From Little Red Reviewer

I heard about Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month thanks to my friend Lydia Schoch, whose own post about Philip K. Dick’s novelette Second Variety you can read here. It so happened I had recently read The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and so this seemed a perfect chance to give my thoughts on it.

The Caves of Steel is an interesting blend of genres: it combines many of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction with sci-fi elements. It’s set in the distant future, when humanity has colonized other planets and turned the Earth into a kind of sprawling city.

The humans who have colonized the outer worlds view the people of Earth with trepidation. These “Spacers,” who are regarded as nearly super-human, with exceptional physical conditioning, nevertheless fear Earth-borne diseases and so have isolated themselves in a place called, appropriately enough, Spacetown.

Earthlings, for their part, view the Spacers with distrust bordering on hatred, seeing them as arrogant elitists who look down their noses on the good citizens of Earth. And then there’s the Spacer’s routine use of robots, which are already despised on Earth because they threaten to take jobs away from human beings.

Indeed, the first character we meet is R. Sammy–the “R” is for robot, and he has taken the job of a man who worked at the police station, much to the annoyance of our protagonist, Elijah Baley. Baley is a classic detective character–a good, honest, somewhat curmudgeonly-but-basically-good-hearted man.

Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer, Dr. Sarton. With tensions already rising between the people of Earth and the Spacers, the murder could prove politically devastating if it is found to have been committed by an Earth-person. However, the Spacers have agreed to allow an Earth policeman to investigate the case–as long as he is partnered with one of their own personnel, by the name of R. Daneel Olivaw.

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Image via Wikipedia

Yes, you guessed it–the “R” again stands for robot. Baley is required to work with an extremely human-like robot, and their early investigations are a classic buddy cop story, with the two first clashing, then gradually learning each other’s styles.

Baley and Olivaw uncover the activities of a group known as the Medievalists–a luddite-like outfit whose members despise robots and other aspects of modern life, seeking to cultivate and preserve habits of the distant past. Some more radical elements of the group seem capable of carrying out the crime that occurred at Spacetown. Then again, as Baley repeatedly argues, perhaps the Spacers are trying to frame the people of Earth to further their own agenda.

It all builds up to a conclusion that, I have to admit, I didn’t see coming. And that’s always the key element in a successful mystery.

There are a lot of elements to the story that seem highly-relevant today: political and terrorist movements motivated by nostalgia, automatons replacing human laborers, prejudice against foreigners, colonialism… the list goes on. Asimov was a keen observer of human nature, and that’s why his books still feel so fresh today.

That said, not everything about the book rang true. The idea of underground cities where millions live packed together, never venturing out into the sunshine and open countryside, feels like a hellish dystopia to me, even if Asimov himself loved the idea.

Also, there’s a subplot with Baley’s wife, whose name is Jezebel, a fact which is of more significance to her than I would think is normal. It’s not a bad sub-plot, it’s just… odd. The depiction of female characters here was not great–women are mostly portrayed as irrational gossips, to the extent they are portrayed at all.

Still, it was an enjoyable mystery with a lot of fascinating social commentaries woven into the world Asimov built. Baley’s dry, sometimes cynical musings are the most enjoyable thing, followed closely by his interactions with Olivaw.

I originally read this book because Ben Trube mentioned that its combination of the science-fiction and detective genres influenced his own novel Surreality, which I love. There is a certain comfort in being guided through an unfamiliar futuristic world by a recognizable stock character like the Grizzled Veteran Detective. It makes an excellent foundation for a story.

SechaThe Secha is an ambiguous and somewhat disturbing short science fiction story. The Secha are a race enslaved by another species known as the Bakkens. Although initially the female Secha narrating the story seems resigned to the Bakkens’ treatment of her and her species, gradually it becomes apparent that the order of things she seemingly takes for granted is anything but pleasant.

There isn’t much detailed description of the Secha, which makes their exact physiology a mystery. I liked this; it left it to the reader to imagine their characteristics. The Bakkens are described in a bit more detail, as are another species known as the Ediks.

