Friday, November 16, 2018

Brithday Review: Stories of Lavie Tidhar

Today is the birthday of the excellent (and very prolific, as you can see below) Lavie Tidhar. In his honor I present this compilation of many of my Locus reviews of his short fiction.

Locus, August 2013

All that said, what about “The Oracle” (Analog, July-August) itself? It's one of Tidhar's excellent long sequence of “Central Station” stories, set in an around a spaceport straddling Tel Aviv and Jaffa. This piece is in a sense an origin story, telling in one thread of Matt Cohen, on the run from protesters of his “imprisonment” of potential nascent AIs in servers kept isolated from the net; and in another thread of Ruth Cohen, who became The Oracle, “Joined” with the AIs (“the Others”). There's a nice mix of Sfnal speculation – about AIs, mostly – and depiction of character (especially Ruth's life), and even action. Like many of Tidhar's stories in this series, it depends to an extent on its links with the rest of the series – so this is very strong work by itself, but perhaps even more as part of a greater whole.

Locus, December 2006

Lavie Tidhar’s “High Windows” gets points from me for the reference to one of my favorite poets (the brilliant grump Philip Larkin), and more points for its gritty depiction of a young person escaping from an oppressive habitat orbiting Saturn to an ambiguous life in a grungy future Solar System.

Locus, March 2007

And Lavie Tidhar’s “The Burial of the Dead” (Chiaroscure, January-March) concerns a man coming to play a high-stakes game who is evidently on some sort of assassination mission – strangeness suffuses the story, from the Eliot-derived character names (and title, of course) to the combined science fiction/horror motivating background.

Locus, September 2007

The tenth issue of Apex Digest may be its best yet. The best piece here is by Lavie Tidhar, “Daydreams”, in which people’s dreams can change the world to fit what they dream of. This can obviously be dangerous, and the hero seems to be trying to prevent or reverse the effects of a dangerous dreamers – though how much of this story is really just his dream?

Locus, December 2007

Fantasy Magazine has gone online. Perhaps the best story from the first online month (October) is “Elsbeth Rose” by Lavie Tidhar, which tells of two elderly people in what seems to be an infinite apartment building. Elsbeth Rose is a painter, who on the one hand has traveled no more than thirty floors from her apartment, but on the other hand seems to have come to the building from something like our world (though her husband was a character from a Wodehouse novel). Traveler Yud, as his name suggests, has gone a lot farther than 30 floors – but he claims to have been born “inside”. Their story – stories – are quiet, imaginative, sweet, romantic, a bit arch – very enjoyable.

Locus, April 2008

Other strong pieces in the Del Rey Book of Science Fiction include Lavie Tidhar’s “Shira”, about a Syrian university student coming to Haifa in a future Middle East which seems to have been shocked into peace by something called the Small Holocaust. She is studying an obscure Israeli poet – and she learns rather more, and more strangely, than she could have expected.

Locus, March 2009

And by contrast Strange Horizons has a reputation, at least, of being slipstream-oriented – but of course they publish lots of straight fantasy and straight science-fiction. In January my favorite story is SF: “The Shangri-La Affair” by Lavie Tidhar. Sometime in the near future a man comes to Laos on a mysterious mission, as war continues to sweep through Asia. The familiar routines are enacted – the flight in on Nuevo Air Amerika, the rendezvous with an enchanting woman, the journey to a hidden city. And slowly we learn the man’s mission – he is trying to find and destroy the only samples of a dangerous plague. But is it dangerous? That turns out to be a good question, one Tidhar lets the reader try to answer. Making this a fine thought-provoking story.

Locus, June 2010

Lavie Tidhar's "The Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String" (Fantasy, June) (an SF story, rare but not unheard of at Fantasy) is a nice brief examination of the effects of a memory erasure technique from the point of a view of an old woman who sells the memory erasure on the street - ostensibly the subject is the reason her latest customer buys her wares, but of course at heart the subject is the seller herself.

Locus, October 2010

Lavie Tidhar’s Cloud Permutations (PS Publishing) is an impressive science fiction tale set on a planet colonized by Pacific Islanders, appropriate as the planet is mostly water. The inhabitants live fairly traditional lives, though they are apparently aware of some of their history. The lives of two boys are intertwined by prophesies concerning a mysterious tower … and eventually of course they go searching. The secret behind the tower will surprise no experienced SF reader – indeed, the outline of the story is fundamentally familiar. It is Tidhar’s refreshing telling that makes it special: certainly in particular the Pacific Islander culture (enhanced by much use of the Pacific creole Bislama, just enough based on English to make it mostly comprehensible to this reader); but also the very well realized characters, and the complex shadings of the conclusion.

Another Tidhar SF story with Pacific Island roots appears in the October Fantasy Magazine: “Monsters”, a fine short piece about human space travel in the context of an alien ocean-based species’ experience with same.

Locus, December 2010

Let’s look at a few anthologies. The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala, comes from a small UK press (Immersion). And this is a nice collection. In particular I liked Lavie Tidhar’s “Lode Stars”, a strange SF story set in a society around a group of black holes. Michaela is a starship captain whose father has just died exploring the event horizon of one of the black holes. She is pushed to learn unexpected things about her society’s history, about the black holes, and the intelligences they may harbor, about alien Martian bioware that some people meddle with – a lot goes on in a short space, that seems potentially part of something much bigger.

