Review: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – ed. by Humphrey Carpenter

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – ed. by Humphrey Carpenter

What an amazing book.

Like many people I have been a fan of Tolkien since High School. I still have the battered paperback editions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings on the bookshelf behind me. All three of my sons read the same editions. What has always struck me about Tolkien’s books is the depth of the characters and the world they inhabit. Now that I have a sampling of what the man was thinking and doing during the process of writing these novels, I have an even greater respect for the accomplishment.

I recommend that every Tolkien fan read this book.

The thing that made me smile the most is that Tolkien was a deeply religious and devout man, and yet he kept all such things out of these books. Even the Silmarillion, while structured like a holy text, does not preach or push a religious agenda. This simple fact shows that Tolkien was a reasoning man who understood the difference between real life and the escapism of his “fairy stories”. The kindness and goodness of the heroic characters in his works, and the simple themes of justice and strength of character are all he needs to use to define his moral and ethical grounding. He could have preached morals but he didn’t and in doing so captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of young people.

I am tempted to go into greater detail and describe how this attitude was prevalent in his day to day life, but I don’t want to spoil any of this book for the reader.

I do want to take time to discuss how I think Tolkien might have felt about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. There are things that would have upset him I think. Not things like the elves showing up at Helms Deep, or Arwen’s expanded presence, but the contorting of character’s motives and strengths. I think he would be most saddened by the treatment of Faramir. In the books Faramir knows his quality. It is not seeking approval and love from his father that drives him, but his duty and love for his father that does so. To have Faramir drag Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath, have him desire to be his brother, and to have him question his own worth detracts from the message Tolkien was trying to convey through character: there is still good in men.

But enough with ranting on my part. Read this book full of letters written by the man himself and form your own opinions. Better yet, just read the book and see for yourself that Tolkien himself was a man of quality.

Review: Galaxy Blues by Allen M. Steele

Galaxy Blues Allen M. Steele

(Published as a 4 part serial in Asimov’s SF, Oct/Nov 07, Dec 07, Jan 08, Feb 08)

Allen Steele has become one of my favorite SF authors. I know that a large part of it has to do with the style of stories he tells. The Coyote sequence is as close to the old masters as any modern day writer is currently producing. I get the grandeur, the epic scale, the positive vibe that I use to get from reading Asimov, Heinlein and Pohl.

Galaxy Blues was a bit of a disappointment for me. While I am writing a single review for all four parts, I did read it as it was published. I was thinking of waiting until the last installment showed up and then reading them altogether, but frankly, I just couldn’t wait. I was like a kid waiting for the next installment, all excited and disappointed at the same time. I feel that because I read the story in four different months, that something was lost. I plan on reading it again when the book is available in paperback, and I’ll post a comment to this entry at that time about how I feel about reading it without the month long breaks.

I did like the overall story. The opening scenes had me recalling the first Coyote story I read, “Stealing Alabama”. It had the same kind of tension and excitement level.

Some of the characters seemed a little thin to me. The main characters were robust enough, but some of the secondary characters were not people that I developed any interest in. The thing is that I know I am being harsh here. I have this extraordinarily high expectation for Coyote stories that is unrealistic for Mr. Steele to match. It occurs to me that I might have experienced a similar let down if I had read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in its original story and serial format. I imagine many people were disappointed that the continuing tale did not have the same excitement as “The Mule”. I need to be realistic.

It is a very good story. I would suggest that anyone that has not read any of Allen Steele’s Coyote books start with “Coyote” and read them in published order. It is not necessary, but there are tid-bits of information and story inside information that will flow just a little better if they are read that way.

Review: Asimov’s SF, V32 #2, February 2008

Asimov’s Science Fiction, V32 #2, February 2008

Overall a good issue for Asimov’s. I think the quality of stories is improving and while I am not entirely happy with all of the selections, it is nice to see a good diversity of interesting story telling styles.

