Archive for Science Fiction

Happy Birthday, Clifford Simak!

Hey, I noticed that today is the birthday of Clifford D. Simak, science fiction grandmaster and one of my favorite writers. Let’s take a look at his very best book — City.

(FYI, that’s a scan of the first copy of this book I ever got, and it’s still my favorite because I love the retro sci-fi cool this cover is drenched in…)

This is the kind of story that exemplifies why I love so many stories from science fiction’s Golden Age — it has stereotypical sci-fi elements like robots, mutants, and aliens, it has completely unscientific elements like talking dogs and intelligent ants, it has wild, breathtaking ideas, it has characters you can’t help but love and hate, and its glimpse of the future is simultaneously grim and hopeful. It’s far from a perfect book — there are ongoing assumptions in the story that most of humanity, regardless of cultural differences, will always speak and act with one voice. There are no important female characters in the whole book. And some of the science is distractingly goofy. Nevertheless, Simak is one of science fiction’s unrecognized geniuses, and this is his masterwork.

“City” is the story of how mankind dies, told from the perspective of the intelligent dogs who have taken over the Earth in our absence. It’s all framed as an attempt by the dogs to assemble an oral history of the planet, including the improbable myths of a creature called Man that used to run things in the distant past. Much of that history follows the lives of a single human family, the Websters, and a nearly immortal robot named Jenkins.

In the initial story, told only a short distance in our own future, humanity is in the process of abandoning all of its cities. Mostly plotless, it serves mainly to allow us to follow the transition from today’s urban society to a future society using advanced technology to embrace a more pastoral lifestyle. Technological advances in transportation and communications have rendered the city unnecessary — people can live anywhere they want and still stay in contact with their friends, families, and coworkers. Anyone can feed themselves with a hydroponic garden. Few people want to live in big, crowded, smelly cities, which are mostly abandoned except for some squatters. Only a few old-timers still cling to the old ways.

A century later, we get to our first really important character, Jerome Webster, a doctor who’s been turned into an agoraphobic, terrified of open spaces, by his comfortable life at home. His every need is taken care of instantly by the family’s robots, including the butler, Jenkins. Webster is called upon to travel to Mars, where history’s greatest philosopher, Juwain, is gravely ill — if he lives, he will soon develop a new philosophy that will propel humanity to the very peaks of perfect enlightenment. But Webster finds himself completely unable to undertake the journey to save his friend.

We jump forward several decades and sees the introduction of the Dogs, as Jerome Webster’s grandson surgically gives his pet the ability to speak. We also meet Joe, a mutant who is able to live for centuries and is gifted with extraordinary intelligence. A completely amoral creature, he has spent over a hundred years helping humans, but he’s getting bored with that. So he steals the last notes on Juwain’s revolutionary Martian philosophy, just for the pleasure of hurting humanity. We also get our first look at the ants, as Joe puts a nest on the path to higher intelligence by protecting it for a few winters, then sadistically demolishes the mound. But the ants have already learned quite a bit, and they’ll be back…

The years march on, and we leave Earth to visit the hostile surface of Jupiter, where scientists have attempted to explore the planet by transforming themselves into creatures that can survive the corrosive atmosphere — but none of these scientists have ever returned. What predator could be killing them off?

Decades, centuries, millennia pass. The Webster family continues on, slowly dooming the human race with each decision it makes. The Dogs continue on, growing in sophistication and morality. Jenkins and the other robots continue on, shepherding the new animal civilization through the years. The ants continue on, becoming more and more powerful. Some species die off, some species evolve into new forms, some species abandon Earth forever. Life continues, on and on. Earth continues.

Verdict: Thumbs up. No question, it’s a melancholy, almost heart-breaking story. If you’ve long dreamed that mankind would live forever, this story will subject you to the spectre of the human race embracing extinction, of humanity’s greatest works of science and art being forgotten, of even Man’s Best Friend leaving our home planet behind in the face of an expansionist alien species. Simak’s “Epilog” (which is not present in all editions of the novel) is even sadder. “City” is a book with few truly happy endings.

And yet, I still see this as a hopeful book, and it fills me with joy when I read it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of the writing and of the story. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of mankind’s creations — robots, dogs, storytelling, morality and ethics — continue thousands of years beyond our end, even if our status as the creators are long forgotten. Maybe I just really like dogs.

