Saturday, September 12, 2020

Stories about Time Viewers

We were discussing T. L. Sherred's "E for Effort" in a group recently, and that brought to mind this list I put together long ago of stories about time viewers. It was on my old website, but that's long gone now, so I figure I'd repost it here. It's striking how many of these are favorite stories of mine. Some of these aren't really about "viewing" the past but listening to it, or "experiencing" it through someone's sensorium.

Brian W. Aldiss, An Age, 1967, Also known as Cryptozoic!

Brian W. Aldiss, "Not for an Age", 1955, Future viewing our present

Poul Anderson, "The Long Remembering", 1957, Neolithic, * (The "viewing" is by "remembering" the experiences of an ancestor.)

Poul Anderson, "The Bog Sword", 2004,Bronze Age, *(A "sequel" to "The Long Remembering".)

Isaac Asimov, "The Dead Past", 1956, Classical/Recent Past, *(My favorite Asimov story, for what it's worth. And to detail the exact period it refers to is a spoiler.)

Gregory Benford, "Time Shards", 1979, Medieval, *This is actually about hearing the past, rather than seeing it.

Stephen L. Burns, "Showdown at Hell Creek", 1993, Dinosaurs,*

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days, 2000, Near past (and other times),.

Gardner Dozois, "A Night of Ghosts and Shadows", 1999, Far future viewing near future, *

Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, "Time Bride", 1983, Near future viewing present,.

Raymond Eich, "Evidence of Things Seen", 1998, Jesus, *

Phyllis Eisenstein, "In the Western Tradition", 1981, Old West, * (Another particular favorite of mine)

Harry Harrison, "The Secret of Stonehenge", 1968, Ancient Britain,.

Gardner Hunting, The Vicarion, 1926, All history

Rudyard Kipling, "'The Finest Story in the World'", 1891, many historical periods, * (This is really about "remembering" in detail historical event via one's ancestor's memories)

Damon Knight, "I See You", 1976, Near Past and All Time, *

Sean McMullen, "Wheel of Echoes", 2020, Shakespeare, * (like Benford's "Time Shards", it turns on recording of historical speakers on clay)

Judith Moffett, "Final Tomte", 1990, Decades in the past of the near future, * (This story and others that use the same idea are part of her novels The Ragged World and Time, Like and Ever Rolling Stream. A separate story in the same series, "The Bear's Baby" (2003), uses the time window idea prominently as well.)

Rebecca Ore, "Scarey Rose in Deep History", 1997, Historical Past (19th Century), *

Lewis Padgett, "Private Eye", 1949, Immediate Past, * (Padgett is a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. I seem to recall that this is regarded as predominantly by Kuttner, though with them, who knows for sure?)

Lawrence Person, "Crucifixion Variations", 1998, Jesus,*

Robert Reed, "Killing the Morrow", 1996,*

Mack Reynolds, Perchance to Dream, 1997, Early Roman, (Not true past viewing: computer reconstruction.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "June Sixteenth at Anna's", 2003, Fairly recent past, *

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Collateral Damage", 2004, A few centuries into the past, *

William Sanders, "Dirty Little Cowards", 1999, Historical Past (19th Century), *Actually instead of just viewing the past, "experiencing" it through the sensorium of an historical character.

Bob Shaw, "Light of Other Days", 1968, Near Past, * (A true classic. Shaw assembled this and some related stories into the novel Other Days, Other Eyes.)

T. L. Sherred, "E for Effort", 1947, Many Historical Events, *(In the SF Hall of Fame, another great story)

John Stith, Scapescope, 1984

John Taine, Before the Dawn, 1934, Dinosaurs,.

Wilson Tucker, "Time Exposures", 1971

Zoran Zivkovic, "The Paleolinguist", 1997, Hearing early humans, *

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Birthday Review: The Engine of Recall (and some other shorts), by Karl Schroeder

I don't think I've posted a Birthday Review at this blog for the excellent Canadian writer Karl Schroeder yet. One day late, here's one finally. This includes a review I did for SF Site of his story collection The Engine of Recall, plus a few additional reviews of short fiction from Locus.

The Engine of Recall, by Karl Schroeder

a review by Rich Horton

Canada has been the source of a great deal of intriguing SF over the past decade or so, much of it at least moderately "hard SF." Hugo and Nebula winner Robert J. Sawyer is of course one of the most prominent of Canadian SF writers. Other significant recent examples include Robert Charles Wilson, James Alan Gardner, Alison Sinclair, Julie E. Czerneda, Sean Stewart (more of a fantasy writer, of course), and Cory Doctorow. (Though often, it seems to me, Canadian writers have a sort of distributed nationality -- Wilson was born in the US, Stewart grew up splitting time between the US and Canada and now lives in the US, Doctorow spent several years in the US and now lives in Europe.) One of the most rigorously "hard SF" writers to come out of this "Canadian Renaissance" is Karl Schroeder, author of the impressive novels Ventus and Permanence. Now Schroeder has published his first story collection, The Engine of Recall (edited by Sawyer for his imprint at Red Deer Press).

