The winners of the 2012 John W. Campbell Memorial Award have been announced and we have a tie:
The other nominees were:
- Embassytown (third place) – China Miéville (Ballantine Books/Del Rey)
- Osama (honorable mention) – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
- Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (Crown/Random House)
- This Shared Dream – Kathleen Ann Goonan (Tor Books)
- Soft Apocalypse – Will McIntosh (Night Shade Books)
- Dancing with Bears – Michael Swanwick (Night Shade Books)
- Robopocalypse – Daniel H. Wilson (Simon & Schuster)
- Home Fires – Gene Wolfe (Tor Books)
- Seed – Rob Ziegler (Night Shade Books)
The award will be presented during the Campbell Conference and Awards Ceremony, July 5-8, 2012.
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his blog series Philip K. Dickathon and The Horror! The Horror! He can also be found on his own blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. This is Dee’s fourth GMRC review to feature in our blog.
Robert Silverberg considered The Stochastic Man a valedictory offering. When he wrote the novel in the early 1970′s he had already resolved to effect his second retirement from the world of science fiction. His first retirement came around 1958, the year the science fiction magazine world imploded due to over-saturation and the growing market for paperback books. Writer and editor Frederik Pohl brought Silverberg back into the sf fold in the early 1960′s, encouraging him to write more thoughtful material than the pulp-influenced novels and stories he cranked out–and Silverberg would not himself object to that characterization–during the previous decade. But then, by the 1970′s, Silverberg discovered that he was "on the wrong side of a revolution." He joined in with the new crowd of younger writers, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany and others, who were producing more literary and experimental fiction. ("Younger" is a relative term here. Silverberg himself was only in his thirties at this time, but he had been publishing since he was nineteen.) This period, from 1965 – 1974, is considered to be Silverberg’s best, but he saw his readership drying up.
"What was fun for the writers, though, turned out to be not so much fun for majority of the readers, who justifiably complained that if they wanted to read Joyce and Kafka they would go and read Joyce and Kafka. They didn’t want their sf to be Joycified or Kafkaized. So they stayed away from the new fiction in droves, and by 1972 the revolution was pretty well over."
Silverberg also cites the pernicious influence of Star Wars and the craze for trilogies on the popular sf market. He considered himself out of the game and simply fulfilling contractual commitments when he wrote The Stochastic Man and Shadrach in the Furnace, published in 1975 and 1976 respectively.
The Stochastic Man may not be the worst title ever given an sf novel, but forty years later it is unappealing, opaque, and dated. Silverberg gives a history and definition of the term in the opening chapter. It comes from logic and mathematics and figures in writing on computer theory. I associate it with the titles of text books and academic monographs filled with symbols and formulas I will never understand. On the practical level, it refers to using sophisticated sampling methods to gather a large enough pool of variables to proceed to an educated guess. Sexy stuff, right? In the 1970′s it must have had buzzword novelty. I ran it through Google’s NGram viewer that tracks a term’s popularity. "Stochastic" makes a steady climb from near total obscurity in 1950 to a high point in 1990 and then, after a period of stasis, there is a decline beginning at the turn of the century. In the 1970′s it was definitely on the rise. Silverberg’s novel takes place in the 1990′s, so when Lew Nichols defines himself as a stochastician, he is using a trendy 1970′s term to describe a profession that sounds very much like what we would call a consultant, no frills attached.
The 1970′s permeates Siverberg’s near future narrative. New York City at the turn of the millennium is the worst case scenario of what New York in the early 1970′s was becoming. With the successful Disneyfication of Times Square and the city’s declining crime rates it is hard to remember that forty years ago New York City was dirty, dangerous, and nearing bankruptcy. Silverberg and his wife were both lifelong New Yorkers, but they had, like many of their friends, decamped for the West Coast by the time he wrote this novel. In Lew Nichol’s New York City, Puerto Rican and Black populations stage pitched battles. Large portions of the city are too dangerous to enter, and those who can afford them travel with protective devices that ward off attackers. The nicest, newest and safest buildings are on Staten Island while the Upper East Side is livable but crumbling. All but the finest restaurants serve artificial food.
But Lew and his wife Sundara, a glamorous woman of Indian origin, live the good life. Lew’s stochastic firm brings in an enviable income, as does Sundara’s art gallery. (Hmm, a wealthy man whose wife runs an art gallery. Silverberg got that one right.) They attend exclusive parties where the elite mingle and choose sexual partners for later in the evening. A variety of legal drugs keep the party going.
