Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
November 2013

Title: Starhawk
Author: Jack McDevitt
Publisher: Ace

These days, my favorite kind of science fiction is the kind that Jack McDevitt writes in his "Alex Benedict" novels and his "Academy" novels. Starhawk, McDevitt's latest novel falls into the latter series. We last saw a Priscilla Hutchins novel back in 2007 in Cauldron. Since then, "Hutch" has appeared in a couple of stories: "Maiden Voyage" (Asimov's, January 2012); and "The Cat's Pajamas" which appeared in Armored (2012) edited by John Joseph Adams. In Cauldron, Hutch had moved on to the twilight of her career with the Academy. In Starhawk, McDevitt takes us to the beginning of Hutch's career as a starship pilot.

As with all of the Academy novels, Starhawk is a near-future science fiction adventure. The events in the novel take place toward the end of the 22nd century. While there is still turmoil in the world, we see the beginnings of human expansion to the stars. The Hazeltine drive allows faster-than-light travel, and opens up the galaxy. When the novel opens we get to see Priscilla Hutchins on her check-ride for her starship pilot's license. Her examiner, Captain Jake Loomis, takes her through the ropes. During the check-ride, Priscilla and Jake discover the lander of a starship lost several years earlier. The lander contains the body of one of the passengers -- and this is where the adventure begins.

Priscilla and Jake then attempt to rescue a group of children from another starship threatened with a bomb scare. They are successful in the rescue, but only at great cost. The reason for the bomb scare is a theme that runs through the entire novel. A corporation, Cosmic, is attempting to terraform a world to make it possible to be colonized by humans. In doing so, however, there is evidence that they are destroying the native life on the planet. Factions back on Earth are opposed to this -- and some of them are not afraid to use violence to make their points and extract their demands.

There are at least three great things about Starhawk. First, the sense of wonder it provides is big. Here we are, roaming the galaxy with ships that have FTL capabilities. In the backdrop to all of this are the Monuments -- those massive pieces of alien artwork that will be familiar to fans of the Academy series. There are super-dense objects, aliens, both more and less advanced than humans, and the kind of speculation that makes science fiction so much fun.

Second, there is a political undercurrent in Starhawk that echoes much of what we see today in our own political situation. The big issue of the day in the late 22nd century is not, say, universal health care, but instead terraforming. The arguments on both sides, made by the pundits in the novel, give credibility to the world that McDevitt has created. There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue, but there are also loud-mouthed idiots just interested in hearing their own voices.

Third, there is the development of Priscilla Hutchins. We get a chance to spend time with her at the beginning of her career. We get to watch her make the same kind of beginner mistakes that we all make when we are young and brash. But we also get to see Priscilla learn from her mistakes, and take the first tentative steps toward the character we grow to love when we see her later in her career.

There is something else in Starhawk, and it is something that permeates all of McDevitt's novels: truth. Perhaps more than anything else, the Academy novels and the Alex Benedict novels are searches for the truth, no matter what that truth might be. We see this in several forms in Starhawk: the truth of whether or not terraforming is really dangerous -- as opposed to whether or not we believe it is dangerous; the truth as to whether or not we are ready to interact with intelligences far superior to our own; even the truth of our actions, whether we are heroes or cowards, or, more than likely somewhere in between.

Starhawk provides a truth for Priscilla Hutchins, and it provides a fantastic science fiction adventure for the rest of us.

Title: Old Mars
Author: Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin
Publisher: Bantam Books

Back when I was taking my Vacation in the Golden Age -- that is, reading through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 through December 1950 (I got as far as December 1942 before I had to take a break) -- I fell in love with stories on Mars and Venus. There was something charming about these stories. The science was wrong, of course. There were no artificial canals on Mars, nor were there dense jungles and deep oceans on Venus. But I loved how the authors' imaginations could invent such sweeping backdrops for places we had not, at the time, visited.

Of course, once probes and robots visited Mars and Venus, these visions were shattered for the stark reality of what we found: a deserted, icy, wasteland on Mars, and a poisonous inferno on Venus. Stories began to swing back in the opposite direction, drawing on the science of what we found on Mars, and culminated with such fantastic sagas as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series.

And yet, I missed the pastoral romance of those old Mars stories. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Gardner Dozois & George R. R. Martin missed them too, it seems, and they decided to bring them back. Old Mars is the result. Old Mars is a collection of fifteen stories, all of which reimagine Mars as we knew of it back before we'd ever landed a probe. These are stories in which present day writers write of Mars as if they were writing of a Mars from the Golden Age of science fiction.

Allen Steele's story "Martian Blood" opens this collection in fantastic fashion with a story of a Martian tour guide, who takes an Earth scientist to visit Martian aborigines in order to prove -- or disprove -- a theory of human origin. Steele also quickly demonstrates how Mars is reimagined in the stories in this anthology with a passage like this one, early on in the piece:

When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The War of the Worlds -- the 1953 version, made about twelve years before the first probes went to Mars. Even back then, people knew that Mars had an Earth-like environment; spectroscopes had revealed the presence of an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, and strong telescopes made visible the seas and canals. But no one knew for sure whether the planet was inhabited until Ares I landed there in 1977.

These assumptions, which Steele builds into his story, serve as an example of the ways that other writers in the anthology have built their alternate version of Mars as well. Allen's story is both homage to the style and form of old Mars stories, as well as to the writers who created them. The ghost of Leigh Brackett is hiding there between Steele's lines.

In addition to Allen Steele's story, the anthology contains stories by Matthew Hughes, Mary Rosenblum, Mike Resnick, Harold Waldrop, Melinda M. Snodgrass, and several others.

Harold Waldrop has a hilarious story called "The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls" which has the ungainly subtitle "A Re-creation of Oud's Journey by Slimshang from Tharsis to Solis Lacus, by George Weeton, Fourth Mars Settlement Wave, 1981." The story is about a man trying to recreate the journey of Martial who lived back in the days when humans were still peering out of caves. Both its humor and its meta-style give it an original feel, while still maintaining that pastoral image of Mars, in the mind of Weeton, at least. Indeed, we get a sense that Weeton is annoyed by this, and that part of the reason he makes his journey is to show his audience that "we" are just as good as "they" ever were.

In "The Ugly Duckling" Matthew Hughes provides another good tale Old Mars, this one in the form of a man going native. I liked the story because it seemed to really be about the destruction of culture for corporate gain, balanced against the curiosity of what that culture was really about. The story also contained a nice homage to Ray Bradbury's vision of Mars, with lines like, "Back on Earth, he had seen the long-distance images recorded by the earliest expeditions -- the ones that had failed, for reasons still unknown."

Old Mars is pure fun, an anthology that a fan of Golden Age-style stories can immerse in completely, or a fan of modern writers can swallow in manageable gulps. If nothing else comes through clearly in this anthology, it is that the authors of these fifteen stories had a lot of fun writing them.

Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin


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