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Alan Brown

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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The Future’s Right Around the Corner: Mindkiller 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.

One of the most difficult types of science fiction to write is a tale set in the immediate future, since it involves attempting to see what things will be like right around the corner from the present day. While broad trends might meet expectations, specific events are harder to guess at. Over the past decades, technological innovations have been especially difficult to extrapolate, with some expected breakthroughs stalling out, and others coming from seemingly out of nowhere. I recently ran across a Spider Robinson book that predicted a technology allowing direct stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. As you might expect, that turns out to be anything but a boon for mankind. I decided to see how well the book has held up in the decades since it was written in 1982. So, let’s examine how the author did in creating his predictions for Mindkiller, a tale that takes place in the mid- to late-1990s.

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How Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings Changed Publishing Forever

Sometimes, the right book comes along with the right message at the right time and ends up not only a literary classic, but a cultural phenomenon that ushers in a new age. One such book is the first official, authorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien…

And when I talk about the book ushering in a new age, I’m not referring to the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth—I’m talking about the creation of a new mass market fictional genre. While often comingled with science fiction on the shelves, fantasy has become a genre unto itself. If you didn’t live through the shift, it’s hard to grasp how profound it was. Moreover, because of the wide appeal of fantasy books, the barriers around the previously insular world of science fiction and fantasy fandom began to crumble, as what was once the purview of “geeks and nerds” became mainstream entertainment. This column will look at how the book’s publishers, the author, the publishing industry, the culture, and the message all came together in a unique way that had a huge and lasting impact.

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The Original Guardians of the Galaxy: First 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.

A few months ago, I reviewed Doc Smith’s Triplanetary, a book I had started but never finished in my youth. I quite enjoyed it the second time, through, and there was a positive response to that review (you can find it here). Many people also chimed in with their opinions of Smith’s famous Lensman series. So, we decided that over the coming months, reviews of the rest of the Lensman series will be interspersed between my other columns. This time around, we’ll look at First Lensman, a “prequel” book written after the main series which goes back to the founding of the Lensmen and their Galactic Patrol.

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The Empire Just Won’t Quit: The Thrawn Trilogy 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.

This weekend, Star Wars’ Skywalker saga is poised for a grand finale with the release of its ninth installment, The Rise of Skywalker. The tie-in fiction, trailers, and press previews have already given us hints about what we’re going to see. We can, of course, expect the obligatory space battles, chase scenes, lightsaber duels and plenty of pew-pew-pew. But, despite the fact the Emperor was overthrown long ago, efforts to resurrect the Empire are ongoing, and it seems he is far from defeated. There are hints that, on the fringes of explored space, a long-forgotten fleet of ships may be lurking, ready to do his bidding. All of this puts me in mind of another story set in the Star Wars universe—one that appeared not on the big screen, but in the form of the Thrawn trilogy, tie-in novels written by Timothy Zahn. So, as kind of a tie-in review column, since I haven’t seen the new movie yet, I’ve decided to look back at this other important moment in Star Wars history…

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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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