Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hugo Nomination Thoughts, Short Fiction: Novellas

Hugo Nomination Thoughts, Short Fiction

It’s that time again, right?

Here’s my thoughts on my Hugo ballot for short fiction. In another post I’ll discuss – less comprehensively – the other categories. As usual, I’m better informed about short fiction than anything else.

I should mention going in that there have been some significant changes to the Hugos. There is a new Hugo Category, for Best Series. (I don’t like the idea much, but I’ll play along.) There is a new non-Hugo, for Best Young Adult Book. There are changes to the voting process: now there will be 6 nominees instead of 5 (though each nominator still just votes for 5), and the 5% rule (that each story on the final ballot must appear on 5% of the nominating ballots) has been eliminated. And the EPH process for counting the final votes has been approved. I won’t try to explain that – there are much clearer explanations than I could offer readily available.

One more note to begin with – though I participate with a lot of enjoyment in Hugo nomination and voting every year, I am philosophically convinced that there is no such thing as the “best” story – “best” piece of art, period. This doesn’t mean I don’t think some art is better than other art – I absolutely do think that. But I think that at the top, there is no way to draw fine distinctions, to insist on rankings. Different stories do different things, all worthwhile. I can readily change my own mind about which stories I prefer – it might depend on how important to me that “thing” they do is (and of course most stories do multiple different things!) – it might depend on my mood that day – it might depend on something new I’ve read that makes me think differently about a certain subject. Bottom line is, in the lists below, I’ll suggest somewhere between 5 and 8 or so stories that might be on my final ballot. Those will be in no particular order. And the other stories I list will all really be about as good – and I might change my mind before my ballot goes in.

The other obvious point to make is that the great bulk of these stories are those that I included in my yearly anthology. There are a few that didn’t make it, for reasons of length, contractual situation, balance, or even that I might have missed a story by the deadline for the book.

“The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe”, by Kij Johnson (Tor.com Books)
“The Vanishing Kind”, by Lavie Tidhar (F&SF, July/August)
“Lazy Dog Out”, by Suzanne Palmer (Asimov’s, April/May)
“Maggots”, by Nina Allan (Five Stories High)
Penric’s Mission, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
Technologies of the Self, by Haris A. Durani (Brain Mill Books)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Books)

In this category, there are only two stories included in my book – that’s always the way, with novellas – they take up so much space that I can only fit a couple per year. The top five stories listed will almost certainly be on my Hugo nomination ballot. That said, there are a few significant novellas I have not yet read, so there is some room for change.  But to quickly cover my putative nominees:
“The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” is a truly lovely story, taking its inspiration and setting from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but more importantly, written as well as the work of the writer Lovecraft was under the influence of when he wrote his story: Lord Dunsany. The title character is a professor at a women’s college who must chase after a student who has foolishly run away with a man from our world.

“The Vanishing Kind” is dark noir set in an alternate England, under the sway of a Nazi government, having lost World War II. A German screenwriter comes to London partly in pursuit of an actress who had briefly been his lover, only to find her involved in some very scary things – drugs, sex-trafficking, murder – not to mention hidden Jews.

“Lazy Dog Out” is traditional SF adventure, and lots of fun, about a space tug pilot on a moon of a colony planet, who gets stuck in the middle of a nasty plot involving framing some unfortunates for the murder of some visiting aliens.

“Maggots” is a long story about a young man from the North of England who becomes convinced that his Aunt, after a mysterious disappearance and reappearance, has been replaced by something alien. This ends up messing up his relationship with his girlfriend, and he ends up in London, tracking down hints of other people who’ve had similar experiences as his – which leads him to a spooky house where he encounters something really scary, as well as learning a lot about his Aunt that he hadn’t known.

And finally, Penric’s Mission is my favorite so far of Bujold’s three self-published novellas set in her World of the Five Gods. Penric is a young man who in the first story became the host to a demon (that he calls “Desdemona”), which makes him a sorcerer. In this story he travels to another country to try to recruit a popular General for the Duke he’s working for, and ends up enmeshed in local politics, with the General blinded, and Penric trying to help, and falling for the General’s widowed sister in the process. Fun stuff, with some interesting magic.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Old Bestseller: By the Good Sainte Anne, by Anna Chapin Ray

Old Bestseller: By the Good Sainte Anne, by Anna Chapin Ray

a review by Rich Horton

This book was not a major bestseller, but the author seems to have been somewhat popular in her day (the turn of the 20th Century, pretty much). Some of her books were explicitly aimed at young readers, with titles like Dick: A Story for Boys and Girls, and Teddy: Her Book: A Story of Sweet Sixteen. By the Good Sainte Anne, however, is for adult readers.

