Sunday, January 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Kij Johnson

Another birthday today is that of the wonderful and versatile Kij Johnson. Here's a collection of my Locus reviews (plus one from my blog) of  her work:

Capsule look at Conqueror Fantastic (2004)

Kij Johnson's "The Empress Jingu Fishes" (Conqueror Fantastic) is a short, beautiful, evocation of a Japanese Empress.

Locus, November 2007

And finally to two very strong original anthologies. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling offer another themed book on folk themes: The Coyote Road. The subject is trickster tales, and fortunately the theme has been interpreted very freely.... In Kij Johnson’s “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change”, the title “Change” is animals learning to talk,  which proves difficult for pet owners for multiple reasons. Many dogs are abandoned, and many are killed. The story revolves around a series of cunningly changing tales the newly speaking dogs in one small city park tell a sympathetic woman. The thought-provoking real subject, of course, is our present relationship with non-speaking animals.

Locus, July 2008

From the July Asimov’s, Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing – it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one.

Locus, January 2010

Clarkesworld also continues to provide really strong work, much of it Science Fiction of an unusual cast. For instance, from October, Kij Johnson’s “Spar”, a story of a human and an alien marooned together on a space lifeboat. It’s aggressively unpleasant – their only communication seems to be sex – if it counts as sex – but unforgettable.

Review of Eclipse 4, from the May 2011 Locus

“Story Kit”, by Kij Johnson, begins with Damon Knight’s six story types, and continues by listing a number of stories of abandoned women … It’s about a woman, a writer, who, we gather without quite being told in so many words, has been dumped. Much of the story is meditation on the story of Dido (Queen of Carthage, loved and then abandoned by Aeneas). It’s interesting, and well-written ...

Locus, November 2011

The other novella from the October-November Asimov's is outstanding: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, by Kij Johnson. Kit is an engineer, taking over a project to build a bridge across a river of a strange substance called “mist”. The story is quiet, fairly simple, but involving throughout, as we see Kit's job from numerous angles: there are engineering problems, management problems, tragedies, potential issues with the locals (including the “Ferry” people, whose business would vanish with the success of the bridge). There's Kit's history, and his rootless life. There's the somewhat (but not terribly) exotic setting. I don't think the story has any “wow” moments – it's just a solid accumulation of absorbing detail.

Locus, October 2012

Kij Johnson's “Mantis Wives” (Clarkesworld, August) is a short sharp look at male/female relations described as if women, like mantises, devour their mates.

Locus, October 2016

Also from, in this case their line of novellas, is a beautiful story by Kij Johnson, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is evidently in dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadash” (which I confess I have not read), though I was more reminded of Lord Dunsany: and after all Lovecraft’s story (unpublished in his lifetime) was written quite overtly under the influence of Dunsany. Johnson, as well, writes of a Lovecraftian world with, well, actual recognizable women! Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the Dreamlands. One of her students has run away with a dreamer – a man from our world. This is a problem, because her father is influential … and, as it happens, her grandfather even more so, in scary way. So Vellitt, who has experience wandering, must set off after her, through very dangerous places, and even an encounter with her old lover, Randolph Carter, in search of a way to the waking world, to persuade her student to return. This story is just beautifully written – way more Dunsany than Lovecraft! – and exciting, and well imagined, using the good stuff from Lovecraft and new good stuff, and honest about consequences. Unquestionably one of the stories of the year.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Nancy Kress

Today is Nancy Kress's birthday. She's been writing great science fiction for over 40 years. Her 1985 story "Out of All Them Bright Stars" is on my list of the best SF short stories of all time. I didn't start reviewing for Locus until 2002, so this compilation of my reviews doesn't include work like "Out of All Them Bright Stars", nor "Beggars in Spain", nor "The Flowers of Aulit Prison", but she continues to produce exceptional stories.

Locus, June 2002

Nancy Kress' "The Most Famous Little Girl in the World" (Sci Fiction) is also solid, about a little girl who is taken aboard an alien ship. Her cousin tells of both their lives, intertwined with the periodic tentative revisits by the aliens, over much of the 21st century. The focus is on the two women's characters, as opposed to the aliens or the 21st century history portrayed, and it's well done

Locus, September 2003, review of Stars

The Janis Ian/Mike Resnick anthology Stars features a topnotch list of writers riffing on Ian's songs. ... Nancy Kress's "Ej-Es" takes us to a colony world just being visited by a medical ship. The colony has been ravaged by a plague, and the survivors live in squalor. But a side effect of the plague is hallucinations, very attractive hallucinations. The team faces a difficult question of medical ethics. In this case it's quite interesting to read the lyrics to Ian's song "Jesse" and see how Kress has run with some of the implications.

