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Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Big Book of Science Fiction, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (editors)

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Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have collaborated on several anthologies of speculative fiction, including the excellent The Weird. In The Big Book of Science Fiction, they take on exactly the genre you would expect from the title. At over 1100 pages, this massive tome catalogues sci-fi from H.G. Wells to the early 2000s, by authors from all over the world.

While it’s hard to summarize such a wide-ranging collection, there are a few themes that emerge over the course of the book. One is the concept popularized by the famous Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”: If we encountered alien life, would we recognize it for what it was? Accordingly, a number of the stories therein, such as Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm,” present truly unique conceptions of extraterrestrial beings.

The Big Book also includes some interesting dystopian stories. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Standing Woman” posits a society with a strange and grotesque punishment for social dissidents, while Tanith Lee’s “Crying in the Rain” shows us the self-sacrificial love of a mother in a world where the rain is deadly.

Many of the stories are from non-English-speaking authors, and in a few cases, the VanderMeers even commissioned new translations of the works. There seems to be particularly strong representation from Soviet-era Russia.

Even in such a huge volume, it’s obviously not possible to include every significant work. That said, the lack of any pieces by Ken Liu seemed like a glaring omission. His “The Regular” is a masterful near-future detective story and would have been a perfect fit for this anthology.

A few notes on individual stories that I particularly enjoyed:

James H. Schmitz’s “Grandpa” presents a fascinating extraterrestrial ecology, but I wanted to see more of the denouement. Did the events of the story cause the other team members to rethink their view of Cord? And what were the yellowheads getting out of their symbiosis with the rafts?

Damon Knight’s “Stranger Station” is a great example of a dramatic reveal done right. I loved the moment where the reader (and the main character) discover the alien’s motivations and the how/why behind its production of the immortality serum.

I previously knew James Blish as the author of several novelizations of classic Star Trek episodes, and it was a treat to read a piece of his original fiction. “Surface Tension” includes some wonderfully imaginative ideas for the technology and ecology of a microscopic civilization.

Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” is, at its heart, a story about man’s best friend. It also does a great job of illustrating how different species might have wildly divergent views of the same environment.

I loved the variety of alien species in James White’s “Sector General,” as well as the concept of a sci-fi story set in a hospital.

The stories collected in this volume run the gamut in tone. I mentioned a couple of quite dark dystopian stories above; by contrast, Sever Ganovsky’s “A Modest Genius” is a whimsical, heartwarming tale.

I’ve always loved stories about the Fair Folk, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which reads like a sci-fi retelling of a story about a human enthralled by the fey. (While the Wikipedia entry for the story doesn’t explicitly confirm this interpretation, it’s bolstered by the fact that the title is a line from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.)

One of the joys of reading an anthology is being introduced to authors I haven’t read before. I loved Robert Reed’s “The Remoras” and have since sought out other work in his “Great Ship” series.

I knew something about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” from the excellent movie Arrival, which is based on it. I’m happy to report that, contrary to Hollywood’s standard practice, they did not butcher the source material.

The Kindle edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction costs about $18, which is pretty steep for an e-book. But for 1100+ pages of mostly good-to-great science fiction, it’s worth every penny.

“The Relic Master” by Christopher Buckley

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Christopher Buckley’s humorous historical fiction novel The Relic Master is set in turbulent political times: shortly after Martin Luther has pinned his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. The main character, Dismas, is a “relic master” for Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. He procures holy relics for the cardinal’s collection, and unlike many in his profession, accepts only those he believes have a reasonable chance of being genuine. The one time he breaches this sense of professional integrity, it has catastrophic consequences, and Dismas finds himself being sent on a mission to steal the burial shroud of Christ (which will later become known as the Shroud of Turin) from its current owner, the Duke of Savoy.

Much of the book is light-hearted, as Dismas banters with his companions and they have to come up with one half-baked scheme after another to keep their plan on track. But serious themes are treated too. Genuine camaraderie develops between Dismas and the three German soldiers who are meant to be his guards, and he falls in love with a woman they meet along the way. He wrestles with the question of whether the shroud is the real thing or not, and he and Dürer debate Luther’s provocative writings.

Buckley is known for his satire, and his talents in that regard are on full display here. The constant parade of hypocritical politicians makes the story eminently relatable for anyone living in the modern age. On top of that, the heist-story nature of the tale makes it a fun page-turner.

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s latest novel, The Outsider, blends elements of a police procedural with King’s trademark horror. Detective Ralph Anderson is in charge of investigating a horrific crime, and he’s sure he’s got the right man. But the alleged perpetrator has an ironclad alibi, and contradictions in the evidence keep piling up that range from “really strange” to “flat-out impossible.”

The novel has a fairly large cast of characters: Anderson, an ambitious DA, a Mexican-American state police officer who gets pulled into the investigation, the alleged perpetrator and his wife, the accused’s defense attorney and a private investigator working for him, and so on. But King differentiates the characters well enough to keep them from getting mixed up in the reader’s mind. He also does a good job of portraying characters on both sides of the emerging criminal case as reasonable.

Many of King’s works make brief references to other stories of his, but the crossover is much more prominent here. Readers of the Bill Hodges trilogy will recognize a character who shows up about halfway through the book and plays a major role in how the plot plays out. However, you don’t need to have read the Bill Hodges novels to understand and enjoy The Outsider.

The mystery aspect of the story is engaging and kept me turning pages. My theory for what was really going on didn’t turn out to be right, but the truth was an imaginative (and, true to King’s form, creepy) idea. The pacing is also quite good: it’s a slow-burn story, but one that never gets boring.