Anna Chapin Ray (1865-1945) was an American author, born in Massachusetts. As an adult, she spent summers in the US and winters (!) in Quebec, and a number of her books, including the book at hand, are set in Canada. She never married (Chapin is her middle name, and her mother's maiden name.) She was one of the first women to take the entrance exam at Yale, but she attended Smith College, earning a B.A. and an M. A., after which she turned to writing. She was close to her brother, Nathaniel Chapin Ray, an engineer, and some of her books involved engineering subjects, notably The Bridge Builders, about the collapse of a bridge on the St. Lawrence, modeled after an actual 1908 disaster. She often used the pseudonym Sidney Howard (called a male pseudonym in a source I saw, but as one of her books was called Sidney: Her Summer on the St. Lawrence, it's clear that (then as now) Sidney could be a woman's name, and that Ray would use it as such).

(cover by Alice Barber Stephens(?))

The illustrator of this book (just the frontispiece (and possibly the cover)) is not explicitly credited, but I was able to decipher the signature: Alice Barber Stephens. Alice Barber was born in 1858, and was an academically trained artist, studying under two of the great 19th Century American artists, Thomas Eakins and Howard Pyle (himself a famous illustrator, of course). She married a fellow artist, Charles Stephens, in 1890. Their one son, Owen, also became an illustrator. Alice Barber Stephens was a very well known artist in her time, known for illustrating a 1903 edition of Little Women. She died in 1932.

By the Good Sainte Anne is subtitled "A Story of Modern Quebec", and between that and the fact that the author spent her winters in Canada this qualifies, I think, as another example of Canlit, one of this blog's minor subthemes. My copy appears to possibly be a first edition, from Little, Brown, in 1904. It is inscribed "Helen C. Miller 620 Stewart Rd.".

The novel opens with the heroine, 19 year old Nancy Howard, reading a letter from a friend from New York, and feeling homesick. Her father is a doctor (her mother is dead), and they are spending a few weeks in Quebec, as Dr. Howard studies the evidence of miraculous cures at the Cathedral of Sainte Anne-de-Beaupré. They are currently in the town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, on the St. Lawrence some 20 or so miles from Quebec City. The Cathedral is in fact a real cathedral, dedicated to Sainte Anne (the mother of Mary, and the patron Saint of Quebec), and it is famous for miraculous cures, and to this day there are pilgrimages to it. (Much is made, later, of the notion that Nancy shares her name with the Saint, reminding me that in fact the given name Nancy was originally a nickname for Anne.)

(illustration by Alice Barber Stephens)
Nancy, on a whim, goes into town to see the current pilgrimage, though as a Protestant, she doesn't believe in miracles. At the same time, a young Englishman, Cecil Barth, has come from Quebec City to the cathedral, likewise as more of a tourist than a pilgrim. By mischance, on leaving the cathedral he falls and severely sprains his ankle, losing his eyeglasses in the process. Nancy jumps to help, and ends up volunteering her father's services to treat the ankle. And when no nurse can be found, Nancy spends the next week or so nursing Mr. Barth -- who proceeds to gravely insult her by tipping her! When he is well enough, he returns to the big city, where he is staying temporarily before moving to the West of Canada to become a rancher. Cecil is a shy young man, and his manners are very English and very stiff, and so he has not managed to make any friends, in particular antagonizing two other young men, an English Canadian named Reginald Brock and a French Canadian named Adolphe St. Jacques. (Much is made in the book of the contrast between the much easier manners of the three "colonials" (Nancy the American, Brock the Canadian, St. Jacques the French-Canadian), which are different to each other but somehow more mutually simpatico than the "Old Country" English ways of Cecil Barth.)

Soon Nancy and her father are in Quebec City as well, as her father's researches take him to Laval University (where both Brock and St. Jacques are studying). They stay at the same place as those two men, and while Cecil Barth is staying at a much nicer residence, he takes his meals there as well. (The place is run by a wise and kindly woman they call The Lady.) Nancy is shocked when Barth snubs her completely at dinner -- she does not realize that he doesn't recognize her at all (because he never truly saw her, due to his extreme nearsightedness and the loss of his eyeglasses. And, no, I didn't buy that either!) Soon Nancy and the other two young men are fast friends, while Cecil is enchanted by this pretty young American and puzzled when she seems very cold to him.

