Retrospeculative View, 1990

Before I dive into the speculative world of 1990, I should point out that my reading preferences were undergoing a transformation around this time: I was shifting away from genre fiction, toward more literate works (I’m sure that sounds pompous, but I can’t think of another way to explain the phenomenon). As I’ve been writing these posts, I’ve noticed that there are more and more science fiction and fantasy novels — and even more of the shorter works of speculative fiction — that I’m unfamiliar with (I’m aware of notable and award-winning novels but I haven’t necessarily gone out of my way to read them). I’m quite familiar with works before the mid-1980s, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to amass a list of works I can reliably comment on. With that in mind, I’ve decided that this will be my final Retrospeculative View post using this particular format (I’m in the germination stages of deciding what future posts will look like; as of this moment, the ideas are nebulous).

Some of the short speculative fiction of 1990:

The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman (Hugo & Nebula Award for best novella)

A Short, Sharp Shock, by Kim Stanley RobinsonTHH_Haldeman

Fool to Believe, by Pat Cadigan

The Manamouki, by Mike Resnick (Hugo Award for best novelette)

Tower of Babylon, by Ted Chiang (Nebula Award for best novelette)

Bears Discover Fire, by Terry Bisson (Hugo & Nebula Award for best Short Story)

The Utility Man, by Robert Reed

Cibola, by Connie Willis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sandman #19), by Neil Gaiman (Writer) and Charles Vess (Illustrator) (World Fantasy Award for best Short Story)

Bones, by Pat Murphy (World Fantasy Award for best Novella). Pat Murphy also won the Philip K. Dick Award for her collection of short stories, Points of Departure. She was also the co-founder (along with Karen Fowler) of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 1991 (the award was in honour of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.)

 Movies released in 1990:

Edward Scissorhands. From Rotten Tomatoes:  “The first collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is a magical modern fairy tale with gothic overtones and a sweet center.”Christopher_Lloyd_BTTF_III

Back to the Future III. The third (and final) in a franchise; this time, a science fiction western.

Ghost. A romantic-fantasy-thriller that made tons of money.

Total Recall. A film based on PK dick’s short story, We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (1966).

Some of the notable novels of 1990:

The following six novels I haven’t read but they seem interesting and/or others enjoyed them:

The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo Award winner). The sixth full-length novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is included in an omnibus titled Young Miles (1997). Until recently, I hadn’t read anything by this author; however, I just finished her novel Falling Free, and it’s an interesting story, but hasn’t really convinced me that I need to read more (I will try one of her Miles Vorkosigan novels, which seem to be the fan-favourites).

tehanuTehanu (The Last Book of Earthsea), by Ursula Le Guin (Nebula Award winner). Although this book was written by one of my favourite writers, and is widely considered to be among her best work, I was never drawn into the Earthsea series.

Thomas the Rhymer, by Ellen Kushner (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see below) and the Mythopoeic Award). This fantasy novel is derived from folklore, and an eponymous ballad about Thomas Learmonth (a 13th-century Scottish laird) depicting his mythic romance with the Queen of Elfland and her gift to him of prophecy, which carried with it the inability to tell a lie.

Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow (World Fantasy Award winner (tie: see above)). From Wikipedia: “The story is about Julie Katz, the new Messiah, who is the daughter of God, and who is spontaneously conceived from a sperm bank donation by her father, Murray Katz, through “inverse parthenogenesis”. Julie struggles with her messianic powers, the mind games of Satan, being hunted by fundamentalists, and the silence of her mother, God.”

Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson (The John W. Campbell Memorial Award), the third of his Three Californias trilogy: each book in the trilogy depicts three different possible futures, all set in California’s Orange County (The Wild Shore is post-nuclear, The Gold Coast is cyberpunk, and Pacific Edge is utopian).

In the Country of the Blind, by Michael F. Flynn (Prometheus Award winner). From Amazon’s review: “In the 19th century, the British scientist Charles Babbage designed an “analytical engine,” a working computer that was never built–or so the world believes. Sarah Beaumont, an ex-reporter and real estate developer, is investigating a Victorian-era Denver property when she finds an ancient analytical engine. Sarah investigates her astonishing discovery and finds herself pursued by a secret society that has used Babbage computers to develop a new science, cliology, which allows its practitioners to predict history–and to control history for its own purposes. And it will stop at nothing to preserve its secret mastery of human destiny.”

