Sunday, April 5, 2020

Belated Birthday Review: Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald's birthday was back on March 31, but things have been a bit wild around here, and I didn't get around to posting this until today.

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

A review by Rich Horton

Ian McDonald's last novel, River of Gods, was in great part a portrait of future India, and so it is easy to view his new novel, Brasyl, as a portrait of future Brazil -- after, a country which is in some ways reminiscent of India, in its size, crowds, jungles, huge cities, and staggering diversity. While being at the same time wholly different. And to a certain extent I suppose that is true -- but only to a small extent. Brasyl ends up being about its SFnal idea more than anything -- that idea being the "we are a simulation running on a computer" one, with the variation being that the computer might be a quantum computer, which opens up parallel universes as part of the simulation.

It is told in three strands, divergent in time, and set in different major areas of the country. One is present day, and set in Rio de Janeiro, and focuses on Marcelina Hoffman, a producer of sensationalist reality TV. The second is set in 2032, in São Paulo, and focuses on Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, an entertainment entrepreneur -- for example, his current project is a pretty girl who can keep a soccer ball in the air forever. The third thread is set in 1732, mostly on the Amazon, and focuses on Luis Quinn, a Jesuit "admonitory" sent to bring a renegade priest back to the fold.

Marcelina's new project is a TV show, timed to coincide with the 2006 World Cup, which will put the goalie who let in the losing goal in the shocking loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup on trial. But she finds her plans sabotaged -- by someone who seems possibly to be her! She is a bit of a mess herself anyway ... and scary as it is, the eventual notion that there are other worlds to which one might even travel becomes almost alluring.

Edson has a large family, and one of his brothers is a criminal. In trying to get him out of trouble, Edson meets a beautiful quantum computer specialist, Fia Kishida. But quantum computers are proscribed tech, in this future of pervasive surveillance, so Fia is a dangerous person to know -- and after a while Edson is wanted himself, and on the run, with a different version of Fia -- and they too are looking to cross universes.

And finally Luis Quinn, in company with a French scientist, Robert Falcon, travels up the Amazon to deal with Father Goncalves, who has been converting Indians to Christianity and enslaving those who won't convert. Between the slavery, and Goncalves' odd version of Christianity, and his apparent desire for personal power, he is a pretty bad guy. But a powerful guy too, and Quinn is forced to try to find a tribe rumored to have great predictive powers, based on ingesting a frog's secretions. Of course, these powers turn out to arise from perceiving the many possible worlds all at once ... and Quinn gains these powers himself.

So on all three threads, the notion of parallel worlds, and travel between them, becomes central. And there is an action plot deriving from conflict across these worlds. I was reminded of Leiber at times, and of course of a certain Robert Charles Wilson novel too. It's a pretty good novel, very colorful, with imperfect but involving characters. It didn't quite work as well as River of Gods to my taste -- I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps the overarching theme didn't quite convince me. Perhaps some of the cute touches, like the 18th century characters speculating (with the help of a sort of Babbage machine) in very 21 century terms on things like the universe being a computer simulation, turned me off a bit. But these are minor quibbles -- this is a fine novel, well worth your time.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of A. Bertram Chandler, and an Ace Double (Nebula Alert)

Today would have been Arthur Bertram Chandler's 108th birthday. He was born in England, became a seaman and eventually settled in Australia. He started writing SF in the 1940s. By the '60s he was producing novels at a high rate, many of them about a spaceship captain named John Grimes. Here's a look at a few of his early stories, and one 1967 Ace Double.

Astounding, July 1946

A. Bertram Chandler's "Stability" is about a spaceship returning from Ganymede with a cargo of non-living protoplasm. Alas, the protoplasm somehow is activated by radiations from the ship's pile, and it moves in such a way as to make the ship unstable. The story concerns the heroic, but not always successful, efforts of the crew to restore stability and land the ship safely. I really wasn't ever convinced.

