MONTHLY ROUNDUP: September 2022

Ah September, the month of soaring highs and crushing lows. As I write this, the house renovations are one carpet away from being complete, meaning I can finally end my exile to the dining room within the next week or so. My month was also rudely interrupted by the last LARP event of the year, at which I managed to have a rather severe bout of hypothermia, which effectively scrambled me of the rest of the week. Then there’s the whole economic collapse and brink of mutually-assured destruction we’ve got going on right now. I’m doing my best to keep my nose in a book and not think about all that, for the sake of my own sanity. It’s odd that, in spite of everything listed above, between books and some personal affairs I won’t detail here, I manage to wake up happy each morning. But enough about me. Let’s talk about the blog.

BOOK HAUL

Following last month’s mega-haul from Hay-on-Wye, I took it a little easier on the book buying. But you know me, I always find time for a purchase or two.

  • Seven Novels, by Jules Verne (a collection of his best known works)
  • Ape and Essence, by Aldous Huxley
  • Awakenings, by George Mann
  • The Rose at War, by Danie Ware
  • Fire Made Flesh, by Denny Flowers
  • Cthonia’s Reckoning, by various authors
  • Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

In addition, some of my orders from the previous month arrived. They are:

  • Terok Nor: Day of the Vipers, by James Swallow
  • Prey: The Jackal’s Trick, by John Jackson Miller
  • Prey: The Hall of Heroes, by John Jackson Miller

IN TRANSIT

As Waterstones continue to deal with major warehouse issues (blame the technology, not the staff), my one remaining book on order looks to be achieving mythical status. Murray Leinster’s Sideways in Time is truly living up to its name.

READING

A lot of people I know have struggled to finish books this month, and for once I find myself in the same positions. Solidarity aside, it’s painful to admit I have just scraped by my target by reading ten books in September. My planned reading schedule went completely out the window, as I ended up reading mostly standalones, and wrapping up long series.

AUDIO

I’ve been listening to a lot of music. None of it science fiction related.

TV

First of all I caught up to date with For All Mankind, which is a rare example of a show deserving all the praise it receives. In both production and story, it’s up there with the best I’ve seen. I’ve also started Andor, which is offering a surprisingly gritty take on Star Wars that I find utterly enthralling, and Strange New Worlds, which strips away all the grit that Star Trek has gathered these past few years and returns to the old formula of a new planet every week. I’m not wild about yet another prequel in either case, but each of these shows is reinvigorating their respective franchise in a brilliant way. I’ve shied away from reviewing TV shows at this point, but Andor and Strange New Worlds will get write-ups once I’ve completed each season.

ARTICLES

Early in the month, I revisited my Wishlist posts of previous years to see how things turned out. The answer, as always, was a bit of a mixed bag.

September’s other article was a discussion on the nature of canon and canonicity in science fiction. This is the sort of academic article I’d like to write more of. A source I trust has also suggested I be cranky about SF more often, so watch this space.

SPSFC

In a slight change from last year’s format, my fellow judges and I are revealing our personal choices as we go. For me, the first seven books led to two YES votes, which you can read more about by clicking HERE.

WRITING

After an August in which everything went right, September started off on the same track . . . and then promptly fell off a cliff. I’ve barely scraped together three thousand words in the past two weeks. I’m hoping to be done with this project by the end of October, but it’s going to be a rough month down in the word mines.

SITE UPDATES

Right now I’m exactly where I want to be. Averaging in at over a hundred views per day is more than I imagined possible when I started. Next month will almost definitely see two major milestones, which I fully intend to celebrate. I run this blog for the joy of it, and it’s nice to see others sharing in that joy.

BOOK REVIEW: Requiem Infernal, by Peter Fehervari

Click here for all of my Warhammer 40,000 content

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Focuses on the Sisters of Battle
  • Published by Black Library in 2019
  • A Twisting Grimdark Horror
  • 392 pages

Sister Asenath Hyades is returning home, with a squad of injured militarum soldiers and their commissar alongside her. But the Candleworld has changed in her absence. It has grown darker. A darkness that is mirrored by the torment within her own soul . . .

