Monday, September 24, 2018

A John Brunner Ace Double: The Repairmen of Cyclops/Enigma from Tantalus

Ace Double Reviews, 50: The Repairmen of Cyclops, by John Brunner/Enigma From Tantalus, by John Brunner (#G-115, 1965, $0.45)

Today would have been John Brunner's 84th birthday. He was one of my favorite writers of Ace Doubles, so in his memory, how about a repost of an Ace Double review I did of two of his novels back to back.

More John Brunner! These two novels were both serialized in Cele Goldsmith's magazines, Enigma From Tantalus in Amazing, October and November 1964, and The Repairmen of Cyclops in Fantastic, January and February 1965. Enigma from Tantalus is about 31,000 words, The Repairmen of Cyclops about 45,000 words.
(Covers by John Schoenherr and Jack Gaughan)

The shorter novel, Enigma From Tantalus, is set on a planet called (not surprisingly!) Tantalus. A group of scientists is studying the one intelligent inhabitant of the planet, a distributed mind. This mind uses telepathy to control its components. It breeds/evolves components for various functions -- notably, since the arrival of humans, who brought the potential of mining for metals to its attention, it has begun to breed mining creatures. Despite all their efforts, scientists have not been able to directly communicate with the creature, or to understand its telepathy, despite bringing humans thought to have telepathic potential to the planet.

One such human has, in view of his annoying personality, just been sent back to Earth, in a specially diverted spaceship. After the ship has gone, the scientists discover that one human has become part of the Tantalan's waste, and they jump to the conclusion that the Tantalan has bred a human replica to send to Earth -- for what purpose they cannot guess. The spaceship is arrested in Earth orbit, and one of the Masters of Earth, highly intelligent and imaginative people, goes up to the ship to interview the motley bunch of passengers and decide which one is the replica.

Brunner throws in some cute ideas, though they tend to be a bit half-baked. He considers the nature of a future Earth in which all major decisions are ceded to machines -- by implication, humans themselves are almost part of a distributed intelligence like the Tantalan, under control of machines. The basic mystery is not terribly interesting, nor solve all that brilliantly, though there is a beautiful sting in the tail of the story. On balance, I would say that this would have made a pretty good novelette at some ten or fifteen thousand words, but at thirty thousand it seems padded.

The Repairmen of Cyclops is one of three Brunner novels about the Zarathustra Refugee Planets. These are planets colonized by humans fleeing the nova of Zarathustra's star, far in the future after some sort of Galactic society has been established. 21 such planets have been discovered by the human Galactic society. Interactions with those planets are kept to a minimum, however -- it is felt that allowing them to develop on their own is preferable from the point of view of encouraging vibrant new cultures and ideas. The flipside of course is that many people, especially on the more primitive of these worlds, live perhaps unnecessary lives of poverty and misery.

Cyclops is not a ZRP, but (in a previous novel) it was involved in an underhanded scheme to harvest nuclear material from one of the ZRPs. The government of Cyclops, led by the authoritarian woman Alura Quisp, now favors a policy of encouraging Galactic intervention in the ZRPs, ostensibly to uplift their inhabitants to Galactic civilization. This novel opens with Quisp's lover hunting a wolfshark, and losing a leg in the process. He is rescued by a local fisherman, and taken to the nearest hospital, which happens to be run by the Galactic Patrol, or Corps, instead of Cyclops. The Patrol has much better facilities, and they discover that the leg the wolfshark chewed off wasn't the man's own leg.

Maddalena Santos is a Patrol member visiting her old boss at the base on Cyclops. She is bored after spending 20 years not interfering on a primitive planet. So she gladly gets involved in the mystery of the anomalous leg. Also involved are her boss, and the fisherman, really a boy, who rescued the shark hunter. We quickly gather what's really going on -- lacking regeneration tech, a doctor on Cyclops has instead been repairing patients with parts taken from people kidnapped from yet another ZRP. It is up to Maddalena and the others to stop these people -- a job complicated by the aging Alura Quisp's desire for a new young body, and by her willingness to take extreme political steps to interfere with the Corps.

