Sunday, December 29, 2019

Book Review: The Futurians by Damon Knight

The Futurians by Damon Knight

Hardcover, 276 pages

Published 1977 by John Day Company

This book is only for two narrow groups of people in the world. Absolute and total science fiction golden age fans and the scholars of the field. I consider myself in both camps however it is the later that pushed me to pick up this book. As co-host and resident historian of the Dickheads podcast, I am always researching the writing and editorial process that my man PKD went through with each and every title. Over and over we learned little tid-bits about the influence of his long-time editor (first at Ace and then at DAW) Don Wollheim.

I think Wolheim's influence on PKD's novels and ultimately his career is extremely underrated. From changing almost all his titles to rejecting Man in the High Castle and Martian-time Slip which pushed SMLA to send those novels to a bigger publisher. Recently we got a first-hand account from Barry Malzberg about how mand Wollheim was that PKD won a Hugo for a book he had not even considered Science Fiction. I had become very interested in any detail I could get about Don Wollheim whose lasting impact was mostly hidden as a behind the scenes editor.

While there are bigger more popular figures in the genre in this book from Asimov, Phol and Judith Merrill my interest was mostly in the who sat behind a desk in NYC and bought those early PKD novels. You know the guy who knew Solar Lottery was a better title than Quizmaster Takes All and that there was no way we would have a Mars colony by 1994. That was the reason he turned down one of PKD's most-loved novels Martian Time-Slip.

This book has all kinds of funny and uncomfortable stories about the sci-fi nerds of the 1930s. This is an important history and explains the lineage of the genre as we knew it in the 20th century. As a stand-alone history it misses a lot and is mostly from Knight's POV. I also read Lisa Yazek's Future is Female and Alec N. Lee's Astounding. As a trilogy, they really work. If you want to really understand the whole history of 20the century Sci-fi that is the way to go.

For me it was all about Wollheim, I learned about his earliest zines, and stories. The dramas of the early scene and how he rose to form ACe books and why he left. How he started DAW. Valuable info that will show up in our podcast in the future.

My Favorite Films of 2019

Ad Astra: It has some really stupid moments and everyone saying it is a cross between 2001 and Apocalypse Now. I kinda think 2001 comparisons are a little lazy, much like Interstellar it is far too grounded in my opinion to be compared to 2001. I liked the cosmic tone and the scale of the action. At times I knew too much the BS science. A ship going that fast, for example, is never slowing down for a mayday. Brad Pitt gives a simple but effective performance. The effects are amazing, and James Grey has a brooding cosmic drama that deserves to be experienced on the big screen.

Alita Battle Angel: Considered a domestic flop I hope the fact that it was a huge success overseas is enough to get us more movies. I don't see the problem with this movie. It is a fun popcorn Sci-fi adventure. I admit I stayed away because I am not a big Robert Rodriguez fan. I wish I had heard the interviews when he said he made a James Cameron movie. He certainly did.

Wandering Earth: This a super fun ridiculous movie. The special effects are mostly amazing. The action and drama are so over the top and silly. I loved seeing a huge budget sci-fi film like this coming from China. See it on the big screen if you can I know it is not playing in many theaters in the states but it is making Baaazillions in China. Based on the Cixian Liu (China's answer to Arthur C Clarke) novel they took a pretty insane sci-fi concept and threw as much rubble, earthquakes, giant waves and disaster as they could computer animate.

John Wick 3: I think it was better than chapter 2 but I think the surprise of the first one still leaves that as my favorite. This is the first Hollywood action movie to really get to the level of action that Asian action like Hardboiled, The Raid or The Villainess have reached. The levels of brutality and intensity are of course dialed to 11, the goofy ridiculous mythology is fun even though it gets cornier with each film. I think that is fine.

