Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Virgin Planet, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 2
Pages: 159

Virgin Planet is a male fantasy gone wild. Explorer Davis Bertram lands on a planet full of beautiful women. The women are the descendants of a few hundred survivors of a crashed colony ship full of women. Bertram quickly finds paradise to be a deathtrap.

The colony has developed a system of parthenogenesis (similar to human cloning) by which they can propagate the species. But none of them has ever seen a man. Nor, since the planet--named Atlantis--has no mammals, do they have any idea what a human male might be like. (The largest species on Atlantis are huge flightless birds; but birds don't mate quite like mammals do.)

Some of the women accept Bertram as a man, but others fear he is a Monster. The most powerful faction, the Doctors, prefers to see Bertram dead, because the arrival of Men would end the Doctors' power as sole keepers of the secret rites of parthenogenesis. Bertram makes a few allies--Barbara and Valeria--but is mostly used as a pawn between various factions vying for power.

It's worth noting that despite being the only man on a world of women, Bertram is remarkably unlucky at love.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Earth Book of Stormgate, by Poul Anderson

Pages: 434

Wings of Victory: A first contact expedition finds a settlement of houses, and some large avian animals, but no sign of intelligent creatures.

The Problem of Pain: An alien race has a unique viewpoint on the problem of pain: they view God as the great hunter, and one's life culminates in the great chase, with God and death victorious.

How to be Ethnic in One Easy Lesson: Jim designs a presentation for the Festival of Man, a celebration of mankind's history and future.

Margin of Profit: Nick van Rijn's ships to Antares Sector keep being waylayed and boarded by the Borthu empire, thus making the run too expensive to operate.

Esau: Dalmady protects Solar's monopoly on bluejack from Baburites who intend to cut out the middle man by harvesting it themselves.

The Season of Forgiveness: A Christmas celebration helps a Polesotechnic trading outpost that is trying to do business with two warring groups of natives.

The Man Who Counts: Nick van Rijn is cast away on a primitive planet.

A Little Knowledge: Three criminals hijack a spaceship from a relatively primitive planet, but the pilot outsmarts them and gains the upper hand.

Day of Burning: Falkayn and the crew of Muddlin' Through try to help a planet that is about to be bombarded with radiation from a nearby nova, but the planet's governments are too fragmented to adequately coordinate the protection effort.

Lodestar: Van Rijn seeks the source of Supermetals.

Wingless: A human boy, alone among his winged Ythrian friends, saves his Ythrian friend's life during a boating accident.

Rescue on Avalon: On Avalon, a lone hiker rescues a downed Ythrian, despite being intensely allergic to Ythrians.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rant: Out of order

Life is not always neat and orderly, but fiction should be. I don't tolerate chaos when I read fiction. The Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is neat and orderly. There are eleven books, each follows after the other, in chronological order. There's no debate.

What's not neat and orderly is Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic series. There are seven or eight books, but they aren't in any straightforward order. They're all mixed up. If you read the books in order of publication, the internal chronology is all shot to hell. And you can't read them in order of internal chronology, because the chronology is so confusing it's impossible to figure out. To make matters worse, some of the books are collections of short stories--and the stories span all sorts of different time frames. It's enough to make a serious fan crazy.

Another example of a series gone wrong is The Chronicles of Narnia. It started out fine, with seven books by C.S. Lewis, numbered in order of publication. But some blockhead decided that just wouldn't do. "Readers are too stupid to comprehend anything that isn't in chrono-linear. We must renumbers the books in order of internal chronology." Never mind that you won't appreciate The Magician's Nephew until you've finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Silver Chair. Now you can't buy a set that's numbered correctly.

In summary, today's commandment is: The only correct way to read a series is in order of original publication. Anything else is a sin.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mirkheim, by Poul Anderson

Rating: 2
Pages: 216

It's been at least four years since I've read anything set in Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League universe, and probably closer to six years. That's too bad, because most of the fun in Mirkheim is meeting our favorite characters once again. Except in my case, I vaguely remember them, so the charm isn't there.

The Polesotechnic League is rife with internal strife, and is basically subjugated to the Commonwealth Government it once defied. When a group of explorers stumbles across the planet Mirkheim, the League and the Commonwealth find themselves on the brink of war against the alien Babur. Mirkheim is a planet heavy in supermetals, those ultra-rare elements that make modern space travel possible. The supermetals on Mirkheim are worth an interstellar war.

Freeman Nick van Rijn hopes to manipulate the League and the Commonwealth so that they won't go charging off to war. But first he must figure out the mystery of Babur: how did they arm so quickly, why are they willing to go to war, and how do they know so much about humans when humans know so little about them? Nick van Rijn sends the crew of Muddlin' Through--Falkayn, Adzel, and Chee--to investigate.

Mirkheim isn't a bad book, but it's not particularly compelling either. The biggest strike against it is the overbearing libertarian message; I'm a libertarian myself, but Anderson lays it on too thick in Mirkheim.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wyst: Alastor 1716, by Jack Vance

Rating: 4
Pages: 259

The three thousand bucolic worlds of the Alastor Cluster are ruled by the Connatic, who gives each world a free hand in runnings its own affairs. The various worlds are generally introspective, each having developed its own rich culture, and caring little for events abroad.

