A Crucial Re-Examination of Stan Lee’s Legacy- “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee” by Abraham Riesman

When I was younger, I never thought I’d be writing about how much I love reading biographies. They were part of that section at the bookstore I never wandered into–all those stuffy history books and books about people! Who cares? Now I have been devouring biographies at an obscene rate and churn through history books as quickly as I can get my hands on them. People change. That’s what makes them so interesting, and that’s why real life is often so fascinating to read about. Stan Lee is certainly best known for his work with Marvel comics, but what went on behind the scenes is of great interest for those wanting to know the “real story” behind the explosion of comic book popularity. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee gives deep insight and raises many questions about who should really be credited for Marvel’s fame and characters.

All of this background is to say I didn’t have much invested here beyond a passing interest in the people involved and the characters around which Stan Lee and the other major players in the biography would revolve. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee struck me like a hurricane. Abraham Riesman is clearly a skilled biographer with both the passion for the subject and strong prose required to make virtually anyone fascinating. And Stan Lee’s life is interesting on its own, for all that a large portion of it revolves around trying to make ends meet at a publishing company that would eventually turn out the now titanic Marvel.

Riesman gives readers background into why Stan Lee’s family ended up in America–fleeing anti-Semitism abroad. Lee’s father wanted his children to be devout Jews, but was ultimately disappointed by Stan. Reading the early life of Stan Lee gives the impression of someone who desperately wanted to make a name for himself and have that name acknowledged and acclaimed. What’s striking is that even in telling stories about how he landed his job in publishing, Stan Lee’s own tale changed. Did he just happen to have a talent for writing acknowledged long ago by newspaper editors (though documentation shows his story about this is a stretch of the truth as well), or was it because he was related to big shots in the publishing company he went to work for? In Lee’s telling[s], it’s all him, all the time. The credit belongs to him, and so does any fame that comes with it. That’s the story again and again throughout Stan Lee’s life.

The documentation Riesman provides is strong. He admits when he is putting forth conjecture or trying to piece together information from multiple, oft-conflicting primary sources. That latter point is worth reflecting on: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee’s long-time artist and compatriot, claimed credit for many of the same things Stan Lee did, whether that was the invention of the Fantastic Four or characters like Thor. Their origin stories of these larger-than-life characters are incompatible. Ultimately, one of them is telling something closer to the truth. Riesman notes the danger for the historian is trying to meet halfway in between and assuming that each has some portion of the truth. That goes beyond what the evidence can show and essentially means the historian or biographer is making their own account of what actually happened. That doesn’t mean something in the middle is untrue. It’s possible that Kirby and Lee collaborated on the idea of Thor, but when Lee claims a special interest in mythology led him to the idea (an interest Riesman points out is undocumented anywhere else) while Kirby’s own acknowledged and documentable interest was alleged to be his own inspiration, it becomes even murkier. Examples like this abound throughout the book and analysis thereof takes up many pages.

Readers interested in this kind of careful analysis of documentation, sources, and trying to piece together the facts of someone’s life will love it. Those looking merely for another work giving Stan Lee unvarnished acclaim will be deeply disappointed. Stan Lee certainly had revolutionary ideas. There seems to be a solidified notion in my mind that his innovation of having all of the Marvel comics inter-connect was a revelation at the time. But who gets credit for individual characters? It seems that, at best, Lee overstates his own genius in this regard throughout his life. Looking at interviews from the 60s vs. the 80s shows a decided change of tone from Lee. Earlier, he’d acknowledged collaboration and even credited others for ideas or writing of comics, while later the story changed to give himself virtually all the credit of any kind. Of course, the notable “Marvel Method” of collaboration on comics–which basically has the writer provide a generalized plot while leaving the innovation of layout of the panels and other big picture notions to the artist–likely helped yield a number of wonderful stories and superheroes also makes it extremely difficult to decide where credit is due.

