Albatross by MacAvoy and Palmer: A Lis Carey Review

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Albatross by R.A. MacAvoy and Nancy Palmer.

Sanachie Press, ISBN 2940157997915, February 2016

By Lis Carey: Dr. Rob MacAuley is a brilliant physicist from the Outer Hebrides. He’s also on the run, convicted in absentia of terrorism and murder. It’s an absurd charge against a gentle and largely apolitical man, but it’s a symptom of a Britain grown ever more paranoid, that has split from the EU at a cost its leadership could have calculated but didn’t, and where the Scottish Parliament was dissolved eighteen months ago.

Rob is, through no fault of his own, a figurehead, or perhaps mascot would be a better word, of the Scottish Separatist movement.

Oh, and he has this odd thing he does, when startled or alarmed, that he calls “flinching,” and that someone else might call moving from one spot to another without crossing the intervening distance.

Thomas Heddiman, American, machine intelligence specialist, anti-human trafficking activist, and karate expert, has a whole different set of problems. He’s currently volunteering his services to the Edinburgh police for reasons not apparent to those he’s working with.

Their paths are about to cross in a most unexpected way, in a Britain growing increasingly dark.

Thomas is very close-mouthed about what his real purpose is. Rob is sending letters under false names to physicists all over the world, asking questions that he hopes will nudge them toward the same breakthrough he’s made. He doesn’t want to be the only one who has the ability to publish and share his Unity Theory, so that it at least can’t become a weapon for just one power.

This is an engaging and challenging book, with diverse and fascinating characters. The time is just about a quarter century in the future, and it’s a recognizable but different world.

Those who fondly remember Tea With the Black Dragon will find some themes in common, but they are very different books. If one insists on placing it in a genre category, it’s fantasy.

I should probably admit, in a spirit of full disclosure, that I feel that R.A. MacAvoy hasn’t written nearly enough. I’m not previously familiar with Nancy Palmer, but regardless of any other contribution she made, another MacAvoy novel is something to be grateful for.

Go read it; you won’t regret it.

I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Non-Spoiler Reassurance About “The Dark Knight III”

DK3_MR_1_variant_MillerBy Daniel Dern: For comic book fans who were concerned that The Dark Knight III: The Master Race — Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello’s 8-part comic book/graphic novel follow-up to Miller’s graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns (“TDKR”) and its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again — would somehow involve Nazis, I can happily report that Issue 2 (which came out this week) seems to point strongly to that not being the case, with another likely candidate for that title-starring position.

DK3-CVR-comps-KubertD-d895a-600x923(If you haven’t read tDKR and tDKSA, it’s worthwhile doing that first. Not essential, but helpful.)

Of course, it’s not impossible. But I think it very unlikely. (Remember, this is DC, not Marvel, so at least we shouldn’t have to worry about the Red Skull putting in his oar. OTOH, it’s not unfinessable.)

That said, I’m two issues in, I’m happy so far.

(At $5.99 each, I’ll respect people who want to wait until it’s done, and out in trade paperback, and then borrow it from their library.)

For Further Consideration…

The Furry Future cover COMPThe Furry Future: 19 Possible Prognostications; Edited by Fred Patten, Fur Planet Productions, January 2015; trade paperback $19.95 (445 pages). Retails on Amazon for $17.56, but the Kindle edition is $8 even.

Review by Taral Wayne: What is a book?  That question seems either too elementary or too profound to be answered by me.  Nevertheless, the question cannot be evaded while trying to review this particular book.

Its editor, Fred Patten, sent it to me for a review.  Fred has about as many oars in the water as the average trireme, and furry fandom is only one of those small ponds into which Fred puts his greatest effort.  He has edited and published five or six books along the same lines as The Furry Future, as well as on other subjects.

Is The Furry Future a book?  Well, it was published …

But what is a book?  To my knowledge, Fred’s books are either very-small-press publications, or printed “on demand” through Amazon or Lulu, and as such, I suspect, only reach a microscopic niche audience.  Modern desktop publishing has been hailed as a democratic revolution in literature … but it has also been condemned as a breakdown in a well-tested system that judged material on its merits before it was made available to the public.  Now anyone can publish a book.  Anyone can be an author.  Having a book in print may now not mean a heck of a lot.

