Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dreamsnake” by Vonda N. McIntyre

Not the original cover, but the one I read and the one that will forever define the novel to me.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

I read Dreamsnake as a member of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads. It was selected in August 2020, and I had a difficult time tracking it down. It surprised me, because it was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, but apparently was out of print and only available in ebook format on sites that I hadn’t used before. Finally, I managed to track a copy down through an interlibrary loan right as Amazon put the book up free for subscribers on Audible! I promptly dove into the audiobook. 

I started reading Dreamsnake without any prior knowledge of the plot or even the premise. My impression of the possibilities were defined by the cover I put on this post-a woman riding a weird looking horse on the cover of a science fiction novel. Then, I began listening to the book and discovered a world eerily familiar to our own. McIntyre’s prose was lyrical at times and haunting all the way through. The book follows Snake, a woman who heals with the use of snakes and, we discover later, through medical technology. Her Dreamsnake died in a tragic turn during one of her healings, and she is trying to find a new one. The world is apparently post-apocalyptic, as we go past a nuclear crater that causes radiation poisoning, and there is a kind of mythos built up through the novel about a city where higher technology exists. Snake, as a healer, rides the line between the pastoral, subsistence-living settlements throughout the region and the apparent affluence and easy living of the city. 

What makes Dreamsnake most remarkable is its exploration of themes that are much less common in science fiction. For example, an extended scene shows Snake interacting with a young man, Gabriel, who has issues with controlling his sexual functioning. It’s not impotence–it’s that he apparently cannot control whether he is fertile or not–a skill that has been developed in the future. This leads to a rather lengthy scene discussing sexual mores as well as the young man’s difficulties. It’s a surprisingly tender scene in the middle of a science fiction novel, and all the more surprising because it discusses fertility issues  on the side of the man. I have never run into such a discussion in a science fiction novel, and certainly rarely in fiction more generally. Snake recommends that Gabriel go seek a better teacher for his biocontrol, which gives a way out that was somewhat unexpected. The poignancy of this scene and its exploration of a topic that is almost untouched in science fiction is reason enough to read the novel.

In the same town in which Gabriel resides, we encounter Melissa, a 12-year-old girl who was badly burned in a fire. She is a prodigy with horses but the man who runs the stable won’t let her out, claiming it’s due to her deformity. But in reality, he has her trapped in a prison of child labor and sexual exploitation. It’s nothing explicit, but the horror of the situation is palpable. Snake uses her position to rescue Melissa from the awful situation, which in and of itself is a great story. But McIntyre doesn’t leave it there. Snake then directs Melissa on where to go next, but Melissa has other ideas. She insists on going with Snake, and the child and adult have a genuine conversation in which they each give their reasoning for their choices. Snake agrees on Melissa’s reasoning and allows her to come with on her journey. McIntyre here shows an enormous amount of self-determination given to a child. It allows Melissa agency when before there was so little available for her. It’s such an important theme and one about which parents and adults in general ought to take note. Children have agency, and the more we allow them to exercise that–and get in reasoned discussions with adults to allow them to determine a course of action–the better adults they can grow into. 

This also ties into the broader theme of a powerfully feminist vision of the world we get from McIntyre in this novel. It’s not only Snake whom we see exercising autonomy and being a genuine person rather than a trope. No, we also see that it is a girl–a child of 12 years–who gets autonomy of her own. Science fiction so often uses children as prodigies with either near- or actual-divine power. The field is full of books featuring child geniuses or children with wisdom beyond their years. The alternative is usually children as props for the main characters. Here, though, Melissa is a child with no small amount of trauma who still gets to voice her concerns and get listened to by an adult woman, who in fact changes her mind based on what the child expresses. It’s such a powerful moment that even writing about it after the fact has me wanting to cheer. There are several women in this book across a range of ages who are each given their chance to shine. 

The city hides a secret, though, and as readers we never get to explore it much. We’re limited to the viewpoint of Snake, who is roundly turned away from the city when she tries to enter to find a new Dreamsnake. Here we discover much more about the Dreamsnake, which apparently was developed with offworld technology. We experience only hints of this offworld society. In fact, we don’t even know enough to truly call it a society. There are just people–humans or otherwise–who live offworld and apparently have higher technology that the city relies upon. But the people of the city, Snake surmises, are hugely inbred and in need of genetic diversity to survive. In the book, we never know what happens with the city, nor do we learn more about the offworlders. There is no sequel. It seems intentional, though. McIntyre is essentially putting a limit on our knowledge, tantalizing us with glimpses of this post-apocalyptic wasteland while keeping us intimately tied to Snake and, later, glimpses from Arevin, a man who is trying to find Snake. 

