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In 500 Words or Less: Plague Birds by Jason Sanford

In 500 Words or Less: Plague Birds by Jason Sanford

Plague Birds by Jason Sanford
Apex Publications (274 pages, $16.95 paperback/$6.99 eBook, Sept 21, 2021)
Cover by Marcela Bolívar

I remember not long ago when CRISPR was on the tip of a lot of people’s tongues, among science fiction writers as well as the general public. Obviously we’re focused on other topics in science and medicine right now, but sooner or later people will come back to asking whether gene editing should be allowed, what should be permissible, and the possibilities if this branch of science is allowed to run unchecked.

Jason Sanford deals with that last point in Plague Birds, by jumping ahead thousands of years after a total societal collapse caused in part by conflict between genetically modified humans. The set-up and frame here is pretty cool: millennia after this collapse, humans live in isolated settlements and mostly stay away from each other, protected by AIs that are gradually weeding out the “crisper” inside their DNA. We get to see a lot of how the world has changed, but the real focus is on Crista, a young woman forced to become one of the “plague birds” who essentially root out the most heinous wrongdoers among the settlements – though it often isn’t a simple job.

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Arthur C. Clarke: Omnibuses, Collections, and Remixes

Arthur C. Clarke: Omnibuses, Collections, and Remixes

Omnibuses:
Across the Sea of Stars (Harcourt Brace World, 1959)
From the Ocean, From the Stars (Harcourt Brace World, 1961)
Prelude to Mars (Harcourt Brace World, 1965; book club edition shown)
The Lion of Comarre and Against the Fall of Night (Harcourt Brace World, 1968; book club edition shown)

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the major science fiction writers of the 1950s through the 1970s; his biggest claim to fame was as coauthor, along with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, of the film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was a British scientist who lived most of his life in Ceylon, later known as Sri Lanka, and wrote numerous books about his skin diving adventures in that area. He began publishing short stories as early as 1937, and his novels beginning in the 1950s included Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars, and Rendezvous with Rama.

This is the first of two posts about Arthur C. Clarke’s short fiction, which comprise nearly 100 titles and include such famous works as “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God,” not to mention “The Sentinel,” one of the  (several) inspirations for 2001. This post will trace the overlaps between Clarke’s early collections and the later “omnibuses” and “remixes.” The next post will review the stories, both in general terms and to highlight the 8 or 10 or 12 best, or most significant, Clarke stories, in my judgment.

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When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

 

And with When the Goddess Wakes, Howard Andrew Jones’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy comes to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps the series’ greatest asset is its completion. In one two-and-a-half-year span — complete with a plague — all three books have appeared and that’s it, there ain’t no more. I waited six years between installments of Glen Cook’s Black Company, and millions of people have been waiting ten years for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (good luck with that). Jones got in and got out, producing three tightly-plotted and -paced novels. For that alone, as a reader I say, “Thank you!” But there’s more to it than that.

The first book, For the Killing of Kings (2019) introduces the Altenerai, a corps of superior warriors complete with magical talents. They are dedicated to protecting the five realms of the Dendressi from forces magical and mundane. Just as it is discovered that a kingdom-destabilizing conspiracy leads right to the Queen, the five realms are invaded by the Naor, a brutal barbarian horde. Less than a decade earlier the Naor were almost victorious. This time around, most of the greatest Altenerai are missing or dead, and it seems as though only a pair of young Altenerai and a few veterans are ready to stand against the Dendressi’s enemies. That book ends grimly, with death and destruction and what seems certain victory of both the Naor and the Queen.

Upon the Flight of the Queen (2019) {That’s two books in one year, folks! It can be done.} begins right where the previous book left off, with death and destruction continuing apace. The Naor march on the capital, Darassus, and the Queen’s plot to resurrect a long lost goddess in order to create a utopia is revealed. Each promises destruction for the Dendressi. Both are thwarted, but the Queen escapes with every intention of carrying out her plan.

