The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2, Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
ISBN: 1616961635
432 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 15th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“The Third Level” by Jack Finney
“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
“The Cosmic Charge Account” by C. M. Kornbluth
“The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson
“The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley
“—All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein
“Green Magic” by Jack Vance
“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by Roger Zelazny
“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty
“Sundance” by Robert Silverberg
“Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed
“The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen
“Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison®
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
“The Aliens Who Knew, I mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger
“Rat” by J. P. Kelly
“The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe
“The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh
“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling
“Winemaster” by Robert Reed
“Suicide Coast” by M. John Harrison
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman
“The People of Sand & Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Echo” by Liz Hand
“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Compiling any collection with the title “Best of” is never an easy task, the category is just too subjective, particularly in something like the arts and a short story collection. Though delving only into the pages of one literary magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), the breadth of stories falling within the genre confines of its pages is huge. Compared to something like “The Best American” series, which F&SF has appeared within, the tales and writing styles here are far more diverse, but just as mighty.

The difficulty in really having a definitive, all-encompassing, all-pleasing ‘best of’ collection has in the past simply led me to avoid reading short story anthologies. I already read the new stories that come out, and after a while isn’t that sufficient? If you’ve been reading these longer than I (and most fans have) there’s probably even less new or unfamiliar out there. Thinking it wasn’t really worth it, I remember simply ignoring the first volume compiled by current F&SF editor Van Gelder.

But since then I’ve come to develop an appreciation for these anthologies, even when they aren’t full of stories I would consider to be ‘the best’, or even if there are a few in there which I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve discovered there are other reasons to read a “Best of” collection despite that term not aligning with my personal opinions.

First, as alluded to within the intro to this volume, the stories here are all notable in the history of the genre, and the authors are ones any interested fan should have some experience reading. It simply is a matter of education. This collection gives an excellent survey across the decades of F&SF publication with tales that have largely withstood the test of time, right up to modern classics that sent ripples of wonder through the reading community upon their publication (like Ken Liu’s beautiful story here). There are so many authors whose names I know, but I have never read. I have a hard enough time reading interesting new things to also go back and read all the range of classics. Now, at least I can check a few more classic authors off my list – or perhaps more honestly add them to my list of things to read more of ASAP.

Second, this sort of “Best of” collection gives new readers the opportunity to discover that wide breadth of the fantasy and science (speculative) fiction genres, experiencing notable stories that vary from hard SF, to humor, to high fantasy, to urban fantasy, to dark horror, to genre mashups, etc. You don’t have to like everything. But if you like to read in general, you’ll probably find appreciation for most of the stories here.

Because all of the stories here are most certainly notable, even if not ‘the best’. They show to all readers, both new initiates or seasoned veterans who are re-experiencing, what a well-crafted story can look like in its myriad forms. With the chronological presentation through the decades of F&SF publication, the collection also gives glimpses into the changing styles or motifs of eras, and demonstrates just how greatly the earliest stories in the genre continue to inspire and shape current writing.

At least four of the stories here I have read before (and “Echo” I am about to read again in another collection of Elizabeth Hand’s work). Three of those four I recall liking greatly, but Stephen King’s story I had no particular memory of, other than that I had read it. I wondered if its inclusion (and King’s) was simply due to the celebrity of his name, to attract more readers. When I first came to F&SF, the knowledge that King, as a popular author I knew, had published works in its pages was a huge draw to trying it out.

So I wouldn’t blame the editor for putting King in for that primary reason. Perhaps it is the wisdom of experience from a few scant years, but I was pleasantly surprised to be so affected by his story here, to read something far more resonant and profound than I had expected based on a memory (or lack thereof). This just goes to show how re-reading notable stories – even if from the opinion of someone else – is beneficial. It’s been awhile since I’ve read King, but this made me wish he’d continue getting inspiration for short fiction writing – and publication in markets like F&SF.

The other stories here that were new to me I responded to much as what I would expect from a typical stellar issue of F&SF: many excellent, a few enjoyable but throwaway, and a couple that just weren’t my thing. You may react differently to individual stories here than I, but I suspect that if you are a fan of the genre, then you’ll also enjoy a similar high percentage of these.

