Arts & Letters

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Star Maker

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Info-Dumps inhabit a unique place in Science Fiction. Much maligned and discouraged by conventional standards, they nonetheless serve an informative need that might otherwise be impossible in a traditional narrative. Obviously this can be done well and it can be done poorly, not everyone can be Greg Egan or Neal Stephenson, and in a very real sense it often conflicts with admirable rules of thumb like “show, don’t tell.”

There are some tricks that can hide the worldbuilding in the very mind of the reader by implying rather than baldly stating information. The typical example of this is when you encounter the phrase “ground car” in a science fiction story. There’s an obvious meaning here, a car that drives on the ground just like many of us ride in every day, but the inclusion of “ground” as a modifier implies not just the existence of other modes of transportation (most likely an “air car”) but potentially entire worlds that can be unlocked (including, for example, differences in architecture or how accessibility of previously difficult terrain changes, and so on). Eric S Raymond explains how these SF words indicate prototype worlds, delves deeply into what makes them work, and how this operations within the works of the genre, but the ultimate point is that science fiction operates on information and as such, info-dumps, even ones cleverly implied by previously established jargon are a key part of the genre.

Star Maker book cover

I say all of this because Olaf Stapledon’s 1938 Star Maker is less of a novel than an extended info-dump. A man gazes at the stars one night only to find himself hurtling through the firmament, a disembodied mind exploring the cosmos, stumbling on alien cultures, and traveling beyond galactic boundaries, eventually to glimpse the eponymous Star Maker, an inveterate and eternal tinkerer who has been creating each cosmos with more ambition than the last.

All of this basically takes the form of a sorta fictional Athropological text, part memoir, part travelogue (I suppose the more accurate term would be Xenology). Stylistically stripped down, simplistic, and conversational in tone, it’s not really a fast-paced page-turner, but neither is it bland or boring. This is why info-dumps are generally frowned upon in the first place, but on the other hand, the idea quotient is astounding. There’s a massive amount of imagination on display as Stapleton cycles through observations of astronomical features, exoplanets, alien life (humanoid at first, but then stretching boundaries to all manner of strange consciousnesses, galactic societies, utopias, and eventually even alternative cosmoses.)

The sheer quantity of novel ideas on display is impressive. Stapledon covers a lot of ground and popularizes if not originates numerous concepts that would become famous genre tropes later. For example, Freeman Dyson credits his idea of a hypothetical megastructure that surrounds a star and captures a large percentage of its solar power output to Star Maker, even suggesting it be called a Stapledon Sphere (it’s now known as a Dyson Sphere). That example is also illustrative of the fact that Stapledon was writing this before the terminology or jargon was even invented. He touches on things like the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Great Filter, and the Dark Forest Hypothesis, even if he didn’t have the words to describe it. And I’m only really scratching the surface here. There are a ton of big ideas that originate from this book. The only thing that isn’t particularly well captured are computers and artificial intelligence (and associated speculations like the Technological Singularity, etc…), but that’s a topic that wasn’t particularly well explored in science fiction for another 30ish years (and even those early examples were rudimentary compared to later efforts).

More surprising is how spiritual the book can get. Stapledon was an agnostic, but the yearning for meaning and utopia that is present here is essentially a religious impulse. When the titular Star Maker appears, it’s portrayed in conflicting terms as indifferent yet somehow also loving, but also at its core: unknowable. Our humble narrator is overwhelmed by the task of describing it using our imperfect language, and essentially leaves it at that. Still, he describes many an alternative cosmos, including one that is basically Judeo-Christian in nature: a universe that consists of successive phases where lives end in one phase and reappear in another (there are two alternative secondary phases that could be described as heaven and hell). Stapledon’s story doesn’t entirely resolve anything here – you could see this as a a Turtles all the way down type of situation – and as such, there are some who could consider this view of God as heretical. For instance, C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, famously quipped that Star Maker “ends in sheer devil worship.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the spiritual endgame of the universe is something you don’t see often in science fiction.

It’s a fascinating, seemingly foundational work of science fiction. It doesn’t necessarily dive deeply into every concept, but it prefigures much of what would come after. It’s not really a beginner’s text, nor is it a fast-paced page-turner, but it’s not impenetrable either. Very much worth seeking out for students of the genre and a perfect example of the sort of thing Vintage SF Month is all about.

2023 in Book Reading

It’s become fashionable to point to a specific date on the Gregorian calendar and call it arbitrary (and I’m certainly guilty of this), but the calendar is based on astronomical movements in the solar system. Even granting that it doesn’t perfectly capture, for example, moon cycles (not to mention other idiosyncrasies), it’s not entirely arbitrary. It’s rational and considered. Our tendency to use this specific time to take stock of our lives, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed, is perhaps a touch more arbitrary, but I dunno, it’s cold out and I’m stuck inside, so might as well do something. Given the state of the world these last few years (not to mention that 2024 is a presidential election year in the US), such examinations can get a bit depressing, but let’s focus on the positive and less-existentially terrifying aspects of life, like book reading in 2023.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of rudimentary statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been logging books there for over a decade. So let’s get to it…

Graphing Books and Pages Over Time

I read 56 books in 2023, a little above last year (and my usual calendar-based goal of 52) but still a far cry from the pandemic fueled heights of 2020. It’s more or less in line with pre-pandemic reading patterns…

Number of Books by Year

You can see the full list of books I read in 2023 on Goodreads. Pandemic patterns have mostly disappeared, socializing and other activities are higher than the past few years, and so on, such that earlier in the year I was actually lagging behind my usual goal. But then I got kinda hooked on a series (who happened to have a great audibook reader) and that fueled something of a resurgence.

Average book length was 347 pages, a slight uptick from last year, but basically on par with established patterns (and honestly not that far behind my record average of 356, set in 2013). I didn’t read a lot of short fiction this year (I also didn’t participate in the Hugos, which can drive shorter fiction reading), though I didn’t read a ton of massive tomes either. Overall page length is also basically on par with last year as well (again, a slight uptick).

Page Numbers by Year

Of course, we must acknowledge the inherent variability in page numbers, which can be very misleading. In any case, this seems like a pretty solid pace that I seem to be gravitating towards.

