The Halloween Tree: The best history lesson you’ll ever have

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. 

So reads the charming first sentence of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. A perfectly gothic yarn that seeks, through the hop skip and jump adventure of a group of young boys and their sinister guide, to convey the true meaning of Halloween.

It is Halloween night and Tom Skelton and his group of boys are dressed up and ready for adventure. Leaving their poorly friend Pipkin behind, they run, as boys will, out of the town to a great ravine where they find the house of Carapace C... Read More

Invisible Cities: Philosophical sketches of imaginary cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino has long been on my list of foreign writers of the fantastic who have been deeply influential to SFF writers while remaining only tangential to the genre. This would include the great Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Stanislaw Lem. All these writers revel in philosophical musings, magic realism, and intellectual play. They belong to the deeper end of the fantastic literature swimming pool, but adventurous readers and authors have often plunged into those depths to one degree or another.

Invisible Cities was first published in Italian in 1972 but appeared in English in 1974 and was a surprise nominee for the Nebula Award in 1976. It is a unique and almost unclassifiable work, a 165-page collection o... Read More

Roadside Picnic: A Russian SF classic

Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic (1972) is a Russian SF novel written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. This was back when authors and publishers were subject to government review and censorship. Since it didn’t follow the Communist Party line, it didn’t get published in uncensored book form in Russia until the 1990s despite first appearing in a Russian literary magazine in 1972. So its first book publication was in the US in 1977.

Since then Roadside Picnic has been published in dozens of editions and languages over the years, and inspired the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, which the Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay for.

The story is set after the Visitation, when aliens briefly stopped on the Earth and left six Zones where strange alien technology and physical phenomenon exi... Read More

The Book Of Skulls: A far cry from Daytona Beach!

The Book Of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

Because he has garnered no fewer than eight Hugo and Nebula Awards over the years, has been inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Hall of Fame, and has been, since 2005, anyway, an SFWA Grand Master, it might be difficult to credit the notion that Robert Silverberg might also be a writer of horror. And yet, there it is, the 55th book under discussion in Jones & Newman's excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books; namely, The Book of Skulls, which first saw the light of day in 1972, the same year that its author released the masterly Dying Inside. Though its claims for being listed as a sci-fi novel are as debatable as its claims to being labeled horror or fantasy, the book WAS nevertheless nomi... Read More

The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three novellas about identity, memory, and colonization

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I don’t think I’m the only reader drawn to Gene Wolfe’s books — hoping to understand all the symbolism, subtleties, oblique details, unreliable narrators, and offstage events — and finding myself frustrated and confused, feeling like it’s my lack of sophistication and careful reading ability to blame. Wolfe is most famous for his amazing 4-volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN dying earth masterpiece, which has a 1-volume coda called The Urth of the New Sun, along with two companion series, THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN and THE BOOK OF THE SHORT SUN. Collectively they are known as THE SOLAR CYCLE, and these books tend to split readers into two camps: either dedicated Wolfe fans who find his works richer, deeper, and more subtle than anything el... Read More

Tower of Glass: Enough ideas for several novels

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg

Tower of Glass (1972) is another of Robert Silverberg’s ambitious novels from his most prolific period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In that time he was churning out several books each year that were intelligent, thematically challenging, beautifully written stories that explored identity, sexuality, telepathy, alien contact, religion and consciousness. At his best, he produced some masterpieces like Downward to the Earth and Dying Inside, as well as some dreadful books like Up the Line, but his unfettered imagination and prolific energy were undeniable.

Unfortunately, a wealth of ideas can sometimes overwhelm even the best books, and I think Tower of Glass Read More

The Second Trip: A trip worth taking

The Second Trip by Robert Silverberg

In his 1969 novel To Live Again, Robert Silverberg posited a world of the near future in which it is possible for the very rich to have their personae recorded and preserved, and later placed in the mind of a willing recipient after their own demise, as a means of surviving the death of the body and sharing their consciousness with another. It is a fascinating premise and a terrific book, and thus this reader was a tad apprehensive at the beginning of Silverberg's similarly themed novel The Second Trip. Would Silverberg merely repeat himself here, to diminished effect, and offer his audience a mere rehash of an earlier great work? As it turns out, I needn't have been concerned. Silverberg, sci-fi great that he is — especially during this, his remarkable second phase of writing, las... Read More

The Godmakers: Starts well, then begins to ramble

The Godmakers by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s The Godmakers is a novelized collection of four connected stories that first appeared in the pulp magazines between May 1958 and February 1960:

“You Take the High Road” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1958)
“Missing link” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1959)
“Operation Haystack” (Astounding Science Fiction, 1959)
“The Priests of Psi” (Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, February 1960)

The story takes place in a far future after humanity has spread to many habitable planets. However, a war has devastated communication between the planets and humans have lost contact with an unknown number of them. An intergalactic governmental agency called Rediscovery & Reeducation (R&R) finds these planets and tries to bring them back into the fold, reeducating as necessary to ensure that they’re ... Read More

The Gods Themselves: Asimov’s favorite of his SF novels

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”

Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves earned the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. About 15 years ago it was put on the Locus list of All Time Best Science Fiction Novels.

If you’re anything like me, that’s enough to put The Gods Themselves on your To Be Read List and, indeed, it has been on mine for years because I aim to read all those award winners sometime before I die. What moved The Gods Themselves to the top of the list was that Random House Audio recently produced it in audio format and it’s read by one of my favorite classic SF readers, Scott Brick. (I love Scott Brick!)

The Gods Themselves has a strange structure. The story is told non-line... Read More

Soul Catcher: Compelling and suspenseful, but repetitive

Soul Catcher by Frank Herbert

Charles Hobuhet, an intelligent doctoral student in anthropology, is a Native American who holds a secret grudge against the Europeans who came to America, not only because of what they did to his race, but also because a group of them raped and killed his sister years ago. When Charles is stung by a bee and thinks he’s been given the title of Soul Catcher by the bee’s spirit, he believes he’s been tasked with a mission that will make the whites finally pay for their crimes. Renaming himself Katsuk, he kidnaps David, the young son of a wealthy high-status government official, and sets out on a journey with the boy — a journey that is supposed to end with the sacrifice of David. Thus David, an innocent boy, will be the payment for the white men’s sins.

And these sins are numerous. Not only did the whites steal the land from the natives, but the way they live on the land destroys it and they are oblivious... Read More

Flight from Rebirth: Exciting and thought-provoking story

Flight from Rebirth by J.T. McIntosh

I picked up Flight from Rebirth by J.T. McIntosh because it was on sale at Audible. I wasn’t familiar with the book or the author (J.T. McIntosh is a penname of James Murdoch MacGregor, a Scottish writer).

The story is about a man named Benny Rice who appears to be a pleasant mentally challenged man who works at a low-level job in a futuristic United States. It soon becomes apparent to the reader that Benny is a lot more functional than he seems. McIntosh teases us with this until the end — who is Benny? Is he really mentally challenged? If not, why is he pretending to be? Who is he hiding from, and why? Add to that his society’s strange process of Rebirth — reincarnation for the few people who’ve proved themselves worthy to carry on the human genome — and you’ve got quite a mystery.

It was this mystery and the fast pace that kept me intrigued by Flight from... Read More

We Can Build You: Surprisingly sweet, sad, insightful and amusing

We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

Although Philip K. Dick's 28th science fiction novel, We Can Build You, was first published in book form as a 95-cent DAW paperback in July 1972, it had actually been written a good decade before, and first saw the light of day under the title "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum" in the November 1969 and January 1970 issues of Amazing Stories. As revealed by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin, the book was in part inspired by the centennial of the Civil War and by a simulation of Abraham Lincoln that Phil had recently seen in Disneyland.

In We Can Build You, we meet a pair of businessmen in Ontario, Oregon — Maury Frauenzimmer and (our narrator) Louis Rosen — who sell pianos and electric organs and who are about to branch out into a new line of endeavor: mechanical "simulacra" (think: robots) of various Civil War figures. When their Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton creations come to the at... Read More

What entropy Means to Me: Definitely a weird book

What entropy Means to Me by George Alec Effinger

Obviously a first novel and very New Wave-y, in some places to the point of excess, What entropy Means to Me is still a very ambitious book which tackles the idea of story itself and its impact on our lives. It isn’t always successful and is definitely a very weird book. It will likely take a few chapters before the reader becomes familiar with what is going on (assuming he ever does), and even then the bizarro elements and shifting of the narrative can be quite confusing.

In essence the story is about a large family of brothers and sisters (known as the First family since their parents were the initial settlers of the world) who inhabit the planet known only as Home. Their parents were exiles from Earth and seem to have brought with them little more than a huge assortment of books and, apparently, a number of chairs with which the yard of their rambling home is littered. See, w... Read More

Dying Inside: Inside the mind of a mind reader

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg is the painfully intimate portrait of David Selig, a man who has been blessed (or cursed, as he might say) with the gift of telepathy. He has learned to live with the ability, but now finds that his amazing power is slowly disappearing, leaving him ordinary again. Throughout the novel, Selig is literate, insightful and self-deprecating as he mercilessly dissects his own life. I found him less than likable, but completely fascinating. He leads an almost meaningless life, has no friendships and hardly any real relationships, and despite being worldly and erudite, he is also depressingly small-minded.

Getting such an intimate view into Selig’s mind is at times a painful experience: despite his pettiness, sexism and occasional racism, you can’t help but feel for him. The bitter irony of Dying Inside Read More

Watership Down: So much more than bunnies

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The other reviewers mocked me when I said I was going to review Watership Down. ‘I hope you like rabbits!’, they sniggered. Well, Watership Down does have rabbits as the main characters, but it is so much more than a story about bunnies. That would be like saying The Hobbit was about hobbits. Both stories encompasses so many greater themes — adventure, friendship and loyalty, courage in the face of adversity, leadership, the value of home and security, and on it goes (like the road).

If you enjoyed The Hobbit then you should like Watership Down. The writing is similar in some ways and the reading level is about the same. I found Watership Down in my local Chapters bookstore in the section for readers aged nine to twelve years old. I strongl... Read More