Category Archives: vintage paperbacks

Best Far-Future SF Books

I love science-fiction books set in the far future. And I’m not talking mere tens of thousands of years—I mean tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of years in the future. In most of my favorite tales of the distant future, our world is unrecognizable—the sun is swollen, nearing the end of its life, and our time is but a fragment of a vast forgotten past.

As a reader, I’m drawn to the pure imagination found in these stories. As a writer, I love the liberation the extreme future offers, the opportunity to just cut loose and not be constrained by whatever trends we think will control our lives a few paltry years out. It forces the writer into some serious world-building, since it requires constructing societies, technologies, even animal life, from scratch. But that’s part of the fun.

Very few writers can pull off that kind of setting well. These are my favorites, in no particular order:

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950) is a book that many sci-fi fans have heard about, but not as many have read. It was out of print for a long time, and was a hard book to find in used bookstores. In this future Earth, a red, exhausted sun drags itself across the dark blue sky. Technology has been developed so long ago that people don’t even understand how most of it works, and is often treated as if it were magic, with characters wielding technology like wizards conjuring spells.

Vance remembers one of the most important rules of far-future fiction—the people of those times won’t act like we will. They’ll have different motivations and perspectives, and so it is with the strange, often brutal, swashbuckling protagonists of these tales.

In Son of Man by Robert Silverberg (1971) we follow Clay, a man of the 20th Century who has become lost in a mostly unexplained time flux. He ends up in a future so distant that all that remains of humanity are a handful of bizarre descendant species—carefree, but immensely powerful Skimmers, unmoving Awaiters, bear-like Destroyers. The planet Mercury is gone, as are Saturn’s rings. As he explores the future Earth with Skimmers who’ve befriended him, Clay meets other humans from times in between that have also been flung forward by the time flux. Most of them are unrecognizable as people.

The tone of this novel is downright trippy, the kind of book that many readers assume must have been written during a drug-fueled binge, but anyone who knows anything about Silverberg knows of his writerly discipline. You don’t write 82 novels under your own name, plus a couple hundred more under pen names, 71 non-fiction books, edit dozens of short story collections and produce more than 450 short stories and novelettes if you’re away from your typewriter getting wasted. No, this book is just pure imagination in flight.

Of all the books mentioned here, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson (1912) is the strangest. As the title suggests, the Earth is a land of eternal night, as the sun itself has burned out. The world is lit only by the glow of the “Earth Current” that sustains what is left of the human race. All of humanity lives in the Last Redoubt, a miles-high pyramid, and dares not venture out, as they are beset on all sides by horrifying demonic beasts and bizarre aliens. Only ancient technology keeps the monsters at bay.

The hero is the reincarnated soul of a man from our millennium who leaves the sanctuary of the Redoubt to search for a soulmate from a past life who may survive in a legendary second Redoubt. His journey is epic in every sense of the word.

This book is too long, often redundant, and the author adopted an archaic style that takes a while to get into. Yet once you read it, you can’t get the haunting landscape out of your head.

Since The Night Land is old enough to be in the public domain, other writers have picked up the setting and run with it. The most noteworthy is John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land.

The Book of The new Sun by Gene Wolf (1980-) is made up of four volumes—The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.

Severian the Torturer is the main character, and he’s the classic unreliable narrator. Across the four books we learn there is more to Severian than first suspected, and his role in humanity’s future is larger than anyone could have guessed. Severian’s journey takes us across an Earth unlike any we’ve encountered. Wolfe does a great job of imparting the weight of time upon the residents of this old Earth. Digging into the ground anywhere uncovers layers of lost and forgotten civilizations. Gene Wolfe is a great writer, one of the best in SF, and this is his masterwork. He carries on the tale in The Urth of the New Sun, which sees Severian travel the stars and secure mankind’s destiny.

2016: The Year in Books

chase-the-tiger01-duplicateAs the year winds down, my eyes are protesting. They have a point. My steely blue orbs have absorbed a lot of words these past twelve months. I made a point in 2016 of reading outside my usual comfort zones, as well as putting an emphasis on reading books from indie authors. Add in my own writing, plus editing jobs, plus trying to read menus in darkened restaurants, and I’m fortunate I can see at all.

But I can, so let’s recount the wonders of the written word! First, while I did cast the net wide for genre fiction and independently published works, I read my share of conventional literature as well. I finally got around to some Tolstoy, for example.  And I read The Commodore in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, because I get the shakes if I go too long without reading one of those. I’m probably the last person to get on the Raymond Chandler bandwagon, but I’m making up for lost time. I read The Long Goodbye, and have another Phillip Marlowe mystery on deck.  I finished William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert Heinlein: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, an exhaustively researched biography. I even worked in a couple political polemics, because it was that kind of year.

