Monday, 27 February 2012

The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov: As Chosen by the SF Grand Master Himself

This is not a proper review.

Most of you probably don’t know that I collect Isaac Asimov’s fiction. It all started when I read my mum’s copy of Foundation at the age of 12 and now, after much trawling of second hand bookshops (and a small amount of buying new copies of his still in print books — actually, I think I only have 6 new books: the Foundation trilogy because my mum’s was falling apart, Nemesis, Forward the Foundation and Gold, a posthumous short story collection) I have fifty odd Asimov books. On my shelf (which I would photograph if it wasn’t in another country), the books are arranged by first publication date and divided into short story collections and novels. And, as I have just ascertained, 40% of my Asimov books are short story (/novelette/novella) collections.

Asimov was very prolific in his lifetime, writing many short stories. And yet, it is often the same stories which keep getting collected (or anthologised). So when I find a collection I don’t already own, I’m always sceptical as to how many new-to-me stories it will contain (which doesn’t stop me acquiring it… twice I’ve bought a collection in which I’d already read all the stories). Happily, The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov as chosen by the grand master himself did contain some new stories which I will talk about shortly. It also contained autobiographical notes about why he liked the stories and what compelled him to write each one. I always find these autobiographical notes, which turn up in quite a few of his collections, fascinating. Even if I had read all the stories before, I would have been keen to get this collection just for these notes.

The stories I hadn’t read previously fell into two categories: nice short stories I hadn’t come across before, and terrible, terrible pun flash stories. Really dreadful puns at the end of stories which were otherwise not bad so long as you ignored the last line. (And one was a reference to some before-I-was-born pop culture and went straight over my head.)


There was one really stand out short story I wanted to talk about: “Obituary”. This story was first published in 1959 and is about the wife of an also-ran physicist. Asimov mentions in the introduction that this was one of his favourite stories but that when it was published it elicited not a single reaction.

I would have welcomed even a thumbs-down gesture, or a Bronx cheer—just something to indicate that they read it at least. But—nothing.

My theory is is that “Obituary” was ahead of its time and so, perhaps, people weren’t sure how to react to it. When reading I guessed that maybe it was written in the 70s (the collection being published in the late 80s) and the original publication of 1959 surprised me.

Why? Well, “Obituary” is somewhat of a feminist story.

The protagonist’s husband is a physicist who never quite got the recognition and acclaim he deserves (he keeps on not getting credit for his work). The story opens after he leaves the university, sets up his own laboratory and starts working in secret. All prompted by reading the obituary of one of his colleagues; he wants to finally get some recognition for something.

Working in his private lab, he makes his discovery, then fires his assistants and forces his wife to help him to ensure secrecy. He has an elaborate plan to gain not only acclaim in his field, but also world wide fame.

Throughout all this, he is emotionally abusive to his wife (going as far as threatening to kill her if his plan falls through). Given that the story is told in first person from the wife’s point of view, I suspect this was not a theme oft explored in 50s SF (although what do I know? Please correct me in the comments if I guessed wrong). Despite being in a threatened position, the protagonist has agency and, y’know, her own thoughts beyond those ascribed by societal gender roles. At no point is she a damsel in distress.

All this made it the kind of story that particularly appeals to me. (And, no spoilers, but the end, while not exactly a surprise, was well played out.)


I want to add a final note about Asimov as a writer. I may have started reading his books because they were there, but I’m glad I kept reading them, especially during some of those formative years. Asimov’s books might not be populated with a plethora of female characters, but what female characters he did write, while still somewhat a product of their times, tended to be competent, have agency and brains and not be damsels in distress. (Arkady in Second Foundation, Susan Calvin in several robot stories, the Soviet scientist whose name I’ve forgotten in Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain…) And his books weren’t racist, which, it turns out, is rare among classic SF, especially any involving the USSR. (For example, two authors who have made me ill with their racism are Lester del Rey in Step to the Stars and Greg Bear in Eon — Bear’s women in Eon also weren’t real people which didn’t help.)