The first thing that struck me about the Table of Contents was the relative unfamiliarity of most of the stories. This was a source of mild embarrassment to me, as I consider myself generally very up to date on short SF. It turns out that one engine of the "Canadian Renaissance" I mentioned above has been some Canadian outlets for SF, most notably the magazine On Spec and the anthology series Tesseracts, that to some extent slip under the radar of often US- and/or UK-centric SF readers. So Schroeder managed to publish a passel of first-rate stories without generating quite the buzz he deserved -- though one story here, "The Dragon of Pripyat", was reprinted in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Edition, and another, "Halo", was chosen for David Hartwell's anthology The Hard SF Renaissance.

Well, that's one reason for story collections -- to bring to light stuff that might have been missed on first publication. And the stories here are well worthy of this exposure. Take "The Dragon of Pripyat." Gennady Malianov is a morose Russian (or Ukrainian) man hired to investigate a threat to release radioactive material from the remains of Chernobyl. Malianov heads directly to the ghost town of Pripyat. There he meets a curious squatter, and also encounters the mysterious "dragon." He and a remote friend figure out the somewhat mundane (though interesting) nature of the dragon -- the heart of the story, though is the paradoxical landscape of Pripyat. Malianov turns up again in the collection's only original, "Alexander's Road." This time the threat is some missing nuclear warheads in Azerbaijan. Malianov's investigation, however, turns up a couple of further, even scarier, nuclear threats.

One of my favorite stories here is "Halo", set in the same future as Schroeder's novel Permanence. Elise Cantrell is a resident of Dew, a planet of Crucible, a brown dwarf star. Dew has just managed to install an artificial "sun," but this hopeful step is endangered when Elise discovers a message from a hijacked ship, taken over by fanatics who plan to destroy the fragile colony on Dew. She forges a tenuous relationship with one of the original crew of the hijacked ship, but they both know the only ultimate hope for Dew is to destroy the attacking ship, complete with innocent crew members as well as hijackers. This is an excellent example of a moving human story essentially set in an exotic, purely SFnal, environment. Another such story, not quite as successful but still enjoyable, is "The Pools of Air," in which a crew filming in Jupiter's atmosphere are placed in peril by a freak accident to their ship. "The Cold Convergence" is also set in the outer Solar System, this time on Saturn's moon Titan. A psychologist is hired to try to treat a man who has just wandered alone into the Titanian wilderness. The interesting story of the man is undermined a bit by an implausible resolution involving unconvincing real estate laws.

"Making Ghosts" is an interesting story about pioneers in transferring human consciousness to computers, while "The Engine of Recall" involves using such "ghosts" to pilot spaceships in such dangerous environments as the neighborhood of a neutron star.

"Allegiances" tells of a woman in war-torn former Yugoslavia who is cursed by the ability rob other people of the facial recognition sense. An intriguing idea that I don't think the story quite used well. "Hopscotch" is a rather Fortean story, in which the narrator is in love with a woman obsessed with statistical analysis of unusual events such as UFO sightings and raining fish. "Solitaire" tells of a young human criminal who manages to be "adopted" as sort of an interpreter by a solitary, uncommunicative, alien. The ending nicely violates traditional SFnal expectations.

It is clear to readers of Karl Schroeder's novels that he is a fascinating writer of Hard SF. The short stories in The Engine of Recall showcase that imagination effectively -- strong stories that aren't afraid to be adventure stories while also portraying cool ideas.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Strahan’s introduction signals his interest in what might be called older style SF as well. Hence fine stories like Karl Schroeder’s “Hero”, part of his Candesce series, concerning a young man who truly becomes a hero in delivering a critical message to one of the mysterious and dangerous precipice moths;

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

And from Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell we get “Mitigation”: Here a man is recruited by a Russian gangster to steal the gene sequences of rare plants from a Scandinavian repository. The thrillerish plot is OK – what holds the interest is the buzzing of ideas about the future of our embattled environment.

Review of Solaris 2 (Locus, February 2008)

Several other stories are particularly strong. Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” concerns an attempt by a medieval woman to retain knowledge during the Dark Ages, despite the suspicion of the Church, and the political machinations of her liege lord. 

Locus, July 2017

One of the significant anthologies of the year is Chasing Shadows, edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts, on the subject of “our coming transparent world”. There is a strong mix of essays on privacy, reprint stories, and a large selection of originals. I thought the best was “Eminence” by Karl Schroeder, about a cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), called Gwaiicoin, used by some Native American communities in the Canadian Pacific, based in part upon potlatch, and on environmental values, and on “eminence”, or social reputation. Nathan is one of the coders behind it, and he’s staked his economic future on it, much to his wife’s distress. And now it seems it’s been hacked – which pushes Nathan to a personal crisis, and perhaps an understanding that if he’s going to invest in something like Gwaiicoin, his investment needs to be total.