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Goth Chick News Reviews: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

Goth Chick News Reviews: My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

My Heart is a Chainsaw (Saga Press, August 2021)

Over the Labor Day weekend, I got to do something I have literally not been able to do for close to four years. And before you ask, it had nothing to do with goat leggings or full moons.

Having been trapped in academic hell since January 2018 when I made the questionable decision to pursue a doctorate degree, I have had zero time to enjoy simple pleasures. Like sleeping, or having a weekend off. However, the thing I missed most was devoting an entire day (or two) to devouring a good book. To me, there is nothing quite as awesome as parking myself with some snacks and a cold drink, then tucking in to a novel from cover to cover. Due to a series of fortunate events, that is precisely what I was able to do this last Sunday and Monday.

Knowing I would have this extremely rare extravagance, I did another thing I haven’t done in ages:  spend a few hours at my local Barnes and Nobel choosing the perfect title. In the “new releases” section I found My Heart is a Chainsaw by prolific horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, which had just hit shelves on August 31st.

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Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

When I was young I watched numerous live-action animal movies on The Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights on NBC, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom). There was Run, Cougar, Run (1972), Nikki, Dog of the North (1961), and my favorite, The Incredible Journey (1963). I had, of course, also seen Bambi (1942), an animated movie that gave voice to its animal characters, unlike the live-action ones. The point being, when my friend Karl told me about an exciting book he’d just read about the adventures of rabbits, it sounded like something I’d like. Watership Down (1972) turned out to be nothing like the movies I’d seen and much more than just a book about rabbits.

Richard Adams, a British civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, created stories to tell his daughters on car rides. He began with the words “Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver”. The stories were set in and around the real Watership Down, a grass-covered hill in Hampshire, England. It wasn’t long before his daughters insisted he write them down, and in 1966 he started to do just that. After a years-long search for a publisher, Watership Down was released and achieved commercial and critical success, garnering several awards for children’s literature as well.

The bare bones of the novel’s plot are that a band of male rabbits flee their home warren to find a safe place to establish a new one. Along the way, they face adversity in the forms of scarcity, topography, weather, animal predators, and, of course, man. Unlike all those Disney movies, though, Adams wasn’t content to tell a naturalistic story of rabbits in the wild like a lagomorphic version of Tarka the Otter (1927). In the most basic sense, then, Watership Down is not allegorical; Adams repeatedly made that clear. Nonetheless, he dug deep into the sorts of mythic tropes Joseph Campbell explored in works like The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)* and the novel is brimming with archetypal elements, e.g. the young man maturing into a hero, self-sacrifice, existential struggles against evil and death. Though devised as a non-allegorical children’s work, Watership Down, informed by Adams’s conservatism and Christianity, addresses some of the deepest issues of humanity and society without ever stooping to didacticism or condescension. Even socialists have discovered great political meaning in the book.

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The Dream of the Numinous: Carl Sagan’s Contact

The Dream of the Numinous: Carl Sagan’s Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan
First Edition: Simon and Schuster, October 1985, Jacket painting by Jon Lomberg

Contact
by Carl Sagan
Simon and Schuster (432 pages, $18.95, Hardcover, October 1985)
Jacket painting by Jon Lomberg

Carl Sagan is known as the greatest science popularizer who was also a legitimate scientist of the late 20th century. His landmark achievement was a 13-part TV series, Cosmos, broadcast in 1980, and its companion book of that same year. Sagan was an astronomer and planetary scientist, whose achievements included planning the first Mariner mission to Venus in the 1960s and the Viking landers on Mars in 1976. His first popular book, The Cosmic Connection (1973), won a special nonfiction John W. Campbell Memorial Award – the only time that award went to a nonfiction book – in 1974. Indeed, that’s how I first heard of Carl Sagan, having been following the science fiction awards for just a year or two, at my age then.

