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The Wonder Spyglass - 8




THE WONDER SPYGLASS.
Part 8 - September 2005, 1995, 1985

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.

The idea of these "time trips" - to highlight the particular stories throughout SF&F history (all 100 years of it). Each month I will publish (time permitting) SPYGLASS issues, giving selective reviews to stories, collections, original anthologies and novels, choosing out of literally thousands of stories I've read - for example only stories which appeared in a particular month in SF magazines, and taking jumps of 10 years in SF history. This is a way for me to gradually go through stories and fill out the reviews, and a way to get a fun perspective on the genre.

This issue will highlight stories from September of 2005, 1995, 1985.


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COUPLE OF YEARS AGO: September 2004

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I did not read anything that was published in September 2005, but here is something from 2004:

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Neal Asher
"Cowl" (nv)
© 2004, Tor Books
--novel: 2005 British SF Award
--/ cool sf novel
--/ wonder award

Those of you who are interested in what this novel is all about, I refer to the multitude of reviews on the web ("... hunting throughout time and the alternates, Cowl’s pet, the torbeast, grows vast and dangerous. It sheds its scales where its master orders. They are tors – organic time machines to bring human samples to Cowl. And the beast feeds…" You get the idea). Or those who want to know quickly if they should read it, the answer is "yes". Now for the fun part: how should I describe the experience of reading Asher? A muddy, confused, drunk frog trying to figure out the buttons on super-hyper-electronic-accelerator-weapon, while croaking alternative punk tunes with a cigarette hanging from a corner of it's... mouth? or muzzle? Suddenly a cellphone rings, the frog drops the weapon in water (causing spontaneous extinction of some species and an eternal shell-shock to the others). As the frog finds itself drowning, the plot of a new Asher novel (in all of it's inventive and violent glory) flashes before its eyes, and it dies peacefully, glad it had an enlightening experience. If none of this makes sense, don't worry - it was not intended to. Just like all Asher novels, this one is intended to be consumed fast, furious and not very clear on the plot. Personally, I could only get through a third of the book, then things just got incomprehensible, though "grungy" enough to maintain the said frog's curiousity.
review: 10-Aug-06 (read in 2005)


Art by Perihelio (Click to enlarge)

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TEN YEARS AGO: September 1996 (and 1995)

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Paul Di Filippo
"Spondulix"
© Science Fiction Age, Sep 1995
Strange Trades, 2000
--novella : 1996 SF Age Poll /2
--/ fourth place sf novella
--/ idea award
--/ humour award

One of the most humorous novellas ever written. The humor is a little off-beat and may not be everybody's cup of tea, but certainly any spoof of the modern widely-established principles of capitalism and sales techniques is highly welcome. Here a small fast food enterprise has the guts to take on the big shots, and even invent its own money (coupons for sandwiches). Through its own close-knit chain of wacky customers, sheer audacity and spunk, it achieves the heights of success entirely undreamt of. In the meantime, the reader will be treated to a certain zoo of strange characters, which Di Filippo seems to relish describing in hilarious detail. This novella comes highly recommended as a modern tongue-in-cheek economics textbook.
review: 24-Aug-06 (read in 2003)

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Robert Reed
"Brother Perfect"
(Sister Alice series)
© IASFM, Sep 1995
Sister Alice, 2003
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ awesome scale

Sister Alice is a super-being the size of a small planet, Brother Perfect is the same kind of an epic intelligence, and the whole merry family has the Universe as their oyster as they embark on a kind of "soap opera on steroids" with relationship squabbles and some entirely too-large-scale emotional perturbations. Sometimes I felt lost and too removed from all that stuff, not anchored enough in reality and asking myself the question, what is this novella for and how it can enhance my day. I have given it big rating mostly for sense of scale, but "Sister Alice" and certainly "Marrow" rate much better in composition.
review: 24-Aug-06 (read in 2000)

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Greg Egan
"Luminous"

