Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Forgotten Ace Double: Flower of Doradil, by John Rackham/A Promising Planet, by Jeremy Strike

Ace Double Reviews, 104: Flower of Doradil, by John Rackham/A Promising Planet, by Jeremy Strike (#24100, 1970, 75 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is notably a late period Ace Double. It features two pseudonymous authors. One of them, "John Rackham", real name John T. Phillifent, was a fairly prolific SF writer under both the "Rackham" name and his real name. He was born in 1916 in England, and died in 1976. He published about 20 novels, all but two as "Rackham" (and probably one of the novels as by Phillifent was meant to be published under the Rackham name). He also did a few Man From Uncle novelizations under his real name. He also published over 50 short stories, beginning in 1954 with "Jupiter Equilateral", published as a slim book (or chapbook) by the Titbits Science Fiction Library in the UK. Those stories were probably 25,000 words at least -- perhaps longer (35,000 words?) as Malcolm Edwards reports that the print was quite tiny. (Thus, these are essentially short novels -- as long as many Ace Doubles.) Rackham wrote four of these Titbits books in 1954/1955. His next work in SF was some short fiction in 1959, for various magazines in both the US and the UK (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Nebula, Astounding, If). His real name first appeared on "Point", in Fantastic in 1961, but after that the Phillifent byline was reserved for his appearances in Analog. Fully sixteen of his novels were published as Ace Double halves.

Jeremy Strike is a different case. His real name was Thomas Edward Renn (1939-2000), a West Virginian. This was his only work in the SF field. He was, thus, one of a few writers whose only SF book was a single novel that appeared as an Ace Double half. I checked, and in the ISFDB (which is not necessarily complete) I found eight examples, spread throughout the entire history of the format. These are Francis Rufus Bellamy (Atta, 1954), Nick Boddie Williams (Atom Curtain, 1955), Anna Hunger (The Man Who Lived Forever, 1956, with R. De Witt Miller (an expansion of a Miller story from Astounding in 1938)), Bruce W. Ronald (Our Man in Space, 1965), Alan Schwartz (The Wandering Tellurian, 1967), Ellen Wobig (The Youth Monopoly, 1968), Strike, and Susan K. Putney (Against Arcturus, 1972). I have previously reviewed the books by Ronald, Wobig, and Putney. Many of these writers published only that Ace Double half, though some had very minor additional publications (Ronald had a story in If, Hunger had a few shorts in The Magazine of Horror, Williams published some SFish stories in the slicks, Putney had a Spiderman graphic novel illustrated by the just late Bernie Wrightson).

(Cover by Kelly Freas)

The covers are by probably the two leading SF illustrators of that time: Jack Gaughan (in a more psychedelic than usual mode for him), and Kelly Freas.

So, I spent a fair amount of time on the background of these writers. Could it be that the novels themselves are not so interesting? Well -- yes, it could.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Rackham, as I have said before, was a pretty reliably producer of competent middle-range SF adventure. And that describes Flower of Doradil fairly well. Claire Harper is an agent of Earth's Special Service, come to the planet Safari to investigate some mysterious activity on the proscribed continent Adil. Safari is mostly devoted to hunting, but Adil is occupied by the humanoid (completely human, it actually seems) natives. But some plants with tremendous medical properties are being smuggled out, and the agents sent to investigate have disappeared.

Claire is tall, red-haired, and beautiful, as well as great at hand-to-hand combat. This qualifies her to infiltrate Adil, whose natives are reputed to live in matriarchal societies, with the women bigger than the men, and in charge. She hires two guides, Roger Lovell and Sam Coleman, and they make a plan to try to get to the mysterious interior, where the special plants grow, and where a true society of Amazons supposedly rules. And so they make their way there, fighting off a couple of murder attempts, as well as dangerous animals, before they are indeed captured by Amazons. After which the book turns on an attempt to negotiate with the factions of that society -- men who wish to revolt, women who will brook no compromise, and a wise Queen who just happens to be the spitting image of Claire. And evil smugglers who will stop at nothing to retain their monopoly.

It's mostly OK. The sexual politics are a bit retro, but not outrageously so, and certainly the implication is that women and men have equal rights. The view of the natives is a bit patronizing, as well. But the story moves nicely, and the action is tolerably well done, as is the sexual tension beneath things. And then -- the climax comes, quite quickly, and driven by coincidence and luck -- and the book just stops. As if the final chapter was lopped off. Weird. But you do kind of know what happens.

As for Jeremy Strike's A Promising Planet, not surprisingly, it's a lesser work. Bill Warden works as a planetary surveyor for a small company, trying to find promising planets on the cheap. He comes to an interesting new planet, as it happens just ahead of a ship owned by a larger corporation and captained by a woman he seems friendly with, named Sara. Bill claims the planet, and lands, only to have his spaceship commandeered by the locals, and given as a sort of offering to their god.

