Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

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.