Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Retro-Hugo Votes

I didn't have any detailed analysis done for the Retro-Hugos this year, but I did vote (I have read them all -- all the short fiction, that is) ... Here's how I voted:

Best Novella

    Rank        ----------------------------
    2        Coventry by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1940)
    4        If This Goes On... by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Feb 1940)
    3        Magic, Inc. by by Robert A. Heinlein (Unknown, Sept 1940)
    1        The Mathematics of Magic by by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, Aug 1940)
    5        The Roaring Trumpet by by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (Unknown, May 1940)
    
Comments: I liked The Incomplete Enchanter quite a bit, so I voted the better half of it first. Then I figured I'd list the three Heinlein stories ... I could have put them in just about any order. And the rest of The Incomplete Enchanter went last.

Best Novelette

    Rank        ----------------------------
    2        Blowups Happen by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Sept 1940)
    No Vote        XX Darker Than You Think XX by by Jack Williamson (XX - NOT ELIGIBLE)
    3        Farewell to the Master by by Harry Bates (Astounding Science-Fiction, Oct 1940)
    5        It! by by Theodore Sturgeon (Unknown, Aug 1940)
    1        The Roads Must Roll by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1940)
    4        Vault of the Beast by by A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1940)
   
I've never really liked Sturgeon's "It" that much, so it went last. I could have voted the Heinleins in either order I guess, I went with the one that had the more immediate impact on me when I first read it, though that might only have been because I read it earlier, in The SF Hall of Fame.

This does illuminate a problem with the Retro Hugos -- the nominators somehow placed Jack Williamson's "Darker Than You Think" -- which I think of as a novel, but might be short enough to qualify as a novella -- in the novelette category. It actually would have been a much better Novel nomination than Williamson's all but forgotten, and not all that good, The Reign of Wizardry.

Best Short Story

    Rank        ----------------------------
    4        Martian Quest by by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science-Fiction, Feb 1940)
    2        Requiem by by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science-Fiction, Jan 1940)
    5        Robbie by by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940)
    3        The Stellar Legion by by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940)
    1        Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940)

This one was easy: "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a great great story, one of the greatest SF stories of all time. Of course, it wouldn't have been nominated in 1940, if only because it wasn't translated into English until much later.

I listed the Heinlein (which will almost certainly win) second, and the two Brackett stories next. They are, I think, her first two stories, and they are good enough, I suppose, thought not close to as good as her later work. I've never much liked "Robbie" -- it is remembered, I think, only because it's Asimov's first Robot story.

I think it rather likely that Heinlein will sweep the short fiction categories.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Lesser Known Donald Westlake Novel: The Spy in the Ointment

A Minor Westlake Novel: The Spy in the Ointment, by Donald Westlake

a review by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was a very prolific writer, mostly of crime fiction. I am a huge fan of his comic crime novels about the thief John Dortmunder, which began with The Hot Rock (1970). His other famous series character was the thief Parker, who appeared in a great many decidedly non-comic novels, published as by "Richard Stark". Several movies have been made of books from both of those series, as well as a few other Westlake books. Westlake himself wrote screenplays, winning an Edgar for the one for The Grifters, an excellent movie based on a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake won two other Edgars, for his short story "Too Many Crooks" and for his 1967 novel God Save the Mark.

Westlake wrote in other genres -- his first several novels were pseudonymous porn; and early in his career he wrote a fair amount of science fiction. He had run-ins with Analog editor John W. Campbell, and he left the field in the early '60s, publishing an angry denunciation in the fanzine Xero.

The Westlake novel directly preceding his first Edgar winner was the novel at hand, The Spy in the Ointment. I don't have any idea of its reception, though he had already made something of a name for himself, with the early Parker novels (alas, the name he had made for himself in that case wasn't his own!), and with novels like The Busy Body. But I don't get the sense that The Spy in the Ointment is that well remembered. And more or less I'd endorse that -- while I was entertained by the book I wasn't thrilled by it. It's mostly a comic novel, and reasonably funny, but not even close to as funny as the Dortmunder novels. And its plot never really convinced me.

It's told by J. Eugene Raxford, Chairman of the Citizens' Independence Union, a tiny group which advocates pacifism. Gene is 32, not making a lot of money, his organization fairly hapless. Though he does have a very beautiful and very rich girlfriend, Angela. As the story opens he is battling a recalcitrant mimeograph machine when he is visited by Mortimer Eustaly, a slightly sinister appearing man who invites him to join forces with his group, which is in fact an amalgamation of terrorist groups, each with radically different viewpoints (some crazy leftists, some crazy right wingers, some just crazy). Eustaly thinks that even though they have different views, they can agree on certain violent actions best performed with more resources. The problem is, Gene's group is pacifistic, not terroristic. But Eustaly won't take no for an answer, and it becomes clear, especially when the FBI gets somewhat incompetently involved, that the best course is for Gene to play along.

Angela insists on accompanying to the meeting. She's a pacifist rebelling against her father's wealth (built on munitions) -- it turns out her brother is also rebelling against their father's views, but he's a violent psychopath, last seen in North Korea. So guess who turns up at the meeting? Gene and Angela flee in terror after her brother (Tyrone) sees her; and they end up in the arms of a mysterious government organization, which decides Gene should pretend to have murdered Angela, who will go into hiding, and then rejoin the amalgamated terrorists ...

