The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

Historians of science fiction generally date the emergence of SF as a commercial genre to the debut of Amazing Stories in 1926. In the 90+ years since then, the field has undergone a series of widespread changes (sometimes called revolutions or fashions). These seem to happen roughly every dozen years or so.

Thus, we had the Golden Age/Campbell era, the postwar boom, the New Wave, the Cyberpunk movement, and so forth.

Virtually everything about these periods of transformation is the subject of disagreement: their number, dates, duration, and nature; their causes and effects; even the validity of their existence. While most experts agree that SF has gone through some major shifts, the rest is up for grabs.

Still, if you look back over the field from a distance, general patterns emerge. It’s those patterns I’m going to talk about here. Just be aware that we’re in the realm of opinion, not scientific fact. In particular, the beginning and end dates are subjects of much debate.

In my opinion, science fiction’s transformative periods all share one characteristic: each, in its own way, represented a movement in the direction of the humanities, humanism, and human diversity.

The pulp era (1926–1939) was itself a step toward greater access and availability. Prior to 1926, science fiction was found either in books, or in occasional stories scattered among the pulp magazines. Amazing and its siblings delivered concentrated doses of SF to readers for only 25 cents (or less) a month.

By today’s standards, it seems odd to speak of the Campbell era (1939–1949) as focusing SF more on characterization, but at the time that’s exactly what it was about. In addition to emphasizing more accurate science, Campbell encouraged his authors to write more rounded characters than the cardboard cutouts common in pulp stories. (Of course, this emphasis on character didn’t go beyond white guys of northern European ancestry, although some authors did stretch the boundaries . . . a little.)

In what’s commonly called the postwar era (1949–1964), magazines like Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction featured stories that dealt more with the social sciences, and gradually the field moved in that direction. At the same time, the paperback revolution represented another democratization of distribution, making both classic and new SF books available to more readers than ever before.

The New Wave (1964–1977) brought written SF new modes of storytelling (drawn from the literary world), and also a raft of new social and individual humanistic concerns (drawn from the counterculture movement). The field opened (reluctantly) to more women writers and writers of color.

Another revolution in distribution and availability commenced with the premiere of Star Trek in 1966, and really picked up speed in 1977 with Star Wars. In this media era (call it 1966 or 1977 to 1982) science fiction spread its appeal to a much, much wider audience. New writers (a large proportion of them women) emerged, having got their start writing fan-fiction in fanzines.

The Cyberpunk movement (1982–1995) was less concerned with technology than with the balance of individual liberty and social responsibility. Cyberpunk elevated the outsider, the nonconformist. At the start, too many of these outsiders were angry young white men, but in subsequent waves authors used cyberpunk tropes to explore characters from more diverse and marginalized communities.

In and around the first decade of this millennium, science fiction entered a phase of mainstreaming. This was simultaneously another expansion of distribution, and a broadening of subjects. In books and movies, stories and TV shows, science fiction tropes expanded into other genres, reaching many more readers. In a very real sense, science fiction became part of mainstream popular culture, and genre boundaries (never very firm to begin with) blurred further. In particular, SF and fantasy increasingly picked up tropes from one another. With the internet and the explosion of fan-fiction, SF was everywhere.

That brings us up to the current decade. Developments like e-books and indie publishing have made publication and distribution widely available to all, leading to an increase in both the numbers and the diversity of authors and readers. Across the field, a new awareness of and concern with human diversity is remaking the shape of science fiction as profoundly as Campbell or the New Wave ever did.

What about the future? If this trend continues, what might we expect the SF field of the mid-to-late-2020s to look like? Prediction is haphazard—and SF writers are notorious for mis-imagining the future of their own field—but if I had to I’d look in the direction of artificial intelligence and the gaming/virtual reality industry. The next big step toward humanism could well be science fiction in which characters become fully human, in the sense that readers become the characters, directly participating in stories.

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Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
Alec Nevala-Lee
Dey Street Books, 528 pages, $28.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $15.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-0625-7194-6
Genre: Nonfiction

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Of all science fiction’s historical periods, the one that’s closest to our hearts around here is the Golden Age, AKA the Campbell Era, AKA the Astounding years. For a good decade or more, this magazine was at the forefront of SF, the one place to go for the best in the field. (For those who aren’t aware, Analog used to be called Astounding; the magazine’s name changed in 1960).

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book examines the Golden Age through the lives of four of its major players. John W. Campbell, Jr. was the architect of the period; as Astounding’s editor he shaped the course of the field and established a stable of writers who became the biggest names in science fiction.

Among these writers, arguably the most popular and influential were Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard.