On the whole, though, I found the stories more professional than I expected.  There were one or two dogs … and in one case I mean that literally.  That particular story said much about the author that I had already suspected, and was not at all pleased to see confirmed in print.  Other stories were mere wish-fulfillment fantasies.  As well, human intolerance toward “furries” appeared repeatedly, rendering it a mere cliché.  But three or four of the stories actually seemed to have reached a professional level.

There are 19 stories, written by 19 different authors.  It is not very clear where the stories are from – I presume they are collected from a variety of sources of fan fiction, but perhaps some were written especially for this anthology. They have at least one thing in common: some or all of the characters in these stories are anthropomorphic.  They run the gamut from talking cartoons to genetically spliced hybrids.  Technically, The Furry Future is a theme anthology, no different from collections on the theme of exploring the planet Jupiter, or if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War.  But where other theme anthologies explore different facets of science fiction or fantasy, The Furry Future is not aimed at the average science fiction or fantasy reader, but at a tiny niche audience called “furry fandom.”

I don’t think it has much purpose beyond preaching to the choir.

Each story dwells on one rationale or another for why the future must contain talking animal-people, without much benefit of logic.  Why are animal hybrids always better than ordinary humans, for instance?  Does not the superior olfactory sense of a dog also come with impaired colour vision, for instance?  And why do dog people not sniff their environment – and each other – in a manner we mere Hominins would find distracting … if not downright revolting?  Would it not make more sense to simply graft the gene for better hearing and smell into the human genome, without also cursing the offspring with tails, fur and muzzles?  Or, if it is cheap labour that is the justification for engineering animal-people, why would it be necessary to breed so many different species of them, and not just one?

Most of these stories were, in fact, constructed around the anthropomorphic idea … anthropomorphism is a given, not to be questioned and does not develop naturally from the story.   This is so much the case that one or two of the stories reduce to little more than big expository lumps, arguing the inevitability of “furries.”

“A Bedsheet for a Cape,” by Nathanael Gass, for instance, took a very unusual angle on the subject that I would spoil if I revealed too much about it.

“Trinka and the Robot,” by Ocean Tigrox also stood out, I thought, as did “Lunar Cavity,” by Mary E. Lowd.   Curiously, both were very much like any SF story I might have found in Amazing or Fantastic in the late 1950s or early ‘60s.  “Lunar Cavity,” in fact, was about an extraterrestrial race … and as such, I would argue falls outside the bounds of this anthology!

“The Darkness of Dead Stars,” by Dwale also would not have seemed out of place in a 1961 issue of Galaxy.

“Field Research,” by M.C.A. Hogarth, began well but seemed to lose its way, and came to a weaker ending than I thought it deserved.

“The Curators,” by T.S. McNally, also might have been a fine story but for a weak ending.

I did, in fact, make notes on each story as I read it.  But nineteen is a lot of stories to recall in detail, even with notes, so I was sure from the start that I was not going to review every story individually.  Instead, I would meditate on larger ideas.

One of those ideas is about the nature of published fiction.

Why is it that stories that would have been perfectly at home in a professional SF magazine in 1962 probably could not be sold to a prozine today?  Make no mistake about it … although some of the stories in The Furry Future were written well enough for publication by the standards of 1962, I doubt very much they would find a home in any of 2015’s limited number of paying markets.

I wondered long about why this should be – was it a mere prejudice against “furry” stories?  No doubt the signal from The Furry Future is geeky enough to deter almost any slush-pile reader.  But, as I noted, some of the stories entirely lack the obsessive quality of most anthropomorphic fan fiction, so they must be noncommercial for some other reason.  Far more likely, it is precisely because the stories would be so at home in a 1962 prozine.

To generalize, these are stories of asteroid miners, holstered blasters, sub-space and starships.  Even when there is up-to-date computer science involved, they just feel old-fashioned.  But the science fiction genre has moved on in the last 50 years, and not just stylistically.  The genre has left those ideas behind and occupies a more nuanced space.  For the printed word, a different vision of what the future might bring is in fashion.  There’s no going back.

Unless, of course, you resort to Lulu or Amazon to print it for you.  In this brave new world of democratic literature, anyone can be a publisher or writer.  That is no guarantee that anyone else will ever read your words, however.

