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AICN BOOKS! Adam Balm’s Back With A SF Update! Reviews Of FAST FORWARD 1 And THE ANTAGONIST!!

Published at: Feb. 28, 2007, 6:55 p.m. CST by Moriarty

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m pleased to see Adam Balm pop up in my inbox again. I’m excited to see where he takes the SF coverage for AICN books this year. And I know many of you have written me about doing more book coverage. I’m going to be getting back to you soon about that, but in the meantime, if you really want to try reviewing books, then send me a review of a book you absolutely, positively, 100% believe I have to read. I’m a pretty voracious reader. I burn through about three books a week, reading just before I go to sleep each night. I’ve always read like that. It’s a whole different skill set than appreciating a film, and I read for relaxation, whereas films are rarely something I can just kick back and bask in anymore. Adam Balm wanted to be a SF columnist for the site, so he tracked down that Philip K. Dick book and he wrote a damn good review of it. It is a pleasure to publish his stuff right now, just like it’s a pleasure every time Frank Bascombe sends us one of his book columns. I welcome this sort of input, and I hope some of you do feel compelled to write me a sample review. In the meantime, check out the Balm:

I didn't get a chance to do it last time, but I guess this lil ol review feature of mine should have some kind of introduction, something to give context to the bullshit that you're about to read. If you haven't guess by now, what you'll be seeing from me month in and month out will be devoted to reviewing (obviously) genre fiction, mostly from the SF ghetto (well, science fiction and fantasy slum) which AICN books traditionally hasn't dealt with much in the past. But before we get to that I want to start of with a question a lot of people ask, that I always wondered, but politeness and formality often keeps people asking out loud: Why do we need critics? Do we really, honestly need someone else to tell us what to think? Do we need a priest of judgment who can stand on high and decide for us what's important and what isn't. Of course we don't. It's damn insulting to even suggest that we do. So why am I sitting here typing a review, acting like a critic and pretending people will care what I think? I'm going to try to answer this, but so you'll have the proper context, first I want to tell you something else. It's always been a bit strange that while almost every fanboy out there is also a fan of science fiction of some kind of another, be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Galactica, superheroes---you'll hardly ever find any of them in the SF section of the bookstore. It's more interesting when you look at the fact that modern fandom as a whole was born in the pages of SF fanzines. Probably not so many here will realize the debt that current online fandom owes to the science fiction reading community that came before it. From the first SF fanzines created by Julie Schwartz and Forest J. Ackerman in the 20s (Da Schwartz would later organize the first 'con' and almost single-handedly found the silver age of comics) where they would argue or complain or sing the praises of the latest issue of Amazing, to the proto-talkbacks of the 50s and 60s that were trafficked by guys like Roger Ebert, Harlan Ellison, Fred Pohl and James Blish---AICN and all the fan sites out there can trace their genealogy back to the world of science fiction geekdom. In 2004 Ebert wrote of it "Some day an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom...Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages....some of the same people segued directly from fandom to online." So that's why I'm here; not to be a priest of pop culture, which critics often fancy themselves as being. But to at the very least remind everyone that the day fandom forgets where it came from, is the day that fandom loses its soul. And the day fandom forgets about SF, is the day when SF loses its lifeblood. Roughly each month (hopefully) I want to introduce people to what's going on in the SF print world, and make it a little less daunting for SF virgins (I know, I know. Redundant.) by pointing out what might be worth checking out. As the world becomes more and more information saturated, sometimes what people want most is not so much more information, but a guidepost to point them to where the good information is, to separate the wheat from the chaff. So at the very least, if I've helped people find the signal amidst the noise in the world of SF books then I've fulfilled my purpose. And if I had the choice I don't know if I could've picked a more interesting time to introduce people to SF. The world of Science Fiction publishing is in a state of transition right now, a moment where it needs to either change or die. Epic fantasy and 'slipstream' are what's selling. (although, like 'magical realism' before it, no one can really say for sure what 'slipstream' is.) Over the years the SF bookshelves have been eaten up by media tie-ins, roleplaying books, comics and manga. The mid-list is collapsing and once again the age old question comes up 'Who killed science fiction?' Is literary science fiction doomed to die? Is it possible that as we live in an increasingly