© IASFM, Sep 1995
Luminous, 2000
--novelette : 1996 Hugo
--novelette : 1996 Locus /12
--sf short story : 1996 Aurealis W
--novelette : 1996 SF Chronicle /2
--translated short story : 2003 Seiun W
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award

Greg Egan's mind-candy concoctions (or "stories of gestated ideas") often sound more intriguing in synopsis than in actual realization. It is a simply mind-blowing experience to read short reviews of his collections and wonder why nobody else thought of writing sci-fi based on such cool ideas - but it often becomes too muddy and too wordy in story form. I felt disappointed by the lack of intensity and focus in narration here, but absolutely uplifted by the ideas contained. What if the laws of mathematics aren't quite as fixed, or as consistent, as we thought? Some of the new connections between mathematics and physics may indeed threaten to shatter our Universe, but I think, a review of current science postulates may be seriously overdue, especially since our science keeps running into a micro- and macro- nemesises, doom-holes and existential brick walls more and more these days.
review: 24-Aug-06 (read in 2000)


Art byKenneth A. Huff (Click to enlarge)

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Allen Steele
"The War Memorial"
© IASFM, Sep 1995
--short story : 1996 Asimov's Reader Poll /2
--/ cool sf story

A platoon undergoes an attack in a Moon War battle. One soldier survives the initial blast, but the impact renders his combat armor useless, forcing him to watch the decimation and wonder if he will suffocate or be rescued. An intense military sf story, justly reprinted in the "Future War" anthology.
review: 24-Aug-06 (read in 2000)

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Damon Knight
"Life Edit"
© Science Fiction Age, Sep 1996
--/ cool sf story

The idea of editing "life" just like a scrap-book for a future generation's keep-sake, or even revising it as the person goes on living - this idea is not new, and by 1996 has been used already a few times. However, this story is written in usual Damon Knight competent and literate style, so it is a welcome addition to the bunch.
review: 24-Aug-06 (read in 2000)

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TWENTY YEARS AGO: September 1986

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One of the most influential SF story collections was published in 1986:
"BURNING CHROME" by William Gibson, heralding the advent of cyberpunk and setting new story-writing standards.
Read the full review of this book HERE

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Michael Bishop
"A Gift From The GrayLanders"
© IASFM, Sep 1985
Close Encounters With the Deity, 1986
--novelette : 1986 Hugo
--novelette : 1986 Nebula
--novelette : 1986 Locus /8
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ shock value

The ferocious tone of this novella really took me off-guard, as I generally expect more subdued "artsy" and avangardistic pieces from Bishop, one of the leaders of Seventies New Wave revival. But apparently he graduated to a well-written, imaginative (and more focused) thriller style in the Eighties, as this novella (about a vicious and strange alien invasion of quiet American suburbs) clearly shows. After watching recent "War of the Worlds" movie, I was struck how much the implied terror is more frightening than the one clearly shown on a screen. This story was scary and yet visual enough to stand as one of the best "alien invasion" stories in the history of a genre.
review: 25-Aug-06 (read in 2002)

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George R. R. Martin
"The Glass Flower"

© IASFM, Sep 1986
Portraits of His Children, 1988
--Asimov's Reader's Poll 1987, novelette
--Locus Poll Award 1987, novelette /7

--/ cool sf story
--/ wonder award

George Martin certainly can write space operas, with an intensely personal, lyrical, and yet grandiose sense. This is one of these rare stand-alone novellas, which are getting so hard to find these days when everybody seems to have jumped on "trilogies" and "series" bandwagon. Well, I liked it enough to give it a well-deserved "wonder award" (Martin let loose here on a particularly galaxy-shaking scale), but overall impression is muddy. Martin trades human characters (whom he can describe with depth and sympathy) with non-human and eternal super-beings, which we can hardly relate to. It is very adequate entertainment, but hardly anything more. Here is the blurb: "It's been a lifetime and more since Cyrain has been challenged in the game of mind. When the cyborg arrives, she senses a worthy and dangerous opponent - one that's been dead for 800 years..." Magazine publication has some cool artwork by Terry Lee, see below.
review: 27-Aug-06 (read in 2004)