Who turns out to be real, and who talks to Bill. It seems this god has controlled the planet in a very benign way since "Those Who Went Away" went away. Sara offers to help, and ends up in the same fix as Bill, along with her crewmen, a thuggish mate only interested in plunder, an engineer, and a communications man with limited social skills but lots of brains. Bill Warden ends up gaining some trust with the god, and he is allowed to see the city of those who went away. Buck, the mate, starts stealing, while Jason, the engineer, ends up in the custody of the High Priest of the locals. And the other guy figures out what the god is -- no surprise, a planetary computer, gone fairly mad.

What hath Zelazny wrought, is one thing that ran through my head. Unfairly, no doubt. The novel rather disjointedly rambles to a resolution of sorts, though as the end approaches its clear that nothing terribly interesting or original is possible, and Strike chooses a thuddingly cynical conclusion. I'd have liked something more conventional, to be honest, but in reality, nothing could really rescue this pedestrian effort.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner

Obscure SF Novel: The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a very minor part of the John Brunner canon. I am, as I've mentioned before, quite fond of early John Brunner: generally unpretentious and fun stories, usually with pretty decent central ideas, fast-moving (often too much so in the conclusion). No doubt Brunner's later, more ambitious, work is of more lasting quality -- and don't get me wrong, novels like Stand on Zanzibar really are good! -- but the stuff he produced at speed early on is still worth a look.

Brunner was born in 1934, and wrote his first novel (Galactic Storm, as by "Gill Hunt") when only 17. He served in the RAF for a couple of years, and turned to full time writing in 1958. He was enormously prolific, averaging about four novels a year through the early and mid 1960s. Even as his novels grew longer and more ambitious, he still published multiple books most years until about 1975. He slowed down quite a lot around then, as his health worsened, and as he tried for success in the broader literary market, particularly with his 1983 novel The Great Steamboat Race. He died at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in 1995.

The Super Barbarians is surely one of his least well-known novels. It was published by Ace, a single novel, in 1962. I know of no prior serialization. It does not seem to have been reprinted until a ebook edition from Gateway/Orion in 2011.

Gareth Shaw is an Earthman working as a servant to the senior wife of Pwill, the head of one of the leading Houses on Qallavarra, the home planet of the alien Vorra, who subjugated Earth a half-century before. Shaw got the job back on Earth, where he had attempted to tutor the foolish heir of Pwill. He hadn't done much good there -- the young Vorra was too undisciplined -- but he made an impression on the boy's mother. Hence the plum job. As the novel opens, he accepts a commission from one of Pwill's younger wives -- to go into the "Acre", the small area reserved for Earthmen on Qallavarra. She wants a love potion, and humans can supply it.

Which suggests the fundamental question here -- the Vorra conquered Earth (though not without a fierce battle), but except for their spaceship tech, they are extremely backward -- the rest of their tech is at Middle Ages level more or less, their medical science is similarly weak, etc. etc.

Shaw is surprised to encounter vicious hostility from the Vorra as he enters the Acre, and similar hostility from the humans he meets once within. It seems he is regarded as a Quisling of sorts. But he completes his task -- and, as hazy memories begin to return, he becomes something of a human partisan.

And so the book continues -- Shaw slowly realizes his true situation, and humanity's true situation. And he manages to conspire effectively, with the unwitting help of the foolish Vorra, especially the younger Pwill, who, it turns out, is desperately addicted to coffee. Shaw is able to help the younger wife in her plotting -- which of course also aids the human cause, not that she realizes this. And along the way he stumbles across the central secret -- easily enough guessed! -- concerning the source of the Vorra space traveling technology, which slingshots to a nicely scary future threat humans must face.

This really is pretty minor work. It's efficiently executed, and I enjoyed reading it. Brunner really is a reliable entertainer. But, except for a bit right at the end, it is never as interesting and thought-provoking as even the early, more slapdash, Brunner novels usually managed. The Super Barbarians isn't bad work of its kind -- but it is nothing more than typical work of its kind.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Best Book Ever!

Best Book Ever!

by Rich Horton

In my convention report on Boskone a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I regretted losing the notes I had prepared for a panel called "Best Book Ever!", in which the panelists were supposed to discuss books they particularly loved, or that were particularly important to them at some point, or that changed their approach to reading -- or perhaps even to life!

Well, guess what -- I found my notes! So I figure I'd post them. This is just a list of books. I'll try to give it some limited organization, but that's all kind of ad hoc. And the list itself was produced rapidly, and it might be rather different if I put it together any other time. But still -- should be fun!

So here goes:

What I loved as a kid:
Michael Strogoff, by Jules Verne
The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson
At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald
The Dr. Dolittle books, by Hugh Lofting

SF Novels from my Locus Poll list of a few years back:
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (and her non-SF novel, Malafrena, that I loved at age 17 and am afraid to reread)
A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge
Engine Summer, by John Crowley
Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler
Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys
Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks
Pavane, by Keith Roberts

Fantasy Novels from the same poll:
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

SF/Fantasy novels I just love:
Ares Express, by Ian McDonald
Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Door Into Summer, by Robert A. Heinlein
Crown Duel/Court Duel, by Sherwood Smith
Emphyrio, by Jack Vance

