Welcome to the Beam Me Up Science Fiction Book Club blog!

“Live long and prosper!” G. Roddenberry

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” J.R.R. Tolkien

“By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!” Dr. Lazarus of Tev’Meck

All are welcome to join us at our monthly meetings. This is us and this is what we will be reading and discussing.


The long and winding road trip

April may not have the same “lion/lamb” personality as March, but the Beamers came in dry and left wet, under changeable skies.  What kept us from leaving before the storm was our journey in search of answers to the many open questions left us by Leigh Ronald Grossman in his novel about the divinely conflicted land of Ananya, The Lost Daughters.  Since the main characters spent a lot of time traveling, we took the time to settle in and discuss how their journeying affected them and us.  At least in this case, it did not leave us all wet.

Wolves, and faeries and sunken cities, oh my!
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A head of the pack: Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

The sad news from today is the death of Gene Wolfe, an author who combined a formality of content (based on his orthodox Catholic beliefs) with an almost surreality of style (like riffing on “death”, “doctor”, and “island” to create the “Archipelago” stories “The Death of Doctor Island”, which won the 1974 Best Novella Nebula; “The Doctor of Death Island”; and “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, which itself became the title story for his first collection, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories).

Perhaps his masterpiece is the 4-book series The Book of the New Sun, a quest across the landscape of a “dying Earth” of the far-future that is littered with tantalizing traces of our present day, preserved as sacred artifacts. Narrated by Severian, a member of the Torturer’s Guild who is unable to continue his trade, the saga is replete with science fiction motifs transmuted into fantasy through the metamorphosis of “deep time”, thousands upon thousands of years, which distancing is conveyed by both Wolfe’s distinctive use of abstruse words (aliens are labeled “cacogens”, for instance) and subtle reversals of contemporary metaphors (as when Severian refers to the end of the day as the time when the mountains moved up and covered the Sun, a Copernican understanding of the solar system that we are yet to grok, being a mere 500 years in our belief).

Gene Wolfe receiving the 2012 Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement from another transplanted Midwesterner, Neil Gaiman

Photo credit: 8EyesPhotography

Mr. Wolfe’s talent as a writer was well-respected within the sf community, enough to get noticed by outsiders looking in (as by the New Yorker back in 2015), and he was equally well-known as a teacher, serving as an instructor at writers’ workshops such as Clarion. I think that his influence can be spotted throughout science fiction when attention turns to the language of the genre. The “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, noted for its disruption of the Universal Translator by introducing an alien people who communicate solely in figures of speech (“Shaka, when the walls fell”), seems a direct homage to The Book of the New Sun, where one participant in a story-telling contest, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, speaks only in the mock allegorical terms of a totalitarian culture (“How are the hands nourished? By the blood. How does the blood reach the hands? By the veins. If the veins are closed, the hands will rot away.”)

Inside and outside of speculative fiction, Mr. Wolfe shall be missed!

Gender on ice: Charlie Jane Anders on The Left Hand of Darkness

In the Life and Culture section of The Paris Review’s blog site, Charlie Jane Anders (former editor of the io9 speculative fiction website) casts a discerning eye on the gender issues of Ursula Le Guin’s groundbreaking sf novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Published 50 years ago, Le Guin’s novel is set on a world of non-binary humans who may assume female or male sexual characteristics (with no particular preference) on a monthly cycle. Anders praises the bravery of Le Guin in presenting the assumptions of gender as some of the key obstacles to true communication between individuals and between cultures, as well as the myriad ways in which Le Guin layers her world-building with all the supporting details (like proverbs, folktales, urban legends) that make the gender-fluid world of Gethen (Winter) feel real. That careful attention to the reality of Gethen is “a big part of why this story feels so hopeful and heartfelt, even at its most dismal.”

Le Guin’s original vision was two lonely figures struggling over a vast icy landscape

Image from BBC Radio 4 2-part adaptation

A major contributor to the dismal aspects of the novel come from its viewpoint character, the Ekumen ambassador, Genly Ai. Representative of an enlightened interstellar association of worlds, Genly is, alas, too narrow-minded to clearly grasp the facts of Gethen politics and social movement. He is, in Anders’s view, a misogynist. His response to his only true ally, Estraven, is nearly always criticism based on Estraven’s perceived “womanly” (hence, weak) policies and personality. Only being hunted and forced to flee over an icy landscape will open Genly’s mind to seeing Estraven (ironically nearly triggered by Genly’s “perverse” constant maleness) not as weak or yielding but as flexible and persistent.

And before I put myself above Genly on any matters of gender, I catch myself pausing when Anders makes a reference to linguist Edward Sapir working with Ms. Le Guin’s parents, who are coalesced into “Le Guin’s father, the anthropologist Theodora Kroeber”, and I question how (or why) this phrase is to be “fixed”.

