Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Appreciation of John Crowley's Engine Summer

I prepared this for an April 1 book group presentation at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. For those coming to this from Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, I'm not really suggesting it's forgotten (if perhaps a bit eclipsed by Little, Big and by Aegypt). And it certainly isn't old, nor, alas, a bestseller.

Engine Summer, by John Crowley
Doubleday, 1979

 an appreciation by Rich Horton

"Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes." So ends John Crowley's Engine Summer, one of my favorite SF novels of all time. I think that's one of the most affecting last lines I've ever read, but I have to admit, on its own, its impact is pretty minimal. Probably that's a feature of great last lines ... they are great because of what came before. So, what came before?

Well, first, two previous novels: The Deep (1975), and Beasts (1976). I found The Deep not long after its publication, and, expecting nothing much, was really impressed. Beasts probably got more notice, but though I thought it just fine, it wasn't as mysterious and original (to my mind) as its predecessor. Then came Engine Summer, which just detonated in my soul. Apparently it was Crowley's fourth novel, Little, Big (1981), which detonated in everyone else's soul, however. I don't want to denigrate that lovely book, but it is still Engine Summer which is first among his books in my heart. (Crowley followed up Little, Big with the four volume Aegypt sequence (which had a difficult path to print) and two unrelated novels, The Translator and Four Freedoms. Neither should his short fiction be forgotten: the novellas "Great Work of Time" and "The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines", as well as the short stories "Snow" and "Gone", are thoroughly magnificent, and almost everything else he has published is nearly as good.)

But I digress. (Snakes' hands, maybe. Which is an Engine Summer reference.) What is Engine Summer, then? In a way it is a bildungsroman set in a society which has abandoned even the possibility of a bildungsroman. In another way it is a post-apocalyptic elegy, resembling at a distance perhaps Edgar Pangborn's Davy. It is impossibly bittersweet, and at some level I can't say why, except everytime I finish it I am in tears. Perhaps the question is, tears for what, or who? For the main character, Rush that Speaks, who has lost his love? For the main character, who is doomed to endless repetition of his story, never knowing how it ends? For the person the tale is told to (either in the story, or, I suppose, me), who lives in a world separate from Rush That Speaks' world, a fragile and isolated world, a world, it would seem, doomed by its reliance on high technology. For humankind?

The story hinges importantly on its frame ... it opens with the narrator, in conversation with another person, denying that he was asleep – he has only closed his eyes. He opens them, above the clouds, below the sky, talking to an angel, who asks him for his story. "Shall I begin by being born? Is that a beginning?". How those lines resonate when the story is over!

The narrator is a young man named Rush That Speaks, who grew up in a commune of sorts called Little Belaire. The first section tells of his young life in Little Belaire, of his Mbaba (his mother's mother), who raised him, and of his cord (Palm cord) and his mother and father ... The customs of Little Belaire, which seem long established and little-changing, are introduced. He meets a girl named Once a Day (the names of characters in this story are one of its many wonders), and falls in love with her (over years) and she leaves to join the wandering Dr. Boots' List. I have of course elided a great deal.

We slowly gather a bit about this future ... it is centuries (probably) after an apocalypse called the Storm. (This is never clearly described, but it seems more an infrastructure collapse than the result of a war or of an overt catastrophe.) Most people died, but the Long League of Women had been planning how to cope for a long time, and they, it seems, enforced some sort of return to living lightly on the Earth for the survivors. It's never clear how many people survived, but quite few. Little Belaire seems to be the descendant of a group, Big Belaire, that came together towards the close of industrial civilization, before eventually leaving their home (in a city?) to wander (a time they call "When We Wandered") until somehow founding Little Belaire. They call people in their history with important stories to tell "Saints". And along the way, Rush That Speaks decides he wants to become a Saint. The people of Little Belaire have one critical characteristic: they are Truthful Speakers (a Heinlein allusion?): "they say what they mean, and they mean what they say".