"Mainstream" writers of particular importance to me:
Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time)
Giuseppe de Lampedusa (The Leopard)
Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower, Offshore, At Freddie's)
Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, The Alteration, The Old Devils)
Robertson Davies (Fifth Business, What's Bred in the Bone)
Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire, Pnin)
Henry Green (Party Going, Loving)
Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth)
James Salter (A Sport and a Pastime)
Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine)
David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas)
W. M. Spackman (An Armful of Warm Girl)
A. S. Byatt (Possession, the short story "Sugar")

Wallace Stevens

Writers I love from other genres:
Georgette Heyer (Frederica, Sylvester, These Old Shades)
Patrick O'Brian (the Aubrey/Maturin books)
Tom Holt (Goat Song/The Walled Orchard)

SF novellas and novelettes:
"Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang
"Great Work of Time", by John Crowley
"Green Mars", by Kim Stanley Robinson
"The Star Pit", by Samuel R. Delany
"The Blabber", by Vernor Vinge
"Seven American Nights", by Gene Wolfe
"Wang's Carpets", by Greg Egan
"Fondly Fahrenheit" and "5,271,009", by Alfred Bester
"The Second Inquisition", by Joanna Russ
"The Sources of the Nile", by Avram Davidson
"The Stars Below", by Ursula K. Le Guin"
"A Rose for Ecclesiastes", by Roger Zelazny
"An Infinite Summer", by Christopher Priest

Writers who matter most for short stories:
Rudyard Kipling
Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Old Bestseller: She Painted Her Face, by Dornford Yates

Old Bestseller: She Painted Her Face, by Dornford Yates

a review by Rich Horton

I don't know how well this book sold, but though Dornford Yates may not have ever produced a massive bestseller, he wrote a lot of very popular books in two separate popular genres: Wodehousian comedy about the antics of rich people, and thrillers.

"Dornford Yates" was the pen name of Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960). His pen name combines the maiden names of his two grandmothers. Mercer was an Englishman, the first cousin of the somewhat more famous writer Saki (real name H. H. Munro). He was trained as a lawyer, and practiced for a few years (he was involved in the trial of the notorious murderer Crippen). He served in the Army (or Yeomanry) in World War I, and after the war concentrated on writing (he had published a number of short stories (and one collection) beginning in 1914). He married an American dancer in 1919 (at which time he also had an unsuccessful stage play produced). They divorced in 1933, and he remarried a year later. He had moved to France in 1920, and with the coming of the Second World War moved to Rhodesia.

Yates wrote primarily in two series -- the "Berry" books are the sub-Wodehousian comedies, mostly consisting of collections of linked stories. The Chandos books (which are technically linked to the Berry books by a couple of shared characters) are thrillers set mostly in Europe.

The book at hand, She Painted Her Face, belongs to neither series, though it is a pure thriller, and as such resembles the Chandos books. It is set mostly in Austria, but it has a distinctly Ruritanian flavor, and it might be noted that Yates also wrote a couple of purely "Ruritanian-Graustarkian" books, set in the fictitious Principality of Riechtenburg. The title is from the Bible, 2 Kings 9:30, about Jezebel just as she is to be killed. I don't think Yates really intended that passage to be significant, actually. The woman in the novel who paints her face is a very admirable character, and does not get trampled under foot, or killed in any way.

My edition is the American edition, from G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1937. The book was first serialized as "Counterfeit Coin" in 1936, I'm not sure where. The true first was put out by his usual publishers, Ward Lock.

The novel is told by Richard Exon, an Englishman of good family who falls on hard times after his parents die and his trustee gambles away his estate. Living in poverty, in Red Lead Lane, he meets and befriends an older man, Matthew Gering. When Gering dies, he leaves Richard a secret -- Gering was in fact an aristocratic Austrian, the Count of Brief, but his dastardly twin brother had framed him for a crime he (the twin) had committed, and taken over his identity. "Gering"'s wife had died, and thus his daughter is left in the custody of her evil uncle, impersonating her father. And the uncle has a son of his own. But Gering is in possession of the Secret of Brief, which he is on the verge of revealing to Richard when he expires.

Fortuitously, Richard is soon after restored to wealth when a rich uncle of his own dies. He isn't sure what to do about Gering's secret until he meets, by pure chance, one Percy Virgil, whom he learns is actually the evil nephew of the Count of Brief. Richard becomes convinced that he must travel to Austria to do what he can to discover the Secret of Brief and make sure that Gering's daughter, Elizabeth, is kept safe from the machinations of Percy Virgil and his father. Richard soon gains the help of another man, John Herrick, and of Virgil's ex-servant, Winter, who was only too glad to abandon his former master. (One of the ways Richard realized how evil Percy Virgil was was seeing him mistreat his servants -- the other was, naturally, his close-set eyes.)

You can see where this is going -- it won't surprise anyone that Lady Elizabeth Virgil, rightly the Countess of Brief, is supernaturally beautiful, and that she and Richard will fall desperately in love. But first Richard and John must rescue her from an attempt by Percy at murder. Shortly thereafter they sneak into the Brief castle to use the slim clue Gering had given Richard to ferret out the Secret of Brief. This is surprising and scandalous -- and it gives them a lever to visit Elizabeth's delightful old relative Harriet, the Duchess of Whelp, whom she calls Old Harry. Old Harry agrees to help them expose the evil fake Count, but she extracts Richard's promise that he will never marry Elizabeth -- you see, his birth is not high enough to marry a Countess.

