Friday, July 13, 2018

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller (1998)

a review by Rich Horton

Archie Weller was born 13 July 1957. He is mixed race, Australian aboriginal and white, and he is well known and respected for his fiction on aboriginal life in contemporary Australia. In 2000 I contributed a review to the American journal Antipodes, which concerns Australian literature. I covered Weller's second novel, Land of the Golden Clouds, which is Science Fiction, as well as a rather dreadful fantasy novel, The Alchemist's Key, by Traci Harding. As for Land of the Golden Clouds, I found it a mixed bag -- a work of some ambition, that mostly fails. It's tedious for long stretches, and the SFnal aspects are pretty silly. At any rate, here's what I wrote about that book (somewhat revised for wording).

Land of the Golden Clouds is set 3000 years after a nuclear war had devastated the human technological society. Ilgar, a young man of a hunter-gatherer tribe descended from Australia's white inhabitants, is a "moon-talker", who prophesies the future based on what he sees in the night sky. His tribe and others in Australia, including the "Keepers of the Tree", descendants of the aboriginals, live in fear of night-time raids from the cave-dwelling Nightstalkers, who have migrated underground and cannot tolerate sunlight, and who prey on human flesh.

One dark night, Ilgar and his companions are attacked by a group of Nightstalkers. In the ensuing fight, all his companions are killed, as well as all but one of the attackers. This survivor is an 18 year old girl names S'shony, who has developed a reveulsion for her people's ways, after falling in love with a "Sun Person" who had been trapped under ground.

She uses her telepathic powers, as well s the love she and Ilgar begin to feel for each other, to urge him to form a band of people to travel overland to the cave of the leader fo the Nightstalkers. At this time an airplane from Jamaica, a rare outpost of advanced technology, is marooned in the area. Ilgar, now renamed Red Mond Star Light, leads a small party (including S'shony, some members of his tribe, two Keepers, and the Jamaicans) on a long treck across Australia.

This trek, perhaps extending from roughly Uluru (Ayers Rock) to Melbourne, takes up most of the novel. Along the way the group meets several other tribes with different ways, most hostile, but a few willing to join their quest. Some people are killed along the way, either as a result of the dangers of traveling in this landscape, or of the evil machinations of some of the tribes they encounter. A constant theme of the book is the way almost everyone in this future mistrusts anyone unfamiliar, and while this attitude seems in some way natural, Weller is surely suggesting that the way forward in the future is more trust and cooperation. The culmination is an exciting battle.

For me, this was about halfway to being a pretty fine post-Apocalyptic quest story. There are numerous impressive bits, such as the terrifying picture of life in the "Silver City", and also the well-done final battle. But much is silly and pointless, and the characters seem fairly stereotyped, though they do come to some life.

My major problems came in three areas. One was simply the unevenness of the telling -- long sections are very tedious. The scientific background is inane -- the depicted results of nuclear war are just wrong; and there is an added disaster that seemed unnecessary to me: an asteroid struck the Earth, which has evidently been knocked from its orbit and is slowly spiralling into the Sun. The telepathy that some tribes possess didn't convince at all. And, most tellingly, the prose was often quite weak. Certain descriptive passages were pretty impressive, but much was clunky and ungrammatical. (And the copy-editing of my edition was terrible.)

Ultimately, the novel read as a tired variation on hundreds of '50s post-Apocalyptic stories, complete with exaggerated anti-technological bias. In that way, it resembles only too many efforts by non-SF writers that tiresomely reiterate ancient clichés that they might think they are the first to offer.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Little Known Ace Double: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn

Ace Double Reviews, 74: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn (#D-223, 1957, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

James Gunn was born July 12, 1923, so he turns 95 today, and he is still an active writer, with a new novel out this year. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did several years ago of his only Ace Double. Alas, it was his first novel, and I'm afraid I'm not very kind to it.

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This Ace Double pairs the first adult solo novel from each of these well-known writers. (Silverberg had an earlier juvenile, Revolt on Alpha C (which as it happens was probably the first SF novel I ever read), while Gunn published a collaboration with Jack Williamson (Star Bridge) in the same year as the first publication of This Fortress World.) The 13th Immortal is about 45,000 words long, while This Fortress World is much longer at 67,000 words or so (and even as such is abridged). (I find it funny that Gunn appears in this Ace Double with Silverberg's 13th Immortal, and that he later published a novel, fixing up some of his better early stories, called The Immortals.)