The Arrabins of Wyst (Alastor 1716) have developed a system called egalism. The government provides all the necessities of life, and in exchange the people work only thirteen hours each week. (All other work is performed by machines or by outside contractors--at great price.) The remainder of their time is spent in the leisurely pursuit of pleasure: games, sport, sex. On the centennial anniversary of the establishment of egalism, the system seems stronger than ever, and the people hope to reduce their weekly drudge even further.

Egalism requires sacrifices, though. The people are crowded onto one small island called Arrabus; the vast continents of Wyst are sparsely populated wilderness. The government provides all food, but the only choices available are three bland concoctions: gruff, deedle, and wobbly. Arrabins go to great lengths to get taste of real food, which they call bonter. People live in colossal featureless apartment blocks, in tiny rooms with randomly assigned roommates. Personal possessions are scarce, and frequently stolen (or snerged as the Arrabins say.) The egal ideal is absolute equality between persons, so individualism is stifled. Even the differences between sexes are suppressed as much as possible. Making oneself too appealing to the opposite sex is sexivation, and is socially discouraged.

On the eve of the Centenary Festival celebrating one hundred years of Arrabin egalism, a young artist named Jantiff Ravensroke from Zeck (Alastor 503) travels to Wyst to find inspiration. Jantiff samples all that egalism has to offer. He finds his inspiration, but stumbles across something else too. When he recovers his camera (which was snerged from his room) he realizes that its matrix holds evidence of a plot against the Connatic. Jantiff tries to warn the Connatic, but is forced to flee for his life before he can send word. He leaves Arrabus and strikes out into the Weirdlands of the southern continent.

Meanwhile, the Connatic takes an interest in Wyst because it is clear that egalism is a failed experiment. The machines that keep Arrabus running are breaking down. The Arrabins, working only thirteen hours a day at menial jobs, are not able to effect repairs, and Arrabin exports can no longer cover the cost of hiring outside contractors. A delegation of Arrabin leaders arrives at the Connatic's court on Numenes to ask for financial assistance to keep their society afloat.

Jack Vance wrote three Alastor books, of which Wyst is the best. The other two suffer from plot defects: Trullion meanders aimlessly and ends without complete resolution; Marune is tight and focused, but Vance pulls out a deus ex machina to end it prematurely. Wyst is less focused than Marune but never meanders like Trullion; there is no trick ending--Vance wraps up the plot satisfactorily. The only fault is that Vance resorts twice to having Jantiff accidentally overhear his enemies' conversations; it stretches the limits of belief.

Wyst rates a high four.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Under Crimson Moons, by N. P. B. Barker

Rating: 3

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Mars in its old age, when the Barsoomian seas had dried up and the planet was kept inhabitable only by great atmosphere generators. N.P.B. Barker gives us Under Crimson Moons, a fan fiction novel about Mars in its youth.

The story mirrors A Princess of Mars; an Earthman, Englishman Hector Blake, is transported to Mars, where he falls in love with a princess, demonstrates his prowess as a fighting man, saves a nation, earns great respect, and wins the girl's heart. The plot is so perfectly Burroughsesque that I wondered at times whether Barker had just copied out sections wholesale from the Mars novels; but it isn't so. Barker has a gift for reproducing the pulp style of Burroughs's writing.

Barker's Mars--which he names Kanthor--is younger than Burroughs's Barsoom, and it is correspondingly more vibrant. Brilliant colors abound, even more so than in Burroughs's writing: blue men, red men, green men, twin crimson moons, black-and-vivid-orange beasts. There isn't a single color word in the English language that Barker fails to use. It's a bit overdone, but in a good way.

Because this is Mars in its youth, the creatures, races, and nations of Barsoom are still in the inconceivably distant future. Barker has populated Kanthor with a panoply of colorful creatures and races. Hector Blake spends time among the blue reptilian race of Thoons; he meets the green princess Kara Dea; he fights the blood-red Slithian men who ride on winged snaroths. He fights the tiger-lizard rarnkors, escapes the bear-sized spidery sipperath, and befriends a wild thastak who repays him with canine loyalty.

The people of Kanthor are much like Barsoomians in their views about honor, fighting, and swordsmanship. It would hardly be a story worthy of Burroughs were it to be otherwise. Hector Blake is much like John Carter, except English. In all, Under Crimson Moons is a worthy continuation of the Mars tales. I enjoyed it as much or more than any of Burroughs's books.

Under Crimson Moons is available as a Kindle ebook at Amazon.

Victory was mine! Standing ecstatic over the lifeless body of my vanquished enemy, its visage still contorted into an impossible rictus, I was seized by the urge to throw back my head and howl in exultation while beating my breast like a jungle ape.

It was a close-run thing, but I restrained myself, aware that such an ejaculation would ill-become an Englishman.