Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Involution Ocean, Bruce Sterling (1977)


(Tim White’s cover for the 1980 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

“Turn and look behind you, reader. Can you see the crater now? It is wide, round, magnificent; within it shimmers a sea of air above a sea of dust. Almost a million human beings live within this titanic hole, this incredible crater, this single staring eye in the face of an empty planet” (119).

In my youth naval history and fiction transfixed: from the capture of the Spanish Xebec El Gamo by Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald to C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower sequence, inspired in part by Lord Cochrane’s career.  I assessed each novel and memoir on whether or not I felt like I was on a sea-going vessel, holding the ropes in calloused hands, trapped belowdeck in a storm, yanking the lanyard on a cannon’s gunlock… With a dictionary of naval terms on my desk, I looked up each and every reference, memorized the cross-sections of frigates and the intricacies of the chain of command.  I recoiled with grim fascination as Hornblower–fresh off the harrowing loss of the HMS Sutherland and desperate to escape the French countryside–peers at Lieutenant Bush’s amputated leg and checks the inserted cloth wads that soak up the leaking puss.

Bruce Sterling’s Involution Ocean (1977) draws on the naval tradition, transposed into a SF future, although it is more exploration à la Darwin and the HMS Beagle than combat à la Horatio Hornblower and the HMS Hotspur.  Inspired by Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), Involution Ocean tells the tale of John Newhouse’s search for Nullaquan dustwales, the “only source of the drug syncophine” (23), across a vast Continue reading Book Review: Involution Ocean, Bruce Sterling (1977)

Book Review: Abyss, Kate Wilhelm (1971)


(Lou Feck’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Kate Wilhem’s SF forms one of the foundational pillars propping up my fascination with the genre.  Her writing, sometimes oblique and interior, cuts to the very heart of things, exposing the hidden societal and psychological sinews that suppress and restrict.  Her 60s/70s women characters, from linguists and mathematicians to discontented housewives, subtly subvert our expectations of how genre characters should behave.  And for a few years in the early 70s, she dominated the award lists (four Nebula nominations in 1971, two in 1970, a win in 1968, and of course, her double Hugo and Nebula win in 1976 for her novel Where Late our Sweet Birds Sang).  Totals: 14 Nebula nominations Continue reading Book Review: Abyss, Kate Wilhelm (1971)

Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLX (Delany + Disch + Sladek + Zelazny + Edmondson + Bryant + Sucharitkul)

It’s been too long since I’ve read anything by Delany.  I polished off Triton (1976), Nova (1968), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Babel-17 (1966) long before I started my site.  For a SF reading group I reread Nova a few years back but never wrote a review.  One of the few SF novels I’ve reread.  And yes, I do not own a copy nor have I tackled the behemoth that is Dhalgren (1975).

As a teen I was obsessed with Delany’s first collection Driftglass (1971), although I probably did not understand the important of the stories.  It is hard to forget the images in “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (1967) or “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” (1968) even if the message was lost on my younger self.  Now I have an excuse to reread one of Delany’s best known stories, originally collected in Driftglass (1971) — “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1968) — in a fascinating anthology with other luminaries of the field, Disch, Sladek, and Zelazny.

I confess, I was seduced by Powers’ gorgeous cover for G. C. Edmondson’s novel despite the terrifying back cover blurb: “Good, Old-fashioned Science Fiction Adventure at its best!”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Somtow Sucharitkul’s Starship and Haiku (1981).  Although I did not care for the novel, I need more strikes against before I give up on an author completely.  And, why not a fix-up comprised of his best known stories?

Same thing with Edward Bryant…  His attempts at channeling extreme decadence, fascinating cityscapes, and odd hybrids come off as inarticulate and forced.  Albeit I have only read “Jade Blue” (1971) and “The Human Side of the Village Monster” (1971).  As with Somtow Sucharitkul, I need to read more of his stories to come to a firm stance on his abilities.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.

  1. The Shores Beneath, ed. James Sallis (1971)


(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1971 edition) Continue reading Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLX (Delany + Disch + Sladek + Zelazny + Edmondson + Bryant + Sucharitkul)

Book Review: The Committed Men, M. John Harrison (1971)


(Chris Yates’ cover for the 1971 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Entropic visions of decay and despair inhabit M. John Harrison’s first novel The Committed Men (1971).  Possessed by destructive melancholy, the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptical UK–where political powers have sunk into oblivion–attempt to recreate a semblance of normalcy.  Clement St John Wendover, teeth long since rotted, still administers to the skin diseases and ailments of his one-time patients although he cannot cure them.  Halloway Pauce, decked out in his “gold lamé suit”, fastidiously coats his cancered face with a “layer of pancake make-up” (48).  Grocott Personnel and his hierarchically oriented fellows recreate the bureaucratic veneer Continue reading Book Review: The Committed Men, M. John Harrison (1971)

Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLIX (Pohl + Clarion Anthologies)

The Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, started in 1968, continues to this day as one of the successful workshops for authors with instruction by the best the genre has to offer.  The alumni list is massive including Vonda N. McIntyre, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Lucius Shepard, Bruce Sterling, etc.  For more on the workshop consult the SF Encyclopedia entry.  Robin Scott Wilson, the original director, published three anthologies decked out with the distinctive art of Gene Szafran.  I am now the proud owner of all three!