If you happen to be rather new to the genres, have never read the magazine, or are just a casual reader who only recognizes Stephen King in the table of contents, give this collection a try and discover what literary universe is out there for you to enjoy and explore further.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben

Wandering HOme: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 1627790209
176 pages, paperback
Published: 1st April 2014
(Originally Publ: 2005)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In this inspirational essay that blends nature appreciation, travel, and environmental activism, Bill McKibben structures his ruminations around a walking journey he undertook from his present-day home in Vermont as professor at Middlebury College to his former home across the lake in the New York Adirondacks.

Wandering is an apt word to describe the essay, for it is not primarily about details of the actual journey, nor is it particularly about the natural features of the two neighboring regions. While both of these topics are given voice, the walking trek and its environment are really just a narrative backdrop to symbolically contain McKibben’s wandering thoughts and anecdotes. These anecdotes primarily take the form of recounted encounters with other people along McKibben’s route who embody a sort of spirit or cause that he meditates upon, as in the style of a sermon.

Personally I would have enjoyed this more if there had been greater structure to it, if there had been fuller details on the journey and the environment, or a deeper probing of the ecological, social, and political themes that the anecdotes touch upon. However, I acknowledge that isn’t what this work is meant to be, and the brief read that this essay provides is certainly inspirational. Thus, for those who do appreciate this kind of book and have a striking love of nature or environmental activism, you will enjoy it.

While I found Wandering Home to be too cursory overall, I certainly did also find moments of intense beauty and inspiration within it. McKibben’s writing is impassioned and poetic. The passages where he is detailing the environmental qualities of each region are evocative and rich. The meditative quality of the text and its wandering nature probably make this the type of book that isn’t best read in one sitting as I did, or even in the same span of general time. This is more like a resource that could be dipped into during precious reflective times, or a during a moment’s anticipation of going on a similar hike or journey.

If nothing else, Wandering Home serves as a fine, gentle reminder that other types of existence – closer to nature – are possible than the one we may be accustomed with, and perhaps we could each find ways to seek and embrace some aspect of these alternatives.

Three Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program, in exchange for an honest review.

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 0316320323
240 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 10th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads

Are you still friends with the people you grew up with? Those whom you were inseparable through elementary school? High school? Is your current life where you planned for it to be when you entered into college? Or graduated? Is it even heading in the direction you originally planned?

Is your life what your ancestors imagined would come from their struggles and success? Are you building a life and family, looking at your own children or grandchildren and hoping for what type of future life they will have?

Despite all we put of ourselves into relationships, could everything turn out terribly different from what we desire?

These are the types of questions explored by Dugan in the short collection of chronological stories. Connected one-to-the-next with shared characters, the collection as a whole spans across a few generations and families to reveal the broad effects of the passage of time and changing circumstances on individuals and relationships.

So Much a Part of You is not a reading experience where you follow a protagonist through an exciting plot and get to live vicariously through the adventures and how much you ‘like’ the character. This is a literary collection, about matters more general, and deeper. The situations in the stories of this collection may include tragedies or condition you’ve never experienced, from physical accidents, to alcoholism, to one-night-stands, or an abortion. The characters may make choices that you have never faced, or think you would never make.

What is relatable, what is emotionally resonant and evokes reflection  is the general effect these situations and choices have on the characters in the stories and that the reader can then apply to their own personal life. For we have all faced rough situations and tragedy. We have all made choices, good and bad.

So too with the characters in So Much a Part of You. None of them end up where they may have expected. In some cases this is unfortunate, and in others it becomes clear that a new and better relationship has opened up in their life, that they would never have foreseen, but which for that particular time and place is exactly what they need, and dearly precious.

With the connected format of the collection, readers are able to see some characters from different perspectives and periods, creating a complexity that would be harder to obtain from a single short story. Dugan’s writing is fluid and conversational, making this a relatively quick read. The overall emotional reflection it could engender will last longer.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Viking (Penguin UK)
ISBN: 0670923583
224 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication (US): 24th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads & NetGalley

So often, literature focuses solely on conflicts, the inability of people to reconcile with others, themselves, or their environment. Like any story, Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto contains conflict, adversity that its characters must face. The appeal of the novel is that despite the darkness it is suffused with humor and joy and is focused on how a family successfully holds together despite their hardship. In Em and The Big Hoom, communication abides even amid the unpredictability of madness.

