Category Archives: Science Fiction

Shaver Mysteries – Fin

I read about as much as I could tolerate, which was not quite to the end of Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalities. I may tough it out through the last few pages, but that’s enough.

I still think there’s a lot of interesting potential in the Shaver Mythos, some interesting ideas, situations, and settings. Unfortunately, that potential is wasted with writing so bad as to be unreadable: long narrative dumps, stilted dialogue, corny and inconsistent descriptions of the imagined technology, goofy recycling of elements from other mythologies, poor story mechanics, etc.

Then there are simple writing mechanics and stylistic errors that any minimally-competent editor would have caught. For example: multiple instances of the same significant word in the same sentence or paragraph. It was a little thing to notice, something that happened that I might not have noticed had it happened only once or twice, but in one 5-6 page stretch I noticed that it happened so many times that, as it happens, I couldn’t not notice when it happened. Just as awful is Shaver’s frequent description of events or places as in some way “beyond mere words to portray” or “exceeding human ability to understand”, a cheap gimmick whose overuse fills me with a weary loathing I struggle to adequately convey.

I’ve read a lot of mediocre SF (I subscribed to Analog for 25 years), but I didn’t fully appreciate the term “hack writer” until I experienced Richard Shaver. I think if I taught English or creative writing classes at the high-school level or above, I would be tempted to teach my students editing by assigning small groups one story apiece. Go, and make this readable. Even government-school students couldn’t make it any worse.

Shaver Mysteries, cont’d.

I’m a few pages into the wonderfully-titled “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia”, the second of the stories in the collection, and can already see why Shaver is compared to Ed Wood. The writing is schlocky, the names are cheesy, the dialogue is campy, and the overall quality is at the level of a high-school creative writing assignment.


There’s something endearingly strange about it all, and something compelling about the storytelling. For all its faults, there’s something that holds my interest enough to keep going with it.

I suspect that someone could make a project out of rewriting Shaver’s stories in a more competent form (assuming they’re out of copyright) and organizing and clarifying his mythos along the way. Behind the ineptitude there are some interesting ideas a good writer could explore further in new Shaver Mythos stories as well.

They Make It Sound So Appealing

Resuming my personal project of reading classic SF from the 1930s – 1950s, I decided to give the oft-discussed Shaver Mysteries a try. I figured that if I’m going to make arch jokes about hell-creatures from the hollow Earth and Nazi flying saucers, I should probably know the source material. This wasn’t what I expected to find:

Armchair fiction presents extra large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Shaver Mystery,” by Richard S. Shaver, is perhaps the most controversial piece of science fiction ever written. Supposedly a true story, it is widely considered to be the nadir of science fiction literature, the “Plan 9 From Outer Space” of the whole genre. Some people considered Richard Shaver to be a genius, but most others considered him and his editor, Ray Palmer, to be two of the biggest blights to have ever entered the field of professional science fiction writing. Shaver’s wild ramblings are a thing to behold. We have never encountered an author who could write such consistently overlong sentences that appeared to make no sense whatsoever. Genius or nut-case? You decide. Here in Book One, are the first three parts, just as they appeared in the June, 1947 issue of Amazing Stories: “Formula from the Underworld,” “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia,” and “Witch’s Daughter.” Also included in Book One is the mind-boggling, yet essential “How to Read the Shaver Alphabet,” which pertains to Book Two as well. “The Shaver Mystery” is presented in paperback for the first time. Heaven help us.

In other words, Shaver’s writing skill is on the same level as today’s Hugo Award winners. On the plus side, at least he (probably) didn’t write his stories as clumsy vehicles for cockamamie cultural Marxism and cringeworthily intimate unwanted explorations of his personal dysfunctions.

We shall see.

Review: Analog January/February 2018 Issue

Several hours over the holidays spent putting my and my cousin’s old Analog issues into archival bags made me curious about what I might have been missing over the ten years since I cancelled my subscription.

Little, it turned out.

I picked up a copy of the January/February 2018 issue a couple of weeks ago. Reading it reminded me why I ended my subscription back in 2008: the magazine had turned to crap. This issue was largely unreadable crap, which in what little I did manage to read showed  many of the Analog themes I mentioned in my previous post.