This being a bildungsroman of sorts, Rush must leave his home. And so he does, first spending a year or so with an hermit who Rush thinks might be a Saint, a man called Blink. Then he wanders further, trying to find Dr. Boots' List, the group Once a Day joined. There are other wonders: the Planters, source of the unearthly psychotropic fungus that Little Belaire harvests and sells; the mystery of the silver glove and the ball; the mystery of the letter from Dr. Boots; the avvengers; and the Four Dead Men. And, of course, the question of where (and who?) Rush That Speaks is as he tells his story.

The story is magnificently written, not in any ostentatious way, but supremely gracefully. The choices of names, as I've said, are lovely. The simple descriptions of things – some familiar to us, some new – are beautiful; and we see things like "Road" newly as Rush That Speaks describes them. And the mysteries are made – if not clear, at least perceptible – in good time, and in a very satisfying way.

Engine Summer is one of my favorite SF novels of all time, and this reread reinforced my view. (Not a new view – my votes in the Locus Poll of a few years ago for Best SF Novels of the 20th Century are public record, and Engine Summer was on my Top Ten list.) It is heartbreaking in one sense but arguably nothing terribly bad happens to Rush That Speaks (except the girl he loves goes away – but to how many teenagers does that happen, anyway?) It is suffused with a sense of loss, but its world could possibly be called utopian (from some angles, anyway).

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Old Ace Double: Clash of Star-Kings, by Avram Davidson/Danger From Vega, by John Rackham

An Old Ace Double: Clash of Star-Kings, by Avram Davidson/Danger From Vega, by John Rackham

a review by Rich Horton

I've discussed Ace Doubles here before, and as I've spent much of the last two weeks out of town, I'm posting one of my old Ace Double reviews here, a pretty decent example of them.

Both halves of this Ace Double, interestingly, made the first ballot for the 1966 Nebula Award, Danger From Vega as a Novel, and Clash of Star-Kings as a Novella. The latter made the final ballot, which that year had only three entries -- along with Charles L. Harness's "The Alchemist" it lost to another Ace Double half, "The Last Castle" by Jack Vance. (The Vance story actually originally appeared in Galaxy, April 1966.) Clash of Star-Kings is about 38,000 words long, just barely short of novel length. As far as I know this was its first publication in any form. According to the Avram Davidson Website, Davidson said, referring to Ace's habit of changing titles in the direction of greater garishness: "I call it Tlaloc but I bet you they will call it something like Aztec Goddesses from Outer Space with Big Boobs" Well, Clash of Star-Kings is better than that, at any rate! Danger From Vega is about 54,000 words long, and also, as far as I know, first appeared in this edition. (There has been a later single book edition from Ace of Clash of Star-Kings, and a single hardcover edition, from Dobson, of Danger From Vega.)

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was a truly wonderful writer, usually best at shorter lengths, though such novels as those in the Vergil sequence, or the Peregrine books, are very enjoyable to read, if often a bit rambling.

Clash of Star-Kings is indeed about a clash between beings from the stars, but in the main it is much more subdued than the title would seem to indicate. It is in large part the story of an American couple, the Clays, and their writer friend, Robert Macauley, in the small Mexican town of Los Remedios. Much of the interest in the novel lies in the affectionate description of the ups and downs of expatriate life in Mexico. (I seem to recall that around this time Davidson lived in Mexico.)

The central plot concerns mysterious lights and legends on a nearby mountain. The locals believe that the mountain is the home to certain ancient gods. Eventually of course we learn that there are two groups of gods, the more benevolent Old Ones, and the more violent Aztec gods -- and this being a science fiction novel of course they turn out to be two alien races. (It has been some times since I read the book, so some of the details may be a bit fuzzy.) The climax involves a battle between the two races, as I recall perhaps involving the fate of the human race. All that is handled well enough, but as I hinted earlier, the real enjoyable stuff is the portrayal of everyday life. It's a pretty decent piece of work, probably Davidson's best book-length story at that time, though he would fairly soon surpass that.