Novels I read & enjoyed that were published in 1990:

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling. I enjoyed this steam-punk novel, but the story was a bit slow and dry, and I never became attached to any of the characters. The identity of the narrator is unknown until the end of the novel, and knowing who wrote it changed my view of the book substantially (the narrator’s identity was, no doubt, detected by other readers, but I remained ignorant until the reveal). Interesting, and I’m glad I read it, but I’ll probably never revisit it.

The_Eye_of_the_WorldThe Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. The beginning volume in an incredibly successful fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, which I believe now consists of 14 lengthy novels). I read The Eye of the World when it was first published and enjoyed it enough to read the second, which I also thought was pretty good. Unfortunately — in my opinion (fans please don’t throw stones) — the series became absurd and too long, and I stopped caring and reading. Others loved the entire series, so it would be best to look elsewhere for more positive reviews…

The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: good book, great writing, but a disappointing sequel to Hyperion, which didn’t require all its threads to be neatly tied (and this book contradicted some of what transpired in Hyperion). Simmons wrote two more sequels (Endymion and The Rise of Endymion), which were both admirable science fiction novels, but they also did not live up to the brilliance of Hyperion.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen, by Barry Hughart. This was the third and, sadly, final fantasy-mystery involving Number Ten Ox (the narrator, a brawny peasant) and Master Li (a Sage with a slight flaw in his character). Highly recommended.

And my choice for Retrospeculative novel for 1990 is…

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This isn’t quite my favorite Banks’ novel (that distinction would go to The Player of Games, a lighter novel in tone and heft), but it is a very close second. Use of Weapons is built with an interesting structure of alternating chapters with opposing time-streams…Use_of_Weapons

One set of chapters moves forward in time (Chapter One, Two, etc.) and recounts the efforts of Diziet Sma and a drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw (both of Special Circumstances), to convince a man named Zakalwe to return to duty for one more assignment.

The other set of chapters moves backwards in time (Chapter XIII, XII, etc.) and depicts Zakalwe’s previous assignments, eventually concluding with his life before being recruited by the Culture.

Within chapters there are several flashbacks and the novel includes a prologue and an epilogue. All of this creates a somewhat confusing plot, but all becomes clear by the end. Although the book was a bit darker than I prefer, I thoroughly enjoyed how the two main threads slowly entwined.

Sadly, Iain M. Banks passed from this realm in 2013, but he wrote many enjoyable novels (both mainstream fiction, as Iain Banks, and science fiction, as Iain M. Banks). I don’t think he ever quite created the work of pure science fiction genius that was within him, but Use of Weapons was close.


Retrospeculative View, 1989

Some of the short fiction of 1989:

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Hugo & Nebula for best Novella)

Time-Out, by Connie WillisTTTA

A Touch of Lavender, by Megan Lindholm (Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogdenher; her other pseudonym is Robin Hobb)

Great Work of Time, by John Crowley (World Fantasy Award for best Novella)

The Price of Oranges, by Nancy Kress

Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another, by Robert Silverberg (Hugo Award for best Novelette)

At the Rialto, by Connie Willis (Nebula Award for best Novelette)

Boobs, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Hugo Award for best Short Story)

Ripples in the Dirac Sea, by Geoffrey Landis (Nebula Award for best Short Story)

Some of the ‘speculative’ movies from 1989Adventures_of_baron_munchausen

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third in a franchise.

The Abyss, a James Cameron science-fiction thriller: pretty good, but a disappointing ending.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, a Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) movie: a bit slow & muddled, but ultimately fun

Batman, the first of a franchise

Field of Dreams, an adaption of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (the book is much better)

Books I haven’t read that created some buzz:

A Fire in the Sun, by George Alec Effinger, a sequel to When Gravity Fails. I did read When Gravity Fails, which was quite well-written, but it didn’t appeal to me so I skipped the sequels (in 1991 Effinger also published The Exile Kiss, a third novel in his Marîd Audran series).

The Boat of a Million Years, by Poul Anderson. The novel traces the lives of a group of immortal humans from their lives in the ancient past and into the distant future.the-childs-garden

The Child’s Garden, by Geoff Ryman (Arthur C. Clarke John W. Campbell Award winner). I’ve read good things about this novel and it is on my ‘to read’ list. It apparently triggers emotional and intellectual reactions, but is difficult to digest. I’ve enjoyed other novels by Ryman; in particular, Air.