Doctor Sleep: Loved Doctor Sleep, I think I actually liked it better than the novel. partly because I always thought DS felt like two novels. I feel the film did a better job of smoothing everything into one story. Some of the Dan working at the hospice staff was rushed but holy hell was the casting perfect. Ewan was perfect as Dan Torrance, Rebecca Fergason was amazing as Rose the Hat. There were two incredible scenes that make this worth seeing on the big screen. there is much I want to say but I don't want to spoil. If you are a SK fan or of the movie The Shining you should see this on the big screen.

Shadow: The whole film is shot with blacks and greys giving it a feel like it was drawn. The contrast to the color of the actors remains breathtaking throughout the film. Yimou's use of nature in the form of water and rain is nothing short of Kurasawa like in execution. The story is super melo-dramatic royal court drama that will not hook everyone. It is a good 45 minutes before any really action happens. The last act is a bloodbath with bizarre weapons and it is all fantastically staged. I loved every second of this movie but I suspect it will not be for everyone.

This might be my favorite of the 5 Yimou Wuxia films. and I love four of them. If you like martial arts epics you can't go wrong!

Us: Jordan Peele's second horror film proves that Get Out was not a fluke. I promise I won't spoil any plot points. The movie is an impressive piece of horror that balances suspense, character and creepy tone. What is more impressive than all that is that there is Rod Serling level social-political allegory here. Get Out was about Racism, US is about privilege, the haves and the have nots. It is about the fear of the other coming to get US. A genius piece of work. Was it perfect? No there was at least one scene that I felt totally sucked and took me out of the movie. People who want everything to be explained and make perfect sense will waste their time nitpicking it. I like that some of them are unexplainable. Don't overthink it.

Apollo 11: This is the film made up of restored real-life footage of the mission that first put human beings on the moon. Edited together like a narrative of the 10-day mission is a goosebump-inducing emotional experience that makes you feel like you are part of history. The restored footage looks amazing good. I actually felt emotional during some of the most famous moments. It is a seriously powerful cinematic experience that left us all saying wow over and over. Saw it in the theater it is worth every dime. Last film I saw in the theater with my father.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Once upon a Time in Hollywood could've been called Hollywood Fantasia. I like the weird QT version of Hollywood. While not perfect I found it to be pretty darn close but hard to talk about without major spoilers. One of my favorite things in the film was something that went unanswered 99%.9 of writers would get notes from studios/editors saying that the scene needed to be ended or explained. None the less Leo and Pitt were great on screen together and the tiny details are pretty great for the most part. Lots of great cameos. 5/5 for me. But I am a sucker for QT.

Parasite: The amazing new Joon-Ho Bong movie! His first fully Korean production since Mother. While I liked Snowpiecer and Okja this is an equally bonkers but FAR better movie. It won the big prize at Cannes for good reason. This movie is beautifully filmed and acted but it is the story of classism at the heart that makes this movie so interesting.

(I have yet to see Knives out and The Lighthouse I suspect I will love them both)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

My Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2019!

So this year I read 26,832 pages across 96 books. Many were classic and 60's Science Fiction but for this list I choose from the 40 new releases I read this year. So this doesn't really include any of the reading I did for the Dickheads Podcast, or the HUGO series we are working on. Just the new releases. Lots of cool books I think you should check out. Please check out these books and consider my latest science fiction novel Goddamn Killing Machines from Clash Books.

Number Ten:

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This book is very much a reaction to modern political issues and the Trump era it is not as direct as some might suspect. If forced to make comparisons I would say it is part Handmaid's Tale and part Philip K Dick's Time out of Joint. It is easy at times reading this book to miss the sheer levels of genius at work, and this lends itself to thinking about it long after you close it for the last time. This is the first top ten read of the year contender and certainly a book I highly recommend it for my readers.

Number Nine:

Snow Over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Serna

a cool story that is the essence of why we need the small press. This is a novel that the major publishers would never touch, from the short length to the blacker than black tone it needed a smaller press. Without the co-sign of a gatekeeper like Apex publishing, I might not have bothered to check it out. Yeah, it sounded super cool but if it was self-published without the flag of Apex flying over it I might not have ever checked it out. I am super glad I did because holy hell this is a badass book. I not only suggest you buy/read it but I think you should make a play list of stoner and doom metal and putting it on shuffle while you read will greatly improve your experience.


Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister

Baumeister is clearly influenced by another Kurt. The guy who wrote equally placed his tongue in cheek for speculative satire like Cat's Cradle. I know that is a very highly intense comparison but it is not made lightly. Fans of Vonnegut's humorous sci-fi, he may not have wanted to be called Sci-fi but let us not get snobby now. This will be a Dick Like Suggestion on Dickheads. PKD was underrated for his humor, and one of the things that makes this book fun is the moments that make you chuckle. This is not a book filled with jokes just plenty of weird offbeat things that will give you laughs. I mean the program in the book called Symmetra is not that far removed from the infamous pink laser beam. But the most PKD thing about this book is the America in this book is one that is just slightly different.

Number Seven:

A Dog Between Us By Duncan Barlow

A Dog Between Us is a novel soaking with emotional richness driven by raw and heartfelt prose. This is the type of novel that leaves you wondering how much of this is autobiographical? There are moments of gut-wrenching grief that is so powerful it is like an emotional knife's edge. The story jumps back in forth between touching and heartfelt love, clumsy disregard of youth and adult reflection. On the surface, this doesn't sound like my type of book. An experimental character-driven story with no genre elements but grief and a feeling of dread through-out.

Number Six:

Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson

Evenson has quickly become one of my favorite working authors, and his work is a must-read, I mean all of it. I read a few of these before they were collected. There is something about reading Evenson stories collected. I hang on every word, each story is strong. If you are not reading Evenson you are missing one of the best weird fiction voices.

Number Five:

Unraveling by Karen lord

This is a fun read with magical portals, city-sized psychic labyrinths, Angels, shape-shifting immortal beings, killers and a murder mystery at the heart of journey through a universe with a Physics-based on memory opposed to what we think of as natural science. The weird landscape makes for a really inventive environment that plays with what is real in our memory and the flexible nature of time. In some ways, I thought of this book as a cross between Leguin Lathe of Heaven and the David Fincher movie Seven.

Number Four:

The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin: Edited by Lisa Yaszek

The concept is simple starting with Claire Winger Harris and a story called 'The Miracle of the Lilly' and ending with A Ursala K Leguin Story Called 'Nine Lives'. That takes the reader through the evolution of the pulp era from 1928 to 1969. Anyone interested in the classic pulp era and the history of women in it should read this book. The way it follows the progressive of the genre gives it an interesting edge. This book is more than just another anthology, it is an important historical document that happens to have more than 20 stand-out works of bold science fiction. It should be taught in MFA programs but sadly I think it will be overlooked just like the contribution of the many women in the genre. Check out my Dickheads podcast interview with Lisa about this amazing book.

Number Three:

The Song my Enemies Sing by James Reich

Many of this novel's most captivating moments are set on Mars, not the one in our solar system but the preserved in the amber of the imagination of the past. It might not be for everyone but if you love the genre I think there is a good chance you will dig this one too. During the war in Vietnam, a general was famously quoted as saying they had to burn down a village to save it. Did Reich destroy Science Fiction or honor it? I think he honored it. This book challenges modern science fiction embracing the traditions of the past. Many modern novels get compared to Ballard, Brunner, Leguin or Dick, but few embody those traditions like the Songs My Enemies Sing. It is a masterpiece. I don't say that lightly.

Number two:

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This is How You Lose The Time War is a novel about two post-human women who are agents on the competing sides of a war being fought across space and time. Twists and turns remain but this book is equally romantic and beautiful as it is thought-provoking and jaw-dropping. The prose is lyrical and it often feels like you are getting to read love letters. While never losing the concept these beautiful letters are peppered with high concept and world-building nuggets. They are pretty but they drive the narrative every time. Give them all the awards. Except the PKD award that should go to my personal favorite of 2019...

