Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Hugo Ballot: Novella


Novella

The nominees are:

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
"And Then There Were (N-One)," by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.Com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)

My views here are fairly simple. It’s a decent shortlist, but a bifurcated one. There are three nominees that are neck and neck in my view, all first-rate stories and well worth a Hugo. And there are three that are OK, but not special – in my view not Hugo-worthy (but not so obviously unworthy that I will vote them below No Award.)

My ballot will look like this:

1.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)” – A story about a convention of alternate Sarah Pinskers, complete with a murder. It is warmly told – funny at time, certainly the milieu is familiar to any SF con-goer. But it’s dark as well – after, there’s a murder – and it intelligently deals with issue of identity and contingency.

2.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red – a ripping good novella about a security android which calls itself a murderbot, guarding a group of researchers on an alien planet. The murderbot mainly wants peace to watch its favorite TV shows, but that becomes impossible when the team comes under threat. It soon becomes clear that there is an unexpected group on the planet that doesn’t want any rivals, and the murderbot has to work with its humans to find a way to safety. That part – the plotty part – is nicely done, but the depiction of the murderbot is the story’s heart: convincingly a real person but not a human, with emotions but not those that humans expect: very funny at times but also quite moving.

3.       Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – I was rather disappointed by Every Heart a Doorway, the first novella in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I thought its main character boring, and its murder mystery plot rather a mess, and I thought the story just too long. For that reason, I passed on Down Among the Sticks and Bones until it showed up on the Hugo shortlist. So I came to the story with low expectations – and I was completely delighted. This isn’t just better than Every Heart a Doorway – it’s LOTS better. This tells the backstory of Jack and Jill, very important characters from the first book. They are twins, born to a couple who aren’t really interested in children except for how they look to their colleagues, and who force them into their ideas of the perfect girls – Jacqueline is the pretty one (thought they look the same), intended to be the popular one; while Jillian is the tomboy, the soccer player, the adventurer. (The one weakness of the story is the characterization of the parents – they’re a cliché, their faults seem forced.) The things is, that’s not who the girls really are, and when they find a door into another world, they take it, ending up on the Moors, a very dangerous place, ruled by a vampire, and featuring other horrors like werewolves. Jack stays with a relatively good man, and exercises her interest in learning and scientific research. Jill stays with the vampire, wanting to become a vampire herself – his heir, indeed. But when Jack takes a local girl as her lover, Jill’s eventual reaction catalyzes the inevitable ending.

4.       Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth – a caper story (OK, not a caper – an operation!) about a mixed team of “hoppers” (hippopotamus wranglers, basically) assembled to clear the lower Mississippi of feral hippos. Their leader, Winslow Houndstooth, also wants revenge, against the man who burned down his hippo farm years before. There’s a lot of violence, a truly evil villain, and a fair amount of believable darkness. I mean, I enjoyed it. I just didn’t see it as special – in particular in a speculative sense – yes, there’s the fairly cool alternate history aspect involving the hippos in Louisiana, but nothing with real SFnal zing. Still – it’s pretty fun.

5.       JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven – The story concerns the twin children of the Protector, originally promised to the local Monastery. But one of them turns out to have precognitive powers, and the Protector claims them … the other strikes off on their own, ending up in a rebellion against their mother. The good – a decent magic system (alas, treated in a clichéd fashion on occasion), interesting if seemingly inconsistent and underdeveloped treatment of gender (to be fair, the supposed inconsistencies may well be eventually explained), and decent characters. The not-so-good: a fairly clichéd plot (which doesn’t really resolve, though to be sure its companion novella was released in parallel, and that may illuminate the story), rather ordinary prose, and some pacing issues, mainly in the opening section (about a fourth of the story), which really should have been almost entirely cut. Bottom line – an okay story that has been ridiculously overpraised.

6.       Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home – Much as with Every Heart a Doorway, I was puzzled by the extravagant praise Binti received – I thought it kind of a mess, really illogical, hard to believe. Alas, the sequel, unlike the McGuire story’s prequel, is not much better than the opening, in my view. (Also, it doesn’t come to a real conclusion.) Binti, after spending some time at Oomza Uni, comes home to her family for a visit, and a pilgrimage. She is accompanied by her friend Okwu, one of the murderous Meduse (who also altered Binti’s genetics, though they didn’t kill her, unlike all her innocent prospective classmates). The notion is apparently to make some repairs in the Meduse’s relationship with humans, especially the Koush, a rival people to Binit’s Himba. But little enough happens on that ground (presumably that’s left for the next installment) – instead, Binti’s pilgrimage becomes a trip to the home of the mysterious Desert People, who turn out to be part of her ancestry, and to have a relationship going far back in history with a group of aliens with special tech. I have to say, my main problem was that I just didn’t believe in the story, nor, really, in Binti. It’s obvious a lot of people love these stories, and so it’s clear they’re seeing something I’m missing. So be it – the fault may well lie with me. But I didn’t like this story much, to be honest.

