Tag Archives: sci-fi

Woe of Hours Wasted

IMG_9339This afternoon I read a sci fi short story entitled “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” by Frederik Pohl (1973). In it, a scientist devises a plan to strand eight people on a spacecraft bound for Alpha Centauri on a contrived mission to colonize a planet that doesn’t really exist. He does this because he believes that if you put humans into a situation away from distractions and modern convenience and allow them to focus solely on solving difficult problems that the results will be profound and sufficient to change the world. The story, in its detail, is fairly preposterous but I think that there may be a hefty thread of truth winding through this concept.

If you look at our modern workaday world in historical context, we’ve got some amazing advantages over our forebearers only 100 years ago. We have more leisure time than any group of humans ever. Our access to information is mind-boggling; if you want to study the mating habits of Nicaraguan sea turtles you can have access to that information in under 60 seconds. While disposable income varies wildly, the internet allows us to obtain just about anything you can imagine. We are the most intellectually empowered species in the history of this planet.

But what do we actually do with all that power? There are, of course, the elite few who are putting their brains to the proverbial grindstone and pushing to make the world a better place but it seems that for the vast majority of us (and I do not absolve myself from this one iota) we go to work at jobs that don’t really challenge us and then come home to lives that don’t really put us to the test or stretch us as people and simply float by on a cloud of recreation waiting for the next life event to come to pass. In every sense of it this is a terrible waste of an amazing opportunity.

Speaking personally, I look back on previous versions of myself (at times represented in this blog) and I yearn for that person that I used to be. I was far from ideal to be sure but I did more. I wrote more keenly; I thought more profoundly. Perhaps not with so much wisdom as I might hope for now but there was an energy that I haven’t found again. Ironically, I’m much more empowered in every sense than I was 10 years ago yet I’ve still lost something.

Looking at the world as a whole, I believe that collectively we have all the energy both mental and physical to solve all of our problems 1000 times over. What we lack is leadership and direction to point us in the right direction and when humans lack direction, leadership and inspiration the collective psyche devolves to watching cat videos, random complaining, and heavy drinking. I can’t deny that I’ve certainly frittered my share of hours away and dream keenly of what better use they could have been put to.

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Review of Hearing Thoughts by Anthony Diffley

As is often the case I received this book free for the purposes of review but I’m absolutely candid about it below because potential buyers deserve to know what it is they’re about to pay money for.

The nutshell on this novel is pretty well summed up by the back cover. Normally I would consider it a spoiler to reveal so much about the plot but since it IS on the back… Essentially, a high-power attorney is kidnapped by aliens and now can hear other people’s thoughts. Thus the title. Not exactly massively original really.

In most cases I try to frame a book by its positives and its negatives. In this case though I can’t really find anything even remotely positive to say about it. The story is trite and has been already been explored by dozens of other authors. The writing is deplorable and the dialog reminds me of a conversation you might hear in a Dick and Jane novel. I guffawed aloud when grown men started talking about their “tummies” and many of the scenes defy any knowledge of how the adult world works. It reminds me strongly of the videos you see in which a small child describes what they think their parents do all day at work.

In summary, while I always hate to take it to new authors with such vigor I can’t be party to anyone actually considering paying money for this. I’d encourage Mr. Diffley to keep at it and try a different idea with a new copy editor because the one you have has failed you terribly.

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Universe 4 – Edited by Terry Carr 1974

519QW9-HHhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Like our last post this too is a collection of rather random sci-fi goodness but this one is from the 70s. I give a brief reflection on my thoughts after reading each story below.


Assault on a City – Jack Vance
At 48 pages this one is a full-blown novella. At its heart, it is a story of class struggles in a future that has taken fashion to an amusing extreme. It’s a solid story and an easy read in an hour.


A Sea of Faces – Robert Silverberg
At under 20 pages this brief foray into the genre is primarily psychological. In it a woman with a mental disorder is treated and we see the situation from inside the mind of the patient. The trip back to consciousness is illustrated as a journey on a mysterious floating island that has to be steered back to the mainland so the patient can rejoin the rest of society.


And Read the Flesh Between the Lines – R. A. Lafferty
In this brief story we have what I would categorize as an alternative history of sorts. Our protagonist, if he can be called such, has an Australopithecus as a servant and lectures his guests that a full third of history has been intentionally wiped from the collective recollection of society. This is a bizarre and rather surreal tale and one would not go amiss in noting that what it lacks in plot it makes up for in setting of the scene.