I thought the story lots of fun, though, as with so many from this period, it sets up the situation rather nicely, then rushes way to swiftly to a conclusion. I still quite liked it, and I intend to seek out the other ZRP stories. They have a somewhat complicated history: the first, Secret Agent of Terra (1962), was republished in revised form as The Avengers of Carrig in 1969; and the second, Castaways' World (1963), was revised as Polymath in 1974. All three (with The Repairmen of Cyclops also apparently revised, though lightly, and not retitled) came out in a UK omnibus in 1989 as Victims of the Nova.

Birthday Review: With the Lightnings, by David Drake

Birthday Review: With the Lightnings, by David Drake

On the occasion of David Drake's birthday, here's my review of the first of his Leary/Mundy novels, which I have found very enjoyable.

David Drake's With the Lightnings, from 1998, is the first of a space opera series featuring Lieutenant Daniel Leary of the Republic of Cinnabar navy. As far as I can tell there have been two further books (Lt. Leary Commanding and The Far Side of the Stars) with a fourth in the series, Some Golden Harbor, due this year. [Many more have followed.] The model here is clearly naval adventure fiction resembling Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, or perhaps C. S. Forester's Hornblower series. I can't tell if the correspondences with Hornblower might not be closer than with O'Brian, but there are definitely points of comparison with the Aubrey/Maturin books.

Daniel Leary is a junior lieutenant from a powerful family on the planet Cinnabar, leader of a group of human-colonized worlds. His father is one of the leading politicians on Cinnabar, but Daniel and his father are not on speaking terms. Leary is assigned to a small diplomatic mission to the independent planet Kostroma, which has historically been neutral but favoring Cinnabar in an ongoing rivalry with a fairly evil seeming group of worlds, the Alliance. A new Elector has taken over on Kostroma, and it's necessary to make sure the Alliance doesn't sway this Elector's opinions.

Leary has an interest in natural history (thus Drake takes a "Maturin" characteristic and transfers it to his "Aubrey"-analog), and he makes his way to the Elector's Library. This library is run by Adele Mundy, who has spent 15 years or so in Alliance space learning to be a great librarian. (Er, information retrieval specialist.) But Adele is actually part of a once influential Cinnabar family, the Mundys of Chatsworth, most of whom were brutally murdered when they were accused of treason. The accusations were made by ... Corder Leary, Daniel's father. (It seems that the accusations were correct to an extent -- some of the Mundys were traitors, though not Adele, but the resulting punishment, murdering everyone connected with the family including Adele's 10 year old sister, was excessive.) Adele, basically apolitical, survived by virtue of being away in Alliance space. But when Adele realizes who Daniel is, she insults him gravely. Daniel's only recourse, he feels, is to fight a duel, but he finds a graceful way out of this and the two become friends of a sort.

But then, after a very long time setting things in place, all heck breaks loose. An Alliance spy has planned a coup, and the Elector is overthrown by a man in league with the Alliance. Most of the diplomats are summarily murdered, but Daniel escapes, along with a crew of "sailors" he has assigned to make shelves for Adele's library. And of course, Adele, a crack shot and a great hacker too, comes along.

There follows a series of hair-raising adventures, both on surface ships and space ships. Daniel Leary is shown (surprise!) to have brilliant leadership capabilities, while Adele proves a very resourceful communications officer type. (She seems well placed to take the Maturin role of non-Naval sidekick who will have a secret job as a spy on future missions.) And in the end Daniel more or less single-handedly (well, double-handedly with Adele, and also with the help of his 20 or so sailors) takes over a space ship and saves the day against amazing odds.

So, yes, it's basically pulp, but in the best way. The main characters are impossibly brilliant. The bad guys do some sneering. There are class assumptions, and servant/master relationship assumptions, that I have a hard time swallowing. The whole thing is pretty implausible. I know all that -- but I still enjoyed it immensely. It's just nice light fun. The main characters are engaging and easy to root for. (And so far as I can tell not destined for each other. (Adele is about a decade older than Daniel, and seems to be not interested in romantic relationships of any sort, while Daniel is very interested in short-term (i.e. one night) romantic relationships with girls who are much prettier than Adele.))

(I note that the cover of my 1999 Baen paperback has a Publisher's Weekly quote that refers to "Cassian and Mundy" -- I wonder if Leary's name wasn't Cassian in a prepublication version of the book. There is no Cassian in the book as published.)

