The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

earthforinspirationClifford D. Simak wrote for decades during the mid-twentieth century.  His close friend, David W. Wixon, has undertaken, with Simak’s approval in his declining years, to collect all of the stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies beginning in the 1930’s and ending before the digital age was off the ground. This one is volume 9, and it’s an interesting hodgepodge of the very best—which is most of it—and the very worst, which is just two stories. Needless to say, I thought a lot about how I should rate such a collection.

Finally, I decided that price would be the deciding factor. If it was going to set you back twenty or thirty bucks, then I’d have to cut it down the middle and call it three stars, which would be sad but fair. However, I logged onto the big A and found it’s sold digitally for six bucks. At this price, you’re paying a buck each for six absolutely stellar short stories; there are three more good ones thrown in; and you can afford to skip the two stinkers. Given that factor, I’m rating this 4.5 stars, with just half a star gone for the two missable stories, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Thank you Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, the fifth Simak collection I have received from them. I sat on this one for a long time because I’d been reading a lot of his work, and was beginning to get grumpy at the similarities among some of them. Just how many different characters can a writer name “Doc” and remain credible? But then I realized that when Simak submitted his stories to various periodicals, names were about the least important aspect of his work, because he wrote them never dreaming that his writing would be important enough to appear in an entire series, back to back. Who knew he would become so successful?

During the 1940s and 1950s, as Wixon points out, science fiction was barely off the ground—pun intended—and Westerns were massively in style. I guess you could say they were the zombie apocalypse of their time; if a writer wanted to pay his rent without having to work a day job, he had to write some westerns. And since Wixon is publishing all of Simak’s stories rather than the best-of, he has to insert the few losers somewhere also.

So let’s just get the bad stuff over with so I can tell you what’s great here. The bad ones are sandwiched midway through the collection and appropriately flanked by good writing before and after. “Hellhound of the Cosmos” is bad enough that Wixon’s preface—a brief paragraph appearing before each story—says he “…will not try to excuse this story’s failings” by pointing out that Simak wrote it in 1931, at the very get-go of his career. Fine; don’t. But it’s a really dumb story, and I’d hate to see you use it as a yardstick by which to measure this man, who would become a Grand Master of sci fi. Read it or skip it, but this is not the story I recommend.

Further along we have “Good Nesters Are Dead Nesters”. This one is actively offensive, and if it were written today, I might well shoot down the entire collection because of it. But I know from the things I heard during my childhood that the language used here, while truly offensive, was also commonplace back then. The US was a lot whiter; the interstate was a new thing; satellite communication wasn’t yet dreamed of. People lived in isolated areas and got stupid ideas about what other people were like, largely due to stereotypes promoted in the news, on radio, and on black and white television.

So although I—married to an Asian immigrant—am as pissed as anyone about the singsong caricature of the Chinese cook, I also know this was a widely accepted way to regard people from China and Japan. As if that’s not terrible enough, a disabled person is referred to as a helpless, “twisted cripple”. Ohhh, no thank you. As you can imagine, I quickly gave myself permission to make a note and then skim till I reached the next story.

However, the stories that flank the collection, starting with the title story and ending with “Full Cycle”, are outstanding.  The latter is written in the 1950s, and reflects both the reality of a pair of Atomic bombs having been dropped in Japan eleven years before it was written, as well as the anti-communist hysteria so prevalent in the news. The idea is that all cities are decentralized, because a bomb might be dropped on a large urban center, but the USA is a very big place, and so small, mobile communities, all of them having traded their houses for trailers, is now the way Americans live. It’s very cleverly put together conceptually, and Amby, the protagonist, is so well drawn that at times, I wanted to weep for him.

“Honorable Opponent” has to do with a US planetary colony that has just been defeated by another planet’s military. The result took me entirely by surprise, and I think I’ll remember this story after I’ve read other science fiction by other authors. The same is true of “Carbon Copy”, a fine tale combining  science fiction, ruthless capitalism, and brilliant imagination. “Desertion” is another stellar story. If you want to read science fiction that makes your dreams sweet, read this one at bedtime. “Golden Bugs” is equally clever.