My Sweet Lady Jo – Howard Waldrop
Weighing in at under 20 pages this one reads like a twilight zone script. I will attempt not to spoil but know merely that it has a wry twist at the end. I cannot claim that it’s a terribly original twist but a twist none the less. In the story, man has bridged the gap between the stars but is still in the early, clumsy phase that requires him to sleep away the decades waiting. One such intrepid group has made the journey to Terra Nova and back again. How will they get on with the people of Earth who have passed decades while they slumbered?


Stungun Slim – Ron Goulart
This is a story of a stark but fairly realistic future. Interestingly, I find that of all the stories in this collection, this one stuck with me the least. The only lasting impressions I have is of public executions and insane personal debt with the most notable item being a $4,000 personal computer from the J.C. Penney catalog.


Desert Places – Pamela Sargent
Like a previous story, this one reads like a Twilight Zone episode. In it, we follow a family as they move from house to house attempting to stay ahead of some destructive force that’s gobbling up their world. At the end we find that the destructive force…. well, now I wouldn’t tell you that, now would I? That would be obvious spoilage. Suffice to say that it’s a keen allegory that has played out a million times on a million worlds including our own


If the Stars Are Gods – Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford
Of all the stories in this collection, this is probably my favorite. In a nutshell, aliens visit the Earth and they want to talk to the entity in charge. Which, it turns out, they believe to be the sun. The story goes into a fair amount of detail about how the aliens came to believe in the sentient nature of stars and points out effectively how our physical environment shapes our long-term mental framework about how the universe works. At the risk of somewhat of a spoiler I will reveal that the aliens evolved on a planet with an extremely elliptical orbit and large axial tilt so their seasons were acutely variable in temperature. At certain points when proximity to the sun coincided with the proper angle of inclination to the sun entire populations had to pick up and move to the other side of the planet. One wonders how early life could possibly evolve in such conditions but it does make one ponder the ramifications of such an arrangement. At any rate, as has been amply illustrated by my prolonged babbling, this one made an impression.


When the Vertical World Becomes Horizontal – Alexei Panshin
In direct opposition to my feelings about the previous story, this one left me flat. Clearly some huge mental shift is taking place in humanity during the course of the story but it is intentionally kept vague and impenetrable to the point that I cannot muster any emotion from this story at all.


And there you have it. Well, there I have it. I don’t honestly expect anyone to read these but some future version of me that’s trying to remember what that weird book was that had the story of the aliens that looked like the Apple logo. So hello, Future me! How’s it going? Did we ever figure out what that weird growth was in the corner of the back yard or did it take over the universe?

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Alph – Great 50s sci-fi (5/5)

I picked up this title as I was perusing the shelves at a locally-owned bookstore and purchased it based only on its intriguing description and the fact that I’ll buy just about anything at a locally-owned bookstore to support those fine and endangered institutions.

The summary is a pretty simple one and one that about half the population isn’t especially comfortable with. All the dudes are gone. Society has turned into the ultimate matriarchy. All is well and good though, they’ve figured out how to get by without us. Until one day scientists create a dude and 500 of monosexual culture it turned on its proverbial ear.

To the positive side, this is one of those brilliant science fiction novels of the 50s-60s-70s that not only entertains you but has a deep and vibrant kernel of sociological truth to it. This isn’t just a feast of Lesbian eroticism (which it most definitely is) but it’s also a broad and well thought out tale of how societies and governments deal with and relate to change. It’s one of those books that always makes me whip out the standard mantra of “this is what science fiction was meant to be!” It makes you think about yourself and about everyone you know in new ways.

To the negative, and this is not so much a negative as it is an advisory to potential readers, the book loves its terminology. You’re advised to look up the first ten words you don’t know (unless you know the definition of cytology and parthenogenetic off the top of your head) and commit them to memory because you’ll be seeing them again and again and again. The book is an education but be prepared to either gloss over things or infer by context because this isn’t the soft vocabulary fiction you’re used to.

In summary, this book is exactly as old as I am and it’s worth a read. It does tend at times to be rather graphic sexually so it’s not one for the kiddies but it has a lot of deep things to say about humanity. I’m sad that I’ve lived my entire life along side it without having any awareness of its existence.


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Medira by Robert King – An interesting idea in search of an editor (3/5)

As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. This time it was from the author himself after I reviewed the first book in this series. Despite that kindness I give my scrupulously honest opinions below.

The story runs along a fairly familiar sci-fi story line. Our protagonist wakes up and has no recollection of who he is or why he happens to be there. As the story unfolds we learn the sinister reasons why he is where he is.

To the positive side, the author, as with his previous book in the series, has hit upon a interesting thematic tidbit. There are some great visual descriptions in this book and the concept has potential.

