Humanity Uplifted: Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

Brain Wave Poul Anderson

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson; First Edition: Ballantine Books, 1954
Cover art by Richard Powers

Brain Wave
by Poul Anderson
Ballantine Books (164 pages, $0.35, paperback, June 1954)
Cover by Richard Powers

Poul Anderson was a prolific writer of both science fiction and fantasy from the late 1940s to his death in 2001. He was especially known for a couple space opera series, one about the Psychotechnic League and others about Dominic Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn (I have not read any of these). But his best novels, reputedly, were his singletons, like Brain Wave (1954), The High Crusade (1960), Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961), and Tau Zero (1970), and later works like The Avatar (1978) and The Boat of a Million Years (1989), from decades when everyone’s novels got much longer.

Brain Wave was Anderson’s third novel, after juvenile SF Vault of the Stars in 1952 and fantasy novel The Broken Sword earlier in 1954. The first part of Brain Wave appeared in Space Science Fiction in 1953, but the magazine went out of business before serializing the remainder.

I reread this book recently not to extend a series of reviews of first — or almost-first — novels, but because I wanted to revisit its striking premise. I think I’ll revisit Tau Zero soon, for the same reason.

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Who is Daemon Grim? Hell Gate by Andrew P. Weston

Sunday, June 28th, 2020 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Hell Gate Andrew Weston-small Hell Gate Andrew Weston-back-small

Cover by Roy Mauritsen

Back in the Underworld with Andrew P. Weston’s Hell Gate. Published by Perseid Press. Copyright © 2019 by Janet Morris and Andrew P. Weston. 523 pages. Cover art and design by Roy Mauritsen

Hell Gate is Weston’s third novel set in Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell ™ universe, the first two being Hell Bound (2015) and Hell Hounds (2017) — both of which I previously reviewed for Black Gate. The trilogy is all about the exploits of Daemon Grim. So, who is Daemon Grim? He’s Satan’s Enforcer. The Devil’s Hitman. The Prince of Darkness’ Henchman. He’s like the James Bond of Perdition, armed with a nasty array of infernal weapons and gadgets. Add to the mix his Satanic-gifted powers, and he’s either Hell’s superhero or supervillain, depending on your point of view.

In short, Daemon Grim is one bad-ass, damned soul.

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We Have Launch: Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space

Thursday, June 18th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke; First Edition: World Editions, Inc. (Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3), 1951
Cover art by Bunch (click to enlarge)

Prelude to Space
by Arthur C. Clarke
World Editions, Inc. (Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3) (160 pages, $0.25 in magazine digest format, 1951)

Having in my two previous columns here covered Isaac Asimov’s first proper novel (Pebble in the Sky) and Robert A. Heinlein’s first-written novel (For Us, the Living), it’s appropriate now to revisit Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, Prelude to Space. (Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were regarded as the “Big Three” science fiction writers for several decades beginning in the 1950s.) This is a novel about the launch of the first spaceship to go to the moon. Clarke had a background in radar and aeronautics — he famously anticipated the use of geosynchronous satellites for communications — and so one might expect a more truly scientifically authoritative novel compared to those from Asimov (whose background was only in biochemistry) and Heinlein (military service and politics). Indeed, Clarke’s novel is a better guess about how a launch to the moon would work than were those of other writers of the time, who clung to the vision of heroic lone inventors and single enormous rockets that would take off and return intact. Still, some of Clarke’s guesses were misses.
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The Ordinary is Ephemeral: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Battle Against Modernism

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 | Posted by David C. Smith

Weird Tales of Modernity-smallWeird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft
Jason Ray Carney
McFarland & Company (205 pages, $39.95 in paperback/$23.99 digital, July 26, 2019)

Jason Carney’s thesis in Weird Tales of Modernity is that, in their reaction to modernism, the artistic and literary movement that upended culture as it had been accepted in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the Weird Tales Three — Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft — turned modernism on its head with innovations they introduced in their fiction. Make no mistake: the word thesis here is apt. Weird Tales of Modernity is a formal dissertation. Making use as it does of academic jargon, the book will not be for every reader.