Locus, June 2006

Nancy Kress’s “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (Asimov's) is also strong work, about the promise and pitfalls of nanotechnology as demonstrated by its arrival at a small town. As long as I’m namedropping old novels, the obvious antecedent here is Damon Knight’s very dark A for Anything.

Locus, December 2006

Nancy Kress’s “Safeguard” is a scary and thought-provoking story that felt a bit strained to me. Still, it raises wrenching questions. It opens with four rather odd children in what is clearly an artificial habitat. But in a disaster the habitat breaks. Their “caretaker” picks them up, and she is, we soon learn, presented with a dilemma. The children are apparently bio-weapons – carriers of a plague. But she loves them – how can she kill them? But if she doesn’t kill them, is she instead killing millions?

Summary of Baen's Universe, 2008

By contrast, my two favorite novelettes came from veteran writers. These are Nancy Kress's "First Rites" (October) and David Brin's "The Smartest Mob" (February). ... Kress's "First Rites" is a tense story of a genetic modification that leads to a new form of consciousness -- not necessarily with happy results.

Locus, March 2009

The March Asimov’s also features a fine novella from Nancy Kress, “Act One”. The story is told by Barry Tenler, the agent for a slightly aging actress, Jane Snow. Jane is preparing for a movie about children with a controversial genetic modification which makes people extremely empathic. Barry has a special personal reason for concern about genetic mods – he wanted his son to share his dwarfism, and insisted on genetic changes when the fetus tested “normal” – changes which didn’t quite work. And in the wider world, all such genetic treatment is of course very controversial. But, as “Act One” shows, there are unexpected side effects to even apparently beneficial changes like increased empathy – and there may be worse side effects when fanatics, on either side of the issue – get involved.

Life on Mars review, May 2009 Locus

And Nancy Kress’s “First Principle” deals with Martians who have been specially adapted to live there, and with the prejudice of some Earth people – in this case, particularly an obnoxious teenaged boy – who can’t deal with their differences.

Locus, October 2007

The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, will definitely rank among the landmark original anthologies of the year. I greatly enjoyed it – if I had one quibble it would be that a book of “New” stories probably ought to have included a couple of “newer” authors – every author included is quite well-established indeed. I lack space to cover it in detail. There are many strong stories – .... Nancy Kress’s “Art of War” examines the tragic disconnect between an alien species view of art – and how they interpret looted human art – and the human view.

Locus, October 2008

The major novellas at the fall Asimov’s Double Issue are from Robert Reed (b. 1956) and Nancy Kress (b. 1948) – so both members of the Baby Boomer class. Both stories are enjoyable. It is Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” that does seem to me, however, a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents – but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution – signaled from the beginning – is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end – and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving

Locus, November 2009

I have three months of Fantasy Magazine to catch up with. From September I particularly liked Nancy Kress’s “Images of Anna”. A “glamour shot” photographer is surprised when his photos of an engaging middle-aged woman turn up very strange – other people appear in them instead of the subject. He learns that the photographs are for her new boyfriend, who she met online – which raises red flags for him. But on continued investigation things only get stranger, and the eventual explanation is surprising and effective. The story works nicely metaphorically, in portraying the way a lonely and nice person sees herself … and fantastically, with the really quite delightful conclusion.

Locus, January 2014

In “Pathways” Nancy Kress (Twelve Tomorrows) tells of a backwoods family with a recurring genetic disorder: Fatal Familial Insomnia (sort of the real-life version of her “Sleepless”, without the positive aspects). Ludie, the narrator, is a young woman with the gene, who volunteers for an experimental treatment, against the wishes of her family, and in the face of a deadline – a cartoon -version Libertarian President is about to be voted out in favor of someone who will restrict this sort of research (but restore welfare programs). What works here, and works well, is the characters – Ludie and her family, and the Chinese doctor doing the research. Moving stuff, if, again, with a hint of wish-fulfillment in the background.

