The Man Who Fell to Earth: A vivid portrayal of alcoholism

The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who has come to Earth on a mission. He hopes to save the remaining 300 aliens who are dying on his home planet. Since childhood he’s been preparing for this, training by watching and listening to Earth’s radio and TV broadcasts. Being mostly humanoid in appearance, and understanding much of Earth’s culture, he has disguised himself to successfully pass as a man from Kentucky.

Soon after his arrival, he contacts a patent lawyer and begins to “invent” the technology of his superior planet. His goal is to earn half a billion dollars so he can have the money he needs to fund his mission. He needs to keep his identity secret because, though his intentions toward the humans are completely benevolent, who knows what they will do if they find out there’s an alien among them.

But there is one human, a chemist disillusioned with his... Read More

Sign of the Labrys: Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered

Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair

A pleasingly unique — indeed, possibly sui generis — combination of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and (of all things) Wiccan magic and craft, Sign of the Labrys initially appeared in 1963, as a Corgi paperback. Its author, Kansas-born Margaret St. Clair, was 52 at the time and had been writing short stories (well over 100 of them) since the late ‘40s. Sign of the Labrys was her fourth novel out of an eventual eight. And lest you think that the novel’s Wiccan elements were merely a passing fancy of its author, let me add here that St. Clair and her husband were indeed inducted into the Wiccan craft three years after this novel’s publication, when Margaret would adopt the Wiccan name Froniga.

Out of print in English since the year of its release, St. Clair’s truly bizarre novel is easily obtainable today via Dover Publ... Read More

Podkayne of Mars: Heinlein gives us a smart feministic mixed-race heroine

Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein

Podkayne (“Poddy”) Fries is a pretty, mixed-race teenager who lives with her parents and her younger brother (Clark) on Mars. We learn about her family and her adventures via the diary entries she writes. Poddy tell us that her family was planning to take a vacation to visit Old Earth, but when there is a mix-up with some frozen embryos, they had to cancel the trip so Poddy’s mother can take care of the unexpected new babies. Poddy is devastated until her Uncle Tom, a man who is a respected politician on Mars, arranges to escort Poddy and Clark to earth on a luxury spaceship.

On the spaceship Poddy and Clark make a friend and get to enjoy extravagant dinners and dances. Poddy learns a lot about how to fly a spaceship and, along the way, readers will learn quite a bit about space travel, including the dangers of solar radiation and how the position of the sun and the planets in their orb... Read More

The Game-Players of Titan: A highly entertaining but bewildering Dickian jaunt

The Game-Players of Titan by Philip K. Dick

After a devastating atomic world war, the humans of Earth have mostly killed each other off. Only about a million remain and most are sterile due to the radiation weapons developed by the Germans and used by the “Red Chinese.” Some humans now have telepathic abilities, too.

The alien Vugs of Titan, taking the opportunity to extend their domains, are now the Earth’s rulers. They seem like benevolent conquerors and overseers. For their amusement, they allow human landowners (“Bindmen”) to play a game called Bluff, which is much like Monopoly where the stakes are real pieces of property on the ruined Earth. The Vugs, who seem (but may not be) intent on not allowing the human race to die out, also use the game to mix up couples, hoping to serendipitously find viable breeding pairs. Any Bindman can play in the district where they own property, using their land and spouse for stakes in the game. Read More

Glory Road: Sandy loves it, Kat doesn’t

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein

So what does an author do after writing one of the most beloved science fiction novels of all time and in the process picking up his third out of an eventual four Hugo awards? That was precisely the conundrum that future sci-fi Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein faced in 1962, after winning the Hugo for Stranger in a Strange Land, and he responded to the problem by switching gears a bit. His follow-up novel, Glory Road, was not precisely Heinlein's first fantasy piece — his 1959 novella The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag had contained a large dollop of very strange fantasy mixed in with its central mystery — but, as far as I can tell, it was his earliest full-length creation in the fantasy vein; one that was it... Read More

Way Station: A solitary Midwesterner holds the key to the stars

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station is Clifford D. Simak’s 1964 Hugo Award-winning novel. By many readers it is considered his best, and it features some his favorite themes: a rugged Midwesterner who shuns society, human society flirting with nuclear disaster, a more enlightened galactic society that is wary of letting unruly humans join in, an appeal to common sense and condemnation of man’s penchant for violence.

