Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hugo nomination possibilities, short fiction

Okay, then, let’s just get right to it. Hugo nomination recommendations in short fiction. (I haven’t read enough 2015 novels to speak sensibly on that category.) This is, indeed, mostly the contents of my Best of the Year collection, with a few added that I couldn’t use for one reason or another (length, contractual issues, etc.). And let's add the obvious -- I miss things! Even things I read. There have definitely been cases where a story I didn't pick seemed to me on further reflection to be clearly award-worthy.

The Two Paupers, by C. S. E. Cooney (Fairchild Press)
“Gypsy”, by Carter Scholz (Gypsy plus …F&SF)
“The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, by Greg Egan (Asimov’s)
“The Bone Swans of Amandale”, by C. S. E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
“The Boatman's Cure”, by Sonya Taaffe (Ghost Signs)
Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road/PS Publishing)
Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Penric's Demon)
Teaching the Dog to Read, by Jonathan Carroll (Subterranean)
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss (Tor)

In all these cases the order is semi-meaningless -- possibly the top couple are likely to make my nomination list, beyond that, I'm pretty torn! This list, I will say, seems highly tilted to Fantasy – only the Egan and Scholz stories are SF, but they are both brilliant SF, the hardest stuff, and highly politically charged. Indeed, politics are also central to Cooney’s “The Bone Swans of Amandale” and Reiss’s Sunset Mantle. Perhaps it’s in the air? Besides politics, wonderful prose is a key feature of several – both Cooney stories, and also Taaffe’s and Hand’s. (Which is not to say the others aren’t well written, but the prose isn’t as front and center in them.)

“Twelve and Tag” by Gregory Norman Bossert (Asimov’s)
“Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen (Asimov’s)
“The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild” by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld)
“Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathagan” by Ian McDonald (Old Venus)
“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Analog)
“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear (Old Venus)
“This Evening’s Performance” by Genevieve Valentine (The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk)
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed)
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang (Uncanny)
“My Last Bringback” by John Barnes (Meeting Infinity)
“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamysn Muir (F&SF)

So this list has, by my definition, only three Fantasy stories as against eight SF stories. And not so much directly political work as the novellas, either, nor as much prose-besotted work. (Though Valente’s certainly qualifies, in a very, er, colorful way!) The impacts are different – as they should be – Bossert is twisty hard SF, Ludwigsen is moving contemporary fantasy, McDonald and Valentine are steam- (or diesel-) punkish, though not traditionally so. Muir evokes Lovecraft – not something you see too often in my lists of favorites! Bolander is non-stop, and pretty violent, noirish action adventure, but with pretty cool SF ideas as well.

Short Story:
“Mutability” by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s)
“Capitalism in the 22nd Century” by Geoff Ryman (Stories for Chip)
“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link (Strange Horizons)
“The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley (Lightspeed)
“Hello Hello” by Seanan McGuire (Future Visions)
“Consolation” by John Kessel (Twelve Tomorrows)
“The Daughters of John Demetrius” by Joe Pitkin (Analog)
“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” by Rebecca Campbell (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” by Nike Sulway (Lightspeed)
“Little Sisters” by Vonda M. McIntyre (Book View Cafe)
“Asymptotic” by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld)
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)
“Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)
“Drones” by Simon Ings (Meeting Infinity)
“The Graphology of Hemorrhage” by Yoon Ha Lee (Operation Arcana)
“Please Undo This Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (
“The King in the Cathedral” by Rich Larson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Time Bomb Time” by C.C. Finlay (Lightspeed)

The one story this year that came out of nowhere to stun me was “Mutability”, for what that’s worth. Again, not as much Fantasy. Beyond that, all I can say is – these are a bunch of outstanding stories. Read them!

Some Hugo Nomination Suggestions

For the past few years I have avoided the sorts of posts I used to routinely make, listing my favorite stories of the year and making suggestions for Hugo nominations. There are several reasons – one is simply that I thought my Best of the Year Table of Contents served such a purpose by default, more or less, another is time. And a third, of course, is a feeling of skittishness about the controversy that has arisen, from several directions, on the appropriateness of nomination lists, or, Lord preserve us, “slates”.

But hang it all, almost all I’ve been about for my time writing about SF is promoting the reading of good stories. Why should I stop? Why should anyone? I don’t want people to nominate based on my recommendations – I want people to read the stories I recommend – and lots of other stories – and nominate the stories they like best. I don’t want to promote an agenda. I don’t want to nudge the field towards any set of themes or styles. (Except by accident – I don’t deny that I have conscious and unconscious preferences.) In fact, I’d rather be surprised – by new ideas, by new writers, by controversial positions, by new forms, by revitalization of old forms.

I’ll begin on a somewhat personal note, and I apologize in advance for a tiny bit of self-promotion that might result. I have, as part of the editorial team at Lightspeed Magazine, won Hugos each of the past two years, for Best Semiprozine. We’re very proud of that – I’m quite confident I can speak for my co-conspirators, John Joseph Adams (our leader), Wendy Wagner, Stefan Rudnicki, and Christie Yant, in that sense. But we’re not going to win one this year: we have graduated from the ranks of Semiprozines. I might add that in a crowded field for Best Professional Editor (Short Form), I’ll be rooting for John – I truly think his work at Lightspeed and as editor of numerous anthologies, is fully worthy of a Hugo. (It would be remiss of me not to mention the many other worthy possibilities: Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan, Trevor Quachri at Analog, C. C. Finlay at F&SF, Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, Andy Cox at Interzone and Black Static, Neil Clarke at Clarkesworld, Sean Wallace at Clarkesworld and The Dark, Scott H. Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, anthologist Brian Thomas Schmidt, ). In long form I would mention book editors like Toni Weisskopf of Baen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor, though there are many further worthy possibilities. And in a too little too late sense, the great David Hartwell, who died in January, has been worthy of a Hugo both as an acquiring book editor and as an anthologist for many years.