"The terrors and traumas of New York City seemed indecently remote as we stood by our long crystalline window, staring into the wintry moonbright night and seeing only our own reflections, tall fairhaired man and slender dark woman, side by side, side by side, allies against the darkness… Actually neither of us found life in the city really burdensome. As members of the affluent minority we were isolated from much of the crazy stuff…"
So what is this novel actually about? Reviewers need not worry about spoilers, since a dozen pages into it Lew Nichols, as first-person narrator, has revealed most of the plot developments. Lew will become a consultant to the political campaign of the charismatic Paul Quinn, the great hope of a city and country seeking to rejuvenate itself, but who Lew describes as "potentially the most dangerous man in the world." He imagines that American voters dream of being able to withdraw the votes that as Lew is telling the story they will not place for another four or five years. And there is the enigmatic character of Martin Carvajal, a milquetoast multimillionaire who goes beyond Lew’s stochastic methods and is able to literally see the future. Lew calls him a "wild card in the flow of time." Carvajal’s resigned, passive nature comes from not only the fact that for him the future and history are one and the same, but he is also aware of the exact moment of his rapidly approaching violent death. He wants to bring Lew on as a pupil in seeing the future, rather than simply making educated guesses about it.
Revealing all in the first chapter of a book sets up a classic suspense structure where readers stay with the story to see how the inevitable works itself out. But Silverberg’s profoundly pessimistic novel is not about keeping you on the edge of your seat. By revealing so much early on, the reader becomes, like Carvajal and increasingly like Lew, one that can only watch inexorable events unspool like the frames of a film. More or less knowing what’s coming makes all the political machinations and messy personal relationships objects of detached interest rather than elements in an engaging plot. The Stochastic Man is a stylistic exercise that is likely to leave many readers cold, but I found it the most interesting though not the best Silverberg novel I have read.
And what is this obsession with knowing the future beyond the ability to choose lottery numbers and hot stocks? Carvajal’s resignation and depression should clue Lew in on the fact that foreknowledge does nothing but make you a passive agent of the inevitable. But like 17th century Puritans struggling with the paradoxes of predestination and free will, Lew cannot let go of his obsession with seeing. (Silverberg italicizes the term throughout the book.) At the end of the novel–and this would be a spoiler except it too is described in the opening chapter–Lew has inherited Carvajal’s millions and used them to set up an institute to develop the talent for second sight in as many people as possible. He still thinks this is a meaningful project. I thought he hadn’t read his own book.
(Biographical information in this review comes from Silverberg’s Other Spaces Other Times.
Long time WWEnd member and Uber User, Emil Jung, is an obsessive SF/F reader and as such he’s become a huge supporter of WWEnd. (We often refer to him as our "South African Bureau.") Besides hanging out here, Emil writes poetry on his blog emiljung.posterous.com. This is the fourth of Emil’s GMRC reviews to feature in our blog.
If there ever was a kind of excessive, unorthodox or hysterical posturing in SF, Harlan Ellison definitely embodies it. And not only in the choice of the titles of his impressive stories. He certainly has a flare for verbal thrift, rarely struggling to grope for effect, as Connie Willis may well atest to. Despite his outrageous actions that often include letigation of all kinds against an impressive cast of you-know-who’s, which I believe has a lot more to do with upholding a bad-boy image than anything else of substance, Ellison certainly is gifted with literary cleverness and as such is one of the most decorated writers in the genre, winning over 100 awards. He works almost exclusively within the short story form, and consequently has remained little known outside SF circles. Apart from editing the landmark Dangerous Visions anthology, and its follow-up Again, Dangerous Visions, Ellison also did some work on Star Trek, Babylon 5 and The Outer Limits, one episode of which named "Soldier" being the inspiration for The Terminator. True to form, Ellison sued.
His best known collection is arguably The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, which features the definitive New Wave story "A Boy And His Dog" that won the Nebula for best novella, and upsetting almost everyone, from liberals and feminists to the right wing alike, and of course, many of the Golden Age SF writers. After having read a few of Ellison’s stories, "A Boy and His Dog" remains his best, one of the few post-apocalyptic narratives to depict how raw and brutal existence after a nuclear holocaust would be – and equally successful in protesting and allegorizing the Vietnam War. Equally ingenious is Deathbird Stories, a collection probably closest to the horror genre, with an odd few elements of science fiction and fantasy thrown in.