The disturbing part comes as the Secha describes the things to which the Bakkens subject her and others of her species. It is both interesting and unsettling; and all the more so because of the ambiguity regarding just what the Secha are. 

Like some other science fiction I’ve reviewed lately, it’s short, but raises a lot of interesting questions for readers to ponder. 

Wounded EagleThis was a tough review to write, because this book is part two of a series, and part one ends on a massive cliffhanger. The majority of part two is therefore about the protagonist, Captain Robbin Nikalishin, dealing with the repercussions of that cliffhanger.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of plot, for fear that people would stumble upon this review without having read part one, and it would be spoiled. Normally, I’m content to give spoiler warnings, but in this case I don’t even want to risk that.

Many of the things I said in my review of part one still apply: The story is still engaging, the characters are still memorable and vivid, the world-building is impeccable, the prose is still crisp, and Capt. Nikalishin is still a brave man who nonetheless can be profoundly irritating in some respects. His stubborn pride remains, although it kind of morphs into something else as he grapples with the consequences of the events at the end of the first book. And his relationship with his mother continues to make me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Grow up, you big baby!”

And, as I said in my review of the first book, none of these latter points about the captain’s character should be interpreted as negative comments on the book itself. Quite the contrary. Even more than the first, this book is a character study of Nikalishin, and he is certainly a very interesting, multi-faceted personality. 

Again, no spoilers, but one of the central plot elements in Wounded Eagle involves Nikalishin being forced to choose whether to reveal certain information to punish a particularly despicable character, but at the cost that revealing this information will be deeply painful to an innocent third party. Nikalishin’s choice, and the reasoning behind it, are very well thought-out and described, and was satisfying to read, even if I can’t honestly claim I’d have made the same decision.

Read my review of the first one, and if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read this series, I don’t know what will. It’s a sci-fi epic that focuses on human drama, with lots of interesting world-building, as well as some deep philosophical and religious ideas woven into the story, in the form of the “Mythmaker Precepts”—the philosophical pillars at the core of Taylor’s 28th century society.

Now, with all that out of the way, I want to have a word about my favorite character in the series: Prof. Anezka Lara. She’s not actually in this book as much as she is in part one, but when she’s around, she’s a lot of fun. Her gruff, no-nonsense personality reminds me of several academics I’ve known, and frankly, I adore the way she bluntly tells Nikalishin what she thinks. It’s especially nice in this book where—and here I’m straying close to spoiler territory—he’s kind of a big deal, and most people are treating him with kid gloves. Not Lara. She’s never one to mince words.

Again, if you like sci-fi at all, read this series. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, there’s a good chance you’ll be captivated by the narrative Taylor weaves. 

Now, I’m off to write some fan-fiction about Prof. Lara and…

JUST KIDDING! That is a joke; don’t worry. But if you want to understand the joke, you should read the series. 😉

volsungsThis isn’t one of my normal book reviews, because this is not a work of fiction per se, but rather a translation of Old Norse myths and legends. So, it cannot be subjected to the same standards of literary criticism I would normally use.

But then, to paraphrase Bernie Kopell’s character from Get Smart: “Zis is Ruined Chapel by Moonlight! Ve don’t ‘normal’ here!”

There are two distinct sagas, but they both tell similar tales of bold warriors and beautiful women. In fact, the majority of women were described as “the most beautiful of all women.” I guess ancient Scandinavia was like Lake Woebegon.

There is, of course, lots of back-stabbing and sex and murder and revenge and incest and never-ending wars of conquest. I never actually read or watched the Game of Thrones series, but based on these tales, it seems to just be following in a long mythological tradition.

Oh, and of course there are familiar mythological elements such as dragon-slaying and a rather interesting story early on in which Odin sticks a sword into a tree trunk and says only the most powerful of men shall be able to remove it; which seems like an obvious relative of Excalibur from Arthurian legend. 