F&SF, April 1953

Perhaps every issue has a nuclear war story: "Jetsam" by A. Bertram Chandler from April 1953, which is also a first on the moon story, talking of disappeared themes -- it involves an expedition to the moon that discovers evidence that someone else has been there before, leading to a nicely turned twist.

Cosmos, September 1953

"Gateway", by A. Bertram Chandler, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. I thought it the best story in this issue, one of the best Cosmos published. It's set on a passenger liner, heading to New Zealand. The ship experiences some strange manifestations -- weird shadows, compass malfunctions, lights and what looks like land in the open sea. The hero is the second mate, who is romancing, in what might be a serious way, a young woman from New Zealand (possibly part Maori?). The story, at somewhat leisurely pace, depicts the odd happenings over a few days -- the Captain's skepticism -- the scary death of the ship's cat -- the concern of the (Scottish, therefore fey) Nurse and the Surgeon. The resolution is a bit shocking, and quite sad, starkly presented. It displays some of Chandler's obsessions -- the sea, of course, and also the idea of a thin border between this universe and parallel universes.

Cosmos, November 1953

A. Bertram Chandler's "Hot Squat" is a story about people in postwar England (I assumed) claiming abandoned government buildings as living places to escape crowding and in-laws. A couple of couples squat in one such place, only to get a (rather cute) surprise.

Cosmos, March 1954

Chandler's "Shadow Before" is one of his sea stories, about a sailor hoping to make it home for his first child's birth. He seems to be haunted, and a "psychic" couple befriend him but scoff at suggestions that the haunting is time travel -- only ghosts will do for them! We quickly gather that his son is trying to reach him and warn him of an accident upcoming.

Super Science Fiction, August 1957

A. Bertram Chandler's "The Search for Sally" is about a spaceman on the Earth-Mars run who loses his fiancee in a spaceship crash on Mars. But he has a telepathic link with her, and after a few months he begins to sense her again. He is convinced that she survived and has been taken in by the rumored surviving Old Martians, and he joins an expedition to track them (and her) down. The ending twist seemed very familiar to me -- has it been used elsewhere?

Ace Double Reviews, 46: The Rival Rigellians, by Mack Reynolds/Nebula Alert, by A. Bertram Chandler (#G-632, 1967, $0.50)

(Covers by Kelly Freas and Peter Michael)
Mack Reynolds and A. Bertram Chandler were both regular Ace Double contributors. Chandler was the second most prolific Ace Double writer, with 18 "halves". Reynolds published only 10 unique halves, but in 1973 several of his books were reissued in new combinations, bringing his total of Ace Double books to 11, four of which featured his stories on both sides. The Rival Rigellians is about 42,000 words long, and Nebula Alert is about 33,000 words.

The Rival Rigellians is an expansion of a 25,000 word novella, "Adaptation", from the August 1960 Astounding/Analog. (This was one of the "transition" issues, with the cover featuring the "stounding" part of "Astounding" superimposed in blue over the red "nalog" part of "Analog". According to the masthead, the official title was Astounding Science Fact and Fiction.) The novel adds fairly little to the basic story of the novella. Indeed, it adds but two basic factors -- two women are added to the list of characters, providing room for a very unconvincing love story in the one case, and for some cheap moralizing in the other case. (The woman are conveniently a slut and a virtuous woman -- and both are medical doctors.)

The conceit behind the story is that humans have expanded into the Galaxy in an unusual way. They have colonized various planets with rather small groups, 100 to 1000 people, then left the planets alone for 1000 years. Now they hope to bring these colonized planets into the Galactic Commonwealth. But first, they must be brought forward from their apparent debased technological and social levels to the levels of Galactic society. A group of 16 men and 2 women are the pioneers in this effort -- they are sent to the two habitable planets around Rigel. One planet has formed a civilization much resembling Renaissance era Italy, hence it is called Genoa, and the other resembles the Aztec civilization, hence it is called Texcoco. (In the novella, the same 16 men were on the team, but no women.)

