Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Recent Crime Novel: Texas Vigilante, by Bill Crider

A Recent Crime Novel: Texas Vigilante, by Bill Crider

a review by Rich Horton

Bill Crider (b. 1941) is best known to me as a serious book collector with great knowledge in genres close to me -- pulps and mystery primarily, but also some interest in SF and Fantasy. He was a long time English professor. He is a life-long Texan. And he also has written a great many novels, mostly in the mystery/crime genre. He has won two Anthony awards, and been nominated for several Edgars, for his mystery fiction.

I had known Bill on a mailing list for some years, but I met him first just a few weeks ago at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio (not far from where Bill was born). We spoke only briefly. And just recently I heard that Bill has gone into hospice. It was clearly time for me to remedy a longstanding lacuna in my reading, and get to one of his books. (Bill was also a regular contributor to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books.)


I chose Texas Vigilante, the second of his novels about Ellie Taine. Both books were published by Dell in 1999. The first of these is Outrage at Blanco, in which, I deduce from Texas Vigilante, Ellie is raped, and her husband murdered, after which she chases down the perpetrators and kills a couple of them. Texas Vigilante is set a year or so later. (Some time in the past, it seems, based on the lack of automobiles, which makes the ebook cover picture to the right not very accurate.) Ellie has inherited a ranch in Blanco, TX, from her friend Jonathan Crossland, and she is running it with the help of Lane Tolbert, his wife Sue and their young daughter Laurie. Meantime, Sue's brother, Angel Ware, is in prison. He's guilty of a whole raft of crimes (including burning down his parents' house with them in it) -- he's a pure sociopath. The prison guard is a sociopath himself, fond of torturing Angel for no apparent reason, and one day Angel takes the opportunity to escape while on a work detail. He is accompanied by another sociopath, the teenaged Hoot Riley (who seems a bit too interested in girls even younger then he is), as well as a professional criminal (Abilene Jack Sturdivant) and an unfortunate loser (Ben Jephson). Angel is the brains of the outfit, so they stick with him, even as his obsession to find his sister and her family seems dangerous.

Lane's brother Brady is a Texas Ranger, the one who actually arrested Angel, though Sue had turned him in. Obviously, Angel wants revenge on Sue and on Brady. The story then follows Angel's path to finding Sue; Brady's attempts to track down the escapees, and Ellie and her fellow ranchers as they worry about the danger posed by Angel. There are a variety of viewpoint characters, noticeably including a couple of less influential figures: Ben Jephson, the hapless prisoner dragged along on Angel's quest; and Shag Tillman, a lazy and cowardly but generally good-hearted Sheriff at Blanco.

The story is crisply told and fast-moving. There is a fair amount of mordant humor; and a lot of glimpses on the mental processes of some evil people, as well as some good people. Angel's plan is to kidnap Laurie -- who actually seems to like Angel, and seems to be one of the few people Angel has any concern for. That goes smoothly enough, followed by an obvious attempt to lure Brady and Lane Tolbert into an ambush. He doesn't count on Ellie Taine, however ... Nor, perhaps, on the unreliability of his fellow criminals. Nor on the Texas rain.

The book delivers on what it promised -- lots of action (and violence), lots of tension, really bad guys and competent good guys. It's a fun read (for values of fun that included spending a lot of time with some nasty people). It is, as I mentioned, the second book about Ellie Taine -- as far as I can tell, however, it was also the last, which is a shame. It seems at least one more book was potentially in the offing -- though the thought of another horrifying crime perpetrated against those close to her is a bit hard to take!

It's a shame we won't have Bill Crider -- and his writing and his knowledge -- for much longer, but I am glad I had the chance to meet him once, and to know him online for longer.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Auction Block, by Rex Beach

Old Bestseller: The Auction Block, by Rex Beach

a review by Rich Horton

It's been a while since I published a review of an Old Bestseller of the sort that I feel is the core mission of this blog: forgotten popular fiction from the first half of the 20th Century. But here's a very good example of that sort of thing. And it's published on an auspicious day! (No, not Pearl Harbor Day. Instead, the 68th anniversary of the author's death!)

Rex Beach (1877-1949) was born in Michigan, raised in Florida, and went to law school in Chicago. He prospected for gold in Alaska (unsuccessfully), and he won a silver medal as part of the US Water Polo team in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. He turned to writing about this time, and his second novel, The Spoilers (1906) was the 8th bestselling novel of that year (according to Publishers' Weekly). He had the second, third and eighth bestselling novels of 1908. 1909, and 1912 as well. The Spoilers (based on his experiences in Alaska, and on a true incident of corruption) was made into a movie at least 5 times, once starring Gary Cooper, another time John Wayne.

Beach's novels were generally adventure novels, of the "he man" school of literature, often set on the frontier. In this context, The Auction Block (1914) is an outlier: it is to an extent (if not all that successfully) a "social" novel, it is set in the New York society (and the demimonde), it is a love story, and it features relatively little action (though there is some gunplay, fast cars, and fights, just not a whole lot).

My copy appears to be the First Edition, from Harper and Brothers (in fair condition, no dj). It is copiously, and quite nicely, illustrated by the famous illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (of the "Gibson Girl").


It opens with the Knight family, from Upstate New York, in some trouble. Their father, Peter, a very weak man, had lost his bid for re-election as Sheriff, due to his corrupt actions. The son, Jim, is lazy and morally degenerate. They are to move to New York City, where a political mentor of Mr. Knight has found him a patronage job. But, led by Mrs. Knight and Jim, they hatch a plan for greater riches, unbeknownst (mostly) to the daughter, Lorelei, who is beautiful and innocent and morally upstanding. This plan is to have Lorelei go on the musical stage and lure a rich man into marriage.

Lorelei agrees to the stage part of things, to help support the family, which becomes particularly important after Peter has an accident and loses his job. Lorelei is quite a hit from the start, because of her beauty, though she is a mediocre singer and actress. She soon learns that a big part of the job is to "entertain" the rich men who come to see her. She maintains her moral standards to a degree: she eats with the men and goes to parties, but doesn't drink, nor does she allow the men further liberties (though that would be more lucrative).

She impresses a cynical critic, Campbell Pope, with her freshness, and she becomes a friend to a dyspeptic middle-aged banker, Mr. Merkle, who gives her plenty of advice about steering away from the worst elements of her milieu. Her dressing room mate is Lilas Lynn, a somewhat coarser character who has become the mistress of a married steel magnate, Jarvis Hammon. Lorelei also makes a surprising friend: the notorious Adoree Demorest, regarded as the wickedest actress on Broadway. About this time, Bob Wharton, the dissipated son of another steel man, Hannibal Wharton of Pittsburg (as it seemed to be spelled often those days), falls head over heels for Lorelei, but she rejects his advances.

Lilas has plans to to trap Hammon into marriage. (Part of her motivation is revenge: she is the daughter of a steelworker who died in an accident in one of Hammon's plants.) To do so she needs to cause a scandal, and unfortunately her machinations enmesh Lorelei and Mr. Merkle, who are together only because he was rescuing her from Bob Wharton's importunings. Jim Knight, now a small time gangster, is involved as well. Before long Lilas's plans are coming to fruition; and in addition, Lorelei's nasty family is trying to blackmail Mr. Merkle. But Jarvis Hammon and Lilas Lynn have a shocking falling out, which leads to Lilas killing Hammon (in self-defense, to be fair), and Bob Wharton and Mr. Merkle help the dying Hammon hush up the scandalous aspects.

