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Pebble in the Sky, by Isaac Asimov. Tor, 2008, $24.95
The Null-A Continuum, by John C. Wright. Tor, 2008, $25.95
Lorelei of the Red Mist, by Leigh Brackett. Haffner, 2007, $40.
The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, by Leigh Brackett. Planet Stories, 2007, $12.99.
The Martian General's Daughter, by Theodore Judson. PYR, 2008, $15.
HOW DO you explain Isaac Asimov to Earthmen?
How do you even begin to describe that glorious union of all-American optimism, bleeding-heart Yiddishkeit, and cutting-edge science speculation? You can't. He's one of a kind—like all true miracles.
I suspect Pebble in the Sky held up better as hard sf back in 1950. Asimov kicks off the book with a D.C. Comics-style lab accident and some half-hearted handwaving about the "queer and dangerous crannies" in nuclear physics. You couldn't play this fast and loose with science today—not even if you sugarcoated the pill with a thick layer of closed time-like loops and entangled photons. Frankly, compared to Arthur C. Clarke's stories from the 1950s, Pebble in the Sky feels downright flimsy.
But who's complaining? The plot and characters are vintage Asimov, complete with a delightfully tongue-in-cheek cameo of alien tourism that I can't help suspecting was the inspiration for one of my favorite Hal Clement stories. When a shtetl-born tailor is transported to a future Chicago that has become a radioactive quarantine zone, he collides with a maverick archeologist who claims Earth is the origin point for all of humanity. Naturally, Earth's Imperial Procurator is skeptical. He protests (with classic Asimovian excess) that Earth is:
a pigpen of a world, or a horrible hole of a world, or a cesspool of a world, or almost any other particularly derogatory adjective you care to use. And yet, with all its refinement of nausea, it cannot even achieve uniqueness in villainy, but remains an ordinary, brutish peasant world.Foundation junkies will perk up at the Procurator's tone of imperial ennui. And indeed, Pebble in the Sky offers tantalizing glimpses of an earlier and marginally less decayed Galactic Empire. Psychohistory buffs will love this book for its through-the-looking-glass view of the Foundation series. And everyone else will love it because it's just fun, fun, fun.
A. E. van Vogt's pulp classic The World of Null-A ranks right up there with Asimov's Foundation novels and Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game on my list of books to recommend to really smart teenagers. Not that they aren't fun for kids of all ages. But teenagers take a special joy in books that come complete with their own self-contained philosophical systems.
John C. Wright was clearly one of the smart kids who devour such books. And he obviously stumbled on The World of Null-A at exactly the right moment. The result is The Null-A Continuum.
The book's back cover copy is a pulp geek's dream, complete with claims that Wright (better known for his hard sf "Golden Age" trilogy than for his pulp credentials) "has trained himself to write in the exciting pulp style" so that readers can "return again to the Null-A future."
Happily, it's all bunk.
Null-A Continuum is no slavish copy. In Wright's hands, the pulp original turns into a pulp-meets-hard-sf meditation on cosmological evolution. Purists may howl, but in my opinion this is a good thing. Van Vogt was a short story virtuoso: a master of the firefly-bright idea that flashes and flickers and can be worked through in a dozen brilliant pages. His novels often feel a bit freeze-dried in the home stretch, as if he's lost interest in his characters and just wants to get the whole ordeal over with.
Wright, in contrast, is a born novelist. And Null-A Continuum is a novelist's novel, bristling with ideas and characters that demand novel-length treatment. It's also a thoroughly modern piece of work, heftier and yet more disciplined than the original Null-A books. The writing is smoother, the characters more developed, the science more rigorous, the…oh, why go on? What it all boils down to is that the original Null-A novels were pulp of the first water, while Wright's book is an erudite homage to the pulp tradition by a twenty-first-century hard-sf master.
Wright has retooled van Vogt's characters, plot, and science for today's readers. And though his love for the master is evident, he hasn't hesitated to put his own stamp on the Null-A universe. The science of the original Null-A books centered around the characteristic science ideas of the 1940s: the threat of nuclear war, the vision of vast, centralized bureaucracies run by ENIAC-style thinking machines, the hope that hypnosis could unlock the hidden powers of the human mind. In contrast, Wright's scientific concerns are those of today: the cosmological implications of new discoveries in physics and astronomy; the untrustworthiness of memory; the extreme pressures placed on humans as we leave behind the environment to which our evolution has adapted us.
How you feel about Wright's book will depend on how you feel about the differences between the pulp of yesteryear and the hard sf of today. If you're looking to relive the experience of reading van Vogt for the first time, you'll just have to settle for reading van Vogt a second time. But if you're interested in what one of the smartest hard sf writers of our generation has to say about the universe of Null-A, then Wright's Null-A Continuum will let you get your geek on.
