Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review of the Poetry in James Gunn's Ad Astra Premiere Issue

According to its webpage, James Gunn's Ad Astra ( "combines the best parts of creative magazines and scholarly journals and brings them to the web," and is "a volunteer organization under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of partnership with the CSSF's educational outreach program, AboutSF [, a joint project of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Science Fiction Research Association]."  After much hoopla and delay, the premiere issue is finally available.  Based on what it pays its contributors, it is a semi-pro market for speculative fiction, and a semi-pro to professional market for speculative poetry.  The publication caught my eye because of its uniqueness, mission, and association with the major university nearest to me.  Go Jayhawks!

What follows is a poem-by-poem review of the poetry in the premiere issue of Ad Astra.  The editors describe the theme as "deeply concerned with communication and information in its myriad forms, from robotic exploration to genetics to prayer."

Silent Spirit by Kenny A. Chaffin is a poignant lament about the fate of the Spirit Martian Rover that went silent, if memory serves, about two to three years ago after several years of service.  The robot is depicted by the poet as an extension of ourselves, of God even, which, of course it is.

String Theory by John Philip Johnson is mind-blowing trip.  What an imagination this poet has!  The poem travels from the present, to the past, to the futures that are and might have been, from the third dimension to the fourth dimension to a moment when there are no dimensions at all.  According to the bio, he has a story forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction--can't wait!

The Great Silence (Sonnet for SETI) by Geoffrey A. Landis laments that our Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has so far been fruitless.  I was reminded of the much more profound and clever piece, SETI by LeRoy Gorman, a poem of only five words that conveys the same message (reviewed in Songs of Eretz in a review of Dwarf Stars 2012 on November 7, 2012).  Mr. Landis' poem starts strong with a clever use of alliteration and sibilance to evoke the static hiss heard when listening for messages from the stars.  Unfortunately, I felt that the poem went down hill from there, with trite rhymes, metrical problems, and stanza misplacements, particularly the use of a single-lined stanza at the end when a good heroic couplet would have been much more powerful.  And, although the poem does contain the requisite number of lines, it cannot, in my opinion, be properly called a sonnet.

Etilatep by Katharyn Howd Machan transported me to another world in the same way that I recall Tolkien did for me in his Silmarillion only in a much more abstract, alien way.  What better experience than that?

We Found a Kind of Vine by Kevin Rabas sings of how an alien race, just before being exterminated, "saves" itself by implanting its genetic code within a plant.  What a novel way to store information!  I enjoyed the poem and found myself wondering what might have been learned from a race with such an advanced knowledge of biology...

Knowledge Stream by W. C. Roberts describes the way that the galaxy might speak, how information might flow through it.  I thought of pulsars and solar winds as I read.

Genome by Jacqueline Seewald is cleverly arranged with each line centered so that the shape of the poem is evocative of the double helical structure of DNA.  The poem is a kind of song of the genetic engineer or DNA-sequencer.  The reference to Pygmalion's statue at the end was a nice touch.

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