And why does it matter? Well, certainly there’s a lot of cash on that question, and apparently some extremely large sums of the same were paid out in settlements behind non-disclosure agreements. But beyond that, it matters because there are others like Steve Ditko who deserve more credit for the creation of some of these iconic characters than they get. Hey, it’s all just superheroes, though, right? In a sense, sure, but as Riesman points out–sometimes even through Lee’s own defense of the cultural impact of comics–these characters have had monumental influence on many people’s lives and even on their beliefs. Ultimately, True Believer tells that tale as well: about how stories shape us and mold our perspectives in ways we may not truly expect.

After a lengthy portion of the book is dedicated to the burgeoning years of Marvel’s growth, Riesman sweeps us along Lee’s pursuit of Hollywood, his several failed attempts to market his name, and ultimately to his death. Lee’s later years have their own share of controversy, as people fought over who controlled his legacy and, ultimately, over who controlled Lee himself. Each of these stages of life are as elegantly covered through Riesman’s strong prose as the early Marvel years, though they don’t necessarily feel as intense. It’s like Lee himself put so much effort and energy into those years that it made the rest of his life kind of feel like it was winding down from there. What he’d set in motion–and really, there’s still reason enough to say he helped the Marvel ball roll along–kept going even as his own aspirations floundered and took hits as he missed opportunities or invested in the wrong interests and, sometimes, people. The end of his life is a messy, tragic tale of people deceiving him, trying to deceive the public, and many questions that still need to be asked. Lee died with some of his inner circle mourning him, while others sought to immediately exploit it, and some of his closest, longest friends having long been alienated by his own relentless pursuit of sole credit.

True Believer is a tragic story of a man whose legacy deserves a more objective look. Lee wanted to make a name for himself and craved fame. He got those things–but at what cost? Was alienating all of his friends and even his family worth the gains he had? I don’t think so. It’s a tragic story that lies at the heart of Marvel. It will take decades to sort everything out even more, and I doubt we’ll ever know the facts of who invented which character or where credit lies. Ultimately, Riesman’s biography is important not just as a correction of Lee’s legacy, but also as a key work for touching of future exploration. Fans of speculative fiction, comics, and biographies should all be grabbing True Believer and reading it as soon as they can.

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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.

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.

Indie Highlight: “Project Nemesis” by Jeremy Robinson

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books. This is a special edition post for Indie April!

Project Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson

Look, I’m a simple person. I like stories about big monsters. Is it too much to ask that we have more novels based upon them? There just aren’t very many. After watching the absolutely fantastic “Pacific Rim: The Black” on Netflix (which I wrote about here), I was scrambling to find some kaiju reads to fill the void. Project Nemesis was one of the novels recommended to me in a group I’m in when I asked for recommendations, and I’m glad I got it.

Based on the cover, I expected to basically be thrown into a Godzilla-like scenario with some apocalyptic creature blowing up whole cities. Instead, after a few intense scenes setting up what’s to come, readers start following Jon Hudson, a DHS investigator in a secret division tasked with investigating the paranormal. He meets up with Ashley Collins, the local sheriff, as he works to investigate alleged Bigfoot sightings. The winsome way Robinson writes these characters drew me in, and the steady stream of self-deprecating humor from Hudson makes it fun to read all the way through.

There is, of course, plenty of Kaiju action once push comes to shove, too. Here, though, our kaiju is three-dimensional rather than being exclusively a “destroy-everything” creature. I thought Robinson did a great job adding some flesh and bones to the concept of a kaiju without taking it too far. Though I’d not call the book thoughtful, it is pure fun and has more layers to it than may be expected for the genre.

This novel can also serve fairly well as a standalone, but the series is completed at 5 novels.

There are a few issues here. There are a few nods to gender norms such as a line about “throwing like a girl.” Even there, though, it’s not entirely clear that even lines like that are intended as reinforcing such norms, because contextually we have Collins subverting those expectations. I still could have done without comments like that, however.