Every single author puts care into their words. That’s basically the job description. Choosing not only the right words, but the best words to tell a story. Even so, there are levels to this. Some authors opt for clarity, using direct prose and limited metaphor. Some prefer pages of description, while others will jump right into the dialogue. There’s no wrong way to go about this, only ones that are right for the author, and right for their readers. For some authors, the writing itself is what matters. Not merely the means to an end of telling a story, but an act of artistry for its own sake. I admit, I sometimes dismiss these individuals as more than a little pretentious, but there is no denying the level of skill they put into their work. These are, after all, the authors likely to be lauded by critics and their peers alike. The authors who will win awards. The authors who you might not expect to find writing tie-in fiction for a game in which tiny plastic men wage war across a tabletop. And yet, Peter Fehervari is just such an author.

In an odd coincidence, the three Black Library authors who I think dedicate the most attention to the style of their prose all have names beginning with F. Peter Fehervari, Matthew Farrer, and Jon French all write books that are richer than you might expect. Among these three, Fehervari stands out for the sheer scope of his writing. Requiem Infernal has a plot that could be the work of any Black Library author. A lone Sister of Battle, a wounded regiment, an island fortress with a dark secret, sinister cultists. The elements of the story are not what make this book stand out. Fehervari’s uniqueness is in the way the story is told.

I will say that I didn’t particularly enjoy Requiem Infernal, but in this case more than most others, I can still recognise the skill that has gone into its creation. There is more going on here than I can summarise in a single review. Fehervari plays with the idea of memory in a way that makes my head hurt. Characters remember mutually exclusive histories, both personal and otherwise, and both versions of the past appear to have an impact on the present. Dreams and reality flow together to the extent that I can’t distinguish between the two. None of the characters know what is going on, even when they’re the ones driving the action. Then there are the links to other Fehervari novels, and the Dark Coil storyline that joins them all together. There are layers here, yes, but also things stuck between the layers. It is an exceptionally well put together tale, I’m just not entirely sure I understood half of it.

Despite personally not enjoying it, Requiem Infernal is the sort of book I’d recommend to anyone who thinks Warhammer 40,000 is just men in trenches shooting orks. Even though it’s far from my favourite part of the canon, there’s no denying the skill and artifice that went into its creation.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Cult of the Spiral Dawn, by Peter Fehervari
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Shadow and Claw, by Gene Wolfe

BOOK REVIEW: The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • A standalone novel
  • Published by Penguin
  • Published in 1953
  • Social SF
  • 170 pages

Money makes the world go round, and few know the truth of that more than the advertising agencies. But when Mitch Courtenay is put in charge of advertising the first trip to Venus, he soon discovers that the rewards come with their own share of risk, and that some business is worth killing for . . .

Having not really read the back cover, I was a little disappointed to discover that a book called The Space Merchants was not, in fact, about interstellar traders zipping about in their spaceships. The title actually refers to the companies and individuals who are selling the idea of space travel to the general population. My disappointment quickly turned to curiosity, then to enjoyment. Because while no book I’ve read has been diminished by setting it in space, this slightly more Earth-bound tale is a whole lot of fun.

Before we get into the book proper, I just want to say something. I’m not one of those people who thinks capitalism is the worst thing to ever blight humanity. Sure it’s prone to abuses, but show me a social structure that isn’t. Wherever you have an economy, you’ll have people competing to be at the top. Yes, it can go to far, but competition is generally helpful. Nothing great without struggle, and all that jazz.

Like all good social SF stories, The Space Merchants takes one part of society and runs wild with it. Pohl and Kornbluth (names so well known at the time that only their surnames appear on the cover) project a future (now only a few decades away) in which corporations have all but taken over the world. We as readers get to experience all the adverts for Venus, and ask if they are too long to hold the public interest. We hear the catchy jingles, and celebrate when sales of cigarettes for children are through the roof. When the novel is at its best, there’s a thick vein of satire running through it. I particularly enjoyed the mathematically logical but slightly irregular choice of choosing astronauts who have dwarfism in order to save on space, and the reference to Sales as the highest of ideals.