The extremes

Shortest and Longest Books of 2023
Most and Least Popular Books of 2023

The shortest story being just 26 pages is notable given the relatively high average this year, but it was basically the only short fiction I read all year (maybe one novella?). The longest story being 758 pages is the lowest since 2017, though not by much. Basically, this just speaks to me having read mostly 200-400 page books throughout the year, with only a handful of things significantly above that count. The most shelved book is Agatha Christie’s first Poirot book, a series that I read several entries in last year (and will most likely continue to explore). The lowest shelved book was something I didn’t enjoy very much, which perhaps indicates why it’s not very popular… All of these extremes are fiction, and I do seem to have had an off year on the non-fiction front.

Assorted Observations and Thoughts

I’ve been leaving off the graph of publication years because I read some Shakespeare a few years ago which has made the overall chart look awkward (a ton of whitespace), but last year’s reading was sufficiently diverse in publication year that I think it’s worth trying to crop the chart down a bit.

Books Graphed by Publication Date

The X Axis is cut off to avoid copious whitespace, but the last two columns are 2023 (click the image to embiggen and see the full, uncropped image).

Of course, there’s still something of a bias towards recent releases, but the overall pattern is more consistent.

  • Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad was the oldest book I read in 2023. Published in 1904, it’s also the fourth oldest book I’ve read since 2010. That said, the bulk of Agatha Christie novels that I read were all in the 1920s and 1930s, and there was also some Vintage SF Month entries early in the year. Plus, a bunch of 1960s and 1970s novels creeped in, which drove a pleasing pattern to 2023’s reading in the graph above…
  • 7 non-fiction books in 2023, a dramatic decrease from last year. I can’t think of a particular reason for this, but it’s something I should try to improve in 2024, I think…
  • 14 books written by women in 2023, a significant decrease from last year. This isn’t something I generally try to consciously control, but it’s worth noting that at least half of those 14 were written by Agatha Christie. I suspect this number will go up in 2024, but you never know…
  • 26 science fiction books in 2023, a bit of an uptick, mostly driven by the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson, which I kinda got hooked on (and which represents a rather significant portion of my overall reading in 2023). I have mostly caught up with the series at this point, though, so it’s a bit of an outlier in 2023.
  • My average rating on Goodreads was a 3.9, which is a tad higher than last yea, but I will note that I tend to round up to 4 stars for the grand majority of books. A lot of those 4 ratings would be 3.5 if that option was available. Also of note: I didn’t participate in the Hugo Awards this year, and that tends to drive at least a few lower ratings…

So 2023 was yet another solid year in book reading. The only thing I think I’ll consciously change in 2024 is seeking out some more non-fiction. I’m still on the fence for participating in the Hugos, but I’ll at least be checking in on the nominees.

Anywho, stay tuned for the year in movie watching, at least one Vintage Science Fiction Month review, and the kickoff of the Kaedrin Movie Awards, starting in mid-January and culminating in the traditional top 10 in February sometime (yep, two months after most people post theirs, I know, I know).

The Book Queue

It’s been a while since I posted about the Book Queue, but these books won’t read themselves, and I’ve found that posting about them publicly does tend to motivate me to actually read the books I have (rather than getting distracted by new shiny objects and the like). So let’s get to it:

  • Starter Villain, by John Scalzi – The last few Scalzi books have felt like he’s treading water, but his style is snappy and fun and not every book needs to be some sort of world-changing epic (which, to be fair, has never been Scalzi’s metier). This story about a guy inheriting his uncle’s supervillain business seems much more inclined to be comedic than anything else, which is fine by me. Probably would have gotten to this earlier if he didn’t release it during the Halloween season…
  • System Collapse, by Martha Wells – The latest Murderbot story has finally arrived, and that’s all I really needed to know. No idea bout the plot, but the Murderbot series has been consistently great (I obviously have not read this one yet, but I recommend you start with the initial novellas, they’re short and well done and you can come up to speed quickly…)
  • Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon – I apparently purchased this many moons ago, put it on a shelf somewhere, and promptly forgot I had it. I was doing some reorganizing recently and stumbled upon it and realized I should probably read the darn thing. Not sure what to expect as this could range anywhere from impenetrable literature to page-turning genre fare. I guess there’s only one way to find out.
  • A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys – Not sure how this got in the queue in the first place, other than that the premise sounds interesting and I’ve been somewhat neglectful of recent SF of late. Sounds like a first contact story that could be interesting enough.
A Half-Built Garden book cover
  • The Blighted Stars, by Megan E. O’Keefe – Another recent SF book with a decent enough premise, and I don’t remember where I heard of it first, but it sounds good…
  • The Icarus Plot, by Timothy Zahn – About 25 years ago or so, Zahn wrote a book called The Icarus Hunt, a very enjoyable space opera in the vein of Star Wars (I mean, really quite inspired by Star Wars, like at this point they probably could put the Star Wars logo on it and while you might wonder why there’s no member-berries or, like, Jedi in it, you’d probably enjoy it). Anywho, Zahn has finally written a sorta stealth sequel to that book. As I understand it, it’s not particularly reliant on the events of the first book, it’s just set in the same universe (it’s not even particularly being marketed as a sequel, which sorta makes sense because this one has a different publisher than the first). Anyway, Zahn has long been a reliable genre page-turner, and I’m glad he seems to be finished with his Star Wars Thrawn novels for now…
  • Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon – Vintage SF Month is quickly approaching, and this one is rising to the top of the list for now. It appears to be a sorta history of the future, spanning billions of years, sounds like fun.

Obviously lots more on the queue, and all of the above are SF or SF-adjacent, so perhaps I’ll leave the other fiction book queue and non-fiction book queue for other posts.

Halloween Reading Roundup 2023

From all appearances, the Six Weeks of Halloween is primarily a movie watching exercise, but all is not what it appears: the Halloween season is filled with other nominally spooky activities like hayrides, haunted houses (and haunted dining establishments and haunted mini-golf and haunted bonfires/cookouts, you get the picture), pumpkin mutilation carving ceremonies, and of course, lots of Halloween Reading. The past few years have led to several new discoveries on the horror writer front, but I also like to dip my toes into some more obvious choices, so let’s see how this year’s selections fared:

Halloween Reading Roundup 2023

Wounds, by Nathan Ballingrud (aka The Atlas of Hell) – A collection of six stories ranging from short to novella length, it’s named after a (not very well regarded) movie adaptation of one of the novellas, but the original title of The Atlas of Hell is a much more fitting descriptor of the collection. (Now that the movie has come and gone, future editions of this will revert back to The Atlas of Hell as title and man, even the artwork is much better…)

The Atlas of Hell

All of the stories touch on Ballingrud’s peculiar conception of hell as a physical location, some more than others, and “The Atlas of Hell” is also the name of the first story, a horror/crime hybrid that works well as an introduction to this vision of hell. “The Diabolist” veers in a completely different direction, taking a mournful first person perspective that speaks to the reader in an odd way. It’s a stylish approach which only serves to make the more traditional horror elements more effective. “Skullpocket” goes even further afield, telling the story of how a particular town is coexisting with literal ghouls with an almost YA tone to it (my guess is that this would be the most divisive of the stories). “The Maw” returns to more conventional territory, though as the characters start to explore Hell’s intrusion into our reality, the distressing imagery and creepy ideas become more effective. “The Visible Filth” is the aforementioned novella that got adapted into a movie. It’s about a bartender who finds a cellphone in his bar and starts getting increasingly disturbing text messages. It’s a neat setup, and it actually reminded me of a more serious and sober take on something like Unfriended 2: Dark Web. It wasn’t my favorite story and it’s not an obvious choice for an adaptation, but it’s certainly creepy.

