Last Update 11/14/23

Being Michael Swanwick by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Fairwood, 2023, $20.95, ISBN 978-1-958880-14-2 

This is really a book length interview, the transcription of almost a year of conversations with Michael Swanwick, one of the most respected writers in the field. Much of it is, of course, about Swanwick’s own fiction – where the ideas came from, the choices necessary in deciding how to present the story, and other related technical matters. For that alone, it would be worth reading. But the discussion is more far ranging than that. They discuss the genre in general, some of its most revered writers and editors, the problems it has faced and the problems it has created for itself. I picked this up the first time planning to just glance through it and read halfway through before taking a break. It has also convinced me that it is time to reread a lot of stories of which I have fond memories. 11/14/23

So, Anyway by John Cleese, Three Rivers, 2014

Another area in which I read very little is biography/autobiography, unless I am really interested in the person or the events he or she was involved in. In the case of John Cleese's story of his own life, both conditions hold true. He talks of his childhood, his early work as a teacher, his growing involvement in stage and then screen, his relations with other actors like Marty Feldman, and his years in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. As you might expect, the text is lively, full of good humor and sardonic twists, and reads at times almost like a novel. Very refreshing. 10/18/23

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett, Riverhead, 2009

This is actually a true crime book, which is an area where I have read virtually nothing other than biographies of Al Capone and John Dillinger, back in grade school. The crime in this case is a serial book thief who becomes obsessed with rare books to the point where he devises sometimes complex schemes to acquire them illegally. Hot on his trail - which stretched over years - is the man who eventually exposed him. The real attraction for me, and doubtless for most readers, was the depiction of how a love for books can become an overwhelming obsession - and since I have 67,000 of them I feel his pain. Fortunately, it's not the rare editions that I lust after. Remarkably compulsive reading - no pun intended. 10/18/23

Bodies for Profit and Power by Lisa Wenger Bro, McFarland, 2023, $65, ISBN 978-1-4766-7936-5

This is a mostly well informed discussion of biopolitics in SF, although it is prone to imposing sharp delineations in situations where those distinctions were much more blurry, e.g. hard and soft science fiction were not separate literary traditions in the genre and there were writers who employed both in their work. Nor is it accurate to say that no Golden Age SF could be considered "literature." One might also take umbrage to her dismissal of pulp age SF as largely "garbage."  Her characterization of John W. Campbell as a rabid racist is spot on, however, but this was well known by the 1960s. The author then asserts that hard SF became associated with right wing views. I'm not sure whom she thinks made this association. There were, of course, right wing writers producing hard SF, but once again she assumes a sharp division that did not exist. I think she also gives too much credit to the Sad Puppies, who were a tiny minority who made a splash simply because of a quirk in the rules for SF awards and their recruitment of a large number of outsiders to corrupt the nominating process. Much of what follows is thought provoking, but the discussion is mostly about exploitation - the term is applied to a wide variety of situations - and less about the genre. If you are interested in critiques of capitalism, totalitarianism, neo-liberalism, and so on, this will be more to your taste than it would be to a student of the genre because only a very small amount of actual fiction is discussed. 10/14/23

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Farrar Straus, Giroux, 2016

This is one of the most thought provoking books I've read in recent years. Although ostensibly about octopuses and cephalopods, the book actually reflects the author's background in philosophy as well as science. He speculates about the development of intelligence and self awareness, provides a fascinating look at the way evolution may have selected for that trait to various extents, considers the likelihood that it is a spectrum rather than a sudden change, and briefly makes excursions into peripheral matters that are relevant to his main discussion. Very concise and well constructed, with some fascinating photographs and a few anecdotes to provide a personal touch. Only occasionally a bit technical, where it really couldn't avoid it. Very highly recommended. 8/8/23

Jules Verne Lives! edited by Gary Westfahl, McFarland, 2023, $49.95, ISBN 978-1476687735

A year ago I read or reread about thirty Jules Verne novels, including some of the obscure ones, so this collection of essays about his work and its effects on the literary world, both critical and as an influence, was of particular interest to me. The editor, plus Howard Hendrix, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, and various people unfamiliar to me explore mostly his better known novels, but also their translation to the movie screen, their imitations by other writers, and in particular his similarities to and influence on steampunk, which I confess had never occurred to me before, although it is pretty obvious. Most of the essays are quite readable, generally avoiding academese. Some very useful bibliographic material is included. The price is pretty steep for casual readers, but you might be able to talk your library into ordering a copy. 7/17/23

A Tale Told by a Machine by Heather Duerre Humann, McFarland, 2023, $$49.95, ISBN 978-1476689326

Since artificial intelligence has become a somewhat popular current conversational topic, it is not surprising that it shows up in SF more than it used to, nor is it a surprise to find a book analyzing this trend. Other than Asimov;'s robots and Frankenstein, virtually all of the references are to more recent novels - from Martha Wells' excellent murderbot series to Ann Lecki and other newer writers, the book focuses on the AI as narrator rather than just as a character of a plot element. There is a good deal of time spent discussing what it means to be human, how the interface between human and machine functions or limits behavior, and associated items. The discussions range from very interesting to superficial. The term "AI" has become imprecise as well, because it originally implied self awareness, which is not the case with the developments to which we now attach that label. The narrators in the novels involved are in fact self aware, or they could not be the narrators. Perhaps we need a new term. 6/7/23

