard props, some of the story's action is on the thin side - a little too easy, and the logic gets a bit ragged toward the end.
All in all, enjoyable for its language, but not one of Attanasio's stronger efforts. ...more
Rivka Stout, a recent transplant to Tamarania, is adjusting to life in her grandmother's house, and its strict social2.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Rivka Stout, a recent transplant to Tamarania, is adjusting to life in her grandmother's house, and its strict social requirements. When she encounters a cruel laboratory run by a cold-hearted businessman, she vows to set its tortured captives free with the help of her chance companion the self-centered Tatiana. A close tie-in to the Clockwork Dagger series.
I'm a strong believer that artists should be judged on merit - on product, not personality. We're all human, though, and information seeps in despite what we might like. I 'met' a well-known SFF writer on a bulletin board, for example, and found him to be a thorough-going jerk. It's taken all the joy out of reading his generally light-hearted books.
My experience with Beth Cato has gone in the other direction. I first noticed her name when we shared a table of contents, and after that, I felt she came across as a really nice person. When her book Clockwork Dagger came out, I wanted to pick it up , but it didn't sound like my kind of thing. When I saw Wings of Sorrow and Bone available for free, I snapped that up instead.
I'm sorry to say I was right; it's not my kind of thing. The plot is nice (animal friendly), and Cato includes a plug for pet adoption at the end - things that are dear to my heart, and a reinforcement of the whole niceness idea. I wanted to like the book. But I didn't. It's not bad, but it's not novel or exciting, either. The prose is workable, but the plot feels very 'by the numbers'. Even from a young adult book, which this clearly is, I expect a little more subtlety and depth. Here, almost every move, every decision, felt programmed and formulaic. A pinch of element A, a dash of element b, add situation C, stir thoroughly.
It doesn't help that the story is so clearly told in the shadow of a larger story, which does in fact turn out to be Clockwork Dagger. Maybe they're better read in the other order. Maybe not; the story has other flaws, even if you know all the characters it so frequently mentions. More than anything, this reads like an awkward tie-in, interesting only to devoted fans of the main work. In places, there's no more than a quick, summary stab at motivations. The protagonist, teenaged Rivka, sees evil, and immediately assumes it's her personal responsibility to fix it. That's definitely how the formula works, but it works best when there's at least a fig leaf for why.
While the setup is interesting, the prose is clumsy in places. Secondary characters are thin, verging on caricature. In short, it's just not convincing. I still think Cato seems like a very nice person, but I'm afraid her writing isn't to my taste.
This is a pleasant, animal-welfare oriented story, undermined by a reliance on formula. If you're already a Clockwork Dagger fan, you'll undoubtedly like this closely related story. If you're not, I recommend you start there, not here. ...more
A collection of mostly science fiction stories by Clifford Simak.
The logic behind the arrangement of most anthologies is a mystery to anyone but their editors, and that's true here. While the last volume (#3) in this series I reviewed had some of Simak's strongest work, this (#8) has a fair amount of filler - decent, but uninspiring, and not mostly at the level I look for from Simak. Happily, there are some standouts. The best stories are:
Kindergarten - A mysterious alien box that gives perfectly targeted gifts. Highly reminiscent of "Operation Stinky" in volume 7, or vice versa, since that was written later.
Death Scene - Foreknowledge of the coming day ends war, but it has its costs. A nicely understated story that illustrates its point without hitting us over the head with it.
Census - When we've moved away from cities, and the census does more than just count people. The end leans toward the bathetic, but the bulk of the story is good.
A nice selection of stories, but not Simak's best
Received free copy of book in exchange for honest review.
A collection of mostly science fiction stories by Clifford Simak.
Clifford Simak was the master of the contemplative story - the story in which the narrator does little but sit around and think about life. Little action, not much dialogue, and yet the result is a moving story that works beautifully. This volume in his collected works includes some of his finest contemplative work, along with City and other celebrated stories. While this is volume 3 in the series, it's an excellent place to start your voyage with Simak.
The best stories in the book include: Leg. Forst. - How many great stories are there about aged stamp collectors? In this one, the overall emotional arc is largely unoriginal, but the components that make it up are innovative and fun.
Physician to the Universe - While nominally about escape from a prison swamp, the story is really about purpose and satisfaction.
