Book Review: The Burn Zone, by James K. Decker

The fast-paced world of James K. Decker’s The Burn Zone is an excellent example of a growing movement within the genre: a recognition that Planet Earth is a complicated and diverse place. Here, we have a society that isn’t a cookie cutter facsimile of the United States and where the protagonist isn’t a Caucasian male. Taking place in cyberpunkish Hangfei, Xiao-Xing (Nicknamed Sam) blasts through the city where she’s pursued by a number of parties who will stop at nothing to keep her from unraveling their destructive plans.

The Burn Zone takes place sometime in our future, where Earth’s population has swelled to beyond fifteen billion people, and has a new intelligent race on its surface, the Haan. The alien race has apparently come in peace: stranded, they have to roll out technology to humanity in a series of organized stages, and have begun a cooperative exchange program. Starving and looking to become a parent, Sam has become a part of this surrogate program, fostering Haan infants. Her life is turned upside down when a squad of soldiers, led by a female Haan, burst into her apartment and drag off her adoptive father. This touches off an intense read as Sam finds herself tested to her absolute limits and places her in the midst of a plot that could doom humanity.

This book rests comfortably on its well formed characters, and who band around Sam as the Haan and government agents follow closely behind. There’s Nix, an outcast Haan who had been sent to kill her, and Vamp, a hacker, who back up Sam as she tries to figure out why her adoptive father, Dragan, was dragged off for reportedly smuggling some sort of weapon into the country. His efforts to thwart his captors worked, leaving just enough clues to lead Sam and her friends on the right track to uncover the plot and derail its penetrators.

Sam is a neat central character in this book, and it’s nice to see an Asian, female character that doesn’t quite fit into the extremes of ‘tough, unemotional action girl’ and ‘emotional, vulnerable girl’. Rather, she’s somewhere in the middle: not afraid to ask for help from people who are close to her, but also strong enough to make and carry out decisions for herself. There’s a neat point where she’s offered tips to make her more desirable through plastic surgery by AI advertising, only to be shot down without a second thought.

The Haan and their back-story are also a neat element that gets unraveled as the story progresses. Inventing a wholly ‘alien’ alien race is a difficult task. How does one create something for which we have literally no context? Decker does a good job creating something interesting, yet relatable at the same time, weaving in themes of racism and environmentalism at the same time.

Finally, the world and story created here are grounded and plausible, taking equal parts District 9 and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The setting is bright with color, sound and smell as our characters crash through it, while the plot has some interesting points to make with technological innovation and the fate of the human race. There’s also a real sense that the stakes are high: Earth’s on the brink of environmental collapse due to overpopulation, and in a lot of ways, the Haan represent humanity’s only hope to survive, while Earth represents the Haan’s best chance for survival. The role which Sam plays isn’t coincidental, and it reveals quite a bit about the story that unfolds.

Decker does this entire juggling act well: he moves the action and characters along at a breakneck speed, and while his book could probably stand to shed a couple of redundant chapters, it follows a neatly organized plan that brings the reader along on a neatly plotted path. Ultimately, Decker’s characters are moralistic people who strive to do the right thing, heroes that we want to root for, who are in the right place to save their way of life. Dragan, coming across a plot to introduce a biological weapon into the country does what any good person would do: go to great lengths to pull out the firing pin before its too late. Sam is a good person for her role: she’s a rare person who’s been modified to help infant Haan, despite quite a bit of social opposition. It’s actions like these that come in handy along the way for all involved, and which ultimately aid them as the tension ratchets up. It’s a bit simplistic at points, but it’s refreshing to break away from the flood of ambiguous (but ultimately good) anti-heroes that seem to have populated the literary world in the recent years.

The Burn Zone is the equivalent of a fairly smart science fiction movie – Hollywood mechanics, but something that’s a cut above the typical summer blockbuster, and it hits a lot of the right buttons. It’s got plenty of action, a cast of smart characters, an intriguing plot that keeps the story running nicely, and a world that throws out a couple of neat surprises that don’t make me want to throw the book away. In a lot of ways, this book fits alongside some of the other recent SF thrillers, and this novel only adds to the growing ranks of solid science fiction adventures.

Captain Video and his Science Fiction Authors

While I’ve written about books and magazines for this column, there’s other mediums where science fiction lives: television and film. I haven’t talked about that much for the column (given that Kirkus Reviews is primarily a book magazine), but there’s some fascinating times when they’ve crossed over. One such case is one of the first science fiction television shows, which caught my interest based on the authors who wrote for it: Asimov, Clarke, Vance, and others. The show was Captain Video and his Video Rangers, and it’s a neat program that forms a solid branch from the literature world to the television world, helping to bring about other major television shows that followed.

As a bonus, there’s several episodes online:


Go read Captain Video and his Science Fiction Authors over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of the Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey mentions this show in passing, and how it related to the early TV world at the time.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World,
  • Thomas M. Disch. Disch also mentions this in passing, and notes that it’s a forerunner to some of the early TV shows.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer. There’s some great quotes in here from Clarke’s experience working on the show, as well as quotes from the producer, Druce.
  • Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time, edited by Larry Steckler. This fannish (read, meh) biography of Gernsback provides some good context for SF as a technological phenomenon.
  • The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television, David Weinstein. This book has some fantastic information about the DuMont network and particularly, some great details about the TV show and the behind the scenes work, although not much about the authors.