Desperate for money, the Knights scheme to trick Bob Wharton into asking Lorelei to marry him. She is completely against this, but nasty Jim tricks her into an ambiguous situation, and Lorelei, not feeling well anyway after witnessing Hammon's murder, against her better instincts accepts a drunken proposal from Bob.

The marriage (due to Jim's plotting) happens immediately, and the Knights begin to work on Hannibal Wharton for a payoff in exchange for a divorce. But Lorelei will have none of it. She tells Bob that he can have the divorce no strings attached -- but he begs her to stick with him: he truly believes he loves her. She agrees on one condition: that he quite drinking.

The rest of the novel concerns Bob's fitful efforts at reform, with plenty of backsliding. He is pushed to get a job, and after his father (who has cut him off without a penny) blacklists him from a job with any of his associates, Bob has to come up with something on his own. He has surprising success, but every step forward is the occasion for a disastrous step backward, usually due to falling spectacularly off the wagon. Things come to a terrible head when they attend a country house party, and Lorelei is disgusted by the immorality of the "Society" folks on hand, especially when one man attempts to rape her. She is ready to break off with Bob completely (he was drunk and thus unable to protect Lorelei), but then she learns she is pregnant.

It's easy to see the resolution: the child helps Bob truly face his responsibilities, and also eventually melt the hearts of Bob's parents. There is still the Knight family to deal with: they are still trying to extort money from Hannibal Wharton. And there is another crisis when Lilas Lynn, now a desperate cocaine addict, returns and tries to cause more chaos. Not to mention Jim Knight's mob connections ... But there are plenty of dei ex machinae to go around and solve all these problems. And there's a sweet if silly subplot involving Adoree Demorest and the cynical critic Campbell Pope.

It's really not a very good novel. Its attempts at social relevance: dealing with the problems of steelworkers, police corruption and mob violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, and the abuse of the showgirls working on Broadway, are decidedly clumsy if somewhat well-meant. It has all too typical racist bits, and especially anti-Semitic aspects (Lilas Lynn, the villainess, is Jewish, and described in quite absurd terms). The working out of the plot is terribly convenient.

And for all that, I kind of enjoyed it, and was even rather moved at the conclusion. As with so many of these Old Bestsellers, it's really not a mystery that it sold well -- even though I really see not great reason for a revival.

Monday, December 4, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part V: Day 4

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part V: Day 4

Last day. I'll begin with some mentions of people I talked to earlier, whom I had forgotten when doing previous writeups. I talked to Michael Damian Thomas for some time -- about his and Lynne's recent move to Champaign (where I went to college), and (with Sarah Pinsker, as previously mentioned) about music -- Tom Petty, and other concerts we've attended, and other people who are, well, getting on a bit (as are we all). Of course I've known Michael for years and years. I also had a good talk with Tegan Moore, who had a really good story in Asimov's last year ("Epitome"). She mentioned some frustration with selling her recent work, which sounds pretty ambitious -- I think she'll make it, and pretty impressively, before long.

I also had a good talk with Brad Denton, and Caroline Spector, and I managed to put in a request for a song at "Roomcon", the traditional room party at ConQuesT where Brad (as "Blind Lemon") and Caroline play excellent music. (The request was for another song about a Texas city: Robert Earl Keen's great "Corpus Christi Bay".) Others I met (some quite briefly) included Robert V. S. Redick, Jenn Reese, Caroline Yoachim, Rajan Khanna, Greg van Eekhout,  Gary Wolfe, and doubtless several more I'm embarrassed to have forgotten.

Sunday morning I came downstairs and ran into (not literally) Charlie Finlay, along with three of his F&SF writers: Austin Habershaw, G. V. (for Gemma, I think) Anderson, and Nebula winner William Ledbetter. Ledbetter's Nebula was for a story in F&SF last year, and I was impressed with stories by Anderson and Habershaw in the same quite recent issue. Indeed, Anderson went on to take the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story later that day. I had forgotten that story, perhaps because the title is in German: "Das Steingeschöpf", but I looked it up again (it was in Strange Horizons late last year, and I first read it on a morning walk when I was in Southern California for work about a year ago), and it's pretty impressive. We talked about things like the San Antonio climate and baseball.

We skipped breakfast (grabbed a snack in the Con suite), and there were panels at 10 and 11 I wanted to see. The first was on Pulp Era Influences: The Expiration Date. Panelists were James Stoddard, Gary K. Wolfe, Betsy Mitchell, and Jeffrey Shanks. Most agreed that lots of Pulp Era writers remain influential, and they mentioned as well some contemporary work explicitly in the "Pulp" mode. Betsy mentioned her ebook project, Open Road, which brings a lot of out of print work back at least electronically.

The second panel was on the Best Fantasy Novels of 2017. Willie Siros, Liza Groen Trombi, Jim Minz, and Joe Monti were the panelists. I always find these worthwhile, and there was a good discussion. I also had a good talk with Joe after the panel.

Finally, we attended Karen Joy Fowler's reading, from her upcoming novel about the John Wilkes Booth family. It was very intriguing. I did get a chance to introduce Mary Ann to Karen a bit later -- as I've mentioned before, Mary Ann doesn't read much SF, but she does read Karen Joy Fowler.

I took one more swing through the dealers' room, but didn't buy anything more. I was quite restrained this Con as far as buying books: the Crowley chapbook ("An Earthly Mother Sits and Sing"), Kij Johnson's The River Bank, Walter Jon Williams' Quillifer, a couple of old magazines, one Ace Double; and a couple of books given to me (Threshold of Eternity by Brunner and Broderick, and Tales from a Talking Board, featuring a Joe McDermott story).

So we headed out. One goal was to eat at Schlotzky's, long a favorite sandwich place of ours. Alas, the St. Louis franchises all closed over a decade ago. We've been to one in Seneca, SC (near Clemson) a few times, and to one in Joplin, MO, a few times, but we had noted that Texas, including San Antonio, has Schlotzky's, so we stopped at one on the way out of town. The sandwiches were a bit disappointing: sloppily prepared, and they were out of onions. Hey, I know there's great food in Texas (and we had some pretty good food!), but we had some disappointments too.

While at Schlotzky's, we saw on TV the news about the shootings at the church in Sutherland Springs, only about 40 miles away from the restaurant. I'll avoid any overtly political statements in this forum, however.

We headed up to Dallas, this time saving 20 minutes is Austin by taking a huge loop around the city. We also avoided a long delay in Waco thanks to our GPS guiding us off the highway to the frontage road to miss an accident-caused backup. We got to Dallas early enough to go out for pizza with Paul and Diane and the twins, David and Christopher. I can't remember the name of the pizza place -- the food was good but the service was incredibly slow. (The people at the table next to us made a bit of a scene about that.)

In the morning, first we had another of Diane's spectacular breakfasts. We decided we had time for one antique mall, and we (more or less randomly) picked one in Sherman, TX. It was a fine place, and I found a copy of Black Alice, by Thom Demijohn (Thomas Disch and John Sladek). Alas, a Book Club edition -- apparently the true first is pretty rare. We took the more normal way home, through Oklahoma to I-44, then into Missouri. We stopped in Joplin at Schlotzky's again -- it was better than the San Antonio one.

