Story Review: Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett

I can’t use the cover used in Planet Stories. However, this is the cover used for the story collection in Fantasy Masterworks.

I get this story recommended to me often. In truth, the circles I run in love older stories, and they seem to always extol Black Amazon of Mars as one of the better tales from the past.

Leigh Brackett was once called the “Queen of Space Opera”, and I have to admit that this story lives up to the hype.

Black Amazon of Mars has vivid storytelling, a fast pace, interesting action and characters, and twists and turns I didn’t see coming.

The story follows Eric John Stark, a recurring character in Brackett’s work. First published in 1951, it was originally in PLanet Stories, but subsequent publications used either the changed version or the original (depending). I read the original.

In this story, Eric is with his friend Camar, who is dying. Camar held in his possession a lens of some type that has some powerful abilities. As Camar dies, he Eric volunteers to take the lens back to his Martian people. However, a band of marauders, lead by the mysterious Lord Ciaran, are planning an attack on the city Camar comes from.

Stark is a good character, though he felt pretty generic. His “wandering rogue” aesthetic held pretty standard for a pulp story, but the real shining stars were the other characters. Lord Ciaran, in particular, was fascinating. There are a lot of martians in the city that interested me, but mostly by that part of the story, Ciaran’s uniqueness eclipsed the other characters.

All in all, I’d recommend this for anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy. It’s only about 70 pages, so I think it’s worth it. It’s fantastic.


You may like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

You may also like some of my other work:

Writing with Inspiration

How to Tell if Your Writing is Improving

Poetry: “Rusted Theme Park from My Childhood”

Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

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Harlan Ellison on Not Being a Science Fiction Writer

I love listening to the old authors of speculative fiction. In this way I came upon a 1976 interview of Harlan Ellison describing why he is not a science fiction writer. He thinks his work doesn’t actually fit that label, and I think he’s probably right.

Sure, many of his fiction works fall into science, but others have fantasy elements or are simply real world fiction. It isn’t so simple as saying “this guy was a sci-fi writer.”

There’s much to learn from Ellison’s philosophy of writing, and I think his idea of genre is especially useful. However, if you’re a new author looking to get published, having a clearly defined genre may be more useful. It’s debatable.

Here’s the interview, at the appropriate part. I’d recommend the entire interview if you have the time!


You may like some of my other posts about writing:

Going from Outline to Manuscript

Revising Your First Draft Novel

Also check out my book reviews:

Book Review: Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein

Book Review: Slan by A. E. van Vogt

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Also make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A-princess-of-mars

In an effort to understand where speculative fiction originated, I’m going to be reading some older stories to figure out the origins of today’s books.

How do I even begin this first one? A Princess of Mars is the forefather of science fiction, first being published in 1912.  It’s influence can still be felt in science fiction and fantasy to this day.

It’s hotly debated how much this book falls into the science fiction genre, since John Carter is taken to Mars without so much of an explanation of how he got there. I would argue, though, that speculating about another planet is a worthy definition of science fiction.

Beyond the historical impact of this book, I guess we should discuss the contents itself.

John Carter is in the Confederate military during the United States Civil War. While there, he gets into a fight with Native Americans and flees into a cave. Suddenly, he awakens on Mars. On this new planet, he finds himself a prisoner of the green martian inhabitants. Here, Mars is called Barsoom, and it’s a place of warfare and hatred, where friendship and love is all but unknown.

The story progresses from there, with him meeting the various martians and learning their ways. I have to be honest here, the first 40 pages or so were a trudge to get through. Those pages were basically without dialogue. It reminded me of reading H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, which makes sense.

The characters are interesting, from Sola the green martian who seems to feel love, to Dejah Thoris, a red martian princess (the titular princess of Mars). Dejah is fascinating in that she seems to have a scientific mind, and shares much of her knowledge with John. But she’s also said to be basically nude the entire book, as most martians forego clothing for ornamentation.

Tars Tarkas was my favorite character. He was a warrior who served the sitting chieftain of the green martians, but unlike other martians seemed to value friendship with John. He had progression throughout the story, and was a likeable character.

One of the interesting elements was that the green martians raise their young as a community. The reasons for this were implied to be that they put all their eggs together to incubate for long periods of time, so it’s possible that upon hatching you wouldn’t know which eggs are yours anyways.