Both writers are SFWA Grand Masters. I've written about Silverberg in these Ace Double reviews many times before, so I won't repeat myself here. Gunn is particularly well known as one of the first people to treat SF in an academic milieu -- indeed, he published extracts from his MA thesis in Dynamic Science Fiction. He has been a Professor (now Emeritus) of English at Kansas University for decades, and he is the Founding Director of KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction. (He has taught at KU for 60 years now!) He's also, of course, been a significant writer of SF for even longer, getting particular notice for The Listeners, about SETI, basically, which was a Nebula nominee. He won a Hugo for Best Novelette for "The Giftie" in 1999, and other Hugos for non-fiction in 1976 and 1979.

The 13th Immortal is set several hundred years after a century of war has caused the remainder of the world to retreat to technological stasis. Twelve immortal men have parceled the world into twelve domains, and they in their various ways have enforced an agrarian lifestyle on everyone. The thirteenth domain is Antarctica, newly green and secure behind an impenetrable field.

Dale Kesley is a farmer in Iowa. But he has surprisingly little memory of his past life. One day a man turns up, looking for someone -- for Dale. This man is from Antarctica, he claims. And so too, says the man, is Dale. And it's time for him to go home. After some internal agonizing, Dale decides to follow this man -- mostly because of a nagging feeling that he doesn't really fit in Iowa.

But their travels do not go smoothly, In South America the two are separated, and Dale is captured by the agents of the Immortal in charge there. Rather implausibly, this man takes a shine to Dale and instead of having him executed after an escape attempt he recruits him -- as an assassin! Dale's new job is to go back to North America and kill the Immortal up there!

It is clear that relationships among the Immortals are fraying. And during Dale's travels he learns even more about his world, as he ends up encountering a town full of despised mutants, and a town run completely by automation. Inevitably his peregrinations lead him to Antarctica, and a confrontation with the mysterious 13th Immortal -- as well as a realization of his own history and destiny.

This is really pretty minor stuff. Silverberg of that era was a competent craftsman, and often willing to at least make a stab at handling interesting issues -- but still often a producer of yard goods. This book is yard goods, and indeed a bit below the average Silverberg 1950s standard, perhaps not a surprise coming so early in his career.

This Fortress World was first published by Gnome Press in 1955. This 1957 Ace Double is abridged. It is a novel that seems very derivative of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. (One of Gunn's Hugo-winning books was called Isaac Asimov: Foundations of Science Fiction.) But nowhere near as good.
(Cover by Murray Tinkelman)

It opens with a young acolyte, William Dane, at a religious order witnessing a beautiful woman leaving something in the collection bowl, then going outside only to have her feet cut off by some blacksuited thugs. Finding her beauty sufficient to challenge his faith, he hides the pebble she left. Soon the thugs are invading his cathedral -- he kills a few of them, and decides to leave.

He's picked up by an intellectual who teaches him, almost instantly it seems, to be a master fighter. But when this man urges him to give him the mysterious pebble, he kills him. After another escape, he is rescued by a whore with a heart of gold (TM). But that doesn't last -- he decides to escape to another world, but instead he ends up in the hands of the blacksuits, by whom he is tortured. But the WWAHOG(TM) rescues him again, rather surprisingly -- only to be kidnapped herself. So William realizes he has to confront the head of the blacksuits -- and eventually the real power. But he learns that there is another power he knew nothing about ...

I hardly believed a word of it, I have to say, and I was bored through most of it. The Galactic society Gunn sketches is unconvincing, despite his heavy-handed attempts to give it a philosophical grounding. And the characters do not convince, either. (For example, William is unable to reconcile himself to the fact that Whore With a Heart of Gold (TM), with whom he falls in love, was, well, a whore (for very good reasons, it turns out).) Pretty weak stuff. I must add, however, that I was reading an abridged version, and it's possible that the full novel does a better job, particularly in establishing character.