We had been playing various different Pandora stations along the way, some of mine and some of Mary Ann's, and we ended, for most of the way across Missouri, by playing a station I have intended to focus on show tunes -- based on my fondness for big cheesy tunes like "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" and "I Dreamed a Dream", not to mention lots of Sondheim. Mary Ann tried to prove that the phone listens to us by asking for songs from the likes of My Fair Lady -- and sure enough, not long after, "I Could Have Danced All Night" popped up -- the for Disney song, which took a while longer but eventually the phone got the hint and played something from The Little Mermaid.

We got in latish but not too late. I have to say, World Fantasy Convention lived up to what many people have told me -- that's it's a favorite convention of a whole bunch of people, for its literary and professional focus, and its relatively small size. I had a really wonderful time. As ever, the key to any Con is the people you meet -- old friends and new -- the conversations. I'll be back again as soon as I can swing it. (Alas, Baltimore next year might be hard, given we already have plans to go to San Jose for Worldcon, and to Montreal for Jo Walton's Scintillation.)

Finally, I need to mention the World Fantasy Award winners. We missed the award presentation, but here are the nominees and winners. Congratulations to them all, and I am particularly happy with Kij Johnson's award for the utterly magnificent Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. And I should also add special congratulations to Neile Graham, another old friend from the much-missed Golden Age of the SFF.Net newsgroups. I did have a chance to finally meet Neile in the flesh, and talk with her for a bit.

BEST NOVEL

  • The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
  • Borderline by Mishell Baker
  • Roadsouls by Betsy James
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
  • Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

BEST LONG FICTION

  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
  • “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

BEST SHORT FICTION

BEST ANTHOLOGY

  • Dreaming in the Dark edited by Jack Dann
  • Clockwork Phoenix 5 edited by Mike Allen
  • Children of Lovecraft edited by Ellen Datlow
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 edited by Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph Adams
  • The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe

BEST COLLECTION

  • A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford
  • Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie
  • On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories by Tina Connolly
  • Vacui Magia by L.S. Johnson
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

BEST ARTIST

  • Jeffrey Alan Love
  • Greg Bridges
  • Julie Dillon
  • Paul Lewin
  • Victo Ngai

SPECIAL AWARD, PROFESSIONAL

  • Michael Levy & Farah Mendlesohn, for Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction
  • L. Timmel Duchamp, for Aqueduct Press
  • C.C. Finlay, for editing F&SF
  • Kelly Link, for contributions to the genre
  • Joe Monti, for contributions to the genre

SPECIAL AWARD, NON-PROFESSIONAL

  • Neile Graham, for fostering excellence in the genre through her role as Workshop Director, Clarion West
  • Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • Malcolm R. Phifer & Michael C. Phifer, for their publication The Fantasy Illustration Library, Volume Two: Gods and Goddesses
  • Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
  • Brian White, for Fireside Fiction Company

Here are links to all five installments of this con report:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V



Sunday, December 3, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part IV: Day 3

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part IV: Day 3

I've finally got back to this report -- I have been distracted by things like Thanksgiving and the deadline for my most recent Locus column. Alas, that means my memory has gobbled up even more names of people I met, which stinks. I apologize to the many I've forgotten.

Saturday morning we skipped anything elaborate for breakfast, settling for snacking in the con suite. I also took the opportunity to work out, as we also did some laundry. The only other con member I recognized in the workout room was Tananarive Due, but I'm sure everyone else was there another time!

Mary Ann and I both wanted to go to the panel "Karen Joy Fowler in Conversation", an interview conducted by Kelly Link. (Fowler is one of Mary Ann's favorite writers.) This was very enjoyable and interesting. Karen talked about her -- somewhat idyllic-seeming -- childhood in Bloomington, IN and the way that was disrupted when her father took a position at Stanford when she was 11. [Coincidentally, we ate at a restaurant in Bloomington the Saturday after Thanksgiving, on the way back from my brother's house in Indianapolis, and visiting my son's gf in Elletsville, a town next to Bloomington.] She discussed her academic career, in which she took a Bachelors and a Masters in Political Science (the first concentrating on Southwest Asia, the second in East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan) because UC Davis didn't have a program about Southwest Asia.) Her approach to a writing career was interesting -- she wanted to take ballet, and after injuries sustained courtesy of the police during a protest, she thought that impossible, but her husband bought her ballet lessons anyway, which she took until the presence of "16-year-olds who could touch their knees to their ears" got too frustrating. A writing group provided her a replacement evening to herself. Eventually she started selling her stories, and then her novels.

She discussed the difference between her stories and her novels, and some little stories about her experience with workshops, including Clarion; both as student and instructor; and also some stories about the public life of the writer. I was particularly struck by her mention of her original writers' group, which is still active. Alas, she said, all the members of the group are so concerned with rejection that they won't submit their stories anywhere, so they are writing, in essence, for an audience of seven.

After that, I had nothing until my own panel, my only one this con, at 3. That meant it was a good time for a Dealers' Room visit, and then lunch. I haven't mentioned the Dealers' Room much yet -- I actually visited it several times, though I didn't buy all that much. It was a really fine, very literary-oriented, room. I spent plenty of time at the Small Beer Press table, at Dave Willoughby's table, at Greg Ketter's Dream Haven Books table, at the Tachyon Books and Fairmont Press displays, and of course at Sally Kobee's booth. I am sure I am missing some, too ... -- yes, that's right, Larry Hallack as well. Talked at some length with Patrick Swenson, Richard Warren, Jim Van Pelt, and others.

For lunch we were determined to get Barbeque. John Joseph Adams had recommended a place, I think it was Rudy's Country Store, and we planned to try that but by the time we left we were running out of time, so we picked a closer place, the Big Bib. Once again we were vaguely disappointed by Texas Barbeque -- the Big Bib was OK, but nothing special.

We got back with just a little time to spare before my panel. I ran into Jack Skillingstead, whom I've met before a couple of times, and began talking to him, mentioning that I work at Boeing, as he once did. Jack looked a bit puzzled, then the light dawned. He hadn't recognized me (because of beard) -- and he said he thought to himself "The only guy I know in SF who also works at Boeing is Rich Horton ..." -- then the other shoe fell. Nancy Kress came out of the panel she'd been at about then, in which she had gotten into a bit of a heated discussion with one of the panelists. We talked for a bit, and it was time for my panel.

The subject was the best short fiction of 2017. I had printed a list of my favorite stories of the year, trimmed to include only Fantasy. In the event, we opened up the discussion to SF as well, but really we concentrated mainly on Fantasy. The other panelists were Ellen Datlow, Scott Andrews, and C. C. Finlay. I thought the panel went very well. I don't have a summary to give -- it would end up being too top-heavy on my choices, because my memory is crummy. Someone in the audience was recording it, I think, and others were taking notes.

The other two panels I wanted to see were in the evening. Mary Ann and I weren't terribly hungry -- if nothing else, the barbeque was filling. So we went down to the Riverwalk again to find the ice cream place recommended by Joe McDermott. I think it was called Justin's. At any rate, the ice cream was as good as advertised.