Locus, January 2019

The Million, by Karl Schroeder, is a very intriguing novella set in the future of his novel Lockstep, which I have not read. In this future, Earth is inhabited by close to exactly one million people, who strictly maintain their population, and the ecological integrity of the Earth. Any violation -- an unauthorized Visitor, or an unplanned child -- is subject to severe punishment at the hands of the Auditors. Gavin is an unauthorized child living on the Chaffee estate, having been kept a secret his whole life. But things come crashing down one day with they are attacked, and his existence is discovered. His father is killed, and his brother arrested -- one of the attackers is killed as well, and Gavin, escaping, takes an offered opportunity to take the identity of that man, Neil Makhav; and to apply to join the Auditors. Another new auditor candidate is Elana, who is part of the Hundred, the most privileged among the Million. Both Gavin and Elana are charged with secondary tasks by their "families" -- Elana's Aunt needs a plant in the Auditors to ensure their family's position remains secure through the next Jubilee, in which ten billion Visitors will run roughshod over Earth for a month. And Gavin, besides his own secret quest to free Bernie, is asked by his new "uncle", Eli Makhav, to do some spying for his family. Gavin and Elana become friends of a sort, and their separate snooping leads to a completely unexpected revelation. This is enjoyable indeed, but a bit thin. Schroeder's ideas are (as usual for him) fascinating, but they need more development and examination -- all of which I suspect is to be found in the novel. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Birthday Review: Three Short Novels by Jack Vance

Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of Jack Vance's birth. Earlier today I posted a collection of reviews of some of his less well-known short fiction, and I can't resist also posting this look at the Ace Double editions -- in several permutations -- of  The Dragon Masters, The Last Castle, and The Five Gold Bands.

(The cover artists, by the way, are Ed Emshwiller for the 1963 Dragon Masters, Ed Valigursky for the 1963 Five Gold Bands, Josh Kirby for the 1972 and 1973 editions of The Dragon Masters, Lloyd for the 1972 Five Gold Bands, and Rucker for the 1973 Last Castle. Also Jack Gaughan for both sides of the 1967 pairing of The Last Castle with Tony Wayman's World of the Sleeper.)

Ace Double Reviews, 3: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Five Gold Bands, by Jack Vance (#F-185, 1963, $0.40, reissued in 1972 as #16640, $0.95)

by Rich Horton

Jack Vance published quite a few stories as parts of Ace Doubles. Unusually, almost every Ace Double he appeared in featured one of his stories backed with another of his stories, as in this case. A total of 13 Ace Double halves were by Vance, in seven different books (not counting reissues of The Dragon Masters/The Five Gold Bands and Son of the Tree/The Houses of Iszm). The only author to be featured in an Ace Double with Vance was Tony Russell Wayman, whose World of the Sleeper was backed with The Last Castle in 1967. However, you don't need to sully your Vance collection with Wayman's work -- The Last Castle was later reissued in another Ace Double backed with The Dragon Masters. (Thus, The Dragon Masters was issued three times as an Ace Double, twice with The Five Gold Bands and once with The Last Castle.) Accounting for duplications, a total of 11 different Vance "books" were halves of Ace Doubles (including two story collections and a fixup).

The first Ace Double of The Dragon Masters backed with The Five Gold Bands was published in 1963. That year "The Dragon Masters", which had appeared in the August 1962 Galaxy, won the Hugo for Best Short Fiction. (The other contenders were stories by Leiber, Sturgeon, Swann, and, surprisingly enough, Gary Jennings.) The Dragon Masters, in the Ace edition (and I have no reason to believe this differs from the Galaxy publication), is about 34,000 words long. The Five Gold Bands is rather longer at some 44,000 words. It first appeared in the November 1950 Startling Stories. It was also published in 1953 in a paperback from an outfit called Toby Press, of which I had never heard, under the title The Space Pirate. This was his second book. The Toby Press edition is available from Abebooks for prices ranging from $15 to $100, with most prices in the $45 to $75 area. (This isn't nearly as expensive as Vance's first hardcover, also from 1953, the Winston Press edition of Vandals of the Void, which will run you at least $140 for a copy with dust jacket (as little as merely $75 w/o dj), and as much as $375.)

The Five Gold Bands is basically a pure potboiler, with very little classical Vancian charm. It's still quite entertaining, though, and it does have some nice Vance aliens (or modified humans). The hero is Earth-born thief Paddy Blackthorn, who tries to steal some space drives. The secret of the drives is known only to the five Sons of Langtry, each a much-altered human from a different planet, and space drives are doled out very sparingly, especially to the detested Earthmen. Sentenced to death, Paddy manages to escape and kill the Sons, and to steal the title objects which include, treasure hunt fashion, clues to the location of the space drive plans. Paddy becomes the object of an interstellar manhunt, while, with the help of a beautiful Earth agent who gets to him first, he tracks down the space drive plans based on the clues in the bands. It's good fun, if totally unbelievable, and riddled with plot and world-building holes.

While in prose style this book is uncharacteristic of classic Vance, the cultural setup at least hints at later Vance. More interestingly, in this context, the much-altered human types -- different enough to be aliens -- strongly foreshadow the altered humans in The Dragon Masters.

The Dragon Masters is very good, though I'd rank it below Vance's very best stuff. As I have said, it shares with The Five Gold Bands (otherwise a thoroughly different story) the theme of radical modification of humans. In this case, in the very far future, humans have almost been eradicated. Those that remain are either slaves of aliens, modified for special uses; except on one planet, where a few remain free. The aliens have visited this planet on occasion, but then leave for long times. In the past, the free humans have captured some aliens and radically modified them for their own uses.