Locus, October 2016

In Now We Are Ten, there’s a good, short, fable-like piece from Nancy Kress, “Pyramid”, something of an allegory on success (appropriately for a retrospective anthology like this, there are nods to a number of SF greats).

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Old "Bestseller": The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

Capsule Looks at The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

a review by Rich Horton

Ronald Firbank was born January 17, 1886. He was one of the oddest and most original writers of the early 20th century -- his works are rather decadent, rather campy, quite funny, and not like any other writer I know. In memory of his birthday, here's some short things I wrote about a few of his novels (and one minor short story) a number of years ago.

A very different sort of comedy is practiced by Ronald Firbank. Firbank was a Roman Catholic Englishman of considerable independent means (his father was a railroad tycoon), who lived from 1886 to 1926. Firbank was also homosexual, and apparently terribly impractical, and quite shy. He wrote several novels, a few short stories and a play, starting in about 1907. He published the novels at his own expense, partly because they are so odd, partly, I think, because he couldn't really be bothered dealing with business details. But even during his life he gained considerable notice, and even had one strong seller in the US, with his novel Sorrow in Sunlight, retitled Prancing N****r by his American publisher in an apparently successful attempt to gain notice.

Firbank's novels are fey, highly mannered, creations, essentially comedies of manners, but the "manners" tend to be rather unusual. I'd read several of his novels a few years ago, but I just got a copy of the Complete Firbank, and I decided to reread some of them.

1. The Flower Beneath the Foot

I began with The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923). This story is set in the fictional country of Pisuerga, and its plot turns on the love affair between the Crown Prince Yousef and one Laura Nazianzi. But Laura is not highly placed enough to satisfy the King and Queen, who are pushing for a marriage to an English Princess. All seems conventional enough, but of course the plot such as it is has nothing really to do with the novel.

It's all really about conversations, wicked conversations. Firbank is among other things a very cruel writer -- his characters die, fail in love, and most of all are shown up as being very very silly. They also occasionally have funny names like Sir Somebody Something or Madame Wetme. One character has a favorite Shakespeare play -- "Julia Sees Her". Many of the women are intriguing to seduce other women, one way or another. Even Laura Nazianzi seems more excited by the prospect of returning to the convent and her special friend (complete with birch rod) than by the prospect of a relationship with Prince Yousef. It's all very arch, and terribly witty, and quite funny but perhaps best appreciated in smallish doses -- which is OK because this novel, as with all of Firbank, is pretty short.

2. Valmouth (and "Odette")

Valmouth, a rather short novel, is apparently generally regarded as Firbank's best, and at any rate I like it the best of his work that I've read.  It's set in a seaside resort, among a varied group of characters, most of whom seem to be over 100 years old, maybe even 150 or so. The plot concerns the plans of the son of one of the women to marry a "foreign" woman, and the effects of this plan on his mother and his previous lover, also there is a side plot concerning the vague  attempts of one of the older women to seduce a young farmer.  But the plot is nothing really, just an excuse to listen in on the various outre characters. The pleasure is derived from the delicate double-entendres buried in almost every line of dialogue -- concerning masochism, madness, fooling around with priests, etc.

"Odette" on the other hand, a very early story, shows almost nothing of what Firbank would become -- it's a silly and sentimental and moralistic short piece about a young orphan who encounters a prostitute and perhaps effects a change in her life.

3. The Artificial Princess

I read another Ronald Firbank "novel", The Artificial Princess, a story of about 20,000 words completed in 1915 but not published until 1934, several years after Firbank's death. All Firbank is slight in terms of plot, but this seems slighter than usual. It concerns a very young Princess (17) of a fictional country that seems closely to resemble England. The Princess has
a somewhat older companion, the Baroness. She sends her on a mission to a potential lover, but the Devil intervenes and the Baroness encounters a potential lover of her own. The action closes at a play written by another member of the court, the Mistress of the Robes, with encounters for the Princess and Baroness both in the offing.

Feather light, its attractions result from Firbank's characteristic fey description and arch dialogue. Still, it seems rather a lesser work than the other Firbank novels I have read. (Perhaps it is not a surprise the Firbank did not publish it in his lifetime.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple (#F-195, 1963, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This is one of the shorter Ace Double combinations I've seen. Silverberg's novel is about 34,000 words long, Temple's about 30,000. This is also a pretty minor pair of short novels -- neither is really memorable.

