Jesse Hudson (GUEST)

JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

They Shall Have Stars: The technical details of how we’ll achieve this dream

They Shall Have Stars by James Blish

The optimism of Modernism expressed itself in a variety of fashions. Silver Age science fiction perhaps the grandest of them all, the infinite potential of technology was a playground which hundreds of writers rushed to frolic on. Jaunts to Mars, telekinetic communication, robot servants — a universe of ideas was the genre’s oyster. Space flight perhaps the most utilized trope, there was no shortage of schemes and inspiration about how mankind could achieve the stars. Approaching in realist mode (chronologically, that is), James Blish and his CITIES IN FLIGHT sequence posited that discoveries in mathematics and solar system exploration would be the ticket to the galaxy. After publishing a series of short stories wherein mankind’s urban environments were ‘launched’ into space, he realized the larger potential, a... Read More

The Penelopiad: A razor-sharp retelling

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

It is Alicia Ostriker, in her wonderful collection of essays Dancing at the Devil’s Party, who writes “the true poet is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire, and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reasons, laws and institutions.” Daring to deconstruct one of the most dearly held myths of the Western world, Margaret Atwood’s 2005 The Penelopiad is certainly a tango step or two with the one with the pitchfork tail. Taking The Odyssey and turning it on its head, from comedy to tragedy, Atwood gives readers Penelope’s side of the story.

Narrated from Hades, The Penelopiad is a recounting of Penelope’s life from beyond the grave. Atwood utilizes not only The Odyssey Read More

Unicorn Mountain: Moving, heartfelt fiction

Unicorn Mountain by Michael Bishop

When I lived in Prague, I couldn’t help but admire the Czechs and their respect for the written word. Riding the subway I saw many people who had taken the time to make a brown paper cover for their literary investment. While reading Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain (1988), I considered doing the same. Unfortunately, it was for a different reason: protection of Bishop’s, and my, self-respect.

Pause, just for a moment, and take a look at the cover. What you are looking at is a disconnect between not only the literal, but also the proverbial book and cover. Grafton Press went in one direction, and Michael Bishop in an entirely different one. The book’s actual content is a heart-touch... Read More

Shadow of the Scorpion: Agent Cormac’s origin story

Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher

Shadow of the Scorpion (2008) is the fifth in Neal Asher’s AGENT CORMAC subseries, but first in terms of internal chronology, and second in the overall chronology of the POLITY series. Describing the events of Cormac’s youth, as well as his first years training as a soldier, it reveals how he came to be in Sparkind and involved in so much graphic, rip-roaring action across the Prador-infested galaxy.

Split into two storylines, one half of Shadow of the Scorpion describes Cormac’s childhood with his mother, brother, and father at the forefront of the war with the Prador. Because his brother is doctor, Cormac learns secondhand about the horrors of war, but it isn’t until he becomes a man that he learns just how muc... Read More

The Secret of This Book: A great buffet of literature

The Secret of This Book by Brian W. Aldiss

Brian Aldiss was one of the most versatile writers in speculative fiction. Published in a variety of forms (poetry, plays, short fiction, novels, and non-fiction), a variety of genres and sub-genres (fantasy, science fiction, and realism — to cover the big ones) and in a variety of writing styles, his dynamism, willingness to try new modes, and experimentation with prose made him one of the most important writers in the field. Capturing this versatility is Aldiss’s 1995 collection The Secret of This Book. Showing off nearly all the tools in his kit, it’s a mature collection of well-wrought stories that are perfect for the reader looking for variety in their genre reading.

From the opening salvo to the last, Aldiss lets the reader know art is one of the main motifs of The Secret of This Book. “Common Clay,” which opens the col... Read More

No Enemy But Time: Reveals new layers with each fresh realization

No Enemy But Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present. Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage — all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species. Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus. Our primitive roots are left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks. Dinosaurs seem to get more attention than Cro-Magnons. But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapiens to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what humans evolve into.

Extending... Read More

The Best of Analog: A high-quality collection

The Best of Analog edited by Ben Bova

The Best of Analog is filled with high-caliber stories by all-star writers: Alfred BesterRoger ZelaznyGeorge R.R. MartinVonda McIntyreGene Wolfe, and more. Published in 1978, this anthology contains three novellas, ten shorts, and one poem — pieces that have by and large stood the test of time on both feet. It is a collection of bright, interesting sci-fi shorts, some of which won awards. The following is a brief breakdown of those selected by editor Read More

Prador Moon: Grimdark space opera

Prador Moon by Neal Asher

In his far-future POLITY series, Neal Asher writes consistent, dependable, grimdark space opera. Prador Moon is one of three POLITY books that came out in 2006, and the fifth overall. It’s the first in the in-universe chronology, though, telling of the first meeting between the Prador and humanity. To say things don’t get off on the right foot would be to sell the opening scene (and the several novels which follow) short. Prador-human relations tumble to bits in the aftermath of “diplomacy,” and all-out space war erupts.

