May 27

Review: Elements of Mind

I’ve been friendly with Walter Hunt for some years, so when he told me that his new novel Elements of Mind (Spence City) involved Victorian mesmerists, I knew to expect an atmospheric and meticulously researched fantasy full of period language and detail, probably one dovetailing with real history as seamlessly as anything by Tim Powers.

That is indeed what we get. In Victorian England, a society of mesmerists – in effect, sorcerers who can use gestures and the power of animal magnetism to compel humans and others – is aware of various categories of dangerous spirits. There are elementals of earth, air, fire and water; greater entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categorize as demons or perhaps djinn; and still greater, half-awake entities who might be old gods.

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May 22

Review: Template

I learned from his previous novels Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice that Matthew Hughes seems to have chosen crafting really high-quality tributes to Jack Vance as his artistic mission (at least when writing SF). As a long-time Vance fan myself I consider this a worthy goal, and in Template (self-published) he does not disappoint.

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May 20

Review: Reach for Infinity

Reach for Infinity (Jonathan Strahan, ed., Rebellion Publishing) is an anthology of new hard SF. The authors and the editor are stretching themselves, taking chances; some of these stories are failures. In general, however, even the failures are interesting efforts that will push you to think about their premises and consider the ways in which SF is constantly claiming new imaginative territory.

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May 19

Review: Anthem’s Fall

S.L. Dunn’s Anthem’s Fall (Prospect Hill Press) wants to be a high-concept SF novel. What it actually achieves is more like a bad comic book. Without the pictures.

In New York City, scientist Kristen Jordan (brilliant and beautiful, and very young, of course) is growing increasingly worried about an übertechnology she helped create, as the secretive leader of her research team seems to be developing ever more grandiose objectives. In the parallel world of Anthem, warfare and political collapse are destabilizing an empire. The teaser copy promises us that contending super-entities from Anthem will erupt into our world, requiring Kristen to unleash a technology against them that may be more dangerous than the invaders. DUM DUM DUM! And dumb, dumb, dumb.

But I never got that far. By fifty pages in it was clear that this is one of those books that, as Dorothy Parker put it, should not be lightly tossed aside; rather, it should be hurled with great force. I made myself soldier on a bit after that to give the Anthem-centered part of the narrative a fair shake, but it was no improvement on the parts set in New York City – if anything the smell of bad comic-book got stronger.

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May 16

Review: A Darkling Sea

While most life on Earth is powered by chemical energy captured from solar radiation, deep in our seas there are entire ecologies powered by volcanism – specifically the hot water issuing from hydrothermal vents. Hot mineral-rich water supports a food chain based on chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea; it extends upwards in complexity through giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. These animals live miles further down than sunlight ever reaches, in an extreme of pressure and frigid temperatures that would kill any surface life in short order.

In recent years planetary astronomers have come to believe that beneath the icy surfaces of some of our gas-giant moons there are dark oceans of liquid water. Tidal forces acting on the moons power volcanism; Europa, in particular (the smallest of the four “Galilean” moons of Jupiter) is suspected of having its own hydrothermal vents. Exobiologists think it is relatively likely that life has evolved around them.

James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea (Tor) transplants the Europa scenario to Iluvatar, a moon in a solar system roughly half way between future Earth and the homeworld of aliens called the Sholen who are attempting to limit human interstellar expansion. A peace treaty with the Sholen constrains human scientists living in a seafloor habitat beneath the ice. They chafe to make contact with the intelligent arthropods at the top of Iluvatar’s foor chain, but are forbidden from contaminating their culture.

After a human scientist attempting to spy on the Ilmatar is captured and dissected by Iluvatarans who do not realize he is a sophont like themselves, a Sholen mission shuts down the base and orders the humans to evacuate. Some humans, refusing, flee into the lightless ocean and must make allies of the Iluvatarans to survive. When the Sholen’s clumsy attempts at forcing the issue kill some of the mission crew, the survivors vow to strike back.

Cambias imagines a detailed and convincing ecology for Iluvatar. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history (the way Cambias develops the operation and limits of the sonar that is the only distant sense of these eyeless beings is impressive). The gritty details of life in a cramped, smelly human dive habitat are also well handled. Even the villains of the piece are not mere cardboard; the Sholen have their own internal factional problems, and become dangerous not because the are strong but because they are divided, afraid, and dwindling.

Overall, this is a tense, well-constructed SF novel of first contact, done in the classic Campbellian style and lit up with the sense of discovery that such works ought to have. It could have been written by Hal Clement or Arthur C. Clarke if either were still alive. It works excellently on that level, even if you don’t notice that the author has embedded in it a sly parable.

I won’t spoil the fun by laying it all out for you. But the viewpoint character’s last name is “Freeman”, and the repressive eco-pietism of the Sholen echoes the attitudes of some humans in our present day. The second half of the book, without ever tub-thumping about it, delivers a satire of various human political delusions. Even the Sholen social pattern of achieving consensus by bonobo-like sexual bonding carries mordantly funny symbolic freight once you realize what it’s a comment on.

All in all, highly recommended. This is much the best first SF novel I’ve read in the last few years, and leads me to expect good craftsmanship from Cambias in the future.

May 06

Review: Right to Know

There are many kinds of bad SF out there. One of the subtler kinds is written with enough competence that it might be good if the author had any original ideas, but reads like a tired paste-up of familiar genre tropes and plot twists that an experienced reader can see coming a light-year off.

