A Slender, Forgotten Gem: The Deep by John Crowley

Monday, May 13th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

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1984 Bantam paperback edition; cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Some authors create slender, nearly flawless works of fiction. Books like little jewels on the shelf — cut just right, gleaming, standing alone. Beagle managed this a few times: A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn. Goldman turned his into a movie that was nearly as good: The Princess Bride. Swanwick and Wolfe have done it with literary science fiction: Stations of the Tide and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, respectively. The Deep is a book like this: finely wrought, chiseled, alien.

Is this tiny 1975 volume science fiction or fantasy? On the one hand, the book starts with the Visitor, a damaged android who arrives in the book’s world with no memory of what he is or his mission. But the world he’s in, the culture and factions of which his ignorance provides the perfect excuse for a narrator’s artful explanation, is purely fantasy: a kingdom riven by conflict between Reds and Blacks, with a city at its center and wild wastes surrounding, ringed on all sides by the Deep.

The world, as different characters explain at different times, is a platter or a plate suspended on the Deep by a great pillar. And even when the android journeys to the edge of this world and meets the Leviathan who dwells there, when he learns the nature of the engineered conflict and how humans were first settled on the world, Crowley doesn’t ever default to pure science fiction. Even if the reader can credit a resettled humanity in the far future, reset to medieval technology with continual wars to control the population, the story still leaves you with a flat world upon the Deep. Somehow, this central oddity works; it keeps a surreal wrinkle in the heart of the world Crowley creates.

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When Earth is a Graveyard of Gods: Edges by Linda Nagata

Saturday, April 27th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

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The Fermi Paradox is relatively simple. It asks, considering the immense expanse of time, the apparent plentitude of planets in our galaxy, and thus the likelihood of intelligent life somewhere else — why don’t we see it? Why is the sky so resolutely silent? Answering this question has become something of a hobby among science fiction writers, with responses ranging from the transcendental to the sobering. Maybe life evolves quickly beyond the physical. Or maybe life is out there but quietly watching and waiting. Linda Nagata’s work offers a more straightforward answer: intelligent life is hunted.

In Nagata’s universe, Chenzeme coursers are living alien weapons: biomechanical vessels coated in hulls of intelligent “philosopher cells.” The ships are programmed to systematically hunt down technological civilizations and sterilize entire worlds. In her previous series, humanity’s spread into the frontier was halted by encounters with these vessels. The coursers were only one prong though in an ancient assault that had long outlasted the ship’s original creators. The other was an ancient virus, which bypassed the frontier worlds and affected the original core planets of humanity’s origins, including Earth, subsuming entire planetary populations into huge group-minds that went on to construct immense Dyson spheres enclosing their stars.

I fell into this universe through a paperback copy of the final book in her previous series, Vast (1998), and was immediately entranced (I reviewed Vast for Black Gate here). Nagata has a way of making the incredible distances, both in space and time, of galactic travel real. Humans are tenuous here, following divergent evolutionary roads, clinging to disparate worlds in the night. Vast followed an expedition from the planet Deception Well to find the source of the Chenzeme coursers and spun out from there into a stunning novel that was at its core a centuries-long chase sequence but managed to explore the characters and the biomechanical and technological realities of life aboard the exploratory ship.

All this to say I was thrilled when I learned that Nagata, after nearly two decades, was returning to this universe with a follow-up series called Inverted Frontier. The first book in this series, Edges, was released this spring and Nagata was kind enough to send me a pre-print for review.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novella: “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, April 27th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

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Tor Double #1, October 1988. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Arthur C. Clarke, of course, was a towering figure in SF circles – when I began reading SF, there was an indisputable “Big Three”: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Clarke. And, indeed, that’s how I saw things at that age. Curiously, Heinlein was not really central to my earliest reading, and I didn’t read the bulk of his juveniles until a couple of decades later (though I had read his adult work in my teens.) But Clarke and Asimov were among the “adult” SF writers I first discovered, and I was reading novels like Against the Fall of Night when I was 12.