So for the price you pay, there is too much good writing here to turn your back on. My records tell me that over time I have read over 100 short story collections, which is about 90 more than I ever expected to read, and yet this one is outstanding among them. For those that love old school science fiction, this one, with the caveats mentioned, is highly recommended, and it’s available now.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Good Night, Mr. James: and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak*****

goodnightmrjamesSimak was a prodigious writer of science fiction during the middle of the twentieth century; he was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and won numerous other awards, among them the Nebula and multiple Hugo Awards. His short stories are being republished digitally, and as fast as Open Road Integrated Media can publish them, I snap them up, having already read two volumes; this is volume eight. Thanks go to ORIM and to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from reading science fiction written during the era that followed World War II, and in seeing what technology science fiction writers imagined might be around the corner. Many times we read stories of passenger flights to other planets and galaxies, stories of mind control, and yet nobody ever imagined that one day we would each have a small telephone in our pocket that would double as a camera, wristwatch and telegram service. But the musings and imaginings of old school science fiction are just plain fun, and they don’t require the technical proficiency that some of today’s writers often require in order to read, understand, and enjoy the stories they produce.  Sometimes a bit of philosophy and world view sneaks into these stories, and we may find kindred spirits in the most unlikely places.

The title story used to open this collection is a fun one, and the tension that accompanies Mr. James as he approaches the enclosure where he believes he’ll find the ‘puudly’, a creature from another world unwisely snuck into the present one, is almost unbearable.  What follows on his journey home is absorbing as well. But this wasn’t my favorite story. There are two others I found even better, but first, let’s get this other news out of the way.

The bad news is that there is just a trace of the racist stereotyping common to white folk of this time period, but it’s limited to one story, and it’s scarce. If you read my reviews often, you know that if I see it, I call it out, and my tolerance level is much lower than that of most reviewers. It’s in one story which isn’t all that good anyway, and it pertains to Asians that are featured briefly. The story is “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War”, and it’s a cowboy tale of the sort that was popular in the USA during the 1950’s. A man of Chinese origin is referred to as ‘The Chinaman’, and during his short tenure in the story, he is untrustworthy.  He speaks in a “sing song” cadence. This story cost the book half a star, but it’s my view that you could buy this collection, skip this story, which is overlong and contains some less than stellar dialogue, and you’d still get your money’s worth. That’s all the bad news there is here.

“Reunion on Ganymede” made me tremble with mirth, nearly causing me to wake Mr. Computer, who slumbered peacefully beside me. In this story Gramps is dying to go to the reunion of veterans of a war that took place between the “Marshies” (Martians) and the “Earthies” .  His family is trying to dissuade him from taking his flame gun with him. They tell him the weapon is too old to be trusted, but clearly it isn’t the gun, but rather the owner that they’re worried about. As developments take an unexpected turn, it becomes obvious that there are some things for which one just can’t plan. Eventually we see that Gramps and other characters unforeseen by his kinfolk are on a collision course, and what follows is pure poetry.

However, my very favorite story is “Kindergarten”. A man has bought a cabin and retreated to it; he’s been told he has a short time to live, and so he’s determined to do it in pastoral solitude. Imagine his surprise when he goes for a stroll one day and finds the mysterious machine on his property! It’s certainly not a saucer, yet it’s also not from Earth. It couldn’t be. And the whole thing unspools in a way I interpret as being subversive and delicious. Please note that the entire collection is edited and introduced by a close friend of the author’s, the latter having died in 1988. The editor’s spin on this story is completely different from my own, and yet knowing this didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading the We Install story collection, or Grotto of the Dancing Deer collection, you know what kind of prose Simak spins, and if you like old school science fiction, you almost have to like most or all of his. If you haven’t dipped a toe in the water yet, hop on in. Between this collection and at least nine others, there’s plenty to keep you reading happily for quite some time.

As a last note to teachers looking for suitable classroom stories, there’s no sex or foul language here, but be prepared to discuss or explain some of the slang of the period in question.

Highly recommended and available to the public now.

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.

 

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch*****

darkmatterNote: my records showed this would be published today, but they are in error. This title actually comes out in August and I have run my review earlier than I should have. You’ll see this again at a date closer to publication.