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Nancy Kress
"Down Behind Cuba Lake"

© IASFM, Sep 1986
The Aliens of Earth, 1993
--/ third place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ emotion award
--/ style award
--/ adventure award
--/ rare find

A gem of a story. So smoothly and beautifully written, that it gives you goose-bumps and a secret wish to write like that one day. This is an entry into "sentient terrain", "spooky earth" sub-genre (which can be traced back to the "Weird Tales" pulps and H. P. Lovecraft; see also my humble entry of a story "Subliminal Distances of the West" in writing section - also about getting lost in a landscape). Some kind of spacial/temporal hole swallows the unsuspecting female protagonist, who takes a wrong turn in a woody wilderness, bringing her to a malevolent, sentient (and very aggressive) lake - and causing her to reflect on her own lost and aimless lifestyle. It turns out to be so lost and aimless, that the story itself does not have an easily defined ending or direction, which is oddly appropriate in this case... This story is nothing like the wordy (and mostly uninvolving) novels of Nancy Kress. Go sample it, read it in a car on a prolonged roadtrip to Minnesota Lakes. See if this story will not stay with you for a lifetime...
review: 27-Aug-06 (read in 2004)


Artwork by Michael Whelan (Click to enlarge)

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Kim Stanley Robinson
"Escape From Kathmandu"
© IASFM, Sep 1986
Escape From Kathmandu, 1987
--novella : 1987 Hugo
--novella : 1987 Nebula
--novella : 1987 Locus /2
--novella : 1987 Asimov's Reader Poll /4 (tie)
--novella : 1987 SF Chronicle /2

I can not click with fiction by Robinson... some kind of an emotional connection is missing, which makes me disinterested in whatever's happening by reading the first couple of pages. This novella tells of adventures in Nepal and of Yeti, but I "clicked out" of it quite promptly, so can not tell you more.
review: 27-Aug-06 (read in 2004)

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Rudy Rucker
"Soft Death"
© F&SF, Sep 1986
Gnarl!, 2000
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ idea award
--/ wonder award

"Soft Death " postulates immortality through software engineering". It is a surprisingly Robert Sheckley-like story, giving a half-serious treatment to a single idea, and extrapolating the results on a future society. It also features a "life-box" device which records a person's lifelong sensory impressions on a chip (hardly a new concept, but we are talking 1986 here, which is the blooming of cyber-punk genre, so it feels right at home). We do not have "life-box" devices yet, but we have ... blogs instead.
review: 27-Aug-06 (read in 2004)

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Clive Barker
"The Inhuman Condition" (coll)

(also as "The Book of Blood IV")
© Simon & Schuster, 1984
--/ fourth place dark f collection
--/ wonder award
--/ shock value

A scary and sobering collection of dark fantasy tales. Barker has a wicked imagination and these offerings are not for the faint of heart. However no one can deny the intensity and sheer "pop-culture" brilliance of some of the stories, which have become essential reading for any modern-day pulp-terror fiction reader. Here is the blurb from Amazon: "A master storyteller and unrivaled visionary, Clive Barker has mixed the real and unreal with the horrible and wonderful in more than twenty years of fantastic fiction. The Inhuman Condition is a masterwork of surrealistic terror, recounting tragedy with pragmatism, inspiring panic more than dread and evoking equal parts revulsion and delight."
review: 31-Aug-06 (read in 1994)

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Marina Fitch
"They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships"
© Writers of the Future # 2, 1986

L. Ron Hubbards' only worth-while contribution to the SF world ( note I am being facetious here) - establishing the competition for new writers - is actually a fun reading experience. Some great names came out of a couple of early issues, including Robert Reed and David Zindell. Marina Fitch submitted a lyrical, subdued story, a crowd-pleaser, but did not win anything. She proved that she is a name to watch, though.
review: 31-Aug-06 (read in 1991)

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Clifford Simak
"Highway Of Eternity" (nv)
© 1986, Ballantine Del Rey
--/ third place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ adventure award
--/ emotion award
--/ awesome scale