Should you take The Furry Future seriously enough to buy and read it?  In good conscience, I can’t really say, “yes” … but not altogether “no,” either.  If you are a furry fan, you will find much to enjoy in the collection … much that even deserves to be enjoyed.  I hope that all such readers give serious thought to buying a copy.  But if you are like most readers of modern science fiction and fantasy, you will quickly grow tired of stories about talking-animal people who have so little original to say about anything but their own anthropomorphism.  These modern readers can find an almost infinite number of more suitable books to read, and shouldn’t waste their time on The Furry Future. 

Perhaps they should re-read a Cordwainer Smith collection containing “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” instead.  For that matter, it would be a good idea if furry readers also did just that.

451 at 60

451 cover

The true first edition is this paperback.

By John King Tarpinian: October 19, 1953. On this day in history one of the most read science fiction novels was published. One of the few, if not only, novels of sci-fi on the majority of middle and high school reading lists.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of three books that as a young man made me think about stuff outside of my comfortable life. The other two were Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The three making up a trio of books that woke up my little brain.

Fahrenheit 451 was made into a movie by the French director, François Truffaut. It was his first movie in color and his only English-language film. Remember the French guy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?  That was Truffaut.

Flatscreen TVs were in this book. Bluetooth was in this book. Most people know that Ray never drove a car, remember that in the book Clarisse was killed by a speeding car. Montag was a brand of paper; Faber was a brand of pencil. Beatty was named for the lion tamer, Clyde Beatty.

Bradbury’s book rails against censorship, in any form.

Lastly, Ray’s headstone reads “Author of Fahrenheit 451.”

(Use this link to see a parade of Fahrenheit 451 book covers from over the years.)

Critical Cat

There are bloggers who regularly publish photos of the piles of new books they’ve been sent for review. I once did it myself.

Something I’ve always assumed is that no one would display their freebies in a way that might discourage publishers from sending more. The iconoclastic Nalini Haynes must feel differently.

She titled a post “Cat pissing contest: Items received recently” and filled it with photos of her cat posed beside stacks of new books. One photo has this caption:

I guess putting her scent on the loot takes higher priority. Is this a cat’s version of a pissing contest?

Ewwww…

Dyson Biography Reviewed by Benford

Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson earned a favorable review by Gregory Benford in the pages of Physics Today:

I have known Freeman Dyson since 1963, yet this first biography of him told me much I did not know. Author Phillip Schewe structures Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson around stories—in doing so, he mimics Dyson’s own use of stories to illuminate ideas. Schewe‘s writing is often stylishly vivid, giving a sense of the excitement Dyson feels for science and its myriad consequences. The sheer range of Dyson’s interests and accomplishments is striking, as is his abiding concern for humanity. The book divides his life into eras that manifest aspects of his mind: for example, Dyson as mathematician, as seminarian, as artist. That construction works well and makes the book flow. It is one of several strategies in this fine book that biographers of scientists should study.

Men Into Space: A History

MenIntoSpace_front-500x500Steve Davidson gave a glowing review to Men Into Space by John C. Frederiksen on the Amazing Stories blog. Men Into Space was the late-1950s hard science fiction adventure series that in the eyes of pre-teen Mike Glyer took up where the space exploration episodes of Disneyland left off.

Publisher Bear Manor Media’s description is in synch with my memory of the show’s only season:

Popular actor William Lundigan appeared as the redoubtable Colonel Edward McCauley, who grappled with many of the same problems that real astronauts encountered in their quest to reach the Moon a decade later. It was a somber departure from previous televised science fiction fare, aimed at juveniles, and served up the drama and excitement of space flight in realistic fashion.

In 38 black-and-white episodes, McCauley endures lunar crashes, renegade satellites, runaway space stations, meteor strikes, and colliding tankers, in addition to memorable encounters with feuding scientists, balky subordinates, hostile cosmonauts, and space babes. All told, Men Into Space is a classic slice of 1950s Americana and exuberantly reflects the national obsession with astronautics of its day. It is a must for devotees of the heroic age of spaceflight and early science fiction television.

Davidson praises all aspects of the book, especially its episode summaries —

Where Men Into Space really shines though is John’s presentation of all 38 episodes. With loving detail and an evident encyclopedic familiarity with each one, Frederiksen lays out the action, the conflict, the personalities and the emotion in a page-turning, exciting and completely engaging manner; the closest comparison I can find to his semi-fictional presentation are James Blish’s Star Trek (TOS) episode novelizations.

