A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future

By Bruce A. Beatie

Peter Swirski, Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future. Liverpool University Press, 2015 (Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 51). ISBN 978-1-789620-54-2. Paperback, $35.41 / £19.95.

Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future

Memory tells me that I started reading science fiction in the late 1940s in the form of Heinlein stories that had appeared in Boys Life, which I subscribed to as a boy scout. When I started college at Berkeley in 1952, I discovered the Elves, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society. By the time I’d spent four years in the Air Force and finished my graduate studies at Harvard, I had collected a large SF library,  including an almost complete run of Astounding. The point of this narrative is that my deepest knowledge of SF was the so-called Golden Age. Though I’ve continued reading SF and fantasy, and have published over fifty reviews of SF and fantasy books in the last twenty years, the renowned Polish writer Stanisław Lem has remained on the borderline of my reading.

When Vector (the journal of the British Science Fiction Association) solicited reviewers for this book, I offered because I wanted to learn about Lem. For readers who share my previous ignorance, Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in the Ukraine), and died in Krakaw in 2008. According to Swirski’s bibliography, Lem’s first published science fiction story appeared in 1946 (Man from Mars—translated title); his first collection of SF stories appeared in 1957 (translated in 1977 as The Star Dairies). Fiasco, his final SF publication, appeared in 1987, translated with the same title in 1988.

Peter Swirski himself was born in Canada in 1966 but has spent most of his professional life elsewhere; presently a distinguished visiting professor in China, he has also taught in Finland and Hong Kong. His preoccupation with Stanisław Lem began with a 1992 article in Science Fiction Studies; the monograph reviewed here is the latest of Swirski’s six book publications on Lem. His other publications are on aspects of American literature and culture. Continue reading “A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future”

Sideways in Time: A review

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?

Continue reading “Sideways in Time: A review”

The Time Machine

Reviewed by Jo Lindsay Walton

Time travel plus pandemic: the elevator pitch might simply be, “Dr WHO.”

Written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Natasha Rickman, The Time Machine is a free and freewheeling response to H.G. Wells’s classic text, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Like previous work by Creation Theatre, The Time Machine is an immersive, site-specific production. You prowl around the London Library in a little gaggle, led by your Time Traveller guide, occasionally chased by a spooky Morlock, and now and then bumping into other characters. Continue reading “The Time Machine”

Cheryl’s 2018 in Feminist Speculative Fiction

A Year In Feminist Speculative Fiction

By Cheryl Morgan

9780374208431 fcTop of the list for anyone’s feminist reading from 2018 must be Maria Dahvana Headley’s amazing re-telling of Beowulf, The Mere Wife. Set in contemporary America, with a gated community taking the place of Heorot Hall, and a policeman called Ben Wolfe in the title role, it uses the poem’s story to tackle a variety of issues. Chief among them is one of translation. Why is it that Beowulf is always described as a hero, whereas Grendel’s Mother is a hag or a wretch? In the original Anglo-Saxon, the same word is used to describe both of them. And why do white women vote for Trump? The book tackles both of those questions, and more. I expect to see it scooping awards.

Space OperaA personal favourite of mine, though possibly a little too off-the-wall for some tastes, is Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera. The usual pyrotechnic prose we have come to expect from Valente is augmented by delightful comedy and an all-encompassing queerness. Valente’s time in the UK as a student has helped her to set a book here without any of the embarrassing Theme Park Britain we sometimes see from American authors. Amidst the insanity of Brexit, it seems entirely appropriate that Earth’s admission to the Interstellar Community will depend on our performance in a galaxy-wide version of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Keshet, beings who look like overly excited red pandas, are now officially my favourite alien species.

European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanHumour also pervades the Athena Club novels of Theodora Goss. The second book in the series is European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. It takes our heroines from London to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue a Miss Lucinda Van Helsing from an awful doom. They also discover that foreigners make remarkably good cake. Goss has assembled a fascinating team of characters, from the prim Mary Jekyll to the incorrigible Diana Hyde. I am particularly fond of Catherine Moreau who used to be a puma and who finds humans rather too complicated. Reading the Athena Club mysteries is very like reading Kim Newman’s books; I always come away convinced that I have missed half of the references to other stories that the author has sprinkled liberally throughout the text.

Continue reading “Cheryl’s 2018 in Feminist Speculative Fiction”

So’s 2018 Round-Up

By So Mayer, part of our ongoing look back at 2018

Image result for yasmin ryan tardisSo that was the year that Yaz (and Ryan) jumped in the TARDIS.

And Meg Murry (and Charles Wallace) found A Wrinkle in Time. Simone took The Good Place (and Chidi, Tehani and Jason) into an MRI chamber. Plus Shuri (and T’Challa, Killmonger, Nakia, Okoye, Ramonda, Ayo, M’Baku, and many more) made Black Panther – and she had a whole lot more to say and do, on Earth and in space, in Nnedi Okorafor’s playful and powerful comic series (up to issue 3 so far). Let’s not forget foresighted Rosalind Walker (and Susie Putnam, and the brilliantly louche Ambrose Spellman) in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Foyles made Tomi Adeyemi’s ambitious Children of Blood and Bone their Children’s Book of the Year 2018, a story of Orisha magic led by Zélie. N.K. Jemisin completed an unprecedented Hugo Award trifecta – three Best Novel awards over three years – with the third volume of the Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, a mother-daughter-mineral tale resonant with contemporary apocalyptic concerns, which also won the Nebula and Locus awards for best novel.

It seems reductive to label this transformation of the field with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic, but it is equally undeniable that the black girl nerd community online has driven the passionate uptake of Meg, Shuri, and Ros, and of writers such as Okorafor, Adeyemi, Jemisin, and Malorie Blackman, who, with ‘Rosa,’ became the first non-white writer to contribute a script for televised Doctor Who, the new series’ highest-rated episode. A BBC adaptation of Blackman’s ground-breaking alternative history novel Noughts and Crosses, co-produced by Jay Z’s Roc Nation company, has started filming, two years after the project was first announced: a strong sign, perhaps, that at the high-profile conjunction of screen media and SFF literature, change is in motion.

Continue reading “So’s 2018 Round-Up”

Andrew’s 2018 Pick: 2001: An Odyssey in Words

As part of our 2018 round-up, Andrew Wallace embarks on an odyssey of words …

An Alien Optic

2001: An Odyssey in Words, ed. Ian Whates & Tom Hunter (NewCon Press 2018)

2001: An Odyssey in Words was published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. It includes new stories and features of exactly 2001 words by twenty-seven leading SF writers, all winners or shortlistees of the Clarke Award. At a scant 2001 words, the easy gag would be to say if you don’t like the piece you’re reading, there will be another one along soon. But really, this is an extraordinary collection, and there isn’t a duff piece in the lot.

Continue reading “Andrew’s 2018 Pick: 2001: An Odyssey in Words”

Tony’s 2018 Pick: Lost in Space

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Tony Jones gets just a little misplaced in space …

Fans of a certain vintage will have grown up following the adventures of the Space Family Robinson who were very much Lost in Space … though this involved being (mostly) trapped on a strange alien world, which happened to be prone to eccentric visitors. Child prodigy Will Robinson often took centre stage, trying to find the best in the conflicted villain Dr Zachary Smith, and often relying on the protection of The Robot.

Lost in Space Original 2

The original Lost in Space was first aired between 1965 and 1968. If we skip quickly past the 1998 film, in 2018 it was the turn of the Netflix behemoth to reboot the show over ten expensively made episodes. Is it worth a watch, and – perhaps more importantly – is it still really Lost in Space?

The Robinson family persist, though it’s a more complex setup with Maureen and John now somewhat estranged and Judy being Maureen’s daughter by an earlier relationship. Maureen is very much a central heroic figure, scientist and leader, but she also has flaws – as shown by how far she is prepared to go to ensure Will can accompany the family into space.

Lost in Space 1.jpg

If the family are updated, so too is the character of Don West, now a smuggling engineer rather than a Major who pilots the Jupiter 2. We still have the Jupiter 2, but now it’s a very well-equipped ship carried aboard a huge colony ship, The Resolute. As the show opens it’s not long before alien robots attack and the colonists must flee The Resolute to an unknown planet.

So far, so similar, and there’s even a Dr Smith – though this is a female psychopath played with dark chill by Parker Posey, and she’s really June Harris, who has taken Dr Smith’s identity for her own reasons. If that wasn’t enough to follow, the real Dr Smith is played by Bull Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original TV series.

Image result for parker posey lost in space

Once on the planet Will finds and befriends an all-powerful Robot who is a great piece of CGI but not quite in the spirit of the original. Will himself though is very well written and performed, and very much a real Will Robinson, if that means anything.

Lost in Space 2.jpg

So, this reboot has the main ingredients, and sets them on a threatening alien world with a problem – it isn’t viable in the long term. There’s lots of shenanigans about fuel supplies, treachery and angst and one major difference from the original: the Robinsons aren’t alone!