And so it goes, with Raxford undergoing a brief course in using violence, and getting properly equipped with various weapons, and indeed he gets back in good with the bad guys, and soon is well on his way to collaborating with their nefarious plot, which begins with blowing up the UN building. Alas, the special equipment he's been giving proves useless, and he is forced to use his wits and even, perhaps -- if he can bring himself to it -- violence.

It's enjoyable enough, but not as good as my favorite Westlake novels. There are certainly some funny bits (I liked the letter system for naming all the Federal agents he meets, and the initial meeting of all the various terrorist groups was pretty funny). But the plot ends up not really convincing -- the intricate twists of the Dortmunder capers aren't really duplicated here. And though it's comic enough it spots, it's not as laugh out loud funny as other Westlake. Decent early career work, I suppose.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Another Ace Double: The Man With Nine Lives/A Touch of Infinity by Harlan Ellison

Ace Double Reviews, 63: The Man With Nine Lives, by Harlan Ellison/A Touch of Infinity, by Harlan Ellison (#D-413, 1960, $0.35)


Not quite ready for my next Old Bestseller, so let's dip into my backlog of Ace Double reviews with one by a really major writer. I wrote this some years ago, so some comments are slightly out of date, and I'll note where they've changed.

The only SFWA Grand Master who wrote an Ace Double that I haven't yet covered in this series of reviews is A. E. Van Vogt. I'll get to him -- but not yet. Now I'm dealing with a writer who is not yet a Grand Master, but who will surely be one soon. [And indeed, Ellison was named a Grand Master in 2006. Gene Wolfe made it in 2013 (much much later than he deserved) and Michael Moorcock in 2008. In all, nine Grand Masters who wrote at least one Ace Double were inducted later than A. E. van Vogt, the last of them being Samuel R. Delany.]

I admit I was shocked that Anne McCaffrey was named a Grand Master this year [2005 -- the year before Ellison was named] before such obviously superior choices as Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and the subject of this review: Harlan Ellison. (Ellison, it might be noted, was a pivotal figure in securing Van Vogt's recognition as a Grand Master.)

This book pairs his first story collection with one of the very few novels Ellison has written. His first novel was non-SF, Web of the City (1958), based on his experiences after joining a street gang. So The Man With Nine Lives is his first SF novel, and arguably his only one. (I have the perhaps mistaken impression that Spider Kiss (1961) is not SF. Doomsman (1967) was so bad that he destroyed copies of it for a while -- and as it was a Belmont Double it may not have been novel length [indeed it is not novel length]. And that's it for book-length SF from Ellison by himself!) The Man With Nine Lives is about 44,000 words long, and it is expanded from a shorter story, "The Sound of a Scythe", with another story, "Assassin!", also included.

My basic reaction to The Man With Nine Lives is that it reads like a drastically padded novella. So I suspect (not having read it) that "The Sound of a Scythe" might be a decent (though far from great) story. [I eventually did read "The Sound of a Scythe" and it is indeed a decent novella.] But the novel isn't very good.

Cal Emory is a desperate man. As the novel opens, he is trying to kill Paul Lederman, but Lederman has the jump on him. Through flashbacks we learn why.

It seems that Emory and Lederman were college roommates. But Lederman, son of a rich man, stole Emory's girlfriend, married her and then drove her to suicide, then engineered a cheating scandal that was blamed on Emory, getting him expelled. Lederman then hired Emory at his company (his father having died), supposedly out of charity. Emory finally figures out the truth and decides to kill Lederman.

However, he decides, unconvincingly, that he first must find a man named Patooch, apparently the ONLY person in the universe who can surgically alter him so that Lederman will not be able to find him. It turns out that the uber-villain Lederman has arranged for Patooch to be sent to "deepsleep", this future's replacement for prison. So Emory agrees to serve half of Patooch's sentence. Then we learn what "deepsleep" is -- which is a cute but silly idea. The computer that rules Earth and its colonies uses the minds of convicted felons, whose bodies are frozen, to be telepathically projected into aliens in order to prepare the Galaxy for future human advancement. Thus, Emory is sent to several different "alien" bodies to do various things to help Earth's future -- things like influence an alien species to exterminate a plant that will be poisonous to humans when they eventually encounter the planet. One of these episodes is the story "Assassin!" (Science Fiction Adventures, February 1957), retitled here "Travelogues Two: In Delpheron's Armada". This story has essentially no reason to be included in the novel: it is completely independent (and a tolerable story though no more than that, about a man sent to kill a sort of Genghis Khan of Space, complete with a nice ironic ending but not much interest until that point). The other travelogues make more sense, and the concluding one actually holds the seeds for the novel's ending. Which is OK, nicely enough set up and if not convincing at least acceptable on the terms of the story.

The story collection, A Touch of Infinity, gathers six early stories, a novelette and 5 shorts, totally about 40,000 wordss. I'll cover them one by one.

"Run for the Stars" (Science Fiction Adventures, June 1958, 14000 words)

The alien Kyben have made a breakthrough into human space and have overrun Deald's World. The resistance needs to escape to warn Earth, and their only hope is to plant a "Sun Bomb" inside a man who will run from the Kyben long enough to give the others a chance to get away. Yeah, that didn't make much sense to me, either. Another important point is that they choose a drug-addicted loser, on the grounds that he's such a coward he'll keep running, and keep the Kyben chasing him. The story really turns on a nasty closing twist, which is OK but doesn't really seem to justify 14,000 words.