Stories by Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Octavia Butler, George Alec Effinger, Edward Bryant, among others and reflections by the greats of the day, Frederik Pohl, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, etc.

And many many many less familiar authors whose stories I will be keen to explore.

And, last but not least, A Frederik Pohl collection with a stunning Richard Powers cover.  He was in fine form in the early 60s.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.

1. The Abominable Earthman, Frederik Pohl (1963)


(Richard Powers cover for the 1963 edition) Continue reading Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLIX (Pohl + Clarion Anthologies)

Book Review: Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (1970)


(Anita Siegel’s cover for the 1970 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Nominated for the 1971 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (1970) exemplifies the type of SF I no longer enjoy.  A younger me would have gobbled up the magical phrases: A Bussard Interstellar Ramjet! Disaster in space! Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity!

At one point Anderson’s adventure-heavy SF formed my bread and butter.  Over the years I’ve reviewed thirteen of his novels and short story collections, most recently in 2013 — There Will Be Time (1972), Brain Wave (1953), and Time and Stars (1964).   I have sat on this review for months in a state of indecision debating whether or not to insert my sharpened awl into the novel’s brittle hide so repeatedly tattooed with the Continue reading Book Review: Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (1970)

Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLIX (Gerrold + Reed + Lewin + Anthology of European Non-English Language SF)

Digression: I have been thinking about “best of” lists and why I seldom approach an author by reading their “best known” work first.  Caveat: I compulsively read the Hugo list as a kid and was exposed to many wonderful authors.

Reading “the acknowledged best” reinforces our notions of what is canon or not canon.  And I am all about puncturing holes in our self-perpetuating notions of canon and SF grand narratives of what is “classic” SF and what is not.  The following dialogue often plays out:

A) “Have you read the best SF novels of the 1970s?”

B) “Yes, I have, from this great top 15 novels list!”

A) “What would you say are the best novels from the 1970s?”

B) “Oh, here you go!” Regurgitates original list.

A) “Have you read other SF novels from the 1970s?”

B) “Umm.”

I am guilty of this as well!  My top 1960s novels list undergoes regular revisions.  The original list was a product of my lack of knowledge.  Regardless, it remains to this day the most popular and commented upon post on my site!  Alas!

Sometimes “the less known” novels are a way to get a feel for what an author is capable of and seeing an author through their body of work leads (at least for me) to greater appreciation for their best (which might not be the ones anointed by the majority).  Barry N. Malzberg: I read In the Enclosure (1973) before  Beyond Apollo (1972).  Doris Piserchia:  Doomtime (1981) before A Billion Days of Earth (1976). Robert Silverberg: Thorns (1967) before Downward to the Earth  (1970).  Christopher Priest:  Indoctrinaire (1970) before The Affirmation (1981).

Third, I put great value on individual exploration. It is humorous and ironic that I have run this review site for six or so years but am reluctant to immediately follow-up on the reading suggestions of others.  I am sorry frequent readers!  I devour the reviews of others for sure (see Part I and Part II for worthwhile resources).  Well-argued reviews with evidence and an understanding of the work’s time and place and reflections on interactions with/or within genre, are more likely to remain with me.  And then, when I am in the book store, I remember what others have said.

The questions I have been pondering: Do I put together a best 20 novels of the 1970s list?  When do I decide whether I have read enough?  Or, do I play the “caveat” game and state that this is bound to change (which it is as I read more)?

Post proper:  My mapping of the contours of Kit Reed’s early oeuvre continues.  Her first SF novel Armed Camps (1969) and her stories in Mister Da V. and Other Stories (1967) demonstrate a knack for humanistic exploration of characters trapped in manifestations of cyclicality—be it social constructions or the forces of history.

David Gerrold’s novels do not inspire…..  At least so far: Space Skimmer (1972) + Yesterday’s Children (variant title: Starhunt) (1972).  Which means, time for short stories!  And yes, his acknowledged best The Man  Who Folded Himself (1973) waits in the wings [From Couch to Moon’s review —> here].

Non-English language SF other than Stanislaw Lem and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: the biggest hole in my SF knowledge.

And perhaps the find/risk of the bunch, a satirical pseudo-governmental pamphlet that generated endless debate about its authenticity.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.

1. With a Finger in My I, David Gerrold (1972)


(Mati Klarwein’s cover for the 1972 edition) Continue reading Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CLIX (Gerrold + Reed + Lewin + Anthology of European Non-English Language SF)