And so follows more desperate adventure -- a couple more attempts on Elizabeth's life, and indeed on John's and Richard's lives; exposure of Elizabeth's traitorous maid (an English woman wanted for having had an abortion); a battle in a deep well; Richard discovered leaving Elizabeth's chambers (a scandal itself) ... and, finally, after all is won, Richard having to leave Elizabeth, as he promised. But will she stand for this? (What do you think?)

It's all ridiculous guff, of course. And terribly classist (with a mercifully tiny tinge of anti-Semitism). And built on coincidence and implausible acts. And based on the villains (and oh are they ever villainous!) acting in silly ways when necessary. But you know what -- that's all part and parcel of this sort of book. And no matter how silly it is, it's really quite a lot of fun. The romance between Richard and Elizabeth is wholly cliche in presentation, but it manages to be almost believable, and even a bit sexy. (There is, of course, no actual sex.) Old Harry is really a delightful character. The telling is lively, sometimes funny, often thrilling. This is a book purely of a familiar type -- but it is quite a good example of its type.

For all that it is interesting -- and disquieting -- to think that the main characters are left, at the end, in Austria in 1936, ready to take up a life there -- as the Second  World War impends.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A little-known Andre Norton Ace Double: Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster

Ace Double Reviews, 103: Sea Siege, by Andre Norton/Eye of the Monster, by Andre Norton (#F-147, 1962, 40 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

It seems like a good time to highlight another of the SFWA Grand Masters who wrote Ace Doubles. In fact, despite their somewhat déclassé image, quite a few Grand Masters published at least one Ace Double. I suspect the list is complete now -- I don't think anyone else who wrote an Ace Double will be named Grand Master. (Those that did write Ace Doubles are, if memory serves, Jack Williamson, Clifford Simak, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey, Damon Knight, A. E. Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Brian W. Aldiss, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, James Gunn, and Samuel R. Delany. Corrections welcome, mind you! I recall reviewing a Van Vogt Ace Double some long time ago, and noting that at that time I had reviewed all the Grand Masters who wrote an Ace Double -- but as you can see, there were nine more still to come!)

Andre Norton (who was born in 1912 as Alice Mary Norton, but eventually legally changed her first name to Andre), was one of the greatest and most prolific of SF writers for Young Adults (or Juveniles, ad the category was called when she broke in). She began writing in the 1930s, while she was working as a librarian in Cleveland. Her first books were not SF, but she turned to the genre with a story in Fantasy Book (the same magazine that first published "Cordwainer Smith") in 1947; and her first fantasy novel was Huon of the Horn in 1951. (I remember reading that with much enjoyment when I was 10 or 12.) Her first Science Fiction novel, Star Man's Son, appeared in 1952. At this time she was working for Martin Greenberg's pioneering publishing firm Gnome Press. She also edited a few anthologies. But mostly she published novels (and relatively little short fiction), typically in hard covers for the Juvenile market, followed often by a paperback reprint, usually from Ace, marketed for adults. Norton had health problems from early in her life, and sometime in the 1970s she slowed her writing schedule, with much of her later work published with collaborators. She was named a Grand Master in 1984, and she died in 2005, after which SFWA named its award for Best SF/F YA book after her.

A few of Norton's books were among the earliest SF I read (besides Huon of the Horn, I recall The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars with particular fondness). That said, I didn't pay much attention to her once I was reading contemporary adult SF beginning in the mid-70s -- after all, she wrote for kids! But eventually I realized that her books were certainly worth reading for adults as well, and I've read quite a few of her books over the years, including some of the late collaborations (my favorites of these were written with Sherwood Smith).

Norton was not a great writer. Her characterization was limited. There was no real interest in interpersonal relationships in her books -- no love stories (at least in the earlier ones). But her prose, while not at all flashy, was quite solid, with occasional really nice images. Her plots and her SFnal ideas were not original, but they were well-constructed, and the ideas often evocative; and she wrote action quite well. She was also, at least for the first few decades of her career, very consistent.

A couple more personal stories. My wife's older brother told me once of a book he had read as a kid, until their Dad took it away from him (I guess he didn't approve of that sci fi trash!) He described the cover, and I recognized it right away as that of the Ace edition of Daybreak 2250 A. D., which was Don Wollheim's retitling of her first SF novel, Star Man's Son. I found a copy in a used book store and gave it to my brother-in-law, who was astonished. That was pretty gratifying. Also, an Andre Norton book might be the most valuable book I own -- I found a signed first edition of Lord of Thunder (1962), in mint condition, at an antique shop in Carthage, MO (NOT the setting of Gone Girl!), for $12.50. Unsigned copies are offered for $300 on Abebooks (which of course doesn't mean they'll really sell for that). (The fact that that might be the most valuable book I own tells you that I don't really have many particularly rare books!)

