Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

a review by Rich Horton

Vercors was the pseudonym adopted by French artist and engraver Jean Bruller (1902-1991) for his writing during the French Resistance to German occupation in World War II. Bruller had been invalided out of the French Army prior to the war, then quickly injured when he returned to action, so he turned to writing an inspirational novella, The Silence of the Sea (1942). His work was published by a clandestine press he cofounded, Les Éditions de Minuit -- which was dangerous in itself: his editor for the press was executed by the Nazis. He also served as a messenger for the Resistance.

After the war he continued writing fiction, and continued to publish as Vercors. He published in the neighborhood of 20 books, with a fair amount of success. His name is known to SF fans with some knowledge of the field's history primarily for his 1961 novel Sylva, which became the first work originally published in a foreign language to be on the Hugo shortlist, in 1963 (for the 1962 English translation.) (To this day the only other novels nominated for a Hugo that were first published in another language are Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem (which won) and Death's End (jokes about the prose in L. Ron Hubbard's Black Genesis notwithstanding).) Vercors wrote other SF novels besides Sylva, including Colères (The Insurgents), and You Shall Know Them.

You Shall Know Them was originally published in 1952 as Les Animaux Dénaturés. The English translation appeared in 1956. As with most of Vercors books, the translation was done by his wife, Ruth Barisse. The English version also appeared under the titles The Murder of the Missing Link (a rather literal representation of the main point of the novel) and Borderline, which also pretty well represents the ideas of the novel. You Shall Know Them, however (from Matthew 7:16) is a much subtler and more serious title. To add yet one more title, the book was made into a 1970 film, Skullduggery, starring Burt Reynolds. (Mark Tiedemann has seen the film, and says it's better than you'd expect, though Reynolds complained that the director ruined a pretty good script.)

You Shall Know Them is a distinctly philosophical novel, with a satirical edge, and some very interesting ideas. It is marred by some quite racist passages, even though its central message is mostly anti-racist. The novel also is centrally concerned with anthropology, particularly the ancestors of modern humans, and as such its science is terribly out of date. That said, I think Bruller gets the science as of 1952 pretty much correct. Alas, he mentions Piltdown Man -- a hoax that was exposed only in 1953!

The book opens with a shocking scene -- a doctor is called to a man's home, where he is shown the corpse of a newborn child. The man tells the doctor that he has killed the child with strychnine, and insists that he verify the death, and call the police. The doctor notices some strange features to the child -- apelike features -- but he writes the death certificate, and calls the police.

We flash back a couple of years, to the romance of the murderer of the newborn child, a journalist named Douglas Templemore, and a writer named Frances Doran. They meet cute, and soon are spending a great deal of time together. (This is in London -- and indeed England is the main setting of the novel (with a significant side trip to Papua New Guinea), despite the author being French.) They convince themselves they are just friends -- they are both too sensible to fall in love -- until Douglas decides to accompany his anthropologist friends the Greames to New Guinea. (Mrs. Greame, significantly, is a girl he grew up with who surprised everyone by marrying a much older man instead of Douglas.) At this time Frances and Douglas abandon pretence and admit they are in love, though now they must wait a year or so until Douglas returns.

They are in New Guinea to investigate some intriguing hominid bones a colleague has found. But they find something much more fascinating -- living hominids, which they eventually call Paranthropus, or "Tropi" for short. These have a language, though very simple, and they make tools (hand axes), and they bury their dead. Over time, indeed, they are portrayed as very nearly straddling any plausible line between "human" and "animal". (To be sure, it is acknowledged that any such line is hard to place.)

The story gets out, of course, and then it turns out that the area the Tropis live in is owned by an Australian mining concern. The mines are played out, but the CEO has another plan -- use the Tropis as very cheap labor, to corner the market for finished Australian wool. After all, by law, his company owns these "animals" outright. Douglas and his company are appalled, and they try to get the Tropis declared legally human. But this seems legally difficult. The next plan is to artificially inseminate some of the Tropi females with human sperm -- all Douglas', as it turns out -- which leads to several live births. But this is not conclusive either -- for what about mules? (Or many other cross-species hybrids.) Douglas' last chance attempt is what we saw at the opening -- to murder one of his children, and confess, so that the legal system will convict him of murder, implying that the Tropis must be human.

This leads to an extended trial, presided over by a wise judge. Numerous arguments are advanced on both sides, all converging on the notion that the Tropis are on the exact dividing line between humans and animals. (Indeed, it is suggested, some Tropis are on one side, some on the other.) This is where the book advances some pretty offensive notions -- suggesting that there is an hierarchy of human races, some of which are more nearly animal than others. (The book is ardently opposed to different treatment of the so-called "lesser races" to be sure, but the distinctions are still quite blithely advanced.) On the personal side, all this is quite wrenching to Frances in particular, who has married Douglas finally, and who supports him despite some misgivings. (Douglas' affair with Mrs. Greame is an issue as well!)

The resolution involves some legal hair-splitting, and a fairly logical resolution to the issue of Douglas' murder charge. (It was the solution I had come up with myself.) Frances' reaction to the whole thing is pretty well portrayed.

It's a pretty interesting novel. The philosophical arguments are intriguing, a mix of wrongheadedness (in my view) with some interesting dilemmas. (Certainly these are the kind of arguments that (understandably, really) drive many people to vegetarianism.) There is a strong satirical side to the depiction of the wider public's reaction to the whole affair. The characters are well-done too. I liked it, and I think it still deserves attention, albeit as rather a period piece.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Old Bestseller: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Old Bestseller Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

a review by Rich Horton

I suppose one doesn't think of a novel like Middlemarch as a "bestseller", but in fact it sold very well when it first appeared (if perhaps not as well as Eliot had hoped). And of course it has sold steadily ever since. This was before there was any formal bestseller list, but make no mistake, authors were well aware of their general sales figures, and usually pretty involved in them.

That doesn't really matter any more, to be sure. Middlemarch was fairly well received critically, at first, and praised by writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (the latter with some reservations). Still, it wasn't until the 1940s that its reputation began to expand -- to the point that it is often called the greatest novel in English. My feeling is that at the very top level there is no way to choose a "greatest" novel from any number of candidates -- but, without question, Middlemarch is a very great novel and deserves to be in the conversation.

"George Eliot", as most people know, was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). She used the pseudonym in order to ensure that her work was treated seriously, and perhaps also to separate it from her critical work under her own name. She wrote seven novels, as well as shorter stories and some poetry. Her poetry seems to have been well regarded at the time but I must say I wasn't even aware she had done much in that field, so it doesn't seem to have survived all that well. Her personal life was also scandalous -- she lived with the married philosopher George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death -- and that may have been another reason to separate her writing name from her own name, though the pseudonym seems to have been pretty open for a long time.

I myself had only read a few of her shorter works -- the shortish novel Silas Marner, and two shorter stories, "Brother Jacob" and "The Lifted Veil". I enjoyed them all and expected to proceed eventually to a more major novel, but it took me a while to get around to it. Indeed, I acquired copies, over time, of Romola, Daniel Deronda, and Felix Holt the Radical ... but soon it became clear that Middlemarch was the appropriate choice.

I will note, by the way, that the edition I ended up buying, a Barnes and Noble Classics trade paperback, is quite poorly done. It appears to have been OCR'd from another edition, and there are numerous typical OCR typos: for example, "my clearest" instead of "my dearest". The binding is also, not surprising, a bit inadequate for a book so large. There is some additional editorial material: an introduction by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, endnotes by Megan McDaniel, a selection of roughly contemporaneous extracts from reviews and other writing about the book. These are all decently enough done if nothing special. My fault, to be sure, for being lured by the very low price (only $5) -- I would suggest a sort of Gresham's Law of book editions might apply ("Bad [editions] drive out good").

