Category Archives: Matthew Appleton

Softspoken by Lucius Shepard

Softspoken Cover

ISBN-13: 978-1597800730
ISBN-10: 1597800732
Publisher: Night Shade Books Pub. date: May 2007
$23.95, 179 pages,

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

I like to think that I’m pretty flexible when it comes to reading fantastic literature. While I unreservedly prefer science fiction to other forms of the meta-genre, I frequently find enjoyment in horror, urban fantasy, magic realism, science fantasy and all of the other forms of literature that compose the fantastic. Yet, occasionally I encounter a story that leaves me feeling ambiguous towards it because while I appreciate intellectually what the author was attempting to do, it didn’t readily appeal to my reading sensibilities. Lucius Shepard’s Softspoken is such a book.

Shepard’s short novel weaves a Southern Gothic tale around Sanie Bullard, a 28-year-old housewife left pretty much to her own devices while her husband, Jackson, studies for the bar in the family’s decaying mansion in a backwoods region of South Carolina. While struggling with boredom and being cutoff from the urban lifestyle to which she’s accustomed and prefers, she starts hearing spirits in the house calling out to her and soon they begin actually appearing. Already coping poorly with her loneliness, a crumbling marriage, and the possibility that Jackson appears to be succumbing to the same mental instability that claimed his father and already seems to afflict his brother, Sanie starts struggling with her perceptions about Jackson, reality, and herself.

While I enjoy stories that toy with the fringes of reality the way a kitten plays with dangling strings, there’s something about the presentation of Softspoken that didn’t fully appeal to me. However, I can appreciate why others may find it enjoyable. While the novel doesn’t begin and conclude in the exact same fashion, there’s a kind of Dahlgren-esque quality to the novel in the way the narrative becomes somewhat unreliable and ultimately comes full circle. This results in an ambiguous ending which leaves you questions what exactly happened during the novel’s coda.

By the end of Softspoken, there are differing possibilities which explain what really happened. While I don’t mind questioning reality and our perceptions of it, I prefer a firmer foundation in the narrative – a grounding by which to form a comfortable opinion on the events contained within – than Shepherd provides in Softspoken. As a result, I found the uncertainty of the ending somewhat unsatisfying. However, those who like a multi-faceted ambiguity will certainly enjoy playing with the possibilities inferred/implied by the ending, and I will not begrudge them one minute of that enjoyment.

A Deposition Regarding The Dispossessed

By Matthew Appleton

In his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Neuromancer, William Gibson discusses the challenges of reading classic sf when you start reading it in your teens. In particular, the very nature of the genre means that unforeseen technological innovations or the unanticipated consequences of correctly projected technological evolution will eventually rip away the referential moorings of a particular work as it progresses into its imagined future. Thus, a reader encountering for the first time a classic work of sf will need to compensate, thus “shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden.”

When I recently finished reading Le Guin’s classic, The Dispossessed, it was the first time I read it. However, I don’t believe that merely knowing that I read a 40-year-old novel gives the proper context. To provide perspective by way of example, when I was a teenager, I read reprints of two Groff Conklin Golden Age anthologies: The Omnibus of Science Fiction and Treasury of Science Fiction. At that time, the majority of the stories were of the same relative vintage as The Dispossessed currently displays. Although the experience of reading a novel written when I was still a toddler required less of an imaginative burden than reading short fiction from the ‘40s whilst in my teens, at various times I contemplated whether, technological issues aside, my perspective must be far different than that of a contemporary reader when The Dispossessed first appeared in bookstores.

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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer Government

ISBN-13: 978-0385507592
ISBN-10: 0385507593
Publisher: Doubleday
Pub. date: Jan. 2003
$19.95, 321 pages,

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the October 2003 issue (#184) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.


Imagine a novel where two umbrella organizations battle for control of consumers’ hearts and minds with ubiquitous and sometimes misleading advertising. These two groups will use any method to increase sales, even if it is questionably legal. In fact, the battle between the two groups gets downright nasty at times, with corporate warfare literally taking place. The government is little more than a figurehead, its power usurped by corporations. Elements of society toward the bottom of the economic totem pole are starting to rebel, attempting to change the system. It sounds an awful lot like Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. It also happens to sum up Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

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Red Moon by Michael Cassutt

Red Moon Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0312874407
ISBN-10: 0312874405
Publisher: Forge
Pub. date: Feb. 2001
$25.95, 352 pages,

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the September 2001 issue (#157) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Most Americans are familiar with the basic details of the American space program in the 1960s and its climatic finish in beating the Soviets to the moon in July of 1969. Conversely, it’s probably safe to say that other than Sputnik, Mir, and putting the first man in space, most Americans couldn’t tell you much about the Soviet program as a whole, if anything at all. In fact, the closely-guarded press of the Soviet Union made sure that they only reported the details highlighting the successes of the program. As a result, most Americans lack the capability to tell you why NASA succeeded in its goal of putting a man by the end of the decade and why the Soviets never actually made it there despite strenuous efforts. However, thanks to accomplished historian Michael Cassutt, who has written and compiled the three editions of Who’s Who in Space and is also a regular columnist for the Science Fiction Weekly webzine, we now have a highly engaging fictionalized account of the Soviet space program in the 1960s and their ultimate failure in beating the Americans to the moon.