Well, that's an awful lot without getting to the books at hand. Sea Siege was first published in 1957 by Harcourt, Brace, for the Juvenile market. The 1962 Ace Double is the first paperback edition. (It is one of quite a few Ace Doubles I have seen with covers by "the two Eds": Emshwiller and Valigursky.) It's about 65,000 words, quite long for an Ace Double half.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

It's a curious novel. It begins with young Griff Gunston, on San Isidore, a Caribbean Island. He's frustrated because he's stuck there with his Dad, an ichthyologist studying a mysterious new Red Plague that is killing fish. Griff wants to be in the Air Force, or something. But odd things are happening -- ships are disappearing, octopuses are acting very strangely, and there are rumors of sea monsters. Further complications arise from the U. S. Navy, which is rapidly building a new installation on the island. And the locals are getting a bit restless, including performing some voodoo-like rituals.

Then a true sea monster is found beached. It seems to resemble a plesiosaur. And there are even more dangerous things in the water -- perhaps even extra large, intelligent, octopuses. Griff and his father make a dangerous dive, and are threatened by a denizen of the sea ... and Dr. Dunston is poisoned and rushed to the mainland.

All seems set for the resolution of a mystery about suddenly changed sea creatures, etc. Then, suddenly, a nuclear exchange happens. The island is completely isolated -- radio signals from the mainland are lost. The second half of the book concerns the desperate attempts of the island residents, the Navy folks, and Griff Gunston to survive. Their situation is complicated extremely by the presence of hostile sea creatures all around, so that they cannot venture into the ocean. These creatures include intelligent octopuses (I should add that Norton pluralizes octopus "octopi", which I have been taught is incorrect) riding and controlling plesiosaurs. Huge octopi, too!

The novel proceeds, then, to a curiously unresolved ending. We never learn, for instance, the fate of Griff's father (though perhaps we should assume the worst). The islander, the Navy folks, and some rescued Russians come to a bit of an accomodation between themselves, and vow to defeat the octopus blockade -- but we are left with just that vow (and some small successes) -- no real hint at the ultimate future.

It didn't really work for me. The broken backed structure bothered me; and the various SFnal mysteries -- and cool notions -- were terribly underdeveloped. And Griff is a pretty bland main character. Definitely one of her weaker books.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
Eye of the Monster is different, with severe weaknesses as well -- and also a somewhat unresolved conclusion -- but on its own terms more successful. It is much shorter -- perhaps 28,000 words. The cover says "First Book Publication", suggesting a possible earlier serialization, but I can find so evidence of such -- as far as I can tell this is its first publication. It has had several reprints, including a recent Baen omnibus edition, The Game of Stars and Comets, with three other loosely related short novels.

To start on the negative side -- the book is outrageously colonialist. To the point almost of parody. I was reminded of Jack Vance's The Gray Prince (aka "The Domains of Koryphon") (and so was James Nicoll, I found when I looked for review on the web). Like Vance, Norton stacks the deck -- and tells the story from one side only -- so that the colonizers (not just humans, but, I guess, members of the "Confederation") are clearly in the right, against the treacherous -- and also very smelly! -- crocodile-like locals. So -- that's all hard to buy. Besides that, as I note, the book is short, and ends on a somewhat unfinished note.

But ... on its terms, as I said, it's really pretty good. It's told at a breakneck pace, and it's very exciting. Norton really could write action pretty well. It opens with young Rees Naper, stuck on Ishkur with his stupid Uncle Milo. (His father is missing, presumed dead, and Rees has not been able to follow his father's footsteps into the Patrol.) Uncle Milo is, in Rees' view, a muddle-headed fool, convinced that the natives are unthreatening, and that the Patrol's concerns over their restlessness, and their concomitant evacuation orders, are wrongheaded. Rees returns to their compound, only to find Milo and their guests Mr. and Mrs. Beltz brutally murdered -- along with their dog. Rees takes the Beltz' young son Gordy and immediately sets out in a "Roller" to try to get to another, presumably safer, compound. On the way he rescues a young Salarikan girl (the Salarikan's are catlike aliens), whose family has also been butchered by the Ishkurians. Soon they happen across the Salarikan's mother, a person of very high status.

The four of them continue toward their destination, chased by a band of Ishkurians. They are also menaced by young Gordy, who has been brainwashed by his parents to think the natives are nice people. (Can you believe it? -- he thinks the slang term "Crocs" is offensive!) There are a couple of close shaves on the way, and a desperate final confrontation -- followed by an interesting offer from the Salarikan woman to Rees.

Alas, we never know the final result, though I assume they escape the planet and Rees joins the Salarikan woman's commercial concern -- I admit I'd like to see stories of them working together. But I don't think Norton wrote any such.

Bottom line is, if you can stomach or ignore the colonialist attitudes, this is a pretty cool adventure novella. There were good reasons Andre Norton was as successful as she was, and this shows some of them.

