Goodreads review: “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

C. S. Lewis wrote this novel in 1938 after a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien. They lamented how little fiction was available to their liking, and Lewis agreed to write a space-travel story. He’d written little fiction so far, but as he says in a note preceding the story, he’d enjoyed H.G. Wells’s “fantasies” and owed them a debt.

The resulting novel, more science fantasy than science fiction, contains many pages of imaginative worldbuilding and thoughtful philosophizing. At times, though, the plot slows and thins, as does characterization. Unlike The Screwtape Letters, which I enjoyed and recommend, it offers little humor or stylish writing.

Readers making their first forays into science fiction and fantasy might enjoy more recent books better – the writing here is a little too dated and unsophisticated. However, readers who are trying to grasp the history of science fiction should read this as a milestone in the development of the genre and Lewis’s career. In addition, patient readers might enjoy the intriguing questions it raises about spirituality and ethics.

Although it’s part of a trilogy, this novel reaches a satisfactory stand-alone ending. When our protagonist, having wandered the solar system, finally returns to Earth, his first act is to find a bar and order a pint of bitter.

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Why Cervantes claimed he didn’t write Don Quixote

14744_195788473401_35622383401_3041506_4566887_nIn front of Spain’s National Library in Madrid, a statue of Miguel de Cervantes stands with one foot resting on a pair of books. One of them is spine-out, and we can read its title: Amadís de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul).

That book tells the story of Amadis, from the fictional kingdom of Gaul, who was the greatest knight in the world. This Spanish novel of chivalry, written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and published in 1508, became Europe’s first best-seller. It was reprinted nineteen times, translated into seven languages, spawned forty-four direct sequels in several languages, and fueled an entire genre that lasted a century. (I also translated it into English.) Most notably, around 1600, it inspired Don Quixote of La Mancha. The second half of Don Quixote was published 400 years ago in 1615.

In many ways, Cervantes satirizes (or pays homage to) that tale, including a characteristic element of novels of chivalry that began with Amadis of Gaul. An earlier version of Amadis had existed since the 1300s in the form of a three-book novel, but Montalvo’s edition was different, as he explains in his prologue:

14744_195788468401_35622383401_3041505_3189411_n“I corrected these three books of Amadis, such as they could be read, due to poor writers or very corrupt and dissolute scribes, and I translated and added a fourth book and a sequel, Exploits of Esplandián, which until now no one has seen. By great good fortune, a manuscript was discovered in a stone tomb beneath a hermitage near Constantinople, and it was brought by a Hungarian merchant to eastern Spain in such ancient script and old parchment that it could only be read with much difficulty by those who knew the language.”

Of course, Montalvo himself wrote the fourth book and Exploits de Esplandián (Sergas de Esplandián). Why lie about it? Because, as he himself put it, the novel “had been considered rank fiction rather than chronicles.” By proclaiming it an ancient story and perhaps even forgotten history rather than fiction, it could obtain the status of works by Homer and Cicero.

He doesn’t seem to have fooled anyone, but he did set a pattern. Supposedly, the manuscript for the sequel Lisuarte de Grecia (Lisuarte of Greece) by Juan Díaz (1514) had been written in Greek in Constantinople and taken to Rhodes when the city fell to the Ottomans. Amadis de Grecia (Amadis of Greece) by Feliciano de Silva (1530) had been found in a wooden box behind a wall in a cave in Spain, hidden during the Moslem invasion in 711. Silves de la Selva (Silves of the Jungle) by Pedro de Luján (1546) was encountered in the magical sepulcher of Amadis himself, written in Arabic.

And so on. Manuscripts were discovered in distant castles and during voyages to far-off lands. Some were written in Hungarian, Latin, Tuscan, German, Chaldean, and “Indian” (Sanskrit, perhaps). A few were even supposedly written by characters from earlier novels.

Among the many jokes in Don Quixote whose punchline we have forgotten today is the one in Chapter IX. It recounts how, in a market in Toledo, a boy was selling some old paper to be reused. Cervantes looked at one of the pieces of paper, a pamphlet, and it turned out to be part of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli. He purchased a translation of the pamphlets for two pecks of raisins and two bushels of wheat. This discovered manuscript, Cervantes claimed, became the basis of the rest of the first part of his novel.