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake's 2000 novel The Hook treats a subject much on the mind of writers, and probably little on the mind of those not involved in some way with the publishing industry: the death of the midlist. Bryce Proctorr, a bestselling writer of thrillers, is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and perhaps as a result, is completely blocked on his new book. One day he bumps into Wayne Prentice, an old friend and fellow novelist with whom he has been long out of contact. Wayne tells him his sad story: his first novels were well-received, but he became a victim of the harsh logic of bookstore computers: each novel sold a bit less than its predecessor, causing subsequent orders to go down, which caused sales to go down -- the old vicious circle. Wayne had even switched to a pseudonym, with short-term success but eventually the same fate. He has a novel finished that he can't sell. So Bryce has an idea -- what if Wayne gives him the novel. Bryce will do a light revision to make it read like he wrote it, then submit it under his own name -- and they will split the advance, over a million dollars.

So far so good. But there's a kicker. Bryce's soon-to-be-ex wife will take half of his fee for the book -- if they are still married when the payment arrives. And she is apparently (Bryce says) a stone bitch who is dragging out the divorce just to torture him. So, she needs to die. And Bryce can't do it -- he'd be the first suspect. But Wayne ...

Wayne is an ordinary guy, it seems. Very happily married. A good writer, just a victim of the insanity of contemporary publishing. And not in any way a murderer. So he thinks he'll say no. But he runs the idea by his wife, who much to his surprise doesn't reject it out of hand. So he ends up agreeing to meet Bryce's wife, just to see if she is really a bad person ...

In a way, this part ends up making no sense. Wayne meets Lucie Proctorr, who is certainly not a nice person. But "not nice" doesn't mean "deserves to be murdered", and Wayne is not really presented as a character who would make that leap. Yet he does -- I felt mainly in order that the rest of the book would exist.

And the rest of the book is an ironic recounting of how Lucie's murder affects the two writers. Their writing careers develop in believable but not entirely expected ways. Their personal lives also change, in rather ironic fashions. Each feels considerable pressure from the power the other man has over him -- either one could reveal the crime, and send both of them to jail. But their lives remain intertwined in surprising ways. All leading to a truly creepy conclusion.

It's pretty good stuff. For me, the implausibility of the characters' initial actions keeps it short of brilliant -- though it is muchly redeemed by the ending. Making me wonder, indeed, if Westlake didn't work from the ending backward, in a sense.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Final Hugo Ballot Thoughts

Here, at last, is my summary post about the Hugo shortlist, with my tentative voting plans in many of the categories. I'll include links to the various posts I've already made about the novels, and about each of the short fiction categories.

Best Novel

My view is that this ballot has two halves -- three strong candidates at the top, and three solid and enjoyable novels behind the top three -- good work that I'm glad to have read, but not quite at the level of the top three.

I intend to vote in this order. Each title will link to my review of the novel in question.

1. New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
2. Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee
3. The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin
4. Provenance, by Ann Leckie
5. Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
6. The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Best Novella

In this case, I think there are three novellas that are close to a dead heat at the top of the ballot, two further pieces that are nice enough but not really in the same league with the best stories, and one quite weak, quite disappointing story. My discussion of the stories is here.

My ballot order:

1. "And Then There Were (N - one)", by Sarah Pinsker
2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire
4. River of Thieves, by Sarah Gailey
5. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
6. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Novelette

Unlike the first couple categories, I think this one has three divisions: two stories, very close in quality, that are clearly the best; two more that are also quite strong, but a step behind; and the last two which are also decent work, just one further step behind. Probably, in that sense, a fairly typical ballot -- and, it should be said, a pretty strong one. My post on the novelettes is here.

And my ballot order:

1. "Extracurricular Activities", by Yoon Ha Lee
2. "The Secret Life of Bots", by Suzanne Palmer
3. "Wind Will Rove", by Sarah Pinsker
4. "A Series of Steaks", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5. "Children of Thornes, Children of Water", by Aliette de Bodard
6. "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time", by K. M. Szpara

Best Short Story

In this case I'd say there's a kind of even distribution of quality from top to bottom. Again, a strong ballot, with no bad stories, but one, in my view, severely harmed (as was the novel ballot, and inded the novella ballot as well) by omitting a few of the clear cut very best stories of the year. My detailed comments are here.

Ballot order:

1. "The Martian Obelisk", by Linda Nagata
2. "Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
3. "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde
4. "Carnival Nine", by Caroline Yoachim
5. "Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon
6. "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse

In the other categories, I'm generally less informed, and while I will vote where I have a preference, I mostly won't discuss things at length. There are a couple categories where I'm pretty well informed, but I won't discuss my ballot here, for partly personal reasons, and partly because I think the choices here are based on razor thin margins -- these are the Editor categories. But I'll say a couple of things about a couple of the categories.

