Sunday, June 30, 2013

35. We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ

Writer:  Joanna Russ

First Publication:  Galaxy SF Magazine, January and February 1976

In keeping with an unofficial theme for this month, I have been reading authors or stories I originally read in the seventies.  I first read Joanna Russ’ “We Who Are About To…” when it was serialized in Galaxy when it was edited by Jim Baen.  Baen's  tenure produced one of my favorite science fiction magazines.  

The first part of the story (January 1976) had a Rick Sternbach cover for an essay by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  They explained some of the process of “Building The Mote in God’s Eye”.  The second half of the serial appeared in the February issue.  Once again Larry Niven was featured on the cover for the novelette “Down and Out”.  “Down and Out” was later incorporated into the novel “A World Out of Time”.  

Russ’ novel stood out at the time.  The main character was a woman.  At that time it was still the exception to have a female lead character.  I have not read it anywhere but I believe the story was inspired by Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”.  At the start of the story, we find out that she is on a small vessel that is damaged and has to land on a different planet.  No other ships are close to them and none would be able to make it in time to pick them up.  They are basically doomed to die on a planet without the resources to survive.  The comparison to theme of “The Cold Equations” is only to the basic idea of there being no way to beat the odds.  As you can tell by that short description, it is not a happy go lucky, feel good story.  

This is truly an exploration of the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek.  It is the famous no win test that Kirk was able to beat (he cheated).  Fortunately, as was common at the time it was written, “We Who Are About To…” is a short novel.  If it appeared today as a 500+ page novel, I don’t know if I would have finished it.  As it is, it makes a powerful story that has stuck with me since the first time I read it.  It is not a book that I would say I enjoyed but it is a somewhat more realistic take on the classic science fiction story about explorers crash landing on an alien planet.  

If you are interested in a different type of story, read it.  But if you are looking for a light-hearted escapist book, avoid at all costs.

Friday, June 28, 2013

34. The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes by Sterling E. Lanier

Writer:  Sterling E. Lanier
First Publication:  1971

Back in my early days of reading the science fiction magazines, I stumbled on a copy of “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  It was the July 1974 issue.  The cover by Ron Walotsky  caught my attention.  It showed a jungle scene with an explorer hiding among the plants.  A giant rat, holding a bloody knife, was standing upright in an intimidating pose.  The cover story was called “A Father’s Tale” by Sterling Lanier.  At the time I did not realize it was part of a series. 

A few science fiction authors were using the framework of a bar or club where people told tall tales.  Larry Niven had “Draco’s Tavern”.  Spider Robinson wrote about “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon”.  Before that Isaac Asimov wrote a series of mysteries about the Black Widowers.  Arthur C. Clarke penned “Tales from the White Heart”.  In recent years Mike Resnick has published the adventures of Lucifer Jones.  The framework goes back earlier than these stories.  

Lanier’s main character, at least on the cover, appears very similar to Sherlock Holmes.  “A Father’s Tale” was nominated for many awards but I never saw any other stories about the Brigadier.  Last year I searched for Sterling Lanier on my Kindle and discovered that he had published two collections of stories about the Brigadier.  “A Father’s Tale” is in the second collection but I wanted to try out the first.  Lanier does an excellent job of pulling you into the world of the club.  I could almost smell the smoke from their pipes.  The chair I was sitting on transformed into an old leather chair.  Lanier made me feel like part of the group.  

If classic tall tales interest you, I would recommend searching for a copy of this collection (or the second one).  Copies (digital for the Kindle or used print editions) are available through Amazon.