Subterranean Gallery, by Richard Paul Russo (Philip K. Dick Award). The novel depicts an underground artistic community in a post-apocalyptic California.

The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Nebula Award winner). The author was a nurse during the Vietnam War and she apparently draws on her experiences to tell a mystical tale of the war. The main character is a nurse in the Vietnam War who is given a mystical amulet by an elderly patient before he dies. The amulet allows the nurse to perceive auras, and she embarks on a spiritual journey.

Some of the notable novels from 1989 that I have read:

Prentice Alvin, by Orson Scott Card, the third in the Alvin the Maker series. The series felt to me like it was leaking oil at about this point and I began to lose interest (I may finish reading the series for completeness, but I’m not particularly excited about the idea).

Grass, by Sherri Tepper. I’d heard wonderful things about this novel, but when I read it a couple of years ago I wasn’t particularly impressed. The initial set-up was good, but the story didn’t evolve in a way I appreciated and I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters (the main character, Marjorie, had potential, but I lost interest in her as the novel progressed). I probably won’t read another novel by this author, although I should point out that she has a large fan-base, so you might want to check elsewhere for differing opinions.

Madouc by Jack Vance (World Fantasy Award), the second book in the Lyonesse series. I loved this series when it first came out, but haven’t found the time to re-read it and cannot recall all the particulars. I do, however, remember being transported to an alternate realm because of exceptional world-building.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem. A minor Lem classic that left a lasting impression on me. Eden starts slowly, but gains allegorical momentum. At first, the aliens on the planet seem very exotic; but, by the end of the novel, I felt they were not so very different from humans at all. Recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the author (note: the novel was first published in Polish is 1959; the English translation by Marc E. Heine was first published in 1989).

My pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1989 is…

simmons-hyperionHyperion, by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award winner). This should be considered for any list of best science fiction novels of all time: it’s a classic of the genre (although, for some obscure reason, it wasn’t short-listed for a Nebula Award). Much has been written about Hyperion, and I’ll keep my synopsis brief (do a quick Google search for tons o’ information). There were sequels (Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion); and, although all the sequels were good science fiction, none of them captured the brilliance of Hyperion (which was, I believe, initially written as a stand-alone novel).

Hyperion follows a structure similar to The Canterbury Tales (not that I’m an expert on that tome!): it is a framed story involving seven pilgrims journeying to the planet Hyperion. All but one of the pilgrims tells their tale, forming the major sections of the book, and each tale is steeped in a different sub-genre. One of the characters is a clone of the poet John Keats, who never managed to finish his epic poem Hyperion (Keats did complete The Fall of Hyperion and Endymion, which contains the famous first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”). Hyperion contains a depth not often encountered in the science fiction genre. Highly recommended!!!

Retrospeculative View, 1985

Some of the notable short fiction of 1985:

Frederik Pohl’s Fermi and Frost, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1986)

Nancy Kress’s Out of All Them Bright Stars, which won the Nebula Award for the best short story

James Tiptree, Jr.’s The Only Neat Thing to DoFantasy_and_Science_Fiction_March1985

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars

John Crowley’s Snow

Harlan Ellison’s Paladin of the Lost Hour, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

Robert Silverberg’s Sailing to Byzantium, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

William Gibson’s The Winter Market

Roger Zelazny’s 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai, which won the Hugo Award for best novella

George R. R. Martin’s Portraits of His Children, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette


Some of the films/Television from 1985:Brazil_DVDcover

Amazing Stories, a Steven Spielberg television show, similar in scope to The Twilight Zone.

Back to the Future, a lighthearted time-travel movie that became an integral part of pop culture and spawned two sequels.

Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s bizarre, but exceptional movie: a bureaucratic satire that is part slapstick, part totalitarian dystopia, part fantasy-daydream, and part love story.

Enemy Mine, a movie adaption of Barry B. Longyear’s 1979 novella.


Some of the notable novels of 1985:

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. I enjoyed the novel when it was published but, as I’ve aged, it has lost its charm (my daughter enjoyed it immensely, so perhaps it is best read when young). A movie version was released in 2013; it followed the story fairly well, but I think it worked much better as a novel.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music, a story dealing with transhumanism and the nature of consciousness. The protagonist, Vergil Ulam, is a brilliant scientist who injects himself with intelligent nano-organisms, which evolve within his body and are eventually capable of transferring to other humans. The end of humanity is certain, but the novel portrays an optimistic future with a new, improved species. This is a classic novel, and it is a foundation work for ‘wet’ nanotech fiction.

