Book Review: Space Opera

Book Review: Space Opera  by Jack Vance

It’s not that Roger Wool doesn’t want to work, as such.  It’s that he doesn’t want to be tied down to a single job day after day, the same desk in the same office.  And he’s too well-bred for most work that involves wandering from place to place doing odd jobs as they come.  Fortunately, his wealthy aunt Dame Isabel Grayce has been willing to subsidize Roger living in the manner to which he’s accustomed, in exchange for being available for her every whim.

Space Opera

And while opera is not Roger’s thing, the avant-garde performance put on by the alien Ninth Company of Rlaru has some interesting points.  However, later that night the performers vanish into thin air, leaving their human manager struggling for an explanation.  Dame Isabel learns that this was supposed to be part of a cultural exchange, and immediately puts her entire fortune behind the project of sending an Earthly opera company to the stars.

This is highly alarming to Roger, who was hoping that his aunt’s largess would continue into her will–if she goes broke on this wild adventure, there goes his inheritance!  While helping to make the arrangements for the voyage, Roger meets a mysterious beauty named Madoc Roswyn, who is hellbent on coming along.  Problem is, she has no musical training or other opera-useful skills, and Dame Isabel quickly sees through the secretary gag.

And so the Phoebus blasts off with a full opera company and orchestra aboard, as well as a crew led by the increasingly nervous Captain Gondar, Dame Isabel and her staff..and Madoc as a stowaway.

Jack Vance (1916-2013) wrote many fine science fiction works.  This comedic novel was a stand-alone, written (so he claimed) to fit the title, rather than adding a title to a finished manuscript as was the usual custom.  Mr. Vance was known for detailed alien cultures with unusual customs, and that’s on full display here.

The plot is episodic, with the Phoebus landing on new planets, meeting new strange customs, and putting on shows.  Most of the performances don’t go so well for reasons ranging from getting the wrong audience to the planet being actively hostile to life as we know it.

There’s a certain amount of classism and  cultural snobbery–Dame Isabel and her coterie are aghast to learn the crew has formed a washboard jazz band in their spare time.  And the romantic subplot is weak.  Madoc is goal-driven, leading her to some femme fatale tactics, and the resolution of that is a letdown.

But top marks for the zany culture clashes and some moments that opera fans will doubtless enjoy even more than the layman.

Recommended for fans of comedic science fiction.

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two by Makoto Yukimura

To recap for those of you who haven’t read the review of Book One, Vinland Saga is set in the early 12th Century, the time of the Vikings.  Our protagonist is Thorfinn, son of Thors, who serves in the war band of Askeladd.  Askeladd murdered Thors, and Thorfinn serves the wily warrior for the sole purpose of one day getting revenge in a fair duel.

Vinland Saga, Book Two

In this volume, the action shifts to the British Isles, and the war of King Sweyn Forkbeard against King Ethelred the Unready.  While Ethelred himself has fled, the city of London stands fast, largely due to the presence of Thorkell the Tall on their side.  Thorkell is a mighty man who hopes to perish in battle against a truly worthy foe, so that he might enter Valhalla with honor.  He switched sides to fight against the Northmen, because they were the tougher opponents!

Askeladd sends the relatively tiny lad Thorfinn in to kill Thorkell, and although it doesn’t work, Thorkell is impressed enough to want to fight Thorfinn again.  Sweyn decides to consolidate his rule over the rest of the country, and appoints his sickly son Canute (who’s the blond on the cover) to handle London’s siege.

Things don’t go as planned for just about everyone, and soon Askeladd’s band is in possession of Canute, and being chased by Thorkell’s warriors across the countryside.  Askeladd is forced to resort to one of the aces up his sleeve, a shocking secret from his past.

There’s a bonus story about Thorfinn’s sister Ylva dealing with the loss of her brother and father, and a chapter of “For Our Farewell Is Near”, about a samurai dying of illness .

There’s plenty of action and violence in this volume, and Askeladd’s idea of “mercy” is a cruel one by modern standards.  Some readers may also be turned off by the alcoholic priest who is not very good at explaining theology.  And probably the real Canute wasn’t that pretty.

However, it’s got good art, interesting characters and a setting that appeals to me, so I recommend this to fans of Viking stories, and students of English history.

Book Review: Global Friendship Vol 5 United Kingdom – Zambia

Book Review: Global Friendship Vol 5 United Kingdom – Zambia by H. Aitoro

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.   (Technically I won Vol 3, but I’m certainly not going to complain about a free book!)

Global Friendship Vol 5

This is a part of a series of books aimed at children 4 to 7 years of age, to introduce them to the concept of international relations and cultural diversity.  It was published in the United Kingdom, so may be difficult to get hold of in the United States.    (You can tell by the little things, like calling your mother “Mum.”)  This volume covers the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,  Vietnam, West Samoa, Yemen and Zambia.

Each country gets an outline of its borders, a picture of its flag, introductions to typical children in their national costumes, pictures of a few landmarks and stock phrases in the local language.  The national costume of England is a gray business suit with bowler hat and umbrella, but his Welsh, Irish and Scots counterparts are a bit more colorful.

The art is simple, with all the children having identical faces.  The language is also simple, but be warned that most of the foreign words do not have pronunciation guides.  Parents should probably look up the words before reading this to their children.  The paragraphing is off on the introduction of children pages– Each new person speaking should have their own paragraph, even in children’s books.

At the end of the book is a world map that gives a better idea where these countries are.

This is, as said above, an introductory series of books for small children.  Ideally, your kid will become interested in one or more of the countries shown, so that they and their parents can learn more details about that place and its people.  Or maybe they’ll just start singing the “Small World” song over and over.

Movie Review: Viking Saga: The Darkest Day

Movie Review: Viking Saga: The Darkest Day

A fairly low-budget film based very loosely on the real-life events surrounding the Book of Kells.  Viking raiders have sacked the monastery at Lindesfarne, killing most of the monks.  In addition to their usual spoils, the Vikings desire a book.  This illuminated copy of the Bible is particularly well-done, even a masterpiece, and is considered almost holy in itself.  The one who possesses the book would hold great political power over the region.

darkest

To protect the book, the Lindesfarne monks sent it with two of their number, young Hereward and elderly Athelstan, on a perilous overland journey to the religious community of Iona.   The monks are assisted by a Saxon warrior named Aethulwulf, and there is a clash between the peace-loving monks and the pragmatic swordsman.   While the trio flees from a raider squad led by chief Hadrada, they run into a young woman staked out as bait for bandits…

The American DVD art is rather misleading, showing a horned Viking and making it look like this is a huge epic.    It’s a chase movie, with a small cast (a rugby club is reused as extras a couple of times) and shot on location in Wales.   The setting is gritty, with dried blood and filth accumulating on faces and clothing.  The fights tend to be short, brutal and un-cinematic.  (Some liberties are taken with the final fight scene that veer into the unrealistic.)

Religious themes play a big part in this movie, the Christian faith of the monks, Aethelwulf and a random doomsday cult they encounter, the Aesir worship of the Vikings, and the Celtic stories of the bound woman.  Hereward grows to understand that there is more than one way to serve God, and that protecting the people of the land is also important.  He also has a fever dream of Christ’s suffering during the Crucifixion.

The movie’s rated “R” for violence, and for some full-frontal male nudity (kind of blurry) in a non-sexual context at the beginning of the film.

I used a free Redbox rental to see this movie, and it was worth every cent.   Don’t go into expecting a big spectacle, great acting or fancy special effects, and you should be fine.

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