(For myself, I can gingerly note that I am eligible as a fanwriter, for my work at Black Gate and at this blog (Strange at Ecbatan), not to mention my Locus reviews (for which last I should add I am paid). (I’m technically eligible as an editor, but I would not mention myself, particularly as an editor of reprint anthologies only, in the company above.))

Indeed, mention of Black Gate lets me segue to a brief discussion of the Best Fanzine category. Black Gate was controversially nominated last year, largely because they were placed on the Rabid Puppies slate. Black Gate withdrew from consideration for that award in protest, as did one of their best contributors, Matthew David Surridge, who was nominated for Best Fanwriter. But the whole process highlighted something I had not even thought of – Black Gate, in its current incarnation, really is a fanzine. And in my admittedly very biased opinion, a fanzine worthy of consideration for a Hugo. Of course it’s not the only worthy site, or print ‘zine. File 770, edited by Mike Glyer, comes immediately to mind. Unfortunately Steven Silver’s excellent Argentus (to which I contribute regularly) didn’t publish a 2015 issue, so it’s not eligible this year.

From fanzine to semiprozine makes sense, eh? Previous Hugo nominees Apex and Lightspeed are no longer eligible as of this year. Who’s worthy? In all honesty, any controversy over some nominations aside, I thought all the ‘zines that made last year’s Hugo Ballot worthy, including the withdrawn Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. The others were Abyss and Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Right below the nomination borderline were The Book Smugglers, Interzone, and Pornokitsch. All are fine ‘zines. Neil Clarke maintains a fairly comprehensive list of eligible ‘zines here: Of that list, I’d particularly like to direct people’s attention to Giganotosaurus, which has been publishing intriguing longer form fiction for a few years now; Kaleidotrope, which has been consistently featuring fine stories, first in print, now online, for a while as well; and a new entry, Uncanny Stories, which has really had an impressive first year.

I have little enough to say about Dramatic Presentation. I think we all suspect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will win easily. I enjoyed the movie, but with severe misgivings. My choice for best SF movie of the year is The Martian, and I haven’t yet seen Deus Ex Machina or Mad Max: Fury Road (both are on the Netflix queue) – by all accounts, both are excellent.

As for the other categories (besides the fiction), I either have only a couple of longtime favorites (as with Best Artist), or I am simply ignorant (as with Best Graphic Story and Best TV Episode – er, sorry, Dramatic Presentation, Short Form).

And perhaps that’s enough for now – I’ll get into the fiction next time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Forgotten SF Anthology: Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw

A Forgotten SF Anthology: Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw

A review by Rich Horton

It was once common for SF magazines to occasionally put out anthologies of the best stories from their pages. There was a very long series called The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, and shorter series from Galaxy and Analog. The more obscure magazines were perhaps less likely to explicitly publish a book with their name in the title, as their brand wouldn’t necessarily sell books, but there were many examples of anthologies drawing exclusively from such magazines. This book is arguably an example, though its title does in fact reflect its source magazine.

Science Fiction Adventures was a fairly short-lived digest. It was edited by Larry T. Shaw, the first issue dated December 1956, the last June 1958. There were 12 issues in all. (At the same time Shaw was editing the fine magazine Infinity.) It was preceded by an unrelated magazine that ran between 1952 and 1954, edited by Lester Del Rey. There was also a UK incarnation, that for five issues reprinted stories from the Shaw incarnation of Science Fiction Adventures, but continued for a total of 32 issues between 1958 and 1963. This magazine was edited by John Carnell, and was a companion to New Worlds and Science Fantasy. The Shaw magazine was, naturally, specifically devoted to adventure-oriented SF, and also to longer stories, typically featuring two long novelettes or novellas (billed as “novels”) each issue. Carnell’s incarnation had a similar focus and length mix.

The anthology at hand was published by Lancer Books in 1963, with an Ed Emshwiller cover, and if it’s not necessarily a “Best of”, it is a quite representative selection. The four stories are all long, and all certainly adventure stories. All the authors are quite prominent, though three of them are represented by early work, published before they had made their names.

The TOC is:

“The Starcombers”, by Edmond Hamilton (December 1956, 17500 words)
“Hunt the Space-Witch”, by Robert Silverberg (January 1958, 18000 words)
“The Man from the Big Dark”, by John Brunner (June 1958, 19500 words)
“The World Otalmi Made”, by Harry Harrison (June 1958, 13000 words)

Edmond Hamilton was the veteran of this group, a favorite of SF readers since the 1920s. “The Starcombers” is a rather dark story in which a somewhat unsavory star travelling band, mostly a mix of a couple of families, that makes its living scavenging, finds a nearly dead planet with signs of massive ancient structures. There is a curious deep rift on the planet, and in it they find the remains of a once impressive human civilization. The few devolved survivors offer to trade their high-tech relics for food, but their real goal is betrayal. The main character is a cynical drunk, already disgusted with the way the slatternly wife of the captain is throwing herself at him. But he is forced to attempt to save the captain and others when they are taken by the nasty locals … leading to a desperate rescue attempt, and more betrayal … as I said, quite dark and cynical. Just an OK piece.