Told from the perspective of a boy living with his family is small Mumbai flat, Em and The Big Hoom is a series of chapters that are each almost short stories themselves. Em, or Imelda, is the mother who is plagued with mental disease (bipolar disorder) that creates a paradoxical closeness to and distance from her husband (Austine or ‘The Big Hoom’), daughter (Susan), and son (the unnamed point-of-view character).

The son relates the emotional roller-coaster of life with a woman that everyone knows is ‘mad’, but whom they all love and try to support even through the darkest moments of attempted suicide. The son thinks constantly about both of his parents, their past and how they came together, the present, and the uncertain future that shows both promise of hope and the threat of instant disaster. Looking at his parents, the son is also forced to consider what genetic aspects he may have inherited from each: an admirable devotion of sacrifice and love displayed by his kind father, the sweet uncompromising honesty and playfulness of his mother, or her ‘madness’.

Both parents are well written, but Em is fabulously so, a woman who faces the weighty realization of her mental illness with a brutal honesty, yet simultaneously tries to lighten it with humor and memories of past joys. As the point-of-view character, the son is likewise complex, but the sister Susan seems present only to have another child in the story.

The beauty of the novel lies in Pinto’s writing, which mirrors the frank honesty of the characters. Though not flowery or decorated with an advanced vocabulary, Pinto’s writing is poetic. It flows gracefully and naturally with simple, but precise, words that convey deep emotion and thought, making the unnamed son who serves as the narrator familiar and relatable. The novel is highly quotable and many of the son’s thoughts or pondered questions would be excellent fodder for student or book group discussion.

A simple plot saturated with the dark undertones of mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom joyfully depicts a realistic optimism and hope that will be inspiring and enriching for readers of all kind.

Five Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher both electronically via NetGalley and through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

(In a rare case of timing I was granted NetGalley access and then won a physical copy moments after getting that notice, before I was able to withdraw from the Goodreads giveaway contest. The physical copy will go to a friend and reviewer I hope will enjoy it as much as I have.)

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik

Law of Desire, by Andrej Blatnik
Translated by Tamara M. Soban
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1628970421
208 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 14th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

True to its title, Law of Desire is a collection of short stories revolving around the condition of desire. The inclusion of the word ‘law’ implies the controlling influence that desire has over the characters and situations in the stories. Desire is something beyond control, immutable and compulsory. The type of desire explored in each story varies from the physical to the abstract and the stories themselves vary from short, surreal vignettes to more nuanced and longer explorations of character.

The longer stories tend to have distinct plots rather than simply prose that conveys a state of being, and I found I appreciated these the most. Among these, “Electric Guitar” is perhaps the most powerful, a ‘gut-wrenching’ subtle story of abuse that extends beyond a simple meditation on the collection’s theme.

However, “What We Talk About” is the leading, and most effective story in the collection. Here, a man meets a fascinating, but mysterious woman and the two have a rapid connection. The desire between the two (particularly from the point of view of the male protagonist) is palpable, but extends beyond mere sexual desire or even a desire for friendship. The two dance those steps of relationship that balance sharing and keeping secrets, where the man becomes compelled to discover the exact nature of the woman’s job which involves clients paying to talk to her on the phone.

These interactions reveal the corollary to the desire featured in all these stories, and that is ‘dissatisfaction’, a state of being that almost by definition must be present in order for engendering desire. The characters in Blatnik’s stories all exhibit some degree of intense dissatisfaction, sometimes internal, or sometime coming from external factors. Either way, this dissatisfaction ultimately arises from that theme that generally characterizes modern ‘literature’: a failure to communicate.

Thus, Blatnik’s stories all focus on some part of a circular chain that defines humanity. Failures to communicate (honestly to oneself or between individuals) leads to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to desires. If unmet, desires continue to compound dissatisfaction. Yet, even if attained, these desires at best only lead to greater desire. Additionally, even if attained, one desire often doesn’t coincide with the desires of others (or conflicting desires within oneself). This failure of desires to exist in harmony (to communicate properly in other words) leads us right back to the start of the circle. The desire can never be fulfilled.

