by Don Sakers
Since antiquity, the mind/body dichotomy has been part of our culture. Known in philosophy circles as “dualism,” it’s the eternal question of the balance between mental and physical, thought and action, intellectual and material.
In science fiction, one of the ways this dichotomy plays out is in the distinction between idea-oriented and action/adventure-oriented SF. Now, as with mind/body, it’s self-evident that just about all science fiction consists of both ideas and action/adventure; nothing is purely one or the other. Still, I think we can all agree that some works (say, 2001: A Space Odyssey) are more idea-oriented, while others (say, Star Wars) are more action/adventure-oriented.
Of the two, action/adventure SF definitely gets less respect. It’s not as “important” as the idea-oriented variety, less “meaningful,” more “juvenile.” If anything, we think of action/adventure SF as a kind of holdover from the early days of the field, a guilty pleasure. When you’re trying to defend your SF reading to others, it’s the idea stuff you talk about, isn’t it?
That’s nonsense, and we all know it. It’s buying into the notion that the mind is more important than the body: the sort of intellectual snobbery that insists we’d all be happier as brains in a jar. Even the most brilliant, idea-laden story needs some action/adventure to keep readers engaged, and SF that’s primary action/adventure can still be a lot of fun.
Action/adventure has been an important part of SF since . . . well, since before the beginning. The early precursors to SF, the myths and travel tales of antiquity and the middle ages, were filled with action and adventure. Icarus, Odysseus, Hercules, Exodus, Samson, Sinbad, King Arthur, Lucian of Samosata’s True Story and Cyrano’s interplanetary voyages—all were tales of action and adventure.
Most of the works of Jules Verne fell into the action/adventure category. Although H. G. Wells tended more toward the idea-oriented side, The First Men in the Moon is plenty action/adventure-oriented.
In the early pulp era, action/adventure SF thrived in the pages of Argosy, The All-Story, and similar magazines. The planetary romance genre, practiced by such authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, Ralph Milne Farley, and Otis Adelbert Kline, featured adventures on Mars, Venus, Mercury, and in the Earth’s core.
The arrival of Amazing Stories in 1926 ushered in the era of SF-specific pulps. Hugo Gernsback, who launched Amazing and started the first SF boom, was decidedly more on the idea-oriented side of the fence—but the writers who ran away with the field told primarily action/adventure stories. Interplanetary travel, alien invasions, mad scientists, and evil technocratic dictators were everywhere. With an abundance of pulp pages to fill each month, many writers essentially turned war or western stories into SF: change a gun to a blaster, set the story on an spaceship instead of a battleship, turn a Montana ranch into a Martian one, and you’ve got an SF tale.
Other Gernsback-era writers followed the lead of Edward E. “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and John W. Campbell, Jr. in creating “super-science” stories of engineer-inventor-fighter heroes who could defeat an army of hostile aliens, build a starship from scratch, liberate a captured planet, and still have time for breakfast. Authors like Murray Leinster and Jack Williamson also made their names with action/adventure SF stories.
The Campbell revolution refocused the field on idea-oriented tales. Still, a thread of non-Campbell, action/adventure SF continued in such magazines as Amazing and Planet Stories, featuring authors like Nelson Bond, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, and Ross Rocklynne.
In the postwar era, SF exploded out of the pulps and into books. The leading magazines of the time (Astounding/Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy/If) remained focused on idea-oriented SF. Book publisher Ace (and later DAW) provided a home for action/adventure SF, including many tales that had first appeared in pulps—other publishers imitated them. Some of the notable action/adventure writers of this period were Barrington J. Bayley, A. Bertram Chandler, Gordon R. Dickson, Harry Harrison, Andre Norton, Mack Reynolds, Fred Saberhagen, Brian Stableford, E. C. Tubb, and Jack Vance.
The New Age period of the 1960s and 1970s was largely idea-oriented, although quintessential New Age author Michael Moorcock produced his own share of action/adventure SF.
As SF continued to diversify in the modern era, a number of names became known for fine action/adventure SF. Among them are Robert Asprin, Chris Bunch, Lin Carter, Jack Chalker, Alan Dean Foster, Mike Resnick, Christopher Stasheff, and Timothy Zahn.
