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Archive for November, 2012


Shirley Jackson.

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I have to admit, I ransacked my library, brain, and the internet to find a worthy J. Ultimately I came up with Shirley Jackson, now I know, I know, you say “but she’s not a Sci-fi Author!”, and on at least the level of technicality I would have to agree with you, but hear me out.

She is an excellent writer, who has literally dozens of Sci-Fi’s greatest writers citing her as a major influence, up to and including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and others.

The plot and elements of her most famous work “The Lottery” have been stolen, copied, and imitated in so many major SF, Fantasy and Horror works that it would be a failing to not count her as a major influence on SF.

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When I was growing up, I loved going to the used bookstores, I always headed straight to the Science Fiction section, and wherever I went, in any store in any town in any state, the Sci-Fi section of the used bookstore always had Robert A. Heinlein books. They seemed to be a standard currency in those stores.

Considered along with Clarke and Asimov to be one of “The Big Three” of Science Fiction (at least Hard Science Fiction) he has had immeasurable influence on the shape and history of Sci-Fi. His series Starship Troopers was made into a series of motion pictures that had tremendous impact, his novel “The Puppet Masters” spawned a motion picture and its remakes which was highly imitated in books, movies and television. If imitation is the severest form of flattery, then Heinlein has been extremely flattered.

The first book of Heinlein’s I ever read was “Stranger in a Strange Land” which I can say was a turning point in my personal development, that book really changed my perception of the world, and made me think. Later in life I found other people who loved the book as much as I did, and some even told me that they tried to live their lives based on the book, they were hippies.

The book itself was centered around a lone survivor of a lost mission to Mars, Valentine Micheal Smith, (his mother was pregnant with him when she started the voyage to Mars) the rest of the crew met a mysterious end, but it seems the Native Martians took pity on him and raised him as a Martian, a heritage that comes with amazing mental powers (including the ability to banish people to other dimensions, destroy planets with your mind, put yourself in a hibernation state, alter your perception of time, etc) and is eventually rescued and taken back to Earth, where he has to learn to be human. This is the book that originated the word “GROK”, which found its way into popular culture, martian society is centered around the extremely valuable commodity of water, and Grok is the martian verb “to drink”, which can be used in extended contexts and meanings as well.

Another fantastic book of his is the novel “Time Enough for Love“, where the central character is Lazarus Long, who via the magic of a genetic anomaly has a lifespan of thousands of years. He’s a fascinating character who has learned to be humble, devious, and wise. He lives during mankind’s future of intergalactic empire and colonization, which makes for a fascinating and exciting read.

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(note: due to lack of some Authors with last names under certain letters such as I, Q, X etc some letters in this series are going to get double-billing, and hence the letter H is getting double entries this month.)

I have been in a little bit of a rush to get to H, so I could write this about my all time favorite author, Frank Herbert.

I can say without exaggeration that Frank Herbert was a genius. He was the author of the worlds most successful and best-selling Sci-Fi novel of all time, Dune and the Dune Saga. Almost universally, fans and critics of the series describe his work as “mature”, “literary” and “intellectually rigorous” in a time when it was not fashionable for Sci-Fi books to be so. Typically from the 40’s to 60’s Science Fiction was a pulp medium, that often focused on sexuality to attract young adults (hence the military soldier or football quarterback is whisked away to a distant world, and must save the cheerleader from an alien menace, only then to have plenty of time to ravish the grateful heroin on the long journey home.) or in hard Sci-Fi you needed a brilliant technological idea or invention as the basis for your novel.

Herbert’s novels were an entirely different kind of animal, and that wasn’t without its risks, the manuscript for Dune was rejected nearly 20 times for publication before an auto manual manufacturer took a chance on his work. Herbert is credited with creating and popularizing Ecological Sci-Fi, and the world he created in the Dune saga stands as a shining example superb world building.

dune

Herbert’s novels were extraordinarily high-brow, dealing with complex religious, political, scientific, and social ideas, integrating them seamlessly into the complex world he created.

Shortly after their publication the novels garnered great success and many awards, including the Nebula Award and the Holy grail of Science Fiction literary prizes, the Hugo Award.

Since his death in 1986 the series has been carried on by his son Brain Herbert working in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson, some fans of original Dune pan the new prequels, saying they aren’t as intellectually rigorous, even though they are largely produced from Herbert’s own notes for unwritten extensions of the series, however, I ardently disagree with this criticism, I find the new books to be exciting, clever, and satisfying. Maybe it’s because I love the world of Dune so much I don’t want to see the series die, but I think the new prequels are very worthy successors to Herbert and his work, having read his bio and seen documentaries on the man and his work, I find it easy to imagine that he would want to the work to carry on, and I think he would be happy with the direction that world is expanding in.

If you need a recommendation for a book to start with, start with Dune. There’s no need for me to recommend other books in the series, once you read Dune, you won’t be able to help yourself reading the others.

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Generally considered to be the founding father of Cyberpunk, William Ford Gibson’s mind works a little differently than the other kids in the schoolyard, which is something Sci-Fi readers all over the world can be grateful for.

William Gibson’s early life was problematic, filled with emotional struggles and frequent re-locations,  it seems the ugly duckling phase of his life is over, having blossomed into critical success with his excellent novel “Neuromancer” and financial success with books breaking onto the best-seller lists such as “Spook Country” and “Zero History”.

