Sunday, August 21, 2016

Quick Look at MidAmericon II

Quick Look at MidAmericon II

by Rich Horton

Mary Ann and I have just got back from Kansas City where we attended MidAmericon II, the 2016 World Science Fiction Convention. Last year I published a fairly long look at our trip to Spokane for Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon. I'm not sure I'll write something as long this year, but if I do it will take a little time.

So, a quick look: first, I really enjoyed myself. I always do, really. The best part is conversations, meeting people I haven't yet met and seeing old friends. Any list I make will leave out important people, but off the top of my head, I was able to meet Jonathan Strahan in person for the first time, and we had several excellent talks. I also met Kate Baker, Ken Schreyer, Marty Massoglia, Bo Bolander, Andy Dudak, Jason Sanford, Sarah Frost, James Cambias, Heather Shaw, Sunil Patel, Carrie Vaughn, Daryl Gregory, Caroline Yoachim, Steve Pantazis, Martin Shoemaker, Ron Yaniv, Rosemary Kirstein, Jacob Weisberg, Gord Sellar, Rich Larsen, Christopher Kastensmidt, and Jonathan Eller. And of course I saw a lot of folks I've met before: John O'Neill, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Charlie Finlay, Sean Wallace, Neil Clarke, Liza Groen Trombi, Kij Johnson, Christopher McKitterick, Gary Wolfe, Sheila Williams, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Ann Leckie, Gregory Benford, Michelle Sagara West, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, John Joseph Adams, Mark Olson, Jo Walton, Joe Karpierz, Charlie Jane Anders, Steven Silver, Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, Jeremy Tolbert, E. Lily Yu, Adam-Troy Castro, Judy Castro, Travis Creason, Francesca Myman, Andrew Porter ... I know I'm shamefully forgetting a lot of people! But that's what's really great about Worldcon.

Regrets? I have a few. Well, maybe just a couple: one, for a variety of complex reasons, we didn't have as good a food week as we might have hoped. Most of this was time constraints. Mary Ann and I have both been to KC a lot, and so we think we know our way around it a bit ... in the end the only two really good eating experiences were at a couple of restaurants we're fairly familiar with: Genghis Khan, the first Mongolian barbecue I ever tried (back in about 1998 at my first ConQuesT), and Fiorella's Jack Stack, one of the great KC (traditional) barbecue joints. (This time I tried their Crown Prime beef rib for the first time, and it was truly wonderful.) Second, we didn't go to the Hugo Losers party. I didn't have a formal invitation, and I got a bit shy -- but as I understand it, most everyone was welcome, at least eventually. It would have been wonderful to see John O'Neill get his special Alfie for Black Gate (and to bask a bit in the reflected glory, because of course I'm part of Black Gate too!)

Hugos? The regular Hugos went pretty much exactly as I expected. I guess I didn't have a good idea what would win the Novel -- I've only read Ancillary Mercy so far, and I enjoyed it -- but by all accounts (including Ann Leckie's) the actual winner, N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, is wonderful, and it's certainly on my To Read list. The novella winner, Nnedi Okorafor's "Binti", was the one I expected. It wasn't my personal choice, but it's a worthy winner. I do still wish, of course, that great stories by Greg Egan, C. S. E. Cooney, and Carter Scholz had made the short list, but alas it was not to be. I would have been thrilled with either of the two plausible novelette winners: Brooke Bolander's "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" or the actual winner, Hao Jingfang's "Folding Beijing". Those were really a tossup to me -- so no complaints here! And the only worthy story on the short story ballot won, Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures, Please". I won't discuss the rest of the ballot, except to say that in general the winners were good choices, to the extent I was familiar with them.

The Retro-Hugos? Again, predictable. Novel went to Slan -- perhaps not the best novel of 1940, but a good bet for the one that would have actually won! Novella and novelette went to Heinlein stories ("If This Goes On" and "The Roads Must Roll"). Reasonable choices, I guess. The disaster category was Short Story, where Isaac Asimov's "Robbie" -- which technically should have been called "Strange Playfellow"! -- took the award. It's just not a very good story, and it only won because it was the first of his robot stories. Also possibly the least! The best story on the shortlist, by about 20 parsecs, was Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", one of the greatest of 20th Century stories. If you want to argue that no voter in 1941 would have read the Borges story, which has appeared only in Spanish, and as far as I know, only in Argentina, well, fine. Very few voters in 1941 would have picked "Strange Playfellow" (none would have picked "Robbie", because it didn't have that title yet) -- and no one would likely have realized it would be famous as the first of a famous series. The better choice if that was your algorithm was Heinlein's "Requiem". Ah well, that's just to repeat the obvious: the Retro Hugos really truly do not work.

Programming? I had three panels myself. The best, I thought, was the last, Transcending the Genre, a Sunday panel, with Rosemary Kirstein, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Tom Easton, and Jennie Goloboy. We essentially discussed the increasing acceptance of SF (and some SF writers) in the literary world. Which is a shallow way to put it. I think we handled it pretty well, covering attitudes on both sides of the fence, marketing, history, the reasons there might be differences, etc. One other panel concerned the Small Press, which also featured Jason Sizemore of Apex; Ron Yaniv, an Israeli editor/publisher (and his insights on the market is Israel were very interesting); Katherine Wynter, and Jamie Lackey. And the third panel was Reviewing the Reviewers, with Michelle West and Gary Wolfe. Alas, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro was not able to be there due to a detached retina -- get better quickly, Alvaro. I really missed the chance to talk to Alvaro again. Michelle and Gary and I have done pretty much this exact panel before, and I think we covered it well, but, yes, it was familiar stuff.

