Who Can Replace a Man? – by Brian W. Aldiss – An OCF Science Fiction Book Review

Aldiss was a British science fiction author and “Who Can Replace A Man” is the name of a short story collection published in 1965.  From my exposure to the English films and theater from that time period they seemed like a thoroughly unhappy bunch.  A lot of that shows up in Aldiss’s stories.  There’s a dreariness and an almost claustrophobic atmosphere to some of his work which I can’t enjoy.  But mixed in with these will be a gem.  Out of the fourteen stories in this collection two of them are excellent and highly recommended.

“Old Hundredth” is the story of a megatherium (giant sloth) riding on a baluchitherium (sort of like a prehistoric giant rhinoceros) in search of transubstantiation into a musicolumn.  This piece of insane storytelling is remarkably enjoyable and feels like some kind of impressionistic water color of a beautiful landscape rather than a science fiction story.  I’ve always greatly enjoyed rereading it.

The story “Who Can Replace a Man?” is more prosaic and recognizably science fiction in its content but it provides a self-consistent and believable vision of what a world of robots would be like after humans disappear.  It’s fun even when it’s bleak.

After these two stories recommendations become qualified.

“Poor Little Warrior!” is the story of a time travelling brontosaurus big game hunt.  It follows in the footsteps of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” but outdoes it in grimness.  It has that British mid-century dreariness but has some cheerful horror at the end.  To each his own on this one.

“The Impossible Star” is equally grim but does include and interesting imagining of how proximity to a black hole might affect the human animal.  I’ll give it a passing grade.

Finally, “The New Father Christmas” is dreary enough but so odd that it gets points for holding my interest.  I’ll give it a D+.

The rest of the stories, although they have interesting facets are just too downbeat for me to enjoy or recommend.  If you do decide to read the New Father Christmas and enjoy it then maybe you can find value in the rest of the collection.  Once again, to each his own.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like.  TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books.  Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.

Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland.  I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before.  I’d never heard of Galland before this book.  So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past.  The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation.  The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category.  On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy.  The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character.  And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics.  And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies.  And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies.  Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA.  And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there.  And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either.  So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.

Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic.  Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time.  And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft.  And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it.  And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).

From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with.  He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch.  Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O.  Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe.  And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.

The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations.  The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.

Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms.  The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate.  Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive.  This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book.  Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.

My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable.  The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot.  So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.

The Dresden Files – A Fantasy Book Review

Technically I guess this is a book series review.  Jim Butcher has produced fifteen books in his Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels.  Starting in 2000 he published about one a year.  The series follows the career of Harry Dresden, a Chicago wizard who consults with the Chicago PD whenever a vampire, werewolf or other evil magical being invades his territory.  Butcher provides back story on Harry’s relation to the various hierarchies of supernatural beings starting in the first novel Storm Front but one of the very impressive aspects of the series is just how complex the interrelation between the various fantasy elements of Harry’s environment becomes.  In addition to the wizards that he is nominally a member of, he has varied bad relations with the Three (Black, White and Red) Houses of vampires, the Summer and Winter Queen’s faerie realms, an assortment of demi-gods, several types of lycanthropes, zombies, ghosts, Christian Knights a Chicago Mafioso and any number of demons and devils.

And in addition to the growth of the fantasy landscape, Harry himself grows in the telling.  He starts out as an almost ridiculous figure of fun who barely survives only because he heals very well.  But across the series of stories he takes on the characteristics of a hero.  He loses those he loves and sacrifices his own well being to protect his neighbors and innocents who are often thrust into the jaws of death by proximity to Harry’s homicidal enemies.  And we see Harry’s relationship with Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of the Chicago PD evolve.  They start out as uneasy allies.  But owing to the impossibility of reconciling the requirements of human law enforcement with the reality of battling supernatural monsters they often found themselves as adversaries.  Over time they become as close as family and Karrin ends up as probably Harry’s closest friend on earth.

We meet members of Harry’s bizarre extended family including a half brother who is part vampire and his god-mother who is a powerful faerie in the Winter Queen’s Court.  And Harry even becomes a father although under very tragic circumstances.

