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Alan Brown

C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith Stories: Pulp Hero vs. Cosmic Horrors

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 day when magazine racks were far larger than they are today, and choices were far more varied. If you wanted science fiction adventure, you could read Planet Stories or Amazing Stories. If you wanted stories with science and rivets, you could read Astounding Science Fiction. For Earthbound adventures you could read Doc Savage Magazine, Argosy, or Blue Book. And if you wanted horror stories, your first choice was Weird Tales. The stories in that magazine ranged from the pure horror of H. P. Lovecraft and the barbarian tales of Robert E. Howard to the planetary adventures of C. L. Moore, and her protagonist Northwest Smith. But while the adventures of Northwest Smith might bear a superficial resemblance to those you would find in Planet Stories, there were darker themes lurking beneath the surface.

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Revisiting Ringworld: Larry Niven’s Timeless Classic

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 is nothing quite like reading about the act of exploration: tales of expeditions up mysterious jungle rivers, archaeologists in lost cities, spelunkers in caverns deep beneath the earth, or scientists pursuing the latest discovery. And in science fiction, there is a special type of story that evokes a particular sense of wonder, the Big Dumb Object, or BDO, story. A giant artifact is found, with no one around to explain it, and our heroes must puzzle out its origin and its purpose. And one of the best of these tales is Larry Niven’s groundbreaking novel, Ringworld.

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Quality over Quantity: The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum

Sometimes, a story hits you like a ton of bricks, and you immediately resolve to look for more by that author. For me, “A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum was one of those stories. I read it in an anthology I’d found at the library, but couldn’t find other books by him on the shelves. Years later, though, I came across a collection with his name on it and immediately shelled out $1.65 to purchase it. And then found out about Weinbaum’s untimely death, which explained why I couldn’t find any of his other works. It was soon apparent that he was not a “one-hit wonder,” as every story in the collection was worth reading.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 5 Premiere: Agents in Spaaaaaace!

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns for Season Five…but they are not returning to Earth. Instead, most of Coulson’s team find themselves transported to a mysterious ship in outer space—filled with people who see Coulson and the team as mythical heroes, and with monsters that want to kill them.

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

Dolphins and Chimps and Aliens, Oh My! Startide Rising by David Brin

Everyone loves dolphins. And chimps. And everyone loves spaceships. And adventures. So, in the mid-1980s, when David Brin put dolphins, chimps, and humans in spaceships, and dropped them into the middle of a rip-snorting adventure, I (and a lot of other people) immediately jumped on board. And what a wonderful ride it was.

I have loved dolphins for a long time. My first encounter with them, outside of pictures in books, was on the TV show Flipper, which aired in the mid-1960s. My first real-life encounter with dolphins was at the Florida Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. And when I served in the Coast Guard, nothing made a day at sea better than when a pod of them would approach the cutter and dance on the bow wave. Dolphins often look like they are unfettered by gravity as they cut through the seas or launch themselves into the air—so picturing dolphins in space is not hard at all. I don’t know how or where David Brin first encountered dolphins (although I imagine, as a Californian, he had opportunities to do so). But his science fiction influences are clear. After reading Startide Rising, I suspected that Brin, like me, grew up reading all sorts of Golden Age science fiction, books by folks like Clarke, Asimov, Anderson, Bester, Wells, Blish, and Heinlein, something I recently confirmed by poking around on his website. Few books written in the 1980s did as good a job as Brin’s work of recreating the good old “sense of wonder” that I remember from my youth.

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Lessons in Chivalry (and Chauvinism): Have Space Suit—Will Travel 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.

There are many gateways into science fiction—books that are our first encounter with a world of limitless possibilities. And because we generally experience them when we are young and impressionable, these books have a lasting impact that can continue for a lifetime. In the late 20th Century, among the most common gateways to SF were the “juvenile” books of Robert A. Heinlein. The one that had the biggest impression on me opened with a boy collecting coupons from wrappers on bars of soap, which starts him on a journey that extends beyond our galaxy. Wearing his space suit like a knight of old would wear armor, young Clifford “Kip” Russell sets out on a quest that will ultimately become entangled with the fate of all mankind.

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The Little Series That Could: Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

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 feel that the heart of science fiction is science—the universe and how it works. But others use the universe and technology simply as a canvas on which to paint their stories. Often, these tales are space opera, full of action and adventure. But over the past few decades, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been writing books that, while they also brim with action and adventure, have the human heart at their center; stories which are built around love and family. So, let’s step into their Liaden Universe, as rich and well-imagined a setting as any in science fiction.