Other programming? I attended a lot of panels. To the point that I got panel fatigue at points. I also did a few Kaffeeklatsches and Literary Beers. I find these very fun. I did them with Jo Walton, Kij Johnson, Gary Wolfe, and Jim Cambias. Good discussions every time.

Controversy? Well, yes. I was at the notorious "State of Short Fiction" panel, moderated (immoderated?) by Dave Truesdale. Dave is an old friend, and I owe him a lot, for bringing me into the fanzine field by letting me review for Tangent (the print version!) back in the '90s. But Dave really went off the rails on this one. Leaving aside the substance of what Dave said -- which can certainly be disputed -- his presentation was deliberately offensive, and that's a problem in itself. And obviously counterproductive. From my selfish point of view, the worse offense was that Dave hijacked a panel that I thought would be very interesting, and turned it into an argument/discussion about his particular current hobbyhorse. We heard essentially nothing about the state of short fiction today. We did have some discussion -- and Sheila Williams and Jonathan Strahan in particular (with good contributions from Gordon van Gelder and Neil Clarke) did try to address the substance of Dave's complaints.

As for Dave's expulsion from the convention, I have no direct knowledge of the circumstances. But I have been told -- at second hand -- that there were issues beyond just the reading of the manifesto at the panel. If that was all that happened, it could have -- should have -- been dealt with in a less extreme manner than a ban. But we don't know what else was involved, and I think everyone should withhold further comment not knowing any background.

Business Meeting? Mary Ann attended the bulk of the four day session. I attended what I could, given my other responsibilities. The basic results: the YA "not-a-Hugo" and the Best Series Hugo were approved (subject to ratification at next year's Worldcon). The 5% rule was eliminated, thank God! EPH was passed. My opinion on EPH has changed. I somewhat unconvincedly voted for it last year. But this year, after seeing analysis based on the last few years of nominating data (and eventually on this year's data (thanks to Dave McCarty for absolutely yeoman all-nighter work crunching the numbers!)) that showed that a) EPH has a rather small positive effect on the final ballots (not zero, but small); and b) it seems to actually potentially enhance small-scale slate voting (i.e., perhaps, a single author trying to get his friends to nominate him); combined with the fairly opaque nature of the algorithm; and a fourth effect, perhaps a selfish one: EPH tends to reduce the power of nominators -- like me, yes, I admit -- who actually read a substantial portion of the works eligible in a given year (in some categories). I frankly don't think that the vote of a person who has read just a few things and liked two of them should be privileged over someone (let's call him Rich H for short) who might have read a couple thousand stories and liked five. But even aside that admittedly selfish whine, I think the other problems with EPH mean it's a bad idea. 4/6 also passed, modifed to 5/6. Why not 5/8? Or 5/10? But that's water under the bridge. 5/6 is an improvement, but a very small one.

And finally, Trivia? As ever, I participated in the Trivia for Chocolate contest, run by Mark Olson, Jim Mann, and Steven Silver. And, as ever, I had the second highest Chocolate count -- I've been to 3 Worldcons, and had the second most chocolates each time. This time was, admittedly, a bit different -- there was a tie for first (26 pieces) and I was technically third (25). I blame Dr. Who. :) My Dr. Who episode count remains at 1/2. Not that I have anything against it, I'm just not really a TV guy. (And hey, I get it -- Dems da Berries! But there sure were a lot of Dr. Who questions!)

Monday, August 15, 2016

An old Ace Double: The Rebellious Stars, by Isaac Asimov/An Earth Gone Mad, by Roger Dee

Ace Double Reviews, 34: The Rebellious Stars, by Isaac Asimov/An Earth Gone Mad, by Roger Dee (#D-84, $0.35, 1954)

A review by Rich Horton

I'm headed to Kansas City for the World Science Fiction Convention tomorrow, so I'll make an early post this week, and make it an SF post. Here's an Ace Double featuring a major writer, with perhaps his weakest novel, and a very minor writer, with his only SF novel. I wrote this back in 2004 or so.

This early Ace Double features one of only a couple Isaac Asimov appearances in the format. The Rebellious Stars is better known as Tyrann, under which title it appeared as a Galaxy serial in 1951. (OK, it's even BETTER known as The Stars, Like Dust, Asimov's preferred title and the title of the original 1951 Doubleday hardcover (and of all English-language editions since then, as far as I know, saving only this Ace Double).) In this edition it is about 67,000 words long, and the book is labeled "Complete and Unabridged", so as far as I know it's the same as the standard edition. The title change is typical of Don Wollheim's habits, though to be fair The Rebellious Stars is a fairly appropriate title (arguably more appropriate, if less poetic, than The Stars, Like Dust). Also, the original book title is given in parentheses on the cover, so book buyers weren't likely to be fooled into getting a book they already owned. The other half, An Earth Gone Mad, by Roger Dee, first appeared as "The Star Dice" in Startling Stories, November 1952, but this edition, the first and only English language book edition, may possibly be expanded. (At any rate, the copyright date is 1954, while that of The Rebellious Stars remains 1951, implying that the Dee novel had been changed.) This novel is some 54,000 words long. The cover artists are Ed Valigursky (for the Dee novel) and Harry Barton (for the Asimov novel).