Clarke was born in 1917. He began publishing SF in 1946 with “Rescue Party” (a story that still gives me a thrill.) He made his mark in SF in the next decade or so with many further fine stories and with novels like The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End. He made his mark in the wider world when the movie 2001 appeared in 1968 – Clarke had written the original story (“The Sentinel”) upon which it was based, and he also worked with Kubrick on developing the story for the movie, and wrote the “novelization.” He had moved to Sri Lanka in 1956, partly because of his interest in scuba diving, but also possibly because he was gay, and homosexual activity was still illegal in England. He was knighted in 1998, at which time disturbing stories accusing him of pedophilia surfaced. He was cleared by the Sri Lankan police, and died a decade later.

“A Meeting with Medusa” first appeared in Playboy in December 1971. (I’m not sure why it was still eligible for the Nebula ballot in 1973 – this was before the “rolling eligibility” period of the Nebulas.) I’d have reproduced a cover image of its first place of publication, but Black Gate is a family website, as so well evidenced by the Margaret Brundage paintings we sometimes feature! I should also mention that this was a period when Playboy published a fair amount of excellent SF — for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives”, just a couple of years earlier.

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A Meditation on Futuristic Medicine: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Friday, April 19th, 2019 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

Stronger Faster and More Beautiful CoverEvan will die if his organs aren’t replaced. A perfect organ donor has been lined up – his twin sister. But she’s still alive.

Milla should be dead. Only by becoming a cyborg was she able to survive the car crash. She tries to keep her new nature secret at school. But when the boy she likes actually listens to her, she can’t help but divulge the whole story. Now everyone knows she’s not quite human.

When the riot broke out, Elsie thought she was about to die with her family. Waking up, she learns that only she and her father survived. Her father, a charismatic minister, has always agitated against medical technology, calling it blasphemy. But now he’s changed his mind. And while she was unconscious, he’s had her changed, too.

Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful advances in a series of episodes, each with a different narrator with a compelling original voice who confronts vastly different circumstances. Yet the book isn’t a collection of short stories. An extended meditation on the future of medicine, it explores the ethical and social ramifications of saving human life through recourse to machines, genome editing and cybernetics. The classic tension of science versus religion runs throughout the book. The human race itself is the protagonist, and there’s a clear narrative arc. Each excerpt takes us further into the future, and as the years pile up, humanity becomes increasingly unrecognizable to itself… Not to mention disloyal.

This book reminds us of science fiction’s highest calling – to provide readers with a way to think through the consequences and implications of nascent technology in order to move into the future more mindfully. Despite its heady content, however, Dayton knows how to bait a hook and keep readers turning pages. Over and over again, she presents characters that readers can’t help but connect with and feel for, no matter how strange their situation and bizarre the setting.

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In 500 Words or Less: The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty

Friday, April 19th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

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The Kingdom of Copper (Daevabad Trilogy #2)
By S.A. Chakraborty
HarperCollins (640 pages, $26.99 hardcover, January 2019)

No joke, I just wrote what would have been the opening two paragraphs for this post, and followed it immediately by typing the words, Wow, that sounds like a boring, stereotypical book review and I’m a hack. That’s a sign my brain is running low on capacity for anything other than novella and podcast revisions. Or, more likely, it’s run out of patience for reading anything that doesn’t immediately catch and hold my attention.

Luckily, the book I’m trying to extoll in this review is an easy sell. You might remember my review of S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel The City of Brass, which I’ll admit I wasn’t totally enamored with because of the way the plot seemed to drag. Chakraborty’s follow-up novel The Kingdom of Copper, though, is exactly what you want from an author’s second book: even more of the elements you love, and an improvement in everything else.

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Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1954: A Retro-Review

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew Wuertz

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The July, 1954 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction (cover art by Mel Hunter) opens with a note from H. L. Gold, the editor. Several authors had shared with Gold how it felt to sell a story to Galaxy. But Gold, an author himself, writes, “Do you think anybody has to tell me how that feels?” He was looking for jobs by day and writing by night in the early 1930s when jobs were scarce, and his “manuscripts seemed to be opened by a machine that slipped them unread, along with a rejection slip, into the return envelope.”

As an author myself, I couldn’t help but laugh; how often it feels that way when submitting stories and getting a form reply (by email in more recent years). One day, after being laid off from a position as a busboy, he checked the mail and found that he had sold his first story. He writes, “Don’t kid yourself that writing is a substitute for work. It requires as hard an apprenticeship as any other profession.” And as a final encouragement, he adds, “Magazines don’t have automatic remailing or story-writing machines. I just thought you might be wondering.”

