Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Babel-17


Samuel R Delany
Completed 2/20/2018, reviewed 2/20/2018
4 stars

I really like Samuel R Delany’s prose.  He’s an excellent writer, with wonderful word choices and flowing sentences.  Some of his stories, however, are space opera-ish.  My loyal readers know I have a love-hate relationship with this sub-genre.  Babel-17 is a space opera with a twist.  It’s about the deciphering of a language that is associated with guerrilla attacks during a war between the Alliance and the Invaders.  It made the plot more interesting, but was still space opera.


Rydra Wong is a poet, translator, and space ship captain.  She’s assigned the duty of deciphering Babel-17, originally thought to be a secret code, that is picked up shortly before every guerrilla attack on the Alliance.  Rydra discovers it’s not a coded message, but a language, one that does not use the pronoun “I” or any of the first or second personal pronouns.  Rydra, along with her crew, meets up with a person only known as the Butcher who cannot speak in first or second personal pronouns, and has amnesia.  Is he related to Babel-17?  Can she figure out the language before the next attack?

As I stated at the beginning, the prose is marvelous.  There are some sections which are simply a pleasure to read.  There’s even a Faulknerian sentence that goes on for several pages that’s simply astounding.  The only thing that gave me trouble reading this book is that it was boring in parts.  Not the sections on the language, but the rest of the plot.  I think it was because it had to do with a war and I had trouble keeping my mind focused on that. 

The character development was really interesting.  The navigator of the Rydra’s ship is a trio of people in a polyamorous relationship.  There’s also a trio called the Eyes, Ears, and Nose which is comprised of dead, or discorporate, people.  The Butcher is also very interesting.  Delany does a remarkable job not writing in first or second person.  Rydra takes the initiative to try to get the Butcher to speak using I and you.  The Butcher tries, but he ends up confusing the two.  Delany goes on for several pages with this and it’s astoundingly complicated. 

Despite the space opera story line, I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s the prose and the character development that pushed it above three stars for me.  If I used half stars, I’d give it three-and-a-half, but I don’t, so four it is.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Secret Matter

Toby Johnson
Completed 2/17/2018, Reviewed 2/17/2018
4 stars

This was a fun book.  It’s about acceptance and denial, love and fear, and first contact.  It was first published in 1990 and described a gay young man’s journey to self-acceptance through a relationship with an alien.  Since it was a near future story, the author updated the book for the twenty-first century.  It won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay SF/Fantasy in 1991.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book even though the beginning seemed to drag a little.

The story is about Kevin, a gay young man who is living in denial.  Fresh out of college and from a religious family, he gets an internship at an architectural firm in San Francisco to help rebuild after the big one (as in earthquake).  Then the Visitors come.  The Visitors contract with Kevin’s firm to build their embassy on Earth.  Kevin meets ‘Bel, one of the Visitors, and falls in love.  Together, they must save their worlds from destruction by clearing up a misunderstood secret matter.

The part that dragged for me was the first few chapters with Kevin.  There, we experience Kevin’s self-loathing over being gay.  It gets old pretty quickly.  I just wanted to slap him and say, “Wake up!  You’re an adult now.  It’s time you figured this shit out.”  Maybe I’m just a little less patient with this in fiction than I would be in real life.  Then Kevin meets ‘Bel and he finally starts to accept himself.  That finally gets the book going and we can get on with the plot.

The rest of the book is a fun first contact story about alien Visitors coming to Earth.  They try to stop the US from testing a new defense shield, but for some reason, won’t be completely honest of their intentions.  This leads to a breakdown in relations between the US and the Visitors.  Then it’s up to Kevin and ‘Bel to resolve the matter. 

The book is fairly light reading.  It’s a short, easy read, except when they get into the physics.  That takes a little effort.  But this is basically soft SF.  It also gets a little heavy into religion.  There’s a born again right wing pastor with a radio program that spews hate talk.  He comes into play at several points in the book, but particularly in the end. That also gets a little heavy but it’s not too much. 

It should be noted that the author, Toby Johnson, was an editor for the White Crane Journal, a gay men’s spirituality newsletter that I subscribed to in the late ‘80’s.  It was a wonderful journal of interesting articles and ruminations on what it meant to be gay and have spirituality.  So needless to say, a novel by Toby Johnson would probably have a fair amount of interesting reflections about the Bible in it.  In fact, the latest edition of the book has a bonus essay that’s an alternative Genesis story playing on “Adam and Steve” and turning it into something funny and though-provoking. 


