Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Fire Upon the Deep - a science fiction symphony!

A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge
TOR 1992

Reviewed by Ann Wilkes

With Vernor Vinge's new novel, The Children of the Sky, coming out that picks up where it left off, I decided to read A Fire Upon the Deep. I'd read Vinge's Rainbow's End when it first came out and was impressed with the detail, imagination and scope of his worldbuilding. And made suitable uncomfortable by the lack of printed books in that imagined future.

Fire Upon the Deep did not disappoint. It takes readers to a far distant future in which the homeworld, Earth, is all but forgotten. In this universe, that is divided into layers, or thought zones, from the Bottom to the Middle and High Beyond to the Top and the Transcend, worlds spanning vast reaches share information via the "Known Net".

Ravna Bergsndot works at a relay station for the Net when the biggest disaster of the age descends in the form of an angry Power, an awakened God that becomes known as the Blight. In Vinge's universe, races die out or transcend, some of them achieving a god-like state as a Power. As in Greek mythology, godhead and benevolence don't always go hand in hand. This Power is a destroyer of worlds.

The most interesting characters are the sentient, dog-like Tines who operate only as a pack of four to eight members. In fewer numbers, they lose their intellect down to the level of a dog. These packs function as one and cooperate to use tools. However, they cannot come nearer than 15 feet of another pack without losing their faculties. Something they only dare for sex. They can speak to each other in hums and vibrations and verbally. Once they meet humans, they can even communicate with human speech and specific voices once they learn the language.

The skroderiders are a sort of sentient sea creature with large fronds that is found across the galaxy. Skrodes lack the ability to form short term memory and ride on wheeled devices that help them store memories in order to function intelligently.

Vinge's alien cultures in this novel are incredible! These weren't talking animals. And if that's not enough, Ravna's new boyfriend Pham Nuwen turns out to be a Frankenstein made by a Power from human parts - minus the scars and knobs and possessing a personality, albeit an egotistical one. When the Blight kills the Power that made Pham, he is left with "Godshatter". This piece of the Power can take Pham over - and does at opportune moments - but Pham can't access it or be aware in any meaningful way while being used. If you're a Stargate SG1 fan, this is like Jack having the ancients' knowledge downloaded into his head.

When the Blight destroys relay, Ravna, Pham and two skroderiders head for the Bottom of the Beyond in search of the ship that fled there with what they believe is a secret weapon that will destroy the Blight. Meanwhile, the family aboard that ship is attacked by the locals, leaving the two children orphaned and held in opposing camps, neither knowing the other survived.

The interspersed transmissions from various people sprinkled throughout the book were an interesting device that added additional perspectives through the Known Net's discussion groups.

The alien version of the concept of a complete individual in the Tines culture necessitated different pronouns. That I could follow. However, the dialog was expressed three ways. There was verbal dialog in quotes. Fine. And dialog in italics that always seemed to be what we would sarcastically think or mutter under our breath so that the person we're conversing with doesn't hear. Finally, there were unuttered thoughts that were not in italics. I'm wondering now, after reading the entire book, if these were the packs talking to itself. Would have been nice to have figured that out sooner. And I'm still only guessing. I think the reader needs a little more clues when dialog has that many layers. It should not be confusing or distracting.

In spite of that one flaw, I heartily recommend the book. It's full of action, intrigue, loss, betrayal, complex cultures, politics, warfare and evolution. And unlike so many novels written more recently, no matter how dark things got, the characters always found hope. Not many writers can do so much in one tale. Bravo! And now to read The Children of the Sky!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ashes of the Earth - the mystery runs dark and deep

Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America
By Eliot Pattison
Counterpoint Press April 2011

Reviewed by Deirdre M. Murphy

Many things in the dark world depicted in this post-apocalyptic murder mystery aren’t what they first seem to be—a facet of this book that starts with the very first paragraphs:

The faces of the many child suicides Hadrian Boone had cut from nooses or retrieved below cliffs never left him, filled his restless sleep, and encroached in so many waking nightmares that now, as the blond girl with the hanging rope skipped along the ridge above, he hesitated, uncertain whether she was another of the phantoms that haunted him. Then she paused and reached out for the hand of a smaller red-haired girl behind her. Hadrian threw down the shovel he was using to dig out the colony’s old latrine pit, gathered up the chain clamped to his feet, and ran.

