Steven Harbin (GUEST)

Guest reviewer STEVEN HARBIN is an educator who is currently a counselor at an alternative school. He was formerly a world history and literature teacher. He lives with several cats and dogs, two children, a loyal saint of a spouse, and a large number of books scattered all about his house. He discovered science fiction and fantasy in the 1960′s when his school librarian suggested he read the works of Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Caves of Steel: An SF mystery story

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

In 1966, Isaac Asimov’s first three FOUNDATION novels won a one-time Hugo Award as the “Best All Time Series” for science fiction. While I still think the award was a reasonable (albeit highly subjective) one for the time, I’m becoming more and more convinced that Asimov’s three “Robot/Mystery” novels starring Earthly detective Elijah Bailey and his partner R. Daneel Olivaw (the “R.” stands for Robot, naturally) are better books, and quite possibly would have been a better choice for the award. Having just re-read his original FOUNDATION trilogy, I think I’m in a good position to compare it to the ROBOT novels.

The Caves of Steel is the first book in the ROBOT series. The setting is a densely populated Earth, a few millennia in the future. Our home planet has become a backwater, looked down upon by the rest of the human galaxy, and humanity... Read More

The Green Hills of Earth: A still enjoyable sojourn into Heinlein’s early work

The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein

I grew up a part of the baby boomer generation of young geeks that discovered science fiction around what the famous quote (attributed to one Peter Graham, later publicized and re-quoted by many, many others) said is the best age: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” For me and many others it was around that age that I was voraciously devouring a host of science fiction and fantasy writers, including Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Andre Norton, just to name a few. I loved each of the authors whose works I discovered during my pre-teen reading years, and it would probably be hard to say who my favorite is now that I’m older and looking back ... Read More

Foundation and Empire: One of Asimov’s better books

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

This is the second book in Isaac Asimov’soriginal FOUNDATION trilogy, which later became the FOUNDATION series. It first came out in book form in 1952, but it originally saw print in the form of two novellas, “Dead Hand” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1945) and “The Mule” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in November and December, 1945).

Like the first book in the series, Foundation, Foundation and Empire  isn’t a true novel, but rather a collection of linked stories. The first story in the book, “The General “ (renamed from its magazine title) tells the story of Bel Riose, a young, rising star military commander who is trying to make a name for... Read More

The Space Merchants: A classic science fiction satire

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth
It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country. ~Raymond Chandler
I read The Space Merchants, a classic science fiction satire about advertising and consumerism run rampant in a future world, before my sister got me to watch the popular cable TV show Mad Men, which was a shame in a way, since the show set in the 1950’s-60’s era of advertising run amok has a lot in common with the world predicted by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.

As Pohl actually worked in the advertising business for several years while researching and working on the novel (Kornbluth would collaborate with him later in its development), one could probably say that the real world advertising executives of the “Mad Men” era would seem... Read More

The Complete John Thunstone: Too good to not be read

The Complete John Thunstone by Manly Wade Wellman

One of the subgenres of fiction that I’ve always been interested in is that of the “supernatural detective,” also sometimes known as “occult detective fiction.” Recent examples of the trope include the TV show The X-Files and the paranormal detective comic book character John Constantine, one of whose creators was Alan Moore. The stories in The Complete John Thunstone center around another character named John, one John Thunstone, a wealthy man-about-town occult detective created by fantasist and regional writer Manly Wade Wellman in the 1940’s.

John Thunstone made his first appearance in the November 1943 issue of Weird Tales with “The Third Cry to Legba,” a tale wherein Thunstone matches wits with a malevolent modern day “sorcerer” named Rowley Thorne (supposedl... Read More

Hadon of Ancient Opar: Farmer plays in Burroughs’ world

Hadon of Ancient Opar by Philip Jose Farmer

To most general readers of science fiction, Philip Jose Farmer is probably best known as the creator of the RIVERWORLD series, and possibly also as the Golden Age writer who brought sex into the Science Fiction scene through his stories “The Lover” (1952) and Flesh (1960). He also loved to dabble in other author’s created universes, to the extent that he wrote numerous pastiches and fictional “biographies” purportedly by and about such characters as Edgar Rice BurroughsTARZAN, Kurt Vonnegut’s KILGORE TROUT, and DOC SAVAGE, just to name a few. Fans of Burroughs’ Tarzan books will probably remember that the erudite “ape-man” visited a lost city known as Opar in several of the books, ... Read More