“Hunt the Space-Witch” was originally published as by “Ivar Jorgenson” – Silverberg was the most prolific contributor to Science Fiction Adventures, under his own name, as well as “Ivar Jorgenson”, “Calvin M. Knox”, "Ralph Burke", and “Alexander Blade”. Most of his contributions were novellas or even novels, and some ended up as Ace Doubles. He also did some book reviews. This story is a bit better than the Hamilton, if in the end about as dark and cynical. Barsac is a big dumb starship crewman, who comes to the planet Glaurus determined to rescue his blood brother, who missed the ship on their previous stop there. But he soon learns that his friend has joined the Cult of the Witch. Barsac blunders around trying to find him, but runs afoul of the local authorities (some of whom are also cultists), and eventually ends up captured by a circus owner, and works for him for some months. This interlude has some noticeably Vancean moments. Eventually Barsac is able to return to his quest, and eventually find his blood brother, and confront the Witch. There are some colorful passages here, though the plot is never really surprising.

The best of these stories is Brunner’s “The Man From the Big Dark”. It’s still pretty conventional, but it grabbed me. It’s one of three pieces set in the same loose galactic future, eventually collected in the book Interstellar Empire. (The other two are “The Wanton of Argus”, one of Brunner’s first stories, originally published in Two Science Fiction Adventure Books for Summer 1953 as by Killian Houstan Brunner, and later as an Ace Double under the title The Space-Time Juggler; and The Altar of Asconel, a 1965 If serial also published as an Ace Double.) This story opens with a pirate’s starship coming to the planet Klareth, just this side of the “Big Dark”. The pirate disappears before the authorities find a murdered girl on his ship. We then follow the pirate, Terak, who, we learn, is out for revenge against the man really responsible for the girl’s murder, his former boss, Aldur. He is trying to find Janlo, who has been leading the local effort to suppress a rebellion. Terak ships on a ship captained by a beautiful woman, and soon finds himself entranced by her and her world … but still wanting revenge on Aldur, who has plans to take over this world. Nowhere does this story surprise, and in the end it doesn’t make too much sense, but it’s effectively told and I like it.

Finally, the weakest story is “The World Otalmi Made”. It’s about a member of the “Profession”, who has been hired to stop a man named Otalmi from his control of his planet. Otalmi seems to be using some sort of mind control. Our hero, Brek, in the company of a beautiful doctor, accomplishes this, of course, in pure thriller fashion. The SF elements here are not really important, and the story never makes much sense.

All in all, a not inappropriate representation of Science Fiction Adventures. I might have included Thomas N. Scortia’s “Alien Night” or C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Slave” instead of the Harrison, or indeed Algis Budrys' “Yesterday’s Man” or one of a couple of Harlan Ellison novellas. But the book is what the magazine was: adventure-oriented long SF stories, not terribly great but often decent fun.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A (mostly) Forgotten SF Novel: ... And All the Stars a Stage, by James Blish

... And All the Stars a Stage, by James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

James Blish was one of the most influential writers and critics of SF in the midcentury. He was born in 1921, and his first story appeared in 1940 in Super Science Stories, placing him in a remarkable constellation of writers born about the same time who began publishing at the same time as well: Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, and Damon Knight among them. Blish, like all of those writers, was a member of the sometimes controversial fan group the Futurians. His work throughout the ’40s had little impact – perhaps most important were a couple of stories that he reworked later into more significant pieces: “Sunken Universe” (1942, as by “Arthur Merlyn”) and “The Weaknesses of R. V. O. G.” (1949, with Knight). His first novel appeared in 1951 (“Sword of Xota”, in book form as The Warriors of Day), followed very quickly by many more. Many of his most famous stories appear in two series: the Okies stories, of star-traveling cities, began in Astounding with “Bridge” in 1952, and the Pantropy stories, collected as The Seedling Stars, begin with “Sunken Universe”, but took flight with “Surface Tension”, in Galaxy in 1952. His novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo in  1959 – it was expanded from a 1953 If novelette. So 1952/1953 was pretty important for Blish, especially when you add his seminal 1953 short story “Common Time” to the ledger.

He also wrote a great deal of criticism, originally in fanzines, as by “William Atheling Jr.”. I don’t think the pseudonym was ever much hidden – still, Blish did on occasion review his own work, not sparing it: he criticized his 1957 Astounding serial “Get Out of My Sky!” for its abrupt turn to a psionics theme – he accused the author of pandering to editor John W. Campbell’s tics, and I suppose he knew! (It’s quite obvious that something like that happened when you read the story, which starts out wonderfully and falls to silly pieces in the second half.) Blish’s criticism was collected in three books: The Issue at Hand, More Issues at Hand, and The Tale That Wags the God.

Blish was also an early advocate of an SF writers’ organization (which led eventually to the Science Fiction Writers of America). A perhaps less-noted influence was his Star Trek books: he began a long series of “novelettizations” of Star Trek (original series) episodes in 1967 (though the latest books, even though they appeared under his name were written by his wife Judith Ann Lawrence and (some say) her mother). He also wrote the first Star Trek novel aimed at adults, Spock Must Die! (1970).

All in all, a career that certainly would have culminated in a Grand Master award, but alas he died aged only 54, in 1975, of lung cancer. (He was a heavy smoker, and indeed spent some time working for the Tobacco Institute.)

