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Alan Brown

Space Opera Done Right: Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro

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.

Primary Inversion, published by Tor Books in 1995, was one of those debut novels that caused the science fiction field to sit up and take notice. It had a little bit of everything: There were star-spanning empires, battling space fighters, technological speculation rooted in cutting-edge science, paranormal powers, romance, drama, and adventure. The headstrong female main character was well realized and appealing. Stanley Schmidt, then editor of Analog, provided a cover blurb that read, “An impressive first novel….Really new science that just might be possible.” The author, Catherine Asaro, showed from the very start that she was going to be a formidable presence in the science fiction community for quite some time.

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A Smorgasbord of Classic SF: Three Times Infinity

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 collection featuring three strikingly different tales by some of the best authors in science fiction: “Lorelei of the Red Mist” by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, “The Golden Helix” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “Destination Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein. The first story I had long heard about but never encountered. The second is a tale I read when I was too young to appreciate it, which chilled me to the bone. And the third is a story written in conjunction with the movie Destination Moon, which Heinlein worked on; I’d seen the movie, but don’t remember ever having read the story.

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More Action, More Science, More Thrills: Gray Lensman 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.

Today, we look at Gray Lensman, the next installment of the continuing adventures of Kimball Kinnison, star-traveling lawman extraordinaire. In the last installment, Galactic Patrol, immediately upon being commissioned as a Lensman, Kinnison rocketed up through the ranks, helped in the development of new weapons system, discovered powers that no other Lensman had yet unlocked, and single-handedly killed Helmuth, the leader of the evil Boskonian space pirates. There were secret missions and space battles galore. But if you think Doc Smith had written himself into a corner, you’ve got another think coming: Even bigger and more exciting adventures are ahead for our plucky adventurer.

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Bringing Stories to Life: The World of Science Fiction and Fantasy Model Building

Science fiction and fantasy fans love to dream about things that never existed. And some of them enjoy bringing objects and ideas from their imagination to life. Whether working from kits or making something from scratch, there is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from model building, and satisfaction in seeing a finished project. This is a great time for those who enjoy the hobby: the internet has provided ways to share information with other modelers and to shop for kits and products from around the world, and the new technology of 3D printing has opened up even more ways to bring imaginary things to life. So if, like a lot of people these days, you have some extra time on your hands, you might want to look into model building

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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: All Good Things Must Come to an End

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are back for one final season. During the previous season, the team beat back a monster that consumed planets, only to have the alien race called Chronicoms target the Earth for disrupting the space-time continuum. The team found themselves shifted in time to New York City in 1931, and now it’s up to Mack, Yo-Yo, May, Fitz, Simmons, Deke, Daisy, and a robotic version of Coulson to save the world one more time. There are hints that their travels during the season will take them to different time periods, and their mission will be intertwined with the origins and history of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. It looks like we are in for a season filled with action, guest stars, and more than a little fan service!

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

Physician as Paladin, Facing Plague and Pandemic: Med Ship by 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.

If and when mankind spreads to the stars, many of the problems we experience on Earth will follow us to new worlds. Medical issues could become more complex as we encounter whole new ecologies. And sharing medical knowledge could be complicated by the vastness of space. In the mid-20th century, Murray Leinster, one of the most entertaining and creative of science fiction’s early masters, imagined a cadre of uniformed public health officers who travel the stars like the knights errant of ancient legend, helping the needy and righting wrongs. At this moment in time, as we face a worldwide pandemic, these tales and the lessons they contain have suddenly become very timely.

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Mercenaries and the Future of Humanity: Tactics of Mistake by Gordon R. Dickson

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 Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a seminal tale in his Childe Cycle series, focusing on his most famous creation, the Dorsai mercenaries. This book is full of action and adventure, but also full of musings on history, tactics and strategy, as well as a dollop of speculation on the evolution of human paranormal abilities. It is a quick read that gallops right along, with the scope of the story growing larger with every battle. Its protagonist, Colonel Cletus Grahame, is a fascinating creation, both compelling and infuriating—not only to the other characters in the book, but to the reader as well.

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No Flash in the Pan: The Many Incarnations of Flash Gordon

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.

Over the years, I’ve looked at some of the most influential characters in science fiction in this column, mainly figures like Buck Rogers who emerged from the pulp magazines or from books, but this time I’m turning the spotlight on a character who first emerged from newspaper comic strips: Flash Gordon. And because comics are a visual medium, instead of focusing on writers, I’m going to focus on artists by looking at two coffee table books: Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo by Alex Raymond (from Titan Books), and Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic (from Flesk Publications). So let’s strap on our blaster pistols, prepare to crash a spaceship, and set our sights on the planet Mongo!

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Long-Lost Treasure: The Pursuit of the Pankera vs. The Number of the Beast 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.

