Birthday Reviews: Jonathan Lethem’s “Lostronaut”

Monday, February 19th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Bob Staake

Cover by Bob Staake

Jonathan Lethem was born on February 19, 1964. His debut novel was Gun, with Occasional Music, which followed several published short stories. Often skirting the line between genre and mainstream, most of his novels, including Amensia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table, and The Fortress of Solitude contain science fictional elements or play of the popular culture that surrounds science fiction.

Lethem won the World Fantasy Award for his collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award four times, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award three times, and the Shirley Jackson Award, Sidewise Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award one time, each. His novel Gun, with Occasional Music received the William L. Crawford Award and won the Locus Poll for best first novel.

“Lostronaut” was originally published in The New Yorker on November 17, 2008. Although it has not been reprinted in English, it was translated into Hungarian for publication in the anthology Kétszázadik, edited by Németh Attila in 2009.

“Lostronaut” is an epistolary story written from Janice, an astronaut orbiting on a space station known as “Northern Lights” to her lover, Chase, in Manhattan. The letters are filled with a mix of longing to be together again, gossip about the rest of the Russian-American crew of the station, and concerns that because the Chinese have mined the orbital region below the space station, they would have difficulty returning to Earth.

As the letters progress, their tone becomes more urgent and more depressed. The situation with the Chinese mines grows more dire, members of the crew become more despondent, and Janice’s own circumstances become urgent as she is diagnosed with cancer, which will need to be treated aboard the station unless a way through the minefield can be found.

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Birthday Reviews: Gahan Wilson’s “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be”

Sunday, February 18th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

02-18-unknownGahan Wilson was born on February 18, 1930 and is best known as a cartoonist with a very identifiable style. For many years, his bust of H.P. Lovecraft was used as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award. His cartoons have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as more mainstream publications like Collier’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy.

Although most notable as an artist, Wilson has published several short stories and wrote a movie review column for The Twilight Zone Magazine and a book review column for Realms of Fantasy.

“The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be” is one of Wilson’s few short stories and was originally published in the May 1967 issue of Playboy Magazine and reprinted in The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural. It has since been reprinted several times, including in Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous, edited by Leo P. Kelley, Gahan Wilson’s Favorite Tales of Horror, Blood Is Not Enough, edited by Ellen Datlow, who also reprinted it in Sci Fiction, Wilson’s collection The Cleft and Other Odd Tales and his Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, Otto Penzler’s The Vampire Archives, and the Vandermeers’ The Weird. It was also reprinted in the December 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. In 1986, the story was translated into French.

Just as Wilson’s cartoons demonstrate a dark sense of humor, “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be” offers a similar outlook on life. Based on the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and containing a significant portion of Carroll’s text, Wilson recasts the oysters of the poem as a group of people picnicking on the strand.

One of their number, Phil, doesn’t quite feel at home with the rest, himself cast as the oldest oyster of the poem, and decides that he is going to change his life’s circumstances. Into this rather glum party, two interlopers come, and the characters in Wilson’s story compare them to the Walrus and the Carpenter of Carroll’s poem. Wilson never defines who, or what his Walrus and Carpenter are, although he provides them with names.

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Modular: Trouble in the ’80’s with Tales from the Loop

Saturday, February 17th, 2018 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

TalesFromTheLoopAs a child of the ’80’s, I grew up with the understanding that a group of kids might stumble upon a series of mysterious events and have to band together to deal with the challenges from it. Parents, law enforcement, and other authorities would be of no help, so there was no point in telling them what was going on. They either wouldn’t believe it or, worse, would stop the kids from fixing things. The kids, through determination and luck, were the only hope to set things right … whether it was finding a way to keep their families from being evicted, returning a strange visitor to another planet, or stopping rampaging monsters. Or, heck, even just making it through a day of detention.

E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me, The Breakfast Club, Flight of the Navigator, The Last Starfighter, Lost Boys, SpaceCampGremlins. These are the types of films, along with more recent period pieces like The Iron Giant and Stranger Things, and maybe a touch of the SyFy Channel’s television series Eureka thrown in, that inspire the science fiction role-playing game Tales from the Loop from Modiphius Entertainment.

Tales from the Loop centers around a community in the 1980’s that is home to a research center and particle accelerator, called “The Loop.” There are actually two settings outlined in the book: the Swedish island of Svartsjolandet or the American town Boulder City. Whichever community your characters live in, you play a group of Kids who come into contact with a Mystery related to the particle accelerator, and join together to resolve the Mystery. The game can be extremely episodic, great for a standalone one-shot game, or played in a more “sandbox” format where the players are able to explore the setting in more depth, allowing for a more long-term campaign.