The Postman, by David Brin, expanded from his excellent novella, which had a tighter focus and didn’t require lengthening in my opinion. The story was adapted into a tedious movie (1997).

R. A. MacAvoy’s The Book of Kells, Based on the sublimely illustrated Book of Kells. The novel blends Celtic history, time travel and magic.

James Tiptree, Jr’s Brightness Falls from the Air. James Triptree Jr. was a pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon (she also wrote stories under the pen name Raccoona Sheldon). It was not generally known that her stories were written by a woman until many years after her first published stories, and she was instrumental in breaking sexist publishing barriers. Brightness Falls from the Air is well-written, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as her short fiction. The set-up was exceptional, and the plot was interesting, but I found some parts a bit manipulative, and the ending was disappointing. It is a work that has much to recommend, but I would more heartily recommend her short-story collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Schismatrix_Plus_coverSchismatrix, a Bruce Sterling novel featuring his Shaper/Mechanist vision (he also wrote five short-stories using the same concepts). There are four intelligent species in the novel: Humanity, which has evolved due to genetic and technological alteration; the Gasbags, space-roaming beings; the Swarm, a consortium of species that are constantly altering their hive-like composition to better adapt to the rigors of deep space; and the Investors, huge, interstellar-travelling reptoids. The complete Shaper/Mechanist stories (the novel and the short-stories) are now available in a single volume, Schismatrix Plus.

Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia Winter, which is the final volume in the Helliconia trilogy ( Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter). Helliconia is a planet inhabited by two intelligent species; a species similar to humanity, and the phagor, a sentient bovine species. The real protagonist is the planet itself, and the trilogy is a fictional model based on the Gaia hypothesis.

Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, which won the World Fantasy Award. I haven’t read this novel; it is a horror story, which is not my preferred genre (I do read an occasional horror story, but I tend to skip them unless something about it really intrigues me). In the Song of Kali, a journalist travels to Calcutta and becomes inextricably drawn in to strange, terrifying cult proceedings; the cult venerates Kali, Hindu Goddess of death and destruction.

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is one of my favorite authors, but I haven’t read this book! From the University of California Press: Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America’s most respected writers of science fiction. More than five years in the making, it is a novel unlike any other. A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast”.

Sekai no Owari to Hādo-Boirudo Wandārando by Haruki Murakami (Eng. Trans. 1991 by Alfred Birnbalm: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I think this is one of Murakami’s best (almost on-par with Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). This excellent novel is divided into two alternating views: the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, set in past-tense and in the ‘real’ world, and the End of the World, set in the present tense and possibly in a world that only exists deep within the protagonist’s mind.

And my pick for the Retrospeculative novel of 1985 is…

The Handmaiden’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the 1985 Governor General’s Award (Canada), and the Handmaid's_Tale_coverfirst Arthur C. Clarke Award (1987). As a Canadian, I find it a bit risky to admit this to the world, but this was the first of Ms. Atwood’s novels that I truly enjoyed. Her prose is consistently excellent; unfortunately, I rarely get drawn into her stories and find them a bit tedious (surely a lack in my intellectual maturation). The Handmaiden’s Tale is set in a dystopian, near-future America, which has been taken over by a racist, homophobic, moral-majority, the Sons of Jacob, who rename their claimed land the Republic of Gilead. Birth rates have declined due to sterility and the protagonist, Offred, is a concubine, a ‘handmaiden’, who is used by Fred (The Commander) as brood-stock. The novel is narrated by Offred (Of Fred), who has recorded events from her life as a handmaiden, as well as flashbacks to a time before the revolution that was launched by the Sons of Jacob. The story flows effortlessly, the character development is excellent, and the story is filled with tension. There are several disturbing sections, but a ribbon of hope runs through the plot.




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


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).


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.




The Fade, by Chris Wooding

The Fade combines elements of science fiction and fantasy and the story is constructed upon an intriguing foundation: the main storyline flows chronologically, but it is interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks that detail significant experiences in the protagonist’s past. The main storyline is a revenge-fueled adventure within a fantasy/science-fiction setting.