I have, along the way, read nearly his complete novels – omitting only Dr. Mirabilis, Spock Must Die!, and his two collaborations (The Duplicated Man (1953), with Robert A. W. Lowndes; and A Torrent of Faces (1965/1967), with Norman L. Knight.) I’ve also read much of his short fiction. He was an extremely uneven writer – I love his best work (for me, The Seedling Stars, A Case of Conscience, and such short stories as “Common Time”, “A Work of Art”, “Tomb Tapper”, “Beep”, and the late “A Style in Treason”). And much of the rest of his stuff was very enjoyable as well, including Cities in Flight, VOR, and the engaging if silly juvenile Welcome to Mars. But he also wrote some truly dreadful stuff: the paired juveniles The Star Dwellers and Mission to the Heart Stars, the non-SF juvenile The Vanished Jet, The Warriors of Day, and perhaps especially The Night Shapes are each nearly unreadable, and sometimes downright offensive. Only Michael Moorcock among significant SF writers seems to me to show such a puzzling range of quality.

I read … And All the Stars a Stage when I was quite young, probably 14 or 15, in the 1971 Doubleday edition. I remember enjoying it, and being impressed by the notion of a matriarchal society and how it arose (birth control and sexual selection of children, basically), but not much else. So when I got a copy of the June 1960 Amazing Science Fiction, with part 1 of the serial version of the book, I figured I’d reread it in that form. I searched out the July issue, and read both parts. In the process I noticed something interesting: the serial is accompanied by a notice: “This novel will be published in the fall by Signet Books under the title Crab Nebula”. I had never heard of a Blish novel with that title. Had they decided to stick with the original title after all? But I checked the ISFDB: no mention of Crab Nebula, nor any book publication of … and All the Stars a Stage until 1971.

So what happened? I asked around, and Gregory Feeley, first-rate SF writer and critic and an authority on Blish, told me that the book had been commissioned by Truman Talley at Signet, but that Talley didn’t like it and rejected it. Eventually it sold to Doubleday. There was an edition from Faber and Faber in England, and a 1974 Avon paperback. Late in his life Blish wrote an essay, “A Bad Idea Trampled to Death by Ducks”, about the troubled publication history of the book, which was not one of his favorites among his work. (The essay was published in Vector 9 years after Blish’s death.)

I found a copy of the Doubleday edition (formerly the property of the U. S. Army!) to compare with the serial. The copyright page says that a “somewhat abridged version of this novel first appeared in Amazing”, however, I could find no obvious changes in comparing the book and serial, and a quick and dirty word count suggest the two are about the same length (a bit over 50,000 words). Greg Feeley has seen Blish’s manuscript that went to Doubleday, and says it was mostly just the tearsheets from Amazing, with perhaps a few small additions. The title is a bit inconsistently presented: on the cover of the Doubleday edition the ellipsis is omitted, but it's back on the title page, and apparently it's entirely gone in the Avon edition.

So, I’ve gone on and on about Blish, and about the publication history of this novel. What should I say about the novel itself? It’s probably fair to note that it really isn’t, in the end, all that interesting, though to my mind much better than his worst books.

It opens with Jorn Birn, a young man in a matriarchal society, depressed over his status as a drone in a world in which the only real opportunity for a man is to join the harem of a powerful woman. He notices an ad for a mysterious sounding job, and on impulse he decides to apply. He gets the job, after learning that it’s a dangerous one: testing an interstellar spaceship. One of the leaders of the project is a beautiful woman who seems to immediately hate Jorn. We can see where THAT is going, though Blish totally underplays it: much later in the book come the sentences: “Jorn and Ailiss were married the next day. Somehow, there was nothing else to do.”

Soon after he joins the team working to form crews for the spaceships being built, he learns that there is a driving reason for this project: scientists have learned that the Sun is about to go nova. They plan to build a huge armada, but their plans are disarranged when it becomes clear that the Sun will explode much sooner than originally expected. Between the compressed schedule, and the rioting that occurs when the world’s population learns how few people will be able to escape, only a small subset of the originally planned fleet is built, and they just barely escape and head into space.

Here I must make a confession: all along I thought this book was set a couple centuries in the future on Earth. There is no reason in the first half or so to doubt this (except maybe the unlikely notion that our Sun would become a supernova … but was this that well known in 1960? I can’t remember.) But after the armada sets off, we learn that in fact Jorn’s world was much different than Earth (only not really): one of a system of 116 planets orbiting a blue giant (yet with a Moon much resembling our Moon, on very brief description). That fact, along with the originally planned title of the novel, Crab Nebula, pretty much gives away where the book will end.

Anyway, things continue to go poorly on the desperate flight. Some of the other spaceships fail or one reason or another. Others go out of contact as the armada spreads and spreads. Potentially habitable planets are rare. We do get extended episodes exploring two promising planets, both the homes (or once the homes) of fully human people, but both end in utter failure for quite different reasons (interesting but implausible in the first case, less interesting and slightly more plausible in the second case). As society aboard the spaceship declines – it’s not really a generation ship, because Jorn’s people have developed much extended lifespans – it becomes clearer and clearer that any landfall must suffice, and … well, I won’t give away the ending, but it is easy enough to guess in some ways, though there is a bit of a dying fall to Blish’s execution.