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Snare by Katherine Kerr

Snare Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0312890452
ISBN-10: 0312890451
Publisher: Tor Books
Pub. date: April 2003
$27.95, 592 pages,

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the September 2003 issue (#181) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

One of the primary definitions of the word ‘snare’ in the Merriam Webster Dictionary is “something by which one is entangled, involved in difficulties, or impeded.” With that in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Katherine Kerr was attempting some sort of bold statement with the name of her most recent novel, Snare. Was she trying to convey that the world of this novel might just entrap the reader just as it has entrapped its occupants?

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Balshazzar’s Serpent by Jack L. Chalker

Balshazzar's Cover

Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2000; $24.95 hardcover;
291 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the January 2001 issue (#149) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

After reading the first 50 pages or so of Jack L. Chalker’s Balshazzar’s Serpent, you find yourself in something of a shock. Here you are reading a book published by Baen, the leading publisher of militaristic sf, complete with the obligatory cover art denoting it as part of the militaristic subgenre, and there isn’t even the threat of a battle looming on the horizon. What gives? Well, in religious terms, patience is a virtue if you’re looking for the standard Baen fare of a macho military leader taking a group of hardened men into glorious battle in which they utterly smite the enemy and then move on to their next conquest.

After a lot of setup, that finally happens around page 150.

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First Meetings in the Enderverse by Orson Scott Card

Enderverse Cover

New York, NY: Tor Books, 2003; $17.95 hardcover; 208 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the December 2003 issue (#184) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The Ender universe, hereon referred to as the Enderverse, seems irresistible to both creator Orson Scott Card and its many fans. At this point, Card has written seven novels in the universe, each a bestseller. Along the way, Hollywood has flirted with the idea of turning Ender’s Game, the first of the Ender novels and an expansion of the “Ender’s Game” novella, into a movie; a recent announcement on Hatrack River (Card’s official Web Site) stated that “Warner Brothers also recently announced that it has made a deal for director Wolfgang Petersen.” In addition, last year Card released through Subterranean Press First Meetings: Three Stories from the Enderverse, a self-explanatory collection of novellas. Most recently, he has added another novella to the saga and has reissued the collection through Tor Books as First Meetings in the Enderverse.

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The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century edited by Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg

Best Military SF Cover

New York, NY: Del Rey Books, 2001; $18.00 trade paperback; 544 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the October 2001 issue (#158) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The need to wage war is a trait that nearly every human culture shares. As the ultimate extension of politics, acts of warfare wholly or partially define many of the turning points in human history. Writers throughout the ages, building upon and sometimes even borrowing from our oldest recorded myths, such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Iliad, prominently display this aspect of society. Of course, writers of military fiction pursue various agendas with widely differing results. Some celebrate war and the warrior-king, finding noble truths and actions on the battlefield, while others, at the other end of the spectrum, pointedly portray the horrors of war and the acts of individual depravity that occur during warfare. Yet, throughout that spectrum there is a constant: You learn about the human condition when you study individuals at war.

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Jumping off the Planet and Bouncing off the Moon by David Gerrold

Jumping off the Planet Cover

New York, NY: Tor Books, 2000; $5.99 paperback;
281 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the June 2003 issue (#178) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The discovery of nuclear fission ranks as one of the greatest innovations of the twentieth century. It ended World War II, ushered in the Cold War, brought a new form of power and fueled our worst nightmares with the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. It also conveniently brought about the metaphor of the nuclear family, and as the twentieth century progressed, the metaphor became as combustible as the real thing. I know from experience: my nuclear family underwent fission when I was just four years old. With divorce rates in the United States hovering around 50% for a number of years now, this phenomenon shows no sign of abating soon. This unavoidable fact of modern life also provides a basis for David Gerrold’s two most recent novels, Jumping off the Planet and Bouncing off the Moon.

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Elemental: The Tsunami Relief Anthology edited by Steven Savile & Alethea Kontis

Elemental  Cover

ISBN-13: 9780765315625
ISBN-10: 0765315629
Publisher: Tor Books
Pub. Date: May 2006
$24.95, 380 pages, hardcover

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the July 2007 issue (#227) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

In general, the populace of the United States has a memory problem. Events that should remain in the public consciousness for long periods of time disconcertingly get buried quickly under the latest round of’celebrity news and gossip. However, this wasn’t entirely true in the case of the tsunami that wrecked havoc upon Southeast Asia on December 26,2004. Unfortunately, a rare instance of the country actually paying attention to a significant foreign event for more than a few days ended abruptly when hurricane Katrina wrecked massive damage upon New Orleans and significant stretches of the Gulf Coast. However, like the heads of many other Asian relief efforts, Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis persevered and continued editing an anthology of original stories, of which all the proceeds (including the authors’ fees and royalties) will go to the Save the Children Foundation. The final product, Elemental, appeared on store shelves this past summer.

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