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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Another Childhood Classic Disappoints: Thuvia Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Saturday, May 9th, 2020 | Posted by Derek Kunsken

Thuvia Maid of Mars-small Thuvia Maid of Mars-Ballantine-small Thuvia Maid of Mars-UK-small

Thuvia of Mars paperback editions (Ace 1962, Ballantine 1969, Four Square 1962). Art by Roy Krenkel, Jr., Bob Abbett, and Roy Carnon

During confinement and adjusting to a new job (while writing a new novel!), I’ve been feeling like my bandwidth is restricted. To calm my brain at times, I’ve been rereading books I enjoyed. My reread of the X-Men is well underway (here’s post X in the blog series), and I’ve also relistened to R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing (covered here by Theo), Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings. They were all good.

I’ve had rocky experiences on rereads before though. Dune aged poorly for me in some important ways (I detailed it here) and Anthony’s Spell for Chameleon had little redeem itself in my mind (the ways that reread fell flat are here).

I was optimistic about rereading my first novel experiences, Edgar Rice Burroughs though. I’d previously talked about Burroughs and the amazing biography written about him here. Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars were all too well remembered so I downloaded Thuvia Maid of Mars at Librivox.org, which does audio recordings of public domain books. This novel was also discussed by Black Gate blogger Ryan Harvey a few years ago, so if you want an alternate view, it’s here.

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Weird Fiction at its Best From a Modern Scheherazade: We All Hear Stories in the Dark by Robert Shearman

Friday, May 8th, 2020 | Posted by Mario Guslandi

We All Hear Stories in the Dark

We All Hear Stories in the Dark
by Robert Shearman
PS Publishing (Three volume set, 586/628/585 pages, £90.00, April 2020)

How can a reviewer comment meaningfully on a three-volume collection featuring 101 stories? (That’s right, you read correctly). Simply impossible.

Yet this huge, unusual  opus is worth a mention, and a recommendation. First, because the writer is one of the very best fantasists around, the author of excellent, critically acclaimed collections such as Remember Why You Fear Me and They Do the Same Things Different There. And second, because among these many tales you’ll find an exceptional variety of dark and strange genres, from horror to surrealism, black humor to fantasy to (even if only apparently) mainstream literature. Some of the stories collected here have previously appeared in anthologies and magazines, some are brand new.

To get lost in this literary ocean is very easy, so if you don’t feel like reading each piece in the order presented, you can follow the author’s indications and suggestions, and jump from one volume to the other according to a personal roadmap. Whatever you decide, Shearman, this modern Scheherazade, will entertain you and entice you with his uncanny gifts as a storyteller.

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A Scientist’s Science Fiction Novel: Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud

Thursday, May 7th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle First Edition: William Heinemann, 1957.
Cover by Desmond Skirrow (click to enlarge)

The Black Cloud
by Fred Hoyle
William Heinemann (251 pages, £1.50 in hardcover, 1957)

Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud was the first novel by the renowned, perhaps now forgotten (because his big ideas turned out to be wrong), astronomer of the mid-20th century. It’s still his most famous, and likely best, novel, out of some nearly 20 novels he would subsequently write, some in collaboration. Hoyle’s novels are significant because they are science fiction novels written by a real scientist, perhaps the most famed scientist to have ever written science fiction. Hoyle is remembered as an advocate, in the 1950s, of the “steady-state” theory of the universe, in contrast to the “big bang” theory that would eventually prevail. (Ironically, Hoyle created the term “big bang” as a derisive term for an idea he didn’t like.)

The Black Cloud is memorable for its depiction, more or less successfully, of a truly alien intelligence. But it’s as much a disaster novel, of the “cozy catastrophe” variety (i.e. most of the death and devastation occurs off-stage), and a novel of scientific manners, as a first contact story. We see the sharp contrast between how scientists understand the world with how politicians try to manipulate it, and we see a milder contrast in the rivalry between an American group of scientists and a British group.

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Death Reigns and Danger Abounds: The Toll by Neal Shusterman

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

The Toll CoverNeal Shusterman’s masterful conclusion to the Arc of a Scythe trilogy, The Toll, takes place on a future Earth where humans are immortal. To keep the population from overrunning the globe, professional scythes “glean” a quota of victims in one of the only forms of death that still sticks. Most scythes end human life with care and sorrow. But sadist Robert Goddard and his “new order” scythes enjoy mass slaughter.