The SF media—movies, television, and video games—were and are action/adventure-oriented. Along with the movies, shows, and games themselves, there are a bunch of writers who specialize in novelizations and spinoff books, producing some of the finest action/adventure SF around: names like Kevin J. Anderson, Marc A Cerasini, Peter David, Keith R. A. DeCandido, the aforementioned Alan Dean Foster, James Luceno, and (again) Timothy Zahn.
Finally, if you’re looking for good action/adventure SF, don’t neglect the enormous subgenre of military science fiction. A large number of military SF books fall into the action/adventure category by their very nature.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but action/adventure SF has always been with us, and is all around us today. So let’s take a look at some. . . .
* * *
Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor
Baen, 312 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Series: Boundary 5, Castaway Trilogy 2
Genre: Adventure SF, Teen SF
One of the oldest and most familiar action/adventure stories is that of the shipwreck. Set against the interstellar background of the authors’ Boundary series, the Castaway trilogy involves the survivors of the colony starship Outward Initiative, wrecked in deep space. While the original Boundary books were aimed at adults, the Castaway trilogy is written for teens.
The first book, Castaway Planet, told of the Kimei family, under the supervision of mother Sakura Kimei. They landed on a hostile planet and, Swiss Family Robinson style, had to manage to survive while learning about the dangers and secrets of their new planet.
Castaway Odyssey follows Sergeant Samuel Morgan Campbell, stranded aboard Lifeboat LS-88 with a crew of three boys: nineteen-year-old cadet Xander Bird, Tavana Arronax (16), Xander’s younger brother Maddox, and eight-year-old Franky Coronel.
The story is a fairly straightforward one: repair the lifeboat, navigate to a habitable planet, land, and survive. Along the way there are many obstacles to be overcome. With computers out, Campbell and the boys have to rely on their wits, training, and native talents to get systems up and running. Fortunately, the kids are an eclectic group of nerds: Tavana is a communications expert, Maddox a master tinkerer, Xander freshly graduated with an up-to-date technical education . . . even young Franky has his own contributions to make.
These young multi-talented geniuses would be perfectly at home in an earlier SF book for teens by Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, or Alan E. Nourse, or in a post-apocalyptic dystopia like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. The authors do a fine job of keeping the tension up and the story moving. Each obstacle surmounted allows the characters to grow a little more, and by the time they land on their new home planet, they’re a finely tuned team ready to face anything. Which is good, because the planet’s inhabited by some unusual and nasty native lifeforms.
Of course, the planet turns out to be the same one on which the Kimei family landed, and the two groups eventually get together. Their story will continue in the next volume.
* * *
Del Rey, 354 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Games & Gaming, Military SF
It’s possible that you’ve managed to miss StarCraft, a (ahem) “military science fiction media franchise” owned by Blizzard Entertainment. Since its debut as a video game in 1998, StarCraft has spawned numerous sequel games and expansion packs, eight novelizations, a board game, toys, and collectibles. By the time you read this, there may very well be theme parks, frozen foods, a line of sportswear, or an international chain of fine dining establishments.
I kid. What there will be, by the time you read this, is an entirely enjoyable ninth novelization by the incomparable Timothy Zahn. And in order to enjoy it, you don’t need to know a thing about StarCraft. Zahn packs all the background knowledge a reader needs into this standalone novel.
Long ago, the godlike alien Xel’Naga ruled the Koprulu Sector of the Milky Way. They engineered two successor species: the insectoid Zerg and a mysterious race called the Protoss. The Zerg ran amuck and destroyed the Xel’Naga, taking their place; the Protoss opposed them.
In the twenty-sixth century, humans (called Terrans) arrived to settle the Koprulu Sector. Out of contact with the rest of humanity, the Terran settlements splinter into a number of opposing governments. Naturally enough, the various human and alien factions fell to warring with one another. Under the tyrannical rule of the Emperor Arcturus, the Terran Dominion gained the upper hand, even though the Protoss incinerated the planet Chau Sara. Eventually, an uneasy truce emerged.