Birthday Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel

Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel

a review by Rich Horton

Today is John Kessel's birthday, and in his honor I'm reposting this review I did long ago of his novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. It was posted on SF Reader.

A cheap answer to the question "When did I know I would like Corrupting Dr. Nice?" would be to say "When I saw the name John Kessel on the cover." After all, I consider Kessel’s first solo novel, Good News from Outer Space, to be one of the best (and oddly neglected) SF novels of the past decade, and stories such as "Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!", "Another Orphan", "The Big Dream", "The Pure Product", "Buddha Nostril Bird" and "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue", among others, are part of a remarkable, memorable, corpus of short fiction. But to be fair, I really knew I’d like Dr. Nice when Kessel dropped in a brief "explanation" of the multiple universes which result from time travellers interfering with the past: it seems that there are a finite number of "moment universes" originating one each 1/137.04 second, 137.04 being the "fine structure constant".

This may mean no more than that I have a Physics degree, and that I’ve always thought that the fine structure constant is a really cool number. But I suspect it also reflects Kessel’s sure touch in giving his SF premise a plausible-sounding (though actually nonsensical) underpinning, even though we don’t really believe in the premise. This sort of thing is one marker, for me, of a "real" SF novel, even if it is, as in this case, a screwball comedy in which the extrapolative element is not central to the theme of the story.

Kessel’s most familiar mode, it seems to me, is satire, often quite savage, as in "The Pure Product" or the well-known Good News outtake "Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner", but he can also wax lyrical, and passionate (see "Invaders" or "Buffalo", for instance). And lately he has shown a distinct flair for out-and-out comedy, as in his explicit Preston Sturges hommage from 1996, "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue". Corrupting Dr. Nice is in this latter mode, a screwball comedy, also dedicated to Sturges (as well as a host of other screwball directors). It is quite successful on those terms, as well as being successful as SF, with a well-expressed core message (over-simplified, that people in the past are still real people) which is resolved in a satisfactory manner.

The story opens by introducing August and Genevieve Faison, a father-daughter team of time traveling con artists. They have just completed a successful scan in revolutionary Paris, and are escaping into the past, when the canonical "meet-cute" occurs, as the very rich Paleontologist Owen Vannice (nicknamed "Dr. Nice") literally stumbles out of a time-machine in Jerusalem, 41 C.E., and into the arms of Genevieve. Owen is transporting a baby apatosaurus (echoes of Bringing Up Baby strictly intentional, I trust) back to his present (2062), but time travel equipment problems strand everyone for a while in 41.

An appropriately wacky plot ensues, involving August’s plan to steal the apatosaurus, Owen and Genevieve falling in love, and a plot involving Simon the Zealot and a band of Hebrew revolutionaries trying to expel the time travelers. All these threads collide nicely, various disasters occur, and the main action winds up with a courtroom scene featuring two historical heavy-hitters (to say the least).

The novel is very entertaining, a fast and funny read, yet with a core of serious thought about the exploitation of the people in the past by those of the future. The characters are well-realized, particularly Owen and his AI security implant Bill, Genevieve, and Simon the zealot (and his son). The resolution to the plot threads are satisfactory, and honest, though the courtroom scene may have gone a bit over the top. The weaknesses of the novel are to some extent endemic to the screwball comedy form: the characters are well-enough realized that their motivations for the acts that propel the plot sometimes seem thin (and Owen and Genevieve don’t quite convince me as a likely pair: this in particular seems common in screwball comedies), also, things move so fast that not everything quite makes sense. I could quibble, for instance, about some holes in the time-travel setup: though as I said, Kessel talks a good enough game to let us ignore these while reading. I must say, though, that these quibbles and weaknesses are basically excused by the constraints of the form Kessel is working in (that is, screwball comedy). Things aren’t necessarily supposed to make sense.

In summary, highly recommended. A first-rate comedy, and a fine SF novel to boot.

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Here's another of my birthday compilations of reviews I've done of stories by some of my favorite writers. In this case of course, John Kessel. Happy Birthday, John!

(From my review of Future on Ice at SF Site)

"The Pure Product" is quite another thing. A man (apparently from the future) goes on a rampage through 80s North America. The story is fast moving and scary. At one level, it's a harder-edged take on the same theme as C.L. Moore's classic "Vintage Season," but at another level, we worry that the empathy-deficient people from the future are us.