The two leaders of the expedition differ on the best means to accomplish their goal. One favors encouraging free enterprise and democracy, the other favors encouraging despotic socialism and a planned economy. Somehow they notice that since there are two planets, they can each try their way, and compare results. The whole experiment will take 50 years -- no big deal for the long lived Earthmen.

The results are not quite as expected, perhaps. The socialist group goes all Hobsbawmian from the start, killing people left and right in the belief that that will be for the best in the long run. The capitalist group begins by setting up competing companies to introduce technological and societal innovations, which works OK for a while but then runs afoul of the established powers (church and aristocracy), and also goes bad when the Earth born owners of the introduced companies start trying to live high on the hog off their earnings. Fortunately, the natives of each planet have their own ideas about what's best for their futures.

It's not really all that bad a story. Parts are just silly, and much is contrived beyond reason. (For starters, I certainly cannot believe that the Earth authorities would send such a screwed up bunch of people to do this mission, with essentially no guidelines.) But beside the silly parts, much is thought-provoking, and I did like the cynical take on the supposedly benevolent Earth people. It's nothing special, but it does have its redeeming values.

Nebula Alert is the third of three stories by A. Bertram Chandler about the Empress Irene of the Terran Federation. By this story she has abdicated and married Benjamin Trafford. Irene owns the formal Imperial Yacht Wanderer, and serves as its first mate, while Benjamin is the Captain. As the story opens they are taking cargo between various Rim planets (though this future is not the same future as the Rim World stories about Commodore John Grimes ... about which more later). They are influenced by the representative of an anti-slavery organization to ferry a number of Iralians back to their home planet. It seems Iralians are perfect slaves, because they breed like rabbits, have very short gestation periods, and inherit their parents' memories and skills. Other than that they all seem to be incredibly sexy (and very humanoid).

It turns out that ships carrying Iralians have been lost repeatedly, perhaps due to pirates trying to catch more slaves. And sure enough the Wanderer runs into pirates. Their only escape route is through the Horsehead Nebula, but space inside the Nebula is strange. The first effect is to cause increased irritability, but that is solved by pairing off all the men and women on the ship, even though that includes a couple human/Iralian pairs. The second effect is to push the ship into an alternate universe (one of it seems like several thousand times Chandler pulled that stunt). And once in the alternate universe who should they encounter but ... Grimes! Surprise!

It's all pretty silly stuff -- Chandler really never seemed to care about little things like logic. That said, it's tolerable fun in its breezy way. Nothing I'd go out of my way to find, but not a story I regret reading, either.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Birthday Review: The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, plus capsules of two Wrede novels

Today is Patricia Wrede's birthday. She has long been one of the most enjoyable purveyors of mostly YA fantasy, generally with a light, humorous touch. I haven't seen anything from her in several years, but her sometime collaborator, Caroline Stevermer, has a new book, The Glass Magician, due in about 10 days, following a similar period of publication silence, so there's still hope. Wrede was also a voice of particular reason in the old days at the Usenet newsgroup rec.art.sf.composition, and she maintains a blog now that offers plenty of strong writing advice, Wrede on Writing.

In her honor, then, here's a review I wrote for SF Site of one of Wrede's collaborations with Stevermer, followed by a tiny capsule look at two of Wrede's Enchanted Forest novels.

The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

a review by Rich Horton

Back in 1988, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer published a paperback original novel that originated in a "letter game" the two played. Each took a character and wrote letters to the other as if written by their character. The result was a novel in letters, Sorcery and Cecelia. Over the years that novel became something like a cult classic. Those (like me) who were fortunate enough to have bought it on first release recommended it to other readers, but for some time it was hard to obtain. But the prospect of a sequel finally persuaded a publisher to reprint it, and indeed Harcourt's Magic Carpet imprint has released both Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour simultaneously.