The 8 o'clock panel was called "Women Authors That Men Don't Read -- or Do They?". I think the panel title purposely overstated the notion that men don't read women writers. The panelists (F. Brett Cox, Lisa Freitag, Marta Murvosh, and Dave Smeds) most agreed, I think, and discussed a variety of worthy women writers, regardless of whether men read them or not. Brett and Marta both brought up some academic stats about how much certain writers are written about -- Margaret Atwood is (perhaps not surprisingly) the most cited fantastic-connected writer. Angela Carter was surprisingly little discussed until a fairly recent jump -- I suspect it coincided with her death. Ursula Le Guin does get a fair amount of academic attention.

At 9 o'clock there was a planned "roast" for Editor GOH Gordon van Gelder. Ginjer Buchanan conducted it, and made clear that it was more of a very light roasting, or "toasting", and that proved to be the case. There was a slide show with much discussion of Gordon's life and career. A wide variety of folks got up to talk, but mostly just to say nice things. Brad Denton did give a very funny presentation. Jack Dann gave a nice talk, and so did Kij Johnson, who mentioned shared Clarion experiences. Gordon complained that the roasting wasn't as hard on him as he had hoped. (I did get up in the audience participation panel and mentioned how shortly after I got a lifetime subscription to F&SF an issue arrived without any periods -- doubtless to save enough money to afford to offer the great deal Gordon gave me on the lifetime sub.)

That was the end of the programming, so it was time for another session at the bar. Lots more people to talk to ... I discussed Tina Connolly's chances at winning Best Collection with her (we both agreed another collection would certainly win, and we were both wrong about that one -- but, alas, Tina didn't win either). I talked about Canadian weather with Jerome Stueart -- it does get really really cold up there, in certain places. (Perhaps that's why Jerome is back in Ohio now.) I was able to talk briefly with Fran Wilde, and with Fred Lerner -- I learned that he has completed a novel related to his one published short story "Rosetta Stone". I really liked that story, so I'll look for the novel. Talked with Scott Andrews for a while. (There is a picture of Scott and I with our beards in the December Locus.) Mary Anne Mohanraj. And several further people, that my shabby memory is betraying me about.

Here are links to all five installments of this con report:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another Obscure Ace Double: The Green Queen, by Margaret St. Clair/Three Thousand Years, by Thomas Calvert McClary

Ace Double Reviews, 109: The Green Queen, by Margaret St. Clair/Three Thousand Years, by Thomas Calvert McClary (#D-176, 1956, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Here's another Ace Double featuring a Margaret St. Clair novel. the third such I have read. There is one more St. Clair Ace Double to come, which might be more expensive, as it's backed with a Philip Dick title. (Indeed, the cheapest copy of Agent of the Unknown/The World Jones Made is about $16 at AbeBooks.) The flip side is the only Ace Double by Thomas Calvert McClary.

I wrote before about Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) as follows: "she was one of the more noticeable early women writers of SF, but somehow her profile was a bit lower than those of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton. Perhaps it was simply that those writers did just a bit more, and were just a bit better (taken as a whole) than her, but it does seem that she's not quite as well remembered as perhaps she deserves. One contributing factor is that she wrote some of her very best stories pseudonymously, as "Idris Seabright". 20 or so of her 50+ short stories were as by Seabright, including some of the very best (such as "Short in the Chest" and "An Egg a Month from All Over"). She also wrote 8 novels (four of them published as Ace Double halves). Her career in SF stretched from 1946 to 1981. Her husband, Eric St. Clair, was also a writer (of children's books), and the two became Wiccans more or less when the Wiccan movement started."

I noted at that time that it seemed to me based on the two I had read by then that her novels were significantly weaker than her short fiction, and The Green Queen does nothing to change that impression. John Clute is kinder than I am in his Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on St. Clair, and he does make her first novel (Agent of the Unknown) sound quite interesting. He also notes that St. Clair's work tends to exhibit "a singularly claustrophobic pessimism", and that is true, I think. The problem is that the interesting ideas and the refusal to bow to conventional pulp-era ideas about problem solving and heroic resolution are obscured by the occasional silliness of the plotting and of the scientific notions.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

The Green Queen was originally published as "Mistress of Viridis" in the March 1955 issue of Universe. I haven't seen that version: it may be the same as the Ace Double, but I suspect the book version is somewhat expanded. The story is narrated to a Terran scientist by a man named Bonnar, as the planet Viridis is in a state of chaos.
(Cover by Virgil Finlay)

Bonnar is a maskmaker, but the masks are obsolete. And the barrier between the city where the human colonists live and the radioactive surface of the planet is down. What are the masks? They seem to be a way to make their wearers see something different than the true world they live in. These are widely used to pacify the "Lowers", who live miserable short lives in the under parts of the City. Bonnar's latest mask had been in support of a myth of the Green Queen, who would find a special tree and, well, save the world. This seems to have had unusual power among the lowers.

The ruling cabal hatches a plan to create a "Green Queen" to help better control the restless Lowers. And the woman they choose is Leaf, who happens to be, for a time, Bonnar's lover. He is ordered to break up with her, and he does ... and she does, under secret urging, begin to believe she is the Green Queen. But, strangely, her powers seem to be real. And she becomes increasingly popular. This is too much for the rulers -- and for Bonnar, who is insanely jealous of Leaf. They create a rival Queen, using a much less intelligent woman and some tech to imitate her powers.

There is a fair amount of political maneuvering, and a trip to the strangely abandoned human cities on the unprotected surface of the planet, and plots and counterplots, leading to a curious climax in which Leaf orders the city's barrier struck down, and flies to the "tree" that the prophecies said the Queen must visit -- and the true secret of the original Queen of Viridis is revealed. There is a ton of potential here, really, but I don't think St. Clair's execution quite matched the ideas. A strong rewrite, and I think this could have been pretty good, but as it is, it's kind of a mess.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
But, not as much of a mess as Thomas Calvert McClary's Three Thousand Years. This was originally serialized (with an exclamation point in the title) in Astounding very early in John Campbell's editorial tenure, in the April through June 1938 issues. Indeed, this was the first serial published solely in Campbell's issues.  I do wonder if the novel was not actually purchased by Campbell's predecessor, F. Orlin Tremaine, who had purchased McClary's previous novel, Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot, which was in Astounding in 1934. (That said, Campbell certainly bought McClary's third and last novel in the field, The Tommyknocker, which was serialized in Unknown in 1940.)
(Cover by Howard V. Brown)

Thomas Calvert McClary (1909-1972) wrote primarily Westerns, but he did publish those three novels and several short stories (many as by Calvin Peregoy) in the SF magazines, the latest story appearing in 1958. Rebirth: When Everyone Forgot had book publication in 1944 from Bart House, and the book version of Three Thousand Years was published by Fantasy Press in 1954, with this Ace Double version following two years later. The book is definitely revised from the serial, as a few mentions of the events of the Second World War are made.

The story is ostensibly recorded by a huge computer invented by a scientist name Simon Gamble. It tells of the rivalry between Gamble and his boss, a ruthless businessman name Vincent Drega. Gamble believes all problems can be solved with science, and he has invented magic foods and clothes and metals and atomic power. Drega has suppressed these inventions because he believes they will ruin the economy, and that man can't live properly without the motivation of money. Both are aware that the world is in danger of imminent war, which will be terrible because of the horrible weapons that have been created.