Condition of Employment - How to motivate workers in an unpleasant profession. One of the rare twist stories that rewards re-reading.
The Autumn Land - A perfect story, again about purpose. I first read this a long time ago, and it has stuck with me.
Founding Father - Problems in spaceflight and remote coloniziation. Relatively thin on premise, the story succeeds on the issue of loneliness and human frailty.
That's almost half the stories in the book, and that should tell you something. Not one of the stories in this volume is bad, and it includes some of Simak's best work. Even the western, while formulaic, is a pleasant read. Whether you're new to Simak or a confirmed fan, you'll enjoy this volume. ...more
The interstellar trading ship Nordvik stops at Slowyear, a distant and isolated planet with long seasons and unusual t3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
The interstellar trading ship Nordvik stops at Slowyear, a distant and isolated planet with long seasons and unusual traditions.
Frederik Pohl's characters are generally pretty down to earth, though often with jaded quality to them. Stopping at Slowyear follows the pattern. The inhabitants of Slowyear have developed their culture to deal with a difficult landscape in which much of their time is spent avoiding intense heat in summer, intense cold in winter, as well as local illnesses that kill many of the young and elderly. Mercy Macdonald, looking to escape from the limited world of the starship, meets Blundy, a Slowyear native and acclaimed playwright. The novella follows their interaction, and the reactions of Blundy's wife.
Slowyear offers Pohl's usual mix of cynical calculation and impulsive action, but the characters feels more distant than in most of his work. The ending is effective, but somewhat abrupt, despite a good deal of foreshadowing, and not entirely 'fair'. If Pohl had spent a little more time rounding things out, the story would have been more satisfying. For all that, it's an enjoyable read, and worth picking up for Pohl fans. ...more
A handicapped boy sees a woman disappear. The young woman is an observer from another human planet, where people live fo3 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
A handicapped boy sees a woman disappear. The young woman is an observer from another human planet, where people live for centuries, and teleportation is a matter of course. Eventually, they meet, and both learn secrets about their worlds.
Bob Shaw's greatest strength is in his ability to humanize his characters - to make them both engaging and appealing, and to focus the story more on them than on the grand events in the background. In The Ceres Solution, he fails at that key task.
The book starts well. (Actually, it starts and ends with framing paragraphs that add nothing, should have been removed, and can safely be ignored.) We have a young, determined, not very pleasant boy, a run-down Earth, a mystery to solve. Unfortunately, after introducing him, the book almost immediately loses its way. We shift to a mildly interesting young woman in a mildly interesting other-human culture. But after meeting her, we shift into long chunks of expository text. Not only is it not graceful, it's not interesting. It's a very slow start to the book, which never really recovers. The tone is dry throughout, almost clinical, with none of the warm personality that most Shaw books have.
All in all, a middle of the road SF book - mildly interesting with competent writing, but not exciting. Irritatingly, the Gateway edition is marred by very sloppy copyediting. The book was clearly produced via OCR, apparently without much care. There are dozens of errors and artifacts sprinkled throughout. Nothing major, but if you like your books done right, this will get on your nerves. Gateway had a great sale a while back, and I bought many, many books. I hope they're not all as sloppy as this one. ...more
A collection of mostly science fiction stories by Clifford Simak.
I still can't pretend to understand the logic of the sequencing in this series, but however, they were chosen, the stories in this collection are mostly very good. Much of this is classic Simak - extraordinary events happen to an ordinary guy, in a very low key fashion, far from the centers of power and commerce. There are a couple of missteps - a western that isn't bad, but isn't interesting, and one very un-Simak gung-ho war story complete with biddable natives and evil opponents. The fact that the latter was written soon after Pearl Harbor is the only explanation I can come up with for it being written at all. The others, though, are mostly very good, and show Simak's more characteristic natural compassion for other life.
The best stories are:
Operation Stinky - an alien in the form of a skunk. I've read this one before, but it didn't stop me from laughing out loud at parts.
Green Thumb - an alien in the form of a plant. Not as funny as Stinky, but no less touching.
Target Generation - when a generation ship reaches its destination. A more optimistic response, perhaps, to Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. A Death in the House - another alien in the form of a plant. A nice counterpart to "Green Thumb".
Skip the war story, and you have a great selection of moving and optimistic Simak stories. ...more
An anthology of speculative fiction edited by Mike Allen.