Online:

Book Review: The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

It’s little wonder that Ariel Djanikian’s debut novel is being marketed as a novel for the Hunger Gamesgeneration: a futuristic world where conventional society has collapsed is the setting for The Office of Mercy, a utopian/post apocalyptic novel that presents a dark look at the extent of sciences and a twisted form of ethics.

Taking place three centuries after a devastating event – The Storm – that decimated humanity, utopian settlements have grown in the remnants of the new world. These settlements, sealed off from the wilderness are self contained structures, housing generations of citizens who live in an ideal world where technological advances provide food, medicine and everlasting life. Supporting this life is an ethical code that seeks to reduce suffering for all of humanity, guiding the Citizens as they live out their lives. Unfortunately, there’s an enormous population of people, descended from the survivors of The Storm who etch out a living in the wilderness. America-5, Natasha Wiley’s home, and others, have taken it upon themselves to reduce the perceived suffering of those in the wilderness. Just as one might seek to put a suffering animal down, members of the Office of Mercy do the same with fire, guns and bombs.

There’s a horrifying, misguided morality to America-5’s actions, one that slowly unfolds throughout the story. The people of America 5 firmly believe that they’re doing the right and humane thing, and this is where Djanikian really presents an interesting story. All totalitarian societies require a certain level of compliance from its members, and Natasha, stationed in the Office of Mercy, regularly carries out a systematic agenda of genocide against those from the outside world. It’s not called that, of course: their term for it is a Sweep, but murder is murder, as Natasha and a growing number of individuals come to understand over the course of this novel. Natasha becomes troubled by the policies of her office’s actions after a frightening encounter with one of the outside tribes, throwing her against everything that she’s been brought up to believe. Along the way, some dark truths come out about her life and those around her.

The twist on this novel is a deterministic one: what exactly governs behavior? Is it one’s intrinsic nature that makes someone who they are, or is it one’s surroundings that define them? These are philosophical questions that have been asked since Plato, and throughout the story, we see how America-5 works to ensure that it’s citizens are all on the same page: indoctrination from an early age, mental exercises, and a common environment that reinforces positive behavior. Most stories come down on one side, but interestingly, Djanikian comes down unexpectedly with Natasha after some truly unexpected revelations about her past. I’d been expecting something conventional from the book by the latter half, but rather than throw aside the circumstances of her life and upbringing and given a choice, she embraces it in the face of what life outside of the settlement is really like.

In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing ending for the book, because it cuts against the traditional meme, but in doing so, Djanikian sets up an interesting exchange between a highly technological and science oriented side and it’s polar opposite. On one hand, you have a society that has conquered death, but in doing so, embraces horrific practices to ensure their survival. On the other hand, you have a society that’s desperate to survive, and will go to extreme lengths to do so and it’s never quite clear which side is morally superior, as both engage in some pretty horrific acts by the end of the novel.

The Office of Mercy has a number of similar elements to other recent types of books, most notably The Hunger Games; the will she or won’t she romantic subplots, the violence and overall setting. The novel’s execution has a bit to be desired, and as a result, it doesn’t quite have the spark that The Hunger Games has. But, it’s a darker and more complicated read, and it alternates between surprisingly interesting and unreservedly dull, but it’s a story that has real legs throughout, presenting a number of fairly traditional dystopian ideas and turning them just a bit. It’s not a rehash of the same material, but a slightly new take, which makes the book an interesting and worthwhile read.

Book Review: Fade to Black, by Francis Knight

Francis Knight does what so many fantasy authors fail to achieve: create a fantastic world in which to play.

In Fade To Black, pain-mage Rojan Dizon works in the shadows of Mahala, finding people who need to be found, trying to stay a step in front of the law. When his niece is kidnapped and taken to The Pit, Rojan must follow, where he finds that he’s going to be put up against every boundary he has.

The city of Mahala is built up, not out. Bound by mountains on either side, the Mahala is a tall metropolis that shoots into the sky, with a complex, dystopian society run by a ruling elite. Rojan makes his living in this environment, using his forbidden powers sparingly, to avoid detection from the ruling elite. Journeying to the roots of the city, Rojan is in pursuit of his niece, and comes across a world that he never expected, sealed off from the upper levels of the city. There, he encounters Pasha and Jake, a pair of outcasts who have their own agendas that coincide with Rojan’s.

Fade To Black is an engaging, but flawed read. Knight takes a closed, claustrophobic world and spins an interesting story within the walls of Mahala, populated with some solid characters and underlying themes that come together more or less as expected. The book is hard to put down throughout the first half, and while the middle slows considerably, everything flows along pretty well throughout.