Stories

  • (short story) From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…Michael Swanwick
    There are times when I marvel at the imagination of some authors. Mr. Swanwick is one of those. I admit there are times when I weary of some of his work, but, realistically that is true of just about every author I have read. This story I enjoyed. The point of view bothered me at first, but once the story hit its stride it really flowed. The work he has done to attempt to depict communication attempts from an alien mind intrigued me. {ss4}
  • (short story) Sex and ViolenceNancy Kress
    This is a very interesting short. I especially like the humor associated with the study for the [hopelessly untranslatable term] being conducted by the antagonists. A very fun read! {ss6}
  • (novelette) The Ray Gun: A Love StoryJames Alan Gardner
    I was enamored with this story. As a lonely kid growing up on family farm there were many times that I’d pick up a stick and pretend that it was a ray gun. This story explores the situation where the stick really was a ray gun. It is well told and the main character seems so utterly realistic that I ended up feeling a kinship with him. The omniscient point of view was perfect for the tale as well. {nt7}
  • (novelette) The Egg ManMary Rosenblum
    This story is part of Mary Rosenblum’s Drylands series. I am a fan of post-apocalyptic tales, and this series fits. The thing that intrigues me is that in this future world mankind sat idle and let it happen. Apathy wins. Welcome to the Drylands. In this particular story we catch a glimpse of what it really means to be living on the fringe of society, and the risks and dangers inherent therein. This is a powerful story, and is my favorite of the issue. {nt8}
  • (short story) Inside The BoxEdward M. Lerner
    Time travel, Schroedinger’s Cat and a university lecture hall give us plenty of food for thought. Mr. Lerner’s tale gives us a bit of pragmatism and shows us how indeed those faced with unsettling events can choose to deal with them. The final line of this story is fantastic. I wish I could share, but that would be spoiling it for all of you.{ss5}
  • (short story) The Last AmericanJohn Kessel
    This is a subtly dark tale. I found it interesting in the way it was presented. Mr. Kessel uses descriptive media clips of varying kinds to paint the picture of a person that twists the truth. I found this story was too close to reality at certian points to be able to get lost in the tale. If this was Mr. Kessel’s intention, then job well done.{ss4}
  • (novel serial) Galaxy Blues (part 4 of 4)Allen M. Steele
    The Great Beyond – I decided to wait until the serial ran its course before reviewing this novel. Now that it is concluded, I will be reviewing the novel in a new post and will provide backtrack links for it within the reviews for the four issues of Asimov’s SF it was in.

The Arts: (disclaimer: I don’t “get” most art or poetry, but I know what I like)

  • (cover art) (no title)- Bob Eggleton
    This month’s cover is not directly related to any story. It is a very vivid cover of what I think is perhaps a cosmic event involving a neutron star. I lament that Asimov’s does not let us know the name that the artist calls their artwork. [Note: after a little digging on Mr. Eggleton’s website, I find that the piece is called “Cosmic Hunger” and is his interpretation of a black hole. I was close!] {a4}
  • (poetry) Where Seelie ShopGreg Beatty
    I liked this poem. It has many fantasy elements, but I grant it slipstream status. I like the idea of fairy folk visiting the local big box mart in the twilight hours. {p4}
  • (poetry) The Mirror SpeaksJessy Randall
    I laughed out loud at this one. I think that says everything I would want to say. {p5}
  • (Cartoon) Trends for the 21st Century (so far)Steven Utley
    I am not going to review cartoons. I am pleased to see their return to the pages of Asimov’s SF. I do want to provide a link to the creator when possible. {c 5}

Departments:

  • (editorial) My Rowboat by Sheila Williams
    I caught the SF bug early in life. I credit my mother reading “A Wrinkle in Time” to me as a small child. It is interesting to listen or read about how other people became science fiction or fantasy fans. In this month’s installment we find out how editor Sheila Williams caught the SF bug.
  • (column) Reflections: Toilet Nirvana by Robert Silverberg
    Okay. If you think the title to this month’s column is a little weird, just wait until you read it. Mr. Silverberg discusses his trepidations about attending the World SF Convention in Japan (an event in the past upon the publication of the column, but in the future when it was written). One of his concerns is with the possibility of encountering a toilet more sophisticated than is the norm in the USA. He shouldn’t worry, he did extensive research on high tech toilets, and should be ready in any contingency. I feel prepared just having read what he wrote. Shame that I wasn’t able to afford to go to Japan. I wonder when WorldCon will be within driving distance for me?

Review: Staffs & Starships, V1 #1, 2007

Staffs & Starships, V1 #1, 2007

This new magazine is brought to us by Sheer Speculation Press. The magazine is a mix of speculative fiction from Sword & Sorcery to Hard Science Fiction. The balance of stories was very good, and overall I was very pleased with this first issue. The lack of a fancy cover startled me at first, but after a short time the simplistic presentation began to grow on me.

Now for some bad news. The print version of the magazine was abysmally late in arriving. The publisher cited problems with the printer, and based on what I have in my hand my guess is that he failed in getting many problems corrected. Nearly every story has a typesetting problem, with the most common issue being that parts of sentences have been left out of the majority of the stories. I think my local small town printer could do better than this first issue. It is no wonder Sheer Speculation has announced that it will only continue to sell electronic subscriptions of the magazine for the time being. I am torn. I realize that they want a professional looking magazine and are likely not happy with their first issue, but I really want a print version. I am one of those people that is tied to a computer at work. A large portion of my free time is also spent at the computer writing stories and blog entries. The main times I get to read are those times I am away from the computer. I hope they return to providing a print version soon. Maybe I can beg them to sell me a print version (ahem) as a reviewer.

