Shf Reviews

I wrote reviews of newly published science fiction and fantasy stories for over a decade in Locus Magazine beginning in 1988. Isfdb has this bibliography of those columns and of other reviews and commentaries, virtually all for Locus.

Links to seven of the 1997 columns are on this page, a capture of my very first web page on Compuserve created in 1997 just before I launched Locus Online.

Since the Locus columns ended in 2001, I’ve read relatively little short fiction, except for occasionally rereading works by “classic” authors. These are typically found in single-author collections (like those at left in the pic) or in anthologies of reprinted works (like the books at right).

None of these selections are yet comprehensive.

Asimov, Isaac

  • Introduction and Overview
  • I, Robot (1950). (Review).
    Collection of linked stories describing the development of robots, controlled by the famous Three Laws of Robotics, and their integration into human society. Stand-out stories:

    • “Reason” (Apr 1941). A robot assembled on a space station doesn’t believe in Earth; essentially, about a creationist robot. **** (review)
    • “Liar!” (May 1941). Does the law to not harm human beings entail lying to them? ***
    • “Evidence” (Sep 1946). A politician running for office is accused of being a robot. ***
    • “The Evitable Conflict” (1950). The world is stable but inefficient; are robots to blame, or are they the secret saviors of mankind? ****
  • Other stand-out stories:
    • “Nightfall” (Sep 1941). Famous story in which the inhabitants of a planet with multiple suns only see the stars once every 2000 years. *****
    • “The Dead Past” (Apr 1956). A device to view the past is controlled by the government, which is hiding the truth about its range and the consequences for matters of privacy. ****
    • “The Last Question” (Nov 1956). Clever if horrifying story about humanity’s expansion into space, the galaxy, the universe, the cosmos, at each stage asking their computers if entropy can be reversed. ***
    • “The Ugly Little Boy” (Sep 1958). An unusual non-puzzle story with an emotional impact, about a government device to retrieve objects from the past, including a young Neanderthal boy. *****
    • “The Bicentennial Man” (1976). Late, sentimental robot story about a household robot who wants to become human, legally at least. Asimov can pluck the heart-strings when he wants to. ****

Benford, Gregory

  • Passages by Benford
    • “Lady with Fox” (2014). About a neural network technology that allows minds to connect during sleep. Not a famous story, but a good example of Benford’s fine, idea-rich, thought-provoking writing (poetic hard SF). ***

Bradbury, Ray

  • The October Country (1955), mostly derived from Dark Carnival (1947) (review) ***
    Collection of moody horror stories, the best of Bradbury’s early work, with striking macabre black & white interior illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini. Stand-outs (in order of the book’s TOC) include:

    • “Skeleton” (1945). A hypochondriac man is freaked out by the notion of the skeleton inside of him.
    • “The Jar” (1944). A carnival souvenir impresses the folks back home, each of whom sees something different.
    • “The Small Assassin” (1946). A woman fears her just-born child is trying to murder her.
    • “The Crowd” (1943). The victim of an urban auto accident realizes that the same crowd of gawkers appears at every one.
    • “Jack-in-the-Box” (1947). A boy grows up enclosed in a house with his mother and a Teacher but with no experience of the outside world.
    • “The Scythe” (1943). A destitute man tending a crop of wheat realizes he controls the fate of the world.
    • “Homecoming” (1946). A gathering of a family of vampires and other creatures [based on The Addams Family] focuses on Timothy, the one family member with no special talents.
  • The Martian Chronicles (1950) (Review) *****
    Collection of linked stories about human astronauts reaching Mars and inadvertantly destroying the native civilization there, while nuclear war breaks out back on Earth. Stand-out stories (in the order of the book’s chronology):

    • “Ylla” (1950). A native Martian couple lives in a house of crystal pillar by the edge of an empty sea, before the humans come.
    • “Mars Is Heaven!” aka “The Third Expedition” (1948). Astronauts arrive on Mars and find a town exactly like those on Earth, complete with their own relatives.
    • “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” (1948). A member of the fourth expedition rebels, rueing the wisdom the Martians had found that humans have lost.
    • “The Fire Balloons” (1951). Two Episcopal fathers debate whether creatures on Mars — floating globes of light — have souls and can sin.
    • “Night Meeting” (1950). A remote, ambiguous encounter with a ghostly Martian.
    • “The Martian” (1949). One of the last surviving Martians takes the place of a human couple’s long dead son.
    • “Usher II” (1950). A man rebelling against government suppression of imagination and horror builds a new House of Usher and hosts a macabre, deadly party.
    • “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950). About the dissolution of a mechanical house following atomic war on Earth.
    • “The Million-Year Picnic” (1946). A human family on Mars, knowing there is no earth to return to, realizes who they have become.

Clarke, Arthur C.

  • Two Religious Explorations
    Two stories of speculative theology, challenging human presumptions. Perhaps God’s purpose has nothing to do with humanity at all; or, perhaps humans are so central to God’s purpose that the extinction of another civilization is acceptable collateral damage.

    • “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953). Tibetan lamas use a big computer from New York to calculate all the possible names of God, which they figure will come to about nine billion. What will happen when the computer finishes? ****
    • “The Star” (1955). A spaceship expedition from Earth travels 3000 light years to the remains of a rare supernova, finding artifacts of the civilization that lived on its planet, before realizing when the light of the supernova must have reached Earth. ****

Haldeman, Joe

  • “The Hemingway Hoax” + 3
    • “The Hemingway Hoax” (1990). A literary scholar tempted to help forge early lost Hemingway manuscripts becomes haunted by the ghost of Hemingway, who repeatedly kills him, moving him from one alternate timeline to the next. ***
    • “Tricentennial” (1976). Scientists from an orbit colony embark, despite unappreciative dim “Groundhogs” on Earth, on an expedition to contact presumed aliens on a planet orbiting 61 Cygni. ***
    • “Graves” (1992). A grimly realistic story of body retrieval during the Vietnam War, with a shocking ending that suggest a malevolent supernatural presence in the jungle. ***
    • “None So Blind” (1994). An awkward young black boy genius bonds with a tall rich blind white girl, wonders why all blind people aren’t geniuses, and conducts an experiment on her to find out, triggering a evolutionary jump in human potential. ****

Heinlein, Robert A.