The Grand Tour becomes one of three notable fantasies from 2004 set in the 19th or early 20th Century in an alternate historical England in which magic works. (The others being Stevermer's fine solo novel A Scholar of Magics and Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.) Of these it is undoubtedly the lightest in tone, but that is no complaint, simply a reflection of its intentions. In Sorcery and Cecelia two cousins in Regency England, Kate and Cecy, exchanged letters which told of their romances, and of certain magical difficulties, to do with Cecelia's apparent latent sorcerous abilities, with Kate's intended's own such abilities, and with a nasty villain wizard who wishes to grab more power for himself. In the new book, Kate has married Thomas, Lord Schofield, and become Lady Schofield, and Cecy has married James Tarleton. The four are setting off to the continent for a joint honeymoon tour. Instead of letters, the book is told in alternating sections from Kate's "commonplace book" (in this case mostly a diary) and from a deposition Cecy gives after the events of the novel.

Almost immediately trouble strikes in various forms. A mysterious lady gives them an alabaster flask of unknown significance. Kate keeps losing gloves (but then, she is clumsy). The ceiling falls on their dinner with Beau Brummell. A thief invades their rooms. Then, on the way to Paris, they are robbed by highwaymen.

In Paris they meet with the Duke of Wellington and it becomes clear that a variety of ancient objects connected with royalty are being stolen. Their mission, then, is to track down whoever is responsible for these thefts, and to try to figure out what they are up to. This is 1817, not long after Napoleon's final defeat, so it is not a surprise that Bonapartists figure in the plot. At any rate, the foursome (and servants) wend their way to Italy via a difficult passage through Switzerland, and it is in Florence, Venice and Rome that things come to a head.

This is an enjoyable book with a set of very pleasant characters. Still, it is not quite the delight that was Sorcery and Cecelia. One problem is simply that the main characters have already met and married their husbands -- there is no romance plot to help maintain the reader's interest. Another problem is that the revelations of the nature of sorcery are less "new" in this book than the original. Put simply -- this book is a sequel, and many of its problems are can be laid at the door of sequelitis. All that said, while I would certainly read Sorcery and Cecelia first, The Grand Tour is a fine novel, well worth your reading time.

[A third volume, The Mislaid Magician, appeared in 2006.]

Capsule Reviews of Dealing with Dragons and Searching for Dragons

The first two of Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, YA fantasy, very nicely told stories.  The first features an atypical princess, Cimorene, who, disgusted by the boring details of life as a princess, runs off to be captured by a dragon, then has to fight off the princes trying to rescue her, and eventually helps the dragons fend off a conspiracy by some evil wizards.  The second features the atypical young King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar, tired of dealing with boring princesses looking to marry him, and burdened by the duties of his Kingship, which he takes very seriously, who sets off to solve the mystery of a burned out section of the Forest: possibly caused by dragons?  At least, that's what a wizard tells him.  No prizes for guessing who the real bad guys are, nor for guessing which atypical princess he eventually meets.  The delight in these stories is Wrede’s voice, light-toned and intelligent, and the off-hand jokes about various fairy tale cliches.  Very enjoyable indeed.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Raymond Z. Gallun

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the writers who graduated from the Gernsback Era SF magazines to John W. Campbell's Astounding. His early story "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, was very popular. He published short fiction regularly until the mid-1950s, and after that mostly just a few novels through 1985.  Today would have been his 109th birthday. In his honor, here's a review of four of his 1950s short stories, plus a link to a review I posted some while ago of his 1961 novel The Planet Strappers.

Review of The Planet Strappers

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1951

Finally, Raymond Z. Gallun's "The First Long Journey" is another story about man overcoming the incredible difficulty of space travel. This is about a man on the first trip to Mars, and his difficulty believing he'll make it, all alone as he is. He whiles away the time remembering a girl he used to know, talks to himself a lot ... and nothing much happens, certainly nothing that convinced me.

