Friday, October 24, 2008

The Science Fantasy Stamp Book

Space Fantasy Commemorative Stamp Booklet
by Stephen Hickman
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Original Artwork

I have to confess that this was much easier to acquire than I thought it would be. I read the name initially as a booklet for collecting stamps, not a booklet of U.S. postage stamps as it turned out to be. And the last thing I expected was a pulp SF homage.

Hickman has a cleaner version of the painting on his website but I wanted a scan of the booklet cover in this case.

I know it's a bit faded and there's a bit more to the original image so definitely check out Hickman's original.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review - Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
Edited by Jeff Prucher
2008 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

You might remember a few years ago where the OED was soliciting help from science fiction fans to help track the etymology of some terms that have an origin with science fiction. Consequently It isn't mentioned in the introductions to Brave New Worlds but I strongly suspect that this new dictionary of science fiction terms may have grown out of that earlier effort to trace some of these terms.

This dictionary is an interesting effort. Over the past century science fiction has generated a vast collection of jargon. Sometimes the jargon becomes so well integrated that it can be hard to remember that it is jargon. If you asked random people on the street what an "alternate universe" is the majority would be able to give you some kind of answer. Other terms like cyberpunk will be casually dropped by fans but have no meaning for the general public.

For that reason I don't think it's particularly helpful as a reference book even though science fiction fans are certain to find many fascinating facts in it. Unlike the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and it's Fantasy counterpart the dictionary isn't completely supplanted by the Internet. Searching for terms is more likely to find their use than an explanation of them. Authors who use unfamiliar terms are likely to explain them in the text or through context. The only place where you'd find a significant use for Brave New Words is if you weren't an SF fan and were conversing with SF fans about science fiction. In that case you're unlikely to even be aware of Brave New Words, let alone have a copy of it handy.

Taking the book from that perspective I referred to it as I read a few different message board and usenet threads that would have science fiction terms casually dropped into them. I was able to find much of the jargon used but I couldn't find things like "near-future" (it's an obvious construction but it has a specific meaning in science fiction) or the prefix "psi-" despite the presense of "psionics".

So I can't recommend it as a reference book but it does contain a lot of interesting etymological data for fans. Here's a good sampling of what I got from the dictionary. Who has the first recorded use of the following terms: sci-fi, sense of wonder, and deep space?

Robert Heinlein was the first person recorded to abbreviate science fiction as sci-fi and the first entry listed with sci-fi having negative connotations is 1974. That entry does make it clear that fans had already built up a dislike of the term.

That elusive sense of wonder that drives science fiction and fantasy was first mentioned by H. P. Lovecraft. I bet you thought he only created words like "squalmous".

The first reference to interstellar space as "deep space" goes to E. E. "Doc" Smith and that construction has leaked back into science.

In the end I liked Brave New Words. Despite the weaknesses in its format and design I appreciated the examination of the history of the words. Though I won't be pulling it off the shelf to check unfamiliar words going through it once is worth your effort.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review - "Oceanic", "Taklamakan", and "The Very Pulse of the Machine"

Bob Eggleton
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I've started the process of collecting the World Fantasy Award winners but it will be a few more weeks before reviews start up. The first one is here and the next few week worth are in the mail. I'm hoping that once I'm over the hump of the first few that I'll be able to acquire most of the rest without too much trouble. Of course since the toughest books for me to get in hard cover from the Hugos and Nebulas were from the 1990's there could be trouble on the horizon.

Anyway, look for an overview of the awards and a listing shortly before I start the reviews.

All three of this week's stories are in The Year's Best Science Fiction: The Sixteenth Annual Collection along with Ted Chiang's Nebula winner "The Story of Your Life".

by Greg Egan
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

I had a strongly mixed reaction to this story. Egan picks his theme and tells that story reasonably well and for that reason I think it's worth reading, on the other hand there's a few road bumps and stylistic choices that prevent me from getting too enthusiastic about it.

On a world where culture has been divided by those who spend their lives wandering the oceans and those who make their way on dry land a child has a religious encounter in the depths. He becomes a fervent follower of a fundamentalist religion with Christian overtones but as time passes the events of his life drive him further and further from that. That's the real story that Egan is telling but he ties it up with the unusual history of the planet and biochemistry.

At its core there's a decent story in "Oceanic" and as long as it sticks with people it's fine. I wouldn't call it brilliant but I've read much worse. The problem for me was when Egan veered into the world building and my reaction was "That doesn't make any sense!" In particular there is the protagonists first sexual encounter where after pages of being mysterious we find out that after sex they swap genitals with their partner. It's a bit of an odd ball thing to just throw in and it has absolutely zero impact on the story other than to pad things out for a couple of pages and have mysterious references to it in the story before this point. When I hit that part I thought that Egan was going to go into gender relationships or the impact of this on the religions of the planet since what he told us about them doesn't make any sense if they're all hermaphrodites. Instead he goes straight into a "And now because of my religion we must get married!" bit and when the protagonist's partner refuses they swap back and nothing more is said of it.

There's other developments that Egan has in the story that give the appearance of being part of the narrative and in the end don't do anything at all. It makes for frustration on the part of the reader. In general I'd give "Oceanic" a hesitant recommendation but I wouldn't suggest hunting it down.

by Bruce Sterling
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

A pair a cat burglars are recruited by the government to infiltrate a major project located in the remotest desert in China. They're anticipating a construction center for interstellar space craft or a new superweapon. When they sneak in the find a secret that is both far more shocking than anything they could have anticipated. I'm hesitant to describe the story more than that since the plot is dependent upon the slow reveal of the details.

This is a story for tech fetishists. I get the suspicion reading it that Sterling cared a lot more about the technology the characters use than the plot or the characters themselves. If you read the story brace yourself for lots of technology to be thrown out there. Fortunately Sterling doesn't spend the entire story on describing everything and how it works but he does spend a lot of time on it.

Despite that bit of criticism I wound up enjoying "Taklamakan" quite a bit. Sterling paces the reveals in the story very well as things get stranger and stranger. I never did get a proper feel for the characters beyond the archetypes of the brash young adventure seeker and the wise mentor but I wasn't bothered by that since the plot zips from one point to another only pausing to explain how awesome some bit of equipment they're carrying is. It's not a story for everyone; if you need strong characters then look elsewhere. Still I liked it.

"The Very Pulse of the Machine"
by Michael Swanwick
1999 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A few years ago I did quite a bit of research on the moon of Jupiter Io. Like its companion Galilean satellites Io is a fascinating place. Still it has not been a popular place for science fiction. We are, after all, more likely to settle on the more solid Ganymede or dive below the ice of Europa than try to build on a constantly shifting volcanic surface that builds up a massive electrical charge. So this gave me some extra appreciation for what Swanwick was doing in "The Very Pulse of the Machine".

One of the two members of the first mission to land on Io died when the rover they were traveling in crashed. The other is left to drag her body across miles of inhospitable terrain to get back to their lander. On the trip her dead companion's voice keeps trying to talk to her over the radio alternating between poetry fragments, textbook information on Io, and details of the chemistry of the surfaces she is crossing. She could be going mad or something could be trying to communicate with her.

The lone astronaut trying to cross inhospitable terrain is one of those science fiction staples that everyone seems to do at least once. Swanwick builds the surface of Io into a distinct threat. Besides that the survival is secondary to the voice on the radio. Those two factors give "The Very Pulse of the Machine" a different feeling and I wound up enjoying it.