Birthday Reviews: Harrison, Murphy, Reynolds

Harry Harrison (1925-03-12–2012-08-15)

“Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” (Science Fantasy #68, 1964)

Harry Harrison is probably best known for his justly beloved comic “Stainless Steel Rat” tales (or his “Bill the Galactic Hero” series, though I’m much more fond of his space opera parody, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers). Or perhaps his serious “Deathworld,” “Planet of the Damned,” or “Eden” books. Or Make Room! Make Room! (which inspired the movie Soylent Green). Or numerous other longer works. Or his numerous short stories. Here is a strange one in that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy though it feels like it almost must be one or the other. Either way, it’s an amusing, dark, efficient tale.

Amos Cabot is eighty-two years old. One day, he receives a magazine in the mail which is all about death. Furious that someone’s counting on him to die, he storms down to the magazine’s headquarters to find out what’s going on. From the circulation director, he learns that it is underwritten by its advertisers and is sent out based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.

“I ain’t going to die in two years, not me! Not Amos Cabot!”

“That is entirely up to you, sir. My position here is just a routine one. Your subscription has been entered and will be canceled only when a copy is returned with the imprint ADDRESSEE DECEASED.”

“I’m not going to die!”

“That might possibly happen, though I can’t recall any cases offhand. But since it is a two-year subscription I imagine it will expire automatically at the end of the second year. If it is not canceled beforehand. Yes, that’s what would happen.

After discarding the notion of marking it with “deceased” himself because he doesn’t want them to think they were right, Cabot devotes everything to outlasting the prognostication and matters move quickly to their ironic conclusion.

Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty

“Cold Comfort” (Bridging Infinity, 2016)

Pat Murphy is probably best known for her fantasy novel, The Falling Woman, as well as her excellent stories, many of which are science fiction, even hard SF like this one. (This is revised from a review I did on another website.)

A rogue scientist bounces around in the Great White (but Greening) North with a notion to create “methane sequestering mats” out of carbon tubes filled with bacteria capable of metabolizing methane. Since that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and great quantities of it are released when the so-called permafrost thaws, this could be very useful. However, no one listens to the scientist’s proposal until she engages in some relatively mild, discreet ecoterrorism by blowing up a remote frozen lake to make people realize the seriousness of the permafrost and methane situation. With key people not knowing she’s responsible, things begin to break her way and she sets about trying to save the world via crowdfunding, muskoxen, robots, and less likely things. Another problem arises when the political climate of the U. S. changes and has disastrous effects on the ecological climate (not that that could ever happen here). Her research station is shut down and she’s slated to be arrested for working with foreigners to try to save the world. Ever resourceful, she hides out until its safe again. The story picks up 30 years later and provides our cold comfort.

There have been too many recent examples of cli-fi but this is a good one. While the story lacks dramatic tension regarding the skillful protagonist, it has plenty of tension regarding the world’s situation; while it is bitter and cynical in part, it isn’t simply misanthropic; and while I don’t quite like the ending, I’m not supposed to. The bulk of the tale is packed with nifty ideas, details, ramifications and interrelations, and has an actual problem-solving bent.

Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13)

“Merlin’s Gun” (Asimov’s, May 2000)

Alastair Reynolds tends to write doorstops of novels only marginally smaller than Peter F. Hamilton’s bugcrushers and many of them and his excellent stories are set in the “Revelation Space” universe. Here’s something a little different.