Blake Crouch is a seasoned writer, but I had never read his work before; only recently have I ventured back into science fiction, a genre I abandoned when some writers began incorporating tech jokes and algorithms into their work. Humanities oriented and gun shy, I veered back to my other favorite genres. Crouch makes it a joy to be back reading sci fi. I received this DRC free, courtesy of Net Galley and Crown Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. It’s for sale August 2, and it will be in theaters soon too. Don’t get left out, because this one is huge.

Jason Dessen is a teacher, having abandoned a burgeoning career in research in order to become a family man. The story is infused with the question almost every adult has, the question of the road not taken. By the time we’re in our thirties or even our mid-twenties, we have made hard choices that leave us musing occasionally about what might have happened if we had pursued a different course, if the destiny we either chose or were thrust into had played out differently. It is this question that Crouch taps into.

On an ordinary evening, Jason’s old friend calls him and asks him to come to a nearby bar and celebrate a momentous event. Jason is a father and happily married, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out in bars with the guys, and tonight is family night, so it’s especially important to be at home. But this celebration is particularly important to his friend, and so he steps out for one fast beer for the sake of the friendship, with the promise to bring home ice cream on his way home.

That’s not what happens.

On his way home, he is followed by someone, a guy who jumps him not for his wallet, but for his life. He’s knocked out and awakens thus:

 

   Where the hell am I? A hanger?

I catch a glint of memory—a needle puncturing my neck. I was injected with something. This is some crazy hallucination.

A radio squawks. “Extraction team, report. Over.”

The woman says with excitement bleeding through her voice, “We have Dessen. We’re out of the box and en route. Over.”

 

Until Jason’s research funding dried up, he had been working on a cube that could penetrate the “multiverse”, and take matter from the world in which we live to a parallel reality. In another life, Jason has not only done this, but done it on a spectacular level. Here we get into string theory and other aspects of science that are over my head, and this is the type of thing that prevents me from reading more technically demanding sci fi.  Happily, the author only stays there long enough to provide the foundation for the science fiction aspect of his story:

 

Most astrophysicists believe that the force holding stars and galaxies together—the thing that makes our whole universe work—comes from a theoretical substance we can’t measure or observe directly. Something they call dark matter. And this dark matter makes up most of the known universe…Some string theorists think it might be a clue to the existence of the multiverse.

 

The idea is that every time someone hits a benchmark in his life when he must make a choice—college versus work, career versus marriage, to have a child or not, to move away or stay here—there is some parallel version of himself that does the other thing in another universe.

Once I got to the part where string theory is mentioned, I recoiled in horror—was the whole book going to be like this now? How could I even review it?—and I went to read my other books for awhile. But when I picked it up again, we quickly blew through the technical part, which for all I know may be bad science for the sake of a great story anyway, and we were back in poor Jason’s bewildering life. From that moment forward, roughly the twelve percent mark, the story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let go till I was done.

This story packs a walloping punch, and I have at least one friend who would have made it just fine through the science blurb but then would have been unable to tolerate the emotional torrent that follows. Some people don’t want a story that will make their heart beat faster, and if that’s you, this is not your book.

But for those that enjoy a genuine thriller, this book is for you.  In fact, it’s impossible to draw a line as to whether this story is more a thriller or science fiction. It has all the qualities of a strong thriller, but the story can’t be told without the sci fi foundation. For those that are leery of reading science fiction due to a lack of proficiency in astrophysics or other aspects of science, however, you’ll be fine here. Crouch touches on science long enough to get establish the basis of his story and hook the reader, and then it’s back to Jason and his many dilemmas.

Highly recommended to anyone with a literacy level of a high school senior or beyond. Get it now!

Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak*****

grottoofthedancing This is the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to get a DRC of Clifford D Simak’s short stories, courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. (The last collection was titled We Install and Other Stories; I have reviewed it also.) Simak’s short stories are my kind of science fiction, the old school variety where there are no clever double entendres intended for–oh, for example–programmers that write obscure, difficult types of code. No, this is the stuff that is born of a fertile imagination and an excellent facility with words, and I enjoyed it start to finish, skimming nothing. And it’s for sale now, so you can get your own copy.