The latter half of the novel does suffer slightly from becoming more of a thriller than an exploration of ideas. Still good, but not on the same level as before. Though I will say that Phl and Kornbluth did a great job of building the Conservationists into a threat. Science fiction has an unfortunate habit of glorifying terrorist acts in the name of freedom, so it was refreshing to see this well-intentioned group of eco-extremists being painted with a less than white brush. Both they and the corporate elite are as bad as each other, which all contributes to the rather messy ending. I’m not sure if the authors had a preference for which faction I was supposed to side with, which speaks volumes for their ability to write a balanced narrative.

The Space Merchants is the sort of book best read in a single sitting. Fun, dark, and with a bit of bite. Definitely not the last Pohl and Kornbluth book I’ll be sinking my teeth into.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Buy Jupiter, by Isaac Asimov
R.U.R, by Karel Capek
Jupiter Laughs, by Edmund Cooper

BOOK REVIEW: Interstellar Empire, by John Brunner

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • No. 4 in the Venture SF Collection
  • A fix-up of three novellas
  • Published by Hamlyn Books
  • Published in 1985
  • Space Opera
  • 256 pages

Once upon a time, there was an Empire that ruled over the Galaxy. That Empire is now fading into myth, with only scattered pockets of civilisation remaining. But while the Empire may have fallen, humanity endures, even as it falls back on old and dangerous habits . . .

Today would have been John Brunner’s 88th birthday. I only became aware of this fact last week, thanks to a Tor.com article. Since I already had a copy of Interstellar Empire resting in my TBR, it seemed only appropriate to bump it up my reading schedule. A good thing I did too, because this small book has ensured I’ll be revisiting Brunner in the future.

As followers of this blog will know, I love a good story about empires in science fiction. I am especially interested in those that feature an empire in decline. Chalk it up to youthful exposure to Foundation and Space Viking, but it’s a theme and a setting I will happily revisit time and time again. Interstellar Empire fits alongside those two favourites of mine. Structurally, it’s a little Asimov. But in tone and delivery, it’s much closer to Piper. At the same time, it’s absolutely its own thing.

The premise for these three novellas is fairly straightforward. At some point in our future, humanity stumbles across a fleet of abandoned alien vessels that allow us to colonise the galaxy, and build the Argian Empire (centred on Argus). Thousands of years later, the Empire has collapsed for unknown reasons. The end result is that some planets remain strong and well-defended, while others have fallen into neobarbarism. This leads to a blend of sword and planet adventuring as various heroes and villains fight to carve a place for themselves. The decline of the Empire itself is more of a background detail than a feature of the plot, but it casts a long shadow across the events of the book.

The first two stories are the strongest. Each one shows how, in the absence of the Empire, bandits and warlords have sprung up to fill the power vacuum. Without a central authority to arbitrate disputes (and enforce peace), violence is the only recourse left. First we see Spartak, who in spite of being a sworn pacifist, soon finds himself choosing to overthrow a warlord through decidedly non-peaceful means. His brother is more of a Conan type, swaggering around with weapons and starships. But while he too is cast as a hero, he also has a history of pillaging, and keeps a slave for his own pleasure. I’m not saying this fits in with a certain other grim and dark future, but its far from an enlightened age.

The last novella in this book is the weakest. As well as being a little overstuffed and reliant on familiar beats (as Brunner himself admits in the foreword), it’s also more like a fantasy that happens to take place on another planet than the more science fictional stories that came before. A lot of this is forgivable given how young Brunner was at the time of writing, but it does result in the book trailing off rather than landing a final punch.

Sliding in among a forest of tropes and themes I enjoy, this was probably the best place I could have started with the works of John Brunner. So it’s a happy birthday to the dearly departed man, and for myself, a guarantee for many happy returns to his dark and vibrant writing.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper
Empire of Silence, by Christopher Ruocchio

CANON: It’s Not What You Think It Is

One of the very first articles I wrote At Boundary’s Edge was entitled CANON, CONTINUITY & CONTROVERSY. With a focus on the role of expanded universes in the realms of science fiction, that article was essentially written as a response to people who complain about new entries in a series ‘not being canon.’ Here’s the the thing though: Canon doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. Without falling back on Princess Bride quotes, this new article will untangle some of the Gordian Knot that is the nature of canon.