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The Last Dragon (1985): My Big Trouble in Little China or Black Panther Double Feature Pick

Saturday, February 17th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Last-Dragon-title-card-1985

This week I have two reasons to write about The Last Dragon, a.k.a. Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. First, the biggest black superhero movie ever produced arrives in theaters this weekend, Black Panther. If projections are accurate, it will steamroller all February opening records with a domestic box-office take of $200 million and become a cultural touchstone for 2018. It’s the right time to celebrate with one of Black Panther’s earlier progenitors in black superhero movies that isn’t Blade. (Nothing against Blade, but it’s the example the other magazines will cover.)

Second, I looked at Big Trouble in Little China last week for my John Carpenter series. Few films are a better fit for a double feature with Big Trouble in Little China than The Last Dragon, a martial arts comedy fantasy that came out the year before Carpenter’s take on a genre still unfamiliar to U.S. audiences.

On a double bill with Big Trouble in Little China, I’d show The Last Dragon first. This is based on my guidelines for crafting double features — a subject I’ve given far too much thought — that either 1) the lesser quality film goes first, or 2) the lighter/less grim film goes second, whichever factor feels dominant. Since both movies are on the same level of buoyancy and feel-good fun, The Last Dragon opens for Big Trouble in Little China.

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Birthday Reviews: Andre Norton’s “The Gifts of Asti”

Saturday, February 17th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Laura Ruth Crozetti

Cover by Laura Ruth Crozetti

Andre Norton was born on February 17, 1912 and died on March 17, 2005. She began publishing with “People of the Crater,” using the pseudonym Andrew North (reprinted in 2003 in my anthology Magical Beginnings).

Over the years, she published numerous short stories and novels, including the various stories of the Witch World cycle. She also published the first Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novel, Quag Keep, set in Gary Gygax’s World of Greyhawk. In addition to her own novels, she collaborated with a variety of authors including Rosemary Edghill, Jean Rabe, Mercedes Lackey, Lyn McConchie, Susan Shwartz, Julian May, Marion Zimmer Bradley, P.M. Griffin, Sherwood Smith, Dorothy Madlee, Sasha Miller, and more.

From 1999 through early 2004, Norton organized the High Hallack Library, a research library and authors retreat in Tennessee. The library, along with her collaborations, were only a few of the ways Norton helped shape new generations of authors. Many authors claimed Norton as an influence on their own styles, even if they didn’t work directly with her. She edited the Catfantastic anthologies with Martin H. Greenberg and the Magic in Ithkar series with Robert Adams. Other anthology series allowed authors to write in her Witch World series.

Norton was named the first female SFWA Grand Master in 1984. She received the Phoenix Award in 1975, the Skylark Award in 1983, the Big Heart Award in 1988, and the Forry Award in 1989. In 1994, she was inducted into the First Fandom Hall of Fame and was the first woman inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997. In 1998, the World Fantasy Convention gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award (11 years earlier, they gave her a Special Convention Award). When SFWA created a Young Adult Award in 2005, it was named in honor of Norton. She received the only Coveted Balrog Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1979 and was named a Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy in 1977.

“The Gifts of Asti” was originally published under Norton’s Andrew North pseudonym in the July 1948 issue of Fantasy Book, edited by Garret Ford. The next year, it was reprinted in Griffin Booklet One and was included by Sam Moskowitz in The Time Curve in 1968. Norton used it in The Many Worlds of Andre Norton (a.k.a.The Book of Andre Norton). It was the title story in Roger Elwood’s The Gifts of Asti and Other Stories of Science Fiction and editor Jane Mobley used it in the anthology Phantasmagoria: Tales of Fantasy and the Supernatural. Spastic Press opened Anthology of Sci-Fi: The Pulp Writers: Volume I with the story and it was also reprinted in Tales from High Halleck: The Collected Short Stories of Andre Norton, Volume I in 2014.

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Birthday Reviews: Iain M. Banks’s “A Gift from the Culture”

Friday, February 16th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Paul Rickwood

Cover by Paul Rickwood

Iain M. Banks was born on February 16, 1954 and died on June 9, 2013. At the time of his death, two months after he was diagnosed with cancer, he was the Author Guest of Honor for Loncon 3, the seated Worldcon. Banks wrote both within the genre and outside the genre, using his middle initial, “M.” do designate science fiction works.