It’s an odd exercise. Blish throws away some fairly interesting ideas, such as the “familiars” that most men on Jorn’s planet have become attached to. He seems thoroughly uninterested in the social and personal interactions of the characters, except occasionally to make a point. Structurally there’s a somewhat uneven division in two: the first half about the project to build the starships, the second about their somewhat depressing actual flight. I don’t really think any of Blish’s notions ever cohered into a real novel: the end result is not unreadable, but a very minor part of his overall oeuvre.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Old Bestsellers: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Old Bestsellers: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

a review by Rich Horton

When I say I'm reviewing an "Old Bestseller", the usual implication is that I'm looking at a book, probably from the first half of the 20th Century, that has met the fate of most books, even bestsellers, and has been forgotten. But sometimes even great novels become bestsellers. Edith Wharton, indisputably a great novelist, had two books end up on Publishers' Weekly's list of the ten bestselling novels of their year: The House of Mirth (1905) was 8th in 1905 and 9th in 1906; while The Age of Innocence (1920), which (somewhat controversially*) won the Pulitzer Prize, was 3rd in 1921.

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. She was raised much in the manner of wealthy young women of her time, plenty of travel, a private education (tutors and governesses), and the expectation of an appropriate marriage. She rebelled to an extent, writing from an early age (she tried a novel at 11, completed a novella when 15, and published a translation of a poem anonymously at 15). She married an older man, Edward ("Teddy") Wharton, when she was 23. The marriage foundered, largely, it appears, because of Teddy's mental illness. They divorced in 1913, but Edith had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton several years earlier. She lived primarily in France from about 1908, and she died in 1937.

Wharton published a few short stories and poems in the '80s and '90s. Aside from a privately printed collection of poems, her first book was non-fiction: The Decoration of Houses, in 1897, which is indeed about interior decoration. Eventually she published quite a number of books of that nature, and also travel books. Her first book length fiction was a novella, The Touchstone, in 1900. Another novella and a full-length novel appeared before The House of Mirth, which was her first major success. Wharton was, obviously, from an extraordinarily privileged background, yet finances were often a difficulty for her, no doubt in part because of her husband's illness and their eventual divorce; also no doubt because her style of life was expensive. Thus, the fact that her books sold well, and that one could get paid quite nicely for magazine publications as well in those days was important.

I wrote in a previous blog post that I sometimes, when trying major writers, shy away from longer works. So it was with Wharton -- many years ago I read her 1911 novella Ethan Frome. And I liked it immensely, though I soon realized it is quite uncharacteristic of her body of work. Ethan Frome has a curious place in her oeuvre -- it was, it seems to me, definitely her most famous book when I was growing up. One assumed, or at least I did, that it was her masterpiece. But of course it is not -- in the most technical sense, that is The House of Mirth, which is her first fully accomplished novel. And there are two more novels that stand head and shoulders above Ethan Frome in the consensus estimation: The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920). For all that I never did try another Wharton novel until now, though I did see the well-regarded 1993 Martin Scorcese film of The Age of Innocence. (The House of Mirth was also made into a movie, in 2000, directed by Terence Davies, starring Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart.)

On my sadly unplanned trips back and forth to my parents' home in Naperville, IL, last month, I was looking for something to read on our iPad (because I can't read my Kindle, or a paper book, in the dark).  Various classic novels are available for free from iBooks, and I lit on The House of Mirth. When we got back home I looked up a print version, eventually settling on a used copy of the Scribner Library of Contemporary Classics trade paper edition, complete with detailed underlining and notes from, one imagines, a college student. Scribner's, by the way, serialized the novel first (in Scribner's Magazine), and also published the first book edition. (For that matter, I have a bound volume of Scribner's Magazine for 1902, which includes some of Wharton's writing on travel and gardens, and also a poem of hers. I had carelessly assumed she was a major writer condescending to publish occasional pieces when I first saw that, but actually this work came quite early in her real career.)

The House of Mirth opens with Lawrence Selden unexpectedly encountering Lily Bart in Grand Central Station. She accompanies him for tea in his quarters (at that time, probably 1895-1905, this was faintly scandalous), and we gather that she and Lawrence are attracted to each other, but that he isn't quite rich enough for her, and anyway perhaps he is a bit shy of marriage. She hints that she has her eyes on Percy Gryce, a very rich young man, also a straitlaced crashing bore. Soon she is heading to the country house of her friend Judy Trenor for a visit, where she expects to bring Percy around.

We soon learn Lily's real situation: she was born into the highest social class, but her father's financial errors and her mother's character faults have left her impoverished, but unable to imagine any life other than to be the wife of a sufficiently rich man of her class. Her parents are dead, and she lives with a fussy old aunt, when she's not staying at her friends' houses, doing little social chores for them as a sort of rent. Lily Bart is amazingly beautiful, but she is 29, having already refused a couple of offers of marriage. She senses on the one hand that she is trained only to be a man's ornamental wife and social director; but she has a certain native intelligence, and taste, and independence, and so she, at the least opportune times, tends to kick up her traces. Which is what happens at the Trenors' house party -- she stands up Percy Gryce in favor of a walk with Lawrence Selden, who has turned up unexpectedly; and before she knows it Gryce is snared by another girl. And Lily, her finances truly strained, and unable or unwilling to ask her aunt for help (in part because one of her issues is gambling debts), has agreed to let Gus Trenor give her some financial "tips" ...