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published 1872 in eight parts -- an unusual choice (three volumes was the more normal format) occasioned by its length -- it is about 330,000 words long, some 800 pages in my edition. The eight parts are of roughly similar length, about 40,000 words apiece. Eliot composed in between 1869 and 1871, beginning with two separate projects: "Miss Brooke" and "Middlemarch", but she realized that the two pieces would work better together.

The novel intertwines the stories of a great variety of characters. Miss Brooke is Dorothea, the most important character, a young woman of good if not aristocratic family. She and her sister Celia are being raised by her rather dithering uncle Arthur Brooke. Dorothea, a beautiful, pious, and intelligent woman, is courted by the neighboring baronet, Sir James Chettam, but her serious cast of mind and desire to do scholarly work leads her to the terribly inappropriate choice of Mr. Casaubon, a much older clergyman engaged in a lifelong attempt at finding the "key to all mythologies". (Celia ends up marrying Sir James.) The story of Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, and Mr. Casaubon's impoverished cousin Will Ladislaw, is one of the two central threads; and turns much on Dorothea's anguished realization that Casaubon is a hopeless failure and a terrible husband, and on Will's feelings for Dorothea, which she is too virtuous to notice, though Mr. Casaubon notices enough to alter his will in an odious way.

The other thread concerns a new and idealistic physician, Tertius Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch to start a practice and, he hopes, to engage in significant research, for he has modern ideas about medicine. Lydgate, who is of very good family but who has little money, falls for the very pretty and very shallow Rosamond Vincy, daughter of the town's mayor. Their thread follows their courtship and marriage, and how the financial stress due to Rosamond's demands and Lydgate's weakness poisons their marriage, and leads Lydgate into a faintly compromising relationship with Mr. Bulstrode, the religiously fanatical local banker.

Other significant threads twine around these stories. One concerns Bulstrode's checkered past, and his horror of having that past revealed, which leads him to the moral equivalent of murder, a death which will also stain Lydgate's reputation. Another thread involves Rosamond's brother Fred, a rather irresolute young man who has been unsuccessfully studying to be a minister, a profession for which he has no aptitude. Fred is in love with the plain, intelligent, and very upright Mary Garth, who is acting as companion to a much older relative, the very rich Peter Featherstone, who, it is supposed, will leave Fred a significant bequest on his impending death.

One more thread concerns Dorothea's uncle, Mr. Brooke, and his unfortunate decision to stand for Parliament as a Whig, in support of the proposed Reform Bill. Mr. Brooke is perhaps the funniest character in the book, which while not a comedy is often quite witty. Mr. Brooke stand for improved treatment of tenants by landlords, apparently unaware that he is regarded as an awful landlord. (One of Dorothea's passions is better housing for tenant farmers, and she goes to the extent of making architectural designs for new cottages. Sir James is willing to entertain her ideas, but Mr. Brooke seems to see no need.)

There are a great many more characters: the very honest and financially impractical Caleb Garth, (Mary's father): in essence a civil engineer; the clever if rather mean Mrs. Cadwallader (the rector's wife, and another funny character); the highly intelligent clergyman Camden Farebrother, hopelessly in love with Mary Garth but compelled by his principles to help Fred court her; Mr. Featherstone's varied pack of money-grubbing relatives; and many more less significant individuals.

All these stories weave in and out of the novel, intersecting nicely. Various deaths drive the plot, as well as a couple of intrigues involving wills. A key if somewhat understated theme is the place of women in this society and their limited opportunities for agency and power. Dorothea is by far the strongest character in the novel -- a bit of a Mary Sue perhaps: beautiful and virtuous and intelligent and (as Greg Feeley pointed out to me) "ardent"; but she (apparently happily) accepts a fate as wife and mother and behind the scenes helpmeet to her eventual husband, who, though a good enough man is quite a bit less impressive than her. (And she would have happily done the same for Mr. Casaubon had he the grace to accept.) Somewhat similarly Mary Garth is smarter and more energetic than Fred Vincy. The case in which the man is stronger still has ambiguities, for while Rosamond is selfish and and obstinate and sneaky, and Lydgate is truly intelligent, even perhaps brilliant, how much of her character is formed by lack of opportunity, and emphasis on her beauty as her prime asset; which how much of their difficulties are caused by Lydgate's own moral failures?

The story is tremendously moving by the end; though there are really no earth-shattering tragedies -- nothing like the ending of, say, The Mill on the Floss. Indeed, looked at one way, all the major characters have fairly happy endings. (To a rather lesser extent in the case of Lydgate, to be sure.) But events seem trending in a much worse way as the climax approaches, and I found the critical quiet last meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond to be stunning, and it had me in tears. The characters, as I have suggested, are beautifully drawn -- the minor characters ring true in their brief appearances, voices all sharply realized, and the major characters are portrayed with particular convincing exactitude.

And the prose -- I found it quite lovely. This is Victorian prose, long sentences and long paragraphs. But all elegant, and logical, and carefully balanced. The third person omniscient narrative voice is every present, very smart, indeed, I would say, very wise. This indeed becomes right away one of my favorite novels of all time.

Perhaps some extended quotes will be a good way to finish.

Casaubon on his attempts to have feelings for Dorothea: "Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion."

(Indeed, I do wonder whether Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon ever had sexual relations.)

On Mary Garth: "Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required."

Will Ladislaw and his friend the German painter Adolf Naumann encounter Dorothea in Rome: "They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble; a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish gray drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor."

Ladislaw on Dorothea: "Whatever else she might be, she was not disagreeable. She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling. She was an angel beguiled. It would be a unique delight to wait and watch for the melodious fragments in which her heart and soul came forth so directly and ingenuously. The Æolian harp again came into his mind."

Caleb Garth's philosophy: "Caleb Garth often shook his head in meditation on the value, the indispensable might of that myriad-headed, myriad-handed labor by which the social body is fed, clothed, and housed. It had laid hold of his imagination in boyhood. the echoes of the great hammer where roof or keel were a-making, the signal-shouts of the workmen, the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine, were a sublime music to him; the felling and lading of timber, and the huge trunk vibrating star-like in the distance along the highway, the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in warehouses, the precision and variety of muscular effort wherever exact work had to be turned out, -- all these sights of his youth had acted on him as poetry without the aid of the poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology."

There are many more, and I know I have not found again some of the very best passages.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Forgotten SF Anthology: New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

James Blish (1921-1975) was one of the most important writers (A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, "Common Time", "Surface Tension", "Beep", and many more) and critics (The Issue at Hand, significant work on James Branch Cabell) in SF's history. However, his footprint as an editor was much lighter: the only issue of Vanguard Science Fiction magazine (June 1958), and two reprint anthologies: Nebula Award Stories 5 and the book at hand, New Dreams This Morning.
(Cover by Richard Powers)


New Dreams This Morning is a very slim book -- only about 50,000 words worth of stories. Blish's introduction discusses the state of SF, and its growing self-consciousness as a (his words) "literary movement". After discussing the growing seriousness of critical attention to SF, and of the literary ambition of its writers, he suggests that one aspect of SF considering itself a serious literature is an interest in art per se -- especially, in this case, an interest in art from an SFnal perspective. Which is what the stories collected here do -- look at the future of art -- new art forms, or the survival of older art into the future, or the way conditions in the future will affect art or the perception of the value of art.

The stories are:

"Dreaming is a Private Thing", by Isaac Asimov (6100 words) (F&SF, December 1955)

This is one of Asimov's better known stories, and, I think, one of his best. The new art here is dreaming -- creating dreams that can be recorded for other people to experience. The story doesn't really turn on plot -- it examines dreaming as art, and its affect on a couple of talented dreamers -- a young boy just showing the ability, and a highly admired professional. He also considerd pornographic dreams, and low quality dreams, and their commercial effects. It's a smart and believable story.