Exploration of this vicious circle seems Blatnik’s desire as writer, and he successfully achieves that goal as far as possible – though as art primarily, not always in the most ‘entertaining’ of fashions. In interviews with Blatnik he discusses the freedom that writers within formerly Communist portions of Europe now have to focus on this modern literature of every-day conflict within and between individuals rather than producing works that have some specific political or cultural role (subversive or not). Interestingly though, this shift in Slovenian (and related) literature follows the same pattern of theme that Blatnik explores in this collection. The dissatisfaction of what was possible or relevant to artistically produce under a relatively oppressive regime has led to a desire to write simpler, modern literature of people failing to communicate. Given the enormous popularity of this collection in its native language, the desire to consume this kind of work is also abundant.

Within the confines of its culture and origins, Law of Desire likely resonates in the continued uncertainty of the future. Several of the stories even seem to take the characters out of time and place (out of plot) to represent something extremely relevant to the condition of its audience. For the general reader of the English translation, this poignancy may be lost, but the universality of that central dissatisfaction-desire loop make this a worthwhile literary read for those that appreciate more artistic writing. Even if not all stories connect, a few brilliant ones in this collection make it worth checking out.

Four  Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Director, by David Ignatius

The Director, by David Ignatius
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393078140
386 pages, hardcover
Published: 2nd June 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

 With The Director, David Ignatius sets out to update the spy novel to the present day realities of cyber-warfare, hacking, and post-Snowdon agency secrecy practices. The resulting story, full of realism and detail, is more akin to a combination of a political and techno thriller than to a spy novel. A fictionalized version of the nonfiction that Ignatius is expert in, The Director ends up being a series of information-laden meetings between characters, heavy on conveying facts or analysis and light on action. Despite the appeal and attraction of the novel’s plot and themes, this execution makes it a relatively dry read to get through, a political/spy thriller equivalent of the hard SF genre.

As its title implies, The Director involves protagonist Graham Weber, the newly-minted director of the CIA who is committed to turning the agency around into something more modern and efficient. Mere days into his tenure, a hacker with unsettling information enters a US consulate in Hamburg and soon after turns up dead. As inter- and intra-agency wheels begin to slowly turn, Weber places a young techno-geek agent named Morris in Germany to investigate the hacker’s claims and murder. However, it becomes slowly clear to Weber that the goals of Morris and of other bureaucrats in Washington may not coincide with his own.

On one hand the novel is about idealistic and naive Director Weber and his fight to navigate the bureaucracy of Washington DC and the influence of other players, and to ultimately overcome them for the ultimate good of the nation.  It is in this way that the novel reads more like a political thriller than a spy or action novel. The term ‘thriller’ doesn’t even necessarily apply. With his appointment as Director, Weber serves as proxy to facilitate the reader’s education into theories on the origins of the CIA, its current workings, and the possible future threats it faces.

Ignatius’ experience as columnist for the Washington Post with expertise on the CIA and its workings make him ideal for writing a novel like this. However, his desire to saturate the novel with detailed verisimilitude in the place of action produces something that is hard to get through with enjoyment or captivation, particularly when having the expectation of reading fiction. The Director instead comes closer to delivering the kind of content and experience I’d rather expect from nonfiction.

Despite its title, the novel also spends a significant percentage of time on Morris and other agents of various nations or hacker organizations who meet with Weber or with Morris. Morris is such a key aspect to the novel that in some ways he seems like the actual protagonist who others, including Weber, are responding to. Only at the end, when things suddenly seem to unravel for Morris and Weber plays hidden cards does the novel turn fully back to Weber.

Ultimately, the premise and content of The Director is fascinating, and Ignatius can craft a very realistic and complex narrative around these elements. This kind of political thriller certainly has its fans, but for me the endless dry meetings between bureaucrats or other players simply made the reading experience feel boring and uneventful.