The hero, Joaz Banbeck, a very Vancian hero, dour, misogynistic, intelligent but resigned, has determined that the aliens are due to return, and he tries to organize a defense while dealing with a foolish enemy in the next valley, and also with the reclusive humans who live underneath the ground. The book is quite dour, with a rather bitter and uncompromising conclusion. The science is typically silly (though I can think of ways to paper over the worst bits), but the description is good, and the action is sound. The story moves well and fascinates And the prose is enjoyable as ever with Vance, if perhaps not tuned to the highest pitch of Vancean elegance.


Below is what I wrote about the very late Ace Double pairing The Dragon Masters with The Last Castle, much of it originally for SF Site:

Ace Double Reviews, 31: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Last Castle, by Jack Vance (#16641, 1973, $0.95)

This is to some extent a cheat as an "Ace Double Review". I don't actually have a copy of this Ace Double. But I have just reviewed, at SF Site, the iBooks reissue of these two short novels, called simply The Dragon Masters, based on the Vance Integral Edition texts. It seemed to me that this would be a good opportunity to highlight Ace's practice, in the latter years of Ace Doubles, of repackaging previous Ace Double halves by the same author, originally paired with other books, as new Ace Doubles -- and as such as sort of "omnibus" editions. In addition to this Vance book, Ace did similar repackagings of pairs of stories by Mack Reynolds, Samuel R. Delany, E. C. Tubb, Philip K. Dick, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and others. The combination of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle may well be the shortest ever Ace Double -- however, it's also one of the very best.)

Jack Vance is one of the greatest SF writers of all time, an SFWA Grand Master, an inimitable prose stylist, as individual a writer as anyone. His career began in the late 40s, and continues to this day, with a new novel, Lurulu, rumoured to be in the publication pipeline. [Lurulu did appear, in 2004, and it proved to be his final novel.]

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are set in the far future, and both feature humans enslaving genetically modified aliens. In both stories the plot turns on a war between the humans and the aliens. Both stories are quite cynical, and our admiration for the heroes is tempered by our natural antipathy for some of their attitudes and actions.

[The Dragon Masters review is the same as above, so elided here.]

In The Last Castle, a group of decadent humans have returned to a long-abandoned Earth and set up an effete society in several "castles". The labour is performed by various genetically conditioned alien races. For example, the Phanes are beautiful elfin creatures sometimes used as sexual playthings. The Peasants perform menial chores. And the Meks are a hivelike species used to maintain the technological underpinnings. The Meks have finally revolted, and using their control of the technology, they have destroyed all the castles, until only the strongest, Castle Hagedorn, remains. The story turns on the ineffectual attempts of the humans to resist -- most are too concerned with their "honour", unable to sully themselves by any hint of labour, to put up a real resistance. Others refuse to kill aliens for what seems an arguably just rebellion anyway. Only a few see that the only hope for humanity is to regain a semblance of a work ethic and to cast off the decadent ways of the aristocratic society. The prose and characterization here is more effective than in The Dragon Masters, but I thought the plot resolution less convincing.

Bonus picture: the cover of the 1967 Ace Double pairing of The Last Castle with World of the Sleeper, both covers by Jack Gaughan. 

Birthday Review: Stories of Jack Vance

John Holbrook Vance would have turned 104 yesterday (August 28, 2020). (He died back in 2013.) He is one of the most enjoyable SF/Fantasy writers ever, and I noticed that I had never done a story review compilation for him before. So here we go -- a selection of some things I wrote about a number of his stories that I found in old magazines, mostly. Many of these stories are a bit on the obscure side -- not always his best work. But still well worth reading!

(I also realized I have at least one Ace Double review of his books I haven't posted about here -- maybe later!)

Worlds Beyond, February 1951

"Brain of the Galaxy" is better known as "The New Prime". It is one of the most highly-regarded of early Vance stories. I like it, but I think it tends to be a bit overpraised. It's about a sort of virtual reality contest to select the new "Galactic Prime" -- each candidate is exposed to a variety of harsh tests. The ending is a moral twist. 

Planet Stories, July 1951

One of the real unexpected bonuses of this venture was to find an obscure early Jack Vance story, "Temple of Han".  As far as I know, this has not been anthologized before.  It has a hint of Vance's ironic voice, but really isn't close to being in his mature style.  An Earthman on a colony planet steals a jewel from the title temple.  A god-like being from another dimension takes offense and moves the entire planet.  The Earthman is compelled to return the jewel, but instead of accepting the death penalty, he engages the "god" in a battle with the help of the god's rival gods.

Startling Stories, September 1951

And finally Vance's "The Masquerade on Dicantropus", about a couple whose marriage is falling apart due to the frustrations of living on a new planet, along with a mystery about a strange pyramid built by the native Dicantrops, and the potential of a motherlode of diamonds. I thought it pretty inconsequential Vance.

Space Stories, December 1952

Each issue of this pulp featured a long novella or short novel. The long story in the December 1952 issue was by Jack Vance, "Planet of the Damned", at 47,000 words definitely novel length. This is the novel that led me to find Space Stories. I'm a Jack Vance enthusiast, and I was looking for a copy of his early novel Slaves of the Klau, and this was its original publication. (Vance's actual preferred title was Gold and Iron.)

