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, 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.




Retrospeculative View, 1983

Some of the notable short works of 1983:analog_june_1983

Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which won the Nebula Award  and the Hugo Award (1984) for best novelette (the story was expanded and published as a novel in 1985).

Octavia Butler’s Speech Sounds, which won the Hugo Award for best short story (1984)

Timothy Zahn’s Cascade Point, which won the Hugo Award for best novella (1984)

Gardner Dozois’ The Peacemaker, which won the Nebula Award for best short story

Greg Bear’s Hardfought, which won the Nebula Award for best novella

Jorge Luis Borges’ La memoria de Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s Memory)

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s Red Star, Winter Orbit


Some of the movies of 1983:

Return of the Jedi, (now known as Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), the third Star Wars film released. I thought this was the weakest of the original trilogy.

Brainstorm, in which a computer-brain interface is achieved and the military attempts to gain control of the project. The film starred Natalie Wood, who died during production, and the film nearly died along with her, but the vast majority of her parts had already been filmed, and money was raised to ensure the release of this over-budget movie.

The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe’s excellent novel (1979) about the United States test pilots who became astronauts for Project Mercury.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on Ray Bradbury’s excellent novel (1962).

WarGames, in which a teenager hacks a military computer. The young man believes he is playing a computer game and almost initiates WWIII.


Some of the notable novels of 1983:

David Brinn’s Startide Rising, which won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. This book is considered a classic, but I didn’t really enjoy it. The novel has its charms, but to me it feels dated and reads like a movie that was written into novel format as an afterthought, complete with stilted dialogue. But this is a novel that often appears on ‘best of’ lists, so I may be in the minority.

Gregory Benford’s Against Infinity. An interesting setting (Ganymede), a coming-of-age story, and an intriguing alien artifact seem like the ingredients for an interesting story, but the novel didn’t fully engage me. The science is interesting and the attempts at political intrigue and morality are well-intentioned, but the prose is a bit flat and the characters are not very well fleshed-out. An interesting, if flawed, genre novel.

The Robots of Dawn, one of my favourite Isaac Asimov novels; IMHO, it’s more worthy of an award than his previous novel, Foundation and Earth, which won the Hugo. Asimov was never a great prose stylist, but I enjoyed this book, which is a must-read for anybody who enjoyed the first two Detective Elijah Baley & R. Daneel Olivaw novels.

R.A. MacAvoy’s Tea With the Black Dragon, which won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer (1983). I think this was R.A. (Roberta Ann) MacAvoy’s first novel; it isn’t my favourite work of hers (that would probably be her 1990 novel Lens of the World, the first book in a trilogy), but the characters are delightful: Martha Macnamara, a petite, fifty year old woman who plays the violin/fiddle and practices zazen; and Mayland Long, a tall, thin oriental man who may have once been a dragon. The ad-hoc plot appears to be a foil to develop the two main characters.

Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, which won the Philip K. Dick Award. I was looking forward to reading this novel because I’d read many exuberant reviews. It is fast-paced and enjoyable, but I began to lose interest before the end. There are some well thought-out and interesting time travel twists, but it is a plot driven story with a main character that is mostly passive and isn’t fleshed-out enough for my tastes. I understand why this is a popular novel, and can even agree that it has withstood the test of time and can be referred to as a classic, but it’s not my type of book.

Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This is the final section of Wolfe’s magnum opus, The Book of the New Sun: the series, or lengthy novel, won several awards: The BSFA and World Fantasy Awards for Shadow of the Torturer, the Locus Fantasy and Nebula Awards for Claw of the Conciliator, the British Fantasy Award for Sword of the Lictor, and the John W. Campbell for Citadel of the Autarch: a total of three science fiction awards and four fantasy awards (somebody should have told voters that this stuff is science fiction disguised as fantasy!). I’ve already given this series kudos in my 1980 RetrospeculativeView post: The Shadow of the Torturer was my Retrospeculative novel for 1980.

John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, which won the World Fantasy Award. This is an interesting fantasy/alternate-history novel set during the political upheaval after the death of Edward IV and the ascension of Richard III. The story includes vampires (not sparkly), wizards, witches, dragons, the Medici family, and a possible solution to the fate of the Princes — Edward V and his younger brother Richard — in the Tower. Richard, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Edward IV, became king and the two Princes (only 12 and 9 years old) were kept in the Tower of London and eventually disappeared, never to be seen again.

And my pick for Retrospeculative novel of the year is…

Suldrun’s Garden, by Jack Vance, the first book in The Lyonesse Trilogy (the second book in the series, Madouc, won the World Fantasy Award). Vance does a marvelous job of transporting the reader into a fully realized land. There is no Suldru's_Garden_coversense of awe or splendor in the narration; rather, events are regarded as a matter-of-fact historical account, albeit filled with magic. There are a few details that seem to connect the Lyonesse trilogy to Vance’s Dying Earth series, but there are too few connective links to form a cohesive bond between the two works. Lyonesse is set on the ‘Elder Isles’ in a civilization that best conforms to the later-half of the Middle Ages. The Elder Isles are a fictional construct located southwest of Britain. I visualized the books as alternate history, which explains historical inaccuracies and the fact that there are islands where none exist in our world (although there is the specter of an Atlantis scenario within the story).