There’s an introduction by David W. Wixon that is probably intended to bring readers of the present up to date in understanding Simak, who wrote from 1930 until around 1980. I have to admit I don’t care for the tone of the introduction, although I have no doubt that Wixon is fond of Simak’s work. The irritation I experience in reading it is that it seems he is apologizing for Simak–this bit of dialogue is bad, for example, because Simak was so new at it–and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for this writer, a hugely creative, intelligent man whose prose can stand up for itself. Get onto another page and check the list of awards Simak garnered over his lengthy career; it isn’t my imagination. He’s a terrific writer, and I cringe that anyone would be so supercilious as to apologize for his old friend as if Simak weren’t quite on his game.

But enough of that.

Time travel is always great fare for a short sci fi tale, and it’s used abundantly here. I think deep in his heart Simak must have also wanted to write some historical fiction, because time travel isn’t usually between the present time, even allowing for the fact that his present time when he was writing was quite some time before the present present time. He takes people from the future back to covered wagons, or to changed planets that have the habits of early American pioneers, particularly those of the wild west. And his characters are so tangible and so believable that they make the science fiction aspect of the story approachable to the reader whose science knowledge is limited. This inclination makes humanities-grounded individuals like myself so stinking happy, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pleases me. I never like to have some aspect of literature cut off from me because I am not sharp enough to handle it, but when sci fi becomes hugely technical, there’s nothing to do but to close the book and (if it isn’t a DRC) pass it on to someone more scientifically proficient than I am.

But Simak is accessible, all the time. His work isn’t dumbed down, but it is friendly and approachable. Anyone that has the ability to read at the level of a high school senior should be able to read this riveting collection without more than perhaps one or two Google searches, and those will likely be historical questions rather than technical ones.

I really enjoyed the title story, but my personal favorite of the lot is Crying Jag. In this tale, a local man has taken to drowning his sorrows in hooch, and then when he is sloppy drunk, he sits down and cries. Aliens land and are able to take the tears and the sorrow on tap, but with similar results; they get drunk from the sad stories and the tears. I laughed out loud through this one and frankly wondered what kind of creativity it would take to dream up something like this. I just loved it.

Such whimsy!

A more philosophical tale involves reaching an alien society that has labored for a long time to be able to bridge interplanetary culture and understanding; they have the perfect library for the use of the entire galaxy, absolutely free. Earth men that land here immediately begin scheming of ways to turn the “free” library into a private library for profit; hey, who’s to be the wiser? And in the end, I was bemused to see how it worked out.

I am always a little surprised that not more people read short stories. Time for most people is limited. When you finish a short story, you can give yourself permission to turn out the light and go to sleep. And Simak’s are of top caliber; the only writer whose short science fiction I enjoyed more might be Stephen Donaldson, and his vocabulary and prose is far less accessible.

High school teachers looking for good short science fiction for the classroom should look no further. The stories are varied in length and I would say they would be rated PG 13 if they were a movie instead of text; in other words, just fine for teenagers in the classroom, with a wealth of potential for discussion.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy old school science fiction.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

Just released today; reviewed in November and bringing it back to remind you, because this is science fiction/fantasy at its best.

Seattle Book Mama

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch…

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The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert*****

Hot off the presses! I reviewed this just before Christmas, and it is available today. Fantastic read.

Seattle Book Mama

thechildrenshomeLambert is a brilliant writer, and his absorbing new novel, The Children’s Home, is the best literary fiction I have read in some time. Thank you to Scribner and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

We start with Morgan, a bitter recluse rattling around in his immense family mansion, afraid to leave its walls for fear someone will see his face and ridicule him. His sister Rebecca runs the family business, and she hires Engel to serve as housekeeper and cook to him. Moira and David are two children that magically appear at his estate. Unlike normal children, they don’t leave messes lying around, whine, or need to be cleaned up; Morgan notices that whenever he wants to concentrate or not have the children around, they seem to vanish, appearing again when wanted.

Motherhood should be so sweet.

But back to…

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