Definitions

Going to Dictionary.com, you’ll find a lot of different definitions for the word canon. The first reads as follows: an ecclesiastical rule or law enacted by a council or other competent authority and, in the Roman Catholic Church, approved by the pope. The sixth definition reads: the books of the Bible recognized by any Christian church as genuine and inspired. It’s the latter of these that starts us down the line to wear canon now stands. You see, way back in the day, the early Catholic Church decided it would be a good idea to bring together the writing of all the saints. Those that were of suitable providence were assembled into what the Christian world now recognises as the Bible. But, there were more writings examined than made their way into the Bible. Those which did not make the cut were declared Apocryphal. In other words non-canon. Now, I’m not a religious scholar, so I won’t go deeper into this particular field, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Definition 8 reads: any comprehensive list of books within a field, while 10 reads: established or agreed-upon constraints governing the background narrative, setting, storyline, characters, etc., in a particular fictional world. These are the definitions I’ll be focusing on in this article. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to Definition 8 as canon(8), and Definition 10 as canon(10). Bear with me on that.

How People (Mis)Use Canon

If you spend any amount of time in fan communities, you’ll hear the word canon be thrown around a lot. In Star Trek fandom, the canonicity of various shows is hotly disputed. The Animated Series is often considered to be non-canon, while the less-than-stellar continuity of The Original Series makes it tricky to put the canon of those stories in any sort of order. At the less wholesome end of the spectrum, there are certain rather grumpy individuals who will insist that the first series of Discovery can’t be canon, and must be an alternative universe. More on them at a later date.

Switching to Star Wars, we have a famous situation in which two decades of canon(10) was swept under the carpet in favour of new storytelling. The Expanded Universe was relabelled the Legends canon, and the world was never the same again. Unsurprisingly, there are grumpy individuals in this fandom too. In the past week, I have seen someone refer to the sequel trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker) as ‘fanfiction.’ More generally, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people say something to the effect of ‘the Expanded Universe is still canon to me.’

There’s a lot to unpack in all of this. Because while all of this is a misuse of the word canon, some of these people are also right. Just not in the way they think they are.

The Voice of Authority

Just as the canon of the Bible was assembled by expert priests, so too do modern canons(10) have an authority behind them. The canon(10) of Star Wars is determined by Lucasfilm. Back in the days of the Expanded Universe, there were layers of canon. The (then six) films were the highest level of canon, with books written to fit what occurred on screen rathe rather than the other way around, and comics a step below that. Thus the situation arose in which the prequels ran counter to the version of the Clone Wars established in earlier novels, while later novels twisted themselves in knots to work the new version into the same continuity. When Disney took ownership of the franchise, they declared all former stories (aside from the films and TV shows) non-canon. Now a new canon(10) is being built. Sometimes elements of the older canon are used (Thrwan, for example), but generally the new canon(10) is free to do whatever it wants. Though we are already seeing books take a lower precedence to films and TV shows.

The authority behind a canon(10) is almost always the holder of the commercial rights. Thus CBS determines the canonicity of various Star Trek media. The BBC holds sway over Doctor Who. The Frank Herbert Estate is the only authority on what Dune books are canon(10), regardless of who may be writing them. While some of his work has lapsed into the public domain, the estate of H.G. Wells is still in a position to declare books like Stephen Baxter’s The Massacre of Mankind an authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds.

There is physically nothing stopping you saying ‘The Force Awakens is fanfiction,’ but you are factually wrong to do so. Fanfiction is, by definition, unauthorised. Yes, JJ Abrams is a self-professed fan, but The Force Awakens is an authorised continuation of the Skywalker Saga. Authorised by the only people who have a legal right to make such a declaration.

People are entitled to have their own headcanons (the version of events they choose to accept as their favourites, and unofficial interpretations of the same), but that does not make it canon(10). Only the rights holder can do that.