As the subtitle, A Pantheon of Modern Gods, suggests, the theme is gods, and in particular the "new" gods (or devils) of our modern society. These are: the god of speed, the god of beauty, the god of money, the god of mechanical and technoligcal wonders, the god of apocryphal dreams and the gods of pollution. Even the god of the guilty, if there could be such a thing, albeit a Freudian trope. The stories are tied together by the concept that gods are real only as long as they have people who believe in them. We find echoes of this in Neil Gaiman’s phenominal American Gods. Ellison writes in the introduction:
"When belief in a god dies, the god dies… to be replaced by newer, more relevant gods."
It’s not a far-fetched assumption. Afterall, Thor and Odin disappeared when the Vikings took up the cross and Apollo was reduced to rubble along with his temples. Ellison offers a litany of dead gods. These 19 stories are essentially about the merits of religion and the religious and true to form, Ellison crushes eggshells in his usual confrontational manner, with a caveat lector at the beginning that warns the reader against reading the entire collection in one sitting because of the "emotional content:"
"It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole."
Despite there being an element of humor in some of these stories, the warning should not be taken lightly. It is not the usual Ellison arrogance at play here – they did exhaust and deaden my spirit. Still, Ellison’s missive does drive home the point that mankind is drifitng away from the belief in a benevolent, all-knowing, all-loving God and is instead transferring its faith to soulless pursuits and material possessions. There are truths present here, and some of them are very uncomfortable, taking the shape of monstrous, twisted forms, old creatures of myth like basilisks, gargoyles, minotaurs and even dragons, allegories for the new gods of gambling, the modern metropolis, pollution, sex, automobile showrooms and many other depraving endeavors. The gods appear to be a remarkably fragile lot.
These are my favorite stories from the collection:
"Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" is about the god of the slot machine and the subsequent dead-end that Las Vegas could be. A similar kind of worship is found in "Neon," about a guy who seeks carnal knowledge with neon lights.
"Along the Scenic Route" is a narrative about a freeway autoduel of the future, very prescient to our modern day road-rage fueled obsessions on the world’s freeways.
"Basilisk" perspicaciously combines the Greek myth of a serpent-like creature with a lethal gaze and Mars, the hungry God of War. Lance Corporal Vernon Lestig does terrible things but I understood, and may even have sympathised with his reasons.
"On the Downhill Side" is just a beautiful and touching story about two ghosts who meet on a street in New Orleans. The God of Love allows them one more chance to find love in each other’s arms. The man had loved too much, leading to multiple divorces and his ultimate suicide, and the woman had remained a virgin until her early death. There is a dire price to be paid, a sacrificial compromise "forming one spirit that would neither love too much, nor too little." I could not help feeling that this is probably how Ellison truly sees love and religion operating. An emotionally engaging story, perfectly paced – I simply loved it.
"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" invokes the paranoid fears brought about by hallucinogenic drugs within the surreal atmosphere of a hippie retreat. I find this story a magnificent allegory on the all-consuming downward spiral of drug addiction, culminating in a final hallucination as deciphered symbol of the inevitable surrender of the main protagonist, who thinks he is a glass sculpture of a goblin and his girlfriend a werewolf. When he tries to talk to her for one final time, she attacks him and he shatters into a thousand pieces.
"Paingod," which is my clear favorite in the entire collection, is about Trente the Paingod, who delivers pain and suffering when and if necessary to each conscious being across all the universes, and decided one day to find out first-hand what pain feels like from a sculptor who has lost his ability to sculp. The harrowing conclusion that pain is a blessing because without it there can be no joy still reverberates strongly with me.
The three weakest stories for me are:
"Rock God" is a rather pedestrian affair, dated, with the frantic corruptness of the protagonist very stereotypical.
"At the Mouse Circus" which I can’t say anything meaningful except that it features the king of Tibet and a cadillac and that I have no idea what Ellison is trying to convey.
"The Place With No Name" has Prometheus in it, but much like the movie, disappoints with things I did not understand at all and other things that were only too clear. There is this somewhat shocking denouement: what if Jesus and Prometheus had been lovers, were aliens that felt strong and loving empathy toward earthlings and gave them gifts, only to be punished (and crucified) by the other gods for doing so?
A polarizing collection with this many narratives dealing more or less with the same subject matter is bound to have a few unappealing stories. Nonetheless, there are still other, brilliant and well crafted stories like the catchy "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Lattitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13" W" and the story the title is taken from, "Deathbird." I’m certain everyone who reads this collection will discover their own favorites. Take note of the caveat lector, though and read these divergent stories cautiously over a stretched period of time. They are hugely rewarding, even if exhausting. Ellision has always been a polemic figure who has never been afraid to articulate and share his opinions. This is true even of his writing. It is a difficult read, even painful at times, but as Ellison so expressly pointed out: what is joy without a little pain?