Isaac Asimov was probably the SF writer I came to earliest after knowing there was such a thing as SF, and the first SF writer I read widely. (Though Clarke cannot have been far behind.) So I read much of his work quite young. I was perhaps only 12 when I read The Stars, Like Dust. I've always remembered it, if only dimly, with pleasure. Thus I've tended to bristle just a bit when I read contemporary discussions of his novels, which usually list this book as the least of his earlier, adult-marketed, novels. But now, three decades later, I've finally reread this book for the first time, and I have to say the people who denigrate it are right! It's a weak novel, quite a disappointment, to my much older sensibilities. That said, it does have some of the Asimov flavor, and while it must rank quite low in his bibliography, it's still reasonably enjoyable to read.

The story opens as Biron Farrill, the heir of the Rancher of Widemos on the planet Nephelos, is about to graduate from his university studies on Earth. He is wakened one night by a ticking which he soon determines is a bomb -- an assassination attempt. Soon Sander Jonti, a friend of his from the university reveals that his father has been arrested by the Tyranni, the harsh ruling class that controls some 50 planets near the Horsehead Nebula, including Nephelos. It seems Biron's father was involved in a resistance movement, and Jonti is as well. Jonti convinces Biron that his life is in immediate danger, and sends him to another world, Rhodia, in hopes that the Director of Rhodia, Hinrik, can intervene.

But while Biron is in transit he is arrested. The Tyranni, however, arrange for him to meet with the Director anyway, apparently believing that the weak, nearly mad, Director will turn him over again, a politically advantageous action. However Biron manages to meet the Director's beautiful daughter, Artemisia, and his cousin, Gillbret, and the two of them arrange to escape with Biron -- it seems that have been waiting to do so but have needed help from someone who can pilot a spaceship, that knowledge being forbidden in the Tyranni-ruled worlds. Fortunately Biron learned spationavigation on Earth. And they are off again, on a convoluted chase, looking for aid at a world Gillbret once visited, then looking further for a mysterious "Rebellion World". The plot takes several twists from that point -- it is all rather intricately designed -- before reaching a somewhat surprising (though dare I say rather guessable) conclusion.

What bothered me? One thing, of course, is the infamous subplot, added at Galaxy editor H. L. Gold's insistence, about a search for a document which will be the downfall of the Tyranni. Surely this document is the plans for a super weapon? No: surprise!, it's the Constitution of the United States. But that aside (and, really, that subplot is easily mentally excised -- it certainly shows signs of last minute pasting in), More annoying is some of the crude derring-do, and the way the villains and semi-villains foolishly leap into action themselves, and the way the various characters change to meet the requirements of the plot, and the incredibly intricate webs the plotters spin when very direct and obvious action would solve things ... all, really, cliches of the genre, and in many ways the sort of thing that Asimov often avoided in the Foundation stories, which after all predated this novel. There is also plenty of blithe, fingernails-scraping-on-chalk, sexism in the characterization of Artemisia. There is some standard issue Evil Overlord dialogue. And there isn't much in the way of real, meaty, SFnal ideas behind the story -- that's the sort of thing we read Asimov for, and the sort of thing he usually provides quite well, and it really isn't present here. (One might also complain about Asimov's character names -- especially the awkward modifications of contemporary names (Biron for Byron, Hinrik for Henry or Henrick, Gillbret for Gilbert, etc.) -- but that would be idle -- better to simply put up with it as a minor and almost endearing fault of the master.)

I will say that I had a slightly longer list of absurdities to complain about while reading the book, but Asimov explained several of them away quite convincingly -- and I'll add that while the plot is perhaps overcomplicated, and depends quite a lot on people acting in extremely convoluted ways, it is worked out somewhat satisfactorily in the puzzle-unraveling sense.

Roger Dee (full name Roger Dee Aycock (1914-2014)) was a reasonably prolific author of the late 40s and early 50s, working mainly for the lesser magazines of the field. He published close to 40 stories, the great bulk between 1949 and 1955, though the latest story listed in the ISFDB is from a 1971 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. What I've seen of his work was pretty routine stuff, with the occasional cute idea but no better than mediocre writing and mediocre plotting. An Earth Gone Mad is his only SF novel, though I can find evidence of some work for other genres, for example Let the Sky Fall, a "mystery of forbidden love" from 1957. (I can also find a couple of German editions -- does anyone know to what these titles refer: Das Geheimnis der W├╝rfel and Die Macht des Kyrill?)

The story opens with Paul Shannon leaving Io after having been marooned there for 2 years. (Dee's Io is apparently possessed of a breathable atmosphere and human-edible plants and animals, albeit in a generally hostile environment.) With the help of an inscrutable rocklike alien, he has repaired his crashed spaceship, and he limps back to Earth. But once on Earth, he finds that strange changes have occurred. A growing proportion of the population seems hypnotized into serenity and passiveness by the influence of some strange cubes that dropped from space -- these are the Cubists. (I don't know if Dee intended a reference to the modern art movement.) The rest of the US seems split down the middle -- the corporate oriented "Syndicate" is pro-Cubist, more or less, because the Cubists make tractable workers, while the labor unions are opposed, because Cubists are taking the jobs of ordinary workers. The government tries to toe a middle line.