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Dragons and Gardeners in a Pan-Galactic Imperium: Abyss Surrounding by Eva L. Elasigue

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019 | Posted by Damien Moore

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There are many stories in Abyss Surrounding, the sequel to Fire on All Sides (which I reviewed in 2016), and the second book in Eva L. Elasigue’s Bones Of Starlight series. Entirely as complex, multilayered, and compelling as the first, Abyss Surrounding offers daring new concepts along with enticing new situations holding familiar characters in their clutches.

We have the Princess Soleil, now a rebel living apart from the status her Imperium affords her, and instead mingling with intrepid voyagers of an unknown universe. We have Derringer, a spy in search of the Princess whom you will fondly recall from the first book as a splash of nostalgic hijinks. And we have our villain, Sturlusson, whose journey in the second installment needs to be experienced without the benefit of a critic’s retrospection. Read the book; you’ll get what I mean.

I was entranced by the inclusion of Dragons, mythical beings who play a vital role in the workings of Elasigue’s universe. Her deft use of distinctive neutral pronouns for each Dragon endeared me to their importance in her world; this is also a testament to her fluidity in addressing gender neutrality, worthy of a review all on its own.

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Tomorrow Isn’t Always Another Day: Remembering Howard Fast’s The Edge of Tomorrow

Sunday, April 14th, 2019 | Posted by Barbara Barrett

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The Edge of Tomorrow (Bantam, 1966) Cover artist uncredited

Books, like music, can evoke images of another time and place. When I picked up The Edge of Tomorrow recently, it triggered memories of Manhattan, Kansas, just before my husband left for Vietnam. It was mid-June 1966 when I drove from California to Fort Riley.

Manhattan was a whole new world. I remember heat and humidity so heavy it was like walking around on the bottom of a warm fish bowl. But there were awesome times too — a Harry Belafonte concert, thunder so loud I thought it would flatten me, and staring out a window all night during a tornado watch.

Yet, my most vivid memories are about food and friends. It was still early days for the anti-war protests and we were not aware of them. Uppermost in our minds was knowing our husbands or fathers or sons or brothers would be going to Vietnam. With so much uncertainty in our lives, we made the best of the moments we had and meals were about the only time life seemed normal.

The troops at Fort Riley trained twelve to fourteen hours a day. That left evenings and some weekends for relaxation. When Bob was home, his Army friends often stopped by for a beer and a chat. Many times, they stayed for a home-cooked dinner. During the five months in Kansas, I prepared a lot of food. Mostly from family recipes. So did other wives. We tasted dishes we had only heard about and exchanged recipes. One of my favorite memories centers around a feast those of us from California put together. We craved Mexican food but tortillas, pinto beans and hot sauce weren’t available in the local stores then. That problem was solved when we wrote and asked our families to send supplies. They were generous beyond belief. All our friends were invited. For a few hours, while we were eating tacos, enchiladas, refried beans, rice, burritos, guacamole and hot sauce, we were home.

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The Strange Tale of the Fighting Model T Fords

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.

So of course I went up to see them!

But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.

Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.

And therein lies a tale.

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The Many Shades of Horror: Best New Horror #29 edited by Stephen Jones

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019 | Posted by Mario Guslandi

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For twenty-nine years editor Stephen Jones has been selecting the best horror stories of the year. Usually the anthology appears around October; the latest volume, Best New Horror #29, is actually a bit late, being published in February 2019 but showcasing the best of 2017.

As customary the book also includes a comprehensive overview of the books and movies that appeared during the year, and the changes in the horror publishing world (including pertinent obituaries).

The current volume assembles twenty-one stories penned by some of the most acclaimed horror writers in the genre, addressing a variety of themes. One always wonders if the tales are really the best, and comparisons are often made with the choices of other anthologists compiling the year’s best horror stories.

I have long concluded that those are useless questions. With a few exceptions of outstanding quality, on which anyone can agree, at the end of the day  personal taste is what really counts. Therefore, following that same way of thinking, I’ll mention here the stories that I found the best in this particular anthology.

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