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Honor, Duty, and Space Navies at War: The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack 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.

There is nothing more exciting than a good naval story: thrilling chases and escapes, the chess game of maneuver as forces close in on each other, and the fierce excitement of a pitched battle. Add to that tactical element the fate of nations and empires hanging in the balance, and you have all the ingredients of high adventure. It is no wonder that science fiction authors have used naval adventures as a template for space opera, and one of the most successful of these adventures has been the Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell.
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Joy and Pun-ishment: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

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.

Not all bars are the same. Some cater to the elite, offering picturesque views and fancy cocktails. Some cater to the young, and are full of mirrors and flashing lights and pulsating music. Some cater to dockworkers and fishermen, looking to ease the pain of a hard work day with a stiff drink. Some will have a circle of musicians in the corner, lost in the music as they play their jigs and reels. And there are rumors that, in a nondescript corner of the suburban wilds of Long Island, there was once a magical bar called Callahan’s Place, where adventures were not just recounted—they were experienced. A bar where the unexpected was commonplace, the company was always good, the drinks were cheap, and most importantly, where the broken people of the world could gather and be made whole.

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A Master Departs: A Spaceship for the King by Jerry Pournelle

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.

Jerry Pournelle’s A Spaceship for the King is one his earliest works, and has everything I look for when selecting fiction to highlight in this column; gripping portrayals of combat on both land and sea, political intrigue, and scientists working against impossible deadlines. When I heard that Pournelle had passed away in his sleep on 8 September 2017, I decided that a review of this book would be a good way to pay tribute to his life, his work, and his contribution to the field of science fiction.
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Beer Run to a Parallel Universe: A Greater Infinity by Michael McCollum

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.

On a cold winter night, engineering student Duncan MacElroy is sent on a beer run by the UFO Spotter’s Club, a colorful group meeting in the rooming house he calls home. He is accompanied by a friend named Jane, a rather nondescript young woman. Then she saves him from a murder attempt by a group of Neanderthals with ray guns, revealing that she is the agent of an advanced civilization from an alternate timeline, and they end up on the run. The Neanderthals, who have been struggling with Homo sapiens for control of the multiverse, seem to have knowledge that Duncan may be pivotal to that struggle. And so begins a tale full of thoughtful scientific speculation, and a whole lot of fun…

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Adventure Beneath Our Feet: Tarzan at the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most popular creation was Tarzan the jungle lord, who had many fantastic adventures with strange creatures and lost cities. Tarzan’s strangest adventure, however, came when he crossed over into another Burroughs series, and visited a mysterious world in the center of the Earth: the land of Pellucidar. There he found dinosaurs and saber-tooth tigers, lizard men and pirates, cavemen and pterodactyls. 

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Science Fiction with Something for Everyone: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

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 Deepness in the Sky is one of those books that has it all: science that boggles the imagination; first contact with a singularly alien race; a fight for survival while trapped in a hostile environment; intrigue, betrayal, plots, counter-plots and revolution, even love stories. It’s no wonder the book won the Hugo in 1999—it’s one of those rare prequels that equals, if not surpasses, the excellence of the original.

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Leigh Brackett’s Tales of Planetary Romance: Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars

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

As the 20th Century unfolded, and explorers made their way to the furthest reaches of the Earth, it became increasingly clear that there were no lost civilizations or mysterious beasts lurking just around the corner. As a result, adventure stories that might have been set on the Earth in the past moved to the other planets of the Solar System, and the planetary romance genre was born. These tales were short on science, but long on adventure, battles, horror, and passion. One of the greatest practitioners in this genre was Leigh Brackett, and one of her greatest characters was the adventurer Eric John Stark.

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Are We Reading About a Hero or Terrorist? Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

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

Can one man stand against an entire planet? You might not think so, until you consider the fact that a tiny wasp can distract a driver and cause him to destroy his vehicle. Many works of fiction center on irregular warfare, as the subject offers myriad opportunities for tension and excitement, and I can’t think of any premise as engaging and entertaining as this one. In portraying many of the tactics of irregular warfare, however, the book also takes us into morally dubious territory—a fact made even more clear in the wake of recent events.

Wasp, written by Eric Frank Russell in 1958, is a classic from science fiction’s golden age. The novel demonstrates the type of havoc that a well-trained agent can unleash behind enemy lines, and illustrates the tactics of irregular warfare in a way that is informative as any textbook. Russell’s voice keeps the narrative interesting and exciting, and it stands as one of his best-remembered works.

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