The perspective, hints of a broader world, and plot all make the book read powerfully. It’s got plenty of social commentary, as seen above, but it’s also just a great work of science fiction. There’s genetic engineering, discoveries of technology, scientific endeavor, and gritty adventure. Dreamsnake is a wonderful novel, and one that I’m sure to read time and again. I adored it. 

Links 

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I initially loved this book. The opening was awesome. There’s a large family with land in a remote part of Virginia who comes together to try to figure out what to do about all the signs of coming global apocalypse–global warming; depopulation; plague; etc. Because of this, I thought it was going to be this epic story of a family struggling to meet the coming collapse of civilization in some kind of pastoral setting.

But then, a sharp turn was taken, and the book jumps ahead a few times as we see the real story is about what happens to the clones that same family had set up to try to solve problems of depopulation in a post-apocalyptic setting. And I have to say… I was a bit disappointed. The initial characters were really just foils for the personality of the later clones, and I felt almost betrayed by the shift in premise.  But then, Wilhelm sucked me back in again with her characters and the ideas present in the book.

We have a lot of big ideas in this novel, as it concerns cloning, humanity in a post-apocalyptic future, and how a new human society with different foundations could emerge. But these ideas are in some ways overshadowed by the pastoral setting Wilhelm opts for. Like Clifford Simak, Wilhelm seems to integrate a call within the structure of the novel. That call is one which urges humans into the wild, to learn about nature, and to, perhaps, learn about humanity itself. Thus, as readers, we are treated to a number of scenes set in the forests around Virginia as the clones learn to navigate the woods while a “natural” child, Mark, teaches them what he’s learned about tracking. But these scenes made me as a reader feel like I was back in the Boy Scouts, being forced to learn the difference between a flathead and phillips screwdriver. It may be exciting for some, but I was bored out of my mind. And that’s how I felt at times while reading/listening to this book.

Going along with all of this is a kind of structure of the society, as the clones become almost psychically attached to one another. There’s no significant explanation of this, nor of how it apparently reverts to “normal” humanity in one of the main characters at one point in the novel. But the dynamics of the clone society are interesting, even as they very clearly reflect some of the society of 1970s America in which they were written. For example, the nature of sexual intimacy started by an act of putting a decorated–often floral–bracelet on one’s desired mate. It’s about as obvious a flower child metaphor as can be found. I suspect one’s mileage will vary quite a bit on this novel, depending on their tastes and even mood at the time they read it. 

I still am not entirely sure how I feel about Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. It’s by turns haunting, exhilarating, and sometimes dull. It clearly has me thinking long after the fact, though, and that’s what excites me the most about science fiction. 

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Stochastic Man” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back! January is here! After great response to my posts during last January and beyond, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

I found this a fascinating take on a time travel novel. Okay, it’s not actually a time travel novel, but it addresses quite directly some of the central questions that time travel is often associated with. The plot’s main workings are also very similar to what one might expect in a time travel novel. The story centers around Lew Nichols, who uses statistics to very effectively predict the future in broad terms. Later, he meets Martin Carvajal, who can actually see portions of the future–his own–but is quite lackadaisical about it. Nichols enlists Carvajal to help him win the Presidency for his chosen candidate, Quinn. The way it works is part of the similarity to time travel as well. Carvajal can see the future, but Nichols can only see the present and predict trends in the future. So Nichols, in his present, tells Carvajal things that are essential for Quinn to have done in order to bring about his election. Carvajal cannot see whether Quinn wins because he can’t see past his own death, which is apparently coming before Quinn gets elected (or not). But Nichols can use his statistical projection to estimate the long term impact of some of the actions. Carvajal then dutifully reports what future Nichols reported to him in their shared (future) present to the (real) present Nichols. Nichols then relays the information to Quinn and the team they’ve built to elect him.

As the two work together, questions of the unchanging nature of the future abound. Is Carvajal right in that they can’t change the future? His feelings about this means he never even attempts to do so, and one is left at the end of the book wondering whether Carvajal could have been manipulating events in his own way the whole time. Is Nichols ushering in a horrible future where his chosen candidate becomes a dictator? He’s predicted some of the outcomes of this and even sees them at the end of the novel when he discovers his own capacity for seeing the future. Are they, together, bringing about the future rather than predicting or seeing it? These questions are asked around a central pillar that is so subtle it might almost be missed: what would it be like to have time travel or foresight only to know that nothing can possibly be changed? It’s a question that looms large in works on time travel, but Silverberg’s spin by playing the question out in a much different way, by having a hyper-focused scale instead of expanding it out over major events in a timeline. Along with this, he addresses it in the unexpected way of having it not be true time travel involved but rather future prediction and statistical projection. This makes it a fascinating way to play ask the question, and of course Silverberg leaves readers with it as an open ended question, ready to debate on their own.