Straightaway, for example, Carney introduces us to the term ekphrastic to make clear what the Weird Tales Three were expressing. Ekphrasis is the representation in language of a work of art. Any of us can do this; go ahead and write your own personal, detailed description of Cthulhu or explore how you react to Frank Frazetta’s artwork. Ekphrasis “acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making explicit the connection between art, storytelling, and life.” This definition is from Patrick Smith’s guest blog on the website Interesting Literature. Smith quotes Michael Trussler in defining ekphrasis as “a kind of ontological mixture that signals a world beyond the confines of the text.”

There we have it: ekphrasis “signals a world beyond the confines of the text.” We are now in Lovecraft’s frightening, paranoid, awakened world of the Cthulhu mythology — alive beyond the confines of the text — and Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and Poseidonis, and Robert E. Howard’s brutal Valusia and Hyborian Age. As Carney says early in Weird Tales of Modernity, “When a literary artist, like [Clark Ashton] Smith, artistically describes or fictionalizes a work of art by transforming it into an unreal echo or shadow of the actual, that is ekphrasis.”

Carney devotes an early chapter to the history of Weird Tales and then two chapters each to the three authors of his study, introducing them and then exploring their artistic innovations. He begins his study with an examination of what he terms pulp ekphrasis. “In several of their enduring works,” he says,

Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith engage in a form of artistically inflected criticism termed ekphrasis. They do so by fictionalizing modernism, transforming the real artistic movement into an unreal shadow modernism, a strategic distortion of actual modernism. After many creative iterations honed over several stories — e.g., Pickman’s demented art, Malygris’s sorcery, the fell mirrors of Tuzun Thune — this shadow modernism becomes an inhuman technology that, functioning like a cognitive prosthesis in the virtual world of fiction, thereby reveals the secret truth of history: history is a cruelly accelerating process of deformation. The ordinary is ephemeral. History is an interplay of form and formlessness with formlessness terminally ascendant.

The ordinary is ephemeral. Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard were keenly aware of this truth and reacted to it in their fiction while other Weird Tales writers were moving right along in the modern world, writing their stories of scientifiction, offering narratives of ominous cults and mad scientists (with at least one nude woman per story),  or revisiting the tropes of Victorian horrors.

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In 500 Words or Less: The Book of Dragons, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Sunday, June 14th, 2020 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

The Book of Dragons-smallThe Book of Dragons
Edited By Jonathan Strahan; illustrated by Rovina Cai
Harper Voyager (576 pages, $35 hardcover, $16.99 eBook, July 7, 2020)

More than a year ago now, I was hanging out with Kelly Robson and she mentioned a new anthology she’d been invited to contribute to. The topic? Dragons. When was it coming out? 2020 sometime, probably, and we promptly moved on to talking about other things.

It’s now the middle of 2020 and that anthology is here, my friends.

Look at this freaking contributor list. You might think that an anthology about dragons is going to hit a few specific themes or styles, but you would be wrong and should know better, especially with Jonathan Strahan at the helm. I grinned with excitement reading JY Yang’s “The Exile” – dragons that terraform new worlds! (Also a poignant piece about loneliness and consequence.) Pretty sure I muttered a silent “ooooooh” at how Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky present bee-like dragons dealing with hive collapse in “We Continue.” Plus there’s Elle Katharine White’s story “Matriculation,” about a young woman with tuition debt, her machinework dragon and a kindly vampire bookseller, which I already described on Twitter as an emotional gut punch.