At times, the whole thing can get a bit confusing, and I sometimes get the sense that the bards who recounted these legends didn’t pay attention to things like time and continuity. For instance, there is one story in which a woman keeps having children, only to discover, one by one, around the age of 10 or so, that they are unworthy for the quest that fate has ordained for them. I mean… was there really time to wait around and go through that process repeatedly?

The story feels as though it’s being told rather than written—which is very much a credit to Dr. Crawford’s translation, as I would assume most of these kinds of tales were initially passed down as an oral tradition, and only subsequently written down. Reading it, I felt like I was sitting around a camp-fire in a dense forest of snow-covered evergreens, listening to a mysterious one-eyed old man spinning off-the-cuff yarns: “Now there was one time when it is told that Svanhild…”

As I said, you can’t subject an ancient work like this to the standards of modern criticism. It’s a convoluted intergenerational epic, full of confusing family bloodlines, prophecies that people ignore or misinterpret at great cost to themselves, and bizarre and inexplicable plot developments.

Wait, hold on… sorry, I was just reading Twitter, which at the moment is full of people talking about the latest Star Wars movie…

You know, now that I think about it, you can see how people would have been fascinated by these myths. So many of the common tropes of ancient mythology still persist in storytelling to this day. Perhaps these ancient tales of great wars, betrayals, and revenges, are more than just interesting pieces of history. They speak to some deeply-rooted impulse in human nature—a desire to imagine the exploits of larger-than-life characters and their impossible deeds. Thanks to these very accessible translations, modern readers such as myself, even with almost zero prior knowledge of Norse mythology, can do just that.

(Post-script: I came across Dr. Crawford’s works via my friend and fellow author, Noah Goats. Thank you, Noah!)

DTTAfter reading Lydia Schoch’s review of this book, I just had to give it a try. It’s a collection of four very short stories best described as “weird sci-fi comedies.” Each story starts out with an unusual premise, and just lets things play out from there.

What do I mean by an “unusual” premise? Well, here’s a quick sketch of each: A roguish shape-shifting alien breaks the bank at a casino. A robot couple moves into an organic neighborhood. Intelligent rhinoceros-like beings with a fondness for ‘80s music invade the earth. And finally, an odd, voyeuristic character pays a heavy price for spying on an alien in a restroom.

The stories are short, but for the most part feel complete. The only one I thought needed a bit more fleshing out (pun not intended) was the robot one. The ending was good, but felt a bit abrupt. Otherwise, each story is a self-contained, bizarre, and funny universe. The twist in the casino story was particularly great. I didn’t see it coming, and after it was revealed, I was kicking myself because I didn’t. The best twists always feel obvious in retrospect.

These stories are sort of like a prose version of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics: a quick sketch of a strange situation, which follows its own internal logic to an even stranger, and very funny, conclusion. Yes, they’re short, but each story packs a strong comedic punch that makes it satisfying. Fans of sci-fi comedy should definitely check it out.

DVDual Void is a very short story that I would describe as experimental fiction. It is written from the point of view of an artificial intelligence named “Kes” that is achieving self-consciousness.

Despite its brevity, the story deals with deep, complicated ideas. Many of the concepts Kes considers are drawn from the world of computer programming and formal logic, which makes the narration feel exactly like what one would expect from an artificial intelligence—a distinct voice, but also not quite a human one. 

It’s a very interesting philosophical exercise, and certainly gives a reader plenty to mull over, but I can’t help feeling like this is only one part of a larger story, and it would be nice to read more background information about Kes, her creator Zvi, and the world around them. This feels like an intriguing prologue to a longer and bigger story.

Still, for $0.99, a well-written short story that makes you ponder concepts like mortality, consciousness, and free will is a pretty good deal.

[How many people still use the term “bleg,” I wonder? Andrew Sullivan used to use the term a lot, but I haven’t seen it lately…]

At the risk of becoming repetitive: please, please, please go read the latest short story by Noah Goats. It’s free to read on his blog.