There are a few problems for this reader in the content of the novel. Silverberg’s major strengths of tight plotting and fascinating character pieces are there, but there are really only two characters that are anything more than foils for plot elements. Other than Nichols and Carvajal, there is very little interaction between characters beyond simply reporting what they are to do and a few arguments over the strangeness of some of Nichols’s advice to Quinn. No women are given any significant role. Nichol’s wife is primarily used to show some sex dynamics that are very 70s (shifting marriage-like relationships for the sake of sex, so far as I can tell). There’s a definite sense of her being the “exotic” woman because she’s non-white, which smacks of some misogyny or at least being quite creepy. She’s also used to introduce a kind of pseudo religious element into the book with a play on some Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure what it would have read like during the 70s, but now it feels much more dated and possibly even colonial in its treatment of the rise of an Eastern-inspired religion.

Looking back over most of the review, it’s easy for me to tell that it was difficult for me to convey just how compelling the central questions in the novel were. The Nichols-Carvajal interactions had me constantly asking myself questions about whether Carvajal was manipulating Nichols, why Nichols didn’t try at least once to change something, whether Silverberg was intentionally trying to say the future is fixed, or whether it was the opposite, and many, many more. The Stochastic Man the kind of science fiction that absolutely forces readers to think a mile a minute, and will leave them thinking about it long after reading the book.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dragonflight” by Anne McAffrey

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Do you remember those days before you could easily look up which books came first in a series online? You would be browsing the stacks at a library, grab an interesting looking book, and take it home, only to discover that it is, in fact, book 5 in a lengthy series (or perhaps worse, book 2 in a trilogy!). You bring the book back, and discover the library doesn’t have the other books, so you forget about it. That’s what happened to me with the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I saw one of the books at a local library many years ago and then returned it because I couldn’t get a handle on any aspect of it, given that I’d picked up in the middle of the series (and not at one of the entry points). 

More recently, my mother-in-law, who is another speculative fiction enthusiast, recommended strongly that I try the books out and even bought me an omnibus edition of the first three. I dove in, and was hooked. But I wasn’t completely in the right place to fully understand or grasp the depth of the world McCaffrey made. More recently, I started a re-read of the series (I’d read the first 9 or so before), this time on audiobook. I was blown away by the immense scope of McCaffrey’s world, even from the first book, Dragonflight.

Dragonflight introduces us to Pern, a world which faces a threat from “Thread,” a kind of mindless spore creature that destroys almost anything it touches, burrowing, eating, consuming. Every 250 years or so, these “Threads” would shoot from another planet onto Pern, its neighboring world. To combat it, the people of Pern developed a relationship with local creatures which they called dragons after the creatures of lore. The dragons could burn the Thread from the sky before it threatened the planet, but only if they were employed properly. In Dragonflight, the threat seems more remote because the irregular orbit of the neighboring world has meant several turns (approaches of the other planet) haven’t been close enough to produce Thread, and the threat is but a memory to this medieval-ish society. But now, as the dragons breed, it seems the threat is genuine, and the people of Pern must scramble to fight the Thread before it is too late.

McCaffrey’s greatest strength here is, again, the world-building, both in its vastness and its depth. It is frankly amazing to see in the first book how much detail there is built into the world, and how much history is clearly placed behind all of it. I don’t know of McCaffrey was planning on turning the book into a massive series when she originally wrote it, but the pieces for that massive series are all there in the first book. The depth front-loaded into this first book can almost be overwhelming for a series newcomer, as I was, when I first read it. But the main plot carries the book along at a clipping pace, introducing numerous characters, locales, and ideas at a brisk rate that keeps you engaged even as you try to swim against the tide of hugeness rolling over you. 

As great as the worldbuilding is, the plot is just as good. The notion of an ancient threat is always compelling to me, as is any sense of inbuilt history. And here, we have those combined with some elements of fantasy and even some time travel thrown in. The main characters are interesting, and they work to solve some of the main problems in exciting, believable ways. They’re only developed a little throughout the book, but with everything else going on in the novel, it would be almost too much to have major character development over the course of the story as well. This is science fantasy of the best kind, and its soaring heights of dragons are balanced with other, deeper ideas that are only hinted at in this book.

I think Dragonflight is improved on a re-read. As I noted, the density of the world and ideas make it almost overwhelming the first time, but the second time through, it is easier to settle in and enjoy the world and characters and plot more, all while getting a refresher on the world. It’s an intricate, delightful novel. I am greatly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Sci-Fi Hub: Vintage Sci-Fi, Hugo Awards, British SF Awards, and more!

