Four suggestions this #VintageScifi Month


Take me to your e-reader!

This January marks the eighth year of the #VintageSciFiMonth challenge, in which readers/bloggers read any SciFi book published prior to their birth year and share their thoughts/reviews with the world at large and their peers within the SciFi community. Launched in 2012 by  the Little Red Reviewer over at her blog of the same name, Vintage SciFi Month has been going strong ever since.  It’s a great way to motivate fans to expand their horizon beyond the shelves of the local Big Box bookstore (in my case, the Canadian version of Barnes and Noble, Chapters-Indigo).  A trip to the local used bookstore is pretty much a necessity if you want to find a hidden gem, especially those that may no longer be in print.

Part of the challenge is to read novels that pre-date your birth year, which in my case turns out to be 1972. However, two of my four recommends were published that year, so I’m going to fudge the math a little. And I’m also going to fudge the challenge a bit in that two I have read and the other two are on my to be read list, sitting on the table beside me as I type.

1. Cyborg by Martin Caidin(1972). TBR

How was I to know that The Six Million Dollar Man (a t.v. favourite of mine as a child) was originally based on a novel series?


Six million dollars seems like a steal these days.

Okay, yes, Wikipedia. But I would have never known to look there without tripping over a physical copy in a used book store. A short internet search turned up three sequels, beginning with the very sinister sounding Cyborg II: Operation Nuke. I was familiar with Caidin’s earlier biography of Japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai, but oblivious to his Sci-Fi efforts and his contribution to my childhood television viewing. I found this copy two years ago and am looking forward to revisiting the adventures of Steve Austin (the test pilot, not the wrestler) and plan on writing a review once I’m finished.




2.  Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1968) TBR


While the Wikipedia entry for Damnation Alley lists it as a 1969 novel based on a 1967 novella, my version of his post apocalyptic vision of America lists the copyright as 1968. I suspect most people of a certain age would remember Damnation Alley by way of the 1977 film featuring a young Jan Michael Vincent, George Peppard and Paul Winfield, driving a tricked out RV across an irradiated America, fighting giant mutant scorpions and fleeing flesh eating cockroaches.  The movie plot is only tangentially related to that of the book (the mutated scorpions are in both) and the main character of the novel is a car thief/smuggler rather than the Air Force lieutenant of the movie.

I picked up a copy several years ago from The Book Outlet, a local remaindered books retailer that’s conveniently located about three blocks from my house. It is also on my to be read list.

3.  Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

img_1498The Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris) collaborated to write this amazing tale of exploration in the aftermath of an alien visitation.

After the Visitation, humanity discovers the extra-terrestrials have left behind a cornucopia of technological wonders in various “zones” that the governments of the world immediately quarantine. These wonders come at a cost, and those “stalkers” willing to risk the dangers of the zone to find and sell artifacts on the black market risk not only their lives but the pernicious effects the objects have on their families and psyche. It’s specifically the story of Red Schuhart as he collaborates with his fellow stalkers in the pursuit of profit (at first) and later to mitigate the side effects of exploring the zone. Told as a series of vignettes detailing Schuhart’s experiences, Roadside Picnic serves as a warning that humanity should be very careful of the unforeseen consequences in the quest for technological knowledge and the desire for profit. The tale of the Golden Sphere is particularly haunting.  I read this early last year and highly recommend.  It has the added cache of being made into the 1979 film “Stalker” by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.

4. Berserker by Fred Saberhagen (1967)


The cover alone sealed the deal!

Fred Saberhagen’s tale of alien death machines rampaging unimpeded across the universe until they encounter a similarly bloodthirsty foe in the Empire of Man was the very first science fiction novel (actually a collection of Saberhagen’s short stories) I remember buying, right off a supermarket spinner rack in the little prairie town of Red Deer, in the summer of 1985. I had been reading what little science fiction there was in our local library, mainly consisting of a tattered copy of Rocket Ship Galileo and some Dr. Who serializations, and used my allowance money to buy the book with the cool cover that haunted every trip to the store.  Well worth the $4 I plunked on the counter, I read that copy ragged, reading and re-reading it from time to time over the years until finally losing it a few years ago. When I finally tracked down a replacement copy, it had the same loving wear by its previous owners. So what was the appeal of this particular Space Opera to me that I’ve revisited it time and again throughout my life?

