Book Review: The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith

A newer cover of the title, though a more dynamic and interesting one.

E. E. “Doc” Smith is a mixed bag for me. I really disliked Triplanetary, despite many of my peers suggesting it. I think of the Lensman series, First Lensman might be my next attempt into that space. However, the Skylark series was Smith’s other huge series.

And it is very approachable.

The Skylark of Space, the first book in this series, is about two scientists whose brilliance is tested when one of them, the heroic Richard Seaton, discovers a way to transform copper into energy. It’s fantastical, but the amount of energy provided is to a degree that allows space travel and augmented weaponry. Of course, the evil Marc DuQuesne can’t allow Richard to have it.

The tagline for the book reads, “it started in earth, it ended in space”. This is a good tease for what is within. The spaceship Seaton designs, the titular Skylark, is able to travel incredible speeds pushing relativity to points dreamed impossible. Though the battle between Seaton and DuQuesne escalates to a scale beyond simple battles over property rights. It soon becomes cosmic. The story leaps from the Earth to a black hole (which they call a “dead star”) and then to several alien worlds. Each alien world is unique and interesting, though the last society they interact with is by far the most interested. It also seems to have some similarities to Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom society.

It comes off as an elementary school book report when you start talking about the two main characters, protagonist and antagonist, as if there were some opposing morality in their motivations. In this case, that doesn’t really apply. Both Richard Seaton and Marc DuQuesne have moralities that justify themselves by their ends. “The ends justify the means”, for lack of a better phrase. However, DuQuesne steps past a line of criminality that Seaton never does, going into both thievery and murder. Seaton only goes as far as deceiving the US Government about what he’s discovered and some minor violence to protect it.

There’s never a doubt in the story about which character is the hero and which is the villain. There’s something refreshing about that kind of writing, given the “shades of gray” characterization of modern stories. Your heroes can be human without also being evil, as Smith shows us. Seaton isn’t completely perfect, either. He’s the manly scientist character that was popular back then, but so is DuQuesne. They almost seem cut from the same cloth. At one point, DuQuesne is given honors similar to the honors bestowed upon the other four passengers of the Skylark, though he is still considered a “captive”.

If I had one complaint it was the pacing. In one chapter you’ll be reading about how the crew of one ship gets stuck next to a “dead star”, but then the next chapter has that immediately resolved with the other ship finding them and rescuing them. It’s paced quickly, which can be a hard sell at times. More often than not, though, it feels like a good pace for the story.

I recommend this book for fans of space opera. It won’t disappoint, though it does feel dated at points. That just added to its charm for me, though.


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!

Advertisements

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!

Book Review: There Will Be Dragons by John Ringo

I’ve previously reviewed several of John Ringo’s books, including The Troy Rising series and Gust Front, part of the Legacy of the Aldenata series (also known as the Posleen War series).

This book is about war. Ringo’s writing is straightforward, and a lot of what he delves into is the logic inherent in the story. In the Posleen War series he goes into depth about how the aliens work, how to fight them, and what a war on the Earth would look like, all within the logic of the series. He does the same here.

He also does a good job in pacing. Early on I was a little worried that it was lagging too much, but right around the 100-page mark the story shifted dramatically and my interest was rekindled. Ringo setup a LOT in the early chapters, and the pay offs were worth it. If I have one complaint it’s that I couldn’t really follow a protagonist. Ringo sort of drifted between several POV characters, but ultimately seemed to “zoom in” on Edmund Talbot and Herzer Herrick.

From there, however, the book takes a turn. Instead of being a fantasy book set in the far future, it becomes military fantasy. I’m not complaining, I like that genre, but it wasn’t apparent from the beginning.

Also, if you don’t like discussion of sexual assault this book may not be for you. There’s a prominent attack, which hangs over the head of most of the characters the rest of the book.

Ultimately, I like the book a lot. After burning through the first two hundred pages, I got hooked. If you like military fantasy it’s for you.


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: 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

What is Science Fiction?

9262561366_05ea466cff_bMy family and I discussed some of the more recent Frankenstein movies, and the conversation drifted into the original novel by Mary Shelley. Inevitably, that brought out discussion of the original novel being the first science fiction novel. Apparently, this was a position Brian Aldiss held as well.

Now, I believe that science fiction, as a form of literature, is not so easily defined. As such, a distinct division between what was and was not science fiction is nearly impossible. However, I believe that there are various requirements that a story should meet to be considered science fiction:

1. It must have been written during or after the Enlightenment.

I would argue that science fiction didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. I would say that prior to this, any sort of fantastical or imaginative speculative fiction wouldn’t have had any concern for scientific ideas.

Now, the timing is intentional. Books like Gulliver’s Travels and Icosameron fit this element.

2. It must have been concerned with a scientific idea.

Even if that idea is as simple as “could we go to another planet?” or “what will life look like in 1,000 years?” Works that explore the possibilities of a hollow earth or people who live on the moon also fit this requirement, and if they were after the Enlightenment, fit the first as well.

I would also include some “soft” scientific ideas in here, such as psychology or politics. Thus, utopias or dystopias can be explored in detail in science fiction. I would exclude current politics or military science from this, if they were by themselves as scientific ideas.

