Home / The Wonder Spyglass 2: David Langford, Allen Steele, and other SF from the Nineties

The Wonder Spyglass 2: David Langford, Allen Steele, and other SF from the Nineties

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This issue of The Wonder Spyglass – Retrospective Reviews of Science Fiction and Fantasy will cover the stories published around a decade ago: in October 1996 and 1995.

The idea of these time trips is to highlight the particular stories throughout SF&F history (all 100 years of it). Each Spyglass issue will give selective reviews to stories, collections, original anthologies and novels, with the emphasis on the short fiction. We will be taking jumps of 10 years in SF history, making it a fun perspective on the development of the genre. Please keep in mind that these notes reflect only my personal reading experience and do not necessarily correspond with the impact a story had on SF field in general, or with the generally accepted verdict from the critics.

David Langford
"The Spear of the Sun"

(Father Brown series)
© Interzone, October 1996

There are many "alternate history" SF stories, but this one is about an alternate history of science fiction itself. An unusual pastiche on G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown series, it positively glows with invention and wit. "Written in the world where G.K. Chesterton's 'Father Brown' stories somehow mutated into SF, thousands of stories have been set in the shared 'Father Brown' universe, and G.K. Chesterton's Science Fiction Magazine is more or less the only genre magazine…" I was not awfully impressed, however. The story reads well as a novelty, but otherwise quickly wears off. It's light fare that's good to read on a sunny afternoon with a soft breeze in your hair.

Allen Steele
"The Death of Captain Future"
(Captain Future series)
© IASFM, October 1995
–novella : 1996 Hugo Award Winner
–novella : 1996 Locus Award /6th place 
–novella : 1996 Asimov's Reader Poll /7th place 
–novella : 1996 SF Chronicle /2nd place
–novella : 1997 Nebula Award runner-up 
–foreign short fiction : 1998 Seiun Award Winner

A noble effort. This is genuinely heart-warming! Somebody not only remembers Captain Future, but sets out to write a tribute to the old "salty dog of the spaceways." On top of that, this somebody is not some novelty or one-shot-parody producer like Silverberg or Mike Resnick or such, but a toughened space fiction professional Allen Steele. No wonder I started to read this novella with pleasant goosebumps of expectation, waiting to lap up the successful entry like a grateful puppy.

But this was not to be. I was disappointed. The adventure is there, the aliens and villains are more sophisticated and street-smart, the polit-correctness (in the form of pervading cynicism) is there as well, and the charm is irrevocably gone. I am not even speaking of yellowed pulp pages charm and cheesy dialogue and primitive plot charm, which would be a good riddance after all, but the romance of the spaceways and the gleam in the eye of an intrepid space explorer are gone… Suppressed by smooth (and quite unexciting) story-telling, run-of-the-mill "reality show" dialogue and the general contemporary feel – which in its "Ikea" enthusiasm did away with the fancy baroque embellishments of Forties pulp fiction.

Still, it's a good effort (it even won a Hugo award), but it will not be added to my "Captain Future" collection, even as a successful parody. To be a parody, or even a pastiche, it needs a good deal more excitement and humour. However, as it stands, it's quite flat and unmemorable (like eating tofu cheese). Alastair Reynolds would've done a better job, with more flair and colour. 

David G. Nordley
"Alice's Asteroid"

© IASFM, October 1995
–short story : 1996 Locus /15th place 

–short story : 1996 Asimov's Reader Poll /5th place (tie)

This is a prime example of how easily a "hard science fiction" space story can change into a showcase of a writer's scientific knowledge, losing the excitement in the process. More and more such competent and dry novellas are getting published nowadays, obviously being encouraged by editors and spear-headed by modern "hard sf" giants in the field. Even Larry Niven writes significantly "tamer" and "scientifically/boringly correct" nowadays. This makes the literature of fantastic imagination a slave to scientifically-proven standards, almost a world- and physics- "syndication" in sf publishing.

I know, I know, there is the fantasy genre, theoretically unbound by any science. But what about space adventures? To my mind, Outer Space is just as wild and unobstructed by any "human scientific dogmas" as Gandalf's fireworks. Go and prove me wrong in the comments. ( I know I'm exaggerating, but I am mightily starved for fresh and non-conforming space fiction)

Geoff Ryman
© Interzone, October 1995
–short fiction : 1996 British SF award runner-up
–fiction : 1996 Interzone Poll (listed)

When I started to write this review, I typed Greg Egan instead of Geoff Ryman, subconsciously noting the similarities between these two writer's styles, and differences. Geoff Ryman imbued this story with more "warmth" (pun intended) than Egan ever would (or Asimov, for that matter). The subject matter of this story is pure Asimov – it's about an emotional attachment that a child develops toward its robot nanny. Nothing new there, but handled well and smoothly written.

Nancy Kress

© IASFM, October 1995
Beaker's Dozen, 1998
–novelette : 1996 Locus /5th place

One Amazon reader summarizes this tale nicely: "Evolution" takes a very serious topic, antibiotic-resistance in bacteria, and turns it into a bland, Shirley Jackson-esque tale of people becoming uncivilized. I kept thinking after the first few pages, "Ok, I get it. Why should I keep reading?" Yeah, same here. Of course the subject matter is frightening, but the tale is sleep-inducing at most.

James P. Hogan
"The Immortality Option" (novel)
(Code Of The Lifemaker 2)
© 1995, Ballantine Del Rey
–series: 1984 Locus /26
–overseas long fiction : 2000 Seiun award runner-up

This one is a curious literary "fish": on one hand it's a sharp and very competent (and well-researched) epic about the possibilities of robotic evolution, life-codes, AI power games and such. But on the other hand, it is an ungodly mess. The writer mixes the themes, ideas and extrapolations like a retired IBM maniac, or a typical pulp "mad scientist", little caring for the readability or even a slightest character development (in fact I doubt there were even human characters at all, throughout its 400 pages). It reads as an article, as a tractate, or as a Ph. D. thesis, but I cannot call it a novel. Granted it has a tremendous scale and exciting visions of robot cultures and AI domains – but it only serves to re-enforce the "mad scientist ramblings" impression. It's lofty stuff, but after a few chapters you will feel as though your head were cooked in an alchemist's bubbling alembic vessel, and be very fortunate indeed to escape to fresh air.

Well, sadly, there were no winners in this Spyglass issue for October 1995-1996, but of course these were only random pickings (from what I read personally). Surely in the Eighties, in next Spyglass, we will fish out more exciting stuff? We'll see.

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