Here, I’ve collected my links to all the various series of reviews (and other hubs) related to science fiction. Here, you can explore vintage science fiction, Star Wars related novels, recent works that I enjoyed enough to review, many Award winners and my own opinions on which should have won, Babylon 5, and more! Some are links to other Hubs (like the Babylon 5 Hub) so you can use this post as your launching point for many, many reviews of books, television shows, and movies. 

Contemporary Science Fiction Reviews 

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– I highlight two science fiction works that I read recently and adored. There’s a space unicorn! There are Stars… that aren’t claimed! 

A Masterpiece of Science Fiction: “Days” by James Lovegrove– It’s pretty rare that a book nails the feel of reality so well while also painting a thin layer of unreality over it. Lovegrove’s simply phenomenal acerbic critique of unfettered capitalism is set within a Gigastore, and it just gets better from there. It helped keep me sane during peak shopping season. 

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– I love when things get goofy, though I have to be in the mood for it. Each of these hit me in the right mood, and they’re gloriously witty science fiction reading. 

A Stunning Epic – “Empire of Silence” by Christopher Ruocchio– Books get compared to each other all the time–it’s a way for fans to easily recommend works to others. Here, the book is often compared to Dune, and it’s one of those rare times the comparison sticks. Ruocchio’s worldbuilding is as complex and epic as that comparison demands, though he takes it in a different direction. The good news is it’s a series and Ruocchio continues to reliably deliver them! 

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Steampunk is one of my favorite subgenres, but I find it’s rare that I find books in that subgenre that I enjoy. I don’t know if it’s that my taste is off, or that maybe I just like the genre due to video games, but that’s what it is. Anyway, I adored this book by Robyn Bennis. It had great characters, superb action, and steampunk goodness.

Remembering Ben Bova (1932-2020)– Bova’s passing impacted me deeply when I read about it. I’d been reading his books for more than 20 years, and his impact on my life as a reader went back into my childhood. I wrote a bit about my own journey reading his novels and the impact they had on me.

Vintage Sci-Fi

I read and review individual Vintage Science Fiction Novels

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg– I can’t stop thinking about this haunting road trip horror/fantasy novel.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker– A haunting, poignant look at time travel that is a must-read for sci-fi fans.  

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton– I’m a sucker for space archaeology, and this book with shades of red scare, Star Trek, and more drew me in.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold– The start of the Vorkorsigan Saga is a rip-roaring adventure that I love even after multiple reads.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprisingly thoughtful look at combat, PTSD, and more.

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- A novel I adored but probably didn’t understand as a child has even more meaning when reading it as an adult. And what could have been a gimmick is actually a fun way to organize a book. 

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov can (kind of) write characters! I enjoyed this one pretty well. 

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- One of those novels that makes you sit back and think on every page. It’s a phenomenal read that has a central plot with a surprising premise. 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm- A surprising, quiet novel that will keep you thinking long after you finish it. Certainly one of the more surprising Hugo winners. 

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg- What if the same problems facing time travel also faced predictions of the future? Silverberg twists the time travel formula by… not time traveling. 

Dragonflight by Anne McAffrey- The worldbuilding of McAffrey shines as the major star in this novel of science fantasy

“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” by Cordwainer Smith- Love as Resistance– I wrote a post about how a short story from Cordwainer Smith shows how activism can work through love. 

Two “First Contact” series you should read (and probably haven’t)–  I wrote introductions to a pair of series that relate the first contact of humanity to various aliens. I think you should read both of these series! 

“We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith– Actually a review of a modern collection of Smith’s stories and the novel Norstrilia. This post actually predates my “Vintage Sci-Fi” post format, and I’m hoping to eventually update it. For now, enjoy this review of this spectacular collection.

My Read-Through of the Hugos

These posts are a series in which I read through and review every single Hugo Award Winner and Nominee. I also pick my own winner out of the batch, which doesn’t always align. 

1953– There’s only one book, so is it a surprise that I picked it for my winner?

1954- No winner for Best Novel.

1955– This year’s winner is widely considered the worst book to ever win a Hugo. 

1956– Red scare of the best kind.

1957- No Winner for Best Novel.

1958– Only once choice again, but this one was great.

1959– A few contenders, but I picked one that got me thinking.

1960– How could anyone have picked anything but space pirates? I mean really.

1961– The voters got it right on a fantastic novel this year.

1962– The rise of Heinlein. Also, Plato’s Cave.

1963– I dusted off a classic here. (Sorry.)

1964– Easy to pick a winner this go-round.

1965– The voters were perhaps most wrong this year of all the years so far. My goodness, they voted for a yawner over an intense, wild classic.

1966– It’s not fair that these other books had to compete against Dune, because there were some good’ns. 

1967– I cried a lot over my choice of winner here.

1968– Space poetry written by Zelazny. 

1969– I get hooked on Lafferty.

1970– Not the strongest year, but it does feature an all-time classic.