Locus, August 2011

And my favorite story in Ellen Datlow's Naked City is “The Projected Girl”, by Lavie Tidhar. Danny is a ten year old boy, being raised by his widowed father. He’s intrigued by magic and by detective novels, and stumbles across a magician’s journal from the ‘40s, and thus into a mystery about a magician, and his assistant, who really disappeared one day, and about a strange image of a young woman on a wall – all tied up with the complexities of Palestine in the Second World War.

Locus, January 2013

Eclipse Online in December features another strong Lavie Tidhar story set what I'll call his “Central Station” future, though this piece, “The Memcordist”, is set all over the Solar System, at several times in the life of a man who grew up “on stage”, in a sense, implanted with some tech such that his every experience is broadcast for anyone who wants to to share. His life, shaped mostly by two women, his “stage-mother” and the one woman (another memcordist) he truly loved, is well portrayed, and we also get a neat look at the extent of this future. To me, Tidhar is one writer who is consistently engaged in fresh speculation on a Sfnally rigorous (and diverse) future, especially in these Central Station stories.

Locus, August 2013

All that said, what about “The Oracle” (Analog, July-August) itself? It's one of Tidhar's excellent long sequence of “Central Station” stories, set in an around a spaceport straddling Tel Aviv and Jaffa. This piece is in a sense an origin story, telling in one thread of Matt Cohen, on the run from protesters of his “imprisonment” of potential nascent AIs in servers kept isolated from the net; and in another thread of Ruth Cohen, who became The Oracle, “Joined” with the AIs (“the Others”). There's a nice mix of Sfnal speculation – about AIs, mostly – and depiction of character (especially Ruth's life), and even action. Like many of Tidhar's stories in this series, it depends to an extent on its links with the rest of the series – so this is very strong work by itself, but perhaps even more as part of a greater whole.

Locus, June 2016

Lavie Tidhar’s “Terminal” ( is a moving piece about the people who take the desperate one-way trip to Mars on what are called “jalopies”, single person spaceships that take months to get there. The people have numerous motives, all valid in their own way. The story is told mostly through the conversations the travelers have with each other on the way, and especially on Mei, who is dying, and on Haziq, who has raised a family and now just wants to go to space. Then ending is quite powerful.

Locus, September 2016

Lavie Tidhar offers perhaps the best novella of the year in the July/August F&SF. “The Vanishing Kind” is set in London in the 1950s, but an alternate London: the Nazis won World War II, and they are in control in England. The narrative strategy is perfect: the tale is told by a shady figure in the British Nazi government, whose department keeps an eye on the protagonist, Gunther Sloam, a German screenwriter, who has come to London looking for Ulla, an actress who used to be his lover. He finds her trail hard and depressing to follow: she seems implicated in prostitution and drug-dealing, and along the way Gunther finds himself suspected of murder, and dealing with lowlifes and criminals and even Jews, who are supposed to have been eradicated. The twists mount, and his quest leads him to a very dark place … This is beautifully executed, capturing the noir style in pitch perfect fashion, telling an exciting story while revealing pointed details of occupied British life, and resolving with the perfect cynical note.

Locus, July 2017

Among an absolute hoard of short stories in the May-June Analog, pieces by Gord Sellar and Lavie Tidhar stand out. ... Tidhar’s “The Banffs” is a variant on the classic notion of the mysterious clique that has all the best stuff (think Bob Shaw’s “A Full Member of the Club”, or, in a different way, Avram Davidson’s “The Sources of the Nile”); and at the same time it’s variant of another old theme. A struggling novelist is introduced to a set of strange rich people, and somehow ends up housesitting in some of their fabulous remote houses – until they leave. We guess what they are from the start, of course, and the story isn’t earth-shakingly original, but it’s slickly and slyly told.

Locus, September 2017

Extrasolar is a new anthology from PS Publishing on the theme of extrasolar planets, concentrating mostly on planets discovered via our current (or near future) telescopes. One interesting story that doesn’t hew that closely to that theme is Lavie Tidhar’s “The Planet Woman by M. V. Crawford”, which presents three linked short-short stories supposedly written in the ‘70s by Crawford, a very obscure writer. Tidhar nails the period pretty well (the stories, for example, are said to be from The Alien Condition (a book I remember well!), the July 1974 Analog (last issue before I started buying it – that must be why I missed Crawford’s story!), and The Last Dangerous Visions). The pieces themselves are pretty effectively reminiscent of, say, Tiptree – set in a future where all men are forcibly given sex changes, then proceeding to a transcendent and somewhat mystical conclusion.

Locus, October 2017

The rest of The Book of Swords is also strong, of course. One more particular standout is “Waterfalling”, by Lavie Tidhar, in which the drug-addicted gunslinger Gorel of Gorilis has been engaged to “send a message”, i.e. to kill a man who stole something from Gorel’s client. Alas, what he stole was the Black Kiss, Gorel’s weakness, and the end result has Gorel visiting the title town, in which the local god sometimes “calls” its residents to climb a cliff to the top of a waterfall and dive to their death. The action is effective and brutal, the scheming interesting, the characters nicely hard-boiled, and the fantastical imagination -- the various races, the gods, the deep history – is absorbing.