To begin with, Best Related Work. Here I will just say that I hope that sentiment in the wake of Harlan Ellison's death doesn't promote votes for Nat Segaloff's hagiography A Lit Fuse, surely the weakest by far of the nominees. (My vote is for Paul Kincaid's Iain M. Banks, but all the other books beside A Lit Fuse seem worthy.)

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, I really think it's a three horse race, between my choice (The Shape of Water), Get Out, and Blade Runner 2049. The others are, honest, kind of in the "there are things on this list not like the others" category. Enjoyable movies in their way, but seriously not in the same league as the top three.

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, I'll won't vote -- I liked "USS Callister" a lot, but I haven't seen (nor heard) the other nominees.

In Best Professional Artist, my top slot goes to Kathleen Jennings, on merit, and because I recommended her for nomination and was very pleased to see her on the ballot. The rest of the nominees, to be sure, are all fine artists.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 978-0-316-26231-1, $17.99, tpb, 615 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Finally I’ve finished the last of the Hugo nominated novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And guess what – it’s my favorite of the set. It still, to my mind, doesn’t rank with John Crowley’s Ka, nor with Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, nor with The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel; but’s it’s pretty impressive work.

It’s been pitched, mostly, as a climate change novel – it depicts a rather sunken New York, a sort of new Venice (as with many coastal cities in this future) – and that’s important to the book. But more than that, this novel is about Robinson’s views on late capitalism, and most particularly on the way the financial system has evolved. It is, as with many of Robinson’s books, a very political novel, full of political discussions and digressions which are, for the most part, pretty interesting, and pretty one-sided.

The story opens with a couple of men, Mutt and Jeff, working as free-lance quants in the financial industry, who are sort of squatting in the farm area on the roof of the Met Life Building, which is now a residential co-op in the intertidal area of New York. Jeff, the more radical of the pair, releases a virus into the SEC’s system which will change key financial laws in a direction of greater fairness, just as a test. It’s quickly withdrawn, having caused a curious spike in the markets, and the two realize they had better run – but before they can get anywhere they are kidnapped, and end up in a container on the bottom of the harbor.

The point of view shifts quickly: the story is told through several rotating characters, all of whom live (at least eventually) in the Met Life building. These are Charlotte Armstrong, who nominally runs the co-op; Franklin Garr, a young financial wizard specializing in speculative investments about intertidal real estate; Roberto and Stefan, two orphan boys who are looking for sunken gold; Vlade, the Met Life building’s “super”; Amelia Black, a cloud star who has an apartment at the building but spends most of her time literally in the clouds, on her airship traveling around the world making nature films of a sort; Inspector Gen, a high-ranking NYPD cop; and a “citizen”, who presents essays about the financial and political history and current (as of 2140) situation in New York.

The plot twists around several events – the kidnapping and rescue of Mutt and Jeff; Roberto and Stefan’s adventures with the gold and later other things; Vlade’s investigation of what seem to be sabotage attempts on the building; Franklin’s risky speculations, his abortive love affair with a fellow financial expert, and his turn to the “good side” including investments in safer intertidal housing; Charlotte’s reluctant political career, sparked in part by a hostile takeover attempt on the Met Life Building; Amelia’s misadventures, such as trying to resettle some polar bears in the Antarctic; and a variety of investigations by Gen, covering some of the above issues. The climax results from a major hurricane reaching New York, and its aftereffects, which extend to radical political and financial changes.

It’s really a fascinating read throughout. As I’ve suggested, Robinson’s viewpoint is not in any sense balanced (I’m sure he would scoff at the idea that balance was possible or appropriate), and I think it behooves the reader to be a bit skeptical. But for all that, it’s really interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s not just political, financial, and environmental wonkery. There’s plenty of action, and plenty of nice character interaction. I was gripped throughout – though, also, I was able to set the book down for days when other deadlines impended. But that’s not really a bad thing for this sort of book.