1971– A strong demonstration of why I choose to read lists, as I discover a mostly-forgotten classic!

1972– Yet another year Silverberg should have won the Hugo.

1973– Guess who should have won this year? Yep, and this may have been the biggest miss on SIlverberg so far. 

1974– Honestly I thought this year was a pretty mediocre year. My winner didn’t even break into the “A” grade range.

2020– A fantastic mix of genres and authors. 

Lodestar Award for Best YA Book

2021– While the lineup is great, I believe there is one clear winner, and it’s a fantasy novel steeped in African lore.

Reading the British Science Fiction Association Awards

I randomly pick some BSFA Winners to read and review. 

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (2008)– This book was essentially written for me. I love it so so much. 

Indie Fiction

These reviews are largely of indie or self-published books that I thought were worth your attention.

Indie April Highlight: “The Sword of Kaigen” by M.L. Wang– Need some steampunk wuxia in your life? Have I got a book for you!

Indie April Highlight: “Awaken Online: Catharsis” by Travis Bagwell– My introduction to LitRPG happened through this thrilling combination of gaming, AI, and real life. 

Indie Highlight: “The Wings of War” by Bryce O’Connor and “The Ixan Prophecies” by Scott Bartlett– I review a pair of indie works that will give you your money’s worth. 

Self-Published Science Fiction Contest

Eclectic Theist was part of the first-ever SPSFC! Here are my posts as I write about the ongoing contest.

SPSFC Round 1– I briefly review the first 3 books that I dipped my toes into here, and discovered at least one gem.

TV

“Invincible” – Getting Hooked on a new superhero show (Episode 1)– Superheroes are all the rage but this first episode blew up my expectations in a big way.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Other Hubs

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my reviews related to Warhammer/40K/Horus Heresy fiction can be found here. Read grimdark to your heart’s content!

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Star Wars Hub– Reviews of many Star Wars: Expanded Universe novels are here, along with a few reviews of the new “canon” novels.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Book of Skulls” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. It haunts me at the strangest times, but especially when I’m driving (more on that later). Silverberg is at his best in this novel, but is he also at his worst? I don’t know. 

At its core, The Book of Skulls is a kind of coming-of-age story of four young men who found a manuscript that they believe–maybe–will unlock immortality to them. All they have to do is travel across the country and join a murderous gang of cultists and have two of their number die–one through sacrifice and the other through murder. No big deal, right? It’s a strange setup for what seems almost like some B-list spring break movie where the plot is simply a vehicle for getting titillating scenes on the screen. And make no mistake, the book has lots of sex. I can’t help but think about the strange, disturbing sexualization that Silverberg put forward in the driving scenes; the way the car interacted with the road, and the language Silverberg used to describe it. But it’s not just the car assaulting the road as a (very strange) metaphor. There are liaisons with prostitutes, sex cultists, there sexual encounters of all kinds all along the road trip. That B-list titillation is all over the place. 

But The Book of Skulls is a lot more than that. It’s a haunting tale of humanity gone wrong in so many ways. Its main cast doesn’t really feature a single likable character, but that somehow works, because you don’t want to care about these young men, but you do! And you find yourself caring what happens and wondering what’s going to happen and whether the ‘real’ Book of Skulls in the characters’ minds is going to give them immortality. Is this a fantasy novel? Is it sci-fi? Is it just a strange thriller where the main characters go off and kill each other after a series of orgies? 

Why is it so compelling?

Silverberg is an immensely talented author. And it shows here in this almost annoyingly spellbinding book. I feel as though I ought to hate it. I can’t tell if Silverberg’s put his own views into the minds of his characters or not. If so, there’s a lot to call out as awful here. Self-hating characters–one that is Jewish and one that is homosexual–each could be called out for promoting hatred of the same in some ways. His comments about disabled persons are detestable, but again occur in the mind of a character whose viewpoint we can’t trust. Racism, sexism–it’s there. But is it what Silverberg is promoting, or is it simply more characterization of these four messed up, generally terrible men? Silverberg has mastered the art of an unreliable narrator, and we have four in this book. 

Like the characters in the novel, I can’t stop thinking about The Book of Skulls. I bet you would think about it if you read it, too. Would you hate it? Would you love it? Or would you feel as I do–stuck wondering exactly what it means and why it is so gripping?

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Year of the Quiet Sun” by Wilson Tucker

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

I like lists, so I’ve been reading through all the Hugo Award winners and nominees from the beginning. This brought me to The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, an author whose work I’ve not read before. It’s about time travel. Time travel is difficult to do well, in my opinion. I’ve even written a piece on the problems I see in most time travel-related fiction. Basically, they tend to fall into the error of being historical fiction with some sci-fi trappings or going down the endless whirlpool of time travel paradoxes. Tucker completely avoids the first possible error and only touches the second. There will be SPOILERS in my discussion.