Sora is a member of the Cohort, which has been at war for 23,000 years. (We’re told that the Cohort has been fighting the Huskers “ever since those ruthless alien cyborgs had emerged from ancient Dyson spheres near the Galactic Core.”) For her poor marksmanship, she’s on punishment detail, which saves her life when the rest of her ship is destroyed, killing everyone she knows. Her ship had recently done a slingshot around a neutron star but some of the Huskers survived their attempt to duplicate the maneuver and caught her ship in a lonely region of space. Due to her “familiar” (an assertively helpful symbiotic AI), she doesn’t commit suicide in grief but is put into suspension in her escape pod. She wakes to see cosmic ray abrasions clouding the port and finds it’s 3,000 years later. Her familiar has awakened her because a ship has entered the system. It turns out to be a Cohort ship from 7,000 years before Sora’s time. Since the Cohort has actually been degenerating in many ways over the course of the war, this is actually a more advanced ship than hers. When she allows herself to be rescued, she finds that it is piloted by Merlin, a figure of her mythology. The myth says that he’s on a “quest” to find a “gun” which will help the Cohort end the war. This is mostly true, but turns out to be much more complicated. She joins his quest, which takes them to an especially interesting solar system where they encounter automated defenses, Huskers lying in wait under the frozen surface of a moon, and much more. As violent and large-scale as things had been, it all turns out to be minor prologue to the grand finale. (Just as a hint, Merlin’s gun fires black hole bullets and that’s not even the most amazing thing about it.)

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that, later in the story, even the Cohort-Husker war shrinks, as we learn that the gun comes from a war 40-45,000 years before, shortly after the Waymakers (those who had created the interstellar network of altered regions which allow for faster-than-light travel) disappeared and that this, itself, is merely the middle part of galactic history. (These time scales aren’t as staggering as they sound since social evolution has slowed as many people spend centuries or millennia racing through space and not living second after second through normal time, but it’s still pretty wild.) And for those who want human stories, Sora is a real person who has suffered and has decisions to make and even Merlin turns out to be much more man than myth, however much he’s gone through (which is more than it seems at first). It’s stories like this that are why I love both science fiction and short fiction: big ideas on a vast canvas of time and space, told efficiently with zest and zip (all this is done in a 34-page novelette) [1]. “Goshwowsensawunda!”


[1] This is actually part of a series of stories and is even the third one of four in internal chronology, but it was the first-written, is self-sufficient, and, if memory serves, is my favorite of the three I’ve read.

Top Ten Most-Read “Recent” Authors

Two weeks ago, inspired by another blogger’s post, I posted my Top Ten Most-Read Authors. That list was heavily weighted to older authors with the only post-New Waver being C. J. Cherryh, who broke into print in 1976. I was curious what newer authors were being eclipsed by the older so I compiled a second “top 10” list just like the first except limited to authors who broke into print no earlier than 1976. (Ties are broken by giving the higher place to people who haven’t been in print as long.)

10. Rudy Rucker (8)

Rucker is a gonzo math freak who writes like Lewis Padgett smoked Lewis Carroll’s ashes. My favorite Rucker is probaby Master of Space and Time, though White Light, Spacetime Donuts, and Software are all quite good. The last of those became the first volume of his most famous series but the Ware series suffers from an extreme case of diminishing returns. I haven’t kept up with him beyond the occasional story which he can still knock out of the park, especially in collaboration.

09. Alastair Reynolds (8)

Reynolds writes mostly gothic noir neo-space opera. He’s a funny case for me. He got a 10-year contract for 10 novels for 10 million bucks or something but I like his short fiction. I love Zima Blue as well as the Revelation Space collections Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North. I read three of the first four novels in that universe and they’re okay but the last one’s been sitting unread for years. (Someday!) Also read Pushing Ice and I love all of it but the two main characters whom I hate. (I’m counting Slow Bullets as a book, though it’s just a novella. If I didn’t, there’d be a three-way tie at tenth place with seven books by him, Stephen Baxter and Lisa Goldstein.)

08. Greg Egan (9)

Greg Egan writes the hardest of hard SF – so hard he comes out the other side, sometimes inventing entire universes which have nothing to do with this one and can thus be seen as a species of incredibly rigorous fantasy. But, seriously, when he operates in this universe, he’s incredible. He excels at short fiction and long. My favorites are probably Axiomatic for short fiction and Diaspora for novels. He ranks much, much higher than his eighth place showing here. More like in the top handful of all time.

07. Neal Asher (9)

Neal Asher is another New Space Opera guy, with a particularly action-packed and violent style. I’m crazy about Prador Moon and he’s also rightly famous for the core quintet of “Agent Cormac” Polity books, of which The Line of Polity (#2) is my favorite. Not shabby at the stories, either. “Alien Archaeology” turned me into a fan.