If I had to pick a thematic through line (not sure if that’s the right term, but I’m going with it) that seems to tie most of The Book of Dragons together, it would be family. In some cases, the focus is reforming bonds and learning to trust each other, like in Zen Cho’s “Hikayat Sri Bujang, or The Tale of the Naga Sage” or Kelly’s “La Vitesse” – an epic ride of Alberta school bus vs dragon. Or it’s about the loss and heartache that sometimes comes with family – like the adopted human watching the hive collapse in “We Continue,” or in R.F. Kuang’s story “The Nine Curves River,” about someone escorting their younger sister to be sacrificed to end a drought. Or the idea of found family, which Seanan McGuire captures brilliantly with “Hoard,” about a long-lived dragon who cares for foster kids close to aging out the way others care about gold.

The idea of gold or treasure comes up often, too. Sometimes as more of an addendum than a focus, like in Sarah Gailey’s “We Don’t Talk About the Dragon.” The real story there is a young girl growing up in a harsh, abusive family – though there’s also a dragon living in the barn.

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Artifacts: SixMoreVodka’s First Rules Expansion for Degenesis

Thursday, June 11th, 2020 | Posted by eeknight

degenesis-artifacts-coverDegenesis, SixMoreVodka’s post-apocalyptic, Europe-and-North Africa-centered tabletop RPG, released its first rules expansion last month. Called Artifacts and featuring the new Degenesis black-and-gold look, it’s the first gaming supplement I’ve ever owned with gilt-edged pages.

But that’s SMV for you, a company “founded by artists and run by artists.”

As I said in my initial review of the game, you can look at Degenesis as an expensive art book which comes with a free game, or an expensive game book with the most lavish art design in the history of the format. So you can convince yourself that even at USD 60 you’re getting a great deal, FedEx shipping from Berlin included, using many of the same mental gymnastics car enthusiasts might when signing for a new BMW.

Degenesis is already a complete game. But one of the 4chan descriptions of it is “90% fluff and 10% crunch.” While I don’t think that’s near accurate – I’d put it at 70/30 — Artifacts adds plenty of crunch. It gives additional rules to build, motivate, and describe your avatar and player group. There are enhancements to your campaign and a good deal of new technology for the players to use and fight over and a bunch of imaginative new rules for clawing advantage out of the much-altered Earth. And of course there’s first-rate art.

Here’s a quick overview of the game enhancements. Artifacts is divided into twelve parts, and I’ll spend the rest of this review providing thumbnails of the contents.

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Future History, First Draft: Robert A. Heinlein’s For Us, the Living

Thursday, June 4th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


For Us, the Living by Robert A. Heinlein; First Edition: Scribner 2004.
Jacket illustration by Mark Stutzman (click to enlarge)

For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs
by Robert A. Heinlein
Introduction by Spider Robinson; Afterword by Robert James, Ph.D.
Scribner (263 pages, $25.00 in hardcover, 2004)

Almost on a lark, I picked up the first novel by Robert A. Heinlein a few days ago, and read it through. It’s a fascinating book on several levels.

First, it’s Heinlein’s first novel in that it’s the first one he wrote, way back in 1938 and 1939, when he hadn’t yet broken into print. But it didn’t sell, was never published at the time, and went unknown for decades. In fact the manuscript was thought lost; Heinlein and his wife had destroyed copies in their possession in the approach to Heinlein’s death. Yet another copy of the ms. was found years later, after Heinlein’s death in 1988, and, as Robert James explains in an afterword here, was published in 2004, with an introduction by Spider Robinson. (Spider Robinson would later publish Variable Star, based on a Heinlein outline, in 2006; I have not read that, though I believe I’ve read every other Heinlein book at least once, albeit some not in decades.) I read For Us, the Living when it first came out, in late December 2003, but didn’t remember the details of its future society, and wanted to refresh myself on them, until rereading it this week.

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Voodoo, Sea Monsters, and Rebel Colonies: Rich Horton on Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Sunday, May 31st, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Sea Siege Andre Norton Ace Double-small Eye of the Monster Ace Double-small

Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton. Ace Books F-147, 1962. 176+80 pages, $0.40. Covers by Ed Valigursky/Ed Emshwiller

During the months-long lockdown here in Illinois as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I know I should be reading the massive TBR pile by my bedside. It’s filled with Nebula award winners, advance proofs of books coming out this fall, and all the new books my friends are talking about. But instead, I want to be reading Ace Doubles.