"Back to the Drawing Boards" (Fantastic Universe, August 1958, 5900 words)

An inventor creates an intelligent robot, which is taken by the government for use in testing a starship. The bitter inventor makes a slight modification to the robot, causing it to make a certain demand on his return from the stars. The gimmick is incredibly lame, and a pretty old idea, and I don't believe in the results of it anyway! A pretty weak effort.

"Life Hutch" (If, April 1956, 4500 words)

Ellison's second sale. A decent piece. Another Kyben story, though it needn't have been. A space pilot is marooned in a Life Hutch on an asteroid. He needs to activate the distress beacon, but the controlling AI has gone mad and attacks anything that moves. The puzzle is -- how can the guy move to activate the distress beacon. The solution is OK. The setup is awfully damn strained, however.

"The Sky is Burning" (If, August 1958, 3400 words)

Ellison calls this a change of pace story. Maybe. One night astronomers detect hundreds of objects burning up in the atmosphere. They manage to intercept one, which turns out to be a majestic alien creature. The creature communicates telepathically, and a few sensitives hear its message. Which causes them to commit suicide. I wasn't convinced by the reason.

"Final Trophy" (Super Science Fiction, June 1957, 5400 words)

A great hunter goes to an alien planet and witnesses a strange "hunt" in which the aliens seem to give themselves up to the prey. He decides he needs to hunt this animal, show the aliens that he's stronger. With predictable results. Actually, the story is well-framed, around a grand trophy, the hunter's "final trophy", the nature of which is easily guessed, but still works OK. I wasn't fully convinced by the explanation, but still I thought the story OK.

"Blind Lightning" (Fantastic Universe, June 1956, 6500 words)

Another very early story, Ellison's third or fourth to be published. A tortured scientist is exploring an alien world and gets captured by a native. The native is intelligent, but wants to eat him. The scientist could kill the native, but wants to find a better solution, and eventually he does, finding redemption of a sort in so doing. Not bad minor work.

On the whole, this is a pretty negligible set of stories -- as the novel The Man With Nine Lives is also negligible. It is possible to detect the seeds of Ellison's mature style -- these stories are certainly fairly flamboyant, and generally deal with desperate characters. It's worth noting that Ellison was extremely prolific in the lower end SF magazines through about 1959, then fell silent for three years (though I believe he was working in other genres and in TV), resuming at a slower rate of production with much better stories, including award winners like "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman". In one way his career could be compared to those of Brunner and Silverberg -- writers who produced competent work at a frenetic pace through the mid to late 50s (or into the mid-60s in Brunner's case), then slowed down and began doing far better work in the mid-60s. However, it seems to me that Ellison's early work was less accomplished than that of either Silverberg or Brunner. It's really seems to me that the Ellison of the mid-60s, say from "Repent Harlequin" on, is an almost completely different, and enormously better, writer than the early Ellison. As I've said, you can see seeds of the later Ellison in the early stuff, but only seeds, only hints. This early work is slapdash, scientifically absurd, careless, pulpish, and the prose may try hard but fails to have much impact.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Worldcon Programming Schedule

Here's my programming schedule for Worldcon. All the panels seems to "fit my eye", as it were. I'll be real happy to share a panel with Gary Wolfe and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (and Michelle West!): I've done panels with Gary before and conversed (and emailed) with Alvaro, though not on a panel. I actually haven't met any of the other panelists, which is a bit unusual these days, and I'm looking forward to meeting all of them.

Reviewing the Reviews

Thursday 11:00 - 12:00, 2208 (Kansas City Convention Center)
With the internet, it is easy to find reviews of just about any book published.  But not all reviews are created equal. How can you find reviews that are more than just raves about a favorites author or flames about a hated one?  Which review sites are better than others?  Do Amazon reviews really mean anything?
Gary Wolfe, Michelle (Sagara) West, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (M), Rich Horton

Small Presses & Magazines: Welcoming the Unexpected

Saturday 10:00 - 11:00, 2207 (Kansas City Convention Center)
Authors in the slipstream, weird, magical realism, or speculative literature categories can have a hard time finding the right home for their work. With stories that aren't always a good fit for the larger genre markets, it's still important to find quality publishers. Such homes exist in both the literary and SF/F/H publishing communities. This panel will take a "deep dive" into the world of small presses and magazines, presenting fantastic venues and discussing hard-learned lessons such as publishers that promised more than they could deliver. Whether you're looking for good work a little off the beaten path or trying to find potential new markets for your writing, this panel is for you.
Jamie Lackey, Katherine Wynter, Rich Horton (M), Jason Sizemore, Mr Ron Yaniv

"Transcending" the Genre

Sunday 13:00 - 14:00, 2209 (Kansas City Convention Center)
Critics still use the term "transcending the genre," but what does that really mean? And what does that mean for fandom - have we gone mainstream? Or are we experiencing snobbish reactions rooted in fannish history? What happens to the discourse when Zadie Smith talks about reading Octavia Butler, or Marlon James says his next novel will be "an African Game of Thrones"? At the end of the day, do we really want all the genre walls to disappear? Do we want to completely transcend genre?
Dr. Tom Easton, Rich Horton, Cait Spivey, Nora Fleischer (M)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Old Bestseller: The Romantic Comedians, by Ellen Glasgow

Old Bestseller: The Romantic Comedians, by Ellen Glasgow

a review by Rich Horton

Back to a true quill writer of Old Bestsellers, Ellen Glasgow. Glasgow had the second bestselling novel of 1904 (The Deliverance), the tenth bestelling novel of 1906 (The Wheel of Life), and the fifth bestelling novel of 1916 (Life and Gabriella) -- all according to Publishers' Weekly's list. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for her late novel In This Our Life (1941), which quickly became John Huston's second movie in 1942, starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. The novel at hand, The Romantic Comedians, wasn't one of the very top bestsellers of its year, 1926, but I'm sure it sold quite well, and it was one of the very first Book of the Month Club selections (the Club was created that year).

Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945) was born into a fairly prominent Richmond, Virginia family. She was educated at home due to poor health, and began writing fairly early. Her first novel appeared anonymously in 1897 (delayed due to her mother's and brother-in-law's deaths). It portrayed a woman who rejected marriage in favor of passion, says Wikipedia. And indeed, Glasgow never married but had several affairs of some length. She was for a time a suffragette, but did not seem to stay active politically -- however, her novels seem to have often tackled significant social themes. She was a close friend of another Richmond writer, James Branch Cabell.

She seems one of those once prominent writers now nearly forgotten (though, as I note later, not really entirely forgotten). After all she had a lot of commercial success, and some critical success too as evidenced by the Pulitzer. But I really knew nothing about her -- just enough to have a sense when I saw this book at a sale that her name seemed vaguely familiar. (Wikipedia does say that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings planned a biography, but died before she could complete it.)

While most of her novels seem to have been deathly serious -- her second novel was called "sodden with hopelessness all the way through", and many of her other novels seem depressing on a look -- this one, as with other late ones, is not so dark. But the title of The Romantic Comedians suggested it might be, well, a romantic comedy. It's not, really, though it's not exactly depressing, either. Apparently after her ambitious 1925 tragedy Barren Ground, she decided to turn to somewhat lighter subjects for her next couple or three books.

This book, then. the one immediately succeeding Barren Ground, concerns Judge Gamaliel Bland Honeywell, a 65 year old lawyer in Queenborough, Virginia. His wife Cordelia died a year before the action of the novel, and we soon gather that she was a worthy woman who took good care of him and kept him in order -- but perhaps that she wasn't his great passion. And soon we see Amanda Lightfoot, still beautiful at 57, who was briefly engaged to the Judge 37 years before, before a quarrel and her sudden departure to Europe. He followed her, but met Cordelia on the ship. Amanda has never married, apparently still carrying the torch for the Judge. But somehow Gamaliel doesn't quite feel up to visiting her.

The other characters soon enter. One is his scandalous sister Edmonia, who has buried three husbands and left the fourth. Now she's back home, only too ready to give Gamaliel advice. And too there is impoverished widow Bella Upchurch and her beautiful daughter Annabel, who herself was just jilted by her fiance.

This sets the scene, and what follows is predictable: Gamaliel takes an interest in Annabel Upchurch, and soon is making something of a fool of himself over the young woman. Her mother, desperate to save the family situation, urges Annabel to marry the Judge, reasoning that she's lost her "true love" and she might as well settle for money. Edmonia thinks her brother should court Amanda Lightfoot, but he won't listen. The reader might come to the conclusion that Bella Upchurch, a pretty woman of an age somewhat more appropriate for Judge Honeywell (late 40s) might be a better match than her daughter. But the May-December marriage goes through.

And the result is much as one might predict. Annabel isn't much of a wife to Gamaliel, and she doesn't really care much for him. And, of course, she's young, and there are other young fish in the ocean besides her caddish ex-fiance. And, after all, the Judge doesn't care to dance those fashionable '20s dances with her ...

Well, it's easy to see where this will end up. And so it does, really in a fairly sensible fashion. The disappointment is, perhaps, that it's too sensible. There is no great romance here. There is no sprightly comedy either. Amanda Lightfoot turns out to be rather a crashing bore. Bella Upchurch is just not the right woman. Edmonia is entertaining but really doesn't have enough of a role.

I ended up with the impression of a well-meaning, well enough executed, novel that I really didn't much like. It's possible that I was looking for the wrong thing -- clearly Glasgow was interested in (fairly gentle) satire, and I may have been after more of a love story -- if so, my fault. Still, I didn't find the satire biting enough, or perhaps just not funny enough (except every so often in Edmonia's scenes).

I would suggest that Glasgow was very much a writer of her time, and perhaps too serious a writer for her talent. That is, if she was more of a writer of entertainments, her work might have lasted at some level. And if she was a greater writer, it might have lasted. But as an ambitious writer who didn't quite have the chops -- she falls into sort of a gap. And having said that, I should note that she's not as forgotten as all that. The University of Virginia reissued a number of her books in the 1990s, and I think she still gets some academic attention, both from the "Southern writer" angle, and the "Early Feminist" angle.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The 2016 Hugos: Short Story

The 2016 Hugos: Short Story

By Rich Horton

Repeating again: I am not planning to reflexively rank Rabid Puppy entries below No Award. I am of course disgusted by the Rabid Puppy antics, and I feel that many worthier stories were kept off the ballot by the Rabid choices. And if a story is bad enough, it will certainly be off my ballot, with No Award the last choice. (That’s always been my approach.) But, this year in particular, many of the nominees supported by the Rabid Puppies were either unaware of that, or aware and quite clearly not happy with that. Also, I don’t want to reduce the meaningfulness of the win for the actual, and probably quite worthy, winners – if they finish first and No Award is second, to my mind it to some extent delegitimizes their wins, through no fault of their own. Better to have been chosen the best with everyone voting on merit than voted best simply because all the other choices were automatically rejected regardless of quality.