Everything is Canon, Actually

However, canon(8) has arrived to throw a spanner in the works. Let’s remind ourselves of what this definition is: any comprehensive list of books within a field. Look again at that second word. Comprehensive. To be comprehensive, you must take into account as much as possible. A comprehensive canon(8) would include all available material, regardless of any internal continuity.

Taking this into account, the Expanded Universe and The Force Awakens are both equally part of canon(10). Why? Because both exist. They cannot co-exist within the same story universe, but in the real universe you can easily slot them beside one another on a shelf. If the canon(8) of Star Wars is simply a collection of all the stories that have ever existed, then both versions of Thrawn are equally valid. Both are totally fictitious, but both stem from the same mythology.

Likewise, though it can be hard to put Lower Decks and Deep Space Nine in an internally consistent narrative, both are important parts of the Star Trek canon(8). By the same token, the fanfiction of Trek and other franchises is not canon(10), but it is canon(8). Because it exists. Because, especially in the case of Star Trek, it forms a part of that franchise’s history.

Conclusion

Canon(8) is too broad to be helpful in most situations. Canon(10) takes creative control away from those who pour their hearts into storytelling. But they are not mutually exclusive. If there is a point to all of this, then it’s a simple suggestion.

Before you talk about canon, do some research. I mean, we’re nerds, aren’t we? We can at least get our terminology straight.

BOOK REVIEW: Saviour of the Imperium, by Sandy Mitchell

Click here for all of my Warhammer 40,000 content

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • The third Ciaphas Cain omnibus
  • Features the novels The Emperor’s Finest, The Last Ditch, The Greater Good, plus short stories
  • Focuses on the Astra Militarum
  • Published by Black Library in 2020
  • Military SF with a Grimdark sense of humour
  • 875 pages

Commissar Ciaphas Cain returns to action once again. His deeds are legendary, but can even the magnificent Cain stand against the multitude of the Imperium’s enemies? With orks, tyranids, and tau aplenty, there’s never been a worse time to be a coward . . .

Reviewing a lengthy series is a difficult proposition. If you’ve discussed the author’s writing style in the first review, then you probably don’t need to talk about it in the second and third ones. If the setting is the same for multiple stories, how do you praise even the bets worldbuilding without repeating yourself ad nauseum? What more can you say about a series in book seven that you hadn’t covered by book six? Because I review every science fiction book I read, and because I read a lot of series, this is a difficulty I’ve wrangled with on multiple occasions. If I read a series back to back, as I did with K.B. Wagers’ The Indranan War or the opening six books of Marko Kloos’ Frontlines saga, then I might bundle all the books into a single review. But this isn’t always possible. If there are months between books (or even years), then I’m not going to cling to the review until I’ve read the whole series. When I review single entries in a long-running series, I find I don’t always have much to add to the conversation. But I’ll always try and find a new angle, even if I do have to ramble on a bit at the start of the review.

Writers, I feel, have a similar issue. How do you write a long-running series without the stories growing repetitive. Change the narrative is the simple answer, but how much can you change before you’re better off starting a new series altogether? With this third omnibus of Ciaphas Cain’s (mis)adventures, the strain of that weight is starting to show. Individually, the stories all work fine. There’s the usual mix of gritty action and dry humour, a change of environment in each story (space hulk, Imperial colony, Forge World), and a variety of xenos to be cut apart by lasguns and chainswords. The return of the Adeptus Astartes shakes things up a little, while Cain and Vail remain reassuring crotchety presences.

Taken as part of a whole, however, and being the latter third of a long series, there’s a certain sense of formulaic storytelling kicking around in the background. Partly this comes from the stories themselves. We’ve already seen Cain facing these enemies, and while the new stories are good, they do at times feel like reruns of past glories. The Greater Good shakes things up nicely with a fragile truce between human and tau forces, but this comes at the tail end of a series full of slaughter. Having this series told outside of chronological order (at least the central narrative, the footnotes are in order), means that Mitchell can jump around to important moments in Cain’s career. It’s just a shame that these moments often feel familiar.