So, not quite being a proper review, I don’t want to give a star rating to The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. It doesn’t seem fair given I skipped (rereading) more than half the stories. I’ll ending by saying Asimov is great and if you haven’t read any of his books, you should. I recommend starting with Foundation or just about any collection of short stories.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Reign of Beasts, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, is the final instalment of the Creature Court trilogy. The series is excellent and a testament to how fantastic a writer Roberts is.

It’s not the kind of series where you can pick up the third (or second) book without having read the first two. Luckily for me, I read book one — Power and Majesty — and book two — The Shattered City — when they came out (roughly six months apart, I think). It’s a bit hard to review a third book without saying something about the other books and the series as a whole.

Power and Majesty introduced us to the day world and three friends who, between them, make dresses and garlands for the city’s many celebrations. Then we meet the Creature Court and their dysfunctional night world. It also had a particularly memorable opening of a naked youth falling out of the sky. (How’s that for a hook?)

The following is copied from my LibraryThing review of The Shattered City, which I wrote immediately after I finished reading.

Velody is struggling to keep the two aspects of her life separate: by day she makes dresses and by night she leads the Creature Court in the battle against the sky. It’s bad enough that most of the Creature Court would sooner tear each other apart than help each other. Now the sky is stepping up it’s assault on the city, making it harder for Velody to keep her two worlds separate. It isn’t long before the two worlds start bleeding together.

A secret war is being fought every nox between the Creature Court and the sky. The day folk have no idea it’s happening, but if the Creature Court isn’t careful, then normal people die. If the Creature Court loses the battle, then the whole city will be destroyed.
Dresses, violence, flowers, blood and sex. What more do you want?

This book doesn’t beat around the bush with the action and the reader is quickly launched into the midst of the story. Unlike the first book, there wasn’t a need for setting up the world or back story quite so much, so I felt it had good consistent pacing, whereas book 1, Power and Majesty, was a little slow at the start.

Two things really stood out for me with this book. The first was the juxtaposition of the day world with the events of the night (or nox as it is referred to). During the day we see Velody and her two friends making dresses and garlands and the Duchessa presiding over the never-ending festivals of the day world. During the nox, Velody and her Creature Court fight the sky which is trying to swallow up the city. The days are ordinary (or at least, as ordinary as days get in fantasy books) and the nox are full of violence, sex and blood, often simultaneously. The writing switches between the two flawlessly, even when the two worlds start to collide.

The other stand-out excellent aspect of the book was how unflinchingly the author doled out cruelty to her characters. Building on the troubled pasts established in book one, The Shattered City takes it to the next level by pushing all the characters harder and further and mercilessly inflicting emotional pain on them. It was very well done.

Overall, this was an excellent read and I highly recommending to anyone who didn’t hate the first book. And if you haven’t read the first book, what are you waiting for?

And that brings me to Reign of Beasts. I really felt this series improved with each book. Where the first two books were spent building the world and setting up all manner of conflicts, in the final instalment Roberts meticulously dismantles her world. It’s quite masterfully done and I will be surprised if Reign of Beasts doesn’t win any awards.

Throughout the series, Roberts sets up a variety of conflicts of all magnitudes. In the first book the challenge for Velody seems to be overcoming prejudice, expectations and the established group dynamics to become the first female Power and Majesty. While this bleeds into the second and third books, priorities shift and by the end of Reign of Beasts we learn who the true enemy really is. (No spoilers, but it takes a lot of twists and turns to get there.)

Roberts has populated her world with a variety of strong, wilful, petty, manipulative, animalistic, brutal, loyal characters who all elicit our sympathy at some point and our distaste at others. They are all far from perfect, yet none are quite pure evil. (Incidentally, of the three original girls, Rhian was my least favourite in Reign of Beasts and Delphine, unexpectedly, my favourite.)

A review of Reign of Beasts would be incomplete without some comment on the structure of the novel. There are two simultaneous time lines running through the book, the main one in the “present” immediately following on from The Shattered City, and the other recounting events from the Creature Court’s (pre start of main events) past. All the threads were expertly woven together to enhance the present story and convey interesting (as well as relevant) backstory.

The Creature Court trilogy is definitely worth a read for all fans of fantasy. It’s dark and brutal and pretty dresses are relevant to the plot.