He scrambled up the steep slope of the ravine, ignoring the surprised, sleepy curse of his guard and the shrill, angry whistle that followed. Grabbing at roots and saplings to pull himself forward, he cleared the top and sprinted along the trail, his spine shuddering at the expectation of a baton on his back, his gut wrenching at the sound of a feeble shriek from the opposite side of the ridge. As he reached the open shelf of rock, he sprang, grabbed for the swinging rope that hung from a limb over the edge, heaving it up with a groan of despair. He froze as he hauled the child at the end of it back onto the ledge. What he found himself holding was an old coat fastened over a frame of sticks, and he found himself looking into the blank eyes of a pumpkin head with dried wheat for hair.

As fascinating as this opening is, much of what follows in this opening scene grated on me. Parts were heavy-handed and, well, gross. I really am capable of figuring out who’s supposed to be the hero and who’s supposed to be the villain without seeing the protagonist attempt, mostly futilely, to rescue pages of destroyed books from a latrine pit. Happily, as I got further into the book, I found an interesting, nuanced, multi-faceted future world, with an abundance of heroes, villains, and (best of all) people with aspects of both roles.

Other than the first scene, my primary quibble was an inability to resolve two facts: our protagonist, Hadrian Boone, knows nearly everyone in Carthage because he taught nearly every child born there and because he was a founding father of this first thriving settlement after biological agents and radiation killed nearly everyone in the world. Yet he keeps seeing lots of people he doesn’t know or even distantly recognize wandering around Carthage, and this doesn’t surprise him. At times, this contradiction acted like a speed-bump for me as I read, jostling my attention away from the immediate events of the story to the question of just how large Carthage is.

It isn’t long after Hadrian rescues the pumpkin that the first corpse is discovered, and the Governor of Carthage—a former friend of Hadrian’s—rushes to hide the body and the news. It is only when Hadrian points out that this murder could point to a threat to the Governor himself that he commissions Hadrian to find out what happened to the man. The governor attempts to keep Hadrian in line by threatening Hadrian’s oldest living friend, a threat that Hadrian fears even though the old man is the scientist behind much of Carthage’s success, and who is, we are told, the only reason Hadrian has not been exiled already.

Hadrian has only barely started his investigations when there’s another murder—one closer to Hadrian. This new loss turns his determination to find out what happened from a tired and fearful longing for knowledge and justice into a passionate quest.

Hadrian's investigation of the murders leads him to the gritty roots of corruption in this new world, which is all too reminiscent of the flaws in our pre-apocalyptic world. Can he redeem the dreams of the dead men and turn the children away from their suicide cult? Can he redeem himself, and overcome the emotional scars of losing his world and his family before the first log was cut to build Carthage? Can he at least save some part of the history and literature of the modern world from being used as toilet paper and cigarette wrappers?

There's an inherent promise to mystery readers that the murders will be solved. But will doing so do any good, for Hadrian or his world?

I enjoyed finding out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The history of Science Fiction

While I'm busy slaving away at non-fiction, you can be entertained and stimulated by the history of science fiction. After watching this first clip about the British Museum exhibit, I waded back through my emails and requested a review copy of Science Fiction Writers, a CD containing radio interviews with sci-fi authors from the 70s-90s that was just released by the British Library's audio archives. It's being distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

Now let's get specific, beginning with Jules Verne.

And here's a British doco on H.G. Wells.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Do tricks, get treats

HURRY! This first contest is today (Wednesday, October 19th) only!

Log onto Twitter for your chance to win tickets to the LA premiere of IN TIME, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried!

Tweet #intimepremiere today to see a virtual map with the location of the ticket giveaways. There will be five people secretly located around Los Angeles with pairs of premiere tickets to give to fans. As the amount of tweets increase,the closer you'll be to discovering the secret giveaway locations... until time runs out.

Each time fans reach a tweet goal, the virtual map will zoom closer to reveal the location. Be one of the first on the scene and say the passphrase "Every second counts" to claim your tickets to the LA premiere on Thursday, October 20th.

Visit to begin the race!


Release: October 28, 2011
Written and directed by: Andrew Niccol
Producers: Eric Newman, Marc Abraham
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Galecki
Synopsis: In a future where time is literally money, and aging stops at 25, the only way to stay alive is to earn, steal, or inherit more time. Will Salas lives life a minute at a time, until a windfall of time gives him access to the world of the wealthy, where he teams up with a beautiful young heiress to destroy the corrupt system.

And how about a chance to win a Worldcon membership and more?


Phoenix Pick / Arc Manor will give one lucky recipient a full voting
membership to Chicon 7 (the 70th World Science Fiction Convention) PLUS a
dinner with select authors including Guest of Honor Mike Resnick. Three
runners-up will also get an invitation to the fully paid dinner.

No purchase is necessary to participate. Sign up at

Winners will be notified February 15, 2012.

Chicon 7 will be held in Chicago from August 30 to September 3, 2012.

And now avid SF Readers can find all the best titles in one place. See what you think of Adam Doppelt's BestSFBooks site which rates books by awards they were nominated for or have received. It looks a little like my book shelf...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Low Town raises a hero

Low Town
Daniel Polansky
Doubleday Aug. 2011
(editor's note: see snazzier foreign jackets below the review)

Review by Clare Deming

Low Town is a colorful but dangerous place, as well as being a fast-moving first novel from author Daniel Polansky. In this blend of gritty fantasy and murder mystery, the unlikely hero is the Warden, a drug dealer in the seedy district of Low Town. When he stumbles upon the mangled body of a missing girl, he cannot leave the investigation to the agents of the Crown. He was once an agent, one of the best in Special Ops. With his former partner heading the investigation, and his friends pressuring him to find Little Tara's killer, the Warden has to act.

Orphaned by the plague, the Warden was raised by the Blue Crane - a senior mage who developed the wards that still protect Low Town from the return of the Red Fever. When he needs assistance with the case outside of official channels, he breaks his self-imposed exile to reunite with the elderly magician. The visit also reintroduces him to a Celia, a childhood friend now grown. Nearly a Sorcerer First Rank, she will soon take over the Crane's duties.

While waiting for word from the sorcerers, the Warden uses his underworld connections to track down the man who molested and killed Little Tara. He is unable to accost the man when a wraith-like creature appears, summoned by magic. The murderer is slain by the wraith, but no one else witnesses the event, and the guardsmen and agents are stumped. The Warden has seen such a wraith before, and his suspicions lead him further into danger just as another child goes missing.

There was an awful lot going on in Low Town, both in terms of plot, worldbuilding, and backstory. While I thought that some aspects of the plot didn't make as much sense as I would have liked them to, I was so swept up in the action that the overall experience was positive and exciting. The writing was fresh and the foul language the characters used was nicely original. While some of the characters had annoyingly patterned names (Tancred the Harelip, Yancey the Rhymer, Eddie the Quim), this was a minor complaint for me. The Warden was likeable in some ways, but a real jerk at other times, and this made him intriguing to read about. The only problem that I had with him was that for most of the story he seemed to function fairly well for someone who dabbles in his own merchandise of pixie's breath and dreamvine.

I did find the conclusion moderately predictable and I wished that more space was given to the final scenes. Once the culprit was discovered and confronted, the book was over really fast, and I had hoped to see a greater emotional resolution. But perhaps being disappointed that the book was over is a sign of how much fun I had reading it.