I've been seeing these anthologies for a while now, and been intrigued. [Full disclosure: I submitted several stories to later editions, and was soundly rejected.] So, when I saw them all for sale, I took a chance and bought them all. Win some, lose some.
I expected to like these stories. There are lots of big names here - some I've read, some I haven't. I wanted to like them. The feeling I got from what I'd heard was promising. Only ... I didn't like them. There's a striking sameness to them - the stories feel stilted and formal, they don't finish clearly, and they all lean toward the grotesque. There are a surprising number of characters cutting themselves open here. There are several stories in the "if there's fucking, it must be literary" group and the related "gritty equals meaningful" group.
In his editorial note, Mike Allen says he's tired both of the 'good story well told' and of stories that don't feel complete, and sought a middle ground. I'm sorry to say he missed, and leaned much further toward the latter than the former. As I read further and further, I grew more and more disheartened, and more eager to find at least one story I really liked, and not just in relative terms. I'm sorry to say I failed, and it's with some dread that I think about the remaining four anthologies - paid for, and thus to be read at some point.
In the meantime, here are the stories I found most interesting:
Bell, Book, and Candle by Leah Bobet - seemingly archetypal characters resist playing their traditional roles
Root and Vein by Erin Hoffman - a moody story about a dryad who gives away her heart.
The City of Blind Delight by Catherynne M. Valente - a train brings a man to an unusual city
The Tailor of Time by Deborah Biancotti - the Tailor of Time tries to extend a day.
The anthology has a distinctive, consistent voice, but it's not one I cared much for. It's not just that the stories are grotesque; that can be interesting. It's that very few of them felt as if they told a clear story. Some I really had to struggle to get through. I sometimes like an ornate style, but many of these were overwritten. If you know that you like several of these authors, by all means give it a try. But if you're new to them, and just looking for a satisfying read, I can't recommend this collection. ...more
A dilettante visiting his friend happens on a murder mystery.
A. A. Milne is chiefly known for his Winnie the Pooh stories, and his collections of nursery rhymes, When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six, all of which overshadowed his more serious plays and novels. One of those novels was a mystery.
Wikipedia tells me that The Red House Mystery was both popular and critically acclaimed. I'm not sure why. It's a competent but uninspiring locked room story, and if I could find any external evidence, I'd say it was written primarily to show Conan Doyle that Milne could do better.
Milne starts off with oblique references to Sherlock Holmes, but quickly moves to full-fledged, if light-hearted, mockery. Yet, while Milne jeers at Holmes' unique intelligence and retentive memory, his own amateur detective himself relies on a remarkably detailed eidetic for several issues. Milne works hard to address tired stereotypes of the detective genre, but his story is so carefully and obviously constructed as to take all the joy out of the story. Yet, despite all that work, his solution doesn't make a great deal of sense, and the clues aren't provided in advance. Often they come up through a close examination of the protagonist's eidetic memory - not something the reader has access to - but sometimes it's just crucial new information. For all his jokes about Holmes and Watson, reading the story feels very much like being led around by someone who's just having his fun with us. Even so, Milne leaves some fairly basic plot holes that we just have to ignore.
The book certainly shows another side of Milne, and I'll be trying his plays, but I can't say I'm sorry this was his only mystery. Point to Conan Doyle. ...more
A retired professor and a near-retirement stewardess invited a waitress to live in their garage. She is, of course, more4 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
A retired professor and a near-retirement stewardess invited a waitress to live in their garage. She is, of course, more than she seems.
As with most people, I first heard of Peter S. Beagle via his book The Last Unicorn. Not that I read it; I heard about it, in the over-hyped way that always makes me suspicious. I didn't get around to actually reading it until a quarter century or so after it was published. It was in a nice compendium along with A Fine and Private Place, "Lila the Werewolf", and "Come, Lady Death". None of them made much impact on me. Still, The Last Unicorn has had an undeniable impact on SFF readers over the years, so when Summerlong came available, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did.
Despite the brevity of the book, Beagle takes his time with the narrative, establishing credible, engaging characters, an effective mood, and a story that's appealing in itself, without any fantasy elements. In many ways, it's good that he does, because he's tackling a very old story indeed, and one that's been told many, many times. Telling you what exactly it is would be something of a spoiler, but it's a story of a kind that I don't much care for. It's a tribute to Beagle that he pulls it off. The writing is strong and well balanced, and even some of the mystical events come through a practical, mundane perspective that sets a firm foundation for the story. I'd say it reminds me a bit of John Irving, but Beagle started writing earlier.