5 / 5 stars

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti

This book is part of Twelfth Planet Press’s “Twelve Planets” series. It is a collection of five short stories all set in a common world. I bought the ebook version and it’s also available in paperback and for Kindle.

Bad Power is set (mostly) in modern Sydney in a world where some people have an inexplicable power: talking to dead people, seeing the future, immortality, and a few less common powers. And, although most of the protagonists have super powers, none of them are heroes (well, with one possible exception).

A few words about each of the stories:

Shades of Grey

The first thing that struck me about Biancotti’s writing when I started reading this story was the cinematic quality of the mental images it conjured up. The opening story grabbed me from the first paragraph and thrust me into the collection.

In “Shades of Grey” we meet Esser Grey, a wealthy businessman who recently discovered his power and is testing the limits (and not really finding any). We also meet detective Palmer, a recurring character throughout the collection who keeps being given the weird cases. (I enjoyed the continuity of seeing Palmer in later stories and also the mentions of Grey later on.) This story really sets the scene for the rest of the collection.

Palming the Lady

In this story, a young medical student, Matthew Webb, goes to the police and is directed to detective Palmer. He is being stalked by a homeless woman who knows where he’s going to be and gets there before he does. But his future isn’t he only future she sees.

Web of Lies

We meet Matthew again, this time just after his father’s death when he and his mother and discovering how to live again, free from the old man’s dictatorship. They both struggle with it in different ways and both learn there is more power in their family than they had realised.

As a side note, Matthew is mentioned in passing the last two stories. After the tumultuous stories in which he played a central role, it was nice to read that he had a slightly more stable future ahead of him. A neat way of letting us know that it was all OK in the end.

Bad Power

This is the only story not set in modern Sydney and also the only one written in first person. It also stood out for me as being the one story with a less thoroughly described setting — I was slightly confused about the time period it was set in, but turns out my first instinct was correct.

It’s a story about someone with a self-described “bad” power and about the horrible things people do to each other. This was easily the most horrific story in the collection and, for that reason, my least favourite. However, the link the previous and subsequent stories made it a relevant and integral part of the collection. I think without this story, the whole collection would have felt slightly more bland. (And it does make a good title for the collection as a whole.)

Cross That Bridge

This was the story that, when I heard a brief description on Galactic Suburbia, made me want to read the whole collection. Max works for the police. His power is the ability to find lost children, even when there is no discernible trail. As one might imagine, people find his talent creepy and he is constantly under suspicion.


It’s hard to choose a favourite story in this collection. Aside from “Bad Power”, they read almost like chapters from the same book (except with resolutions and different protagonists). The idea of normal people discovering superpowers isn’t a new one (cf Heroes), nor is the idea of an organisation such as the Grey Institute hinted at in the background throughout the collection (cf X-Men, Union Dues, etc). However, Biancotti pulls the world off uniquely and fascinatingly.

I really enjoyed the exploration of human nature and the wildly different coping mechanisms the powered characters employ. My favourite take home message? Power is not always empowerment.

4.5 / 5 stars

Monday, 13 February 2012

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz

Originally posted here.

I stumbled upon this book quite by accident after following a link that took me to the author’s website. When I saw she had written a steampunk novella set in Australia, how could I possibly resist buying it? I didn’t really need the added incentive of being able to count it towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And before you argue, steampunk counts as science fiction because of the technological and scientific sentiment inherent in (the characters) inventing new old tech.

Wanted: One ScoundrelWanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz is set in and around the Swan River colony — mostly in Perth and Fremantle. The protagonist, Esme, is the daughter of a gold prospector and inventor who struck it rich relatively recently. She is also a suffragette spearheading a political party with the goal of giving women and non-Anglos rights and votes.

The story opens with her realisation that, since her main political opponent has somehow arranged for all political debates to take place at gentlemen’s clubs, she needs a male spokesperson to be a figurehead leader. Unfortunately, all her present male supporters are too busy with their own affairs to devote sufficient time to actually leading a political party. So, with the aid of her captain uncle, she set about finding herself a newly arrived scoundrel (“fresh off the boat” — would that there weren’t other connotations to that phrase) whom she intends to pay to be her puppet.

