Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Quiz: Images of Aliens in SF

Following is a quiz I wrote for an online trivia league I am in. The subject matter is aliens in SF books, movies, TV, or comic books. Each question is accompanied by an image of the alien. The quiz ran over the weekend. Some of you may know the winner, David Goldfarb, who was prominent on the great Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written back in its glory days. Tom Galloway, another prominent fan known for his trivia knowledge, also did very well.

I need to thank Steven Silver and John O'Neill (as well as several members of the trivia league) for helping me improve the question set, including some excellent proposed questions.

I will post the answers in a day or two. If you want, you can post your guesses in the comments.

1. There are many aliens depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This alien race may be hard to depict definitively, as they are shapeshifters, but they do have a typical form. They appeared in Captain Marvel in the MCU, and in the comics as early as an issue of Fantastic Four in 1962. What is the name of this alien raceClick here

2. What's the common name for this cowardly species featured in many of Larry Niven's Known Space stories? The name is perhaps ironic as this species doesn't seem to have the appendages normally used by the human performers known by that name. Click here

3. The aliens portrayed here are examples of the Tenctonese, or Newcomers, who were introduced in which 1988 movie that spawned a TV series along with several TV movies, and which played on the idea of aliens from another planet who are treated not-dissimilarly to "illegal aliens" once they end up on Earth. Click here

4. Many aliens in SF strongly resemble non-human Earth species. One example, illustrated here by Michael Whelan, is the species at the center of one of C. J. Cherryh's most popular book series. Though these lion-like creatures are called hani, the books in the series all feature the family (or "pride") name of the hani ship captain who is the protagonist. What name is that? Click here

5. This lovely alien, played by Jane Badler, looks much different when you peel the skin off -- indeed, her baby might look much like the alien child pictured here. She and her fellows invaded Earth in this 1980s miniseries. Click here

6. Humanoid aliens are common, but depictions of aliens who look much different are rarer, and of those who think completely differently rarer still. One of the best attempts at the latter is depicted in this scene, as humans try to decode a language that indicates the aliens have a non-linear experience of time. The images are from which 2017 film, which was based on Ted Chiang's Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life"? Click here

7. This 1980s TV alien lived with the Tanner family after his spaceship crashed. His name may remind you of Bruce Wayne's butler, but it was derived as an initialism for which three word phrase. (Full phrase, please.) Click here

8. This picture depicts an "oankali" with a human. The oankali are "alien", but their mission can be said to bridge gaps so that no species is alien to the others, by combining genetic material from many species. They feature in a a trilogy by MacArthur prize-winning writer Octavia Butler. The trilogy is widely known by two different names -- one a Greek-derived word roughly describing the oankali mission, the other derived from a Hebrew tradition about a demon that mated with humans. Give either collective name for this trilogy. Click here

9. Speaking of demons, this is one depiction of the Overlords, aliens whose (eventually) benevolent takeover of Earth is initially resisted partly because their appearance resembles traditional pictures of devils. They appeared in which 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novelClick here

10. Here's a depiction, from a movie poster, of another type of alien invader: a carnivorous and mobile plant. It was featured in a John Wyndham novel that is one of the earliest examples of the "cozy catastrophe" subgenre, and also in a movie released in 1962. What is this alien called, supposedly in part as a vague nod to H. G. Wells' name for the invading war machines in War of the Worlds. Click here

11. The attached image is of a Krayt Dragon as depicted in The Mandalorian, Chapter 9. However, many viewers thought it greatly resembled a huge creature from the desert world Arrakis in the 1965 Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Dune (and its raft of sequels.) The animal in these books (and a forthcoming movie directed by Denis Villeneuve) was commonly called what? Click here

12. This is an image of an alien species, the Space Lubbers, from a comic book co-created by Nnedi Okorafor, the Hugo and Nebula-winning author of "Binti". The comics Okorafor created were a spinoff of what very popular movie that was also based on comic book material. Click here

13. This illustration, by Frank R. Paul, of a creature called Tweel comes from the original pulp magazine appearance, in Wonder Stories in 1934, of one of the earlier examples in SF of a sympathetically portrayed alien who nonetheless is very "alien" in behavior. The story ended up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology. What was its title, implying a long journey on a different planet from Earth? Click here

14. This scary alien (or robot?) was a mysterious menace in the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons, called by this avian name which was also the title of a novel Harlan Ellison long claimed to be writing, but never finished. Click here

15. Creatures of pure energy are a favorite device of science fiction, writers, and the attached image portrays the Monster from the Id from this movie, one of the most celebrated SF movies of the 1950s. Click here

16. A different kind of alien invasion is described in the Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater. Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption.) The aliens are unseen but they release fungal spores (like those pictured) that change humanity -- and ultimately aim to change all of Earth for the benefit of the aliens. The author is which writer, considered a leading light of the Afrofuturist movement. Click here

17. Sometimes aliens become popular enough to be used in toys, or candy promotions, or both at once! As in this alien, depicted as part of your smith's wife's Pez collection. What is the alliterative name given to this antagonist of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoon? Click here

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: Lent, by Jo Walton

 Lent, by Jo Walton

a review by Rich Horton

Lent is Jo Walton's 14th novel, from 2019, not counting an unsold early novel that was finally published in 2015. I was privileged to know Jo as one of the smartest, most interesting, most perceptive posters on the great Usenet newsgroups rec.art.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.composition in the late '90s (For those who weren't there in that time period ... these Usenet groups featured probably the very best online disussion of SF ever, and I miss them dearly. (They persist, but they haven't been the same for a very long time.)) It's quite wonderful, then, to see where Jo has gone as a writer since then. As for Lent specifically ... I didn't exactly "read" this, I "heard" it, in the Aubible version, read by Will Damron. 

