The Very Amusing Douglas Adams

I remember the moment very clearly: I was with my friend Erica at a writer’s conference in 2001, when we learned that Douglas Adams had passed away. It was the first time I was really struck that an author I enjoyed would no longer write something, and we both commiserated over the book that really really loved: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I read this book a number of times over the years, and I’ve always been struck at how *funny* it is. It’s remained so in that time, and one of the things I was later surprised at was how the book came to be. It’s alternatively been a radio show, audio drama, novel, television series and movie, and remained ridiculously popular throughout the whole time. I’ll even admit that I enjoyed the filmed version.

Go read The Very Amusing Douglas Adams over on Kirkus Reviews:

Sources:

  • The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide: Complete and Unabridged by Douglas Adams. I don’t know what happened to my original paperback copy, but my wife owns the omnibus edition, which has a very good introduction by Adams, which provides some good details about how the story came to be.
  • Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion by Neil Gaiman. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman wrote a guide to Hitchhiker’s Guide. This isn’t a great source most of the time: Gaiman assumes that you’ve read other texts, such as Webb’s biography, and there’s a weird apologetic “This has been covered elsewhere” attitude throughout some of it, but there’s some interesting details that come out about the creative process.
  • Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb. Nick Webb, who originally commission the novel, wrote the official biography after Adams’ death, and it’s full of details, interesting facts about Adams’ life.

Review: The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, by Mary Pilon

For me, the best types of history books are the one that look at something that seems innocuous, but turns out to be a small part in a much larger story. Mary Pilon’s history The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game is one such book, and it’s an excellent look at the history of the board game Monopoly and how its history is murkier than one would ever expect. The board game you likely played as a family has a long, fascinating and exciting story behind it, and a story that ties into tax philosophy and business practices from major game maker Parker Brothers.

The commonly recounted history of the game goes like this: one man, Charles Darrow, unemployed during the Great Depression, went into his basement to make up a game to keep his family entertained through the dark times the country was going through. He emerged with Monopoly, and ended up selling it to Parker Brothers. He gets paid, Parker Brother has a hit on their hands, and the country gains a beloved pastime.

That’s not the full story, however. Pilon recounts the story of Lizzie Maggie, an advocate for a single-tax system and feminist activist who came up with the game’s immediate forerunner, The Landlord Game, patented it and continued on her way. Interestingly, the game was one that sought to demonstrate how rent created wealth inequality. Over the following years, the game and numerous imitators sprang up across the Northeastern United States, particularly in Quaker communities. From the early 1900s, the game was a popular pastime.

In the 1930s, Darrow was introduced to the game, and after some tinkering, he sold the game to Parker Brothers, passing it off as his own creation. The company didn’t look too deeply into Darrow’s story, and pushed his own creation narrative on the public, and it slowly became accepted fact as the game’s popularity skyrocketed.

This is a story of intellectual property, and Pilon deftly picks up the story with an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, who had created a game titled Anti-Monopoly. His game touched off years of litigation between himself and Parker Brothers, who had aggressively defended their product and its trademark. In the course of his work to try and save his own game, Anspach uncovered much of the hidden history of the game to support his legal argument that Monopoly had been widely known to the general public.

Pilon goes through the history of Monopoly’s predecessors to help with the main objective of the book: looking at how Parker Brothers took the game over, repackaged it and maintained a firm hold on the game, warding off any potential competitor through litigation: ironically, creating a monopoly of their own. Parker Brothers doesn’t come off well here, and this is where the book feels like it could have been a bit better. A disclaimer in the back of the book notes that Parker Brothers refused interviews, which is a shame: there’s an interesting story from their side about how they created a national past time, especially when you begin to consider how important they are to the board gaming industry. Some of the more interesting parts of the books are the insights into the formation of Parker Brothers.

Additionally, the last half of the book is wholly focused on the trial and legal issues: it makes for an interesting David and Goliath story, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more. Parker Brothers has exploded the game in the last couple of decades, from publishing licensed versions of Monopoly (I have a copy of the Star Wars version at home), to the games companies like McDonalds and Shaws have run year after year: there’s nary a mention here, which would have been interesting to see.

Regardless, The Monopolists does what most good, readable (read: Non-academic) nonfiction titles do: they present an interesting and exciting story that plays out well and serves to look at the much larger picture surrounding it. Here, we see a bit of the social fabric of the United States at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. For me, fondly remembering the endless games I played with my siblings, it’s an interesting read that imparts some new trivia and context for those many hours we spent passing go and collecting $200.

