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July 25th, 2017

The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , — William Cardini @ 8:36 am

Isn’t it strange that you could travel back in time to a point in the Earth’s history when the very atmosphere could poison you?

Of course there are the long years before life on Earth had evolved and there was no oxygen at all. But there have also been at least one period of high oxygen levels when insects could grow to gargantuan size and several periods of extremely high carbon dioxide levels.

In a post on The Atlantic site by science writer Peter Brannen called “Burning Fossil Fuels Almost Ended All Life on Earth,” Brannen vividly details what it would be like to visit one such era, the Permian-Triassic boundary around 250 million years ago:

You walk down to the shoreline and take a few steps into the lapping waters, drawn toward the enveloping gloom. The seawater is almost painfully hot. There’s nothing alive under the waves. There doesn’t seem to be anything alive anywhere really. You squint and marvel at the growing terror on the horizon. You’ve seen billowing thunderclouds before, but this panoramic tempest seems to tower into eternity. Wild hot winds begin to whip in all directions. You find it difficult to breathe. Slowly baking, you know should head back to the temporary safety of the ship, but you linger here all alone on the dimming coast, transfixed by the blossoming apocalypse just over the Earth’s curve. A putrid odor begins to ride in on the swirling winds and, as you finally turn back in a panic, you pass out. Before long, this doomsday storm makes landfall, and what meager life clings to this country is stamped out for millions of years.

Because of this great writing, I bought Brannen’s debut book, The Ends of the World, which came out this past June. It’s a clever, often times beautifully written account of the past five mass extinctions in the deep past of the Earth, when almost all complex species were destroyed by overwhelming geological and astronomical forces. Like the best science writing (I would compare this book favorably to Peter Ward’s Gorgon), Brannen makes the story of scientific discovery an adventure, chronicling contrasting theories of events in deep time through road trips and engaging discussions with scientists. Unlike the common conception of asteroid and comet strikes, geologists and paleoclimatologists now hypothesize that these extinctions were driven by sudden changes in the concentration of carbon dixoide in the atmosphere. One of those changes was a drop, possibly caused by the evolution of trees, which drew down CO2 levels and summoned glaciers. But most of those changes were spikes in CO2 caused by continent-sized volcanic eruptions, huge boils in the Earth’s surface that broke open to bake the land and acidify the seas.

The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen, cover by Eric Nyquist
Cover by Eric Nyquist.

This new understanding of the past is extremely relevant to today because we’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a faster rate than those ancient lava flows. Like many, I was scared and panicked about David Wallace-Wells’ article on the worst-case scenario for climate change in New York Magazine. One aspect to many of the projections he collects in the post is that most of them stop, somewhat arbitrarily, at the year 2100. But as Peter Brannen and other science writers (such as Curt Stager in Deep Future, which I discussed in this post) warn us, our actions now will not only affect the next century but millennia to come. That’s why the perspective of deep time is so important to the discussion of climate change and yet simultaneously makes it too abstract for it to become a pressing policy issue for the majority. Maybe some immediate animal fear of being baked from the inside, or losing cognitive function from too much CO2, like Wallace-Wells caused in me, can spur us into action.

One positive fact that I got from Brannen’s book is that, despite many claims to the contrary, we are not (yet) in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. Even if you add in all the megafauna extinctions, such as the loss of the charismatic giant ground sloths who ate avocados and dug out elaborate tunnel systems in South America, the world has lost only 1% of its species since we evolved. In the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, the world lost over 75% of its species. There’s still time for us to implement sensible climate change mitigation policies and preserve our world, civilization, and culture for the centuries to come.

If you’re like me and need a chaser of hope for a shot of doom, read this post by futurist Alex Steffen on how climate action is imminent and check out this chat on Vox about Drawdown, Paul Hawken’s project to explore practical climate change solutions that use existing tech.