Lent opens with the monk Girolamo Savonarola banishing demons from a convent in Florence. We learn that Brother Girolamo actually can see the demons; and he is surprised at how many of them there are. He traces the infestation to a book in the convent's library in which he finds a curious jade stone. After leaving the convent he agrees to visit Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto leader of Florence, who is dying. At the Medici home we also meet Lorenzo's sullen son, Piero, and two friends of Girolamo, the Count Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano. Girolamo's meeting with Lorenzo is surprising, as Lorenzo seems to be radiant, as if blessed by God. All this serves to introduce many of the key characters of the book, and to show Girolamo's other special gift: prophecy, for he foresees that a King from the North will invade Italy within a few years.

All these major characters are historical personages. The reader has probably heard of the main character, Girolamo Savonarola. If you are like me, you knew the basic outline of his life, and of his reputation as a "mad monk", an ascetic religious fanatic, who was eventually burned by the Church. As the novel continues, it begins to seem an historical novel, resembling in a sense Hilary Mantel's series about Thomas Cromwell -- for much as Mantel tried to rehabilitate Cromwell's reputation, Walton seems to be rehabilitating Savonarola's. (I have since learned that Savonarola has long been mostly rescued from the caricature I learned about in my Catholic school, and that some consider him a key pre-Reformation figure, because of his stance against the corruption of the Catholic Church. As Walton points out in an afterword, he'd have been horrified to be associated with people who broke from the Church -- his goal was true reform within the Church, and nothing so significant as the theological changes Luther and Calvin spurred.) The only fantastical element we see is Girolamo's special gifts -- to be able to see demons, and to prophesy.

So, indeed, for the first half of Lent, this continues: Savonarola's life from about 1492 to 1498 is described, quite involvingly. The turmoil in Italy, resulting from Pope Alexander Borgia's corruption, and from the invasion of King Charles of France, is shown, as well as Savonarola's role in persuading Charles to spare Florence, and his increased influence in the city, trying to inspire a more holy, more virtuous life for all citizens, including such things as the "Bonfire of the Vanities", and finally, tragically, an attempt by one of his allies to prove their miracles by walking unharmed through fire. This last effort literally fizzles, and the already excommunicated Savonarola, along with two of his fellow monks, are hanged and burned.

So far this is indeed a very effective historical novel. One might quibble a bit that on occasion the author's research is a bit too thoroughly displayed, or that the language stumbles a bit in balancing contemporary English with something that feels true to 15th Century Italy (trivial example -- when a character mentions that "King Charles VIII of France" is coming in a situation where they would surely saying simply, say, "Charles of France"), but on the whole it really works, the characters live, and Savonarola is believable and sympathetic.

But this gets us to pretty much exactly the halfway point. Any thing after this ends up begin a really big spoiler, so perhaps you want to stop here, and I'll simply assure you that the novel remains very satisfying in its second half, and that it eventually sticks its landing.

SPOILERS ... after the cover of the Audible version!


Then, having been executed, Girolamo falls into Hell. And once there, realizes that he is not only damned, but especially damned, for he was one of the angels who rebelled against God. There is no hope for him. Worse, he realizes he cannot even pray. After a long "time" in Hell (in Hell there is no time, of course) Girolamo returns, and he's back to when he was at the opening of the book, expelling demons from the convent. But this time, he remembers his previous life. And he also remembers that he is in truth a demon, which fills him with despair. But, aware of the failure of his previous efforts to make Florence holy, he vows at least to try something different. And with this in mind, on his meeting with the dying Lorenzo, he reveals his true nature to him and a few of his friends, and they are (perhaps a bit surprisingly) sympathetic, and they plot a different strategy for Florence. And they also try to to convince Girolamo of the possibility of redemption for him, though Girolamo cannot believe this.

This sets the template for the rest of the novel, which in increasingly short segments, portrays the attempts of Girolamo and his friends to change history, and Florence's fate. Girolamo tries many things -- abandoning his vocation (once even marrying), or leaning into his vocation and even becoming Pope. They try different political strategies -- banishing Lorenzo's venal heir Piero, or trying to educate him; giving more power to the women of Florence (Girolamo even in the first half worked with many women as allies or respected foes: notably Pico's lover Isabella, also Lorenzo's daughter Lucrezia, and Camilla, who has dissolved her marriage in order to found a new convent), and so on. (We also end up meeting quite a few historical personages, from Richard III to Michelango to several more, as well as of course the many associates of Savonarola who are almost all real historical people.) These strategies have varying success temporally, but none seem to help Girolamo find redemption, nor to achieve what becomes his true goal: a chance at least for redemption for all the demons in Hell. But another key character who turns out to be a demon (who this is I will leave for the reader to find out) may be, in the final analysis, the key ...