Robert Silverberg was a regular writer of Ace Doubles, producing thirteen "halves" over his career, in twelve different books. Several of his Ace Doubles were under pseudonyms: Ivar Jorgenson, David Osborne, and most often his Protestant pseudonym, Calvin Knox. Interestingly, The Silent Invaders is an expansion of a novelette from the October 1958 issue of Infinity, "The Silent Invaders", by "Calvin Knox" -- but the novel is as by "Robert Silverberg". After this edition, it was reprinted a couple of times in the 70s and 80s, by Ace and Tor, as Silverberg allowed some of his early pulp stories back into print. (I remember reading one of those thin Ace books back in the day.) (I note for the record that when I call these early Silverberg stories "pulp" I am referring to the general style -- the stories themselves, by the late 50s, were almost all (perhaps indeed all) published in digests, such as Infinity, rather than in actual pulp magazines.)

It's a rather preposterous little piece of pulpish fun. And it is in its way fun -- though probably only a novelette's worth. Silverberg has always been a facile writer -- I don't mean this in a bad way, I think writing with facility is a virtue, though not a necessary virtue. What I mean by this is that his writing flows nicely -- he's just easy to read, he compels reading. Even if, as in this case, what you are reading isn't all that good.

The protagonist is named Abner Harris -- but in reality he is Aar Khiilom, an agent of the Darruui. He has been sent to Earth, surgically altered to look like a human, on a mission to try to influence Earth to support Darruu in an anticipated war with their ancient enemy, the Medlin. He arrives on Earth, with orders to spend his first ten days or so just blending in. Indeed, a pleasant affair with a local woman would be just the thing -- and he is about ready to bed the beautiful Beth Baldwin when he receives a message from his boss -- emergency! He is compelled to stand her up.

It turns out that the Darruui have discovered that the Medlin have also infiltrated Earth. Abner's new job is to assassinate as many Medlin as he can. And his first assignment -- wait a minute, you'll NEVER GUESS this incredible plot twist -- is to assassinate a Medlin agent who is impersonating an Earth woman under the name Beth Baldwin!

Of course it turns out that Beth has the jump on him, and soon she and her fellow Medlins are trying to turn Abner/Aar to their side. It seems they are convinced he is a rare virtuous Darruui. More to the point, the Medlins have decided that their primary job is to nurture humans -- it seems that humans have begun to evolve into superbeings -- the future truly belongs to the arriving superhuman race. The rest of the story involves Abner/Aar resisting at first -- he cannot stand to betray his people, and eventually learning the deeper truth etc. etc. All in all, a silly story, very minor Silverberg, a bit too rapidly resolved -- nothing special at all. But as I said, enjoyable enough reading on its own terms.

William F. Temple was an Englishman involved in the UK SF scene from very early -- he roomed for a while with Arthur C. Clarke, and he was editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He wrote a number of juvenile novels, both SF and other, and a few SF novels and a number of short stories. He wrote three Ace Double halves, two of which were later combined to make another Ace Double.

The cover of Battle on Venus features what seems to be a huge runaway disk from an old fashioned mainframe disk drive, chasing a man with the proportions of a Darrell Sweet humanoid. (Noting that Sweet's drawings were supposedly of actual humans, but that can't really have been the case.) I just mention that because it struck me as amusing -- the cover is actually a somewhat accurate representation of a scene from the book.

The book concerns the first expedition to Venus, led by a lugubrious Captain who believes himself cursed by his first name (Jonah), and crewed by several redshirts and a "professional explorer" named George Starkey. The ship comes in for a landing only to find itself being shot at. And once on the surface, a variety of tanks and the like begin attacking. The crew are also menaced by the runaway disks. But all of a sudden the attacking tanks turn around and start defending the ship from another attacking set of vehicles. And all attempts at communication are met with silence.

Things finally quiet down, and George Starkey takes a helicopter on an exploring mission, only to be shot down. Luckily he is found by a beautiful girl from an isolated settlement, a girl who has spent her life as an expert thief (part of her culture), but who has decided to leave her home city. She and George are quickly in love, despite cultural differences. They manage to make there way to the home of the personage who, it turns out (big surprise) is orchestrating all this chaos.