Overall, Project Nemesis is a blast of pure fun to read. I recommend it to readers who, like me, thirst for a story about gigantic monsters with at least some thought put into 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.

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.

Initial Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Nominees

The 2021 Hugo Nominations have been announced. I’m pleased to say I was involved this time as a paying member and got to help nominate. It was a ton of fun, though I absolutely agonized over my choices for best novel. I wanted to talk about the shortlist now that it’s been announced and highlight a few things.

Best Related Work

I start here because one of the selections truly blew me away. Finding new things that I’d never have thought about before is THE reason I read through lists of any sort. Well, when the nominees were announced, I saw “The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy” from Jenny Nicholson, a YouTube video pop up. I know a couple bronies, and my kids love the Friendship is Magic show, so I’ve seen glimpses of it here and there. I figured, what the heck, I’ll watch this video. It’s a bit over an hour long and I was just enthralled the whole time.

First of all, Nicholson is an engaging speaker. She blended humor, personal experience in the community, and a critical eye into a genuinely wonderful piece. It would be easy to make videos mocking bronies or asking why people are how they are. Nicholson has enough firsthand experience to love the community and acknowledge its faults. It was an incisive look at how the fandom rose up around My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and how some parts could be quite toxic while others were wonderful.

The video also made me want to watch My Little Pony much more than I have with my kids watching it in the background. I think it’s always fun to join new fandoms, though trying to navigate the unfortunate (and sometimes, it seems, inevitable) toxicity and gatekeeping makes it tough to get on board.

As a related work, though, what a great work “The Last Bronycon” was. It offered insights into the subject while also calling on viewers to experience the joy and love that Nicholson herself had/has for both the community and the content. I highly recommend you watch it. (Fair warning: some adult content, language, and discussion.)

I love this thumbnail, it’s so great!

Just another quick note, I was tickled to see the article “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony” by Natalie Luhrs on there. The 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony was certainly an interesting thing to behold, but I only watched it intermittently. This analysis helped me see more of the problems with it. I confess I’m a huge Silverberg fan as far as much of his fiction, but the searing he got in this article may have been deserved too. Whether it was or not, I do think that articles like this that help make us aware of potential problems in fandom are helpful.

Best Novel

This is probably the category with the most buzz, and, as I said, I agonized over my own choices. There was so much fantastic speculative fiction released last year. The nominees are

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tordotcom)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books)

I’ve read most of these, but not Harrow the Ninth or The Relentless Moon. I did a deep dive into some Mary Robinette Kowal recently, though, reading the entire Glamourist Histories series, which was fabulous, along with some shorter fiction. I need to go back and read the whole Lady Astronaut series. As for Harrow–well, I did not enjoy Gideon much at all, but since I try to read every single Hugo nominee for best novel, I’ll be giving the series another chance. I genuinely think Harrow will win regardless. The first book had so much hype and this one seems to be getting just as much. The other four novels, which I’ve read, would each be deserving in their own way. So far, out of these (and excluding by default those I haven’t read), I’d probably pick Network Effect, but they’re all great choices.

I gotta say I was shocked that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini wasn’t on this list. I thought it was a shoe-in for at least getting a nomination. It was one of the biggest surprises of last year’s reading for me, and I wrote about it in longer form already. I loved it. Given Paolini’s big name from the Eragon books (which I admit I didn’t like much, having only read the first), I figured he’d be on it for sure. Goes to show how much I know!

Best Video Game

I believe it’s the first year for this category, and the nominations are all over the board. A few are expected–Animal Crossing and the Final Fantasy VII remake (which I still need to play, come on PC release!), while others are surprises. Like Blaseball? I’ve never even heard of it, but apparently it’s a browser based horror baseball game? Uh, I’ll be giving that a try.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko should win this. It’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. I loved it so much, and I encourage you to go read it as soon as possible! I keep seeing A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking showing up places–I need to read it. I wrote a review of Raybearer if you’d like to check it out.