Shannon's instincts are strongly anti-Cubist, especially after he encounters his fiancee, who has become a Cubist, and is horribly changed thereby. He becomes obsessed with finding a way to counteract the effects of the Cubes. But he also finds himself mysteriously pursued by several different agents -- people from the government, the unions, and the syndicate (including his Space Service employers). And he has been impersonated, with his stand in having delivered a rabid anti-Cube rant during a staged interview. Finally, he is picked up by a beautiful, fiery, young woman, Ruth Nugent, who takes him to another center of resistance to the Cubes -- this a group of scientists (including Ruth's physicist fiance) who have built a NAFAL spaceship with which they plan to flee to Procyon and set up a new colony free of the Cubes. They want Shannon's help -- but he is convinced that there way is cowardly, and that something must be done to free the Cubists from the baleful influence of the Cubes.

The rest of the novel, then, consists of lots of running around, with Shannon encountering representatives of each of the main power centers, and also exploring (with Ruth) an installation, a Peace Center, home to many Cubists. Things seem stranger and stranger -- obviously some weird conspiracy is involved. Could Shannon's old friend Gil Lucas be involved? And why do people seem to be secretly almost herding Shannon? And why is Ruth Nugent both so infuriating and so attractive? Anyway, all leads to a somewhat twisty resolution, complete with some philosophizing about the proper order of society, the place of humans in the Galaxy, etc. etc. It ends up ironically a curious pairing to an Asimov novel, not because it much resembles The Rebellious Stars, but rather because some of the ideas considered resemble ideas from much later Asimov novels like Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. All in all I don't think it a very good novel, but it's a tolerable fast-moving read, with at least a brushing against potentially interesting SFnal ideas. Not really recommend on the whole, but not without some redeeming value.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Old Bestseller: Black Rock, by Ralph Connor

Old Bestseller: Black Rock, by Ralph Connor

a review by Rich Horton

Ralph Connor was, according to the University of Winnipeg library, "the most popular and bestselling novelist of the early 20th Century". I assume by this they mean the most popular and bestselling Canadian novelist. Connor indeed enjoyed broad popularity, but his sales do not seem to have rivaled many American and British novelists. But he did sell very well, and one novel, The Doctor (1908), made Publishers' Weekly's list of the top selling novels of its year.

So -- as you can see, this entry is not only a return to my major theme in this blog, "Old Bestseller", but also to one of the subsidiary themes: Canlit! Without really meaning to, I've covered a number of Canadian authors here: Coningsby Dawson, Robertson Davies, John Buchan, Frederick Niven, Michael G. Coney, and A. E. Van Vogt. I had hoped to cover more -- and I will, soon enough -- but it has been a while.

Ralph Connor was the pseudonym of Charles William Gordon (1860-1937). Gordon was the son of a Scottish missionary to "Upper Canada" (i.e. Southern Ontario). He became a Presbyterian minister himself, later the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (the highest position in the church), and later an important figure after the Presbyterians and several other denominations in Canada merged to become the United Church of Canada. Born in Ontario, educated in Toronto and Edinburgh, Gordon went west to the Canadian frontier after ordination, serving in churches first in Banff, then for a long time in Winnipeg. His career in the church would seem to have been enough for most people: not only a significant figure within his denominations, but a major advocate for social issues, particularly labor issues. He served in France in the first World War. He had what seemed to be a happy marriage, to Helen Skinner King, and had seven children, the eldest of whom became a minister as well. (For that matter, his granddaughter, Alison Gordon, was a sportswriter (covering among other things the Toronto Blue Jays) and a mystery novelist.)

And, on top of that, he was a significant writer. He began publishing short stories of the West in the 1890s, and Black Rock, his first novel, was published in 1898. The Sky Pilot, his first major success, followed in 1899. (Four years before Kitty Hawk, one supposes "Sky Pilot" didn't mean what we would think today.) He published a total of 30 novels, many on Western themes, some about the history of Upper Canada.

My copy of the book is a a reprint, presumably from about 1908, quite small (octodecimo? (about 4"x6")), in the Knickerbocker Classics line from Hurst and Company. (Not to be confused with the contemporary Knickerbocker Classics that you see at Barnes and Noble, this was a series of inexpensive small reprints.) It is inscribed "Joe McG. Richerson, Dec. 20 1908" on the first leaf.

Black Rock, as I noted, was Connor's first novel. It opens with the narrator, named "Ralph Connor", being persuaded by his old hometown friend and college mate Leslie Graeme come to the small mining town of Black Rock, in the Selkirk mountain range in British Columbia, for Christmas of 1882. Graeme runs a lumber camp outside of town. The town is almost all miners and loggers, with very few women, and with the main menace a bar/gambling den run by a man named Mike Slavin. We soon gather that the men, most of them roughnecks but basically decent, are in thrall to drink, and many of them, having promised to save their money to send to their families, or at least to set them up with a stake on returning home, routinely waste it all on alcohol or lose it to gamblers.