In The Toll‘s opening pages, Goddard amasses more and more power, becoming the High Blade of MidMerica and then Overblade of North America. Despite the old regime’s continued opposition, he removes the traditional limitations on scythes, unleashing the new order’s bloodiest appetites. People start avoiding any activity that requires them to assemble in groups, for fear of attracting a grim reaper.

The book follows three main sets of characters who strive to end Goddard’s brutal reign. The first concerns secret agent Greyson Tolliver, who has been leading a criminal lifestyle as a cover while acting on behalf of the Thunderhead, the artificial intelligence that oversees and manages the world. Greyson is now the only human on the planet who can communicate directly with the Thunderhead, since everyone else – including the Thunderhead’s more legitimate agents – has been labeled Unsavory. When the Thunderhead’s former agents discover that this gangster is their only remaining link to the entity they still want to serve, they kidnap him.

When Goddard finds out Greyson exists, he sends an assassin.

The second set of characters are our teenaged heroes Citra and Rowan. As the island of Endura sank at the end of Thunderhead, Scythe Curie locked them in the airtight Vault of Relics and Futures. Curie knew that asphyxiation would only render them deadish. Someday, she reasoned, their bodies would be found, and they would be revived. There was no such hope for everyone else, doomed to be consumed by circling sharks. But Goddard has declared a Perimeter of Reverence around Endura and forbidden ships from approaching. Citra and Rowan’s lifeless bodies lay in the Vault, which has tumbled into a deep oceanic trench, without rescue. Until a hermaphroditic ship’s captain pulls them from the deep under the cover of night.

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Cycles of History and the Eternal Church: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly


A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. First Edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1959.
Cover by Milton Glaser (click to enlarge)

A Canticle for Leibowtiz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
J.B. Lippincott (320 pages, $4.95 in hardcover, 1959)

This 1959 novel is one of the most popular and celebrated science fiction novels of all time. It won a Hugo Award and has a long list of critical citations. It’s set in the years following an atomic war, it portrays religion in a relatively favorable way (in contrast to the dismissive attitude of much other SF), and it dwells on the theme of man’s destiny, and its possibly inevitable fate in cycles of building and self-destruction. It’s sober and deadly-serious in parts, and it’s also quite funny in parts, which I hadn’t remembered since reading it decades ago. Something else I discovered when rereading recently: it doesn’t end the way I remembered that it did.

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In 500 Words or Less Returns! Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Annihilation Aria-smallAnnihilation Aria (The Space Operas #1)
By Michael R. Underwood
Parvus Press (400 pages, $15.99 trade paperback, July 21, 2020)

I love a space fantasy adventure. Maybe I’m missing release announcements, but I feel like we’re not getting as many of those novels these days. Hyper-realistic far-future SF like The Expanse or hard science fiction like Alastair Reynolds’ work is great, but sometimes I want FTL and myriad aliens and whatnot, like Tanya Huff’s Confederation novels or, really, Star Wars.

But those elements aren’t enough, since anyone can slap together a Star Wars rip-off and call it a day. The most important thing is characters to root for, who are more nuanced than just being a Han Solo stand-in.

Maybe all of that’s a tall order. If it is, then even more kudos to Michael R. Underwood, for producing exactly that kind of novel.

(I missed these rambling, context-setting intros before I ever mention what I’m reviewing. I really did.)

Annihilation Aria is basically Star Wars, Star Trek and Serenity mixed together, but with a plot closer to The Mummy (or The Mummy’s plot with Rick and Evelyn already a couple). Max, Lahra and Wheel are delightful as a found family in how different they are, and that those differences are what makes them endearing to each other. Lahra was the character who shone the most for me; her solar-powered weaponry is a nice solarpunk touch, and her people’s ability to use songs to focus in battle and subtly manipulate their encounters is varied and well-utilized. Plus, I love how it’s never explained as anything more than basically magic. Max can’t find a rational explanation but knows it has more power than Lahra realizes – like how you can’t always hear how you speak while you’re speaking.

One of the other things that stands out is Arek, our principle antagonist within the Vsenk Imperium. You get the almost monolithic Big Bad Empire at first, but then learn that it’s rife with ongoing political feuds, with Arek’s faction representing a more moderate ideology. What I found particularly cool is that Arek is progressive for a Vsenk. He’d never consider giving the lesser races complete freedom, but he sees the practical value of things like speaking respectfully toward subordinates and the police not using excessive force. It makes him seem much more natural as a character, and oddly made me more sympathetic toward him, even though the Vsenk in general are brutal subjugators.

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