To the negative, a lot of that potential is never entirely realized. Firstly, the initial volume in this series had, what I referred to as a “potent psychological thread” and this short book is much more about simple storytelling. I didn’t sense the depth that was evident in the previous novella. Also, it’s worth noting that this book is tiny. It’s 83 pages and formatted in such a way that it’s stretched out to be physically longer than it actually is. This is a sub-60-minute book and it doesn’t really get much of a chance to get rolling before it’s suddenly over.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about the writing and editing. I’m accustomed to e-books being riddled with errors but seldom have I seen a print book that made such profligate use of erroneous language. Especially wince-inducing examples included “at her beckon call” and “to try and do something” though I’ll admit to smiling a bit at the “briefcase-sized case”.

In summary, there’s a nugget of something good here but it needs more development and a good sound editing.


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Dead Americans and Other Stories – Infinitely creative to be sure (4/5)

As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. Also as usual I give my scrupulously honest opinions in spite of NetGalley’s generosity of providing a free copy.

This really is a tale of two books. About 60% of the content of this book revolves around what I could only succinctly describe as alternative history. Familiar names like John Wayne, Orson Welles, Mark Twain and others all do things that seem reasonably within their respective characters but most assuredly did NOT actually happen and at times perform perplexing anachronisms. The remaining 40% of the book is a series of related tales centered on a fictional world in which the dead are sold for parts and many have their life histories tattooed upon their bodies. Personally I’m a fan of the latter practice and may soon enact it myself but that’s irrelevant to any qualitative statement about the book.

On the positive side, the author has a tenacious talent for the bizarre. All of his stories have a quality of perplexity that is rare to find in any author. In the portion of the book that I describe as the “dead are sold for parts” there is a particularly strong thread of continuity and I’d like to see that milieu expanded into a novel or even a series of them. This is a delicious and darkly foreboding place that one would giddily and guiltily visit time and again in the written page but never likely admit to anyone for fear that you just couldn’t do it justice in describing it.

To the negative, the portion of the book that I describe as alternative history left me rather disappointed. Perhaps it’s my own idiosyncrasy but I was far too distracted trying to unravel the reality of Twain and the others from the fiction that was woven around them. This is a perpetual weakness of the alternative history genre in my mind and one this book just didn’t manage to properly address.

In summary, the author is a grand talent but I think the book focuses on the wrong thing. The very cover emphasizes the wrong part of the book. I acknowledge fully the author’s talent but I think that, as the saying goes, his light is hidden under a bushel and that the real meat of this book lies in the middle and is filled with unfamiliar and notably unAmerican names.


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Matcher Rules – It’s like Pern with Polyamory (4/5)

As usual I received this book for free so I’d review it; this time from NetGalley. Also as usual I give my scrupulously honest opinions below.

For the purposes of categorization, this book falls into the same basic premise as the Dragonriders of Pern. Human colonists found a colony on an alien planet and find “thing” that completely changes their way of life. Saying much of anything else will constitute a spoiler so I leave it at that.

To the positive side of assessing this novel, the author’s crafting of location is exceptionally intriguing. It’s the sort of book that makes you want another 47 set in the same world just to wrap up various nuances of this alien society. Holland has created a world filled with endless possibilities that this book only begins to touch on. From a writing perspective the style is easily, accessible almost juvenile; I’d recommend it to my own children except for some references to sex which I am far too cowardly to explain to a teenager.

On the negative side, like all books of this sort, the beginning 10 pages or thereabouts were a bit of a struggle. This is somewhat unavoidable as the book is busy giving new and alien names to things but it could have been a bit less compressed. Those first pages are a bit daunting but worth getting through to get to the rest. Additionally, the ending seemed far too tidy and wrapped up with a too nice, too neat bow. Perhaps my reaction is at least in part because I want the other 47 books but the ending here is too pristine to even tease a sequel. In general the start and end seemed rushed endcaps to a beautiful middle.

In summary, this is a wonderful little concept for a society and I merely wish fervently that there were more of it. Given proper treatment there is so much of human nature to explore here but as a single stand-alone novel this came up a bit wanting. Again though, that may be at least in part my opinion because I wanted 47 more books.


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Time Ahead (Memoirs on Being)

As usual, I received this book for free in exchange for a review. This time it was from LibraryThing. Despite that kindness I will give my scrupulously honest opinions below.

This book is essentially a Rip Van Winkle tale. A rather unfocused and alcoholic man goes to sleep one night in his apartment and wakes up almost 200 years later. In that time… well, a lot has changed about the world and a lot hasn’t. The meat of the story is the protagonist’s exploration of this new world and his grappling with everything that he left behind.