The main bulwark against this is the minister, Mr. Craig, but he seems to be fighting a losing battle. Much of the novel is concerned with his attempts to form -- and make stick -- a temperance society. To this end he has one key aid -- the beautiful widow Mrs. Mavor, whose husband was a dissipated man of a good English family, sent to Canada to straighten out. Alas, just as he, after the birth of a child, had seemed to conquer his demons, he was killed in a mining accident. Mrs. Mavor has been in despair since then, living only for her child. But Mr. Craig convinces her to join his crusade, and also to resume singing for the men -- one of the few things that inspire them like drink.

And so it goes, with ups and downs. There is Christmas entertainment (Connor is roped in to give a puppet show), and a sleigh race, and some nasty stratagems to lure the men of the temperance society to drink, and a young man fighting his demons and losing, but other men coming to the Lord, and a turning point, I suppose, when bar owner Slavin is shown the consequences of his actions. There is also a romance, and some agonizing over "two calls" -- claims on the attention of both Mr. Craig and Mrs. Mavor. And in the end, as we might expect, triumph, if triumph shaded a bit by some sadness, and some growth for the likes of Connor and Graeme.

All this seems both sentimental, and moralizing, and that's all true. But it's still pretty effective, and moving at times. Part of this is two central characters who seem basically good but only half in with Craig -- the narrator, Ralph Connor, and the somewhat tormented (by a never explained issue dating to his first career as a lawyer) Leslie Graeme -- both are well depicted and believable. Part is that the writing, if not brilliant, is not bad. Mr. Craig and Mrs. Mavor are both a bit too much the paragon, but they are still likable to read about. And the Western landscape, and atmosphere, are nicely and believably depicted.

Probably not a book that will ever again have wide readership (though I believe it's still available in a POD edition), but a book whose past popularity does not surprise.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A (mostly) Forgotten Fantasy Novel: The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson

A (mostly) Forgotten Fantasy Novel: The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson

a review by Rich Horton

I would have said this novel was completely, not just mostly, forgotten, despite being by one of SF's Grand Masters, but a recent event has changed that slightly: it is a nominee for the Retro-Hugo for Best Novel to be given at this year's Worldcon. I happened across a copy of the 1964 Lancer paperback, its first book publication, at a popup used stuff shop. I thought it a curiosity, and bought it for a dollar. Then I looked at the Retro Hugo nomination list, and was surprised to see it there. Further research showed that while it languished for a long time before finding book publication, and even then was published by a pretty bottom end paperback house, it's been reasonably well-treated since then, going through several Lancer reprintings, and a nice 1979 hardcover edition from small press Phantasia Press. It's currently available from Gateway/Orion in ebook form. So I suppose not so forgotten as all that.

I will say, however, having read it, that I don't think it's all that good. And its presence on the Retro-Hugo ballot is a bit curious considering that Williamson published another fantasy (or perhaps more properly "science fantasy") novel in the same magazine (Unknown) in 1940, a much more widely remembered novel (or so it seems to me): Darker Than You Think. The problem is, somehow Darker Than You Think made the Retro Hugo ballot as a novelette! It's ineligible in that category (far too long!) so it had to be removed. I don't know how people got so confused. It's true that it appeared in a single issue of Unknown (The Reign of Wizardry was a three-part serial), but it still took up 80 or so pages. The Reign of Wizardry's three parts occupied perhaps 110 pages. It's about 55,000 words, so if Darker Than You Think is 8/11 of that, it would be right at 40,000 words, right on the novel/novella boundary. (Assuming consistent word count per page of the magazine issues, to be sure.) (It should also be noted that the more familiar version of Darker Than You Think is an expanded version first published as a book in 1948.)

Jack Williamson (1908-2006) needs little introduction to SF readers. His career began in Amazing in 1928, and he was one of the relatively few writers of the early SF magazines to transition to John Campbell's Astounding and maintain or expand his reputation. He continued writing right up until his death, winning a Hugo and Nebula for a story published in his 90s: "The Ultimate Earth". While to my eyes his career underwent significant ups and downs -- little of his work from the 50s through the 80s is of particular interest -- it's noticeable that his latest work, a series of novels and a fair amount of short fiction in the '90s and 2000s, is quite solid, often quite original, always readable and sometimes impressive. He was the second person named an SFWA Grand Master. (After Robert Heinlein, who was one year older than him, before Clifford Simak, four years older. Indeed, the fourth Grand Master, L. Sprague de Camp, was also a year older than Williamson -- somehow, my memory of him is dominated by his period as SF's eminence gris, who lived nearly a century, and so I tend to assume he was older than all the other famous SF writers. After all, he famously was not born in a U. S. state (instead he was born in Arizona territory, four years before it became a state), and he moved to New Mexico as a child in a horse-drawn covered wagon.)