Glenn Hough (gallyangel) is, among other things, a nonpracticing futurist, an anime and manga otaku, a gourmet, a writer of science fiction novels which don’t get published to world wide acclaim, and is almost obsessive about finishing several of the lists tracked on WWEnd. This is Glenn’s first featured review for the GMRC.
This is a tale of a footnote. Much like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which looks up at the wide world of Hamlet from the POV of minor characters, Lavinia immerses us in the world of Vergil’s Aeneid from the POV of a woman even further removed from the central action. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is named, she plays a role, a war is fought over her marriage rites since she was being used as a political tool, but yet, she never speaks a word in the poem.
Vergil renders her mute.
Le Guin has now given her a voice.
In terms of presentation, Le Guin’s Lavinia occupies middle ground. It is not the epic ground of heroes and jealous gods that is the backbone of Vergil’s Aeneid. The gods in Lavinia have lost their mythic stature. They are now gods of woods, auguries, the hearth, the storehouse. Gods that are a backbone of life but not humanized master movers. Nor is this book a realist exploration of barbaric bronze age peoples, based in what little archaeology, anthropology and the stories, myths, and lies which is all the historians have of the age. Middle ground. Barbarous yes, but gentled. Epic heroes, not quite, but these are the root cultures which founded Rome. And the seeds of that coming glory are present.
As the novel opens and we are drawn into this culture, we quickly see the parallels between two well known Greek ladies: Helen and Cassandra. Like Helen, a war is found over her. Helen gave of herself, Lavinia withheld herself. Like Cassandra, Lavinia had foresight. But instead of speaking and not being believed, Lavinia keeps the knowledge to herself. Lavinia has to act this way since the poet gave her no lines in his poem. For in vision quests performed at a sacred sulfur spring, Lavinia meets the dying Vergil. He is a shade, a shadow, filled with grief over his poem which is unfinished and incomplete. He morns his lack of attention concerning Lavinia. It is from Vergil that Lavinia learns her future, the long litany of deaths which are committed in her name, and the knowledge of a son which is a sire to kings, which lead to the greatness of Rome.
To me, Lavinia’s relationship to the poet Vergil and her knowledge that she is a character in his poem is the most interesting aspect of the book. Lavinia is bound by the limitations Vergil gives her, but fills that space with life, her life; the life of a daughter of a king, wife to the exiled Trojan Aeneas, who has taken up kingship in what will become Italy, mother and grandmother to kings. She is a queen. Since Vergil gave her no lines, little life and no death, in the end Lavinia too does not die. Her body passes but Lavinia lingers in the quiet places of her country. Her immortality is forever linked to the written word of the poet. While Vergil’s words live, Lavinia lives. While Le Guin’s words live, Lavinia lives.
Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. Recently, he began branching out into fantasy, and has been sharing his experience with his excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy.
Editor’s Note: We held this review back until we finished getting the Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010 list added to the site.
Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo’s Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010, presented as a companion to critic/editor David Pringle’s 1985 Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: An English-Language Selection, 1949–1984, is a worthy successor to the earlier book. Pringle passes the torch in a Foreword to the new volume, admitting that, while a sequel is needed, “Having been unable to keep up with all those new sf works myself, I am delighted that Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo have taken it upon themselves to do the job, and I am very happy to endorse their excellent book.”
Broderick and Di Filippo, for their part, certainly have kept up on the last quarter century of science fiction, and appear to have read just about everything in the earlier era as well. Each entry is laced with references to works (mostly inside, but sometimes out of) the genre, in their efforts to evoke the novel under discussion–both the experience of reading it and its place within the ongoing development of science fiction. For example, Adam Roberts’s Salt is
Like reading Crowley’s “In Blue” as rewritten by Barry Malzberg. It’s like reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as rewritten by Norman Spinrad, or her The Left Hand of Darkness reworked by Ken McLeod (Entry 53). Or Robinson’s Red Mars (Entry 29) altered by Mark Geston. Or Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp redone by Stanislaw Lem. Yes, that strange and enjoyable.
John C. Wright (The Golden Age) is
“the latest of the ambitious deep future New Space Opera boom–David Zindell, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Wil McCarthy (most of them with entries in this book)” and is “a sort of extended commentary, from the right, on Olaf Stapledon’s classic, minatory, marxist Last and First Men.”
