Two Improvised Fugues: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Against the Fall of Night

It begins with a roleplaying game, of all things, although it’s not called that precisely. It’s an immersive roleplaying environment, and our hero crashes it for him and his friends for wanting to go beyond its bounds and programmings, though not as a briefer. Rather, he is compelled by his innate drive and sense to seek and explore and burst the bounds that society and even this video game have placed upon him. And yet even this innocent exploration beyond boundaries causes change and crisis around him. It turns out to be a thematic strand in Alvin’s life.

The City and the Stars is Arthur C. Clarke’s reboot of one of his earlier works, Against the Fall of Night. Both tell Alvin’s story.

Against the Fall of Night is somewhat shorter, with differences accumulating particularly in the latter portion of the story, but both stories, when compared, seem to influence ...

Overlooked Classic Rewrites the History of Western Authoritarianism: The Alteration by Kingsley Amis


We live in an age in which a reality TV star has ascended to the highest office in the United States and is conducting his presidency through Twitter. We are in a world where England’s complicated relationship with Europe has turned positively rabid. Intractable conflicts in the Middle East burn on and on, and the entire world seems to be in turmoil. Just where can one go to find an alternate world, even a dystopia, in which to forget the troubles and trials of our own world for a little while?

1984 is a bestseller, but perhaps you’ve read or re-read it, and don’t want to delve the story of Winston Smith yet again. Perhaps you’ve also re-read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle and aren’t up for further Nazis vs. Imperial Japan action. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is always a solid choice, but perhaps you’ve already re-read that ...


Robinson Crusoe of Tschai: Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure Tetralogy

Planet of Adventure Adam Reith is a scout aboard the Explorator IV, a research and scouting vessel of a future Earth that is expanding into the stars.¹ A scout, to quote Chief Officer Deale, is “half acrobat, half mad scientist, half cat burglar” and more: “A man who likes change.” Reith gets his fill of that last, as his ship investigates a planet around the star Carina 4269, 212 light years from Earth. A faint radio signal has reached the vicinity of Earth from the planet, a signal that ended abruptly. So, someone sent a signal 200 years ago, but who? And why did the signal end? The Explorator IV is destroyed by a surprise attack of space torpedoes from the planet. The only survivors turn out to be Reith and his fellow scout Paul Waunder, who were sent in a separate vessel to get closer to the planet. One ...

Keeping Telepaths in Mind: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester


Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

With the Hugo winners recently announced for 2016, its the perfect time to look back to the novel that was awarded the first ever Hugo Award. That novel was The Demolished Man, a book that stands with The Stars My Destination as one of the two masterpieces of SF author Alfred Bester. The past, as the saying goes, is a foreign country, and visiting it again often leads to unpleasant surprises. Though the novel was awarded the then-highest honor in Science Fiction, how does The Demolished Man hold up for readers today? Can it still be read and enjoyed by people who aren’t seeking a deep dive into the history of the field, but want to enjoy an early ...

Robots, Time Travel, and Social Experiments: Why You Don’t Have to Be An Expert on Plato to Enjoy The Just City

JustCity-crop If you know anything about Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first book in her Thessaly trilogy, it’s probably the inescapable fact that Plato’s Republic is a cornerstone of the novel. The titular city that is constructed and that the characters come to inhabit is modeled explicitly on the society that is outlined in Plato’s foundational text of Western Philosophy. It’s the most intimate mixing of a classical text and science fiction that I have ever read, and in a very real way, The Just City is in dialogue with The Republic in a way that Plato himself, I think, would have approved. What if, however, you’ve never read The Republic, and the only thing you know about Plato is that he’s the guy who came up with the Allegory of The Cave? Or perhaps even that is news to you. Can you still derive pleasure and value ...
The Just City Jo Walton

Of Dogs and Men: Clifford Simak’s City

citysimak What to make, in this day and age, of Clifford Simak, an SF writer born in a mold uncommon in this era, and uncommon even in his own? A midwesterner born and raised, living his life in rural Wisconsin and the modest metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. That sort of environment gave him a midwestern, pastoral sensibility that infused all of his SF work, from Way Station to “The Big Front Yard,” both of which were Hugo winners and both merged the worlds of rural America with the alien and the strange. Simak’s fiction also featured and explored artificial intelligence, robots, the place of religion and faith, his love of dogs, and much more. There is a diversity of ideas and themes across his expansive oeuvre. It can be bewildering to find an entry point into the work of older writers, especially ones like Simak. Where to begin? There is a ...