On the positive side, this is a really engaging story. It’s not just about the march of technology into some doomed abyss or the degradation of humanity but also the inner workings of one man’s mind as he finds himself wrenched from the fragmented and dysfunctional world he knew and thrust into a totally new fragmented and dysfunctional world. There’s a potent psychological thread that runs through this tale and the reader simultaneously sympathizes with and despises the narrator.

To the negative, part of the reason the story is so engaging is that it’s very, very familiar. This is science fiction premise #1: “Technology ruins mankind.” So there’s no grand newness to any of that. More amusingly, the text is in need of some editing. Representative examples from the book include: “I found myself angry with myself” and “…the family watched a Christmas movie, and had desert.” While these are certainly not book killers they are distractions and point to the book’s general lack of polish.

In summary, there’s a lot of good potential here and if this series showed up at my doorstep for free I’d happily read it and review it but I’d fall a bit short of actually paying money for it. There’s a great story to be had here but it needs a bit of work before it’s ready for prime time.


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Short Stories: Weep for Day – Indrapramit Das

Perpetual Sunset

This very brief tale is set on a planet that’s gravitationally locked so that the same side faces the light all the time. This is an intriguing thought since it means that the sun is stationary in the sky as long as you don’t travel and some portion of the planet is bathed in perpetual darkness and hasn’t seen the light of day in millions of years. All the really prime real estate, of course, is on the edges where it’s neither too hot nor too cold and the sun is perpetually in the act of setting (or rising, depending on how you chose to look at it).

The author makes delightful use of this when assigning names to geographical locales. The City-of-Long-Shadows, unsurprisingly, rests on the edge of night and day while the dark, mysterious and eponymous Weep-For-Day resides in an area so devoid of sunlight that no amount of lachrymosity will bring back the sun. These murky depths are the home of the shadowy, ebony creatures known simply as: Nightmares.

Risking spoilers, I’d say the real point of the author’s story is an old one in science fiction. The Nightmare creatures represent a fearful unknown. They reside, risking a cliche, in The Undiscovered Country and as humanity is wont to do, we fill in the mysterious with the most dreadful reality that we can imagine. As the story’s 13 pages wear on, we find that the Nightmare beasts aren’t nearly so unknown and therefore aren’t nearly so scary. In fact from some viewpoints it might just be those who sun themselves in the unending light of day that are more to be feared than the murksome denizens of the black pit of night.

You can read the teaser for this on the Asimov website or do as I did and just go buy the 30th Anniversary collection of the year’s best SciFi.

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May 26, 2013 – Of Star Trek, Family, Hangover III and the Indy 500

I just started this ‘post about things from the day’ business yesterday but already it’s clear to me that this takes a LOT of time.  Encapsulating an entire day isn’t a trivial undertaking.  Clearly I need to have less interesting days to save myself the trouble of documenting anything about them.

Of Star Trek

One of yesterday’s random outings  was to wander off to a couple of movies.  The first was the new Star Trek movie and it’s worth saying as introduction that I’m not exactly a Trekkie but I do know enough to wonder at night why original series Klingons look nothing like the Klingons from every other series and movie.  The fact that I wonder this at all puts me in the category of annoying nit-pickers when it comes to movies and to sci-fi movies especially.

One of my lesser complaints about every Trek movie ever has been the rather forced nods to several decades of Trek history.  For example, given all the trouble they caused before, it seems rather contrived that there just happens to be a dead tribble laying about for Bones to experiment on.  It’s also sad that after so many centuries of progress we still have to resort to animal testing.  Progress my eye.  In general, the whole Trek series is just one big continuity failure.  It is, at times, as bad as Doctor Who in this regard but without the ability to infinitely weasel out of absolutely anything with a nearly all-powerful time machine.

Taking out my random and numerous quibbles, on the whole it was a well-executed enough movie by the standards of today’s cinema.  The effects, as always, were brilliant and I was happy to see that for once, at least some portion of the movie at least wanted to obey the laws of physics.  As the Enterprise is plummeting towards the Earth with artificial gravity failing, the contents of the ship react in a way that reminded me of old naval films.  It was refreshing to see us get back, ever so briefly, to that old standard. Sadly, the interlude of physical credibility is brief.  I still contend loudly that no spacecraft built in that configuration could withstand reentry.  There’s no material in the universe strong enough to hold a warp nacelle up against the force of gravity with that little structural support.  The Enterprise is built for space, not in-air planet-bound flight no matter how much we may think it an amusing plot-line vehicle.