Planet Stories, March 1952

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the mid-50s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. "Return of a Legend" is also set on Mars. A small human research station is the only Earth presence on mostly uninhabitable Mars, but there are stories about one old "wilderness tramp" who survived on the land for a few years. Then a man and his young son show up, and the two end up going native for long stretches. The father dies inevitably, but the boy is never discovered. He must have died, surely, but then he is found. His father's younger sister shows up and tries to make a relationship with him, but the boy misses Mars too much and escapes again, and so his aunt, now married to one of the long time Mars regulars, goes on a trek to try to find him, and they too end up required to find a way to survive on the surface. It's not really that plausible, but Gallun works pretty hard to make is at least a bit believable, and their eventual struggle to make a family and to become "real Martians", even as the research station is abandoned, ends up pretty moving.

Science Fiction Adventures, July 1953

The Feature Novel is Raymond Z. Gallun's "Legacy From Mars" (15500 words). Some miner types on Mars discover intelligent fish. They take the fish back to Earth with them, and the fish learn how to speak English. They also make music. The money-grubbing Captain has some nefarious plans, but rather implausibly, he is foiled, and the two good guys (along with the daughter of one who becomes the wife of the other) end up touring with the fish as a novelty act. But eventually the fish have their own plans ... Rather a silly story, I thought.

Science Fiction Stories, 1953

Raymond Z. Gallun's "Comet's Burial" (7500 words) is a somewhat predictable story about a pair of prospectors on the Moon. The older one is convinced that the way to make the Moon a going concern is to find water -- and that water exists below the surface, and can be brought to the surface by crashing a comet into the Moon. The younger man is not so sure, but he finds himself shanghaied into helping his partner in this mad scheme -- and they end up in prison for there efforts. However ... d'ya think maybe they might end up vindicated? It's somewhat hackneyed, but reasonably entertaining.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Old Romance Novel: Chelsea, by Nancy Fitzgerald

Old Romance Novel: Chelsea, by Nancy Fitzgerald

a review by Rich Horton

Chelsea is a romance novel from 1979, published by Doubleday. The Regency was the default period for sweet historical romances back then, but Chelsea is set in the Victorian Era, in fact, exactly 100 years prior to publication, in 1879. I could find nothing online about the writer, Nancy Fitzgerald. The endpapers claim she's a full time writer living in Venice, CA, with her daughter, Shaw, and a cat; and they mention a previous job at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The books, which I found at an estate sale, is a Doubleday hardcover. (There was a paperback edition.) She published two previous novels, also with titles evoking London geography: St. John's Wood and Mayfair. This book is concerned with the art world -- given her Museum experience, I wonder if the others were as well. I could not find any evidence of any novels besides those three, but Sean Wallace came to the rescue. It seems Fitzgerald's real name is Waverly Fitzgerald. She has published a number of nonfiction books, five humorous mysteries co-written with Curt Colbert as by Waverly Curtis, other mysteries under her own name, other historical fiction, and some short stories. She also teaches writing.

The nominal protagonists of the book are Cecily Hawthorne, a beautiful redheaded orphan who is serving as a governess; and Devin Shepard, a noted portrait painter, friend of all the famous painters of that time (Rossetti and Landseer and Morris and Alma-Tadema and Leighton and Millais and so on -- lots of name dropping though no convincing portrayals of the actual men). Shepard, who seems to be very well off, has just seen off a mistress/model and needs another one for his planned Royal Academy show entry. It so happens that when he tells his butler what sort of woman he wants for his picture, the butler mentions Cecily, who is in a very unsuitable situation (evil mother, nasty child).

Somewhat unconvincingly, Shepard finds Cecily and convinces her to come model for him. Things go nicely for a while, with (predictably) Cecily finding herself attracted to Shepard, but determined to preserve her virtue. She lucks into a different governess job when she gets made enough at Shepard to leave.

And then the real plot of the book is set in motion. Cecily's new place is with a silly woman, Mrs. Fluster, who has had an unexpected child in her 40s. Her first two children are a nice but plain girl who loves cooking, and a useless boy who has no interest in his father's business. The father had somehow lost control of his business, and the new owner is running it into the ground, and thus the family is close to bankruptcy. Their only hope is an American heiress who shows some interest in the boy. The household also includes a maid and a footman as comic relief -- and the two are besotted with each other.