Astounding Award for Best New Author

The choices here are:

  • Lindsay Ellis (1st year of eligibility)
  • Simon Jimenez (1st year of eligibility)
  • Micaiah Johnson (1st year of eligibility)
  • A.K. Larkwood (1st year of eligibility)
  • Jenn Lyons (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Emily Tesh (2nd year of eligibility)

This is an incredibly solid list. I personally lean towards Simon Jimenez because his The Vanished Birds is a spectacular debut work. Found family, shades of “Firefly.” Check it out.

Best Fanzine

I am so pleased to see the “Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog” ed. Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne on there. I enjoy their presence on Twitter so much, as they both interact so kindly and also help highlight so many works. They’re great at signal boosting others and I just love that.

Other Categories

I’m sorry if I didn’t comment on your favorites, but I’d love to read your thoughts! Let me know what you think in the comments, please! I love talking about this stuff. I also tried to avoid commenting on anything I just hadn’t read or didn’t know enough about to comment upon. Congratulations to all the nominees!

Links

Announcing the 2021 Hugo Award Finalists– Tor dot com’s post about the finalists, a convenient place to view them all.

Science Fiction Hub– I’ve discussed past Hugo Awards extensively, and would love to chat about them and hear your own thoughts! I have several posts discussing entire years’ worth of nominees/winners for best novel as well as my own choice for a winner. Check out all my posts on science fiction (and some fantasy!) at this hub.

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.

Indie Highlight: “The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” by David A. Wells

The “Indie Highlight” is a series of posts in which I shine the lights on Indie/Self-Published books that I believe are worthy of your attention. I’ll be writing reviews and recommending them, along with providing links on where to get the books. This is a special edition post for Indie April!

The Sovereign of the Seven Isles by David A. Wells

“The Sovereign of the Seven Isles” is a lengthy epic fantasy series by David A. Wells. Some time ago, the first book popped up as free on Kindle, and I snagged a copy. With Indie April approaching, I decided to finally dive into the series, and read the first book, Thinblade. I quickly followed up by reading the second in the series, Sovereign Stone. I can’t yet comment on later books in the series, as I’ve yet to read them. But I already got the third book from Kindle Unlimited, so I will be continuing this series fairly soon.

The core thrust of the series is a story of prophecy and expectation regarding the Sovereign of the Seven Isles. It’s a setup that will seem familiar to fans of epic fantasy, and so far the series doesn’t diverge much from what one would expect going in. There is ancient family expectation woven seamlessly into ancient evil and, as I said, prophecy.

So far, what makes the series stand out is mostly that it has been so conventional. Normally, that would be a point to potentially un-sell a novel for me, but there’s a sense of comfort reading these books that comes from being a longtime fan of fantasy. It’s easy to sit down and churn through half the book in an afternoon because it just feels like entering into a fantasy world that doesn’t ask too much from its readers. There are a lot of characters, but it’s never overwhelming. More importantly, the action keeps up at such a brisk pace that some of the flaws regarding narrative or prose are easy to ignore for the sake of continuing to the next major point.

The first book, Thinblade, has Alexander working to find the titular blade, which is so fine that it seems to be able to slice through or destroy just about anything. By the second book, the importance of this blade is tempered a bit by Alexander learning he must also have sound strategy and skill. It’s a coming-of-age story in the middle of world-rending events, and fans of fantasy will be quite comfortable.

Wells has written an intriguing world, and for fans of epic fantasy, it’s easy to recommend this one to give a try, especially if you have Kindle Unlimited. I recommend these especially for those looking for some epic fantasy that don’t also want to spend actual hours trying to figure out the world or memorize all the names going in. Sometimes I love books like that–but we all need a break once in a while. These books are a good bridge book for those breaks between heavier reads. The first book, Thinblade, is still just $0.99 on Kindle, so it’s worth a try if you’re interested. Let me know what you think!

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.