And ... well, we learn why this endless pointless war continues, and George and his love make there way back to the ship, and ... and ... It's hardly worth describing. It's really another pretty silly story. Along the way there are occasional cute bits, a little humour, competent but not distinguished writing. And it's short. In all, surely one of the more forgettable Ace Doubles.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer (#M-131, 1965, $0.45)

by Rich Horton

Today is Kenneth Bulmer's birthday -- he'd have been 98. I've posted a lot of reviews of Bulmer's Ace Doubles already, but there always seem to be more! This is actually a review I wrote a while ago, but it's been off the internet for some time, so here it is again.

(Covers by Jack Gaughan)
As I've previously mentioned, one of my goals is to cover at least one entry by all of the most prolific Ace Double contributors in this series of reviews. This book pairs two quite prolific Ace Double writers: Bulmer wrote 15 Ace Double halves, Reynolds 13. I'd already reviewed a Bulmer book, but this is my first Reynolds Ace Double. Planetary Agent X is about 47,000 words, Behold the Stars about 44,000. This Ace Double also represents one of those in which the halves seem mildly thematically linked: both of these rather explicitly concern human expansion and colonization of the stars.

Mack Reynolds had a well-established reputation as sort of John W. Campbell's pet socialist. Reynolds (real name Dallas McCord Reynolds) was in fact an active member of the American Socialist Labor Party, and his father Verne Reynolds actually ran for President twice as a representative of that party. I've read only a couple of his books, and they do not seem overtly Socialist to me, though they aren't anti-Socialist either. (I understand that a few of his novels were more explicitly Socialist.) It seems to me that politics aside, he resembled Campbell quite strongly in being contrarian in temperament, and in promoting some of Campbell's tics regarding individualism and secret organizations working for the good of man and such like.

The publication history of Planetary Agent X is a little odd. The front matter states "This novel originally appeared in Analog in two parts under the titles "Ultima Thule" and "Pistolero"." Certainly Part I appeared as "Ultima Thule" in the March 1961 Analog. However, I can find no evidence that a story called "Pistolero" by Reynolds ever appeared anywhere. The Contento Index claims that "Pistolero", which it lists as part of this novel, appeared in SF Impulse, the British magazine edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli, sister to New Worlds (and originally called Science Fantasy), in June 1966, but under the title "Hatchetman", and a year or so after this Ace Double was published. (Curiously, one of Reynolds's earliest stories was a collaboration with Fredric Brown in Amazing for December 1951 called "The Hatchetman" -- I assume the story is unrelated.) I wonder if perhaps Reynolds submitted "Pistolero" to Campbell and told Ace that it would be published there, only to have it rejected. Then he may have sold it to SF Impulse, where it seems to have appeared a year after the Ace Double. (I should add that I don't know if the Ace Double versions of the stories differ from the magazine versions.)

The novel is a straightforward fixup of two novellas about Ronnie Bronston. Bronston lives some centuries in the future. Humans have colonized hundreds of worlds, many, perhaps most, united by a very loose government, centered on Earth, called United Planets. The central tenet of the United Planets is that interference with the internal affairs, particularly the political organization, of member planets is verboten. Ronnie dreams of going offplanet, and the only route to that is to work for UP. As the book opens, he is interviewed and hired for a casual-seeming organization called Section G. This seems to be sort of a secret department, aimed at enforcing the noninterference rule.

Ronnie's first assignment is to track down a criminal named Tommy Paine, who has been fomenting revolutions on numerous planets. His revolutions follow no specific pattern -- mainly simply removing entrenched autocrats from power, or forcing static societies out of ruts. He is assigned a beautiful Eurasian assistant, Tog Lee Chang Chou, who proceeds to annoy him en route to the various planets he suspects Paine might be at by playing Devil's Advocate. For all Ronnie suggests that some of these societies might deserve interference, Tog has reasons (not necessarily consistent) that they should not be messed with.

The ending to this section is easily guessed, and very predictable, involving among other things the meaning of Tog's name. At any rate, Ronnie is promoted to full membership in Section G. His next assignment, in Part II, is to track down Billy Antrim, a very young "pistolero" from a Mafia-dominated planet. (It is not, I am sure, a coincidence that "Billy Antrim" was one of the names Billy the Kid went by.) Billy was sent by his mob boss to kill a squealer who had come to Earth. The story actually focuses more on Billy's fleeing than on Ronnie's chasing, though the end, which is a bit dark and somewhat effective, does deal with Ronnie.