Well, you can see where this is going. What seems a love quadrangle becomes a triangle when it is clear that Reginald Brock wishes only to be a good friend to Nancy (he will soon be engaged to a woman from home). Nancy and St. Jacques are becoming very close, even as Nancy finally gets to know Cecil, and to understand the reasons for his prickly ways, and to forgive him for his failure to recognize her (not to mention the insult of the tip -- he had thought she was a hired nurse). In between the romance aspects of the plot we get a bit of a tourist guide to Quebec City circa 1903 or so. And it seems Nancy is really torn -- she is very fond of both Cecil and St. Jacques. St. Jacques' Catholicism is a bit of a problem for her -- and also the fact that both of them intend to stay in Canada is an issue, for Nancy is an American through and through.

After this setup, the resolution to Nancy's problem comes as rather a convenient -- if wrenching -- cheat, as a tragedy resolves the entire question. The problem of her eventual residence is too easily solved as well. But despite that disappointment, and despite the silly inital plot device involving Cecil Barth's failure to recognize a woman he has spent a week with on fairly intimate terms, I quite enjoyed this book. It's slight, of course (and fairly short), but that's OK. It's sweetly told, and the characters (all of whom are basically good people) are likable. The details of the setting are well realized, and the book bounces along breezily enough.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster

Old Bestseller: The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster

a review by Rich Horton

Of course it is silly to list this book as a bestseller. And indeed, even Forster's best known novels, A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924), while they likely sold well enough, do not appear on the online bestseller lists I can find. But certainly Forster remains one of the major and best remembered 20th Century novelists (in part because he has been widely adapted, and somewhat recently, to film), despite a curiously short career.

Forster was born on the first day of 1879, and died age 91 in 1970. An aunt left him a significant legacy when he was 8, enough that he would never have to work for a living. He attended Cambridge, and subsequently traveled widely, mostly with his mother, with whom he lived until her death. (Forster was, of course, homosexual, and had a long time relationship with a married policeman.) He was a conscientious objector, and worked for the Red Cross during the First World War. He published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905, and three more novels appeared by 1910. A Passage to India, his last novel to appear in his lifetime came 14 years later, and Maurice (written before the first War) was only issued posthumously (presumably because of its homosexual theme). That means that he wrote essentially no fiction for the last half of his life. He did write criticism, and was a successful broadcaster.

The Collected Tales comprises two previously published short collections: The Celestial Omnibus (1911) and The Eternal Moment (1928). The omnibus edition seems to date to 1947 from Knopf. My edition is a 1968 Modern Library reprint. According to Forster's 1946 introduction to the collected edition, they were all written before World War I. Presumably most were published in magazines, and I have indicated the first place of publication where I could find it. Forster writes that they "represent all I have accomplished in a particular line"; and it's fairly clear that the line he means is, basically, Fantasy. All the stories are fantastical save the title story of the second book, "The Eternal Moment". (One of them, of course, the most famous, "The Machine Stops", is Science Fiction.)

The stories are:

The Celestial Omnibus:
"The Story of a Panic" (8400 words)
"The Other Side of the Hedge" (2200 words)
"The Celestial Omnibus" (6000 words) (Albany Review, January 1908)
"Other Kingdom" (6600 words)
"The Curate's Friend" (2800 words) (The Pall Mall Magazine, October 1907)
"The Road from Colonus" (4400 words)

The Eternal Moment:
"The Machine Stops" (12,800 words) (The Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909)
"The Point of It" (6200 words)
"Mr. Andrews" (1700 words)
"Co-Ordination" (2600 words)
"The Story of the Siren" (3000 words) (The Atlantic Monthly, October 1923 (possibly published elsewhere earlier))
"The Eternal Moment" (11,800 words)

I'll touch on each story at least briefly. First, from The Celestial Omnibus: "The Story of a Panic" concerns a boy named Eustace, who is quite as repellent as Eustace Scrubb at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has an encounter with an elemental -- evidently Pan -- and is utterly change. "The Other Side of the Hedge" is one of several quite allegorical -- or, perhaps I should say, overtly metaphorical -- stories about conventional life vs freer-thinking life, in this case cleverly portraying ordinary life as a constant walk along a path -- as oppose to life on the other side of the hedge bordering the path. "The Celestial Omnibus" is another story like that, about a boy who finds and take a curious bus that says it goes "To Heaven". He takes the trip and is enchanted -- but is not believed, especially by a rational and well-educated family friend who ends up agreeing to also take the bus -- with unfortunate results. "Other Kingdom" concerns a rich man who marries a beautiful woman of the lower classes, and proves unable to understand her more authentic responses to natural beauty. "The Curate's Friend" is an interesting case -- a young curate is on a picnic with his intended, Emily, who, we are told, eventually was an estimable wife. But on this picnic he encounters a Faun -- and somehow he can't forgot the Faun, whom only he can see, and who promises to make him happy. In the end Emily leaves him for an artistic young man, while the curate never marries, and remains "friends" with the Faun, whom he must always keep secret from his congregations. Even without knowing Forster's sexuality, what's going on here seems pretty obvious -- this is the story of a young churchman confused about his sexuality, finally released when he falls for a young man, who remains his "friend", but concealed, throughout his long career as a "lifelong bachelor". Finally, "The Road to Colonus" is about an old man visiting Greece, who suddenly finds an inn and its people who seems wonderful to him -- but his family won't let him stay, and he returns to England, to learn of the strange fate of the inn ... and to continue to regret.