At about this time I realized I was reading something truly special. Part of it is Wharton's prose, which is carefully controlled and perfectly elegant. Part of it is her wit -- this is a tragic novel but at times it is quite comic. Much of it is Wharton's precise view of her characters, from both the inside and the outside. The descriptions are dryly ironic, and wholly believable even as the characters act in ways that we find curious today. I'll content myself with one quote, from later in the novel, Selden criticizing (to himself) Lily's resignation to striving in society: "It was before him again in its completeness -- the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dulness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance."

Lily Bart is a remarkable character. In many ways she is reprehensible: she is uneducated, she is scornful of people of other classes, she is complicit in the cynical behavior of her set even though she sees how wrong it is, she is financially careless. You could say she deserves, in a sense, what she gets. But we still root for her, we still hope she can find happiness. Wharton makes us believe in her beauty, and believe that there is a real Lily Bart who deserves that happiness, even as she is contrasted with perhaps her closest friend, plain Gerty Farish, an old maid who is unfailingly loyal, and also charitable and honest and able to live within her limited means.

The novel, from one point of view -- quite a sensible one -- is about a woman trapped by society's rules, and particularly their unfair impact on women, especially single women. But even within those constraints, Lily Bart is something of a special case, for she could have married very well any number of times, and she could have married for love and lived comfortably enough, and she could even have saved herself and gotten a well-deserved revenge on a bad woman ... but was too honorable to do so. In a way, even as she rebels against her class's notions of proper behavior (to an extent), she also obeys them more completely than the more conventionally successful people in her circle. This makes her fall the more moving, even as we can still see that she too is at fault.

Spoilers will follow ...

So Gus Trenor's "investments" give Lily financial freedom for a short while, until she realizes that in fact Trenor had just given her the money, and that he expects a sexual quid pro quo in exchange. She rejects him, and determines to repay him, ironically losing another chance at real intimacy with Selden when he assumes the worst of her relationship with Trenor at the very moment she is rejecting him. Meanwhile Lily is pursued by Simon Rosedale, a Jewish man whose wealth has given him an uncertain entree into society. He hopes on the one hand that a beautiful and socially established wife will ease his way -- on the other hand he truly seems to love Lily. But she cannot love him, nor see an arrangement with him as anything but a crude business contract -- as, really, all her marriage proposals have been, which is probably why she has rejected them all. (The portrayal of Rosedale is the one unpleasant aspect of this book -- it is rather anti-Semitic in tone, for sure, though mitigated in a few ways: for one, it is an accurate (as far as I know) depiction of how people of that society really felt about Jewish people; for two, Wharton seems to recognize that a big part of Rosedale's character and attitudes are formed in reaction to prejudice; for three, most of the rest of New York society gets treated as harshly as Rosedale. But ... but ... there are still some distinctly anti-Semitic passages, especially when Rosedale's character is regarded as characteristic of his "race" -- again, that's no doubt what a socialite of Lily Bart's class would have felt, but it does jar one.)

Lily ends up fleeing to Europe in the company of Bertha Dorset, who wants her to distract her husband while she pursues an affair with a young poet. Lily fulfils her role admirably, and is shocked when Bertha betrays her by falsely accusing her of adultery as a way of getting leverage to prevent her husband from divorcing her. This precipitates Lily's essential banishment from society, which is only exacerbated when Lily returns home to find that her aunt has died and also that she has been disinherited because of her aunt's disgust at the rumors of adultery. The rest of the novel describes Lily's further descent: a couple of attempts at rehabilitation by taking up with people from a rung or two below her on the social ladder, only to have these torpedoed either by Bertha Dorset's vindictiveness or by Lily's own scruples. Things get worse and worse, and when Simon Rosedale offers her a final way out she is tempted, but (wholly justifiable) revenge against Mrs. Dorset is an important aspect of this offer, and even though that would be wholly just it would still be mean in a way Lily can't quite manage, and the end comes, arguably a bit melodramatic but to my mind fully and honestly prepared for, and quite moving. And we are given no surcease ... no one, not Gerty, not Lawrence, ever knows of the proof of Bertha's wickedness, nor of Lily's essential innocence of most of the sins laid at her door.

Really, I loved this novel. I don't feel that I've done it justice ... so I just suggest you read it.

* As for the "controversial" Pulitzer to The Age of Innocence -- apparently the Pulitzer committee wanted to give it to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the President of Columbia University overruled them. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which seems important in itself, but more to the point, I would think that posterity has ruled: Wharton is, to my mind, a more interesting and lasting writer than Lewis, and The Age of Innocence seems -- not having read it, I ought to emphasize! -- intrinsically more interesting than Main Street.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ace Doubles: Falcons of Narabedla/The Dark Intruder, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ace Double Reviews, 44: Falcons of Narabedla, by Marion Zimmer Bradley/The Dark Intruder and Other Stories, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (#F-273, 1964, $0.40, reprinted as #22576, 1972, $0.95)

Back to an old Ace Double review, which I'm reprinting partly because I learned some interesting new things about the origin of the novel here. Plus of course there are some interesting but distressing new biographical details on the author.