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Frontguard Sword and Sorcery: John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis

Frontguard Sword and Sorcery: John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis

A Sorcerer of Atlantis (Hippocampus Press, 2021). Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

A Sorcerer of Atlantis: With A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts

John Shirley’s A Sorcerer of Atlantis: With A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts, published by Hippocampus Press (2021), includes two autonomous works: the novel A Sorcerer of Atlantis, which relates the hack-and-slash and demon-haunted adventures of Brimm the Half-Savant and Snoori, his mischievous, short-statured, mustachioed sidekick; and the novella, “A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts,” a haunting gateway fantasy that evokes the trans-dimensional tales of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber and the psycho-cartographic tradition of Dante’s Inferno.

Although bound together, both works are distinct, excellent reading experiences. Nevertheless, both works might be equally labeled “sword and sorcery,” the pulp fantasy literary tradition of Robert E. Howard. Indeed, one of the joys of this book is how it showcases the dramatic range of that pulp tradition as it evolved after Howard. Put simply, Shirley’s book is no mere pastiche, the re-hashing of a passé sword and sorcery formula, although A Sorcerer of Atlantis does engage Weird Tales and Henry Kuttner nostalgia. Instead, Shirley’s unique work reminds us that the purview of sword and sorcery is a wide, unfolding, and dynamic literary conversation that is heating up today.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Goblins, Giants and Blacktongued Rogues Abide! The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman
(Tor Books, May 2021). Cover by Marie Bergeron

“Christophe the Insulter” was for years the single funniest performer at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin, with one of the best cons… er…. shows: Pay me to insult your friends in front of an audience. The more you pay, the more I roast them. It was dark, it was brutal, it was wickedly funny and everyone went away feeling good — even the victims.

Interestingly, that sums up the writing of Christophe’s real identity as horror (and now fantasy) writer Christopher Buehlman; a man whose growing canon of work is filled with some of the most disturbing and dark portrayals of classic horrors — vampires, werewolves, demons (and angels, who are pretty scary, too), and necromancers — but also moments of just brilliant, wicked humor and you always close the back cover deeply satisfied. Consequently, I was deeply excited to read his first foray into mainstream fantasy — The Blacktongue Thief.

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A Hero Named Mayhem

A Hero Named Mayhem

Johnny Mayhem, man of a thousand faces, leaping from body to body, putting right things that had once went…no wait! That’s the television show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989 to 1993. Never mind. Decades before Sam Beckett went leaping through time, there was another bodiless adventurer doing much the same thing. His name was Johnny Mayhem.

Illustration from “My Name is Mayhem,” (Amazing Stories, September 1955). Artwork by Kotzky.

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Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Murder begets murder, everybody dies, usually badly, and the gods are bastards. Those are the lessons taught in The Saga of the Volsungs, the history of the doomed Volsung family. The historical events reflected in the saga took place between the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries AD, a period of great tribal migrations and unrest among the Germanic people of Central and Eastern Europe.

Starting around 1000 BC, tribes from the region now called Scandinavia began migrating south and west into present-day Germany, pushing out the Celtic tribes, before running up against the Roman Empire along a frontier that extended from the mouth of the Rhine River and all along it and the Danube River to the Black Sea. To the east, German kingdoms stretched as far as the Pontic Steppe in modern Ukraine and Russia. At the end of the 4th Century AD, the Huns came roaring out of the distant East and began conquering or driving out the German tribes in Eastern and Central Europe. The historic destruction of the Kingdom of Burgundy by the Huns in 436 AD is a major part of the saga, though scaled down from war to a family feud. It is in this age of chaos and death that the stories of the Volsungs were born. The oldest artistic representations of the Volsunga Saga are found in stone carvings in Ramslund, Sweden, but it wasn’t written down until the late 13th century, in Iceland. The more well-known German telling of the story, The Nibelungenlied, was written earlier, about 1200 AD. Wagner drew on both as sources for his epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

If the courtly tales of King Arthur and Roland point toward high fantasy, this German legend and its ilk point straight to sword & sorcery. There are no great heroes moved by devotion to home and family to pursue noble deeds, only murderers driven by greed or vengeance to commit deeds of great violence. Good and evil are abstractions that have no place in a blood-drowned age. The violence is direct and driven by personal motives far more often than by ideals or the needs of any kingdom.

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