The Eternal Moment opens with "The Machine Stops", the longest and by far the most famous story here. This is set in a future where people live isolated in explicitly beehive-like cells, all their needs provided by "the Machine", communicating with other people only electronically (except for distasteful meetings to procreate), almost never travelling. Vashti is a woman wholly of her time, but her son Kuno is something of a rebel. He insists that she come to visit him (very unusual), and she hears of his disturbing trip to the surface -- now, it seems, uninhabitable -- but alluring to him. The story continues as people begin to treat the Machine as a God even as it is decaying, and by the end this Machine-driven civilisation is collapsing, the only hope remaining being those "homeless" who have recolonized the surface. This is quite interesting and more fully realized than most of the rest of these stories.

"The Point of It" is another of Forster's diatribes against conventionality -- a superficially successful man dies and goes to what he hopes is Heaven only to realize that he is in Hell, a Hell reserved for those who took the easy way with every controversy. "Mr. Andrews" is yet another story about the afterlife, with the title character, a worthy and conventional Englishman, dying and going to Heaven, on the way meeting a brawling Turk -- both are saved when they beseech the guardian of Heaven to let the other in -- and their salvation, in the end, is to escape Heaven. "Co-Ordination" is a bit different -- a satire of then "Modern" education, wherein a middle-aged piano teacher is freed from her frustrating job even as, in the afterlife, both Beethoven and Napoleon try to intervene. "The Story of the Siren" is another piece about a visitor to the Mediterranean encountering a supernatural being -- though in this case it's really about the danger of actually meeting a Siren, as happened to a local man the visitor hears of. And the book closes with another long story, and the only non-fantastical piece in the whole book, "The Eternal Moment". Miss Raby, a middle-aged novelist, is visiting a town on the border of Italy and Switzerland that had been the subject of her first, very successful, novel. She finds to her horror that the fame bestowed on the town by her novel has caused it to change -- tourism has made it much richer, and coarser. Worst of all is her encounter with a local man who had propositioned her on her first visit -- now he is a corrupt -- and fat -- concierge at the largest hotel, and he has forgotten her entirely. None of this is helpful for her relationship with the respectably retired General she had been thinking of marrying. It's a pretty fine story -- unlike the other stories it reads like the germ of a Forster novel that he decided (correctly, I'm sure) only needed 12,000 or so words to tell. The themes here -- class and honesty in personal relationships -- seem more closely allied with the themes of Forster's novels.

Except for this last story, Forster seems to have regarded the short form as a vehicle for the somewhat didactic presentation of ideas, using fantastical tropes metaphorically to carry the burden of his, well, lectures. Sometimes these are intriguing, sometimes a bit forced, even a bit trite. I tend to think his real strength is realized in his novels -- even as I confess guiltily that I haven't read any of them. (Though A Room With a View, at any rate is in my TBR pile, though that pile is intimidatingly high.)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

A Little Known SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

a review by Rich Horton

Not long ago I read a Raymond Z. Gallun story from the early '50s, and found it better than I had expected. So when I saw this obscure 1961 paperback for cheap, I figured I might as well give it a try. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the early '40s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. After 1954, only a few novels came out until the '80s, when a few short stories (possibly written much earlier) appeared. His last novel was Bioblast (1985). The Science Fiction Encyclopedia suggests The Eden Cycle (1974) may be his best -- The Planet Strappers is dismissed as "more routine". Ah well.

