Tag Archives: Geoffrey A. Landis

Impact Parameter, Geoffrey A. Landis

Golden Gryphon, 2001, 340 pages, US$24.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-06-1

Hard SF is good to find, and so the news that there would be an anthology of Geoffrey A. Landis’ short-fiction made me giddy with joy. What didn’t make make overly happy was the fact that it would be published by a small specialized editor and widely available only through the SF Book Club. Eh, what can you do? At least it counted against my “minimal purchase” membership requirement.

At least the book itself was worth the trouble: Sixteen stories clearly tilted toward the hard-SF end of the spectrum, with some variety (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a humour vignette, a hard-SF/magic hybrid) thrown in for extra fun. It’s worth noting that Landis has published over sixty stories since his entry in the field: no mention is made, however, of the rationale behind the selection of those particular stories. We can probably assume they’re the best and/or the most representative. Indeed, there are a number of award-nominated stories in those sixteen.

Landis is a NASA scientist by day and a science-fiction writer whenever he’s got time, and so it’s not surprising to see that his fiction tends to focus not just on hard-SF, but on real-science science-fiction. Stories like “Dark Lady” study the interactions between modern-day scientists and the way their mind works, with only a tiny nod at a scientific breakthrough at the very end. “Beneath the Stars of Winter” is similar, as Soviet scientists struggle to understand the universe from within a gulag deep in Siberia. In this regard, Landis’ fiction feels like Gregory Benford in how eager it is in presenting science fiction in another sense of the expression, with very human scientists.

The difference between the two might be that Landis has a slight edge in accessibility. Of the sixteen stories, few are anything less than compulsively readable. Stuff like the sarcastic “What We Really Do At NASA” is even too short.

Fans of the Hard-SF stuff will be please beyond belief at some of the science puzzle stories in this volume. The book opens with “A Walk in the Sun”, the kind of quasi-classic tale that takes a simple premise and, well, walks with it. Other stories, like “Ecopoeisis”, “Into the Blue Abyss” and “Approaching Perimelasma” are straight from the Hard-SF school of fantastic explorations. (Murder on an abandoned Mars! A trip in the oceans of Neptune! A dive through a wormhole!) Good stuff, though some fans with a lower regard for “that yucky characterization stuff” (yup, that’s me) may not find some of the sub-plots so compelling.

Occasionally, Landis takes a stylistic or conceptual detour, and the results are as fascinating: “The Singular Habits of Wasps” has got to be one of the best steampunk crossovers I’ve read. “Snow” is a moody piece that picks away at SF’s triumphant ethos. “Ourobouros” is a simple but unnerving idea, done well. (Maybe he’ll expand it in a novel some day) “Elemental” is sort of an odd-ball in the lot, his first published story mixing hard science and gonzotific elemental magic. While intriguing, the concept seems developed in a uneven fashion: I’d certainly welcome a slicker, longer take on the same ideas.

Anthologies are always, in my mind, a better way to judge a writer’s strengths and themes than a simple novel. In Landis’ case, Impact Parameter is a much stronger work than his rather disappointing Mars Crossing. It shows his dedication both to the parameters of science and the impact of fiction. His afterword notes awards, inspirations and details about his stories, clearly showing a genre writer who’s aware of his strengths. I will certainly buy his next book in an instant. Even through the SFBC if I have to.

Mars Crossing, Geoffrey A. Landis

Tor, 2000, 331 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87201-1

Like with so many SF authors known uniquely for a string of excellent short stories, Geoffrey A. Landis’ first novel was eagerly awaited by readers of the genre. As a particularly gifted representative of the Hard-SF school of writing, Landis had demonstrated, through his stories, a talent for complex characters, lucid prose and a fertile imagination. Mars Crossing arrived on shelves in time for Christmas and the new millennium, hopefully satisfying a legion of eager fans.

Landis plays it safe by setting his first novel on Mars. In the past few years, SF has seen a renewed interest in the Red Planet outstripping even the early-nineties boom which had given rise to, most famously, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. He takes a half-serious, half-adventurous approach to the planet halfway between the nuts-and-bolts of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage and the wild ludicrousness of Hollywood’s Mars blockbusters. The result is uneven, but entertaining.

As with several of the other Mars novels, Mars Crossing spends half its time describing the trip on Mars, and the other half explaining how the various members of the expedition ended up there. The current section of the novel is fine, concerning itself with a series of nick-of-time adventures aimed at getting the astronauts off Mars after a disastrous technical problem shortly after landing. Parallels are made with the exploration of Antarctica, which should give you an idea of the book’s body count. Canyons are crossed, planes are flown, calculations and stupid mistakes are made, people are killed or murdered and during all that time, as with all Mars novels, the stupid people on Earth couldn’t care less about space exploration. Thrills and chills abound and the pacing is snappy.

It’s the other half of Landis’ novel that isn’t so good. In an effort to bring more drama to a survival adventure story, Landis makes sure that every one of his characters (except the guy who buys it barely fifty pages in the novel) is jam-packed with past traumas, deep secrets, unchivalrous motives, hidden identities and severe sociopathologies. While it would have been fine for one or two characters, the cumulative effect invites disbelief. It’s entirely possible to come to a point where you can’t care about the next big trauma that Landis will reveal.

On the other hand, this does make up for a bunch of interesting characters. Those who thought that the “Survivor” casts had interesting problems and treacherous personalities are bound to be pleasantly surprised here.

Fortunately, despite everything, “Survivor” addicts are not the only one likely to derive some satisfaction from the novel. Landis wrote a lot of short stories before sending Mars Crossing to Tor, and it shows through the limpid writing style as well as the numerous short chapters. While the flashback to the characters’ previous lives might be exasperating at the macro-level, they’re handled with the right amount of detail and attention. As with all good adventures, Mars Crossing moves with the proper pacing. And, Landis being a working scientist in his non-writing time, you can be assured of the novel’s aura of technical authenticity. He’s less successful in describing future social trends and musical styles, but at least he makes an effort at it.

The end result, all things considered, is a honest first novel with some flaws, but also with enough strengths to recommend to the hard-SF audience. While a slight disappointment on some levels, Mars Crossing promises a lot for Landis’ future career as a novelist, as well as for his expectant fans.