Boskone 54: A quick con report

Boskone, 2017, a Quick Look

by Rich Horton

This February 17-19 I attended Boskone 54, the first convention I’ve ever attended on the East Coast. (In fact, almost all my conventions have been in the Midwest, and quite close to my home in St. Louis – I’ve been to quite a few Archons (Collinsville, IL, just East of St. Louis) and ConQuests (Kansas City, MO), as well as a few WindyCons and one CapriCon in Chicago. Besides that I’ve been to Worldcons in Chicago (2012), Spokane (2015), and Kansas City (2016). (And one NASFIC, but that was in Collinsville, so basically an extra large Archon.) I also haven’t been to the East Coast period that much (not counting the Southeast – my sister lives in Atlanta, GA, my daughter went to school at Clemson in South Carolina, and my parents used to winter in Florida, so I’ve been to those three states many times). My Dad grew up in Hadley, right in the middle of Massachusetts, so I’ve visited there a couple of times, and Cape Cod once, but never Boston. So this was a cool trip just on those grounds.

In my report below I will mention the panels I was on, but I apologize in advance for not going into too much detail about what we discussed – I waited too long to write this up, and my memory has failed me. (I also lost some notes I had.)

The Con was held at the Westin Waterfront, not too far South of Logan Airport. So I flew in and took a bus from the airport to the hotel, which was pretty easy. We did have a trivial hitch – I ran into author Joe McDermott waiting for the bus, and we convinced ourselves that the right bus stop was South Station. Turns out that’s a nice walk (close to a mile) from the hotel – but we’re young (erm …) vigorous men, and the walk was, let’s just say, bracing.

I got to the hotel in the early afternoon, and my first scheduled panel was not until 9:00 PM. So I didn’t do a whole lot for a while – checked in, wandered a bit, took some pictures of the local scenery. There was a freebie table in the basement near the dealers’ room. Somewhat had contributed a whole bunch of digests from the ’60s through the ‘80s. I was able to grab a number of copies of Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow and Analog that intrigued me, including some of the late ‘70s Galaxys that I have unaccountably lost. (I bought every issue of Galaxy from August 1974 through the rest of Jim Baen’s tenure, and a few issues after, but I lost them all, or so it appears after a recent reorganization of my bookshelves.) I did go to a reading by C. S. E. Cooney – she read a short story she had just finished (having rediscovered it after abandoning it a few years back). The story was pretty cool, but, cruelly, we ran out of time right at the climactic moment! It’s in submission right now, and I have no doubt it will sell, so I guess I’ll find out how it ends eventually.

Around dinner time I wandered by the bar and grabbed a bite or two with a varying and stimulating group of folks including Jo Walton, Ada Palmer, Lauren Schiller, Max Gladstone, Charles Stross, Alter Reiss, and others I have forgotten. I was particularly pleased to meet Alter, an Israeli whom I had known online back in the days (oh halcyon days of the earlyish internet!), and who has recently been publishing some impressive short fiction.

My 9:00 PM panel was entitled Hard to be a Hero. My fellow panelists were Ada Palmer (author of Too Like the Lightning, a really impressive first novel), Sarah Beth Durst (author of several fantasy novels, for children and adults), and Margaret Ronald (whose short fiction I have reprinted, so I was particularly happy to meet her). We had a nice discussion of things like heroes vs. antiheroes, what it takes to be a hero, ordinary people vs. heroes, etc. – including lots of discussion of manga, some very interesting stuff (that I was not at all familiar with) – including the notion, brought up by Ada Palmer, that the hero character who has had the most difficult time is Astro Boy.

(My only regret about this panel is that it was schedule opposite Trivia For Chocolate, traditionally one of my favorite panels (at Worldcons, usually, and also at at least once at either a WindyCon or a CapriCon). I usually – I think maybe always – finish second, and I was looking forward to doing so again!)

The next morning began with a search for a breakfast place. I wanted to do some walking and exploring of the local Boston area. I looked for breakfast places, and couldn’t really find any. So I tried donut shops – I do like my donuts! (Krispy Kremes need not apply!) Donut shops seem kind of thin on the ground in Boston, except for Dunkin Donuts, and I wasn’t going to go to a nationwide chain! I found a place called Doughboy Doughnuts and Deli, in South Boston about a mile from the hotel. For complicated reasons the walk there ended up being about a mile and a half, including navigating a steel staircase down a couple of storeys – but that was fine, I wanted to see the neighborhood. The donuts, alas, were a bit of a disappointment. The walk back was the GPS-advertised 0.9 miles (it’s easier when you go the right way).

My first two panels on Saturday were back-to-back at Noon and 1:00 PM. The first was called The Magic of Magical Realism in Literature, with Carlos Hernandez, Cerece Rennie Murphy, Gillian Daniels, and J. M. McDermott (whom I had met on the bus from the airport!) I thought the panel went well – we discussed things like the definition of Magical Realism, and Magical Realism from different traditions than South American (African, for instance); and is Magical Realism really just Fantasy by another name (not really!) The second panel was for Hugo Recommendations in Written Works, with Bob Devney, Jim Mann, and Vincent Doherty. The only problem with this panel is that we ran out of time. (For my recommendations, you can see my posts here, or the summary at Black Gate.)

It was time for my only Kaffeeklatsch of the con, hosted by Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. These are always enjoyable for me – after all, conversations are what really bring me to conventions. We discussed things like genealogy and the difference between Books and Tor Books … Quite a nice talk.