Similar quotations could be taken from any of the entries, each of which, in a couple of pages, places the relevant novel within the current context, and often in relation to science fiction as a whole–either as a new treatment of a theme the field has been grappling with for decades, or as a reaction against it, or a movement tangential to it. This valuable contextualization is given alongside brief plot and character descriptions, and background about the authors. While occasionally getting bogged down by their density, most of the entries are clear, concise, and evocative, and all are informative.
Reading the entries sequentially, then, we get an episodic history of the last quarter century of science fiction. If I were to try to come up with any general trends after reading the 101 entries, in comparison to the earlier era of Pringle’s book, it would be that stories of space travel migrated into the far future (the New Space Opera mentioned in the Wright entry), while stories of posthumanity came to the fore in medium-term futures. In looking for similarities, both books have their share of alternate histories (more prominent in later years), and dystopias, which never seem to go out of style. It’s also heartening to see the increasing appearance of women authors. Pringle included nine books by women (including two by Le Guin, and only one prior to 1969), compared to about one-third of the authors in the new survey.
The new list echoes the old in several ways. There is some author overlap (Aldiss, Dick, Vonnegut, Ballard, Moorcock, Poul Anderson, M. John Harrison, Priest, Varley, Stableford, Benford, Octavia Butler, Wolfe, and Gibson), with Brian Aldiss taking the prize for the two most widely-spaced entries–Non-Stop (1958) and HARM (2007)–but that still leaves the vast majority of authors confined to either the pre- or post-1985 eras. Both books begin with a dystopic novel by an author not generally identified with the genre–Orwell’s 1984 for Pringle and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for Broderick/Di Filippo. And both end with what are presented as genre-shifting books. In retrospect, Neuromancer looks like a perfect ending point for Pringle’s survey. Whether The Quantum Thief “is the equivalent, for the end of the first decade of the 21st century” remains to be seen, but a good case is made, and the attempt at symmetry must have been irresistible. (Interestingly, William Gibson came close to ending this volume as well, with Zero History being listed second-to-last.)
The opening selections indicate that these critics define the field broadly, and are interested in literary quality as well as novelty or popularity within the more insular genre world. Along with Orwell, Pringle includes books by George R. Stewart, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Kingsley Amis, alongside Asimov, Heinlein, Silverberg, and Benford. Broderick and Di Filippo take this tendency further, presumably because the use of SF by mainstream writers has only grown in recent decades. (According to their Introduction, readers who prefer to “stick faithfully to their accustomed diversions, preferring yet another franchised episode of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock or Luke Skywalker and his mean dad, rather as some people eat the same breakfast cereal every day”, or for whom “any attempt by sf writers to adapt [literary] techniques to broaden their canvas and elaborate their palette (or palate) is pretentious or boring or uses ‘too many hard words’,” should look elsewhere for guidance.) This time, we have Atwood, Vonnegut, Jonathan Lethem, Audrey Nifenegger, Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Liz Jensen, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Chabon, side by side with Ian MacDonald, Charles Stross, and Linda Nagata. The authors address the appropriateness of the SF label for some of these books directly, but clearly come down on the side of encouraging and celebrating inclusiveness, and a broad reading of the field, even when the authors themselves resist it. Apparently, for example, Philip Roth claimed to have “no literary models for reimagining the historical past” when writing the alternate history The Plot Against America! But that doesn’t keep it from being an excellent novel, which is what Broderick and Di Filippo are concerned with. (The prize for “the best alternative novel we’ve seen to date”, however, goes to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)
The inclusion of a few novels that hardcore SF fans might argue with should be a little easier to accept given that the authors have found a way to expand their net beyond the 101 novels of the title. Yes, there are 101 entries, each associated with a particular novel, but, unlike in the Pringle survey, no author gets more than one entry, leaving room for a much larger variety of books. Doesn’t this mean that this is not really the “101 Best Novels”, but rather the 101 best authors? Yes and no. A strict list of the best novels would likely contain more than one entry for some authors (Pringle, for example, was especially partial to Dick, Ballard, and Aldiss), but many of the entries in Broderick and Di Filippo’s book are really about duologies, trilogies, series, or even an authors’ entire output, thus providing information and commentary on many more than the 101 novels indicated in the title. For example, the Perdido Street Station entry discusses entire Bas Lag sequence, Paul Park’s Soldiers of Paradise recommends the entire Starbridge Chronicles, and the Neal Stephenson entry explains first why, in choosing a representative novel, the authors’ narrowed his oeuvre down to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and then why they ultimately settled on the latter over the former. In each case, while a single novel is focused on, the lens is often pulled back for a more wide-angle discussion of a significant chunk of an author’s output, when appropriate.