Maybe I enjoy the novel so much because I like the way it’s acknowledged that, eventually, all species must die out — extinction is inevitable, but I think Simak knew that our story isn’t finished yet. Enjoy the good things that humanity has brought about, recognize the bad things that we’ve caused, resolve to help move the species farther along the evolutionary chain, scientifically, artistically, socially.

In the end, I think it’s a story about life and death and memory. Years will pass, centuries will pass. We will die, and those who follow us will remember us for a while. But we will eventually be forgotten. That thought may make you feel depressed and melancholy. But life, in some form, continues, and where there’s life, there’s hope.

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When Science Fiction Becomes Current Events

How ’bout a book review? How ’bout a recent sci-fi novel that bizarrely predicted part of our current situation? Let’s take a look at A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

Let’s get this out of the way first. From our current vantage point in the early spring of 2020, this is a shockingly prophetic book. It’s set at some point in our near-future, when a combination of terrorist attacks and a deadly plague epidemic convinces the government to ban all mass gatherings. Sporting events are no more. All schools are taught online. Shopping malls, conventions, parades, amusement parks, festivals, movie theaters, and music concerts dry up and blow away.

It is, I will tell you, deeply weird to be reading along in a book of science fiction, published about six months ago, and find incidents that closely mirror the evening news.

So what’s our plot about? We follow two main characters. There’s Luce Cannon, rock star on the rise — at least until concerts get banned nationwide. She has a little extra fame because she played the very last major concert before large gatherings got shut down. So years afterwards, still jonesing for the thrill of playing live music for an audience, she runs secret and illegal concerts out of her soundproofed home in Baltimore. And there’s Rosemary Laws, a younger woman who has spent most of her life sheltered and protected in the rural Midwest. She’s attended online schools, has few real-world friends, lives with her technophobic parents, and works as online technical support for the Superwally retail giant.

Rosemary gets a new job working for a company called StageHoloLive — they specialize in recording holographic music concerts for live or recorded replay on Hoodies, which are basically wearable virtual reality interfaces. Put the hood up, and you can go online, watch a concert or movie, and order your groceries (with convenient drone delivery). Expecting to go into tech support, she instead finds herself in what’s now called A&R — Artists and Repertoire — essentially finding new performers in whatever secret venues they may be playing, recruiting them, and getting them signed on as StageHolo artists, ready to gain worldwide fame and make the company a lot of money.

Rosemary has no idea how to find any secret concert venues, but gets a hint from a StageHolo artist that she should check out a particular club in Baltimore. So even though she’s been told her whole life that cities and large gatherings are full of disease and probably terrorists, Rosemary gathers up all her courage and travels to the big city. Once she finds Luce’s secret music club — and once she overcomes her fears of human contact — she starts making friends, including Luce and a bunch more people in interesting and very talented bands.

But StageHoloLive has some dark secrets that cause serious repercussions when exposed. Can Rosemary continue working for them? Can Luce find a way to keep making music? And is there a way for both of them to break the hold fear has over the country?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was a really fun book — and not just because it was so weirdly prescient. I’d actually stopped reading somewhere around the middle — not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I had a different book I was reading that had hooked me into focusing on it. But once the urgency about the Coronavirus outbreak started making the news, once all the sports venues started closing, all the conventions cancelled, all the schools started shutting down, and everyone was told to distance themselves socially from friends, coworkers, and even family members — well, the bizarre accidental topicality of the book’s background brought me back and kept me glued to the page. And honestly, the topicality means it deserves a lot more readers. Hint, hint, guys.

I loved the characterization — Luce and Rosemary are the most obvious examples, but there are great character bits everywhere, from the members of Luce’s various bands to Rosemary’s parents to the corporate middle managers at SHL to the music fans willing to risk jail for the sake of new music. LGBT representation is everywhere — both Luce and Rosemary identify as queer, and they’re far from the only ones. And the fact that being gay is rarely remarked upon and never condemned is one of the few ways this future society is better than our current one.

The worldbuilding is also great. There’s a lot of stuff we’re shown without having everything specifically laid out in detail. Drones are everywhere, both for deliveries and for people wanting to see the world without leaving the house. Hoodies are rarely worn by older people but almost universal for the young — except for young people who’ve decided they can live a better life without the corporate surveillance and gatekeeping the Hoodies bring. Certain areas are completely closed to any vehicles but self-driving cars, and rural cops will stop any car with license plates from urban states out of simple racist paranoia. The characters barely remark upon these things because it’s part of the landscape of their lives, but it still manages to paint us a very clear vision of this corporate dystopia.