I did wander into the Dealers’ Room, of course. I visited Michael J. Walsh of Old Earth Books, and bought a copy of Liz Hand’s chapbook Fire., from the PM Press Outspoken Authors series. Michael also showed me his new edition of Keith Roberts’ Pavane (one of my favorite books), with the original Leo and Diane Dillon cover painting, plus, most interestingly, Roberts’ own paintings (from Science Fantasy), with the color mixing fixed (apparently the original magazines were a mess.) I also saw Sally Kobee, and talked to her a bit about Larry Smith and his passing, and what she’s doing with the business; and bought one book from her (Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn). I was on a strict book buying limit because everything had to fit into a carry on bag. (I did make some room by leaving a couple of copies of my Best of the Year books on the freebie table.)

My 4 o’clock panel was on From Rapiers to Ray Guns (on weapons in SF and Fantasy). My fellow panelists were Jo Walton, James Macdonald, and Scott Lynch. I did wonder what I could contribute next to three such distinguished writers who have written plenty of battle scenes … I kind of forgot (completely forgot!) that I actually work on what we call Advanced Weapons at Boeing. Alas, though I do have a certain expertise in pointy things that go really really fast, I’m kind of limited in what I can say about them in public. At any rate, the panel went quite well. I may as well quote Macdonald’s law on how to avoid getting emails from gun nuts about the details you might get wrong about the particular firearm your character uses – always identify the gun as “modified”.

I had already arranged to have dinner with Claire Cooney and Carlos Hernandez. Our three schedules intersected in such a way that we could only fit into a 90 minute window, from 5:00 to 6:30, which meant staying at the hotel restaurant, a sort of Irish-themed place (I had a hamburger which was very good, and some very good onion rings as well). The conversation was delightful – we discussed the upcoming novels from both Claire and Carlos (Claire’s is in submission, and Carlos is just about finished with what looks to be the final draft), and how they met, and their almost accidental collaboration on the delightful story “The Book of May” (which appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 5 last year), and Carlos’s Dad’s history with Fidel Castro (both for and against), and much more.

Later on I wandered over the lobby area and ran into Ben Yalow and Michael Walsh, and we ended up having a long and absorbing talk, about a variety of things, noticeably certain details of fannish history, and also Chris Offutt’s book about his father, SF writer Andy Offutt, and his father’s porn career. We ended up deciding (after sometime later verifying that it was published in 2016), that this book, My Father, the Pornographer, would be a worthy Hugo nominee in Best Related Work.

Sunday morning began with another unsuccessful attempt to find breakfast outside the hotel. This time I walked to the World Trade Center, which is right on a channel – the Main Channel, I guess it’s called. It seems to be a working seaport, for sure. I walked up and down a couple of piers. There are lots of restaurants in the area, but none were open. (Because it was Sunday, I guess.)

Back at the con, my first order of business was another trip through the dealers’ room, and also a look at the art show. I will say that the Boskone art show is EXCELLENT, the best of any convention I’ve been to. Among the artists were Vincent di Fate (a long time favorite), Bob Eggleton (ditto), Artist GOH Dave Seeley (whose work I quite enjoyed – I had not been familiar with it), Tom Kidd, and numerous others, many of them quite impressive. There was also a really impressive exhibit called 100 Years of Black and White SF Art.

Then I saw Brimstone Rhine (Claire Cooney) in concert. Claire sung a half-dozen or so pieces, a few from her album Alecto! Alecto! (songs based on Greek myths or plays, done in a variety of styles), and some unrecorded work, including my favorite, a version of a ballad based on the murder of Daft Jamie by Burke and Hare (this time recast in SFnal terms).

My Sunday panel, at 1:00 PM, was Best Book Ever!, which was just that – the panelists were supposed to cite particular favorites – interpretable several ways: as really the Best Book Ever; or as a book that was the Best Book Ever at a critical time; maybe a book that was great then but we’re afraid to revisit; or a book that isn’t objectively great in all ways but is a particularly delicious read. The other panelists were Walter Jon Williams, Maryelizabeth Yturralde, and Beth Caywood. I had a list of the books I was thinking of mentioning – and I meant to list them all here, but I’ve lost it. I know I mentioned The Anubis Gates, and Ares Express, and The House of Mirth, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and A Dance to the Music of Time, and Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems, and Nova, and Engine Summer, and Malafrena, and more. I wish I had kept my notes, and I wish I could remember the other books that the other panelists mentioned. Old age stinks!

I also encountered Theodora Goss and James Patrick Kelly. Theodora was one of the people I was really hoping to meet at the con (I was hoping to see Jim Kelly as well, but we have met before, a few times), so that was good, and we had a very nice chat. I also attended a panel Theodora moderated, on Making Magic Real (the other panelists were Jo Walton, Jim Macdonald, and Craig Shaw Gardner). Oddly enough I just realized that was the only panel I was in the audience for – there were quite a few other panels of interest to me, but some of them were scheduled opposite panels I was on, and the others somehow just didn’t fit my schedule.