Basically, The Year of the Quiet Sun is a bleak story of the future. But there is much more going on in this pithy novel than that. Brian Chaney, a biblical scholar and demographer, is enlisted by Kathryn van Hise to go to the future in order to test a time travel machine. Chaney caused much controversy already in his publication of a midrash that predates the New Testament by a couple hundred years that appears to be the basis for the book of Revelation. That was a mistake. Now hated basically worldwide, he just wants a quiet life away from the public eye. Chaney and others are sent to see what the next election will foretell the current President. Such an act is so perfectly cynical in its political lack of finesse that it plays even better today than it ought. After all, who couldn’t see our current leadership using such a fantastic tool for such a short-sighted goal? 

Anyway, they find that the President did get re-elected while also viciously crushing a coup attempt. But when the characters go forward in time even farther, they discover apocalyptic war and societal breakdown, resulting in the death of one character and Chaney finding the base from which he’s traveled in disrepair. When he speaks with Kathryn, he notes all the horrible events and how the time travel project itself essentially presaged them. He asks how he gets the information back in time to prevent the awful future he now faces, and Kathryn points out that because the nuclear reactor is burned out, he cannot return. And here we find that Chaney is, in fact, a black man and due to various ways the wars played out, he is distrusted completely due to the color of his skin. Kathryn, we find, is the only one who won’t be terrified of him purely based on his race. And thus big reveal, coupled with his own plight, is where we readers are left, contemplating the horror of the whole scenario. 

The book isn’t flawless. It suffers from no small amount of misogyny. Women are mostly judged on their looks, and the word “cad” is used in a teasing light. Serial sexual harassment is funny, right? Wrong. Thankfully, this doesn’t become an overwhelming part of the narrative, though Kathryn never rises much above being a foil for Brian’s–and other characters’–fantasies. The *short) length and pacing of the novel are limiting factors. Leaving me wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the slow burn at the beginning of the book sparks and explodes into the climactic scenes so swiftly that I wish Tucker had developed the actual time traveling scenes more fully. The final plot twists came in a storm that had me flipping back several pages to see if I’d missed something.

The edition I purchased of the book includes an introduction to the work which features a lengthy quote from Tucker about the novel in which he states that others have found themes in the book he didn’t intend to include. He doesn’t discourage this, but instead rather modestly basks in the wonder of having created something people read and enjoy so much. It’s a neat moment, but having read the theme that he specifically talks about–water as a recurring event that cleanses throughout the book–I can’t help but see it as a major theme of the book! This, despite Tucker denying it! But that’s what makes this book so good, in my opinion. Something that makes it last. It is completely full to the gills of these themes. What exactly is meant by the Qumran Midrash–somewhat erroneously taken as a fictional account rather than commentary–in the book? The parallels with Revelation are telling, and the lake of fire being paralleled by the literal lake of radioactive fire that was Lake Michigan’s future is also spot on. Is the finding of an ancient text disproof of Christianity? Tucker doesn’t push that narrative and in fact seems to be urging more care given to reading ancient texts and, interestingly, texts about ancient texts. 

Then, the final twist: having Chaney revealed as a black man was surprising in many ways. First: it confronts readers about their assumptions. Yes, I assumed he was white because the book was written in the 70s as sci-fi. More to the point, I assumed he was white because I always assume main characters are like me. Intentional or not, this made me think about implicit bias and racism that can occur–something I’m clearly capable of being guilty of as much as anyone else. Second: the plot twist forces readers in to the uncomfortable position of thinking about their own racial fears. Third: it twists itself into circles because the black man is feared–exactly what is being confronted in America today and certainly no less so in the 70s when the book was written. It’s an ingenius twist that isn’t quite given enough time in the plot to stew and simmer. But that doesn’t take away its power. In fact, it may amplify it. The twist leaves readers with it as one of the final impressions in the novel and makes us think about it, discomfort and all.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is a somber, subtle read. It requires attention to details and searching for meaning. Tucker filled this book to the brim and overflowing with themes–intentional or not–that demand reading and re-reading and careful reflection. For this, I would consider it a masterpiece-level work. It calls for reflection. Read the book, please! Go! Do so! And do it with an open mind, ready to reflect. This isn’t a “fun read,” but it’s a great one.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Haunted Stars” by Edmond Hamilton

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton

I have never read Edmond Hamilton before, but he was a well-known pulp author in his own time. He wrote for DC comics, started Captain Future, and scattered his pulpy sci-fi across fandom. He was also married to Leigh Brackett, whose work I have enjoyed (as you probably have, since she co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back). Anyway, I saw someone recommend The Haunted Stars during Vintage Sci-Fi Month, saying that fans of Star Trek would probably like it. I’m a fan of Star Trek, and the cover’s simplicity had a weird innate appeal to me, so I grabbed it.