Big Planet: Disappointing compared to later Vance works

Big Planet by Jack Vance

Big Planet is an early work by Jack Vance, and like much of Vance’s early output is a little uneven in quality. The plot is fairly straightforward. Centuries before the events of the story take place, a huge planet is discovered in a neighboring solar system. Despite its size (around 25,000 miles according to a later novel set in the same setting) the planet is of low density, with earthlike gravity and atmosphere, but lacking in metals, making ownership of any metal object valuable.

The planet has for many years been viewed as a place for outcasts and odd groups and individuals to go if they wished to escape the rigid constraints of the stellar areas under the direct rule of Earth. While this has worked out for the many groups and cults who emigrated to Big Planet, their descendants in many cases are trapped in various pockets of anarchy and slavery that exist on the ungoverned... Read More

The Jack Vance Treasury: A wide array of Vance’s oeuvre

The Jack Vance Treasury by Jack Vance (edited by Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan)
While I don’t think there’s any one novel or short story or even collection of Jack Vance‘s work that comes close to capturing all the best aspects of his writing, I do think that this 633-page Subterranean Press collection does a fairly good job of exposing the reader to a wide array of Vance’s oeuvre. In addition to eighteen stories that span much of Vance’s writing career, there’s a brief comment from Vance himself after each story that gives a little view into how his mind worked while in creative mode, as well as some of the authors and factors that had a major impact on him in developing his writing (note to self after reading one of his comments: re-read P. G. Wodehouse, then find and read some Jeffrey Farnol, two of the writers he says influenced him). There’s also an “Appreciation” by Read More

The Dragon Masters: Great characterization in the Vancian style

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Jack Vance
won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for this little gem of a tale which is a favorite of many of Vance’s fans, your present reviewer included. The story takes place vast millennia into the future on a planet known to its inhabitants as Aerlith. Aerlith is a harsh world, where slow rotation leads to long nights and days (analogous to several “earth” days). The human beings living on the planet are descended from spacefarers who fled an earlier interstellar war and who have lost all industrial knowledge as well as the capability of space flight. They may or may not be the last remnants of humanity. Every few generations or so, alien spaceships descend and wreak havoc, capturing as many humans as they can, leaving those who escape to try to rebuild their backward civilization among the rubble. The invaders are the “Dragons” of the title, intelligent lizard-like creatures known as greps or ... Read More

Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie

Conan the Barbarian: The Stories that Inspired the Movie
by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian is a Conan story collection recently published by Del Rey/Ballantine as a tie-in to the 2011 Conan movie. It has the same title as a story collection published in 1955, a movie novelization by L. Sprague de Camp in 1982, and a movie novelization by Michael A. Stackpole published in 2011 concurrently with the movie.To add to the confusion, Conan the Barbarian is also the title of the Marvel comicof the 1970’s. All of which is to say, if looking for this mass market paperback, make sure you’re getting the right book.

This particular collection contains six of the better original CONAN stories written by Robert E. Howard and published ... Read More

The Languages of Pao: One of my favorite Vance books

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance

Jack Vance
is known as a master stylist who, at his best, has an exquisite way with the written English language, a tribute in many ways to his idols P.G. Wodehouse and the unjustly forgotten Jeffery Farnol, among others, but Vance is also a writer of thought-provoking and unique ideas. The Languages of Pao is Vance at the top of his game as far as exploring unusual concepts. The premise of the story is based on a theory known as “Linguistic Relativity” or the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” and in layman’s terms it basically means that the language a person speaks shapes human thought patterns and behavior, in both individuals and societies. Vance has here taken the theory to its logical extreme conclusion in a far future time, where a group of “wizards” use the method to attempt to change the mindset of an entire planet to suit their own agenda.