This novel is inevitably described as "Groundhog Day in medieval Florence" or something like that, though I think a better comparison might be to Ken Grimwood's novel Replay. (And the whole Groundhog Day genre is becoming quite the thing: I can recommend one of the 2021 Hugo Nominees for Dramatic Presentation, Palm Springs, as an excellent example.) But Walton's interests are broader and more philosophically interesting than most of these examples, as might be indicated by the importance of such characters as Della Mirandola and also Marsilio Ficini, critical Humanist thinkers of that period who also had roles in her Thessaly trilogy. Philosophical and religious debates are often appropriately foregrounded. Key too is the role of women. And the end goal, a decidedly Universalist goal (in Christian terms): the redemption of all, including demons; is inspiring.

Jo Walton remains one of our most interesting novelists, and, it seems clear now (and was already clear at least by the Thessaly books) one of our most intellectual, indeed philosophical novelists. But also, I emphasize, one who tells a good story, even when it's a story we already know, and who makes us care intensely for her characters, and who moves us greatly -- in this novel, Girolamo's personal struggle, his sincere faith, and his enventual fate are quite powerfully displayed. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Old Bestseller: Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp

 Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton

To begin with, I should note that this book was not really a bestseller. But Margery Sharp was a notably successful writer in her lifetime, with early adult novels such as Cluny Brown, The Nutmeg Tree, and Britannia Mews becoming movies, as too her later children's novels beginning with The Rescuers spawned a couple of Disney animated features. Indeed, at least one Rhododendron Pie dust jacket* featured the line "Author of the Outstanding Bestseller "The Nutmeg Tree"". So I think I can shoehorn her into "Old Bestsellerdom".

(*It seems that Rhododendron Pie was never reprinted until recently, so this particular dust jacket must have been slapped onto remaining unsold copies of the book after The Nutmeg Tree appeared. It's worth noting that the copies of the book's 1930 American editions that I found on Abebooks are priced between $210 and $500! All the more reason to celebrate these reprints!)

I have read a number of Margery Sharp's novels for adults, such as Cluny Brown, The Stone of Chastity, and Brittania Mews; and I also read many of her novels for children when I was a child, and again when my children were children. She's an extremely enjoyable writer, comic with a (usually somewhat gentle) satirical edge. She tends to write about somewhat unconventional women -- women who usually know their mind, and who often have to resist others' expectations. Her novels may be love stories, but often are not, even when the structure suggests it; and at any rate you can't necessarily expect the obvious conclusions. I think she is one of the best of the great many outstanding 20th Century British women writers working in the mode of social comedy. And yet, her novels have been hard to find for quite a while. This despite a fair amount of success in her lifetime: or perhaps because of that success she might have been too well known to deserve a rediscovery, unlike say Barbara Pym; or too popular in idiom to achieve the status of, say, Elizabeth Taylor. At any rate, for years I couldn't find her books, not even used copies in antique stores and the like.

So it is with great happiness that I greet the republication of six of her novels by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. Furrowed Middlebrow is the project of Scott Thompson (and the name of his blog.) Scott's primary interest is British women writers of roughly the first half of the 20th Century. And in the past few years Scott has ushered several of his favorite books and writers back into print -- women like Frances Faviell, D. E. Stevenson, and Miss Read (one of my mother's favorite writers back when I was a kid.) And now it's Sharp's turn.

Margery Sharp was born in 1905 and died in 1991. She took a degree in French from the University of London in 1928, by which time she was publishing short fiction. She married Geoffrey Castle, an Aeronautical Engineer, in 1938 (after their affair led to Castle's divorce from his first wife). Castle wrote two science fiction novels himself, while Sharp eventually published 22 novels for adults, another 13 for children, and a fair amount of short fiction and some plays. She seems to have retired in 1978, with her last Rescuers novel, her final adult novel, Summer Visits, having appeared the year before. (I should note that while I read many of the Rescuers books when quite young, and a few of her adult novels in my late teens, I didn't recognize that the writers were the same person until rather later.)

Rhododendron Pie was her first novel, It appeared in 1930. The prologue introduces the Laventie family on the occasion of Ann Laventie's 10th birthday. We soon gather that they have family wealth, and very highbrow and eccentric tastes. The mother is wheelchair-bound. Ann is the youngest. It is the family tradition to have a special pie for the children's birthday -- a pie made of flowers. A cute and clever notion, we think ... but the fulcrum of the novel is revealed at the close of the prologue, when we learn that Ann is a renegade -- she would really rather have had apple pie.

The main action takes place 10 years later. The older siblings, Dick and Elizabeth, have moved to the city, where Dick is trying to be an artist, and Elizabeth is writing sophisticated articles. Dick and Elizabeth spend a summer with the family, and a friend, avant garde film maker Gilbert Croy, has joined them. In the mean time Ann has made friends with the impossibly bourguois neighbours, the Gayfords. John Gayford is clearly interested in Ann, but she seems to feel that her family expects them to do better than the Gayfords ...

Gilbert Croy is an interesting person ... one supposes ... and soon Ann has convinced herself she's in love, and he seems to be interested as well. Ann is also still involved with the locals, and she meets the Gayfords' redoubtable Aunt Finn, and with her family attends the local Fete ... and when they unexpectedly win a prize Ann goes up to accept it, to avoid embarrassing the man who is hosting the Fete.