The other key family is the Hollys, a fairly well to do but not really rich family with a plain daughter who is 32 and unmarried -- preventing her several sisters from marrying their various suitors. The mother decides that Devin Shepard would be a worthwhile husband -- but the daughter, Constance Holly, another plain but worthy woman, is convinced Shepard sees nothing in her. Add a young gigolo type who preys on married woman and who is chasing Mrs. Fluster; and a prig of a clerk who has decided he loves Cecily, though once he meets Mrs. Fluster's daughter he falls for her -- but can't give up his obsession with Cecily.

The arc of the novel is pretty clear -- the clerk will end up with the Fluster girl and will save the family business because as a clerk he at least understands business; Constance Holly and the gigolo type unexpectedly fall in love; the younger Fluster boy will end up with his American heiress; and the maid and footman of the Flusters will, after comical problems, get together. And of course Devin and Cecily will finally get together -- at the Royal Academy show in which Devin's picture of Cecily is exhibited.

That's just romance novel convention. But the novel doesn't really work. It wants to be a comedy, and tries and tries but so much of the comic business is overdone, and falls flat. The best comic character, Shepard's butler Willett, really doesn't have enough to do. The Fluster's maid, who befriends Cecily, is supposed to be really funny but mostly she just leadenly uses the wrong words. Mrs. Fluster and Lady Holly are likewise supposed to be funny but again, they are just labored cliches. The two plain young woman, Joconda Fluster and Constance Holly, are actually likeable characters, but minor. And Cecily and Devin are essentially ciphers -- their "romance" has no chemistry, it just doesn't convince.

One might also have hoped that the historical details would be solid, but they really don't work well either. As I noted, the artistic milieu is just sketched in -- name dropping -- I never believed it. And there are some howlers, as well. For example, the book is set in 1879, and Oscar Wilde is given a scene, which is perhaps not entirely impossible but seems unlikely, as he really didn't get established as an artistic figure until 1881. More seriously, the Fluster boy is supposed to be a candidate to buy a commission in the Army -- but the selling of commissions was ended in 1871.

All in all, this is a pretty weak example of the then flourishing romance genre. It does seem that Fitzgerald may have found her real metier in other genres since then, however.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Birthday Review: Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

Today is Alastair Reynolds' birthday. Last year I presented a collection of my reviews of his short fiction, so here instead is a review, from my old blog, of his second novel, Chasm City.

I have a copy of Alastair Reynolds' second novel, Chasm City, just out in England, for review at SF Site.  (Presumably it won't be published in the US until next year: his first novel, Revelation Space, published last year by Victor Gollancz, has just recently been published in the States.) Like Revelation Space it is very long (in this case over 260,000 words), and it is set in the same future.  Chasm City is the main city of the planet Yellowstone, which orbits Epsilon Eridani.  Some 7 years prior to the action of the book, it was devastated by the Melding Plague, which destroyed the nanomachines on which much of the high-tech infrastructure depended.  This places it some time prior to most of the action of Revelation Space.  (That book had a couple of threads on Yellowstone, one a flashback to decades prior to the Melding Plague, and one occurring a few years after the action of Chasm City. Most of Revelation Space is set still a few decades later, however.  Because travel in Reynolds' universe is restricted to sub-light speeds, and because his novels feature characters going between star systems, they tend to take place over long time frames.)  Tanner Mirabel comes to Yellowstone from Sky's Edge (a planet of 61 Cygni A -- it's nice to see all these classic SFnal star systems: Delta Pavonis also figures in Revelation Space), looking to kill Argent Reivich, who had killed the woman Tanner loved. 