The book opens in purest YA hard SF mode, with a group of college-age kids trying to make their way into space. It seems that most of the trick is to acquire a space bubble, or "bubb", which is what it sounds like -- not much bigger than person-sized, a bubble based on a super-plastic, with plenty of air production capacity, in which someone can survive for a pretty significant time in empty space. The group includes a diverse(-ish) mix -- one woman, a rich kid, a handicapped kid, a couple of football star twins, a delinquent, a couple more, plus the eventual viewpoint character, Frank Nelsen, the straight-arrow honest type. This first part goes on for 50 pages or so, pretty effectively, as the "bunch" (their name) navigates such issues as making the "bubbs", learning how to use them, passing the required space fitness tests, raising the needed money, and so on. The girl member drops out, realizing the the regular Space organization is desperate for women, and another guy washes out for lack of psychological fitness, and one member has to deal with his mother who won't let him go.

Finally they head into space, and things get a bit stranger from that point. Frank ends up in a terrible situation on the Moon with a murderous fraud. One of the dropouts ends up a stowaway, causing even more trouble. Eileen, the girl member of the Bunch, becomes fairly successful, as what seems to be a Madam, though the book is too YA-oriented to go into detail about that.

The book continues, becoming something of a travelogue through the Solar System. Frank's goal ends up to be establishment of a free space-based set of habitats, based on the "bubbs", and in the end to make a home that the girl back home he's sweet on can come to. But he must deal with a lot of problems on the way there, most importantly the issue of space pirates ... a group which seems to include the one washout from the original "Bunch" who had stowed away. One of the other members becomes a legendary explorer, eventually heading to the Outer Planets solo in a bubble. There are deaths among the bunch, and failures, but by the end we see a portrait of the establishment of a new frontier.

This is a real mixed bag. To be honest, a lot of the scientific details are pretty ridiculous -- though perhaps not by the standards of 1961. The plot is kind of random, kind of disorganized, after a decent start. The characters are pure cliche. But for all that, I liked a lot of it, though parts of it were kind of boring, or too silly to follow. It's easy to see why this novel is essentially forgotten -- but it's also easy to see why Gallun, for all his shortcomings as a writer, remained able to sell his work for a pretty long time.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A little-known Ace Double: Time Thieves, by Dean R. Koontz/Against Arcturus, by Susan K. Putney

Ace Double Reviews, 101: Time Thieves, by Dean R. Koontz/Against Arcturus, by Susan K. Putney (#00990, 1972, 95 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the latest Ace Doubles, appearing about a year before the program ended. Don Wollheim and Terry Carr had both left Ace a year earlier. Fred Pohl was editor until June 1972, about when Time Thieves/Against Arcturus appeared, so presumably he acquired these novels.

(cover by David Plourde)
This book pairs an early novel by a writer who has since built a pretty major career with the only novel by a very obscure writer. Both novels have aspects of interest but are fairly flawed. The copy-editing is noticeably poor (especially in the Koontz novel): while Ace's editing and production standard had never been great, I did feel this was worse than in preceding years, and I wonder if the company's turmoil at the time was a factor (Ace had just been acquired by Grosset and Dunlap).

(Cover by Mart?)
One other production mishap, I'm pretty certain, involves the covers. They seem to have been switched. That is, while neither cover illustration is particularly representative of a scene in either novel, the one for Time Thieves seems to fit Against Arcturus reasonably well (hot human spy, large humanoid aliens, spaceships with laser-type weapons); while the one for Against Arcturus could, at a bit of a stretch, work for Time Thieves. (The art could, I suppose, have been random stuff that was just slapped on the books.) The artists are hard to figure out: the cover for Time Thieves is signed Plourde, apparently David Plourde. The other sided is signed Mart, I suspected possibly truncated from Martin. I don't know who that could be, and for that matter I know nothing about David Plourde.

Time Thieves was a fairly early Dean Koontz novel, his first (Star Quest) having appeared in 1968. He worked steadily in a number of genres for the first decade or so of his career, under numerous pseudonyms, before hitting it big with such novels as Whispers, in 1980. Most of his work since then has been suspense thrillers, many of them bestsellers.

Time Thieves opens with Pete Mullion waking from a strange dream while sitting in his car in his garage. He assumes he has just driven home from his cabin in the woods, and he goes into the house, and realizes he doesn't remember anything for some undetermined time. And then his wife comes in and yells at him for abandoning her for 12 days.

He begins to try to tackle the mystery -- asking the police what's going on, going back to the cabin, visiting a motel he apparently stayed at. There is another period of amnesia, and sighting of mysterious people. Eventually he directly encounters one of the strange people -- who turns out to be a robot.

Pete and his wife are deep in the mystery by now. Pete begins to realize he is developing telepathic abilities. And the robots keep insisting that he give himself up -- for his own good. Also, they sinisterly promise not to hurt him. And his telepathic ability allows him to sense the minds of the robots -- and to realize they are controlled by another mind, apparently belonging to an alien.