Here are my immediate reactions. This is a little rough, as I have time at the moment to type up my notes but not to write up more detailed analyses of each story – not that it would matter:

  • Artwork: the cover is a mess of lurid colors, cartoonish, amateurish, no depth, does not compare well with the average cover of the early 1960s. As I observed to Carl, the background looks like a bunch of livid green poops swirling around a mushroom. The central figure looks oddly misshapen, and not in the kind of exaggerated pose feminists love to mock in SF and fantasy art – he’s just ineptly drawn; the interior illustrations were lousy, too, being too “busy”, poorly composed, crudely sketched, or clumsy 1995-vintage Photoshop pasteups.
  • Editorial: I knew it was going to be about Trump before reading it, or even looking at the title; Schmidt does manage to get to the second paragraph before making it obviously about Trump, but the first paragraph is an emotionally overwrought and sensationalistic lead-in to it; the language throughout has a similar childishly ominous tone: “frightening”, “disturbing”, “darkest chapters in human history”, “feared”, etc.; wrings hands over Trump’s “election is over”, apparently not recognizing the similarity to Obama’s comments in 2008 that ‘I won’ and ‘elections have consequences’; offers new explanation of “consensus” which confuses is and ought with regards to scientific process, and ignores the politicization that corrupts this process (alternative opinions and dissent are met with angry screeching and denunciations and bad-faith dismissal, not a collegial review of the evidence and logic behind them); usual criticisms of people who disagree with his stance on global warming, etc., as being ignorant and anti-science; actually makes the assertion that scientists tend “to try to avoid getting involved in politics”, which he immediately follows up with a rent-seeking appeal for more public science funding; overall, the editorial is saturated with science fetishism and the science cargo-cult mentality; Schmidt is utterly clueless when it comes to persuasion – ‘If we just harangue these morons enough, they might see a glimmer of truth despite themselves, and come around to our enlightened way of thinking’; he concludes by name-dropping Carl Sagan because of course [makes wanking gesture] – but with a hilarious lack of self-awareness, the quote he uses is a condemnation of the public education industry…of which Schmidt earlier reminded us he was/is a part; there’s really nothing new or interesting here, it’s just a stew of the same threadbare talking points blabbered by every fucking-loves-science leftist on these subjects for the past thirty years.
  • “The Quantum Magician” by Derek Kunsken – wastes no time involving the wave-particle duality metaphor cliche; utterly boring first page; “puppet theocracies”? actual puppets? really?; made it through two pages before giving up, nothing caught my interest, no hooks to draw me in.
  • “The Journeyman” by Michael F. Flynn – swords, feudalism, pretentiously unpronounceable names, kilts, probably other cliches if I’d manage to read the whole thing; larded with goofy “exotic” words serving no purpose but exoticism; not only unpronounceable names, but also weird names and kennings; really disappointing as his “Eifelheim” (published in Analog) is one of my favorite short stories;I’m out.
  • “Hobson’s Choices” by Mary A. Turzillo – starts off with “hip” tea namecheck (character doesn’t just drink tea, of course not, but some exotic type with an erotic name); weird art references; overly-technical dinosaur references; one page in, no idea what the story is or where she’s going with all these calculated-to-impress references; Volvo namecheck; does not read as SF at all; I give up.
  • “Ten and Ten” by Alan Dean Foster – scientist cultism, but otherwise not a bad story.
  • “Margin of Error” by Paul Carlson – not bad, but does slip in a gratuitous political reference to “national popular vote”.
  • “One to Watch” by Andrew Barton – overwrought sentimentality; another gratuitous mention of an ‘exotic’ tea (“Pu-erh”); gratuitous use of non-western name (Anh) with no further gender or ethnic information to give it any signficance; human apocalypticism theme (we’ve had the bomb for 70+ years now, get over it); tone is moody, negative, despairing; finished it (it’s only two pages) but remained unclear what the point of the story was.
  • “Air Gap” by Eric Cline – pretty clever; felt like it was going to be yet another typical pink-SF humanity-sucks story, so I didn’t see the twist coming at all.
  • “Home on the Free Range” by Holly Schofield – a meandering exploration of a bunch of idiots trying to set up a farm on another world they know nothing about; unrealistic characterizations and scenario; skimmed, nothing made me care, so I gave up.
  • “When the Aliens Stop to Bottle” by Ian Watson – gratuitous mention of the ‘wage gap’, incoherent plot, nonsensical aliens and situation, unrealistic character (in)actions.
  • “Two Point Three Children” by Marissa Lingen – potentially interesting premise, but she goes nowhere with it after introducing it; felt promising but incomplete.
  • “The Dissonant Note” by Jeremiah Tolbert – to say I hated this story is an understatement, I hated it almost as much as the story I mentioned in the previous post about the weepy mother shaming alien killbots with her emotional incontinence; if “The Journeyman” had goofy gratuitously weird names, this one had names that, while they fit the context of the story, were so annoying that I could not get past them to comprehend the story; they were annoying precisely because of that context, which involved yet another threadbare SF trope: the noxiously twee use of musical terminology and musical thematic elements; I tried, but it was unreadable – I can’t even remember what it was about beyond a power struggle between two women who may have been dolphin consciousnesses hosted in robot bodies living in a stereotyped matriarchy where everyone communicated by singing and had musical notes for names and used robotic lobsters as IEDs.
  • “Endless City” by David Gerrold – confusingly, this one was actually the best story in terms of the skilled use of language (Gerrold’s been writing for fifty-odd years, so you’d expect that much at least), yet it too was a meandering mess in terms of plot; it’s a murder mystery whose first few pages serve as a vehicle for gratuitous insertions of, shall we say, the author’s personal interests and preoccupations; the perspective shifts between the real and virtual worlds are poorly executed, leaving one confused as to whether the protagonist we don’t like or care about is in meatspace, the Matrix, or both at the same time; the intuitive leaps are an (I assume unintentional) parody of Holmes and Poirot stories, and the resolution of the mystery is disappointingly trite; reading it left me feeling both shortchanged and strangely dirty. (It will surprise absolutely no one that in his bio at the end, Gerrold dines out yet again on “The Trouble with Tribbles”.)
  • “Blurred Lives” by Adam-Troy Castro – gets off to a bad start right at the beginning with characters named “Draiken” and “Thorne” [cramp-inducing eyeroll]; I tried to read this one fairly, but ended up skimming it, then giving up; what I did read appeared to be an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, or some other “experimental” structure, I don’t know – it was a sketchy, present-tense narration of the actions of two characters that seemed to have no point.