Marion Zimmer was born in 1930 in Albany, NY. She was a very active SF fan from the late '40s, and she published several fanzines as well as numerous exuberant letters in the letter columns of the pulps of the day (I have several issues of old magazines with her letters). She married Robert Bradley in 1949, and they had one son, David, who became a writer, and died in 2008. (MZB's brother, Paul Zimmer, was also an active fan whose letters are easy to find in old SF magazine lettercols, and who later became a reasonably accomplished writer.) The Bradleys divorced in 1964, and Marion married Walter Breen, a fellow SF fan and a noted numismatist, within a month. Breen was already well known as an advocate of pederasty, and MZB certainly knew of his proclivities, and indeed Breen had been banned from at least one SF convention in that time period. Breen had been convicted of pederasty-related crimes as early as 1954, and continued to have trouble with the law, finally going to jail after another conviction in 1990. MZB managed to dodge serious consequences of her husband's activities throughout her life, and she died in 1999. In 2014 her daughter, by Breen, Moira Greyland, accused her of sexual abuse, and in retrospect it seems to me that it should have been clear all along that Bradley was at least negligently complicit in her husband's crimes, certainly aware of them, and now it appears more likely than not that she was a participant herself. (Though I suppose I must add that damning and convincing as the accusations seem, Bradley never did have a chance to defend herself against those that came after her death, though some of her own testimony given during Breen's legal troubles is chilling enough.) This has understandably had a devastating effect on her reputation -- and she was not really a good enough writer to make it likely that her work will long survive the posthumous stain. Jim Hines briefly discusses this, with links to more direct information, in a good blog post here.

That said, a lot of writers are less than exemplary moral creatures (as with a lot of folks in any profession). It's still worth looking at Bradley's work for its intrinsic value -- she was quite popular, eventually she sold very well, she was a Hugo nominee for her novel The Heritage of Hastur, and her feminist Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon was very well received in some circles. She also edited a magazine, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, as well as two long running anthology series (one consisting of stories set in her world Darkover, the other featuring feminist-oriented stories, Swords and Sorceresses). In her role as editor, she very actively encouraged (and paid!) new writers, and she also gave a lot of advice. To my mind, her advice, and her editorial taste, were of mixed value: she had (I think) limited ideas of proper story construction, and also her fair share of crotchets (for example a dislike of pseudonyms, even though she herself used a number of pseudonyms early in her career, mostly for Lesbian porn); but for all that, she quite sincerely championed new writers, and ushered many of them into publication, some of whom went on to have nice careers. (Though again I must add, I found fairly little of real worth in the many Swords and Sorceresses anthologies I read.)

And what about her fiction? Her most famous series was a long set of SF novels about a lost colony planet called Darkover, where humans developed significant psi powers (to the extent that the novels read a lot like fantasy). I read all the Darkover novels through those that appeared in the mid-'70s, by which time it seemed to me that they grew longer and longer to an excessive point, and also moved in political and psychosexual directions that didn't interest me, and that her skills as a writer did not really uphold. But the early Darkover novels remain good fun -- minor works in context, but fine adventure stories with a romantic cast. By about the mid-60s she was primarly focused on Darkover, but up to that point she wrote a variety of SF novels, mostly similar in tone to the Darkover books (and occasionally she incorporated parts of her early non-Darkover novels into later Darkover stories, even in the case of this book, much of which ended up in The Winds of Darkover).

She was a fairly prolific Ace Double contributor, with 9 Ace Double halves in 7 separate books (not counting this book's later reprint). The book at hand backs her first novel with a story collection. The novel, Falcons of Narabedla, first appeared in full in 1957 in Other Worlds. It is about 41,000 words long, apparently identical to the Other Worlds version or very nearly so. What I didn't know until very recently was that most of Falcons of Narabedla (an early version of it) first appeared in Harlan Ellison's fanzine Dimensions, in 1953 and 1954. (It was to be a five part serial, but Ellison stopped publishing Dimensions before the serial could be completed.) The stories collected in The Dark Intruder total about 37,000 words.

My copy is the second Ace Double edition, from 1972, with covers by Mitchell Hooks and Kelly Freas. The 1964 edition featured these covers, possibly by Jack Gaughan (at least the one for The Dark Intruder looks like him, and he did do the interiors):

What follows is what I wrote about this book a number of years ago.

Falcons of Narabedla is on the one hand a very pulpy short novel, with a hackneyed basic premise (man snatched out of time into another world), and such standard features as anachronistic sword-fighting, aristocratic societies and rebellion, and an overly rapid conclusion. On the other hand, there are some pretty intriguing ideas that could have stood further development, and the book as a whole reads rapidly and excitingly. In the end it was kind of frustrating -- it could have been decent stuff, but it really isn't very good.

It opens with Mike Kenscott camping in the Sierra Madres with his younger brother. Mike is an electrical engineer who has been acting strangely since he had an accident with some equipment he was working, and he has had occasional odd "memories" of strange birds and the like. Suddenly he finds himself waking in a strange tower, looking over a much changed Sierra skyline, with two suns in the sky. The people with him call him "Adric", and he has no idea who they are. And a look in the mirror shows a much different man.

Slowly he learns that he is in the body of a man named Adric, far in the future. Adric seems to have been an ambitious lord of this land called Narabedla, but he has been under the sway of a beautiful woman called Kamary. The people who have woken him, a veiled androgynous figure called Gamine and an ancient man called Rhys, seem somehow opposed to Kamary, and there is also talk of the Dreamers, and of a man named Narayan. Further encounters with Adric's jealous brother Evarin, a "Toymaker", and then with Kamary and her zombie-like slaves, only serve to increase the confusion. And the partial return of Adric's memories and even consciousness helps little.