All four of these men became mythic, larger-then-life figures. Asimov and Hubbard became famous outside the world of SF—Asimov for the wide range and sheer volume of his nonfiction books, Hubbard for being the founder of Scientology. Heinlein, like Campbell, was largely unknown outside the field, but inside both were legends. In many ways, it’s Campbell who was the foundation and the key; without him, it’s unlikely that the other three would have achieved even a fraction of what they did.

Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is a thoroughgoing scholarly effort—the last fifth of the book consists of acknowledgments, a comprehensive bibliography, and hundreds of meticulous notes on sources. Yet it doesn’t read like a dry academic book; instead, it’s like a chatty, slightly gossipy popular biography. Nevala-Lee approaches the four subjects with a full understanding of their status and importance, but treats them as human beings with their own constellations of talents and flaws.

Nevala-Lee is completely aware that our modern world is largely a product of science fiction’s Golden Age, saying “If the future . . . felt like science fiction, it was largely because the prophecy had fulfilled itself. It had inspired countless readers to enter the sciences, where they set themselves, consciously or not, to enacting its vision.” This book attempts to explain how these men managed to change science fiction, and thus the world. Campbell’s troubled relationship with his mother; Heinlein’s difficulty fitting in anywhere; Hubbard’s own family problems; Asimov’s unsophisticated naivety—all of these informed and shaped their lives in ways that are only now coming to be understood.

If you’re curious about the history of this magazine, or science fiction, or of the modern world—you don’t want to miss this one.

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Shadow Call
AdriAnne Strickland and Michael Miller
Delacorte, 432 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-3995-5257-1
Series: Qole 2
Genre: Romantic SF, Space Opera, Teen SF

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In the July/August 2017 issue I reviewed Shadow Run, first in a romantic space opera series with a compelling universe and some eccentric, memorable characters. Shadow Call, the next book in the series, is a worthy follow-up.

Qole Uvgamut is the youngest person to captain her own starship. From her frozen homeworld Alaxak, Qole leads her offbeat crew in prospecting for Shadow, a kind of exotic matter that’s the main energy source for the galaxy. Her extreme sensitivity to the substance helps make them successful.

In Shadow Run, Qole ran across—and fell in love with—Nev Dracorte, a now-exiled prince of the galaxy’s royal family.

Like most people on Alaxak, Qole has grown up to distrust and dislike the royal family, as well as the monarchy that rules the galaxy’s worlds. If she could, she would have nothing to do with it. If she could only forget who Nev was, or the power he represented.

Unfortunately, Qole is being pursued by another royal faction, one that seeks to use her affinity with Shadow to bolster their own political position. This faction attacks Alaxak, leaving Nev framed for murder.

Now both Qole and Nev face hard choices. In order to keep Qole and her world safe, Nev must take on the royal role he renounced, and fight for the Throne. But if he becomes part of the monarchy Qole despises, he could ultimately lose her and her people.

Qole, on the other hand, has to decide if she’ll join Nev and—with the abilities that Shadow can give her—become the leader of a rebellion aimed at taking control of the government she has good reasons for hating.

Once again, the universe is well constructed and complex enough to hold a reader’s interest. Qole, Nev, and the supporting characters in her crew and beyond, are sympathetic and interesting. There’s adventure, intrigue, betrayal, conflict, and everything else that makes for a fun book.

Those who like the Liaden books of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, or Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire, will find much to life here. So will fans of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, or David Drake’s RCN universe.

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A Metal Box Floating Between Stars and Other Stories
Jamie Lackey
Air and Nothingness Press (www.aanpress.com)
166 pages, $20.00 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9991-9530-7
Genre: Literary SF, Short Fiction Collection

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Unless you’ve been prowling science fiction webzines and small-circulation magazines both online and off, you will likely have missed Jamie Lackey. It’s high time to remedy that deplorable situation.

Lackey’s been publishing for a good ten years now. She has over 130 pieces of short fiction under her belt, and her fantasy novel Left-Hand Gods came out in 2016. If you’re lucky, you may have one of both of her previous collections: One Revolution: A Year of Flash Fiction (2012) and The Blood of Four Gods and Other Stories (2016). She hasn’t appeared in Analog yet, but I repeat: yet.

A Metal Box Floating Between Stars and Other Stories is a collection of 19 stories, six of them (including the title story) appearing here for the first time. The stories are varied—an interstellar expedition, a world conquered by parasitic aliens, a future Earth devastated by fungal plague, virtual reality gamescapes, an emerging group consciousness, AI simulations. Some run only a few pages, others are novelette length.

What all the stories have in common is a theme of loneliness and community.