"A Work of Art", by James Blish (6500 words) (Science Fiction Stories, July 1956, as "Art Work")

I think this is the best story in the book, except possibly for Knight's. It's about a resurrected Richard Strauss, and about his attempts to compose something new after his resurrection. Blish portrays Strauss plausibly, and gets in some licks at future music -- as well as at his fellow SF writers, with this little passage: "By far the largest body of work being produced fell into a category called, misleadingly, science-music. The term reflected nothing but the titles of the work, which dealt with space flight, time travel, or other subjects of a romantic or an unlikely nature. There was nothing in the least scientific about the music, which consisted of a melange of cliches ..." At any rate, Strauss's efforts come to nothing satisfying, as the work he produces is but an imitation of his work while first alive ... and at the premiere of his new piece we learn what  real "work of art", and  real artist, is here portrayed.

"The Dark Night of the Soul", by James Blish (5900 words) (Galaxy, August 1956, as "The Genius Heap")

Odd that Blish chose two of his own stories. This one is less well-known than "A Work of Art", despite having appeared in a more prominent magazine. It's about a group of artists in the future who have been taken to a colony on Callisto, where they in general act up. The thesis seems to be that artists are disruptive, and perhaps it is best to keep them away from the bulk of the population. I have to say I was quite unconvinced on numerous grounds.

"Portrait of the Artist", by Harry Harrison (3500 words) (F&SF, November 1964)

This is a fairly straightforward story of a comic book artist who is being replaced by a machine that can do the drawing automatically. Seemed a little, well, over-programmed to me.

"The Country of the Kind", by Damon Knight (5300 words) (F&SF, February 1956)

A classic story, certainly one of Knight's best, one of those anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. The narrator is a murderer, and his punishment is a terrible smell that alerts everyone to his presence, and a conditioning that knocks him unconscious when he has violent impulses. He's also an artist, and he's convinced, and tries to convince as many people as he can, that the freedom to act violently and the freedom to create art are linked. I don't really believe that, but the story sells its point powerfully.

"With These Hands", by C. M. Kornbluth (6800 words) (Galaxy, December 1951)

Another story about a true artist facing replacement by less expensive machines. In this case Halvorsen ekes out a living by teaching, very occasionally selling something, and by the patronage of women who seem to hero worship him to some extent. In the dark conclusion, he finds this insupportable, and flees to a dangerous place to admire a true work of art, even if it means his life. Pretty good work.

"A Master of Babylon", by Edgar Pangborn (10,700 words) (Galaxy, November 1954, as "The Music Master of Babylon")

One of Pangborn's better known early stories, though not a story I've really taken to on a couple of readings. Brian Van Anda, a great pianist, is perhaps the only person to survive in flooded New York. He lives alone, of course, and every so often tries to play a great sonata to his satisfaction. Then he encounters a young, nearly savage, couple, who stay with him for a brief time, and ask him to marry them -- they are just civilized enough -- under the influence of the late leader of their colony -- to want their relationship sanction. But -- at least in Van Anda's eyes -- they are not civilized enough to appreciate his music.

"A Man of Talent", by Robert Silverberg (5300 words) (Future Science Fiction #31, Winter 1956-1957, as "The Man With Talent", this version much revised)

(Future's editor, Robert A. W. Lowndes, lumped this story with Blish's "Art-Work", which he had published just a couple of months earlier in Future's sister magazine Science Fiction Stories, in the blurb.) This is a somewhat sardonic tale of a poet on Earth in the 28th century, who has become convinced that decadent Earth is no place for a man of his talent. His one volume of poems received slightly puzzled praise, and he's published nothing since, so he emigrates to Rigel Seven, a colony planet, with the idea that a new environment might spur his creativity, and a less jaded audience might appreciate him. But instead he finds that the vigorous inhabitants of the planet all fancy themselves multi-talented -- artists, singers, and of course craftsmen and farmers and so on. But what they feel they really need is -- a knowledgeable audience. And that is all our protagonist can be to them. Amusing work. Silverberg rewrote the story for this appearance, and I compared it with the original magazine version. The two stories are the same as far as plot and message are concerned -- Silverberg just improved the prose, added a few paragraphs (perhaps up to 500 or so words), generally, I suppose, brought it up to the higher standards he had for his work by this time.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller, image courtesy of Phil Stephenson-Payne's Galactic Central site)



Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Obscure SF novels reviewed on this blog

My latest organizing post covers relatively few of my posts -- these are SF novels that have fallen into obscurity (or never got out of it!). I'll sneak in an anthology or two as well. I mean to distinguish these from a) my Ace Double reviews, which certainly include a lot of obscure SF novels!; and b) the various fairly recent and not necessarily really obscure SF novels that I've mentioned, things like Station Eleven and Engine Summer and my recent summary review of four 2017 books.

So, the "obscure" SF novels (and an anthology or three) are:

New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish;

Recalled to Life, by Robert Silverberg;

Point Ultimate, by Jerry Sohl;

The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner;

The Time-Lockers, by Wallace West;

The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun;

9 Tales of Space and Time, edited by Raymond J. Healy;

The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson;

Great Science Fiction Adventures, edited by Larry T. Shaw;

Times Without Number, by John Brunner;

D-99, by H. B. Fyfe;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Octangle, by Emanie Sachs

Old Bestseller Review: The Octangle, by Emanie Sachs

a review by Rich Horton

I find "old bestsellers" in lots of places, though most often in antique stores and estate sales. And I choose them based mostly on whether or not the specific book seems potentially interesting. So it was with this book, by someone I had never heard of. And when the book is by someone I've not heard of, sometimes the most interesting story is that of the author -- not of the book she wrote.

So I think it is with Emanie Sachs. I found The Octangle, her 1930 novel, for $1.50 at an antique store, and it seemed worth a try. This was a writer I had certainly never heard of. When I went looking for more information, I found no Wikipedia entry, but I did find something better: a paper that had been presented at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in 2008 entitled Rebel With a Cause: Emanie Nahm Sachs Arling Phillips, by WKU librarian Nancy Disher Baird.

It seems Emanie Nahm was born in 1893 and raised in Bowling Green, hence the university's interest in her. Her father was a rather distinguished lawyer and banker. Her parents disapproved of her tomboyish ways, and also of her desire to be a writer. But after dropping out of college in 1913 she moved to New York and began writing for the Times. In 1917 she married Walter Sachs, of the family that by then owned Goldman Sachs, the investment bank. (Goldman had been forced out due to his pro-German sentiment.) They had one child, but the marriage was unhappy.

Emanie took writing classes at Columbia and was soon publishing short stories. Her first novel, Talk, appeared in 1924, set in a fictional town obviously based on Bowling Green. It sold quite well, according to Baird, and was compared to Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Red Damask, about a Jewish family in New York, came out two years later and was also successful, earning more comparisons to Lewis and praise from Edna Ferber. In 1928 she published The Terrible Siren, a biography of the suffragist Victoria Woodhull. Her last book was The Octangle, in 1930. Baird calls it "rather insipid", a judgement with which I agree. She also claims that the publisher (Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith) went bankrupt just about then, killing the novel's distribution. (Indeed, first editions, even without dust jacket, are fairly pricy ($40 or so), making my $1.50 look like a bargain.) (There was a British edition in 1932.)

After this, Emanie's life took some bad turns -- the death of her mother, and illness, messed her up for some time. In 1937 Walter Sachs divorced her to marry an actress. Emanie took the name Arling at this time, and later on, after some apparently unhappy affairs, married August Phillips in 1963. She continued writing, mostly working on a history of Kentucky, but published nothing more. She also painted. She died in 1981.