Then there is the episodic nature of the series. First of all, I love episodic storytelling, and wish there was more of it. But having each book be possible to be read alone does lead to repetition. Especially in the footnotes. Vail’s commentary is the best part of the series, simultaneously exposing the truth of the situation while also falling victim to Cain’s legacy. But nine books in, I don’t need another note explaining what a cogboy is. Nor do I need every extract from General Sulla’s memoirs to come with the same disclaimer. Each note is fine in isolation, but in he third of these massive omnibuses, it’s overkill. Though I admit, Warhammer 40,000 has built its reputation on overkill.

In hindsight, most of these issues stem from reading the books so close together. For those who waited years between instalments, I doubt the same problems existed. And in spite of my quibbles, the Ciaphas Cain series remains a lynchpin of Warhammer’s comedic stylings. Repetitive though it can be, it’s still worth a read.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Founding, by Dan Abnett
Yarrick, by David Annandale
Honourbound, by Rachel Harrison

SPSFC2 At Boundary’s Edge: Slushpile Books 1-7

Welcome back to the SPSFC. In this second year of the competition, we are currently at stage one, affectionately known as the slushpile. In this phase, each team has been given a selection of books to sort through in search of a handful of quarterfinalists. At Boundary’s Edge has 28 of these books (you can find a full list of them by clicking on this link). Our team of four will be reading our way through these books for the next couple of months.

For those who need a refresher, at this early stage we don’t read the whole book. We read the opening 20% of every entry and vote either YES or NO on continuing. The books that receive the most YES votes will become quarterfinalists and be read in full. Those that receive more NO votes than YES votes will be cut from the competition.

Last year, At Boundary’s Edge only brought you the end result of these cuts. This year, we’re playing it a little looser, with each judge able to reveal their personal votes prior to the final announcements. My wonderful co-judge Athena has been keeping track of her reading HERE, and my thoughts can be found in the article below.

Now it’s time for that old disclaimer. These are my opinions. Not necessarily those of my team, or any other judge, or anyone else in particular. Once again, my opinions. Though others are more than welcome to share them. With that out of the way, here we go.

Arkhangelsk, by Elizabeth H. Bonesteel

Vote: YES

I love a good science fiction/crime crossover. This one comes with the added bonus of an interesting post-apocalyptic setting, which is rare than you might think. Confidently written, I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Between Mountain and Sea, by Louisa Locke

Vote: NO

First of all, I will always appreciate a science fiction author who uses Welsh. However, I don’t think that the language was put to good use here. Leaving aside some questionable spelling, the mystery over why aliens speak Welsh was not developed well enough to hold my interest.

Black Table, by Anttimatti Pennanen

Vote: NO

I won’t deny that there is fun to be had here. This buddy adventure feels like a love letter to science fiction. Unfortunately, I found it better suited to a children’s story than one featuring adults. There’s no real problems here, just a book that’s a little simplistic for my tastes.

Data Mine, by Lou Iovino

Vote: NO

As is often the case in this competition, I like the idea here more than I like the execution. Full points for not immediately making the politician a villain, but I found the omniscient perspective (which I usually enjoy) a poor choice for a narrative that clearly expects us to engage with the characters.

Dangerous Thoughts, by James L. Steele

Vote: NO

Oh boy. I pushed through to the 20% looking for something to say, feeling less comfortable with every page. All I’ve got is this. If you want furry erotica, look no further. If you don’t, look anywhere else.

Earth Warden, by Tyler Aston

Vote: NO

This is another book that didn’t do anything wrong, it just didn’t do enough right to earn my favour. It’s a simple, straightforward action adventure. Maybe too simple and straightforward. Nothing it does offends me, but it it’s ultimately rather forgettable.

Earthship, by John Triptych with Michael Lamontagne

Vote: YES

This book had me hooked from the prologue alone. From there on, there is an awful lot going on, with multiple viewpoints and plot strands to keep track of. I look forward to seeing how it all comes together in the end.

These have been my thoughts on the first 7 books from the slushpile. As always, readers are encouraged to read the books for themselves, and to draw their own conclusions.