Lastly, and most disturbingly, the Star Trek franchise has lost its soul.  The original series, and to an extent later ones, had a message that wasn’t just about space cowboys riding around and shooting their six-guns at one another.  While the newer movies entertain, they just don’t have any real societal content left.  Science Fiction, in its grandest tradition, was always a mirror of society.  Whether it was reflected in the half-black/half-white inhabitants of Cheron or some other fictional vehicle, there was always some kernel upon which to chew after the show was over.  It made us better by showing us just how silly we were being.  Star Trek has just become Star Wars with different characters.

On Family

I learned on this day that someone in my estranged family was diagnosed with cancer.  Of course this is sad news for anyone, but it made me ponder for quite a while why it is that I don’t go out of my way to talk to them.  It’s worth noting that I have no hard feelings about anyone involved but there’s not exactly an aura of good and happy memories surrounding anyone in my family.  My mother, of course, is a non-issue.  She asked me to stop calling her years ago and I’ve held true to that request and long gotten over the fact that my own mother told me to go the hell away and never come back.  My father’s side of the family, while more receptive to me, doesn’t really seem interested.  I’ve visited them a handful of times over the years and they’re very kind and polite it just seems like we don’t have anything to really talk about.  I come from a long line of people who aren’t exactly conversationalists and when we get together it’s just a lot of awkward silence.  This is as much my fault as anyone’s because, let’s face it, I spout more words in this blog in a day than I do aloud in a month, but the fact remains that we’re just not a well-connected family.

Then, of course, there’s the argument that “they won’t be around forever” and this is true.  Sadly though, I feel like in most meaningful ways I’ve already lost them.  My childhood was far from pleasant and whatever connectedness and sense of family I should have had just never came to flower.  I could call every day and visit twice a day on Wednesdays but the fact would remain that my connections were severed (or never created) decades ago.  On some level, I think it goes both ways.  I left my hometown 22 years ago and in that time I don’t think anyone from my family has ever seen any home I ever lived in or even asked to.  It’s unlikely they know where I work or have much inkling about what it is that I do except to the extent that Facebook or this blog tells them.  I don’t think they’ve even met my youngest daughter who teeters on the brink of being ten years old; my eldest they’ve seen once or twice.  I say none of this in spite, but merely to point out that it’s not that I’m pushing anyone away.  The disinterest seems fairly mutual.

On The Hangover III

I often tell Laura that “we need to go see more movies in the theatre.”  Sometimes when I say this we get into a brief spate of going to see lots of movies until we come upon one that makes us rather nauseated.  While Hangover III isn’t quite noxious, it’s not far off.  I anticipated a comedy, something to lighten the mood of the day.  Unfortunately, The Hangover was anything but light-hearted.  Perhaps I failed to remember the first two (or wisely ignored them) but this movie was more about death and destruction than anything else.  There were mildly amusing points but they were more than overshadowed by the crazed violence.  Not at all what my attitude needed yesterday.

On the Indy 500

The day closed with the Indy 500, watched on tape delay because it’s blacked out here in Central Indiana lest we all decide not to go.  This seems a fallacy, frankly, because I’m not sure most people go for the race, but that’s a discussion for another time.

For years now I’ve rather poo-pooed the 500.  Having been a couple of times it seems just like a lot of cars going in circles and doing so VERY loudly.  As the years have gone by, however, I’ve come to appreciate the history.  Sure the cars are just going around and around but they’ve been doing so for 100 years.  No matter how silly you may think something is, the fact that they’ve done it for that long does tend to lend validity to it.

In addition to history, I think the real joy of the race comes about from familiarity and sympathy with the drivers.  I recall with great vividness Sato’s last-lap attempt to win the 500 only to spin out.  Because of this, I root for the guy every time.  He’s got my sympathy, I remember him, and therefore he gets my vote.  For those who have watched this race for their entire lives, they’ve got decades of near misses and spectacular finishes.  Anyone who heard the words “Mario is slowing down” will always root for an Andretti forever after.

I know a lot of techy people who love the race and it’s not hard to see why.  All the technology that goes into propelling a car at over 200 miles an hour is mind-boggling and the strategy of a race is like a chess match from drafting positions to gas mileage calculations to rolling the dice to try to pit under yellow as the very last drop of gas leaks from the tank.

So after years of being non-appreciative, I get it.  I may well forget that I get it by the time next year rolls around, but today, the day after the race, I get it.  Every year before the race I make a blind know-nothing prediction about who will win.  It is, literally, just a name chosen from the air at random.  Last year my pick was Emerson Fittipaldi.  I was sad to learn that the random name I had picked hadn’t raced at Indy for over 30 years.  Needless to say, he didn’t win.  This year my random know-nothing pick was Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Clearly I’m making progress.  (He came in third)

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