Ann goes up to London to visit Dick and Elizabeth, and she finally gets a real flavour of their life there. Dick is clearly a mess, no sort of artist at all, and variously involved with a variety of fairly vapid girls. Ann makes friends with one of them, not so vapid, who clearly knows what she wants and is in charge. Gilbert remains interested in Ann but his "proposal" is not a proposal at all ... and Ann finally realizes that she is not like these people (or, I should say, begins to realize it.)

I won't detail the resolution, but it's something we've expected for a while. And if we've been paying attention, we've noticed all along that the Laventies -- mostly due to Richard's "leadership" -- are rather priggish shits. (With the exception of Mrs. Laventie and Ann -- and we learn how important Mrs. Laventie is to the family, and that she knows very well the worth or lack of it in her husband, and what her husband gets up to when away from her.) Elizabeth seems trapped by the fact that she really is able to keep up with all the pretentious folks in the city, including Gilbert, whom she too thinks she loves. Ann has known all along that she doesn't like rhododendron pie -- she likes apple pie, so she is happy to give up any notion of an artistic future.

In some ways this really shows us very much what we can expect from Margery Sharp throughout her career. Characters she mostly likes, but is willing to see in full -- faults as well as virtues. A distinct satirical edge, but softened by her affection for most of her characters. A willingness to defy expectations as to conventional resolutions -- though this is not wholly clear in this book, unless we expected Ann to reveal unexpected artistic depths that outshine Dick's artistic failings and Elizabeth's perhaps empty intelligence. But, mostly, a novel that is simply enjoyable reading incident by incident. 

I really liked this book, and I've already bought another Furrowed Middlebrow Sharp reprint, and -- as I intended all along -- I hope to eventually make my way through all of Sharp's oeuvre.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Complete Stories of Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.

 The Complete SF of Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.

a survey by Rich Horton

Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., turned 75 in January of 2021. I figured I should do a birthday review for him, and I quickly realized that he only published 16 stories in his short career (about 4 years.) Why not cover his complete works? So I tracked down the magazine issues with stories I hadn't already read (acquiring some duplicates in the process!)

You may well wonder who he is. He published a total of 16 SF or Fantasy stories, between 1962 and 1965. Essentially, these were written during his high school years. Fourteen of the stories appeared in Cele Goldsmith Lalli's magazines, Amazing and Fantastic, and the other two appeared in F&SF. The blurb to his first F&SF story revealed that he was attending Emory University in Atlanta. He became a journalist, and spent his entire career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

[Mr. Rohrer, if you run across this post, I'd love to hear more about your writing, and your experience with Cele Goldsmith Lalli as an editor, and, also, if you didn't mind, why you never returned to writing SF! Thanks! (I can be reached at rrhorton@prodigy.net.)]

There are only a couple of direct hints to his SF experience, in his own words. One comes from the blurb to his first F&SF story, "Keep Them Happy" (April 1965). It reads: "I don't have much of a biography ... since I haven't been alive very long. I have lived most of my life in Atlanta. I started writing when I was 8; and I intend to go on writing in some form or another until I am dead or otherwise debilitated. My favorite composer is Brahms; my favorite writers are Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway; my favorite movie is Citizen Kane." I suppose he kept to his intention of writing "in some form" -- alas, that form seems to have been exclusively journalism, as no further SF/F stories eventuated.

The other hint to his writing is a brief piece about the genesis of "Keep Them Happy" that was written for the facsimile edition of that issue of F&SF that was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1981. He reveals that the story was written in the summer of 1964, after he had graduated from high school and before he went to college. Indeed, he wrote 11 stories that summer! Which explains why so many appeared in a rush in late 1964 and early 1965. Apparently, this was the first story that Lalli ever rejected, so he sent it to F&SF. It's one of his best stories, so I suspect Lalli rejected it more because she already had a lot of his stories in her inventory than for quality. He also notes that his other story "The Man Who Found Proteus" was sparked by his use of the word "protean" in "Keep Them Happy". The inspiration for "Keep Them Happy" is credited to his frustrating inability to ask out a high school crush, though he's quick to emphasize that his situation doesn't resemble the rather dark situation in the story. Influences mentioned are Bradbury, Bloch, Matheson, and Hemingway. And the final sentences of his brief memoir: "That's the way I had fun those days. I had a lot of fun that summer."

I can't honestly say I thought any of Robert Rohrer's stories great, but they did keep getting better, and the work published in 1965 was getting quite interesting. His worldview -- as expressed in the stories -- was pretty dark, perhaps too much so -- there is a certain sense of the cynical teenager in that viewpoint. Still, it would have been interesting to see where he went had he continued to "have fun" in the way he did in those days in his later life.

(Note: his byline was variously "Robert Rohrer", "Robert H. Rohrer", and "Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.".)

Fantastic, March 1962

"Decision" is the first story Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., published. He was 16 when the story appeared, and presumably 15 when he wrote it. That's pretty impressive! The story is minor but not bad. It concerns a team of individuals dealing with a crisis -- and it's soon clear that they are the team operating a politician giving a major speech, but threated by an assassin. From within him! And they must make a split second decision ...