Are there weaknesses? Yes. It might be a nitpick, but I don’t think Robinson has the knack of giving his characters individual voices – they all sound the same, despite some clear attempts at differentiating, for example, Amelia’s voice. And I thought the ending a bit fuzzy and slack. Robinson is a tremendously optimistic writer – he always has been, and I’ve always liked that in him, but in this novel it doesn’t always convince, especially at the close. (And Robinson realizes this, and addresses the reader at one point, telling us that really this isn’t a final happy ending, or even an ending at all.) One final thing – this is a big future world, just as big as our world, and the novel resembles that New Yorker cartoon in which the US is represented as a huge New York with a tiny appendage of the rest of the country. Again, Robinson knows this, and directly mentions that particular cartoon, but it still feels like a lack, that for all the inveighing against Denver in the book, we get no sense at all of what Denver is like. Probably this was unavoidable, but it still seems an imperfection.

Well, enough of that. It’s a big shaggy book, and a lot of fun to read. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll care a lot about the characters, you’ll be fascinated and maybe a bit frustrated. And it’ll be first on my Hugo ballot.

Here are links to the other Hugo novel reviews:

Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee;
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin;
Provenance, by Ann Leckie;
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty;
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig

Ace Double Reviews, 84: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig (#H-48, 1968, 60 cents)

Lionel Percy Wright was born 8 July 1923, so in honor of his birthday I am posting this Ace Double review I did 9 years ago on my blog. It's also an opportunity to mention one of the most obscure SF novelists ever, Ellen Wobig, whose only fiction, as far as I know, was this novel.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan)

Here we have something quite obscure. Lan Wright, at least, is not unknown, though he may be all but forgotten. Here's what I wrote in a review of an earlier Wright book: Lan Wright is a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (b. 1923), who was a regular contributor to the UK SF magazines, mostly E. J. Carnell's (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction Adventures), from 1952 through 1963. As far as I know he never even once appeared in a US magazine. Indeed, he only once appeared in an anthology, a British book edited by Carnell. He did have five novels published in the US, four of them Ace Doubles, the last of these in 1968. I had read a story or two in the magazines, and found them mediocre but with interesting aspects, so I tried this novel. As far as I know he is still alive, but seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) since the age of 45. [In fact, he died on 1 October 2010, one year after I wrote those words.]

So, we see that The Pictures of Pavanne was apparently his last book. I would suggest that to some extent the market had simply moved beyond him -- Carnell was not publishing much anymore, having given up New Worlds, and Don Wollheim was moving beyond Wright's sort of stuff as well. And those were for all practical purposes the only editors who ever bought his work.

As for Ellen Wobig, I know nothing of her beyond that she was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1911, and died in Rockford, Illinois, in 1989. And there's no hint anywhere I can find that she published anything besides The Youth Monopoly. Wobig was thus one of only 8 writers whose only novel was an Ace Double half.

Given that you'd perhaps expect these stories to be pretty dire. But that's not really the case. Both have their moments -- both are entertaining enough, really, and with some hints of nice ideas. Neither novel is earth-shaking -- neither is really, in the end, successful. But they exceed my (admittedly low) expectations.

The Youth Monopoly, which is about 38,000 words long, is one of those stories that changes focus as it goes. It may be that the author intended this change -- that she was misdirecting the readers. Or it may be that the story changed on her as she wrote it. Anyway, after a very brief prologue from the point of view of the narrator in his old age, we meet Rod Dorashi trying to escape Metropolis, a city in a future US that seems to be ruled by an autocrat called Commander Korn. Dorashi is fortuitously picked up by one Ormand Bey, who feeds him and reveals that he has heard of him -- from an old man, Frechette, who Dorashi has helped out before he (Frechette) died. Somehow at this point I expected the tale of a revolution against Korn. Instead, Dorashi accompanies Bey to his home, the luxury resort called Trysis, which has been co-owned by the old man, Frechette. Trysis, it turns out, is a very special resort -- visitors are fed a special diet which rejuvenates them by five years. But they can only visit once a year, so to gain significant years of lifespan one must stay on good terms with the owner.

Rather mysteriously, Dorashi is immediately installed in the inner circle of Trysis operations. It seems Frechette picked him as his successor. The other members of that inner circle include Bey and a couple of women and a couple of men. One of the women immediately (it seems) becomes Dorashi's lover. All of them, it seems, have been around since the 14th Century or so, taking the immortality food ever since at a rate metered to maintain a youthful appearance.