I blame Rich Horton. Like everyone else, I’m influenced by what I read, and what I’ve been reading recently is Rich Horton’s excellent blog Strange at Ecbatan. Like a superb DJ, Rich knows how to blend the old and the new, and in the past few weeks he’s reviewed The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe (from 2010), Avram Davidson’ acclaimed 2001 collection The Other Nineteenth Century,  the brilliant Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly (1997), the overlooked novel The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996), and a Mack Reynolds/A. Bertram Chandler Ace Double from 1967.

That Ace Double piqued my interest, of course. Like Rich, I have an enduring fondness for these peculiarly collectible science from the 1950s and 60s, although I don’t have nearly the reading muscles he does. I’m mostly familiar with the earlier D-Series, and recently I’ve been re-reading some of Rich’s reviews of those older books, especially the ones I first collected. One of the very first was Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster, a pair of Andre Norton novels issued as an Ace Double in 1962, which Rich reviewed on his blog back in 2017.

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Isaac Asimov’s First Actual Novel: 1950’s Pebble in the Sky

Thursday, May 21st, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov; First Edition: Doubleday 1950.
Cover by Richard Powers (click to enlarge)

Pebble in the Sky
by Isaac Asimov
Doubleday (223 pages, $2.50 in hardcover, 1950)

Isaac Asimov’s most famous works are likely the Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot, but these are story cycles, not novels. Concurrently with the publication of those books, Asimov published his first three actual novels: Pebble in the Sky; The Stars, Like Dust; and The Currents of Space, from Doubleday in 1950, 1951, and 1952. They share a common future history background (presaged by earlier short fiction like “Black Friar of the Flame” and “Mother Earth”), in which humanity has colonized many planets across the galaxy, while Earth, for reasons of apparently having suffered a nuclear war, is a backwater, despised by the outer worlds. Yet the books vary in the degree to which they are science fiction, and not merely space opera (that is, melodramas with good guys and bad guys fighting for dominance) or historical incidents translated into future settings. Asimov was a sophisticated writer, and all three of these early novels offer complex mysteries in which problems must be solved and villains identified. But in terms of their speculative content, they vary: the middle book, The Stars, Like Dust, is the weakest; the third, The Currents of Space, the strongest; and this first, Pebble in the Sky, somewhere in between.

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Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1954: A Retro-Review

Sunday, May 17th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew Wuertz

Galaxy Science Fiction October 1954-small Galaxy Science Fiction October 1954-back-small

Cover art by Mel Hunter

My apologies for an extended absence from posting reviews. Personal matters took my focus and drive, but I’m back again for another retro-review of Galaxy Science Fiction — in this case the October, 1954 issue.

Mel Hunter’s cover art is titled “The Latest in Dugout Canoes.” At least, I think that’s the title. It’s listed inside as “Lastest”, which I think is a typo, given that lastest isn’t a word. But even in a prestigious magazine like Galaxy, mistakes happen. I like finding reminders that professionals of all sorts make mistakes from time to time. I think it lets all of us relax a bit more when we make our own mistakes.

“A World of Talent” by Philip K. Dick — Tim and his parents live among a colony of people who have talents beyond normal humans, including precognition, teleportation, and telepathy. The colony watches vigilantly for attacks from the Terrans, knowing people on Earth have a persistent fear — not only because people on the colony are different but because they’re powerful.

There’s no romantic relationship between Tim’s parents; their union was solely for the benefit of the colony — to try to create a new level of powers through parents who are both precogs. But Tim lives in his own world, remaining in silence much of the time and seeing Others (as he thinks of them) that no one else perceives. What these Others represent slowly unravels the puzzle of Tim’s talent, and it could protect the colony both from Terrans and itself.

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