The story unfolds in three threads, all nominally from Tanner's POV.  The first thread takes place over a rather short period in Chasm City as he looks for Reivich.  Another tells, in flashbacks, of Tanner's association with the arms dealer Cahuella back on Sky's Edge, and Cahuella's wife Gitta, and Reivich's attempt on Cahuella's life (in revenge for Cahuella supplying the weapons that killed Reivich's family), which led to Gitta's death.  Finally, Tanner has apparently been infected with an "indoctrination virus", which implants memories of Sky Hausmann, the sometimes revered, sometimes hated, last Captain of the first ship to reach Sky's Edge.  As those memories return to Tanner, at first in dreams, later more insistently, he learns a somewhat different, much stranger, story of the journey of the colonizing generation starships from Earth to 61 Cygni.

This is a better novel than Revelation Space, but it does have faults. First the good stuff: it's full of neat SFnal ideas, not necessarily brilliantly new, but very well realized: the generation ships (treated rather differently than usual in SF), some genetic technology, some alien ecosystem stuff, even a hint of a communication system reminiscent of the Dirac Communicator in James Blish's "Beep".  It sets up expectations for a pretty spectacular closing revelation, tying together the three threads, and pretty much delivers on those expectations.  The resolution had elements that I expected, and were nicely foreshadowed, plus elements that were a great surprise, but which still worked for me.  Thus, I'd say, that in terms of large-scale plot and setting, the book works very well.  As for the prose, it is sound, serviceable, hard SF prose: nothing impressive, but not too clunky either. The faults, then, lie in some small-scale plot elements, and in characterization. The plot, particularly Tanner's attempts to find Reivich, depends on a lot of implausible coincidence, or luck, or super-powerful characters who still don't kill their rivals when reasonably they should, or secret organizations suddenly being penetrated by little more than brandishing a gun in the face of underlings.  More tellingly, the characters are a bit undermotivated, and they are pretty much all evil and violent, but not really presented in such a way.  More than several times, we are told that such and such a character, single-mindedly bent on killing several other characters, is really not bad and is justified in so doing.  This seems to represent an awfully cynical view of humanity: everyone is purely out for number one, everyone is pretty much ready to kill anyone in their way.  Most particularly, the main character or characters (we can include Sky Hausmann), are objectively quite villainous, yet presented (well, not Sky, but Tanner) as quite sympathetic, in a way that doesn't really work.  Particularly as Tanner seems to have little enough trouble getting women to fall in love with him.  I should say that to an extent Reynolds gives explanations of some of these things (which it would be a spoiler to reveal), but that I was still not convinced.

On balance, though, a pretty impressive book.  The faults are the faults of much SF, especially hard SF, and the virtues are the virtues of the same sort of SF.  It doesn't, then, transcend its subgenre at all, but it does do very well within those boundaries.  And for a long book it reads smoothly enough, and keeps the interest.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories (and a novel) by Christopher Anvil

Christopher Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) was born 11 March 1925. He died in 2009. He began writing under his own name in 1952, but started selling to John Campbell in 1956 under the Anvil name. He became well known for very Campbellian "Stupid Aliens outsmarted by Smart Humans" stories. John Clute, in the Science Fiction Encylopedia, suggests that his non-Campbell stories show a more interesting side -- be that as it may, he was mostly a Campbell writer, kind of a low-rent Eric Frank Russell clone, and I confess I never found his work that interesting. Here's a look at a couple of his short stories, and a fixup novel

Astounding, December 1957

Anvil's "Truce by Boomerang" is a slight story, not really convincing even on its own terms, about a means of enforcing peace between neighboring nations. For some convoluted reason, a not very useful matter transmitter can be adapted to automatically return an missiles, etc., launched by one side to its own territory (perhaps explicitly to the big wigs' headquarters). I never really understood how this worked, however ...

Analog, July 1961

The other story is from Christopher Anvil: “The Hunch” (5300 words). Stellar Scout James Connolly is assigned to figure out why two new model scout ships have disappeared recently. Pirates are suspected, but the route they were taking avoided known pirate haunts.

He and his boss set out to follow the same route, and in so doing they encounter issues with the advanced new equipment on the new model ship … more or less the sort of mildly amusing stuff I expected.