There are a few places where Beagle steps past his carefully drawn lines, but they're forgivable. The relationship between Lily, the stewardess' daughter, and the waitress, Lioness (the name itself is a misstep) is insufficiently founded, even by implication, and that weakens the ending. At lease one of the supporting cast is a fairly red herring, and Beagle doesn't do enough to admit it at the end. There's a fantasy sequence at the end that's poorly supported. Another element becomes surprisingly mawkish, and it's a poor fit. These are quibbles, though, and otherwise, though, the book is strong. The ending is particularly appealing; for all the flaws I note here, Beagle hasn't chosen the obvious, Hollywood ending, and the book is better for it.
I'm glad I tried this book. While unimpressed by Beagle previously, Summerlong goes a ways toward establishing him in my mind as a strong, competent, and thoughtful writer. I may have to go back to those older stories and books and try them again. In itself, though, Summerlong is solid, well written, and moving. ...more
A collection of speculative fiction by Michael Swanwick.
My database tells me I've read a Michael Swanwick novel, Griffin's Egg. I don't recall it in the slightest, but yes, there it is, on my shelf - a very slim book I now remember owning, but not reading. As far as my memory goes, the only Swanwick I've read is a couple of technically adept but not enthralling relatively recent stories. I keep hearing his name, so I picked this book up to remedy my ignorance. I read it in tandem with a Piers Anthony book figuring they would balance each other out. They did - neither of them was good.
I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why Swanwick has been nominated for and won so many awards. The book doesn't have an auspicious start. Swanwick's introduction gradually dips from description into light braggadocio before resurfacing. The stories here are competent, but often thin. Nothing about them stands out - not the style, not the concepts, not the characters. Some of the prose is clumsy. Several of them make only a thin stab at emotional depth.
All that said, the best stories were: 3 A.M. in the Mesozoic Bar - the dinosaurs weren't the only ones to go. Simple, but well done.
The Woman Who Shook the World Tree - an unusual love story. One of the few stories that surprised me.
Pushkin the American - arguing exactly that. One of the few in which Swanwick doesn't go for the easy ending.
An Empty House - love across dimensions. It starts poorly, but ends well.
All in all a collection that will likely please Swanwick fans, but won't make any new ones. ...more
Hapless can conjure musical instruments, but not play them. The Good Magician sends him out on a quest to collect comp1.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
Hapless can conjure musical instruments, but not play them. The Good Magician sends him out on a quest to collect companions and resolve his and their needs collaboratively.
You can't say I give up easily. I once liked Piers Anthony, and I keep trying to like him again. So far, with no success. I read this book interleaved with a Michael Swanwick collection, hoping they might balance each other out. In a sense, they did - they were both weak.
Xanth is the series that introduced me to Piers Anthony, when I was in my early teens. It was novel, fun, and full of puns. I later turned away from Anthony, and the most recent story I read by him was truly awful. Still, when I saw this 40th (!) book in the Xanth series, I thought a trip down memory lane might be worthwhile. Apparently, though, they sculpted all the cobblestones, and it's not a smooth path anymore.
I stuck with the original Xanth series until book 13, Isle of View. At that point, I just couldn't stomach the sexism, and there were even too many puns for it to be fun. It turned out to be a good time to quit - just a little while later, book 15 emerged - The Color of Her Panties. I haven't read it, but the title alone made me cringe. I'd forgotten all about it until this book. I'm thankful I had the dull Swanwick book to turn to, because it turns out that in Xanth, the sheer sight of panties sends man into a daze. Over, and over, and over again, starting on page 9. By page 34 I began to despair, and by page 47 I began to wonder if I could survive. Eventually, though, I just accepted that the book would be irredeemably juvenile, and the shock wore off. The puns were a similar problem. By page 11 I was already thinking there were too many of them, some obvious, some a long stretch. Then the sexism became truly overt - e.g., lying and seducing is an inevitable and unconscious "part of the are of being female". Wheareas "men have small minds". Which presumably explains why the males in the book spend all their time looking at breasts. And panties. Never forget the panties. Panties, puns, and sexism - that's the book in a nutshell. Plus, on the happier side, straightforward prose, and a thorough, logical approach to puzzles. The puzzles themselves are pretty random, and they don't make a whole lot of sense, but within this limited world, Anthony's reasonably rigorous about solving them.