Edward Willett’s Right To Know (Diamond Book Distributors) is such a novel. Oppressive society on a decaying generation starship! Plucky, desperate resistance! Planetfall where humans with FTL drives got there ahead of them! Earth has mysteriously vanished! Fanatical planetside cultists mistake our hero for their messiah! Head of the Resistance is the Captain’s daughter! (That last one would only be an actual spoiler if you’re thick as neutronium, because it’s telegraphed with about the subtlety of a brick upside the head.)

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May 04

Review: Extreme Dentistry

Fearless monster killers have been a very popular trope in SF and fantasy lately, in a trend perhaps best exemplified by Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter sequence but extending to the dozens of nigh-interchangeable Buffy clones in leather clogging the Urban Fantasy subgenre lately. Hugh A. D. Spencer’s Extreme Dentistry seems to have been intended as a dark and mordantly funny satire of this sort of thing, and succeeds.

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Apr 17

Review: Sea Without A Shore

I’m not, in general, a fan of David Drake’s writing; most of his output is grimmer and far more carnographic than I care to deal with. I’ve made an exception for his RCN series because they tickle my fondness for classic Age-of-Sail adventure fiction and its pastiches, exhibiting Drake’s strengths (in particular, his deep knowledge of history) while dialing back on the cruelty and gore.

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Apr 10

Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.

When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)

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Mar 08

Which way is north on your new planet?

So, here you are in your starship, happily settling into orbit around an Earthlike world you intend to survey for colonization. You start mapping, and are immediately presented with a small but vexing question: which rotational pole should you designate as ‘North’?

There are a surprisingly large number of ways one could answer this question. I shall wander through them in this essay, which is really about the linguistic and emotive significance of compass-direction words as humans use them. Then I shall suggest a pragmatic resolution.

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Mar 29

Remembering the future

I own a rather large library of paperback SF which I have been collecting since the late 1960s; it includes a lot of stuff that is now quite rare and half forgotten. I owe a great deal to SF and consider these books cultural treasures, The last few years I’ve been wondering if there’s any way to ensure that this treasure won’t be lost as conventional printed books get left behind and the remaining copies of the more obscure stuff crumble.

Maybe there is the beginning of an answer. Singularity & Co. – Save the SciFi! is a Kickstarter project aimed specifically at rescuing out-of-print genre SF from oblivion. It is not yet clear whether their methods will scale; scanning is easy but untangling the IP around these old books can be difficult. But the response to the project has been encouraging; they’re already 240% over their initial funding goal.

I have contributed $25, and offered them the use of my library. If it looks like they have developed a sustainable set of methods I will contribute a lot more. I think this is a worthy project and deserving of support from everyone who loves science fiction.

Sep 23

A tribute to Heinlein

A&D regular Ken Burnside has entered the Woot! derby, a contest to have a T-shirt design featured on that site. Ken’s entry is a tribute to Robert Heinlein.

Yes, that’s Robert and Virginia Heinlein on the rocket. Yes, the rocket is based on the illustrations from Putnam and Son’s Heinlein juveniles The skyline in the back is Kansas City, MO, though it’s hard to tell – Heinlein’s home town.

The Heinlein fans among my regulars should consider voting for this entry.

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Jul 18

Brin on Heinlein on guns is dead wrong

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about Robert Heinlein, but not to their own facts. In a blog post on Heinlein’s novel Beyond This Horizon, David Brin advances a number of claims which are disputable, and one that is utterly bizarre. He alleges that the thought behind Heinlein’s famous quote “An armed society is a polite society” was not Heinlein’s but issued from John W. Campbell, the editor who with Heinlein invented science fiction as we know it.

This claim is not merely wrong, it attempts to traduce a core belief which Heinlein expressed in his fiction and his nonfiction and his personal letters throughout his life. We do not have to speculate about this; as I shall show, it is so amply documented that Brin’s claim passes from being merely tendentious to outright bizarre.

Brin’s error matters to me personally because, as much as I am anything else, I am one of Heinlein’s children. I have closely studied his works and his life, and that study has shaped me. What I have given to the world through my advocacy of open source is directly tied back to what the Old Man taught me about liberty, transparency, and moral courage. And I am never more Heinlein’s child than when I advocate for an armed (and polite) society.

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Apr 21

Penguicon!

For any of you who happen to be in Southeast Michigan or its environs, Cathy and I will be attending Penguicon from April 30th to May 2nd.

A&D regular Ken Burnside will be there as well, sharing a room with us and hawking his excellent 3D space games – Attack Vector: Tactical, Squadron Strike and others. He’ll be teaching those games too, possibly with me at the table.

A&D regular Jay Maynard will be attending as well. Probably in full Tron Guy drag, at least part of the time.

Join us for a weekend of “You got your Linux geekery in my science fiction convention! Yeah, well, you got your science fiction stuff in my Linux convention!” Two great tastes that taste great together.

Mar 17

In search of: FTL taxonomy

I’ve been troping again. This time I found and repaired the TV Tropes page on Faster Than Light Travel. It had previously made a distinction between three subtypes of FTL drive: “jump”, “warp”, and “shortcut”. The “shortcut” category was confused and confusing, and I’ve renamed it to “portal” and fixed the definitions of both “portal” and “warp” subtropes.

I’m now looking for earliest occurrences and trope codifiers on these subtypes. I think I have one nailed down, but I can’t push the other two back very far. Instances and cites are solicited.

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