As StarCraft Evolution opens, it’s six years into peace. Emperor Arcturus has been replaced by his son, Valerian, who’s made great strides in reforming the Dominion. The Zerg have a new leader, too, one intent on building up the Zerg military to new heights. Everything comes to a head with the resettlement of destroyed Chau Sara—it seems that the Protoss have been busy developing new biological weapons of their own. And the cease-fire that was signed with such hope suddenly teeters on the brink of collapse.
The aliens are strange, the politics are deliciously convoluted, and the tension ramps up as a collection of disparate characters are caught in a tightening web of secrets and lies. Timothy Zahn’s an old hand at this; he makes the strange seem familiar while keeping the action and adventure churning. This one is definitely a fun read.
* * *
The Right to Arm Bears
Gordon R. Dickson
Baen, 384 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Alien Beings
This is a reissue of an omnibus volume, first published in 2000, of Gordon R. Dickson’s light-hearted stories of the planet Dilbia and its bear-like inhabitants. It includes three works: the novels Spacial Delivery (1961) and Spacepaw (1969) and novella “The Law-Twister Shorty” (1971).
Dilbia sits in between the galactic region controlled by humans and that controlled by their enemies, the Hemnoids. Both races have enormous incentive to make an alliance with the native Dilbians.
The fun part is the Diblians themselves. They’re nine-foot tall, bearlike creatures with a low-tech culture that values strength and cunning, and that tends to settle most matters by individual combat. The three stories in this volume tell of hapless humans (whom the Dilbians call “shorties”) colliding with Dilbian culture. Without physical prowess, all the humans have to impress their hosts is their wits.
In Spacial Delivery, reluctant human John Tardy is sent to Dilbia to rescue Ty Lamorc, a sociologist who’s been kidnapped by a Dilbian chieftain. To reach the chieftain’s mountain fortress, Tardy’s put in the charge of a native guide: Hill Bluffer, the local mail carrier. In fact, Tardy’s treated like a package for delivery, strapped to Hill Bluffer’s back and carried through the wilds as he tries to figure out a way to win Lamorc’s freedom without having to fight the biggest, baddest bear on the planet.
Spacepaw tells the story of Bill Waltham, who lands on Dilbia just as negotiations with the Hemnoids are heating up. During a bandit raid there’s another kidnapping, this time of Agricultural Resident Anita Lyme. With the help of good ol’ Hill Bluffer, Waltham finds Lyme . . . who flat refuses to leave until Waltham gets things settled with the Hemnoids.
In “The Law-Twister Shorty,” a Dilbian named Gentle Maiden decides to forcibly adopt a group of human tourists. High school student Malcom O’Keefe has to come up with a way to manipulate convoluted Dilbian law to prevent the adoption.
The fun of all these stories comes from the way the humans have to think outside the box to solve their various dilemmas according to the weird customs of Dilbian society. Along with plenty of action and adventure, there’s a persistent gentle satire on the art of diplomacy.
* * *
Thistledown, 240 pages, $19.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Adventure SF, Alien Beings, Ecological/Environmental SF, Undersea/On the Sea SF
For action/adventure, there’s nothing like a disaster—the bigger the better. And Fragment tells of a fairly major one that unreels with agonizing slowness in the Antarctic.
In the near future, Kate Sexsmith is a Canadian climatologist studying the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. While she’s giving a live television interview, a catastrophic series of avalanches begins—when all is said and done, a huge fragment of the Ross Ice Shelf breaks free and starts drifting toward South America.
Kate and two fellow scientists survive the catastrophe, but are marooned in the wreckage of their base. They’re rescued by a U. S. nuclear submarine, but the captain enforces radio silence so the scientists are unable to warn the rest of the world of the danger that’s coming.
Meanwhile, the reporter who was interviewing Kate at the time of the disaster sets forth with a colleague to find out what’s going on. First, they have to cross the storm-torn Drake Passage, one of the most dangerous parts of the ocean even under favorable conditions.
