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Alan Brown

A Hit and Two Misses: The Starchild Trilogy by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today we’re going to revisit a trilogy by two authors, Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, who each had science fiction writing careers spanning more than seven decades. The first book, The Reefs of Space, is one of the first science fiction books I ever read, and every time anyone talks about the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt, or indeed any trans-Neptunian object (TNO), those eponymous reefs are the first things that come to my mind. So, lets see how that book holds up upon re-reading after fifty years (pretty well, actually), and we’ll also look at two sequels that just recently came to my attention which don’t quite live up to the original (well, one out of three ain’t bad). Which raises the question—what does a reader do when bad books happen with good authors?

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Trailblazing through Time and Space: The Essential Murray Leinster

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

When I was a youngster reading my dad’s Analog back issues in the mid-1960s, there were many authors I enjoyed, including H. Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, and Poul Anderson. Among them was an author named Murray Leinster, whose stories always felt fresh, always had an aspect that made you think, and often had a rather ironic or humorous view of the human condition. What I didn’t know was that this author had begun his writing career just after the First World War, back in the days before the genre was even popularly known as “science fiction.” It was a pleasure for me to take a trip down memory lane through the pages of one of those lovingly assembled anthologies from NESFA Press, First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster. [Read more]

Crack Shots! Science! Exotic Locales! — The Don Sturdy Adventures by Victor Appleton

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The years spanning the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were a time of adventure. The last few blank spots on the map were being filled in by explorers, while the social science of archaeology was gaining attention, and struggling for respectability. And young readers who dreamed of adventure could read about a boy explorer in the tales of Don Sturdy, a series from the same Stratemeyer Syndicate that gave the world stories about Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. They were among the first—but far from the last—books I read that are fueled by tales of archaeological discovery and the mysterious lure of lost lands and ruined cities.

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Hard Science, Dizzying Scope: Vacuum Diagrams by Stephen Baxter

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

In the mid-1990s, many of my favorite authors were reaching the end of their careers, slowing down and writing less, and I was looking for new things to read. One of the authors who caught my eye at the local Waldenbooks was Stephen Baxter, a British writer whose work was just being published in the United States. His stories were epic in scope, rooted in the latest scientific theories, and full of the sense of wonder I was looking for. This was not an author who shied away from big ideas: His Xeelee series spanned not just the history of the world, or even the galaxy, but instead looked at the history of the universe itself, and the ultimate fate of humanity. His stories often left me dizzy and disoriented, as my mind attempted to grasp concepts that I had never previously considered.

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Rekindling Planetary Romance: Old Mars and Old Venus, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today’s review looks at a pair of books that, despite being published in 2013 and 2015, harken back to an older style of science fiction, back to the days when Mars and Venus were depicted as not only habitable, but inhabited. Back when the planets were home to ancient races, decaying cities, mysteries and monsters. Back to the days before interplanetary probes brought back harsh truths about our neighbor planets. Back to the days of Old Mars and Old Venus.

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The Father of Science Fiction: The Best of John W. Campbell

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

In the 1930s, from the thriving jungles of the pulp magazines, a new field appeared. A number of names were bandied about before one coalesced: science fiction. And at the same time, one magazine, Astounding, and one editor, John W. Campbell, emerged as the leading voice in that new field. You could easily call Campbell the father of the science fiction field as we know it today. And like all fathers, his influence evokes a whole gamut of emotions.

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Man Against Machine: Great Sky River by Gregory Benford

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Some science fiction stories are, well, just more science fiction-y than other tales. The setting is further in the future, the location is further from our own out-of-the-way spiral arm of the galaxy, the protagonists are strange to us, and the antagonists are stranger still. We get a capital-letter, full dose of the SENSE OF WONDER that we love. And when you combine that with a story full of action, adventure, and jeopardy, you get something truly special. If you hadn’t guessed by now, Great Sky River by Gregory Benford, the subject of today’s review, is one of my all time favorite novels for all of these reasons.