So -- a fairly interesting and privileged life. And some early literary success. But I would say Emanie Sachs is essentially entirely forgotten today. What then of The Octangle?

To begin with, it's a very slim book, only about 25,000 words long. It is a murder mystery of sorts, though the mystery is not very mysterious, and the real focus of the novel is on the title "Octangle", a group of 8 rather shallow rich New Yorkers. The book opens with one of the eight, Linda Carter (probably the most wonderful woman in the book) being murdered by an unidentified man who was apparently enraged to witness her dallying with her lover. Immediately follows a description of a dinner party given by Horace and Adele Morley, attended by four other members of the Octangle. Two of them are unmarried: Chloe Vincent and Bryan Emmett. The other two are Jeffrey and Muriel Deene. Linda Carter, of course, cannot attend, as she is dead. And Rodney Carter is in no mood to socialize. This chapter and the chapters that follow piece by piece delineate the various characters: Muriel is beautiful but unlikeable and not very interested in sex. Jeffrey is an author (of books about murder!), and he was Linda's lover. Chloe is fairly clever, and an artist, and has sworn off men after a terrible relationship. Bryan is a successful man in finance, with a tendency to go on swooning crushes over women, but not to date them. Horace and Adele are contented and smug. Rodney is a very good looking man, and a sucessful architect, but a bit of a bore, and he married Linda because she wasn't very good looking and she was socially eligible -- after he had fallen in love with a beautiful lower class blonde.

And as for Linda, she was a dull and plain girl from Kentucky who, after she married Rodney and had a couple of children, started to blossom, taking a couple of lovers, and turning to music. And then she was killed, in her music studio right after she had made love with Jeffrey.

Spoilers will follow -- I don't think they are terribly important, but by all means skip this paragraph if you want to read the book and care about spoilers. Suffice it to say that the solution is a bit overprogrammed, and a bit classist, and a bit implausible.








The obvious suspects are Muriel (because of anger at her affair with Jeffrey, and murder by hire -- she was on an ocean liner when the murder happened), Jeffrey (last person to have seen her, perhaps a crime of passion), and Rodney (anger at her affair with Jeffrey). But none of them really seem likely. And then we hear Bryan Emmett's real story -- he was a poor boy from Kentucky, with an abusive father, and a mother he loved until his father beat the virtue out of her. His father was a thief as well, and taught his son how to get away with it. And so Bryan (born with a different name), steals a stake from another man, runs off to Cincinnati and begins to make a name for himself, moves to New York -- where he encounters Linda Terrill, one of the rich Kentucky girls he used to envy in his boyhood. At first he adores her, associsating her with his mother, but when he learns of her affair with Jeffrey, he feels revulsion and anger ... Chloe figures this out (not quite in that detail), and Bryan, in the cynical conclusion, sneers at her and assures her that no one will believe her crazy story. The book assumes that he's right, and that Chloe will say nothing and he'll get away scot-free.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Recent Novels reviewed on this blog

Recent novels reviewed on this blog

My ongoing quest to offer a hint of organization to the various posts on this blog continues with a very loose category -- "recent novels". These are a set of books that definitely aren't "Old Bestsellers", nor are they really "classics" (though some might become such), and they aren't Ace Doubles. Some are SF, some are not. They're just -- fairly recent. (And there will be overlap with others of my "organization" posts!)

Four 2017 SF Novels: Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory; Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck; The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss; Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn;

In the Hall of the Martian Kings, by John Barnes;

Castle Garac, by Nicholas Monsarrat;

Pink Vodka Blues and Skinny Annie Blues, by Neal Barrett, Jr.;

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel;

The Spy in the Ointment, by Donald Westlake;

The Language Nobody Speaks, by Eugene Mirabelli;

The Man Who Got Away, by Sumner Locke Elliott;

Ares Express, by Ian McDonald;

No Score, by Lawrence Block;

The Floating Opera, by John Barth;

Hello Summer, Goodbye, by Michael G. Coney;

The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis;

The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett;

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

Norwood, by Charles Portis;

The Walled Orchard, by Tom Holt;

Remains, by Mark Tiedemann;

Engine Summer, by John Crowley;

Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson;

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An Old Ace Double: Bow Down to Nul, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Dark Destroyers, by Manly Wade Wellman

Ace Double Reviews, 48: Bow Down to Nul, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Dark Destroyers, by Manly Wade Wellman (#D-443, 1960, $0.35)

by Rich Horton

Brian W. Aldiss, one of the greatest SF writers of them all, died August 19th this year (2017), having just turned 92. So I thought it appropriate to post my review (written some time ago) of one of his early novels that was published as half of an Ace Double.

Aldiss was born in 1925 to working class parents (his father a draper, his mother's father a builder). He was educated at Framlingham College and West Buckham School, and spent part of the Second World War in Burma. He worked at a bookseller after the War, and his first book was a lightly fictionalize account of a bookstore. He was an SF reader from an early age, and at the same time he was publishing his first mainstream book he was publishing his first SF stories in the magazines. Throughout his career he did distinguished work in SF and in mainstream fiction. I have found his work immensely enjoyable, and very varied in tone, style, subject matter, and structure. He also wrote a few memoirs, and I enjoyed the most complete of those, The Twinkling of an Eye, very much indeed.

The author of the other half of this book, Manly Wade Wellman, is less celebrated than Aldiss but still a widely respected writer. Wellman was born in Angola in 1903, and moved to the US at a young age. He was a good football player in his youth, and received a degree in Law from Columbia (his undergraduate degree was from Wichita State), but his goal was to be a writer, and in 1927 he sold his first story to Weird Tales. As this might suggest, his strongest work was in the weird fantastical mode, though he wrote SF, detective stories, comic books, and nonfiction as well. He died in 1986.

I have speculated in the past that Donald Wollheim may have occasionally paired Ace Double halves for thematic reasons. This is another such case -- both novels are about Earth under the domination of alien races. They are also both by fairly well-known, though very different, writers. Manly Wade Wellman became best known for his Appalachian fantasies, especially those about a character named "Silver John". I confess I never warmed to these (indeed, I confess that a good way to turn me off a story is to tell me it's an "Appalachian fantasy"). This novel is quite different -- but not in a good way. Aldiss of course is even better known -- an SFWA Grand Master, one of the best writers in the history of the field. Not surprisingly, this early novel is a lesser work -- though by this time Aldiss was already doing fine stuff such as Non-Stop. Bow Down to Nul is about 48,000 words, The Dark Destroyers about 36,000.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Bow Down to Nul has a slightly convoluted publishing history. It was originally a serial for New Worlds in 1960, under the title "X for Exploitation". The Ace Double is the first book publication. The Ace version is revised, though of about the same length -- there are some cuts but also some additions. By and large the two versions tell the same story. Later book publications sometimes used the much superior title The Interpreter. The later books mostly seem to have used the Ace text until the story was reprinted in The Brian Aldiss Omnibus. (Thanks to Phil Stephenson-Payne for this bibliographical information.)

The story opens with an aggrieved civil servant of the Partussian Empire complaining about how his threats to expose the corruption of a local administrator ended up in his getting fired. He sends his evidence to an incorruptible respected elder statesman back on Partussy. The statesman decides to investigate.

The planet under the rule of the corrupt administrator is of course Earth. The Partussians, called "Nuls", are three-armed, three-sexed, 10 foot tall creatures who breath hydrogen sulphide. They rule an extended empire. They look down in particular on all bipedal races, but aside from that, they are usually somewhat benevolent. But the ruler of Earth is skimming a lot of Earth's output for his own fortune, and otherwise brutally oppressing humans. Unfortunately for Earth, the two year travel time from Partussy to Earth gives Par-Chavorlem, their administrator, plenty of time to set up a sort of Potemkin Village to fool the investigator with.