Having recently read Simak’s 1952 fixer-up novel City, in which dogs and robots take over Earth in the far future, I’m getting a pretty good sense of the author’s likes and dislikes.

He was born in a small Wisconsin town (just like my father, incidentally), attended the University of Wis... Read More

Cat’s Cradle: Filled with bitter irony and playful humor

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

"Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle (1963) is very easy to read but fiendishly difficult to review. It’s basically about two main themes: 1) Some scientists are completely unconcerned with what their research and inventions are used for, as long as they given the opportunity to pursue their own research. 2) Religion is a bunch of lies, but at the same time it can make you happier and less angst-ridden about life. It’s filled with bitter irony and playful humor, and it’s frequently hard to distinguish the two. Are you supposed to laugh at man’s foolishness and hubris, or feel sympathy for his plight, which is the same for all of us? Some detractors believe Vonnegut is the most bitter of cynics... Read More

The Legion of Time: Highly recommended for all fans of red-blooded, Golden Age sci-fi

The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson

The Legion of Time consists of two novellas that Jack Williamson wrote in the late 1930s, neither of which have anything to do with his wholly dissimilar LEGION OF SPACE novels of that same period. Both of these novellas are written in the wonderfully pulpy prose that often typified Golden Age sci-fi, and both are as colorful, fast moving and action packed as any fan could want. That elusive "sense of wonder" that authors of the era strove for seemed to come naturally for Williamson, and if the style is a bit crude by today's standards and the descriptions a tad fuzzy at times, the author's hypercreative imagination more than compensates.

The first novella in this volume is "The Legion of Time" itself, which first appeared in the May, June and July 1938 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction, scant months after John W. Campbell, Jr. began his legendary career there as... Read More

The Cosmic Computer: There’s a lot going on in this short SF quest story

The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper

Conn Maxwell is returning to his impoverished backwater home planet, Poictesme (a nod to James Branch Cabell), after years at the university where he studied computer science. The leaders of Poictesme sent him to school so that he could learn about MERLIN, a legendary supercomputer that is thought to be located somewhere near their planet. They believe that if they can find MERLIN, they will have the information and guidance they need to raise the economic power and status of Poictesme back to its former glory. It used to be an important military outpost but it was abandoned by the government when the war ended. Some farmers remain (they produce a highly prized brandy) along with all the stuff that the military left behind.

Now that Conn has returned, the search for MERLIN can begin. But there are people on Poictesme who don’t ... Read More

The Colors of Space: An SF juvenile by MZB

The Colors of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Bart Steele has been off at the Space Academy and hasn’t seen his father in years. When he goes to meet him at a Lhari space station, Mr. Steele never shows up. Instead, he sends an agent with a message for Bart. The Lhari, an intelligent alien race, suspect that Bart’s dad has stolen the secret of their warp drive. If so, this means humans will be able to manufacture their own warp drives and the Lhari will no longer have a monopoly on out-of-system space travel. The Lhari are trying to hunt down Mr. Steele and Bart is in danger, too.

Off goes Bart to try to find his father and his father’s secrets. All he knows is that the secret to the Lhari space drive has something to do with an eighth color that humans have never seen before (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s science is a little off here. Well, a lot off, but let’s just ignore that, shall we? Because the idea is so lovely, even if it... 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

Time Cat: Lloyd Alexander’s first book

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander

Published way back in 1963, Time Cat was the first book ever written by Lloyd Alexander, and as such, exists as an interesting comparison to many of his later books, with echoes of plots and characters that will later be used in his more famous and sophisticated works. It is quite a simplistic book, with a straightforward story told in clear but sparse prose, but there are certainly traces of the excellence that is to come in Alexander's later books, particularly the award-winning The Prydain Chronicles.

Jason has been sent to his bedroom in disgrace, only to find that his black, orange-eyed cat can talk! Gareth informs him that rather than the oft-believed saying that cats have nine lives, it is in fact the ability to visit nine lives that make cats so... Read More