Yes, the planet is temporary home to dozens of other Jupiter ships and their crews. This gives the central cast plenty of other characters to interact with, without resorting to the original show’s device of random aliens just arriving every week. There’s also a bigger story hidden in the background as we slowly learn why The Resolute was attacked, who the Robot is, and how far Dr Smith will go in her deceptions and her lust for power. Her character is consistently well written, and is one of the show’s real strengths.

The Robinsons’ interactions drive a lot of the episodes, either reacting to Dr Smith’s machinations, or attempting to escape from the planet, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore backstory, and for Maureen and John to build some bridges. If some of the main characters are updated, this feels less of a departure from the spirit of the original than the failure to leave the Robinsons isolated. But. Yes, there’s a but in the form of a (spoilers) new attack by super alien robots, some narrow escapes and – just as a happy ending looks possible – a surprise turn of events which does indeed leave the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 truly lost in space.

Tony Jones has dined with royalty, supped slings in Singapore and been taught by several Nobel prize winners (though he could have paid more attention). He is a writer and blogger based in the early 21st century.

Birdbrain

LightbornI suppose that if you’re going to revise Heart of Darkness you might as well be up front about it, but you probably don’t want to leave readers wishing you’d shut up about it. The constant explicit nods to Joseph Conrad’s horror taproot text – both as lines remembered by one of the two protagonists, and in the form of regularly interpolated quotations – are, however, the only real problem with Birdbrain, which otherwise is seductively sparing, and almost unbearably precise in its audience ministrations. The stories of two Finns hiking their way across large chunks of New Zealand, mainland Australia and Tasmania, Johanna Sinisalo’s first novel to be translated into English since Not Before Sundown (2000/2003) is a more sombre piece than its predecessor, but no less striking.

Finn one, Heidi, is an assistant working in PR when, on one trying evening out with clients, she meets Finn two, Jyrki, who at the time is working as a bartender. This is what Heidi sees:

I didn’t have a problem with my constant trips to the bar: the bloke behind the counter was a fairly decent specimen. He was almost two metres tall, slim with broad shoulders. His eyes were a light-grey colour, and there was a darker circle around his irises that gave his stare an almost paralysing intensity. No ring on his left hand, but he had a large golden earring dangling at the side of his shiny shaved head. The most impressive thing about him was that he never seemed to make a single unnecessary or unconsidered movement.

Rather disconcertingly for anyone who’s ever seen a photograph of China Mieville, Jyrki turns out to think about Heidi like this —

She was small and nicely proportioned. Black hair flowed evenly down past her shoulders. There was just enough blue in the colour that you could tell some of the tint had come from a bottle. A bit too much sirloin around the rump. A nice pair of apples bobbed on the upper shelf. (20)

— which sets the structure for the rest of the novel, being largely short segments, alternating between Heidi and Jyrki not quite connecting with each other, and neatly establish the basis of their admittedly intense relationship. An additional layer of structure alternates between two time frames: the one quoted above, which starts in 2006, and one starting in March 2007, with the pair setting out to hike Tasmania’s little-used South Coast Track. It transpires that a few months into their affair, Jyrki, who is pretty much as arrogant as you might have guessed, informed Heidi that he’s finally in a position to go on a long dreamed-of holiday; Heidi, caught somewhat off guard, volunteers to go with him for complicated reasons. It turns out that for her the trip – though not without its rewards – is primarily an ordeal, while for Jyrki – though not without its frustrations – it’s primarily an ideal, a chance to lose himself, and perhaps find himself, in the wilderness. The novel unwinds both timelines and characters over the course of a compact 217 pages, with the South Coast Track the grand finale.

Neither character, you sense, quite has the full measure of the landscape that surrounds them. Heidi feels exposed, unnaturally separated from human community and shelter, and convinced that Tasmania is not just alien but a palpable presence that seems to stalk them: “both age-old and fresh as the day it was born […] invisible, smart enough constantly to devise little pranks and childish enough to carry them out” (41). It’s Heidi for whom the raw conditions are most wearing; it’s Heidi who picked up a copy of Heart of Darkness at one of the hostels they stayed in near the start of their journey, and read it half a dozen times, to the point that it seems to inescapably frame her experience. Yet Heidi also sees the trip as a chance to escape the stultifying patronage of her family, to do something “By myself. For myself” (50); and she learns fast, and pretty well. As her experience grows, so too does a much longed-for sense of freedom.