BOOK REVIEW: The Best of Kuttner 1

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • Contains 15 short stories by Henry Kuttner
  • Published by Mayflower Books
  • Published in 1965
  • Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • 286 pages

Back in the day, science fiction was almost entirely ruled by the magazine industry. Names like Astounding, Amazing Stories, and Analog are but the alphabetical tip of the iceberg here. If you wanted to take a shot at science fiction writing, submitting to these magazines was the best bet. Editors such as John W. Campbell and Hugo Gernsback could essentially dictate the trajectory of an author’s career. Not that they were cruel overlords. Each month, dozens of new and exciting names would enter the field of science fiction. Some would go on to great things. This is, after all, the setting that gave rise to Isaac Asimov. Others fell by the wayside, their names now forgotten. And then there are those who shone brightly for a short period, only to dim over time. Authors who were household names during their lives, but are now remembered only by the most curious of historians. Henry Kuttner is a man who lands in this final category.

Part of the problem is one of identity. Kuttner wrote dozens of stories, but not always under his own name. The stories in this collection alone were originally cited as the work of Lewis Padgett, Woodrow Wilson Smith, Keith Hammond, and Hudson Hastings. Many of these are pseudonyms that Kuttner shared with his wife, and fellow science fiction author, C.L. Moore. The pair were frequent collaborators. Given all this, and the relatively poor records of the time, it is hard to definitively attribute many works to Kuttner alone. Further complicating Kuttner’s disappearance into the annals of history is the fact that much of his work has fallen out of print. Not out of copyright, but simply out of print. This has changed in the past few years with the Gollancz Masterworks release of Fury, but other than that you’d be lucky to find a short story of Kuttner’s anthologised.

Happily, there are older collections of his work available on the second-hand market. This collection is the first of two to proclaim themselves his best work. Personally, I rate Fury higher. But that’s largely a preference of longer form storytelling on my part. What The Best of Kuttner 1 does prove is that the man (and his alter egos and writing partners) was one of the more varied writers of the time. ‘The Proud Robot’ would stand happily in an Asimov anthology, while ‘See You Later’ with its hillbilly narrative and rambling humour couldn’t be more different. No two stroies in this collection are the same, though a common theme does start to emerge if you squint hard enough.

Science fiction from this period has a reputation for being dry and clinical. Fairly deserved in many cases, I must say, but not in Kuttner’s. While I enjoy the dry and clinical stylings of some, Kuttner has a messier and much darker sensibility. ‘Absolom’ is, on the surface, a story about a school for geniuses and the inevitable intellectual development of humanity. But dig a little, and all the signs of generational trauma are there. Father corrupts son corrupts son and so on, ad infinitum. Meanwhile, ‘A Gnome There Was’ is a darkly twisted fairy tale about little men beneath the earth, and all their deviant ways. These are stories that blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy, and often tilt into full-blown horror.

Not every story here hits the mark, but when they do, they hit hard. If you’ve never encountered Kuttner before, this is a great place to start.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Fury, by Henry Kuttner
Return to Otherness, by Henry Kuttner
Northwest of Earth, by C.L. Moore

BOOK REVIEW: End As A Hero, by Keith Laumer

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A standalone novel
  • Published by Ace Books
  • Published in 1985
  • Pulp Space Opera
  • 150 pages

In the deepest reaches of uncharted space, an ancient force has awoken. Known as the Gool, this force reaches into the minds of passing spacefarers. All those who suffer from its touch are driven utterly made. All save one . . .

At only a hundred and fifty pages, the content of the book itself will be rivalled in length by any review. As you can imagine, a book of such short length (it’s only three chapters), is very difficult to talk about without simply recapping the events of the story. This is especially hard for a book like End As A Hero, in which nothing really happens for a long while, and then everything happens at once. In spite of all this, I’m going to give it a go. Because this is a book, and I am a reviewer.

One of the things I do know about Keith Laumer is that he had a fairly lengthy career, interrupted by a serious stroke. End As A Hero was written after that stroke, and while it’s not as strong as his work prior to the event, it’s still perfectly readable. There are some stylistic choices that may be related to lasting medical trauma, or may be Laumer’s own decision. Most of the stylistic issues are almost charmingly pulpy. The only one that throws me out of the narrative is the sudden shift from third person to first person for the final act of the novel. An act, it should be said, that is also an abrupt left turn into spy thriller following two thirds of space adventure.