The main part of the story concerns Chief Interpreter Gary Towler, one of the human liaisons with the Nuls. His job, directly working with Par-Chavorlem, lets him in for plenty of disdain from his fellow humans. He is in love with young Elizabeth Fallodon, another interpreter, but she seems a bit cool to him. However, Towler is secretly working with a rebel leader, and he agrees to reveal a crucial piece of evidence to the visiting investigator that will hopefully doom Par-Chavorlem.

However, the investigator's visit goes distressingly to the advantage of Par-Chavorlem. Towler is faced with some moral decisions: he doesn't trust the rebel leader, and he gets potentially attractive offers from various sides, but Elizabeth is finally warming to him. All leads to a curious and ironic ending. It's far from a great novel, considerably less good than for example Non-Stop, perhaps a bit too obviously a take on the British Empire. Still, not bad -- Aldiss is reliably at least interesting, at least at this stage of his career.


 
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

The Dark Destroyers is an abridgement of an expansion of a 1938/1939 Astounding serial called "Nuisance Value". ("Nuisance Value", by the way, is also the title of a 1957 Astounding story by Eric Frank Russell, a 1975 Analog story by James White, a 1956 Authentic story by John Brunner, and a 1951 Amazing story by Walt Sheldon. I'm not aware of its use in any SF magazines not starting with the letter A.) When I say "abridgement of an expansion" I mean that in 1959 Wellman published The Dark Destroyers as a Thomas Bouregy hardcover, expanded from the serial. This 1960 Ace edition is marked "Abridged" on the cover.

The story is set some decades after Earth has been invaded by aliens called the Cold People, because they cannot tolerate high temperatures. Most humans are exterminated, but a few remain in the tropics. Mike Darragh is a young man living near the Orinoco, and when a group of local chiefs plan an attack against the Cold People, he urges that he be allowed to investigate one of their bases first. After all, human technology was hopeless against the aliens when they first invaded -- why will their reduced capabilities now do better?

Darragh bravely encounters the Cold People on a Caribbean island and mostly by luck manages to steal one of their air vehicles. He ends up flying to a Cold People dome in Chicago, where he is astonished to discover a colony of humans kept in a sort of zoo. There he tries to urge them to revolt, against the counsel of an elder who seems a bit too happy with the status quote. Fortunately, he instantly falls in love with a local girl, and naturally virtue triumphs.

A pretty minor piece of work, in other words. Not terribly plausible, not terribly interesting.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: The Lonely, by Paul Gallico

Old Bestseller Review: The Lonely, by Paul Gallico

a review by Rich Horton

When I was a teenager I read a whole lot of different stuff (still do, to be sure). One sort of thing I read was contemporary bestsellers. I read the likes of Leon Uris, Herman Wouk (who struck me then as purely a writer of popular fiction (especially with The Winds of War), but who has a somewhat higher reputation, I gather, perhaps closer to Somerset Maugham territory ("in the first rank of the second raters")), Alastair MacLean, Helen MacInnes, even once an Arthur Hailey book. And I read some Paul Gallico. Gallico didn't really have many "blockbusters" -- his only novel to make the Publishers' Weekly list of the ten bestselling novels of the year was Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris in the UK) in 1959. He also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, basis for the blockbuster movie. And his early novella The Snow Goose was and remains very popular. I read Matilda, about a boxing kangaroo, as well as a couple of the Mrs. 'Arris books, with a fair amount of enjoyment.

Gallico was born in 1897 in New York City to recent immigrants. He graduated from Columbia after serving in World War I, then turned to journalism. He made a name for himself as a sportswriter -- in a way he was George Plimpton before Plimpton: for his first big story he sparred with Jack Dempsey (and was quickly knocked out). He founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament at this time, but began selling short fiction, and in 1936 he retired from sportswriting to concentrate on fiction. (Though his first book, Farewell to Sport, was nonfiction about sportswriting and his decision to leave it, and he also wrote the book about Lou Gehrig on which the movie Pride of the Yankees was based.) He moved to England for some time, and later lived all over Europe, ending his life in France.

The Lonely is a very short novel, a little under 40,000 words. It was first published (perhaps in a shorter form) in Cosmopolitan in 1945. The book came out in 1947 in England, not until 1949 in the US. Like The Snow Goose (and to an extent his first two books of fiction, the Hiram Holliday books) it is a World War II story.

The hero is Lieutenant Jerry Wright, from Connecticut, who is at Gedsborough Air Base in England, flying bombers. He's approaching the end of his stint, but he gets grounded for a couple of weeks due to battle fatigue. Wondering what to do, one of his crewmates suggests he ask a girl to accompany him on a trip to Scotland, for some fun (of exactly the sort you might think). British girls, he is assured, understand the arrangement -- just for fun, no hard feelings when it's over. And Jerry, son of a successful banker, has his life planned -- he'll go home and into his father's business, and he'll marry the neighbor girl, tall and beautiful (but, at least in Jerry's conception, apparently sexless) Catherine Quentin, daughter of his mother's best friend.

Jerry is a bit embarrassed by this suggestion, but ends up deciding to ask a girl he's been friendly with, a WAAF who works at the base, and who thus understands the pressure they're all under. Her name is Patches (from a young mispronunciation of Patrice) and she is presented as a bit shy, not terribly pretty, and (to my mind) not the sort of girl who'd agree to Jerry's proposal (though she does have leave coming). Jerry explains about his engagement to Catherine, making it clear they have no future, and Patches agrees to accompany him on the understood terms.

Well, you see how things are. Patches is already in love with Jerry, and Jerry doesn't really realize it, but he's well on the way to being in love with her. And the trip seals things. The sex is good, true, but the shared experiences, the conversations, etc., are more important. When Patches' leave is over, they say their farewells, Jerry still convinced his future is set. And then he realizes he's made a mistake -- he needs Patches. But what about Catherine? He catches a fortunate ride on a transport one of his friends is flying back to the US, for a whirlwind visit to home. But he can't make himself see Catherine, and when he tells his parents his plan, they act rather horribly. His mother breaks down, and loads him with guilt over (really) the mess he's made of her own dreams. His father tries a more mature approach, admitting to an affair with a French girl during WWI, and assuring Jerry that his feelings for Patches are just infatuation. And he seems to have Jerry convinced.

So what happens when he returns to England, and sees Patches again? Two guesses, and the first one doesn't count! But, really, Gallico handles it all pretty well, and he sells the Jerry/Patches relationship, and Jerry's eventual decision, quite well. This is popular fiction, rather thin, really, and written in workmanlike fashion. And quite sentimental. But it's well done popular fiction, and I conclude, based on this and my memories of the other Gallico novels I've read, that he deserved his popularity.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Literary Wonder and Adventure Podcast

I should mention that Robert Zoltan (Robert Szeles) of the Literary Wonder and Adventure series of podcasts has posted the one he recorded with me: The Golden Age of Science Fiction, Part Two. (That link actually takes you to the LWA main page but you can easily find the podcast there.) It was a lot of fun to do -- we discussed, well the Golden Age of SF (and the "Silver Age" and after), and Golden Ages in general, and lots of other stuff. Hopefully it's of general interest.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

Two Novels by a Nobel Prize Winner: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, by Yasunari Kawabata

a review by Rich Horton

Back in High School I tried (probably under the influence of my good friend Bill Sather) in Japanese literature. Not a whole lot, but I know I read Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanazaki, and three novels by the 1968 Nobel Prize Winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Those three novels were Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Master of Go. (I remember looking at books by Yukio Mishima as well, but I didn't read any of them, so my exposure to his work is limited to seeing the movie version of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. As I was 16 at the time (it was the first R rated movie I remember sneaking into a theater to see) my main memories of that movie concern Sarah Miles, and one scene in particular.)