Young Beran Penasper is heir to... Read More

Maske: Thaery: Fun and quick

Maske: Thaery byJack Vance

Jack Vance was a fairly prolific author during his writing career, publishing over sixty novels and various short stories in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. During the 1960’s and 70’s many of his science fiction stories were set in a far future milieu which he termed the Gaean Reach. In these stories interstellar travel is common place, as is colonization of a multitude of solar systems throughout the galaxy. While some of the colonized planets contain alien life forms with which the human colonies have to co-exist, the majority of Vance’s works in the Gaean Reach deals with the many unusual human cultures that have developed over the many centuries of colonization. Vance is never what can be termed a “hard-science fiction” writer, but he shines at the “softer sciences” especially when coming up with strange and varied types of future human cultures a... Read More

Steven chats with Annie Wilder

I recently talked with Annie Wilder, author of three books dealing with true life paranormal experiences. Her first book, House of Spirits and Whispers, is about her experience living in a haunted house and working with paranormal investigators. Her second book, Spirits Out of Time, recounted her own extended family’s experiences with the supernatural. I enjoyed her latest book, Trucker Ghost Stories: And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road, a compilation of stories told by folks who encountered eerie phenomena while traveling highways and back roads. You can learn more about Annie Wilder at her website.

Comment below for a chance to win a cop... Read More

Trucker Ghost Stories: Eerie tales by travelers

Trucker Ghost Stories, And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road edited by Annie Wilder

I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, both the literary kind, as written by M.R. James and Russell Kirk, to name a couple, and those related by a friend or acquaintance over a campfire or a cup of coffee on a late night. Annie Wilder has compiled a collection of the latter in her latest book Trucker Ghost Stories, And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road.

These are “ghost stories” as related by average everyday folks, not (in most cases) professional writers. In what I suspect is an effort to present these encounters in the authentic voice of their relators as much as possible, Wilder has kept editing to a minimum. This makes for uneven stories, but that is ac... Read More

Jack of Shadows: A forgotten classic that cries out to be remembered

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

In 1971, Roger Zelazny penned a wonderful mix of fantasy and science fiction that I think rivals his AMBER books for sheer imagination and exciting action. Jack of Shadows is set on an imaginary world, similar in some respects to our Earth, vastly different in others. One side of the planet (which does not rotate) is always in light, while the other is constantly at night. The “dayside” is much like 20th century Earth, with science ruling and the inhabitants enjoying the fruits of modern industry and technology. The “darkside” is similar to the medieval fantasy tropes of many fantasy stories, with magic in the ascendance and different supernatural lords ruling over their fiefs or domains, each with special localized powers.

Jack of Shadows, or “Shadowjack” as he is sometimes called, is a unique individual in that his magical po... Read More

The Monster Men: Edgar Rice Burroughs melds Dr. Moreau with Frankenstein

The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs are both legion and loyal, as evidenced by the long lasting popularity of his characters. Tarzan of course is his most famous character, and John Carter of Mars (and Virginia) was the main character of a recent poorly marketed (but I thought still well done) Disney film. But Burroughs was an extremely prolific author who wrote a lot more than just Tarzan and Martian stories. One of his earliest efforts was this adventure story set in the south Pacific near Borneo. In many ways it can be considered Burroughs’ take on both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau. Originally published as “A Man Without a Soul” in 1913 in the Pulp publication All-Story Magazine, The Monster Men was later published under the present title as a hardcover book in ... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: On the Road or In Your Head?

Today we welcome Annie Wilder, author of Trucker Ghost Stories: And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road, a perfect book for this Halloween season. Like all of us, Annie wonders whether these stories are really true, and maybe you can help answer that question. One commenter will win a copy of Trucker Ghost Stories. I'll be interviewing Annie sometime soon, so stay tuned for that.

I write true ghost story books, and one of the things I’m most often asked is how I respond to people who don’t believe in ghosts. My answer is that I think people should believe whatever they want, as long as no one gets injured or maimed. So, even though I believe that astral beings (including ghosts, cryptids, and possibly aliens, among others) sometimes collide with our physical world, I never try to convince anyone else of that.