Indeed, I had had a list of folks I had hoped to meet for the first time at the con, and of that list, besides those I’ve already mentioned (Theodora Goss, Carlos Hernandez, Margaret Ronald, Alter Reiss) I also ran into George Morgan, Paul di Filippo, and Allen M. Steele (whom I had never met when he lived in St. Louis, not terribly far from me, some years ago). I missed Greg Feeley, who was under the weather and couldn’t make it. I also never managed to meet Ken MacLeod, who was there; Darrell Schweitzer, who was apparently there but whom I never saw; Cynthia Ward, who had to cancel; Greer Gilman, who was there; and Fran Wilde (I couldn’t have congratulated her on the Nebula nomination then, but I can now!).

I really enjoyed the convention. I was very glad to visit Boston for the first time. I’ll have to take my wife some time – she wasn’t terribly excited about going in February, between the cold and having to walk everywhere. So perhaps I’ll try a Readercon sometime soon (not this year, though, the schedule won’t work). I would like to get back to another Boskone too sometime. Thanks to Erin Underwood for inviting me (and for putting up with my shamefully late response)!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Some perhaps forgotten mysteries by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Not That Old, Not a Bestseller: Pink Vodka Blues, and Skinny Annie Blues, by Neal Barrett, Jr.

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a couple of books from the '90s, so not that old. And I doubt they sold all that well. But they are somewhat fun books by a writer who did some very fine work in the SF field. These are mysteries, however, and it's my sense that they have drifted quite quickly into Forgotten status.

Neal Barrett, Jr. (1929-2014) began publishing SF with stories published more or less simultaneously in the August 1960 issues of Galaxy and Amazing, so he was either (or both) a Gold (and Pohl?) discovery or a Goldsmith discovery. That said, he also worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, publishing as by Victor Appleton and Franklin W. Dixon, so presumably he wrote both Tom Swift stories and Hardy Boys stories, though I don't know when. His early work was decent but not particularly special, but in the 80s and through the 90s he published some excellent novels (most notably Through Darkest America) and stories (my favorite being "Stairs"). Later he turned to mysteries of a somewhat gonzo tone, this book. He was SFWA Author Emeritus in 2010.

In the '90s he published a number of mysteries. Most of them have titles ending in "Blues".  Some of are part of a series about a guy named Wiley Moss.  I saw a number of these titles for sale at a remainder shop in Branson, when on vacation.  (Which raises the question -- why are mass market paperbacks being remaindered?  And are authors getting screwed in the process?)  I looked for the earliest one in the pile, which turned out to be Pink Vodka Blues, from 1992.

Pink Vodka Blues is not a Wiley Moss mystery, nor indeed, it would seem from internal evidence, part of any ongoing series at all.  The lead character is Russell Murray, a seriously alcoholic writer for a literary magazine in Chicago.  He returns from a trip to Dallas for his editor with absolute no memory of where he's been or what he's done.  Worse, he wakes up in a hotel room with a naked woman he doesn't recognize -- and minutes later a couple of hitmen smash there way into the room and kill the woman -- Russell escapes in terror by sheer luck.  Naturally enough, he is soon the prime suspect in the murder of the woman, and he is quickly on the run.  He still has no idea what happened in Dallas -- he was supposedly delivering a manuscript to a reclusive author while his editor, who was supposed to do the job, spent the weekend with his mistress.  Soon Russell learns that his editor is the nephew of a local mob boss, and that two factions in the mob want whatever Russell was supposed to deliver, which delivery apparently never happened.  Russell can't help, because his memory is shot.  He ends up in a rehab facility after passing out in his car -- and there he meets a beautiful and rich alcoholic woman. When the mob track him down, he and the woman escape, and rather clumsily and drunkenly wind their way across the US, to Dallas, Florida, and back to Chicago, chased by two strange sets of hit people, trying to figure out what Russell has forgotten.

The book is quite funny at times, though it's also a scary (and accurate-seeming) portrayal of alcoholism.  The main characters are nice enough that we root for them, but they are by no means hero and heroine -- they are losers, and if they end up halfway solving their problem, only some of the bad guys get their due, and the good guys only partly get a happy ending also.  Which qualifies as fairly realistic, I guess.  This fits more or less into the Elmore Leonard end of the crime fiction genre, though I'd call it not as good as Leonard, but worth reading.

I also found the first of his Wiley Moss mysteries, Skinny Annie Blues, from 1996.  Wiley Moss is an artist (he draws bugs) in Washington, D. C., living with a beautiful but dotty woman named Giselle.  He gets a phone call telling him that his Dad, who left his mother when he was a child, has died down in Galveston, and that he better not come down there.  Naturally, he figures something nasty is up, and heads to Texas.  Once there, he gets in all kinds of strange trouble, involving at least three more beautiful women: his Dad's new wife, a blind black woman named Grace; a restaurant owner named Annie (not Skinny Annie, though!); and a redhaired woman who takes immediate dislike to him on the plane. Wiley blunders around Galveston, running afoul of the corrupt sheriff R. J., the mobster Pound, the various women, and low rent criminal Harry Sykes.  Everybody seems to assume he knows something about the deal his Dad had going before he died.  It's all a bit chaotic, and it depends on people acting fairly stupidly.  There's a lot of funny stuff, and some wild stuff, but it doesn't really cohere.  Minor.