My nominees were, in alphabetical order by author:

1.       Kathleen Ann Goonan, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”
2.       Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Prime Meridian
3.       Sofia Samatar, “Fallow”
4.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)”
5.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red

In reality, the three that weren’t nominated are easy to understand – they are the three least readily available. Goonan’s story is from an original anthology (and one that didn’t seem to get a ton of attention, Extrasolar, from PS Publishing in the UK). Samatar’s story is from her exceptional collection Tender. Moreno-Garcia’s may be the most obscure – available only to supports of her Indiegogo campaign (and to lucky reviewers!) Indeed, I suspect it might be eligible for next year’s Hugo. But there were plenty of other worthy potential nominees; for instance Damien Broderick’s “Tao Zero”, Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie, and Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Dragon of Dread Peak”.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Hugo Ballot: Novelette


Novelette

The nominees are:

Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

This is really a very strong shortlist. The strongest shortlist in years and years, I’d say. Two are stories I nominated, and two more were on my personal shortlist of stories I considered nominating. The other two stories are solid work, though without quite the little bit extra I want in an award winner.

My ballot will look like this. I’ll mention that first two were 1 and 2 on my list before the shortlist was announced, which is pretty unusual!

1.      Yoon Ha Lee, “Extracurricular Activities” (Tor.com, 2/17) – a quite funny, and quite clever, story concerning the earlier life of a very significant character in Lee’s two novels, both Hugo nominees themselves, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. Shuos Jedao is an undercover operative for the Heptarchate, assigned to infiltrate a space station controlled by another polity, and to rescue the crew of a merchanter ship that had really been heptarchate spies, including an old classmate.

2.       Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots” (Clarkesworld, 9/17) – a very old bot on a battered Ship trying to stop an alien attack on Earth. It shows a surprising amount of initiative – even, one might say, imagination – in dealing with the Incidental. Might that not be useful in dealing with the aliens? Or might bots have their own ideas about their own place? Very strong work indeed.

3.       Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove” (Asimov’s, 9-10/17) – a story about the folk process, and memory, and the occasional importance of forgetting, set on a generation ship. Rosie is a middle-aged teacher on the ship, and a pretty good fiddle player. A malicious virus wiped most of the ship’s memory not too long into the journey, and Rosie and her fellows work on restoring what’s been lost by remembering everything they can, including folk tunes. But some of her students resent being taught history – another form of remembering – why should they re-create Earth on the ship, or even the new planet (that they will never see)? Even Rosie’s daughter has doubts. But purposeful forgetting – or malicious erasing – hardly seems right either. These questions are considered in the light of Rosie thinking about a particular folk tune, “Windy Grove”, a favorite of her grandmother’s, and how it changed over time – and might still change. Thoughtful and quite moving.

4.       Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “A Series of Steaks” (Clarkesworld, 1/17) -- Helena is a frustrated art student who, in order to make ends meet, has turned to forging steak using a 3-D printer (in this future, real meat is very rare (pun intended!).). She’s pretty good at it actually (it’s an art!), but then she receives a huge order for a bunch of T-bones … with a blackmail threat attached. The story turns into a bit of a caper story, with a bit of a love story attached – effectively enough. The original central idea, and nice characters, lifted it above the ordinary for me.

5.       Aliette de Bodard, “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” (Uncanny, 7-8/17) – set in a fantastical Paris ruled by houses of Angels, a couple of adversaries are trying to infiltrate House Hawthorn (using among other things cooking skills). It’s a story I liked – and a story that made me want to read the other works in this milieu – but it didn’t quite seem finished to me, more an outtake or pendant to its overall series.

