Category Archives: science fiction

#VintageSciFiMonth: “Nightfall,” “Green Patches” by Issac Asimov

One of the great things about Issac Asimov is his prolific body of work. This means there will probably be no shortage of material for #VintageSciFiMonth featuring Asimov in my lifetime. I’ve read Asimov since my teens and it looks like I won’t soon run out of new (to me) stuff to read.

And while I’ve read a good portion of his longer works, I’ve not sampled as many of his short stories as I should or could. So, this year for #VintageSciFiMonth, I decided to dip into his prolific short story output with the collection Nightfall and Other Stories. Over the course of the next month, I will be offering up my thoughts on the stories from the collection as I read through.

Nightfall (1949): Five stars

Asimov prefaces this story by saying that many consider it to be his best story and that while it was anthologized elsewhere he had never included it in one of his collections. Fifty-plus years later, “Nightfall” is the selling point of this collection and it’s interesting that Asimov puts it upfront instead of making us wait until the end to read it.

The planet Lagesh has multiple suns, meaning that people of this world are rarely without light. Once every two thousand or so years, the suns all set, sending the society of that work into chaos and ruin since the mere concept of a sky without at least one sun in it sends much of the population into madness. As the story opens, it’s a few hours from the last sun setting and civilization as we know it ending.

In many ways, this feels like Asimov trying on some of the concepts he will later explore in his Foundation novels. There’s a society on the brink of chaos, facing a coming dark age with a group of learned scientists who attempt to preserve some of the civilization and its learning in a secret location. “Nightfall” shows us the beginning of the fall of the Lagesh civilization and the madness that comes when people who have never missed light are deprived of it.

As with a lot of Asimov, this story features a lot of characters sitting around and having deep conversations about what’s unfolding. And yet, there is still a bit of action as the sun slowly sets and people dread the coming of the mysterious objects known as stars. The world-building for a short story is nothing short of remarkable and the growing sense of dread is palpable.

It’s easy to see why many consider this one of, if not the, best Asimov short stories.

The story was expanded to a novel with the help of Robert Silverburg in 1990. I’ve read that book but don’t recall much about it. I may have to dip into it again this year.

“Green Patches”: Four stars

The second expedition to Saybrook’s Planet wants to determine why the initial expedition destroyed itself after sending back one final message. Turns out the planet’s life is all part of one organism with a unified consciousness. This consciousness wants to help organize the chaos is that is humanity and Earth.

Everything lives in balance with the plans producing enough food for consumption and being allowed to thrive. Biological lifeforms that have been fertilized by the planet are known by the green patches in the place of eyes.

The story is a bit of a race against time to keep a rogue lifeform from getting to Earth and taking over the planet. But the concept of a world where everything is in perfect balance is one that intrigues me. Reading this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Borg on Star Trek and Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow.

While this one isn’t as strong as “Nightfall,” it’s still pretty solid and one I really enjoyed.

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Audiobook Review: Doctor Who: Dalek by Rob Shearman

51rkR2wzh0LOn television, “Dalek” is a masterpiece and possibly the best hour of the revived Doctor Who has yet produced. I’ve loved it since it first enthralled me upon first airing and it’s probably the new Who episode I’ve revisited the most.

So, when news broke that Rob Shearman was adapting the story for the second set of new Who Target novels, I was very excited. And a bit nervous, fearing the novel might not live up to my lofty expectations. Expectations only grew when the four new Target novels were pushed back a year in the early days of the pandemic and lockdown.*

* On a positive note, this gave me a chance to explore some of Shearman’s other writings, including his collection of non-Who short stories. This, as it turns out, was a very good thing.

And so it was, at last, that the four new Target novels hit my download queue and I could finally take a listen to “Dalek.” And I’m happy to report that Shearman has hit out of the park with this one. He’s taken one of the quintessential episodes of Doctor Who and turned it into a quintessential Target adaptation. I’m not sure I could have enjoyed this one more. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Prelude to Foundation by Issac Asimov

preludePrequels are difficult. Just ask George Lucas or Brannon Braga.

While there is a great opportunity to fill in the backstory for characters and do a bit of worldbuilding, it feels like the risks often outweigh the rewards. A prequel series can also be limiting in how many surprises or revelations an author or creative team can throw the fans way before fandom starts crying foul or screaming that this detail or that one has violated continuity or a long-held character belief.

But long before Star Trek and Star Wars were looking to their past, author Issac Asimov was taking the opportunity to fill in a few gaps in his Foundation novels. Asimov’s output of the ’80s seemed to be almost obsessed with finding ways to connect various threads across his novels and short stories. And so it was that we come to Prelude to Foundation, a prequel to his popular, award-winning series that explored the early days of Hari Seldon and some of the steps in the creation of psychohistory.