Locus, July 2018

Lavie Tidhar’s “Yiwu” ( is also about magic, in a way – Eshamuddin is a lottery ticket seller in a future Chinese city (in Tidhar’s ongoing Central Station future). The kick is that the lottery gives winners their true heart’s desire – which can be pretty magical, and pretty unexpected. But one day a woman who has been a regular at Eshamuddin’s shop wins – and nothing happens. Which brings trouble to him … this is fine, quiet, strange and subtle work.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Two Novels by David Lodge: Paradise News and The British Museum is Falling Down

Two Novels by David Lodge: Paradise News and The British Museum is Falling Down

A review by Rich Horton

Here are two reviews I did of books by the excellent English critic and (mostly) comic novelist, David Lodge, back in 2003.

Paradise News, by David Lodge

I've been interested in trying the works of the English writer David Lodge for some time.  Indeed, I've read some of his popular criticism, and I've read one very short novel he adapted from a play, but never a full-length novel.  He's a comic novelist in the central tradition of British writing of latter half of the 20th century, and he's also a Catholic (at least by birth), always something of interest to this lapsed Catholic.  At the big St. Louis area used book sale a couple of weekends back I picked up a copy of his 1991 novel Paradise News, and I went ahead and read it.

The novel concerns Bernard Walsh, a former Catholic priest who is teaching theology half-time at a depressing college in a depressing English town.  His aunt contacts him from Hawaii with the news that she is dying, and that she would like him to convince his father (her brother) to visit her, at her expense, for one last time.  They have not met since the '50s, for insufficiently explained reasons, though the scandal over Aunt Ursula first marrying, then divorcing, an American serviceman might have something to do with it.

Bernard's father is a disagreeable old man who is afraid of flying, but somehow, with the unexpected help of Bernard's scheming sister Tess, who is afraid of losing Ursula's fabled inheritance, he is convinced to go.  Bernard lucks into a last-minute cancellation of a tourist package, getting the two of them a cheap flight, and more to the point of the book, allowing Lodge to portray a wide variety of English tourists, to a variety of comic effect.  Some of the thematic center of the book is provided by an academic, an anthropologist of tourism, who has various cockeyed theories about the ritualistic place of tourism in human life, and who is much taken with the repeated motif of "Paradise" in the names of Hawaiian tourist traps.  The other thematic center, of course, revolves around Bernard's own loss of faith, and the stories of his rigid Catholic upbringing, his seminary training, his years teaching, and his brief time as a parish priest.

In Hawaii, Bernard's father is almost immediately run down by a car (he looked the wrong way for traffic because of course American drive on the wrong side of the street).  So Bernard's time is taken up with dealing with his father's hospitalization, and then with Aunt Ursula's situation, partly in a shabby nursing house, partly in hospital.  Bernard must deal with finding a place for Ursula to live out her short expected term, and this in the light of her rather more straitened than expected circumstances. Bernard also meets and falls in love with the woman who ran over his father, a woman in the process of divorcing her husband, who hates Hawaii, but who proves just the right woman for an ex-priest whose only sexual experience has consisted of humiliating failure. We also get glimpses of the other English tourists, these functioning mostly as pretty effective comic relief.

I enjoyed this novel very much.  It's both very funny, and quite serious at core.  It's well-written, the characters are very well delineated, and their stories are involving and moving.  The serious aspects -- the exploration of faith, and paradise, and, yes, tourism, are interesting and intelligent.  The only quibbles I'd have would be the convenient resolution of some difficulties: some financial difficulties, and also the easy coincidence of Bernard's "meet cute" with an appropriate woman.  But, to be sure, those are conventions of comedy, to some extent.

The British Museum is Falling Down, by David Lodge

The British Museum is Falling Down, published in 1965, is the book in which David Lodge seems to have found his metier. His first two novels were (apparently) rather serious in tone -- and they seem to have been all but forgotten. This novel is his first comedy, and as far as I know all of Lodge's stuff since then has been essentially comic. Lodge is a great admirer of Kingsley Amis, and certainly Amis is one writer Lodge's work recalls. (There are two nods to Amis in the current book -- one character asks the protagonists opinion of a few contemporary writers, all names malaprops, including "Kingsley Anus", and at an academic party he identifies three attendees as taking notes to write academic social comedies, a genre dominated at that time by the spectre of Lucky Jim.) Lodge is of course his own writer, though, and this novel also reflects his personal Catholicism.

The novel is set during one day in the life of Adam Appleby. Adam is working on his Ph. D. thesis in English Literature, and he goes in every day to the British Museum to research his subject. He is also married with three young children. He dreads the prospect of another, but he and his wife are practicing Roman Catholics, and thus are restricted to the "Safe Method" of birth control -- basically an advanced version of the Rhythm Method. But this morning his wife is now three days late for her period.