February 21st, 2017

Yarn-Ball Future Earth

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , — William Cardini @ 8:01 am

I decided to continue my journey in the Dying Earth sub-genre by following up As the Curtain Falls by Robert Chilson with Earth in Twilight by Doris Piserchia. Compared to the other two Piserchia books I’ve read, Spaceling and Doomtime, Earth in Twilight is pretty straightforward.

The protagonist, Ferrer, travels from the planet Laredo to Earth. It’s far in the future. Earth has been overrun by an enormous jungle. The vast forest is punctured by tall space elevators that are connected by bridges and thick threads of spider web extruded by elephant-sized insects. All the human-built structures are in disrepair. I’ll let Piserchia’s own words from the first page describe her vision:

Earth looked like a big ball of yarn with a great many knitting needles sticking out of it. Loose yarn seemed to be strung from needle to needle, some of the strands so loose they nearly touched the land while others were so tight they were many thousands of miles up in the sky. Creatures great and greater made their nests on the bridges…

Everyone on Laredo thinks that humanity vacated the Earth and left it to nature centuries ago.

The setting is very similar to Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Unfortunately I’ve only read the abridged version of that novel, published in the US as The Long Afternoon of Earth. The Earth has become tidally locked with the sun, only showing it one side which is covered in a giant banyan tree. I liked the abridged version but I want to read the full novel.

Earth in Twilight by Doris Piserchia, cover by Wayne Barlowe
Earth in Twilight by Doris Piserchia, cover by Wayne Barlowe.

In Earth in Twilight, Ferrer’s mission is to prepare the way for spaceships from Laredo that will spray the Earth with a chemical called Deep Green that will defoliate it (an ironic name in reference to the defoliant chemical Agent Orange from the Vietnam war) and make it ready for humans to repopulate. But Ferrer discovers people, strange human-plant hybrids who disgust and then charm him.

Because this book was written by Piserchia, the prose is slightly stream of consciousness and there’s lots of weird monsters, inexplicable events, and mind mergers. I won’t spoil it but the first chapter has a great twist that sets the theme for the whole book. Piserchia explores what it means to be human while showing us another one of her weird, vital visions of the future.

February 14th, 2017

Space is the Place by Sun Ra

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: — William Cardini @ 9:40 am

This month I’ve been ripping all my Sun Ra CDs onto my computer, correcting the metadata, splitting the LPs that were combined onto one CD, and adding missing album artwork. One of the first Sun Ra CDs I ever bought was the album Space is the Place (which is different from the soundtrack for the movie Space is the Place).


Screenprint cover by House of Traps for the three 7″ record set The Shadows Cast by Tomorrow by Sun Ra, put out on Jazzman Records.

The first track is one long 21 minute session of the Arkestra playing “Space is the Place.” There is a solid loop of horn playing and June Tyson’s signing that keeps the rhythm going while the other instruments go off on their own journeys. One of my favorite details is when Sun Ra produces the sound effect of someone being beamed up by a UFO on his space organ. Listening to this song is a spiritual experience for me. I was in tears after hearing it for the first time in many years.

Jazz in Silhouette by Sun Ra & His Arkestra
Cover for the CD Jazz in Silhouette by Sun Ra & His Arkestra, a reissue put out on the Impulse! label. Photo by Jim McCrary. Jazz in Silhouette is one of Sun Ra’s most critically acclaimed albums but I only listened to for the first time recently.

Sun Ra believed he had visited Saturn by way of astral projection. Space is a place, a state of the mind, that can be reached without technology. In this place of pure bliss, of enlightenment, there are no worries or limits. You can finally be free.

February 7th, 2017

As the Curtain Falls by Robert Chilson

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , — William Cardini @ 8:17 am

Every time my family visits our relatives in Riverside, CA, we stop at Renaissance Books. They have a great selection of old SF. This past trip I picked up a random DAW paperback with an intriguing cover and blurb, As the Curtain Falls by Robert Chilson.

As the Curtain Falls by Robert Chilson
As the Curtain Falls by Robert Chilson, cover art by Hans Ulrich and Ute Osterwalder.