I was also impressed with how well the author incorporated many current issues into the story without absolutely overpowering the plot. The book addresses the question of whether concerns over public safety should trump personal freedom. It jabs a hard, angry finger at the entire concept of health care inequities. It ponders the fact that technology and social media have just as much power to oppress us as it has to liberate us.

And the story reserves its greatest venom for our system of predatory capitalism — not through diatribes and jeremiads, but just by recounting how outrageously stupid and greedy our corporate overlords can get. Is StageHoloLive over-the-top in its stupidity and evil? Maybe a little — but do you know how many restaurants make their employees come to work sick? If fiction’s villains are unrealistically vile, the real world has more than enough ridiculous evil, too.

But though it describes a short-sighted dystopia, this is still a hopeful book. Throughout the book, the power of music to bring people together, to heal and uplift, to create pure joy is celebrated. Musicians and audiences are always depicted as being willing to defy the law for the sake of live music, and more than one music fan works to turn their home or their business or even just a barn out in a back lot into a performance venue, even at the risk of losing their property to the cops. And in the end, music has the power to change lives and the system. Music — and hope — have great power.

My friends, this book is highly recommended and highly relevant, not just because it manages to predict our current situation, but because it also offers a little hope for a way out. Musicians, artists, creatives of all sorts, you will love this book more than you can believe. Go pick it up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Spacelore

It’s almost Christmas! But there’s still time to do some last-minute shopping! So let’s dive back into the Holiday Gift Bag to look at J.B. Zimmerman’s Spacelore.


I previously reviewed Zimmerman’s first book, “The New York Magician,” a modern urban fantasy novel, a couple years back. This one collects a bunch of his short science fiction stories, and they’re pretty dang keen.

Among the stories we get here are:

  • “Radar Ghosts and Dead Cosmonauts” – A motley band of techno-shamans try to save the lives of astronauts who died long ago.
  • “The Screams Grow in Green Ice” – An astronaut lost in space, a secret military space station, and something deeply terrifying make for an astonishingly tense sci-fi thriller.
  • “Universal Destructor” – Sometimes, when you get the right genius working on the right project, the whole universe can open up for you.
  • “Notes from the Long Dark” – Deep space exploration sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s best when you’re a willing explorer. And when you’ve got more than just your brain tethered to a spacecraft…
  • “The Bleeding Machine” – A salvage crew encounters a wrecked spaceship, but once on board, they find themselves being attacked and separated by unseen forces. Who’s trying to kill them? And why?
  • “A Trembling in the Sun” – A group of AIs seek to solve the mystery of what’s killing the sun before all life on their planet is ended.
  • “Elevation” – A religious pilgrim in a primitive society undertakes a quest to climb a massive rope into the heavens — but where does the rope really lead?

Verdict: Thumbs up. You get over a dozen fantastic science fiction stories in this book — and they’ve got a serious classic feel to them. I think when we all discovered science fiction for the first time, what brought a lot of us in was a fascination with outer space, rocketships, astronauts, robots, and science so wild it’ll break both your brain and the laws of physics. Zimmerman grew up with the same fascination, and the result is this collection of space-based wonder.

And space-based horror, too. Quite a few of these tales feature strong elements of terror, fright, and suspense. Spaceships that keep themselves lubricated on human blood, voices of long-dead astronauts whispering through the radio, space zombies, and more remind us that space can inspire us — but that doesn’t make it safe.

But there’s also adventure and humor and science and daring men and women exploring the galaxy and fighting aliens and performing miracles with newly invented propulsion systems and doing all the things we’ve always dreamed of getting to do out there in the vast, cold, wonder-filled darkness between the stars. There are stories that’ll scare you, but there are also stories to excite you and make you laugh and make you wish we were focusing more of our efforts on making our science fiction dreams come true.

If you know someone who loves science fiction and great writing and the glories of space travel, they’ll definitely love this book. And hey, it’s late enough that you can’t get anything shipped on time, and the malls are just ridiculous, and you still need a good stocking stuffer — well, you can get this one on the Kindle, and it’s inexpensive enough that you can surprise the sci-fi fan with a little extra present without breaking the bank. So go pick it up.