3. It must have been concerned with speculation.

This means that a direct, realistic explanation of an even does not fit. Likewise, general fiction that doesn’t speculate anything isn’t a science fiction novel.

Now here’s the issue: space opera and military science fiction can speculate on the use of space faring technology or fighting aliens, but they don’t expound on those ideas. Nor do they need to!

I think these three elements must be included. Rod Serling once said, “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”.

So was Frankenstein the first sci-fi novel? No, I don’t think so, though it may have been the first “hard” science fiction novel, but that’s a different story. Perhaps this is overthinking it, or maybe I’m missing some element that would define certain stories and not others.

What do you think?


You may like some of my other work on this site. Make sure to check me out on Twitter and Instagram.

Maybe some of my reviews:

Book Review: The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

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

Maybe some of my work on writing:

Writing Descriptions

Finding Your Writing Style

Maybe my poetry:

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

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 Gray Prince by Jack Vance

download (2)I’d previously reviewed Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, which I loved. Like that book, The Gray Prince is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Jack Vance is a master of that blend, and I recommend him to anyone who would desire reading that kind of mix.

However, I can’t readily recommend The Gray Prince. As a book it’s okay, but I feel it ends abruptly and lacks cohesiveness. There’s also a few other issues.

The book follows a small family, with Schaine Madduc returning to her homestead from the space port. Kelse, her brother, is antagonistic towards their old friend Jorjol. Jorjol is a native Uldra who was raised on the homestead, but in later days has become known as “The Gray Prince”, a leader of a rebellion against the human land barons, who took the aliens’ lands.

The main problem with the book is its use of the alien language and personal names. The Uldra use several unique terms that are difficult to explain. Vance describes it in passing, but mostly uses them to immerse the reader in the world. That’s normally fine, but in this instance there’s so many terms that I couldn’t follow it.

The names are another issue. The first third of the book I kept confusing Kelse and Schaine, and I thought Uther Madduc (Kelse and Schaine’s father) was Jorjol’s actual name. I had to refer to a character list online to figure out everything!

As another positive, the morals of the book are interesting. One could say they’re “shades of gray”, to throw a turn of phrase. The land barons are by no means the “good guys”. Uther and Kelse were both clearly bigoted towards Jorjol, and the consequences of those actions are seen in the events of the book.

Ultimately, I’d say that the problems with the book have to be weighed against the creative worldbuilding and storytelling. I think Jack Vance was a talented enough writer to warrant a read of this book, if only because of the recommendations online. However, I think it was just “good”, not great.


You might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Book Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

You might also like some of my other work on this blog:

How to Tell if Your Writing is Improving

Writing Descriptions

Poetry: “Cardinals in Spring Snow”

Book Review: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge by Mike Resnick

seven-views-of-olduvai-gorgeI don’t know if it’s cheating to review this, but I received a small pamphlet, about 40 pages long, of Mike Resnick’s novella “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge”. Since I read it as a single bound material, I guess it counts as a “book review”.

I liked this story! I really enjoyed it after a small adjustment period.

The story follows alien scientists researching the origins of humanity, who has gone extinct thousands of years ago. Humanity was an empire that stretched across the stars, but they began from a small world called Earth. There are seven flashbacks related to seven artifacts recovered related to humanity, and the scientists learn more about human nature as it goes on. Ultimately, it shows how humanity came about, and how it grew to become the dominant force in the galaxy.

Mike Resnick is renowned for his prose, and this story is no exception. His still with words is fantastic, and as a writer, his ability to plot out fiction shines through.

“Seven Views” is a fantastic story, and one I’d recommend to anyone interested in science fiction. It’s a great story about human nature.

The ending, without getting into spoilers, is a great way to cap the crescendo on human nature.


 

You might like some of my other reviews:

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

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

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Shadow_of_the_torturerThis is the first book in “the Book of the New Sun” series, and honestly one of the best books I have ever read. I said this about The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance, and it stands true still.

This book follows Severian, who starts out as an apprentice torturer. The guild he’s in is respected for their craft and though they have a dark job to do, they don’t hire the bloodthirsty or sadistic. Instead, they pick children at a young age and teach them about it and seemingly participate as a part of the justice system. It becomes somewhat clear that torturers exist as both a means of punishment from the judicial branch and an executioner.

Severian commits a crime among his guild, having fallen for a woman they kept imprisoned in their halls, and is sent on assignment to another city. They would have liked to kill him, but his masters seemingly had pity on him for the situation and wanted to spare him his death.

Ultimately, it follows his travel to another city, his challenge to a duel, and his subsequent ritual in order to meet the requirements of the duel. Though the ending is a bit lacking (it was obviously set up for a sequel) there are hints of future events from the narrative of Severian himself. You know he survives the duel, you know something will happen to raise his status in society, but you don’t know what.

The world is fascinating, full, and vibrant, with rich characters and an interesting setting. Wolfe really shines here with the fleshed-out guild of torturers and the unique social structure the society seems to employ.

Ultimately, I consider this among the best fantasy works I’ve ever read, though it seems to mention some science fiction elements.

If you’re a fan of those genres, give it a chance and see if it works for you. I, meanwhile, will begin to read the next book.


You might like some of these other reviews:

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Book Review: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

You may also like my work on writing:

Finding Your Writing Style

Dodging Derivatives