Galaxy, October 1968

Christopher Anvil (real name Harry Crosby) was an Analog regular (I think of him as John Campbell's "Eric Frank Russell replacement"), and "Behind the Sandrat Hoax" really does look like a story aimed at Campbell. There is a persistent rumor that eating a sandrat on Mars will allow one to survive if marooned without water in the Martian desert, and when a man does survive in impossible circumstances, there is an investigation into how he might have survived. But the scientific authorities can't believe in the silly "sandrat" notion -- the man is sent to an asylum, while the scientist who dares to give some credence to the notion that eating a sandrat could help one get water in a desert has his career ruined, as a series of letters reveal the bureaucrats suppressing evidence, etc. A bit over-obvious, with over the top villains.

Pandora's Legions

(Cover by Patrick Turner)
I was warned.  Recently I mentioned that I might find something of interest in Eric Flint's planned reissue of some Christopher Anvil stories, and Greg Feeley asked, incredulously it seemed, why I would think these stories would be on any interest.  Well, you see, I'd hardly ever read any Anvil, only a story or two, and I don't mind Eric Frank Russell, held to be an influence on Anvil, and ... well, I was curious.  So I bought Pandora's Legions, a clumsy fixup novel consisting of one shorter novel and several short stories about the invasion of Earth by the Centran Empire, and the aftermath, as the Centrans try to deal with their uneasy new conquest.

It sucks.  To put it crudely.  It sucks bowling balls through a coffee stirrer. The story opens with a novelette published in Astounding in the mid-50s, "Pandora's Planet".  Earth is besieged by the overwhelmingly powerful Centrans, humanoid aliens who have a huge empire.  But them thar plucky Earthmen won't give up, and not only that, they are just plain smarter than Centrans.  The Centrans fear them for their brains, but they eventually realize that human intelligence carries a disadvantage: humans are less apt to cooperate with each other.  The Centrans end up winning, only by using incredible force of numbers, and they plot to take advantage of human intelligence by allowing humans to be spread thinly through part of their empire, hoping that the human ideas will be beneficial.  In a way, this story was OK, though not very good, as low-grade Eric Frank Russell imitation. 

In the early 70s Anvil expanded it into a novel.  In the novel, the humans spread through the Galaxy are portrayed as causing all sorts of chaos.  The viewpoint character,\ Centran general Klide Horsip, must deal with humans who have introduced fascism, rampant capitalism, communism, and all sorts of evils.  But humans, by subverting the Centrans on the planets they take over, are becoming way too strong.  Luckily, a loyal human has a plan ... an unconvincing one, mind you, but still.  More luckily still, all this is really what the true powers behind the Centran throne have intended all along.  Plus the climax involves a clumsily introduced menace that has historically kept Centrans from getting too smart.  Eh?  It's a bad novel.

Eric Flint has admitted that the novel is bad (or, at least, not real good). His solution?  He has interleaved a three mostly unconnected stories set in the same universe with the chapters of the novel.  These stories are Analog-style problem stories, where human John Towers, working for the Centrans, deals with problems in subverting other dangerous alien races, such as a race of teleporters, or a race of beings who have evolved to constantly fight for food and who will not communicate.  These are novelettes published in Analog in the 60s.  They aren't particularly good, though they aren't horrible.  They are, again, low-grad Eric Frank Russell imitations.  They are symptomatic of what was wrong with Analog in the 60s -- Campbell couldn't get Russell to write any more, it seems, and so he tried to find substitutes. Anvil was a substitute, but the ersatz nature of the product shows.  But mixed into the novel they are just silly.  They really don't fit.  Basically, you end up reading the novel in pieces, taking time out to read the novelettes. What was going through Flint's mind I have no idea.  There is also a short, added at the end, also set in the Centran empire but otherwise unconnected, which was apparently rejected by Campbell. It ran in If, and it's a screed against psychiatry.  It seems beating the patient until he is cured is a preferable approach.