SF Book Review, Part 22: Ye Olde School SF

One of the things that participating in the Hugo Awards process has evoked in me is a strong desire to read older SF. This often lends a sense of deja vu, as older works are foundational and thus many things you’re used to think of as modern are actually quite old hat in the SF world. Sometimes this is a conscious homage, others are more inadvertent (or, at least, unclear). Anywho, I’m once again quite behind in reviewing these books, so here goes nothing:

  • Needle by Hal Clement – A pair of amorphous alien beings crash lands on earth, their hosts dying in the process. One is a Hunter, a sort of policeman, and the other is a criminal. They are symbiotes, and after their crash landing, they must immediately seek new hosts. The Hunter ends up in the body of 15-year-old Robert Kinnaird. After making contact, they must seek out their quarry, but how do you find a needle in a haystack… especially when the needle appears to be a piece of hay? Clement is an author I’m going to need to read more of, as I quite enjoyed everything of his that I’ve read, including this, his first novel. He has a very hard SF style to him, spending a lot of time working out the logistics of, say, the way the Hunter establishes contact with Kinnaird (it’s not simple and there are several fits and starts, but it makes perfect sense). This is the book’s primary strength, and that process was my favorite part. Once they’ve established ways to communicate, the hunt is on, but that part is actually less well plotted than you’d expect and goes on a bit too long (though the book is quite short). I don’t know if this book is the ur example of symbiotic aliens in SF, but its among the first, and I’m guessing one of the more rigorous attempts as well. I’d be curious if, for instance, Wesley Chu had read this book before embarking on his Tao series… Regardless, this is a quality work and probably a good introductory text for novice SF readers. I will most certainly be reading more Clement in the near future.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison – Slippery Jim diGriz is a con-man who is out-conned by the Special Corps, but instead of going to jail, he’s recruited by the Corps to help investigate a new warship being built in secret. Along the way, he meets Angelina, a deadly con-woman who is orchestrating the whole thing. This book was a little more disappointing, though the premise is certainly sound and some of the ideas work well. The execution is a bit off though; the character of Angelina didn’t feel right and I’m thinking there are probably better con-man turned police stories out there. Then again, this is apparently just the first in a long series of books, so perhaps that’s why this has the reputation that it does. I’d be inclined to check out some more of these, but probably not anytime soon.
  • Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan’s Secret by Spider Robinson – The first three books in a long series of short story collections all centered around Callahan’s Bar, your friendly neighborhood tavern where the reguars are anything but regular. time travelers, vampires, con-men, cybernetic aliens, telepaths, and perhaps worst of all, expert punsters. Yes, if you like puns, you will love these stories. As with most short story collections, these can be a bit uneven, and as the series progresses the stories tend to get longer and more complex. Still, for the most part they are fun exercises filled with interesting ideas. Robinson clearly loves Science Fiction, and in many cases will make references or homages to SF in-story (even using the SF initials). The setting is the clear draw here, as Callahan’s Bar is a wonderfully warm and inviting location filled with empathetic patrons who, despite their love of groan-inducing puns, are quite smart and helpful to strangers who have big problems. Some highlights include “The Centipede’s Dilemma”, “Mirror / rorriM Off The Wall”, and “Pyotr’s Story”. I enjoyed a lot of the stories here, but I think I’ve had my fill for the moment, though if I ever get a hankering for more, there are several other collections available.

That covers it for now. Up next are some newer books, then we’ll be in the swing of Hugo season…

2 thoughts on “SF Book Review, Part 22: Ye Olde School SF”

  1. I’ve read a few of the Stainless Steel Rat short stories, but none of the novels. My reaction was similar; I did not see why they were so regularly recommended.

  2. My guess is that it traffics in tropes that were original enough at the time, but which have been subsumed by lots of other work which we’re more familiar with. It’s a short, light read with some interesting ideas, but chances are, we’ve seen it all before in a thousand instances (i.e. the criminal turned cop is a very common trope these days, but perhaps not so much back then). That being said, it seems like other stories from the era have held up better in this respect…

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