Very enjoyable, "cozy" in Simak's inimitable way, a dazzling romp through space (meeting all kinds of aliens of the Galactic Cluster) and time (to eternity and ... beyond?). All these good-natured "beer and cheese" adventures start in a small mid-western town and quickly scale outwards. This is one of the best novels of sheer "sense-of-wonder", mirroring Simak's previous success formula of the "Way Station". A guy who can teleport into the gray void, aliens who try to make people into indestructible disembodied minds, a Restaurant at the End of the Universe (who was there first, Simak or Adams?) There is a huge interstellar highway that goes through the void. This void contains nothing but a small restaurant maintained by a robot. Inside this restaurant (and all over time and space) the great riddle of sentient existence is being solved. This novel is colourful, intense and large-scale. All kinds of kudos to the great master.
review: 31-Aug-06 (read in 1989)



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Arkady & Boris Strugatskie
"Khromaya Sudba" (nv)
"Xромая судьба"
(also contains "Gadkie Lebedi")
© written in 1975
1986, Neva
Kromaya Sudba, 1990
--/ cool f novel
--/ emotion award

This is my first review of a russian SF book. I am fully aware that most of Russian science fiction is not translated into English and will not be known to the english reader; I am also aware of an incredible treasure of wonder and ideas contained in these works, completely different in their stylistic and philosophical approach. Languages are born to haunt us with their humbling diversity and an impossibility to learn all of them. We know that it serves to obstruct our wicked plans and to keep us humble, but it's a bit depressing to see cultural barriers grow as a result. Knowing more than one language immensely enriches a person when he reads (and digests) the best of a different culture. In this case, the strange and deeply introspective ventures into Russian fantastic literature may illuminate some forgotten and vast soul-realms that the american culture tends to overlook or simply bypass in haste. The Strugatskies have written both thrillers and psychological dramas, with an equally deft touch - but this novel is an experiment even by their own standards. They wrote it never intending to publish, or rather without a hope of it being published. It can hardly be classified as SF, as it has only minimal fantastic elements. It's a fascinating look into a life of a banished writer, its struggle with the government and other systems of the world. It is surreal and strange in composition (it contains a full, separate novel inside). A beautiful artistic achievement, though not perfect, of course. The title roughly translates as "An Impaired Destiny".
review: 31-Aug-06 (read in 1989)



Art by Elena Evtushenko (Click to enlarge)

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Arkady & Boris Strugatskie
"Gadkie Lebedi" (nv)
"Гадкие Лебеди"
(also as "Vremya Dozhdya"
"Время дождя")
© 1964
1987, Daugava
(as
"Prekrasny Utenok")
© 1986, Izobretatel
NF # 34, 1990
--/ cool sf novel
--/ emotion award

A little bit of a masochistic pleasure: deep and deeply troubled, downbeat and depressing condemnation of a communist era, devoid of hope and gray in imagery. Somebody had to write such Russian novel of a "still life" (literally), and Strugatskie did it, imbuing it with a large dose of surrealism and allegory. I am still awed by the fact that these writers (among other dissident figures of that generation) had to write "into a drawer" for decades(!) fighting the silencing veto placed on all their activity. Certainly, this piece of fiction trashes communist powers, but as a work of art it is quite harmless. But I remember a time in the Soviet Union when sending a fax, or making a copy (any copy of anything) was unlawful and condemned, not to mention any speaking with foreigners (in some cases, for the period of 15 years or more). It was a truly crazy lifestyle, and knowing that fantastic literature is eager to pick and exaggerate such anomalies, we have a "theater of the absurd" in guise of a novel, as a result.
review: 31-Aug-06 (read in 1989)

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Stay tuned for the reviews of SF&F material published in September 1976 and 1966 in next SPYGLASS issue - coming soon!

Read other issues here

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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

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touching, lasting impression, sensitivity

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

Again, please feel free to leave your own review or comment under every writer's entry; also recommend us other stories you liked.