Jyrki, meanwhile, finds freedom less in his self than in the absence of others. He is continually frustrated by the difficulty of leaving civilisation behind, by the indulgent lodges, or distant planes, or traces of other travellers, or other impurities of experience. (“Conveniences,” he feels, “are only convenient if you actually want them”, 67.) His arrogance, we come to understand, is rooted in both experience and skill – he is an utterly scrupulous hiker, dedicated to leaving on the land untouched — and in an abiding anger at the violence humans inflict on the world around them, through simple thoughtlessness as much as deliberate rapaciousness. For Jyrki Tasmania is other because humans are pollutants: “No animal in this world,” he argues, “is as unpleasant as one forcing its way outside its natural environment, feeding itself off human was like a parasite” (188).

Jyrki’s passion is energising and necessary, and seems to have the novel’s weight behind it. In addition to the two Finns, and Conrad, there are other voices in the novel that shape our understanding of what is happening. The most prominent is nameless (although it may be Heidi’s brother; or there may be more than one nameless), and offers a series of snapshots of urban alienation, each depicting a new vandalism: freezers unplugged in supermarkets; keyed cars; stolen pets; stones dropped from motorway bridges; arson. Almost all we know about nameless is that they’re depressed, sour, callous, and seemingly the embodiment of the worst Jyrki believes about humanity, thoughtless. “It’s not about envy,” nameless says, when trying to explain their actions, they “just want to leave their mark on the world” (98).

And what of the world? It is as distinctive a presence in the novel as any of the humans, and it seems to validate Heidi’s viewpoint. As one of the people Heidi and Jyrki meet puts it, sometimes it seems that humans are “just swarming parasites on Mother Earth’s skin, tickling and teasing, irritating and provoking her until the only thing she can do is disinfect herself” (121-2). And as the pair travel into increasingly remote areas, inconveniences become problems, including a series of disturbances that can’t be accounted for, as when Heidi’s water bottle disappears, then reappears several days and a couple of hundred kilometres later. The implied explanation, which is much more obvious to us than to the Finns, not least because it’s more or less given away on the back cover, has to do with a previously undiscovered species of parrot that may be related to the New Zealand Kea, of which a scholarly article notes: “… can solve even complicated problems with relative ease. […] This behavioural pattern becomes more common when food is in greater supply” (109). This sounds cartoonish but is not: and in fact the novel’s sharp climax gains, the final epiphanic revelation of its own heart of darkness, gains part of its potency from the thoroughness with which cartoonishness is disavowed.

And the rest of the novel is grounded by Sinisalo’s crisp descriptions. Birdbrain is very obviously and forcefully an environmentalist novel; but it is also simply a brilliant piece of writing about the environment. From the fire-scorched Grampians national park in Australia (“the clumps of grass stood out so vividly against the pitch-black ground that they looked as though they had been lit up from the inside”, 120) to the magisterial Ironbound range (“A primordial forest hanging on the edge of bottomless gorges, set right in the middle of a giants’ game of skittles”, 115), the landscape seems always confidently distinctive; as Heidi puts it early on, perfectly aware of its own qualities and without the need to please anyone. That the corruption of humanity may have produce a corruption in the ecology of this land, even a counteracting one, is a deeply felt tragedy – one that springs from a bleak and partial view of humanity, but one that provides a rich seam for this elegant, severe novel to mine.

A New Feature

Over at Strange Horizons, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is starting a project to read and review the twenty-five volumes of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, which reprint work published between 1939 and 1963. He’ll be tackling one volume every couple of months. Read on…

I’m approaching much of this work as a first-time reader, presumably like many of you. I’m sure that in the course of this ongoing project, in which I’d like to review all twenty-five volumes in the anthology series, I’ll find plenty of surprises. My intent with this review series is as much descriptive as it is analytic. There are more specialized works which deal full-on with the philosophical implications of specific stories or which dissect them academically. The idea here is to gain familiarity with the material and an appreciation for its continued relevance.

So, let us step back in time. 1939: a watershed year for SF. The World Science Fiction Convention was held for the first time, and the field saw the first published stories of Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: Volume 1, 1939 (IAPGSFS 1) collects twenty noteworthy fictions, including those firsts by van Vogt, Heinlein, and Sturgeon.

If you wanted some last-minute reading…

… before doing your Hugo nominations (deadline 07.59 on Sunday, Brits), you could do worse than check out the short fiction reviews at Strange Horizons this week:

Alvaro’s comments on “Spar“, for instance, have made me reconsider its omission from my draft ballot, and Abigail is particularly right about “To Kiss the Granite Choir“, which is an enormous amount of fun. (Though I do feel it’s been a pretty weak year for novellas in general.) And I’d appreciate any additional thoughts on, in particular, Daniel Abraham’s “The Curandero and the Swede”, which I’m sort of teetering on the brink of nominating.