The title has several meanings and sets up a twist that, unfortunately, I found to be over-telegraphed, which took some of the fun out of the tale, but I still enjoyed the story more than I thought I would. The novel is presented in first-person narrative, a fascinating way of building a world in bits and pieces. The protagonist doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the wonders of her world (as she wouldn’t, being a native), yet the alien atmosphere is successfully transmitted to the reader (the image on the book’s front cover helped).the_fade_cover

Long before the action in the novel, humans had settled beneath the surface of Callepsa, a moon that orbits a gas giant, Beyl. The surface of Callepsa is uninhabitable, but the cavernous subterranean world consists of countries, seas, warriors, magicians, and intriguingly alien creatures and scenery. War is common, fought by highly proficient warriors and the thaumaturgy of adept magicians.

The protagonist, Massima Leithka Orna, is indentured; a Bondswoman, a servant of the Clan Caracassa. Orna is a warrior/spy/assassin of the clan’s Cadre, which also includes chthonomancers (wielders of magic). Near the beginning of the novel, Orna’s husband is killed in a particularly vicious battle, and she is taken prisoner. Orna is convinced a betrayal caused her husband’s death and her capture, and the rest of the story’s arc documents her escape and her act of vengeance.

I thought the ending was a bit weak; I expected a twist I hadn’t foreseen, but I did enjoy the story and I would read a sequel to this short, exciting novel that left room for more…




Retrospeculative View, 1980

Some of the short fiction of 1980:

The Cloak and the Staff, by Gordon R. Dickson, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette (1981)

Lost Dorsai, by Gordon R. Dickson, which won the Hugo Award for best novella (1981)

Nightflyers, by George R. R. Martin

The Ugly Chickens, by Howard Waldrop, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

The Lordly Ones, by Keith RobertsBrave_Little_Toaster_cover

Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster, which won a Locus Award, a Seiun Award (1982) and a BSFA Award. The story was adapted into a Disney movie (1987).

All the Lies that Are My Life, by Harlan Ellison

Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak, which won the Hugo Award (1981) and the Nebula Award for best short story

Beatnick Bayou, by John Varley

Unicorn Tapestry, by Susie Mckee Charnas, which won the Nebula Award for best novella


 Some of the ‘speculative’ movies and television shows of 1980:

Galactica 1980, a spin-off from the original television series (1978-1979;)

The Shinning, a movie based on the Stephen King novel (1977)fog-1980

The Fog, a John Carpenter film about a haunted ship and glowing mist. A remake was released in 2005.

The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars, Episode V); the second in the popular franchise…

Friday the 13th, the first in a franchise of horror movies (I believe the count is at twelve movies).

Flash Gordon, a cult classic, although Sam J. Jones received a Golden Raspberry Award as worst lead actor for his portrayal of Flash Gordon.

Superman II, the second in the franchise starring Christopher Reeve.


 Some of the notable novels of 1980:

The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge, which was not only inspired by the famous Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, but also Robert Grave’s The White Goddess, in which Grave endevoured to reveal the historical origins of goddesses from differing cultures.  It seems like the basis for a fantasy novel, but The Snow Queen is space-opera science fiction. The setting is Tiamat, a planet of mostly water, which orbits about two suns, one of which is a black hole. With a mathematical precision, the black hole becomes a star-gate for one hundred and fifty years, which allows members of the Hegemony to visit and trade technology for the mer-blood of the native life-form of Tiamat, which grants extended life —possibly immortality — to humans when injected (the blood is amassed during gruesome hunting episodes). The members of the Hegemony control the development of the humans on Tiamat, ensuring that when the gate opens the next time they will be able to trade for more mer-blood. A Winter Queen rules while the gate is open, but is sacrificed and replaced by a Summer Queen when the gate is about to close. This is a decent genre novel (it won the 1981 Hugo Award), and I enjoyed it when it was first published; however, like many novels I read years ago, this one hasn’t aged along with me and I find it difficult to enjoy now.

 The Wounded Land, by Stephen R. Donaldson, the first book in his Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Ten years have passed for Thomas Covenant but, when he is returned to the Land, four-thousand years have passed there and another person from his reality, Linden Avery, travels with him. The Land is in disarray because of the Sunbane, which initiates drought, pestilence, and other phenomena that inflict chaos on the inhabitants. The Clave have taken control of the Land and use human sacrifices to exploit the power of the Sunbane. Covenant, Linden Avery, and characters from the Land set out to undo the corruption of Earthpower, unseat the Clave and, eventually, defeat Lord Foul. The novel (in fact, the entire trilogy) provides some interesting world-building, but is filled with the usual Donaldson overindulgence of angst; apparently, Covenant’s angst wasn’t enough, so he created Linden Avery to ratchet-up the angst to new, unparalleled levels.