I liked the Kawabata novels, especially Snow Country, a great deal. And so when it recently occurred to me that I haven't covered all that many foreign language novels at this blog, I decided to revisit Snow Country. I ended up borrowing an omnibus edition of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes from the library in lieu of digging through my library for my old paperbacks. The two novels are very short -- Snow Country perhaps 35,000 words in this translation, Thousand Cranes more like 28,000 words. (The translations are by Edward G. Seidensticker.)

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899 to a reasonably prosperous family, but he was orphaned at the age of 4 and raised by his grandparents, who died when he was still in his teens. He went to a boarding school, and then to Tokyo University, where he studied English and Japanese literature. He soon established something of a reputation with some short fiction, and he also became editor of the university's literary magazine. After graduation he worked as a journalist, as well as starting another literary magazine, and he made a name for himself in literary circles as a somewhat experimental writer. He published a series of highly regarded novels, many of them originally published in several parts over some years. He died in 1972, possibly by suicide, though many think his death was accidental. (He died of gas inhalation.) He was fairly close to the much younger Mishima, who notoriously committed hara kiri in 1970.

Snow Country has a particularly complex publication history. It was originally assembled into a book in 1937, based on seven different stories published in five separate journals beginning in 1935. A couple further stories were published in the '40s, and the final version of the novel appeared in 1947. Shortly before his death, Kawabata published a very short condensation of the novel, "Gleanings from Snow Country", as one of his "Palm-of-the-Hand" stories, very short stories of which he wrote some 140 in his career.

Snow Country concerns a wealthy and rather idle man named Shimamura, presumably some time in the early part of the 20th Century, who comes to a hot springs town in the western part of Japan -- the "snow country" -- and becomes involved with a geisha, Komako. Komako is presented as a somewhat reluctant geisha, working, at first, just as kind of overflow substitute when there are large parties. (Geisha, I have read, were not necessarily prostitutes, but there is no question in this novel that they are, though on further reading it seems that the hot springs geisha -- "Onsen Geisha" -- were often prostitutes, while those in big cities, the higher class sort, were perhaps instead more chaste entertainers -- dancers and musicians and experts in conversation.) The relationship between the two is curious -- Shimamura seems hesitant at first, and Komako somewhat insistent on entering his room, etc. At any rate, the story continues, over a couple of years, as Shimamura seems close to Komako when he visits her town, and then leaves for months, and when he returns things go on as before. It is clear that Shimamura (a married man) feels a vague sense of obligation to Komako, and enjoys her favors, but has no notion of what he can truly be for her, or indeed how to be close to anyone. Komako herself is a sad figure, aware of her shelf life, as it were, desperate, I think, for some relationship that will give her a feeling of self worth and yet not sure what that could be, not sure she is deserving. The resolution turns on another young woman, not quite a geisha, who seems connected to a man Komako may or may not have been involved with, and who Shimamura encounters a few times in a somewhat ambiguous fashion -- at the end, there is a fire, and Komako is seen at the last with the body -- alive or dead, we don't know -- of this other woman in her arms, as Shimamura looks on unable to act.

The writing, even in translation, is lovely. Shimamura and Komako are both well-depicted, very flawed people, neither really able to find a center for their lives. Shimamura's avocation -- independently wealthy, he does not need to work -- is the appreciation of dance, particularly, in his case, Western ballet -- and not as a spectator but by reading books about it. Clearly the implication is that he can get truly close to nothing. Komako drifts as well, and she drinks too much, and she rather distractedly wavers between geisha training and helping her old music teacher and a potential relationship with another man -- she is a lost character as well. It's a determinedly sad novel, in a minor key throughout, and it's hard to explain why it's so impressive, so lovely, but it really is.

Thousand Cranes is very fine work as well. It is the story of another somewhat dilettantish man, Kikuji, and his relationship with a couple of his late father's mistresses, and one of their daughters. It is set a few years after the Second World War. It opens with Kikuji having been summoned to a tea ceremony by Kurimoto Chikako, who had been his father's mistress for a short time, and who since then had served his parents in a variety of small ways. It becomes clear that she is introducing him to a prospective wife, a beautiful young woman named Miss Inamura. But things become complicated when his father's other, more established, mistress, Mrs. Ota, invites herself and her daughter.

Kikuji has a complicated relationship with both older women -- Mrs. Ota, the widow of his father's former business partner, he resented in the traditional fashion -- as a rival to his mother. And Chikako seems a more problematic character, quite a meddler, a liar, a troublesome person in general. After the tea ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota again and somehow finds himself sleeping with her. This relationship continues for a short while, with some apparent shame on both sides, and then Mrs. Ota commits suicide. Meanwhile, he as meets the Inamura girl another time or two, with Chikako constantly warning him against Mrs. Ota -- "the witch" -- and urging him to marry Miss Inamura. But instead he falls into a hesitant relationship with Mrs. Ota's daughter, but this is poisoned as well by a certain curious sense of guilt on both sides, leading to a somewhat ambiguous but rather shocking conclusion.

The conceit of the novel is to present a series of tea ceremonies, each less formal, less impressive. Various tea bowls and other tea ware are also discussed, each with symbolic meaning in context, reflecting Kikuji's relationship with his father (a tea aficionado), and reflecting the post-War changes in Japanese society, the decline of tradition, the changes in women's roles. Kikuji himself is somewhat weak individual, seemingly not in control of his life or his passions. The women are likewise damaged, but perhaps more by the constrictions of society. It's another very fine novel, not to my taste as affecting as Snow Country, but well worth reading.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

Old Bestseller: Under the Rose, by Frederic S. Isham

a review by Rich Horton

I don't really think this novel was a bestseller. But it was aimed at that side of the market, no doubt. It was an historical novel, published in 1903, a time of considerable popularity for historical novels, a fashion started perhaps by a book I reviewed here some time ago: When Knighthood was in Flower, by "Edwin Caskoden" (Charles Major). That book was one of the first novels published by the Indianapolis firm of Bobbs Merrill, and the book at hand, Under the Rose, was also published by that company.

Frederic Stewart Isham (1865-1922) had a fairly successful career measured by the number of movies made from his novels and plays. Most successful was probably Nothing But the Truth, which was made into multiple movies, perhaps mostly famously a 1941 vehicle for Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, and Edward Arnold. He hasn't retained any reputation, though, and it's hard to find much hard information about him online. He was born in Detroit. He apparently wrote nonfiction about Detroit as early as 1896, but the first reference to a novel I can find is The Strollers, from 1902. Thus Under the Rose may have been his second novel.

My edition appears possibly a first. It was published in January 1903. It's illustrated, quite nicely, by Howard Chandler Christy, one of the great illustrators working at the turn of the 20th Century. Charles Dana Gibson had his "Gibson Girls", Harrison Fisher his "American Beauties", and Howard Chandler Christy his "Christy Girls". Christy is also famous for his painting "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution", for a portrait of Amelia Earhart, and for Navy recruiting posters. That said, the cover illustration for this book seems absurdly inappropriate for a novel set in 16th Century France. Indeed, to my eyes it looks more like the work of Gibson or perhaps Fisher. (The interiors are much more plausible looking for the 16th Century!)

I've previously covered, as noted, When Knighthood Was in Flower, which is set in about 1515 and concerns in part Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor's brief marriage to Louis XII of France, along with (says the novel) an attempt at her seduction by the Dauphin, who became Francis I. Francis I is a major character in Under the Rose, which is set in about 1530. (To complete the story of France in the 16th Century, I've also reviewed The Helmet of Navarre, set in 1593, and concerning Henry IV of France. who was the first of the Bourbon dynasty, though he was related to the Valois.)