(Locus, November 2002)
But the story in this issue that will be remembered most, that will likely be on award ballots next year, that people will talk about, is the longest, John Kessel's "Stories for Men". This is set in the same milieu as his well-received novella of a couple years back, "The Juniper Tree": a colony on the Moon dominated by the Society of Cousins, who have embraced a female-dominated political philosophy. In this society men are mostly (though not exclusively) pampered pets. They have very little political power, very few economic rights, though at the same time they have certain privileged roles: for example, art and science seem reserved mostly to men. (And sex is very available.) Erno is a young man just reaching adulthood, vaguely dissatisfied with his prescribed place in society. He's a talented geneticist who will be allowed to pursue that field; and there's a sexy woman his age very interested in him; but shouldn't men be allowed to vote? Shouldn't they be allowed to inherit property? And what about the men of Earth's history? Or the men in an anthology of early 20th Century short stories he encounters? Were they, somehow, real men (my words) in ways he isn't?

Erno falls to some extent under the spell of an older rabble-rouser. This man urges him to help with some acts of civil disobedience, and before long is facing exile. Erno is pushed further to consider committing an even more radical act, and when in the process things go horribly wrong, his life is completely changed. This is a very thought-provoking story, well-written, with involving characters and an exciting plot. I was bothered by a few things. For one (this is perhaps a fault endemic to the utopian form) Kessel, despite some attempts at presenting contrary views, seems to accept the success of the proposed alternate society too easily.* Two, I did not believe Erno's actions at the crisis. Thirdly, while the story does resolve its main plot successfully, it also ends in a way that strongly suggests it is the opening section of a novel. (To be sure, extension to novel length would give Kessel a chance to flesh out his depiction of the positives and negatives of his imagined society.) Despite these reservations, I think this an excellent story, one of the best of the year.

[*The eventual novel, The Moon and the Other, to a considerable extent resolves these issues.]

(Locus, April 2004)
The other March story in Sci Fiction is John Kessel's "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence". The protagonist is a small-time crook, forever tempted by the sexy Dot (with her red tennis shoes, natch). This time Dot has picked out a rich family's summer home to rob -- but what they find there is not what they expected. It's a sly and sneakily involving story.

(Locus, December 2006)
November at Sci Fiction we are treated to several more first-rate stories. John Kessel's "It's All True" reminded me just a bit of Kage Baker's recent Asimov's novella "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst" in that both feature Citizen Kane figures and time travel. Baker's story of course featured Kane's original, William Randolph Hearst, while Kessel's features Kane's creator and portrayer, Orson Welles. Detlev Gruber is a near-future failed filmmaker who works for an outfit that sends people back in time to recruit geniuses to come to the future and continue their work. His job is to try to persuade Welles to return with him. Welles is at a low point in his career -- RKO has just butchered his version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and his latest project is foundering as well. Gruber shows Welles his sad future life, and offers him lionization in 2048. Will Welles take it? Can he, and still be Orson Welles?

(Locus, January 2008)
Two substantial novelettes highlight the January F&SF. John Kessel’s "Pride and Prometheus" marries Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein, very effectively. The main character is Mary Bennet, grown up both physically and in her character in the years since Elizabeth and Darcy married. She is resigned to spinsterhood, but then she meets a mysterious foreigner -- Victor Frankenstein. But despite Victor’s apparent interest in her, any future for them seems hopeless: for Victor is engaged already, and anyway he is convinced that his past moral failures stain him. And there’s the matter of the mysterious hulking stranger... The story seems at first destined to be a fun romp, a mashup, but it darkens and deepens by the end. Notable too is the way the characters are portrayed: quite true to Austen’s vision (allowing for Mary’s considerable personal growth).

(Locus, November 2009)
The New Space Opera 2 is an exceptional anthology, much as its predecessor was. There’s lots of strong work there -- I’ll just mention my two favorites. John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" winks at the conventions and pretensions of Space Opera, and tells a neat story anyway. Much is as we might expect: two heroes face dangers, question each other's motivations, and eventually both succeed and fall in love. The furniture of the story is effective as well -- clever tech, exciting action, and hints of a long history preceding the story, including the extinction and restoration of humankind. And the undercutting of the motivations, and the ambiguity of the results, is all effective as well.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Birthday Review: Elizabeth Bear stories

In honor of Sarah Wishnevsky aka Elizabeth Bear's birthday, here is a compilation of many of the reviews I've done in Locus of her work.