Even with its slow beginning, it’s an exciting adventure story.  And there’s an innocence to the book which is refreshing to read compared to the darker, grittier SF of today, almost YA in tone.  I give the book four out of five stars.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Man Who Folded Himself

David Gerrold
Completed 2/16/2018, Reviewed 2/16/2018
5 stars

Wow!  I really loved this book.  It is the greatest time travel story I’ve ever read.  Danny Eakins inherits a time travel belt from his Uncle Jim.  Once he discovers what it is, he experiments, first twenty minutes into the future, then a day, then all over the past and future.  This is a short book, only about 120 pages, but it is filled with amazing contemplation and philosophizing on the ramifications of time travel.  Most specifically, it explores the paradoxes that come with time travel, taking it to the point of myriads of instances of Danny having parties with his selves.  It’s all very mind-blowing, and done really well.

Danny is a great character.  In fact, he is pretty much the only character.  As he becomes an experienced time traveler, he becomes a loner, relying on his alternative selves.  By alternative selves, I mean that in this trope of time travel, rather than there being just one timeline in which Danny travels, every time he travels through time, he bifurcates the universe, creating alternate versions of himself.  Through this method he travels the globe, experiencing history first hand.

This being a short book, we don’t travel through history with Danny.  Instead we experience him getting started with time travel and then following him through different existential crises that arise from having this kind of power.  So instead of a travelogue, it’s a reflection on what could happen to oneself having the ability to travel through time, from pleasure to madness.

I discovered this book while doing my research for the LGBTQ Spec Fic Resource List I curated at WWEnd.  It explores homosexuality in a narcissistic fashion, with Danny having relationships with himself.  While it might seem odd and strange, the book progresses in such a way that this has to be explored.  It’s a variation on the idea of being able to love oneself.  So as not to be exclusive, Danny also meets a female version of himself and has a relationship with her as well.  It’s all strange but makes perfect sense in the bifurcated universes of this time travel trope.


This being such a short book, I read it in basically a day.  I started it last night and finished it during down time at work.  (I actually had a lot of downtime today).   I’m so glad I had the time, because this was literally a tough book to put down.  I just wanted to consume it.  I give it five stars out of five because Danny dragged me into his existential crises.  I could feel his loneliness and fear, and was almost moved to tears at the end.  If I wasn’t at work, I probably would have leaked a tear or two.   I’ve read only one other book by Gerrold, Jumping off the Planet, and loved it as well.  I guess I need to read more of him.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: an Oneiromancy


Alex Jeffers
Completed 2/15/2018, reviewed 2/15/2018
4 stars

Oneiromancy – n.  The interpretation of dreams to fortell the future.

This is one of those novels I needed and read at just the right time.  Not so much a classic fantasy as it is about a man who lives in a fantasy world.  Still it was nominated for a Lammy in the SF/Fantasy/Horror category.  Ben is a young man fresh out of college, in his first job, commuting fifty miles one way every day.  It ruins his sleeping pattern, affording him only a few hours of sleep a night.  When he does sleep he has vivid dreams that perhaps keep him trapped in his daily life.  It’s hard to tell the difference between his dreams and reality, the dreams sometimes being better than real life.

The prose of this book was seriously wonderful.  Reading it was a pleasure.  The imagery rolled from paragraph to paragraph.  The writing had a stream of conscious quality, signifying how Ben interacted with his world and the people in it, with seemless flashbacks to his past and dreams.  It captured someone who lives in their head very well.

The main dream fantasy is that Ben has found Dario, a young Italian prince, squatting in a South Boston warehouse with his brother and sister.  Ben falls in love with the young prince and the prince loves him.  He brings the orphaned family home to live with him, to take care of the them.  However, the little family rebels when Ben meets real men, and goes on real dates.  This fantasy is really drawn well, so much so that for quite a while, it’s difficult to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. 

Unfortunately, it soon becomes evident that it is just a fantasy, a dream.  As the book progresses, this particular dream of Dario becomes less prominent.  I found this to be sad.  I liked the fantasy, I liked how it was interfering with Ben’s life.  I think it would have been better if the Dario fantasy was maintained more strongly throughout the book.  Instead, we only get a few more glimpses of the fantasy.  Other dreams occur as well, but none are as riveting as the first.

I really liked Ben, the main character.  I could relate to his feeling isolated and not really wanting to get involved with anyone.  I found myself sympathizing with him as life and reality begin to unravel.  I also could relate to his opportunistic approach to life:  not really doing much to change one’s circumstances unless the opportunities pop up in front of you, and even then, hesitating.