Anders makes a strong case for the way in which we humans of all stripes and shapes make our truths into stories and make our stories into our truths. On the first page of The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly points out that “Truth is a matter of imagination”, which insight it takes a whole book’s worth of stories for Genly to finally put into practice. Anders amplifies his observation, summing up the value of works like Left Hand:

Gender, sex, romance, desire, power, nationalism, oppression—they’re all just stories we tell ourselves. And we can tell different stories if we choose.

Foundation and Beamers

The way the future was, 4 for $1

(SF Book Club edition)

At the end of a chilly winter, the Beamers assembled to discuss the end of a Galactic Empire, detailed in a series of stories written in the 1940s by Isaac Asimov and collected as his (original) Foundation trilogy.  While the Empire fell over a 3-book series, we stuck to the first one, Foundation, to see if the Seldon Plan would hasten the end of our dark age of cold and snow and usher in a new era of sunshine.  The discussion, while not heated, did prove enlightening.

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Tolkien at the Morgan Library

Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth will be at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 12, 2019.

This post has been guest-blogged by the Very Rev. John Wm. Houghton, renowned Tolkien scholar and author. His bio follows below the entry.

The exhibit was well worth the visit, Alan, thank you for asking.

It turned out that the invited guests, on the evening I was there, encompassed two different groups: local Oxford alumni & patrons and Tolkien scholars–I had a lot of friends among the second group, of course, so seeing them again added to the overall reunion flavor of the visit that began with my lunch with our classmate Dr. Mitch Raps and continued with tea at a Starbucks near the Morgan with my Culver friend, Bill Oris (I don’t think I’d seen him since I visited him at Brown when we were all undergraduates). My former employer from Oxbridge Academics, Prof. William Basker, was there as well–one of his jobs is directing the Gilder-Lehrman of American History, and the auditorium in which we initially met was the Morgan’s Guilder-Lehrman Hall. (Coincidentally, the eponymous Lewis Lehrman is a graduate of The Hill School, from which, as you know, I retired last June.)

We heard three talks–one from Richard Ovenden, who is, as the 25th “Bodley’s Librarian,” the overall head of the Bodleian Library; one from the Tolkien Archivist: Catherine McIlwaine , who had organized both the larger exhibition at Oxford and this traveling subset of it; and one from my friend, Prof. Verlyn Flieger, who’s probably the leading American Tolkien scholar–one of the top two or three, at least. All of them interesting, though as each person attempted to address the two somewhat disparate audiences, each sub-group heard a few things that it already knew that had to be included for the benefit of the other, if you see what I mean.

After that, we were invited to hors d’oeuvres (very tasty) and cocktails in the lobby, and to go up to the exhibit itself. As is often the case with these traveling exhibits, it’s not in a huge room, and a great number of the items on display were things of which I had seen reproductions in the past, but obviously that’s not at all the same as seeing the original; and, too, some of the items from Oxford were accompanied by items from the other big Tolkien collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee (you probably remember that Tolkien sold most of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings manuscripts to Marquette when he was just retiring and the revenues from LotR which would eventually make him quite comfortable hadn’t yet materialized): this was the first time they’d been seen together since they were in Tolkien’s study. The thing that struck me most, actually, was the relatively small size of many of the photographs and paintings: I hadn’t realized that the reproductions we’re used to seeing were blown up so much from the originals.

Finally, as the evening was winding down, Mr. Ovenden expressed his thanks to everyone involved, and we had one last talk, Simon Tolkien telling about his Aunt Priscilla visiting the exhibition (Prof. Flieger had told a different anecdote about Priscilla seeing it) and reminiscing about his grandfather. Not a dry eye in the house, as they say.

Our mutual friend Susan Shwartz was just there, I think, and may have other comments to add.

The Very Rev. John Wm. Houghton, Ph.D., is Dean emeritus of the Alumni Chapel of the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He lives in Culver, Indiana, a town his family founded in 1844. An Episcopal priest, Fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, and prize-winning historian, Dean Houghton was educated at Culver Military Academy, Harvard College, Indiana University, Yale Divinity School / Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame. In addition to he has published Falconry and Other Poems, two fantasy novels—Rough Magicke and Like a Noise in Dreams—and a novella, Fortunate Empire, as well as a number of academic essays. He was editor-in-chief of Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey, and serves on the editorial boards of Mythlore and Journal of Tolkien Research.

Oh, what a tangled web we read!

Three sf fans and network/graph analysts (Eric Berlow, Srini Kadamati, and Bethanie Maples) have mined Good Reads for sf/f books published since 1900, first to develop a list of keywords and then to filter the list for books that attained at least 50 reviews and at least one keyword tag from the keyword list. The result was 2,633 books, which were sized by number of reviews received (to represent popularity) and then linked by keywords into “clusters” of similar themes:

The globular cluster of Science Fiction, in all its stellar glory!
The globular cluster of Science Fiction/Fantasy, in all its stellar glory!

