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The Wonder Spyglass - 1




THE WONDER SPYGLASS.
Part 1 - July

Read other issues here

Retrospective Fiction Reviews
This month in the fantastic literature:
going back by 10-year jumps.

Only includes the stories I've read personally. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge cover images.

This is a retrospective, designed to celebrate the evolution and variety of the fantastic literature, capturing the highlights, enjoying the wonders and ideas, as we travel through time and SF&F genre history.

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ONE YEAR AGO: July 2005

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Alastair Reynolds
"Pushing Ice" (nv)

(Spican Structure # 1)
© Gollanz, 2005
--novel : 2005 Arthur Clarke Award
--/ second place space sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ idea award: cosmic structure
--/ awesome scale

A major space adventure that I've been hungering for. All the classic wonder and meta-galactic scale, all the tension and beauty of space exploration are here, plus believable human characters, and drama. Not ideal writing, mind you (a little dry - could welcome more polished, soaring style), but adequate enough to keep me enthralled for some time.

My review of this would be biased, I suppose, as most of the book's action unfolded inside my head, enhancing the prose (I am happened to be blessed with a vivid imagination), and the boundless vistas from this book will easily give Hollywood a run for its money. But first, it all starts as a gritty, tough adventure story, claustrophobic even: most action happens inside the ship chasing a runaway planet, while its crew feels trapped and entangled in their own petty fights. Then the book focuses solely on human conflict, and the evil corporate types start springing to life with astonishing clarity (perhaps Reynolds drew on his own experiences in a cubicle "Office Space" phase of his career?)

The perspectives and the landscapes begin to widen again, once our tough miners land on the artificial alien planet (which turns out to be Janus, the ice-clad moon of Saturn). And then the plot shifts into overdrive after this moon does not stop at the expected destination, but accelerates on, and on... to finally enter... a cosmological structure, which description would twist a human mind into painful knots, which only Reynolds can safely to unravel.

It is all on a grand scale, folks, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series (if it is planned, of course)
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2006)

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TEN YEARS AGO: July 1996

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"The Reality Dysfunction - Emergence" (nv)
(Night's Dawn Trilogy, Book 1, Part 1)
© 1996, Warner / McMillan
--sf novel : 1998 Locus /11
--/ fourth place space sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale

"The Reality Dysfunction - Expansion" (nv)
(Night's Dawn Trilogy, Book 1, Part 2)
© 1996, Warner / McMillan
--sf novel : 1998 Locus /11
--/ cool space sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ awesome scale

Here is an epic, which is almost too big for its own good. Yes, I enjoyed occasional "sense-of-wonder" brilliant episodes, and a general sense of "great wide yonder", but in the end I got tangled up in knots of multiple character wanderings, many of them without any sense or purpose... it's almost like reading the record of some people's life - unedited chunks of just... happenings.. talks...whatever. Not to be too harsh, there is a wonderful creepiness and gloom hanging over this whole picture: when the undefeatable dead come to life and put all the living in the universe in a serious situation. This is like a horror movie on a space opera scale, and I enjoyed that part of it. (some echoes of Colin Wilson, and even Lovecraft) Great depictions of a forested planet colony and the pioneer lifestyle there, biological spaceships and organic technology, mining asteroids and cities in space - all that is nifty stuff. But, I as said, I got mired in this overblown narrative, and - seriously- not sure if I can ever finish it. So this review is for only the first two books of the six-book series. Oh well.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2005)




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Bruce Sterling
"Bicycle Repairman"
(Chattanooga series)
© Intersections, ed. J. Kessel, 1996
A Good Old-Fashioned Future, 1999
--novelette : 1997 Hugo W
--long list : 1997 Tiptree
--novelette : 1997 Locus /4
--novelette : 1997 SF Chronicle W
--/ cool sf novella
--/ wonder award

A bit muddy, not very clear on the plot. A sort of sequel to "Deep Eddy", it involves a strange set-top cable box and a break-in at a bicycle repairman's shop in a Chattanooga, Tenn., slum neighborhood.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2004)

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TWENTY YEARS AGO: July 1986

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Robert Charles Wilson
"A Knight of Antiquity"
© F&SF, Jul 1986
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ style award
--/ rare find

Touching and very human; great writing style - I would definitely try to read more of this writer. He reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon in top form.. some compliment, eh?
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2002)

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Tanith Lee
"Dreams of Dark and Light" (coll)
© Arkham House, 1986
--collection/anthology : 1987 World Fantasy
--collection : 1987 Locus /14
--/ third place f collection
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ emotion award

Definitive Tanith Lee collection; I would recommend to start with this book, if you are interested in this writer: very well crafted stories, some are fantasy masterpieces. It is only fitting that the book is published by renowned Arkham House - they did beautiful packaging. If only Tanith Lee would maintain such quality... the classic masters would be proud of such effort. But you know what happened later...
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1992)

Buy it from Amazon


(image credit: Souleage)