The viewpoint character for the bulk of the story is a newspaperman named Lucky Flagherty. His girlfriend, the Lovelorn columnist, is named of all things Lulu Belle. Lucky has sold a story warning of the upcoming war -- and riots have ensued, when, all of a sudden, he comes to new consciousness, naked, filthy, with long hair and fingernails. What can have happened? Soon it is clear that some 3000 years have passed -- Simon Gamble, trying to avert world catastrophe, had put everyone in suspended animation.

Most people die (the suspension was only supposed to last a few decades, but Gamble miscalculated), but there are plenty of survivors. Lucky, along with Lulu Belle and his editor and others, ends up joining a group led vigorously by Drega. They begin to reestablish a society, under Drega's rule. Apparently all iron (but not other metal) has been destroyed by Gamble's efforts, but with the help of some elephants, and some fishing, things begin to improve, and they fight off the cannibals ... and then Gamble returns, with his carefully preserved magic tech. He offers these wonders to all who will accept living under his technocratic lead.

Drega refuses, and he sets up his colony in New Jersey, while Gamble stays in Manhattan. There are other groups of survivors throughout the world. Gamble is able to feed and cloth his people, but he runs into trouble. For one thing, he is unable to trade with the other groups because he has no concept of money. For another thing, his tech is based on an entire industrial base, and he finds it very hard to build that from scratch. And, finally, it turns out people really don't adapt well to a life of pure ease. So Drega emerges triumphant in the end.

That makes it seem like a philosophical novel -- which it is, to a great extent, if a very simplistic one, and one in which the author's finger is rather heavily on the scales. But that aspect is harmed, not just by the deck-stacking, but by the silliness of the scientific concepts, and by the crudeness of the prose, and of the characters. (And by the absurd sexism.) I was really very bored, and often very annoyed. This is a pretty awful novel.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Mystery Ace Double: Maigret Has Scruples/Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, by George Simenon

Ace Double Reviews, 33: Maigret Has Scruples, by Georges Simenon/Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, by Georges Simenon (#F-166, 1962, $0.40)

by Rich Horton


My previous Ace Double reviews have mostly been of SF books, but the Ace Double series included books in many genres. So, I'm including this review in this series of otherwise SF reviews because it's a nice way to illustrate the fact that the Ace Doubles, for the first decade or so of their existence, featured not just SF novels but other genres -- mostly mysteries and westerns but other types as well (for instance, a couple of P. G. Wodehouse novels appeared in an early Ace Double).

About a decade ago I read every Georges Simenon Maigret novel I could find. I don't think I found quite all of those available in English, but I think I got pretty close. These two novels were among those I read, but I was happy to reread them. This Ace Double dates to 1962, but the novels were first published in French and in English translation somewhat earlier: Maigret Has Scruples in 1958, Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses in 1959. The novels are of almost identical length, at about 46,000 words (most of Simenon's Maigret novels were written to a consistent length). (The cover and spine list the title of the second book as Maigret and the Reluctant Witness, but the title page has the correct plural.) Both novels were translated by Daphne Woodward. The French titles are Les Scrupules de Maigret and Maigret et les témoins récalcitrant.


Maigret Has Scruples is constructed curiously. Instead of solving an already committed crime, Maigret is charged with preventing a potential crime. A man comes to see him, and tells him that he believes his wife is planning to murder him. He offers evidence in the form of some rat poison that he has discovered, but leaves before Maigret can question him further. Somewhat later the wife shows up, and tells her side of the story, basically admitting that she knows of her husband's suspicions, but thinks he is mad.

Maigret somewhat reluctantly begins to investigate, rather hamstrung by a bureaucracy that makes it hard for him to commit resources to investigation of a crime that has not occurred. He also makes a quick study of psychiatry, hoping to be able to understand if either the man or his wife is insane. His investigations quickly establish that the situation is more complicated: the wife seems to be carrying on an affair with her boss, while the husband is seeing his sister-in-law. And then there is the matter of the insurance policy the couple has taken out, to be paid to whichever spouse survives the other.
The situation seems easily enough solved: a divorce, followed by each taking up more formally with their preferred companion, but human nature being what it is, that solution isn't taken. Instead, despite Maigret's investigation, he is unable to prevent a murder, though he is readily able to solve the murder once it occurs. The actual mystery is all but negligible (and it depends on a geometrical solution that I don't think would have worked!), but the central interest of the story is in the people, and that works well, particularly the comparison of the damaged marriage of the two principles with Maigret's very successful marriage.

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses is slightly more conventional. A man is murdered in a Paris suburb. He was the director of an old, failing, biscuit manufacturing company. (Biscuit = cookie -- I am pretty sure the translator, Daphne Woodward, was English. Sometimes separate American translations of Maigret's novels were made, but often enough (and sensibly enough) the American publishers procured the UK translation.) When Maigret arrives at the decrepit old house of the family that owns the biscuit company, he finds a surly and silent bunch, all seemingly unwilling to answer questions, and eager to promote the theory of a panicked burglar as the murderer.

Maigret must sort through the tangled, sad, story of a family declining from prominence and riches to grubby poverty. There is a senile old patriarch and his wife, a long-time maid, the murdered man's brother and his young, rich, wife, a bookkeeper, a possible boyfriend, and a long-estranged sister. As with many of the Maigret stories, the mechanics of the murder -- the timing and means and so on, are of little interest and not terribly "mysterious". The interest is in unraveling the psychology of the murdered man and those around him -- usually revealing a somewhat sordid story, with money and sex often entangled. I'd not rate this as one of the best Maigrets, but it is quite typical of the Maigret of the 50s, probably the archetypical period of Simenon's writing: certainly well-worth reading. (Much the same thing could be said in summary of Maigret Has Scruples.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Davidson Reunion Trip to California, 2017

I've been chronicling our trip to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, but I should also mention the vacation trip we took just a couple of weeks before that, a family reunion for the two branches of my wife's family.

This trip took us to Northern California, most especially to my wife's half-sister's house. The sister in question is Myrna Courtney, who is a number of years older than my wife. Perhaps this needs some explanation, a bit soft-pedalled. My wife's father, who bore the unexpectedly significant name Harley Davidson, was born in Missouri in about 1914, to a family of 10. A couple of his brothers moved to California in the '30s, looking for work (lots of people were looking for work in those days), and Harley followed. He married Myrna's mother, and had four children: Carl, Myrna, Linda, and a girl who died very young. Harley was by all accounts brilliant with his hands, but he had a drinking problem, and that was severely exacerbated when his youngest child died. That tore apart his marriage, and he left Myrna's mother and returned to Missouri, in the early '50s I think. He married Mary Ann's mother (whom, apparently, he had known slightly before moving to California) in 1954 or so, and they had five children. The youngest of these, a twin to my brother-in-law Mark, also died as an infant. The endgame is clear, I suppose -- Harley's drinking problems, and concomitant employment issues, led to some pretty awful living conditions for Mary Ann and her brothers, and her mother, who died quite young in about 1970. The four kids went to live with their maternal aunts, as Harley wasn't really able to care for children. He died in 1980 (having married one more time). (I met Mary Ann in 1984.)