Asher, as is his custom, provides viewpoints into all sides of his conflicts. Scenes from the Prador general Imminence’s ship grotesquely describe what happens to the humans captured, including the rudimentary research into thrall technology as war increases the pressure on the lab. Meanwhile,... Read More

Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories: Leigh Brackett’s fantasy stories

Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett

As NASA’s Curiosity rover trundles about the surface of Mars today, another page turns on the glories of pulp science fiction. Leigh Brackett’s vision of a land populated with humans and aliens, ancient cities and creatures, long-buried secrets and mysterious deserts fades a shade closer to pale as one desolate desert image after another is beamed back to Earth. But there was a day when her works shone with the hope and possibility of life on the planets beyond Earth. In 2005, Gollancz brought together the best of these stories as part of their Fantasy Masterworks collection. Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is an imaginatively nostalgic look back to a time when the solar system held more possibilities.

The collection contains five novelet... Read More

Marcher: Possesses bite and purpose

Marcher by Chris Beckett

In 2008, Chris Beckett published the novel Marcher to little acclaim. A later release, Dark Eden (2012) met a much better response (it was nominated for the BSFA and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award), and Beckett decided to thoroughly revise his earlier novel and re-release it. Using his five additional years of experience, he honed in on the story he had wanted to tell and republished Marcher in 2014. With the original version checking in at roughly 300 pages and the revised version 200 pages, it would seem Beckett did more paring-down than anything. Marcher is a dense but brisk read with its finger on the pulse of subject matter rarely seen in SFF.

Social work is perhaps far from ... Read More

Black Amazon of Mars: Exceeds its inspiration

Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett

While credit is certainly due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more. Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic. But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas. Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark — similar in name to John Carter — features in some of her SEA KINGS OF MARS stories. More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasi... Read More

The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971: A dated collection

The Best of Arthur C. Clarke: 1937-1971 by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke’s first short story appeared 15 years before his first novel, and much of his oeuvre is to be found in short fiction. In fact, despite the success of his novels — Childhood’s EndRendezvous with Rama, and The City and the Stars among them — Clarke produced as much short fiction in the middle and end of his career as the beginning. Thinking he had reached the point so many other successful writers do, i.e., that the author has honed their skills to the point they can focus on novel-length works, in 1973 Sphere decided to publish ... Read More

The Skinner: Survival of the fittest

The Skinner by Neal Asher

Neal Asher’s 2002 The Skinner follows closely on the heels of Gridlinked’s success and is the first in a sub-series of the POLITY called SPATTERJAY. The novel is part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction, and its main character may be the water world Spatterjay itself, filled with vividly imaginative, exotic (and hungry) forms of indigenous life. The Skinner, Asher’s second published novel, improves upon the first and gives lovers of action/adventure sci-fi hope that a new voice is emerging.

At its core, The Skinner is the tale of four characters, though a handful more round out the cast. Erlin Tazer is a xenobiologist who is looking not only for an old lover, but some excitement in life. Spatterjay exists beyond the line of polity, i.e. the tamed part... Read More

The Atrocity Exhibition: Fascinating, disturbing, and informative

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Pablo Picasso had his “blue period,” Max Ernst his “American years,” and Georgia O’Keeffe her later “door-in-adobe” phase. For J.G. Ballard, the early part of his career could be called his “psychological catastrophe years.” Using environmental disaster as a doorway to viewing minds under duress, novels like The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World unpacked the underlying subject matter. For the next phase of his career, Ballard moved into the world of celebrity, media, violence, sexuality, and how they distort an... Read More

The Drought: A solid novel, but not among his greats

The Drought by J.G. Ballard

Fully believing that “the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, and an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game,J.G. Ballard set about writing his third of four disaster novels. The first featuring a world inundated with water, for the third he went the opposite direction: drought. The Burned World (1964) its apposite title, human reaction to extreme environmental conditions is once again the subject under examination. Ballard would later revise the text, and as a result it has come to be known most predominantly as The Drought.

The Drought is the story of Edward Ransom, a doctor... Read More

Old Venus: An over-long, narrowly-themed anthology

Old Venus by Gardner Dozois & George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s themed anthologies are some of the most popular on the market these days. Soliciting the genre’s best-known mainstream writers, selecting highly familiar themes, and letting the length run to 500+ pages, RoguesWarriorsDangerous WomenSongs of the Dying EarthOld Mars, and others are among the bestselling a... Read More

Transfigurations: A classic

Transfigurations by Michael Bishop

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is one of science fiction’s landmark works. A philosophical and psychological study of a man confronting the inherently unknowable, the imagery, events, and overall experience of the novel lodge in the mind, begging questions for which one uncomfortably has no immediate answer. So strange and haunting, a person can only think of the main character’s experiences as the most figurative representation of ‘alien’ possible.