Amazing, October 1962

Last, another Robert H. Rohrer, Jr., story. I’ve covered him before — he was a very precocious author, 16 years old when this story, “Pattern” (his second), was published. He ended up publishing 16 stories in all, mostly in Amazing/Fantastic and in F&SF, all before he turned 20. Then he stopped, apparently losing interest. His father was a physicist at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Richard Moore reported that he met him (the son)… he had become a journalist and given up SF writing.

His stories showed real promise — not great stuff, but sometimes quite decent: had he wanted to, he might have become pretty good

Anyway, “Pattern” concerns an energy creature in space that encounters a ship with a human crewman. Desperate for sustenance, he tries to consume the “life-impulse” of the human, but its internal “pattern” is too different, and a sort of battle ensues, which the human wins, but at a scary cost. Not a great story, but not bad, with a nicely turned conclusion.

Fantastic, April 1963

"A Fate Worse Than ..." is set in a world where everyone is a Satanist. The protagonist -- named, ironically, Priestley -- summons an angel to try to force it to give him three wishes ... And, of course, the angel finds a way to make it work against Priestley. The story really doesn't work -- the satirical reversal of swearing and praying is vaguely amusing for a bit, but the biter bit reversal is indistinguishable from a typical "Deal With the Devil" story, and the means by which Priestley is doomed is incredibly lame.

Amazing, August 1964

And the other story is “Furnace of the Blue Flame” (6,200 words) by Robert Rohrer. Rohrer had a very odd career. He published 16 stories between 1962 and 1965, mostly in Goldsmith’s magazines (two appeared in F&SF). One story was picked up for one of Judith Merril’s Bests, another for a Best from F&SF volume. The really odd thing is that he was 16(!) when his first story was published, and only 19 when the last appeared. His father was a Physics Professor at Emory University, and the son became a journalist.

“Furnace of the Blue Flame” is actually pretty bad. It’s post-Apocalyptic, about a man traveling the US (complete with silly corrupted place names like Nuyuk, Bigchi, and Lanna), trying to reintroduce learning and knowledge to people. He encounters a village dominated by a vile man who punishes those who resist him with the title furnace – which we immediately realize is a nuclear reactor. The resolution is only slightly more believable than the refrigerator scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Amazing, September 1964

"The Sheeted Dead" by Robert Rohrer, is SF horror, in which a terrible interplanetary war left a radioactive hell in space. Those who fought were left in space, or buried on Earth, and the survivors on Earth live behind an electromagnetic shield. But then some of the dead soldiers arise ... It's actually pretty well done, with a stark message about the horrors of war finally visited on those who avoided it.

Amazing, October 1964

Robert Rohrer contributes "The Intruders", straight-up space horror. Harley is one of two crewmen on a space ship, but he has succumbed to space fear, and gone mad. He's convinced the ship is his only ally, and he's already killed his crewmate, who tried to lock him up. Now another ship has come to try see what's going on. It's pretty well done "madman tracks down everyone else in the story" stuff, though really anything more than that.

Fantastic, November 1964

"The Man Who Found Proteus" is in a sense Robert H. Rohrer's most successful story, in that it scored a selection to Judith Merril's 10th Annual Best SF anthology. It's fine, but it's not great -- a very short story about a prospector who, one day, finds his mule answering him when he makes a remark. Soon he learns that his mule has been eaten by a shapeshifting character that calls itself "Proteus". This being a Robert Rohrer story -- the prospector isn't going to come out of this well! As I said, it's not bad. By this time in his life Rohrer was beginning to figure out this writing thing.

It turns out another story in this issue is also by Rohrer, though it's bylined "Howard Lyon", apparently hewing to the old tradition that suggested readers would balk at more than one story by the same writer. "Hell" is another short-short, and a thinnish one, in which a nasty man comes to Hell after his death, confident that the sorts of psychological torments that are all the rage these days won't bother him! Well, maybe not, but sometimes the old traditions are the best!

Amazing, January 1965

Many of these late Rohrer stories concern disaster -- and madness -- in space. "The Hard Way" concerns a ship taking a bunch of convicts to Mercury, which overshoots and is drawn inexorably to the Sun. As with many of these stories, the terrible problem is revealed and then ... nothing happens, we simply see the grim results of the initial situation.

Fantastic, March 1965

"Iron" is Robert H. Rohrer's first cover story, with the illustration by Paula McLane. It's opens with an alien waking up in the "Mind Prison". Apparently he was imprisoned there after his metal race tried to invade Earth. After 1000 years he is free, and he goes looking for a way to fetch his people and try again to conquer Earth. But to his surprise only robots remain -- apparently all the humans were killed -- and how is a secret, even from the robots. ... the story turns somewhat unconvincingly on the robots' supposed horror at what happened. And the alien's fate is -- well, he's a protagonist in a Robert Rohrer story! Okay stuff, not special.

Amazing, March 1965

Robert Rohrer contributes "Be Yourself". Maxwell finds himself imprisoned -- it seems there's a duplicate of him in prison as well. He's a military man, and there's been a battle with the alien Brgll, who seem to be shapechangers. And now the government isn't sure with Maxwell is the real one! This is headed to a twist ending, guessable but nicely enough executed.