I love all Noah’s work, as you know, but this is a departure from his usual humorous style. It’s much more in the realm of speculative fiction or even horror, depending how you look at it.

It’s everything I think a short story should be: concisely evocative, moving, and open to multiple interpretations. Noah is turning out great stories at a nearly McCollum-esque pace. I’m hoping he will collect them all in a book at some point. At any rate, his work deserves to be widely-read.

Tank_girl_poster
Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on. 

It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)

The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.

Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:

Tank and girl

Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves. 

The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.

I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes. 

Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s. 

Wait—what’s that, Wikipedia article for Tank Girl? You have pertinent news?

“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”

AAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Okay, time for one of my rants… 

Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.

I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.

Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that? 

And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.

But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct? 

Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one. 

This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?

I’ll name a famous book, and then recommend a lesser-known book you should read if you enjoyed it. Ready? Let us begin.

a-confederacy-of-dunces@2xIf you like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole…

…then you should read Incomplete Works, by Noah Goats.iw

The influence of Toole’s legendary comic novel on this book is clear. While the plot isn’t as intricate and the cast not as large, the intelligent, snobbish protagonist of Goats’ novel is definitely a unique character, much like Ignatius J. Reilly.

 

 

HWRIf you like H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator series….

…then you should read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll.
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All right, so this is kind of a layup since the latter is based on the former, but if you are familiar with Lovecraft’s interesting but thinly-sketched serial, you have to read Driscoll’s reimagining, in which she fleshes out Herbert West and his world.

 

 

 

AnnihilationBookIf you like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer…

…then you should read Ocean Echoes, by Sheila Hurst.

Ocean EchoesNow, you might think this is an odd comparison, especially if you only know Annihilation from the movie adaptation, which is much more sci-fi horror. The movie is very good, but also extremely different than the book. Ocean Echoes isn’t as dark as Annihilation, but both are about a biologist who ventures into the unknown while battling mental demons and scars of past relationships. And both are haunting and beautifully-written.

 

 

TheJungleSinclairIf you like The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair…

…then you should read Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin.

Okay, confession time here: I don’t like The Jungle. I like Sinclair’s concept of a novel with a social commentary on the meat industry, but the book itself is boring, repetitive and preachy. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t work.

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckleyEating Bull, on the other hand, totally does work because it’s a gripping page-turner of a killer thriller, and the social commentary is woven into the plot, so it feels natural and organic. So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you read only one novel driven by a social comment on Big Food, make it Eating Bull. Also, it’s a bit more timely, being published more than a century after The Jungle.

 

 

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Now it’s your turn! Name me some famous books, and then some similar, lesser-known book that you think deserves more attention. And yes, it’s completely fair game if you want to list your own books. Go for it.

Pumpkins2019_1.jpgTrue story: earlier this morning (12:00AM, to be exact) I was standing in a dark field, surrounded by a bunch of glowing jack-o’-lanterns, with a thick fog rolling in and the only sounds were that of a distant train horn and a few birds and insects chirping in the distance. If that isn’t what Halloween is all about, I don’t know what is.

For those who can’t get enough of pictures like the one on the right, I’ll be tweeting various Halloween-ish stuff throughout the day. Whether you love this holiday as much as I do or not, I hope you have a great Halloween. Thanks, as always, for your support.

Now then… there is the matter of the traditional Halloween poem.

I spent a lot of the time I ordinarily spend on the annual poem working on Vespasian Moon, so I kind of ran out of time this year.

Or so I thought. But then, I had an idea.

I’m working on a story that includes a character who writes songs, and one of the songs I’d drafted for him seemed to fit the mood, so I decided to use it. I just couldn’t bring myself to let the streak of posting a Halloween poem end. If, someday, you see this same poem published as part of a larger story… well, all I can say is, Poe did the same thing. I know, I know; the tired old “Edgar Allan did it!” defense.

Herewith, then, is the 2019 Ruined Chapel by Moonlight Halloween poem

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