You’ve sold me, Steve. Dialing my Kindle now…

Scalzi Brings ‘Em Back Alive

Red ShirtsRedshirts. Classic Star Trek fans know them as the expendable security personnel on the away team who are prone to be dramatically killed by hazard of the week — whatever threat the show’s real stars will have to overcome before the end of the episode.

Captain Kirk lost so many redshirts I wondered if he was due for a breakdown. In Captain Newman, M.D., the movie about an Army psychiatric ward during WWII, Eddie Albert’s Colonel Bliss is so racked by guilt about the men he’s sent to their deaths that he suffers a divided personality and, as “Mister Future,” spends his day calling out duty rosters composed of the names of dead pilots [YouTube, at 5:00 and 9:00].

Never Captain Kirk: he simply isn’t that introspective. The only personality splits he experiences are byproducts of transporter accidents – like Evil Kirk and Feeble Kirk from “The Enemy Within,” or Kirk’s alternate universe, war criminal twin (commander of the goateed Spock) in the far more interesting “Mirror, Mirror.”

Who, then, will rescue these minor characters from their gruesome fates? Who will recognize that decades of watching Trek reruns has prepared the audience to become customers for a story told from the redshirts’ point-of-view?

John Scalzi is the man. His satirical adventure, Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, revolves around three questions: Can a red-shirted character stay alive for an entire novel? How does this imaginary universe work really? Will his protagonist be able to decipher the rules, survive and save his friends? Scalzi answers all three questions in ways that are entertaining, funny and even, at times, touching.

A Roddenberry counterpart has created the Universal Union (a couple continuums over from the United Federation of Planets, no doubt.) And somebody must answer for all the redshirts who’ve met a gristly end at enemy hands (tentacles, claws, extendable tool arms, acid-spewing beaks, what have you) on his show — a show which somehow truly exists in a parallel space-time to his own. A member of the Intrepid’s latest draft of redshirts, Ensign Andrew Dahl, discovers the truth, and that they have little time to save their lives before they’re doomed to join the away team.

At this point in an ordinary review a critic usually riffs through the plot to help you decide if this is your kind of story. Unfortunately, admiring the work in too much detail would spoil your enjoyment. Anyway, I can’t make my enthusiasm for Redshirts contagious by an inferior retelling of its jokes.

The novel’s opening chapter is a taut, dramatic demonstration of what it’s like to be a redshirt spending his last moments alive trapped in a series episode. It’s my favorite part, and closes with a revealing conversation between Captain Abernathy and his bridge officers, who aren’t as bothered as they might be about the incredible attrition of away team members. Science Officer Q’eeng ends chapter on the exactly wrong emotional note (a good thing in comedy) when he baldy advises his colleagues, “We need more crew.”

What follows is the full adventure of the redshirts’ discoveries and salvation. Then the three codas of the title, First Person, Second Person, and Third Person, fill out the last quarter of the book.

First Person is done as a blog. I don’t know why this practically gave me a split personality of my own.

Mike: I know the novel’s blog is not supposed to be in Scalzi’s “voice.” I know it’s supposed to use the diction of the character creating it.

Glyer: So what’s the problem?

Mike: I feel like the first Redshirts coda keeps falling behind in a competition with something I’m expecting from reading Whatever.

Glyer: This blog is written by one of the characters. If it was just like Whatever it would be a failure.  

Mike: We both understand that. Why doesn’t it help?

So the first coda drove me a little batty. If you’re scoring at home don’t mark that down as a flaw in the book but regular readers of Whatever might want to come prepared just the same.

The final two codas are narratives continuing the story in a direction I was more than pleased to see based on the emotional investment I’d made in the characters. Was it a realistic direction? Not necessarily. Sure, we could always have more realism. But bleep that! Manipulate away! (Would you have been happier if E.T. had died in the emergency room? Then Redshirts might not be for you. Otherwise, dive in.)

Redshirts is more than a novel, it’s a royal progress, regaled in song, blog and press release, feted and cheered. Before I ever downloaded a copy I read the blurbs. I applauded the favorable reviews and booed the bad ones. I even gave a signal boost to the book tour. Scalzi’s invitation to watch him pull the levers and push the buttons to promote his New York Times bestseller succeeded, so far as I was concerned, in tapping that same well of vicarious pleasure Bradbury plumbed when he told audiences, “I wanted to be the greatest writer in the world. Aren’t you glad I finally made it?” Buying a copy was the inevitable final step toward my complete immersion in this social media tsunami.