“The Butchers Table” is the longest story in the collection, and by far the best. Ballingrud accomplishes in just 100 pages what most writers would spend 500 pages (or more) to do. Several of the other stories in the collection touch upon the mythology that Ballingrud is building, but mostly on the periphery. Here, it emerges fully formed and perfectly calibrated. This story packs in so much: pirates, satanists, cannibal priests, disturbing hellscapes where, like, the characters hang out in a giant corpse of an angel, and absolutely terrifying monsters called Carrion Angels that are hot on our protagonists’ heels. It’s truly impressive how much worldbuilding Ballingrud was able to pack into this story without descending into tedious info dumps and still finding room for the requisite intrigue and betrayals that you’d expect given the type of people involved. I will most certainly be reading more Ballingrud during future Six Weeks of Halloweens…

X’s For Eyes, by Laird Barron – A genre mashup evoking the like of the Hardy Boys and The Venture Brothers taking on elder gods and touching on cosmic horror, this is a short novella (novelette?) that incorporates plenty of corporate skullduggery, science fiction, and a heaping helping of adventure.

Xs for Eyes

Not quite as impressive or seamless as Ballingrud’s “The Butcher’s Table”, this nonetheless manages to pack a lot of ideas and worldbuilding into a quickly paced thriller. It’s not quite episodic, but there are some jarring and sudden twists and turns that might throw you for a loop, but I wound up quite enjoying this. Recommended!

Skeleton Crew, by Stephen King – Over the past several years, I’ve been working my way through King’s major short story collections. As with all such endeavors, especially longer ones like this, the stories can be hit or miss. But it’s Stephen King, so most are a hit.

Notable stories include “The Mist”, a novella that’s almost too perfectly constructed (with a great movie adaptation as well). “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” has a great progression and might be my favorite of the collection. “The Jaunt” is the odd science fiction story that King manages to add his usual touch to. “The Raft” is also quite effective for such a simple story (and the best part of Creepshow 2). “Survivor Type” has a delightfully macabre premise that would be a spoiler by itself. “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is also quite effective and clearly taps into the fears writers (perhaps particularly fears of horror writers) have about where their inspiration comes from.

As usual, some of the stories fall into King’s standard traps. He sometimes writes himself into corners, and some of the stories can get wordy and go on for too long, which brings down the pacing some too. That said, he’s a consumate storyteller, and his skill is on ample display. I’m a little disappointed that I’ve seemingly exhausted his major short story collections, though there are a couple of other collections (of novellas and the like) that I could check out in future marathons. Or maybe I’ll finally bite the bullet and read It.

The Dead Friends Society, by Paul Gandersman & Peter Hall – Longtime readers of this blog know that I have an inexplicable love of slasher movies, but I’ve had a lot of trouble finding books that can execute the formula well. This is actually a decent example of that sort of thing, though there are some severe flaws. An old house with a tragic past is haunted by a masked killer known as The Fireman, and our heroes must find a way to prevent the tragedies of the past from being revisited upon the present.

The Dead Friends Society

There’s the shape of something quite good here, but several aspects of the story kept pulling me out of it. We spend too much time in our main character’s head. She has the makings of a solid final girl, but is hamstrung by uncertainty and constant whining about this or that. Look, there’s plenty to whine about, but it’s boring as hell and makes the story drag. Oddly, if they made a film out of this, I think it could be far more effective, as we wouldn’t get the agonizing inner monologue of the final girl. Her actions are competent and even effective, but it doesn’t feel like it because she’s constantly berating herself. Side characters are marginally better, but they come off as one dimensional and it’s still slow going after the exciting initial set-piece. The pacing bogs way, way down for a long time in the middle before picking up again towards the climax. The motivation and powers of the Fireman are unclear, though that’s more or less par for the course on this type of thing.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, and I didn’t especially like the reader, which I’m trying not to hold against it. Not sure if, for example, the excessive pop culture references are as annoying as they seem because of the way it was performed, but regardless: there’s too much of that sort of thing here. All of that said, there’s some surprising twists that I was definitely not expecting, and there’s an effective mix of slasher and ghost story going on here. I genuinely think a movie adaptation could greatly improve upon this story, if only because we wouldn’t have to deal with the constant whinging.

Traveling With the Dead, by Barbara Hambly – The sequel to Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night, one of my favorite discoveries of last year, comports itself quite well, though it does perhaps go on a bit too long. That first novel was about a former spy being recruited to hunt down a vampire killer that was plaguing London’s vampire community. This time around, Asher notices an infamous spy from a foreign power smuggling a vampire away from London. He immediately pursues, while his wife follows on his heels, enlisting the services of Don Simon Ysidro, the suave London vampire that has become something of a friend to the Asher family. Like the previous book, there’s plenty of tradecraft, intrigue, and vampire worldbuilding. This does bog down in the middle section as all of the chess pieces are being maneuvered for the final showdowns and revelations, and some of that maneuvering is repetitive, but Hambly is a good storyteller, and I appreciate the attention to detail. I don’t think this is as successful as the first book, but I like it well enough.

Dead Silence, by S.A. Barnes – A deep space salvage crew stumbles upon a long lost ghost ship and sets about securing a big payday. Naturally, they don’t call it a ghost ship for nothing, and our salvage crew starts to find all sorts of suspicious stuff about the long dead passengers, who all seemingly went insane and killed each other. Will our heroes suffer the same fate?

Unfortunately, I don’t think this novel clicked with me. Part of this might be that the main protagonist is absolutely obnoxious and, like the protagonist in The Dead Friends Society, we spend a lot of time getting inside her head. It also speaks to modern horror’s obsession with characters who are severely traumatized and emotionally stunted. I suppose it could be something of an empathy shortcut to give someone a tragic backstory, but it’s getting tired at this point, and the romantic angle feels a bit perfunctory as well. Later, we get the bog standard modern sci-fi explanation of corporate greed as the root of all evil, another trend that’s becoming overused these days.

It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s one of those things where I feel like the blend of horror and science fiction clash a bit. Sometimes that oil and water approach can work, but, um, you need an emulsifier like mustard to really get it going properly. How’s that for a tortured metaphor? Unfortunately, the science fiction elements generally take a back seat to the horror here, and the horror… isn’t very scary or even creepy. This does seem to be a popular book though, so I’m clearly the outlier, though it’s ratings are not astronomical…

Hidden Pictures, by Jason Rekulak – Fresh out of rehab, Mallory hopes to get her life back in order by taking a job as a nanny to 5-year old Teddy. Things are going well, but soon Teddy’s normally playful artwork starts to depict a grisly murder, and Mallory begins to suspect something supernatural at work. As she sets about to solve the mystery, she discovers more than she bargained for…

This apparently won the Goodreads award for Best Horror novel of 2022, and to be fair, Jason Rekulak does have a knack for turning pages. Unfortunately, the overall story leaves a lot to be desired. It spends too much time on a particular red herring, and once the revelations start flying later in the book, they all feel pretty implausible.

I think I can see why this is successful and I didn’t hate it or anything, but there were just too many little things that kept bugging me… There’s always some tolerance for this sort of thing, but I’ve learned that when I find myself nitpicking things, it’s a sign of some sort of deeper problems in the story. In some ways, the protagonist here is more likable than the ones in Dead Silence or The Dead Friends Society, but there’s a similar sort of focus on a character who’s been traumatized that’s, again, getting kind of tired these days. And while she’s able to make progress on the mystery, she does seem way too willing to jump to the supernatural, and she makes some baffling choices throughout. Again, I can see why this became popular, but I wasn’t quite able to get on its wavelength…

Another successful Six Weeks of Halloween in the books (literally!) At 7 books, I didn’t really approach the pandemic fueled record of 9 in 2020, but I’m still averaging about a book a week, which is a pretty solid pace…

SF Book Review – Part 40: Expeditionary Force and More

It’s been a while since once of these. This is partly due to covering some books in Tasting Notes style posts or Vintage SF Month posts, but mostly because I’ve been reading less SF. Or maybe not, but what I have been reading has been part of a single series (which I’ll cover below). Anywho, I thought it was time to catch up and clear the baffles before the Six Weeks of Halloween gets started in September.

Columbus Day, by Craig Alanson – Expeditionary Force Series – Aliens choose the thematically appropriate Columbus Day to invade. Sergeant Joe Bishop organizes a small counteroffensive, and eventually ends up joining with different aliens who come to Earth’s rescue. Now he’s headed offworld to fight the invaders. But is he fighting for the right side?

Expeditionary Force Book 1: Columbus Day

I’m eliding a lot of things because the plot here is almost besides the point. This is straight-down-the-middle military science fiction comfort food. The defining characteristics of the series don’t really take hold until about halfway through the first book, when (spoiler alert, I guess) Skippy the Magnificent arrives. Skippy is an ancient and powerful AI that decides to help out lowly monkeys humans in their quest to not be wiped out by various warring factions in the galaxy.

Whether or not the series will work for you depends greatly upon how much you like the bro-ey bickering between Skippy and Joe Bishop, dad jokes, military slang, and pew-pew style action, as well as the general problem solving patterns that represent the bulk of the series. Even if you do like those things (and I enjoy them well enough), the series gets extremely repetitive, and while Alanson never takes it easy on our protagonists and forces them to come up with workable solutions, they do sometimes rely a bit too heavily on Skippy’s almost magical powers. And there’s this whole thing where Skippy is a genius but can’t ever seem to think up the basic schemes that Bishop proposes. Skippy’s frustration at this sort of thing gets old fast, but the series eventually outgrows it as Skippy and Joe (and the rest of the crew) establish a more meaningful rapport.

There are fifteen books in the Expeditionary Force series (and a couple of spinoff books called Mavericks) and I’m about two-thirds of the way finished, so obviously this works for me. I won’t call it mindblowing and it’s not especially filled with the sense-of-wonder that populates the best SF, but it’s entertaining and fun and absolutely perfect audiobook fodder. It helps that the audiobook narrator, R.C. Bray, is excellent. What’s the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner? That’s what this series is.

Alanson does a good job exploring various dynamics of the universe he set up, from the differing alien factions to the technology and other worldbuilding, and as mentioned earlier, he never takes it easy on our protagonists, who always encounter problems on top of problems. It does get repetitive, and sometimes the story bogs down into minutiae of a specific operation that, in the grand scheme of things, probably isn’t that important. This leads to the books feeling a bit samey and repetitive (hence I’m reviewing the entire series here, not individual entries). Alanson’s good at that sort of problem solving stuff, and his strategic outlook on the galaxy’s various forces works. Interpersonal relationships are perhaps not as successful; the professional military stuff works very well, the more romantic stuff a bit less so. Pretty much par for the course there.

There’s some semblance of a larger background story surrounding Skippy’s past and the Elder race that supposedly “transcended” eons ago, but that stuff is super slowly explored (like, don’t get your hopes up, even when it seems like progress is being made). I’m assuming this stuff will come into play as the series comes to a close (though I’m guessing that Alanson could keep this sort of thing going indefinitely), which could be interesting. All in all, I’m enjoying the series. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much of Skippy and the treading-of-water inherent in these stories you can tolerate at any given time.

Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines – Eli has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who wears a tri-corn hat, drives a steampunk version of a Model-A Ford, and is being chased by… something. So Eli and the woman go on the road, but this is a road through time and history. So yeah, this is a sorta goofy Mystery Box style time travel story. It’s not exactly rigorous, but there’s some clever twists and turns and the villains are suitably creepy.

It’s perhaps not as good as 14 or The Fold, but Clines is good at turning pages (or the audio equivalent; this is another good audobook presentation) and has decent storytelling instincts. This isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s fun and interesting and worth a look if you’re into American History or simple time travel stories with a hint of horror lurking in the background.

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke – An engineer seeks to build a space elevator, but runs into challenges ranging from the technical, to the geographic, to the political, to the religious. The concept of a space elevator had been around for a while, but Clarke was among the first to portray such a thing, and he does so in a fairly thorough fashion.

The potential sites for such a project are limited, and the most promising site is in a fictionalized version of Sri Lanka. As our engineer works through various obstacles, we also get a series of flashbacks to thousands of years earlier as a Sri Lankan king builds a palace (complete with a pleasure garden and functioning fountains) high on the mountain top. The parallels between the two projects are well established and provide some themetic heft and characterization that is atypical of Clarke’s oeuvre.

It’s a short novel that nevertheless covers a lot of ground, but still hews to a lot of Clarke’s common themes and subjects, particularly once you get towards the ending (which I will not spoil!) This won a Hugo award in 1980, and it’s easy to see why, even if it’s not Clarke’s most propulsive or exciting effort.

Slow Time Between the Stars, by John Scalzi – Short story about an AI sent out into space on a desperate mission to find a new home for humanity. Of course, space is big, so it takes a long time to traverse, and that gives the AI plenty of time to think about it’s place in the universe, what it was built to do, and more importantly, what it should do. There’s a few nuggets of a good idea here, and this functions just fine as a short story, but it’s not breaking new ground and it comes off as somewhat preachy and condescending on Scalzi’s part. Still, he’s a good writer and this is a snappy little story with some interesting notions.

I’m finishing off some mystery/crime books I’ve been exploring of late, and then I have several horror books I’m looking forward to during the Six Weeks of Halloween, but I’ve got a few SF books on tap for later in the year.

Hugo Awards 2023: Initial Thoughts

The 2023 Hugo Awards finalists were announced last week, so it’s time for the requisite celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I participated in the Hugo voting last year (after a year off), but I didn’t submit a ballot this year and wasn’t planning on participating. There are numerous reasons for this, chief among them was the fact that I didn’t really have anything to nominate. I generally like to have something to champion going into the process, and for whatever reason, I didn’t get that this year (it doesn’t help that of my two main nominations last year, only one made the ballot and that one came in dead last – I’m clearly out of step with the current throngs of Hugo voters).

Best Novel

The only nominated novel I’ve already read is The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi, a book I enjoyed but did not think of as “award worthy” and indeed, described as “clearly middle tier at best” with “clumsy worldbuilding.” Scalzi is one of the few authors whose books I look forward to and immediately read as they arrive, so I’m grading a bit on a curve against the rest of his work (i.e. the “middle tier at best” is mentioned in comparison with his other work, not SF/F as a whole in 2022). As usual, I’m not in step with the rest of the awards community, as Kaiju has won the Locus SF award and was nominated here, and I’m happy to see Scalzi recognized.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia stands out due to its horror-adjacent genre status. For whatever reason, the Hugos tend to shy away from anything horror related, though this spin on the famous H. G. Wells novel with some historical flare thrown in perhaps helped its chances. From what I can tell, this is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s first nomination, but she’s been on the novel longlist a few times, so it’s not entirely surprising (though I would have expected the much more famous/popular Mexican Gothic to have garnered a slot a few years ago). It’s always nice to see a new name on the ballots though.

Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir represents the third book in a series about lesbian necromancers in space. I read the first book in the series and it was one of those “I should like this a lot more than I actually do” sorta experiences. Lots of fun elements that just never connected with me. Happy to see her continued success though, even if I probably won’t be reading the sequels.

Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree is another one that wasn’t really on my radar, apparently about an orc who wants to retire from battle and set up a coffee shop in town, which sounds like fun, escapist fare. Not the sort of thing I tend to expect from the Hugos, but I suspect the strain of the last few years has gotten people more into escapist literature than heavy, dense meditations (another thing in favor of Scalzi’s entry as well).

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher ne Usula Vernon, a regular fixture on the Hugo ballots. I’ve always liked her work well enough and she always came out near the top of my short fiction ballots (when I participated). This one seems to be more of a fairy tale sorta story than what I’ve read from her before, but that could be good.

The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal appears to be a take on The Thin Man set in space. I haven’t heard a lot of buzz about this, but it has a fun premise. But on the other hand, I have not loved Kowal’s work in the past (even when they have a good premise). That being said, she’s clearly popular with Hugo voters, so its not entirely surprising to see this nomination.

Overall, an interesting list. Only one real Science Fiction entry, though you do get a horror-adjacent nominee (maybe even two, as kaiju stories are traditionally classified under horror – even if Scalzi’s novel is clearly not horror). Still, it does seem like a fantasy heavy list.

Short Fiction

Not a lot to mention here. Some familiar names, a lot of Tor novellas, and owing to this year’s Worldcon being held in China, you do see more Chinese authors than usual, especially in the Short Story category. I might actually take a swing at the short story category this year, though I’m almost inevitably disappointed by the Hugo short story category.

Best Dramatic Presentation

The long form list does have some of the usual Disney blockbuster fare, but it’s nice to see Nope make the list (again, horror-adjacent movies don’t tend to fare well here). The only real surprise is Severance Season 1 being included in the Long Form. It’s been on my radar as something I might like, but I tend to focus more on movie watching than TV watching. The idea of including an entire season of TV in the Long Form category makes a certain sort of sense, but it’s always struck me as somewhat awkward logistically. That being said, I will probably catch up with that show. At least this year doesn’t contain a WTF nominee like last year’s Eurovision

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Anyways, I fully expect Everything Everywhere All at Once to take home the rocket (and it would probably be a deserving win). Pour one out for Three Thousand Years of Longing, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, Crimes of the Future, The Northman, Mad God and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – all worthy of your time, even if they’re not billion dollar Disney productions.

As already mentioned, I haven’t watched many of the TV shows nominated in the short form, but it’s nice to see some variety (only one show with multiple episodes nominated). Actually, now that I take a closer look, I apparently have watched 3 of the 6 finalists, so maybe I watch more TV than I think.

Other Categories and Assorted Thoughts

Congrats to all the 2023 Hugo Awards nominees, it seems like a very good list this year.

  • Best Series continues to be a strange category, especially when a series shows up in both the Best Novel and Best Series categories (as happens this year, though at least only once).
  • Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Kyle Buchanan makes the Best Related Works list, a category I don’t normally get very into, but this book was on my radar and I may check it out…

Not sure why the 2023 Hugo Awards finalists were announced so late in the year (we’re normally getting close to closing the voting at this point in the year, so we’re several months behind the usual schedule), but congrats are due again to all the nominees. I probably won’t be participating this year, but I will keep an eye out for the winners when they finally get announced.

Revisiting Snow Crash

I bought the paperback edition of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash sometime around 1993-1994. Near as I can tell, this was the first edition of the mass market paperback (Bantam paperback edition / May 1993). Obviously, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time, and it’s become one of the few books I’ve reread multiple times. As a book of dense ideas, it’s natural that new things strike me with each subsequent reread. People like to dismiss rereading/rewatching because the book hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t take into account that you’ve changed (and the world has changed… not to mention that the book actually might have been changed without notice for dubious reasons).

My first read of Snow Crash struck me as a fun Science Fiction action story about a samurai sword-wielding pizza delivery boy saving the world from a computer virus that originated in Sumerian myth. Lots of interesting ideas and weird tonal stuff went over my head. Subsequent rereadings happened after I’d sampled more of the cyberpunk canon (thus better recognizing the more parodic elements of Snow Crash for what they were) and learned more about linquistics and so on, all of which gave the book enough new context that it felt fresh. Such is the power of a dense book of ideas.

Anyway, 2022 was the 30th anniversary of Snow Crash, and seeing as though my paperback was basically falling apart, I splurged on a new anniversary edition of the book, complete with new, “never-seen-before material” and pages that aren’t falling out of the book. It’s been approximately a decade since I’d last reread it, and a few things struck me about it.

It’s always been hailed as a sorta prescient book, for obvious reasons. Stephenson was clearly ahead of the curve when it came to the internet, computers, and hacking, not to mention popularizing the notion of “avatars” and other stuff like VR and AR and so on. But the thing that struck me this time around was that the Metaverse, as portrayed in the book, is essentially a social network, and Stephenson clearly saw the potential drawbacks. Early in the book, our Hiro Protagonist meets up with an old friend named Juanita. In the world of the novel, they both worked on the early Metaverse infrastructure, but Juanita had pulled back somewhat of late, because:

… she has also decided that the whole thing is bogus. That no matter how good it is, the Metaverse is distorting the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships.

Snow Crash, Page 74

It’s a perfectly concise and trenchant critique of social networks (that is implicitly elaborated on throughout the book). I mean, it’s not like we haven’t all been drowning in this realization for the past decade, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that we saw it coming a few decades ago… and yet, still fall into the trap all the time.

It’s also worth noting that people have been trying (and failing) to implement the virtual reality Metaverse since the book came out. Right now, Mark Zuckerberg is literally dumping billions into his conception of the Metaverse… and no one is biting. It’s funny to read, though, that even Stephenson recognized the limitations of the VR approach:

And when hackers are hacking, they don’t mess around with the superficial world of Metaverses and avatars. They descend below this surface layer and into the netherworld of code and tangled nam-shubs that supports it, where everything that you see in the metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three-dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic page.

Snow Crash, Page 401

I have not really played around with VR much, but the notion of bulky goggles is enough to make me think it won’t find much of a mass audience until we get less obtrusive methods of connecting and viewing a VR space. And, like, they have their own drawbacks. The notion of plugging something directly into your eyeballs or jacking the eye’s connection to the brain somehow seems… inadvisable. I dunno, maybe contact lenses might work?

So not everything has aged quite as well (there’s a whole subplot about an infection that is spread through vaccines, which is a conspiracy theory that is obviously a more touchy subject these days). Anywho, it’s still a great book, and worth revisiting if you haven’t read it in a while. The “never-seen-before material” at the end of the book comes in screenplay form, and provides a bit of background for the character of Lagos, who people mostly just talk about in the rest of the novel. It’s a nice treat for Stephenson obsessives like myself, but mostly unnecessary.

Tasting Notes

Just a series of quick hits and tasting notes on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:


Poker Face – This Rian Johnson led Natasha Lyonne starring mystery of the week TV series is great. Really enjoyable stuff, and while there’s some sort of overarching storyline, the episodes are mostly standalone mysteries. The Columbo-esque formula is also quite effective, with the first 10-20 minutes of each episode being about the crime, then flashing back to how Lyonne gets involved and investigates.

Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face

The “bullshit” conceit is a bit silly, but they don’t overdo it, and the mysteries are all well thought out and twisty in the best way (the one with the stage play was great, and when you find out about the cool old folks’ misdeeds, I laughed out loud). Since Lyonne is not playing a cop, the comeuppance is not always perfect (the race car one, in particular), but you still get the thrill of the solve (more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit, but still). Worth seeking out!

Andor – I don’t get it. Everyone says this is the best Star Wars stuff since the originals, but after slogging through 3 episodes that should have been about one single hour of story, I don’t get it. The third episode was markedly better than the first two, and everyone is telling me that it continues to get better as the series progresses, but I’m still annoyed at the first three episodes.

The Last of Us – The fungal zombie apocalypse gets a prestige TV treatment, to mostly good effect. It still feels a little like “prestige Walking Dead” and I was never a big fan of that show, but boiling it down to a mostly two character odd-couple buddy travelogue works reasonably well. It occasionally veers into the typical, bog standard zombie notes of “well, the fungus zombie just murdered my girlfriend, but the real monster is other human beings!” and it doesn’t have the gore quotient of Walking Dead, but it works well enough for what it is. I can see maybe one more season of this before it gets really grating. For now it’s enjoyable enough.


Knock at the Cabin – M. Night Shyamalan provides sturdy, tense craft behind a somewhat unsatisfying story that nonetheless has some thematic heft around the nature of sacrifice that’s worth exploring. Dave Bautista does exceptional work, and the rest of the cast is pretty good too.

Knock at the Cabin

The twist is that there is no twist, and the ending tries to split the difference between the book’s rather bleak ending (probably a no go for any actual filmic adaptation) and a truly happy ending, leaving us with a sorta bittersweet thing that works ok, but isn’t super satisfying. Again, lots of thematic stuff to chew on and Shyamalan provides the visually compelling craft, so this isn’t just a rote thriller, but it’s not exactly perfect either.

Infinity Pool – Brandon Cronenberg continues to follow in his father’s footsteps, adding a little more stylistic artifice to the body horror and weirdly new arenas of science that seem to populate these movies. I think this is perhaps a little more successful and approachable than Possessor, but they’re both of a piece.

Infinity Pool

There’s again some thematic heft here around doubles and existential crises and so on, but if you can get past some of the weird hedonistic parties and violence, it’s hard not to appreciate Mia Goth’s unhinged performance. Interesting stuff and Cronenberg is one to keep an eye on, but he hasn’t hit anything out of the park just yet.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022 and 1930) – I watched both of these because the latter one was nominated for Best Picture. Short story is that the original covers more ground and makes better anti-war points than the remake, which is a technical marvel, to be sure, but somehow covers much less ground in around the same runtime. Some of the really effective points in the original are contained off the battlefield, which the remake tends to downplay (while playing up the diplomatic stuff). It’s all still effective and it’s the sort of thing that the Academy Awards loves, so it’s not surprising or completely unwarranted, but I prefer the original. For some reason, the musical score in the remake seems to be getting a lot of buzz, which confounds me – the whole electronic nah nuh nuh thing took me out of the movie every damn time, it felt anachronistic and too slight. If you’re going to do that sort of thing, lean into it. Anyway, interesting movie, but certainly not the best of the year.

My Dinner with Andre – Literally two people sitting at a table in a restaurant having a conversation for two-ish hours. More interesting than that sounds, but some of the conversation also goes a bit too far up its own arse. But the saving grace is that towards the end, Wallace Shawn gets to push back on Andre Gregory’s wanking, and basically says something to the effect of “I don’t know what the hell you’re even talking about anymore!?” Both the characters contradict themselves throughout the conversation, which I think is part of the point. Anyway, more interesting than I feared, but not exactly a barn burner either. Glad I finally caught up with it.

The Wind and the Lion – John Milius wrote and directed this historical… adventure? It’s hard to peg this thing down. Sean Connery plays a Berber chieftain, which is a bit of a stretch, but then his starpower might carry the day. Brian Keith does interesting work as Theodore Roosevelt. Candice Bergen has good chemistry with Connery. The whole thing has a bit of an exaggerated air, a little hammy at times, but Milius’ trademark tough guy dialogue shows up here and there. An interesting, weird little movie.


The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie – Between last year’s spate of murder mystery movies and Poker Face, I’ve been getting into the mystery genre a bit and decided to start at the beginning of Christie’s Poirot series. This first Poirot book comports itself well enough, though obviously some of the twists and turns are not as surprising as they perhaps once were. That said, it holds up remarkably well for a 100 year old mystery novel. I also read The Murder on the Links (the second novel in the series) and Poirot Investigates (a short story collection with a bunch of great, simpler stories). A few themes have emerged, Poirot’s catchphrases of “little grey cells”, “a man of method”, and his habit of referring to himself as “Papa Poirot” are all pretty funny. Also, Captain Hastings is such a moron, it’s hilarious how often Poirot (or Christie) takes to humiliating him in an absolutely merciless fashion. Anyway, these are fun, I will be reading more of them (and probably branch out to Miss Marple or whatever)

Tales of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov – When Asimov took a break from Science Fiction for a few decades, he did still write fiction, and this collection of short stories is actually pretty fun. These are also mysteries, but they distinguish themselves by being mostly about trivialities, rather than murder (though there was one involving a death). Asimov’s mysteries tend to revolve more around wordplay than anything else, but that’s an interesting contrast to Agatha Christie. So far, these short stories are all pretty fun, though I suspect things might get a bit repetitive over time. Still, as a short collection, it’s great stuff.

Earthblood and Other Stories, by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown – Started this in January as part of Vintage SF Month, but it turned out to be something of a slog. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff buried here about a long-lost Earth and legends of humans, but it’s caught up in an episodic narrative with poorly drawn action. Normally a galactic travelogue with carnies, pirates, and military intrigue would sound like a lot of fun, but none of it really panned out here. Every episode seemed simultaneously boring and slow but also truncated and the shifts happen suddenly. I just was not able to get on its wavelength, I guess. The “other stories” are marginally better, but despite some of them ostensibly happening in the same universe involving the same aliens, they are all completely disconnected and even conflicting in nature. Not especially recommended.

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, by Sarah Parcak – A look into the young field of satellite archaeology, this unfortunately doesn’t spend that much time on the space-bound nature of the exploration, and most of the book is about how satellites guide traditional, boots-on-the-ground archaeology. Which, when you think about it, makes a whole lot of sense, but the premise feels like it promised more than what we get. Interesting enough for what it is, but not exactly a must-read.

The Finer Things

Over at the Beer Blog, we’ve covered Revolution’s line of Very Special Old Jacket barleywines (exceptional!), an unlikely Geuze Cuvée from Lindemans, and a sampling of fine Oktoberfest biers.

We’re also about to embark on the annual beer slowdown, so I’ve got a few non-beer things lined up, including a local distillery’s 6 year old Rye. I was thinking of dipping my toes into the brandy world this year as well. Time will tell. Recommendations welcome!

That about does it for this round of tasting notes, stay tuned for moar!

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Voyage of the Space Beagle

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s continuing mission: to explore intergalactic space, encounter new life forms, new civilizations, and survive their deadly advances. Yes, A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty clear precursor to Star Trek, right down to the episodic nature of the narrative. Of course, that’s mostly because this is a prime example of what was called a “fix-up” novel, a book comprised of a compilation of four previously published stories. The title of the book is also a pretty clear reference to Charles Darwin’s book about his five-year mission (another Trek connection) of scientific exploration on the HMS Beagle.

The first story details an encounter with Coeurl, a starving, intelligent cat-like creature that plays dumb in order to trick the crew of the Space Beagle into allowing access to the ship. Several members of the crew are killed before they wise up and manage to trick the beast into an escape capsule and strand it in space.

The second story follows the chaos resulting from telepathic contact with a race of bird-like aliens. One member of the crew recognizes that the signals are meant to be a benign, friendly message, but the form of the message is incompatible with the human mind, and only quick actions by the aforementioned crew member saves the ship.

The third story has the Space Beagle picking up a red creature called Ixtl, which seeks to reproduce by kidnapping members of the crew and implanting eggs in them. Some details of this story are close enough to the film Alien that van Vogt actually sued for plagiarism (the case settled out of court, and for the record, the filmmakers deny any influence).

Finally, the fourth story shows an encounter with a galaxy-spanning consciousness that has, more or less, consumed its entire galaxy. The crew must devise some sort of strategy to deal with this situation, especially given that they don’t want to lead this entity back to our home galaxy.

In fixing these stories up for the novel, van Vogt would establish a new central character, Elliot Grosvenor, the lone “Nexialist” onboard the Space Beagle. Nexialism is van Vogt’s name for a sorta holistic approach to knowledge. As he describes:

Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields. It provides techniques for speeding up the processes of absorbing knowledge and of using effectively what has been learned.