Some of the clusters do seem to follow intuitively linked concepts, like the pink group in the right-center (“galactic empire, interstellar war, military science fiction, space warfare, space travel”). But others, like the bright green blob in the left-center (“magical feminism, time travel, human nature, alternative history, steampunk”) leave me a bit puzzled as how the constituent books are, in fact, connected. There may be deeper bonds among our favorite novels than are dreamt of in our library classification systems!

The interactive map (and 2 other views, of sf/f popularity over time and of books with AI themes organized by AI “eras”) are available on-line. Individual books as well as clusters can be selected and examined. Who knew, for example, that Asimov’s Foundation was linked to Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust (in the “galactic empire … space travel” cluster), but not to Asimov’s Foundation and Empire (over in “mind control, superhuman, biological warfare, galactic empire, space colonization”)? More surprises await!

The American word for “science” is Opportunity

Another pioneer has left us this week, as the intrepid Mars rover, Opportunity, has been declared dead by NASA and JPL. Having survived a massive dust storm in 2007, with enough reserve battery power to start up, it was hoped that Opportunity would weather 2018’s dust storm as well. Alas, lasting a month longer, the storm proved too much for Opportunity and its older batteries. Failing to respond to JPL’s signals, the rover was abandoned in place, in the incredibly appropriate Perseverance Valley.

Endeavour Crater, site of Opportunity’s best evidence for life-sustaining water on Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

Along with its twin rover, Spirit (finished exploring May 2011), Opportunity added to our knowledge of Mars with first-hand observations showing that water (neither too acidic, nor too basic) had flowed on the Martian surface in the past. Together, the rovers covered over 32 miles of rough, steep terrain, and returned over 342,000 images of the Red Planet, sharing with us its dangers and its beauties. Not too shabby for robots that were rated for 90-day missions. 15 years later, we can be proud of their and our accomplishments.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And their work will be continued, by NASA’s Curiosity rover (currently investigating Gale Crater) and its upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, along with the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover (also planned to launch in July 2020), which will search for microbial life on Mars.

Betty Ballantine, Jersey girl (1919 – 2019)

The sf/f community has lost one of our publishing pioneers, Ms. Betty Ballantine, a long-time editor and publisher, who, with her husband Ian, created first Bantam Books, then their own Ballantine Books, which put out the first authorized US edition of The Lord of the Rings.

Accept no substitute! (Looking at you, Ace edition!)

Born in India, Elizabeth Norah Jones was also a Jersey girl, albeit raised on the Channel Island from which New Jersey draws its name. There, she met Ian Ballantine in 1938, married, and headed to NYC, bringing with them some of the earliest successful paperback books published by Penguin Books (UK). Gaining experience in book packaging to meet wartime demand for paperbacks, they split from Penguin, formed Bantam Books in 1945, then struck out on their own in 1952 with Ballantine Books.

As early publishers of both original hardcover and paperback books, Betty and Ian were the first significant publishers of science fiction in book form. Their effort to bring out an authorized US edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, was followed by what some fantasy fans deem the best run of fantasy titles ever published, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (1969 – 1974), for which Betty was the chief editor, with much consultation and assistance from Lin Carter. The cover illustrations alone make the Adult Fantasy editions worth their purchase price.

Cover illustrations beautiful from back to front!

Ms. Ballantine was recognized with World Fantasy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention (Saratoga Springs, NY). She and her husband (who died in 1995) were inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008. I had the pleasure to hear Ms. Ballantine at the 2007 convention, and I admit to being thrilled to meet one of the pioneers of sf/f publishing and one of my heroes for bringing the Adult Fantasy series to us.

Betty Ballantine, with Gene Wolfe, 2007 World Fantasy Convention

Photo: Scott Edelman

In Heaven, the joke goes, the police are British …

There is one stamp that really needs to be cancelled!

With the mid-winter thaw, the Beamers warmed up to a chilling book about solving a murder mystery in a Britain under Nazi occupation.  Len Deighton’s thriller, SS-GB, posits a successful German invasion and then tries to find out how a dedicated London detective deals with fighting crime as his Nazi superiors fight both British resistance and each other.  Would the Beamers also clash over the identity of the good guys and the bad guys?  Or would we take flight like the King escaping from the Tower of London?

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Rockin’ around the multiverse, one last time

Once of the great associations of sf/f and rock music is the long-time collaboration between Michael Moorcock and the prog-rock band Hawkwind, who have used his works as inspiration, such as their album The Chronicle of the Black Sword coming from his Elric novels, or the song “The Black Corridor” taking quotes from his sf novel of the same name. In turn, Mr. Moorcock has appeared on stage with the band, contributing guitar, banjo, and backing vocals.

This March, Mr. Moorcock will make one last stage performance with the band on their North American Space Ritual tour, during their stop in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas.

Be there, or be eternally championed!

No word yet if Mr. Moorcock will also grace us with a final performance of “Black Blade” at a Blue Oyster Cult concert to be scheduled (possibly at a future DragonCon in Atlanta?).

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