Thursday, October 16, 2014

Aye, and Zelazny.

by John Popham

If you wish to write good stories, you must read good stories, and among the best in the science fiction and fantasy genre are those written by Roger Zelazny.  Many readers will only be acquainted with Zelazny though his Amber novels; a ten-book fantasy series published over the course of twenty years.  So it may come as a surprise that I regard Zelazny primarily as a Science Fiction writer, albeit one who infused science fiction with myth and legend, treating the two genres as a continuum rather than drawing hard lines between them.

Zelazny was a word man, which is to say he delighted in the sound of words at play, and his books and stories reflect that delight.  As an undergraduate he studied Jacobean literature and, if you have the wit to listen for it, the spirit of John Donne hovers at the edges of his prose.  It was not uncommon for him to deliver dialogue with Elizabethan flourish, only to punctuate it with a bit of 1960s East Village beatnik (which drove Ursula K LeGuin just a little bit crazy).  He was insatiably curious, forever reading new authors and auditing classes on a diverse set of subjects.  He once commented that, if he weren't a writer, he'd enjoy working in an old-fashioned hardware store because all the humble bits and pieces that underpin civilization can be found in the aisles, and received a flood of employment offers (which he politely declined).  All of this informed his prose, yet his prose is never inaccessible. 

Lord of Light and a few of Zelazney's non-Amber related novels are still in print and, though rarely stocked at bookstores, are easy to find online.  If you have not read Zelazny's Lord of Light, go do so. Do it now.  Really. Stop reading this blog, go lay hands on a copy of Lord of Light and read it.  It is one of my favorites and every now and then I re-read it just to recall how good at telling a story he was.

Unfortunately his novel Doorways in the Sand appears to be out of print altogether, which is a shame as it's also high on my recommended reading list, though used versions if it are still to be found.  It's a very different book from Lord of Light. Doorways is straight-up science fiction, a near-future story of interstellar intrigue involving an acrophiliac undergrad, undercover aliens, extraterrestrial artifacts, the Lady with the smile and the Crown Jewels of England.  It's Zelazny at his best; words at play in a wry and playful book.

Much of Zelazny's short and novella-length fiction has gone out of print in the mainstream press and become wicked hard to lay hands on.  I have a very old and much thumbed copy of the Avon printing of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth, a collection of short stories from Zelazny's early days.  I bought it at Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside in Minneapolis back in the day when there was a  Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside in Minneapolis.  Which is to say I've had it for a long time.  I hold onto it like grim death not only for sentimental reasons, but also because the book has become irreplaceable.  Like much of his short and mid length fiction, The Doors of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth hasn't graced the shelves of bookstores for a long time.

So it was with a certain delight that I stumbled across the New England Science Fiction Association's hard-bound six volume set of Zelazny's stories last month.  The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny is an impressive offering.  Not only are Zelazny's published stories collected, but most of his unpublished stories as well, along with a number of essays Zelazny wrote for various markets over the years.   Chris Kovacs' literary biography of Zelazny, titled ...And Call Me Roger is spread in sections across the six volumes, and most of Zelazny's stories are followed by some comments on the piece by the author.  It's interesting to note that often Zelazny's commentary had to be cobbled together using snippets from a number of sources.  Zelazny had, as he put it, a bug about privacy, and was rarely given to talking much about himself or his work; a rare quality in today's social media saturated world.

Robert Silverberg provided a general introduction to the overall collection, and Carl Yoke, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Walter Jon Williams, Neil Gaiman, David G. Hartwell, Joe Haldeman, Steven Brust, Melinda Snodgrass, George R. R. Martin, Jane Lindskold, Gerald Hausman and Gardner Dozois each contributed introductions to the individual volumes.  The introductions I have read so far are striking.  There is nothing pro-forma about them.  Written by authors, many of them luminaries in their own light, their respect for Zelazny the writer and an honest warmth toward Zelazny the person are evident.

And I have the sense that I have met the man they describe. However private and retiring Zelazny was, his presence couldn't hide behind his prose.  It's good to know that the author, as recalled by his friends and colleagues, is the same one I've known all these years through his writing.  He has been my companion for a very long time; since I met him at the tail end of the alphabet in the science fiction section in Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend you make Roger Zelazny's acquaintance.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: I Robot: To Obey, by Mickey Zucker Reichert

Reviewed by John Popham

Mickey Zucker Reichert's Isaac Asimov's I Robot: To Obey, published by Penguin Random's ROC imprint is a testament to the greed of publishers and the sad state of science fiction today.

It is a profoundly bad piece of writing in almost every respect.

Reichert's characters in To Obey are flat and uninteresting, the prose is turgid and shot through with information dumps, and the plot devices are both awkward and transparent. The action sequences in To Obey are, quite literally, the worst I have ever forced myself to read through.  The author has managed to write a tech thriller that is almost completely devoid of thrills or technology.  If that weren't sufficient, Reichert has managed to avoid even the faintest evocation of the eponymous Asimov Robot novels, and gets almost everything to do with Asimov's robots and Susan Calvin completely wrong.

The novel's central conflict involves the efforts of a crew of jack-booted government thugs to upend the three laws of robotics; laws central to the functioning of the robots' positronic brains that make them incapable, through action or inaction, of harming humans.  As written by Isaac Asimov, Susan Calvin was a leading mind in the early days of U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men, and would have been a reasonable target for evildoers seeking to bypass the three laws for their own nefarious ends.  However, Reichert's Susan Calvin possesses none of the original's cold passion for robotics.  In I, Robot: To Obey, Calvin is a second year Psychiatry resident (Asimov's Susan Calvin had a PhD in Psychology and was not an MD) with minimal insight into or interest in robots.  She is thus an unlikely target for evildoers with robotic mayhem on their minds.   To properly motivate the men in black hats, Reichert must provide Calvin with a father who is a famed robotics engineer at U. S. Robots.  The shadowy government conspirators believe Susan possesses a key developed by her father that will turn helpful and harmless robots into ruthless killing machines.

Unfortunately, these plot developments are back-loaded into the second half of the novel.  To arrive at them the reader must trudge through chapter after dreary chapter of back-story, explications, office politics, and infra-office banter with co-workers and side-kicks.  When the intrigue portion of the book finally gets underway, it clanks and grinds its way into motion in a manner more mechanical than even the most primitive of Asimov's robots.  Reichert's writing becomes ever more ungathered and her characters' actions ever less credible as the author attempts to force dramatic tension into the novel's flaccid story-line.  As the novel collapses across the finish-line, one has to wonder whether Reichert's heart was in the writing of I Robot, To Obey. 

In this book Reichert shows an utter lack of imagination when it comes to writing futurist fiction.  While the sole robot inhabiting I Robot: To Obey is so advanced it is indistinguishable from a human (sparing Reichert the toil of writing a credible robot character), her world of 2036 is otherwise 2013 with a few very cosmetic changes overlaid.  Medicine, for example, has not advanced at all and the futuristic medical resident Susan Calvin spends her days treating 2013 diseases with 2013 medical technology, and the residents are still wondering whether 'retarded' is an appropriate term to use with their patients.  (Perhaps all the research grants went to robotics.) A 'vox' subs in for a smart phone, a 'floater' stands in for the bus, and evil government employees bent on subverting Asimov's three laws hide guns in their underwear.  Otherwise, at least in Mickey Reichert's imagination, the trip between now and 2036 is going to be one hell of a dull ride. 

"I Robot: To Obey" has every hallmark of a cash grab by Reichert and her publishers at ROC.  Both they and Reichert should be ashamed, not only for inflicting this book on the SF market, but for the damage they have done to the Asimov name and brand as well. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The State of the Genre


by John Popham

There are two things for which I’m actively searching these days.

The first is a good coffee house or cafĂ©.  You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a place with a “just so” combination of good coffee and a creative ambiance in DC.  Starbucks and Pain Quotidian are too institutional and the food is unappealing.  The coffee shop at Politics & Prose is too small and usually crammed with double-wide strollers.  Then there’s the small indie coffee shop a few blocks away with the uninteresting and poorly lit interior that serves marginal coffee; I think not.  I had hopes for the recently opened Bread Furst, which is a solid fit to my needs.  Sadly, many others share that opinion and its tables are occupied as soon as it opens; an eloquent statement on DC’s unsatisfied demand for good places to sit and think.

Am I being too demanding; setting the bar too high? Oh, yes. Yes I am.  Life is too short to spend on bad coffee and unpleasant surroundings.

The other thing I’m looking for is decent science fiction novels to review.

Finding any reasonably good new science fiction novels seems a chore these days.  Really. I swear, the state of the genre where novels are concerned is nothing short of woeful.  And bear in mind, my internal measuring stick for ‘woeful’ is pretty low.  Science fiction has always been a continuum when it comes to style and quality, with one foot firmly rooted in the pulps of the early 20th century.  Squids from space, Bug Eyes Monsters (or BEMs as they are sometimes called) and granite-jawed starship officers legitimately share the science fiction table with Pyanfar Chanur, Valentine Michael Smith, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and Hari Seldon.  However, even if one allows for a healthy dose of pulpy goodness, an inordinately large percentage of the science fiction hitting the retail outlets these days is mind-bogglingly awful.  The genre science fiction novel is, from a critical stand point, in deep decline.

Fantasy has not suffered a similar drop in quality over the years.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  There are a lot of good writers putting out a lot of good fantasy novels.  There’s some bad stuff of course, but as with any genre fiction that’s to be expected.  The bad writers are generally kept at the fringes of the market by ample competition from capable writers.  This suggests that the fantasy’s talent basket is much fuller than science fiction’s.  Which may explain the prevalence of post-apocalyptic and zombie novels in the current science fiction market, as those sub-genres tend to unfold as fantasy with only trace quantities of science fiction in their make-up.  Thus a certain amount of overflow of writers from the crowded fantasy market into those sub-genres is reasonable.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe the reason for the decline in the science fiction novel is a generational failure of imagination and a growing pessimism.  As a culture we’ve become increasingly mistrustful of science and people in the sciences.  We increasingly treat science and the laws of nature as if they were offerings at a Mongolian barbeque, selecting only the bits of science that don’t discomfort us, that don’t cause moral or political indigestion.  Denial of established science has become commonplace and, worst of all, tolerated, as though immunology and climate science were like politics or religion, matters of opinion or articles of faith.  It’s no wonder that fantasy and zombies are the hot ticket these days for writers of speculative fiction.

What's to be done?  Well, as I often say, you can only begin from where you are.

For myself I will put more emphasis into reviewing science fiction.  And in so doing I’ll be tossing aside the rule of thumb about not saying anything at all if there’s nothing nice to say.  I’m finding that too many reviewers of science fiction would rather not review a book at all than to give the book a bad review.  I’m not here to get invited to the right parties or to be fawned on by publishers.  I’m here for the stories. I’ll be unstinting with praise when I find a rare jewel, but I won’t be shy about taking the rod to a bad piece of work, even when written by an author who’s well respected by me or beloved by the SMOF community.

Going forward I will have a few rules of engagement:

The books must be recently published or forthcoming.  A few weeks ago I asked a publisher what science fiction they had by female authors that was new or recent and was provided a title that had been in print for more than a year. The nerve, I tell you.

The books must feature stories in which science is an essential element. Which is to say, no subbing in ray guns for six shooters and no time vortexes that lead a modern lass to romance in 17th century Scotland. No space westerns and no science fiction romance or other non-SF genres dressed up as SF.

I won’t review post-apocalyptic fiction or novels featuring zombies or zombie surrogates. Not even if they're martians who happen to behave like zombies. Just no.

No full reviews for truly awful prose.  However novels containing passages such as
 “Sweat dripped from his lean frame and his muscles writhed with intoxicating interest – the women couldn’t tear their gazes from him.” (Vaughn Heppner, The Lost Starship
will be called out as objects of derision and scorn in periodic “Authors Who Must be Stopped” lists. We shall point fingers at them and laugh.

Am I being too demanding; setting the bar too high? Oh, yes. Yes I am.  As with coffee, life is too short to spend on bad fiction.

I don’t expect I’ll make friends doing this. Nor do I expect that The Infinite Reach, an admittedly small patch of literary earth, will influence much or many.  Oh, it might nudge things, ever so slightly, in the right direction but not much more.  Given that, why bother.  Why not just go along to get along?  I suppose it’s because science fiction and I go way back.  Because some debts should be paid.

As ever, I’m here for the stories.