The problems which Nexialism confronts are whole problems. Man has divided life and matter into separate compartments of knowledge and being. And, even though he sometimes uses words which indicate his awareness of the wholeness of nature, he continues to behave as if the one, changing universe had many separately functioning parts.

In essence, Grossvenor is van Vogt’s equivalent of Heinlein’s competent man. As Heinlein famously quipped, “Specialization is for insects.” At times, you can feel the “fix-up” nature of the novel, as it seems Grossvenor fades too much into the background of the narrative. Also, though the stories have satisfactory conclusions, they do feel a bit repetitive, and while the holistic approach of Nexialism is certainly admirable, the solutions aren’t quite clever enough to really justify the idea. Still, there’s something fundamentally optimistic about van Vogt’s vision that is refreshing in this cynical age. It’s telling that the alien creatures are all undone by their own egotism and selfishness, while the crew of the Space Beagle prevail through decency, self-sacrifice, and cooperation. Of course, there’s plenty of infighting amongst various specialized factions of the crew, but that’s the point of Grossvenor’s holistic approach.

This is almost certainly one of those books that suffers due to it’s influence. So much of what has followed in its footsteps have improved on the ideas that going back to read this now makes it feel quaint. It is certainly an interesting exercise to see such ideas in their embryonic form, even if the terminology used can be a bit stiff or even laughable (the crew repeatedly brandish a weapon that van Vogt calls a “vibrator” – it’s not his fault that the term has taken on other meanings since then, but still), but at this point, it’s probably more suitable for students of the genre than anyone else.

None of which is to say that the novel is bad, per say, just that it doesn’t quite hang together as well as you would generally want from a novel. Not entirely unexpected, given the “fix-up” nature of the novel, but it’s ironic that a novel with the theme that holistic thought is critical would be so episodic and disjointed. From what I can tell, van Vogt’s concept of Nexialism lead him to start thinking about how humankind would need to transcend its limitations, and thus followed Space Beagle up with the novel Slan, which represents a more cohesive vision from van Vogt. Still, if you want to see how early Space Opera stories influenced much of the current Science Fiction landscape, Voyage of the Space Beagle is a pretty good place to start (if perhaps not the earliest).

Vintage Science Fiction Month: SF Stories About Christmas

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

When you think of Christmas stories, the first genre that comes to mind is probably not Science Fiction. But decades of initially flippant but increasingly earnest proclamations that “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” indicate that perhaps the notion of what constitutes a “Christmas Story” is somewhat malleable. Naturally, none of this is new. Witness To Follow a Star, a collection of nine science fiction Christmas stories published in 1977, featuring stories from Golden Age stars dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. One of the great things about reading vintage SF is the continual discovery that everything old becomes new again at some point (in this case, debates about what makes something a “Christmas Story”).

To Follow a Star book cover

On its surface, the notions of Science Fiction and Christmas represent something of a contrast, but such conflicts can be useful in storytelling. As is typical of collections like these, the stories are a bit uneven, but it’s always nice to read something along these lines during the holiday season. Quick thoughts on each story:

  • Christmas on Ganymede by Isaac Asimov – Cute little short story written in Asimov’s traditional non-style, with a button of an ending that you might see coming, but which brought a smile to my face.
  • Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus by Frederik Pohl – Naturally Pohl takes on the commercialization of Christmas and imagines a far flung satirical future in which “department stores begin celebrating the Christmas sales rush in September”, imagine that absurdity! (I don’t talk much about my day job here, but I work for a digital retailer that starts their Christmas sales rush in July, so I had a nice chuckle at this part of the story.) Amusing predictions aside, this is perhaps not your typical romantic Christmas story, but that’s ultimately where its heart lies.
  • Santa Claus Planet by Frank M. Robinson – A man crash lands on an alien planet, and finds that the natives have rather odd and perhaps gift-giving traditions. An interesting, if exaggerated and fatalistic, exploration of the power dynamics inherent in gift giving. Not terribly Christmassy, to be sure, but interesting.
  • Christmas Tree by John Christopher – Short tale of a space traveler who plays with fire and ends up getting grounded (i.e. stranded) on the moon because his body can no longer the trip back to earth. Spoilers, I guess, but while the character will miss Christmases back home, this is not especially Christmassy either.
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke – One of Clarke’s most famous short stories, this won’t exactly put you in the Christmas mood, but pitting the cold hard science against the faith of believers (in this case Christians) will certainly make you think. This is not the first time I’ve read this story, and even knowing where it’s going – an excellent rug-pull at the end of the story where everything clicks in a devastating way – does not diminish its power.
  • The Christmas Present by Gordon R. Dickson – I guess they wanted to put all the bummer stories in the middle of the collection, which makes sense. This is another story about how aliens learn about Christmas, this time with tragic results. It stands in stark contrast to Asimov’s earlier story in this collection (which also deals with aliens trying to figure out Christmas), which is a nice touch.
  • Christmas Treason by James White – Much is made of the “lies” we tell kids about Santa and Christmas, and as you might expect, science fiction authors (and fans, for that matter) are the type who will not accept traditional explanations of the logistics of Santa’s delivery service. In the case of this story, kids with teleportation and psychokinesis powers assume that Santa must have a series of underground bunkers secreted throughout the world to support his Christmas Eve shenanigans. The only thing is: these bunkers are actually nuclear missile silos. While certainly a recipe for disaster, James White takes a decidedly more fun view of the situation and does a reasonable job balancing the tone of the story (which does need to walk a rather tight line).
  • The New Father Christmas by Brian W. Aldiss – In an increasingly automated world, will the machines and AIs adopt Christmas traditions in strange ways with unforeseen consequences? I suspect the writers of Futurama might have been inspired by this story in their conception of Robot Santa…
  • La Befana by Gene Wolfe – Christmas is about the birth of Earth’s savior, but what about other planets? Neat idea, and Wolfe uses one of my favorite Santa precursor legends in this short story.

As already mentioned, it might seem odd to see mixtures of Science Fiction and Christmas, but as it turns out, I’ve read several collections of Christmas Science Fiction stories, and there are probably a bunch of others. There are other collections from various authors, like Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (which is a collection of stories from Asimov’s magazine, rather than the author himself), but also some specific authors who seemingly specialize in the holiday, like Connie Willis’ A Lot Like Christmas and John Scalzi’s A Very Scalzi Christmas. All of these collections have their charms, in part because I like the contrast inherent in this micro-genre, and To Follow a Star is no exception (though I think I would probably recommend Willis and Scalzi books ahead of this one, for whatever that’s worth).

Next up for Vintage Science Fiction Month: Space Beagles!