6.       K. M. Szpara, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” (Uncanny, 5-6/17) – Not a bad story at all, but not one that thrilled me. It’s a vampire story, and a gay/transgender story. The first aspect is, if I’m honest, a bit of a negative for me, which isn’t fair, I guess, but it’s real – I’ve been tired of vampires for a long time. The second aspect is just fine, and nicely – but maybe just a bit obviously – integrated with the vampire theme. Nothing wrong with any of this, but for me it all added up to “fine work, but not really award-worthy”. Many others’ mileage varied, which is fine.

Obviously several novelettes I nominated didn’t make the cut, but while I’ll still say that if “Soulmates.com” or “The Hermit of Houston” or “ZeroS” or “Keepsakes” or a couple others had made that ballot it would be marginally better, I really can’t complain about the ballot we got.

A Significant Ace Double: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson

Ace Double Reviews, 10: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson (#G-574, 1966, $0.50)

(This April 23 repost is in honor of Avram Davidson's birthday, 23 April 1923.)

Ace Doubles have a fairly declassé image. One doesn't tend to look for all time classics or Hugo candidates among them. Though as previous reviews in this series have shown, there were first rate novels and novellas published as Ace Double halves, such as Jack Vance's Hugo winner "The Dragon Masters". (That was, however, a reprint.) But even so, it's something of a surprise to see that Ursula Le Guin's first novel was first published as half of an Ace Double. Rocannon's World is about 44,000 words long. It was expanded from a 7700 word story, "Dowry of the Angyar", which was in the September 1964 Amazing. This story appears unchanged as the prologue to Rocannon's World (called here "The Necklace"), and it has latterly been reprinted by itself under Le Guin's preferred title, "Semley's Necklace".
(Covers by Gerald McConnell and Jack Gaughan)

If Ursula Le Guin is a mild surprise as an Ace Double author (her second novel, Planet of Exile, was also an Ace Double half), so too might be Avram Davidson. Though it should be noted that Davidson's early novels were fairly routine, rather pulpish, not terribly characteristic of his best work. The Kar-Chee Reign is a 49,000 word novel, a prequel to his 1965 Ace novel (not an Ace Double half!) Rogue Dragon. Rogue Dragon itself was nominated for a Nebula Award, but The Kar-Chee Reign, a lesser work, to my mind, was not. The two novels were reprinted together in 1979, in a volume bannered "Ace Double", but not a true Ace Double. That is, it was not published in dos-a-dos format, and not part of a regular series. Rather, Ace essentially put out a few single author "omnibus" editions of two novels at about that time, and called them Ace Doubles in a nod to their past.

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the greatest SF/Fantasy writers of all time (arguably the greatest), indeed one of the greatest American writers of her generation, died January 22, 2018, aged 88. Le Guin was a favorite of mine since I first encountered her work in the early 1970s. She was best known for her SF novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and for her fantasy trilogy for young adults, The Earthsea Trilogy (later extended with two more books). I loved those books, but also her first written novel, Malafrena, and her last novel, Lavinia, and most everything she published in between, including any number of remarkable short stories. (My favorite is "The Stars Below".)

Her first published novel, Rocannon's World is a perhaps a bit curious, but clearly on the road to her mature work. It is a "Hainish" novel, thus fitting into Le Guin's main "future history", but it doesn't seem wholly consistent with novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. (And indeed Le Guin acknowledged that inconsistency, and wasn't much bothered by it.) What it mainly is is a fantasy novel with SF trappings. Except for the prose, which is excellent as one might expect from Le Guin, it feels strikingly pulpish. (The plot and feel would not have been out of place in an early 50s issue of Planet Stories, and in fact much of the content of Planet Stories was fantasy with SF trappings, work that might have been published as pure fantasy once the market for that exploded after the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings.) Perhaps the influence of Leigh Brackett or Andre Norton can be detected. The ultimate effect is mixed -- the plot is just not terribly plausible in places, and some of the setting and trappings are a bit old hat. But as I said the prose is fine, and the romantic and melancholy overtones are extremely effective.

Fomalhaut II is a planet which has only been lightly explored by the League of All Words (in later novels, the Ekumen). The League does not even know how many intelligent races live there -- three for sure, but perhaps two more. One non-humanoid race is not even encountered in the book. The main races are the Liuar (basically "humans"); and the now split Gdemiar (Clayfolk -- dwarf-analogues) and Fiia (elf-analogues). The League has been promoting the advancement of the Gdemiar to an industrial society, and extracting taxes from them and the Liuar, but after the ethnologist Rocannon encounters Semley (an aristocrat of the Liuar) in the prologue, he decides the world is not well enough understood, and he mounts an expedition to study it. But disaster strikes -- an enemy race is there as well, and they find and destroy Rocannon's spaceship, marooning him with none of his equipment.

