Galactic society is ruled by algorithms. From interstellar travel and planetary terraforming to artificial intelligence and agriculture, every human endeavor has become completely dependent upon the hypercomplex equations that optimize the activities making life possible across hundreds of inhabited worlds. Throughout the galaxy, Man has become dependent upon the reliable operation of ten million different automated systems.
And when things begin to go wrong and mysterious accidents begin to happen no one has any idea what is happening, except for a sentient medical drone and the First Technocrat of Continox. But their ability to even begin to try fixing the unthinkably complicated problem of galaxy-wide algorithmic decay is made considerably more difficult by the fact the former is an outlaw and the latter is facing a death sentence.
Johan Kalsi is Finland’s hottest science fiction author. An accomplished geneticist as well as a 6’3″ ex-Finnish Marine, in THE CORRODING EMPIRE, Kalsi shows himself to be more Asimovian than Asimov himself.
Instead of a book or movie review, this week I’m going to muse on the phenomenon of “Hard SF,” specifically the kind written after 1980.
The autistic tendencies of Hard SF probably began with Larry Niven. Now, I’m very fond of Niven’s work. He’s one of those writers whose glaring deficiencies are compensated by great strengths. His characterization is nonexistent (his most memorable character is Lazarus Long with the serial numbers filed off); his style is bland; his characters face puzzles and challenges, but have less pathos than Asimov’s robots. But his fictional technologies and races, and the way they clash and interact, are just so awesome that it makes for an epic story. There’s ancient mysteries galore, terra incognita, and a sense of wonder. The science is well-researched, but it’s kept in the background, out of the way of the story. Read More
Appendix N (PC Bushi) The Overworld and the Undertale — “Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by ‘gifting’ a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath. Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.”
Things Fall Apart (Pulp Archivist) The 1970s Sci Fi Cargo Cult — “This shift in gatekeepers from fans and writers to ticket-punching careerists gutted science fiction of its pulp and Campbell traditions, a loss apparent to the old hands as early as 1981. By publishing what looked liked science fiction instead of the previous mainstream of science fiction, they were no different than the cargo cultists of World War 2. And the readers who were served imitation science fiction instead of the real deal left in droves.”
Genre Wars (Misha Burnett) Enough With This Genre Foolishness Already — “I am suggesting a three-dimensional schema for classifying fiction. I would like to believe that adopting such a schema would end the Genre Wars, but I’m not quite so naive. But getting everyone on the same page would make it easier to keep score.”
SCENE: A gray morning in Paris. Smoke rises from the wreckage of the Bastille and the Governor’s palace. A COURT has been set up in the main plaza, with planks set on barrels forming the benches. To the side a guillotine has been erected, by which an EXECUTIONER glowers. Surrounding is a horde of angry PEASANTS in rustic, picturesque clothing, clutching farm tools. At the center of the court, sitting on a fine velvet chair raised on a platform of cobblestones, sits the JUDGE, played by Jesse Lucas in a powdered wig. To the JUDGE’S left sits the DEFENSE ATTORNEY, played by JESSE LUCAS in a ragged officer’s uniform, chewing on a licorice-filled cheroot. To the right sits the PROSECUTOR, a disheveled aristocrat with an off-centered ascot, also played by JESSE LUCAS.
BAILIFF: Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! May it please the Court and the Revolutionary Council that charges are to be brought against one DADDY WARPIG, also known as JASYN JONES, that said Mr. WARPIG has engaged in acts of treason against the Pulp Revolution, by knowingly and in violation of honored statute engaging in foul practices of declaring those who are having fun to be wrong, and by leading the public to believe that such are the acts of true Pulp Revolutionaries, by repeatedly and wrongfully declaring hard science fiction and its readers and proponents to be enemies of the revolution, thus casting out the very fans the Revolution was engendered to protect. Mr. PROSECUTOR, do you recognize these charges as those you are sworn to determine the truth of, before the JUDGE, the PEOPLE, the STATE, and ALMIGHTY GOD?
PROSECUTOR, closing a hand mirror: I do.
BAILIFF: And you, the DEFENSE, do you also recognize these charges on the same terms?
DEFENSE, sighing: Yes.
BAILIFF: Mr. WARPIG, how do you plead?
The best thing about Talon from GMT Games is just how easy it is to get onto the table. It’s got a set of twelve scenarios ranging in order of complexity from tutorials to monster space battles. Thus, you never have to hash out just what exactly you’re going to play when you open the box or when you’re going to fold in this or that new ship or rule. Someone has already thought about all of that for you.
The number of fighty space games I have that don’t get much play is legion. Probably the biggest, ugliest friction point with these is the need for working up individual record sheets for the ships. With Talon, you don’t even have to go through the hassle of setting your speeds or working up how to set up your attack run. No, to get to the shooting part, all you have to do is look up the power/speed/turn-mode stats for your ship, write them in wet erase directly onto the gloriously good looking oversized counters, and then start playing. Because the scenarios begin in medias res, you don’t have to slog through anything like an opening. No, you start right in the middle of a challenging tactical problem.
This might sound good, but you really have to be careful with this. With all of the pain and tedium taken out of tabletop space gaming, these features become insanely dangerous. This game is so fun and so easy to get into actual play… everything else in your collection is liable to start collecting dust. My son doesn’t want to play anything else, not even the role-playing games and microgames that we used to spend countless hours on. (!!)
I’m not joking, this game represents a truly disruptive moment in the history of space games. And as much as I love the old classics, I have to admit… I actually have mixed feelings about this.