As the story opens, Earth is occupied, very benignly, by a few members of the Lekthwan race, a very humanoid (to the point of being typically beautiful, if unusually colored) people who have given humans the benefits of some of their advanced tech. But Roy Barch, an employee of one of the Lekthwan administrators, is suspicious -- he believes the Lekthwan influence, even if well-intended, will stunt Earth's development. He is also somewhat hopelessly under the spell of the beautiful daughter of his employer. One night he takes her on a date -- resulting only in frustration as she makes it clear that she regards him as a hopeless primitive -- but on returning to the Lekthwan estate he finds all the residents murdered. He and Komeitk Lelianr, the Lekthwan girl, are rounded up by the attackers, the brutish Klau. It seems the Klau are evil slavers, trying to take over the galaxy, and given only token resistance by the virtuous but ineffective races such as the Lekthwan.

The course of the rest of the story is predictable -- upon arriving at the slave planet, Roy finds a way to escape with "Ellen" (as he calls Komeitk Lelianr), despite her ennui and her conviction that resistance is hopeless. After hooking up with a grubby bunch of escapees, Roy eventually hatches a desperate plan to make a spaceship from scratch and head back to Earth. Vance elaborates this rather routine plot pretty well -- Roy's efforts are far from fully successful according to his plans -- though they do end up having the desired effect; and Komeitk Lelianr doesn't immediately jump into Roy's arms. It's not a great novel at all, but it's enjoyable in the terms of early 50s pulp SF, and it prefigures later Vance pretty well, particularly in the character of Komeitk Lelianr, who is the standard late Vance aloof, superior, woman. The only departure is that at the end she comes back to Roy (admittedly somewhat hesitantly), while in later Vance she might have been more likely to meet a bitter end.

Vortex, Volume 1, Number 1 (1953)

Vortex was a truly awful magazine that lasted only two issues. It might be best known for featuring the first professional sale by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It was doubtless a salvage market for more experienced writers, and I feel that must have been the case with "The Mitr", by Jack Vance. A young woman is sort of the pet/food animal for a race of huge beetles. Then a spaceship comes with what seem to be men inside. An oddly pointless story, I thought. Not even close to good Vance.

Cosmos, November 1953

Vance's "Shape-Up" is a rare story, only reprinted in his 1986 Underwood-Miller collection The Augmented Agent, which reprinted 8 previously uncollected stories. (Mostly uncollected for good reason, I will say.) It's routine Vance of the period, competent pulp work with a bit of a twist -- not bad of its type but not memorable. A man is hired for a job with a notorious leader of adventurers. After a couple of tests, he finds himself one of five remaining candidates for four positions -- and it transpires that the extra man is a murderer, and that the whole point of this exercise was to flush out the murderer. Unconvincing reasons are given as to why this would work, and pointing to the killer -- but then there is a twist.

Cosmos, March 1954

Jack Vance's "When the Five Moons Rise" is set on a planet with five moons. Perrin is a lighthouse operator. His veteran partner, Seguilo, warns him not to believe anything he sees when the five moons appear together. Then, after they all rise, Seguilo disappears -- only to strangely reappear then disappear again. Perrin encounters more strange things -- a working radio after his has broken, then a beautiful woman just as he has been, all lonely, dreaming about. He soon gathers that whatever he imagines might come to be -- and then he can't stop thinking "What if I imagine something awful" ... Nicely done light horror, not terribly Vancean but solid work.

Galaxy, August 1961

I'm a stone Jack Vance fan, and I've read "The Moon Moth" several times with pleasure. But I think it diminishes a bit on repeated rereading. Basically, the hero's achievement begins to seem trivial and lucky. And a bit implausible. That said, the evocation of local color is still lovely. (As most know, the story is set on a world where everyone wears masks, and where the only currency of importance is "strakh" (reputation). The language has a musical component conveyed partly by singing and partly by playing instruments, and the right choice of instrument is vital. A new envoy is charged with intercepting a dangerous assassin who has chosen to hide on this world, and his clumsiness with the language and etiquette gives him much trouble.)

F&SF, February 1966

"The Mountains of Magnatz" is a Cugel the Clever story. Quite enjoyable, with the usual Vance touches (a bit of misogynism, delightfully mannered prose, a slightly exotic society) plus typical Cugelisms -- basically, his decided non-cleverness, and his rather vile nature. The story concerns Cugel coming to a village and ending up imprisoned in a tower, as the replacement "Watcher" ... he escapes, of course, and takes the girl he was promised in payment with him (without her permission, of course.) 