John Rackham was the main pseudonym for British writer John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). As far as I know, Phillifent began publishing SF in the May 1958 Astounding with "One-Eye", as by "John Rackham". Though that first story was as by "Rackham", he eventually fell into a pattern -- almost all of his work as by "John T. Phillifent" was for Analog (one story for Fantastic, a couple of novels and some Man From Uncle tie-ins are the only exceptions), while most of his novels and his short fiction for other venues were as by "John Rackham". (In particular, he was a regular contributor to E. J. Carnell's UK original anthology New Writings in SF.)

Danger From Vega, his second novel, fits a certain sub-genre that Avram Davidson has also written in: stories of all-female planets. (In both this book, and Davidson's Mutiny from Space, the planets involved aren't technically "all-female", but close enough for government work.) Other examples include Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Jerry Oltion's incredibly dumb "Kissing Cousins" (one of his Astral Astronauts stories, almost all of which are incredibly dumb). Any more?

As Danger From Vega opens, Lieutenant Jeremy Thorpe is waiting tensely for a hopeless space battle against the implacably hostile Vegans, who have ships that maneuver incredibly, with super high-g's, and who make no effort at communication. Earth has been fighting the Vegans for decades, and due to the aliens' maneuverability advantage, the home team is losing badly. In flashbacks we learn that Jeremy is actually Gerald Corde, but that he switched identities with his college roommate in order to defy his father's orders and enlist in the Space Force. (His father is an Admiral, and had pulled strings to get his son appointed to a research post on Venus, out of harm's way.) In amidst these flashbacks the battle occurs, and Jeremy's ship is destroyed, with only 5 survivors. Through heroic efforts and sacrifice (two more deaths) Jeremy and two other men manage to limp to a unfamiliar planet and crashland.

They are rescued by a number of very attractive but very hostile green-skinned women. Much to their surprise, some of the women speak English. At first they fear that this planet are an outpost of Vega, but it soon turns out that the Vegans are regarded as despicable enemies: they have enslaved all the planets' men, and the now mindless men periodically take a culling of women and rape them, in order to breed more men for slaves, and more women for future breeding. (In a side note, we learn that only perfect specimens of the men and women are left alive -- this is taken to explain why all the women are very beautiful. Once again, aliens are revealed to have exquisite taste in human females! I trust that once we make real first contact, aliens will be recruited as Miss America judges.) (By the way, it is never explained why this planet's people are perfectly human in all respects except for skin color.)

The women are very suspicious of the Earthmen, mainly due to a very natural fear of men resulting from the fact that all the men they've ever encountered are basically mindless and are also likely to rape them. (Let's just take all the obvious jokes as read, OK?) But the Earthmen manage to convince the alien women that their intentions are good, and soon they learn that this planet has a limited but very impressive radio technology, which explains how they learned English (from our broadcasts, over more than ten light-years distance). The human abilities in power generation combined with the alien women's radio abilities, as well as the hints that the Vegans do not use radio at all, begin to point towards a solution. Will the alien women overcome their initial revulsion for the men? Will the Earthmen find a solution that doesn't endanger this new planet? Will each surviving Earthman find a lovely young green mate? Are the Vegans toast? Can anyone doubt it?

The above description must make the story seem silly and sexist and rather stock. And so it is, really. But for all that it's kind of fun, and the sexism isn't nearly as bad as it could be (for instance, part of the solution is to accept the women as worthy soldiers and space pilots), and finally though the science is silly and there are huge holes in the plot, the ultimate solution, while it doesn't hold up to close thought, is kind of clever. In other words, this is a fairly bad book but still readable. Not worth special effort to find, but not a bad way to pass a couple of hours. A guilty pleasure, if you will.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Not Quite Forgotten Book: A God and His Gifts, by Ivy Compton-Burnett

A Not Quite Forgotten Book: A God and His Gifts, by Ivy Compton-Burnett

a review by Rich Horton

I'm going to be out of town the rest of the week, so I'm dipping again into my backlist of reviews, for a look at an author who is hardly forgotten, though also not that well known. Indeed I would say that this very eccentric writer has perhaps established -- much as she had in life, really -- a permanent small niche as a minor but continuingly significant writer, never likely to be widely read but also not likely to be forgotten soon.

Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) was the first child of the second marriage of James Compton Burnett (Ivy's mother, by all acounts not a very nice woman, insisted on adding the hyphen), once famous homeopathic doctor. Ivy's life, at least at first, doesn't seem to have been very happy -- her mother was a bully, two of her sisters jointly committed suicide, as did a brother, another couple of brothers died young, one in the Great War. And none of her siblings had children. She herself never married, and lived from 1919 to 1951 with the famous writer on the decorative arts, Margaret Jourdain. Jourdain was far more famous during her lifetime, but by now some speculate that some of her success as a writer was due to Compton-Burnett's editing. It is often assumed that the two were lovers, but Compton-Burnett always denied this, and her biographer Hilary Spurling thinks not. Compton-Burnett's father amassed a considerable fortune, which Ivy had the management of after his death in 1916, giving her a comfortable living throughout her life.

Her first novel, Dolores, appeared in 1911, and is not well-regarded nor very characteristic. She later repudiated it. Her first mature novel was Pastors and Masters (1925). She continued to publish regularly until 1963 (one last novel was assembled from her notes and published in 1971). (Most of her novels, at least when published in the UK, were bylined "I. Compton-Burnett", but my US editions give her name as Ivy.) She never sold well, perhaps partly because her publisher, Victor Gollancz, was not enthusiastic. (Gollancz was an important figure in British publishing, but nothing I've read about him makes him seem like a particularly good person, nor one particularly interested in literature.) But almost from the first she attracted praise from fellow writers, such as Anthony Powell and her good friend Elizabeth Taylor. I will add that I have so far read only one of her novels, and cannot consider myself particularly well-placed to comment on her work as a whole. I do mean to do better ... but the to-be-read pile is so darn high!

A God and His Gifts (1962) was the last novel she published before her death. Based on what I know of her work, it seems fairly characteristic, and fairly well-regarded. It's the story of Hereward Egerton, a baronet's son who is a successful novelist, but perhaps just a shade too popular for critical approval. The first few chapters unfold rapidly, jumping years and decades at a time, as Hereward decides to marry a conventional neighbour (his mistress having rejected his suit), uses his money to save his parents' home, has three sons, and becomes close enough to his sister-in-law that his wife insists she leave. The final portion of the book (half or three quarters of it) happens after his sons have reached their majority. One son decides to marry, only to have Hereward seduce his fiancée. Hereward and his wife adopt the resulting child, without telling his son. The sister-in-law, now a widow, moves back to the neighborhood, and another of Hereward's sons falls in love with her daughter. I think you can guess what they will learn about her parentage! The whole thing is terribly melodramatic, but Compton-Burnett's telling of the story gives it quite a different tone.

I'm not sure what to say about it. Compton-Burnett's style is decidedly unusual. The story is told almost completely in dialogue, with very limited tags. The dialogue is arch, at the same time distant, almost emotionless in utterance despite what must be fury and revulsion behind much of it. I cannot say I believe in her characters -- they really seem artificial. Hereward perhaps excepted -- he is quite a monster, egotistical beyond bearing, self-indulgent, spoiled forever by his spinster sister. The story is indeed quite funny at times -- the deeply cynical views of the family butler are particularly to be noted -- but the humor is very cold. There is no question that she was an original writer -- I am not sure how ultimately worthwhile this novel is, however. But it does seem that I ought to try some more ... Manservant and Maidservant, from 1947, is often called her best.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Great Impersonation, by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Old Bestsellers: The Great Impersonation, by E. Phillips Oppenheim

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another book that fits this blog's overall theme pretty much perfectly: it really was a major bestseller on first appearance (the 8th bestselling book in the US in 1920 according to Publishers' Weekly); and by now it is being forgotten, though not as completely as some other books. (You can find "new" copies at Amazon, but they look like rather inferior POD editions.)

E. Phillips Oppenheim was a very prolific and successful writer of thrillers. He was born in London in 1866, and died at his house on Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) in 1946. He seems to have been a writer his whole adult life (though he worked for the Ministry of Information (presumably writing!) during the First World War, and before that he worked in his father's leather business, one assumes until he made enough money from writing to quit). His first novel appeared in 1887, and he published over 100. His life seems, from the Wikipedia description, to have been fairly uneventful, and probably fairly happy. He married Elise Hopkins in 1892, they had one daughter, and a yacht and a French villa as well as the house on Guernsey.