This is all just a rambling miscellany of some of the elements of this series that come to mind.  No new volume has come out since 2014 so my memory of it isn’t crystal clear.  But what is certain is that this is a fantastic series of urban fantasy books that entertains on multiple levels.  The story telling is compelling.  The characters are memorable and interesting, the evil ones no less than the good, and Harry most of all.  And Harry Dresden becomes a familiar and likable friend whose acquaintance you look forward to renewing in each book.  The whole series is a first-person account in Harry’s voice.  You laugh as his crappy Volkswagon Beetle gets smashed for the hundredth time by some monster and has to be repaired on the cheap again because Harry is always broke.  You recoil in shock when Harry’s pathetic unheated basement apartment, so often attacked by supernatural forces, is finally burned to the ground.

I’ll cut this short here.  I highly recommend the Dresden Files novels.  I haven’t read any of the independent short stories that have been added to the corpus recently so I won’t vouch for those.  I’m hoping someday Jim Butcher will give us more of the series.  They are excellent.

The Brave and the Bold: Book 3 of the Hidden Truth by Hans G. Schantz – A Science Fiction Book Review

Last year I reviewed the preceding volume in the series, “A Rambling Wreck,” and found it a good read.  This year the author graciously provided me with an advanced copy so I have been able to enjoy the present work before the general public.  Ah, behold the awesome power of the Press!

 

I will summarize the type of story it is and then give my opinion on the quality of the story.  The narrative has science fiction elements that include alternate time lines, secret societies, possibly alien creatures and advanced technologies.  It also has elements that would be found in a techno-thriller including conspiracy theories, secret government cabals and corrupt bureaucracies.  But much of the story could just as easily be found in the pages of daily news sites.  There are progressive organizations infiltrating government, university and industry hierarchies with the intent of implementing speech and thought codes and suppressing non-progressive ideas.

 

The story revolves around the ongoing attempt by the protagonists to infiltrate the Civic Circle, attack it and expose it for the evil cabal that it is.  The Civic Circle is the hidden hand behind all the progressive and globalist initiatives going on around the world.  They control enormous wealth and have members at the highest levels of government in the United States and elsewhere.  They have control of the FBI, powerful judges, captains of industry and press, education and entertainment leaders.  They also restrict research into areas that might threaten their stranglehold on advanced technology that is the basis for the “Hidden Truth” aspect of the series.  This hidden truth is the misunderstood nature of electromagnetic phenomena and how it interacts with quantum effects and the basis of reality and time-space.  This is how the alternate time-line aspect of the story relates to the techno-thriller elements.  The technology allows the Civic Circle to know where a crucial event will occur and use force to steer the future the way they desire.  That is why in this timeline there was a President Gore and the 9-11 attack destroyed the Capitol Building.  And President Gore is assassinated and leads to a President Lieberman.  Mixed in with all this is a subplot that is either some kind of occult activity or advanced technology masquerading as the occult.  The good guys include a college engineering student (the hero), a pick-up artist, Vatican ninjas, a Chinese tong group and a Georgia paramilitary group.  Without a doubt the sensibilities and allegiance of the good guys is right-wing.  The Left is always characterized as the corrupt and generally evil side of the population.  In general, the multi-culti progressive values and ideas are pounded on pretty relentlessly in the book.  But since the plot identifies the progressive agenda as the method being used by the Civic Circle to gain complete control over all aspects of western society this characterization aligns with the plot of the story.

 

So how well did the story do its job?  The plot is very intricate and the action moves back and forth as various characters and events influence it.  The main characters have matured since the last book and are involved in all the responsibilities and danger facing their clandestine group.  And in this book the outcome is much more substantial and critical to moving along the overall narrative.  In other words, big stuff is going on.  Being an installment in a series the pay-off is only partial and only some information is added to solving the mysteries of the “hidden truth.”  But there is a satisfying ending to the episode.

 

Who will like this book and who won’t?  First off, if you are big proponent of multi-culturalism or intersectionality you will consider this book an insult to your world view.  In general, if you dislike the right wing you might not be sympathetic to the main character’s point of view and this could ruin the story for you.  Those folks aside, this story will appeal to folks who like hard science fiction, techno-thrillers and anyone who really, really dislikes the Left.

 

I would say it would appeal to people who liked Heinlein’s story Revolt in 2100.  In both stories you have a young protagonist who is mentored by an older character while fighting for the overthrow of a corrupt and totalitarian regime.

