With this third volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories (you can find my posts on the previous volumes here and here), spanning the years from 1969 to 1972, we finally get to the really good stuff. While there were some excellent stories among his earlier output, the period from ca. the late sixties to mid seventies marks the high point of Silverberg’s Science Fiction witing and sees most of his major works published, among them acknowledged classics like Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls. In fact, I’d argue that this period is much more deserving of the epitheton “Golden Age of Science Fiction” than the fifties to which it is usually applied, because from about the middle of the sixties onwards Science Fiction stopped (for the most part, at least) to naively and unknowingly project the present into the future: instead, the genre became self-aware when authors found out that they had something meaningful to say beyond pulp adventures and and began to use the future to consciously examine the present.
Science Fiction and Romance seem on first sight to be pretty much incompatible genres: the first is based on supposedly “hard” science, based on facts and concerned with what is plausible, the second on supposedly “soft” emotions, based on feelings and concerned with reaching a Happily Ever After ending, no matter how unlikely. And, of course, the first is quintessentially male, the second quintessentially female. And if you think that latter statement is behind the times and that surely we’ve moved beyond that kind of moronic sexism, then think again. And check out some of the blatantly sexist stuff exploding all over the SFF fandom with depressing regularity, or just read up on Ann Aguirre’s own experiences as a female Science Fiction author.
This used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually did read the first version way back when (and even might still have my copy lying around somewhere), but have to confess that I don’t remember much about it except that it was all rather weird but that I liked it. Which, as it happens, would also sum up my impression of this rewritten version. (A word on the title: the novel was called A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire at first released, then shortened to Eyes of Fire for the new version, but the original title was restored for the re-release of the re-written version. The SF Gateway edition I have been reading manages to use both of those titles. As I like the long title better (like young Michael Bishop, I’m a sucker for poetic titles), I’m going to stick with that one.)
This book was intended as a fast and fluffy read after heroically battling my way through all of War and Peace, but as you can tell from the three novels I managed to read in the time it took me to finish this one, things did not work out that way. I really wanted to like this book, as the concept is very cute: A bunch of gorgeous, Armani-suited aliens is fighting a secret war against a horde of horrendous, over-sized other aliens, and our heroine and first-person narrator becomes involved in this conflict, falls in love with the aliens (the gorgeous ones, I should add) and fights evil (in form of the horrendous aliens). There’s a kick-ass heroine, there’s super-strong, gorgeous male aliens and super-intelligent, equally gorgeous female ones, there’s slimy monsters and lots of intentionally cheesy pulp Sci-Fi – all the ingredients for an enjoyable and funny romp, one would think – but it just tasted bland and did not work for me at all.
The problem seems to me that Gini Koch, although she comes across as a very nice person, just is not a good writer – the protagonist is just too good to be true and a clear case of auctorial wish-fulfillment, all the other characters are paper-thin, the plot has no pacing to speak of and just strings one event after another. Even comic fiction should have some kind of coherency that goes beyond a breathless iteration of “and then… and then… and then…”, some kind of story arc and, dare I say it, character development, all of which is sadly absent in Touched by an Alien. It was a real slog to get through, and probably would have ended up DNF if had not already bought the second volume in the series. I might give that a try some time and see whether Gini Koch as improved her writing skills any, but I’m not in any particularly hurry to do so.
When we left Bren Cameron at the end of Deceiver, he was in a very precarious position - not only in the middle of hostile territory but also in the middle of a potentially deadly conflict of man’chi (the feeling of allegiance and loyalty that holds together atevi society). It will take him some considerable maneuvering to escape with his own and his bodyguards’ skins intact, and if the previous novel was taken up mostly with intrigue and this politics, then Betrayer is comparatively heavy on the action, a large part of it consisting of Bren’s flight back to his country estate while being chased by assassins.
I love reading stories about intrigue, where the aim is to outwit your opponents, not to overpower them, where complex machinations are set into motion and then clash with each other in unexpected ways, where the antagonists dance around each other with words rather than bashing at each other with weapons, but where a well-placed word can be as deadly as a swordstroke or a bullet. And C. J. Cherryh belongs to the authors who do this best, in particular in her Science Fiction (which I tend to prefer over her Fantasy), and even among her extensive work the Foreigner series marks a high point in the way she unfolds, develops and finally wraps up political intrigues.
C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is (with volume #14 about to be released as I’m writing this) one of the longer-running series in Science Fiction and might very well be the one with most detailed world-building, or, more precisely, with the most detailed exploration of an alien culture. As so often with Cherryh, it is at its heart a story about culture clash between different species, in this case between the humans (or a group of them that has been stranded on a far-off planet) and the atevi (the dominant species on that planet).
The third and final installment in Hamilton’s Void trilogy. Thankfully, it has only very few and comparatively short Edeard chapters this time, and those even are on a somewhat comedic note (although I am not certain the author actually intended them to be that way) thanks to some Groundhog Day elements getting mixed into the Epic Fantasy. In retrospect (although I am quite certain that the author did not actually intend it that way), this might even be read as a self-parodistic commentary on all the Edeard chapters in the trilogy’s previous novels – I certainly often felt like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, bored to tears for having to re-tread already familar ground over and over and over again…
The second volume of Hamilton’s Void trilogy. Most of it is taken up with the continuing story of Edeard, i.e. the Fantasy-ish narrative strand, and it is just as bad as in the first volume, only worse because it takes up so much more space while remaining deeply cliché-ridden and profoundly unoriginal. The SFnal part is okay, but only consists of a third or maybe even a quarter of the whole novel and in no way can make up for the utter dross of the rest. Oh, and big surprise – Edeard is “the Chosen One.” Ugh.
A lot of people think very highly of Peter F. Hamilton, and the cover of my edition even names him as “Britain’s Number One Science Fiction Writer”. I assume that this refers to the number of books he has sold, because that is the only area where one might reasonably make such a claim (at least for as long as Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom) - compared to the likes of Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross, Hamilton comes off as mediocre at best.