He then must travel, with the help of Semley's grandson and a small band of locals, to the mysterious Southwest continent where the enemy is located, hoping to find an ansible and call for help. Their journey, mostly on rather unlikely flying "horses", or windsteeds, is full of adventure -- they encounter various different sorts of outlaws, and danger from the weather, and a scary quasi-intelligent race, and finally an unconvincing "Old One" who grants Rocannon special powers, helping him finally accomplish his mission. All this is entertaining but as I have said faintly pulpish and not very plausible. But the final resolution is achingly bittersweet, deeply romantic and very melancholy. Certainly a novel worth reading, though of course Le Guin has done much better things.

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was also one of the SF field's best, and most original, writers. He wrote a number of exceptional short stories (my favorite among them is one of the greatest SF stories of all time, "The Sources of the Nile"), and quite a few novels. The novels, especially the later novels, were interesting but not as brilliant as the short stories. He sometimes seemed to lose interest the more he wrote about something, and indeed he started several series that he never finished. He was also editor of F&SF between 1962 and 1964. Two series of stories are particularly worth notice: the Eszterhazy stories, and the Limekiller stories, and his nonfiction about the sources of certain legends, Adventures in Unhistory, is quite absorbing.

I haven't read The Kar-Chee Reign in some little time, so the following summary may be a bit lacking. It is set far in the future. Humans have colonized other stars, and have forgotten Earth. Earth itself is, as Davidson puts it "flat, empty, weary and bare". A few humans remain, apparently living a low-tech style of life. Then the insectlike aliens the Kar-Chee come, to mine the Earth for its remaining metals, with the help of huge beasts called Dragons by the humans. The Kar-Chee hardly care about humans, displacing them without much thought or worry. Humans have come to cower away from the Kar-Chee, avoiding them in hopes of escaping notice.

The Rowan family lives in fair comfort on an isolated island that the Kar-Chee have not yet reached. When the aliens finally do come, certain of the locals seem to have forgotten the policy of avoiding them at all costs, and a series of attacks are mounted. These attacks meet with initial success, but then the Kar-Chee are irritated, and reprisals occur. But a group led by one Liam decides to continue to take the fight to the Kar-Chee. It will not be a great surprise that they are eventually successful, and Liam becomes a celebrated hero. The Kar-Chee depart, but they leave some of the Dragons behind (setting up Rogue Dragon, set some time further in the future). There is also an indication that contact with the human-colonized worlds will resume, and that Earth itself will be revitalized.

It's far from a great novel, and it's far from Davidson at anything like his best. Still, I do recall enjoying it, though I thought the action in general routine (and sometimes confused), and much of the setup a bit silly. The prose shows only hints of pure Davidson.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Hugo Ballot, Short Story

Here's the first of what will be a series of posts detailing my thoughts on my final ballot ordering for a number of the Hugo categories.

Short Story

The Hugo shortlist is:

"Carnival Nine" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
"Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
"The Martian Obelisk," by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
"Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience[TM]", by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

This is by no means a bad shortlist. Every story on it is at least pretty decent.  My ballot will look like this:

1. “The Martian Obelisk”, by Linda Nagata – This is set in a future in which a series of disasters, with causes in human nature, in environmental collapse, and in technological missteps, has led to a realization that humanity is doomed. One old architect, in a gesture of, perhaps, memorialization of the species, has taken over the remaining machines of an abortive Mars colony to create a huge obelisk that might end up the last surviving great human structure after we are gone. But her project is threatened when a vehicle from one of the other Martian colonies (all of which failed) approaches. Is the vehicle’s AI haywire? Has it been hijacked by someone else on Earth? The real answer is more inspiring – and if perhaps just a bit pat, the conclusion is profoundly moving.

2. “Fandom for Robots”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad – a quite delightful story of a 1950s robot (called Computron, natch!) writing fan fiction about an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record. Prasad pulls it off with a perfect deadpan delivery, which makes Computron, as it were, come alive – and which captures the fan fiction culture right on the nose.

3. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde – a story of a visit to a museum exhibition that in the end seems to be a “freak show”, and which has a distinct and scary effect on the visitor. It’s told in the second person, and this is (perhaps rarely!) the exactly correct choice for this story, as the reader slowly realizes that the act of viewing the perhaps grotesque (or just misunderstood?) exhibits has parallels with how they see people who are different. I will say that this is a story that improved on rereading – either because my mood was different, or because I saw more on a second pass.

4. “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline M. Yoachim – a nice take on the notion of windup dolls that are truly alive, as Zee, blessed with a mainspring that takes extra winding, grows up with her beloved Papa, marries a nice young boy, and then makes a child who can hardly be wound at all. It’s a simple idea, and told straightforwardly, with no compromises or miracles.

5. “Sun, Moon, Dust”, by Ursula Vernon – a fine magic sword story in which Allpa’s grandmother leaves him a sword on her death, with the three title warriors enchanted into it to teach him to fight. But Allpa is a farmer, and doesn’t see much need for a sword, much to the frustration of Sun, Moon, and Dust. Allpa has plenty to learn, but maybe he has more to teach – and maybe perhaps one of these warriors will realize that there’s more to life than war.

6. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse – another second person story, and while that’s done well enough, it doesn’t seem quite as effective a choice as in the Wilde story. It’s the story of a Native American man working in a near future tourist destination where people can have “authentic” virtual experience of historical Indian life – but instead of being truly “authentic” the experiences are overlaid with typical fake Indian clichés. I thought it was fine, well worth reading, but it didn’t really wow me.

On reflection and rereading, even though I only nominated one of these stories (and the second wasn’t too far off my nomination ballot), I’m pretty happy with the nominations of the top four stories on my ballot, and the other two are solid work that I can’t and don’t complain about. That said, the nominators missed some outstanding work, I think largely on the basis of ready availability.
My prime nomination candidates were:

Maureen McHugh, "Sidewalks" (Omni, Winter/17)
Giovanni de Feo, "Ugo" (Lightspeed, 9/17)
Charlie Jane Anders, "Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue" (Boston Review, Global Dystopias)
Sofia Samatar, “An Account of the Land of Witches” (Tender)
Linda Nagata, "The Martian Obelisk" (Tor.com, 7/17)
Karen Joy Fowler, "Persephone of the Crows" (Asimov’s, 5-6/17)
Tobias Buckell, "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance" (Cosmic Powers)

The only one of those stories (besides the Nagata, which made the ballot) that was as readily available as the six stories on the final ballot is de Feo’s “Ugo”, a first story by an Italian writer. The other stories are all outstanding. I would say that the Anders, McHugh, and Samatar stories are particularly big misses, and in each case the story appeared in a print publication that was very easy for a reader to miss. Them’s the berries, I guess. For all that, I have to say that this is one of the best Short Story Hugo ballots in a long time.

I’ll note that all six nominees are women – and that that seems fair, this year. Yes, Tobias Buckell and Giovanni de Feo did work on a level with all these women (Anders, Samatar, Fowler, and McHugh included), but they didn’t do work obviously better.

A Forgotten Ace Double: Gallagher's Glacier/Positive Charge, by Walt and Leigh Richmond

Ace Double Reviews, 71: Gallagher's Glacier, by Walt and Leigh Richmond/Positive Charge, by Walt and Leigh Richmond (#27235, 1970, $0.75)

by Rich Horton

Today's Birthday repost of an Ace Double is in honor of Leigh Richmond, born April 21, 1911.

Walt and Leigh Richmond were a husband and wife SF writing team, who wrote mostly for Analog in the 1960s: about a dozen short stories between 1961 and 1973, of which only one appeared in another magazine, If. These stories were concentrated in one year: 1964, in which fully half the issues of Analog featured a Richmond piece. They also wrote five novels for Ace. Three of these were parts of Ace Doubles. Their last novel was slightly anomalous: Challenge The Hellmaker, published in 1976 as part of the curious and often denigrated "Second Ace Special" series (it was an expansion of a short serial, "Where I Wasn't Going", from Analog in 1963). It would be fair to say that they were "late John Campbell" writers, who really couldn't sell to anybody else (except Don Wollheim). And it would be fair to say, based on what I've read, that this was on merit -- they were pretty bad, luckily for them bad in ways that appealed to the idiosyncratic and often annoying tastes of John Campbell in the 60s. A few of the novels, including Gallagher's Glacier, were reissued by Ace in the late '70s, as revised by Leigh after Walt's death.
(Gallagher's Glacier cover by Kelly Freas)