Didn’t bother with the science fact articles, because they were rarely ever interesting or useful back when I read Analog regularly. And do I even need to say that I avoided the “poetry” entirely?

I’ll admit that I went into this exercise with a negative attitude, and that that definitely influenced my perceptions of the writing. But even with that confessed bias, I was still appalled at just how bad it actually ended up being. As much as the writing quality declined through the 1990s and early 2000s, I would judge that it has continued on the same trajectory in the decade since I last tried to read an Analog. It was so bad that I simply couldn’t make myself read most of the stories all the way through, and a couple I couldn’t even force myself to skim. The issue currently sits on the bookshelf next to a stack of issues from 1969 – the older ones look intriguing, but this one I am tempted to burn rather than archive with the others.

Honestly, how does this garbage get published by a major science fiction magazine? And how does that magazine stay in business when it publishes such low-quality writing and artwork for twenty-plus years and counting?


An Informal Survey of Analog Magazines

I may have mentioned that I inherited my cousin’s collection of Analog magazines a while back, and now have (as far as I can tell) a complete set spanning from October 1958 through July/August 2008. Those are the dates when he started subscribing and I stopped, he having given up on Analog sometime around 2000.

In early December, Carl and I got to talking about a particularly awful story that had appeared in Analog sometime late in that period, and was in hindsight one of the reasons I stopped reading it regularly and then stopped subscribing altogether. I couldn’t remember the title, so spent a couple hours looking at the tables of contents of every issue from July/August 2008 back to around January 1990 to find it, along with a number of the teaser blurbs that appear on the splash pages for individual items.

While I somehow did not find the story in question, I did inadvertently obtain an interesting “statistical” feel for the magazine’s common threads over that period. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to a proper analysis, so I’ll just list a few of my observations:

  • The scientist-in-obscure-field as protagonist, used to the point of cliche; the most transparent offenders are writers who are scientists in obscure fields themselves (blatant author insertion);
  • Related, the chronic overuse of academic or institutional internal politics as a backdrop or plot device, as if every reader understands or cares about the inside baseball of tenure panels, thesis committees, research funding allocations, faculty lounges, etc.;
  • The (mis)use of the same small set of scientific concepts, over and over, as plot devices;
  • The cringe-inducing generation of “new” SF gimmicks by appending “quantum”, “nano”, “cyber”, “crypto”, “neo”, or other cheesy prefix to some threadbare old gimmick;
  • Overuse of the same underlying plot theme – in particular, every month seemed to have a story whose blurb centered on “adaptation”, and the related blurbs were reused nearly word-for-word in multiple issues;
  • I got confused a couple of times while searching by the similarity of the stories in one issue with an issue several months or years apart, thinking I’d mistakenly picked up an issue I’d already skimmed through;
  • There were far more non-SF stories disguised as SF than what I remembered reading at the time – romance stories, cozy mysteries, fantasy, spy-thrillers, whatever, with a thin veneer of Science! pasted onto them in a way that is lazy and immaterial to the story.
  • Stories aside, the art of this period (compared to that of the 1950s and 1960s) is unremittingly awful – amateurish mechanics with bad composition and lurid colors occasionally alternating with the latest awkwardly-angled view of the same meticulously smeared spaceship. And that’s just on the covers.