Number One:

Unamerica by Cody Goodfellow

This novel explores religion, drugs, capitalism, social Darwinism, and probably more I didn't catch. It is a lot to take in but it is OK because Goodfellow fills the 436 pages with texture and swag.Goodfellow is one of the smartest writers of my generation and it is impossible for me to read his work without marveling at his skill, intelligence, and ability on page after page. Unamerica is the best thing I have read this year and I have read a few masterpieces already. This is a must-read for fans of weird fiction that lives on the border of science fiction and Horror. Goodfellow's most assured work is a dystopia not to miss. I hope the people behind the Philip K Dick award pay attention as it is worthy.

Book Review: Resistance Reborn (Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) by Rebecca Roanhorse

Resistance Reborn (Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

by Rebecca Roanhorse

Hardcover, 295 pages

Published November 2019 by Del Rey

Rebbecca Roanhorse is an author who I enjoy following twitter but has never managed to read before for whatever reason. I meant to read one of her original novels before this but the year got away from me. As I have with the last four Star Wars movies I read this movie prequel before seeing the film.

I wanted to like this more, I felt like this didn't set the next movie like Catalyst did for Rogue One or Aftermath did Force Awakens. That said this is more about the days after Last Jedi. I really respect this book's knowledge of the canon. I not just talking about the films, this book references Clone Wars, Rebels and effectively uses very good characters Chuck Wendig introduced in the Aftermath trilogy. Sometimes this comes off a little info-dumpy, but as a person who follows the canon, I did really enjoy this aspect of the novel.

This novel was mostly focused on Leia, Poe, and Finn. It was surprising to me how in the background Rey was but at the same time, I could understand how the author would be worried about stepping on the toes of the new film. considering that we didn't get a proper ending to the Leia storyline I was hoping to get more from her storyline. I know it sounds like I am complaining. I wanted to like this book more but I think this was a super basic follow-up to Last Jedi. My favorite aspects had to do with the Aftermath characters Snap and Norra who I was surprised to see again. I was happy about that.

This doesn’t add a thing to the story of Rise of Skywalker in the slightest. One of my least favorite things about the new film is that the story of the emperor felt rushed and underdeveloped. This is not the author’s fault but the story group should have considered that this was a perfect place to plant seeds about Darth Sideous still being in the picture even in small hints. There was no reason not too as he was in all the trailers and posters.

I liked this enough that I was not bummed I read it and I really want to read this author freed of the weight of this massive franchise.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Book Review:Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather

Sisters of the Vast Black

by Lina Rather

Paperback, 160 pages

Published October 29th 2019 by

If I told you this was about space nuns I am not sure it would sell you but this is another great Tor novella. I have been waiting for this book since Tor first tweeted about it months before release. My first thought was that Lina Rather might be trying to walk in the hallowed footsteps of catholic science fiction like the Sparrow. While these two book are very different the ancient religion in the future colony thing is totally there. Unlike Mary Doria Russell it is clear that Rather is a true blue Science Fiction writer and not an author who would shy away from the label. I mean let me be clear weather Russel considers it sci-fi or not The Sparrow is 100% genre. Sorry, this not about the Sparrow but I think this novella is a great companion.

So the Tor novellas are almost always good so what are the strengths of Sisters of the Vast Black? The world-building in this novella is a strength and the story sounds more appealing if you explain that the Nuns travel inside a giant space whale to disease-ridden colony worlds no one else would set foot on. That sounds cool, right? I would have been more impressed if Nnedi Okorafor had not just used this form of space travel in a Tor novella Binti just a few years back. The setting and characters, however, are really compelling. I certainly would read more stories and novels about the Sisters of the Order of Saint Rita on Our Lady of Impossible Constellations.