Amazing, April 1965

"Greendark in the Cairn" is a fairly straightforward story of the Captain of a spaceship who becomes convinced he is being driven mad by enemies. His ship is encountering a ship of the enemy (who apparently destroyed another ship with 1500 civilians aboard) and the Captain must make the decision to attack, but his mind is losing it. I have to say I didn't see the point, really -- so, he's going mad, for whatever reason, and as a result he fails to perform his duty. There seems nothing more to the story, to be honest. 

Fantastic, April 1965

"Predator" is another disaster in space story, this one a bit more intriguing though I don't think it came off just right. A ship seems to be in trouble on re-entry, but on board the ship all we see is a waiter in pain, and menacing, it seems, some women. The effect aimed at seems psychological horror, and I felt it came close to working but really didn't.

F&SF, April 1965

Robert Rohrer appears for the first time in a magazine edited by someone other than Cele Goldsmith Lalli. "Keep Them Happy" is, I think, one of his best stories. It's set in a future in which the cruelty of capital punishment is intended to be ameliorated by making the convicted individuals as happy as possible before they die. In this case, the murderer is a woman who killed her husband, and the man in charge of her case decides that what she needs is a man to love -- and he will be the one. But, of course, she is guilty -- so her fate is sealed.

Amazing, May 1965

Robert Rohrer’s “The Man from Party Ten” was his second to last story – as noted before, Rohrer was a teenaged writer, who published in Goldsmith/Lalli’s magazines and in F&SF, before abandoning the field, forever, more or less when he went to college. (He became a journalist.) This story is efficiently and cynically told, about a man in charge of a war party during some sort of extended conflict, between nobles and peasants, who encounters a helpful household and takes hospitality from them. The resolution is shocking but, by then, pretty much what we expect.

F&SF, August 1965

"Explosion" ended up being Robert Roher's last published story. And it's another pretty good one. A starship happens to intersect the path of a missile that had been launched but never expended in a previous war. Now it's peacetime, and one result is that the former enemies are sometimes members of crews of human ships. As this story goes on, we see the humans and the alien Maxyd are still unable to trust each other -- with predictable results as the missile approaches ...

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Review: A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

 A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

a review by Rich Horton

Last year, on my last business trip before the pandemic shut everything down, I started reading Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire. I was looking forward to it -- it had gotten great reviews, it seemed a possible Hugo nominee, and I had really enjoyed Martine's story "The Hydraulic Emperor". I got a few chapters in, and was quite enjoying it -- and then came the lockdown, and in between the psychical effects of that, and some deadlines, I put the book aside. It went on to not just receive a Hugo nomination, but to win the Hugo (and also the Compton Crook award.)

When her new novel, a sequel called A Desolation Called Peace, came out I thought to myself, OK, it's really time for me to read A Memory Called Empire! And I decided to use my recently obtained Audible subscription to listen to it. (As I did recently with Curious Toys, Piranesi, and The Stars are Legion -- using my commuting time to listen to audio books is proving a great way to tackle my TBR pile.)  

Not to bury the lede too far then -- this novel is immensely fun. It is true Space Opera, from one angle a case of a huge and ever-expanding interstellar empire being resisted by a tiny and plucky space station. But it's more complex than that. Because the "resistance" of the station, Lsel, is entirely diplomatic. Indeed, there are no space battles (though my guess is things might be different in the sequel.) And Teixcalaan, the empire, is portrayed as admirable in many ways (and kind of bad in the way of empires in other ways.) It's also the story of a succession crisis, and it's the story of someone finally encountering the culture she has long admired, and learning a little about it. And it's action-packed -- the novel takes place at a full sprint lasting little over a week. 

The main character is Mahit Dzmare, who arrives at Teixcalaan as the main action begins, ready to take up her duties as the new Ambassador from Lsel Station. She carries an "imago machine", which has the memories from 15 years ago of her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn (and also his memories of his predecessor etc.) Almost as soon as she arrives she confronts two major issues -- Yskandr has died, almost certainly murdered, and her imago has malfunctioned, so she doesn't even have the help of Yskandr's experience (even 15 years out of date experience.) (And Lsel has provided her ridiculously little instruction or strategical guidance.)

Very quickly things get even more complicated. Mahit is present at a bombing, and her Teixcalaan-provided cultural liaison is injured. Mahit ends up hiding out (more or less) with one of the Emperor's closest advisors, or ezuazacats, Nineteen Adze. Mahit is nearly poisoned herself. She realizes that Yskandr had been a lover of both Nineteen Adze and the Emperor. She meets one of the Emperor's anointed co-Emperors (thus a potential successor), and she realizes that the Emperor, very old and in poor health, may die soon, and the issue of the succession is terribly fraught, with candidates including one of the Emperor's crechemates, and an influential and rich provincial man, and also the Emperor's 90% clone, who is only ten. Not to mention a would-be usurper, One Lightning, who hopes to build a military reputation, perhaps by invading Lsel Station. And the Emperor himself has a rather horrifying idea concerning his successor.