I’ve used the word ‘pulp’ twice in this review now (and many times in the past), and I want to make something clear. I don’t mean this as a pejorative. I could write an entire article about literary labels, but when I say pulp, I don’t mean to imply a lack of quality. To me, pulp is about a certain style. A sparseness of prose. A directness of narrative thrust. Larger than life characters and simple storytelling. Maybe a lurid description or two for good measure. And yes, pulp usually means something is quite short. Not every book has to sprawl for hundreds of pages, but not everything below that is a novella. A pulp novel exists somewhere in between. It’s a vanishing art, but one that still deserves its moment in the sun.

Short, direct, and more than a little bit bizarre, End As A Hero isn’t Laumer’s best work, but it’s still a fun read if you have a day to spare.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Fury, by Henry Kuttner
Star Colony, by Keith Laumer
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl

BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • An fix-up of 16 stories
  • First published in 1952
  • This edition published by Harper Voyager
  • A collection of many genres
  • 294 pages

There is a man who wanders the world with disaster and death following in his wake. This man can easily be recognised by his many tattoos. Tattoos that move and change. Tattoos that each have their own story . . .

Let me put this up front. There are short story collections, anthologies, and fix-ups. A collection is the work of a single author. An anthology is the work of multiple authors gathered by an editor. A fix-up is a group of short stories that have been arranged into an overarching narrative. This is all pretty simple, and largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But if we’re not being pedantic, are we really science fiction fans? I mention all of this because The Illustrated Man sets itself up as a fix-up, then almost immediately falls over. The narrative conceit employed to connect the stories (which have no other connection) is that all are depicted in the tattoos of a mysterious wanderer. This features in a prologue, an epilogue, and as an insert into one story. Other than that, the framing narrative simply does not exist. Aside from being an incredibly lacklustre link between stories, it doesn’t have any relevance to the stories themselves. It leaves me with one burning question. Why would Ray Bradbury, in all his wisdom and skill, not just drop it all together and leave the stories to stand alone. Probably marketing, but hey ho. On to the stories themselves.

Ray Bradbury is one of those rare science fiction authors who has managed to gain traction in mainstream literature rather than being stomped back into the ghetto of science fiction by overzealous academics. Some of that success comes from the fame of Farenheit 451, but reading these stories, it’s easy to see why. These are stories that place as much focus on the presentation as on the content. Bradbury’s style is incredibly sparse. Even with a large font size, these stories rarely pass twenty pages. The sentences are incredibly simple. The delivery direct. A lot of these stories are not so much narratives as slices of life. And therein lies my dissatisfaction.

Call me a traditionalist, but I’m a big fan of stories in which things happen. Give me a scientific mystery. Give me a challenge. That’s not what you’ll find in The Illustrated Man. The stories here are more about creating mood than posing problems for the characters to overcome. To be fair, they are great at doing this. There’s a sense of loss and tragedy overhanging the whole collection. ‘Kaleidoscope’ sees a crew slowly dying in space as their rocket fails, and is bleak without losing its sense of wonder. ‘The Last Night of the World’ shows a couple dealing with the knowledge that the world is ending, and that all they can do is make their last moments peaceful. Multiple stories relate to nuclear annihilation, but from the perspective of these who survive unharmed. Even in the strongest story in the collection ‘The Long Rain’ the execution of soldiers is described so calmly that any sense of violence is robbed. This a fundamentally serene collection, which makes it different to a lot of others, but does leave the stories lacking in tension.

Bradbury is remembered as one of the USA’s great authors, and I think that might be part of my issue here. Being written in the 1950s, and focusing so much on small American families (in very traditional family units), this is a collection that feels rooted in a culture that I am not a part of. For those who live and grew up in the United States, the social connections will almost certainly hold more weight. But for a Brit like me, it feels more than a little hollow. A pretty enough shell of words, but not enough substance within.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Judgement Night, by C. L. Moore