The novel resolves with a chase scene or two, a kidnapping, and then finally a talk between Pete and the aliens, whereby their true motives are revealed. And Pete makes his own decision ...

The book is well-told at the plot level -- it moves quickly, holds the interest, has some interesting ideas. I thought the resolution -- the aliens' motivations -- a bit lame. And the prose is inconsistent at best -- there are some real howlers. (Some of this may be laid at the hands of Ace's terrible copyediting.)

Against Arcturus is a stranger book. We begin on the planet Berbidron. A couple of natives (who call themselves Sarbr) see an Earth ship landing, and when they approach, they get shot. Those two leave, and a few more aliens investigate (including one called intriguingly "Arlem the Actor (soon to be Arlem the Traitor)". They instantly learn the human language (Latin), and quickly agree with the human proposal that they become civilized. Within 5 years they have built several cities, and have become involved in a dispute over the control of their planet: the first visitors were from the Earth-New Eden Alliance, but it has been taken over by the apparently more authoritarian human colony of one of Arcturus' planets.

This first section is told in an engaging fashion, resembling to a small degree writers like Ursula Le Guin and Eleanor Arnason, using journals, giving hints of the Sarbr society. It seems we are on the route to, perhaps, an anthropological bit of SF, where the human invaders will eventually get their comeuppance as they (and we, the readers) learn the true nature of the Sarbr. And, in a way, that's what happens. But we get there in a different way. And much of the aim of the book seems somewhat satirical -- making fun of human civilization partly by having the Sarbr who happen to be interested in it playact a version of it.

Most of the rest of the story is told by Beth Goodrich, a woman from New Eden who is recruited, somewhat despite her misgivings, to come to Berbidron and try to foment a rebellion against the Arcturans, who now control the cities on Berbidron. Beth, apparently, has experience at this -- she has spent time protesting the government on New Eden. She also has a vaguely telepathic/empathic ability (which she calls sympathy) -- she can understand the thoughts and feelings of humans, and even animals (such as her pet squirrels) and, it turns out, trees. But not the Sarbr. She ends up joining the Berbidron Liberation Front, where she meets the aforementioned Arlem the Traitor (so-called because he is actually working for the Arcturans).

She ends up bouncing around the planet, noticing but mostly ignoring hints that the nature of things on Berbidron is quite different than the humans seem to think, and getting herself killed. And resurrected, with a new name. Eventually the real plans of the Arcturans are revealed, which are pretty awful, and it becomes urgent to actually stop them. (Before that it seemed like a game, which is really the way the Sarbr seem to approach it.) Finally Beth (or, that is, Natasha) and some of her Sarbr friends make a journey to a desolate part of the planet, and she finally learns the truth about the Sarbr -- and, more importantly, about humanity.

Some of all this is kind of silly, though interesting. Some is fairly funny. Some is just busy. The science, as well as the timeline, really doesn't make much sense, but maybe that doesn't matter much. I thought it on balance an intriguing but not really successful effort, and I'm surprised the writer never did much else. She did write a graphic novel about Spiderman, which was published with illustrations by Berni Wrightson. And there is at least one short story (or perhaps a novel excerpt) available online (apparently posted by the author, some time ago). And not much else seems to be generally known.

I asked for help from a group of experts on the field that I hang out with, and Art Lortie came through wonderfully. He found that Susan K. Putney was born in 1951, in Iowa, once ran for Congress in Nebraska as a Libertarian, once owned a comic book store, lived in Phoenix for a while, and now lives in my own state, Missouri.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Old Bestseller: Tides, by Ada and Julian Street

Old Bestseller: Tides, by Ada and Julian Street

a review by Rich Horton

Julian Street (1879-1940) was a novelist, art and drama critic, and oenophile. He was born in Chicago, went to college in Canada, and moved to New York at the turn of the century, working for the New York Mail. He moved to Princeton in the ‘20s, and a library at the university is named for him. He married Ada Hilt in 1900, and she collaborated on the novel at hand, Tides, but not on any of his other works, but as she died in 1926, the same year Tides was published, it’s hard to say if she’d have done any more writing.

Street wrote several novels but was probably better known for his short fiction (twice he won an O. Henry Award); and for his nonfiction and criticism. His writing on wine and French cooking led to his being given the Chevalier’s Cross of the French Legion of Honor. He wrote travel books, a profile of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, a play in collaboration with Booth Tarkington. And after all that, he might be remembered best for the line he wrote, as an art critic, about Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, calling it “an explosion in a shingle factory”.