Production concerns aside, the content of the first issue is very solid. I enjoyed every story. I have not been able to single out a favorite story; they are all very, very good.

“At War” by Karl El-Koura

As a military history buff, this story struck a strong chord with me. I have read about how soldiers in the current wars the USA is engaged in are struggling with emotions and sanity and concentration because they feel obligated to rush to a computer after every patrol to send an email, or to chat, simply to assure their loved ones that they are still doing fine. It has a demonstrable impact on their effectiveness at war. Karl El-Koura takes this one step further and his story makes a powerful statement about keeping focused and doing the right thing in a dangerous situation.

“The Ken of Man” by Barbara E. Tarbox

This is a stunning story. The descriptions, the characterization and theme are very strong. I could picture the world and see the characters struggling within it. There was one scene near the end that made the entire piece ring true for me. The hero stays true to her character even to the point of being willing to sacrifice herself to save those less virtuous and less deserving.

“Trompe L’Oeil” by Katherine Shaw

I had memory flashes of Isaac Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man” while I read this story. I think that Katherine Shaw’s take on this theme is in some ways more realistic and thus more believable than the Good Doctor’s tale. Our main character does what is right, for her, instead of what is easy, and because the characterization is strong it really makes the entire story work. I normally don’t mention titles, but I will for this one because it is spot on perfect.

“Darkened” by Joanne Anderton

This is a very dark tale that is filled with kindness. The juxtaposition is wonderful. We can really feel empathy for the dark soldier, and can marvel at the openness of the child Jenn. The narration flows well and evokes good imagery. The ending is fitting, yet I would like to revisit the world and stories of this dark soldier.

“The Oracle Unlocked” by Lindsey Duncan

For the second time in this issue I was reminded of a favorite author. This time it is Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories that come to mind. And before anyone balks at this, I am not saying that this tale is a Conan clone or anything like it. For me Howard had a gift with description; of places and things. This story has that wonderful vivid touch. The setting and theme are very much like a Conan tale, but hero is completely different. A lot of people forget that Conan has a brain, and it is this aspect that this hero uses in her quest. This story was simple, elegant and a lot of fun.

“The Carrier” by James Michael Steimle

I must admit that I struggled with this story’s theme, but I recognize that as a personal reaction within me due to…well… my life. To say more would give away too much. I like the setting which seems familiar and very “modern day”, yet has an edge to it like the futuristic utopias in Huxley’s “A Brave New World” or Nolan’s “Logan’s Run”. The ending, while not a surprise to me, was reached without cheating or trickery resorted to by so many stories of this theme. Very enjoyable.

“The Fourth Knight’s Quest” by Steve Goble
{Standard Disclaimer: For the sake of transparency, full disclosure is warranted. Steve is a close friend of mine. A fact that has no impact on my reviews as far as I can tell.}

Have I mentioned that I like journey/quest stories? Well I do. It is especially fun when the journey takes you somewhere you do not expect. This story did exactly that. The descriptions of the journey are fantastic; to the point where this reader absentmindedly got a cold drink because the character he was reading about was tortured by a vividly described hot, dry desert. I don’t get that caught up in stories very often, and it is fun when I do. This is a captivating tale.

“127 Fears” by S.C. Bryce

The opening line caught my attention immediately. The rest of the story held it. Fears are something we all have, and SC Bryce uses that to allow the reader to understand the motivation behind the main character. I have had to reword this review several times because I keep giving away the ending. I guess I will have to conclude by simply stating that this is a fantastic story and should be read without some silly reviewer spoiling it.

“Last Contact” by Peter Andrews

The flow of this story troubled me at first, but in the end its disjointedness works well in setting the tone. There is a strong feeling of the children’s “telephone” game as the events progress and the recollections are repeated through the lens of progressing history. The story left me thinking about truth and perception of truth and how a first contact can be the last.

“Problem in Logic” by Barton Paul Levenson

This story purposefully invokes Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and places a today’s world situation on them. What results is a gritty realism that points out the one flaw with Dr. Asimov’s laws. Implementation. Some day we may be able to devise an expert system or baby artificial intelligence that can handle the enormous scope of decisions that must be made to reconcile acting upon the simple intent of Asimov’s three laws, but not with today’s computers. It is not so much a problem in logic, as it is a problem with robust specifications. As a computer programmer I must congratulate Mr. Levenson on his depiction of computers as real world machines, and not as magic boxes that perform miracles. Well done.