Adam's day is very funnily detailed, as he basically gets nothing done on his thesis, between problems with his motor scooter, worry about his wife being pregnant, and various misadventures, involving a fire scare, a sherry party, and a visit to the aging niece of a minor Catholic novelist on whom Adam is something of an expert. The book is short, cleverly written, very smartly plotted. Lodge includes sections parodying the work of a number of well-known writers, such as Conrad, Joyce, and Hemingway. The characters -- Adam, his wife, his friends Camel and Pond, the novelist's niece and her daughter, a fire-breathing Irish priest, etc. -- are delightfully portrayed. It's not as substantial a book as such later novels as Changing Places or Paradise News, but it's great fun.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Cat Rambo

Today is Cat Rambo's birthday, and in her honor I've put together a selection of my Locus reviews of her short fiction.

Locus, December 2006

In Strange Horizons in November I was particularly impressed by Cat Rambo’s tearjerker (but in a good way) “Magnificent Pigs”, about a young farmer who wants to be an artist, but who has to raise his younger sister after their parents’ death. The young man moonlights as a tattoo artist – and practices on their pigs as his sister, who loves the book Charlotte’s Web, dies of cancer.

Locus, April 2007

At Strange Horizons in February I liked Cat Rambo’s “Foam on the Water”, a look at a politically connected American man tempted by an exotic woman (?) he encounters in Thailand … I like the subtly shown reasons he shies away from relationships.

Locus, April 2008

In Cat Rambo’s “The Bumblety’s Marble” a girl receives the title object fortuitously, and then meets a mysterious boy from the underworld, who desperately wants it back – the lives of the two children are quite sharply limned in a short space.

Locus, February 2010

Cat Rambo also has a collection out, her first, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, with a selection of fine earlier work and five new stories, of which my favorite was “The Silent Familiar”, in which a wizard’s familiar has a child, a silent child. Who can this child be a familiar for? The answer has bitterly logical consequences for everyone involved.

Locus, April 2011

GigaNotoSaurus opened 2011 with a couple of quite different and quite entertaining stories. From February, Cat Rambo’s “Karaluvian Fale” is colorful political fantasy about a young woman of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times who learns to give as good as she gets in the nasty political maneuvering surrounding her. It’s one of those stories that I hope presages more in the same milieu – this story is fine but a bit thin perhaps – but all it needs is more length, more incident, more plot.

Locus, July 2011

The June issue of Fantasy includes  a strong piece from Cat Rambo, “The Immortality Game”. Twenty years before, in high school, Glen was fascinated by four popular kids, in particular one girl who seemed briefly interested in return. But nothing much happened, and now he’s married, fairly happily, living an ordinary life. Those four all seem fabulously successful, and then he’s drawn back into their orbit, and the girl he liked wants him. And she’s still terribly hard to resist. What’s their secret? The story rather darkly recalls both Ken Grimwood’s Replay and Avram Davidson’s “The Sources of the Nile” (each from a different angle), and it is strong work on the effects of immortality – on the immortals and on those they influence.

Cat Rambo shows up again in the second 2011 issue of Abyss and Apex . Her “Bots D’Amor” is a pleasant story about a somewhat down and out spaceship pilot with a collection of toys that his ship’s robots have used to augment themselves with – perhaps illegally, but still perhaps to his benefit.

Locus, May 2016

Best this issue (F&SF, March-April 2016) is Cat Rambo’s “Red in Tooth and Cog”, in which Renee, eating lunch in a park near work, has her phone stolen, and comes to realize that it was taken by an abandoned robot-creature. She becomes interested, and slowly, with the help of the park’s robot caretaker, puzzles out some of the secrets of the park’s robotic ecology. The invention is sometimes whimsical, often very affecting, at times beautiful. And to my mind quite original.

Birthday Review: Stories of Daniel Abraham

Before Daniel Abraham was half of James S. A. Corey, he was an exceptional upcoming solo writer of SF and Fantasy. He's still exceptional, mind you, but most of his efforts are focussed on The Expanse. he was born 49 years ago today, so in his honor, I'm posting this compilation of my reviews of his short fiction:

SFF Net post, December 2000

The best story in the February 2001 Asimov's issue is Daniel Abraham's "Exclusion", about people having the ability to simply ignore other people, in such a way that the other person can't even detect the existence of the first person.

Locus, August 2002

Daniel Abraham is a very impressive young writer, and "Ghost Chocolate" (Asimov's, August) is a nice look at possible ramifications of a technology, which would allow brain state transfer from an elderly person to their younger clone.

Locus, February 2004

Daniel Abraham's "An Amicable Divorce" (The Dark) tells of a man living in misery after his marriage fell apart, a result apparently of the death of the couple's son. But a chance at reconciliation seems to offer itself when the wife calls for help -- it seems she is perhaps being haunted. The resolution is unpredictable and bitter.

Locus, August 2004

July is another good month at Sci Fiction. Daniel Abraham's "Leviathan Wept" is a strong, dark, novelette about an anti-terrorist organization that uses brain links to coordinate their operations. They are inevitably morally compromised themselves, which is one dark aspect to the story, but more original is the SFnal idea behind it, suggesting a darker reason behind contemporary human conflicts.