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Sci Fi Channel to sci-fi fans: "Drop Dead!"

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let us gather together and gaze in wonder at the Dumbest Thing Ever:

In some universe, the name “Syfy” is less geeky than the name “Sci Fi.” Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, is betting it’s this one.

To that end, the 16-year-old network — owned by NBC Universal — plans to announce that Syfy is its new name March 16 at its upfront presentation to advertisers in New York.

“What we love about this is we hopefully get the best of both worlds,” Mr. Howe said. “We’ll get the heritage and the track record of success, and we’ll build off of that to build a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand.”

“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.

Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.

“We spent a lot of time in the ’90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called Sci Fi,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’ But even the name Sci Fi is limiting.”


Consider me gobsmacked.

Well, the unwritten story in this article is that NBC’s lawyers probably realized there was no way to trademark “Sci Fi” — but they could trademark a goofy spelling like “Syfy.” So there actually is a legitimate business reason for the change.

But it’s too bad they didn’t just say that. “Hey, folks, we’re changing the name of our network to something we can trademark.” They might get a little razzing about it, but not all that much.

Instead, what they went with was just pointlessly insulting: “Yeah, we’re going to take our core audience, the science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks, and just tell ’em to take a flying leap. We’re gonna try to get an all-new core audience, one that’s cool and hip and young and sexxxay, if we can convince them to watch old ‘Star Trek’ reruns, wrestling, horror-themed reality shows, and painfully bad movies like ‘Mansquito’ and ‘SS Doomtrooper.’ ”

So five points for having a legitimate reason to change your name, but several thousand points off for telling your friends in the D&D Club that you’re deserting them to try to con a spot at the jocks’ table in the cafeteria.

The Sci Fi Channel has been a pretty sad joke for a while — a few huge successes like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Farscape” balanced against management so cheap they’d broadcast reruns of “Law and Order: SVU” — but I never really imagined they’d end up going hostile on the audiences who supported them over the years. I don’t know if the Secret Masters of Fandom have enough power or a long enough attention span to convince the world’s geeks to boycott the network, but I wouldn’t shed no tears if they did.

Anyway, what’s the over-under for when “Syfy” switches over to an “All Wrestling, All the Time” format? I’m betting on 18 months or less…

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Science Fiction Book Club

Had a very interesting day yesterday. I went running a few vital errands around town — mailing job applications (Yeahhh, like anyone in Austin is actually going to hire a Lubbockite for anything?), returning a defective video card back to the manufacturer, and desperately searching for Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper. I was heading over for a quick visit to Awesome Books when, well, the car went kaput on me. Luckily, I was near my favorite garage, so I was able to limp the car over to them in time. Sometimes, it does seem like the universe is saying, “Hey, look, a jobless guy. Let’s make all his money go away!” Yeah, well, watch it, universe, or I’ll cut ya.

Anyway, the day was salvaged by my brother, who came and picked me up from the garage and took me around town for a few of his errands. We grabbed some sodas, had a right giggle at the “bargains” at Circuit City, and ended up standing in Barnes and Noble for at least half-an-hour jawboning about great science fiction, fantasy, and horror books with a guy we just ran into there. Now usually, this is a prescription for pain — someone you don’t know just starts talking to you in the bookstore about sci-fi, and it’s usually “Heh heh, I love this book ’cause it’s got a vampire lady, and she has big boobs, and there’s some heh heh heh.”

Didn’t happen this time — the guy had read almost everything, knew what the good stuff was, knew how to articulate what he liked about it. We talked about Terry Pratchett, Alice Sheldon, Neil Gaiman, Robert E. Howard, Harlan Ellison, Owl Goingback, Richard Matheson, Hammer Films, Charlaine Harris, Andrew Vachss, Joe R. Lansdale, George R.R. Martin, Christopher Moore, ’70s exploitation horror flicks, and many, many more. As most of y’all are doubtless very well aware, there is nothing that science fiction fans love more than getting to hang out with other science fiction fans — especially smart science fiction fans — and let your geek flag fly. My bro and I had so much fun, we’da put the guy on our Christmas card list if we’d thought to ask him what his name was.

Aaaaanyway, enough about my day. How was yours?