The rest of the book basically concerns machinations at Trysis. Bey turns out to be rather a tyrant, imperious in his dealing with his own staff and with the privileged visitors. Part of the concern is that the political powers of this future US -- which seems a fractured set of city-states -- stay ignorant of Trysis's secrets. But part seems simply Bey liking to throw his weight around. Dorashi is shown rebelling a bit, but being severely punished ... and that's kind of it. Until we get to the end, where there is a sudden change in circumstances, and a dramatic (though guessable) revelation. The actual conclusion is cynical and fairly effectively executed. So, in the end, not really a very good novel, but one with aspects of interest.

I wasn't very impressed with the previous Lan Wright novel I read (Who Speaks of Conquest? (1957)). The Pictures of Pavanne really isn't very good, but it's better than Who Speaks of Conquest?. Admittedly that's faint praise. The novel is about 56,000 words.

The main character is Max Farway, the dwarfish son of a rich industrialist. As the book opens he has returned to Earth for his father's funeral. We learn that Max is a) very difficult to deal with; and b) a brilliant artist, probably the best of his generation. Oh, and he had issues -- with his father, and with his painful body.

On dealing with his father's estate, he learns that the older man had become obsessed with "The Pictures of Pavanne", a huge work of art left by vanished aliens on a distant planet. A sequence of human artists have tried to capture the Pictures in smaller form, and have all failed. (Hardly surprising, really.) But Max's father had been corresponding with a scientist who apparently found some mysterious secret about the Pictures. But then the scientist refused further contact with the elder Farway.

Inevitably Max decides to go to Pavanne. His stepmother and agent accompany him. There he encounters the very old ruler of Pavanne, now confined to a high-tech wheelchair/virtual reality system. This man (and his two vile, apparently incestuously lesbian, daughters) torment Max, in part, it turns out, because the scientist with whom Max's father corresponded was actually murdered. A subplot develops, concerning the ruler's chief assistant, who hopes to escape Pavanne with his lover and with all the money he has squirreled away.

But all must wait until the dramatic Passage of the Blue Sun. It seems that Pavanne is part of a two sun system, and the Pictures show best when directly under the Blue Sun, an event that occurs only every 16 years. So -- Max needs to view the Pictures in this light to paint his masterpiece. The other subplots also converge on this point, particularly the amazing discovery the murdered scientist made ... then ... well, a sometimes interesting (though overwrought) plot just falls apart with a banal, silly, conclusion,

Much of this book is quite bad -- the absurd depiction of the nature of artistic creation. The ridiculous orbital mechanics implied for the Pavanne system. The rather casual plotting. The terribly disappointing ending. But there were things I liked. Max isn't a believable character, but he's kind of interesting, and his Oedipal relationship with his stepmother had real potential (but Wright couldn't go through with his implications.) The story actually has momentum most of the way, and the plot, though silly, might have satisfied had it ended a bit more traditionally. It's not a good novel, by any means -- it's undeniably a bad novel -- but it was, yet again, better than I had expected.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Birthday Review: Leviathan 3, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre

Leviathan 3
Edited by Forrest Aguirre and Jeff VanderMeer
Ministry of Whimsy Press/Prime Books, Tallahassee, FL, Madison, WI, Canton, OH, 2002
476 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 1-894815-42-4

Jeff VanderMeer was born on July 7, 1968. He's best known, certainly, for his fiction, including the Southern Reach trilogy (the first of which, Annihilation, became an intriguing movie just last year) and Borne; but he has made major contributions as an editor as well. And one of my favorites among his projects was the Leviathan original anthology series. So here's a review I wrote for Locus back in 2002. 

One of the more interesting recent anthology series is Leviathan, two issues of which appeared in the late 1990s, each edited by Jeff VanderMeer with a different collaborator, and published by VanderMeer's small press, The Ministry of Whimsy. After a slight delay, Leviathan 3 is out. It's now available directly from The Ministry of Whimsy ( and will soon be available at other bookstores. VanderMeer's collaborator this time is Forrest Aguirre. 