Neuromancer was a thrilling novel, with likable low-life characters such as an ex-hacker whose nervous system has been damaged so that he can never again access computer networks, and his partner in crime a female cybernetic assassin, both trying to pull off a caper that will allow them to strike back at the system that discarded them both. Although some people may disagree with my analysis of the novel, one of the most fascinating parts of the plot was that an extremely technologically advanced society, working however unwittingly, in the apparent absence of an afterlife and God and the Devil, actually manage to construct those very things, with the impact for mankind being truly horrific. Two central characters of the book, a very powerful and  illegal AI known as Wintermute, works diligently to free another AI known as Neuromancer, and it becomes apparent through the novel that these two have the power to keep human “souls” in continued existence after their death, even against those souls will, they can inflict infinite pain, or pleasure, they live forever, and are vastly more intelligent than any human, in short, God and the Devil. Especially given one of the AI’s immoral and sadistic tendencies. I can only speak for myself, but the notion of Christian Mythology being made real through technology scares me more than I have ever been scared by any other book. VERY un-settling!

He is generally attributed as the person who created the term “Cyberspace”. Given the counter-cultural penchant and hippy lifestyle of his younger days it is not surprising to me that he would produce such a brilliant and engaging novel that really opens ones eyes to the un-spoken goal of all our science and technology.

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Philip Jose Farmer

A brilliant and strange writer, he always treated Religion, Sexuality and Stereotypes in such a unique and clever way that you can’t help but like his writing. He is a recipient of the prestigious Hugo award, so I can’t be alone in that opinion.

My first experience with his work was a collection of his short stories called Strange Relations which is an immensely good read which I highly recommend, and one really memorable one was his short story “Mother”, which was about an emotionally derelict young man and his domineering mother who become stranded on an alien world where the dominant life-form are sentient plants, his mother is killed and he is taken prisoner inside one of these plant creatures where he is forced to live out the rest of his life in an alien womb. The story had deep psycho-sexual themes that made me uncomfortable, but the story was brilliant and I will remember it forever.

Another excellent and memorable short story from that collection was the one called “Father”, in which an intergalactic star-liner makes a pit stop on a strange world, and they discover a very strange being there that needs passage on their vessel. The only problem is there is mounting evidence making the crew, passengers, and priest believe that this being may in fact be God. Very Clever, get a copy as soon as you can. His most successful series is his RiverWorld Series.

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You have to love

Harlan Ellison

 

other than being our prestigious Letter E in this series, I am also conferring onto him the title of “Sci-Fi’s Greatest Pugilist”.  Ellison was very well known for his vocal criticism, legal challenges, and being just plain ornery. Ellison was expelled from Ohio State University for striking a professor for belittling his writing ability, he once accused a studio executive who was producing Ellison’s work of having “The Intelligence of an Artichoke”, and even mailed a dead gopher to a certain publishing house. Perhaps the best story of his antics is the story where he was hired as a writer for the powerhouse of hypocrisy Walt Disney, only to be fired on his first day for being over heard suggesting an erotic animated series involving Disney characters, it has to make you smile.

One of the first books I read from Ellison was his book “I have No Mouth, and I Must Scream“, which spawned a PC video game , and to say that it was disturbing would be an understatement. It was about five human beings who are the prisoners of an evil computer named “I AM”, whose only interest is in torturing and killing them, only to continually resurrect them to start the hellish process all over again.

I remember the first time I saw Ellison on cable television, it was a public service announcement that he paid for himself on the Sci-Fi (or as it’s known today SyFy) channel in order to rail against what he thought was unfair online manipulation of votes for a certain sci-fi literary award that had recently decided to start allowing online voting. I remember thinking as I watched it “man this guy likes to fight.”

His influence on Science Fiction is almost immeasurable, having written for or consulted on Star Trek, Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, being published in many of the more famous Anthology and Omnibus series. He served as a judge and lecturer for a sci-fi writers workshop that helped to start Octavia Butler‘s career, Butler is an excellent author who was in contention for Letter B of this series.

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Philip K. Dick, a man who changed Science Fiction forever.

Dick’s work is becoming ever more popular, having major Hollywood movies based directly or partially on his works, such as “Blade Runner”, “Total Recall”, “A Scanner Darkly”, “Minority Report” and the list goes on. He was a master of the dystopian future genre. The movie Blade Runner, which is based on his book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is considered the quintessential dystopian future story.

Dick always took a suspicious view of Government, a trait that showed in his work, and even while he seems to have tried to stay out of the political scene, he did attend at least one anti-war protest, and for a brief time in the 60’s was at least partially under surveillance by the FBI, a fact that would provide fuel for his suspicions and paranoia that manifested in the later years of his life. He went through a long dark night of the soul that involved drugs, paranoid delusions, associations with a criminal element, epiphany and catharsis, that makes him one of the few Sci-Fi authors whose real world life is at least as fascinating as his fiction work, to that end if you are interested in a documentary about him and his life I highly recommend The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick from 2001. I have met several people who knew him directly, and almost universally when these people recollect him it is with a deep sadness, citing his depression, paranoia, and drug use towards the end of his life.

One of the themes in his work was that of the “Dark Twin”, often noted by critics of his work, but an atypical example of this theme in his work is from one my favorite of his works “Galactic Pot Healer” in which one of the main characters, an alien creature with immense power known as the Glimmung was described as being a member of a species which is twin-born, one dark and one light, and only one of the twins can live, and one must destroy the other in order to survive. His biographers often note that he was born a twin, and that his twin sister died shortly after her birth, as justification for this haunting theme in his works.  Each of his works is entertaining, worthy, thought provoking and fascinating, but Galactic Pot Healer has always held a special place in my heart, and that is the example from his works that I would recommend as a good PKD starter.

If you are anything like me, you will find that after reading Dick’s work, you will be asking yourself all sorts of strange questions about the nature of life, perception and the mind, that you would not likely have asked yourself before reading his work. I do not know if it was an intended purpose of his writing, but his work seems to have a mind altering quality similar to what drug using vision seekers describe from being on LSD, peyote and the like.

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