Jack Vance’s writing can be uneven, but I think he maintains his most even tread through the Lyonesse trilogy. Wonderful world building, and the characters, I was almost convinced, must live outside the bounds of the pages; they seem so real, warts and all.

This is a classic fantasy series, filled with political and magical maneuvering, and it should be more widely appreciated. For years, the books had been unavailable, but the series is now available in a single tome, The Complete Lyonesse.




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.




Retrospeculative View, 1975

When I started planning this post, I was hoping that there was something of interest beyond Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War; well, there was more excellent prose than I could imagine: it was an exceptional year for speculative fiction. It was also the year I graduated from high school…


TheBookOfSand (English trans. 1977) Before diving in with my usual Retrospeculative View post, I’d like to mention an excellent collection by Argentinean writer Jorges Luis Borges that was published in 1975: El libro de arena (The Book of Sand). I can’t read Spanish, so I was happy when the English translation became available because there are several standout stories; for example, the title story, Ulrica (Ulrikke), El Congreso (The Congress) and, in particular, El otro (The Other), my favourite story in the collection, first published in 1972 (the others were published in 1975).


Some of the short fiction of 1975:

Croatoan, by Harlan Ellison, which won the Locus Award for short fiction.

The Borderland of Sol, by Larry Niven, which won the Hugo Award for best novelette

And Seven Times Never Kill Man, by George R. R. Martin

The Companion, by Ramsey Campbell

Belsen Express, by Fritz Leiber, which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1976)

Catch That Zeppelin!, by Fritz Leiber, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best short story

San Diego Lightfoot Sue, by Tom Reamy, which won the Nebula Award for best novelette

The Custodians, by Richard Cowper

The Private Life of Genghis Khan, by Douglas Adams and Graham Chapman

Home Is the Hangman, by Roger Zelazny, which won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best novella


Some of the movies from 1975:

A Boy and His Dog, a post-apocalyptic society in which a boy survives with the aid of his telepathic dog. Based on Harlan Ellison’s novella.

rollerballRollerball, a dystopian movie based on a short story (Roller Ball Murder) by William Harrison

The Stepford Wives, set in a suburb in which the women are unusually submissive: something strange and disturbing is happening. Based on Ira Levin’s novel (1972). There was a remake in 2004.

Death Race 2000, the brutally homicidal, transcontinental road race in a dystopian America. The movie was based on a short story; the Racer, by Ib Melchior


Some of the memorable novels of 1975:

Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson, which won the World Fantasy Award. The novel’s protagonist, Richard Collier, lives in the 1970s, but is obsessed when he sees a photograph of Elise McKenna, a stage actress from the 1890s. He researches the woman and discovers that she had an affair with a mysterious, unknown man. Richard becomes convinced that he was that man and, using a mind concentration technique, he travels into the past to meet the woman. The bittersweet story was made into a movie, Somewhere in Time (1980), and the movie’s title was used in subsequent editions of the novel.

 The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner, an early example of cyberpunk (before the term was coined), set in a dystopian future. The novel depicts computer hacking skills, and the concept of a viral worm is used (for the first time, I believe) to describe a program that proliferates within a computer network. The book’s title was inspired by Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. The protagonist, Nick Haflinger, is a programmer who is on the run from a government organization, Tarnover, a genetic engineering project that is secretly run by organized crime.

The Female Man, by Joanna Russ. The four main characters in the novel are the embodiment of each other in parallel worlds. They cross over to the other worlds, and any preconceived conception of gender and womanhood is inextricably altered.  Janet Evason Belin is from a futuristic world in which all men died in a plague; Jeannie Dadier is from a world in which the Great Depression never ended;  Joanna is from our Earth (or one just like it), circa 1970s; and Alice Jael Reasoner (Jael) is an assassin from a world in which men and women are at war. While reading, it is sometimes difficult to know which woman is the focus, adding to the intense milieu of feminism that drives the plot.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award (1976), and the Locus Award (1976).The novel is a lightly disguised depiction of Joe Haldeman’s experience of service during the Vietnam War and his return to an America he no longer understood (in the novel, the time dilation effect that leads to an unrecognizable society on Earth upon the soldier’s return is akin to the culture shock the soldiers encountered when they returned to America from service in Vietnam). This is one of the few military science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed, probably because it includes sections that detail the brutal bureaucracy of Warfare. The protagonist, William Mandella, suffers psychologically; he is a pacifist at heart, but he is an excellent soldier because he has the necessary skills and aptitude.

Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities), by Italo Calvino, a brilliant writer. In this book, Calvino sets up an intriguing dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marko Polo; the two create stories as they discuss the cities that Marko Polo has visited. But the two men speak different languages, which makes communication difficult, so Polo decides to use artifacts from each city to express his thoughts, and the reader must use imagination to build a mental image. Between each story of a city, there are interludes in which merchants provide Khan with information regarding his empire. Polo’s descriptions are lyrical, and the interludes are fascinating; apparently, the book is used by architects to aid their visualization of unique urban centers, and by artists as a source of inspiration.


And my pick as Retrospecualtive Novel of 1975 is…

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. I was afraid of this book for many years because it is renowned for being difficult to read. It is quite a monster, but I’ve read some challenging books in the past decade, and I finally bit-the-bullet last year and immersed myself in Dhalgren’s Dhalgren_vintagepages. The book is very polarizing; some call it a masterpiece, while others shun it and would rather use the pages to light a fire than read the tome. I doubt that I’ll ever reread it (I will certainly re-sample many of my favourite sections), but it was a rewarding experience to follow the tortuosities of thought that Delany strung together. As I stated in my review, as a novel, Dhalgren doesn’t fit the mold: there isn’t a linear plot, events re-occur as echoes and distortions, it is unclear what the story is about, and the mind cannot easily detect a natural reading rhythm: it is classified as a novel, I suppose, because there is no other word to describe it (there is even hearty debate as to whether or not it is science fiction, but it is surely speculative fiction). Dhalgren makes the mind work (unless the reader gives up, throws the book into the fireplace, and picks up something else). As I read it, I became — in no particular order — confused, bored, angry, light-headed, disgusted, and enlightened (these states — in various permutations — were repeated throughout the reading experience). It is a brilliant piece of work, but it is not for everyone.





Air (or Have Not Have), by Geoff Ryman

Air (or, Have Not Have) is a science fiction novel that I think non-science fiction readers might enjoy.  It won the British Science Fiction Association Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The opening chapter of the novel is a short story (Have Not Have) that Ryman Geoff_Ryman_Air_coverexpanded into the novel.

The novel tackles many subjects, among them: political power struggles, resistance and/or adaption to technological change, technological based evolution, metaphysics, the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’ of our world, the role and acceptance of prophets, and the sociological issues encountered in any population of humans.

The basic plot involves a near-future when the internet is tested as a direct connection to the mind via Air. The results of an Air test are followed through the lives of a fictional Asian village; and, in particular, through Chung Mae, who acquires profound insights and visions through Air.

It’s all so precious, thought Mae-in-Air, it’s all so beautiful, we have to ignore it all, to get on with the laundry.” (p. 379)

It’s a wonderfully imagined novel: themes are revealed gradually, but effectively. I had some problems getting through the third-quarter of the book and found it difficult to withhold disbelief in a couple of circumstances, particularly Mae’s unusual pregnancy, though her baby is a metaphor for the village, and the end justifies the means; as a whole, it is an exceptional novel.




The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I’m busy preparing my Retrospective View for 1968, but I haven’t read one of the most significant novels from the year (Stand on Zanzibar); so, while I’m reading it (it might take me a couple of weeks), I’m going to re-post a few reviews I made on my other blog (I suppose I’m being rather lazy, but I’ve posted quite a few reviews there that are ‘speculative’ in nature).

Haruki Murakami has become one of my favorite authors; he isn’t for everyone’s tastes, but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle feels like a book he was working toward for years. Most of his usual themes are present, as is his ubiquitous protagonist-type; the lonely, thirty-something male, who allows outside influences to guide him through life.

Wind-Up_Bird_ChronicleIn this novel, Toru Okada loses his job, his cat, and his wife; he searches for the latter two, and opens his world to an extraordinary array of characters, stories, and situations.

There are several threads within the frame of the narrative, some of which remain unresolved to the satisfaction of some reviewers; however, I found the novel eminently satisfying. I’ve encountered many complaints about extensive cuts in the translation from Japanese to English, and counter-claims (some from the translators) that the Japanese edition was poorly edited and required ‘trimming.’ I can’t read Japanese, so I can’t compare the editions; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the English version and I suspect that many of the problems that readers had with ‘discontinuity’ were not a result of the translation; rather, the sense of discontinuity is a trademark of Haruki Murakami’s surreal craft.

There are frustrating sections, and disturbing scenes and moods, but there is a prevailing atmosphere of hope within the beat of its metaphysical heart.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle won the prestigious Yomiuri Prize (1995) for Literature: the recipient receives a million Japanese yen and an inkstone (the prize was awarded by Oe Kenzaburo, one of Murakami’s harshest critics).

Highly recommended.

Haruki Murakami has several other exceptional novels (e.g.: Kafka on the Shore, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and A Wild Sheep Chase), and I’ll get around to separate reviews of them some day…

If you’re interested, have a look at the author’s site