A. Merritt and Plausible Science Fiction


Last column, I wrote about Jack Williamson, and in doing so, I came across another name frequently: A. Merritt. Merritt was an pulp author in the early days of science fiction, and was highly influential to a number of other authors. His career as a journalist and his numerous short stories helped to reinforce some of the character of science fiction: he helped to establish speculative fiction as a genre, not through his imagination, but through his presentation of his characters and scenarios. This is a distinction that I feel is important: it’s a characteristic that most science fiction stories hold to.

Plus, I love that cover up above. It’s wonderful.

Read A. Merritt and Plausible Science Fiction over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950, Mike Ashley. Ashley has some good contextual information here, and Merritt shows up a couple of times.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, Eric Leif Davin. Merritt shows up a couple of times here, as he was influenced heavily by Francis Stevens.
  • A. Merritt: Reflections in the Moon Pool, Sam Moskowitz. This is a longer biography of Merritt’s life, authored by genre historian Sam Moskowitz. There’s historiographic issues with Moskowitz’s writing (he rarely cites sources and relies on ancedotes), but there seems to be some decent information here, as well as some good commentary.
  • Merritt, A. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has some good information here about Merritt’s life and career.

VeriCon Schedule

This weekend, I’ll be attending VeriCon at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. Here’s where I’ll be:

  • Friday: 7pm – 8pm, Editing and Translating Genre Fiction. (With Ken Liu, Alex Shvartsman, Patrick Nielsen Hayden)
  • Sunday: 10am – 11am, Military SF and Fantasy (With Luke Scull, Ken Liu, Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

The full schedule for the weekend can be found here!

Jack Williamson’s Space Operas

Space Opera is a genre near and dear to my heart, and as I’ve written for Kirkus Reviews, it’s clear that space opera is one of the genres that’s been a central focus of science fiction: the idea of travelling through space and visiting new worlds is a particularly interesting one. Space Opera has changed over time, and one of the authors responsible for setting up some modern styling of it is Jack Williamson, who enjoyed a particularly long career as an author.

Go read Jack Williamson’s Space Operas over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Writers, Robert Belier. There’s an excellent biographical sketch here in this book.
  • Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Katheryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. Hartwell and Cramer have a good overview of the history of Space Opera in their anthology, and Williamson has some pointed remarks in it.
  • The History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts. Roberts has some good comments about Williamson’s place in genre history, as well as some of the other authors writing around that point in time.
  • Williamson, Jack. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction likewise has some good contextual information on Williamson and his career.

Book Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s latest addition to his Old Man’s Warseries, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy – that’s just the first episode.

Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.

The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.

The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.

I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.

The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.

When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.

I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)

The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.

The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.

Book Review: Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis

In the introduction for The Other Half of the Sky, the book’s editor Athena Andreadis describes space opera in less than glowing terms: “Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And therein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.”

They’re harsh words for an incredibly popular genre: after all, when you lump in television and film, you’re essentially describing what most people think of as science fiction. But, they’re necessary words, because she’s completely right: space opera, and most of the Golden Age of SF, has often been described as being the age of 12. Andreadis’s anthology seeks to put together a group of stories that paints a picture of the other half of the sky’s occupants, and this book succeeds at its task in grand fashion.

The Other Half of the Sky is an impressive anthology of 16 stories, with an equally impressive group of authors. Well known authors such as Vandana Singh, Joan Slonczewski, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Martha Wells, and Jack McDevitt are all included in this book, as well as several authors who were new to me: Christine Lucas, Kelly Jennings, Sue Lange, Nisi Shawl, and a couple of others. I first came across this anthology at the 2012 ReaderCon, where several authors held a reading of their works in the book. Then, it sounded interesting. In my hands, the book is an impressive group of stories.
The space opera of the 1950s contains a certain formula of characters and plot types: frequently, we’d have stories of plucky scientists discovering something extraordinary, heroes finding themselves in situations from which they had to extracate themselves, and some sort of logical puzzle that was solved through the protagonist’s wits and bluster. That’s an overly simplifed version, to be sure, but after a while, it gets boring. The Other Half of the Sky opens up a range of stories that aren’t necessarily new, but they’re not seen nearly as often.