I suppose the final question should be: Are these really the 101 best novels of the last quarter century? The appropriate answers could be: “of course not”; “I don’t know”; or, “it doesn’t matter”. (For a question like this, I don’t think “yes” or “no” really apply.) Answer number one: Of course not, because everyone’s take on the best novels will be different. A good reviewer will find a way to give you enough of the sense of a book to decide whether you might be interested in it, and I think Broderick and Di Filippo do this very well. Answer number two: I don’t know, because I haven’t read the vast majority of these novels myself. I was greatly looking forward to this book because I’m a fan of Pringle’s 100 Best, and because I’ve read very little SF from the period the new book covers, and have been looking for a guide back into the field. After reading it, I’m pretty certain their critical take on the field will match my tastes reasonably well, but I’m sure others will see a lot of their favorites missing and thus decide they have little use for it–a perfectly valid response. (The fact that they include several of my favorites from the recent period that I’ve been back reading the field– Zero History, Windup Girl, Zoo City, and Quantum Thief–adds to my confidence that I’ll like lots of others on this list.)
Finally, answer number three, and the one I prefer: It doesn’t matter whether these are really the 101 Best Novels, because the book still succeeds as an interesting survey of what’s been happening in the science fiction field during the period covered, and because, even for those whose tastes don’t jibe with the authors’, such lists always serve to start an interesting debate. Other “best of” lists from well-read critics, along with surveys based on the opinions of fans and general readers, will always differ (sometimes greatly), keeping the debate going. (Worlds Without End, of course, contains lots of them!) As readers, the trick is to find those that best match our tastes and inclinations. In my case, I’m looking for a wide-ranging and challenging critical survey, and this one seems a good guide to the period. Broderick and Di Filippo succeeded in getting me interested in dozens of books that I knew little about or, in some cases, hadn’t even heard of. List-lovers should read it, enjoy it, and argue with it.
I love a good list. From Letterman’s latest Top Ten to IMDb’s Top 250 Movies to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted I can’t get enough of them. Especially book lists! They fascinate and infuriate in equal parts and provide endless points for discussion and contention among fans. Especially when the list purports to be the "best of" something or other.
Genre fiction is replete with "best of" lists and based on your response to the 20 SF/F/H Lists we have here on WWEnd it seems you folks can’t get enough of ‘em either. No sooner do we post a new one than we start getting calls for another! I love it. There are so many out there I doubt we’ll ever run out of new ones and since each list offers a different take on what’s best we’re perfectly happy to keep adding more.
We’ve added some new ones recently–including one just yesterday–that you guys asked for specifically and we wanted to let you know they’re up. Enjoy!
Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo’s book list, from their new book Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010, is a continuation of David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. Pringle passes the torch in a foreword to the new volume: "Having been unable to keep up with all those new SF works myself, I am delighted that Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo have taken it upon themselves to do the job, and I am very happy to endorse their excellent book."
David Pringle has written several guides to science fiction and fantasy. His famous book, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, is a highly regarded primer for the genre. In 1988 Pringle followed up with his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels (1946-1987). Primarily the book comprises 100 short essays on the selected works, covered in order of publication, without any ranking. It is considered an important critical summary of the field of modern fantasy literature.
Worlds Without End has over 800 reviews of some of the best books in science fiction, fantasy and horror. These reviews have been submitted by our members and range from simple opinions ("This book sucked!") to well reasoned technical reviews of some of your favorite genre books. We’ve created this list so you can find all the reviewed books in one place and, if you’re a logged in WWEnd member, you can use BookTrackr™ to easily find reviews for any of the books you’ve read.
New WWEnd member Grace (BookWithoutPics) is a bibliophile and aspiring librarian who reads a lot of books. She reviews SF/F and other books on her excellent blog Books Without Any Pictures where this review originally appeared. She has shared it with us in honor of Juneteenth.
Kindred is technically classified as sci-fi, but it is a genre-bending novel that also incorporates elements of historical fiction. It tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman from California who is pulled back in time to the early 1800s in Maryland to rescue her distant white ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered. Dana makes six visits to the past during the course of the novel and is only able to return home when she believes that her own life is threatened.