Under the Rose opens among the various jesters of King Francis' court, as they welcome a guest, the jester of the Duke of Friedwald. It seems that the King's niece, Louise, has become engaged to the Duke, who is one of the leading vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. This marriage will cement an alliance between France and the Empire, which have been at war for decades. The Duke's jester quicky makes an impression, and makes an enemy of the dwarf Triboulet, who had considered himself Francis' favorite.

Soon the Duke's jester becomes a favorite of the Princess Louise, and it's clear pretty quickly that the two might be falling in love. This is an issue, of course, because Louise must marry who the King desires she marry. This also seems an issue for Jacqueline, her maid, and also a part of the "jester's court". Jacqueline is a gypsy girl, it is thought, who was found in the castle after Francis had taken possession, and sent its previous owner, the Constable Dubrois, into exile (where he soon died).

The Duke soon appears -- he's a very rough-hewn warlike man. We soon figure out -- as does the real Duke's jester -- that he is an imposter -- in fact he is the "Free Baron", Louis of Hochfels, a criminal really, who has used his position at a mountainous pass to raid all the travelers passing through, including those who have carried letters from the Duke of Friedwald to his prospective bride.

The jester and the false Duke are quickly at odds, but the jester's position is precarious. Louise is obedient to her King and agrees to marry the Duke. And the jester is soon imprisoned. What follows is an exciting rescue, spearheaded by Jacqueline, and a dangerous race through France, leading to a confrontation between Charles and the false Duke -- and to the revelation, hardly a surprise to any alert reader, of the true identities of both the jester and Jacqueline.

Much of this is ahistorical, of course, which is OK. And I've skipped a few steps of intrigue. It's really a pretty fun novel, with some nice romantic developments, and a few surprises (most of them easily enough guessed, to be sure). Though the specific events portrayed are not really true to history, the general shape of events is correct. The book takes a very negative view of Francis I, probably more negative than his accomplishments deserved. It's also written in a somewhat too modern style for my taste, though perhaps understandably so, and perhaps my revulsion at the use of the term "terrorist" for Louis of Hochfels (a term that didn't exist until the French Revolution, long after the 16th Century, and a term that has a much different connotation now than it may have had in 1903) might be a tad unfair. It's not at all a great novel, but it does what it tries to do nicely enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Children's books reviewed on this blog

This is the second post I'm making in an attempt to impose some order on the many posts I've made to this blog. In this one I'm posting links to the various "Old Bestsellers" that are actually children's books, a category which has turned into a minor subtheme here. More will be coming, soon enough, including, for example, an eventual post whenever I reread Adam of the Road, a book I loved age 10 or so, a copy of which I found at an estate sale not long ago. And many of the books reviewed here already have similar status -- or are books I'd heard of that I knew were well-remembered children's books.

Sweet William, by Margeurite Bouvet;

Three SF Novels from the Scholastic Book Club;

Penrod, by Booth Tarkington;

The Story-Teller, by Maud Lindsay;

Champion's Choice, by John R. Tunis;

Teen-Age Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam, Jr.;

Space Service, edited by Andre Norton;

The Light Princess and The Golden Key, by George MacDonald;

Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hacklander;

Alice Blythe, Somewhere in England, by Martha Trent;

The Space Pioneers (A Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure), by Carey Rockwell;

Bound to Rise, by Horatio Alger, Jr.;

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman;

Through Space to Mars, by Roy Rockwood;



Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Little Known Early Robert Silverberg Novel: Recalled to Life

A Little Known Early Robert Silverberg Novel: Recalled to Life

a review by Rich Horton

As I wrote the last time I covered a Silverberg novel: I'm going to assume readers need little information about Silverberg -- born in 1935, began publishing SF in 1954, first novel in 1955, multiple Hugos and Nebulas, SFWA Grand Master.

During the 1950s Silverberg was an extremely prolific contributor to various science fiction magazines. Among his most regular haunts were Science Fiction Stories (edited by Robert A. W. Lowndes), and two magazines edited by Larry T. Shaw: Science Fiction Adventures and Infinity Science Fiction. The former magazine emphasized longer stories, one or two novellas or even full-length (but fairly short) novels per issues, and Silverberg had a story in every one of the Shaw issues of Science Fiction Adventures (often under pseudonyms like Calvin M. Knox, Ivar Jorgenson, and Alexander Blade). Infinity was a more conventional magazine, and Silverberg fairly regularly published short stories there (he appeared in about half the twenty issues), but only one novel: Recalled to Life, serialized in the June and August 1958 issues. It didn't get book publication until 1962, with a rather highly priced paperback edition from Lancer: 75 cents, which was very high at that time. (Lancer's 1967 reissue was only 50 cents.) Larry Shaw, by the way, was an editor at Lancer, but at least according to Wikipedia, he didn't join the firm until 1963.

I call this novel "little known" but I should mention that, after its somewhat slow process to original book publication, it has been reprinted a number of times: hardcover editions in the '70s from Doubleday in the US and Gollancz in the UK, and paperback editions from Lancer again, and from Panther in the UK, and from Ace; along with a fairly recent Gateway/Orion ebook, and a print version from Armchair Fiction.

(I've taken a closer look, and it seems that Silverberg actually revised Recalled to Life significantly for the 1972 Doubleday edition. I'll have to get a copy of that, and when I do I'll revise this post again to discuss the changes. I find this heartening, because as I was reading I thought, as noted, that the book was particularly ambitious for late '50s Silvberberg, and I wondered if he might have reexamined the theme later.)

Recalled to Life is set in 2033. The main character is James Harker, the former Governor of New York, who has returned to private law practice after his efforts at reforming the state government got him in trouble, including with his own party, the National Liberals. His main client these days is Richard Bryant, the famous astronaut who was the first man on Mars. Bryant is dying, and has made a will all but disinheriting his loser children. That's not the thrust of the novel, however -- that just sets up one enemy for Harker.

He is soon hired by Beller Labs, an outfit which has developed a process to bring someone back to life if they have died in the past 24 hours. They recognize that this will be very controversial, and they want Harker to help them navigate the storm. He agrees to, in part because of his continuing anguish over the drowning death of his very young daughter years before.

The bulk of the rest of the novel concerns the many issues Harker faces: rebellion from a jealous junior researcher at Beller Labs and also a blowhard PR-type who jumps the gun on revealing the process to the public; moral opposition from, for example, the Catholic Church; the mean-spirited an foolishly executed revenge attempts from one of Richard Bryant's sons; and perhaps most importantly, the difficult political questions. The rival party to Harker's Nat Libs, the American Conservative Party, is reflexively opposed, but, to Harker's dismay, the Nat Libs are hardly unified in favor of the new process, in particular Harker's former mentor, aging senator Clyde Thurman.

More importantly to the intellectual core of the novel, the working out of the opposition Harker faces raises many of the real ethical and practical issues with the treatment. Though Harker remains in favor of the reanimation process, he is forced to acknowledge that some of his opponents have valid points: for example, who will be allowed to be reanimated? The process won't be free, so will it be just for the privileged? And, I wondered, should it be restricted to younger people? It's not a rejuvenation process -- if a sick man dies and is reanimated, he'll die again fairly soon most likely. Of course the Church wonders if the reanimated person's soul will return from heaven. Harker gets many letters from people desperately wanting their loved ones to be saved -- clearly a logistical impossibility, but still wrenching. And finally there are the complications of the process: about 1 in 20 attempts fail completely, which is perhaps tolerable, but more scarily, in about 1 case in 6, the body comes back to life but the brain does not, leaving someone called inevitably a "zombie".

Alas, the resolution of the novel takes a highly melodramatic turn. The Beller people, without Harker's knowledge, commit an horrendous crime (which I found unbelievable on several grounds: first, that they could get away with it; second, that they thought is at all acceptable, and, third, that Harker, despite his fury at their actions, countenances the final result.) And, finally, perhaps inevitably, Harker is forced to take a dramatic personal step to sway the tide of public opinion.