The novel works well as a sort of pulp-thriller. A noir-ish detective is pulled into a mystery that grows as the character digs (or in this case, descends) deeper into their surroundings. Knight has set up Mahala as a neat metaphor for overwhelming corruption, and we see firsthand the effects of this when Rojan does go below. Starting with the disappearance of his niece, he uncovers a horrifying truth to the true nature of the city and just what the city’s rulers have allowed under their watch. Overall, while the plot is solid, Rojan and the rest of the characters feel like they’ve being snapped into a rigid framework that leads them through points A, B and C, inorganically. The result is a quite a bit of treading water through some ‘character moments’ that feel like they’re just biding time in at points. A romance between characters is forced at points, and ultimately, what slows the book down is the distraction from Rojan’s main goal: rescue his niece.

Unfortunately, Rojan feels far more out of water than he should: an archtype anti-hero right out of a ’30s detective story, it feels as though he’s further along in his character development than he should be. When he’s in his element in the upper levels of the city, he’s just fine, but as he drops lower into the underside of the city, it’s clear that he’s far more clueless than previously thought. He’s ignorant of the underworld’s entire existence, he flounders around with two companions for much of the middle of the book before going through a sort of internal dialogue about his willingness to use his powers. It’s frustrating, in many ways, because it feels very backward.

This isn’t to say that this is a bad book: far from it. At its heart, Fade To Black is a pulpy, noir-ish adventure, one that is engaging and quite a bit of fun to read. While flawed at points, Knight’s debut work is an unconventional fantasy, one that is a nice departure from the pseudo- Medieval European setting and modern day urban fantasy stories that seem to populate the bookshelves now. With two more books (Before The Fall and Last To Rise)set to be released later this year, readers won’t have long to wait before we’re treated to new adventures in Mahala.

The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling

My latest column on Kirkus Reviews combines a couple of things that I’ve been looking to talk about for a while now: how did major changes in the bookselling industry change how books were being written and sold to publishers?

There was a bit of a convergence of topics here. Last week, I looked at the rise of paperback publishing and how that impacted the SF world. This week was a bit of an extension of that, looking at the effects of a paperback boom on authors. At the same time, there were a number of other things happening in the bookselling world: bookstores were rapidly changing as major chain stores rose out of suburban shopping malls, while the paperback boom ended, killing a lot of careers.

Some of this has some particular interest for me, because I used to work at a Waldenbooks in college, and ended up getting laid off when Borders went under.

Paradoxically, we see some of the genre’s best known authors doing exceptionally well for themselves as the 1980s progressed: authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke each made millions on their new books, due in part to the way books were sold in the new stores.

Go read The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • I, Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov. Asimov recounts how Foundation’s Edge came about, with an encouragement from his publisher to write a new novel in the series.
  • The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey talks a little about the late 1970s here, which was helpful for this piece.
  • Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert. Brian Herbert recounts how his father was talked into writing more Dune novels.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, Neil McAleer. McAleer talks about how Clarke was talked into writing a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, Laura J. Miller. Miller’s book is a very interesting look at the history of publishing, and has a chapter that was very helpful here.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about how Heinlein’s books sold in high numbers during this period, but also specifically how they sold in chain stores.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, by John B. Thompson. This book contains a lot of information on the nature of the bookselling business, particularly towards the rise of chain stores.

Thanks are due as well once again to Betsy Wollheim and David Hartwell, who answered several of my questions.

Book Review: London Falling, by Paul Cornell

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After Rob Toshack, London crime boss, dies a horrific death while being interrogated, four members of the London Metropolitan Police Service encounter something in a crime scene that gives them the Sight. Transformed, they’re now able to access an entirely new London, one that’s more dangerous than they ever thought possible.

Paul Cornell’s latest novel London Falling is a fast-paced police procedural with a twist: it’s also a clever urban fantasy novel that brings in all manner of the paranormal to policing. It’s a book that balances both genres superbly, and it’s one that’s hard to put down.

Following a sting operation, officers Quinn, Constain, Ross and Sefton find themselves with paranormal powers. An occultist version of London appears before them: they see ghosts, remnants of the past, and most importantly, a suspect that adds a new dimension onto the case on which they’ve been working. With this new power, they do the only thing that they know how to do: tackle the problem with their tools and knowledge as police officers. The team finds themselves after Mora Losley, a centuries-old witch who has a penchant for the West Ham United football club, and child sacrifices. Helping out mobsters like Toshack, she’s existed in a state of revenge for centuries, using her skills and craft for horrific evil and longevity.

Cornell, who’s worked in the comics, television and literary markets, has been named a triple threat by George R.R. Martin, and it’s easy to see why: London Falling is a deceptively easy novel to start, before he cranks up the pressure, delivering an impressive story that’s complex, emotional and quite a bit of fun to read.

Cornell’s phantom London is a fascinating place, bringing the book into such company with China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods. There are deep magical roots to the city, wholly dependent upon the memories, perceptions and actions of its citizens. Ghosts patrol the sites where they lost their lives; invisible ships travel up and down the Thames, and if you get onto certain buses, you’ll end up in an entirely different world. Cornell weaves this all together in a breathtakingly fresh manner, and it’s quite a bit more interesting than most of the typical urban fantasy and high fantasy magical systems that you’ll see on bookshelves today.