Rather than being found in some exotic place after a search filled with drama, difficulty, and great cost, Don Quixote was rescued from the garbage and translated on the cheap.

Besides that satire in Quixote, there’s another joke based on one of Montalvo’s books that we’ve forgotten to laugh at. An imaginary island described in Exploits of Esplandian overflowed with gold and was ruled by a califa. Spanish conquistadors had read many novels of chivalry and sometimes compared the wonders of the New World to the marvels in those books, but when they sailed up the western coast of what we now call Mexico, they found a place that offered little besides rocks and condors. To entertain themselves, they started calling that barren land after the fabulously rich island in the book: “California.”


This article was also published in the Fall 2015 issue (pdf) of The Source, a quarterly publication of the American Translators Association Literary Division.

My vote for the Nebula Award short stories

I’ve read all the short stories nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The awards, which include novels, novellas, novelettes, game writing, dramatic presentation (television, movies, etc.), and young adult books, will be presented May 18 in Los Angeles.

I’m sorry to say I loved only two of them. As a member, I must vote for one (ranked voting is for the Hugos, not the Nebulas), and here’s my vote:

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
My heart was in my throat, hoping the witch librarian would help the troubled boy find the book he needed to escape his life, and the boy would accept the magic that the book had to offer him. I read this slowly, knowing it was a short story and would end soon, trying to give myself more time to enjoy it. Magic, indeed.

My opinions of the other stories, ranked in order of preference:

Second place: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
The story encompasses nine short biographies of the slaves whose teeth came to be part of Washington’s dentures. (True story: Washington had dentures made of human teeth.) Since they form an alternate history of a world in which there are various kinds of magic, I kept expecting the consequences of this magic to change the sweep of history, but they did not. Still, well worth reading.

Third place: “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3–4/18)
A visit to a haunted house led to disaster for a boy. Now an adult, he returns. The house is still haunted, but he might be able to beat its time-space mutations. The real story is the protagonist’s personal history of his unhappy family, shortcomings, and childhood disasters. This is done well, yet it feels familiar, resembling quite a few other literary short stories I’ve read. Perhaps unhappy families can be alike, too.

Fourth place: “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)
A boy discovers the cost of magic, and he learns that good intentions do not overrule cold cause and effect. The fable-like telling feels too distant, and the story seems familiar. There are no new stories, true, but perhaps a more detailed, close-up telling could have revealed new contours of yearning within an old idea.

Nope: “Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
A military commander must turn off a humanoid robot that was badly injured in the line of duty. Up until that moment, the commander has shown the emotional response of a turnip, yet he suddenly sinks into bathos. This story got on the ballot through the not-a-slate 20BooksTo50K® slate. It has some merit, but it’s not ready for prime time and is not one of the year’s five best short stories. It shouldn’t be on the ballot.

Nope: “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
An asteroid is about to destroy the Earth, and a rich man with a rocket must pick the three thousand people who will escape death and perpetuate humanity. This is a cliché within a cliché, and poorly told at that. The story is another on the not-a-slate 20BooksTo50K® slate, and it doesn’t deserve to be on the ballot.

Writers Aloud: I’ll be reading on Sunday

PropTheatreI’ll be reading “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons” as part of the Writers Aloud series at Prop Theater on Sunday, April 7. The event, from 3 to 5 p.m., will also feature Johanna Drew reading “Ask Me for My Photo (my life in online dating).”

Free and open to the public, with refreshments, at 3502 N. Elston Ave.

If you can’t come, you can read my story at Clarkesworld. It’s about battle between robots on Mars!

A first look at “Interference”

InterferenceCover_SmallHere’s the cover for Interference, the sequel to Semiosis.

The Verge interviewed me about the book:

“In Interference, Burke picks up the story a century after the end of Semiosis as a new expedition from Earth arrives on the planet, which threatens to upset the balance between Stevland, the Glassmakers, and humanity. The novel is out on October 22nd, and The Verge spoke with Burke about the novel, colonization, and why you should be nice to your house plants….”