I give the book four out of five stars.  I took one star off for my complaint of the near abandonment of the Dario fantasy.  Otherwise, I have to say I really loved this book.  Even though the rest of Alex Jeffers works are literary and not genre fiction, I’d read more of him.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Disturbed By Her Song


Tanith Lee
Completed 2/11/2018, Reviewed 2/11/2018
4 stars

This is my first Tanith Lee.  It’s probably not the best one to start with because of its main conceit.  The book is a meta-fantasy collection of short stories.  Lee channels fictional characters who convey the stories to her.  The characters are Esther Garber and Judas Garbah, half-siblings who are both gay.  Esther’s stories are fictional, Judas’ are autobiographical.  Lee expertly writes in two different styles, although other reviewers have noted that they hear Lee’s voice through both.  While I really enjoyed the book, giving it a high rating, I think I would have liked to have first been introduced to Lee through one of her novels.  The book was nominated for Lambda Literary Award for LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror, which is how I discovered it in the first place. 


As I said though, I really enjoyed this book.  It is a collection of short stories of love.  It is lightly erotic, but mostly about relationships that do not work or work out.  There is a sense of despair to almost all the stories.  The prose is wonderful.  It’s literary without being overwhelming so.  It flows with lovely word choices.  I especially liked the stories “written” by Esther.  Esther’s stories were about women in love.  I found the characters to be very interesting and well-drawn.  Judas’ stories were darker, and their autobiographical nature didn’t grab me as well.  These are the stories I found particularly noteworthy in this collection:

Black Eyed Susan – A maid sees a ghost in the hotel in which she’s working.  She becomes obsessed with the ghost, trying to connect with other workers and guests who may also have seen it.  Her work and even an affair with another maid takes a backseat to this obsession.  This is the only story that has a directly speculative nature, in addition to the meta-fantastical trope of the narration being a channeling of fictional characters.  I found it to be gripping, and filled with anticipation. 

The Kiss – This is a piece about a girl who attempts to get her playbill kissed by the play’s star and the homophobic reaction of the crowd who witnesses it.  It’s a short work, but very powerful and still timely.

The X’s are Not Kisses – A woman develops an intense jealousy when her lover goes to see an old friend.  The woman finds erotic love letters in her lover’s study and the jealousy and despair nearly destroy her.  The downward spiral of the main character is amazingly developed.  It carried me along with it until I was believing the woman was justified in her obsessive behavior. 

Disturbed by Her Song – Another story about obsession, this time by an actress who falls for another actress who has no idea of her feelings towards her.  This is more of a slow burn compared to “X’s”, but still took me down the obsessive spiral with the main character. 

There are only nine stories in this collection.  All of them are worth a read.  The above four were just highlights.  I give this book four stars out of five for the powerful way Lee can turn feelings into readable prose that draws you in and takes you to the darker places of the soul. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Foreigner

C.J. Cherryh
Completed 2/8/2018, Reviewed 2/9/2018
2 stars

After reading her two Hugo winning novels, Cyteen and Downbelow Station, I swore I’d never read another book by C.J. Cherryh.  Then my book club picked one of her books for the February selection.  I swore I wouldn’t read it.  Then I got myself a Kindle Fire tablet and the book only cost $2.99.  That’s less than a Filet-o-Fish sandwich at McDonalds.  So I thought, what the hell, I’ll be opened minded.  Well, it turned out to be another novel I didn’t like, for some of the same reasons that I didn’t like her other books, and for some different reasons. 

My first reason for not liking this book is that she uses too much punctuation.  I’ve never seen so many dashes and ellipses in one book, except in her other books.  Particularly, the use of dashes bothers me.  The dash is helpful when you want to insert one thought in the middle of another thought.  Unfortunately, when you overuse it, it simply a terrific way to create run-on sentences.  Cherryh has run-on sentences galore.  For some authors, long sentences produces good prose.  Cherryh’s sentences have too many ideas.  Except when she uses sentence fragments (see what I did there).  She likes to use sentence fragments too. 

What really grinds my gears is her use of “of a sudden” instead of “all of a sudden” or “suddenly”.  It’s like nails on a chalkboard.  And sometimes, she doesn’t include a subject in a sentence.  Okay, enough of her style, let’s move on to content.

This novel is the first of a huge series.  I hoped that it would be a story that would be compelling enough that fans (and I) would want more.  Instead, she gives us a four hundred page short story with nearly no plot, just ambiance, creating a world where next to nothing happens.  The novel is divided into three “books”.  The first book explains how a spaceship comes out of hyperspace and the crew discovers it is off-course and lost.  They begin to look for a habitable planet.  The second book explains how the descendants of the ship are either living on a habitable planet, or in a space station around it.  The planet has sentient life in their steam engine age.  Then, first contact happens. 

All this takes up about fifty pages.  Each could have been its own book.  Instead Cherryh introduces a third “book” which fast forwards to a time where all the humans now live isolated from the native sentient life forms on an island on the planet.  The only contact with the Atevi is through a single human who can live among them as a kind of ambassador, known as a “paidhi”, or translator.  The paidhi makes sure the Treaty that ended an early contact war between the Atevi and the humans is held.  He also makes sure that difficult concepts are conveyed properly between the two cultures. 

Bren Cameron is the paidhi.  The third book opens with an assassination attempt on Bren.  Being an assassin is a highly respected occupation and has a guild on the Atevi planet.  To safeguard Bren, he is moved to the center of the continent where he lives with the grandmother of the head of the continent.  But it is clear he is not safe there either.  So what’s going on?  Who wants him dead?  How does he figure this out in a culture where terms like “friend”, “trust”, “nation”, and “border” don’t exist?

Reading back on the previous two paragraphs, I make the book sound riveting.  In reality, it is some of the most boring text I've ever read.  The book is told from Bren’s POV.  He spends most of his time in his own head overthinking the events that have taken place, as well as trying to second guess everyone else’s roles and motivations.  It makes for a lot of repetitiveness.  In one sense, I didn’t mind this, because the book was so boring, I often lost my ability to focus.  Being hit over the head with the same thoughts on the events occurring in the book over and over again, it made sure I understood what was going on.

This is what I meant by the short story where nothing really happens.  If all we had was action, there’s only be about fifty pages.  Instead, it’s dragged out to almost four hundred.  The rest of the time we spend in Bren’s head.  On the positive side, it does help us understand the cultural differences between humans and the Atevi, as well as the sensitive dilemma the paidhi is in.  It does provide us with an ambiance of Cherryh’s world-building.  Unfortunately, it was simply too boring for me to care. 


When the action finally started to pick up, I was well past the over-it stage.  And there really isn’t that much action.  The book ends on a low note.  I don’t see how other readers looked forward to the next book after the drudgery of this one.  I give the book two stars out of five.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Moon Pool

A Merritt
Completed 1/14/2018, reviewed 1/15/2018
4 stars

This is perhaps the oldest book I’ve read since high school.  It’s 99 years old this year.  It shows its age, being very much part of the adventure genre that SF was before SF existed.  But it’s still very good and a fairly easily readable introduction into the world of early science fiction and fantasy.  There were some parts that dragged, but in general, it was a wildly imaginative adventure from a time when the earth still had undiscovered places. 


The story is about a group of people who find a secret passageway to an underground civilization.  Specifically, Dr. Walter Goodwin finds out about a vampiric energy field, which they call the Dweller, that comes out during the full moon and captures people and sucks the life out of them.  He takes Larry O’Keefe, a roguish Irish-American, Olaf Huldriksson, a Norse boat captain whose wife and daughter were abducted by the Dweller, and Marakinoff, a Bolshevik from the newly formed Soviet Union.  They enter through a portal at some ruins in the South Pacific.  There they meet several races, including frog people as well as humans who seem to be related to Polynesians.

The prose for the most part is quite delicious.  Merritt uses some great language in describing the underground caverns and their denizens.  Sometimes it dragged a bit, but in general it was enjoyable.  One thing that bothered me though was that he overused some of his descriptive words, like lambent and coruscating.  At times it became almost comical when the words came up.  It reminded me of a sketch from The Kids in the Hall where a guy in a factory learns a new word and uses it in every sentence.  While it’s not that bad, it does become obvious as you progress through the book. 

Another complaint I had was that the story eventually devolves into a love story and love tries to conquer all.  This is the place where the book doesn’t hold up over time.  However, I have to put the book in context.  Today, love stories have to be complex to be entertaining and believable.  A hundred years ago, this may have not been the case, particularly in science fiction adventure stories. 

There isn’t that much science in the book.  Specifically, there are some sections which are deleted because of concern over Soviet espionage.  I thought this was a clever way to get around trying to describe something that was perhaps too complicated for the author.  However, there is a retelling of the creation of the earth and moon that reminded me of my elementary school textbook cosmology.  This being 1919, I’m thinking it must have been quite advanced for its time.


Despite my complaints, the story is very entertaining.  His visions of hidden worlds are quite creative.  I haven’t read any H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, (Yes, take away my nerd card) but I’ve seen references that compare Merritt to a sort of combination of these early masters.  If you are looking for an example of science fiction from the time before it was so classified, this is a good one to read.  And you can get the electronic version for free on Project Gutenberg since the copyright has expired.  Four stars out of five.  (And the A stands for Abraham)