Harry Harrison (1925-2012, born Henry Maxwell Dempsey) started out in illustration in 1946. He started selling fiction in 1950. He had been an editor for brief stints for some science fiction magazines.
He is possibly best remembered for the “Stainless Steel Rat” with a criminal turned lawman series. The entry on Harrison in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes him as “a vigorous writer of intelligent action adventures in the planetary romance mode” in the wake of Death World (1961).
He had written his own take on sword-and-sorcery fiction, Stonehenge: Where Atlantis Fell (co-written with Leon Stover). Stonehenge is a great book though I wonder if it is due more to Leon Stover than Harry Harrison.
Harrison had this to say in the pages of Amra #36 (1965):
“The leading writers of what could be referred to as first generation sword-&-sorcery are undoubtedly Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Merritt perhaps; and Otis A. Kline ought to be called first generation once removed, since he was an out-and-out imitator, not an originator. Probably the best writers of second generation swordplay-&-sorcery were Leiber, Pratt, and de Camp. They raised the level of writing—excruciatingly bad up until then—added a touch of logic and reality to the unreality, and generally brought the category of sword-&-sorcery a step along the road of progress.”
This was part of a long review and demolition of Lin Carter’s The Wizard of Lemuria.
John E. Boyle writes in with this astonishing anecdotal evidence for A. Merritt’s enduring appeal:
I’d like to give you an example of just how good A. Merritt was. I read the Ship of Ishtar years ago, and then loaned out the paperback to someone, who either moved or loaned it to someone else, and it was gone. This just happens with books, sometimes.
Then Jeffro began this series, and the old magic of this book cast its spell on me again. I decided to buy a copy the next time I saw it in paperback. That decision became more immediate when I learned of the role Damon Knight and James Blish had in wrecking Merritt’s reputation, and I went on Amazon to buy a copy.
I lucked out; I managed to snag a copy of the memorial edition put out by Borden, illustrated by Virgil Finlay, autographed by Finlay himself (one of Merritt’s favorite artists). That copy arrived on 2/11/17, and I gave it to my mother to read (being Mater Familias has its perks). She loved it, but I wasn’t home when she finished, so one of my brothers grabbed it; he liked it, his wife liked it, then a sister got it and then another sister…
I’ve owned that book for 5 weeks and haven’t read a word of the text yet! This is almost as bad the those Rachel Griffin books by that Lamplighter woman. Four generations of the girls in my family are reading those books and I haven’t been able to finish even one of them. It just isn’t fair.
Oh, and that autograph by Finlay?
“In Memory of A. Merritt, The Lord of Fantasy, Virgil Finlay.”
I’m a BOMB THROWING RADICAL, known for my relentless agitation against the pieties of the moribund mainstream Fantasy & Science Fiction genre. Today, my purpose is radically different: it’s time for some larnin’.
That’s right, SCHOLAR Warpig has arrived. BRACE YOURSELVES FOR A DIRECT INJECTION OF KNOWLEDGE.
Their wars had been ranging across the cold and dying planet for ages before we landed there. The lines of the belligerents surged back and forth for uncounted millennia. The younger of the two Alliances gained ground almost the entire time, its empires sometimes sprawling across whole continents. Theirs is a war of immigration, of conquest, and of replacement. At the same time, it is a struggle to obtain a precious, dwindling resource- the primordial element of life itself.
Our primal landing parties were ill-equipped. We did not have the tools or the knowledge to understand what was going on. We were only dimly aware that such a war was even being prosecuted, not for lack of intellect, but because the belligerents are so subtle, so sublime, about their business. The beings of the Alliances live on a different timescale. They wage their wars with weapons invisible.
We had other distractions back then, very different problems from the underlying war between the Alliances. We had to deal with their auxiliaries, their mighty armies of huge, intrusive creatures, fantastical orcs of every description. These we understood all too well. Read More
You hear people talking about a “classic” author as if he were the best thing ever. But you’re unnaturally skeptical, because you already “know” all the big time grandmasters. And you “know” that after Dune and Foundation and Starship Troopers there’s just not going to be much else from the bad old days that really registers at that level. You see bloggers you read regularly talk of his stories with an almost giddy degree of excitement. But you just. Can’t. Believe it.
Given that that’s your inevitable frame of mind, let me just present you with the opening of one of van Vogt’s most famous stories:
On and on Coeurl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape.
Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows. And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures that he had been trailing now for nearly a hundred days.
He stopped finally, chilled by the reality. His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether.
There was no response. He felt no swift tingling along his intricate nervous system. There was no suggestion anywhere of the presence of the id creatures, his only source of food on this desolate planet. Hopelessly, Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish skyline, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world.
When I first started doing Short Reviews, back even before I was writing at Castalia House, the first real pulp I’d read was the issue of Planet Stories featuring Gardner F. Fox’s Vassals of the Lodestar on the cover. I was completely blown away by how good or how crazy a lot of these stories were.
SFF Audio has uploaded scans of the stories found in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories. These works are all in the public domain, but until now, I’d only been able to find scans of The Martian Circe.
This fills in a significant gap – it includes Moon of Danger by Albert dePina, an author who is relatively unknown and published only a few stories but who would be spoken highly of by PS readers in the same breath with Leigh Brackett.
Below the jump, I’ve linked to the PDFs of each story and offered the choicest pull quotes from my original reviews in hopes you will be convinced to download these bad boys.