With Trucker Ghost Stories Read More

The Wee Free Men: A humorous quest with serious themes

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a young witch-in-the-making on the DISCWORLD, Terry Pratchett’s flat world which is carried along by four giant elephants who ride on the back of the Great Star Turtle A’Tuin. Tiffany’s young brother has been kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies. In her quest to save him, Tiffany ends up with some odd allies. The Nac Mac Feegle (six-inch-high tattooed blue guys who self-style themselves as “The Wee Free Men,” and who could give the Fremen of Arrakis from Frank Herbert ’s Dune a run for their money in a fight) are with her in her quest, along with her familiar on loan, a toad who, in a previous life, seems to have been a lawyer who helped folks find grounds to sue. Tiffany’s adventure while trying to rescue her bothersome little brother from Fairyl... Read More

Hrolf Kraki’s Saga: One of Poul Anderson’s best books

Hrolf Kraki’s Saga by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson took the Viking saga of Hrolf Kraki and crafted this magnificent fantasy novel from the legendary king's story. Hrolf was a sort of Arthurian equivalent in the northern folk tales and myths, but Anderson brought him to life in this novelized retelling of his exploits.

Like much of northern mythology the story is dark in spots, dealing with such themes as murderous sibling rivalry, incestuous relationships, and the everyday brutality that must have been common in the era that was rightly called "the Dark Ages." Even so, Anderson captured the heroic nature of the story, as well as the courageous outlook of the original saga recorders.

Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a myth retold, rather than historical fiction, although the opening framework sequence is set in more recent historical times with a woman being asked to recount the old myths to a royal... Read More

The Seedbearers: Virtually unreadable

The Seedbearers by Peter Valentine Timlett

The 1970’s were the heyday of the “sword and sorcery” boom that started a decade earlier with the publication of pulp fantasy adventure writer Robert E. Howard’s CONAN stories by Lancer Books. The popularity of Howard’s newly rediscovered (at least to young fantasy readers such as myself at the time) work, coupled with the earlier surge of interest in fantasy spearheaded by the mass market paperback editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and THE LORD OF THE RINGS published by Ballantine Books, led to a decade where mass market paperback fantasy books could be found almost anywhere: grocery stores, newsstands, and of course bookstores. The general plots of most of these works included barb... Read More

Eric: Pratchett’s retelling of Faust

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Up to this point I’ve always enjoyed Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD books, and Faust Eric was no exception in that regard. It was a fun read. Still, I'm not as big of a fan of the Rincewind books as I am of some of the other DISCWORLD books centered around his other characters. Nothing against the cowardly, inept wizard Rincewind, I mean, Lord knows I'd probably react to the dangers of Discworld the same way he does, which is to turn tail and run whenever possible. However, overall I prefer the Witches books, or the Guards, or the Moist von Lipwig books to most of the Rincewind books.

Eric is a quick, enjoyable read, based on a premise that I absolutely loved, a re-telling of the Faust legend. At the beginning of the novel, Rincewind is summoned b... Read More

Kull, Exile of Atlantis: Foundational reading for the sword & sorcery fan

Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard

* If you're not — or not looking to become — a reader of sword-and-sorcery or fantasy tales, then you can probably skip the rest of this review and move on... unless you might acquire a taste for stories of a philosophical barbarian-king, whose axe or sword slays on-comers as easily as you might mosquitoes... *

OK, now that they're gone: this intriguing compilation probably merits 3-1/2 stars, but I'll give one of the genre's cornerstones the benefit of the doubt. Be warned, though, REH's writing can be quite different from that of modern writers: sometimes brooding, sometimes utterly pulp-ish in its almost garish vividness. Nonetheless, it's that very quality that makes it so fascinating and, at times, as strong and elegant as the axe of the protagonist.

Speaking of whom, he is like Rodin's "Thinker" with larger muscles and longer hair. An Atlantian usurper of the thr... Read More

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