(Locus, January 2006)

Andy Cox’s Interzone is increasingly a home for colorful adventure SF, it seems to me -- and I don’t disapprove. My two top choices from December are both a bit old-fashioned (though not dated) in setting and plot, with very up-to-now heroines. One is Elizabeth Bear’s "Wax", set in an alternate history reminiscent of Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories: the protagonist, after all, is a middle-aged sorcerer who is a detective. But she’s also a woman, and the real interest here is her political and personal entanglements: with another (private) detective, with the Mayor of New Amsterdam, and with her lover, the married Duke, governor of the still-English colonies.

(Locus, December 2006)

Elizabeth Bear’s "Love Among the Talus" is a traditionally shaped yet still surprising tale of a young woman, Nilufer, the princess of a mostly subjugated land, caught between the schemes of her mother, of a romantic bandit prince, and of the Khagan who has mostly conquered her province. How Nilufer finds her own path is a very satisfying.

(Locus, February 2007)

I’m increasingly impressed with the new small press magazine Subterranean. The fifth issue is dominated by a long novella from Elizabeth Bear, part of her Abigail Irene Garrett series, though Abby Irene is mentioned by name only once. Instead, "Lucifugous" is about Sebastien de Ulloa, who (we know from other stories) will become a close friend of Abby’s. In this story he is taking a zeppelin from Europe to America, leaving his reputation as a Great Detective, and also his "court" -- excepting his young friend and lover Jack Priest. Explanation is required -- it is supplied slowly by the story: Sebastien, a "wampyr", has found it necessary, for personal reasons, to move to the New World.  The story itself is a classical constrained situation murder mystery, well-executed -- but the compelling interest arises from the depiction of Sebastien.

(Locus, February 2008)

In March Elizabeth Bear offers "Shoggoths in Bloom", a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected -- about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations -- all of which is nicely put in the context of the times -- his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens.

(Locus, December 2008)

The other highlight in Fast Ships, Black Sails, for me, is Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s "Boojum", which is SF -- speculative pirate collections seem usually to manage to sneak in a couple of SF stories. And I admit I am a sucker for them. Here, a boojum is a living spaceship, bred in the atmosphere of a gas giant, and Black Alice Bradley is a crewmember forced to make a dangerous choice when aliens attack. The ending reaches for good old SFnal wonder, and makes it.

(Locus, December 2009)

One story in particular in Lovecraft Unbound is outstanding: "Mongoose", by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is set in the same future as their 2008 story "Boojum". So we already know there’s Lewis Carroll lurking in the background, and the title of the new story points at Kipling. But Lovecraft is here too, as one Israel Irizzary is summoned to Kadath Station (other stations also have Lovecraftian names: Providence, Leng, Dunwich, etc.), to deal with an infestation of toves and raths. Carroll again -- but if the creatures are named out of Carroll, they come from a Lovecraftian source -- they are horrors out of space and time, that is. Monette and Bear nicely suggest that horror, and also suggest that bureaucratic screwups are a horror too, as they let Irizzary, with an unexpected ally, and with his partner Mongoose, deal with the infestation while learning some surprising facts about their universe.

(Locus, April 2010)

To finish I will mention an excellent new novella from Elizabeth Bear, Bone and Jewel Creatures, about Bijou, an aging Wizard and artificer of the desert city Messaline, and the jackal-raised child she perforce adopts, and a confrontation with another wizard, a necromancer, with whom she has a particular history that is only slowly revealed. I liked the intricate creatures Bijou creates, and the inner life of the silent child she adopts, and of course Bear’s fine writing. 