In this short novel, Chilson explores a doomed civilization that haunts ruins of technological wonder in the far future, long after humanity has explored the stars, given up on that dream, and now struggles to survive on a dying, resource-depleted Earth.

As the Curtain Falls was published in 1974, a couple years after two of the greatest books in the dying earth sub-genre: An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock (the first part of The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy which I reviewed on this blog) and The Pastel City by M John Harrison. I see the influence of both Moorcock and Harrison on Chilson’s book, Moorcock in the sardonic attitude of the anti-hero Trebor, and Harrison in the imagery and language. On the whole, As the Curtain Falls might not reach the heights of those two books, but Chilson does outdo them both in his evocative setting: the oceans have dried out and the continents are uninhabitable; the remnants of humanity live in the ocean bottoms, the amount of arable land shrinking each generation as the salted deserts encroach.

Traitor to the Living by Philip Jose Farmer
Traitor to the Living by Philip José Farmer, another cover by Hans Ulrich and Ute Osterwalder.

Chilson has done extensive world-building for this future that he only uses in this one 174-page book. The forests are phosphorescent trees and colorful coral. Starfish and lobsters are the predators. People move across the salt flats in giant sleds with sails. Insects and bacteria have evolved to eat plastic. Gems are polished chunks of a mysterious substance manufactured by the lost civilizations of the Dawn. We get glimpses of a long history of empires and conflicts without dwelling too much on specifics. This long history has thematic resonance – We feel the weight of this history, the hundreds of millions of years of humanity that has lead to this moment near the end, the vast impersonal hate of time. This theme is common to the best books of the dying Earth sub-genre.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed is the focus on art. Many SF books are so focused on technology that they devalue or ignore the non-functional products of civilization. But the title of As the Curtain Falls is probably a reference to the curtain falling over the play of humanity on the Earth. And there’s a complete play within the novel that is cut from an inexplicable theatrical tradition with no explanation of its meaning by the narrator. Finally there’s the eccentric immortal that our protagonists meet while they’re running through the giant midden heaps of the Dawn age, an immortal who proclaims to them that “art is longer than any life.” The endurance of art is the only weak hope that Chilson offers us.

Painting by Hans Ulrich and Ute Osterwalder for the cover of Flow my Tears the Policeman Said by Philip K Dick
A painting by Hans Ulrich and Ute Osterwalder for the cover of Flow my Tears the Policeman Said by Philip K Dick.

I hadn’t heard of Chilson before I bought As the Curtain Falls on a whim. He hasn’t written much but I’m going to look for his other original novels.

January 10th, 2017

Earthseed by Octavia Butler

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , — William Cardini @ 9:20 am

Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series is two beautifully written, brutal but sometimes hopeful and emotionally devastating epistolary novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, that came out in the 1990’s.

Butler has been on my to-read list for a while. I started with these two novels that are some of the last that she wrote because I heard that in the second novel, America elects a fascist President whose campaign slogan is “make America great again.” Very relevant to our recent election.

Cover for a new hardcover edition of Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Cover for a new hardcover edition of Parable of the Sower coming out in February from Seven Stories Press. I couldn’t find the cover artist on their website.

Parable of the Sower is terrifying because it’s very plausible. Butler portrays a future America that has been devastated by an economic collapse caused by climate change. No one but the ultra rich can afford gas for vehicles. Food is expensive so middle class communities grow their own in gardens and learn how to eat foods like acorns. Many people are homeless migrants walking long roads to escape extreme drought further south. Everyone is so desperate to survive and there is so much crime that no one can afford to be kind. I don’t read a lot of post-apocalyptic SF so I found the breakdown of the social order to be frightening, but if you read a lot of those books this may not affect you as much.

The book is a sequence of diary entries and religious verses by the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina. This format adds to the realism. At first Olamina is introducing you to her walled neighborhood, a somewhat familiar place of relative stability in the chaos. But then she is forced to make a harrowing journey, walking north on California’s highways, surrounded by violent vagrants and fleeing before walls of fire set by drug addicts who experience orgasmic pleasure when they watch flames burn.