There is a rather amusing story about their method of collaboration. I've seen this independently attested by several people who met them at the Milford workshops in the mid-60s. Apparently, Walt would sit in his chair and telepathically transmit story ideas to Leigh while she typed. I'll go way out on a limb and say that I personally think Leigh Richmond is the sole author of all these stories, with her husband's name attached for any of a number of possible reasons. (It may well be that the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) ideas behind the stories came out of mutual discussions, mind you.) Leigh was 11 years the elder, by the way, though Walt died in 1977, only 55 years old. (I suppose one might adduce that date as evidence that the collaboration story was true: after all, their last novel was published in 1977, with the 1979 Phase Two being an expansion of a 1969 Ace Double half called Phoenix Ship.) Leigh died in 1996, age 85. It's worth noting that the first of their stories was originally published as by Leigh alone ("Prologue to an Analogue", Analog, June 1961). It was reprinted twice under her name, but in this collection there is no indication that it is not a collaboration, and the title is slightly changed (to "Prologue to ... an Analogue"). Leigh published one other story without Walt, though that was also a collaboration: "There is a Tide", with R. C. FitzPatrick, in the January 1968 Analog, and then one much later novel, Blindsided, with Dick Richmond-Donahue, with her name given as Leigh Richmond-Donahue, so I assume Dick was her second husband. That book came out in 1993 from the obscure publisher Interdimensional Sciences.

So what of these stories? The collection is almost completely negligible. "Prologue to ,,, an Analogue", the longest at 10,000 words or so, was anthologized a couple of times, but I'm not sure why. An advertising agency puts together an ad campaign for a cleaning product featuring 13 witches, and somehow their incantations end up "cleaning up" whatever situation was mentioned on the news program just prior to the ad running -- situations such as attempted bacterial warfare by China (blamed on the US and USSR), slum clearance, a crippled child, etc. And that's pretty much it. Four stories feature inventions by the unworldly Willy Shorts. Three of them are directly about Willy, signalled by the titles: "Shorts Wing" (6200 words, original to this book), "Shortstack" (6700 words, Analog, December 1964), and "Shortsite" (3500 words, Analog, April 1964). In these three Willy is shown coming up with crazy ideas of the sort Campbell liked (at least one reminded me of the Dean Drive), and then his unscrupulous salesman friend markets them. None convinced me. The other Shorts story is "I, BEM" (Analog, June 1964), told from the POV of an AI robot designed by Willy, after the robots have taken over the Earth with kindness, and most humans have left. It's probably one of the best Richmond stories. There is another Richmond story I haven't read, not in this book, called "Poppa Needs Shorts" (Analog, January 1964), and I wonder if it too features Willy Shorts.

The other stories include "M'Lord is the Shepherd" (3100 words, If, September 1965), in which aliens monitoring Earth try to promote human development in order to help defend against another encroaching alien race, but (surprise!) get more than they bargain for when humans prove even more dangerous than the original enemy. The Richmonds get off a couple of cranky jokes -- one plan for holding back human ingenuity once it gets out of hand is introducing television, one of the alien field operatives is called a "teslar": he introduces alternating current, of course (i.e. he's really Nicola Tesla). "If the Sabot Fits ..." (5400 words, Analog, February 1968) comes close to suggesting an original and prophetic idea: computer viruses. All kinds of problems suddenly happen in one city at the same time, all based on computerized operations (from library book distribution to chemical plant operations). They are eventually traced to an educational program which just happens to be sending a binary signal over the TV channel which just happens to be read by local computers as a program. That particular means of introducing a virus is kind of silly (especially as it seems to be pure chance in the story), but the basic idea is at least a bit prescient -- perhaps. Anybody know of any virus stories before 1968? Finally, "Cows Can't Eat Grass" (4800 words, Analog, August 1967), is a problem story about a scout marooned on an alien planet who manages to survive, despite all the local food being apparently undigestible. His rescuers have a hard time believing he's not really a local alien shapeshifter until they figure out the mechanism, which is perhaps a bit strained but OK I guess.

Now for the novel. Gallagher's Glacier (31000 words) is an expansion of a short story of the same title, from the November 1964 Analog. Human colonized space is under the grip of evull corporations. The narrator is a decent space captain who has learned how bad his employers are. He hires Gallagher out of necessity, and is impressed by his abilities as an engineer -- alas, abilities that violate the "book". He also witnesses Gallagher claim an icy asteroid and turn it into a spaceship, the only independent spaceship in the colonies. I assume this ends the original story.