While it sounds campy it is a pretty serious science fiction novel and one of the strengths for me was how simple but effective the prose was. The world feels lived in. I liked that there was some mystery about the earth and the war but it lives lots of room for more stories in this universe. I want to read more from this author and this universe.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Book Review/Podcast: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Paperback, 216 pages Published 1989 by Baen (NY) (first published 1966)

I don't know what took me so long to read Zelazny, but it was the Dickheads podcast series on the Hugo winners of the 60's that got me to finally do this. You see this book shared the 1966 Hugo award for best science fiction novel. I will have more detailed thoughts when we record the podcast. When that is released I will add it to this review.

Thanks to the shared award with Dune it is impossible not to compare the two. That is really too bad because no science fiction novel should have to be compared to one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre. I don't know what voters were thinking about this year but This Immortal does not hold a candle to Dune not then or ever. Is it better than some of the others that won that decade? Sure This Immortal is sneaky weird, and I think some of the merits of the novel are easy to miss. I mean this novel is certainly better than Fritz Lieber's The Wanderer but it came out the same year as Dune.

I mean Shawshank Redemption didn't win shit at the Oscars thanks to Forrest Gump coming out the same year, it happens.

I was not a huge fan of this book, to be honest, but that could've been that I just re-read Dune for this same series. There is a lot of cool stuff in this story. Taking place decades after a three-day war and decades-long occupation by aliens that came from Vega. That sets up all kinds of unintentional humor as the aliens are referred to as Vegans. In one sense it is cool that RZ had them coming from a real star you can see on any clear night but why would their species go by the name we have for their star?

The story is about a Vegan who wants a tour of the earth ruins so he can write a history of our species. Spies from many different worlds, assassins, mutants, genetically engineered monsters, and plenty of action. I think there are lots of classical references that went straight over my head. Some of my favorite moments came when you saw RZ stretch his imagination some of the descriptions the vegans or the alien landscapes.

This is short read so I think it is important for completionists and serious students of the genre but I am not sure I would recommend it for general readers. More thoughts coming on the podcast.

Book Review: Salvaged by Madeleine Roux

Salvaged by Madeleine Roux

Paperback, 352 pages

Published October 15th 2019 by Ace

This was an interesting read. I just picked it up when I saw it on the library's new releases and recognized the author from Twitter. So you see social media does pay off sometimes. I didn't read the many, many blurbs and I am kinda glad I went that way. In fact, I went into this novel totally cold not knowing a single thing about the plot just knowing it was science fiction from the super cool looking cover. Had I read multiple blurbs that all compared to ALIEN I might have spent the whole time waiting for the monster to show up. I think I benefitted from not having an idea of what the plot or comparisons were. That said I can't review this without crossing that line for you.

The opening pages drip with gruesome details and the writing is pretty great. The prose is not overly pretty but I enjoyed the fact that Roux is a simple but confident storyteller. We are pushed into this world and have to hold on for most of the experience. The characters are well developed but Roux gives lots of attention and detail to our main point of view character Roselyn. That said the narrative is a third person and we get many points of view. I think this effective and used for moments of suspense and character.

So Roslyn is a deep space salvager and that gives the book it's space truckers feel. She is sent to clean up ships that lost all the crew. She is a drunk and fuck-up with a very interesting past I won't spoil. She is close to losing her job when she has given one last chance a salvage gig with a partner no one can stand. Once they arrive at the ship they find the crew is not dead - not yet however they have come under the control of a sentient parasite.

The comparison to ALIEN is setting pure and simple. While ALIEN has psychological fear involved most of it comes from the characters being hunted. The thing that separates Salvaged is the paranoia at the heart of the story, in that sense this novel is almost more in the neighborhood of John Carpenter's The Thing. As a Phil K Dickian nerd I enjoyed that this novel puts the characters through their worst fears guided by the ones they most love. As a horror concept that is great.

I didn't find the story or the concept to be very groundbreaking and I felt like I had seen this story before. That said it was very well told even if the concept didn't totally hook me. I did, however, enjoy the writing enough to want to read more from the author. I enjoyed the book enough to give it a positive rating and most importantly I had fun reading it. Madeleine Roux is clearly talented and I will be reading more of her work.