Less sweeping in scope than the other Foundation entries, Prelude to Foundation focuses on an early adventure of Seldon in the days after presented a paper on psychohistory. As the Galactic Empire begins to crumble, multiple parties see Seldon’s psychohistory as their opportunity to gain, keep, or consolidate power. Most of the original Foundation trilogy puts Seldon on a pedestal and gives us the image of a wise figure forecasting the fall of an Empire and doing his best to shorten humanity’s coming Dark Age. Continue reading

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Vintage Sci-Fi Month: Looking Forward

vintage-sf-badgeIt’s Vintage Sci-Fi Month! It’s a time to celebrate the foundation (pun fully intended) and look back at some of the building blocks that brought us to the future.

Hosted by the Little Red Reviewer, “vintage” refers to anything published on or before 1979. And while, I’ve picked out a few books to read during the month, I have to admit part of my excitement about 2021 will be two adaptations of two of the giants in the genre.

Yes, I’m referring to the upcoming adaptations of Foundation and Dune.

Dune has had multiple attempts to bring it to the silver-screen, including the David Lynch version and a couple of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries back in the mid-90’s. Both had their good points, both had some limitations. But I can’t wait to see what director Denis Villeneuve brings to this sprawling epic. His work on Arrival (which made me weep at the end. If you haven’t seen it, go into it without knowing anything) alone made me think that he could do for Dune what Peter Jackson did for Lord of the Rings. I have to admit, I’m extremely encouraged by the preview we got late last year and while I have HBO Max, I may still pony up for a ticket to see the one on a huge screen with cutting edge surround sound.

A_foundation_seriesI’m also equally intrigued to see Issac Asimov’s Foundation novels come to life as a tv series. I read these for the first time back in high school and loved them. I read them at the time when Asimov appeared to have a bit of a resurgence on the best-seller list and was working to tie all of his various universes together (with varying degrees of success). It seems like there were rumors for years that the novels would become a movie franchise, though I have to admit after I, Robot, I was concerned that a two-hour movie might not do justice to this seminal sci-fi series. Now, that it’s a series for Apple TV, I hope it has the time to tell it’s story right and hopefully open up this world to a whole new generation of fans. Again, the preview released late last year has me intrigued.

I know we’ve got a bit of a longer wait for Dune than Foundation (which I think is promised this spring). And I really do hope that both live up to my expectations and dreams for them.

Either way, I think I may spend some of my 2021 reading time with these old friends. I’ve already purchased the audiobook of Dune to refresh my memory and I’m leaning toward doing the same for the Foundation novels.

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Review: Escape Pod: The Science-Fiction Anthology edited by Murr Laffety and S.B. Divya

Escape Pod: The Science Fiction AnthologyCelebrating fifteen years of original podcast science-fiction, Escape Pod offers up an anthology of fifteen stories from some of the most prominent names in the genre.

I’ve always found short story collections a nice way to sample an author’s work and decide if I might want to wade deeper into their works. This collection contains several authors I’ve read a great deal of what they’ve written (John Scalzi), some I’ve wanted to read for a while but haven’t quite taken the plunge yet (N.K. Jemison) and some that I’m aware of but haven’t picked up something from yet. Overall, it’s a pretty good collection with some interesting introductions by editors S.B. Divya and Murr Lafferty.

Being a Scalzi fan, his story stood out, though I think I’ve read it before. I will admit that Lafferty’s entry felt a bit abrupt, almost as if the author had a word or page count and just stopped writing when it was achieved. The other complaint with that story is that it’s set within the universe of her Hugo-award nominated novel and I felt like I was missing some of the contexts of the story having not read the novel first. It did make me want to seek out the book and finally get it off the to-be-read pile, so I suppose that’s something.

I’m a big fan of podcast fiction and have enjoyed the podcast this collection celebrates. I’ve read these stories were originally presented as episodes of the podcast and halfway through, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might be liked experienced as audio stories. I may have to look around a bit and give that avenue a try.

I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Audiobook Review: Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks: 4th Doctor NovelisationThanks to a myriad of media releases and repeats, “Genesis of the Daleks” is a story that’s never been very far from the zeitgeist of Doctor Who fans. Regarded as one of the finest installments in the series long run (classic or new), it’s one that many fans (including this one) can recite key moments from (especially those on the abridged LP released in the ’70s and re-released on every possible format since).

Knowing the key dialogue from these moments only makes the differences between what we saw on-screen and what Terrance Dicks adapts to the page stand out a bit more. It’s clear that Dicks is working from an earlier draft of the script since the cliffhangers are moved about and fall in different places than we see on-screen. (The lore has it that the cliffhanger to episode five was supposed to be the famous “Do I have the right?” speech and not the Dalek battling an uncased Dalek mutant). But while minor moments are different, Dicks is still able to do justice to this undisputed classic when it comes to translating it to the printed page.

Dicks is able to condense a bit of the running back and forth between the Kaled and Thal cities (it’s a six-parter, so there’s a lot of running about) and he even makes the three corridors sets that double as both cities on-screen seem more expansive than they are on-screen. And while Dicks can’t quite capture how great Michael Wisher is in creating Davros, Dicks is still able to convey the menace and tragedy of the character here.