But the indie works really stood out in 2016. Nick Cole hit two homescreen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-09-23-pm runs with Ctrl Alt Revolt and Fight the Rooster. The former won a Dragon Award for its sci-fi melding of AI, video games and caustic social commentary, while the latter is a manic romp about a Hollywood director trying to  break free from the chains of success.

Also standing out from the crowd was Liberty Boy by David Gaughran, a work of historical fiction set in Ireland that I enjoyed immensely.  The Missionaries by Owen Stanley was a fun skewering of do-gooder UN types set on a Pacific isle.

I’m one of Michael Bunker’s Patreon subscribers, so I’ve enjoyed the delicious chapters of Hell and the Sea as they’ve been released each month. The novel is a fictionalized account of the early days of the indie publishing revolution, and it has a big future ahead of it when it’s released in its entirety.

Part of my “reading outside my usual comfort zones” vow includes paying more attention to the romance genre. There is some great work being done on that side of the fence, like Place Your Betts by Katie Graykowski. The term “laugh-out-loud-funny” get overused a lot, but not in this case. Katie’s work just crackles with wit.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-19-01-pmOf course, my heart has always been in the science-fiction and fantasy fields, and I found some gems here in 2016. Vaughn Heppner is one of those indies who sells so many books it makes my head spin, so I downloaded Alien Honor, and admired how he set the table for an entertaining space opera series. I kept noticing The Long Way Down by Craig Schaefer in the also-bought feed for my Connor Rix series so I gave that a read. I snatched up a copy of Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23 when it went on sale earlier this year. It didn’t do much for me, but YMMV. Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia isn’t indie published, but it hit a populist nerve and won a Dragon award. It’s the beginning volume in a great epic fantasy, and entertaining as hell.

I read The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, first published in 1912, one of the strangest science-fantasy books I’ve ever read, and I mean that in a good way. It’s set in a future so distant that the sun has burned out and all of humanity lives in one vast redoubt. Speaking of distant futures, I finally (finally!) found a battered paperback copy of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth at Half-Price Books, devoured it, and then raced through Dan Simmons’ homage to Vance, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-06-18-pmThis was also a year for short stories. I started the year picking my way through Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I snacked on the wyrd western Ledge Town by Jason Anspach, and enjoyed  Jessup’s Door, a time travel story by Michael Bunker.  I’ve also been working my way through the variety of indie voices in The Expanding Universe.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-05-49-pmIn my role as editor, I get the first look at a lot of fun and compelling fiction. I’ve enjoyed working with Kate Baray on her Spirelli Paranormal Investigations series, Cate Lawley on her Vegan Vamp series, Anthony Whitt’s  Hard Land to Rule westernand Lori Ryan’s Sutton Capital series of romantic suspense novels.

Of course, I contributed to the indie market my own self, with the release of the dark fantasy Fight for the Night, and the fourth book in my Connor Rix series, Chase the Tiger. If you’d like to make an author happy in 2017, sign up for my newsletter over in the sidebar, and give one of them a look.

Best Dollar Spent This Year

L'Amour: HangingWomanCreekBeing a writer, I have a library, and it’s a pretty good one. Despite the fact that my bookshelves groan and creak from the amount of paper I cram into them, I’m always on the lookout for more.

So you can bet that when I found myself at a sprawling small-town market days event this summer and found a vendor selling vintage Louis L’Amour paperbacks for 25 cents each, I had my wallet out faster than you can say “Hondo.”

L'Amour:RadiganLouis L’Amour was one of the greatest genre writers of all time. He died in 1988 but his books are still in print, and his sales count is somewhere north of 320 million copies and climbing. Besides being great reads, the four paperbacks I scooped up for a buck are a great window into a particular period of mass market publishing.

These books were first published in the 1950s and early 1960s, but  the Bantam and Fawcett paperback editions I found are from the late 1960s. All are priced at 60 cents, and all of them run from 115-125 pages—about 40,000 words.

That was a pretty standard genre novel back then. An inexpensive 120-page paperback is a format that has all but disappeared from bookstore shelves, although the short novel has found new life in the ebook era. My own Connor Rix SF thrillers (look over in the sidebar) run in the 50,000-word range, and I’ve found that to be a comfortable length for telling a complete story without saddling the reader with a long slog.

The cover art on these titles also L'Amour:LastStandcaptures a particular flavor of 1960s illustration. Sadly, none of the cover artists are credited in these books. The Radigan cover has a signature, but I can’t read it. The style is reminiscent of Fred Pfeiffer’s, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t do these.  Sharp-eyed followers of Western art will no doubt recognize these brushstrokes; if so, drop a line in the comments.