If Asimov's and van Vogt's speculations were rendered obsolete by subatomic physics, then Leigh Brackett's were outrun by NASA. Who could have predicted back in 1943 that NASA would turn the swashbuckling Martian frontier over to bean-counters and bureaucrats? By the time Brackett wrote her last Erik John Stark novels in the 1970s, NASA had made the whole idea of Mars so boring that Stark had to retreat to a distant star system like Shane riding off into the sunset in search of open range.
And yet somehow Brackett survived….
To read Bracket is to dig deep into science fictional bedrock. Want to know where Dune comes from? Or Bradbury's haunting canal cities? Or the noir heroes of Dick, Tiptree, and Gibson? Read Brackett. (Pulp factoid of the day: Dick's first published novel, the Null-A-influenced Solar Lottery, originally came out bound back-to-back with Brackett's The Big Jump.)
Brackett's cardinal virtue is the ability to forge sentences so clean and direct that the poetry, ambiguity, and sheer complexity of her stories seem to sneak up sideways on you. Her plots pinball between rip-roaring adventure, thorny ethical dilemmas, and glittering moments of pure technowow. Her characters are dramatic and boldly drawn, yet still conflicted enough to be believable. And her prose has a mythic clarity and luminosity reminscent of Le Guin's best work…though, of course, that's getting it backwards.
It's exhilarating reading. And for anyone who writes sf, it's more than a little daunting. You can't ignore that nervous inner voice that keeps wondering how stuff this good could possibly have gone out of print…and what that says about the future prospects of your own paltry scribblings.
So why has Brackett languished out of print while lesser writers prospered? I don't have a clue. And, at least in Brackett's case, I'm not sure I buy the all-too-obvious gender-based answer. So here is your mission, if you choose to accept it: read all the Brackett you can get your hands on, and if you think you can figure out why she's not a household name, drop me an email. Or, heck, just drop me an email to rave about how great she is. I expect the latter kind of email will vastly outnumber the former.
The best place to start for first-time Brackett readers is the Planet Stories back-to-back reissue of The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman. It's cheap and portable—and best of all, it's Stark.
At the risk of being accused of creeping lowbrow-ism, I have to confess that I think the Stark stories are Brackett's best work. They may not be the most subtle stuff she ever wrote, but they're jaw-droppingly good. They're also a pivotal moment in sf history—and not just because Stark is arguably the genre's first black hero.* With Stark's first appearance in the Summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories, Brackett found the perfect hero for her signature blend of hard-boiled prose and pulp action—a mix that would dominate sf for the rest of the century and beyond. From Dick and Tiptree to Delany and Gibson, so many giants of the genre have adopted Brackett's noir-inflected tone that it has become an almost invisible part of sf's stylistic bedrock. These days if it's not noir, it barely feels like sf at all. And maybe that's one of the stylistic ticks that will eventually make today's sf look dated….
Or maybe not. After all, achieving immortality is easy: you just have to be as good as Brackett.
A rare beast appeared in my mailbox last month: one of those books so astonishingly good that it made me run out and buy everything else its author ever wrote.
The Martian General's Daughter is Theodore Judson's third novel. Judson's prior work has sparked comparisons to Heinlein and Asimov—and here he turns Asimov's famous advice about "cribbin' from Gibbon" into an unnerving little gem of a book that explores the intersection between science fiction, history, and metahistory.
The story is familiar to anyone who's read the Augustan Histories or seen the film Gladiator. But Judson's retelling of the old tale is quietly riveting, and his image of a decaying post-galactic aristocracy lamenting the loss of email and central air conditioning is priceless.
I kept asking myself what Judson was after while I was reading this book. I even asked myself once or twice if it was actually sf. By the time I read the last page, I knew it was sf—and sf of the very highest quality. But as to what Judson's after? Well, that will take deeper minds than mine to conjure.
One of the book's villians—and this is a book with many villains—spends his days padding around the Imperial Palace in antique driving slippers so he can sneak up behind people and make casual chitchat about assassination. Judson's story will sneak up on you in much the same way. And if you're anything like me, you'll hear the whisper of antique driving slippers shuffling down the dusty corridors of your brain long after you've turned the last page.
Taken as a whole, this month's books remind me of a story my father-in-law tells about visiting Katz's Deli for the first time since the 1950s. The glorious, towering piles of corned beef that dominated his childhood memories of the famous Lower East Side sandwich joint were gone. When he asked why, the guy at the counter just shrugged and said, "Health Code."
Well, life certainly has gotten more hygienic since the pulp era. And it's hard to complain about hygiene. Or rigorous scientific speculation. Or second drafts, for that matter. But still…the old pulp had a rascally, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants charm that sometimes seems to be missing from modern sf.
All of which leaves us readers with tough choices. Do we go for the decadent thrills of pulp? Or the more intellectual pleasures of hard science and elegantly honed sentences? Personally—at least when the books are this good—I'm happy to swing both ways.
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