 

And finally I liked the story myself.  This volume has definitely increased the interest by making the action much more significant and making the protagonist a more important actor in the drama.  At several points there is excellent suspense when the character is being interrogated by the spymasters of the Civic Circle.  Hans Schantz has crafted his story with loving details.  Everything from the IT needed to infiltrate the Civic Circle’s information network to the architectural details of the lair of the evil Civic Circle.  And for real science fans he goes on to tell us outside of the narrative that some of the Hidden Truth is actually scientific fact that he himself is documenting in peer reviewed papers.

 

I heartily recommend The Brave and the Bold.

The Monster Hunter Files – A Fantasy Book Review

Larry Correia has successfully built up the Monster Hunter brand to the point where other authors like John Ringo and Sarah Hoyt have now penned volumes of the series.  I have not previously read any of these non-Correia additions to the MHI world but I wasn’t worried about continuity problems when I picked up the Monster Hunter Files short story collection.  After all, when you let other authors share in your fictional world you are assuming that their writing style will be different and that they will be interested in different aspects of that world or at least emphasize things differently.

And this is definitely the case for the authors and stories in this collection.  In some cases, authors with established characters are embedding these known quantities into the MHI world.  When that happens the fans of that author will be the ones who can best judge if the character was faithfully transplanted into the MHI universe.  But Larry’s fans are the ones who will decide if the fit is successful.  There are seventeen stories in the collection with writers as well-known as Jim Butcher, John Wright, John Ringo and Jonathan Maberry.  And there are authors that are less well known.  But the success of the stories also depends on whether the author’s take on the material fits well with the MHI style.  And finally, the individual reader will provide the most important component of what is a good or bad story, namely his individual tastes.

And indeed, that is the case for me.  Regardless of the skill of the author or even my taste for that author’s work, the primary consideration is whether the story is entertaining.  And that will be a continuum.  Some stories are enjoyable on several levels and can be easily identified as the stand outs.  Others may be okay and don’t rate top billing.  And some just plain don’t work for me.  Relevant to that is the interesting situation that the one Larry Correia story is not actually my favorite story in the collection.  I have to assume it’s not because the other stories are more genuinely MHI than his.  That would be hard to argue.  It’s just because they happen to be better stories by my criteria.  And this is the beauty of the multi-author anthology.  You discover new authors whose work you find you like.  My personal favorites:

1)            “The Manticore Sanction” by John C. Wright

2)            “The Gift” by Steve Diamond

Plenty of the other stories are good and were enjoyed but these two were the best for my tastes.

I would say the story collection is a success.  In fact, I see no reason why additional volumes couldn’t be published.  One idea that I think would be interesting is a volume of stories entirely from the point of view of the monsters.  This is actually sort of the case in the story “Huffman Strikes Back” by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Julie Frost.  The stories in such a volume would have to be handled carefully to make it interesting but it would be a departure and provides totally different points of view on the familiar characters and situations from the conventional monster hunting narratives.  After all there are a number of important monsters including some of the Shacklefords.  Highlighting their points of view in the stories would be entertaining and could provide insights that can’t be easily obtained from the conventional perspective.

In Praise of Brevity

Warning:  What follows is profound.  Extinguish all smiles and assume an air of philosophical introspection.  It will probably help to slightly furrow your brow.

Polonius said that “brevity is the soul of wit.”  And since Polonius was a windbag I feel that I am in good company praising it.  Maybe it’s because of Amazon and the payouts on Kindle reads.  But for whatever the reason we live in the age of the mega-novel.  More than that, we live in the age of the endless book series.  Sometimes that’s a not a terrible thing.  I’ve been enjoying the Galaxy’s Edge series.  They’re a lot of fun.  But hand in hand with this emphasis on long novels, short stories have sort of disappeared.  I freely admit that statement is an exaggeration.  I’m currently reading a collection of short stories taking place in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter universe.  There are short stories to be found.  But I can only imagine the meager income an author would earn if he limited his efforts to short stories.  I mean, what does Amazon pay an author if someone reads a ten-page short story?  Five cents?  You could see how that would limit grocery purchases.  So, I do not fault the authors who need to eat for gearing their output to the five hundred-page novel.  And the same goes for the series.  Characters that have proven popular are the obvious candidate for more success for an author.