(Locus, January 2012)

And Asimov's opens the year with rather a bang, as Elizabeth Bear's cover story for the January issue, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns", is a brilliant piece. It's a murder mystery, set in India in a future marked by global warming -- so that intercontinental travel is exceedingly rare, for one thing, by low employment and other economic hardships (though the general standard of living, by some measurements, seems quite high -- a detail I found plausible), and by some radical genetic engineering, including hybrids like nearly intelligent parrot-cats. Which is to say, most of all, that this is a densely imagined, finished-seeming, future. The murder mystery is in fact a locked room murder, of a rather unpleasant American physicist, who is found killed in a strikingly unpleasant fashion (linked to some future tech). The main character is a classic-flavored much put upon Police Sub-Inspector, who has issues with her mother (fled to VR), with her job security, and with her partner. And hovering behind all this is the specter of a message received from aliens in the Andromeda Galaxy, who, echoing Clarke's "The Star", may be facing death at the hands of a supernova. It's a busy story, in a very good way, and all the parts work together very well -- the future tech is intriguing (and impacts the plot), the mystery itself is nicely and believably resolved, the characters breath, and the wraparound theme is honest and moving. Only January, and we've seen, I think, one of the year's best stories already.

(Locus, April 2014)

All fine work. But the prize here (in The Book of Silverberg) is Elizabeth Bear's "The Hand is Quicker", one of the best 2014 stories I've seen to date. Perhaps significantly, it's not a direct sequel to any Silverberg story, rather it's inspired by two of his best later pieces: "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" and "Sailing to Byzantium", in dealing with virtuality and technological mediation with our perceptions. Charlie is dealing with the loss of a lover -- she must have blocked Charlie from her virtual existence -- this is a future where most everyone wears digital "skins" that choose how they appear to other people, and how they see the world. There's an economic aspect to this as well -- you have to pay for virtual access. Charlie's world falls apart for emotional reaons, and soon enough Charlie is shut of the the virtual experience. We are shown the "underclass" -- people who live in the "real" because they are too poor, or too principled. What will Charlie do? This is a moving story, a sad one, a very honest one. 

(Locus, May 2015)

My other favorite stories in Old Venus come from Elizabeth Bear and Ian McDonald. Bear's "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" is set in a jubilantly high-tech future, with radical gene therapy and super-advanced armor suits and fluid genders -- and also a lush Venus with a  mysterious vanished aboriginal race. Dharthi is a xenoarchaeologist obsessed with proving her theory of the origins of the aboriginals: and also obsessed with resolving her issues with her super-successful lover Kraken, who has always, Dharthi thinks, been better at everything than her. The story is non-stop adventure, encounters with the dangerous and interesting Cytherean animal life such as velociraptors and swamp-tigers, interspersed with mindlinked conversations with Kraken. It's tremendously fun, romantic and manages to evoke much of the sense of wonder I recall from reading old-fashioned "wet Venus" stories as a youngster.

Birthday Review: Carnival, by Elizabeth Bear

Birthday Review: Carnival, by Elizabeth Bear (Bantam Spectra, 0-553-58904-0, $6.99, 395, mmpb) December 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky was born 22 September 1971. She writes under the name Elizabeth Bear, and she's one of the best and best known SF writers to debut in this millennium. In honor of her birthday, here's a reposting of my review of one of her less well-known novels, Carnival. Thie review first appeared in the February 2007 Locus.

Elizabeth Bear’s new novel is an exciting and twisty science fiction adventure story. Bear wields several fairly traditional (and not always quite so traditional) SF tropes with expertise: a female-dominated human culture, radical environmentalists killing off most of the Earth’s human population, a dueling culture, transcended intelligences, AIs in control of society. This all works very well together, in a story that makes the reader think, makes the reader mad (with perhaps some disquiet), and keeps the reader turning the pages.

In a future after AI “Governors” programmed by radical environmentalists caused the depopulation of Earth, leading to colonization of a variety of other worlds, the Governors and the Earth-dominated “Colonial Coalition” are trying to re-integrated these worlds. Many years after a botched mission to one such world, New Amazonia, they have sent two diplomats to try again – and in particular to negotiate access to this planet’s mysterious free energy technology.

The Coalition diplomats are Vincent Katherinessen and Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones, secretly lovers who have been apart for years after their careers crashed. But New Amazonia’s leaders will not negotiate with any but women or what they call “gentle” men. Homosexuality is generally taboo in the Coalition, and women are usually not allowed positions of power, so Vincent and Angelo are the best available choices. New Amazonia, we learn, is ruled by women. Men are kept as slaves, though in better conditions (for the most part) than say blacks in the American Antebellum South. Heterosexual males are matched in Trials: battles, often to the death, with the best chosen to be members of household, where they live in a sort of purdah. “Gentle” males are allowed slightly greater privileges.