Locus, October 2004

Let's begin with the October-November F&SF double issue, which is strong throughout. Daniel Abraham's "Flat Diane" is a very scary horror story, offering no easy outs, about a newly divorced man and the unfortunate results when his daughter makes a silhouette of herself (Flat Diane) and sends it traveling by mail. Things go awry when Flat Diane ends up at the mother's house – and when her creepy new boyfriend notices. The protagonist is driven to extremes that on the one hand seem inevitable but that will surely not bode well for anyone.

Locus, May 2007

My favorite story in Logorrhea is by Daniel Abraham: “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics”, in which a dissolute nobleman sets a stodgy middle-aged cambist (a foreign exchange expert) three questions on the value of some unusual items. The story is lightly told, with dark overtones, supremely engaging.

Locus, May 2009

My other favorite story here is Solaris 3 is more traditional near future SF: “The Best Monkey” by Daniel Abraham, which intriguingly speculates on the nature of beauty, on its ties to sex, on how what we perceive as elegant might be hardwired with what perceive as a good mating prospect. And what might result if those perceptions were altered. All this revealed as a reporter tries to track the secret behind a strangely successful corporation.

Locus, December 2009

The opening story in Postscripts #19 is a fine steampunk adventure from Daniel Abraham, “Balfour and Meriwether in The Adventure of the Emperor’s Vengeance”. The story involves Jewish and Egyptian history, and an ancient army of robots, all thematically slingshotting us to the 20th Century. (Unlike most steampunk, this appears to be something of a secret rather than alternate history.)

Locus, February 2013

Less original, less ambitious, but arguably more satisfying as pure story, is Gods of Risk, by James S. A. Corey, a novella set in “Corey's” (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck's) Expanse future. This is a YA-flavored piece, set on Mars, where David, an adolescent awaiting his career posting, has been lured into using his chemistry talents to cook drugs. He's infatuated with Leelee, an associate of the dealer he's working for. When she gets in trouble, amid threats of war with Earth, David clumsily tries to come to her rescue. Nothing surprises here, certainly to an extent the characters and situations are cliches, but it all works, it's great fun.

Locus, October 2017

Daniel Abraham’s “The Mocking Tower” (The Book of Swords), concerns two men coming to the title tower to find the sword in which the Imagi Vert, a great wizard and friend of the well-loved old King, is said to have imprisoned the King’s soul. Finding the sword might help one of the King’s son’s win the war of succession that is tearing apart their Empire. But perhaps the King’s son need a lesson more than he needs the sword?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Stephen Baxter

Today is the birthday of one of the very best contemporary writers of true Hard SF: Stephen Baxter, and in his honor I offer this compilation of my Locus reviews of his short fiction.

Locus, December 2002

The December Analog is a fairly solid issue. Best is Stephen Baxter's "The Hunters of Pangaea". This is a meditation on intelligent dinosaurs in the late Jurassic -- herders of Diplodocus. Intriguing speculation on social organization, and a moving portrait of their evanescence, combine for a very effective piece.

Locus, January 2003

Stephen Baxter's "Breeding Ground" (Asimov's) is an interesting, dark, story of the human "Third Expansion", and their battle with the Xeelee, in this case telling of a disastrous space battle that causes a group of soldiers to retreat to the core of their living starship, and possibly to learn a key secret about these curious beings. 

Locus, March 2003

The best pieces in the March Asimov's are Stephen Baxter's "The Great Game" and Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here". Baxter's piece is another deeply cynical story about far future humans in conflict with the inscrutable Xeelee -- in this case a human planet is succumbing to catastrophic vulcanism, and the Xeelee are suspected, at least enough for a militarist Admiral to see a potential casus belli.

Locus, August 2003

Stephen Baxter's "Touching Centauri" is a novelette (reprinted from last year's UK collection Phase Space) featuring the hero of his Manifold books, Reid Malenfant, in yet another alternate future. This time Malenfant has sponsored an attempt to image a planet of Alpha Centauri by laser. When the laser pulse doesn't return, the very structure of the universe comes into question. I was reminded of a classic Philip Latham story, "The Xi Effect" -- like that one, Baxter's story is effective metaphysical horror.

Locus, June 2004

From the June Analog Stephen Baxter's "PeriAndry's Quest" stands out in presenting a really fresh idea, and using the idea provocatively. PeriAndry is a young man in a society living on "Old Earth" -- whether this is Earth after some strange calamity or somewhere else is not clear. PeriAndry's people live on a ledge on a high cliff -- and the effects of altitude are very strange. Go up the cliff and time runs faster, down and time slows. The people in the "Attic", who live on a higher part of the cliff, age much faster than the people on the Ledge. PeriAndry takes a fancy to a servant girl -- who will be a year older in a month, and was born only a year and a half previously. The social effects of this are explored nicely as PeriAndry struggles with his older brother's jibes, and as he eventually tries to find the girl in her home.