In Washington, the U.S. President gets advance word of the ice fragment nearing down on the civilized world, threatening millions. Trouble is, there’s an election coming up, and a disaster in South America could lead to a disaster in the president’s poll numbers. At the same time, the president’s advisors, worried about military implications, are urging him to take action.
And a brave blue whale called Ring tries to warn his fellow whales about the danger of the fragment . . . yet the ocean is huge, and one whale’s voice is comparatively small.
Craig Russell is a Canadian lawyer best known for young adult fantasy; he does a fine job of weaving together the disparate threads of Fragment. The book is a page-turner; once you start, you won’t be able to put it down until you reach the end. The parts featuring the whale Ring are compelling in their depiction of an alien mind and society. And the action is nonstop.
* * *
Random House, 384 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
Series: Maze Runner 5
Genre: Adventure SF, Dystopian SF, Post-Apocalyptic SF, Teen SF
James Dashner’s Maze Runner series is well on its way to becoming a “media franchise.” Across four books, the first two made into hit movies so far, he’s told the gripping story of a post-apocalyptic world decimated by solar flares and a terrible plague that turns its victims into savage, mindless killers. An organization called WICKED is the sole remaining force for order.
Under WICKED control, a group of young people led by a boy named Thomas were the last hope for salvation. Carrying the secret of a cure to the plague, these teens underwent a series of life-threatening trials before bringing deliverance to a shattered world. In The Maze Runner, an amnesiac Thomas joined the group and led them out of a huge, deadly maze; The Scorch Trials told of their trek across the ruined world and contact with resistance forces; The Death Cure saw Thomas’s memory restored and the revelation that the plague had been created by WICKED in the wake of the solar flares.
The Kill Order was a prequel; it told the story of the solar flares and set the stage for the rest of the series.
Now The Fever Code closes the circle. It’s the story of Thomas and his friends before The Maze Runner. We learn that Thomas started life as a young genius named Stephen; we see him brainwashed and tortured by WICKED. He gathers a group of talented friends—the group from the original trilogy—and supervises the construction of the Maze from the first book.
It’s difficult for an author to maintain suspense in a book where the ending is known. James Dashner, a master of suspense, turns the trick by using the reader’s knowledge of what’s coming as a source of tension. Although we know that there’s a (somewhat) happy ending coming eventually, we also know the trials and pain that awaits these young people—we know which ones will die and how—and so the story unfolds with a powerful, terrible inevitability. Although The Fever Code is the second of five books by internal chronology, this is definitely one series that should be read in the order of publication.
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The People’s Police
Tor, 288 pages, $27.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF
Here’s another new book by Norman Spinrad, always good news.
Spinrad is one of the best-known authors to come out of the New Age movement. A self-described anarchist, for fifty years he’s been the social conscience of science fiction. He’s won the Prix Apollo and been nominated for everything from the Hugo and Nebula Awards to the American Book Award. He’s served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and World SF.
Spinrad is definitely an idea man, although his stories usually have plenty of action and adventure. In The People’s Police the idea is the nature and meaning of police work.
The setting is a future New Orleans devastated by frequent hurricanes and corrupt real estate practices, a sprawling city surrounded by slums built on stilts in swamps. The banks and real estate companies own the politicians and the cops, and the city has been slowly sinking into anarchy for decades.
Martin Luther Martin escaped from the gangs of Alligator Swamp through hard work and quick wits. He’s a dutiful police officer increasingly dissatisfied with his work, which mostly involves serving eviction notices on deadbeats . . . until the day comes when he’s called upon to evict himself. Suddenly, enough is enough.
J. B. Lafitte is owner and operator of a well-respected brothel in the Garden District . . . until his business is driven into foreclosure by corrupt politicians.
Mama Legba (also known as MaryLou Boudreau) is a Voodoo princess and TV star with her own reasons to hate the city’s status quo.
These three characters come together when Martin calls publicly for a police strike. This call leads to the formation of the People’s Police, a force genuinely devoted to the good of all the people and guided by a simple principle: when there is no victim, there is no crime.