science fictiony world, science fiction no longer has the escapist power it once did? It wouldn't be the first time. It's a historical irony that science fiction nearly collapsed all at once in 1958, the year following the launch of Sputnik and the dawn of the space age. You'd think this would make the public more interested in science fiction, but alas, why read the latest issue of Galaxy or F&SF when you can read the New York Times for tales of space travelers and the final frontier. Perhaps, the devil's advocate says, people don't need to seek out science fiction anymore. It's all around us. But the most interesting times in any artform is when its fighting for survival. You just need to look at the early 50s and 70s for movies, or the 80s for comics. At any given time there are dozens of books being released by the major publishing houses each month, if you include tie-ins. From these that are coming out in the months ahead I'll select the between 2-4 which I think will be of the most interest to your average fanboy, the most likely to hold their interest or get them excited. So lastly, before I move on to the reviews, here's a couple of warnings about what you'll see from me and what you won't: -I WILL be reviewing media tie-ins along with original work. I know there are purists out there in SF who stick up their noses at the media tie-ins, saying that it isn't real science fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson for example) but the problem is that I've never met an SF reader who never once picked up a Star Wars or Star Trek novel. Snobbery is the public face of cowardice as someone once said. -I probably won't have too many bile-filled, screamingly negative reviews. Not that most books don't deserve it (They do.). But the reasons you won't see them here are two-fold. 1) I don't pick books to read that I don't think I'll dig. I don't have the attention span or the time. 2) I rarely finish books I don't dig. (See 'attention span') And if I don't finish it, I sure as hell am not going to review it. (See 'time'.) -I probably won't be reviewing self-published books unless there's a real good reason. It defeats the purpose to review something that no one here would be able to go to the store and buy. -I won't review books that are already out. In some cases I'll review something the month it comes out, but the goal is to always review something before it hits stores. Because once that happens, you don't need me to tell you about it, you can go read it yourself. Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders, Pyr "The future, as the saying goes, exists first in imagination, then in will, then in reality; and the types of dreams we dream today will determine the world our children live in tomorrow. Our world is dreaming some dark dreams right now. We need to dream better, as if our life depended on it. Because it does." -Lou Anders You know, this is probably as fitting as any place to begin my review feature proper. Fast Forward 1's been making some noise lately, it marks an attempt to embark on a new hard SF original fiction ongoing anthology, in the tradition of Frederick Pohl's Star SF, and Damon Knight's Orbit. This comes at a time when hard SF itself is at a bit of a crossroads. Hard science fiction is one of those used and abused terms that people throw around, usually trying to make their own stuff look better. For those who don't know what hard SF is, Allen Steel probably wrote it best when he said "hard sf is the form of imaginitive literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its background." Think 2001: A Space Odyssey. The term originated around the early 60s mostly to separate itself from the 'new wave' that was emerging at the time, and wax nostalgic for the good old days of John W. Campbell's Astounding. Some have tried to say it pertains only to fiction which has the 'hard sciences' (i.e., physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, etc..) as its main focus, not biology, sociology, or anthropology. Harwell wrote in his landmark Ascent of Wonder that hard SF can be considered the 'core' of the genre. As goes HSF, so goes the whole of speculative fiction. The two main wellsprings of the Hard SF Renaissance of the 90's, Asimov's Science Fiction and Interzone, have changed editorial hands and are no longer what they were. The field is fractured and competing offspring dominate the subgenre. You have the 'new cyber', or what some have called 'post-cyberpunk' with guys like Stross and Cory Doctorow, Wil McCarthy, and Paul Di Fillipo, and you have the mundanes, each with a different definition of what's realistic 'hard' SF and what isn't. Thankfully, all movements and voices are represented in this volume. This anthology could represent a kind of time capsule of where hard science fiction is, in the first decade of the second millennium. This is Pyr's first big push as a publisher. Pyr's going to be an interesting bird to watch, coming out of nowhere in the last year to fast becoming one of the big names in the industry, no small feat in a field made up of big publishers getting even bigger, as the market is getting smaller. So FF1 begins as good of a place as any, with the question of what science fiction is. I remember Philip K. Dick began his own anthology with the question, finally settling on the definition that it's simply 'a fiction of ideas'. Here, Anders goes with a quote from Damon Knight, which defines science fiction as "a tool for making sense of a changing world". Actually as I was reading Anders' opening, I was struck by how much he almost seemed to be paraphrasing Campbell's own foreword for his 1952 Astounding Science Fiction Anthology. Campbell declared science fiction the literature of a third age of civilization (predating Alvin Toffler's own classification interestingly), not of an agricultural age that spawned stories of fairy tales and folk heroes, or an industrial age that gave us the novel and what we come to know as modern literature, but of an age that is ever changing and accelerating. The similarity of the two maybe shows that while the world might change, that tool for making sense of that change does not change. If that makes any damn sense at all. Probably half the stories here would be fitting entries in a 'Year's Best' anthology. Stephen Baxter's NO MORE STORIES gets the Sensawunda award for inspiring the most awe out of the bunch. But that's let's face it, that's what Baxter does. Paolo Bacigalupi's SMALL OFFERINGS deserves special attention as well, his story is one of the shortest, but without a doubt the most powerful. It shows the cost of pollution on our health in the most personal of ways. Paolo's one of the afore-mentioned 'mundanes' who are trying to move science fiction back to 'the here and now', with stories about the end of oil, the destruction of the environment and the cost of global climate change. Ken MacLeod's JESUS CHRIST, RE-ANIMATOR is probably one of the funniest things I've read in years. Any story that shows Jesus returning only to set up a blog and sit around reading Daniel Dennett (when the Son of Man isn't performing miracles, which of course no one believes..) is tops in my book. THE GIRL HERO'S MIRROR SAYS HE'S NOT THE ONE is probably the most technically brilliant of the lot, though reading Justina Robson you get a strange feeling that there is something really amazing, really fantastic, really cerebral going on in her prose that is whooshing right over your head. She reminds me of a hard SF Neil Gaiman if Neil Gaiman was even more of a woman. John Meany's SIDEWAYS FROM NOW, the longest entry in FF1, is reminiscent of Geoff Ryman's AIR. Here also we see quantum entanglement used to enable real world telepathy between a man and his beloved, joined in a bond that death itself couldn't break. Which brings me to a bit of a nit pick, but for the love of Zod can we as a genre please freaking get over quantum entanglement being used as a magic wand for FTL communication, or feynman radios, or telepathy or whatever we feel like doing? The trope is well worn and was never possible to begin with. Nevermind that you can't send any information whatsoever via entanglement, that from a quantum computing perspective, entangled particles will always register only one qubit of information, no more no less. No new information can be transmitted from one to the other. Anyways. Without a doubt, THE stand-out story (as has been mentioned at Boing Boing and other reviews) is Paul Di Filippo's WIKIWORLD, which Pyr has wisely put online right here. Honestly I haven't had this kind of vertigo after reading a short since Charle's Stross's LOBSTERS in 2001, the first entry of what would become his ACCELERANDO magnum opus. I really want to see Di Filippo explore this world he's created some more. This is too good for just one short. The Antagonist by Gordon R. Dickson and David W. Wixon, Tor/SCIFI You know, 2007 may very well end up being called the YEAR THAT WAS PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED. Besides last month's long lost Dick tale, and the book we'll review here, we're getting JRR Tolkien's CHILDREN OF HURIN in April, and then SLAN HUNTER and the long awaited final DUNE book this summer. (All of which we will review here before they hit book stores.) Although works finished by other hands is nothing new, (Nor is it exclusive to the genre, as you can see in the new Godfather series.) it seems to be one of the latest trends in the industry, one being spear-headed for the most part by Tor. While no doubt there'll be plenty of bitching and moaning about the lack of originality in the trend, some of the best works in SF have been sequels by other hands. Witness Stephen Baxter's authorized Time Machine sequel, THE TIME SHIPS and the Killer B's Foundation sequel trilogy. The SCIFI channel's been working hard to make themselves a cross-media brand. Just this week it made big news that SCIFI is joining with Virgin Comics to enter the world of funny books. In July 2005, the SCIFI channel teamed up with Tor books to launch the SCIFI essential series. Each month, they spotlight one 'SCIFI Essential' book that they want to stamp the SCIFI brand on. For March 2007, their SCIFI Essential book is Gordon R. Dickson's final work; THE ANTAGONIST. In all honesty I hadn't read any of the books in the saga up til this point. If you're unfamiliar with the saga (like I was) you'll recognize the works it has influenced. Its Heisenberg drive for example ('During a jump, a spaceship's position becomes infinitely uncertain, and occupies every quantum position in the universe, before resolving again at a specific point.') reads like a precursor to the Infinite Improbability drive. The not-so-short of what the series is about is this: In an experiment by the genetic collective unconscious itself, the race memory that is the sum of all knowledge in the DNA of homo sapiens, humanity is splintered into a diaspora of several cultures, each embodying an aspect of humanity (The Dorsai are the warriors, the Exotics the philosophers, the Friendlies the religious...etc.), to find out what aspect it is that truly makes human beings what they are. The culmination of such an experiment would be the ethical or 'responsible' man, a superhuman that would embody all aspects completely. Clute's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes the Childe saga as an attempt 'to present an evolutionary blueprint for humanity's ultimate expansion through the Galaxy [into] an inherently ethical species.' Dickson said of the work "I developed the idea by the late 1950s a new fictional pattern that I have called the 'consciously thematic story'. This was specifically designed to create an unconscious involvement of the reader with the philosophical thematic argument that the story action renders and demonstrates. Because this new type of story has represented a pattern hitherto unknown to readers and writers, my work has been criticized in terms that do not apply to it - primarily if it were drama alone." So our principle character is Bleys Ahrens, a mutant with the mental power to uncover what it is that truly motivates people, and use it to persuade them to follow him, to bend their will to his own. 'The Others' are hybrids of Friendlies and Exotics, and after gaining the Friendlies he has launched a war on the Dorsai and Exotics for the future evolution of the species. Got that so far? Like Paul Atreides, he's a man with a vision of the evolutionary destiny of humanity. And that vision seems to have been inspired a bit by the Project for A New American Century. His plan is, through war and economic coercion, to bring the human race back to the mindset of Old Earth to renew its sense of morality and individual responsibility. So, yeah, the Dorsai/Childe saga was begun in the 50s, and in a little way it still feels like it belongs back in the 50s. There's a certain brand of SF that consists mostly of people sitting around talking pedantically about broad historical forces, the rise and fall of civilizations, advancement versus stagnation versus decline, perhaps it could be labeled its own subgenre. Although James Blish's 'Okie' Cities in Flight universe used Oscar Spengler's Decline of the West as the backbone to its future history, it probably began with Foundation, and continued with the Dune saga and many others, including the Dorsai (Childe) saga, and later the Star Wars prequels. Often in this subgenre there's one person, a 'seer' who can see 'the big picture' and so he has to use the rest of humanity as pawns to bring about a grand new age for the human race, often mass murdering just a few million or billion people in the process. (Cuz to make an omelet...) To get an idea what painful reading this can be, take a look at page 27: "The first thing I looked for was a way to estimate Exotic wealth; and I found that in whatever terms you might want to measure it, it's been decreasing steadily for some time. That led me to a long term pattern of Exotic owned shipping being outbid for freight contracts and passenger carriage. I started to analyze traffic patterns, and found that shipping outbound from every one of the Younger Worlds for the Dorsai and the Exotics has been decreasing steadily over several decades at least-" And so on. I once had a stoner anarchist friend who sounded exactly like the people in every one of these books, only he was a bit more fun to be around having fewer dreams of universal genocide. Maybe it's me but there's something phenomenally disturbing that SF has so many mass murderers as heroes. It's an interesting irony that SF, believing itself to be a genre of enlightenment and pacificism is often without a doubt very good at being the bloodiest and most psychopathic. Anyway, through The Antagonist we find ourselves plunged into assassination attempt after assassination attempt, plots within plots, as Bleys puts his vision into action and becomes less recognizably human. It's hard to judge a last book when one hasn't read the preceding ones. I was left feeling unsatisfied but I can't say for certain if that's because I came in too late into the story or what. I'll give Dickson the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of the fault lies with myself in not 'getting it'. Gordon R. Dickson set a high bar for himself into trying to define a 'new fictional pattern'. Maybe the goal was unachievable. I don't know if he succeeded or not. It's possible that I'm trying to 'read it like drama' when it isn't, or whatever. I will give him props that the man tried, that he did experiment. And what better place to experiment than an artform with the word 'science' in it... So that's it for this month. In the installments to come you can look forward to the Space Opera Renaissance, JRR Tolkien's return from the dead, Kevin J. Anderson's big summer rewriting other people's work, and what very well may be the most original novel I've read in ten years.... Send me all the sexy stormtrooper photos and Ewok slash fiction my inbox can handle!