The 2016 Hugo nominees for Best Short Story are:

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)
“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)
“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
“Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

I’ll go ahead and show my nomination longlist (I think I ended up nominating the first 5 on this list but I may well have switched in or out a couple of the others):

“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 (Tor.com)
“The King in the Cathedral” by Rich Larson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Time Bomb Time” by C.C. Finlay (Lightspeed)

So, only one story from this long list of stories I considered – less than I might have hoped. But easily explained – this is clearly the category Vox Day chose to make a mockery of. His nomination choices in the longer fiction categories (Novel, Novella, Novelette), were actually all readable stories, and some quite plausible Hugo nominees. That’s not at all the case in Short Story. And, indeed, the only good story on the list was only added after one of the original nominees withdrew.

So, my ballot:

1. “Cat Pictures, Please, by Naomi Kritzer

Here’s what I wrote about “Cat Pictures, Please” in the March 2015 Locus: “I really like a very funny short story by Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures, Please”, about an emergent AI that decides it has to do good for people, though it must be paid, in cat pictures of course. The three cases it takes on are interesting themselves, and the AI's reactions are priceless – I laughed aloud in public.”

So, a funny story on the short list – that’s one valid complaint, I think, about the Hugos – there is a tendency to perhaps undervalue humor, or overvalue deadly seriousness (I’m sure I’m guilty myself), and it’s nice to see humor getting some notice. As with most good comedy, there’s some food for thought behind this story as well.

I’m torn about the next two stories. They are at least real SF, and of professional quality. But they’re a long way below my view of Hugo standards, more so than the least of the novelettes. I may end up moving my No Award vote to second. But maybe not …

2. “Asymmetrical Warfare”, by S. N. Algernon

This is part of Nature’s long-running series of short-shorts. It’s about aliens invading Earth, in the hopes of raising up a new predator species. The starfish-shaped aliens can’t believe the bipedal humans are the real intelligence, though … leading to rather asymmetrical misunderstanding. It’s amusing enough, not remotely Hugo-worthy, but a decent work in its short space.

3. “Seven Kill Tiger”, by Charles Shao

A Chinese executive is having a hard time meeting production goals in an African project. He blames the locals (described in quite racist terms, though to be fair this is presented as the views of a villain), and, in danger of losing his job, he authorizes a project for a race-specific plague, to wipe out the Africans and allow Chinese to immigrate. An American official for the CDC (or some similar organization) starts to track down the reports of a mysterious disease in Africa, but … Well, it’s a didactic story, and as such it doesn’t really have a story structure, instead choosing to make its point. The racial politics – indeed the politics in general – are dodgy as well. The story does manage to scare, that’s fair to say…

4. No Award

The remaining two stories are downright awful. The less objectionable of them is “Space Raptor Butt Invasion”, by Chuck Tingle. It’s gotten Tingle some good press, because he’s been a pretty good sport about the whole thing*, and because his politics don’t seem to align with Vox Day’s. I fear that some people are tempted to vote for the story because they think it will annoy Day. It won’t – if it won, Day would be thrilled. The story itself is straightforward gay porn – I won’t evaluate it on those terms, though I must say it didn’t seem anything special. Its SFnal veneer has an astronaut coming to a Moonbase to tend it for a while solo, and meeting an intelligent dinosaur, from a parallel universe. Soon they get down to business … As SF, it’s a joke (not a funny one), and it certainly isn’t remotely in the universe of stories that deserve a Hugo.

Even worse is “If You Were an Award, My Love”, a juvenile and rather vile, and very clumsy and unfunny, parody of Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”. The story itself is bad enough, the comments section of the blog post in which it even appeared even worse.



*Though a better sport would have had his fun and then withdrawn.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The 2016 Hugos: Novelette

The 2016 Hugos: Novelette

By Rich Horton

As I wrote in my first post in this series: I am not planning to reflexively rank Rabid Puppy entries below No Award. I am of course disgusted by the Rabid Puppy antics, and I feel that many worthier stories were kept off the ballot by the Rabid choices. And if a story is bad enough, it will certainly be off my ballot, with No Award the last choice. (That’s always been my approach.) But, this year in particular, many of the nominees supported by the Rabid Puppies were either unaware of that, or aware and quite clearly not happy with that. Also, I don’t want to reduce the meaningfulness of the win for those worthy winners – if they finish first and No Award is second, to my mind it to some extent delegitimizes their wins, through no fault of their own. Better to have been chosen the best with every voting on merit than voted best simply because all the other choices were automatically rejected regardless of quality.

The 2016 Hugo nominees for Best Novelette are:

“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)
“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

I’ll go ahead and show my nomination longlist (I think I ended up nominating the first 5 on this list but really I don’t think there was much separation top to bottom, and I may have switched a couple):

“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)

Thus, two stories among my nomination candidates made the ballot, which is actually not unusual.

Oh well, that’s enough about my choices. It does give you a hint as what will come first on my ballot, though! Except that I’m not sure -- I could easily flip the first two spots.