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1972

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1972 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

1972

This year featured one of the more diverse arrays of styles so far in the Hugo reading list. There are two science fantasy novels (Dragonflight and Jack of Shadows), two women authors and incidentally the first time more than one woman author made the list (Anne McAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin), some radically different New Wave sci-fi (A Time of Changes and To Your Scattered Bodies Go), pseudo time travel (Scattered Bodies…), and a hauntingly thoughtful–if flawed–look at the human psyche (The Lathe of Heaven). The science fantasy books are quite different as well. Anyway, I was deeply disappointed by To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It should have been so much better, but the author didn’t change tone no matter which of the incredible caste of characters he introduced. On the flip side, A Time of Changes is the book that got me to appreciate Silverberg. I have rarely been so moved as I was by that book, and listening to the excellent audiobook is what sold me on it. It’s strange and even uncomfortable at times, but it’s great. Dragonquest looks on the surface like an easy read but has incredible depth. Lathe and Jack were each fine novels, but not as intriguing as some of their authors’ other works.

Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey- Grade: A-
The quiet nature of these books by McCaffrey belies the epic scale of her world and the place she built in Pern. Dragonquest is a science fantasy novel of the best kind. There are dragons, hints of ancient secrets, dire threats, and human striving of the best kind. What makes the novel especially poignant is that the “villain” here is not really a person but a kind of natural threat. In a world with raging pandemics and climate change, the “natural” kind of evil in this novel is especially haunting. The dizzying heights of dragon flight and characterization help offset what would otherwise be a fairly bleak story. McCaffrey’s worldbuilding is especially dense, though in the first book, Dragonflight, it’s even more dense. I expected these books to be fairly breezy reading, but they’re in fact phenomenally deep explorations of a well thought out world that McCaffrey has created. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to like about the characters and plot here, too, but the real star is the world she’s created. Readers who enjoy science fantasy should consider these must-reads.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer (Winner)- Grade: C-
Farmer had all of humanity to choose from for his characters, and he chose some truly awesome figures. The problem is that he never gave any one character the time or space to develop properly and show the unique personality of each. The characters should surely speak in radically different voices, have conflicting concerns, and even see the world in quite diverse ways. But instead, each character was a fairly standard science fiction trope with a historical figure’s name slapped onto him or her. Their voices all sounded the same to me on almost every page. The book came very highly recommended from a number of sources. I’m pretty disappointed, to be honest.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin Grade: B-
I thought the premise–a man whose dreams become reality–was a bit tacky, but Le Guin is a master of prose and makes it work as a compelling piece about humanity. Really, that seems to be what all I’ve read from her is about, at its core: human nature. What does it mean to be human? What kind of fears would guide us if we had such a power? Who might try to harness it and why? These are intriguing questions that are just lightly touched throughout the book. The characters, unfortunately, end up largely being stand-ins for various philosophies or ways to explore different ideas. Unlike some of Le Guin’s other works, I never felt connected in any way to the characters. They read more like caricatures than characters. That said, it’s a thoughtful work that I enjoyed greatly.

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny Grade: C+
After reading this book, I looked it up online and discovered it was written in one draft. I’m impressed, but also somewhat dismayed, because it seems the book could have been much improved with some thorough edits and rewrites. The concepts are there for a truly excellent novel, but it’s hampered by a kind of meandering at points that means I as a reader struggled to follow along with the events. Zelazny’s talent is on display here in glimpses, but it only presents itself in fragments. The Jack of Shadows has power in the shadows, unlike many of the magic users of his world whose power relies on the light or darkness on their side of the planet. It makes for a cool idea, but doesn’t go much beyond a few lines of dialogue and some action scenes. I don’t know what it is about the book, I guess I just wanted more from it.