The Haunted Stars initially seems somewhat like a red scare novel, but its main character, Robert Fairlie, is a linguist, which was not an established trope at this point. The United States has apparently discovered an ancient military base on the moon, and has called a team of scientists in to decode what they found there. One character pushes for an expedition after they figure out how to make an Ion drive and also discover that the people who made this base are, in fact, the ancestors of all of humanity. They go to Ryn, the planet of the Vanryn, those ancestors of humanity. When they arrive, they meet a cool reception from most because they announce they want to find additional weapons/technology. The Vanryn, apparently, live in millennia-old fear of the Llorn, who defeated the Vanryn and scourged them from the galaxy 30,000 years ago.

All of that plot occupies about 85% of the book, and at this point it is a pretty excellent sci-fi adventure novel with some hard sci-fi mixed in. Really, it has most of my favorite sci-fi features: ancient ruins found by humans, some linguistics mixed in, some real (pseudo-) science peppering the plot. It had its flaws at this point–like women being at best tertiary characters, but it stood up as a solid novel. But it didn’t feel like Star Trek in any way whatsoever, and I wondered why it was recommended to fans of that franchise. Then the ending happened.

That last 15% or so of the book is the real deal. The Llorn show up, which wasn’t a surprise given how heavily foreshadowed the idea was, but they have news. It turns out that the Llorn were not the aggressor in the war with the Vanryn, but rather they fought only to prevent the Vanryn from wiping out all life throughout the galaxy. The Vanryn were simply seeding all planets and taking them for themselves, wiping out indigenous populations or stages of life that had yet to evolve intelligence. The Llorn, by contrast, work to simply allow life to exist in its many-faceted wonder, hoping to improve the universe through the uplift of many different intelligent species bringing their own cultures and assumptions to the galactic table. The Llorn tell the humans they will not interfere again, should they (the humans who are Vanryn) decide to spread across the universe again, but they show them a premonition of the endless war and destruction that will follow that course of action. Fairlie and the other scientists are left to bring the message back to Earth, unsure of how humanity will take it.

I adored that ending. It reminded me quite a bit of a kind of inverse of The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels). Will humanity heed the warning? Will the Red Scare doom them all to bitterness and war? Will ambition, pride, and hate overcome a possibility to thrive throughout time? We don’t know! Hamilton doesn’t tell us. It’s a somewhat shocking offering in what seemed to be a simple pulp sci-fi classic that makes you as a reader think and reflect on what it means to be human. I love it so much.

The Haunted Staris well-worth your time as a lover of science fiction. It has some flaws, but overall it is excellent reading. It’s pulp sci-fi with much more thoughtfulness than one might expect, and an ending that is just spot-on. I recommend it especially if you also like those tropes I mentioned- space archaeology, linguistics, and hard sci-fi mixed in.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Shards of Honor” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vorkosigan Saga is a series that had been on my radar for a while. A few years ago I found a nearby library that had the whole series and binged the heck out of the whole series front to back. I couldn’t stop. Now, I decided to embark on a re-read of the series, and my wife has joined me for her own first read-through of the series as well. It was a lot of fun to introduce her to the world Bujold created, as it is one I enjoy immensely. We’re going to read it in chronological order–something I normally don’t do, preferring publication order, but the first time I read through it was chronological and it made sense.

Shards of Honor is an unexpected book. If I told you that there was a military science fiction novel with some romance thrown into the mix, I doubt you’d come up with a book anywhere near the plot Bujold made. For one thing, the characters are old. No, not actually old, but it’s a far cry from series in which every main character is 18-20 years old and everyone is finding love in their late teens, early twenties. Here, our main characters are in their 30s, as I recall, which makes it feel a little more real in some of their actions, their status as commanders, and the way they fall in love. This could almost be classed as a romance novel, to an extent, though there is little explicit in the book. But romance is a driving force in the novel, and its refreshing to read a science fiction novel that does this and does it quite well.

Additionally, the way Cordelia and Aral discover more about the culture of the other is delightful. There are many scenes where as a reader you get to see how naturally the two characters intermesh. I recall one scene, and I’ll probably mangle it, but Cordelia is trying to describe Aral to her parents (I think?) and they’re like “He’s a murderer!” and she responds “No–I mean, he’s killed several people, but it made sense! Or something.” It’s humorous, yes, but it is also absolutely believable that people would respond to each other in that way.