We pick up again a few years later. The narrator runs into Gallagher again on a brutal mining planet. Gallagher, with the help of a standard issue "whore with a heart of gold", shows the narrator the evull side of the company. He naively decides to storm off to Earth to reveal these abuses, and of course gets arrested for his pains. Rescued by Gallagher, he joins a nascent rebellion, meets a pretty girl, and, well, you can see where the story is going. (Complete with implausible tech that only the rebels are independent enough to understand.)

The story is by fits and starts kind of entertaining in a routine way, but mostly unredeemable cliché. That said, I'm not surprised Wollheim published it, and it ranks well above the worst of the Ace Doubles.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Forgotten SF/Regency Romance: Current Confusion, by Kitty Grey

Current Confusion, by Kitty Grey

a review by Rich Horton

I have enjoyed a number of Regency Romances over the years, particularly those by Georgette Heyer, but any skilled and witty writer can make these plenty of fun. And of course I'm a big fan of science fiction, so when I ran across Current Confusion at a library book sale extra cheap, and when I noticed it was a Regency with an SF aspect, I figured it would be worth a try.

"Kitty Grey" is stated on the jacket copy to be a "pen-name of a long-time editor", and a bit of sleuthing by Denny Lien revealed her to be Mary Elizabeth Allen, who was indeed an editor at Walker, publishers of this book (and many Regency romances). "Kitty Grey" has one more credit, as writer of a set of stories that seem to be a sort of frame for an anthology called A Regency Valentine, and Mary Elizabeth Allen was the editor of another romance anthology with a fantasy twist, All Hallow's Eve, which featured stories by Andre Norton, Morgan Llywellen, Jo Beverly, and Carola Dunn.

Alas, Current Confusion isn't really very good, either as SF or as romance. It is real SF, I will say -- it's a timeslip romance, but more than that, it makes real use of the time travel, and include a bit of play with paradoxes, and time travel in both directions, as well as scientific speculation.

Cassandra Brown is a young physicist working on a "4-D accelerator" at a lab in London, when there is an explosion, and all of a sudden the lab looks very different, and there's a strangely dressed man. Of course, no surprise, she's in 1815, at Font Hall, the seat of Harry, Lord Font. Harry is an experimenter himself, and somehow Cassandra's experiment interacted with Harry's fooling with electricity, and she ended up back in time.

She convinces Harry of what happened, and he begins to help her with the math needed to figure out a way back to her time. But complications arise when Harry has to go to London to visit his widowed sister. Cassandra accompanies him, and deals with things like the assumptions immediately made about her virtue, and her difficulty understanding Regency manners, etc. Harry's sister is still mourning her young husband's death, but Cassandra becomes convinced Harry really wants to marry her, while Harry is trying to set her up with a friend of his. And even worse, there's Harry's slimy cousin Arthur, who inherits his title if both Harry and his young nephew are out of the way. But when the nephew is nearly murdered, somehow Cassandra falls under suspicion ... but luckily she and Harry have figured out the way for her to get back to our time.

Once back there, though, she learns what really happened to the Font family ... and she can't allow that -- so she decides to return again ... and everything devolves into utter silliness, really, though it was already well on the way.

The novel fails as a romance mainly because there are no real sparks between the main characters. It gives a brave try on the SF side, but that doesn't work well either. The writing is indifferent, the plot logic often silly, and Cassandra is a very unconvincing character. Just not a very good novel.

A Little-Known Ace Double: I Want the Stars, by Tom Purdom/Demons' World, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 20: I Want the Stars, by Tom Purdom/Demons' World, by Kenneth Bulmer (#F-289, 1964, $0.40)

Tom Purdom was born April 19, 1936, so I am reposting this review I did long ago of the Ace Double containing his first novel.

(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer is an English writer, born 1921 and as far as I can find out still alive. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer from about 1952 through 1988 or so, publishing close to a hundred novels that the ISFDB knows about, under his own name and several pseudonyms. His most-famous pseudonym is probably "Alan Burt Akers", used for his Dray Prescot series of 37 novels for DAW, from 1972 through 1988. I've haven't read any of those novels so I can't comment on them. He also took over editorship of the classic British original anthology series New Writings in SF after the death of the first editor, E. J. Carnell. Bulmer edited numbers 22 through 30 of that series, from 1973 through 1977. With 30 total volumes, I believe that qualifies as the longest running (in terms of number of books) original anthology series in SF history. Though Bulmer's writing tended to be extremely old-fashioned, even pulpish, his editorial hand showed a certain taste for the New Wave (in among a fair amount of old-style stuff).