With the Battle Cruisers by Filton Young, Naval Press, 1926 

This is the memoir of a naval officer who served during World War I. It provides a very good picture of what it was like to live at sea during that period, and Young was a perceptive man able to transfer his experiences to the written word. He did not, however, have a particularly exciting time and was not present for most of the important battles - both sides protected their navies assiduously, thus rendering them largely irrrelevant, so this is not as good at providing the historical background. This is a reprint edition. 4/17/23

Kursk by Rupert Matthews, Arcturus, 2016 zz472 

This is an account of the largest tank battle in history. Germany was hoping to regain the initiative after the catastrophe at Stalingrad. They had superior equipment and believed that the Russians defending Kursk had only a relatively small numerical advantage that could be easily overcome. Actually their intelligence was faulty and they were outnumbered better than two to one, including tanks and artillery. The Russians also had the benefit of British intelligence intercepts of German messages, so they had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, where, and when. The Germans lost, and that meant the invasion of Russia was doomed.  This is a fairly good account but it needed more and better maps. 4/1/23

Nnedi Okorafor by Sandra J. Lindow, McFarland, 2022, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-8332-4

This is obviously an in depth look at the work of one of the more promising new writers of the last decade - she has only been active since 2015. Okorafor is one of those rare writers whose work is frequently surprising because she tries so many different things, an attribute which alas does not often result in a strong following among readers who generally want more of the same. She seems to be proving to be an exception. I have only read about half of the stories mentioned in this book, so I was occasionally a bit at a loss about the discussions, although generally the author provides enough context to smooth this over. It includes a discussion of some graphic stories and some nonfiction. Okorafor sometimes blurs the distinction between science fiction and fantasy - not one of my favorite devices - but many people are not similar bothered. This is aimed at a scholarly audience, although her more serious fans should also find it of interest. 3/31/23

Gallipoli 1915 by Joseph Murray, New English Library, 1965 

This is not strictly speaking a history. The author was one of the soldiers sent in an attempt to knock Turkey out of the first world war, or at least to regain access to the Black Sea. While he was there, he made copious notes about his experiences, which he periodically mailed home. This is an edited collection of his thoughts, observations, experiences, and feelings about the war. It makes the campaign – which was probably doomed from the outset – seem like a more human endeavor, and more tragic because of that. 3/23/23

Delivered from Evil by Robert Leckie, Harper, 1987

This is a one volume, thousand page history of World War II. It begins with the Treaty of Versailles, provides biographies of the major figures, then discusses and describes the various political and military developments through the surrender of Japan. William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is still the best account of the European war but this also covers the conflict in the Pacific. The prose is smooth and entertaining. The organization of the material is excellent. The depth of detail in a single book is surprising. My only complaint is that it really needed more maps to understand some of the battles. Considering how much I had already read about World War II, it is surprising how fresh and revelatory it felt to read it - and I did so over the course of more than two weeks. 2/3/23

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards, Collins, 2022

This is a very large, ambitious attempt to chart the history of the crime story, everything from Edgar Allan Poe to Sara Paretsky, Eric Ambler to Agatha Christie to Raymond Chandler. There is also coverage of mysteries from France, Scandinavia, Japan, and other countries and some mention of radio mysteries and movies. The breadth of the topic is so large that the entries are necessarily somewhat superficial. Some prolific and well known writers are not even mentioned - J. Jefferson Farjeon, Josephine Bell, Christopher Bush, etc. - and most others receive only a paragraph or a footnote. The individual chapters are arranged only vaguely chronologically. They focus on individual subsets like women in jeopardy, locked rooms, tough detectives, psychological thrillers, etc. Scattered through the text are some anecdotes - I did not know that Mary Roberts Rinehart survived a murder attempt by her chef, for example. If nothing else, the book demonstrates that crime fiction is just as diverse as other genres, mores so than some. This is a reference book that will join a dozen others as permanent resident of the shelf beside my desk. 1/7/23

A Literary Octavia E. Butler Companion by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, McFarland, 2022, $49.95, ISBN 978-1476688756c

Octavia Butler's reputation has grown steadily despite the relatively small body of work she produced during her lifetime. This is meant to be a supplement designed either to help a reader understand the possibly hidden complexity of the author's work, but also as a guide for group discussions, formal classes, and other similar situations. There is a fairly substantial biography and chronicle of Butler's writing career, followed by the main section which discusses both her fiction and her non-fiction. The prose is rather academic at times, but the observations seem to be accurate and informative. I'm not sure that I agree that Butler was as prophetic as is sometimes suggested, but science fiction writers have never been particularly great at prophesy and that's really not what they are about anyway. The price is a bit stiff so you might want to talk your library into ordering a copy. 1/3/23