Monday, June 27, 2011

The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny

The Guns of Avalon is the second book in the Amber Chronicles. My review of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, can be found by clicking here.

Part two of the original Chronicles of Amber is a good continuation of the classic “Nine Princes in Amber”.  Corwin’s story follows his journey to Avalon, a shadow realm that he once ruled.  Many years have passed since he left and now he is remembered as a demon prince.  People do not named their children after this ruler from the past.  He pretends to be someone else.  He meets up with and befriends a soldier from his old army.  Another one of the main characters is Dara (the granddaughter of one of Corwin’s brothers).  Dara is a kindred spirit to Corwin.  He sees many of his traits in her.  All she wants to do is go to Amber, walk the Pattern, and gain the abilities that her family possesses.  

Guns cannot fire in Amber.  What Corwin’s family does not know is that a substance in Avalon can be used as gunpowder in Amber.  Corwin plans to build and arm a group of soldiers who will help him take out his brother Eric.  Corwin can then take the throne.

The problems this time around are presented by the Black Road.  It is a gateway that allows demons to enter Avalon.  

The Guns of Avalon was very good but it was a step down from the first story.  Part of that is due to the first book introducing many new ideas.  The second book in a series always suffers in comparison.  

Zelazny does plant some clues to the true identity of some of the characters.  I missed them the first time I read the series but, in retrospect, one of the clues is definitely in the book.  He draws on his love of Raymond Chandler’s mysteries with the clue about his missing father.  Zelazny continues to write this as a pulp noir type of story.  Corwin narrates “The Guns of Avalon” in a style that is reminiscent of Chandler.  He also uses similar pulp tools to keep the action moving to drive the story to it’s conclusion.

Another author who wrote a similar type fantasy series is Michael Moorcock with his Eternal Champion series.  It also features parallel worlds and a battle between order and chaos.  I am considering re-reading and reviewing at least some of the arcs in his series when I am done with the Amber books.  In the seventies, the Elric books were second only to the Amber books in my opinion.

Is this the end of Corwin’s tale?  No.  Three more books continue the quest to answer many of the questions left at the end of this book.  What happened to Oberon(Corwin’s father)?  Will Corwin be able to stop the demon creatures’ invasion?  What really happened to Brand?  Will Corwin be able to unite Amber and find a way to stop the forces of Chaos?  Books three through five address these questions.  Corwin’s son, Merlin, is the focus of books six through ten.  I also plan on reviewing the short stories that Zelazny wrote in this universe.

Next up on my Amber reading list will be “Sign of the Unicorn”.  This was my introduction to the writing of Roger Zelazny.  I originally read it as a serial in the Jim Baen edited Galaxy Magazine. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On Other Sites....

New latest contribution to Grasping for the Wind appeared today.  It is called "Larry Niven and the History of Green Lantern".    In addition to Larry Niven's contribution to the Green Lantern mythos, I also talk about E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series.

Take a moment and visit this fine site.  I want to thank John Ottinger for the opportunity to write a monthly article for him.

Friday, June 24, 2011

New Space Opera?

Since the first rumblings came out of the British science fiction magazine Interzone, I have been curious about the New Space Opera movement.  The phrase “space opera” holds many different meanings to various people.  Would the New Space Opera be different than the old?  What promise did it hold for the field?  Where did it come from?

In the early years of my science fiction reading, I heard about the legendary authors.  Names like E. E. “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, John W. Campbell Jr., Jack Williamson, and many others were always being mentioned.  My heart skipped a beat the first time I saw one of the classic book reprints.  It was “Children of the Lens” by E. E. “Doc” Smith.  This edition featured a psychedelic vision of a spaceship exploding through a bizarre region of space.  To be honest, the cover meant little to me.  I was excited to finally get my hands on a Lensmen book.  Even though it was a later book in the series, I had no trouble following the story.  Smith hooked me with the opening chapter.  Did the story have it’s problems?  It sure did.  The characters were mostly cardboard cutouts.  No moral ambiguity existed in this series.  Good guys stayed good.  Bad guys became cannon fodder.  The heroes were always right.  But something caught my interest.  Part of it was the fast paced action.  The other was the big concepts being thrown at you so fast that the reader did not have time to think about whether or not it was logical.  The sense of optimism was all through the book.  Then science fiction started growing up.  Writers wanted to take the stories in a more literary direction.  The stories started looking inward instead of to outer space.

Many fine stories were written during this time (known as the New Wave).  Some writers adapted.  Robert Silverberg went from being one of the average writers to being one of the best in the field.  According to what I have read, this happened when Fred Pohl became an editor and made a deal with Silverberg.  But that is a story for another day.