Myrna (who spent years with her husband Gerry traveling the country in an RV, doing articles for magazines) made it to St. Louis a couple of times to visit her half-siblings. But only recently have we become closer, on social media and with a couple more visits. This was Mary Ann and my first visit to Myrna's home, in Grass Valley (an hour or so from Sacramento. in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas). We flew into Oakland on Thursday the 12th, along with Mary Ann's brothers Mark, Dwight, and Scott, Mark's wife Becky, and Dwight's wife Terri. (Scott's wife Brenda wasn't able to make the trip.) We rented a minivan, and the first night we drove to Lake Tahoe. I ought to mention the obvious -- the fires north of San Francisco were still active when we arrived, and the air was noticeably smoky that first night -- we could smell it and see it. We ate at an In'n'Out, California's iconic fast food joint. This was my second time eating there, and I was as unimpressed as the first time -- it's just another burger joint, darnit.

We got to Lake Tahoe late, of course. Our hotel was right on the water. We went out to the lakeshore first thing in the morning -- it was 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Between the altitude and (I suppose) the humidity the temperature gradients are remarkable. That said, the lake is quite beautiful. We ate at a local breakfast place called Bert's, which I can recommend. In particular, the omelettes, and the biscuit/egg dish called the Cowboy, are immense. We drove around the west side of the lake, stopping at a few places, notably Emerald Bay and Tahoe City. The former is as pretty, I think, as anywhere on the lake. The latter has a dam, where the Truckee river issues from the lake.

We then headed in the direction of Sacramento. Our one planned stop was at Donner Memorial State Park, near the town of Truckee. The park includes the area where the Donner Party camped when snowed in. There is a museum with presentations about the Donner expedition, as well as about the Transcontinental Railroad, which passed through the area, and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 40 in this area, though it's U.S. 30 near my hometown of Naperville, IL). Donner Lake is a really pretty lake. The main remnant of the Railroad is some tunnels, and a stone wall called the China Wall (as it was built by Chinese immigrants). The men climbed up to the railroad tunnels, close enough for a good look at the wall, and we walked through a couple of tunnels to meet the women, who picked us up by a restaurant called after the Donner Party. They had pie, so we decided to buy one. (We didn't get the Fried Green Tomatoes though.)

We finally made it to Grass Valley, after a detour caused by our GPS not knowing the way very well. Myrna has a really lovely place, a large property with the main house and two smaller houses. Myrna's sister Linda and her husband Steve live in one house, and Myrna's daughter Robyn and her husband Keith live in the other.

Dwight, Terri, and Scott were staying with Myrna. Mark and Becky and Mary Ann and I rented an Airbnb perhaps a couple of miles away. This house was really nice as well, in a small neighborhood in the woods. There is a lot of wildlife around, and apparently fencing is important to keep the bears out. There was a wraparound porch/balcony, which proved to be a good place to look at the stars from as well -- there weren't too many city lights.

That night Myrna treated us to dinner at a pretty good local restaurant called, unpromisingly, the Dine n Dash Cafe. It turned out to have a pretty impressive menu. We ate in the bar, because that's where they had room. (This much to the amusement of Myrna's brother-in-law Steve (Linda's husband), who likes the bar -- Myrna thinks it's too loud.) I had the prime rib, a popular selection, and it was good.

Saturday we planned to explore Grass Valley. We headed into the town, which has a nice downtown area, full, as expected these days, of boutiques and restaurants and antique shops. We ate lunch at Tofanelli's, again good. They are an Italian place, also known for offering 101 different omelettes. Before we went downtown we found the house in which Myrna grew up, and we also saw the building that housed the bar Harley used to frequent.

For me, however, the highlight was the used bookstore, Booktown. I don't suppose that surprises anyone. But it really is a very good used bookstore, built on the model of antique malls, with a number of different sections owned by different booksellers. A couple of these featured good selections of SF books, and one of those also included a number of old SF magazines. I bought an Ace Double or two and several issues of Amazing from Cele Goldsmith's time as editor. I'd say that this is definitely worth a side trip if you are anywhere in the area.

In the afternoon we visited the Empire Mine, a played out gold mine near Grass Valley that is now a state park. We toured the park, which featured an impressive house where the owners once lived,
a selection of the machinery used in the mining, a brief descent in one of the tram carts the miners used, and a demonstration by a blacksmith. There was also a small museum, with some details about the history of the mine, including a three dimensional model showing the various mineshafts, which extended down as deep as 11,000 feet. The shafts, now flooded, riddle the depths beneath Grass Valley itself. The mine itself was discovered in 1850, opened as a mine in 1854, and closed in 1956. The museum claimed that the area was all but unaffected by the depression because of the jobs provided by the mine. Many of the miners were Cornish immigrants, which reminded me of the copper mines on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Northern Michigan, where my maternal grandparents came from. Many of those miners were Cornish as well, and my mother used to make Cornish Pasties, a recipe she got from her mother, who doubtless got it from her mother and her Cornish neighbors. It turns out there is a Pastie restaurant in Grass Valley, though we didn't go there.

Afternoon and evening were family reunion time. We mingled with the two branches of the Davidson family -- the St. Louis branch, represented by Mary Ann, Dwight, Scott and Mark and we spouses; and the California branch, represented by Myrna, her sister Linda and her husband Steve, and Myrna's daughter Robyn and her husband Keith, as well as Robyn's middle daughter Christy and her nephews (whose mother was away on an anniversary cruise). Carl, who lives in Montana, had also intended to be there, but his wife Sandy fell just a week or so before and wasn't able to travel. This was a shame, because Mary Ann has never met Carl.
(Back: Becky, Mary Ann, Linda, Myrna, Terri
Front: Mark, Rich, Scott, Dwight)

Keith cooked dinner (and Christy brought dessert), which was really good -- tri tip, a cut of beef I had only seen in California until recently, done slowly wrapped in foil on the grill.  Very very good.

I spent much of my time on two pursuits. The first won't surprise anyone. Myrna likes books about as much as I do, and she had inherited several boxes of old books, just the sort of books I read and review here often. I looked through all the boxes, looking for particularly interesting books. One of the coolest things I found was a little tourist pamphlet of St. Louis, of all places, from early in the century, featuring pictures of many of the still famous buildings made for the 1904 World's Fair. Of the old books I only took a couple (on Myrna's urging) -- a Bulwer Lytton novel, Zanoni; a G. A. Henty novel, The Lion of St. Mark; and a very obscure magazine, The Quiver, May 1891, a Christian-themed publication which featured some fiction.

The second pursuit involved Myrna's interest in genealogical research. She has spent considerable time ferreting out her ancestry, all the way back to a Davidson from Holland in the 17th  Century. She had done all this with a program from Ancestry.com, but Ancestry.com was recently bought by someone else, and their program had been superseded, and all Myrna's files were unreadable. I was able to find a way, involving two or three different versions of the original program Myrna used and the different, newer software that has replaced it, to convert Myrna's old data to the new format. One result was a printout of the Davidson family tree from around 1650 to about now.