As vivid and interesting as the world is, however, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characters: Quinn, a cop with a strained home life, Ross, whose father was killed by Toshack, Costain, an undercover cop looking to run and escape, and Sefton, a closeted gay man with his own demons to battle. Apart, they’re a dysfunctional group with their own issues to sort out. The Sight gives them a collective purpose: put down Losley and end her terrible acts that have sustained her for so long. The quartet work through the problems of paranormal powers logically, figuring out the world around them, working out the tools that they can use, all before working to apprehend their suspect.

Memory, in a lot of ways, is the central focus to London Falling. The idea of a collective memory defining a central location is a strong one, and in a place such as London, with its very deep history is a place where stories can literally come alive, so long as enough people believe it’s true. It’s a neat thought, one that sets the book apart from the rest of the pack.There are points where this book is genuinely horrifying and gut wrenching. Losley sacrifices three young children, and their fates alternatively repulsed and riveted me to the book. More frightening than the immediate murders is her proclivity for messing with people’s memories. Not only do the parents of the children over her reign not know that their children have been horribly murdered, they can’t even remember having children in the first place. It’s a terrifying thought.

Cornell does an excellent job putting thought behind the power, and this is a book that gets better and better as you read it, all while blending a story that’s equal parts fantasy and detective thriller. While parts of it seem slightly odd on the surface: witches sacrificing children to punish football players, it comes together in utterly top form, and kept us at the edge of our seats right up to the last page. London Falling succeeds at this wonderfully, and already, we can’t wait for its sequel, The Severed Streets, which will be out in December in the UK.

Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

 

Andrew J. Liptak: When did you first read science fiction, and what about it made you stick with it?

KSR:  I began reading science fiction when I went to college, at UC San Diego in the early 1970s.  I had grown up in Orange County California, and seen an agricultural community (orange groves) get turned into a giant urban sprawl very quickly, and when I ran into science fiction it seemed like a realism to me; it expressed things I had seen with my own eyes.  That made it very appealing and I was instantly won over.  That it was the time of sf’s New Wave made it extra exciting.

 

AJL: What were some of the New Wave books that you read that excited you the most?

KSR:   Joanna Russ’s AND CHAOS DIED and THE FEMALE MAN, J.G. Ballard’s disaster novels especially THE CRYSTAL WORLD, Samuel R. Delany’s THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, Thomas Disch’s CAMP CONCENTRATION, Ursula Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Gene Wolfe’s THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, and many others.

 

AJL: What are some of the authors who have inspired you and your books?

KSR:  All of the writers in the previous list, plus Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatski brothers, Philip K. Dick, also many non-science fiction writers such as Joyce Cary, Peter Dickinson, Cecelia Holland, Virginia Woolf, and so on.  I like a lot of writers and then go from there.

 

AJL: Your background is a bit different from other science fiction novelists: you earned your PhD in English. How has that shaped how you put together your novels?

KSR:  I love reading and it is for me a kind of religion in that it is the source of my values.  So it was natural to become an English major, and I am still always reading fiction.  I like the history of the novel and feel that early novels like Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy are among the genre’s masterpieces, so I am always reading backward in the history of the novel and finding new treasures.  When it comes to how that applies to my own novels, I’m not so sure how it works; it’s very indirect.  I like reading all kinds of literature, and literary criticism too, but how all that influences me when I write my own books is mysterious to me.  Mostly I am trying to make scenes work and then put together stories.  It’s very immediate, and what I’ve read previously seems distant in those moments of creation.  But I’m sure it is helpful even if I don’t know how.

 

AJL: Your doctoral thesis was on Philip K. Dick’s novels: has his works had a particular impact on your own writing?

KSR:  There are two main aspects to it, I think.  One has to do with form, and involves Dick’s use of the roving point of view, in which different chapters are narrated from the point of view of different characters; he did that a lot, and I have too.  Then in terms of content, I like how he always featured ordinary people caught up in large historical situations, from a leftist perspective.  I’ve done a lot of that too.

 

AJL: Tell me a little bit about your Mars trilogy: When did you first realize that you wanted to write about Mars?

KSR:  I knew it when I saw the photos from the Viking orbiter, which included stereoscopic 3-D photo pairs where you could see what the landscape might look like, somewhat like early primitive versions of Google Earth.  These were NASA publications that came out in the late 1970s.  At that point I had started writing science fiction and had been hiking in the Sierra Nevada of California for some years, and so I began by writing stories about hiking around the amazing Martian landscape, which really was something quite new, revealed to us at that level of detail for the first time in 1976.  At that point I also realized that only by terraforming Mars could you actually backpack there; and there were scientific articles coming out about terraforming Mars in those years, so I paid attention to those, and thought, that would be a good story to tell.  I spent about ten years thinking about that and collecting research materials.

 

AJL: How much of an impact did those pictures from the surface of Mars have on science fiction fans, do you think?

KSR:  It’s hard for me to judge or say for sure, but I suspect they were viewed by all science fiction fans with great interest, as the community already had a strong feeling for Mars as an sf landscape, and the “dry Mars” that turned out to be the real one was portrayed by Bradbury and Clarke, so it was no great surprise or disappointment.  Possibly there was a feeling of “we knew that, but it’s nice to see the details now.”

