Off the Shelf: Moon of Skulls, Quicksilver, Analog: Sept. 2008

I got off to a great start to my summer reading list, but it slowed down significantly after July, when my spring-summer run of work conferences ended (which had given me plenty of time to read on cross-country plane trips), and I had to double-down on my projects to meet start-of-semester deadlines.

The other problem? I ran into Moon of Skulls, a collection of short stories by Robert E. Howard.

Moon of Skulls

Moon of Skulls features a lot of his early work, as well as two Solomon Kane stories, but unfortunately it also has a lot of overt racism. The opening story “Skull-face” is a tale of an Atlantian wizard who’s escapes from his millennia-long imprisonment to unite the tribes of Africa and Asia to overthrow the civilized world. These themes show up repeatedly throughout the book, returning again when the raging Puritan Soloman Kane heads to Africa to confront a secret kingdom of lost Atlantean slaves and confronts a tribe of vampires.

They’re tough reads, with Howard shamelessly playing to racial stereotypes and playing up the “noble white man confronts savage black men” angle. I realize that Howard is hardly unique in this — plenty of his contemporaries, including H.P. Lovecraft — shared his prejudices, but it was still damn unnerving, and much more prevalent than I expected. All this made it a hard book to finish, but in terms of understanding this period in weird/pulp fiction, I think it was a worthwhile one. Just know what you’re getting yourself into if you decide to pick it up.


Keeping with my 2008 theme of finishing books I purchased and abandoned years ago, I finally took Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver off my bookshelf again. I can’t say I’m making any better progress the second time around. There are two problems with the novel so far: time shifts and pacing.

First, the time shifts. In his previous book, Cryptonomicon, Stephenson told parallel stories taking place during WWII and the modern era. The main character in the WWII story was the grandfather of the main character in the modern one, and he expertly alternated between the settings. The result was a brisk story that unveiled just the right amount of detail at just the right time.

In Quicksilver, he tries the same trick with Daniel Waterhouse, but this time around he’s switching between two historical periods (the mid 1600s in England and early 1700s in America) with the same character. He uses the past tense for the English scenes and the present tense for the American ones, but ultimately it feels like literary mush.The other problem is pacing. The book is taking forever to get to its point, and has spent most of its pages happily exploring the nooks and crannies of the early Enlightenment era. As something of history buff, and a fan of this time period, I appreciate the sentiment, but damn, can’t we get to the story already?

Analog SF&F: September 2008

I’m making a determined effort to get current with my Analogs (all the more important since I just re-upped my subscription for two years. Right now I’m reading the September 2008 issue, which leads off with “The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskaya” by Henry G. Stratmann. It’s about a couple living on a Mars that’s been terraformed and moved closer to Earth’s orbit by aliens, rendering it habitable. They represent a sort of human Adam and Eve and are the only explorers/colonists allowed on the planet.

As the title suggests, the story’s all about the temptation of its main characters by the aliens. The extraterrestrials offer our heroes infinite cosmic power, which they inevitably refuse because the poor human race just since ready for it.You know, just once I’d love to read a story about future humans who have enough faith in their better natures to consider themselves good enough to wield such near-magical powers (and actually not succumb to it). Now that would be a truly transformed humanity…

The edition’s main science article — “Follow the Nanobrick Road” by Edward M. Lerner — is all about nanotech and what our chances are of developing truly useful, large scale nanotechnology in the next few decades. It’s a good read, grounded in facts, and doesn’t appear to be too wide-eyed in its speculation. It’s about what’s possible and practical, and focuses on things as useful as purified (and thus much stronger) steel. Other stories include Part 2 of David R. Palmer’s three-part serial “Tracking” and David Grace’s “Forever Mommy”.

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