But I want to throw my weight behind short stories.  A good short story is like a good poem.  It is concentrated creativity.  Without a doubt, Dickens or Tolstoy can create an epic creation of many hundreds of pages with a huge cast of characters that are lovingly depicted in amazing detail.  Reading this work is a feast of literary pleasures.  Without a doubt.  But if a master craftsman writes a short story barely two dozen pages long it can be a revelation.  Like some kind of minimalist sketch, he can use a few brush strokes to bring life to a story or a character.  And the effect can actually be more vivid than the grand epic.  Carefully done, the few words can resonate with the soul where the hundreds of thousands merely numb.

I love short stories.  Let me clarify.  I love really well written short stories.  Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, Jack London, Kipling.  And in science fiction, Sturgeon, Ellison, Dick, Aldiss.  These authors have produced short stories that stand out as original and memorable.  They leave an impression on the mind that can be indelible.  And of course, not every short story they did is in that category.  But that’s okay.  It’s the exception that proves the rule.  After all it was Sturgeon’s Law that says that “90% of everything is crud.”

 

I’ll list a few of my favorite short stories.  If you feel like playing leave a few of yours in the comments.

To Build a Fire by Jack London

Counterparts by James Joyce

The Dead by James Joyce

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 8) – Message for the Dead – A Science Fiction Book Review

Spoiler Alert!  I discuss some plot details.  If you don’t want to know, then long story, short, it’s another great addition to the Galaxy’s Edge series.  It’s full of daring heroics, brilliant battle scenes and fascinating characters trying to survive the downfall of the Galactic Republic.

Up until “Message for the Dead,” Jason Anspach and Nick Cole had made their series, Galaxy’s Edge about the conflict between the factions fighting for control of the Galactic Republic.  The Legion has attempted to maneuver in the military, moral and political space between the corrupt civilian government of the Republic (The House of Reason) and the active military enemies of the Republic represented by the zhee, the Mid Core Rebellion (MCR) and the Black Fleet Forces of Goth Sullus (now known as the Empire).  But by the conclusion of the previous volume (Turning Point) the Legion had used their constitutional authority to denounce the House of Reason, to force an investigation of their corruption and to call for new elections.  This looked like a step forward to resolving the crisis and allowing the Legion to concentrate on the external military threat.  Hah!

In Message for the Dead FUBAR is the order of the hour and all hell breaks loose.  The main battle scene in the space around the Republic’s capitol planet Utopion is a swirling cauldron of death for all the fighting forces, Republic Navy, Legion, Black Forces and the MCR.  But none of them are prepared for the arrival of the Cybar.  They are the biggest wild card in the battle and their allegiance is misunderstood by most of the combatants.

And in this book, we finally learn the depths of X’s duplicity.  He’s been using the Legion, the House of Reason and the Black Fleet as chess pieces in his own merciless campaign to reshape the Galaxy’s government through violent crisis.  We finally get to hear his specific plan and his self-justification from his own lips.

And in the foreground of the story is the Legion’s best soldiers, Victory Squad.  In various situations, they and their friends fight to save civilization from the predators and the tyrants.  But by the end of the story they are fighting just to stay alive.  At the beginning of the book Captain Keel recruits friends and even enemies to help him rescue his shipmates from the Cybar mother ship.  By the end of the book Keel is called on to repay the favor by rescuing Major Chun and all that is left of Victory Squad from the midst of a planetary extermination operation being perpetrated by the Cybar.

Well, now that Anspach and Cole have destroyed everything in sight I guess they’ll have to write about ten more books to try and put humpty-dumpty back together again.  These boys are really getting it done.  I read these books as fast as I get my hands on them.  They balance the story between the military action, science fiction elements and the human interest in the characters.  The sheer number of characters they create is impressive but the detail is there and that helps keep the reader’s interest from flagging.

Interestingly, the story is now introducing an aspect that seems to be an echo of older mythology.  It’s too early to tell but I think there is an almost Tolkienian plot element being introduced.  Of course, this is a guess on my part.  What has occurred is so far only a suggestion of a plot direction.  We’ll see.

Hail Galaxy’s Edge.  Long may you torture your legionnaires and my bank account.