Cover for a new hardcover edition of Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
Cover for a new hardcover edition of Parable of the Talents coming out in February from Seven Stories Press. I couldn’t find the cover artist on their website.

Parable of the Talents is set five years after the end of Parable of the Sower. At first, the sequel feels less alarming, perhaps because Butler adds introductory texts by other characters to Olamina’s diary entries. Until the halfway point – then a major change in Olamina’s circumstances upset me so much I could barely read it.

There are some spoilers and mention of sexual assault and slavery in the paragraph ahead. Click through to read the rest of the review.

June 1st, 2016

Cosmic Consciousness and Climate Change in SF

At its best, SF grapples with big ideas such as humanity’s place in the cosmos and our role as reshapers of landscapes, ecosystems, the climate, and potentially other worlds. As our culture changes, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves also changes. I’m a cartoonist, an artist and a storyteller. I have to believe that our stories matter and can shape how we behave–otherwise what’s the point in creating them? They’re mirrors we hold up to ourselves. Or perhaps a scrying glass, trying to catch a glimpse of our possibilities.

He is now cosmically aware!
Panels from Captain Marvel #30, written and pencilled by Jim Starlin, inked by Al Milgrom, and lettered by Tom Orzechowski.

Click through for an essay discussing This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, Fury by Henry Kuttner, 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and more.

May 24th, 2016

The Futurist Congress of Ari Folman and Robin Wright

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , — William Cardini @ 9:15 am

When I first heard that Ari Folman had directed an IRL/animation hybrid adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress that replaces the main role of satirical space explorer Ijon Tichy with the actor Robin Wright and cuts the title to The Congress, I was skeptical but intrigued.

The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, cover by Stanislaw Fernandes
Cover by Stanislaw Fernandes.

The Futurological Congress is one of my favorite books. It’s Lem out-PKDing Philip K Dick at waking-up-from-a-nightmare-into-another-nightmare psychedelic mind-fucks. Tichy attends the Futurological Congress, which is attacked by terrorists armed with weaponized hallucinogens. Trapped in a trip from which doctors can’t sober him up, they cryogenically freeze Tichy until medical science can find a cure. He wakes up in a future where pharmacologicals are aerosolized and distributed to every citizen to satisfy their every desire. Then it gets weird. What could this plot have to do with the failing acting career of fictionalized Robin Wright?

Film still from The Congress
Film still from The Congress.

The movie seems to struggle with reconciling these two threads at well. The animation-less beginning, when Robin Wright is struggling with whether she should let Miramount Studios scan her body so they can use a digital version of her in movies, drags a little. But then we jump forward 20 years to contract renegotiations at the Futurist Congress (an understandable truncation of Lem’s conference title–this would be a better title for the film), which is being held in the animated zone of Abrahama City, and the movies goes all in with zany animation and high SF ideas.

Film still from The Congress
Film still from The Congress.

The writer and director Ari Folman tacks on a story about love and family but otherwise, after Robin Wright attends the Futurist Congress, the plot is surprisingly faithful to Lem’s book, somehow managing to be even more bleak than the very dark and existentially scary book (I’d say more but I don’t want to spoil the finale of either the book or the film, which you should experience for yourself). I really loved the animation and all the sly references to pop culture in the characters and background. The Isreali-based animation studio, Bridgit Folman Films Gang, did a beautiful job. One thing I found interesting in comparing the real-life and cartoon versions of Robin Wright in the same movie is how the exaggerated eyes of cartoon characters work. If they had drawn Wright with eyes in the same proportion as the rest of her, she wouldn’t look as lively. People focus on each other’s eyes so much that it makes sense to enlarge them in a drawing.

Film still from The Congress
Film still from The Congress.