Political and sociological intentions aside, this is a hell of an anthology. Ken Liu’s story, ‘Shape of Thought’ is an interesting take on family dynamics, while ‘Mimesis’, by Martha Wells, puts together a really cool alien world and society. One of my absolute favorite stories, however, is ‘Velocity’s Ghost’, by Kelly Jennings, following a bounty hunter in deep space. There’s certain value in a book that has positioned itself to make a statement, but there’s a greater value when the focus falls equally on the quality of the stories: this anthology focuses on the latter.

There’s a pointed message in this book: we can do that too, and in light of an entire range of conversations brewing around the SF community as of late, this book should be considered required reading. Far too often, it seems that there’s an attitude that women can’t or simply don’t write the sort of hard SF and space opera that’s traditionally been published. This book utterly crushes that assumption with its incredible range of stories and superior level of writing that’s consistent throughout the entire anthology. The Other Half of the Sky is an anthology that’s long overdue, and I hope that it’ll serve as a good example for future authors and readers in the genre.

The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish

There’s always a rush to try and get to the bottom of where science fiction comes from. I think it’s a bit of a losing proposition, because of how murky everything gets. You can, however, pull out a lot of authors and point to them as forerunners. Case in point, Margaret Cavendish, who wrote a novel called The Blazing World, which accompanies some of her own scientific commentary.

Go read The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss. Aldiss touches on Cavendish’s book and a bit of her career.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts likewise covers Cavendish and her early career as an author and a bit of her life.
  • Mad Madge: The Exraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the first woman to live by her pen, Katie Whitaker. This is a fantastic biography of Cavendish and her life and works.

Online:

  • Cavendish, Margaret. This entry provides a good amount of information on The Blazing World and its place as a forerunner work of the genre.

Review: Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh

A common trait in science fiction literature is the promotion of the possibilities that are afforded by technology.

The standard of living for much of the population in the United States and other western countries seem to confirm this idea: technology makes our lives better. What’s less understood is how with technology, complications arise in ways that are unexpected. This is never more apparent in Will McIntosh’s latest novel, Love Minus Eighty.

A century from now, humanity has conquered death in some unexpected ways. Cryogenics, a favorite escape in a number of science fiction novels, has been perfected, and the average person can expect a long and healthy life. If you’re wealthy, or critically important to your job, you can expect to be revived in the instance of an accident or suicide. If you meet certain beauty criteria, you can be placed in a Dating Center, where the wealthy can try and find the perfect match, frozen in the minus eighty. It’s a terrifying concept.

That’s exactly what happens when Rob accidentally runs over Winter with his car. Both were running from a hard breakup, and devastated, Rob scrapes up the several thousand dollars needed to visit Winter, confess his role in her death, and try to vindicate himself. After several visits, he falls head over heels for Winter, who’s time is slowly running out in the Dating Center. Along the way, he meets Nathan, Winter’s ex, and his friend Veronika, both of whom are dating experts who match people up with their perfect counterparts. What follows is a tangled, intricate dance of relationships between the group that forms, all of whom band behind Rob as he works to save Winter’s life.

This is where McIntosh is in firm territory. His prior novels, the fantastic Soft Apocalypseand Hitchers, are, at their core, about small communities of friends working together for a common cause. In Soft Apocalypse, it was trying to survive as the world declined, and there’s a lot of parallels with this novel (even a minor reference to it, early on). Love Minus Eighty does this well, first at building a group of characters who become friends, and then following them through as Rob pursues Winter and works to save her. Characters are where McIntosh works well, especially with the understanding that we’re not alone in the world: we’re supported and impacted by those around us.

In many ways, there’s no antagonist in this book, nor with Soft Apocalypse: the rotating cast of characters features people with good and bad intentions, but with no single person who’s actively countering the protagonist. Here, Rob fights for time against the big cryogenics companies whose policies will spell an end for Winter. And this is fitting, in this day and age, where we’re at the mercy of major corporations whose services we use all the time.

There’s a neat parallel narrative here as well, with the divide between the ultra rich and middle-to-poor classes very apparent. The uber rich aren’t preoccupied with normal problems or relationships. Lorelei uses both Rob and Nathan in her relationships as a stepping stone to new viewers in her own reality show that is her life, followed by thousands and millions of virtual screens in their augmented world. The men who frequent the dating centers can afford to blow thousands of dollars for a five minute visit with a frozen dead girl to fulfill their own white knight fantasies.