My Annual Halloween Celebration

Lichen on Monument
The Raven is a Wicked Bird

 

Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays as a kid and in my heart of hearts I haven’t really progressed far from that.  I guess I’m not a progressive.  So here is the advantage to being in business for more than a year.  The calendar allows you to recycle stuff you did last year.  I did movie reviews of the Universal Classic Monster Movies and a few other related films last year and I’ll recycle them around for the Halloween season.  And I’ll add some additional films to avoid the label of laziness.  I’ll also try to find some other Halloween content.  I guess Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is sort of the quintessential American story for this time of year.  But there are all kinds of other stuff out there from Poe to (yikes) Lovecraft to even that lefty doofus Stephen King.  So stay tuned and I’ll start cycling those in.

 

 

04OCT2018 – OCF Update

Looking ahead, I will be reviewing a few science fiction and fantasy books.  I’m currently reading the pre-release copy of Hans G. Schantz’s third volume in his “Hidden Truth” series.  It’s called “The Brave and the Bold.” It’s a combination of a techno-thriller and a parallel history story.  I’m only about halfway through but there are all kinds of nice touches.  And the technical stuff is 100% legit.  And there are a couple of other books in the hopper.  Larry Correia edited a collection of short stories by famous (and not so famous) fantasy writers writing in his Monster Hunter universe called “The Monster Hunter Files.”  Then there’s the next volume in the Galaxy’s Edge series called “Message for the Dead.”  So, it’s a busy reading month ahead.  I have some movie reviews coming up and I want to go through some of my older photo collections for fresh content for the photo of the day.  And I’ve got to keep up with my Trump vs … series.  President Trump is sure to get involved in political mayhem sometime soon and he’s sure to bring along his long-suffering buddy Mike Pence and fixer Mad Dog Mattis for clean up.  And of course the daily drum beat of SCOTUS confirmation lunacy and mid-term skullduggery along with the baleful shadow of Mueller will provide me with plenty of fresh fodder for my political blather.

So stay tuned.

 

Galaxy’s Edge (Volume 7) – Turning Point – A Science Fiction Book Review

Legionnaire (Galaxy’s Edge) (Volume 1) by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole – A Science Fiction Book Review

(Above is the review of the first book of the series)

Followers of my reviews of Jason Anspach’s and Nick Cole’s Galaxy’s Edge series know I am an avid fan.  Each volume has expanded the scope and depth of the imaginary universe that Galaxy’s Edge inhabits.  But “Turning Point” represents a sea change in the story.  It literally represents the turning point of the war.  For whereas each volume has included heroic resistance by the Legion to the enemies of the Republic, the corrupt regime of the House of Reason has always had free rein to sabotage every effort to save the Galaxy from its many enemies.  But in this episode, the mask is off and the Legion is unleashed to fight war as war should be fought, on equal terms.  To fight a treacherous foe without quarter and pay back sadistic evil with a merciless reckoning.  How sweet it is.

The story revolves around the decision by the House of Reason to arm the barbaric zhee with cutting edge weaponry and ships.  These fictional zhee are modelled after Islamic jihadis and they have a propensity for suicide bombings and decapitations that immediately reminds the reader of the Al Qaeda maniacs hiding out in the slums of Baghdad waiting for a chance to ambush any unlucky American soldiers guarding the Green Zone or manning a Forward Operating Base (FOB).  The other bizarre touch is that the zhee have donkey heads.  Now maybe this is the authors’ idea of political humor but it is truly a weird image for me.

The House of Reason is playing some kind of three-dimensional chess where they use the Black Fleet or the zhee to weaken the Legion so that the House can maintain control of the Galaxy even if it risks one of these enemies threatening to destroy the Republic itself.

In several of the earlier volumes there have been memorable battles portrayed, especially in Attack of Shadows and Legionnaire.  But Turning Point brings it to a new level.  Several new characters are very memorable but it’s the action that stays with you.  The set up is dire and just to make sure things don’t get easier there is treachery at the highest levels.  And the zhee are so despicable it’s hard to not enjoy every single gore-flinging kill.  The struggles, reversals, heroic sacrifices and exhausted victories keep your attention right to the end of the book.

And finally, the end of the book is a catharsis that the readers have been waiting for since book one of the series.  I won’t spoil it by giving details but I will say that the writers have given the readers what they needed and deserved, revenge.

Anspach and Cole have justified my loyalty through the whole series and now I’ll continue on to (!) Book Eight?  Sure, why not?  How many modern science fiction series not only provide fantastic mil-sci-fi action but also make fun of Progressives, the Deep State, Democrats and Al Qaeda all at the same time?  Not many that I know of.  So, in the words of the Legion, KTF and Ooah!