 

AJL: You were seventeen when the Apollo 11 lunar mission landed on the moon: what were your memories of that?

KSR:  I was with my parents in Florida where my dad worked in summers at Eglin Air Force base, and I recall watching the landing on TV and feeling amazed.

 

AJL: Do you see any differences in how the science fiction community responded to Apollo 11 vs. that first Viking lander?

KSR:  Again, hard to speak for the sf community, and I only got to know it personally in the early 1980s, so this is guesswork or historical, but I think the moon landing with people was world history, whereas the Mars Viking thing was less huge, more a space science specialist thing, although it’s also true that anything to do with Mars gets a big response from the general public.

 

AJL: The Mars books cover a lot of ground: colonization, politics, corporations, environment. What particular challenges did you have when assembling the books?

KSR:   It was a long project, but I wasn’t doing anything else in those years except take care of my family as a house husband, so I had the time and the focus to go long.  The challenges I guess involved keeping a sense of the flow of the book, and keeping the balance between the various point of view characters; and then above all, figuring out what happened next in the story, why and how.  It was basically the usual novel writing problems, but extended over a long time and a lot of pages:  six years, 1700 pages.

 

AJL: What was the writing process like? In my copy of Red Mars, your blurb mentions that you were hard at work writing Green Mars. When you wrote the first book, did you know what would be in store for Book 3?

KSR:  I knew all along that I wanted to tell the story of the terraforming of Mars, and the creation of a new human society there, multicultural and in certain ways kind of utopian compared to now.  So I knew that much, which was enough to guide me through the process of figuring out what should happen along the way.  When I started writing the book, in 1989, I quickly realized that it was going to be a very long book, and my agent and editor of that time said to me, Stan, we call that a trilogy; and so I shifted the title from Green Mars, which was my idea for the title for the whole book, to Red, Green, and Blue Mars.

 

AJL: What was the publication process like, and how did you integrate any new scientific information about Mars into your books?

KSR:  Publication was straightforward, led by my HarperCollins editor Jane Johnson in England, who always got the books out first, and encouraged me greatly throughout the process; a driving force.  There was not much new information about Mars in the years I wrote, but what information there was came out packaged in a huge anthology from the U. of Arizona called MARS which came out in 1992 and gave me new things to say in GREEN and BLUE MARS.  It looked like I had saved good things for later in the trilogy, but actually I learned them while writing and did not know them before, so that was a nice thing to have happen.

 

AJL: What did you learn from your California Trilogy that you applied to writing your Mars trilogy? What did you learn from your Mars books that you applied to the ones that came after?

KSR:  Three Californias is not a trilogy in the same sense as the Mars trilogy or the 40-50-60 trilogy.  The latter two are really just long novels in three volumes, but Three Californias is a triptych of three novels each portraying a different future for California and the world.  So, what I learned from those three novels is that I could write a novel, and in writing a novel I was helped by moving around in point of view, from one character to another, so that the reader got different perspectives on the characters and the story.  Those lessons I applied to the Mars trilogy, although everything was then done on a larger scale.  Also, writing the Three Californias taught me there were things I wanted to do differently in the Mars book; I wanted to do more exposition, to talk about history directly, to tell a global story.  So there were negative lessons as well as positive lessons, you could say.

From the Mars trilogy, I learned that I could use a similar format to tell a global story that covered centuries, which helped me hugely when I wrote The Years of Rice and Salt.  After that the help was more indirect.  I think I could say the Mars trilogy made me fearless.  After doing that, I was willing to try anything.

 

AJL: Your fourth Mars book is a collection of short fiction: how did that book come to be?

KSR:  I wanted to create a context for two earlier Mars stories I had published, “Exploring Fossil Canyon” and “Green Mars,” what I called my Roger and Eileen stories, and these were a different Martian history than the one in the trilogy, so I started thinking about alternative Mars and how I could portray a kind of cloud of alternatives around my trilogy, along with some “secret histories” about relationships and so on, that had not been revealed in the trilogy but would help to explain some things.  Also more folk tales, some new stories, some poems, the Martian constitution, etc.  It became a true anthology and companion volume, not straightforward but I hope interesting if one liked the trilogy.  It helps make that book more interesting if you’ve read the trilogy first, for sure.

 

AJL: Critics have noted that one of your recent books, 2312, bears a number of similarities to your Martian books: what potential do you see for humanity in the solar system?

KSR:  Well, that’s a good question, and I guess it takes all my books to answer it.  I’ve been thinking for a long time, since Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, books from the early 1970s and early 1980s, that the solar system is our neighborhood, so to speak.  We can reach it, move around in it, establish scientific stations on various planets and moons in it.  It’s a resource, and a place to learn things about how to live on Earth.  It’s spectacular real estate.  Earth will always remain our home and our main place.  It might be best to think of the solar system in the way we think about Antarctica.  It’s there, it’s interesting and beautiful, it can help us learn how to live; it will never be our main place.  Then beyond that, meaning centuries from now, it could be that Mars in particular might become an even more human place, a second home.  But it won’t happen unless we learn how to live on Earth sustainably.