  1. Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) 
Here’s what I wrote about “Folding Beijing” in the March 2015 Locus: “The conceit here is that Beijing has been literally folded into three separate parts, that each get part of each day. The division is unequal, in a very explicitly class-based fashion, and the story opens in Third Space, with Lao Dao, a waste inspector, as he plans an illegal trip to First Space to deliver a love letter from a man in Second Space to a woman there. The idea itself if fascinating and nicely depicted, and the social differences between the three Spaces are well described and only too believable, and the characters, Lao Dao in particular, are also well done.” So, to my mind a very original concept (perhaps recalling Philip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld to a degree, as well as numerous stories with Dayside/Nightside divisions), used effectively to deal with class differences.

(I should add a note about the translator: Ken Liu of course is a first-rate writer (and a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award winner), but his contributions as a translator, in introducing excellent Chinese-language SF to the English-speaking world, are also very praiseworthy. (He also translated last year’s Hugo winning novel, The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (no relation).)

  1. And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead, by Brooke Bolander 
Here’s what I wrote in the April 2015 Locus: “Rhye is an android of some sort, made to be a killer, and after leaving the army she has been rescued by another android, Rack, a gentle man who is a computer expert. The two seem a traditional team: brains and muscle, as it were, but as the story opens Rack has gotten into trouble. A mobster has killed him for not finding his son quickly enough. Said son's brain had been uploaded, and Rack had followed him there. Now Rack's body is dead, and Rhye is forced to upload after him, to look for the mobster's son with the dangled reward of at least retrieving Rack's brain. This is neat stuff in itself, and the story of Rhye's journey in the virtual world is well-executed, with a perfect twisty ending (perfect in that I saw the right answer in advance, but in a way that seemed earned, not cheap or gimmicky). Best though is the manner of telling: Rhye's voice, profane and vulnerable and very darkly funny. (By the way, Bolander swears in an author profile that she had never heard of the drink “Rack and Rye” before naming her characters – I had assumed the names were on purpose, either way, it works.)”

This is excellent action SF, with a pretty solid SFnal premise behind it.

  1. “Obits”, by Stephen King 
This is about a guy who wants to be a journalist, but at the wrong time, i.e. now, with papers shedding employees (and cash) and online places paying peanuts. He ends up writing a nasty satirical obituary column for a TMZ-like website, for peanuts of course. When he asks for a raise and his boss brushes him off he gets mad and to vent, writes an obituary for her. When she suddenly dies he gets scared, then a bit tempted – what if he tries writing an obituary for someone really evil? Well, you can see where this is going, and it goes there, with no real twists (and, as King makes sure to tell us, no real resolution). This is decent stuff, and King is an engaging writer, for sure, but this isn’t really brilliant. It’s not King at his best, it’s not particularly original – I just don’t see it as Hugo material.

  1. “Flashpoint Titan”, by Cheah Kai Wai 
This is set onboard an experimental Japanese warship in the Saturn system. Ships start acting suspiciously, and it becomes clear that a sneak Chinese attack on the American colony on Titan is in the offing. The commander of the new Japanese ship offers to help, but he is constrained both by rules of engagement – until the Chinese are proven to act hostilely, his hands are tied – and also by a need to keep the experimental weapons on board his ship secret. What follows is bog standard mil-SF, and decent enough stuff, but nowhere surprising, nowhere a cut above any other particular story.

  1. “What Price Humanity?”, by David VanDyke 
This opens with a long infodump setting up the situation: the Solar System has been engaged in a long war against the alien Meme (a really bad name choice these days), constantly throwing them back only to face another wave. Must humanity “use inhumane means” to fight this war? Then we switch to the POV of Captain Vincent Markis, in a strange situation which quickly suggests to him a virtual reality setup to keep his brain going while his body is regenerated. The VR setup gets more complex, and soon Markis meets others in it – all fellow veterans. Soon they are doing wargames … Again, it’s easy enough to see where this is going. It’s competent mil-SF – it’s not a bad story – but it doesn’t stand out either.

So – two stories that I’d be happy see win the Hugo, and three stories that, while readable enough, certainly publishable, are not at all distinguished. Not the first time that’s happened, no doubt, but still regrettable.




Thursday, July 7, 2016

The 2016 Hugos: Novella

The 2016 Hugos: Novella

By Rich Horton

I’m going to write a series of posts on the short fiction categories for the 2016 Hugos, now that I’ve read them all. I’ll rank them in the order I intend to vote.

A quick word on my voting philosophy: I am not planning to reflexively rank Rabid Puppy entries below No Award. I am of course disgusted by the Rabid Puppy antics, and I feel that many more worthy stories were kept off the ballot by the Rabid choices. And if a story is bad enough, it will certainly be off my ballot, with No Award the last choice. (That’s always been my approach.) But, this year in particular, many of the nominees supported by the Rabid Puppies were either unaware of that, or aware and quite clearly not happy with that. Also, I don’t want to reduce the meaningfulness of the win for those worthy winners – if they finish first and No Award is second, to my mind it to some extent delegitimizes their wins, through no fault of their own. Better to have been chosen the best with every voting on merit than voted best simply because all the other choices were automatically rejected regardless of quality.

So, novellas first. The 2016 Hugo nominees for Best Novella are:

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

I’ll go ahead and show my nomination ballot:

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)

With these four also contenders:
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)

So you can see that none of my personal nominations made the ballot. Three of my choices were somewhat obscurely published, so I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t make the cut (these are the Cooney stories, and the Taaffe story (which may be a long novelette anyway)). By all means seek them out to read! I was quite bothered that the Scholz and Egan stories, two of the very best hard SF stories of the last few years, and both published top magazines, didn’t get a nod.