Lord_Valentine_hardback_coverLord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg, which won the Locus Fantasy Award. This was a welcomed novel, Silverberg’s reentry into the world of writing after a hiatus of five years. The novel has elements of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. The setting is the vast planet Majipoor, which is inhabited by a miscellany of creatures; humans (those odd, bipedal things, alien to the planet, but now the primary political and economic force), Vroons (small, octopus-like; many are wizards), Hjorts (squat, bipedal, grey, lumpy skin and bulgy eyes), Skandars (tall, shaggy, four arms, strong), Iimens (three eyes, not very intelligent), Su-Suhersis (tall, two small heads on one neck, some have psychic powers), Gharogs (bipedal, reptilian), and the Piuruvar (Metamorphs, shapeshifters, the original inhabitants of the planet). Valentine is a travelling man who has lost his memory, but he slowly regains it as the novel proceeds. This is the first of a series of books set on Majipoor, but it is a self-contained novel; popular and enjoyable, but not Silverberg’s most literate work.

Songmaster, by Orson Scott Card. The novel is an expansion of Card’s novelette, Mikal’s Songbird (1978), which forms the second section of the novel. The Empire is a technologically advanced, interstellar ‘community,’ filled with treachery. It is ruled by Emperor Mikal and controlled by Riktors Ashen. Mikal is gifted a songbird, a child whose singing is extraordinary; a songbird’s voice, it is said, can rule one’s emotions. Mikal’s songbird is Ansset, whose singing is beautiful beyond words. Songmaster is the story of Ansset, the Songhouse where he was trained, Mikal, Ricktors Ashen, and others; the interplay of the characters, love (non-sexual, hetero, homo, and bisexual), friendship, betrayal, and conflicting morals are all at play.  Like most of Card’s novels, this is an interesting genre story, but it strikes me as a young person’s book.

Molly Zero, by Keith Roberts: a dystopian novel, set in a future England, written in the uncommon second person present tense; an unusual perspective, but it works in this book as an abnormal perspective. The narrator is a young girl who has been raised in an institutional environment for a potential career within society’s elite; the rules that govern society are difficult to comprehend and the individuals are likewise strange. It is a character-driven novel and at first the style feels awkward (“You’re shivering inside your coat.…” “…You drive your fists deeper into the pockets and hunch your shoulders…” “…You’re Molly Zero and you’re scared to death.”), but the style helps the reader identify with the protagonist, Molly, who knows very little about the world around her; she has been raised in an authoritarian crèche, but she escapes and learns a little about the world outside the insulated, controlled confines of ‘the Blocks.’ The reader experiences the world as Molly does; it is a grim novel, but I sensed a ray of hope at the end.

Timescape, by  Gregory Benford, which won the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The setting is Earth in two periods of time; 1998 and 1962-1963. In the ‘future’1998 of the novel, the Earth is an ecological disaster and scientists hatch a plan to send a tachyon message backward in time — to 1962 — to avoid the disaster. The message is received by scientists in 1962. I won’t divulge much more — it would probably spoil the story — but the character development is interesting, and the science fiction elements (the message’s time travel and the ecological disaster) are believable within the framework of the novel. An interesting bit of trivia: Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books division used the title of the book as their science fiction imprint from 1981 to 1885.

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, an Urban Fantasy that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the prestigious Booker Prize; further, it won the Booker of Bookers Prize. Any respectable blogger would pick this as the speculative novel of the year, but I’m not always respectable, and I haven’t even read the book. Perhaps I’ll change my mind if/when I do read it (it sounds intriguing). From Wikipedia: “Midnight’s Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. He was born with telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose with an extremely sensitive sense of smell. The novel is divided into three books.”

Without further ado, my choice for Retrospeculative novel of 1980 is…

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe, which won the World Fantasy Award, but the novel is allegorical science fiction disguised as fantasy, so I’m surprised that it won a fantasy award. This book is really the first part of a lengthy novel, The Book of Shadow & Clawthe New Sun, which consists of four parts (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator (Locus Fantasy Award, Nebula Award), The Sword of the Lictor (British Fantasy Award, Locus Fantasy Award), and The Citadel of the Autarch (John W. Campbell Memorial Award)). For anybody who enjoys a literate challenge, a novel that alludes to classic works, and a book sprinkled with seldom used words, this is a treasure. The novel made me feel smarter as I travelled through it.