In the title story, a slower-than-light exploration ship bound for Alpha Centauri is crewed by 20 assorted scientists in cold sleep. One at a time, they awaken for 3-month shifts tending the ship. As the voyage wears on years after years, the crew sequentially bonds around a particular mech bot that starts displaying a personality.

In “Losing Home,” a young girl faces the realities of life as a resistance fighter on a future Earth where parasitic aliens take possession of most human beings. “Rainbow Spores” tells of a fungal plague that leaves victims crazed for affection and body contact as a means of spreading spores. “Our Pills Help” is an ambiguous tale of the threat and promise of group consciousness.

It’s hard to classify Lackey’s work. Comparisons to Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, and even Ursula K. LeGuin are all apt in one way or another. Some of her stories have a Robert Bloch or Harlan Ellison feel about them; many of her tales are definitely not for the squeamish. Yet the author she most reminds me of is Theodore Sturgeon. Her execution is a little more visceral, more bloody than Sturgeon’s—but she deals with the same human themes and many of the same elements as Sturgeon did.

Jamie Lackey is surely going somewhere important. You don’t want to miss the chance to follow her.

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Supremacy’s Shadow
T. Eric Bakutis
SF Productions, 317 pages, $14.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $2.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-9996-9350-6
Series: Dueling Planets 1
Genre: Military SF, SF Thriller

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In addition to being a writer, T. Eric Bakutis is a game designer—and it shows. He knows how to entertain readers. He’s best known for his high fantasy Tales of the Five Provinces trilogy (Glyphbinder, Demonkin, and Bloodmender) and Simulation Disorder, a collection of short stories published in 2017.

Supremacy’s Shadow is his first science fiction novel. While it comes out of the military SF tradition, it’s more (as the kids today say) military-SF-adjacent. In an oppressive near-future ruled by a corrupt government, Hayden Cross is an investigator in a militarized police force. Thirteen years ago his wife Dani was killed in a bomb attack on their home by a criminal syndicate, and Cross still hasn’t dealt with all his inner demons.

On a routine case, an informant asks for his help. Morna Solace was a friend of Cross’s wife, and she invokes that connection to convince Cross to rescue her kidnapped daughter from the hands of a notorious crime boss.

Cross takes on the job, but soon he has more on his plate. When he uncovers hints that his wife may have faked her death, his investigation takes a disastrous turn. He loses his job and most of his resources, and fears that his sanity may be next to go.

But Cross is as hardboiled as they come, and he’s determined to find the truth about Dani . . . despite bounty hunters, violent rebels, corrupt police, and the fact that the city’s biggest crime lord has put an attractive price on his head. The deeper he gets into a government-wide conspiracy, the more things spiral out of control.

So far it all sounds like a fairly fun noir SF thriller. But wait, there’s more. Because T. Eric Bakutis is a real storyteller, and for all its grim and gritty content, Supremacy’s Shadow sparkles with wit and humor. Hayden Cross covers his inner turmoil with the kind of devil-may-care banter that we’re accustomed to hearing from the mouths of Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford, or Bruce Willis. The narrative is noir with a tone light enough to keep everything from sliding into unrelieved misery.

If you’re looking for an old-school snarky hero in an up-to-date SF book, this is the story for you.

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The Greater Glory of God
Raymund Eich
CV-2 Books, 197 pages, $9.99 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-9991-0162-9
Series: Stone Chalmers 2
Genre: Adventure SF, Religious/Philosophical SF

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The second of Raymund Eich’s Stone Chalmers books is every bit as much fun as the first (The Progress of Mankind, reviewed in the March/April issue this year).

Eich says that one of his code names for the Stone Chalmers series was “James Bond in Space,” and that’s a pretty fair description. Chalmers, Earth’s best secret agent, is the kind of dashing, quick-witted protagonist that every spy adventure needs, and the threats he combats are deliciously nefarious.

Here’s the general setup. Earth barely survived the troubles of the 21st century. In the process, thousands of colonists left on outlaw starships to take their chances on new colony worlds. Once the chaos subsided, thanks to heroic efforts by the United Nations, Earth forces using new wormhole technology started rediscovering those colonies . . . and tracking down the starships.

A warpdrive ship, you see, isn’t just a method of traveling between stars—in the wrong hands, it’s also a powerful weapon. Fanatics could send such a ship on a suicide mission that could decimate the homeworld.

And many of those who fled Earth to settle new colonies were religious fanatics of one stripe or another.

Eventually Earth found and neutralized all the missing starships. Except for one.

Enter Stone Chalmers, whose enhanced abilities make him the world’s foremost espionage agent. Teamed with lovely-but-deadly operative Caitlyn Fredriksen, he sets off for the colony world Trinity. There, they infiltrate a squad of religious zealots who are themselves searching for the missing ship. Their goal is to launch the ship in an attack on the homeworld.