Here are the foreign jackets, from left to right, for the UK, Spain, Italy and Germany. The UK version has a different title, but it's the same novel. Told you they were snazzier.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Envisioning a near future that works - examples?

Post-apocalyptic tales are still popular, with and without zombies. I read three such novels this year: Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero by John Barnes and Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh. I arrived in San Diego for Conjecture on September 9th, the day after the wide-spread blackout. That's all anyone talked about wherever I went: the wait staff, the bellmen, convention-goers from San Diego, everyone. And they all said the same thing: I finally met my neighbors. People pulled together, had block parties and helped each other out. The restaurant served sandwiches by candlelight. People at the bar, without the constant noise and distraction of the game on TV, had real conversations.

Two nights ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the other response to impending doom: folks stockpiling food - not just for a month or a year, but for many years. They envision an utter collapse, a semi-permanent loss of infrastructure. And they're buying guns. That's nothing new, but they may be gaining in numbers, although I'm hesitant to take a poll. I'm afraid of the results.

I'm reminded of the Twilight Zone episode "The Shelter". The family with the only bomb shelter on the block is assailed by previously friendly neighbors when the nuclear threat turns real and immediate.

Personally, I'd rather work on community solutions, not "us and them" or "every (hu)man for himself" ones. The folks in San Diego had the right idea. I'm not sure where the Occupy Wall Street movement will lead, but I see people identifying with each other across a multitude of demographics. Pulling together for a solution for us all. I hope they find one that can then be implemented. Corporate greed and political ambitions have made such a huge mess of things, it's hard to know where to start. I'm glad that doesn't stop them trying.

Then I had a conversation with someone last night about how hard it is for humans occupying this planet at this time to envision a different way to live. We only know what we know. He wants to help start the discussion about a better way. Ways we haven't considered. And where is he looking? To science fiction authors, of course.

But even for us, it's a challenge. As I told him, "How do you write alien thought? Or a truly alien alien?" It's very hard and few of us can pull it off. Extrapolating our present into a better future with a healthier planet, people who solve problems together and politics that work can be just as hard. When I thought about examples for him, I kept coming up with examples from current science fiction of how we make it worse, not better. I find it easier to write tragedy. Somehow, the happy endings just seem too implausible. Perhaps I'm not alone.

Identifying the problems and seeing where they're leading is easy. Finding the different path that no one is seeing is the challenge.

I invite my readers to help me come up with examples of plausible, near-future utopias from current works of science fiction - or at least ones plausible to an open mind. Post a comment with your favorites.

Now if only we knew how to open minds…

Friday, October 7, 2011

Pictures and gamer and gadget goodies

I didn't get around to posting these pictures from the book fair. They were taken by Camille Picott's mother. That's Camille with me on the Redwood stage after the Broad Universe reading at the Sonoma County Book Festival on September 24th.

I read "Troll Games".

I never get tired of reading that. It works so well for a short reading because I can read the whole thing - or a slightly abridged version - in three minutes. And it's fun to read with the troll voice and everyone laughs at the ending. I'm seriously considering recording it and putting it on my website for readers to get a tiny taste of my funny side. As I've said before, I write in two flavors: funny or tragic. Occasionally, I combine the two. I love irony!

I've had several game-related press releases lately and thought I'd give them some airtime. Here's some eye candy for the gamers out there.

Gameforge interviewed Star Trek DS9 actors Nana Visitor (Kira Nerys) and Rene Auberjonois (Odo) about their upcoming release of Star Trek Infinite Space. You can view an HD trailer on the its website.