Spinrad does his usual excellent job of exploring this idea, turning the corrupt power structure of New Orleans upside down, and depicting a police force that works with the people rather than for the landlords and bankers. He presents his future New Orleans as almost a character in itself, a fascinating and well-realized city with a life that extends beyond the boundaries of the book.
Spinrad has always been a master at showing us worlds that are distorted caricatures of our own, emphasizing some aspects and throwing others into relief so they can be better seen. The People’s Police is another excellent example.
* * *
Night Without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, 720 pages, $32.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (e-book)
Series: Commonwealth 7, Chronicles of the Fallers 2
Genre: Space Opera
Peter Hamilton writes big books chock full of both ideas and action/adventure. In particular, his Commonwealth books (this is the seventh) are whopping great far-future space operas on a broad canvas, featuring a multiplicity of worlds, societies, and characters. The technology is so advanced it’s often indistinguishable from magic; the interstellar politics is magnificently byzantine; the history is deep and convoluted.
Are you scared? Don’t be. Hamilton’s good at what he does, and he gives you plenty of ordinary people to identify with on the journey through his universe. Of course, this is immersive science fiction: readers learn about the Commonwealth by living there, and a new reader can usually count on feeling somewhat lost for the first fifty pages or so. After that, it gets clearer.
That being said, A Night Without Stars isn’t the best place to start with the Commonwealth novels. It’s a direct sequel to The Abyss Beyond Dreams, and if you haven’t read that book you’ll be more lost than usual.
That previous book introduced the planet Bienvenido, a human-settled world lost in the Void—a pocket universe with different physical laws. The human inhabitants were at war with aliens called Fallers.
Now, in A Night Without Stars, Bienvenido emerges from the Void into normal space—but far away from the Commonwealth, out of range of communications or assistance. As the war with the Fallers continues, the humans get a mysterious ally: the Warrior Angel, a creature armed with Commonwealth technology.
Still, the Fallers are winning. They have the ability to imitate humans and insinuate their agents into human society, and their numbers keep increasing. Things look bad for humanity on Bienvenido.
Until a spaceship crash lands, releasing a single child—a girl with powers and abilities far beyond normal humans (no, she didn’t come from Krypton). This child, seemingly from the distant past, is the key to the future survival of humanity. If only the humans can get her away from the Fallers.
* * *
The Best of Bova Volume II
Baen, 413 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Genre: Short SF Collections
Here’s the second of three volumes collecting the best short fiction from the legendary Ben Bova. Editor of Analog from 1972 to 1978 and Omni from 1978 to 1982, Bova has published 125 books of science fiction and science fact. He’s served as President of the National Space Society and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He’s well respected as a futurist and is a frequent advisor for SF films and TV shows. Without question, Bova is the very archetype of the type of writer Analog readers love to read.
This middle volume of The Best of Bova collects stories from as early as 1962 (“The Next Logical Step,” Analog May 1962) and as recent as 2007 (“Jovian Dreams” Thrilling Wonder Stories Summer 2007). Many were originally published in these pages, but there are also stories from across the spectrum of SF magazines and anthologies.
In the idea/action dichotomy, Bova is decidedly on the idea-oriented side of the fence. His stories and characters share a rationality and a drive for problem solving through intellect. The stories in this volume fall under two main themes: humanity’s drive to extend our environment beyond Earth, and our interactions with our machines.
As always, Bova grounds his ideas in real, sympathetic characters, human people who embody the best of the species. There’s no better example of this than the classic story “The Shining Ones,” which brings together a terminally ill teenager and some alien explorers landed in New Mexico.
Another classic is Bova’s collaboration with Harlan Ellison, “Brillo” (Analog August 1970). This story of a robot police officer is legendary as the subject of a Hollywood plagiarism suit won by the authors, but it’s also a fine story that addresses the need for basic humanity in law enforcement, a theme that’s as vital today as when the story was first published.
With 23 other stories and a brief introduction by Bova, this volume is easily worth the price. It belongs in the library of any serious Analog reader.
Alas, I’ve come to the end of this issue’s adventure in book reviewing. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, and the Rule of Five serial at rule-of-5.com. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2017 Don Sakers