06. Timothy Zahn (10)

And, believe it or not, none of the ten are media-ties. My favorite is probably his novel Spinneret but he’s a perhaps surprisingly good story writer, too. Aside from Star Wars books, he’s probably most famous for the Cobra books. I’ve read the original trilogy and it’s a mixture of mostly good with a trace of silly. I think his Blackcollar books (read the original two) are actually better, but they haven’t had as much success. He’s basically just a good old-fashioned story-teller of mostly space/military tales. Kind of surprised it turns out I’ve read so many, especially given that there are still more in the To-Be-Read Pile.

05. Jack McDevitt (10)

McDevitt is another story-teller. I very nearly read only one McDevitt, starting and ending with The Engines of God, which is a book in the Academy series which didn’t do anything for me. But I had A Talent for War, also, and read it and liked it. I went ahead with the belated sequel to it and it turned into a sort of comfy, cozy SF-archaeological-mystery series which seems to have run its course but was really enjoyable, overall. I also was surprised to enjoy Eternity Road. I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic tales but that one was captivating. His first novel (of first contact), The Hercules Text, is even better. I’ve only read that in its revised version but the original is now in the Pile.

04. Allen Steele (10)

Another space-based story-teller. His debut novel, Orbital Decay, is probably still his masterpiece, along with Sex and Violence in Zero-G. The latter is a collection of stories set in the same Near Space universe as that debut novel and its sequels. Steele is now probably most famous for his Coyote series but, other than reading the start of it in the magazines and some later stories in various places and diving into Hex (glorious BDO but unfortunately with small dumb characters) I haven’t read it (it’s in the Pile).

03. Charles Sheffield (11)

An English science guy who came to America, took up SF writing, and married fellow SF writer Nancy Kress. Between the Strokes of Night (original version; haven’t read the revised one) is a “cosmogony opera” and one of my all-time favorite books and The Compleat McAndrew (sequence of stories about a brilliant scientist zipping through the solar system) is right near it. He’s written many books only slightly above or below “okay” but when he’s good, he’s among the best.

02. Bruce Sterling (14)

Another one of my very favorites and the greatest cyberpunk. His debut novel is still(!) in the Pile and I lost track of him after 2009 as he’s become relatively scarce but every novel and collection from 1980 to 1999 (with one caveat) is essential. From the next decade, I only really enjoyed The Zenith Angle, though Zeitgeist has its points and Visionary in Residence might be a great collection except in comparison with the first three. The caveat is The Difference Engine. This was a hugely important book in the history of steampunk and unites the biggest names in cyberpunk but I was very unimpressed (and haven’t enjoyed the steampunk movement either). But enough of that – for some highlights of the early period, his 80s neo-space-operatic Shaper/Mechanist stories (found in Crystal Express) and his novel in that universe (Schismatrix, which can also be found together with the stories in Schismatrix Plus) are fantastic. His first three collections (Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future) are indispensable, up there with early Zelazny, Tiptree, and Varley collections. He not only engages with high-tech near-future reality as his forte but he’s a stylist of the finest sort – everything is stamped with Sterling qualities but reads with Crystalline clarity and Express speed.

01. Jack Campbell (15)

Mmm…kay. This is weird. Jack Campbell (whom I first met as John G. Hemry in the pages of Analog) shows at #1 because he wrote a fifteen-book series (the Lost Fleet/Stars series, built out of two and a half sub-series of Lost Fleet, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and Lost Stars) and I bought and devoured the whole thing. Gigantic series of best-selling military space opera are not generally my thing but Campbell’s mixing of hard SF elements into wild-eyed space opera and his solidly centrist and sensible military, political, and social textures (which address 9/11, infinite war, becoming one’s own enemy, etc.) really sold me, along with his meticulously described space battles. Granted, it starts shaky and has some awkwardness in character interactions throughout but the things were just compulsively readable. He’s the only author on this list with nothing in the Pile, as I read everything the minute I bought it. He’s not up there with the likes of Egan and Sterling, but he delivers good clean honest entertainment that I enjoyed a lot.