Overall I found The Congress to be a fascinating movie. I’m glad Drafthouse Films picked it up for North American distribution. You should give it a watch (but as always the book is better).

May 17th, 2016

Doris Piserchia: Forgotten SF Psychedelia

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , , , — William Cardini @ 10:34 pm

Doris Piserchia is an interesting and unfortunately mostly forgotten SF writer. She had 13 books published in the decade from 1973 to 1983, mostly by DAW, two under the pseudonym Curt Selby. Then she quit writing and her books fell out of print.

Wayne Barlowe
Wayne Barlowe’s cover painting for Earth in Twilight.

I encountered her work browsing the eye-catching yellow spines of DAW paperbacks at a great used book store here in Kansas City called Prospero’s. The book, Earth in Twilight, had a fantastic monster painting by Wayne Barlowe on the cover. I chose other books that trip but I noted Piserchia’s name for future research. Reviews online and a comparison to Philip K Dick piqued my interest. Then I saw a hardcover of her book Spaceling at a used book store in Lawrence and couldn’t resist the garish Richard Corben cover (Corben is a fantastic cartoonist and fellow Missourian, I get his comics, especially his collaborations with Mignola, regularly).

Spaceling by Doris Piserchia, cover art by Richard Corben
Cover art by Richard Corben.

Spaceling is one of the weirdest books I have ever read. It’s the first-person POV of a teenage girl named Daryl who lives in a post-Peak-Oil, energy-starved Earth where some people can travel to different dimensions via floating rings. These people are called muters because when they travel to another dimension, their body and any items they bring morphs to accommodate their new environment. It’s never quite clear whether these dimensions are other planets in the universe or different universes entirely but it doesn’t really matter. The first two dimensions we encounter are a labyrinthine lava world of vicious monsters called goths, which I found amusing, and a world of endless water and floating mountains. As Piserchia develops the central mystery of her plot, she also ratchets up the psychedelic dimensions by taking us to worlds even further removed from our reality.

Daryl is in many ways a standard SF protagonist, an orphaned amnesiac who gets caught up in events of great import, but the charm of the book is in her meandering, stream-of-conscious narration. It took me a while to get into Piserchia’s prose style, where events are described in a haphazard, piecemeal fashion – some facts are clear at the beginning of a scene but other important details are not mentioned until paragraphs later – but as I relaxed into the story and the setting, I experienced it as a dream, not worrying too much about the underlying logic but just enjoying the journey, and I was happy to discover that the plot resolves satisfactorily.

Spaceling by Doris Piserchia, cover art by George Barr
Cover art by George Barr.

After reading Spaceling, I got Doomtime. It sounded the most interesting to me from reading reviews. Fortunately I didn’t have to hunt it down because Gateway has republished all of her work digitally (and Piserchia is still alive so I feel like my purchase supports her writing).

Doomtime manages to be even stranger (and better) than Spaceling.

What sets Doomtime apart is the flora and fauna of its setting, which may be an Earth of the far future but could also be another planet entirely. By escaping the somewhat-realistic setting of Spaceling, Piserchia really lets her imagination run wild. Somehow it’s easier for me to suspend any disbelief when the world is totally invented. There are two enormous trees possibly many miles in diameter (the geography of the trees gets difficult to comprehend in the final chapters), a bright green tree named Tendron and a deep vermillion tree named Krake. These trees are sentient, want to conquer the world through their expanding root network, and can communicate with their cloned offspring. People discover they can “dip” in these trees, merging flesh and consciousnesses to experience an addictive bliss. Besides these antagonists, there are the charming Dementia, an enormous land-octopus that stands on three powerful legs and loves destruction; the spiky fungus Morchella, who needs a person to dip so she can communicate between her two brains; and the little six-legged flying twirlies that spin into deadly Looney-Tunes-Tasmanian-Devil-style tornadoes.

Doomtime’s protagonist is a red-haired man named Creed. He travels back and forth across the planet, discovers new societies, and battles the trees. His actions and motivations don’t always make sense but he takes us on a fascinating psychedelic experience.