Dana is forced to confront the horrors of slavery as she spends time in the past and struggles with her own identity as she is swept into life on the plantation. Meanwhile, she finds herself in the rather awkward (and completely f’ed up) position of having to make sure that Rufus has sex with a woman named Alice so that her ancestors would be born and she wouldn’t flicker out of existence a la Back to the Future.
Kindred is such a powerful story because Dana is so easy to identify with. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and a very much a product of modern life. When we see slavery from the eyes of someone from our own world it makes everything seem so much more real than it would in a typical historical fiction novel. We see Dana react to the past in a multitude of different ways, ranging from her initial realization that she wasn’t in 1976 anymore when kid-Rufus used a racial slur against her to the panic at realizing that medicine in the early 1800s could be downright scary (bloodletting? leeches? gross!). It’s extreme culture shock on a multitude of different levels, but Dana eventually finds herself adapting and learning to understand the mindset of surviving the violence and dehumanization that her ancestors faced.
One of the things that I also enjoyed about this book was seeing Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin. She and Kevin are both writers and are very clearly soulmates. We see some of her backstory with Kevin, including the way that both of their families handled the fact that they were an interracial couple (badly, of course). However, the problems that Dana and Kevin face in the modern world pale in comparison to the harsh reality of life in the 1800s.
Dana discovers that anything she’s carrying when she gets pulled into the past goes with her, so she packs herself a bag and on one occasion even takes her husband with her. Kevin tries to use his social standing to protect her, but that doesn’t make Dana’s experience of the past any less dangerous.
I read Kindred in one sitting and was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Octavia Butler‘s writing is articulate and powerful, and she is able to make readers not just see the past but also feel it. Kindred is one of the best books that I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it.
Rhonda Knight is a frequent contributor to WWEnd through her many reviews and her excellent blog series Automata 101 and Outside the Norm. This is Rhonda’s sixth featured review for the Grand Master Reading Challenge. She won the GMRC Review of the Month for March for her review of The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin.
This will be the seventh Worlds Without End review of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. I wonder what new I might contribute; however, since I need to write a review of this Hugo winner to fulfill one of my other reading challenges, I’ll give this a shot as a pro and con list. This means that there will be spoilers. Be warned, if you have not read the book or want a more conventional review, choose one of the other reviews; they are good.
What I enjoyed:
1. The police procedural aspect.
I always thought that Asimov’s The Caves of Steel was the first detective science fiction novel. However, my research shows that Bester published a serial version of The Demolished Man beginning in January 1952 in Galaxy Science Fiction. Asimov’s serial of The Caves of Steel appeared in the same magazine in October to December 1953. These dates—in one sense—call into question the famous Asimov anecdote that he wrote The Caves of Steel to prove wrong John W. Campbell’s claim that mystery and science fiction were incompatible. If Campbell had been reading his competition’s magazine, then he would have seen that the feat had already been accomplished.
2. The cat-and-mouse game.
The machinations between murderer Ben Reich and detective Lincoln Powell are interesting to read. To be fair to Campbell, The Demolished Man is a police procedural, but it is not a whodunit, which was probably the type of mystery Campbell was referring to. The Demolished Man is a whydunnit, in that we know from early in the book who will be murdered, who will murder him and how the murder will be accomplished. The motive is murkier, and the denouement finally brings clarity to Ben Reich’s motives. Bester is at his best when he is illuminating the chess moves between Reich and Powell, as Powell tries to uncover means, motive and opportunity, and they both use their considerable syndicates to cherchez la femme, Barbara D’Courtney, the witness to the murder. My favorite piece of writing comes through Bester’s description of this:
Like an anatomical chart of the blood system, colored red for arteries and blue for veins, the underworld and overworld spread their networks. From Guild headquarters the word passed to instructors and students, to their families, to their friends, to their friends’ friends, to casual acquaintances, to strangers met in business. From Quizzard’s Casino the word was passed from croupier to gamblers, to confidence men, to the heavy racketeers, to the light thieves, to hustlers, steerers, and suckers, to the shadowy fringe of the semi-crook and near-honest. (107)
3. Style and Tone.
When I read Karel Capek’s War with the Newts (1936), I was very surprised that a novel written that early in the twentieth century used postmodern storytelling techniques. It was a pastiche of narrative, academic reports and newspaper clippings. I should have learned my lesson, but I was still surprised by Bester’s use of textual embellishments and linguistic play. He traces the telepathic conversations of the espers through patterns of language, such as spiderwebs, columns, and other abstract designs. I wish that I could reproduce one here. You’ll just have to read the book. Some of his characters’ names emerge through playing with the sounds of symbols, such as @kins, Wyg&, and ¼maine. Bester coins new words and invents slang that always reminds us that we are in a different time and place.