My mission in this column is to look at older books, primarily from the last century, and not newly published works. Recently, however, an early and substantially different draft of Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast was discovered among his papers; it was then reconstructed and has just been published for the first time under the title The Pursuit of the Pankera. So, for a change, while still reviewing a book written in the last century, in this column I get to review a book that just came out. And let me say right from the start, this is a good one—in my opinion, it’s far superior to the version previously published.

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Surviving Perilous Times: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague De Camp

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’ve always found that one way to feel better about your life is to read a story about someone with even worse problems than you, and seeing how they overcome those difficulties. Time travel stories are a good way to create problems for fictional protagonists. The author drops a character into a strange new environment—something challenging, like the waning days of the Roman Empire, for example. They will be equipped only with their experience in the modern world, and perhaps some knowledge of history or technology. And then you see what happens… Will they be able to survive and change history, or will inexorable sociological forces overwhelm their efforts? And when that character springs from the fertile imagination of L. Sprague De Camp, one of the premiere authors of the genre, you can be sure of one thing—the tale will be full of excitement, and a lot of fun, to boot.

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The Lensman Series Explodes Into Action: Galactic Patrol 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.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at Galactic Patrol, the first adventure of Kimball Kinnison, Lensman and defender of the galaxy, one of the greatest and most influential heroes in the history of science fiction. If I had to describe this book with one word, it would be “exuberant”—if Doc Smith wasn’t enjoying the heck out of himself when he wrote it, I’ll eat my hat.

I somehow missed this book in my youth but am glad I finally got around to reading it. From the moment it was serialized in in Astounding in 1937 and 1938, the tale has been an influential part of science fiction history. It’s a rollicking adventure from beginning to end, full of action, twists and turns. That being said, it does have some flaws, and I’ll get to those, too…

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A Strange World in Crisis: The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw

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.

Bob Shaw was not one of the most widely known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, but he was one of the most entertaining. He had a clever imagination, a good sense of humor, and an accessible style. One of his best works, The Ragged Astronauts, was written late in his career when he was at the peak of his powers. It follows the adventures of Toller Maraquine, an inhabitant of a unique double planet existing within a shared atmosphere, as he and his fellows from a primitive society attempt to travel by balloon from one world to the other. It is also a tale with a message, a story of human stubbornness and prejudice in the face of imminent ecological collapse—a message that is as timely today as it was when it was written.

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Report From Black Spire Outpost: Exploring Disney World’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

In the past few decades, theme parks across the U.S. have been engaged in a kind of entertainment arms race, building not only ambitious new individual rides and amusements, but creating entire new sections of the parks which immerse the visitor in another world, all built around a popular franchise, movie, or brand. By far, science fiction and fantasy fans have been the principal beneficiaries of this expansion. Universal Orlando Resort fired opening salvos with their Islands of Adventure theme park, originally launched in 1999, containing sections devoted to Marvel Superheroes, Jurassic Park, and the world of Doctor Seuss. They pushed things to another level with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where not only the rides, but even the shops and restaurants were all part of the theme, and employees were trained in Potter-related role-playing. Disney World followed suit with Pandora—The World of Avatar, and then Toy Story Land.

In 2019, in a move that many delighted many fans, Disney opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—an area of the park dedicated to the Star Wars universe—promising an experience that would again raise the bar for audience immersion. Recently, my wife Jan and I had the opportunity to visit Disney World in Orlando, where we discovered that Black Spire Outpost, set on the previously unknown planet of Batuu, truly lives up to all the hype

[Mild spoilers for Star Wars books/rides ahead]

Pulp Adventure of the Highest Caliber: The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

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 have always been fascinated by stories set on Mars, from tales of the old Mars of planetary romances to the marginally habitable Mars of the mid-20th century, up through the harsh Mars we now know exists in reality. There is something thoroughly compelling about the collective vision of Mars as it has been portrayed by science fiction writers in every period. Among the greatest writers of Martian adventures is Leigh Brackett, not only a noted science fiction author, but also a well-respected Hollywood screenwriter. Today, I’ll be looking at one of her best works, The Sword of Rhiannon

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A Pair of Aces: The Glory Game and End as a Hero by Keith Laumer

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 recently decided it was time for me to revisit the work of the prolific (but always entertaining) Keith Laumer. I was torn, however, when preparing this column, trying to decide between two of his shorter novels. I decided to start both and then choose the one I liked best…but before I knew it, I had read them both right to the end. So, I decided to compromise by reviewing both works. They share the same theme of a determined hero doing their duty, despite the high costs, and the same rapid-paced narrative flow that never slows up. Yet they are also very different stories, and comparing those similarities and differences gives you a good sense of the range of this popular author, whose work was ubiquitous in his era.

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