Doomtime by Doris Piserchia, cover art by H. R. VanDongen
Cover art by H. R. VanDongen.

Color features prominently in Piserchia’s prose. There is the contrast between the green and red of the two warring trees in Doomtime. Daryl’s ability to precisely recall colors in Spaceling is an essential skill in navigating the inter-dimensionsal rings, where a slight difference of hue means a different destination. This focus really appeals to my visual imagination.

Piserchia conjures innovative, otherworldly creatures and environments. She lacks some of the polish of contemporary SF but she also doesn’t follow the same formulas for exposition and plot. I intend to explore her other works and I recommend that you do the same.

October 14th, 2015

The Star Virus by Barrington J Bayley

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: — William Cardini @ 8:45 pm

I’m ambivalent about The Star Virus and the other two Barrington J Bayley books I’ve read, The Fall of Chronopolis and The Pillars of Eternity. I like how his protagonists are existentialist anti-heroes who get caught up in psychedelic space operas, but I dislike his characters’s nasty misogyny. I have similar reactions to Philip K Dick, but Dick’s psychedelia is so much more spectacular and he makes his protagonists’ troubles with and disdain for women seem so pathetic, so it’s palatable. Bayley is rough edged. His novels are abrasive and bleak but weird and stimulating. He was praised by Michael Moorcock, published short stories in the New Wave magazine New Worlds, and influenced M John Harrison’s space operas The Centauri Device and Light. This influence on one of the greatest contemporary SF authors is especially evident from The Star Virus, Bayley’s first novel.

The Star Virus by Barrington J Bayley cover by Kelly Freas
Cover by Kelly Freas.

The Star Virus opens with the main character, a rogue named Rodrone, admiring the austere, violent landscape of an airless world. I prefer desert landscapes so I instantly grokked that and expected to sympathize with Rodrone but he quickly turns into an asshole, not caring about the loyalty or lives of his crew. In one scene that struck me as particularly hateful, he takes the evil emotional manipulation of a woman who plays a mind-altering musical instrument and extends her behavior to a stereotype of all overweight female musicians, whom he characterizes as craving and jealously hoarding the undeserved attentions of their audience. I can’t help but think that this is based on Bayley’s personal animosity towards someone, because he gives this villainess a normal-sounding name, Ruby, but all the other characters have otherworldly names like Kulthul, Redrace, and Clave Theory.

Mild spoilers and sexual assault trigger warning ahead. (more…)

June 16th, 2015

Gunner Cade by Cyril Judd

Filed under: SF Reviews — Tags: , , , — William Cardini @ 8:23 pm

Gunner Cade, published in 1952, was written by Cyril Judd. The author is not a relative of Donald Judd but is instead a pseudonym for the collaboration of Cyril M Kornbluth and Judith Merril. I haven’t read anything by Merril before but I have read Wolfbane, which Kornbluth wrote with Frederick Pohl and I highly recommend. Merril and Kornbluth both wrote more short stories than novels. Merril was one of the most influential people writing SF in the 50s and later moved to Toronto and was very prominent in the Canadian SF and protest scenes. She founded a SF library collection, an anthology, and most memorably dressed up as a witch to hex the Canadian parliament for allowing U.S. missile tests in Canadian airspace. Kornbluth wrote many collaborative novels but unfortunately died at the peak of his powers in his mid 30’s from a heart attack.

Cover by Paul Lehr
Cover by Paul Lehr.

Gunner Cade is a short, swiftly-paced SF novel that includes some incisive social commentary. The titular Cade lives in a far future Earth with an interplanetary society locked in stasis by the interplay between the emperor, nobles who rule different regions such as France and Mars (called Stars), the general (called the Gunner Supreme), and the spymaster (called the Power Master (has CF read this?)). The Gunners are warrior-priests who live an austere, celibate life of ritual centered on their one gun and fatalistic devotion to battle.

Some spoilers and more covers after the cut

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