Lsel sends Mahit an urgent message, which she can only read with Yskandr's help -- which means she needs to acquire his more recent imago from his dead body, and to undergo absurdly risky surgery to integrate it with her brain. And it's clear that mysterious, hostile, and uncommunicative aliens are threatening the Empire through various jump gates, including ones in close proximity to Lsel. And her only allies, are Teixcalaan, none wholly trustworthy -- Nineteen Adze, who is clearly a political creature through and through; and then Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea, who are young and who probably have more loyalty to Teixcalaan than to Mahit. 

The action really never stops. There is danger, eventual tragedy, some sexual tension and intrigue, rebellions from different directions ... The resolution is pretty powerful, and satisfying. It makes emotional sense (for several characters) and it makes strategic sense. And it's a pretty clear slingshot to the next book -- because, you know, there are still those mysterious aliens! Indeed, this is an opening volume that comes to sensible closure on its own terms, but also promises another book that should have its own surprises and revelations.

I do have -- naturally -- some caveats. The biggest ones concern Lsel Station's laughably inadequate preparation of Mahit for her job. She doesn't even get a portfolio, as it were -- that is, a clear statement of Lsel's goals. I also found rather implausible the notion that Yskandr could successfully (to a degree) perform diplomacy by becoming the lover of two of the 5 or so most powerful people in the Teixcalaan Empire. (To say nothing of the Ambassadorial ethics implied.) And there were minor nits -- not really important -- such as an early exchange in which it becomes clear that Mahit, who had spent much of her life reading everything she possibly can about Teixcalaan, has no idea they bury their dead. (The Stationers of Lsel recycle their dead, naturally -- but by burning, which doesn't really seem the best way to recycle.)

In a way, those flaws are inherent to lots of Space Opera. Intrigue and rapid action are more interesting than, months of diplomatic communications and negotiations. And this novel does intrigue -- and color -- very well. I truly love the Teixcalaan naming conventions, for example. Gender roles are not emphasized at all, but this seems to be because both Teixcalaan and Lsel seem to be all but free of gender splits of any sort. (Partly because almost all pregnancies are carried in artificial wombs -- and even conception seems technologically controlled, as the several mentions of clones of a certain percentage indicate.) I think there's a lot of room for more and deeper exploration of the cultures of both Lsel and Teixcalaan in future books, though it may be that that's not what Martine is really interested in dealing with. Which is fine -- hinted background are cooler in many ways.

I'm glad I finally got around to reading A Memory Called Empire, and I won't let the wait before reading A Desolation Called Peace be nearly as long!

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Review: Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand

 Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand

a review by Rich Horton

Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, but for reasons it's hard to parse, I had not read any of her novels. Well, in reality the reasons aren't so hard to parse -- I simply don't read as many novels as I should, in great part because I read so much short fiction. Also, Hand's recent novels have been crime novels -- and don't get me wrong, I like crime novels, and I have nothing against reading them, but I still concentrate on 1) science fiction; and 2) older novels. My wife, who reads a lot of mysteries, did read and enjoy two of Hand's recent books, both crime novels: Generation Loss and the book at hand, Curious Toys. As for me, the longest story I'd read by Hand was her utterly lovely long novella about the English folk revival (of which I'm a big fan anyway!) Wylding Hall. But her other short fiction is magnificent as well, stories like "Near Zennor", "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon", "Cleopatra Brimstone", "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol", "Illyria", "The Least Trumps" ... and I could go on and on. I've known that I should read her novels for a long time -- her early Winterlong trilogy looks wonderful ...

So finally I pulled the trigger, with Curious Toys, from 2019. This novel is set in Chicago in 1915. The novel is primarily set at Riverview Park, an actual amusement park that operated from 1904 to 1967. (I grew up in the Chicago suburbs but I was just a bit too young -- the park formally closed two days before my eighth birthday -- to be aware of it.) There are many viewpoint characters but the book truly centers on Pin Maffucci, a 14 year old girl who dresses like a boy, partly because her mother wants to keep her safe, partly because that way she can more easily get odd jobs. But really because she likes it that way. Pin's main odd job is to run marijuana for one of the park's performers, a man who dresses as half woman/half man for his sideshow. One place she takes the drugs is to Essanay, a movie studio in Chicago, which suits her because she is infatuated with one of the young actresses there. 

Pin has a back story -- her sister was abducted and (presumably) murdered a couple of years earlier. Her mother is now a fortuneteller at the park, having changed their name and left their previous home partly because of the violence of the Black Hand gang that controls their old neighborhood. It turns out that a security guard at Riverview Park is a former policeman, Francis Bacon, who lost his job when he dared stand up to the Black Hand, which had plenty of police and judges under their control. This policeman is another POV character. Another key character is a very strange man who Pin notices hanging around the park -- we learn soon that this is Henry Darger, now one of the most famous outsider artists in history. Henry is obsessed with protecting young girls from violence -- this gives him a tie to Pin (and her lost sister) -- but it also makes Pin suspicious of him. 

The action is driven by the disappearance of a young girl in an underground water ride. Pin and Henry (separately) witness this girl enter the ride in the company of an adult man, and then the see the man leave alone. And Pin recognized the girl as another actress at the movie studio -- indeed, an actress Charlie Chaplin had taken a creepy interest in. At first no one believes Pin's story, but then the girl is found. And, depressingly, the first suspect is a black man who was working at the ride, even though there's no plausible reason to believe he committed the crime. Pin is pushed to do what she can to investigate ... and eventually she yields to Henry's insistence that he can help. Francis, as a security guard, is also investigating. Suspects eventually include Charlie Chaplin himself (who did seem to have an unhealthy attraction to just pubescent girls), as well as another of Pin's acquaintances, a scenarist at Essanay who wants to write dark and violent screenplays. And the questions arises -- is there a connection with the disappearance of Pin's sister? Or with the very young girl Henry is fascinated with? Or with other disappearances in different amusement parks?