The Great Impersonation is far and away his most famous novel. It was published in 1920. According to my Pocket Books edition, the first American printing was from Little, Brown in January 1920. The Little, Brown edition went through 20 printings, and there were at least 23 printings of the A. L. Burt edition (Burt was a reprint hardcover publisher, one of a few houses that served the same role, more or less, as mass market paperbacks did beginning in the late '30s). My copy is from the first printing, dated June 1943, of the July (!) 1943 Pocket Books edition.

It's a pretty fun and implausible mixture of spy story and gothic romance (with a mystery plot too). It's set in about 1913, as tensions increase between Germany and England. Everard Dominey, a dissolute Englishman, is drinking himself to death in East Africa when he runs into the German Baron Leopold von Ragastein, who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. Both men have been exiled from their homelands after being accused of causing the death of a rival for their lover's affections (though in Dominey's case the woman was his own wife, in von Ragastein's case he was the adulterer who caused his lover's husband's death), but von Ragastein has borne up much better. He hatches a plot to regain favor in his homeland by taking over Dominey's identity and becoming a spy in England. He leaves Dominey for dead in Africa, and decamps to England.

There he runs into a variety of complications. Dominey's wife seems certain he is not her husband: he is much colder and more controlled than Dominey. But she has been on the edge of madness since her husband killed Roger Unthank, her presumed lover, whom she is convinced is haunting her. He also encounters his erstwhile lover, Stephanie von Eiderstrom, who is also convinced he is not Everard Dominey, as she recognizes him as von Ragastein. And he finds himeslf torn between the German Ambassador Terniloff, who favors peace, and the Kaiser, who reveals that he regards Terniloff as a tool, to be used to gull the English into thinking the Germans want peace.

Dominey's wife tries to kill him, then decides to spare his life, perhaps because she realizes he's not her husband. But the shadow of Roger Unthank still lies over them. The novel, of course, turns on resolution of both issues: the mystery of Roger Unthank's death (and ghost), and the problem of von Ragastein's spy mission, and whether he should support the Ambassador's peace party or his ruler's desire for war.

There's more going on of course, and a couple of twists along the way. It is precisely as preposterous as it sounds, and also quite enjoyable, if you can tolerate a fair amount of guff, and implausibility, and slightly old-fashioned writing. It strikes me as a book that deserved its bestsellerdom in its time, and that is still worth reading for that subset of us fascinated by older popular fiction, though hardly a book requiring a major revival.

It was filmed three times, by the way, first in 1921, again in 1935, and finally in 1942. The latter version doesn't seem well-regarded, partly I suspect because it moved the action to the runup to WWII. The 1935 version was apparently a faithful adaptation, and seems to have been a decent enough film.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Piccadilly Jim, by P. G. Wodehouse

Old Bestsellers: Piccadilly Jim, by P. G. Wodehouse

a review by Rich Horton

P. G. Wodehouse (full name Pelham Grenville) was born in England in 1881, though he lived in China until he was three. His parents planned a career in banking in Shanghai for him, but he didn't much like banking and found he had a knack as a writer. His early work was mostly for newspapers. His first stories to make a somewhat lasting impression were perhaps vaguely autobiographical, concerning a young man named Psmith, who, like Wodehouse, tried his hand at both banking and journalism.

Though in some ways seemingly quintessentially English, Wodehouse's career was arguably built in the U. S. He came over in 1909. Some of the early Bertie Wooster stories were set in Greenwich Village. His best-remembered early novel, Something New, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1915. Perhaps most importantly, he met Jerome Kern and began writing musical comedies for Broadway. Though most of his Broadway work seems out of the repertory today (save perhaps his modest involvement in Cole Porter's Anything Goes, and one song he wrote for Show Boat), at the time he was very popular and fairly influential. Wodehouse split his time between England, France, and the U.S. until 1947, after which he moved permanently to the U. S., as a result of the (understandable but still perhaps excessive) hard feelings in Britain as a result of his having given 5 radio talks while interned by the Germans during the Second World War. MI5 investigated his actions, and determined that while he was naive, he was not a traitor, nor did he materially benefit the German war effort. However, he still refused to return to England, even after he was knighted very late in his life. Wodehouse died in 1975.

