Tor.com content by

Alan Brown

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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John Carter and the Origins of Science Fiction Adventure: A Princess of Mars 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.

In the days before the First World War, while the term “science fiction” had not yet been coined, there were authors beginning to write works that would clearly fit into that genre, authors who included H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. In 1911, an American author joined their ranks with his first published story, “Under the Moons of Mars,” which appeared in All-Story Magazine. That story featured a Confederate cavalry officer from the Civil War named John Carter, who found himself mysteriously transported to the planet Mars and propelled into one adventure after another. The readers loved the story, and demanded more—and some of those early fans went on to become writers themselves: writers who would forever remember, and be influenced by, the evocative world that inhabitants called Barsoom.

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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Six Premiere: But He Looks Just Like Coulson!

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are back! During the last season, the team traveled to a dystopian future on the fragments of a destroyed Earth, but they were able to return to the present and prevent the catastrophe. Agent Coulson is dead; the Tahiti treatment that brought him back to life finally wore out, and he spent his last few days on a tropical island with Agent May. Fitz had not traveled to the future with the team and instead waited out the years in suspended animation on a spaceship with the mysterious alien Enoch. Enoch died in the future, and Fitz died when they returned to Earth—but due to the magic of time travel, the team is back in a time where Fitz and Enoch are not dead yet, and can be rescued from space before their future deaths happen. And of course the team has new threats to face, including a foe who looks exactly like…Coulson!?!

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point! And not just S.H.I.E.L.D. spoilers, but Avengers: Endgame spoilers. You have been warned!]

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Fafhrd Meets the Gray Mouser: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

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.

Two of the greatest characters in fantasy fiction are Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a pair of adventurers who are a study in contrasts, but still the best of friends and a remarkably effective team. Leiber’s tales about the duo appeared across an impressive four decades, with the later tales every bit as good as the early ones. The first of these stories was purchased back in 1939 by famed science fiction editor John Campbell—something that might surprise people who don’t realize Campbell also edited the short-lived fantasy magazine Unknown.

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First Contact Goes Awry: The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and 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.

Even before the stories were called “science fiction,” authors have speculated on and theorized about contact with alien beings. In 1974, two of the era’s most popular science fiction authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, decided to team up and produce the ultimate first contact novel, a tale they called A Mote in God’s Eye. Their different approaches to storytelling ended up meshing quite well; not only did they produce a landmark novel, they started a best-selling collaboration that lasted for decades. The book was praised by Robert Heinlein as “[t]he best novel about human beings making first contact with intelligent but utterly non-human aliens I have ever seen, and possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” Today, I’ll look at that original novel, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also its 1993 sequel, The Gripping Hand, which—while some feel that it’s not as strong as the original book—brings the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

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Love, Loss, and Adventure: The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey

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 1960s, a time when female voices were underrepresented in science fiction, Anne McCaffrey was an exception. McCaffrey’s most famous books were the Dragonriders of Pern series (currently the subject of a Tor.com reread led by the incomparable Mari Ness). But, while the subject of only six short tales, one of McCaffrey’s most memorable characters was Helva (also called XH-834), who became known throughout the galaxy (and science fiction fandom) as The Ship Who Sang.

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A Return to Classic SF: The Torch of Honor by Roger MacBride Allen

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.

Back in the 1980s, many of the authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction had ended or were ending their careers. Newer authors were exploring new ground, and turning their backs on the old tropes of the past. Science fiction was beginning to look very different. But not all authors followed in this new direction. In his first novel, The Torch of Honor, Roger MacBride Allen instead hewed closely to the ideals of classic science fiction, with grand adventure overlaid upon some interesting scientific speculation. What he produced was a stirring tale of heroism and interplanetary warfare that still holds up today.

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Sail into the Honorverse: On Basilisk Station by David Weber

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.

David Weber is one of today’s most popular military science fiction authors. Fans of this sub-genre like their stories not only full of action, but rich in detail and background information, and that’s what Weber delivers—especially in his Honor Harrington series, which follows a space navy officer clearly inspired by an earlier fictional creation, C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. The series has been extremely successful, and readers can look forward to spending a long time immersed in this fictional universe, or “Honorverse,” which now spans over thirty novels and story collections.

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Buck to the Future: The Many Incarnations of Buck Rogers

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 stories that brought science fiction to the attention of mass audiences, today we tend to think immediately of Star Wars. For decades before George Lucas brought his creation to the big screen, however, there was one character who stood at center stage: Anthony “Buck” Rogers. Because Buck has visited us in so many forms over the years, I’m going to look at three different works today. The first is Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, a book combining the two novelettes from Amazing Stories that first introduced the character. Second is The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a selection of Buck Rogers newspaper comics from over the years, with a wonderful introduction by Ray Bradbury. And the third is a family heirloom, a “Big Little Book” that I inherited from my father: Buck Rogers in the City Below the Sea. [Read more]

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