A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg- Grade: A
I admit part of my score here is likely due to the simply phenomenal reading by Tom Parker. I listened to it from my library and was simply blown away by the quality of this narration. Parker lends the novel a kind of alien/familiar feel that reflects the dichotomies found therein. Yet even if my score is slanted because of that, there’s no denying this is a pretty excellent read. Silverberg here creates a society that sees the revealing of the self as a great crime. Only among certain relationships is it permitted to even begin to reveal oneself to others. The use of words like “I” or “me” is considered horribly obscene. Inside this society, there are priests called “Drainers” who basically act as places people can confess their wrongs and “drain” their souls of them. The multifaceted nature of this is juxtaposed with Silverberg’s central drama, the autobiographical journey of the main character as he discovers the joys of self-revealing, in part due to the use of a drug from a society most people on his planet view as barbarians. Throughout the whole book there are a number of dichotomies. Alien/familiar is the most obvious, as the people of this society are humans but act so inhumanly by denying the self; civil/uncivil is another; pious/pagan another; and the list could go on. It’s a masterfully crafted, thought-provoking science fiction novel that manages to make a rather well-worn Nu Wave sci-fi trope (drug use) into something eloquent and fresh rather than tired and dated.

Links

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.

Reading the Horus Heresy, Book 13: “Nemesis” by James Swallow

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.

Nemesis by James Swallow

I admit it: I was skeptical of this book. I had seen multiple complaints that its content was pointless, or that it was largely unrelated to the wider plot of the Horus Heresy. But a Twitter friend convinced me that it was worth diving into, and that, along with my insistent desire to read entire lists and not skip books, made me dive in. And I have to say, I’m very glad I did. Nemesis is a fantastic read with a lot of cool lore and moments in it. 

The core of the book are two stories: on the one side, we see the Imperium’s development of the Officio Assassinorium, a branch of their military dedicated to assassinations; on the other side, the Word Bearers attempt to send in a Nemesis weapon to kill the Emperor himself. This is all centered around investigations from non-Space Marine characters trying to figure out what’s happening and set in the broader context of worlds pulling apart over the Heresy. There’s a lot of action in the novel, but what made it great was its world building and the context already mentioned.

The planet Dagonet is seen as a central part of its region’s response to the Heresy. They swear allegiance to Horus, causing concern on other planets nearby like Iesta Veracrux, another planet where some of the action takes place. Dagonet sided with Horus, having had historically closer ties to Horus than to the Emperor. Horus apparently liberated the planet some time ago, and is more popular even than the Emperor. This bit of world building was included in a brief conversation between people on Iesta Veracrux, but it was couched in the narrative of having refugees show up from the sister planet and fears over what it might mean for the wider region. I thought this was a great way to do the world building and also set the conflict of the Horus Heresy against a much broader backdrop. 

The story itself is exciting, even if the outcome is somewhat of a foregone conclusion. It seems obvious that the assassins from both sides will fail, but they made the buildup interesting enough and the side characters deep enough to maintain my interest throughout. I know I’ve complained about having so many “normal” person perspectives in the Horus Heresy so far, but that was largely in novels that were supposed to be centered on entire Legions of Space Marines and seemed more focused on a random person on the street than on the Astartes. Here, care was taken to make the non-superhumans the center of the plot, and with that, the technique thrived. We see “normal” people worried about what’s happening in their wider and yet narrower worlds. 

The conclusion, as Horus burns the people of Dagonet, whether they were on his side or not, is a chilling moment that shows how far he’s fallen. It also means that the worlds involved are likely not to feature much in the coming Heresy. But I don’t mind that. One-off plots in wider universes can be good if done well. Nemesis was great. 

Nemesis is a thrilling read with some fascinating plot points and some of the best world development of any of the novels so far. I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it to others, even though it doesn’t have a major impact on the overall Heresy, according to other readers. 

Links

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my posts on the Horus Heresy, as well as books throughout the Warhammer and 40K universe can be found 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!

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1971

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1971 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees. I included a brief overview discussion of the year’s nominees at the beginning. As always, there will be SPOILERS for the books discussed.