Not that the joyous hype was my sole reason for buying. Scalzi is a funny writer. His blog is funny. I expected his book to fulfill its promise to be funny, too. He did that, and more.

It’s a time-honored competition among sf writers to turn one another’s stories inside out for a laugh, as Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero did to the Foundation Trilogy and Starship Troopers, or Philip Jose Farmer’s Kilgore Trout novel did to Vonnegut. In this case, you’ll enjoy Scalzi twisting and reweaving Gene Roddenberry’s familiar tropes in new and humorous ways.

Happy Birthday Professor Tolkien

 

Today is J. R. R. Tolkien’s 120th birthday, whose fans have much to look forward to in the new year 2012 provided the Earth doesn’t end before the first Hobbit movie arrives in theaters this December.

Well-timed for today’s celebration is the new review of Diana’s book about the Inklings, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community posted by James Huston — author of action novels Falcon Seven and Marine One. (Last year Falcon Seven made the longlist for NPR’s “Killer Thrillers” poll.) Huston says —

Not only is it full of information I’d never heard before, but it gives the reader exceptional insight into the two writers who are the focus of the book, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of the most popular authors in the twentieth century. As an author, I was particularly interested in her insights into the creative process and the way that the community “supported” the writers efforts. I say supported in quotes, because reading their work to the others was often like getting their fur pulled off (to use a Lewis analogy from another context). They encouraged each other, no doubt, but they also said what they thought, regardless of whether that made the author feel good about his work or not. They were dedicated to producing the best work they could, and were willing to hear rough criticism to achieve it.

What to Give People Who Hate Sci-Fi

Last-minute holiday shoppers gravitate to quickie gift suggestions like “Sci-Fi Books for People Who Hate Sci-Fi” Alex Knapp’s book-buying guide at Forbes.

With one quick click online, we can send a book to our mom’s iPad without a hitch. But what to send? Obviously, as a science fiction fan, I like to try to get other people as excited about science fiction as I am.

It’s not an easy task. A lot of people are simply averse to the science fiction genre, whether it’s because of the association with nerd-dom or an aversion to space and lasers.

As a fellow fan I am perfectly satisfied with Knapp’s mix of classic authors – Heinlein, Bester – and contemporary legends – Scalzi, Sawyer, Resnick. Unfortunately, his premise breaks down immediately in the face of reality. The thing about people who are adamant in their dislike of sci-fi is that as soon as they detect a sniff of it they indignantly spout something that translates to, “I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it.” To suppose that quality sci-fi, however carefully chosen, will fly under their radar is absurd. Especially a bright orange paperback with a BEM on the cover. (What were you thinking, Alex?)

If you’re a fan who’s desperate for a gift idea, why get sidetracked into unwelcome evangelism? Profit from your knowledge of the best sf novels by making them your guide to non-genre works people will love to receive. Here’s what I mean.

Impressed with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers? Then don’t lose a minute gift-wrapping a copy of Eugene V. Sledge’s autobiographical account  of his WWII service, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Truly, when I read it this summer I was utterly impressed by its narrative flow and dynamic style, beyond anything I’ve ever found in a historian (even David McCullough). I also suspected I’d discovered the literary roots of Heinlein’s most famous combat novel – until I saw that Sledge’s was first published in 1981. If there’s an influence at work, it must be Heinlein influencing Sledge. And there’s no question the old master would have been proud to acknowledge Sledge as a student, if such is the case, given the brilliant result.

The Guns of the South came out just a couple of years after I’d read Shelby Foote’s account of the Civil War. Reading Harry Turtledove’s novel I remembered Foote’s coverage of The Wilderness well enough to be impressed by Harry’s detailed historicity of his fictionalized battle. He faithfully replayed the battle until the point where his Confederates turn the tide using AK-47s. For armchair strategists Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative is just what the doctor ordered. (A Ph.D, that is.)   

So that’s the plan – backtrack from your favorite sf novels to the great books that equipped you to enjoy them and the people on your gift list will think you’re a genius.