Well, what about The Reign of Wizardry? It turns out to be a retelling of the story of Theseus, and of the Minotaur, though very much altered. It opens with Theseus as a pirate, called Captain Firebrand. His goal is to get to Crete and overthrow the evil wizards who rule Crete, and who also keep other states in the Mediterranean under Crete's thumb, forced to pay tribute and contribute slaves. They encounter a Cretan ship and capture it, and Theseus decides to head to Crete, against the advice of his chief sidekick, Cyron. He also captures a small-time wizard, Snish, who has the power of changing his own or anyone else's shape, though a strong touch (or especially a kiss) will return one to his own shape. Snith was originally Cyron's reward, in the form of a beautiful woman, but when revealed to be a fat little Babylonian, Cyron gladly cedes him to Theseus.

After an encounter with the Cretan navy, and its weak admiral, Snish and Theseus end up shipwrecked, with Theseus disguised as a Norseman. He escapes Talos, the robot guardian of the island, who is looking for the pirate Captain Firebrand. But Theseus' plan is to to be captured and sent to the Games, where if anyone wins they take over the kingdom from evil Minos, who has survived such challenges for a thousand years. The other prize is the hand of Minos' daughter Ariadne, the beautiful but (it seems) evil incarnation of the goddess Cybele. Besides Minos and Cybele, the evil wizard Daedalus is the main threat. Theseus witnesses Ariadne's lack of care for her subjects when she carelessly runs over a little child in her chariot, and he gains her attention in protesting this. This leads -- as he had planned -- to his capture, and then to his implausible victory in the Games -- though perhaps he won a bit too easily? And, of course, once Ariadne, now his betrothed, kisses him, his true identity as a wanted pirate will be revealed and he will be thrown into the maze of the Minotaur.

And so it goes, but Theseus has resources, including the unexpected help of Ariadne (though not with a spool of thread!).  Well, I can't go on -- it continues rather randomly, with the fraught navigation of the maze, a surprising revelation about the true nature of the minotaur, some back and forth with Ariadne, more revelations about her identity, and that of her father, mother, and Daedalus. Oh, and a peoples' revolution.

I found it too silly and slapdash to tolerate. The action is never believable -- things are generally too easy for Theseus. Snish is sometimes an enjoyable enough slimy sidekick, I suppose. Ariadne, as combined love interest/villainess, is never plausible. Minos is quite strangely portrayed, to no good result, really. A very weak novel, I thought.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Retro-Hugo Votes

I didn't have any detailed analysis done for the Retro-Hugos this year, but I did vote (I have read them all -- all the short fiction, that is) ... Here's how I voted:

Best Novella

    Rank        ----------------------------
    2        Coventry by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1940)
    4        If This Goes On... by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Feb 1940)
    3        Magic, Inc. by by Robert A. Heinlein (Unknown, Sept 1940)
    1        The Mathematics of Magic by by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, Aug 1940)
    5        The Roaring Trumpet by by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, May 1940)
Comments: I liked The Incomplete Enchanter quite a bit, so I voted the better half of it first. Then I figured I'd list the three Heinlein stories ... I could have put them in just about any order. And the rest of The Incomplete Enchanter went last.

Best Novelette

    Rank        ----------------------------
    2        Blowups Happen by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Sept 1940)
    No Vote        XX Darker Than You Think XX by by Jack Williamson (XX - NOT ELIGIBLE)
    3        Farewell to the Master by by Harry Bates (Astounding Science-Fiction, Oct 1940)
    5        It! by by Theodore Sturgeon (Unknown, Aug 1940)
    1        The Roads Must Roll by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1940)
    4        Vault of the Beast by by A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1940)
I've never really liked Sturgeon's "It" that much, so it went last. I could have voted the Heinleins in either order I guess, I went with the one that had the more immediate impact on me when I first read it, though that might only have been because I read it earlier, in The SF Hall of Fame.

This does illuminate a problem with the Retro Hugos -- the nominators somehow placed Jack Williamson's "Darker Than You Think" -- which I think of as a novel, but might be short enough to qualify as a novella -- in the novelette category. It actually would have been a much better Novel nomination than Williamson's all but forgotten, and not all that good, The Reign of Wizardry.

Best Short Story

    Rank        ----------------------------
    4        Martian Quest by by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science-Fiction, Feb 1940)
    2        Requiem by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Jan 1940)
    5        Robbie by by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940)
    3        The Stellar Legion by by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940)
    1        Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940)

This one was easy: "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a great great story, one of the greatest SF stories of all time. Of course, it wouldn't have been nominated in 1940, if only because it wasn't translated into English until much later.

I listed the Heinlein (which will almost certainly win) second, and the two Brackett stories next. They are, I think, her first two stories, and they are good enough, I suppose, thought not close to as good as her later work. I've never much liked "Robbie" -- it is remembered, I think, only because it's Asimov's first Robot story.

I think it rather likely that Heinlein will sweep the short fiction categories.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Lesser Known Donald Westlake Novel: The Spy in the Ointment

A Minor Westlake Novel: The Spy in the Ointment, by Donald Westlake

a review by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was a very prolific writer, mostly of crime fiction. I am a huge fan of his comic crime novels about the thief John Dortmunder, which began with The Hot Rock (1970). His other famous series character was the thief Parker, who appeared in a great many decidedly non-comic novels, published as by "Richard Stark". Several movies have been made of books from both of those series, as well as a few other Westlake books. Westlake himself wrote screenplays, winning an Edgar for the one for The Grifters, an excellent movie based on a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake won two other Edgars, for his short story "Too Many Crooks" and for his 1967 novel God Save the Mark.