1971- Sometimes people ask me why I enjoy reading lists so much. Being handed a bunch of choices made by someone else isn’t always the most enjoyable thing, as any high school student can tell you. The reason I like lists is because it forces me to read things I may otherwise never have encountered. 1971 is a year that proved that for me again. The Year of the Quiet Sun is an absolutely fantastic book that I’m sure I never would have read otherwise. I liked it so much that I even wrote a longer post on it in my Vintage Sci-Fi series. The other books this year are widely variant in my enjoyment of them. My third time through Ringworld made me both like and dislike aspects of it more than ever before. I may try more of the series soon. Tau Zero was… not great, yet again. I don’t know if I’ve liked almost anything by Poul Anderson. He may be outside my taste. Star Light by Hal Clement is a great example of the pitfalls of hard sci-fi. Tower of Glass is another great Silverberg novel, exploring themes that go far beyond the surface.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (Winner) Grade: C+
I’ve now read this book twice and a third time on audiobook for various lists. The audiobook helped me really focus in on certain parts of it that I’d kind of skimmed before. I think the first half or so of the book is quite strong. Niven makes compelling aliens that are different enough from humans to seem truly alien–a gift he displays in other books as well. But once all the initial drama is out of the way and the mysterious nature of Ringworld is revealed… it all seems kind of ho hum from there. The immediacy of the breakdown of civilization on Ringworld is difficult to believe and somewhat forced. The strong sense of mystery when the Ringworld is first revealed is a letdown in its payoff. And the characters don’t hold interest after a while. But the first half was such compelling reading that slogging through the incredibly uneven back half is at least partially forgiven. I’m thinking I may finally go and get the next couple to read them, just to see if we get a better payoff for the ideas Niven developed earlier in the book. So, I guess my overall thoughts are that this was a mixed bag. The hard sci-fi elements were fascinating, and I loved the ideas for various aliens. But once the plot truly got rolling, it seemed to fizzle out instead of all come together.

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson Grade: D+
It’s hard sci-fi with all the ups and downs of the subgenre. Fewer ups than downs are present. It’s a good example of the things that can go wrong with hard sci-fi. Anderson actually pauses for paragraphs at a time to explain to his readers concepts like relativity. Perhaps that was necessary or seen as stylistically acceptable when it was written, but it disrupts the flow of the novel repeatedly. Is this an intro to physics textbook or a novel? It’s hard to tell. The plot isn’t terrible interesting, either. A colonization ship runs into a problem with a nebula; science and fake science ensues to try to solve it. Much misogyny is the name of the game when it comes to character interactions. Women are vessels for sexually explicit fantasies. The book is barely readable, in my opinion, and notable perhaps only for its helping establish the subgenre as something to be pursued. Easy to pass up now, and I’ve read it twice! Curse my commitment to reading lists! But it pays off sometimes (see below, The Year of the Quiet Sun).