The author of the other half of this Ace Double is Tom Purdom. Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, most of it in Asimov's, and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the three "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and such stories as "The Path of the Transgressor" and "A Stranger from a Foreign Ship" are quite remarkable.

Purdom's I Want the Stars is his first novel, and it is quite short at about 42,000 words. Bulmer's Demons' World is a bit longer, at some 52,000 words.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Emshwiller)

I Want the Stars is a rather ambitious novel in theme, though the execution doesn't really match the ambition. The novel opens with a group of 4 humans attacking an alien spaceship. We soon learn that humans have been in interstellar space for only a fairly short time, perhaps a century, after having solved their internal problems. War has been eliminated, psychological problems are mostly solved, lifespans are about 300 years, men and women form free and fluid sexual bonds without jealousy, the economy is a post-scarcity economy. (Indeed, I was in some mild ways reminded of Iain M. Banks's Culture.) Why then this attack on the aliens? Well, these aliens, the Horta, are telepaths who take over and enslave by mind control other alien races.

The attack fails, partly because of the Horta mind powers, and partly because the humans involved are simply not psychologically ready to fight sentient beings. The one man of this group, Jenorden A'Ley, is closest to being ready to fight, and he is also struggling with his knowledge of his mortality (enhanced by the machinations of the Horta), and with his search for real meaning in his life. With the two surviving women, he joins another man and heads off exploring. They discover a primitive race, at roughly 20th Century Earth tech and social levels, ready to destroy themselves with atomic weapons. To their horror, they learn that a mysterious super race -- called, get this, the Borg* -- is offering to teach these people whatever they want to know -- to human morality, this seems terribly wrong. They decide to accept the Borg's offer to join the other race and get their own questions answered, and they head to a Borg planet. where various representatives of any number of alien races are under Borg tutelage. But the humans soon learn that the Borg method of teaching, while interesting, is rather frustrating -- they seem intent on teaching their questioners the history of intelligent life, more or less as a precursor to answering any question.

Jenorden gets impatient and starts visiting various other races to see what they are learning. Then the action starts, as some relatively primitive aliens treacherously attack the humans, hoping to steal their technological secrets. And, shockingly, the Borg refuse to stop the violence. Jenorden and the others must fight for their lives, confronting their own potential for violence, and hoping to learn the Borg secret. The answer is not quite believable, but it is uplifting, and it does quite reasonably offer meaning to Jenorden's life.

Demons' World opens with a group of human Foragers venturing Outside, and discovering an unfamiliar man. Against regulations, they rescue this man from the enormous Demon they encounter. They take the man back to their underground warren. The Controller class takes over, and they learn that the man, called "Stead" from the only word he utters, is an amnesiac. They teach him what they can, mysteriously withholding certain knowledge, particularly about sex. This frustrates Stead as he cannot deal with his attraction to such people as the curiously different Della, one of the leading Controller researchers.

But after some instruction, the ruler, or Captain, of this human nation, the Empire of Archon, assigns Stead to be a Forager with the same group that originally found him. There he meets such people as Honey, who seems to attract him in ways disturbingly similar to Della; and Cardon, a bitter man with a secret; and Thorburn, the competent leader. Stead also learns, on his foraging expeditions, that the Demons that the Controllers believe are simply myths are all too real, and truly gigantic; and he comes to sympathize with the lower social state of the Foragers and the Workers relative to the Controllers.

Stead seems ready to come to new understanding of the real nature of this world, and perhaps to regain his memory, when a foraging mission gone wrong brings the redoubled wrath of the Demons on human society. The only hope is for humans to finally learn the truth of their position in this world ...

It's really rather silly, though the story as told is fast moving and readable enough. But the central secret is pretty obvious from the getgo, and the human society doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and Stead's personal story, particularly his abortive relationships with Della and Honey, is frustratingly handled. To say nothing of the blatant ignoring of the square/cube law. Awfully minor stuff, in all.

*Purdom's Borg don't really resemble the Star Trek Borg very much at all, but I do sort of wonder if a Star Trek writer didn't read this book and decide he liked the name.