The eventual solution to the murders is not really that interesting. We have been given glimpses of the murderer in action anyway -- and his identity is not that much of a surprise. What's really fascinating is the look at Chicago in 1915, and at Riverview Park. Also the characters -- Pin in particular, but Henry and Francis and Pin's mother and various minor characters are involving. Many of the characters, good and bad, are queer (each in their own way), and fully realized within a culture wholly different to today's. The look at silent movies in at this time is a tiny part of the book, but fascinating too, as are the peeks we get at other the other entertainments offered at the amusement park. There's a bit of an envoi, giving us a look at the futures for Henry (a matter of historical record, of course) and Pin, which serves as a striking bit of timebinding from the teens to the '70s, giving real perspective to the connections between, and differences between, 1915, 1970 (and, by implication, the present day, about as far from 1970 as that was from 1915.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Birthday Review: Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks

Every year around this time I post one of my old blog reviews of Iain M. Banks on the occasion of his birthday ... here's another, of Look to Windward, which I think one of his best Culture novels. I wrote this about when the book appeared, and I repost it just as I had it back then. I think I was a bit longer-winded than usual in this review.

Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks

a review by Rich Horton

As the title hints, Iain M. Banks' latest Culture novel, Look to Windward, is connected to his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas.  The connection is fairly tenuous: the events of the novel are largely set on Masaq' Orbital, the Hub Mind of which was formerly the Mind in charge of a combat ship in the Idiran War (which War was the subject of Consider Phlebas).  Light from a pair of novas caused by the combatants in a battle of that War, one in which the Hub Mind was intimately involved, is now reaching Masaq' Orbital, 800 years after the war.  In commemoration, the Mind has commissioned a musical piece by a composer names Mahrai Ziller. Ziller, as it happens, is an alien, a Chelgrian.  His people had an elaborate Caste system, and Ziller was a high-born who became a liberal and renounced the caste system, and who was involved in some significant political efforts which had temporary success.  But after everything blew up into a terrible civil war, Ziller left for the Culture.  The war was eventually ended in sort of a draw, after which it was revealed that the Culture had, by mistake, provoked the war.  (Contact and Special Circumstances were meddling, trying to help folks like Ziller who were trying to change the odious caste system from within, but they miscalculated how angry the Chelgrians would get, and how quickly a war might erupt.)  

All this is prelude.  The book runs on three (or four) tracks, with lots of flashbacks.  This sort of intricate structure is a Banks hallmark.  One track follows a Chelgrian of a high caste, Major Quilan, who lost his beloved wife during the war.  He has been recruited for a special mission to Masaq' Orbital, ostensibly to try to persuade Mahrai Ziller to return to Chel, but apparently he has a secret mission, secret even to himself (so that Culture Minds won't be able to read his mind).  Quilan has the personality of another Chelgrian, a crusty reactionary, General Huyler, implanted in his mind via some interesting technology.  This thread mostly runs in flashbacks, as we learn about Quilan's early life and his love for his wife, the war, and then his rehab and training after the war, leading eventually to a revelation about his real mission.

Another thread is mostly in real time, following Ziller and another alien, the Homomdan Ambassador Ischlaer (Homomdans were a species loosely on the side of the Idirans in the Idiran War), as they explore Masaq' Orbital, while Ziller tries to avoid meeting Major Quilan, whom he suspects of wanting to kill him.  These sections comprise one of the most extensive descriptions of ordinary life in the Culture that Banks has yet given us, as well as descriptions of the geography of an Orbital, and of various extreme sports the Culture folks indulge in.  All from the viewpoints of two non-Culture types, Ziller and Ischlaer.  These sections are really interesting, even if largely a travelogue.  

The third thread at first seems wholly disconnected from the rest.  It is set on a cool entity/construct/world called an "Airsphere", a huge enclosed ball of gas, apparently constructed millions or hundreds of millions of years previously.  Among the residents of the airsphere are extremely large intelligent beings called "behemothaurs".  These live for millions of years themselves.  Uguen Zlepe is a Culture citizen who is spending a number of years following a behemothaur (with its permission) to study its lifestyle. This thread does eventually get connected to the main plot, though I won't say how.

Eventually things come to a head, as we might predict, with the performance of Ziller's musical piece and the arrival of the light from the nova.  The actual plot resolution is just a bit anti-climactic, which is the only weakness of the story.  But it's otherwise outstanding.  There are very moving bits. There is lots of musing on the meaning of life, death, and guilt.  There is some interesting speculation about a curious fact about Chelgrian religion: they have learned to save their mind states, and after death the mind states can be uploaded into a literal "afterlife", and it is possible to communicate, to some extent, with those who have "gone to heaven".  Their traditional religion has been modified to fit with this new technology, with some unfortunate results.  In sum, a very good book, one of the best of the Culture novels.