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Immigrants in an Alien World: Zenna Henderson’s The People: No Different Flesh

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Adventure is a cornerstone of all the books reviewed in this column. But not all adventures are big and flashy. Sometimes, the most intense experiences can arise right in your own neighborhood, right around the corner. And when I was growing up, some of the most memorable stories I encountered were Zenna Henderson’s stories of the “People.” They are rooted in the real world of the American West, but are stories of fantastic powers and alien beings; stories of outsiders, outcasts and immigrants, and the type of personal adventures that spoke to my adolescent heart.

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Not the Way I Remembered It: Raiders from the Rings by Alan E. Nourse

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Sometimes, you revisit an old favorite book from your childhood, and it feels comfortable and familiar. Other times, you put it down after re-reading, and ask, “Is that the same book I read all those years ago?” For me, one such book is Raiders from the Rings by Alan E. Nourse. I remembered it for the action, the exciting depictions of dodging asteroids while pursued by hostile forces. But while I did find that this time around, I also found a book with elements that reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Which raised a question in my mind: how did this troubling subject matter end up in a 1960s juvenile novel?

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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Five Finale: Where’s the Kaboom?

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are quite familiar with saving the world, having thwarted villains like Hydra, Inhumans, Hive, and Life Model Decoys at the end of every season. But each time it’s been a bootstrap, do-or-die affair, with the outcome far from certain. In this season finale, having destroyed the alien Confederacy spaceship that hovered over the Earth, our heroes still faced the homegrown threat of Graviton—their old ally General Talbot, his mind fragmented by the process of gaining his gravitonium-fueled powers. Like cartoon character Marvin the Martian, many fans went into the episode bracing for “an Earth-shattering kaboom!”

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Sailing to Bygone Days: S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today, we’re going to visit the first book in a long-running series that looks at two major questions: What would happen if people with the technology of today were transported to a world that lacked it? And what would happen if the world of today lost its technology? The answers, in the hands of author S.M. Stirling, provides the setting for some of the best action and adventure stories ever written. Island in the Sea of Time is the first book of S.M. Stirling’s Change series, a gripping story of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, in some cases rising to the occasion and trying to do the right thing; in others, giving in to their worst impulses.

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Spies, Soldiers, and Cold War Cynicism: The Best of Mack Reynolds

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

When we think about the science in science fiction, we generally think of the hard sciences: physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc. Yet there are other sciences rooted in human behavior, sometimes sneeringly referred to as “softer” sciences, including economics, sociology and political science. One of the authors who specialized in incorporating these other sciences into his fiction in a way that was anything but soft was Mack Reynolds, one of the most prolific contributors to Analog in the 1960s. He would often punctuate a discussion of communist five-year plans or minimum basic incomes with a gun battle, or a romantic moment, or a chase scene. And while some of the settings in his work now seem dated, the issues he grapples with are still with us today, and worthy of our attention.

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Cuteness vs. Corporate Evil: Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Science fiction is noted for the amazing diversity of its alien beings. More than a few of them are scary, or cruel, or heartless…not the type of creatures you would want to meet in a dark alley or forest. Those nasty ones definitely outnumber cute and friendly aliens. But one alien race, the Fuzzies, stands out for its excessive cuteness—an element that could easily overwhelm any tale including them. Rather than wallowing in cuteness, however, H. Beam Piper’s classic book Little Fuzzy turns out to be quite a tough tale about corporate greed and the power of people brave enough to stand against it.

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Destruction and Renewal: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There are authors who work with the stuff of legends and make it new and fresh and all their own. There are authors who make their prose sing like it was poetry, and authors whose work explores the cosmos in spaceships, dealing with physics and astronomy. And in a few rare cases, there are authors who bring all those elements together into something magical. One of those authors is Samuel R. Delany, whose book Nova is a classic of the genre.

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Dinosaurs in the Amazon: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today we’ll be going on an adventure with the best character ever created by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’m not talking about a detective. We’re going to be following the vain, volatile, and brilliant Professor Challenger as he and his plucky companions travel up the Amazon River to a remote plateau where creatures from prehistoric times still walk among more modern beasts. A land filled with exciting discoveries, but also deadly danger. The land of The Lost World.

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