Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Horn of Time by Poul Anderson (1968)

The Horn of Time by Poul Anderson (1968) is a collection of previously published science fiction short stories from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing on the cover of the book hints that these are short stories and not a continuous novel so I spent some brain power for the first couple of stories trying to make them fit together into one universe before realizing my mistake.

I've always enjoyed the Anderson that I've read and, particularly for this era of science fiction, I think that the short story can be a much stronger vehicle than the full-length novel. Anderson is in top form here with stories that combine time periods, space travel, post-apocalyptic futures, and well written characters. My favorite of the bunch is probably the last story, "Progress," which takes us to a Earth that is healing from a long-ago nuclear destruction and running into conflicts as the now-powerful Maori people try to keep the other societies in balance and stop any chance of future nuclear wars.

Since these were written in the late-50s and early-60s there is some inescapable strong anti-communism running throughout several of the stories. In some cases this gets a little distracting (particularly in "The High Ones"), but it is a reflection of its time and its author, so what are you going to do.

Overall this is some solid and unique science fiction, and a must read if you are a fan of Anderson or the genre.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)

My long-standing book club (go DAFFODILS!) selected an uncharacteristically hot off the presses read for our next book, Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014).

Our narrator is Sean. When he was a teenager an accident (or maybe "accident") with a gun left him disfigured. He leads an isolated life as an adult, partially filling his time and making a little money running a play-by-mail adventure game called the Trace Italian, a game that he created while recovering from his injuries in the hospital as a teenager. In the game, players find themselves in a post-nuclear apocalypse society, trying to save themselves by finding and getting into the Trace Italian, a safe and complicated series of chambers somewhere underground in the middle of Kansas. We learn that the adult Sean is being sued because two players of his game, a young couple, took the play too literally and one died and the other nearly died somewhere in the wilds of Kansas.

While that covers most of the plot of the novel, the real action is happening inside Sean's head as we move back and forth between his pre- and immediately post-accident teenage self and the man he has become. The accident and his isolation in some ways have frozen him in time and the feelings that brought him into this state are never that far from the surface. As the book moves on, we see Sean interact with his nurse, an old friend, his mother, and (hilariously) some teenage hoodlums out behind the liquor store. All of these interactions serve to deepen Sean's character and, to me at least, highlight how he is ultimately happy in his isolation. There are no pat answers or neatly tied up endings here, but some nice character development and a very real and effective world. 

If you are a music fan, you may recognize Darnielle's name as the core of the band The Mountain Goats. I haven't listened to much of Darnielle's music (although I just listened to this and the three songs pick up several themes from the book), but a bunch of my friends really like him, so I feel like I should give him some time. This book (his first novel, although he's also written a non-fiction book [correction: this was actually a novella!] about Black Sabbath for the 33 1/3 series), proves that Darnielle is creative in at least two modes, particularly seeing that it was nominated for a National Book Award. I can't even be irritated at this guy for his dual success -- the novel really is quite good.