While this script is Terry Nation’s finest hour for Doctor Who, it isn’t necessarily Terrance Dicks’ finest hour in the Target line. But you can still tell that Dicks has put some care and time into crafting this story for the printed page. It’s certainly miles better than many of the adaptations to come during the fourth Doctor’s tenure.

The audiobook of this one is quite good. Jon Culshaw does his usual great work at imitating Tom Baker. Wisely, Culshaw doesn’t try to sound exactly like the screen versions of each character and his performance here continues to cement him as one of the better readers in this range. And, of course, Nick Briggs is on-hand to give us authentic Dalek voices.

All-in-all, this is another solid audiobook in this range and I find myself beginning to become nostalgic as the end of the range looms nearer.

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The Best of Terrance Dicks

sfm2019-button-roundEarlier this year, iconic Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks passed away.   To memorialize the man who molded and developed the series on-screen and on the printed page, BBC Books is planning a hardcover release of fan-chosen Target adaptations by the prolific author.

And it’s almost as if BBC Books knew it was #SciFiMonth and a great time to celebrate all things Doctor Who.  (Oh yeah, the big 56th anniversary is Saturday, November 23!)

Starting on Monday, November 18th, fans can cast their votes for their favorite Target novels.  Dicks’ sixty-four novels are being broken into brackets and then the stories will face off.

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I know I will be voting.  And I know which of the iconic adaptations I hope wins the whole thing.  ::cough::cough::Day of the Daleks::cough:::cough:::.

If you want to vote, set your browser coordinates for the BBC Books official Twitter feed next Monday!

 

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Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space OperaIf you’re coming to Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera with visions of it being this generation’s Hitchhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may be disappointed.

But, if you can put those expectations to the side, you’ll find a charming, funny, witty novel that takes shots at not only the tropes of science-fiction, but also singing shows and multiple genres of music.

In the wake of the last galactic war, sentient species decided to conduct their battles in a more civilized manner — a singing competition. Each year, the species enter a contestant into the battle and the universe watches as they vie for universal supremacy.

This year, the Earth has been invited to join the contest — and it’s an invitation we can’t refuse. The only living musician deemed worthy of the talent show is burned out rocker, Decibel Jones. As our planet’s musical savior, Dess has to do well or else the Earth faces bitter consequences.

Valente pulls few of her punches and there are sequences of Space Opera that are hysterically funny and worthy of comparison to Douglas Adams. However, there are a few stretches in the novel that feel like Valente is working too hard to set-up a joke and then deliver a few extra punchlines for the reader’s amusement. I found myself, at times, wondering when we’d just move past the witty asides and humorous observations and get to the actual business of the talent content.

And while I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Space Opera, I can’t say that I’m exactly sold on it. As I said, there are patches of utter brilliance and fun but there are a few moments when the novel gets bogged down a bit by trying too hard to be funny.

 

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Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

ArtemisAfter the runaway success of The Martian, it would have been easy for Andy Weir to publish his grocery list and have it race to the top of the bestseller list.

Instead, Weir made fans wait what seemed like an eternity for his sophomore effort, Artemis. Good things come to those who wait.

While not as immediately engaging as The Martian, Weir’s Artemis avoids a sophomore slump by delivering an entirely new narrator and story. Set in the near future, Artemis introduces us to Jazz, a citizen of the lunar colony Artemis. Jazz wants to help guide tours of the lunar surface, but while she trains for that role, she makes ends meet by running the lunar black market. This leads her to a complicated plot to pull off what should be a perfect crime and earn a reward that will see her set for life. Continue reading

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Review: Machine Learning by Hugh Howley

Machine Learning: New and Collected StoriesIn an afterword to one of his stories, Hugh Howley suggests that the sci-fi trope of AIs rising up and going to war against humanity probably won’t be the way things really happen. Instead, he sees how AIs could go into battle with each other, with humanity being little more than ants in the /8956-9battle between intelligences. We’d be a distraction and little else..*

Several stories in his short-story collection, Machine Learning, delve into this question with varying degrees of success. One memorable story finds humanity falling because of an oversight involving a Roomba. Other stories look at what will happen when we have artificial lifeforms and people begin to fall in love with them and engage in a romantic relationship.

Howley’s stories (collected together by theme) show a wide range. Howley includes a story he thought was long lost from his website as well as several short stories set in his popular Silo universe. If you’re a fan of the Silo universe, those stories alone make this a must-read collection.

Howley also offers an afterword to the stories, giving us a bit of insight into the creation of the stories or further reflections on some of the central themes and questions raised. Using the afterward to address these questions allows the reader to go into each story fresh and without having anything of what’s to come given away by a well-intentioned introduction.

If you’re a Howley fan, this collection is a worthy addition. If you’re not, this collection is a nice way to dip your toe in and see why Howley is one of the more respected writers in the business today (though I will warn you that having a familiarity with his Silo universe lends more enjoyment to that section of stories).

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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