  • Orphans of the Sky (1963) (Reading Early Heinlein, Part 1)
    Intro to Heinlein’s career and reviews of the two novellas published as this book, with comparisons to Asimov’s “Nightfall” and “Reason.”

    • “Universe” (1941). The occupants of a “generation” starship have forgotten their original mission, or even that they’re on a spaceship, until one of them peers through the viewports and realizes what they all think they know about the universe is a lie. ****
    • “Common Sense” (1941). A band of rebels escapes the ship in order to complete its mission: the colonization of another planet. ***
  • The Green Hills of Earth (1951) (Rereading Early Heinlein, part 2)
    Collection of stories concerning the settlement of near-earth space and the establishment of colonies on the Moon and other planets. Part of Heinlein’s “Future History.” Highlights:

    • “Space Jockey” (1947). An elegantly matter-of-fact description of a spaceship pilot’s flight from the Earth to the Moon. ****
    • “It’s Great to be Back” (1947). A couple living on Luna decides to return to Earth, and find it’s not what they imagined or remembered. ***
    • “We Also Walk Dogs” (1941). A confidential, high-end service agency takes on the task of adjusting local gravity for visiting aliens. ***
    • “Ordeal in Space” (1948). A space crewman suffering agoraphobia is faced rescuing a cat on a balcony. ***
    • “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947). About the blind poet Rhysling’s sacrifice to save his irradiated ship. ***
    • “Logic of Empire” (1941). A man from Earth is “shanghaied” into servitude on Venus, learning when he returns to Earth that his story is nothing new. ***
  • Revolt in 2011 (1953) (Rereading Early Heinlein, part 3: If This Goes On)
    Collection of this long novella and two shorter stories (not covered at the link), part of Heinlein’s “Future History”.

    • “If This Goes On–” (Feb,Mar 1940). In a future theocratic America a resistance movement works to overthrow the Prophet Incarnate. With comments about current politics, America’s constant flirtation with theocracy, and Heinlein’s comments about religious fanaticism. ***

Jackson, Shirley

  • The Lottery and Jim and Mary G How tradition rules to the point that societies maintain practices long after they’ve ceased to make sense. As stories, these are effective as sf/fantasy precisely because the rationale for such traditions is not explained.
    • Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948). Residents of a small prepare for their annual ritual. ****
    • James Sallis, “Jim and Mary G” (1970). Parents of a young child prepare to do what has to be done. ***

Kelly, James Patrick

  • “Mr. Boy” + 5
    • “Mr. Boy” (1990). A 25-year-old man, kept at a physical age of 12 through repeated rejuvenation treatments, hangs out with friends in various virtual environments until a flaw in a treatment enables him to perceive the attractions of growing up and living free. ***
    • Plus reprints of Locus reviews of “Think Like a Dinosaur,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Lovestory,” “1016 to 1,” and “Undone.”

Kress, Nancy

  • “Beggars in Spain” + 6
    • “Beggars in Spain” (1991). A genetic modification that enables people to live without sleep creates a privileged class of super-achievers who become oppressed by the rest of society, into a kind of exile, while raising issues of what privileged people owe those less fortunate. *****
    • Plus reprints of Locus reviews of “Dancing on Air” and “Flowers of Aulit Prison.”
    • “Out of All them Bright Stars” (1985). A lone member of visiting aliens visits a diner late one night, bringing troubling revelations to waitress Sally about the reactions of her co-workers. ***
    • “Trinity” (1984). An experiment with twins and biofeedback and telepathy has resulted in a ghostly presence that might be God. Some people need to believe; others resist the idea of believing. ***
    • “The Mountain to Mohamed” (1992). “Genescans” have enabled insurance companies to deny coverage to anyone with pre-existing conditions; some doctors try to help the uninsured anyway, despite their own resentment. ***
    • “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (2006). Nano machines come to a rural town, enabling everyone to possess new clothes and cars, until people stop working and society collapses. More of a parable than actual science fiction. **

Silverberg, Robert

Williams, Walter Jon

  • “Surfacing” + 2
    • “Surfacing” (1988). A man studying deep-dwelling sea creatures on an alien planet deals with a rival scientist who is in turn controlled by a manipulative alien. ***
    • “Daddy’s World” (1999). A boy growing up with his family in a magical world gradually learns the nature of that world and his role in a technological experiment. ***
    • “The Green Leopard Plague” (2003). A mermaid who was once an ape researches the history of a man responsible for a biochemical invention (that would enable humans to directly absorb energy from the sun) with dire consequences yet which led to the creation of her world. ****

Wolfe, Gene

  • Winter Comes to Water As Well As Land
    • “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970). A young boy, living with his ailing mother and her young boyfriend, conflates characters from a pulp novel he is reading with people in his real life. About the human need to interpret the world through stories, even “escapist” ones. ****
  • Rereading “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”
    • “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972). A young boy growing up on a colony world with his father and robot tutor Mr. Million gradually learns about his purpose in life, as his father impresses his own memories on the boy (whom he calls Number Five), and visitors to the house convey rumors that aboriginals from a neighboring planet may be shapeshifters and have replaced the human settlers. *****