Enter Jed. A conveniently unknown American recently arrived from England with her uncle’s (steam-powered) ship. Jed quickly agrees to be the front-runner for her political party and a friendship/attraction blossoms between them (well, it is also a romance story).

Esme’s main rival is an old-money easterner (insofar as there is any aristocracy in pre-federation Australia, he seems to be a prime example). Unlikeable to the bone, he doesn’t seem to realise that Esme finds his desire to prevent anyone that isn’t male, white or rich (or, really, anyone that isn’t him or his friends) from voting abhorrent. He started off merely an arrogant prat, but this escalated for the climax in an exciting way, I thought. (No spoilers.)

The steampunk elements are scattered throughout the story. For example there are the steam powered boats that make it to Swan River from England in a matter of weeks, not months, miscellaneous minor steam-powered contraptions and even forays into electricity and magnetism (Tesla gets a very brief mention, too). From a scientific point of view, I found no obvious faults, although I’m a little sceptical of the kangaroo-inspired land vehicle mentioned at one point.

As I implied at the start, the thought of a steampunk story set in Australia made me very keen to read this and I was not disappointed. I hereby encourage more Australian authors to write Australian steampunk. Steam + gold rush allows for a wealth of material to draw from.

Speaking of the gold rush, being an easterner myself, I only really know a bit about Victoria’s gold rush, and next to nothing about Western Australia’s (arguably, I know more about Western Australia’s current mining boom than any of the past). It was nice to read about a slightly different gold rush. I liked that Schwartz put in a significant Indian population in Perth (cf Chinese miners in Victoria).

The writing was ever so slightly clunky in places, mostly when there was an instance of head-hopping (between Esme and Jed) within the same scene. I also found the story got more amusing as it went along — after a slightly uneventful beginning — and I really enjoyed the climax and ending. It had me laughing out loud a few times in the second half. I loved Esme, who was strong, progressive (obviously) and kept her head in trying circumstances. Overall, I recommend this to anyone with a passing interest in steampunk or Australian history.

4 / 5 stars.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss

The Spider Goddess is the second book in Tara Moss’s Pandora English series. I started reading it immediately after finishing the first book, The Blood Countess (gosh aren’t those iBooks links at the back of the book to the next in the series handy?), which I have reviewed here.

The Spider Goddess is a fun, quick read in a very similar vein to The Blood Countess. Pandora English is a supernaturally gifted assistant at a New York magazine who is only starting to discover and develop her powers. She lives with her preternaturally youthful great aunt in a supernaturally resonant (or something like that) mansion apartment in a mysteriously enshrouded suburb of Manhattan.

Once again, we meet Luke, her hansom civil-war soldier ghost friend and watch her run-ins with some of the evil (but cheerful) vampire supermodels from the first book.

The main way in which this book differs from the first are: the different villain (a spider goddess, as the cover suggests), and the overarching plot progression. The background plot moves slowly, which suggests to me that Moss plans on writing many more Pandora English books before she’s done. I have absolutely no objection to this and look forward to reading them all.

The foreground plot, however, moves quickly from strange happenings in the background to creepy (-crawly) discoveries and then the climax. If anything, I felt the book was too short. I had stopped paying attention to the page numbers down the bottom when I reached the climax and thought I had more to go. It made me wonder why the bad guy villain was dying already, until I realised I was actually close to the end. So, really, the worst criticism I have is that I didn’t want it to end.

A nice thing about this series is that it is heavily populated with a broad range of mostly strong female characters. From the main character, to her great-aunt/mentor to the villains and her bosses at work. It’s nice to see. (Half or so of the male characters are love interests, I think.)

Overall, it was just as fun as the first book, although I think I enjoyed the first book slightly more for non-specific reasons of taste. Also, if you’re uncomfortable reading about hordes of spiders, this may not be the book for you.

Finally, although part of a series, I think this book stands alone fairly well. However, it does contain a few spoilers for the first book. Reading in order would maximise enjoyment of the earlier book, but reading out of order wouldn’t compromise enjoyment of this book, in my opinion.

4 / 5 stars