Tides appears to have first appeared in the magazine Red Book. My edition, a first (no dj, in indifferent shape), came from Doubleday and Page. It’s signed in pencil “Margaret Richardson Dec 25th 1926”, so it seems perhaps to have been a Christmas present. The book wasn't a major bestseller, and indeed Julian Street never had a book on Publishers' Weekly's yearly top ten list, but I gather that he was a reasonably successful writer in his day.

It opens in 1884 with a man named Luke Holden visiting a real estate man named W. J. Shire. They end up discussing Holden’s neighborhood, Oakland, near the lakefront on the South Side of Chicago. Holden is married with a young daughter, but soon he is expressing unseemly interest in Shire’s vulgar but pretty daughter. And Shire is planning to move to Oakland, and to try to promote it as a fashionable neighborhood (so that he can make money selling real estate there). (Oakland is a real neighborhood, still identified as such today, though I think it would be fair to say it's not currently "fashionable".)

All this is not pleasing to Luke Holden’s neighbor, old Zenas Wheelock, one of Chicago’s original settlers. Zenas likes the countrified nature of Oakland in 1884, and Shire’s plans will lead to a loss of privacy, and the gain of a lot of the wrong sort of people. Zenas has a grandson, Alan, a fine young man despite his disappointment in Alan’s father, a weak and ineffectual man only interested in buying first editions. 

The story ends up being about two parallel subjects: fist, the life stories of Alan Wheelock and Luke Holden’s daughter Blanche; and the way that these two virtuous and worthy people, who it is clear love each other, mess up things so they can never be together. And second, the way Chicago becomes a major city (mostly, it seems, to its overall detriment, at least from the authors’ point of view). The first thread follows their education in a small local school, Blanche’s unfortunate home life, blighted by her father’s affair with Florence Shire, followed by his wife’s death and then his marriage to Florence, a terrible stepmother to Blanche. Luke Holden suffers financial reverses as well. Alan becomes a well-respected businessman, but somehow he and Blanche miss connections and she runs off with a dissolute would-be writer, while he marries a pleasant but weak and somewhat vulgar local girl. Their lives go separate ways, but each ends up quite unhappy in their marriages, though ultimately at least somewhat successful otherwise.

Meanwhile, in Chicago we see first the political rivalry between supporters of Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, then the burgeoning development in Oakland (including, gasp!, apartment houses), then the Columbian Exposition, and the “good” neighborhoods moving to the North Side. Some of this is played out through Zenas Wheelock’s memories and principles: his experiences in Chicago when it was purely a frontier, his despair over the fate of his previous neighborhood, especially when his old house becomes a whorehouse, his personal honesty and the way that allows people like Holden and Shire to take advantage of him as they work to cheapen their neighborhood. By the end there are complaints about the foolish young folks in the ‘20s …

As you can gather, probably, the book is ragingly classist. There are plenty of swipes at other ethnicities too, particularly the Irish and Germans. (Black people are treated with some condescension but generally regarded as good people … and Zenas Wheelock is a rock-ribbed Republican partly, perhaps mostly, because Abe Lincoln freed the slaves.) For all that, it was fitfully enjoyable. There are boring stretches, to be sure, and lots of ad hominem sort of attitudes, or conveniently bad behavior by the wrong sorts of people which proves the authors’ points. But there’s also a certain honesty in showing its two heroes making real mistakes and messing up their lives – though not to the point of real tragedy either. And the details about Chicago late in the 19th Century ring true, and I found them interesting (partly because I grew up in the Chicago area).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Forgotten Ace Double: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb

Ace Double Reviews, 100: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb (#H-40, 1968, 60 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is the 100th Ace Double review I've done. I started these on the wonderful old Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written back in the early 2000s. I retain an interest in Ace Doubles for an intersection of reasons ... the feeling that they give room for an awkward story length (25000 to 45000 words, say); the fact that they provided space for new writers to get published; the sometimes goofy subject matter; the fact that they could be a home for unpretentious adventure SF; and their uncommon format. But it must also be said that a lot of the stories published as Ace Doubles were downright crappy. And indeed this review, the 100th, perhaps appropriately features a couple of awfully weak short novels.

(Cover by George Ziel)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
That said, the writers were both English veterans -- and, indeed, generally competent if uninspired producers of acceptable SF adventure. E. C. Tubb (1919-2010) is by far best known for his Dumarest of Terra novels, which began in Ace Doubles in 1967, migrated to DAW when Donald Wollheim moved there, and concluded with a novel first published in French. But he was very prolific, publishing well over a hundred novels and even more short stories beginning in the UK SF magazines in the early '50s. Besides the Dumarest novels he was somewhat known in the early '70 for the Cap Kennedy books, written for DAW as by "Gregory Kern".