Bringing the idea closer to home corporeally but no less existentially is Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi” (1973). The premise so fertile, he revisited the novella years later, extendi... Read More

Little Brother: Techno-anarchy for juveniles

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I’m willing to bear with a writer whose style is less than polished if they have — or seem to have — good ideas. I’m willing to set aside wooden characterization if it serves a larger purpose. I’ll accept a little glossing over if the intentions are good. I’m even willing to ignore large holes in ideology if the story is good. Unfortunately for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008), the combination of these flaws is too heavy. With all of these issues glaringly apparent, the novel is nothing more than inconsistent, juvenile fiction which complains about society’s problems in conspiracy theory fashion rather than offering imaginative, plausible solutions. When raising the red flag, it’s best to have your ideas formed before making the effort.

Little Brothe... Read More

A Meeting with Medusa: A vivid Silver Age imagining of Jupiter

A Meeting with Medusa by Arthur C. Clarke

If speculative fiction has any stranglehold on literature, it’s the lack of limitations to the question: what if? Fantasy is a complete expression of this facet, while science fiction tugs lightly on the reins lest the imagination escape reality entirely. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa, Jupiter is that reality. Clarke penned the novella for anyone who ever wondered what being in the gas giant’s atmosphere might be like. It is awash with vivid visuals, but the fantastic elements threaten to run away with the story.

Howard Falcon is a top dirigible pilot, and at the outset of the story is found captaining the world’s largest dirigible, Queen Elizabeth IV, above the Grand Canyon. Piloting this 1,500-foot-long, multi-chambere... Read More

The Power that Preserves: Covenant comes to a higher plateau of understanding

The Power that Preserves by Stephen Donaldson

If there is any consistent theme in the reviews and discussion of Stephen Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER series, it is their divisiveness. Some readers are turned off by Covenant’s personality, while others are intrigued by his atypical qualities as an epic fantasy (anti-)hero. Some see the series as a Tolkien rip-off, while others believe the series is a fresh view on epic fantasy. And still others are turned on or off by Donaldson’s worldbuilding. The Power that Preserves (1979), the third book in the series, is consistent with the first two, and will probably change no one’s mind.

Covenant was thrown back into the real world at the end of... Read More

The Illearth War: Lord Foul strikes back

The Illearth War by Stephen Donaldson

Reading The Illearth War (1978), the second book in Stephen Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, I can’t help but be reminded of The Empire Strikes Back. This is in comparison to the strong THE LORD OF THE RINGS feel exuded by Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series. Both Illearth and Empire are the middle story in a trilogy (and like THOMAS COVENANTSTAR WARS has since spawned additional trilogies), and the outcome is not as cotton-candy as the firs... Read More

End of the World Blues: Grimwood is a superb stylist

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Roger Zelazny, on top of writing a number of immensely popular books and stories, was one of the genre’s great stylists, with noir minimalism utilized in nearly all his works. He was likewise predictable for his main characters, often world-weary men with personal issues who find themselves facing situations they would rather avoid. I have come to think of Jon Courtenay Grimwood, who bases his fiction on these two same elements, as a successor to Zelazny, but significantly upgraded for the (post-) modern world. An exemplary text, his End of the World Blues (2006) possesses a sophisticated sense of noir that does not lack for eye-kicks (to borrow a phrase from Read More

Lord Foul’s Bane: A character study of alienation and vindictiveness

Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

Stephen Donaldson’s opening volume in THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANTLord Foul’s Bane, is divisive for fans of fantasy. It strictly follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which some readers may see as comfortably familiar, and others may see as unoriginal, especially when set alongside the plethora of epic fantasy available today. Parallels to THE LORD OF THE RINGS may also entice or put off readers. What’s not discordant, however, is the moral message burning at the heart of Covenant’s story. Still poignant today, it and the quality of the writing are the main reasons Donaldson’s series was once king of the fantasy charts.

Lord Foul’s Ban... Read More

The Judging Eye: A slow start to a terrific series

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

R. Scott Bakker is one of my guilty pleasures. His THE PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy is a tense, superbly paced yet detailed series that settles firmly on both sides of the traditional/contemporary epic fantasy fence — Dune meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Bakker imbues his world with a mood of brooding darkness that shows great focus. THE PRINCE OF NOTHING builds steadily to a rousing climax that many fantasy series seem to promise but so few deliver. Yes, it retreads the familiar themes of power, control, ego, honor, etc., but Bakker’s rich imagination, tight control of prose (how often can you say that of epic fantasy... Read More

Riders of the Purple Wage: One of the most unique SF texts

Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer

At the risk of being overly simplistic, Jacque Derrida’s concept of deconstruction/post-structuralism (whichever you want to call it) is at heart the perspective that any ideological paradigm can be picked apart, bone by bone, until the skeleton lies in shambles on the floor. The purpose is not nihilistic in nature; it is intended, rather, to cast a wrench of relativity into such lofty ideals as modernism, and the rigid mindset of structuralism that came in tow. In practice, I have yet to read a science fiction text that deconstructs the Silver Age better than Philip Jose Farmer’s 1967 Riders of the Purple Wage. From its irreverent title to the telling conclusion, the bones are dust.

Anything but a modernist vision of man as hero among the stars in his gleaming space ship, Read More

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