Two Stars out of Five

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
Shattered Sea Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
ASIN: B00HBQWGYO
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 8th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

I’ve been fortunate to have a recent run of phenomenal books. Like several of the novels I last read, Half a King took me a moment to get into. With a new fantasy story there is always a period of getting used to the universe and its style within the spectrum of the genre. This was also my introduction to Abercrombie and his style, so I had no expectations or baseline measurement entering in. For the first chapters the tone set in and I worried a bit. Half a King is a high fantasy, told in a universe of Western Medievalesque culture/political systems that are the traditional standard of the field. Though elves and magic are mentioned, these amount to legends of the distant past (with hints that this may in fact be technology – perhaps of our civilization). The story at this point is set realistically, and is set up in a straight-forward manner.

Prince Yarvi is studying to be a minister, a career of academics and serving as advisor to those who rule. With a nod to some classic fantasy series, Yarvi is a cripple, born with a half-hand. Physically deformed and weak, intellectually-inclined, and lacking a personality of confidence or leadership, Yarvi has no ambitions or plans to ever rule. However, the sudden death of his elder brother and their father the king suddenly forces the ill-prepared Yarvi into the role of ruling.

This set up had me fearing that the novel would proceed rather predictably, down a simple path of Yarvi gaining confidence in ruling, and showing how his shrewd mind was more important than battle prowess and physical intimidation. The relatively short length of the book also left me wondering just how much could be accomplished on any epic scale.

After these first chapters, however, a curve is thrown to Yarvi and the plot, sending our protagonist down a different path. Still one of personal growth, of finding his confidence and an ability to lead, the story quickly became far more captivating than I first expected. I fell in love with this world and with the character of Yarvi, despite the familiarity of his situation.

Abercrombie succeeds in making Yarvi’s story compelling through a couple of aspects. The first is by making this feel like an epic fantasy despite being short. (Originally thought to be a stand-alone novel, it is now clearly to be expanded into a series.) The plot is focused on Yarvi and the friends and adversaries he meets directly. But Yarvi’s personal and political struggles are set within a richly formed universe. Abercrombie puts in many details of the world-at-large and its culture, including religion and the afore-mentioned elven relics of a previous age. At first the many details inserted into the narrative seemed to be a way of making Half a King ‘sound’ like a fantasy, akin to inserting lots of foreign-sounding technical words into a SF novel. Abercrombie’s skill quickly became clear though, that this is setting up a sense of epic within the confines of this single small story. The history and characters of the offscreen larger world become clearer as the novel draws to a close and ties into what has occurred to Yarvi, giving the reader the sense of something epic and well constructed. Along these same lines, Yarvi’s story extends through a significant period of time and drastically-changing circumstances, but Abercrombie makes this flow realistically and naturally across the pages.

The second aspect to Half a King‘s success is Abercrombie’s tone. The book is written with a voice that fits Yarvi to a tee, with shades of being archaic and Medievalesque fitting to the universe, but not overtly or comically so as some genre books can get. There is a lyrical quality to the writing, helping this story to go by with fantastic pacing and being engrossing all the way. The novel is marketed under the Young Adult umbrella. As is often the case, this is largely due to the protagonist being a young adult. However, it is also the tone and content. Though featuring violence and talks of a sex, they are treated quite tamely, making this a PG sort of adventure story. The work is also pervaded with a sense of optimism, a resilience to survive, and a joy for the beautiful moments in life. This makes it a fine counter to the more pessimistic fantasy of something like A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, despite the optimism, the novel continues to be believable and relatable, peppered with loss, disaster, and cruelty. With themes such as honor, promises, confidence, and loss, Half a King is ideal for a young fantasy reader, but shouldn’t be limited to that audience.

Half a King has been featured on “Best of” lists for summer reading and garnered significant advance praise. Whether fantasy is your thing or not, the novel stands well as a coming-of-age story that should captivate you and whet your appetite to learn more about this world in which Yarvi lives.