Leviathan 3, as with its predecessors, seems a "slipstream" anthology, full of stories propelled by fantastical imagery and by unusual narrative strategies, but usually not set in overt or consistent "Fantasy" or "SF" worlds. I think the central image, the central concern, of SF is the encounter with the "alien", (whether the "alien" be an actual alien being, or altered humans, or an alien environment, or simply a different time). SF treats the "alien" in two ways. Some SF is interested in the alien for its own sake – as a marvel perhaps, or as a revelation of some feature of the universe. Other SF is interested in the alien as a sort of contrast with humanity or with the present environment. Thus it might exaggerate some human trait, or it might provide a contrast against which human traits are more clearly displayed, or it might provide a testing ground, as it were, in which human traits can be revealed. Slipstream, it seems to me, is mostly work of the second kind, in which the "alien" aspect might be nothing more than unusual narrative techniques, and in which often the "alien" is inserted with little or no explanation into a contemporary setting. Indeed, perhaps that is how we recognize a "slipstream" quality in certain mainstream stories – either the imagery or structure are sufficiently unusual as to create the same sense of displacement from the norm that we find in SF.

One valuable place to look for stories with a different sensibility is in the too often unfamiliar fiction of other languages. Here there are several translated stories. Most prominent are six linked stories about libraries by Zoran Živković (translated by Alice Copple-Tošic). These also serve as thematic anchors for the various sections of the anthology. These stories are arch and metafictional, very recognizable as Živković stories. In each story an unusual library is encountered. One contains all the books to be written, including the author's own future books. Another contains stories of people's lives, including of course the narrator's. And so on. Wry, deadpan, clever, enjoyable stories. There aew two stories by 19th Century French writers, Rémy de Gourmont and Théophile Gautier; both translated by Brian Stableford. De Gourmont's "Phocas" is a retelling of the story of the capture of St. Phocas, who fed the poor and even the soldiers sent to kill him. Gautier's "The Divided Knight" is a fairy tale, about a man born with two separate natures. My favorite of the translated stories, though, is a delightful comic story set in the Soviet Union: "The Evenki", by Eugene Dubnov (translated by the author with John Heath-Stubbs), about a man who becomes convinced that the title ethnic group is undermining the Soviet state, and who then becomes head of the Department of Evenkology.

Perhaps inevitably, I found a few of the stories incomprehensible – as likely a fault of the reader as of the author. Rikki Ducornet's "Buz" is reasonably intriguing to read, but I failed to understand it – it appears to be about adultery. I was less impressed with Michael Moorcock's "The Camus Referendum", a Jerry Cornelius story, to do with future corporatism and war, which frankly reduced me to pretty much reading sentences without assigning them meaning. This happened to me with a similar Jerry Cornelius story in Interzone a couple years back. I can only conclude that I am out of sympathy with Moorcock's aims here. There is also a Moorcock novel excerpt, "The Vengeance of Rome, Chapter 3", which is nicely written but which reads like a novel excerpt and not like a complete story. Michael Cisco's "The Genius of Assassins" is beautifully written, even to the point of bravura technique, and it seems fully comprehensible, but not terribly rewarding – it is three narratives about brutal senseless serial murders and their perpetrators, and in the end the point of it all escaped me.

A few more stories can be described as intriguingly weird, but not successful. In each case the very strangeness of the imagination revealed makes the stories worth a look, even if I felt they didn't really work. Jeffrey Thomas' "The Fork" describes a curious individual, injured and apparently trapped in an affectless landscape, who eventually finds his way out. Lance Olsen's "Village of the Mermaids" is about a woman who seems to have become a mermaid, but who is somehow trapped on land, always struggling to reach the water and swim away. This is tied to a real world experience in the end, but rather tenuously. "The Progenitor", by Brian Evenson, might be the strangest story here, about a life form (alien race? mutated humans? who knows?) who live tethered in the air, or working on the ground, in the service of the mysterious huge "Progenitor".

In the category of "really weird, but also successful" I would certainly place Stepan Chapman's "State Secrets of Aphasia", a wild ride about a land of clouds, ruled by the ancient Queen Alba. This strange land, home to ectoids and sneeflers and such aristocrats as King Skronk, High Khan of the Cactus Trolls etc., comes under threat from the Black Glacier, and the Queen is forced to review her own history, and confront the real nature of herself and her kingdom. The resolution is interesting though not very original, but the imagery and the wild ride to the end is, in typical Chapman fashion, absurd and compelling, and the story manages also to be quite moving. Just following it in the book is "Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" – to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only – or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us.

