Retrospeculative View, 1986

Some of the short speculative fiction of 1986:

Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh in the Outback, the Hugo Award winner for best novella

Lucius Sherpard’s R&R, the Nebula Award winner for best novellaAsimovs_LShepard_R&R_illust_J_K_Potter

Roger Zelazny’s Permafrost, the Hugo Award winner for best novelette

Kate Wilhelm’s The Girl Who Fell into the Sky, the Nebula Award winner for best novelette

Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River, the World Fantasy Award winner for best novella

Greg Bear’s Tangents, the Nebula Award winner for best short story

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Some of the movies/television shows of 1986

Alf: a TV show about an alien that crash-landed its spaceship into a family’s garage. The alien character, the only puppet in this live-action sitcom, was nicknamed Alf (Alien Life form).

Aliens, the first of a franchise. I have very few memories of this film, but the alien popping out of the crewman’s chest is seared into permanent memory.Little_Shop_of_Horrors_poster

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. A humorous, but hokey Star Trek movie, complete with humpback whales, a dangerous alien probe/artifact, and time travel.

The Fly, a remake of the 1958 film (which was based on George Langelaan’s 1957 short story). The movie was a critical and commercial success; personally, I’m not a big fan of this sub-genre.

Little Shop of Horrors:a musical-comedy that was based on an off-Broadway show (which was, in turn, based on a low-budget film). The movie was a critical success and enjoyed commercial success when it was released on home video (VHS & Beta).

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Some of the notable novels of 1986:

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, the first half of his fantasy diptych, Mordant’s Need. I recall enjoying the series, but not falling in love with it. I think that The Mirror of Her Dreams ended with a cliffhanger, so it would be best to have the second book (A Man Rides Through) handy if you plan to read the books.

speaker_graphic_novel_coverSpeaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, which is the sequel to Ender’s Game. Speaker for the Dead, like its predecessor, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I loved this book when it was first published; I was a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, and this was probably my favourite book of his (I also had a special place for Songmaster and Hot Sleep (later amalgamated (to its detriment, I think)  into The Worthing Saga)). I have difficulties reading Card’s novels now; it is unfortunate, but they haven’t aged along with me as close friends.

This is the Way the World Ends, by James Morrow. An apocalyptic, post-nuclear war novel that is blessed with some fine writing, but I found it to be a bit of a mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy, and odd things happened without any depth of explanation.

When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger. I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, so I read it recently; unfortunately, it wasn’t really my kind of book. It is well written and there are some poignant sections, but it didn’t quite connect with me.

Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which won the World Fantasy Award (1988). I haven’t read this novel, but it is mentioned as inspiration for the movie Groundhog Day. The plot involves the re-birth of the main character in an earlier version of his physical body, but with his memories intact.

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge. I’m not sure why, but I’m not a big fan of Vernor Vinge (he has the chops & plots that should engage me, but I’ve never connected with his stories). I haven’t read this novel, but it seems interesting and I may give it a try some day. Marooned… is a sequel to The Peace War, yet apparently can be read as a stand-alone story. The plot includes a murder mystery, time travel, and a technological singularity from which the characters in the novel appear to be the only humans who survived.

Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The novel is set in the far future on Shora, a fictitious moon that is covered with water. I haven’t read the novel, but it has been reviewed favourably. The inhabitants of the water-world of Shora are genetically engineered aquatic humans, and they are all female. The inhabitants are referred to as Sharers, and they manipulate (in a benign way) the world’s ecological environment through the use of biotechnology. Their society is based on egalitarian eco-feminism and they solve disputes using nonviolent resistance.

William Gibson’s Count Zero. I think I enjoyed reading this novel even more than Neuromancer, but it didn’t have the same impact that Gibson’s first novel had. Neuromancer was raw, exciting, and unique: Count Zero couldn’t possibly break as much new ground. William Gibson strikes me as an intelligent, well-read man: I haven’t read any of his recent works, but I attended an event a few years ago in which he read from a recent novel (Zero History) and participated in an interesting discussion with Douglas Coupland.

 

And my choice as the Retrospeculative novel of 1986 is …

Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, originally published in German as Das Parfum: Die Geschiechte eines Morders (translated into English by John E. Woods), which won the World Fantasy Award.

The novel’s principle character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is an ‘olfactory vampire.’ He was born with no body scent, but with a superb sense of smell. Perfume_coverAt the beginning of the novel he is a sympathetic character, but the reader quickly discovers that he is an amoral sociopath. Grenouille preys on innocence, and murders young women so that he can acquire their distinctive aromas.