Westlake wrote in other genres -- his first several novels were pseudonymous porn; and early in his career he wrote a fair amount of science fiction. He had run-ins with Analog editor John W. Campbell, and he left the field in the early '60s, publishing an angry denunciation in the fanzine Xero.

The Westlake novel directly preceding his first Edgar winner was the novel at hand, The Spy in the Ointment. I don't have any idea of its reception, though he had already made something of a name for himself, with the early Parker novels (alas, the name he had made for himself in that case wasn't his own!), and with novels like The Busy Body. But I don't get the sense that The Spy in the Ointment is that well remembered. And more or less I'd endorse that -- while I was entertained by the book I wasn't thrilled by it. It's mostly a comic novel, and reasonably funny, but not even close to as funny as the Dortmunder novels. And its plot never really convinced me.

It's told by J. Eugene Raxford, Chairman of the Citizens' Independence Union, a tiny group which advocates pacifism. Gene is 32, not making a lot of money, his organization fairly hapless. Though he does have a very beautiful and very rich girlfriend, Angela. As the story opens he is battling a recalcitrant mimeograph machine when he is visited by Mortimer Eustaly, a slightly sinister appearing man who invites him to join forces with his group, which is in fact an amalgamation of terrorist groups, each with radically different viewpoints (some crazy leftists, some crazy right wingers, some just crazy). Eustaly thinks that even though they have different views, they can agree on certain violent actions best performed with more resources. The problem is, Gene's group is pacifistic, not terroristic. But Eustaly won't take no for an answer, and it becomes clear, especially when the FBI gets somewhat incompetently involved, that the best course is for Gene to play along.

Angela insists on accompanying to the meeting. She's a pacifist rebelling against her father's wealth (built on munitions) -- it turns out her brother is also rebelling against their father's views, but he's a violent psychopath, last seen in North Korea. So guess who turns up at the meeting? Gene and Angela flee in terror after her brother (Tyrone) sees her; and they end up in the arms of a mysterious government organization, which decides Gene should pretend to have murdered Angela, who will go into hiding, and then rejoin the amalgamated terrorists ...

And so it goes, with Raxford undergoing a brief course in using violence, and getting properly equipped with various weapons, and indeed he gets back in good with the bad guys, and soon is well on his way to collaborating with their nefarious plot, which begins with blowing up the UN building. Alas, the special equipment he's been giving proves useless, and he is forced to use his wits and even, perhaps -- if he can bring himself to it -- violence.

It's enjoyable enough, but not as good as my favorite Westlake novels. There are certainly some funny bits (I liked the letter system for naming all the Federal agents he meets, and the initial meeting of all the various terrorist groups was pretty funny). But the plot ends up not really convincing -- the intricate twists of the Dortmunder capers aren't really duplicated here. And though it's comic enough it spots, it's not as laugh out loud funny as other Westlake. Decent early career work, I suppose.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Another Ace Double: The Man With Nine Lives/A Touch of Infinity by Harlan Ellison

Ace Double Reviews, 63: The Man With Nine Lives, by Harlan Ellison/A Touch of Infinity, by Harlan Ellison (#D-413, 1960, $0.35)

Not quite ready for my next Old Bestseller, so let's dip into my backlog of Ace Double reviews with one by a really major writer. I wrote this some years ago, so some comments are slightly out of date, and I'll note where they've changed.

The only SFWA Grand Master who wrote an Ace Double that I haven't yet covered in this series of reviews in A. E. Van Vogt. I'll get to him -- but not yet. Now I'm dealing with a writer who is not yet a Grand Master, but who will surely be one soon. [And indeed, Ellison was named a Grand Master in 2006. Gene Wolfe made it in 2013 (much much later than he deserved) and Michael Moorcock in 2008.]

I admit I was shocked that Anne McCaffrey was named a Grand Master this year [2005 -- the year before Ellison was named] before such obviously superior choices as Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and the subject of this review: Harlan Ellison. (Ellison, it might be noted, was a pivotal figure in securing Van Vogt's recognition as a Grand Master.)

This book pairs his first story collection with one of the very few novels Ellison has written. His first novel was non-SF, Web of the City (1958), based on his experiences after joining a street gang. So The Man With Nine Lives is his first SF novel, and arguably his only one. (I have the perhaps mistaken impression that Spider Kiss (1961) is not SF. Doomsman (1967) was so bad that he destroyed copies of it for a while -- and as it was a Belmont Double it may not have been novel length [indeed it is not novel length]. And that's it for book-length SF from Ellison by himself!) The Man With Nine Lives is about 44,000 words long, and it is expanded from a shorter story, "The Sound of a Scythe", with another story, "Assassin!", also included.

My basic reaction to The Man With Nine Lives is that it reads like a drastically padded novella. So I suspect (not having read it) that "The Sound of a Scythe" might be a decent (though far from great) story. [I eventually did read "The Sound of a Scythe" and it is indeed a decent novella.] But the novel isn't very good.

Cal Emory is a desperate man. As the novel opens, he is trying to kill Paul Lederman, but Lederman has the jump on him. Through flashbacks we learn why.