“He paused and lit a cigarette. ‘You all know, of course, I’m a peeper. Probably this fact has alarmed some of you. You imagine that I’m standing here like some mind-peeping monster, probing your mental plumbing. Well… Jo ¼maine wouldn’t let me if I could. And frankly, if I could, I wouldn’t be standing here, I’d be standing on the throne of the universe practically indistinguishable from God. I notice that none of you have commented on that resemblance so far…’” (76).
Also, much of the setting sounds like it is straight from the pen of Raymond Chandler:
Quizzard’s Casino had been cleaned and polished during the afternoon break… the only break in a gambler’s day. The EO and Roulette tables were brushed, the Birdcage sparkled, the Hazard and Bank Crap boards gleamed green and white. In crystal globes, the ivory dice glistened like sugar cubes. On the cashier’s desk, sovereigns, the standard coin of gambling and the underworld, were racked in tempting stacks. Ben Reich sat at the billiard table with Jerry Church and Keno Quizzard, the blind croupier. Quizzard was a giant pulp-like man, fat, with flaming red beard, dead white skin, and malevolent dead white eyes. (94)
A blind, albino croupier. I’m surprised Chandler did not think of him first.
The aspects of The Demolished Man that I liked demonstrate a universalism of tone, style and genre(s) that transcends the time in which the book was written. The aspects that I didn’t enjoy as much relate much more to the date of the book’s creation.
What I didn’t like:
This book could not have been written without Freudian psychology. The concept of the conscious and unconscious is the basis of Bester’s culture and therefore intrinsic to the book. The espers’ telepathic abilities enable them to probe others’ unconscious thoughts and desires. This facet of Freudian psychology works well and does hold up over time. The Oedipus and Electra Complexes that form other important parts of the plot do not hold up as well and seem clunky in their use. For example, the regressing of Barbara D’Courtney to an infantile mental state so that she can fall in love with her new “daddy,” Linc Powell, seems silly to me:
“’Hello, Papa. I had a bad dream.’
‘I know, baby. I had to give it to you. It was an experiment on that big oaf.’
‘Gimme a kiss.’
He kissed her forehead. ‘You’re growing up fast,’ he smiled. You were just baby talking yesterday.’
‘I’m growing up because you promised to wait for me.’
‘It’s a promise, Barbara.’” (189)
This Electra Complex contributes another theme in the book that I disliked which is the portrayal of women.
2. The portrayal of women.
There are several stereotypical female characters in this book: the madam, the amoral society woman, the smart girl, and the damsel in distress. The two I want to discuss are Mary Noyes, the smart, capable friend of Powell and Barbara D’Courtney, the blonde damsel in distress, who spends most of the book as either an absent object of desire or a grown woman with the mind of a child. Of course, Mary is in love with Linc, and he depends on her for moral and personal support, but he will never love her because she is too smart, too capable; in short, she does not need a “daddy.”
Barbara D’Courtney witnesses her father’s murder and runs away. Reich and Powell search for her though much of the book, and when Powell finds her she can only relive the trauma of her father’s murder. She is then regressed to her infantile stage to heal her. Throughout the book, the reader never sees her make a decision, and she never speaks as an independent being. Lincoln falls in love with a baby in a woman’s body. She, on the other hand, as a victim of the Electra Complex, has no choice but to bond with her daddy. Bester’s Barbara pales in comparison with the women that appear in hard boiled novels, which in and of themselves are not famous for creating positive female role models. At least the femme fatales in Cain, Chandler, and Hammett are tough, strong and get to say some snappy dialogue.
The Demolished Man is certainly worth the read and not just for its “legacy value.” However, I would like to end with Harry Harrison’s discussion of its legacy:
“This kind of novel had never happened before. Other writers have since used and built upon its structure: Blish, Zelazny, and Delany come to mind. The New Wave mined its assets, and the cyberpunks echo only dim whispers of The Demolished Man’s rolling thunder. But Bester came first—and is still the master.” (From the Introduction, viii-ix).
Locus Magazine has announced the winners of the 2012 Locus Awards. The winners in the novel categories are:
- Science Fiction Novel: Embassytown, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
- Fantasy Novel: A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
- Young Adult Novel: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Feiwel and Friends)
- First Novel: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday)
The complete list of all categories is available on the Locus web site. Congratulations to all the winners and nominees! So what do you think of the results?