The novel traces the life of Grenouille, whose murderous subsistence is revealed in an odd, matter-of-fact manner, casting an eerie mantle over the reader. Grenouille is obsessed and quite insane, but he progresses through life in a coherent manner and becomes a master perfumer.

The novel, a historical fantasy, is set in 18th-century France and is wonderfully researched and presented. This re-imagining of the Dracula story is steeped in a remarkably realistic, sensual wickedness. The descriptive prose pulled me in, somewhat reluctantly, because horror is not a genre I readily enjoy. The scenes, described with an unusually dense array of olfactory sensations, provide a disturbing, but rewarding experience.

Perfume is a wonderful mixture of horror, history, and mystery-suspense; the reader follows the criminally insane thoughts and actions of Grenouille, wondering if his twisted, inhuman soul will be brought to justice.

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Redshirts, by John Scalzi

When John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War garnered rave reviews, I was intrigued and read it; unfortunately,  the novel didn’t resonate well with me. In Old Man’s War, a galactic battle is fought by elderly humans who have been given new combat bodies. It was an interesting concept, but the old men and women behaved like young people who hadn’t benefited from the experience of maturity. The writing was clearly aimed at the genre science fiction market (on a comparison-continuum, I would place it much closer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers than Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (which would be my pick to read if you’re interested in military science fiction)).

Redhirts_coverRedshirts (2012) won the Hugo Award and the Locus Award, so I thought I’d give Mr. Scalzi another try. I’m still not a huge fan, but I did enjoy portions of the novel. Redshirts is a bit of an odd mash of parody, comedy, and drama.

Any science fiction geek worth their salt knows the fate of the unknown extra — the red shirt — in the original Star Trek series: the red shirt would be killed, and the series’ stars would face danger, but survive. This is the starting point of the novel: the main characters in the book are secondary characters; they will all die because their reality is based on a poorly written television show, but their eventual deaths will be more poignant because they are recurring, albeit background, characters that have ties to the star-characters.

One character researches and discovers the metaphysical abnormality (of their universe having been created by the production of a TV show), and a mission is launched to head back in time to 2010 to convince the creators of the show to stop killing them off. This sets up an inconsistency that doesn’t quite work for me: the TV show did not exist in the history of the fictional universe but, when they head back in time, they meet the actors, a writer, and a producer of the show in a forth wall storyline (there was some hand-waving explanation regarding the plot-point, but it felt specious. The fourth-wall element was interesting, but it was difficult to suspend disbelief at this point: the plot seemed to stretch thin whenever a significant plot-point materialized). There seems to be an attempt by the author to bring some philosophical depth to the novel, but it came across as melodramatic, philosophy-light.

The novel was written in what I would term ‘genre-standard’: clunky prose and dialogue, some juvenile humor, and a lack of character depth (perhaps this was purposeful, but it was disappointing). The beginning of the novel, in particular, was uneven and could have used some extra editing. The writing never improved to a particularly high level, but I either got used to it, or it steadily improved, because I began to enjoy the story, particularly when the characters journeyed back in time. The story ended quite abruptly; purposely, with an additional ‘fourth wall’ interpretation. There are three ‘Codas’, which don’t add much to the novel; nevertheless, they are provocative and intriguing.

I’ve read some reviews that claim it is a very humorous book; I found some sections mildly entertaining, but it certainly wasn’t among the most amusing, or witty books I’ve read.

The novel is apparently going to be adapted for television (how ironic!), and I think TV might be a better medium for the story than the book-form: at times it felt like the book was written with TV in mind.

Redshirts is a pleasant summer genre book.

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Samuel R. Delany’s book cover-art; juxtaposition…

Samuel R. Delany is one of my favourite science fiction authors; he writes with a literate quality that is unusual in genre authors.

Dhalgren is an oddly constructed masterpiece that can be quite difficult to struggle through. I managed to find my way through the tome last year and I’m of the opinion that it is a brilliant work, but I can truly understand those who think it is pretentious drivel. I’m quite fond of the vintage cover art below; it captures the mood of the novel, and the design is quite appealing:

Dhalgren_vintage

I’m also very fond of Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, but the edition depicted below (Neveryóna, the second book in the 4-book series) is not something I’d care to be seen carrying around in public. Fortunately, there are more conservative editions available…

Neveryona

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