I assume there are a few more United Planets stories in Reynolds's bibliography. [Indeed there are -- quite a few, though this was the first.] For myself, this was not bad, though far from great. Enjoyable if predictable.

I've previously mentioned Kenneth Bulmer's career. He was a very prolific English SF writer, publishing something like 100 novels, including the Dray Prescot series (as by "Alan Burt Akers") for DAW. He also edited the last several volumes of the classic English original anthology series New Writings in SF.

Behold the Stars concerns David Ward, ex-Army, who is working for the Solterra government matter transmitter operation, several years after the end of a wearing war with the alien but nearly human "Venies". Space travel is mostly done by matter transmitter, but STL spaceships need first to travel to distant stars to place receiver stations (though the ships can be fueled by matter transmission). Some of the Solterra spaceships are encountering a new alien race, which has ambushed several human installations.

War seems imminent, but surprisingly many top people are very pacifist, despite the aggressiveness and provocation of these new aliens. Ward himself, though no pacifist, is reluctant to fight again -- he feels he did his time in the previous war. But his best friend disappears, and his friend's girlfriend introduces David to a beautiful girl who, it turns out, wants David to investigate the other guy's disappearance.

All this leads to David confronting his "cowardice", falling in love with the new girl, and tracking down his best friend -- which also leads to a solution to the problem of the pacifists.

It's not very well worked out. The deck is stacked to favor certain arguments. Some of the action is silly. The end is terribly abrupt. Even so, I enjoyed the characters (though they were terribly two-dimensional), and the story was a breezy read. I can't rate it as very good, but it was at least passable, if you swallow some of the absurdities.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Slightly Belated Birthday Review: Vegas Heist, by Van Allen Plexico

Slightly Belated Birthday Review: Vegas Heist, by Van Allen Plexico

a review by Rich Horton

Yesterday, January 12, was the 51st birthday of Van Allen Plexico. I've gotten to know Van a bit over the past few years at conventions, expecially Archon, and as it happens we've twice been v/i/c/t/i/m/s contestants on Jim Yelton's Geek Universe Trivia Thunderdome, episodes of which Jim occasionally records at cons like Archon. Last fall we were "celebrity" contestants. I lost. Van finished second, to Wyatt Weed, a St. Louis-based writer/director. (In fact, Wyatt directed Four Color Eulogy, in which my son had a tiny role.)

At Archon I also bought a copy of Van's new novel, Vegas Heist, release in 2018 from White Rocket Books. Yesterday I did a lot of cleaning of my library, and one thing that surfaced was Vegas Heist. Whey I realized it was Van's birthday, I figured I ought to read it, and so I have.

Much of Van's fiction is SF or Fantasy, but Vegas Heist is a crime story, indeed a caper story, set in 1965. John Harper is a career criminal, and as the story opens he gets a call from a man named Salsa, with whom he's worked before. They decide to meet in St. Louis to plan the job. With a jugger (safebreaker) named Donovan, they begin by robbing an engineer in the St. Louis suburbs (hey, I'm an engineer in the St. Louis suburbs!) The engineer is known to be a gun nut, and the goal is to get some arms that can't be traced to them. Then it's on to Las Vegas, Salsa's home base. Salsa has heard that Caesar's Palace, which is just about to open, will have a bunch of money in their safe the night before the opening, and he's also heard about a secret underground passage into the safe's location.

There are complications, of course. For one thing, the engineer in St. Louis, who had interrupted their job and got knocked out for his pains, had heard a clue that allowed him to figure out the jugger's identity, and he's learned that he'll be in Las Vegas, so he's headed there along with a large portion of his personal arsenal. Secondly, while Salsa has heard some of the details of the secret passage's location, he doesn't know enough, and he has to try to finagle the remaining details from the widow of the contractor who was working on Caesar's Palace before his recent accidental (?) death. (This proves more fun than Salsa expected after he realized the widow is a former showgirl and recent trophy wife.) There's also the matter of the thuggish and undependable fourth member of their team, hired as additional muscle. And finally there's Salsa's original informant, who turns out to be (though Harper's team doesn't know his) in the play of a rival casino owner who wants to embarrass Caesar's Palace, and who certainly doesn't want any loose ends left alive after the job is done.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, as Harper's team works out their plan, as their unforeseen antagonists also maneuver, and as some unavoidable missteps place them in danger of detection by law enforcement. It's exciting stuff, well-schemed, with the expected cynical humor dotting things. This is a fun fast read, with additional fillips for people in my position such as the view of my city as the Arch is being erected, and such as the Tuckerization of a certain Jim Yelton as a hapless security guard.