His first three books, beginning with The Wasp Factory, were more mainstream, although two of them, The Bridge and The Wasp Factory, would go on to win the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. Banks has twice won the British SF Association Award for Best Novel for Feersum Endjinn and Excession. The latter also earned him an Italia Award and another Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. His fourth Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis was for Use of Weapons, while Inversions earned him another Italia Award. Many of his works are set against the background of The Culture, an advanced society made up of several interbred species combined with sentient AIs.

“A Gift from the Culture” was originally published in the Summer 1987 issue of Interzone, number 20, edited by Simon Ounsley and David Pringle. Banks included it in his 1991 short story collection The State of the Art. It was later included in the anthology Cyber-Killers, edited by Ric Alexander, and David G. Hartwell included it in The Space Opera Renaissance. Most recently, it was reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection. The story has also been translated into German, French, and Italian.

In “A Gift from the Culture” Banks presents just enough information about what the Culture is so the reader is not at a complete loss, but the society as a whole remains something of a mystery within the confines of this short story. Wrobik is down on his luck and living in Vreccis Loew City, in debt to a couple of mobster types, Kaddus and Cruizell, who are willing to forgive him his debt if he’ll do one little thing for them. With no good choices before him, Wrobik agrees to take a gun, which is designed to only work for people who are biologically part of the Culture, and use the weapon to shoot down an incoming space craft.

One of the main deciding points for Wrobik is concern that Kaddus and Cruizell will harm Maust, Wrobik’s boyfriend. While Wrobik has a job to carry out, he doesn’t particularly want to do it and tries to figure out a way around it which will not put Maust into danger. While the story is a dramatic look at Wrobik’s choices, an understated humor is introduced by the monologue carried out by the gun, in which it continuously describes itself and how to use it to Wrobik, an audio instruction manual.

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Birthday Reviews: Jack Dann’s “Rings Around the Moon”

Thursday, February 15th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Jay Lake

Cover by Jay Lake

Jack Dann was born on February 15, 1945. His novels include The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral, and The Silent, among many others. Dann has edited several anthologies, often in conjunction with Gardner Dozois, Janeen Webb, or George Zebrowski. He edited the Jewish science fiction anthology Wandering Stars in 1974 and followed it up with More Wandering Stars.

Dann won the Nebula Award for Best Novella for his 1995 story “Da Vinci Rising” and has won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology twice, for Dreaming Down Under, edited with Janeen Webb, and Dreaming in the Dark. His anthology Ghosts by Gaslight, edited with Nick Gevers, won the Shirley Jackson Award and the Aurealis Award. He also won the Aurealis Award for his short story “Niagara Falling,” written with Webb, and his novel The Memory Cathedral. “Niagara Falling” also earned him his first Ditmar Award, which was followed up with anthology awards for Dreaming Down Under, Dreaming Again, and Dreaming in the Dark and a short fiction award for “The Diamond Pit.” In 2004, he received the Peter McNamara Award for a professional working in the Australian SF field.

“Rings Around the Moon” was originally published in Polyphony 3, edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake. It was later reprinted in Dann’s collection Promised Land: Stories of Another America. “Rings Around the Moon” is part of Dann’s “The Rebel” cycle, which includes several stories as well as the 2004 novel The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean. The story was nominated for the Darrell Award for best Mid-South science fiction, fantasy, or horror.

Mostly told from the viewpoint of a young Elvis Presley, “Rings Around the Moon” opens in Memphis on the evening of September 30, 1955, around the time his career was starting to take off. Unfortunately for Elvis, his burgeoning touring career, and the rumors of his sexual escapades, are putting a strain on his relationship with Lizzie, his girlfriend. As the two are trying to figure out what their relationship is, Gladys Presley informs them that the actor Elvis is always talking about, James Dean, has been injured in a car accident.

Elvis decides he needs to visit Dean and asks Lizzie to go with him. The set up allows Dann to explore the blessings and curses of fame through a fictitious meeting between two of the most legendary individuals of the burgeoning 1950s youth culture. James Dean lying in his hospital bed recovering, and the young Elvis having his first taste of stardom listening to what Dean has to say.

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Reading The Lost Oases by Ahmed Hassanein Bey

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

2342997I’ve always loved vintage travelogues. The world was bigger a hundred years ago, its cultures more distinct and isolated. Travel was hard and sometimes dangerous. Accounts of old journeys bring me back to a time when people could go to places like Africa and not be able to text home.

But there’s always been a problem with the genre. The vast majority of the books available in English are from the Western perspective, especially the Anglo perspective. So The Lost Oases, written by Egyptian Ahmed Hassanein Bey and published in 1925, came as a welcome change. It’s an Arab account of discovering two remote oases in the far southwest of Egypt, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation.