Getting back to the subject at hand, I think that the New Space Opera movement is a blending of the two phases of science fiction with some parts of the horror writers’ handbook thrown in.  Based on the Alastair Reynolds stories I have read, it appears that he is trying to combine the writing style of a Robert Silverberg with the concepts of E. E. “Doc” Smith.  The combination creates something that is different from either of the other writers.  The horror aspect comes into the picture with the level of suspense and the fear of the unknown that fills the pages of “Revelation Space”.  The other fear aspect that plays into these stories seems to be the fear of loosing one’s humanity.  In many of the reviews I have read of other New Space Opera books, it seems that the conflict between machines (or machine enhanced humans) and the biological based beings is at the heart of the conflict.  Iain Banks’ Culture series is based on this idea.

Is New Space Opera really new or has it been around for longer than it usually gets credit?  One of the books that inspired the movement is “The Centauri Device” by M. John Harrison.  It appeared first appeared in 1975.  This is on my review list for this year.  I want to read the book that is credited with inspiring this movement.  Personally, I think an older book can be part of it’s history. 

I think that “Dune” by Frank Herbert also looks like part of the inspiration.  The pilots of the spaceships have become mutated creatures that are in a similar vein to the captain of the ship in “Revelation Space”.  The “Dune” pilots are different forms of mutations but they appear to be headed in a similar, non-human direction.  Although “Dune” is a classic space adventure, Herbert devotes much of the book to the inner space journey of Paul.  The horror elements arise when the sandworms appear and when Paul is tested by the Bene Gesserit.  So we now have a classic planetary revolution combined with New Wave retrospection and elements of suspense.  It sounds like the New Space Opera to me.

In my opinion, this form of space opera has been around longer than most people realize.  I would consider it a new movement since this group of mainly British writers are focused on writing this type of story.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Devil Car" by Roger Zelazny

In 1965, Galaxy was under the editorship of Frederik Pohl.  Pohl would be remembered as one of the best magazine editors of all time.  At this time, Roger Zelazny did not get his name on the cover.  He was just starting to become a great writer.  Other Zelazny stories that appeared in 1965 were classics such as "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth", "He Who Shapes", "And Call Me Conrad", and "The Furies".  This was the beginning of the best years of Zelazny's short fiction writing career.

"Devil Car" was the first in what ended up being a two story series.  Sam Murdock lives in a future America where true "smart" cars are common.  Unfortunately for the humans, some of the cars rebel and are fighting for their freedom.  Wild bands of cars raid fuel depots and attack defenseless cars on the roads.  Devil Car is the leader of a rebel group that lives in the desert.  It killed Sam's brother so he had a death car built to destroy it.  Now Sam and the death car (named Jenny) are on the hunt to track down Devil Car and take revenge on it.  But no one knows why cars go wild.  Will Devil Car be able to lure Jenny into joining his group?  Or will she stay loyal to Sam and kill Devil Car?

It is a touching story about a man and his car.  This is a theme that is one of Zelazny's favorites.  He would return to "man and vehicle" stories in the future.  One of the best know is his novel "Roadmarks".

Highly recommended.  "Devil Car" is part of the group of very good short stories by Zelazny.  While not as memorable as some of the others, it is very good.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Many things have been said about Grant Morrison's writing.  He is known as a genius who is so in love with all the crazy ideas in his head that he forgets to make it understandable to the average reader.  In some cases the reader has to read one of his stories 3 or 4 times before they start understanding the story.  For that reason some fans will not read his books.  I am of the group who feels anything that Morrison writes is an automatic buy.

WE3 is one of Morrison's most accessible stories.  It is a good one to introduce to a new reader.  Morrison and Quitely have done their version of the "Homeward Bound" type movie.  This is the story of  a dog, a cat, and a rabbit who only want to go home.  With Morrison involved, the story is not quite that simple.  In this situation, the animals are part of a weapon's project developed by the military.  When they decide it is time to shut them down, the trio tries to find the legendary place of safety that is called home.  Unfortunately for them the military unleashes Weapon 4.  It's mission is to destroy Weapon 3.  It is almost impossible to not sympathize with Weapon 3 as these cute animals in cybernetic war suits try to find sanctuary.  

I do not want to forget the art by Frank Quitely.  He makes the animals sympathetic even when they are killing people.  The expressions he draws on the animals' faces is unparalleled.  Quitely is also a master at depicting an amazing degree of detail on the action scenes.  Numerous bullets are flying at their target and it looks like you can see every one.  

Fans of great character work or military science fiction will like this book.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Scales" by Alastair Reynolds

It is hard to believe that Reynolds started having his stories published in 1990.  I still think of him as a newer writer.  "Scales" first appeared in 2009 as part of the Guardian Books Podcast.  It was reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine's May 2011 issue.

This is the first military fiction written by Reynolds that I remember.  When I finished it I thought of similar themes from Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" and Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War".  Somehow Reynolds was able to fit many big ideas including humanity at war with an alien race, the evolution of humanity, the life of a soldier, and it all happened in a short story.  Usually Reynolds receives credit for his novels but I think he is a master of the short form.  This stand alone story deserves to be recognized.  I plan on checking out more of his short fiction.  This is the second of his short stories I have read and both were very good.

Highly recommended.  Not enough room to develop the characterization but the ideas and plot carry it at this short length.