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John Farris
"Wildwood" (nv)
© 1986, Tor Books
--/ fourth place dark f novel
--/ wonder award
--/ emotion award
--/ shock value

Superior fantasy horror novel, much better than most recent offerings. Highly recommended. It is the story of a densely wooded land near the Smoky Mountains called Wildwood. It is a place where twisted creatures, part animal and part man, roam; both beautiful and terrifying. Maybe even the best novel in exploring dark possibilities of the obscure woods.
review: 07-Jul-06 (read in 1986)

Buy it from Amazon

----------------------------------------------



Carl Sagan
"Contact" (nv)
© 1986, Harper Collins
--first novel : 1986 Locus W
--sf novel : 1986 Locus /15

This novel is good in conveying the cosmological scale of our existence, the yearning for contact beyond our little world, but it failed to produce in me any sizeable enthusiasm. It is more like a treatise, than a work of fiction.
review: 07-Jul-06 (read in 1989)



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Dean R. Koontz
"Strangers" (nv)
© 1986, Berkley Books
--novel : 1987 World Fantasy
--/ cool sf novel
--/ wonder award

The definitive novel about UFO conspiracies, ESP conspiracies, fads and fans of surrounding movements. Has some genuine moments of scare and suspense in Arizona deserts and motels. I actually enjoyed it, except it suffers from the usual Koontz over-production.
review: 10-Jul-06 (read in 1989)

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John Crowley
"Aegypt" (nv)
© 1986, Putnam
--novel : 1988 World Fantasy
--shortlist : 1988 Clarke
--fantasy novel : 1988 Locus /6
--international fiction : 1989 Ditmar
--/ cool f novel
--/ wonder award

The rich and rewarding novel about the "hidden history" of the world. As such, it echoes many "conspiracy-theory" novels like Illuminati, and Da Vinci Code. This one is for all interested in esoteric knowledge and magical symbolism, a distracting read, not to be taken seriously. It's a mind puzzle, a "melting pot" of different styles and plots, not a manual or textbook to learn from. There is an excellent review of this book, here
review: 10-Jul-06 (read in 1989)

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Robert Reed
"Mudpuppies"
(as Robert Touzalin)
© 1986, Writers of the Future # 2
--Gold Prize Winner story
--1987 Campbell New Writer
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award

The first story by Robert Reed is a very lively one, with intensity of thought and style that I quite liked... I did not know that he will become a star of SF field, but could tell the potential.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1987)

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In 1986 a beautiful book came out: the original anthology "Universe #16", edited by Terry Carr. Two stories from this book ended up on SECOND PLACE in my ratings. The quality is astonishing. Too bad this anthology is out-of-print in its entirety. For reviews of stories included, go to this page

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in the meantime, in 1986 in the fantasy field...



J. R. R. Tolkien
"The Lays of Beleriand" (coll)
(Middle-Earth: history 4)
© Allen & Unwin, 1986
--/ FIRST place f collection
--/ awesome scale
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award
--/ romance award
--/ emotion award
--/ shock value

No words necessary. For those who love "high fantasy" there could be no better catalyst to the imagination than these epic poems, in every line of which we find LIFE, DEATH, LOVE concentrated. Closest thing to the Bible (I mean the whole Middle-Earth series) For sheer intensity of legends, implied beauty and depths of destruction, this is it.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2003)



----------------------------------------------

Terry Bisson
"Talking Man" (nv)

© 1986, Arbor House
--novel : 1987 World Fantasy
--fantasy novel : 1987 Locus /27
--/ fourth place f novel
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

One of the best post-modern fantasy novels. Here is a review from "Publishers Weekly", could not say it better - "Having dreamt this world into being, the wizard called "Talking Man'' falls in love with what he has made and retires there. He lives in a house trailer on a Kentucky hillside close by his junkyard, and he only uses magic on the rare occasions he can't fix a car the other way. He'd be there still if his jealous codreamer Dgene hadn't decided to undo his creation and return this world to nothingness. When Talking Man lights out to stop her, he gives chase into a West that changes around them. The geography shimmers and melts, catfish big as boats are pulled from the Mississippi, the moon crumbles into luminous rings and refugees from burning cities choke the highways. A novel of the new South with a liberal dose of the old, fantastic and gothic, a road novel leading to the city at the end of time, a postmodern apocalypse you can drive to in a '62 Chrysler New Yorker... this is a charming, literate, laconic tale, deceptively brief, teasingly allusive and very entertaining."
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 2003)

Buy it from Amazon

============================

...continuing our travel in time for a monthly retrospective:

THIRTY YEARS AGO: July 1976

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J. G. Ballard
"Notes Towards
a Mental Breakdown"

(also as "The Death Module")
(part of "The Atrocity Expedition")

© New Worlds, July 1967
Bananas, Jul 1976
War Fever, 1991
--/ style award
--/ emotion award