Galactic Effectuator

Years ago I read Jack Vance's "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" when it was first published in the Silverberg/Elwood anthology Epoch. That anthology was roundly criticized (one review said that it was best described by removing the "p" and the "o" from its title), but though it did contain some dreck, it also had some decent stuff (one suspects, perhaps unfairly, most of the latter bought by Silverberg.) The Vance story, really a full-length novel (43000 words), is in the middle range.  Solid but not special entertainment. A year later, Vance published a novella, "Freitzke's Turn", in another Silverberg anthology, Triax. Eventually the two stories were assembled as a book, marketed as a novel, Galactic Effectuator. The title character is Miro Hetzel, an investigator operating in the Gaean Reach in Vance's baroque Galactic future. The longer story ("The Dogtown Tourist Agency") is fairly routine, worth the time but not memorable, about a planet full of a warlike race which is administered by humans and two other alien races in order to keep the warlike indigenes in control, and a possible gun-running plot. The shorter story, "Freitzke's Turn", is really fairly minor Vance as well, but I found it quite charming in a mordant way. Hetzel is called in to investigate a former classmate of his, a surgeon who has been known for dishonesty and brilliance his whole life, and who is taking rather unusual revenge against a rival in love, and perhaps against some other former enemies. The title has little to do with the story, but it is a delight nonetheless. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Birthday Review: Three Capsules on Martin Amis Books

For Martin Amis' 71st birthday here are three very short reviews -- just capsules, really -- of three of his books: a novel, a memoir, and a story collection. 

Three Short Reviews of Martin Amis Books

by Rich Horton

The Rachel Papers

The Rachel Papers was Martin Amis's first novel, from 1973, written when he was about the age of the book's protagonist -- that is, on the cusp of 20. Charles Highway tells his story on the night before his 20th birthday, which in his view makes him an adult. He is cramming for entry to Oxford. He's the son of a successful man who he mostly loathes. He is living in London, with his elder sister and her rather disgusting husband.

The story tells in flashbacks the history of his relationship with a girl named Rachel. He meets her at a party he crashes with a friend -- it turns out she's the one throwing the party, though he has no idea of that. He is smitten, and despite the presence of an American boyfriend, he tries to get her to go out with him, and haltingly succeeds. And so the tale goes ... several months of a fairly sweet (in context) relationship between two not terribly well-matched people. Charles is ferociously cynical (if much of that is a pose) while Rachel is sweet enough, pretty, but perhaps a bit dim. They have terrific sex but that seems their main connection. There are amusing scenes with both families, and plenty of further comedic details of Charles's life, in particular his dealings with the bumbling tutors at his cramming school. He also deals with the infidelities of his father and his brother-in-law. And finally of course with his concerns about where his relationship with Rachel is headed.

It's a very fine first novel. Very funny, in what was soon enough known as Amis's standard cynical manner. 


I've mentioned before that I really like literary memoirs: that is, the memoirs of writers. I think the main reason is that they tend to be better written.  This is Amis' "I'm turning 50, and my Dad just died" book.  Actually, he structures the book mostly around two wrenching experiences: his father (Kingsley Amis) dying, and the discovery of his cousin's (Lucy Partington's) dead body among those murdered by the notorious serial killer  Frederick West.  Two other threads also feature: his relationship with his idol and friend Saul Bellow, and his discovery of a daughter he never knew he had (the result of a past affair). It's a fine book, effective and moving.  The best parts for me were his depiction of his relationship with Kingsley: very affectionate, very honest, very moving.  To be sure Kingsley Amis is a favorite writer of mine, so that might colour my view.

Heavy Water

Martin Amis' Heavy Water is a collection of short stories spanning his whole career.  I think on the whole he is a natural novelist, and that at shorter lengths his gifts are not shown to their fullest. That said, there are some pretty decent stories here.  My favorite is probably "The Coincidence of the Arts", about an English aristocrat and portrait painter living in New York, and his affair with a silent Black amazon.  The theme here is race, mostly, and I thought it was addressed subtly and intelligently (to be sure, I say that as a white man). "Career Move" is a cute piece asking what if poetry was treated like blockbuster movies (and pulpish screenplays like poetry)? "Straight Fiction" is another role reversal story: about a world where gays are the dominant majority, and heterosexuals the oppressed minority. "Let Me Count the Times" is soft porn about a guy who obsesses about counting his sexual acts with his wife, then "discovers" masturbation. A lot of Amis showing off his bravura verbal tricks in this one. "The Janitor on Mars" is a dark story about a robot from Mars who contacts Earth and invites a party to come visit. The rest of the stories include some decent ones, and some which I frankly don't get the point of.  (I'll note that three of the stories are forthrightly SF: "Career Move", "Straight Fiction", and "The Janitor on Mars".)

TOC, Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020 Edition

This has been a long time coming, due primarily to the pandemic. But here at last is the lineup of stories for The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020, due from Prime Books in December. Note that the stories are listed in alphabetical order by place of publication -- the final TOC order will be different. Thanks very much to all the authors included -- your stories -- even the darkest ones -- are a light to me.

"The Savannah Problem" by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog, 1-2/19)

"Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing" by Andy Dudak (Analog, 1-2/19)

"Empty Box" by Allison Mulvihill (Analog, 11-12/19)

"At the Fall" by Alec Nevala-Lee (Analog, 5-6/19)

"Anosognosia" by John Crowley (And Go Like This)

"Tourists" by Rammel Chan (Asimov’s, 3-4/19)

"At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street" by Michael Libling (Asimov’s, 9-10/19)

"The Ocean Between the Leaves" by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s, 7-8/19)

"Cloud" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s, 11-12/19)

"Cloud-Born" by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, 11/19)

"Give the Family My Love" by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld, 02/2019)

"Tick Tock" by Xia Jia (Clarkesworld, 5/19)

"The Visible Frontier" by Grace Seybold (Clarkesworld, 07/2019)