I found the novel worthwile reading on the whole, despite the some messed up ending sequence. It's well and soberly written, and it raises some interesting questions, and discusses them reasonably well (though there was plenty more that could have been said about the whole issue). One of the most ambitious of Silverberg's early novels.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Capsule Reviews: Four SF Novels from 2017

Capsules: Four Recent SF Novels

reviews by Rich Horton

One of the "problems" I've had in recent years of SF reading has been keeping up with novels. That's mostly caused by two things (well, three -- a pretty packed day job schedule contributes as well!): a) I try really hard to keep up with the short fiction published in the field, in support of my Locus column, my Best of the Year volume, and in search of reprints for Lightspeed; and b) I've been reading a lot of non-SF, purposefully, including of course a lot of the "old bestsellers" I review at this blog, as well as a lot of older SF (mostly Ace Doubles).

So I was happy to note that over the past few weeks I've read no fewer than four SF novels from 2017. So I figured I'd do a quick post here with capsule reviews of each of them. The unifying factor, perhaps, is that I've used stories by each of these writers in my Best of the Year books.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory (Knopf, $27.95. 399 pages)

This is my favorite 2017 novel to date. Daryl Gregory has published several first rate books already, and some excellent short fiction. But this book looks like it could be his breakout.

This is about a family of psychics. Or maybe a family of con artists. It's told through the POV of the five surviving members: Teddy Telemachus; his three children, Frankie, Buddy, and Irene; and Irene's teenaged son Matty. The main action is set in June through October 1995. with plenty of flashbacks to the family's previous career -- Teddy meeting his wife Maureen, Maureen's career as a psychic working for the US government, the family's 15 minutes of fame culminating in a disastrous appearance on TV, etc. But everything leads to a culmination in September of 1995, a day which Buddy, who can see the future, has been preparing for all along.

It's a very funny book, but it's also at times heartbreaking. Teddy, we gather quickly, is a con man, a magician; but the rest of the family seems to have real powers, especially Maureen, who can see things at a distance via out of body experience. Her grandson Matty has some like her ability -- complicated by puberty! Frankie has some telekinetic ability, complicated by him being a fuckup. Buddy can see the future, complicated by ... well, I'll let you find that out. And Irene can tell when someone is lying -- complicated by, well, love. Government agents are involved, and mobsters, and a love interest for Irene plus a love interest of sorts for Teddy -- not to mention Buddy and Matty! It's sweet and sad, and wrenching and always absorbing. To me it seems to inhabit above all Michael Chabon territory, while in no way being imitative or derivative. (It's also set in the suburbs of Chicago, which means I recognize the territory -- it's not exactly my home town (a different suburb, Naperville), but it's places that make sense to me ... that doesn't matter to everyone but it worked for me!) I loved it.

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Vintage, $15.95, 216 pages)

Karin Tidbeck has attracted a fair amount of well-deserved attention with her short fiction. She's a Swedish writer, who translates her own work into English. Amatka is her first novel, published in 2012 in Sweden.

It's a very strange novel, and very effectively so. It tells of a woman named Vanja who comes to a city named Amatka. Amatka is one of four colony cities on a new world -- not, we learn slowly, necessarily a planet but a different world, perhaps a different reality. It seems that in this world the thingness of things needs to be maintained by constant affirmation. Indeed, a fifth colony city was apparently destroyed, perhaps because they forgot to assert reality.

Vanja is in many ways estranged from her society already -- her father was exiled for political reasons; she is a Lesbian, and, more importantly it seems, not interested in having chidren; and she remains inquisitive. In her new city she becomes involved with something like a revolutionary movement -- which seems aimed at accepting the different nature of reality in this word rather than resisting it -- but she is torn because her new lover is not interested in revolution.

The book is fascinating on numerous grounds -- the central idea is cool, Vanja's love affair is movingly and believably portrayed, the oppressive central government is a satisfying evil (and not too overwhelmingly evil), the effect of this reality on art is really well-depicted -- and the nature of this world's nature is an effective element as well. I thought the weak point was the conclusion, which was, as Alvaro Zinos-Amaro put it, emotionally effective but intellectually underwhelming.


The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss (Saga, $24.99, 400 pages)

Theodora Goss is one of my favorite writers of short fiction bar none. This is her first full-length novel, though she has published one previous book-length story, probably a novella in length, The Thorn and the Blossom, a very sweet and enjoyable love story told from the point of view of both lovers in dos-a-dos fashion and binding.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter is a good deal of fun. The main characters are a group of women, all daughters (or creations) of fictional Victorian mad scientists: Mary Jekyll, her half-sister (as she eventually learns) Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau (the puma woman of The Island of Dr. Moreau), Justine Frankenstein (created to be a Bride of Frankenein's Monster (though in the original Shelley novel she was never actually made)), and Beatrice Rappaccini. The action occurs after the death of Mary's mother, at which time she learns of the existence of Diana Hyde, and also of some secrets about her father's experiments, and his scientific associates, that had been kept from her.

Her efforts to rescue Diana from a home for fallen women lead her by happenstance to helping Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the Whitechapel murders. Soon the whole crew is involved, leading eventually to a satisfying and exciting solution. The story is interspersed with sections detailing the back stories of each of the characters. A further device is that the manuscript, evidently composed by Catherine, is interrupted by often snarky comments by each of the women.

As I said, it's a good deal of fun. And it has at its core a strong idea -- the curious fascination of Victorian (and pre-Victorian, in the case of Shelley) writers with what could be called human monsters. All this is tied in, I think, with the evolutionary theories in development, and then under debate, at that time.

So, a pretty enjoyable book. I did have some reservations -- it's kind of a romp. Which is fine -- that's a perfectly good thing for a book to be. But in the process, the plot is on the implausible side at times. There are some liberties taken with chronology, but that's OK -- it's within the author's remit in a book like this to shift disparate timelines a bit. The language, however, is too modern -- I don't expect a perfect echo of Victorian prose -- though, as I'm reading Middlemarch now I can tell you that you could hardly do better than to emulate George Eliot's prose -- but there some really anachronistic turns of phrase that just grated on me. That's a nitpick, however.

Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, $24.99, 287 pages)

Carrie Vaughn made her reputation with a long series of Urban Fantasy novels about a werewolf DJ named Kitty Norville. Those were plenty enjoyable stuff. Since then she's published a variety of novels, and all along she's published lots of really fine short fiction, both Fantasy and SF.

Martians Abroad is a YA novel, seemingly the first in a series, though its plot is resolved quite acceptably in this book. It's told by Polly Newton, the daughter of the Director of the Mars Colony. Polly wants to be a starship pilot, but her mother has different plans for her, and for her rather spooky brother, Charles. They are packed off to the Galileo Academy on Earth, a very prestigious school. (It is supposedly a merit-based school, and it takes Polly rather a while to figure out that "merit=influence", mostly, and that even she and Charles have "influence" in that their mother is the Director of Mars Colony.)

Polly and Charles encounter a lot of prejudice on Earth, as the first Martians to attend Galileo Academy. All this is affecting, but maybe a bit too obvious. They also run into a series of really dangerous accidents on different school activities -- the day only saved by Polly's naive heroism, and Charles' calculated suspiciousness and associated cleverness. Things culminate on the Moon with an accident that's not just dangerous but likely fatal. The novel turns a bit on the revelation of the actual villain -- who turns out to be an at first unexpected but really rather obvious suspect.

I did enjoy this, and I'll be glad to read more stories about Polly. That said, it's a bit slight, and it's definitely pure YA -- which isn't per se a bad thing, but which does, I think, limit the book a bit. (There are YA books which aren't pure YA -- which, if you will, transcend the category.)