Ahmed Hassanein Bey was a wealthy Egyptian of Bedouin stock who was educated at Oxford, so he is good at explaining his own culture to the Western reader and yet remains enough of an outsider that we can enjoy watching his learning curve as he visits his country cousins.

He was already an experienced desert traveler when he set out on this mission, and we’re carried through a detailed description of his preparations and planning. When all is ready, he goes to his father for a moving scene where the old man blesses him and the baggage for a safe journey.

After skirting the coastline, the caravan heads south along the Egyptian/Libyan border. At this point in history, Egypt was administered by the British Empire and Libya by Italy. The main group along the border, then and now, is called the Senussi. I mainly knew of them from their attempt to invade Egypt during the First World War at the urging of the Germans and Ottomans.

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Birthday Reviews: J.T. McIntosh’s “Hermit”

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by John Schoenherr

Cover by John Schoenherr

J.T. McIntosh was born James Murdoch MacGregor on February 14, 1925 and died some time in 2008 or late 2007. He used a variation of his primary pseudonym for most of his writing, occasionally spelling it MacIntosh or M’Intosh. When he wrote in collaboration with Frank Parnell, they published as Gregory Francis, and he used Stuart Winsor for works written with Jeff Mason.

His first story, “The Curfew Tolls” appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950 and three years later he published his debut novel, World Out of Mind. In addition to his science fiction, he also wrote a couple of detective novels and in 1956 he collaborated on the screenplay for the film Satellite in the Sky. He retired from writing in 1979 after publishing the novel A Planet Called Utopia.

Tom Godwin’s short story, “The Cold Equations” was published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Over the years, many authors have written stories which attempt to resolve the dilemma that Godwin described. In the June 1963 issue of Astounding Science Fact Science Fiction, J.T. McIntosh wrote a story which in many ways was reminiscent of Godwin’s original piece.

“Hermit” is the tale of Experimental Station Officer Duncan Clement, on duty at Station 47 for ten months of a year-long stint. Located in a secluded area of space, his orders are to destroy any terrestrial ship that attempts a landing. When he hears a distress call from a lifeboat with a single young woman on board, he decides to rebel against his orders.

The woman turns out to be, or claim to be, Lesley Kay, the seventeen year old daughter of a Senator. The gender politics of McIntosh’s story are dated and somewhat jarring. Although Clement’s age is never revealed, McIntosh continuously tries, without much success, to build up a sexual tension between the two characters and many of Clements actions, which McIntosh himself notes, are the result of the fact that the lifeboat’s passenger is female.

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The Courage of the Question: Tuck Everlasting

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018 | Posted by Thomas Parker

Tuck Everlasting-smallIf you have children at home, you know their propensity for asking questions. “Can I have some more?” “Why not?” “Are we there yet?” “Do I have to?” These questions and many others are familiar to everyone who deals with children, and they (the questions, that is) usually don’t pose much of a problem. (In my house, we have long had a standard reply to this kind of query, taken from a Ring Lardner short story: “Shut up, he explained.”)

Not all childish questions are so easily disposed of, however. The hard ones can range from the mathematical, such as “What if there was no such thing as five?” to the epistemological, like “How do you know?” The roughest ones are literally life and death: “Why did my puppy, why did my friend, why did my Grandpa have to die?” When faced with these, too often the adult impulse is to brush the child off with a pat answer that answers nothing, or better yet, to quickly change the subject.

Tough questions don’t cease to be questions, though, just because we grow too experienced, too jaded, too busy, too complacent, too disappointed, too bored — too old to be willing to ask them ourselves.

This is one of the reasons children can keep you feeling young… when they’re not making you feel ancient. It’s also why reading great children’s literature can be such a wonderful, renewing experience; such books are addressed to an audience that hasn’t yet gotten into the fatal habit of thinking that all questions have either already been answered or are unanswerable. Such books are themselves like fearless, inquisitive children; they’re willing to speak their minds, whatever the consequences. Books like this are assured of long lives…books like Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s fantasy, Tuck Everlasting.

In the little town of Treegap, in the first week of August in the year 1880, ten year old Winnie Foster feels like life’s possibilities have already dried up. Her overprotective family won’t let her roam, won’t let her experience all that she wants to; her world is cruelly circumscribed by the white picket fence that keeps her safely penned in her front yard. Before the hot August days are over, though, Winnie will have an encounter that will change her life forever, and she’ll be faced with a momentous and irrevocable choice.

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