Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It's not natural...

Charles Stross, Jaspar Fforde, Peter Hamilton, Hal Duncan, Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, and so many other great notable British Science Fiction writers have produced some of the best examples of SF in the last few years, in many cases redefining the genre and shattering expectations. Most notable among these illustrious names is Simon R. Green, the author responsible for such magnificent characters as Owen Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, and now John Taylor. In this post I will review Simon's latest novel, Unnatural Inquirer, which follows the exploits of John Taylor in the Nightside.

As this is a continuing series, it is very helpful to understand the nature of the setting first and foremost. The Nightside is a secret, magical city deep within the rotten heart of London (and yes, that is a stock phrase from the series). While it is always 3AM in the Nightside, time passes normally (at least one presumes it does) outside the borders of this fantastic city. Available here are the fruits of every sin, vice, and perversion, as well as magic, mystery, gods and goddesses, tropes, myths, legends, horrors from beyond, and monsters too dreadful to imagine. Sounds like fun right?

Enter John Taylor. For those of us who have been following his career from the beginning (Something From the Nightside, Ace Books 2003), we know that John Taylor is a man with a gift: he can find things. This makes him a pretty good private detective, and a nasty force to be reckoned with. John Taylor is a good man in a pretty vicious world, and in the Nightside even the best men most be hard and horrible on occasion.

OK, so now that we know what the background is, let's look at the story of the Unnatural Inquirer. As the name suggests, the story is centered around a Nightside tabloid of the same name. This particular rag has hired our intrepid hero to locate a fellow named Pen Donovan, who has allegedly made a recording of a transmission from the afterlife. This is notable in that nobody (even the gods and goddesses on the Street of the Gods) knows what, if anything, happens when you shuffle off the mortal coil. The higher and lower planes are a complete mystery (and yes, the pagan gods are inferior to the God/Devil in these stories though they are more powerful because the God/Devil are not allowed to interfere directly in the world due to a detent while the pagan gods can do as they please). When Taylor is hired, he is saddled with the unfortunate side-kick Bettie Divine, demon girl reporter, who is looking for trash to scoop for her paper as well as followng the main story wherever it leads. Chaos ensues.

Now, for those of us who love a great detective story, this is a fantastic example of Chandlerian noir if ever there was one. The thing that makes this series (in general) and this book (in particular) stand out is the supernatural element. This element is pervasive in some other series (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Charlain Harris' Dead in Dixie series, and Mark del Franco's Unshapely Things/Unquiet Dreams), but in the Nightside, this magic takes on a whole new tenor. While Green's universe owes a lot of its style to Lovecraft, his fast-talking, affable characters and witty dialog hum along providing a depth that even the great HP himself would envy. These books are easily accessible, and they all contain a certain number of twinge inducing scenes. Unnatural Inquirer has all the elements of a great detective story as well as all the makings of both classical and surreal horror, and science fiction.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Note: although this is a part of an over-arching series, it is fully capable of standing on its own.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Top Ten Space Operas

OK, well I am back, finally. For those who were wondering where I had gone, it is a combination of work, moving, and my father being in and out of the hospital. Now that life has stabilized, I can get back to the important stuff, like updating this blog on a regular basis.

Today is Monday, and that means that is time for a Todd's Top Ten list. This week, as the SFSNNJ's Multi-media month draws to a close, we turn our attention to the exciting realm of Space Operas. Whether in print or on screen, the Space Opera is a staple of the genre. Let us look at the best of the best...

10) John Grimes: These venerable stories by A. Bertram Chandler are a load of fun, and the future life of John Grimes, and his career in the galaxy at large, are a joy for readers of all ages. When reading these great works, it is very apparent that many of the great explorer characters of the genre owe a great deal to John Grimes, and that this prototype of the Hornblower in Space concept still stands on his own after all this time.

9) McCade for Hire: Bounty hunter Sam McCade is a mercenary bringing law to a lawless universe in this fantastic far future realm by William C. Dietz. McCade is quite possibly the most intelligent and fantastic character to grace the lower levels of society. Brilliantly written, and with a framework that makes sense for the inclusion of a bounty hunter, the McCade series stands out as one of the best thought out space operas in the genre.

8) The Pride of Chanur: It is very hard to write realistic aliens, but CJ Cherryh has made her career on the backs of the truly alien. The Pride of Chanur series follows the crew of a Hani (feline aliens) merchant ship in a region known as Compact Space. The neat thing is that this is a first contact story from the aliens' point of view, and the narrative is not told from the perspective of the only human character (Tully) but rather from the view of Pyanfar Chanur, captain of the ship. The aliens are very well drawn and the action is fantastic.

7) The Lensmen Series: E.E. "Doc" Smith is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern Science Fiction and the Space Opera, and the Lensmen series remains a beloved classic for many reasons. High adventure and great characters are the hallmarks of this sweeping series, and those who have not read the books, should add them to their must read lists.

6) Sten: From the death of his family in the first book to his rebellion at the end of the series, the Mantis Team leader Sten has been a fantastic example of Space Opera if ever there was one. Chris Bunch and Alan Cole brought us this magnificent series (which was recently republished, by the way), and the amazing stories of Sten and his companions would make Ethan Hunt and James Bond turn green with envy.

5) The Prince: The planet Sparta may be the one hope for a renewed humanity as the current interstellar government collapses. The Prince follows a mercenary company hired by some very smart people to protect the world of Sparta and ensure that they will be able to pick up the pieces when the government finally does collapse. Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling collaborate for a great storyline.

4) Night's Dawn/Confederacy: Peter Hamilton tells a Space Opera like no other. This one includes possession by the souls of the dead in a far future universe, and the scale of the story is nothing short of epic. It is really quite amazing what you can do with all the dead men of history to work with.

3) Honor Harrington: David Weber's iconic Captain Honor Harrington is one of the most widely read characters in the SF Genre. The Honor-verse (Harrington fan slang for the universe that the stories take place in) has been written about by many authors in the various short story collections, and in 10 novels by Mr. Weber himself. If you go to any bookstore you are likely to see 2-3 shelves of Weber's books, and much of that will be Honor Harrington's stories.

2) The Uplift Series: David Brin's seminal works on the life of humanity in a great, ancient intergalactic civilization features Earth in the role of minor backwater in the seas of galactic politicking. Startide Rising is one of the greatest works of SF ever produced, and the whole series rides a wave of excitement and exploration from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

1) Deathstalker: Simon R. Green is probably the best writer out there, and the strange far future of the Empire of Humanity showcases the best of his talent. Majestic prose and sparkling dialog bring this story to life as we follow the exploits of Owne Deathstalker and a rag-tag band of rebels and super-humans in their bid to overthrow the Empress Lionstone XIV. Wonderful is the only way I can describe this series, and there is not enough praise in the universe to lavish on it. Read these!