Berserker is a collection of stories demonstrating the resilience  and ingenuity of humanity in the face of adversity (“Without a Thought”;”The Peacemaker”); exploring the nature of humanity from both human(“Goodlife”) and cybernetic(“Patron of the Arts”) point of view, and exploring both the benevolent and malevolent facets of the soul existing in a single person(“What T and I did”). There’s even a little comedy (“Mr Jester”).  While the technology is dated and some of the male/female interactions are decidedly sexist to today’s reader, the themes and concepts more than make up for the anachronistic spacecraft and mores. It’s a wonderful introduction to the work of an author whom I rarely hear mentioned these days. If you have trouble finding a physical copy, the entire series is available in Amazon’s Kindle store. I plan on working my way through the rest of the series this year.


Von Neumann’s War

Von Neumann’s War :Travis S. Taylor (Baen Books, 2008; 522 pp.)

Man has always seemed to have a fascination with our closest neighbour.  Little green Men from Mars have been a staple of Science Fiction (both literary and film) since, well, forever.  My (and I suspect everyone’s) first experience with this phenomenon was H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898).  Amazing guy…already plotting the destruction of life as we know it at the hands of our Martian neighbours, 71 years before Man landed on the moon.

Since then, the idea of invasion from above has been a staple of written fiction and film.  War of the Worlds was updated to modern times by Douglas Niles (War of the Worlds: New Millenium) and rewritten as an account from the eyes of H.G. Wells by Gabriel Mesta (The Martian War).  In film, there was the classic War of the Worlds and the less than classic remakeMars Attacks spoofed the idea and Harry Turtledove spun the idea on its head with man intruding on Mars (A World of Difference)…although he sets it in an alternate Universe and substitutes the fictional planet of Minerva for Mars.

Now Travis S. Taylor and John Ringo have spun a worthy tale about invasion by our Celestial neighbours in Von Neumann’s War.

A little background…in the near future, astronomers discover that the surface Albedo (how strongly an object reflects light from  a light source such as the sun) of Mars is shifting from the familiar Red spectrum to something much more gray.  Several probes on the planet, such as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, have gone disconcertingly silent, raising alarms within both the defense and scientific community around the World.  NASA is tasked with developing a new probe for a fly by in a ridiculously short period of time, but using off the shelf parts and a fair bit of ingenuity, they manage to get a mission underway…only to have it destroyed within seconds of reaching the outer atmosphere of Mars.  Alarmed, both the Military and Scientific communities team up in efforts to prepare for what appears to be imminent (relatively speaking) invasion.  Within months the same effect is observed on the Moon, and with a little help from the Hubble Telescope, the nature of the threat is determined.

Von Neumann machines have come…and they are not friendly.

These self replicating machines have been stripping the Solar System of any metal both to repair and replicate themselves, and it seems that Earth’s turn has come.  Helicopters, jeeps, tanks, jet aircraft; none have any usefulness in combatting such a foe.   So, what to do when you’re facing a nemesis  light years (literally) beyond your technology who eats pretty much any weapon system you might throw at it? 

Well, the answer is…you get innovative pretty damn quick!

That’s much of the fun of this novel…reading the inventive ways in which the protagonists combat an enemy which is essentially invulnerable to any weapon system mankind has created within the last century.  The protagonists become creative with their weaponry…paint ball guns firing plastic explosives…ceramic bullets, aircraft, and engines…advanced laser technology…and frankly, once in awhile…a good old stick. 

So, is it a good book?  Definitely.  Yet there are a few flaws.  The characters have a tendency to come up with the technology needed to combat the machines  in an inordinately short period of time.  Furthermore, the climax of the novel revolves around a “God in the Machine” moment, in which one character (whose back story is nicely ramped up during the course of the novel) finds that “fatal flaw” that delivers the “Hail Mary” moment that kind of irked me.  It’s not even the solution that irks…but rather the swiftness with which the problem is solved.  And finally, it could use a damn good glossary of terms.  DARPA anyone?

However, if you are a Sci-Fi junky looking for your next fix of planetary devastation…then this is the book for you.

(Note:  Travis Taylor has put a lot of thought into the idea of Alien invasion and defense from such.  For further (serious) reading on the subject, try An introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion)