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Alan Brown

Hard-Boiled Fantasy: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

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.

If you’re a reader who likes the work of John Scalzi because of his snarky narrators, or if you’re a fan of the gritty fantasy found in George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, then I have a recommendation for you… Years before these authors started their careers, Roger Zelazny was bringing his own unique approach to science fiction and fantasy. His tales appeared unsentimental…but if you looked closer, his heart was very much on his sleeve. His work is deeply resonant with myths, religions, and legends drawn from cultures from around the world. And while his prose often echoes the hardboiled staccato rhythms of a detective novel, it also had a poetry all its own. Among the finest work he ever produced is the first book of what became known as the Chronicles of Amber, Nine Princes in Amber.

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The Many Adventures of Tom Swift 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.

In the 19th century, the pace of technological innovation increased significantly; in the 20th century, it exploded. Every decade brought new innovations. For example, my grandfather began his career as a lineman for American Telegraph in the 1890s (it was just “AT” then—the extra “&T” came later). In the early 20th century he went from city to city installing their first telephone switchboards. He ended his career at Bell Labs on Long Island, helping to build the first television sets, along with other electronic marvels. It seemed like wherever you turned , in those days, there was another inventor creating some new device that would transform your life. With the Tom Swift series, starting in 1910, Edward Stratemeyer created a fictional character that represented the spirit of this age of invention. That first series found Tom building or refining all manner of new devices, including vehicles that would take him to explore far-off lands.

Tom Swift has appeared in six separate book series’ that span over a century, and in this week’s column, I’m going to look at three of them. Two I encountered in my youth: Tom Swift and His Motor Boat, which I inherited from my father, and Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, which was given to my older brother as a birthday gift. As an example of Tom’s later adventures, I’m also looking at Into the Abyss, the first book in the fifth series.

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Thinking the Unthinkable: Armageddon Blues by Daniel Keys Moran

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 was a time when the world was locked into a conflict that wasn’t an official conflict, with two Great Powers and their associated blocs of nations poised on the brink of a war that many felt was inevitable. For decade after decade, the uneasy tension of the Cold War became a status quo that shaped politics, economies, and even fiction. Fictional protagonists and antagonists were defined by their chosen sides in the conflict between democracy and communism; future histories were defined by the struggle, and by predictions on how it would end. The collapse of communism, and the end of the USSR upended many a fictional universe and future history. Just before the Berlin Wall fell, a promising new author, Daniel Keys Moran, published his first novel, which turned out to be one of the last works of science fiction novels to reflect the old Cold War status quo.

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Superscience and Evil Space Pirates: Triplanetary by E. E. “Doc” Smith

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.

I grew up in an era when E. E. “Doc” Smith was considered a bit old-fashioned, an author whose heyday had occurred back when Analog was still called Astounding, at a time when science fiction was still in its lurid and overblown youth. But I was also aware that many of my favorite authors listed Smith as one of their influences, counting the Lensman series as some of their favorite books. So, back in the early 1970s, I decided to give the series a try, starting with Triplanetary, which I found in a bookstore with a nifty new cover by Jack Gaughan. I didn’t enjoy the book, and put it down partway through, in fact. But I recently ran into more of Smith’s work in some anthologies, and while it was very pulpy, I enjoyed its enthusiasm. I wondered if perhaps my tastes had changed, and decided to give Triplanetary another try.

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More Sorcery, Less Swordplay: Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore

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 early pulp magazine days, there were relatively few women writing science fiction and fantasy, and there were even fewer female leads appearing in the stories that made it to print. Thus the Jirel of Joiry stories of C. L. Moore, first published in Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s, stand out from the crowd. Written in the days before the sword and sorcery sub-genre had fully coalesced, they feature a female warrior from the Middle Ages, penned by a woman who was one of the best authors of her era. I recently found a collection containing Jirel’s adventures, and having not read the stories for decades, decided to revisit them.

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Make Peace, Not War: Deathworld by Harry Harrison

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.

Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, despite it being his first novel-length work, turned out to be one heck of a good read, and a book that has held up well over time. It is a perfect example of the house style John Campbell demanded of Astounding/Analog writers, but at the same time has all the hallmarks that run through Harrison’s work: a self-reliant protagonist, authorities who need a comeuppance, and a deep distrust in violence as a solution to problems. The planet that gives the book its title is a nifty piece of world-building, and there is a strong ecological message that runs throughout. And while the book is full of action and adventure, it ends up advocating a remarkably peaceful solution

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The Best of the Best: Twenty Years of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Edward L. Ferman and Robert P. Mills

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.