 

AJL: I attended a NASA conference where a speaker noted that modern spaceflight and exploration isn’t like the US expansion into the west, but more like the early polar exploration missions of the 1800/1900s.

KSR:  I agree with that.  It’s not the wild west, but Antarctica, that provide the more accurate analogies.  It’s like a super Antarctica up there, even colder, more dangerous, more interesting, etc.

 

AJL: Mars is one of the first destinations for science fiction, ever since someone misinterpreted the word ‘Canali’. Wells, Burroughs and Bradbury have all set stories on the red planet: did this figure into how you developed your own trilogy?

KSR:  Mars is a great science fiction story space.  In the way they talk about “The Matter of Britain” when they talk about all the Arthurian legends, sf has “the Matter of Mars.”  In each generation since the time of Percival Lowell, the Mars presented by the scientists has been taken up by sf writers to become a new story space.  All that got hugely sharpened in focus in 1969 and 1976, when Mariner and Viking gave us the planet in so much more detail than we had ever had before. But the fundamental truths of the human relation to Mars were mostly set out by Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles:  the Martians are us, we will change there, the ghosts of our stories about the place will always haunt us when we really get there.  These are permanent truths, and things I wanted to join and emphasize in my own Mars novel.

 

AJL: Do you pick up other books about Mars? Andy Weir’s debut seems to have become extremely popular (Ridley Scott is set to start filming an adaptation soon.)

KSR:  I have not read the Andy Weir book though I hear good things about it.  “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is a good story, first told around 1903, but bringing it up to date with the latest knowledge about the planet and our space program is an excellent idea.

 

AJL: There have been plans over the years for various adaptations, and last I saw, Spike TV is looking to adapt the trilogy for a television series. How is that progressing? Does it stand a better chance as a television series now that shows such as Game of Thrones have proven to be successful?

KSR:  I don’t know enough about TV to answer these questions, but I have the sense that TV in general is on the look-out for stories that are long and complex and historical in nature, partly because of Game of Thrones, so in that sense I think the time is right for filming a TV series based on my Mars trilogy, and Spike TV seems committed and serious.  So it seems very possible that it might happen.  That would be great, but for the most part I am just cheering on the people involved with this process.

 

AJL: Did you watch the Curiosity Rover’s landing? What are your thoughts on the current efforts to explore and reach Mars?

KSR:  I love Curiosity and all the other robot landers on Mars.  The clarity of their photography is just mind-boggling to me, after 25 years of looking at fuzzy Viking images.  It’s like getting glasses for the first time.  And the planet is looking more and more beautiful.  So I follow all that with great pleasure.  And I see NASA is again proposing that we go there with human astronauts, a very exciting idea.  I think it can stand for our utmost reach outward, the hardest technological thing that we can do in terms of travel, in our time.  It’s not the solution to creating a sustainable civilization, which is our first priority, but it’s very exciting and inspirational.  A beautiful project.

 

AJL: I came across a video recently called Wanderers (http://vimeo.com/108650530), which the filmmakers directly cite your books, and they really speak to the beauty of the potential for humanity in space. Do you think we have the ability to leave behind our darker elements if/when we do venture onto other worlds?

KSR:   Many have noted that this beautiful little film seems to be illustrating scenes from my 2312 and Mars books, and I would agree.  Some scenes portray things written only in my books, such as surfing the rings of Saturn, etc.  It’s a great tribute and very beautiful.

 

AJL: What can we expect from your upcoming novel, Aurora?

KSR:   I’ve tried to do my usual thing, and write about the idea of going to a nearby star system, in this case Tau Ceti, which has an array of planets we know about, and in doing so describe what would really happen in such an attempt.  So it is a novel about coping with problems, and committing to a giant adventure based on this old and great science fiction vision, the multi-generational starship, and the arrival at a planet new to humanity.

The History of Serialized SF Gets a New Chapter

The History of Serialized Fiction Gets a New Chapter

Since its early days, Science Fiction and Fantasy has told astonishing stories, but you couldn’t always find them in a bookstore, or even as a single novel.

The genre has seen many changes over the years, beginning with the magazine before the rise of a bound novel, and now, the introduction of the eBook. The pioneering SF novels weren’t released at once, but in a serialized format. Now, that might be returning.

In the early 1900s, magazines reigned supreme in the United States. One author, a destitute Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a magazine market with fiction of such poor quality, he could write something just as entertaining and just as bad. He was enormously successful with it: his first serialized stories created iconic characters and story lines, such as John Carter and Tarzan in the early 1910s, and continued for decades. Shortly after the serialization of his stories, he was able to quickly put his serialized stories back together into a single volume: Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1914, and A Princess of Marswas published in 1917. He eventually published dozens of follow-up novels.

Other authors, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, followed suit, writing up his stories, and splitting them up for the magazine market, and eventually publishing them as a single, cohesive novel. Smith, considered the founder of the Space Opera subgenre, wrote long, episodic space epics which were well suited for the pulp magazines. His first serialized series, Skylark, was assembled in 1946 with The Skylark of Space. Another was collected in 1947 as Spacehounds of IPC, while his next major series, the Lensmen, was serialized in Amazing Stories in 1934, eventually published as novel,Triplanetary, in 1948, with a number of sequels.