Readers Talkback

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  • Feb. 28, 2007, 6:38 a.m. CST

    Kevin J Anderson

    by ErnieAnderson

    is wholly untalented.<p> And I've told him this to his face.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 7:58 a.m. CST

    Someone set us up teh Balm!!!

    by havocSchultz

    Nice review Balm...but I smell a plant...oh...sorry...that's just me...apparentely I forgot to flush...If I could actually read..and then, if they actually allowed me books in my solitary confinement - I would read this book...not because of what you said in the review...but because of what you did with your nipples while writing said review...

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 8:49 a.m. CST

    SF&Fantasy: Review Bk 1 of The Pandora's Box Trilogy

    by dead youngling

    Just came out--5th grade up to adults are enjoying it--internet and magazine reviews will be out soon. Get it on the site. yeah, the author is a good friend of mine, but I read a lot, and this book's got a look going on, if you like dark fantasy with children as the main characters, check it out! It's got Medusa and an evil Tin Man, too! All his talks and books sell out.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 8:54 a.m. CST

    Contact for The Pandora's Box Trilogy

    by dead youngling

    http://www.myspace.com/pandoratrilogy--he'd send you a free review copy probably.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 8:56 a.m. CST

    Great column, Mr Balm.

    by raw_bean

    You'll have at least one avid reader with every article. I have just started a personal drive to take my fandom 'back to it's roots' and get some serious SF and Fantasy reading done. The 'SF Masterworks' and 'Fantasy Masterworks' series of reprints are helping me get up to speed on the classic stuff that I'd never gotten around to, and these articles will help me get into what the scene is at the moment.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 9:21 a.m. CST

    science fiction

    by darkjedijaina

    double feature...mmm. loved the intro and reviews. i'd say they were more tingly than the lips on the screen in rocky horror picture show. i've really got to check out Fast Forward 1.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 9:52 a.m. CST

    Go get 'em BALM!!!

    by SkidMarkedUndies

    TEH BALM STRIKES AGAIN!

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 1:28 p.m. CST

    Thank you, teh balm

    by monorail77

    Very nice reviews. Love the intro, makes me hungry for your future recommendations. I confess I didn't twig to half or more of your references in the review of the new anthology, but that's because I'm not a regular reader of emerging sci-fi. Certainly was interesting, though, with lost of good references for me to squirrel away and look up, peruse, read, etc., should I be so inclined. Keep up the good fight, AB. -monorail77

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 4:48 p.m. CST

    "it seems to be one of the

    by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

    <em>"it seems to be one of the latest trends in the industry, one being spear-headed for the most part by Tor"</em> Actually, it's just an accident of timing and schedules that a bunch of different books like this all wound up in the same year.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 6:01 p.m. CST

    "dark fantasy with children as the main characters"

    by godoffireinhell

    So it's torture kiddie pr0n? No, thanks.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 6:43 p.m. CST

    Sorry, godoffire, you'll have to look elsewhere...

    by dead youngling

    none of that in this Pandora book. Maybe the sequel! i don't think he'd be invited to speak at so many schools with that stuff you said.