Five Stars out of Five

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland
Publisher: Dog Star Books (Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738615
236 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 25th June 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

Just after starting this novel a gentleman riding across from me on the metro and pondering the cover asked me, “So what makes an alien landscape, and why does he love them?” I speculated rather generally and explained I had only just read the first chapter.
This wasn’t the only comment I’ve gotten while reading this about the cover and title, something that sadly can’t occur with eReaders. The reactions and questions I got are testaments to the draw, the hook, of the evocative cover and title. The title is representative of the care that Wendland has put into this novel from cover-to-cover and how so many aspects of it can be compared back to those words The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.
The plot also first unwraps with a typical series of hook. Something monumental – and dangerous – is unexpectedly discovered in orbit of an alien planet  by a group of people and one of them, Henry, ends up murdered. This crime leads the police to the novel’s protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, who is somewhat unwillingly dragged into the fray of the situation, as it escalates from a simple murder and missing person’s investigation to a hunt for an artifact that can alter or destroy human civilization.
The cops seek out Ranglen because he is an acquaintance of the deceased, linked to him through Mileen, an artist and former student and lover who had become Henry’s fiancée. Mykol Ranglen is a poet and lecturer who values privacy and separation from others, including the various governmental factions that control Earth and extraplanetary settlements. However, Ranglen cares deeply for Mileen, and her disappearance following the murder of Henry leads Mykol into a personal quest to locate his love and learn what happened on the voyage through space to lead to the situation.
Ranglen already has a fair idea of what may have occurred, but it is a secret he has divulged to very few, and is not about to tell the police. Ranglen is responsible for locating a technological artifact of an ancient, long-extinct alien race, one of a handful of related artifacts (called Clips) which have given humanity blueprints for the development of interstellar travel and stations.
With his artistic appreciation for things alien (such as landscapes painted by Mileen), Ranglen seems to have a related knack for locating the mysterious and small Clips. And it is this ability that led Henry to seek his help when Henry learned about the potential location of another Clip. Ranglen knows from personal experience the power of greed and desire to find a Clip and win the wealth and renown that could come with it, factors Mykol has eschewed. He also understands the danger that more incomprehensible technology could have for humanity as it accelerates at break-neck speed, and the possibilities of it falling into the wrong hands.
It is truly astounding how much Wendland is able to fit into The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. With forward momentum from its start, the pacing is ideal. A mixture of adventure, mystery, and science fiction, each aspect is included in the recipe in just the right proportions for the scope of the tale. The intricate web of the plot and its characters makes Wendland’s work particularly impressive for its size. Overall coherence is managed while also delighting readers with details into the world, such as some of the ‘hard’ science behind the technology (as far as the characters can understand the alien tech). He also includes tidbits into past history that could be further developed into future works.
Though remarkable in execution, the word-count constraints on Wendland’s novel do show in some areas. There just isn’t space to develop characters other than Ranglen. The other characters range from complex to thin and some of their changes in behavior from one part of the story to another feel rushed or forced. Along those lines, the Big Bad seems particularly like a caricature of a Bond villain. His motivations are given to the hero in a rush, just as his plan is going to come to fruition (of course to be thwarted). This Bond-like quality to the novel may be intentional, and the title itself is reminiscent of a title one might see for a 007 adventure.
On the surface then, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a well written science fiction adventure, a story complete within the confines of this volume, but allowing for the development of further fleshing out. Wendland certainly whets the appetite of the reader, but nicely also leaves you satisfied.
But, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes isn’t just an entertaining sci-fi adventure, it is also about some interesting deeper issues, again alluded to within the title. The title gives a sense of desire – of not merely an appreciation of ‘alien landscapes’, but also of an intense yearning for them. Indeed, the novel begins with a chapter entitled “The Finding”  and closes with one entitled “The Longing”. In between is really a dialogue, even a conflict, between these two ideas. The theme is embodied in the general plot, in the relationship between Ranglen & Mileen, in the antagonism between Ranglen and the villain, and the paradoxical personality of Ranglen himself.
In all these there is a sense of longing for something, and even when something is found it isn’t necessarily enough, or it comes at a price, such as giving up a piece of oneself or of independence. Ranglen is described as a “loner” and “paranoid”, and indeed he is. Though he wants to be left alone, other desires overcome this (such as a yearning for Mileen and her happiness/safety). Yet even without this, Ranglen seems to be constantly dreaming, on the move searching for something more to reach that ‘alien landscape, or that ‘undiscovered country’. He is the person that goes to a party and wants to sink into a corner, yet deep within is simply yearning for some kind of human connection. He is someone who can’t stay just with themselves and the familiar because they crave something new, alien, and beautiful.
Despite a life full of secrets, Ranglen seems unable to prevent divulging them, illustrating this conflict between the two extremes of separation and a longing for engagement, sharing, and adventure. This theme is born out most directly in a key conversation between Ranglen and the villain about half-way through, highlighting the similarities and differences between these two strong-willed characters and echoing the alien conflict that has set up the present situation for humanity and the characters in this universe.
Thus, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a notable book in many regards, and I’m not surprised it is written by a professor with combined experience in literature and in science. The book has deservingly been recognized by Publisher’s Weekly, but it is a shame that it does not have wider recognition to date. This is something that I should have seen on those “Must read” lists on speculative fiction themed sites like Tor.com or io9. This should attract a wide audience in the genre, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Five  Stars out of Five