The central New Amazonian character is Lesa Pretoria (one small conceit I enjoyed was the use of Old Earth world capitols as family names), an important figure in the Security Directorate. Her family is ranged on the political side urging continued separation from the Coalition. They are also involved in the more local issue of increased rights for males. (Motivated in part by Lesa’s concern for her very intelligent young son.) Arrayed against them are the current government leaders, nominally in favor of the status quo, and of some attempt at rapprochement with the Coalition, and possibly secretly aligned with radical groups urging extermination of the male population.

So this is quite a political stew that Vincent and Michelangelo step into. And of course they each have their own secrets – even from each other. The motivations of all of the characters interact complexly, especially as there are not just two but several possible outcomes. And into all this is injected a surprising additional player: a representative of the disappeared original natives of New Amazonia.

It all plays out very entertainingly. There are twists upon twists. There is lots of neat SFnal detail. There is plenty of slam-bang action. Most of all this makes pretty good sense as well … perhaps there are a couple of holes, but in general things were well explained. The resolution is mostly emotionally satisfying but perhaps a slight letdown – I felt Bear pulled her punches just a bit at the end. Plus, there is something of a deus ex machina aspect to the involvement of New Amazonia’s natives – though that’s not quite a fair statement as that was all foreshadowed from the beginning, and described in bits and pieces throughout. Carnival is a very fine SF novel, a contemporary SF novel with contemporary concerns that reads like a traditional SF book (in the best sense).

Friday, September 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Andy Duncan stories

Andy Duncan's birthday is September 21 (which is also my wedding anniversary!) I was very happy to meet Andy at the recent Worldcon in San Jose, and we had a nice talk. And I wanted to do one of my compilations of past reviews for this birthday, and so I have, but I'm afraid it's much shorter than I intended. Some of my reviews of Andy's exceptional earlier stories, like "The Chief Designer", appeared as I recall in Tangent, and I've lost all my files from way back then. And I may have lost a couple of Locus files as well.

But be that as it may -- any look at Andy's work is worthwhile, so here you go, and my apologies that this doesn't include several further excellent storeis:

(Locus April 2007)

One of the most welcome names in the table of contents of Wizards is Andy Duncan -- I haven’t seen much from him lately, and I’ve missed him. "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question" has a claim to be the best story in this book. An orphan girl raised in a museum reaches a certain age, when her master wants her to start performing in the magic show -- which means submitting to the creepy attentions of a mostly male audience. She escapes to another world, where she meets, eventually, the Devil, and where she must answer his questions.

(Locus Feb 2010)

Indeed The Dragon Book is enjoyable throughout -- not a story fails to please. The clear best piece is the closing story, which is also probably the least traditional "dragon" story: "The Dragaman’s Bride", by Andy Duncan. The story features Pearleen Sunday, from Duncan’s excellent earlier story "The Devil’s Ninth Question", but she is primarily there to record the relationship of an "Old Fire Dragaman" and a young woman threatened by sterilization as part of the infamous eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which focused on the poor of Appalachia. Duncan beautifully evokes the mountainous back country of his characters, and situates his "Dragaman" there with complete naturalness. The language is spot on, the story involving, the issue affecting.

(Locus Aug 2018)

Analog’s latest issue features an Andy Duncan story, "New Frontiers of the Mind", that probably isn’t SF, but which is about a pretty significant figure in the history of SF and indeed of Analog: John W. Campbell, Jr. It’s well known that Campbell, while a student at Duke, participated in J. B. Rhine’s early investigations of ESP. This story imagines Campbell’s interactions with Rhine (in this case, an implausible early success), and also the marriages of both Campbell and Rhine (whose wife had a significant role in his researches). It’s a pretty affecting portrait of both couples, and of the obsessions of both men.

(My Year End Summary, 1999)

The best new story, and perhaps the best story Weird Tales published this year, was by Andy Duncan: "From Alfano's Reliquary". This is about an early, corrupt, Pope, and his curious servant. Extremely well-written. Duncan is very very impressive.  I think this story might make my Hugo nomination ballot.