  • March 1, 2007, 2:28 p.m. CST

    TEH BALM!!!

    by WONKABAR

    Keep up the cool!

  • March 2, 2007, 12:22 a.m. CST

    A suggestion

    by readingwriter

    Your column should have started with this line: "You know, this is probably as fitting as any place to begin my review feature proper." Just do the damned review, and your opinions and thoughts will justify having cultural critics. No offense, but you certainly aren't going to settle that issue here, and frankly, it's already BEEN settled. (What's next, justifying art?) I just scrolled past your loooong intro--Ellison...Dick...anthologies...ok, ok, I get it, you're saying all the "right" things. I know this sounds bitchy but it's really not--if you just write a damned good review, it's its own justifucation. I saw the first volume of the Dune thing in the bookstore this weekend and may actually have to thoroughly read the first book, which I've had for years with the John Schoenherr (sp?) illos. I actually started the second book and really enjoyed it--liked the movie and the miniseries, too (both of em). But it was really depressing walking through the science fiction bookstore and seeing 90% of the books fit into distinct categories: Star Wars-ish, Star Trek-ish, LOTR-ish, sexy vampire hunters and such. I thought people got into reading this stuff because it was surprising and different, now all the readers seem to want their futures nice and safe and predictable. Good thing Harlan is basically done writing, his 60's-70's stuff would have no market if it were new today.

  • March 2, 2007, 12:55 a.m. CST

    readingwriter

    by adambalm

    You make an interesting point about '0% of the books fit into distinct categories: Star Wars-ish, Star Trek-ish, LOTR-ish, sexy vampire hunters and such'. It was almost as interesting when I stated it in the introduction that you said you didn't read. I see that your username is only half right. But to answer your question, I put in the introduction because I didn't want to take back half of a talkback thread responding and regurgitating the reasons explaining why I don't do this, or just cover that, or why I bother with this and the other thing.

  • March 2, 2007, 1:27 a.m. CST

    adambalm

    by readingwriter

    Seeing how I came up with the same thought without writing a post of equal length to your looong intro kinda proves my point doesn't it? You don't need to take half the talkback thread if you just wrote something interesting, instead of burying your opinions with longwinded explanations and background. I'm sorry you are so touchy, and yes, half my username is accurate; if you cut about 5/6 of babble maybe I'd actually read all of what you wrote. I came here for book reviews, not looooong explanations. Seeing how you even admit I said basically the same thing more succinctly, here's another clue: You don't HAVE to regurgitate why you do or do not do something in a review if you just write it well enough that all anyone cares about is wanting MORE from you. Then we won't have to skim so much.

  • March 2, 2007, 1:29 a.m. CST

    Is this the line?

    by readingwriter

    "Over the years the SF bookshelves have been eaten up by media tie-ins, roleplaying books, comics and manga." Wow, sorry I dared restate that in my own way. You really had to go a long way to find something to bitch about, didn't you?

  • March 2, 2007, 2:29 p.m. CST

    not too long...

    by adambalm

    I can understand where you're coming from, although I always found it fascinating when someone would post in the talkback 'I didn't bother to read blah blah' because it seems to me like less work to actually read something than to go off complaining about and try to justify why you didn't. My intention with the introduction, besides giving my reasoning for what you would see from me and why, was to give a 'state of SF' for the field, to give the proper context for the reviews to come. Some of that dealt with tie-ins and such but it was more. It's a personal taste, and I realize not everyone shares it but I like my reviews when they talk about how something fits into the wider picture, be it the author's life, the history of a type of story, or the current trends that it finds itself entwined in. This is the style of review you'll find in the New York Review of Science Fiction and I always thought of them as the gold standard. You don't agree, and that's cool. I'm sure my type of review isn't for everyone. In any event, I was surprised myself by the length (both the large font and the decreased page width I didn't account for) and I expected the next review column to be about half the length for many reasons, while featuring more reviews.