The plot of Shards is absolutely character-driven, but you can already tell there are portents of a wider world and more possible conflicts happening. Bujold manages to intermesh subtlety of setting with a “Just the action, please” narrative style. Many people say the series just gets better after this book, but frankly Shards of Honor is one of the more unique science fiction novels out there in terms of narrative style and characterization. I’d recommend it very highly, and then to go read the rest of the series immediately.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2020- Review and Retrospective

January was #VintageSciFiMonth, a month in which readers are encouraged to read vintage science fiction. I took to it with gusto, clearing out a slate for reading a bunch of older science fiction works that I’ve been wanting to dive into for a while. I also followed the hashtag and account on Twitter and picked up some recommendations for others. What defines a novel as vintage sci-fi? The working rule is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to give that wiggle room if you want! I decided to write out the list of vintage sci-fi I read for January and give them some brief ratings and reviews. I’d love to know what you read/enjoyed, as well. I’m always looking for more reads!

I also wrote some longer reviews in January for some of the works, and you can read those by clicking here and scrolling through.

My list of Reads and brief ratings

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold- I read this one with my wife this go-round, having convinced her to join in on the vintage sci-fi fun. I listened to it for this re-read, and I adored it even more than I did the first time. Bujold has an excellent writing style and characters that are very true to life. We both enjoyed it greatly. Grade: A

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson- Not the first time I’ve tried to read this one, I decided to tackle it at a slower pace and really pay attention to everything along the way this time. I enjoyed it even less than the first time I tried it. Anderson seems much more interested in telling us about the character’s sex lives than developing them as characters. The main plot didn’t draw me in at all, either. Grade: D+

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- I adored this book as a kid but definitely did not understand it. As an adult, I found it a fascinating, even subversive take on numerous modern (for its time) problems. Having it set around a real chess game somehow didn’t turn it all into a gimmick, either. It’s fantastic. Grade: A

The Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith– I enjoyed Smith’s Lensman series for what it was, but Skylark didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting. I forced myself through the series for completion’s sake, because that’s how I do things, but I did not enjoy it at almost any point. It’s dated, and it definitely shows… a lot. Grade: D

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprising take on what seemed initially to be generic military sci-fi. Zahn deals with trauma, PTSD, what to do with soldiers when they come home, colonialism, and more all while moving the plot along at an absolutely breakneck speed. Grade: A-

Thorns by Robert Silverberg- I found this one to be enthralling and haunting by turns. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for weeks afterwards as you can’t stop thinking about it. Silverberg really started off his “serious” sci-fi with a bang in this one. It’s nearly flawless. Grade: A+

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- What if I told you there were a book about cannibals in the future worshiping an orbiting spaceship and somehow all their extremely weird acts and creepy, sometimes disgusting rituals actually make sense? It’s a weird, almost horrible book. But it made it all so sensible! Definitely recommended. Grade: A

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak- The central plot isn’t fantastic, but I loved Simak’s lengthy monologues and explorations of the human, alien, and robot psyches. Not his best work, but still top-notch overall. I was surprised by how not-terribly he dealt with questions about colonialism as well. Grade: A-

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance- It’s a pulpy sci-fi adventure that shares themes and ideas with the Barsoom series (John Carter). It’s just not as fun as the Barsoom series, and so it was difficult for me to get into it. Served with a heaping helping of outdated gender norms, as well. Grade: C-

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny- A re-read for me. I’m still blown away by Zelazny’s stylistic prose here, which reads just like some translations of religious works I’ve read. It’s a fascinating sci-fi retelling of the rise of Buddhism from Hinduism and the colonization/import of Christianity as well. I loved it. Grade: A+

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton- A recommendation from another vintage sci-fi month reader, I grabbed it when they said fans of Star Trek would like it. I then spent about 85% of the book baffled by that comparison, but then I understood towards the end. It has all the trappings of some of my favorite sci-fi- ancient relics, linguistics, and adventure with huge themes. It’s serious and pulpy all at once and I loved it. Grade: A-

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov thought of some fantastic concepts and characters, finally, but then spent the last 1/3 or so of the book dumping it all down the drain with somewhat ironic inverse deus ex machinas and his own apparent view of a utopic planet. I don’t know, it was weird and stupid by turns, but the core ideas were good enough to keep me going. Grade: B-

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- I can’t really say enough about this one, which was my first Lafferty read ever. It’s deeply thoughtful, and the more you peel back its layers, the more you find. It has fascinating characters, and imports Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) into the future in strangely believable and fantastic ways. I loved every second of this book, and every page had me thinking and delving more deeply into it. Grade: A+

Project Pope by Clifford Simak- Every aspect of Simak’s thought is present here, from robots that are re-skins of humans to deep religious questioning to fascinating pastoral scenes. It’s almost like comfort food, until Simak hits you upside the head with a big idea that challenges how you think about some aspect of reality and faith. I adored it. Grade: A

Links

SDG.