Noted science fiction author and critic Theodore Sturgeon famously professed that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” But even if that is true, there are some places where that non-crap, excellent ten percent is concentrated—and one of those places has always been The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or F&SF, as it is often abbreviated. And when the best of the first 20 years of that magazine was distilled down into 20 stories in a single anthology, the result was some pretty potent stuff—potent enough to have a truly profound effect on the reader.

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Duty and Dystopia: Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

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.

A couple of weeks ago, while rummaging through old books, I came across my old copy of Citizen of the Galaxy. “That was a good one,” I thought. “Perfect for re-reading out in the backyard on a sunny summer day.” I’d first read it back when I was 12 or 13, but didn’t remember many details. It turned out that the book is both more preachy and a lot darker than I had remembered…which made me wonder why so many authors write books for juveniles and young adults that expose the protagonists to so much misery.

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Space Opera, Tragedy, and Revenge: Sten by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

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.

One of my favorite things is finding an enjoyable series that the author has already finished—that way, I can read the whole thing from beginning to end without ever having to wait for the next book to be written. The Sten series, which started back in the 1980s, is one of my favorites from that era, and stands as a fine example of the space opera subgenre. With lots of action and adventure, interesting characters, and a little humor thrown in here and there, it is a quick and enjoyable read. Re-reading it for this review, I found that it held up very well in the three decades or so since it was written. If you’re looking for a series that won’t run out before you get to the thrilling conclusion, The Sten Chronicles has my highest recommendation—starting from the very beginning, with the first novel, Sten

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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Six Finale: Here We Go Again!

We’ve reached the grand finale of Season Six for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and once again, the fate of the world stands in the balance. The season so far has been a lot of fun, with the cast and the writers all very comfortable in their roles. We’ve enjoyed plenty of action, intrigue and some great fight scenes. The appearance of a Coulson-like character, who appeared to be a villain, added an intriguing element of mystery to the show. We got some exciting and often-humorous space adventures. And now, only our intrepid agents can save humanity from serving as unwilling hosts to a race of malevolent alien spirits—not to mention the army of angry space aliens intent on destruction.

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!]

Capturing Summer: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

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 don’t need to ride a spaceship or travel to other worlds to find adventure. Sometimes, if you open your eyes, you realize adventure is all around you; that we live in a world infused with the mystical. Sometimes, as Ray Bradbury showed us in his classic book, Dandelion Wine, all you have to do is imagine what summertime would be like if you were twelve years old again.

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Better, Stronger, Faster: Cobra by Timothy Zahn

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 idea of enhancing human abilities has been part of science fiction since the earliest days of the pulps. All manner of supermen, cyborgs, mutants and others have been presented to readers over the years—after all, who doesn’t sometimes dream about what it would be like to be faster or more powerful? One might have thought that, by the 1980s, the topic would have been done to death, with nothing new to be said… but a young author named Timothy Zahn came up with a story of mechanically enhanced warriors called Cobras that brought something novel and different to the concept.

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Greed as a Universal Constant: Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson

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 plenty of science fiction stories about soldiers, spacers, scientists, engineers, explorers, and adventurers, but not so many about merchants and traders. However, you could always count on Poul Anderson to do something different—he was a “Swiss Army Knife” kind of writer, with a wide variety of capabilities. He wrote both science fiction and fantasy, and his heroes filled pretty much every niche listed above. Anderson’s “Technic History” was a consistent backdrop for stories set over centuries, and of the most interesting periods in that history was when mankind was first spreading out among the stars, encountering alien intelligences and finding common ground with them. One of the most able heroes of this era is Nicholas van Rijn, a merchant captain who knows that there’s one language that all intelligences have in common: the language of trade.

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Robert E. Howard’s First (and Best?) Barbarian: Kull: The Fabulous Warrior King

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.

Robert E. Howard is often deservedly acclaimed as the father of the sword and sorcery genre. His most widely known creation is Conan: a barbarian turned thief, pirate, warrior, military commander, and then king. (I reviewed a book of Conan’s adventures here.) But before Conan, Howard created another barbarian turned king—the character of Kull. While the characters certainly share similarities, and are both mighty warriors who cut a bloody swath through their worlds, Kull’s adventures have a distinct aura of mysticism, magic, and mystery that makes them compelling in their own right. And of all the characters Howard created, Kull is my personal favorite.

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Frederik Pohl’s Masterpiece: Gateway

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 look at a classic science fiction book: Gateway, by one of the most influential authors in the field, Frederik Pohl. But I’m flexing the format somewhat, because this is not a re-read; instead, I’m reading the novel for the first time. It was one of my dad’s favorites, and he repeatedly tried to get me to read it. I had started it without success, and always promised to finish it someday. Recently, even though my dad is gone, I decided to keep that promise. And I’m glad I did.

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