John Rackham's real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). He also began publishing in the early '50s, though much less prolifically. He ended up producing something north of 20 novels as well as a fair amount of shorter work, under both the Rackham and Phillifent names.

I've enjoyed novels by both writers in the past -- as I say above, they were generally competent writers -- certainly of the second rank, but not unreadable. And in that context, this particular pair of stories is quite disappointing. Really, this represents kind of the low point of what Ace Doubles could be -- not even redeemed by the notion that it might have served as a way to give a young writer a start on a career that might develop.

Rackham's Alien Sea is the longer novel, at something close to 65,000 words. (Tubb's C.O.D. Mars is just over 40,000 words long.) Alien Sea opens in space, with a severely damaged spaceship struggling to make its way around the sun back to their planet, Roggan. They make it, and find that no one survives -- an atomic war has caused almost all the land on the watery planet to be sunk ... the crew of this ship, and a few survivors of their rival nation, must cooperate to rebuild some semblance of civilization.

Then things jump forward a couple of thousand years, as Dennis Dillard approaches the planet Hydra. He's a professional "feeler", who has his emotions recorded to be used in a future entertainment in which people get to "feel" the emotions of the characters. Hydra is a water world that Earth has started to exploit, in tentative cooperation with their enemies the Venusians, who are the descendants of Earth politicians exiled decades before. Dillard arranges a chance to meet the Venusians -- the emotions of encountering them seems like a good opportunity for recording. He also gets to visit the research station run by a former professor he hates, and in the process gets involved with a woman secret agent of sorts; and of course he visits the pleasure city on Hydra.

Some strange stuff happens, and Dillard ends up much more involved with the Venusians than he had planned -- something very strange is going on. Not to mention he forges an empathic connection with a beautiful Venusian woman. And soon they learn that the strangeness is a true alien race -- and the reader, of course, knows right away that these aliens are the descendants of the Roggan crew we met at the beginnning the book -- and the planet Hydra is really Roggan.

It all turns on Dillard and his new lady love forging greater cooperation between the Venusians and Earth -- and establishing a reason for the Roggans to abandon their nefarious plans and agree to cooperate in a mutually beneficial fashion with both Earth and Venus. Oh, and there's the absurd invention Dillard's former professor has made ... There are actually some potentially interesting ideas in this book, but there's too much stuff that just doesn't make much sense; and the book is too long, too boring for long stretches.

Tubb's C.O.D. Mars opens with a detective, Slade, taking a job: to smuggle three surviving explorers returned from Proxima Centauri to Mars -- he'll be paid Cash on Delivery, hence the title. These explorers, it turns out, are in quarantine, in Earth orbit, supposedly because of the threat of an alien virus. The focus then shifts to Ed Taylor, an employee of Slade's, who is trapped in a loveless marriage, with a wife who won't have sex with him, and dreams of escaping to one of the space colonies with a hot young woman. Taylor ends up in trouble -- seduced and drugged by a pretty woman, and forced to take a risky job ... which turns out to be Slade's trick: he needs someone to pilot the ship he'll send to rescue the explorers.

For a while here, things seemed kind of interesting, and decently told in Tubb's noirish and cynical style. Then we get introduced to the woman doctor running the quarantine, and to the actual explorers, and before long we learn that the quarantine is for a good reason -- they really have been taken over by a sort of semi-intelligent slime mold from Proxima Centauri.

Before long, Taylor's rescue attempt has gotten him infected as well. Slade is trying to play the criminal Martians against Earth's UN authorities, for his own profit of course. Taylor survives the virus/slime mold, and unconvincingly he and the doctor fall in love, and she infects herself ... Everybody heads for the asteroid belt, where the slime molds/explorers try to take over an asteroid and propagate themselves by heading back to Earth, while Taylor and the Doctor, who have become superhuman via symbiosis with the Proxima slime mold, head to the stars. And Slade is left desperatly looking for an angle which will make him lots of money ...

As you can guess, I didn't think much of this. It really reeks of being written quickly to fill a slot, with no really coherent ideas behind it, just a bunch of cliche notions slapped together until they seemed enough to propel a plot for 40,000 words. At least it reads fairly quickly, but it's a pretty weak novel. Tubb remains worth a look -- though not requiring a look -- for his Dumarest books; but C.O.D. Mars is pretty sad stuff.