Ace Double Reviews, 80: Clockwork's Pirates, by Ron Goulart/Ghost Breaker, by Ron Goulart

Ace Double Reviews, 80: Clockwork's Pirates, by Ron Goulart/Ghost Breaker, by Ron Goulart (#11182, 1971, 75 cents)

A review by Rich Horton

Ron Goulart turns 86 today -- a surprise to me, I'd have thought him rather younger. In his honor, then, a review of his only Ace Double.

(Covers by Karel Thole)
Ron Goulart is known mostly as a writer of humorous SF -- I've said before that he's sort of a low-rent Robert Sheckley, though I suspect that comparison is too facile -- Goulart doesn't really write all that much like Sheckley. Goulart has also ghost written plenty of stuff, including some of the novels credited to William Shatner. This is his only Ace Double. Clockwork's Pirates is a novel, about 38,000 words long, while Ghost Breaker is a story collection, totaling just short of 43,000 words.

Clockwork's Pirates is set in a future Goulart has used a number of times, concerning the "Barnum System" of planets. This novel is set on Esmeralda, a planet purposely kept at a low level of technology. John Wesley Sand is a freelance secret agent, and is hired by the Barnum authorities to help track down criminals who have kidnapped a local governor's daughter, and who have also eliminated some previous agents. It is suspected that they may be using robots -- which are obviously enough illegal tech.

Sand rather discursively makes his way after the kidnappers, mostly in the company of a hack novelist named Tony Dehner. He also gets help from a mysterious woman who claims to be the daughter of a wizard. And to be sure he doesn't hesitate to enjoy the company of various other women on the way. The actual chase of the kidnappers is not terribly interesting -- Goulart pretty much just makes stuff up as he goes along. I was particularly annoyed by the fact that this nominally SFnal future is actually a fantasy world -- blatant magic is a major feature. For no particular reason except that it makes the author's job easier. It must be said that there are occasional cute touches and amusing bits, and that it all reads smoothly enough. But the novel is totally unmemorable.

Ghost Breaker is a collection of stories all featuring the same character, Max Kearny. Max is an adman who is also an occult investigator. Goulart's stories about him appeared mostly in F&SF throughout the '60s. It is worth noting that Goulart himself worked as an ad man, was born the same year (as far as I can tell) as his character Max Kearny, and lived in pretty much the same place.

The stories follow a broadly similar template -- Max reluctantly agrees to investigate an occult happening for a friend of his. These happenings are always truly fantastical, not Scooby Doo style chicanery (though magical chicanery may be involved). Max manages to figure out what's going on (often too easily) and foil things, usually by looking up a spell in a book -- always too conveniently. Max gets married along the way, and his wife (something of a witch) tends to try to help out and tends to put herself in danger.

That description, I guess, makes it clear that I didn't love these stories. But they are not awful -- Goulart's telling is just engaging enough to hold the interest. The stories aren't exactly funny -- they don't seem intended to be truly comic -- but they are light and amusing enough. Not a one of them is outstanding -- nothing here is brilliant -- but they do seem, well, acceptable. Which in a way describes Goulart's career -- I have been reading him off and on for decades, and I find him fitfully funny -- sometimes tiresome, sometimes OK, and every once in a while, as with a story this year in F&SF, pretty darn amusing. But never, for me, brilliant. (That said, comedy in particular is something that strikes different people in very different ways.)

Here's a list of the stories in Ghost Breaker, with lengths and original publication venues:

"Please Stand By" (8400 words) (F&SF, January 1962)
"Uncle Arly" (3600 words) (F&SF, July 1962)
"Help Stamp Out Chesney" (4300 words) (first published in this collection)
"McNamara's Fish" (6500 words) (F&SF, July 1963)
"Kearny's Last Case" (4300 words) (F&SF, September 1965)
"Breakaway House" (3800 words) (F&SF, May 1966)
"The Ghost Patrol" (5400 words) (F&SF, October 1968)
"The Strawhouse Pavilion" (4500 words) (Coven 13, January 1970)
"Fill In the Blank" (5800 words) (F&SF, May 1967)