This idea was taken directly from Plato’s Republic, and has the same weaknesses as that system. Aristotle said that system would lead to one where children were shown no love and grow to lack it as adults, which is clearly the case for the green martians. Karl Popper also said such a system was a dystopia, and in the martian society, it certainly seems to be the case. The green martians are pseudo-nomadic, moving around at times for war and incubation. While the red martians seem to have ornate walled cities (and physiologies similar to humans).

After about half-way through this book it turned into one of the best books I’d ever read, if not a little dated. If you can get past the first 40 pages, which basically lack dialogue the entire time, then I think you’d enjoy it.

Now, let me get into come spoiler-laden criticisms!

SPOILERS BELOW

The transition from the green martians to the red was jarring. I kind of wanted to spend all my time with them. However, knowing that Dejah was a red martian I knew we’d meet them eventually.

I really liked John as a character, but I disliked how it seemed that he was easily able to influence the martians with love and kindness. Some of it makes sense, like Sola being raised by a loving mother who wanted to know her children. But the fact that the tribe just went along with it was kind of odd. It’s really not a big complaint, to be honest.

It’s left up in the air as to whether the entire book was real or not, but subsequent sequels apparently revisit the world of Barsoom. John also seems to grow old apart from his wife and child, which I really dislike. It left the whole ending with a bitter taste.

I’m really looking forward to reading the other four books I have of this series!


You may like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

You may also like some of my other work:

Writing with Inspiration

How to Tell if Your Writing is Improving

Poetry: “Rusted Theme Park from My Childhood”

Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

Book Review: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

TheHighCrusadeFollowing in the footsteps of my The Broken Sword review is another Poul Anderson masterpiece, mostly unknown to modern readers.

The High Crusade is a book about English knights, priests, and peasants from the medieval period who take over an alien spaceship and begin to fight the aliens on other planets. It’s fun, exciting, and from that premise comes one of the most interesting explorations of the medieval mindset I’ve ever read.

To be honest, the weakest part is the characters. It was pretty clear which direction the characters were going to go, and with the medieval mindset it was clear the person who broke fealty was doomed from the get go. This is honestly a flimsy weakness, though, since the book is excellent despite this.

Before I get into spoilers, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you like science fiction or the medieval age, this is right up your alley.

SPOILERS BELOW

The main thrust of the book is Sir Roger’s campaign against the Wersgorix Empire. He’s successful only because he’s modifying medieval warfare to the new technology they acquire, and because the aliens have had a relative peace due to the empire controlling much of the galaxy.

The most interesting element is the idea that Earthlings will go into space far in the future and find a feudal system throughout the galaxy!


If you liked this review you might like some of my others:

Book Review: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Book Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K . Jemisin

You may also like my work on writing:

What is Science Fiction?

Turning a Hobby into a Career

Writing Philosophical Science Fiction

Book Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

34081658._UY200_.jpgDavid D. Levine held an AMA on Reddit not too long ago. I ended up asking a question of him, which he took the time to respond to! I’ll link my tweet on it here.

But hearing from him encouraged me to read his book Arabella of Mars.

From the start it was an odd read, something I had to adjust to right away. The issue wasn’t the tense or narration, but the way the story read. The setting was something like a Victorian age understanding of space, with Mars being settled by English colonists, and the vacuum of space replaced by an atmosphere and sailing ships.

Before I get to spoilers, let me say: I recommend this book if you like older literature and science fiction. It’s right in that sweet spot.

SPOILERS BELOW

The book is in three parts. The first is her on Earth and her issues there. From there we end up in the air between Earth and Mars. Again, this book is based in an almost Victorian understanding of space. Third, the book is on Mars.

Right in the first few chapters Arabella is taken from her home on Mars and moved back to England to live as a proper noblewoman. While there, her father dies, relatives essentially kidnap her and plan to murder her brother, and they escape to Mars. This is, again, all in the first few chapters.

I will admit to two criticisms I have of this book. The first is at this point in the story, when Arabella is at her worst. It honestly surprised me that things could turn so grim for the girl. I felt like quitting the book here, but luckily I pushed through.

In the second part we have Arabella taken aboard the Diana. Arabella pretends to be a boy and tries to enlist in the Navy to get to Mars, but is luckily intercepted by a merchant captain who offers her a ship to learn on There’s a robotic navigator clearly inspired by the chess-playing Turk, and the Indian captain who seems to have a certain nobility about him.

Most of the adventures in this part are exceptionally well thought out and interesting. I found myself drawn into the story here, and concerned about both the “time bomb” aspect of getting to Mars as soon as possible, and tension of Arabella hiding her sex. It’s well-written! Almost reminds me of Treasure Island in this section.

Then we get to the third part of the book, when Arabella’s sex is revealed and she helps land the ship on Mars to find a rebellion of Martian natives. It’s an interesting situation, and here Arabella really shines. She knows the Martian customs and helps her ship from being destroyed. Then, she’s able to negotiate for food and water and get permission from the Martians to talk to her brother.

This is where my second complaint in the book exists: the Captain accompanies Arabella and seemingly has no purpose in anything. He has nothing to do. It honestly feels a little lazy given how well-written everything else is.

The ending of the book was satisfying, which is what you want for an ending (the resolution of which was set up from the beginning). In fact, all of Arabella’s  problems seem to stem from her father’s poor estate planning, which is hilariously brought up towards the end as being the solicitor’s fault.

As far as everything goes, I would say the book is a satisfying read with plenty of adventure. My own love of military science fiction drew me in when we dealt with actual sailing ship situations. Arabella is basically treated as a new recruit on a Navy ship (even though it’s a merchant ship).

All in all, David Levine nailed it. I hope the next one is as great!


 

If you liked this, you might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Warship by Joshua Dalzelle

Book Review: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

 

Book Review: The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson

TheEnemyStarsI had heard of Poul Anderson in my readings of science fiction, but I think this was my first venture into his work. I should say I was not disappointed.

The Enemy Stars follows several characters, specifically those aboard the Southern Cross, a vessel for travelling the universe. Apparently the technology used is called a “mattercaster”, which I understood to be a teleporter of some kind.

I can’t speak of this book without getting into spoilers. Let me say, it’s a short read and worth your time if hard science fiction from the late 50’s is your thing. I liked it well enough, but I wouldn’t say I’d recommend it to everyone who likes sci-fi in general.

The book follows characters. As such, the main characters on the ship are interesting people, but I felt that the two main men, Ryerson and Maclaren, were far too similar. I had trouble remembering which one was which. Also their portrayal of Nakamura had him practice Zen and use simple Japanese words, which struck me as a little one-dimensional. The other characters also suffered from this plight, save Magnus, who was interesting in the end.

Like a playwright, Anderson is able to use various characters in a simple setting to make interesting observations and musings on a variety of subjects. The ideas are solid science fiction, with a black star being the central focus of the expedition.

It’s a good book, but not for everyone.


You might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Book Review: Slan by A. E. van Vogt

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

You might also like my work on books or writing:

Where the First Draft Ends and Second Draft Begins

Finding Your Writing Style

The First SciFi Book I Read

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Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

jack of shadows, zelaznyI should begin this review with a sobering statement: I’ve never read Roger Zelazny before this book.

The book follows Jack, also called Shadowjack. He is extremely powerful, but lives on the dark side of the world with a shield that keeps the world on that side warm. These darksiders are able to use magic and summon spirits, but the light side is people who are scientific and academic in nature.

Jack is killed in the beginning, and resurrects on the opposite side of the world. He ends up swearing vengeance and the book takes off with him travelling across the planet.

Let me say this: the book is fantastic. This is by far one of the best blends of scifi and fantasy I’ve ever read. If you’ve never read it, I recommend it. It’s a bit outdated, but it’s worth a read.

It deals with subjects like the nature of reality, the existence of higher powers, and the question of technology as a curse.

That said, the book isn’t perfect. I think the ending is indicative of 70’s science fiction, in general. I read George R. R. Martin’s Dying of the Light, and it fits this tone perfectly.

Give it a read!


You might like some of my other work:

Book Review: The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

Book Review: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

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I used the cover I was used to for this book, growing up. It caught my eye because of how goofy it looked, and as a kid I wanted to see other kids in science fiction situations.

Honestly, Orson Scott Card’s most well-known book is one of my favorite books of all time, so it’s worth going through as a book review.

The main character is Ender Wiggin, a “third”. In this society parents are typically limited to two kids at a time. As a result, kids who are “thirds” are disrespected and treated poorly. Of note are his two siblings: Peter and Valentine. Peter is a kind of sadistic sociopath, while Valentine is a kind and loving person.

The story starts with Ender being tested for his capabilities. He is enrolled in battle school to learn to fight the “buggers”, aliens who apparently attacked Earth long ago, and Ender does progressively well. There’s a cast of interesting characters from across the planet (this was released in 1985, and one of the characters is from the Soviet Union). Of note are the zero gravity games, and their mechanics. Then, the twist at the end is widely regarded as one of the best in science fiction.

Critical reception was fairly positive. The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a rare achievement.

I think my only problems with the novel have to do with the characters. Ender is interesting enough, but Peter is purely evil and Valentine purely good. I always hated that. Real people aren’t like that, and maybe you can argue that from Ender’s perspective that was the case, but Peter should have had something redeemable about him.

Likewise, I take issue to the 3/4 mark in the book, when Ender is established at battle school and they start to throw whatever they can at him to beat him. At that point it felt like there was little to no tension. Then, moving him to another kind of school with other characters felt pointless (at first). There was no tension in the simulated fights, because they were simulated to the character. He wasn’t risking anything by fighting simulations.

Overall, I hope you don’t take away that I dislike this book. It’s honestly one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read. I have recommended it to friends who aren’t into science fiction and they loved it. It isn’t perfect, by any means.

(NOTE: Card himself has come to be something of a pariah in the science fiction community. I have no interest in his political opinions, and as such am reviewing this purely on the book’s merits. However, I think context is important: Card is a devout Mormon. As such, he has taken the Mormon position on homosexuality and gay marriage, and though I may disagree with him, I won’t burn his books because of it. )

Once again, I highly recommend Ender’s Game for anyone who is interested in science fiction.


 

Check out my other reviews!

Book Review: “The Lost Fleet” Series by Jack Campbell

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

Also check out my posts on writing:

How to Tell if Your Writing is Improving

When To Completely Rewrite

Also make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

Finding Time for Reading and Writing

read-791767_960_720I work full time in an office, which is anathema to the aspiring writer. The siren’s call of a science fiction career calls to me from the shore. I want to write full time, but know I’m not even close to there yet.

I love it, though. I love writing and reading it. To me, it makes for a perfect outlet in life.

I often wonder if I do my full time career in the office as a means to pay for my real job as a writer.

I can’t be the only person to feel like that. And sadly, not everyone who feels that way will make it.

But the one key to it all is to continue pushing forward with it, despite everything.

If you continue plowing the field and planting the seed, eventually something will grow.

Book Review: The “Troy Rising” Trilogy by John Ringo

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Live Free or Die, the first book in the series

I have previously reviewed John Ringo’s work, specifically his second Posleen War book, Gust Front. Truth be told, I found him to be an entertaining writer, but not necessarily one of the greats in science fiction.

However, the Troy Rising trilogy changed my perspective on him.

This first trilogy follows humanity as an alien race makes contact and extends to Earth the chance to be part of their portal network. After this occurs, Tyler Vernon, previously a webcomic artist, finds out that the aliens really like one product Earth has to offer. He ends up monopolizing this product and selling it at a high price to the aliens. As a result, he consolidates wealth and power in an attempt to better mankind’s standing within the galaxy.

There are aliens who do not see humanity as an asset, however, and would rather conquer them. The series uses this as a point of tension and plot development, going so far as to alter humanity at the genetic level.

The stakes increase from book to book, and ultimately the series builds to a satisfying third installment.

The series expands to include multiple interesting science fiction ideas:

  • First is the concept of Troy itself: a gigantic fortress created from a hollowed asteroid for the human forces to use as both a space station and a spacecraft. The size of the creation is expertly relayed to the reader, and Ringo does a good job of hitting home how amazing all of this is.
  • Second is the development of artificial intelligence. These AI are interesting in that they exist to work a single purpose, not to act as human intelligences. As such, they have unique personalities, sure, but their uniqueness as minds comes into play later in the series, and is an interesting development on its own.
  • Third is the SAPL, a system of interconnected mirrors that focus solar light/radiation. The system has been mentioned in other works, so it’s not exactly is unique idea from Ringo, but the way it’s used in the story is excellent, especially how it is specifically created for space mining. I also liked the element of AI being the only mind that could properly calculate its usage.
  • Fourth is the retrovirus that the Horvath infect humanity with at one point. This virus makes specific human females very likely to procreate, the idea being that the Horvath would eliminate more of the planet but save a select number of humans and selectively breed them to be slaves of the Horvath. It’s an interesting idea, and from a conquering alien standpoint makes sense.

(EDIT: I forgot to mention these ideas are developed in the story from science fiction, because the Earth was approached later in its development, so we had science fiction entertainment and most alien races did not.)

From this, Ringo works well to create a universe for fun science fiction that has interesting concepts, characters, and plot; this is everything you could ask for in science fiction! I would recommend it to fans of Military Science Fiction especially, but hard sci-fi fans will find some interesting ideas in it.