The first major stage existed without a dedicated market for novels, and as a result, authors found ways to get their stories published, helping to set up the demand for standalone science fiction novels. As the market for novels grew, authors began putting their short stories together into books of their own, in a type of story known as the ‘Fix-up’ novel.

One notable story, A.E. van Vogt’s, The Black Destroyer saw publication the seminal July 1939 issue of Astounding Magazine.  The story was the first part of what would be an early example of a ‘Fix Up’ novel, where several stories, not all of which were necessarily related, were re-edited and assembled into a single story. Three other short stories by Vogt, War of Nerves, published in May 1950 in Other Worlds Magazine, Discord in Scarlet, published in the December 1939 issue of Astounding Magazine, and M33 in Andromeda, appeared in the August 1943 issue of Astounding Magazine came together in 1950 to formThe Voyage of the Space Beagle.

Other novels followed in similar fashion: in the same year, Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed novel,The Martian Chronicles, contained almost 30 short stories, some of which had first appeared with the novel’s publication. Another notable book, Isaac Asimov’s collection, I, Robot, features ten short stories, all centered around Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Asimov would return for another collected novel, Foundation, considered his greatest work, assembled from four stories, Foundation, Bridle andSaddle, The Wedge and The Big and the Little, all published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1944, with a fifth, The Psychohistorians, written specifically for the novel.

The serialized novel was a popular format for authors for a couple of reasons: the science fiction market was mainly focused around the short fiction and magazine scene, and the successful authors were writing numerous stories for publication, leaving plenty of material for larger stories. Additionally, there was a much smaller market for standalone novels: full time authors, who depended upon the small paychecks that they received from magazines, found this a harder market to break into.

In the mid 1930s, publishers had begun to experiment with cheaper, mass produced books. In 1935, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane found himself looking for something to read at a train station, only finding cheap magazines. He wanted a cheap, high quality paperback, and within the year, a publishing experiment had begun: Penguin began selling their classic novels, and was immediately successful. The success spread: in 1939, Simon & Schuster introduced Pocket Books. The world had been introduced to the mass-market paperback, a new format for books.

Serialized fiction continued: while science fiction magazine markets did decline, they didn’t vanish, and authors continued to find success with longer stories that were eventually republished in a single volume. A number of notable SF novels found their way to print in this fashion: Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1960, which had originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Joe Haldeman’sThe Forever War was originally serialized in Analog Magazine (formerly Astounding), and Stephen King’s famous novel The Gunslinger were put together from various stories published between 1978 and 1981 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

As the magazine markets faded over the course of the century, the market for novels grew, aided by changing tastes in literature, and by the 1990s, fewer stories were published first in magazines before being published in a regular novel. However, a number of notable stories have followed this historical route to the bookstore.

King would later have enormous success with another serialized novel: The Green Mile, which was first published in six smaller volumes beginning monthly in March 1996, before being published as a single volume in 1997. The unique publication method earned King the title of the first author to place 6 novels on the best seller list at the same time.

Allen M. Steele’s novel Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar Exploration was initially published as a serialized novel in Asimov’s, beginning in the January 2002 issue, with Stealing Alabama, and continued with The Days Between, Coming to Coyote, Liberty Journals, Across the Eastern Divide, Lonesome and a Long Way From Home and Glorious Destiny, with the final book published together at the end of the year. A sequel, Coyote Rising, continued the story in 2004, and a third book, Coyote Frontier was written as a single novel, but wasn’t serialized.

Another author, Charles Stross, published his novel Accelerando in 2005, which was put together from a collection of stories from Asimovs between 2001 and 2004: Lobsters, Troubador, Tourist, Halo, Router, Nightfall, Curator, Elector and Survivor. The novel would eventually be nominated for the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards, and won the 2006 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

By this time, fewer stories seem to be Fix Up novels, although there are exceptions to this rule: Will McIntosh’s debut novel came together out of three of his short stories set in the same world: Soft Apocalypse, Street Hero and Dada Jihad. McIntosh noted that when the time came to write a novel, he found that the three formed the core of a connected story. The final version, bearing the title Soft Apocalypse, was released in 2011.

The major change has come with the rise of the eBook market. As the print magazine market has declined, the publishing world has moved into unknown territory. With eBook sales doing well, but conventional, mass market novels declining, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a major shift in the landscape. Where publishers were limited by the physical limitations of books, online booksellers have found an unprecedented ability to market and publish fiction of all lengths: where novellas and novelettes might have only been found from specialty publishers, websites such as Amazon.com, and online Magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and Lightspeed have the ability to publish a wide range of stories of all lengths.

In 2013, author John Scalzi began a new experiment in publishing with a serialized novel called The Human Division. Taking advantage of both electronic, audio and print media and distribution, the latest addition to the Old Man’s War universe was serialized through e-retailers with an episode a week, beginning in January. The model for these thirteen stories appears more along the lines of a television show than that of a magazine, and a completed version will be collected in a hardcover volume set for release in May 2013.