Eventually he agrees to join a mission to the Dreamer's Keep, where by some horrifying means the aristocrats of Narabedla gain power from the sleeping, imprisoned, Dreamers linked to them. But on the way he is kidnapped by Narayan, and comes to in Narayan's rebel camp, along with the beautiful Cynara, an apparently sympathetic woman who had accompanied the group heading for the Keep. Narayan and Cynara turn out to be brother and sister, and it transpires that Adric and Narayan were close friends -- indeed, Narayan was Adric's linked Dreamer, and the source of his power. But Adric had chosen to free Cynara and then Nayaran, an act which precipitated Kamary's taken control of him, and indeed her sending his consciousness into the past. Now Michael Kenscott is in charge, and he agrees to help Narayan's people in their quest to free the caged Dreamers and overturn Kamary's group. But then Adric's consciousness returns to control, and he has reverted to the brutish lord who wishes to return Narayan to his prison. Pretending to be Kenscott, he leads Narayan's group into a trap -- and only the sudden (and quite unexplained) appearance of Kenscott's physical body for Kenscott to return to makes it possible to resist him.

I've skipped a few details such as the title birds, huge falcons that are mentally controlled by the aristocrats. I've also glossed over something that annoyed me but probably wouldn't bother lots of people -- Bradley's character names just seem stupid. One character has three short first names (Mike Ken Scott). One is named after a famous Indian writer (Narayan). One name seems a description: Gamine. (I suppose it would be unfair to mention that another name seems like a Toyota, as there were no Camrys when this book was written.) But no matter. The story is resolved fairly predictably, and too rapidly. The characters are neatly paired off, the bad guys are only punished a little, there is new hope for Narabedla, etc. etc. Ultimately a pretty minor book, but it does hint at some of what made the best of Bradley's Darkover novels pretty good stuff.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's short fiction career has a slightly odd shape. She first made her name as a fan, writing colorful letters to magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, using pseudonyms like Astara. In 1953 she sold two stories to the very low end and short-lived magazine Vortex, and beginning in 1954 she started selling more regularly to better magazines (though very rarely to the top magazines). By the late 50s she was writing novels, and her short stories ceased in 1963 as she focused on her Darkover books. She began writing more short fiction in 1973, a Tolkien pastiche called "Letter to Arwen", then in the 80s produced a number of short stories, seemingly mostly in support of her projects such as the Friends of Darkover books, as well as Thieves' World stories.

The Dark Intruder and Other Stories, then, appearing after her first run of short fiction had ceased, serves as a documentation of that phase of her career. Except for the title story, these are fairly short pieces, definitely SF and not Fantasy, turning on cute and sometimes mordant ideas.

"The Dark Intruder" (15,000 words) (Amazing, December 1962, as "Measureless to Man", a far better title) -- Under its original title, this story appears on my list of stories with titles from "Kubla Khan". It's set on Mars. Andrew Slayton is part of the third archaeological expedition to the deserted ancient Martian city called Xanadu. The members of the previous two expeditions died violently. Andrew stumbles into the desert near the city and finds himself possessed by the mind of an ancient Martian. Somehow, due to his own strength and the restraint of his possessor, he retains his sanity. He learns a secret about the dying Martian race, and must try to find a solution for their unique problem. Not a bad story.

"Jackie Sees a Star" (1900 words) (Fantastic Universe, December 1954) -- a young boy is in telepathic contact with a young alien on a distant star. OK for its length.

"Exiles of Tomorrow" (2700 words) (Fantastic Universe, March 1955) -- in the future criminals are punished by exiling them to the past, where they are to live alone. One couple manages to arrange to be exiled to the same time, and they have a child. The boy grows up and meets a very unusual man ... leading to a shock ending that didn't work for me. Nice basic idea, though.

"Death Between the Stars" (6800 words) (Fantastic Universe, March 1956) -- also uses an idea from "The Dark Intruder" -- aliens "possessing" humans somewhat benignly. A woman needs to take a starship back to human space, but the only berth is with an alien. The aliens are hated by humans and any contact with them is regarded as vile, for totally unconvincing reasons. The alien is mistreated by the crew and the woman must overcome her misgivings to try to save him. As the title hints, not successfully -- except in an unexpected way. Too much of the motivating force of this story was auctorially engineered, very implausibly, to work for me.

"The Crime Therapist" (3700 words) (Future, October 1954) -- criminals can be cured of the psychological problems that lead to their crimes by acting them out, as for example a potential murderer can kill an android made up to look like his intended victim. In this story, a husband who wants to kill his wife is allowed to kill an android looking like her -- and after all the consequences of that act occur, he is indeed no longer a danger to society. Silly.

"The Stars Are Waiting" (4100 words) (Saturn, March 1958) -- India has closed its borders and destroyed its weapons. The CIA needs to know what's going on, and now their spy has returned, unable to talk coherently. At the cost of his life, they finally hear what he has learned. The solution is wish-fulfillment to the max.

"Black and White" (3900 words) (Amazing, November 1962) -- After the holocaust, the last man on Earth is black, and the last woman on Earth is white. Can they possibly marry and further the species? That would be too silly for words, but MZB is a little better than that -- the real conflict is that the black man is also a Catholic priest, struggling with his celibacy vows, and using race as an excuse. Then they encounter one more man -- unfortunately he's a moronic Southerner, and the results are bitter. Not too bad of a story, especially for the time.

Overall, a collection of middle-of-the-road pieces, the work of a competent pro who doesn't really seem to have been at her best at shorter lengths. Nothing here is as good as the early Darkover novels (which I enjoyed until the Brain Eater seemed to strike around the time of The Mists of Avalon and the Free Amazon books).