At the same time, there’s the awareness that the cryogenics dating centers and their policies are deeply, morally wrong. People are revived against their will, trapped in a container and brought to life for terrifying, teasing moments of time before being refrozen. It’s a wonderfully terrifying concept, and one that McIntosh is well suited for. Like his prior books, Love Minus Eighty brings together several very different themes and story elements (Dating in the apocalypse, cartoonists with ghosts hitched to their minds, cryogenic dating centers), and while there’s a bit of apprehension as the book is cracked open, that this one might be *too* out there, the pages vindicate the topic.

McIntosh is one of the best new science fiction authors of the last half-decade, and Love Minus Eighty really helps to keep up that reputation. It’s a fantastic book, filled with a rich, interesting world with a compelling narrative running inside of it. Moreover, it’s a visceral, exhilarating read that continually surprises as it plays out, and one that’ll be well worth reading during the hot summer months.

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan’s alternate Europe seen in A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, follows a young Victorian girl who has become obsessed with dragons. Writing at the end of a long life, she has begun to write her memoirs about her life’s work and adventures: the study of the mythical beasts. In this presumably first volume of many, Isabella journeys to Eastern Europe on her first expedition.

In Scirland (England) a young Isabella is fascinated at an early age by Sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures as common as birds, eventually preserving one in a jar of vinegar. This ignites a passion within her and sets her on a path of scientific exploration. A favored book is ‘A Natural History of Dragons‘, purchased by her father for his library, read over and over again throughout her childhood. Like our own Victorian era at the end of the 1800s, women faced a far more limited existence in society, confined to a regimented social life, and such curiosity is actively discouraged, a major factor that frustrates Isabella throughout the novel.

As a child, her interest with a visit by a drake on her family’s property which brings her face to face with one of the beasts. She grows out of her obsessive streak for years after her encounter, but eventually meets and marries Jacob, a man of some status, and their shared interest rekindles her curiosity. Her father, during the vetting process, ensured that her suitors were in possession of a library of their own, and as a bonus, Jacob happens to own a copy of ‘A Natural History of Dragons’. Isabella and Jacob, a somewhat happily married couple, are unconventional for their time: she’s strong willed, while he tries to keep up. Shortly after their marriage, they meet a notable explorer and citizen-scientist Lord Hilford and are invited along on an expedition to Vystrana (really, the Balkans or somewhere nearby in Eastern Europe), where they’re to study the dragons of the region. There, they find a bit more than they’re expecting.

A Natural History of Dragons is an interesting book with a lopsided structure that will undoubtedly smooth out if another adventure is written about Lady Trent. There’s clearly an episodic nature here, and it’s frustrating at points to see references to other, untold adventures, where there’s clearly the intention to write more later, rather than simply allowing the book to rest on its obvious strengths. The story also has less to do with dragons than I anticipated going into this read: while they’re a central focus of the plot, they’re seen only sparingly, while during the second half of the novel, a subplot with smugglers and local politics is the main driver of the story.

Setting the novel up as a fictional memoir out of the Victorian era is an interesting choice. Steampunk has been an immensely popular subgenre of late, and while this doesn’t have any overt steampunk features, it’s a good example of fiction looking back into the past for inspiration. It’s a particularly well-timed novel, as it features a female protagonist who’s cutting against the cultural grain in a time where women were expected to hold to a certain model. Reading this as the Violence Against Women Act was renewed by the United States Congress is a pertinent reminder that the role women play in speculative fiction is a highly relevant one, and it’s fantastic to read a story led by the strong-willed Isaella, who’s armed with her wits and intelligence to both conduct research and solve a mystery. A Natural History of Dragons harkens back to the era of Science Romances, science fiction written during a time when there was much unknown about the world, before blank points on the maps had been filled. It lends much to the style of stories from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, with a real modern sensibility. While the story is ostensibly a fantasy, it has the heart of a science fiction novel, in the spirit of exploration and scientific endeavor.

Finally, an added element to A Natural History of Dragons is the artwork. Drawn up by Todd Lockwood, who’s known for his distinctive dragons, this novel has one of the more striking covers to grace the front of a novel in recent years. In addition to that, there are a number of illustrations throughout the book’s pages, presumably drawn by Lady Trent. It’s an added touch to the story and the entire packaged product. In my opinion, the cover alone makes the price of admission worth it.

A Natural History of Dragons is at its heart, a nostalgic book: there’s adventure to be had, with a cast of characters out to find adventure and knowledge at all ends of the Earth. It reminds me much of such stories as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where science and exploration were the central focus and it’s a good viewpoint to have. At the end of the day, Brennan’s novel is a fun read, and I’m hopeful that more adventures of Lady Trent are forthcoming.