He is best known for a variety of series characters: Lord Emsworth, the owner of Blandings Castle; Archibald Mulliner; Psmith; and most of all Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. Over the years I've read a great many stories in all those series, and many other standalone novels, with great enjoyment. Wodehouse excelled most of all in his comic prose; and secondarily in his intricate and inspiredly silly plots.

I ran across Piccadilly Jim in an antique store. I had not heard of it, and I noticed its early date, so I assumed it was fairly forgotten, though that turns out not to be quite true. It first appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, and was first issued in book form by Dodd, Mead in 1917. My copy is from Dodd, Mead, possibly a first (Good condition, no dj). It's signed by someone named Campbell Jackes, dated (I think) Feb. 6, 1917. (The date could be 6/17, with what looks like Feb being something else.) (I do like to see these signatures in books, which if nothing else reliably support the notion that standards of handwriting were much higher a century ago than now.) The book is illustrated, quite nicely, by May Wilson Preston. (It's dedicated to Wodehouse's stepdaughter "Lenora, conservatively speaking the most wonderful child on Earth". (Wikipedia says her name was actually Leonora.))

The story is a typical Wodehouse romantic comedy. Peter Pett is a wealthy New Yorker, ruler of his business, but henpecked to death in his home, after his marriage to Nesta, who has an odious son named Ogden, and who is also fond of allowing penniless Bohemian types to stay in their home. Mr. Pett's only ally is his red-haired niece Ann Chester. Nesta's great rival is her sister Eugenia, who married a former actor, Bingley Crocker, and moved to London. Eugenia is angling (implausibly, to say the least) to get Bingley a peerage. The fly in that particular ointment is Bingley's son by an earlier marriage, Jimmy Crocker, a former newspaperman who has been making a reputation in London as "Piccadilly Jim", for his rackety exploits. It turns out he also made an enemy in his previous career, having made fun of Ann Chester's poetic efforts in his newspaper column.

The plot turns on the Petts' visit to London to fetch Piccadilly Jim home, and on Ann's plot to have Ogden kidnapped and sent to a veterinarian to straighten out his nutritional and exercise habits. Bingley Crocker pretends to be his own butler, and impresses Peter Pett with his knowledge of baseball. Jim meets Ann and falls hard for her (having forgotten her poetry), and realizing she hates "Piccadilly Jim" for some reason, pretends to be his father's son in his role as butler. Back in New York, Jim becomes involved in Ann's kidnapping plot, but complications ensue when it turns out there are real criminals on hand, trying to steal an explosive invented by another of Nesta's protegés. Also there is the threat of Lord Wisbeach, who wants to marry Ann ... etc. etc., of course, this being a Wodehouse plot.

This is all good fun. It's not quite Wodehouse at his fully developed best ... the prose is fine, and often Wodehousianly funny, but not so consistently as inventive as later Wodehouse. The plot is complicated but less illogically logical, if you see what I mean, than the better later stories. It would be easy to imagine that this was a decent early Wodehouse that had been eclipsed in reputation by his later stuff.

And to some extent that's true ... except that Piccadilly Jim has been filmed three times! First in 1919, starring Owen Moore, then in 1936, starring Robert Montgomery, then again as recently as 2004, with the great Sam Rockwell as the title character, and such other fine actors as Allison Janney, Brenda Blethyn, and Tom Wilkinson on board as well. I wanted to rent the movie before writing this review ... but alas, it's not available at Netflix, or pretty much anywhere else, it seems. Used copies run for $20 or $30, with no obvious guarantee they'll even play on U. S. DVD players. The movie got decent if not ecstatic reviews ... and, hey, Sam Rockwell! But it just doesn't seem readily available.