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The Death of Science Fiction’s Greatest Fan

Forrest J. Ackerman has died at age 92.

Fan as in fanatic. Fan as in fancier. Fan as in fantasy lover. Forrest J Ackerman, who died Thursday at 92 of a heart attack in Los Angeles, was all these things and many more: literary agent for such science fiction authors as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Curt Siodmak and L. Ron Hubbard; actor and talisman in more than 50 films (The Howling, Beverly Hills Cop III, Amazon Women on the Moon); editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and creator of the Vampirella comic book franchise. But each of these trades was an exponent of his educated ardor for science fiction, fantasy and horror, and his need to share that consuming appetite.

The Scifipedia, an online biographical dictionary, defines Ackerman first as “American fan.” That’s good enough. As much as almost any writer in the field, he created a devoted, informed audience for speculative fiction. If he didn’t coin the term “sci-fi” — Robert Heinlein used it first — then by using the phrase in public in 1954 he instantly popularized it (to the lasting chagrin of purists, who preferred “SF”). Forry, as everyone called him, was the genre’s foremost advocate, missionary and ballyhooer. His love for the form, stretching back more than 80 years, godfathered and legitimized the obsessions of a million fanboys. His passion was their validation. He was the original Fanman.

I wrote about Uncle Forry just a month ago, when it looked like he’d be leaving us in days. As it turns out, the cards and well-wishes from his own legions of fans helped him rally for an extra four weeks.

If you’ve ever been to a convention, whether for comics, horror, sci-fi, Star Trek, you name it, you’re one of Uncle Forry’s kids. If you’ve ever dressed up in costume as a character from fiction, you’re one of Uncle Forry’s kids. If you’ve ever spent an evening geeking out with friends about something awesome in a comic book, in an old science fiction story, in a horror movie, you’re one of Uncle Forry’s kids.

Mugs up, folks. Here’s to Forrest J. Ackerman.

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Here’s to Uncle Forry

Forrest J. Ackerman is dying.

I tried to tell people that all day yesterday, and no one around here has heard of him. That’s just depressing.

Forry Ackerman is a longtime fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He’s been a writer, an editor, a collector, and just an all-around great guy. He’s probably best known for creating and editing the legendary “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, though he’s also the first person to abbreviate “science fiction” down to “sci-fi.” He’s been a literary agent for Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Hugo Gernsback, Andre Norton, Curt Siodmak, Jack Williamson, and many, many others. He even wrote the first issue of the original “Vampirella” comic book.

His home, which used to be known as the “Ackermansion,” was almost completely dedicated to his colossal collection of priceless sci-fi and horror memorabilia, which included books, film posters, costumes, makeup, masks, props, models, photographs, and much more. At 300,000 items, it was the largest collection of its kind in the world. The collection included models of the Martian spacecraft from “The War of the Worlds,” dinosaurs from “King Kong,” Bela Lugosi’s cape from “Dracula,” the Metalunan mutant from “This Island Earth,” the golden idol from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and much more. And he’d give free tours of the place, just to give science fiction and film fans a thrill to see all that awesome stuff. Financial troubles in 2002 forced him to downgrade to a smaller house, the mini-Ackermansion.

Forry has been one of the greatest boosters of science fiction and of science fiction fandom ever. Without Forry Ackerman, modern science fiction/horror/fantasy fandom would not exist.

But like I said: Forry Ackerman is dying.

In speaking with Uncle Forry’s caretaker, an amazing gentleman named Joe Moe, I was told that Forry was lucid, peaceful and not even on pain medication, but that he was progressively getting worse – and was ready to move on. However, he was wanting to say his goodbyes to as many of his neice and nephews that he has created in his almost 92 years on this Earth. His 92nd Birthday is this November 22nd.

Many friends of Forry have visited his bedside, hearing one last story, one last pun and to say one last goodbye. Ray Bradbury even flew to his bedside.

And they’re even requesting letters. If you’d like to write Forry, tell him what his work has meant to you, wish him well, here’s the address:

Forrest J. Ackerman
4511 Russell Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90027

Whether you knew him as Uncle Forry, Dr. Acula, Mr. Science Fiction, or something else, let’s get some cards and letters in the mail, guys. Just to show that not everyone has forgotten Forrest Ackerman.

(Link via Mike Lynch)

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