 

Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder


Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor Books
Serialized in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (Dec. 2013 – Apr. 2014)
ISBN: 0765337266
352 pages, hardcover
Published: 25th March 2014

Though marketed as a young adult book in its complete form, I read Karl Schroeder’s new novel Lockstep during its serialization in Analog Magazine over the span of four issues. My reaction to it is colored to begin with through the format. I dislike the practice of serialization of novels (or of excerpts) when they are taking up the space that could go to complete shorter stories. Even for authors I consistently enjoy, a serialization will bother me, an except will just be ignored.

In the case of Schroeder, I’ve found his world-building – his imagination – to be outstanding, thought-provoking, and well structured.  But, how well that stellar idea and exquisitely fashioned framework is translated into a full compelling tale varies. I recall somewhat enjoying Sun of Suns, and being captivated by Queen of Candesce during their runs (both also serialized).

With Lockstep, Schroeder addresses the difficulties in having a ‘hard science’ fictional universe featuring an interstellar civilization. With speed of light limits to travel (NASA plans notwithstanding) Schroeder came up with his ingenious “lockstep system” relying on synchronized prolonged hibernations. The novel opens when Toby, a teenager whose family has fled Earth to stake claims on frontier territory, becomes stranded in orbit of a lifeless planet. Using his family’s technology for cold sleep, he enters into a slumber that he expects will be his last.

Instead, Toby awakens amid a thriving intergalactic empire run on the hibernation technology, far-flung worlds tied together on a schedule of brief active periods separated by long stretches of hibernation allowing travel between distant worlds. The coordination of this political and social endeavor, Toby soon learns, is overseen by the rule of his family. Though he has been in sleep for thousands of years, so too has his family spent most of those years in hibernation. Toby learns his younger brother, now older but quite alive, rules this lockstep system with the firm dictatorial grip of technology monopoly. And for reasons not fully clear to Toby, his reawakening ‘from the dead’ threatens his brother’s position and this empire, and Toby’s brother wants Toby dead.

The setup and explanation of all this in the first chapter is brilliant. A recent review of the novel on io9.com by Michael Ann Dobbs even states the worldbuilding will make a reader giddy. It didn’t quite do that for me, but I’m not a particular champion of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But the general point I can agree with. The trouble comes in going beyond the setup and this worldbuilding. The entire middle of the book seems particularly drawn out – and admittedly a serialization made this worse for me. By the time the concluding sections arrive everything seems to fall together a bit too easily, leaving the majority of the novel after this brilliant idea and introduction of the Lockstep to simply feel underwhelming, and in well, juvenile.

And I use that word intentionally of course, and not to be disparaging. Though I felt it a rather straight-forward and predictable sort of space adventure in terms of story for the pages of Analog, considering it anew in the light of “young adult” marketing, that makes a lot of sense. Dobbs’ comparisons of Lockstep‘s tone to some of the young adult works of Heinlein are apt. There isn’t much deep here, but for a young adult with a nerdy science or technological leaning, this novel could be perfect. Despite good qualities, it made a belabored serial and just wasn’t a novel for me.

Three Stars out of Five