One of the defining features of "slipstream", to my mind, is a deliberate blurring of genre lines, mostly the lines between "mainstream" and the fantastic. To be sure, all such lines are blurry anyway. And so a few of the stories in Leviathan 3 seem to me to be clearly across the vague SF/mainstream border. Still, they are good stories and even if they are set in our world and time (as it seems to me) they are told so that their milieu seems different anyway. They make the real fantastic, as it were. Tamar Yellin's two stories here are examples. "Kafka in Brontëland" is a quiet and evocative story of a woman in North England who imagines that a man she sees in her town is Franz Kafka. "Moonlight" is a striking and moving story about the life of a popular artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hinting at a mysterious obsession behind his work. Another story from just across the borderline is "The Swan of Prudence Street" by Scott Thomas. An adolescent becomes infatuated with the beautiful young woman in the upstairs apartment. Familiar stuff, in its basic outline, but well executed and evocative.

"While Wandering a Vanished Sea", by James Bassett is decidedly Ballardian in imagery and affect. The memory artist Mimpi comes to the seaside city Runevan to practice his art, which involves altering people's memories, while claiming that he has been given Runevan's sea. One day he dies, and the sea seems to be gone – or was it ever there? Where did all their memories come from? A nice story. Brendan Connell contributes "A Season with Doctor Black", in which the title character, a dwarf and a scientific genius, spends his summer at his country home, and there encounters a beautiful woman, marooned by car trouble, and they enter into a relationship of ambiguous and shifting character. I found it interesting but not exceptional. Carol Emshwiller's "The Prince of Mules" reminded me just a bit of her recent SCI FICTION story "Water Master", in telling of a older single woman living in a dry rural place, who becomes intrigued by an isolated man who has something to do with water distribution. This is quite a different story, though, and it's a neat piece, telling in Emshwiller's characteristic deadpan voice of the woman's rather excessive obsession with Jake Blackthorn, who at least loves his mule.

At last we come to the stories that most impressed me. They do come, I will say, from names I expected a lot from: Brian Stableford, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Jeffrey Ford. Stableford's "The Face of an Angel" tells of a master plastic surgeon, sometime in the near future, who is confronted by a mysterious man with an unusual proposition. The man has a copy of a book created by the "comprachicos", who were notorious in the 17th Century for buying children and surgically deforming them for use as circus freaks. This man asserts that they actually had a more ambitious goal – to learn to surgically create a perfect face, the face of an angel. Now, with the modern surgeon's technology, and these old secrets, perhaps this goal can actually be reached – but at what costs? In "The Fool's Diary" Duchamp, as always fascinated by gender roles, purports to present an account of a diary kept by a dwarfish woman employed by the wife of King James I of England as a fool. The diary includes much comment on the position of women in the King's court, but also an extended description of a command performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", complete with much discussion on the curious gender switching of the characters in that play, and on the rather ambiguous future happiness of the women. And, finally, the Fool's abilities extend to something stranger – a trip (in some sense) to the "world" of "Twelfth Night", perhaps to hear directly from the characters their real feelings. It's a fascinating and thoughtful story. Finally, Ford's "The Weight of Words" is, I feel, the standout story of Leviathan 3. The narrator is despondent because his wife left him, and he attends lectures in his loneliness. One lecture is given by an Albert Secmatte. Secmatte advances a theory that the particular arrangement of words in printed matter, including such aspects as the font, influences perceived meaning in a way that can be quantified. (The key equation is given as "Typeface + Meaning x Syllabic Structure – Length + Consonantal Profluence / Verbal Timidity x Phonemic Saturation = The Weight of the Word or The Value".) He thinks Secmatte a crackpot, but after a demonstration he becomes convinced that the theory has some value. He asks Secmatte to rewrite his love letters to his departed wife so that they will be especially convincing, and in exchange agrees to help Secmatte with his business, which naturally involves advertising, eventually including some rather slimy political ads. The central idea here is not exactly new, but Ford's working out of it is intriguing, and the writing is beautiful, particularly the lovely closing. We are left thinking not just about subliminal advertising, but about good writing, and love.

Leviathan 3 promises to be perhaps the outstanding original anthology of 2002. Its focus, from a genre reader's point of view, may be a bit narrow – there is no hard SF here, and only the occasional story would readily fit even traditional "soft SF" or "fantasy" categories. But what the anthology promises it delivers, and story after story is intriguing reading.