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg Grade: A
I read this book a second time as I came up on time to write this review, and I’m glad I did. I can safely say that the first time I read it, I didn’t understand it. I mean, I got the general idea of it as a kind of play on the Tower of Babel and the like, but I don’t think I got it. This time, I think I did, though, as always, the author may disagree with my reading. Anyway, the general plot is that there’s a possible alien intelligence trying to communicate with Earth from a star that doesn’t seem capable of supporting life, and the word’s richest man is building an enormous tower to try to communicate with these alleged aliens. Krug, the wealthy man, became so by creating Androids, who have since been assigned hierarchy based upon their abilities. What he doesn’t know (nor do any humans, apparently) is that the androids have made their own religion, turning Krug into a god, complete with a kind of Trinitarian theology and scripture. The androids dream of freedom, and throughout the book this is a major driving force of the plot. But when their freedom isn’t granted, the androids rebel, ultimately tearing down the tower, though some who remain loyal to Krug send him on his spaceship in cryo-sleep to see the aliens. None of these threads are tied off. Indeed, the book is full of loose threads at the end, but I didn’t mind. It forces you as a reader to sit and think about it. This is a book that I keep thinking more about every time I consider it. There’s so much going on in it, and I loved it.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker (My Winner) Grade: A
I’d not read Wilson Tucker before I dug this gem out of a pile somewhere online. It seems intensely out of print–no ebook edition (a problem I’ve run into more than once on this quest, to be fair), and many copies prohibitively expensive. Finally found an edition that collected it with a few other novels. Anyway, this book is stuffed with themes. Whether intentional or not, the way that the main character’s work and person is connected to many, many aspects of this time travel novel make it a wellspring of reflection. Brian Chaney, the main character, translated an ancient work that appears to show the book of Revelation is not, in fact, from the time of Christ but rather a few hundred years before. This side piece of information looms large on reflecting the major themes of the novel itself, but it’s done so subtly that it is easy to miss. Alongside this, Chaney is sent to a disturbingly possible future and the bleakness is so thick that the book is probably not for the faint of heart. It’s not flawless, as it has a decent helping of misogyny and the characters are rather thin. But overall, the novel is one of those I can’t stop thinking about, even weeks after finishing it. For that, it ranks among the masterworks for me. I couldn’t contain my thoughts on this fabulous book by Wilson Tucker in a single paragraph, so I wrote a lengthy reflection shortly after finishing it.

Star Light by Hal Clement Grade: C+
Hard science fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi. I just love having all the science piled on–whether real or fake–to dress up the plot in a veneer of lab coats and testable predictions. That’s not sarcasm–I truly do love this sub-genre. But there is a huge, common pitfall in hard sci-fi: it is easy to allow the plot to be reduced to a vehicle for the introduction of science. This is no different from the pitfall of other sub-genres, but it seems extremely common in hard sci-fi. Star Light falls headfirst into that pitfall, and perhaps does so willingly as Hal Clement delightfully waxes eloquent on various scientific concepts–both real and imaginary–throughout the novel to the extent that it became difficult, in my opinion, to focus on the characters and the plot in any meaningful way. It’s not a bad novel, and it kept me turning the pages, but it wasn’t anything fantastic. Due to the intense, constant focus on the science, there was little development of characters or even background for them. It’s fine, but not great. The edition linked includes both Star Light and Mission of Gravity. The former is superior, in my opinion.

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.

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.

Reading the Horus Heresy, Primarchs Book 2: “Leman Russ- The Great Wolf” by Chris Wraight

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.

Leman Russ – The Great Wolf by Chris Wraight 

The Primarchs books so far (an admittedly small sample size) have been short, action packed reads. Leman Russ – The Great Wolf shows us some of the more interesting points of the Great Crusade, as Leman Russ and Lion El’Johnson clash over how to deal with a world, Dulan, that is in rebellion. 

Much to my relief, unlike the previous book in the Primarchs series, Rouboute Guilliman – Lord of Ultrimar, this book has the Primarch Leman Russ actually dominate much of the plot. Here, we see his reactions in the moment as push comes to shove with the Dark Angels opposing his actions on Dulan. We see him clashing with Lion El’Johnson, as well as reflecting upon this clash later. The book is basically a straight-forward action-fest with little time in between scenes to reflect on what’s happening. Here, it works better than it does at times, as the short length of the novella combined with the action made it move very swiftly while still getting peeks at the Primarch. The dialogue, when there was any, was written well enough to keep the plot moving. 

I also enjoyed the small insights into how the Space Wolves recruited and trained on Fenris. I need to go back and read my Space Wolves omnibus to get into them more. The fact that this novella inspired me to do so also shows how much I enjoyed it. It’s not fantastic, but it’s a good read with just enough lore to keep me interested.

Leman Russ – The Great Wolf is a decent read that reveals much more about its titular Primarch than did the previous book in the series. I enjoyed it well enough, but it still lacked as much character development as I was hoping for in this series. 

(All Amazon links are affiliates.)

Links

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my posts on the Horus Heresy, as well as books throughout the Warhammer and 40K universe can be found 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!

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: “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.