Dinner featured, of course, a lot of conversation, and a lot of stories about the history of both sides of Harley's family. Particularly fun was Steve's long description of his courtship of Linda, which involved him taking advantage of the absence of a fellow Navy man who was also sweet on Linda. Steve's reminiscences at one point prompted Myrna to tell Linda to "Muzzle your man!". Steve is an interesting guy -- a football player in High School who had a chance to play at Oregon State, until he realized that lots of schoolwork might be involved. Currently he's fascinated with You Tube videos about military technology, which led to him asking me some questions about some of my projects for Boeing -- questions that I couldn't answer if I didn't want to go to jail.

We learned a lot, most of it fairly personal, and all quite interesting. Family histories may only be of interest to the family, but in that scope they really are cool. One detail that surprised Mary Ann and her brothers was that Myrna had offered to adopt them after their mother had died. Harley had demurred, saying (falsely) that things were fine, and so they ended up with their aunts, which in the end worked out very well. But it's interesting to think how different things might have been had they all moved to California in 1970 or so -- of course, all of us spouses would have been wholly out of the picture! (An example of the contingencies of Alternate History that were discussed at the World Fantasy Convention!)

On Sunday we came over to Myrna's again for breakfast, and some more conversation, but soon it was time to head back to San Francisco. We planned this time to take a slightly different route, that would bring us into the city from the north, so we could go over the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way we passed Davis, and I pointed out that that was where Karen Joy Fowler lived -- only to learn, on meeting Karen slightly later at World Fantasy that she has moved to Santa Cruz. Not to worry -- we made our way to Santa Cruz soon enough!

On Highway 37 north of SF we drove through some striking evidence of the recent fires -- hillsides burned completely black, road signs mangled and melted, etc. But overall the fires and smoke had diminished quite a lot. Then we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, then turned aside to park, and we took the time to walk onto the bridge and take some pictures.

Dwight and Terri and Scott had a plane to catch, so we took them to the airport, and then Mark and Becky rented a new car, because they planned to stay the night in Monterey. We were headed to Santa Cruz. We did meet for a very nice dinner at The Crow's Nest, on the oceanfront in Santa Cruz.

Our hotel was a couple of blocks from the Santa Cruz boardwalk, so we went down there. Frankly, it's a bit on the cheesy side. There are some nice views of the ocean, though. Across the street from our hotel there was construction going on -- I asked the desk clerk what they were building His rather rueful answer: "Another hotel." Santa Cruz, by the way, was the setting (under a different name) for the good vampire movie, very early in Kiefer Sutherland's career, Lost Boys.

Monday we were heading back to Oakland. We began by visiting a couple of Santa Cruz antique stores (one of them, alas, closed despite hours that claimed they should be open), and also by visiting the oceanside again, including a walk on the pier, with sea lions.






Then we decided on the scenic route, and we head up the Coast Highway. This has long been one of my favorite roads, from Huntington Beach through Santa Monica, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Carpenteria, up the coast to Bug Sur and Monterey -- and now for the first time farther North. We stopped in Davenport to eat, at the Whale City Bakery Bar and Deli. We were able to eat outside. A Norwegian couple happened to sit at the table right across from us, and we talked for a bit -- they were headed the other direction, to Carmel. After lunch we made kept going North and stopped for a bit at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which is now a state park. Some very pretty views here. Finally we headed up to Hwy 92, where we turned inland, then crossed the San Mateo bridge into Oakland.

Our next goal -- the last, really -- was to visit the Locus offices. I had never been there, although I've been writing for the magazine since 2002 (and for the website even longer). Alas, editor Liza Groen Trombi had a school function to attend and left early, but I was able to meet Arley Sorg for the first time, as well as Carolyn Cushman and Josh Pearce and Fransesca Myman, and I think one or two more folks whose names I am forgetting. (I have met Fransesca before, to be sure, and of course Liza, and I saw Liza and Arley again just a couple of weeks later at World Fantasy.) I also got to see the book collection -- and the Hugo collection -- and believe me I could have stayed there for quite a while. (I'd probably still be there!)

Not much more to tell. We went to the hotel, and we were too tired to go out again so we ordered pizza in. It was OK, nothing special. We decided to turn the car in a day early, and take the shuttle to the airport the next day. And that was fun! NOT! Avis was a mess. The Avis Preferred desk was unattended, so we waited in line at the regular desk. I let a guy go ahead of us who had a plane to catch -- I hope he made it, it was getting pretty late. The first thing the guy at the counter asked was "Why didn't you go to the Preferred desk?" "Because there was no one there, you dolt!" is what I wanted to say, but I left off the last two words. (At about this time I saw a couple of folks from Avis returning to the Preferred desk with cups of coffee.) Then he charged me for filling up the car, even though I had filled it up on the way to the rental car return. (I didn't realize that until later.) They also put the charges on the wrong credit card -- my company card instead of my personal card. He did change that successfully. Oh well.

The next day was just the trip home, which was uneventful.

All in all, a delightful trip. I think everyone had a great time. I really enjoy this area of California, though I think on balance I still prefer the Central Coast (Santa Barbara, Carpenteria, etc.). If we could afford it (not likely!) that would be a good place to retire to.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part III: Day 2

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part III: Day 2

For breakfast on Friday we had the brunch buffet at the hotel restaurant. Waffles, bacon, omelettes, all the usual stuff. It was OK, nothing all that special. But convenient.

I was particularly interested in Friday's "Engaging Our Theme" panel, entitled "What is Alternate History?". This mainly because one of the panelists was Damien Broderick (who lives in San Antonio). I've known Damien online for quite some time, and I've really enjoyed his fiction (and I've reprinted a few of his stories, and even wrote the introduction to one of his collections), but I'd never met him in in person. The other panelists were Fred Lerner, Daryl Gregory, and S. M. Stirling. The discussion was stimulating. The panelists considered things like overfamiliar jonbar points; the notion that in reality even small changes would likely mean that there would be no common people -- that is, that most people would even be born in alternate histories, due to their parents' not meeting (Stirling described in this context the very unlikely events leading to his parents and grandparents all meeting each other), or even if their parents met, changes in, oh, when they happened to conceive their children; favorite Alternate Histories, etc. Damien mentioned Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, one of the most interesting and different (and problematic!) literary alternate histories. Afterward, I did get a chance to meet Damien, and he gave me a copy of his latest novel, his revision of one of John Brunner's more ambitious 1950s novels, Threshold of Eternity (a novel which I read and reviewed in its Ace Double edition a few months ago). He also introduced me to another Australian writer, Russell Blackford (and later I met Russell's wife Jenny, whose work I had read and reviewed previously, which she remembered).

Our Noon panel was "My 12 Favorite Works by Karen Joy Fowler". Brian Attebery moderated the panel, and the other participants were Eileen Gunn, Elizabeth Engstrom, Rachel Neumeier, and Gordon van Gelder. As you might have guessed, the discussion centered around a whole bunch of Fowler's works. There wasn't any real consensus on the "best" (nor did I expect one!) -- though a fair amount of people seemed to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as a favorite. Rachel Neumeier's approach was interesting, and, it seems to me, a good reaction to being placed on a panel for non-obvious reasons. For, she confessed, she had not previously read Fowler. (I don't actually know if Rachel requested this panel or just got stuck there.) So she read a whole bunch of Fowler's work in the past couple of months, which gave her a pretty fresh perspective.