Locus, February 2005

The publishing company behind Postscripts, PS Publishing, also continues to issue outstanding novellas in slim volumes. Their best offering this year, and one of the best novellas of 2004, is Stephen Baxter's Mayflower II. This is the story of a generation starship. The ship is fleeing Port Sol, a distant habitat in the Solar System, doomed to be destroyed by the Coalition. The main character is Rusel, who is forced to abandon his lover when he is chosen to be part of the limited crew of the ship. He becomes an Elder, one of a select few chosen to give the generations of starship inhabitants guidance and continuity of purpose. Over the depths of time, however, both he and the inhabitants change in curious and chilling ways. This is a striking and invigorating story, a direct response to classic SF stories like Robert Heinlein's "Universe" and Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop, with perhaps nods in the direction of Poul Anderson's "The Troublemakers" and even such a recent story as Ursula K. Le Guin's "Paradises Lost". Baxter considers the many problems raised in the history of the field's treatment of this common idea, suggests answers for some -- and raises new problems.

Locus, July 2005

I also liked "Climbing the Blue" (Analog, July-August), a Stephen Baxter story set in the same strange world of last year's "PeriAndry's Quest". In the world, people live on a sort of cliff, such that time flows faster at higher levels. Celi is a young man who becomes a doctor, and is faced with the lure of moving down to slower times and become a Natural Philosopher, in order to live (relatively) longer and learn more about his strange world. But a tragedy pushes him in a different direction.

Locus, April 2006

Stephen Baxter’s "The Lowland Expedition" is another of his tales of Old Earth, where time moves faster at higher altitudes: thus a typical -- but pretty good -- Analog "exploring a weird environment" story. In this case his explorers encounter a strange danger on the nearly uninhabited bottom level.

Locus, November 2008

Stephen Baxter's "Between Worlds" is set near the Galactic Core. One faction of a newly disunited humanity is forcing people from their very odd homes. But one woman refuses to leave, on the grounds that her child has been left behind. A simulacrum of Michael Poole (hero of an earlier Baxter novel), as well as an acolyte of a strange future religion, try to talk her into evacuating -- but the problem is that her daughter is a post-human being in a plasma cloud. Baxter mixes intriguing astronomical settings, political speculation, religious speculation, and various potential future forms of humanity -- not just patterns in plasma clouds, but computer simulations, and nonintelligent starship crew. 

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Another story that successfully reaches for a thoughtful and philosophical conclusion is Stephen Baxter’s "Turing’s Apples". It’s a sibling rivalry story -- the narrator and his brother are both "mathematical nerds", but the younger narrator is more "normal" -- married with children, and in a fairly good government job involving supercomputers. His brother is the genius, and the one without social skills, and he cozens the narrator to sneak a program analyzing a SETI message that seems to be the code for an alien AI onto the government’s computers. Of course the AI’s intentions are not necessarily benign -- but again, Baxter’s interests are not conventional, but rather in exploring a not benign, perhaps, but quite interesting alien purpose for this AI, with profound long term implications.

Locus, July 2009

"Earth II", by Stephen Baxter (Asimov's, July), is an involving story set on a planet colonized by refugees from a flooded Earth. Centuries later, Xaia Windru is the co-Speaker of the nation Zeeland, and as traditional for women, is the war leader, and she has just defeated the Brythons, and now wishes to press across the sea to a new land and the rumored City of the Living Dead. Back home, her husband, the political leader, is dealing with demands for a new Library to store the data saved from the Founders. Questions of the nature of the planet’s original inhabitants (possibly another single species ecology, though quite different to that depicted in Daniel Hatch’s story), and of the dangers of a coming axial flip, and of leaning on the records of the Founders, all entwine. Solid work indeed.

Locus, November 2009

Analog for December includes another Old Earth story from Stephen Baxter, about an Earth where time runs at different rates at different altitudes. I’ve found these fascinating, and "Formidable Caress" is pretty strong too, about an inquisitive man from deep in the slower running areas who makes a number of striking astronomical discoveries that shed some light on Old Earth and the "formidable caresses" that seem to have shaped its history. I will confess, though, that I was a bit disappointed at the closing revelation, which will mean a lot more to people who have read Baxter widely than to those unfamiliar with his novels.

Locus, February 2010

Lots of good novellas this time around, even in the magazines. Asimov’s for February features Stephen Baxter’s "The Ice Line", another in his extended series of stories about an alternate history where ice-loving aliens invaded in the 18th Century. This story is set in this history’s version of the Napoleonic Wars. The somewhat rascally American engineer Ben Hobbes, an associate of Robert Fulton, is serially captured by the French and then the British, and is recruited to use his engineering ability (he and Fulton designed a submarine) on a much more ambitious ship, against a more dangerous enemy than the French. Quite enjoyable work, with wonky steampunkish technology (though not really a steampunk attitude), and a nice counterpoint in the form of comments by the transcriber of Hobbes’s diary, the lovely Anne Collingwood (as Ben would have it).

Locus, December 2013

That leaves the last piece of fiction in Starship Century as my favorite -- Stephen Baxter's "StarCall", about an AI controlling a star probe, who takes "calls" from people with accounts once a decade. Once person's decade by decade calls are followed, giving us a glimpse both at the progress of the star probe and at the changes back on Earth -- and it all works, so that the AI and its mission become real and human to us.