I should have written this up at the time, as I’m sure there are other observations I’ve since forgotten. But now I’m re-thinking my abandoned plan to read and review each issue in the set in chronological order – that’s still not a realistic plan (there are something like 600 issues involved), but given what I saw in the 1990-2008 part of the collection, a statistical sample of one randomly-chosen issue per year may be sufficient.

As for the story I couldn’t find, it had something to do with a colony world where long-departed aliens had left behind a handful of Gort-like robots. These robots would occasionally appear in the colony and kill anyone who failed to freeze into certain ritualized poses or seek shelter in a certain park. A grieving mother loses her mind and launches into an emotional tirade at one of them, which despite their having shown known ability to communicate with humans moves them to desist. It was noteworthy to me in part for being one of those stories where so much essential information is left out that you feel like you’re reading part of a series or a chapter yanked from a novel you haven’t read, and in part because of the maudlin emotional incontinence of the protagonist, and in part because despite the superficial SF context of the story, the resolution of the conflict centers on her teary outburst rather than logic or reason applied to the problem. Or so that’s how I remember the story – I really wanted to re-read it to see how accurate my recollection was.

The Trouble With Science Popularizers

More people are starting to notice the problems with Bill Nye:

The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.

The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.

I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.

Ringworld on Amazon

This is interesting news – Amazon is adapting Ringworld:

“Ringworld,” a co-production with MGM, is based on Larry Niven’s sci-fi book series from the 70’s. It tells the story of Louis Gridley Wu, a bored man celebrating his 200th birthday in a technologically-advanced, future Earth. Upon being offered one of the open positions on a voyage, Louis joins a young woman and two aliens to explore Ringworld, the remote artificial ring beyond “Known Space.”

It’s nice to see SF adaptations being made from books I’ve actually read for a change. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will actually turn out well (I think it will be challenging, both to make the story work on the screen and to represent the setting both accurately and compellingly), or whether Amazon will look at the projected budget necessary to pull it off and back off instead. But given how good a job they’ve done with The Man in the High Castle, I’m willing to get my hopes up for this one.

What’s interesting, though, is that Ringworld is not a very long story. I could see it filling out ten episodes…but then what? Do they do all this work developing the backstory of Known Space and a couple of its recurring characters just for a single season, or do they continue on with the other Ringworld books, and perhaps branch out into the other stories and novels set in the Known Space universe?

That has some interesting potential, and is akin to my thoughts after re-reading The Mote in God’s Eye this summer. It struck me then that the Co-Dominium universe (and particularly the period in which the Mote novels and King David’s Spaceship are set) is ripe for adaptation as a series in the High Castle format. Only, instead of telling the Mote stories right away, build up through a combination of existing and new material over the first 10-12 episode season. These episodes could include KDS, along with the revolt and suppression of New Chicago, leading up to a cliffhanger involving the appearance of the Crazy Eddie Probe and setting the stage for a second season based entirely on TMIGE. The early episodes gradually introduce the technology, future history, and sociopolitical setting along the way, so that narrative dumps don’t bog down the main story later on.

We’ll have to wait a year and see how it turns out, if it makes it to the screen in the end.

Innovative Science Fiction

I may have to read this one – I have never seen these novel elements in science fiction before, let alone woven together in the same story. So original! I can’t even.

Now, after more than a century of exploring the stars, Keith Stoner returns to find that the world he has come back to does not match the one he left. The planet is suffering the consequences of disastrous greenhouse flooding. Most nations have been taken over by ultraconservative religion-based governments, such as the New Morality in the United States. With population ballooning and resources running out, Earth is heading for nuclear war. Stoner, the star voyager, wants to save Earth’s people. But first he must save himself from the frightened and ambitious zealots who want to destroy this stranger—and the terrifying message he brings from the stars.

Disappointing – it reads like a grab bag of threadbare 1970s SF cliches. I thought Bova was a little more creative than this. Or for that matter, creative. This is less imaginative than the mashup of lefty tropes in Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.