Free Live Free: No rent, but you’ll have to pay in brain cells

Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe

First of all, let me lay a few cards on the table: Gene Wolfe is my favorite science-fiction author and might be my favorite author, period. I’d give something like fifteen of his books five-star reviews; the only other author who comes close to that is Jack Vance.

Free Live Free (1984) is one of his two books that I just. Don’t. Get. (Castleview is the other.) I’ve read it at least three times, I’ve puzzled over the explanatory synopsis of one character’s actions at the end (I believe the publisher insisted on its inclusion), I’ve read a couple of essays commenting on it, and I still have no clear idea how most of the story connects to what happens at the end. In that sense this story... Read More

Icehenge: Makes the reader doubt, puzzle and think

Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson

Icehenge is Kim Stanley Robinson's second published novel. It was published the same year as his first novel The Wild Shore, the first part in his THREE CALIFORNIAS triptych. The subject of Icehenge is very different from The Wild Shore. It would be selling the book short to say it is a first step towards his popular MARS trilogy because Icehenge is a very good novel in its own right, but fans of the MARS books will find many themes in this book have returned in the trilogy.

On the north pole of Pluto a mysterious construction of ice is found, reminiscent of Stonehenge. Three linked novellas in Icehenge explore the origin of this construct. The first two novellas had been published before ... Read More

The Wasp Factory: A flash piece of entertainment

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Read More

The People of the Mist: An exciting lost-race novel… with no Quatermain

The People of the Mist by H. Rider Haggard

Sir Henry Rider Haggard, the so-called "Father of the Lost Race Novel," didn't write such stories featuring only Allan Quatermain and Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed. For example, his 17th novel, The People of the Mist (1894), is a smashing, wonderfully exciting, stand-alone lost-race tale featuring all-new characters. But the first third of the novel is hardly a lost-race story at all, but rather one of hard-bitten African adventure.

In it, we meet Leonard Outram, a penniless British adventurer who is seeking wealth in the wilds of the "Dark Continent" after losing his family lands and estates (through no fault of his own, it should be added). He becomes involved in the rescue of a young Portuguese woman from the largest slaving camp in Africa, and this thrilling and quite s... Read More

The Ghost Light: Several of Leiber’s award-winning stories

The Ghost Light by Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber’s The Ghost Light, recently produced in audio format by Audible Frontiers, is a collection of nine short stories and novelettes and an autobiographical essay by Fritz Leiber. Only the first novelette, “The Ghost Light,” and the essay, “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay,” are original to this collection. Most of the previously printed stories were nominated for, or won, major SFF awards. Here’s what you’ll find in The Ghost Light:

“The Ghost Light” — Young Tommy and his parents are visiting Cassius, his estranged grandfather, in California. There’s something creepy about the painting of Tommy’s dead grandmother that hangs in the living room and Tommy knows the bluish green nightlight in his bedroom has something to do with it. This is a spooky tale that I mostly enjoyed, even t... Read More

Death Sentences: Award-winning Japanese science fiction

Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki

How to describe the copy of Death Sentences, by Kawamata Chiaki (translated by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Hehrens) I recently received? Take a heaping helping of Philip K. Dick, a dollop or two of Ray Bradbury, layer into a pan, then frost liberally with my undergrad survey course in artistic movements — particular the week or so on surrealism. Let sit for a few decades (it was originally published in Japan in 1984) — you can pass the time by watching the Japanese horror movie The Ring, which shares a similar plot device. When the timer dings, sit back and read. If you dare.

The “if you dare” is, of course, a reference to the Ring-like plot device. In this case, a text entitled “The G... Read More

Lies, Inc: PKD’s most inaccessible novel?

Lies, Inc by Philip K. Dick

In the early 21st century, Earth has become overcrowded and has begun to look toward space as a potential new home. Only one habitable planet has been found — Whale’s Mouth — and it’s said to be a paradise. Rachmael ben Applebaum’s company has developed a spaceship that will take settlers there, but the trip takes 18 years. Just as business is about to begin, it’s undercut by Trails of Hoffman, Inc., a company who has developed a new teleporting technology that will get settlers to Whale’s Mouth in only 15 minutes. The only catch is that it’s a one-way trip — once you leave, you can’t come back. Ben Applebaum, whose company has been financially devastated by this new technology, discovers that the videos of happy settlers have been faked and thinks there’s something nefarious going on at Whale’s Mouth. After all, Trails of Hoffman is run by Germans, and their eugenic ideas have not been forgott... Read More

Armor: A novel about suffering

Armor by John Steakley

...everything you were hiding from was in there with you. That’s the trouble with armor. It won’t protect you from what you are.

Felix is a loner, a broken man with a mysterious past. When he’s dropped with thousands of fellow soldiers on a toxic planet nicknamed “Banshee,” he’s the only survivor of the battle with the 8-foot tall “Ants” that live there. That’s partly because of the special armor he wears — his black nuclear-powered scout suit — and partly because of the emotional armor he wears — what he calls “The Engine” — his lack of fear and compassion in dangerous situations. Because he doesn’t really care if he dies, he is able to make quick detached decisions, and it’s this armor, ironically, that keeps him alive.

After the battle, the computer assumes Felix is dead, and this glitch means that he’s never assigned to R&R. Instead... Read More

The Changeover: Has lost none of its potency

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

I read Margaret Mahy's Carnegie-winning novel first as a teenager and again just recently, in my twenties. Despite the passage of time, I found that The Changeover had lost none of its potency. It's still a striking coming-of-age story, still a nail-biting supernatural thriller, still a fascinating character study, and still a dark urban fairytale that fully deserves the recognition it got at the time of its first publication back in the 1980s. It has aged remarkably well, for as Mahy points out in her postscript, there is very little use of eighties lingo or technology. This story could just as easi... Read More

The Seven Towers: You’ve come a long way, baby

The Seven Towers by Patricia C. Wrede

I was strangely dissatisfied by The Seven Towers but really couldn’t figure out what exactly was the problem until I sat down to write the review. I normally start with a plot summary, and I couldn’t figure out how to summarize the story. A lot of stuff happens, and a lot of characters run around and do a lot of things, but there is a fundamental disjointedness to the story that is exacerbated by the multiple points of view.

The Seven Towers is the story of one world’s attempt to defeat the Matholych, a magical beast that reappears at long intervals and eats magical power. The most power is gained from killing people, so the beast wreaks havoc when it appears. The seven nations must join together to defeat the creature, but this time of turmoil is also used for various people to advance agendas of their own. The sorcerer Amberglas may b... Read More

To Reign in Hell: Fantastic accomplishment

To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust

The accomplishments here are nothing short of spectacular. Imagine writing a book populated with some of the most well known characters in Western history: Yahweh, Jesus, Satan, Lucifer (yes, they are separate), and the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. They all need unique personalities. If they're not, if they're retreads of biblical, Dante, Milton, or others, then the book fails.

Then imagine creating a reason for God to create the Cherubs, Seraph, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, etc. Give all of them a purpose. Imagine creating Heaven, giving essence to creation itself — a Big Bang, in effect. Imagine giving reason for the Fall. Not just the reason given in The Revelation, but a rewriting, of sorts, and one that absolutely has to make sense.

This should seem impossible. Only the greatest writers in history have succeeded when touching this mate... Read More

Fire and Hemlock: DWJ’s most complex and subtle novel

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and Hemlock is possibly Diana Wynne Jones' most complex and subtle novel, and it's certainly not for the younger readers who've enjoyed her most famous work, the Chrestomanci novels. It is most basically described as a retelling of the Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer ballads, set in 1980's England over a nine-year period. Needless to say, it is dense and complicated, filled with hidden meaning, metaphor and symbolism where two threads of life are wound together to make an intricate whole.

Told predominantly in flashback sequences, we begin when nineteen-year-old Polly Whittacker is packing to go to college when her memory begins to stir. Her recollections of a book and a picture on the wall are not as she remembers them, and only when she concentrates and really begins to think does she realize that she seems to h... Read More