The protagonist, Severen, is an apprentice torturer (don’t let that put you off); an unreliable narrator who not only offers valuable information, but often misleads, or relates half-truths. Wolfe creates a depth unusual in genre fiction, and the novel provides an uncommonly rich reading experience.  I enjoyed the first half of the series the most, but that was likely due to brain fatigue. I will definitely re-visit the series at some point; my books are now littered with margin-notes and the series is rich enough to enjoy at least twice. Don’t let gaudy covers dissuade you; this is literate science fiction at its finest. The series is currently available in two manageable tomes; Shadow & Claw, and Sword & Citadel.

Highly recommended.




Stars in my Pocket, Like Grains of Sand

If I’d attempted to read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Stars) when it was first published (1984), I would have undoubtedly thrown it across the room in frustration (I probably would have made it through the lengthy prologue, but the meat of the novel would have strained my patience to the breaking point). Stars inMy Pocket coverThankfully, I’m a much different reader now than I was then: it is a brilliant novel, but it’s certainly not for everyone (one review I read declared that the title was the only enjoyable part of the book). Stars was Samuel R. Delany’s final major work of science fiction, possibly due to disagreements with his publisher, Bantam, after they declined to publish the final volume of his Return to Nevèrÿon saga (Mr. Delany still writes fiction, and is currently a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University). Stars is literate science fiction written by an author who understands the conventions of science fiction, as opposed to a science fiction novel written by a literate author. Chapter 10, A Dragon Hunt, is a wonder.

I’ve read several books by Delany (Empire Star, Babel-17, Triton, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and Tales of Nevèrÿon, as well as his short stories in Aye, and Gomorrah) and enjoyed them, but Stars is a mature, literate work that has aged better than most; it is wonderfully written, and the immersion in alien worlds and culture is unlike anything else I’ve encountered (the Nevèrÿon saga — allegorical sword and sorcery— is somewhat comparable, but I found it more pedantic. Dhalgren is quite another beast, best accepted as a separate entity). Stars is filled with themes, including: cultural and social diversity as a function of hierarchical structure, gender, technology, the role of information on civilization, and sexuality (sex is a significant theme: if you’re prudish, or homophobic, you’d best give this book a pass).

Delany did a wonderful job with gender; sometimes it’s difficult, or impossible, to identify the sex of a character. All characters are referred to as she (her, woman, and womankind are also used) unless the person is sexually interesting to the narrator, Marq Dyeth, who would then refer to the character as him or he. The terms male and female are used, but they are often insignificant to Marq, who is a male from an affluent family, and is attracted to certain other males (in particular, those with bitten, dirty fingernails, a Delany trope). Fairly deep into the story, Marq meets an underprivileged male, Rat Korga (first introduced in the novel’s prologue), who is Marq’s ideal erotic partner (how and why they meet is an important plot-point). Rat Korga was a slave on the planet Rhyonon, and he was the sole survivor when Rhyonon was destroyed, presumably by cultural fugue, which purportedly occurs when a civilization’s culture and technology spiral out of control.

It is a dense book, filled with  ponderings and descriptive prose: the plot moves slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded by the prose and the story’s construction (as an interesting aside, Delany uses subscripts to denote the relative importance of job-related words: “Marq Dyeth’s vocation1 is as an industrial diplomat1 between star systems, but when he returns to his family home he is a docent2 for visiting dignitaries” (p. ; apparently, the subscript convention is based on an aspect of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics: see the style section in this Wikipedia article for more information).

Delany had originally planned the story as a diptych, but the second book, The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities was never completed (Delany’s motivation died due to two events: he and his partner (Frank Romeo) broke-up, and the AIDS epic began, which impelled him to work on the Nevèrÿon cycle. Delany completed 150 pages of the draft for the second book in the diptych; however, because of conflicting priorities, he suspects that he will never finish it); nevertheless, as a work of fiction, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, is able to stand on its own, and is probably my favourite work of his (although Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon books are also very inspired).

I didn’t find Stars too demanding, but I suppose some readers might find it dry and interminable: the novel is certainly not plot driven. Perhaps it is one of those novels that demand an acquired taste (a bit of postmodern between the covers), but I highly recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy challenging, literary science fiction.