"Secret Stories of Doors" by Sofia Rhei (Everything is Made of Letters)

"miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax" by Tina Connolly (F&SF, 3-4/19)

"Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad" by Cassandra Khaw (F&SF, 7-8/19)

"Shucked" by Sam J. Miller (F&SF, 11-12/19)

"How to Kiss a Hojacki" by Debbie Urbanski (F&SF, 5-6/19)

"Green Glass: A Love Story" by E. Lily Yu (If This Goes On, edited by Cat Rambo)

"Fix That House!" by John Kessel (Interzone, 9-10/19)

"Ink, and Breath, and Spring" by Frances Rowat (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, 11/19)

"The Death of Fire Station 10" by Ray Nayler (Lightspeed, 10/19)

"The Archronology of Love" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, 04/19)

"The Fine Print" by Chinelo Onwualu, (New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl)

"The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang (New Suns, edited by Nisi Shawl)

"Bark, Blood, and Sacrifice" by Alexandra Seidel (Not One of Us, 10/19)

"Mnemosyne" by Catherine MacLeod (On Spec, 04/19)

"A Country Called Winter" by Theodora Goss (Snow White Learns Witchcraft)

"And Now His Lordship is Laughing" by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 09/20/19)

"The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear" by Kelly Link (Tin House, Summer 2019)

"The Hundredth House Had No Walls" by Laurie Penny (, 09/11/19)

"Knowledgeable Creatures" by Christopher Rowe (, 03/06/19)

"Vis Delendi" by Marie Brennan (Uncanny, 3-4/19)

"The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor" by Maurice Broaddus (Uncanny, 7-8/19)

"A Catalog of Storms" by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, 1-2/19)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Old Bestseller Review: Old New York, by Edith Wharton


Old New York, by Edith Wharton

a review by Rich Horton

A little while ago I posted a list of 100 books I haven't read, implying of course that they ought to be next in line. The list included My Antonia, by Willa Cather, so naturally my last post was about Willa Cather's novel ... Death Comes for the Archbishop. Also on the list was Edith Wharton's short novel Summer. So what was the next fiction I read by Cather's great contemporary? Her collection of short novels, Old New York. (Which does not include Summer!)

Oh well. I don't care much in which order I read these great writers! And I was very happy to read Old New York (and also Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, of which more in a post to come.) My impression is that these stories were written partly in response to the reception of The Age of Innocence, a story set in New York in the 1870s, for which Wharton (according to A Backward Glance) had no expecations of commercial success. Instead, the book was a bestseller, and so it must have seemed, to Wharton or to her editors, that more stories about "Old New York" might have a market. 

The book appeared from D. W. Appleton (by then her regular publishers) in 1924. Somewhat to my surprise, none of the four stories had a magazine publication. (Wharton published often in the magazines of that time, and was paid very well.) The four novellas are: "False Dawn" (perhaps 19,000 words), "The Old Maid" (perhaps 29,000 words), "The Spark" (about 15,000 words), and "New Year's Day" (perhaps 23,000 words.) The unifying conceit is that they all concern upper class New York society, in four consecutive decades, the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s. (You may note that this time period overlaps with the main time period of The Age of Innocence, and indeed a couple of characters from that novel show up in one or two of these stories.) The book was very nicely published as four slim volumes, each with its own dust jacket, and a slipcover for the set.

So -- to consider each story. "False Dawn" is about Lewis Raycie, the son of Halston Raycie, one of the leading citizens of 1840s New York. Lewis is about ready to take his "Grand Tour" of Europe. His father -- purely a philistine, and a tyrant too -- is happy to pay for Lewis' trip, but he does ask one thing of his son -- to bring back some paintings by the Grand Masters -- perhaps a Raphael will be beyond their means, but surely someone of the next tier. Halston also has plans (of course) for Lewis' marriage, but Lewis is in love with Treeshy (short for Beatrice) Kent, a girl of good enough breeding but little money and little looks. Curiously, the story doesn't really turn on Lewis' love affair, but on the artworks. Lewis, on his travels, runs into a passionate young Englishman, who preaches to him about art. (This is, of course, John Ruskin.) Lewis becomes a convert, and instead of buying the then fashionable near-Grand Masters that his father wants, he acquires the Italian primitives (as then called) that Ruskin (and others like Dante Gabriel Rossetti) champion. And when he gets home, his father is furious, and disowns him. This is sufficient to clear the way for him to marry Treeshy ... but with no money their lives are rather sad; and Lewis' valiant attempt to promote his paintings by opening a museum fails utterly. The twist ending comes after they have died, and Lewis' more conventional sister, who made a successful marriage, inherits the supposedly worthless paintings ... and some of them are now realized as masterworks, so she makes a killing. I thought this story rather contrived, and to be honest I found the namedropping of the likes of Ruskin and Rossetti a bit tiresome. That said, I thought Lewis in particular a very well realized character -- he's not any sort of artistic critic of genius, he's a weak man who instead of submitting to his father submits to the views of Ruskin and Rossetti. And of course Wharton's prose is exceptional. It's not a great story at all, but worth reading. 