All Stone has to do is avoid detection, thwart the zealots’ plan, neutralize the ship, and keep himself and Caitlyn alive.

It’s all good, old-fashioned adventure fun, with a dash of sardonic humor to sweeten the pot.

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Oblivion
Steve White & Charles E. Gannon
Baen, 326 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $7.55, iBooks, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8325-4
Series: Starfire 10
Genre: Military SF

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It’s said that one of the worst curses one can pronounce upon another is “May you live in interesting times.” Well, in that sense Steve White’s Starfire universe has recently been through some pretty interesting times.

We last visited in 2016’s Imperative (reviewed in the November 2016 issue). The Grand Alliance of three races (Humans, Orions, Ophiuchi, and Gorm) had finished its long war with the incomprehensibly alien Arduans. When Oblivion opens, the Arduans and Grand Alliance have joined as the pan-Sentient Union.

This new alliance is under threat, however, from a splinter group of Arduan warrior castes who refuse to surrender. Calling themselves the Kaituni, they’ve made it their business to declare a war of extinction on the pan-Sentients.

Now one more wrinkle enters the picture. Prior to the Arduan War, the Grand Alliance fought and defeated the Arachnids, nasty space bugs of the most destructive kind. Everyone thought the Arachnids were all but extinct—but the Kaituni preserved the bugs, and now send them forth as a weapon against the pan-Sentient Union.

This all sounds confusing, with so many different races and threats. Authors White and Gannon do a good job of keeping everything clear, and even if you’ve never read a Starfire book before you won’t feel at all lost.

The main action of the book involves Admiral Ian Trevayne and his protégé Commodore Ossian Wethermere, the heroes of Imperative, standing against a Kaituni attack on Alpha Centauri, the last bastion of defense before Earth itself. Trevayne and Wethermere have faced overwhelming odds before, but never to this degree—and never with the stakes so high.

Space battles, byzantine politics, alien cultures, intelligent commanders with their backs against the wall—what’s not to like?

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Stranger Suns
George Zebrowski
Armchair Fiction, 304 pages, $12.95 (format)
iBooks: $5.99, Kindle: $1.99, Nook: $6.49 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-6128-7407-4
Genre: Mythic SF, Parallel Worlds, Religious/Philosophical SF

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Armchair Fiction has made a name for itself by publishing attractive, affordable trade paperback and e-book editions of classic science fiction novellas and collections. Most of their offerings so far have been drawn from the pulps magazines.

Now Armchair presents a modern classic, one of the early works of George Zebrowski.

Zebrowski is one of those SF authors who drops in every so often (his last novel was in 2009), delivers an intricately-crafted story or novel that leaves us all gasping in sheer admiration, then leaves us for a few months or a year to talk about it among ourselves. His last Analog story was “Woundings” in the January/February 2016 issue; before that was the Nebula-nominated story “Wound the Wind” in May 2001. His first book, The Omega Point, appeared in 1972; in 1999 he won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Brute Orbits.

Stranger Suns, first published in 1991 and long out of print, is an expanded version of Zebrowski’s 1975 book The Star Web. An international group of four scientists, led by physicist Juan Obrian, discover a long-abandoned alien starship buried under Antarctic glaciers. When they enter it, the ship comes to life and departs Earth.

Obrian and his companions have no way to control the ship: it continues on some sort of autopilot, following an unknown program. Survival isn’t a problem: the environment is benign, and the ship’s equipped with replicators that can produce all the food they need. So they set forth to explore their new, hopefully temporary, home.

It’s not long before they discover strange portals that seem to lead to other ships and worlds. Upon further exploration, they find that the portals actually open on an infinite number of parallel universes.

This is where an interesting adventure story moves into deep philosophical and mythic territory. As the scientists explore the network of portals, hoping to find a way home, they visit many timelines and witness the different ways the destiny of humanity plays out.

Somewhere in all these alternate timelines, Obrian comes to believe, is one that represents the best—and worst—possible variants of the human race. Some of these may even have access to the portal network—and others could use it. The four scientists find themselves in the position of being able to choose the ultimate course of human history . . . if they dare.

Reading a Zebrowski book or story usually involves setting it down at the end and saying, “Wow.” And then pondering the questions raised for a few weeks or months. Stranger Suns is an excellent example. Definitely a mind-expanding book, whether it’s your first time or a revisit.

I’m out of space now, so keep your eye peeled for the next revolution in SF. And I’ll see you again next issue.

 

Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna, the Rule of Five serial at http://rule-of-5.com, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.

Copyright © 2018 Don Sakers