With the rise of eBooks, tablet computers, eReaders and smartphones, it’s going to be interesting to watch how the publishing world will change and adapt to new reading habits. Throughout the history of the science fiction field, it’s clear that change has been a constant and continuing factor in how readers receive their entertainment: from weekly and monthly magazines to assembled novels to electronic experiments, the serialized novel has had a constant presence on readers bookshelves, and from all appearances, will remain there for years to come.

 

Book Review: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Originally published to Geek Exchange.

When a man steals a car and drives to the end of a lane, where he commits suicide, it sets off an unfathomable horror on an English family. The premise of Neil Gaiman’s first novel in five years is the basis for a subtle, intense read that may very well be his best fantasy yet.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a man revisiting his childhood home in England, following his memories down a country lane to a house that he vaguely remembered. There, he abruptly remembers his past, and the tragic events that set into motion a horrifying presence that was unleashed against the world. A man stole his family’s car and committed suicide in it. Something has been released, and our narrator comes across a strange family, the Hempstocks, who know things that they couldn’t possibly know. The youngest, Lettie, becomes the narrator’s only hope to staying alive while dangers from around and within come for him. Lettie is a strange young girl. She claims that the duck pond in her back yard is an ocean, while her grandmother claims to remember the Big Bang.

There’s an understated feeling to this short novel, a multi-layered narrative that flows smoothly as the pages turn. It’s a story about memory and stories, and I get the sense that this is a story that is a very personal one for its author. Our young narrator is a shy, bookish boy who’s afraid of the world around him, but taking comfort in his familiar surroundings.

Gaiman strips away the comfort following the upheaval of his world. The death of the Opal Miner stirs up something dark, and unwittingly, our narrator is partially responsible for the utter terror that follows him and young Lettie Hempstock when they go to investigate. There are things beyond the world that simply do not belong in ours, and it finds its way into the places where he’s the safest. There’s a visceral sense of horror that bubbles up and grows as it slowly takes over his life and surroundings, leaving him with a single safe way out. This is a fantasy of a different caliber, one that is both subtle and powerful as the narrator observes an entirely new world around him. This is a raw novel, full of emotion, one that refused to let me go until I finished it.

There’s an almost epic sense of proportions in this novel, a tragic good verses evil story fought on the tiniest level, and it succeeds in the most heartbreaking way. Gaiman is a master storyteller, one who carefully constructs his characters and makes their lives miserable for an incredible payoff for the reader.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a powerful, masterful work of fiction, one that resonates long after the last page has been turned and the book put away on the shelf. Quite simply, this short, incredible novels is one of the best of the year, and is not to be missed.

 

Interview with C.J. Cherryh

Late last year, I wrote about C.J. Cherryh about her career for Kirkus Reviews. During the research process, Cherryh kindly agreed to be interviewed. Here’s our conversation:

Andrew Liptak:  Where did you first come across science fiction, and what about it made you stick with reading it?

CJ Cherryh: My dad gave me a copy of Tarzan and the City of Gold—when I was about 7. Before that it was comics. I graduated to Conan at about 9-10. Read every ‘lost world’ I could find and was a fanatic listener to Tom Corbett on radio. When I found books of the same ilk, I read them. Age 9-10 family got a telly and I got addicted to Flash Gordon. Beyond that, I wrote my own.

AJL: I saw that you had begun writing when you were disappointed with the cancellation of your favorite television show at a young age. Did you continue to write between that time and when you began to publish professionally?

CJC: Yes. Daily.

AJL: Where did you first come up with your first novel, Gate of Ivrel? What was the writing and publication process like?

CJC: I’d sent Don [Wollheim] Brothers of Earth and he sent me a letter saying it wasn’t quite in their size range. First time I’d gotten a publisher to answer in person, so I wrote Gate in 2 months while teaching a full schedule. Ate at the keyboard, slept when I could.

AJL: How did Donald Wollheim first come across your stories at DAW Books?

CJC: I targeted Don, finally taking a systematic approach to sending out books, because I went through my own library and investigated who was the editor who had bought most of my favorite books—figured we had similar taste.

AJL: Serpent’s Reach was your first Union-Alliance novel. How did you go about constructing that world? Was there anything particularly different about the writing and publication process from your earlier novels?

CJC: I don’t know that it was the first. But I researched real astronomy to find a couple of stars in the right relationship and built the ecology based on what I thought might result from that class star. (Beta Hydri.)

[Her first was Brothers of Earth – this question was the result of me misreading her ISFBD entry]

AJL: Your novels are notable for their female protagonists in a field that was considered male-dominated: how was this received by readers while they were being published? 

CJC: My goal is to create characters that men can identify with just the same as women identify with the male heroes. Everybody wants to be a hero in what they’re reading.

What some of the Union-Alliance influences? I decided to set up a situation in which there were no ‘evil’ superpowers, just superpowers doing what superpowers do re their own survival, and to write stories from the viewpoint of people on both sides.

AJL: Who were some of the authors who inspired you?

CJC: Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Don Wollheim, Andre Norton, and Publius Vergilius Maro.