I did introduce myself to Brian Attebery after the panel, and we discussed -- at this time and on a couple further occasions where we could talk at greater length -- a variety of things, including Brian's major current project, curating the Library of America editions of Ursula Le Guin's work.

Next was a reading by John Crowley, from his new novel Ka. The reading was certainly interesting, though really I'm just waiting to get the novel (which I already have). John went over time a bit, because he had assumed that he had an hour, but readings at this con were only 30 minutes. I introduced myself to John afterwards -- I've known him for a while on Facebook, but this was the first time we'd met in person. Crowley is absolutely one of my favorite writers, but I restrained myself from gushing (I assume writers get tired of that, as it doesn't seem to me to lead to actual conversation). Instead I mentioned my friend Will Waller, who was one of John's students, and Will's admission that John found his work frustrating. John laughed a bit ruefully, and agreed that he had found Will a bit frustrating as a student, but said that his more recent work has gotten a great deal better.

I skipped the David Mitchell reading at 1:00. Which leads to one of my real regrets -- this convention featured three of my absolute favorite writers: Crowley (as noted), Fowler, and David Mitchell. I had no problem introducing myself to Crowley and Fowler. But I never did speak to Mitchell. Partly, no doubt, that's because I have corresponded with both Crowley and Fowler, and bought stories from them for reprint. But partly I think that's because I know they are both embedded in our field -- in a sense, they are "one of us". That said, they straddle the genre lines quite the same as Mitchell does. (On reflection, that may be a reason I like all three!) Really, that's on me. I did hang around the dealer room by the Small Beer table on Sunday, as we were about to leave, because Mitchell was there. But he was in what looked like an absorbing conversation with Ted Chiang, and I felt like it would have been terribly rude to butt in.

There was one more panel, "History: Secret, Hidden, or Otherwise", featuring Fran Wilde, Ian Drury, J. L. Doty, John Crowley, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. I will confess I don't remember the panel well, but I did take the time to introduce myself to Fran Wilde, whom I had missed at Boskone earlier this year.

Mary Ann and I went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, the original Blanco, for lunch. It was OK, but didn't really strike me as special. I have two favorite Mexican restaurants in St. Louis -- when I want Americanized Mexican food, I like Chevy's, which advertises itself as Tex Mex. This was for a while the most popular Mexican chain in St. Louis, but they are down to perhaps two stores now. When I want more authentic Mexican food, I go to Pueblo Nuevo, which was opened by a couple from Guadalajara in 1982, shortly after I came to St. Louis. I first went there that year, I think, for lunch (it's fairly close to where I work). For many many years, a group of us went every Thursday for lunch, and we got to know the owners -- the husband has died, alas, but his son took over -- I remember him as a child, sitting at one of the tables and doing his schoolwork. That stopped a few years ago when the day job got too intense to take long lunch breaks, plus a couple of our regulars retired. And on another visit just recently, one of the regular waiters greeted me by wondering where I'd been -- it had been three or four years, and I had a beard I hadn't had back them. Which is just to say, sometimes places become like home.

Diversion over. Back at the hotel, after some time in the Dealers' room (I'll discuss the Dealers' room in a later post), we ran into John Joseph Adams, the chief editor at Lightspeed (where I am the reprint editor). John was meeting his sister Becky, a teacher now living in North Carolina, who was coming to her first World Fantasy. Becky's daughter lives in San Antonio, and she was providing a convenient base of operations for both of them. They were heading to dinner soon, and we went along with them. To another Mexican place, as it happens -- Acenar. Actually, it was just fine to go to another Mexican place -- Acenar had more of an upscale vibe, with some interesting takes on "Street Tacos", for example. (Reminds me a bit of a visit to Chicago several years ago, when Mary Ann and I met up with my brother Pat, who lives in the city. He took us to a fancy Mexican place, and when we blanched at the notion of paying $25 for an enchilada, he said that's fine, I made a couple of different reservations, and we left and went to the other place ... Acenar wasn't as expensive as that! (And John actually picked up the tab -- thanks again!)) And, I should say, the food was really nice. Probably stands as the best food we had in San Antonio. The conversation was good as well, with some family stuff -- comparing Becky's teaching experience with our daughter Melissa's, for example; and some discussion of things like John's publishing ventures include the Best American SF anthologies he does.

Back at the con, it was time for the signing session, which at World Fantasy is a mass event, with everyone lined up at tables in a big event space (that turned out to be beneath the hotel's parking garage, so a bit of a walk). I thought that really worked out nicely. I didn't realize that I could have grabbed a name "tent" and sat down myself -- I thought it was by invitation only. No matter -- I don't think I'm a particularly hot name for signatures, and I was glad to wander around meeting people. I got just one thing signed, a chapbook of "An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings" by John Crowley. I talked to quite a few folks, though, including James Alan Gardner (who finally has a new novel out); Darrell Schweitzer, whom I had not previously met; Alex Irvine; Bill Crider; Christopher Brown, whom I bumped into a few more times -- I have been familiar with his interesting fiction for a while, but I was intrigued to realize he's a lawyer who spent some time working with Congress (for example, as one of the "behind the scenes" guys at the hearings you see on CSPAN); Joe McDermott, whom I had met at Boskone, and who, as he's local, gave us a good recommendation for an ice cream place on the Riverwalk; Kij Johnson, whom I've known for a little while now (I had bought her novel The River Bank at the Small Beer Press table but was too clueless to remember to bring it to the signing session); and Steve Rasnic Tem.

After that was over, it was back to the bar, which meant quite a few more stimulating conversations. Keeping in mind that my memory will confuse which night a particular conversation took place -- I remember meeting Sarah Pinsker, and we had a really good talk about music, particularly as I recall Tom Petty, and how fortunate Mary Ann and I feel that we got to see him on his last tour. I had just read Sarah's very strong novelette "Wind Will Rove" in Asimov's, which is about music (and a generation ship!), and a sort of music I like a great deal (old-timey folk, basically). That conversation was with other people, and I'm being an idiot by not remembering who -- was it Scott Andrews? Or Derek Künsken? And somebody else too? I know I did spend some time talking to both Scott and Derek. (I finally remembered who else was in the conversation: Michael Damian Thomas.)

I also ran into Arin Komins, whom I had met (along with Richard Warren) at a previous Windycon. Arin and Rich were at that time winding up their bookselling business, so I was surprised to see them in the Dealers' room -- but they were helping out another Chicago bookseller, Dave Willoughby, from whom I have bought a number of books over the years. I did discuss with Richard the fact that his name is the same as that of my ancestor who came over on the Mayflower. With Arin we recalled our dinner at Windycon at an Indian restaurant, which everyone enjoyed except Mary Ann (she hates Indian food!)

I spent considerable time talking to F. Brett Cox too, whom I had known online back in the SFF.net days. We talked about Maine, and about Joy Division -- Brett had a Joy Division t-shirt on, and they are a band I have liked since my college years -- among numerous other subjects.

And I recall talking a bit to Peter Halasz as well, and reminding him to keep an eye out for a new novel next year from a new Canadian writer -- Todd McAulty. I really liked Todd's stories for Black Gate back in the day, and I got a chance to read an advance copy of his first novel, The Robots of Gotham, which is due from John Joseph Adams' imprint next June. (Check out advance notice about it here.)

More on next rock ...


Here are links to all five installments of this con report:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V