Oh well, that’s enough about my choices. It does give you a hint as what will come first on my ballot, though!

  1. Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Here’s what I wrote in the November Locus: “It's set in her Chalion universe (or, more properly, The World of Five Gods). Penric is a pleasant young man, the younger son of a not terribly prosperous noble family, whose life is turned upside down when, while helping a woman stricken on the way, he unwittingly agrees to take on her demon. This marks him as tied to the fifth god, the Bastard, and it's also potentially a very dangerous thing. The rest of the story is about Penric learning the nature of demons, his in particular (he names her “Desdemona”, cleverly enough), and learning to navigate the dangers posed not just by his possession, but by the jealousies and fears of those around him, particularly those in his new Order. The depiction of demons (which remind me a little bit of the (science-fictional) Aspects in Gregory Benford's Galactic Center future) is pretty neat, and Desdemona is an interesting character (or characters). Nice story, though not spectacular, but I'd be glad to see more of Penric and Desdemona.”

So you can see that I liked the story, but wasn’t over the moon about it. Still, best of this list, though I will say it’s pretty close over the next couple stories.

  1. Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds
I also wrote about this in the November Locus: “pure SF, told by Scur, a veteran of a sectarian war that seems to have engulfed human space. After the ceasefire, and an encounter with a vicious enemy soldier who tortures her leaves her for dead, she ends up on a prison ship with a number of war criminals. But when she wakes, with the bulk her fellow passengers, and the ship's crew, they realize that something has gone terribly wrong – they seem to have reached the right planet, but centuries late, and the planet seems unrecognizable. Also, her enemy is also on board. The story blends a couple of mysteries – why is Scur on the ship? What happened to it, and what happened to human civilization? – with a tale of revenge and possible redemption. Parts of it stretched my suspension of disbelief, and at times it drags a bit, but the ending is moving and there are some neat revelations.”

Again, I wasn’t over the moon about it, but it’s got some pretty good and powerful ideas.

  1. The Builders, by Daniel Polansky
I just read this story. It’s a caper story of sorts, following the usual structure: the leader of a gang assembles all the varied members, sometimes reluctantly. Then the plot is set in motion, and the caper is executed. The first twist in this story is that all the characters are animals: the leader, called the Captain, is a mouse; and there’s a rat, a badger, a snake, an owl, a stoat, an opossum, and a salamander. The plan is to try again something they had tried years ago, which we come to realize is a political coup of sorts. We also realize that they were betrayed the last time by one of their own … All these plot details aren’t so much the point, though – the story is all style, offhand black humor, anthropomorphic descriptions of the characters, cutting dialogue. And, eventually, lots of violence. This is pretty fun, I have to say. It’s not really that interesting from an SF or Fantasy point of view, and it’s really not all that deep (and doesn’t want to be). Fun, though.

  1. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor 
Binti won the Nebula for Best Novella, which may make it the frontrunner for the Hugo. But I have to say I found it disappointing. It tells of Binti, a mathematical prodigy from the Himba people (a Namibian group), who gets a scholarship to go to University on another planet in what seems a Galactic culture with multiple alien races. This first part is kind of interesting, as Binti meets a number of other, more privileged, students, starts to make friends, and we start to understand her culture. But that’s not the story Okorafor is telling – because suddenly aliens attack and kill everyone but Binti. Binti is important, perhaps, because she carries an ancient artifact that helps her communicate with the aliens (jellyfish like creatures called Meduse). The aliens, without her permission, modify her so that she can better understand and communicate with them, and they use her to help them recover a significant artifact that was stolen from them and housed at the University to which Binti is going. I was put off by the wild jumps in the story, by the implausible and too often magic tech, by the lack of apparent consequence or concern about the atrocities committed by the Meduse, and by some slack prose. Against that I should point out that it has more exotic ideas than any of the other stories, and appears to be trying to engage “deeper” issues – just not, to my mind, quite successfully.

  1. Perfect State, by Brandon Sanderson
Perfect State concerns Kaironimas, who is God-Emperor of his own little domain. He has conquered his world after three hundred years, and is providing for his people pretty well, and he’s getting kind of bored. There is the problem of Melhi, ruler of another world, with robots, who wants to fight him … and then there’s the summons he has received, from the Wode – he needs to find a mate an contribute his DNA to create another “Liveborn”. And we realize that he’s really a “brain in a jar” – and he knows it. He’s been given his own virtual reality, to make of what he will, with limited contact with other domains. Everyone else in his world is a simulation. And he must go to a Border State and meet a woman and … And so he does, and she’s intriguing, and very different from him, and a bit cynical, and he starts to fall for her. Well, there’s a twist of course, and it involves his unwanted enemy, Melhi, as well as the nature of these virtual lives. And it’s really not bad, coming to a real if slightly trite resolution. None of the ideas here are terribly original, but this story is pretty well done in that context. A fine story, not a brilliant one.

So there you have it. No story I would have nominated for a Hugo myself, but also no truly bad stories. So I won’t leave any of these off my ballot. Indeed, while this isn’t a great Novella shortlist, it’s really not too different, in overall quality, from many previous shortlists. I just regret the significantly better stories – in what was a very good year at the very top of the novella list – that didn’t get nominated.


I’ll note something else: all 5 of these stories were published as standalone novellas, either slim books or ebooks. So too were many of the other stories I recommended, such as The Two Paupers, Wylding Hall, Teaching the Dog to Read, and Sunset Mantle. This seems unusual, but it does seem to reflect the state of novella publishing these days.