Birthday Review: How Like a God and Doors of Death and Life, by Brenda W. Clough

Birthday Review: How Like a God and Doors of Death and Life, by Brenda W. Clough

a review by Rich Horton

I read Brenda Clough's "Gilgamesh" books, How Like a God (1997), and Doors of Death and Life (2000), in an omnibus edition from the SFBC, called Suburban Gods.  Brenda calls them "suburban fantasy", and indeed they depict suburban life pretty well: home improvement, day care, commuting, minivans, even believable contemporary American Christians (a rarity in SF!).  For that alone these are refreshing books.

How Like a God concerns Washington area software developer Rob Lewis, the father of 18 month old twins, and the loving husband of Julianne, who works in the fashion industry.  One day he suddenly realizes that he has an unusual power: he can read minds, the minds of anybody on the planet, and he can control people.  After a few mild experiments, he tells his wife, and her response appals him.  She wants him to influence her employers to help her career, and then she wants him to look for great personal power: run for President, perhaps.  Horrified, he makes Julianne forget everything, but soon her realizes that he can't control his power, and that he is altering his twins unconcsiously, making them act extra mature without even knowing it.  In despair, he runs away to New York City and spends months as a homeless man, using his power occasionally to cadge meals and housing.  His humanity begins to slip away from him, and suddenly he realizes that he is becoming a monster.  When he finds himself about to rape a teenage girl (by making her want it), he starts to break out, and looks for help.  His only help is from a chance encounter with an NIH microbiologist, Edwin Barbarossa, a fundamentally good man at a very deep level.  The rest of the book follows Rob's gradual return to humanity with Edwin's guidance, and also Rob's eventual encounter with the mysterious and surprising source of his power.

This is a very fine book, quite original in conception, and dealing pretty unflinchingly with the issue of personal responsibility, and how important and difficult that is when you have immense power.  The book's only real weakness is the character of Julianne, who is neither terribly likeable, nor particularly three-dimensional, but she's a fairly minor character and that doesn't really hurt the book too much.

Doors of Death and Life, the  sequel, is still an enjoyable read, taking on some loose ends from the first book.  However, it's not as good, and overall it's a bit disappointing.  The plot is fairly disjointed, and some key issues are resolved rather abruptly.  I'll continue after warning that naturally there might be spoilers for How Like a God in my discussion of Doors of Death and Life.

Doors of Death and Life is set in about 2002, 7 years after How Like a God.  It becomes clear that this is an alternate history, sort of.  Dan Quayle was apparently elected President in 1996, for instance, and more significantly, a semi-privatized space effort has resulted in a new moonbase.

Rob still hasn't told Julianne about his powers.  He has told Edwin, and Edwin's wife Carina.  Edwin is spending several months at the moonbase. In How Like a God, it's been revealed that Rob got his powers from Gilgamesh, the supposedly legendary King of Uruk.  Rob defeated the mad old King, and took the King's powers away, giving Edwin his immortality.  The plot, as I said, is a bit disjointed.  It opens with Rob murdering three men who threaten to rape Julianne.  His guilt feelings tormenting him, as well as his lack of communication, he finally confesses his powers to Julianne. Understandably offended, and not able to trust her own feelings (is Rob controlling her so that she just thinks she loves him?), she kicks him out and thinks about a divorce.  At the same time Carina, an archaeologist, insists on travelling to Central Asia to find Gilgamesh, and to interview him about daily life in ancient Sumeria.  Edwin pushes Rob to accompany her there.

That's the first thread, and it's resolved all too suddenly.  Gilgamesh is dead.  Rob in despair puts the make on Carina, but after a brief time they make up.  Julianne suddenly decides she can trust Rob.  Then plot 2 comes up: a disaster on the trip home from the moonbase should kill Edwin and his companions.  When he survives (because of the immortality), he is accused of murder.  Rob is afraid that his secret will be revealed when they probe Edwin.  A sinister force within the space program keeps Edwin drugged, either trying to stick the murder charge on him, or worse ...

As I said, the book is still an enjoyable enough read.  But the plot is a bit disjointed, the main villain is too evil, and the various resolutions come too easily (in some ways, though there is still considerable cost to each of the characters).  Julianne is still not quite a successfully realized character, though Carina is well done.  Paradoxically, Brenda Clough is much more convincing, to me, with her male characters, Rob and Edwin, who come through very well. 

Perhaps this is just a case of sequelitis.  And I hope I don't sound too negative: I still like the book, but it's not as good as the first volume.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Michael Bishop

Today is Michael Bishop's 73th birthday. Bishop is one of SF's great writers. I discovered him early in my SF reading career -- with, as noted below, "Cathadonian Odyssey" in the second issue of F&SF I ever read, and other early stories such as "Death and Designation Among the Asadi", "Rogue Tomato", "Blooded on Arachne", "Stolen Faces", and "Allegiances". His novel And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees takes its title from the same source material as my blog. My favorite of his novels is probably Count Geiger's Blues. I felt it necessary to do a compilation of my reviews of his work, but my time at Locus came fairly late in his career (not that his career is over at all!) -- so I've added a few less formal things from earlier, plus something I wrote just today about "Cathadonian Odyssey".