Clinically observes the breakdown of the modern psyche. Subsequently been incorporated into a fix-up novel "The Atrocity Exhibition". The story presents a single sentence with a footnote on every word; these footnotes make up the narrative. In 1992, Murry C. Christensen created a hyperbook from this story by combining the text with illustrations from Max Ernst's "Une Semaine de Bont" (1934), see below.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1992)



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Jo Haldeman
"Tricentennial"
© Analog, Jul 1976
Infinite Dreams, 1978
--short story : 1977 Hugo W
--short story : 1977 Nebula
--short story : 1977 Locus W
--/ cool space sf story

A story about a spaceship that got its engines stuck in the "on" position. Plus, relativistic physics: you can look at a black hole for an eternity and see something being "very slowly" sucked in and stretching out, which in reality happens in an instant. All these ideas are nice, but the story failed to grab me.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1992)

----------------------------------------------



Ursula K. Le Guin
"Orsinian Tales" (coll)
(Orsinian / Malafena)
© 1976, Harper books
--/ cool f collection
--/ style award

The setting is a fictional Eastern European country (same setting as in "Malafrena" novel), at different periods in time ranging from the Middle Ages to the 1960s. Middle Ages period stories will hold some enchantment for fantasy fans, and there is no denying the power of "understatement" these stories have. However, my starved for glorious vistas soul could not find enough color in this collection. Even though I appreciate the refreshingly "minimalist" approach to fantasy, bordering on mainstream, that she took here.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1985)

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Ursula K. Le Guin
"The Diary Of The Rose"
© Future Power, ed.J.Dann, 1976
The Compass Rose, 1982
--novelette : 1977 Hugo
--novelette : 1977 Nebula
--novelette : 1977 Locus /2
--novelette : 1977 Jupiter W
--/ cool sf story

In this story a therapist comes inexorably to the discovery that the madman whose mind she is exploring is a political prisoner and his illness is dissent. I can certainly relate to that subject matter, having experienced totalitarian state domination myself.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1992)

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Gene Wolfe
"The Eyeflash Miracles"
© Future Power, ed. by J. Dann, 1976
The Island Of Dr. Death And Others, 1980
--novella : 1977 Nebula
--novella : 1977 Locus /5
--/ cool sf story

In typical Gene Wolfe dense, but rewarding style - a bit overlong story about a hobo character who turns out to be a type of "Wizard of Oz"; with many psychological ramifications. The whole story is told from a blind boy's point of view, so it requires a bit of an effort.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1992)

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Bob Shaw
"Cosmic Kaleidoscope" (coll)
© 1976, Gollancz
--/ third place sf collection
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

Exceptional quality collection, where every story shines. Highly recommended as a showcase of sf delights.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1988)

----------------------------------------------

Isaac Asimov
"The Bicentennial Man"
© Stellar # 2, 1976
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories, 1976
--novelette : 1977 Hugo W
--novelette : 1977 Nebula W
--novelette : 1977 Locus W
--novelette : 1999 Locus All-Time Poll /5
--/ cool sf novella

A little trivia: "The Bicentennial Man " is the third most anthologised of all the Hugo/Nebula winning short fiction (beaten only by Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman", and by the original shorter version of Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon"). Robert Silverberg expanded the story to a novel "The Positronic Man" and it was filmed in 1999 starring Robin Williams. The idea is that a robot declares himself legally human and is allowed to die a "natural death" at the end of his cycle. I personally found the story emotionally uninvolving and dry (a better word for "boring") in a typical Asimov fashion. Of course, it is a dignified treatise in itself, as well.
review: 09-Jul-06 (read in 1988)


(art copyright: Donato Giancola)

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EXPLANATION OF THE RATING SYSTEM:

"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

Most reviews are written by Avi Abrams, unless otherwise noted. Reviews also appear on our unique historical retrospective page Wonder Timeline of Science Fiction. Feel free to submit your own review, if a particular story is not listed here.


All major OFFICIAL AWARDS are highlighted in BLUE
("winner" has a letter "W" by it, otherwise it is a runner-up only)

Our PERSONAL AWARDS (ratings) are highlighted in RED and PURPLE:
--/ first place :
--/ second place :
--/ third place :

--/ fourth place :

--/ cool : (equal to fifth place)
ALL "BEST OF" LISTS ARE LOCATED HERE

These awards are given in the following categories:
- novel :
- series :
- novella :
- story :
- collection :

Also, there are our personal STYLE / GENRE SPECIFIC AWARDS. These reflect the story's content and the lasting impression on the reader:

--/ wonder award
sense-of-wonder, "visual intensity" and inventiveness

--/ idea award
originality of idea / concept

--/ adventure award
exhilarating plot, excitement / action

--/ style award
outstanding literary qualities, inimitable style

--/ romance award
intense and beautiful love / relationships

--/ humour award
funny and cool

--/ emotion award
touching, lasting impression, sensitivity

--/ shock value
altogether wild

--/ awesome scale
mind-boggling; further enhances sense-of-wonder

--/ rare find
very hard to locate, mostly from old pulps, never reprinted, etc.

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