Monday, July 4, 2016

An Old Rex Stout Omnibus: Curtains For Three

Rex Stout Special: Curtains for Three

a review by Rich Horton

A special for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, which is focusing on Rex Stout this week. That said, while I doubt this particular book was a bestseller, Stout's Nero Wolfe books sold very well for a long time, and afforded him a handsome income.

I have a certain tendency to read mystery writers in bunches -- that is, as a teen I binged on Agatha Christie, and since then I've done the same -- read huge swathes of their oeuvre over a period of month or a couple years -- with the likes of Charlotte MacLeod, Robert Barnard, Ellis Peters, Anne Perry, Peter Lovesey, John D. MacDonald, and Georges Simenon. And also Rex Stout, sometime in the '80s, when I read dozens of his Nero Wolfe novels, mostly in the Bantam paperbacks that were being reissued at that time.

So I figured I'd reread one of the old Nero Wolfe books I had. I chose Curtains for Three, from 1950. Like many of Stout's Nero Wolfe books it's an omnibus of three novellas, which is one reason I picked it: interest in the short fiction market for mysteries. These three novellas were published in the American Magazine, one each in 1948, 1949, and 1950. I suspected they were marketed as "Complete Novels" in the magazine issues, and I was right, as the covers here show (or would show, if the reproduction was better!). They are all of similar length, in the neighborhood of 25,000 words.





Rex Stout (1886-1975) was born in Indiana, grew up in Kansas, and joined the Navy after a brief spell at the University of Kansas. He served as a Warrant Officer on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. He left the Navy and went into banking, apparently inventing a school banking system that was very widely implemented. He published a variety of genre short stories in the that period. By 1927 he had made enough money to retire and turn to writing, at first producing three literary novels that were well received but didn't sell. In 1934 he published the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (an abridged version appeared in the American Magazine), and from then on concentrated on mysteries, introducing a couple of other detectives (such as Tecumseh Fox and Dol Bonner, who appeared in one book of her own and later in some Nero Wolfe books), but eventually sticking with Wolfe. He was active politically, mostly for leftish causes, including time spent in a leadership position for the ACLU; despite this, he was fiercely anti-Communist and late in his life supported US involvement in Vietnam.

The Nero Wolfe books are one of those long-lasting mystery series in which the detective never ages even as the novels are set at the time of writing. (Simenon's Maigret novels are like this as well.) I always thought that worked well until perhaps the '60s, when maybe the present day setting didn't seem to fit Nero Wolfe and the narrator, Wolfe's assistant Archie Goodwin, quite as well.

To the stories. The three stories in Curtains for Three are:

"The Gun With Wings" (American Magazine, December 1949)
"Bullet for One" (American Magazine, July 1948)
"Disguise for Murder" (as "The Twisted Scarf" in American Magazine, September 1950)

The book was first published by Viking in December 1950. They all share a similar structure: a murder mystery is presented, with about 6 obvious suspects, and after interviewing them all, with Archie possibly sent on an errand or two, and with Inspector Cramer of the NYPD either accepting Wolfe's help or fulminating against his involvement, Wolfe determines the solution (often turning on a tricksy minor detail). Usually he reveals it with all involved present in his office. (Wolfe famously almost never leaves his brownstone, and has very fixed hours devoted either to work, food, or his orchids.)

In "The Gun With Wings", two lovers want to hire Wolfe to prove that each of them is innocent of murder. It seems that the woman's husband, a famous tenor, has just been shot. Naturally, the wife is a suspect, and so is her lover. And though both claim to be sure the other didn't do it, they want Wolfe to prove it so there is no lingering doubt. There are other candidates, such as a rival whose daughter claimed to have been seduced by the dead man, and that daughter as well, and a couple more. Wolfe's main concern is to find out how the title gun "winged" itself from one place to another ...

In "Bullet for One", a famous industrial designer has been murdered while walking his horse in Central Park. Wolfe is hired by a group of the suspects in the murder with a commission -- to prove that another man, the victim's top salesman, is guilty. Wolfe of course, refuses, and promises only to find who is actually guilty. The other suspects are a rival designer, the victim's daughter, an investor, an employee who was just fired, and the designer's groom. Part of the intrigue here, as usual, is Archie Goodwin's preference for one of the women involved over the other, and the perhaps related decision by Wolfe to send Archie on errands he considers unimportant -- but maybe they're not?

Finally, in "Disguise for Murder", the murder is actually committed in Wolfe's office. He is showing off his orchids, unwillingly, to a Garden Club. Taking a break by hiding in the office, Archie is confronted by a young woman who admits she's a crook, and wants to get out of the business, but she's been recognized at the orchid showing, and fears she might be in danger. When, shortly later, she is found strangled in the office, Wolfe is understandably motivated to find the killer, who must be another of the guests. A complication is the high-handed way the police treat the scene of the crime. This also features some action for Archie, and some real danger. And it turns on a fairly clever trivial point.

In all of these stories, as in most of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, the characters of Goodwin and Wolfe, as well as their various assistants such as Fritz the cook, and Saul Panzer; as well as foils like Inspector Cramer; are of greater interest than the mysteries. (This is hardly uncommon in these ongoing series.) They are good fun -- in the case of these stories minor fun, though the best Wolfe novels are more involved and of greater lasting interest.