"The Old Maid" is, it seems, the story of this set which is most highly regarded, and that might be fair (though I also quite liked "New Year's Day".) It's about two cousins: Delia and Charlotte Lovell. Delia makes a good marriage with James Ralston, scion of a very traditional New York family. Charlotte -- who is, alas, a bit plain, and from a poorer branch of the family -- is a bit different -- she has started an orphanage, to care for some of unfortunate children (including black children), and so she seems doomed to be an old maid. But then she becomes betrothed to Joe Ralston. And Delia is thrilled for her cousin -- until she learns her secret. Charlotte's orphanage is in part designed to allow her to care for her illegitimate daughter, and her presumptive husband (who knows nothing of this) has insisted that she give up the orphanage (especially as it includes black children.) The other twist is that the father of her daughter Clementina is one Clement Spender -- who was the man Delia truly loved, but wouldn't marry because he wasn't quite respectable enough.

The upshot is that Charlotte cannot abandon her daughter, so she breaks off the engagement. And Delia agrees that Charlotte and her daughter should come live with her and her husband -- but of course her daughter's true parentage can never be revealed. And we jump to the future ... and the girl is of marriageable age, and in love with a presentable young man. But can a girl with no family get married? And Charlotte, of course, cannot reveal her involvement -- but the girl has actually long considered Delia her mother -- what if Delia adopts her? But how will Charlotte -- the Old Maid -- take that. It's a truly Whartonian conclusion ... an agonizing personal decision that seems forced on the character but necessary. I thought the depictions of Charlotte and Delia were excellent. (I'm not sure I quited believed in Clementina.)

"The Spark" tells of Hayley Delane, a man of good birth in New York society who married unwisely -- a rackety woman who has continued her bad ways, constantly taking up with younger men and all but flaunting her affairs in her husband's face. He is generally regarded as something of a fool for the way he continues to take this abuse, and indeed for having suddenly decided to marry her. But he seems to truly need her. The story is told from the point of view of a younger man, who at first takes the standard society view of the Delanes, but who then gets to know Hayley better, and indeed also to work with him. Hayley is a Civil War veteran who enlisted despite his father's disapproval, and who could have avoided service easily -- he had to lie about his age to get in. He was seriously wounded in the war. Yet somehow he doesn't seem to insist on attention for his service, like other veterans we are shown, and he won't talk about his experience. (The story seems set in about the '90s.) The narrator notices, behind the scenes, Hayley's occasional acts of nobility -- defending a horse from abuse by his wife's lover, then apologizing so that society will blame him and not the young man; at work, quietly ensuring that his company does not engage in shady schemes; caring for his wife's dishonest father when he is in need; and always protecting his wife when she gets into trouble -- when any other man would have divorced her. All this is very well portrayed ... what struck me as a bit off is the story of the "spark" that inspired Delane to be such a good man. The narrator eventually learns that Delane was cared for by a male nurse while wounded, who talked to him about his philosophy of life in such a way that Delane adopted a similar morality. We gather of course that this is Walt Whitman, and in the ironic conclusion the narrator insists on reading Whitman's poetry to the aging Delane (who is not a bookish man), with the idea of cheering him by showing him what a success his nurse became; and Delane is dumbfounded by the poetry, gently telling the narrator that he wishes "you hadn't told me that he wrote all that rubbish."

Finally, "New Year's Day" is again told by a young man, concerning something he saw when he was still a boy: a fire in a notorious hotel, from which Mrs. Lizzie Hazeldean and her lover are seen to emerge. Mrs. Hazeldean is suspected of betraying her invalid husband, and here's the proof society needs. The point of view shifts to Lizzie Hazeldean, as she rushes home from the fire to see her husband, in order to convince him she was with someone else. And all goes well enough -- it is clear that he is besotted with her; but too ill to give her the Society life she craves. He can only stay home and read his books -- books Lizzie Hazeldean doesn't care about at all. But we gather right away that she does care for her husband -- very deeply. And she knows he'll die soon, and is crushed by this. At his urging, she goes out again that night to a party, only to be cruelly cut by the society women who are aware of her straying. And within a year, her husband is dead. Her lover comes, and wishes to marry her -- but she refuses absolutely: there was only one man for her, her husband.

The narrator takes up the strand later, after he is grown, and he gets drawn into the orbit of Lizzie Hazeldean, who entertains regularly, receiving those who don't care about her reputation, particularly including respectable young men who like a "jolly" woman. He too gets to know Lizzie fairly well, and eventually learns the truth -- she truly loved her husband, and realized that he insisted on pampering her, even as his illness made it impossible to make a living, and as his family money was used up. So her affairs were simply, in essence, a form of prostitution -- her lovers would make her gifts, which she would use to convince her husband that she was as pampered as he wanted. I found all this affecting but hard to quite buy -- this is a case of people in the past with alien values that sometimes are just a bit too hard to understand. Still, I liked it -- and it's only fair to say that much of Wharton's work turns on similarly uncontemporary manners, and in other stories such as "Autre Temps ..." (my favorite of her shorts) and The House of Mirth (and Lizzie Hazeldean is much like Lily Bart in some ways) I was able to empathize somewhat more.

In sum -- these are fine novellas, but not for me at a level with either her best shorter work or her greatest novels. But still enjoyable reading.