Salvaged is highly recommended for those looking for deep-space horror you can't go wrong with this novel that is less cosmic than ALIEN but far more psychological.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Book Review: Unraveling by Karen Lord

Unraveling by Karen Lord

Hardcover, 304 pages Published June 4th 2019 by Daw Book

As I read this strange and esoteric fantasy novel I had a feeling that many of the readers out there on Good Reads would hate this book and boy was I correct. Reading many of the reviews I was confused. Did we read the same book? Because the book I read was pretty close to a masterpiece of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I have not done the rankings but this book is easily one of my top ten reads of the year.

Karen Lord writes from a misty magical place, with an Afro-Caribbean feel she creates a fantasy world that is not easily digestible for a generation of readers honed on Harry Potter. It requires you to not rely on tropes and rehashed ideas. I mean there were times I thought things were going over my head but that is OK for me.

This is a fun read with magical portals, city-sized psychic labyrinths, Angels, shape-shifting immortal beings, killers and a murder mystery at the heart of journey through a universe with a Physics based on memory opposed to what we think of as natural science. The weird landscape makes for a really inventive environment that plays with what is real in our memory and the flexible nature of time. In some ways, I thought of this book as a cross between Leguin Lathe of Heaven and the David Fincher movie Seven.

The City labyrinth is populated by tricksters and undying immortals, there are moments of wild imagination that are balanced with the grim serial killer story. For a stand-alone book the mythology of the undying and the labyrinth were great examples of world-building. I learned after finishing this book that some of the settings and characters were in earlier work. So I am not sure how much I missed on stuff because I had not Read Redemption in Indigo.

The actual prose is beautifully composed and the story is well structured. The lead character Dr. Miranda Ecouvo is a forensic therapist and she is really well written. Some of the Angels and the Undying came off more vague to me but that in a sense worked. I liked that as characters they often pointed out how humans just couldn't grasp what their life is like or how it works.

I was first interested in this author because I heard her compared To Octavia Butler and Ursula K Leguin. I thought that high praise might be pure hyperbole but Unraveling delivered. I suspect that Karen Lord is an author I will continue to enjoy and I can see her work becoming a staple of mine. I got this because it was her newest work, but some of her older works seem even more up my alley.

Read Unraveling if you like powerful and grim fantasy with well written and stylish prose. One of the best books of the year in my opinion.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Book Review: Contagion and Other Stories by Brian Evenson

Contagion and Other Stories by Brian Evenson

Paperback, 138 pages

Published September 2011 by Astrophil Press (first published July 2000)

Anyone that follows my blog or podcast knows that I am a huge fan of Brian Evenson. This book, however, was released many years before I discovered his writing. I should have noticed when this was re-released by my old friend Duncan Barlow at Astrophil press in 2011. I have been meaning to go back and read some of Evenson's early work and thanks to this book I got a chance.

This collection includes the O.Henry award-winning short story, Two Brothers. It is a great example of Evenson who was already 19 years ago writing powerful and beautifully surreal tales. The opening story has moments of body horror but descends into surreal paranoia. This story is pure prose insanity and in the hands of a less accomplished writer, it would be a mess. This opening story is a statement and a good story to test your compatibility with this author.

I personally think Evenson is a genius and one of those authors that walks a perfect tightrope between high-class literature and badass genre. These days he writes full out horror and Science Fiction. I think this collection is more when he was dipping his toe in the genre pool. He probably wasn't aware he was doing it.

I know that Evenson didn't really consider himself a horror writer at the stage when these stories were written. That is surprising to me. The stories are bleak, the tone is fully horror but many of the stories had a western vibe or feel to them which I think is expressed on the cover. Personally, my favorite story was the one called A Hanging.

Evenson is one of the best short story writers we have. I know that sounds like hyperbole but he has mastered the short form and anyone who likes short stories needs to have and read all his collections.