The load-down from Gameforge about its free-to-play online game:
About Star Trek - Infinite Space

Star Trek - Infinite Space is set in the diverse "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" timeline focusing on the looming war with the menacing "Dominion," featuring:

* The first browser-based Star Trek game eliminating the need to download a client

* Advanced Unity 3D technology, delivering rich 3D graphics in the web browser

* Some of the series' most beloved characters and recognizable locations

* Easy-to-pick-up gameplay, and is enjoyable for both casual and hardcore gamers

Star Trek - Infinite Space is slated for a late 2011 release. Players can secure exclusive items and benefits, such as beta key priority, by pre-registering for the game at

Now this is the kind of thing that makes me wish I had an iPad. I'm just going to have to leave it to my buddies, Allen M. Steele and Greg Bear to tell you how great it is. Bear reviews it at And according to the publicist, Steele endorsed it with, “Journey to the Exoplanets turns your iPad into a starship. What an amazing app!” Here's a peek at what this iPad app from Scientific American in collaboration with Farrar, Straus and Giroux can do.

Finally, this was just way too cool not to share. An invisibility cloak. No. Really. Check it out. First, here's the video.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Winchester Mystery House's Fright Nights - Not for the kiddies

I received an invitation to check out the premiere of the Winchester Mystery House's Fright Nights. I dithered for a while, then justified the expense of the trip by combining it with a trip to see the grandkids in Fremont on the way. But then, who would be my plus one who would want to make that stop on the way? Her Aunt Debbie! We got there around 6:40. Apparently there was some sort of press briefing in front of the house that we were not directed to. I only know from reading the email they sent at 10 AM the day of - over an hour after I left the house. ☹ Oh, well.

We braved the rap and hip-hop blaring in the courtyard to check in at the press/VIP table and headed into the Winchester Room for hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Fortified with Winchester wine, we joined group six for the flashlight tour of the Winchester House. I visited the Winchester House as a girl and remember seeing the brick wall behind the door and the door that led to a two-story drop to the garden below. I didn't see the brick wall Friday night and only saw the closed door to nowhere. I so wanted to see where all the doors led and see the secret passageways. But that apparently wasn't part of the tour.

If you go on the flashlight tour, be sure not to go with a migraine. Imagine being in a dark room with 30 people all shining flashlights everywhere, including, occasionally in your light-sensitive eyes. I didn't have a migraine when I left Sonoma County that afternoon. It came on just in time for the flashlights. ☹

For those unfamiliar with the Winchester story, Sarah Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the maker of the Winchester repeating rifle - a revolutionary design. They had one child who died at about 6 months old. After her husband died of TB, the grieving Sarah visited a psychic in Boston. According to legend, the psychic convinced her that the spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles sought their revenge upon her and her family. The psychic advised her to construct a home, but never stop construction lest the spirits overtake her. She moved west and bought an eight-room, unfinished farmhouse near San Jose.

The Winchester Mystery House, at its height before the 1906 quake, had seven stories of labyrinthine craziness. Her 24/7 construction project transformed the farmhouse into a sprawling 160-room mansion with 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, 2 basements, three elevators and six kitchens over the course of 38 years.

Tour guides matter. They really do. Make sure you aren't led by the strapping young Joe. He was unenthusiastic, uninformed and unenergized. And on about four occasions, I asked him a question. The answer was always a variation of "I don't know." I just read a SF Gate blog in which my counterpart had a similarly unfortunate tour guide. Hers was all gush and no substance.

Here's a video if you can't make it to the mansion yourself. These Weird US guys got a better, more inclusive tour.

The rushed tour of the house didn't frighten, but the maze surely made up for that. It was a screamfest. I screamed my fool head off, to the point of hurting my throat. The last good haunted house I'd been through was when I was probably 12 or 13. I don't remember the ghouls jumping directly in front of us or being free to get right in our face. It seemed they could lunge, but not trespass onto our designated path. They could scare you, but not "get you".

Such is not the case on Fright Night. Beware the ghouls that can jump out at you from around any corner or from behind, and totally violate your personal space. Several even followed me down the path for a while. The Curse of Sarah Winchester Maze: Legends Never Die is not recommended for children under 13.

My nerves got so frayed that I told Debbie it was her turn to be in front and be the early warning system when we were about half-way through.