Review: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

I have had this book on my reading shelf for a few years now. I read it back in high school, and have been meaning to read it again ever since. Because I have set myself the goal of reading all of the Hugo Award winning novels that I have yet to read, I figured I’d kick off the effort by reading this novel again.

This novel consists of three distinct novelettes, portions of which were originally published in the science fiction magazines Galaxy and If. The three stories are appropriately subtitled: “Against stupidity …”, “… the gods themselves …”, “… contend in vain?” It is the middle story that I feel won the Hugo for the good doctor. It is the strongest of the three and rightly lends its title to the overall title of the novel. It is an amazing piece of fiction. The entire story takes place in an alien parallel universe with alien characters, both so different from human experience that when one stops to think about it, you must wonder if Asimov himself was an alien to have even imagined them. As I have said in past reviews, I really love great characterization. With Odeen, Tritt and Dua, Asimov introduces us to alien creatures and then sets about crafting them into people that we care about. I found myself wondering how the climax of the third story was going to impact the parallel universe characters. As a young man, I longed for a sequel that furthered the story of the struggle for communication between our universe and the para-universe.

I have had many people tell me that Asimov is not the greatest science fiction writer of all time because he lacks literary flair. But I contend that he should be considered for the position based on his alacrity and accuracy with words. There are times when reading that many of us finding ourselves backing up to assimilate the meaning of a sentence. Not so with Asimov. I dare say that even the deep science content of this novel can be easily understood the first time by anyone who reads it.

I recommend “The Gods Themselves” as a good introduction to Asimov’s work, especially those who may be daunted by the multi-volume Foundation and Robot series.

Review: Origins of the Crash – by Roger Lowenstein

Origins of the Crash: The Great Bubble and Its Undoing – By Roger Lowenstein

When the dotCom stock market bubble collapsed, it left behind a similar bubble of overvalued “legitimate” stocks. This is the bubble that Lowenstein writes about. I personally don’t see what happened as a crash a-la the crash of 1929. The bubble was pricked and has been leaking air ever since. True, there was a big gush of air that escaped the bubble when Enron and WorldCom imploded with accounting irregularities. The Wall Street wiz-kids try to pump air back into it, but because the leak is still there, it inflates a little and then sputters back out. There have been other business that had accounting regularities, but many of these were able to survive financially even if their stockholders didn’t. The current sub-prime lender fiasco is related to these “technically legal” but ethically reprehensible accounting practices. If I didn’t own a water bed, I just might be stuffing my investment cash into the mattress.

I think Roger Lowenstein does a commendable job discussing the things that caused the bubble to be created in the first place. He uses language that a lay person can understand. I had never really considered how paranoid the threat of a leveraged buyout could make a CEO, or how many CEOs would come to view their stock options as a god given right to profit, no matter what. If I were in the position of running a start-up company today and the chance for an IPO (joining a stock market) presented itself, I would decline in a heartbeat. Not only are the current laws still open to accounting fraud, but the current stock purchaser still has not learned the dotCom lesson and is constantly trading trying to find that deal that will make them rich. Every commercial ad for investment firms discuss cheap trading, and if they mention long term strategy, it is an afterthought or is day-trading dressed up for the party. The stock market is no more stable today than the day the Enron closed its doors.

If there is one complaint I have about this book is that it really only scratches the surface. There is no in-depth study, and only superficially points to other major greed mongers that for political and popularity reasons have gotten away with fleecing the stock buying public. I guess he might have been afraid of being sued if he aired more than those facts he had ample documentation for. The end notes are thirty pages long; more than 10% of the book’s text.

Review: ChronoSpace by Allen Steele

Chronospace by Allen Steele

I enjoy time travel stories where the time travel is just a vehicle (and not overly explained) and also ones where the time travel in integral to the story, plot and characters. The second kind are the ones that, if not written properly, fall utterly flat. But when they work, they are the most enjoyable.

This one works, and Steele does a very credible job in explaining paradoxes, and alternate universes and the like, without being preachy or resorting to an information dump. I especially liked that he did not cheat the ending. Everything leading up to the climax and denouement was set up properly in the prose that preceded it.

Enough about the plot device. I think Mr. Steele also did a fine job with characterization. He gives us enough of the characters to care about what is going on, but also not so much that the story bogs downs into character angst and introspection. At times the characters are swept along by the events, but they also grab the plot and carry it in some instances. It is a nice balance.

I enjoy Mr. Steele’s prose. I picked up this book on the strength of his short fiction alone. I am glad that I did. I think others who enjoy straightforward science fiction would enjoy this work as well.