"Cathadonian Odyssey", F&SF, September 1974

The first SF magazines I ever bought were the August 1974 issues of Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. I devoured them all, bought one apiece for three consecutive days from the newsstand at Alton Drugs, and I knew that they were MY drug. From those first three issues, however, I don't necessarily remember the stories that well. In the August Analog, one story has stuck with me: "And Keep Us From Our Castles", by Cynthia Bunn, a really intriguing story about a future penal regimen that I'd like to reprint some day. (Bunn has only published 6 stories that I know of (a couple as by Cynthia Morgan -- presumably one name is her married name?), but I liked what I saw.) The August 1974 Galaxy included Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo winner "The Day Before the Revolution", but I confess that while I love The Dispossessed, I don't think nearly as much of this story, a prequel to the novel. F&SF for August had John Varley's first published story, "Picnic on Nearside" -- I don't recall realizing how important that story would seem later! -- and a good Dean McLaughlin piece, "West of Scranton and Beyond the Dreams of Avarice". But, except perhaps for the Bunn story, nothing blew me away.

The cover story for the September F&SF was "Cathadonian Odyssey", by Michael Bishop. THAT blew me away. (The cover, by the way, was by Jeannine Guertin, the only work she has done in the field according to the ISFDB.) It's the first story I remember thinking "I need to nominate this for a Hugo" about. (I don't think I nominated that year, though I started soon after and haven't stopped since. "Cathadonian Odyssey" did make the Hugo shortlist, though, so I wasn't the only person to think it deserved a nomination.) I decided to reread it today and write about it. Perhaps not surprisingly, it didn't affect me as stronly 44 years later as it did back then, but I still think it's a good story.

Cathadonia is a remote planet that a human ship happens across, in what seems a highly colonized future galaxy. It's fairly lush, and fully human habitable, but the cargo ship that discovers it just rests for a bit, and the crewmen entertain themselves by slaughtering the three-legged local inhabitants. Then they leave, report their discovery but not their crime, and soon another ship comes by and drops off a survey team. However, the descentcraft of the survey team inexplicably crashes, leaving one survivor, Maria Jill Ian. Maria, with little hope of surviving until the mother ship returns, nonetheless almost randomly decides to head for Cathadonia's ocean. And soon she encounters a native, whom she christens Bracelos. They become friends of a sort, as she realizes that Bracelos has remarkable telekinetic powers. They continue to the ocean, but the closer they get Bracelos becomes more reluctant. And he demonstrates his abilities in shocking ways -- most notably by bringing Maria's husband's body (he died in the crash) to them, after she mentioned missing him. Finally Bracelos refuses to go closer to the ocean, and embarks on a particularly dramatic telekinetic effort. The ending is ironic or just on several levels.

Blog review of Cosmos, May 1977

Michael Bishop's "The House of Compassionate Sharers" is a somewhat ambitious story that didn't work very well for me. Too many ideas that don't cohere, and a forced ending that doesn't convince. The protagonist is a protagonist who has been repaired cybernetically after an accident, and who feels revulsion for humans, including his wife. (Bishop prefaces the story with the famous closing lines of Damon Knight's "Masks": "And he was there, and it was not far enough, not yet, for the earth hung overhead like a rotten fruit, blue with mold, crawling, wrinkling, purulent, and alive.") His wife sends him to the title house to be cured, and he is assigned to another being who has been altered to by largely cybernetic. Somehow this, combined with an encounter with an evil pair of sadistic clones, leads to a cure. Hmmm?

Blog Review of Shayol, Fall/Winter 1985

Michael Bishop's "A Spy in the House of Arnheim" is fairly intriguing, rather surrealistic, about a man waking up in a hotel room, unaware if he is a spy or a tourist or both, and continually puzzled by the ever-changing strangeness of his surroundings.

Locus, March 2003

There is also a neat story in the November-December 2002 Interzone by "Philip Lawson" (Michael Bishop and Paul di Filippo). "'We're All in This Together'" is about a serial murderer who seems to get inspiration from the banal sayings of a newspaper column called "The Squawk Box". A mystery writer obsessed with contributing a saying to this column ends up involved in the murder investigation. Rather loopy, but with a serious core.

Locus, July 2008

Michael Bishop’s “Vinegar Peace, or, The Wrong Way Used Adult Orphanage” (Asimov's, July) is powerful on its own terms, telling of a woman taken to the title institution after the last of her surviving children dies fighting another apparently wasted war. (It is only more wrenching to think of Bishop’s own terrible recent loss of his son in the Virginia Tech massacre.) The story at first seems poised to be darkly satirical, but it modulates to something quite moving.

Locus, October 2012

Going Interstellar is an anthology comprising a mix of nonfiction and stories about interstellar travel – a refreshingly forthright bit of space boosterism, with the nonfiction trying to show practical ways of making starships, and the stories showing the starships in action. The best story is a long, goodhearted, novella from Michael Bishop, “Twenty Lights to 'The Land of Snow'”, which is “extracts from the computer logs of our reluctant Dalai Lama”. Said Dalai Lama is Greta Bryn, a girl on a generation ship inhabited by Tibetan Buddhists planning to colonize a new planet. She has been identified as the next Dalai Lama, despite not being either male or Tibetan, and the story follows some decades in her life (not all spent awake) as the ship approaches their new home and as she grows into her possible role (there is a rival claimant, it seems).