It seems that Emory and Lederman were college roommates. But Lederman, son of a rich man, stole Emory's girlfriend, married her and then drove her to suicide, then engineered a cheating scandal that was blamed on Emory, getting him expelled. Lederman then hired Emory at his company (his father having died), supposedly out of charity. Emory finally figures out the truth and decides to kill Lederman.

However, he decides, unconvincingly, that he first must find a man named Patooch, apparently the ONLY person in the universe who can surgically alter him so that Lederman will not be able to find him. It turns out that the uber-villain Lederman has arranged for Patooch to be sent to "deepsleep", this future's replacement for prison. So Emory agrees to serve half of Patooch's sentence. Then we learn what "deepsleep" is -- which is a cute but silly idea. The computer that rules Earth and its colonies uses the minds of convicted felons, whose bodies are frozen, to be telepathically projected into aliens in order to prepare the Galaxy for future human advancement. Thus, Emory is sent to several different "alien" bodies to do various things to help Earth's future -- things like influence an alien species to exterminate a plant that will be poisonous to humans when they eventually encounter the planet. One of these episodes is the story "Assassin!" (Science Fiction Adventures, February 1957), retitled here "Travelogues Two: In Delpheron's Armada". This story has essentially no reason to be included in the novel: it is completely independent (and a tolerable story though no more than that, about a man sent to kill a sort of Genghis Khan of Space, complete with a nice ironic ending but not much interest until that point). The other travelogues make more sense, and the concluding one actually holds the seeds for the novel's ending. Which is OK, nicely enough set up and if not convincing at least acceptable on the terms of the story.

The story collection, A Touch of Infinity, gathers six early stories, a novelette and 5 shorts, totally about 40,000 wordss. I'll cover them one by one.

"Run for the Stars" (Science Fiction Adventures, June 1958, 14000 words)

The alien Kyben have made a breakthrough into human space and have overrun Deald's World. The resistance needs to escape to warn Earth, and their only hope is to plant a "Sun Bomb" inside a man who will run from the Kyben long enough to give the others a chance to get away. Yeah, that didn't make much sense to me, either. Another important point is that they choose a drug-addicted loser, on the grounds that he's such a coward he'll keep running, and keep the Kyben chasing him. The story really turns on a nasty closing twist, which is OK but doesn't really seem to justify 14,000 words.

"Back to the Drawing Boards" (Fantastic Universe, August 1958, 5900 words)

An inventor creates an intelligent robot, which is taken by the government for use in testing a starship. The bitter inventor makes a slight modification to the robot, causing it to make a certain demand on his return from the stars. The gimmick is incredibly lame, and a pretty old idea, and I don't believe in the results of it anyway! A pretty weak effort.

"Life Hutch" (If, April 1956, 4500 words)

Ellison's second sale. A decent piece. Another Kyben story, though it needn't have been. A space pilot is marooned in a Life Hutch on an asteroid. He needs to activate the distress beacon, but the controlling AI has gone mad and attacks anything that moves. The puzzle is -- how can the guy move to activate the distress beacon. The solution is OK. The setup is awfully damn strained, however.

"The Sky is Burning" (If, August 1958, 3400 words)

Ellison calls this a change of pace story. Maybe. One night astronomers detect hundreds of objects burning up in the atmosphere. They manage to intercept one, which turns out to be a majestic alien creature. The creature communicates telepathically, and a few sensitives hear its message. Which causes them to commit suicide. I wasn't convinced by the reason.

"Final Trophy" (Super Science Fiction, June 1957, 5400 words)

A great hunter goes to an alien planet and witnesses a strange "hunt" in which the aliens seem to give themselves up to the prey. He decides he needs to hunt this animal, show the aliens that he's stronger. With predictable results. Actually, the story is well-framed, around a grand trophy, the hunter's "final trophy", the nature of which is easily guessed, but still works OK. I wasn't fully convinced by the explanation, but still I thought the story OK.

"Blind Lightning" (Fantastic Universe, June 1956, 6500 words)

Another very early story, Ellison's third or fourth to be published. A tortured scientist is exploring an alien world and gets captured by a native. The native is intelligent, but wants to eat him. The scientist could kill the native, but wants to find a better solution, and eventually he does, finding redemption of a sort in so doing. Not bad minor work.

On the whole, this is a pretty negligible set of stories -- as the novel The Man With Nine Lives is also negligible. It is possible to detect the seeds of Ellison's mature style -- these stories are certainly fairly flamboyant, and generally deal with desperate characters. It's worth noting that Ellison was extremely prolific in the lower end SF magazines through about 1959, then fell silent for three years (though I believe he was working in other genres and in TV), resuming at a slower rate of production with much better stories, including award winners like "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman". In one way his career could be compared to those of Brunner and Silverberg -- writers who produced competent work at a frenetic pace through the mid to late 50s (or into the mid-60s in Brunner's case), then slowed down and began doing far better work in the mid-60s. However, it seems to me that Ellison's early work was less accomplished than that of either Silverberg or Brunner. It's really seems to me that the Ellison of the mid-60s, say from "Repent Harlequin" on, is an almost completely different, and enormously better, writer than the early Ellison. As I've said, you can see seeds of the later Ellison in the early stuff, but only seeds, only hints. This early work is slapdash, scientifically absurd, careless, pulpish, and the prose may try hard but fails to have much impact.