So, the book's pretty bad, and the series looks like it may have been bad for the last 30 books. How does it survive?
Author's notes. Anthony has plenty of weaknesses, but what's he's really good at is engaging with his readers. His books contain long, detailed author's notes that are warm, friendly, and engaging. He really does seem to enjoy a back and forth with his fans, to the extent that this book is entirely based on a fan's suggestion. And that's the key to the whole thing, I think. Anthony has given up really writing Xanth, and basically uses each book to cram in as many suggestions (especially puns) as possible. So, this book was pretty terrible, but it was squarely aimed at the people who enjoy the series. It's a crowd-sourced novel, which is interesting in itself. It's a bad novel, and Anthony seems more than a little defensive about it, but why should he care? He's got an audience, they like him, he likes them, and he's written a heck of a lot of books. Not bad.
In short, this is a juvenile, sexist, simplistic book, but one that committed Xanth fans will love. ...more
As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Patricia McKillip. It wasn't3.5 stars - Metaphorosis Reviews
A collection of stories by Patricia A. McKillip
As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Patricia McKillip. It wasn't instant, and I haven't liked everything she's written, but overall, she's near the top of my list of favorite authors. Not only that, but her short stories have been a pleasant surprise, and a break from her usual high fantasy realm. So, I snapped up this latest collection with enthusiasm.
Mostly, the enthusiasm was repaid. The book is thin, but then who wants to wait for more McKillip when you can have some now? Plus, some of the stories are set in Oregon. The stories here are occasionally whimsical, but all touched with McKillip's fey magic - except one. I'm sorry to say it, but the idol has feet of clay, and McKillip has done the unexpected by including one story that's actually bad, or the next thing to it.
The rest of the collection is more promising, though it's not quite as polished as her prior collection, Wonders of the Invisible World. Since the collection is short, I've included comments on all stories. Weird - two people locked safely in a bathroom. The story certainly lives up to its title, but it's an example where McKillip doesn't entirely pull off the 'unexplained, but effective' trick. There's a good story in here, but there's too much scenery for it to get out.
Mer - a witch turned mermaid. Unlike "Alien" later, on, the humor here never quite works. The story is quirky, and the characters are fun, but the world never really gels.
The Gorgon in the Cupboard - Wonders of the Invisible World included two strong stories about art, "The Kelpie" and "Jack O'Lantern". "Gorgon" feels a bit like a remake of "Kelpie" - it uses some of the same elements and archetypes. However, it's also one of the strongest stories in this new collection, and does find its own path, so perhaps the three are best seen as a trio out to explore a theme together.
Which Witch - this is the one true weakling of the bunch, and the only bad short story by McKillip I've ever read. It aims for cool, funny YA, and misses its target almost entirely, landing instead in that uncomfortable zone where parents try out teen slang and look foolish.
Edith and Henry Go Motoring - just what it says. This is pretty far along the magic realism continuum, and is an excellent example of McKillip's ability to make a satisfying story out of pieces that separately make little sense.
Alien - Grandma was abducted by aliens. Humor and longing, deftly explored.
Something Rich and Strange - a couple on the Oregon coast meet the sea. This feels like a story that wanted to be a novel. It's long, moody, and romantic. Stripped of the otherworld fantasy setting of most of McKillip's novels, the story at times feels like a master class in magical realism. All the McKillip elements are here - deep characters, strange happenings, unexpected metaphors, powerful beings that are neither evil nor good - and yet the story doesn't quite work. It feels at times like McKillip has gotten so caught up in playing with her tools that she forgets to craft a good story with them. It's sometimes hard to follow what's happening, and not in a good, mysterious way. More than anything, this feels like a really strong draft that needed editorial direction but didn't get it. It also has a positive, but fairly heavy-handed environmental message.
There's also a brief and quite interesting essay on how to write high fantasy, and a less interesting afterword by Peter Beagle, who notably checks in on every story except "Which Witch", the collection's one stinker.
All in all, a collection of weird and wonderful, with a few false notes....more