Thursday, May 25, 2017

Old Bestseller: Rodney Stone, by A. Conan Doyle

Old Bestseller: Rodney Stone, by A. Conan Doyle

a review by Rich Horton

The title page of this book lists A. Conan Doyle, as "Author of Round the Red Lamp, The Stark Munro Letters, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, etc.". See anything missing?

Doyle had one book make the Publishers' Weekly list of the top ten bestsellers of the year -- The Hound of the Baskervilles, in 1902. I also found an intriguing blog,, produced at BYU, that attempts to list bestsellers from before actual bestseller lists started (in 1895), which lists The Sign of the Four as one of the top four bestsellers of 1890, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for 1891. (The other writers on the list for those years were James Barrie and Rudyard Kipling.) So why wouldn't those books be listed on the title page of Rodney Stone? I suspect perhaps Doyle himself forbade mention of the Holmes books in a book published in 1896 -- he had killed Holmes off in 1893, and he didn't appear again until 1901, as Doyle concentrated on historical novels. Doyle considered the Holmes stories potboilers, and felt that his historical novels were his best work. (By the way, A. Conan Doyle was the form of his name that Doyle usually used as a byline.)

There's not much point in me detailing Arthur Conan Doyle's biography -- most people have heard of him. He was born in 1859, died in 1930. He certainly remains by far best known for Sherlock Holmes, but other works like the Professor Challenger stories and the Brigadier Gerard stories are still well-remembered, and his historical novels, though not well-known these days, seem to be reasonably highly regarded. He also helped popularize, and exaggerate, the mystery of the Mary Celeste (which he misspelled Marie Celeste, and his misspelling is probably seen more often than the correct spelling); and he was famously fooled by the photographs of the Cottingley fairies. Some think he was involved in the Piltdown Man hoax.

My edition of Rodney Stone seems possibly the first American edition, from D. Appleton and Company. It features several rather fine illustrations by Sidney Paget, who also illustrated many of the Holmes stories. The novel was serialized before (or perhaps roughly at the same time as) book publication, in the Strand magazine in the UK (but not in the American version of the magazine, as Doyle had sold US serialization rights separately (to a newspaper syndicate) -- this was the first time the US and UK editions of the Strand differed substantively, and it also was, I am given to understand, the first serial to appear in the magazine.),

Rodney Stone is the name of the narrator, who tells this story in 1851, reminiscing about momentous events of his youth. (So that the story is purposely twice historical -- Doyle of course is writing decades after 1851, which is decades after the events of the novel.) He cautions us that he is but a minor character (and he's not lying), which makes the choice of title a bit odd. Rodney is a member of a naval family, and indeed his father is away at sea when the book starts. Rodney lives in Friar's Oak, a small village near Brighton. His best friend is Jim Harrison, the nephew of the local smith, Champion Harrison, so called because he was a great boxer until his wife made him give it up.

A significant early episode is a visit by the two boys to a nearby haunted mansion, Cliffe Royal, where a notorious murder occurred years earlier. It seems that Lord Avon, the owner of Cliffe Royal, was playing cards with his younger brother, and with Sir Lothian Hume and Sir Charles Tregellis. (Tregellis is Rodney's mother's brother.) Avon's brother won heavily, and was found with his throat cut the next morning. Avon was seen holding a knife, and he fled to American instead of standing trial. Lothian Hume would be the new Lord Avon were the original shown to be dead. The boys, on their visit, see the bloodstains -- and also see a ghost.) Another important episode in the lives of the boys comes when a dissipated woman (once a famous actress) takes up residence in the town, and Jim Harrison manages to influence her to give up alcohol.

The Peace of Amiens comes, and Rodney's father comes home. But it is decided to importune Sir Charles Tregellis, a famous dandy, to take Rodney (now about 17) to London to polish him a bit. Tregellis agrees to do so, as long as such of his activities as his upcoming bet with Lothian Hume on a boxing match are not in conflict. Hume is backing a young boxer from the West Country. Sir Charles doesn't have a contestant yet -- he hints that Champion Harrison might do, but Harrison, mindful of his promise to his wife, refuses. There follows a fascinating dinner with a number of members of the Corinthian set, and with many famous boxers. Hume (who is severely in debt) pressures Tregellis to name his man -- and suddenly Jim Harrison shows up, and volunteers to face the West County boxer.

So Jim goes into training, while Rodney follows his Uncle around town, astonished by the exaggerated artificiality and silliness of his manners, while seeing occasional hints of a stronger man behind the foppish exterior. It soon becomes clear that Rodney is ill-suited for the fashionable life, and fortunately, the Peace is over, and Rodney's father arranges with Lord Nelson for a position for Rodney in the Navy. (So we get to meet two more famous people: Nelson, and also his mistress Lady Hamilton, who is portrayed with absolute viciousness by Doyle. Rodney had previously been introduced to the Crown Prince, later the Prince Regent, later George IV -- he too is portrayed in a rather negative fashion. He also meets Beau Brummel, a friend and rival of Tregellis.) But before Rodney and his father go to see, it's time for the climactic boxing match.

There are rumors of foul play -- it seems that Sir Lothian Hume has hired some toughs to try to injure Jim Harrison and cause the match to be forfeited. And, indeed, on the morning of the fight, Jim is missing! What will Sir Charles do?

Well, I won't reveal who fights, though I will say that the boxing match is a pretty satisfying set piece. And, of course, that's not the climax of the novel -- the real climax is the revelation of what really happened that night long ago when four men were playing cards at Cliffe Royal. This of course has significant implications for several people, some of whom might be a surprise. I will say that I had guessed most of this -- most readers will -- and I'll add that I was disappointed by some of the details I didn't guess.

All in all this is a pretty satisfying historical novel. Arthur Conan Doyle, undoubtedly, was more than just the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was proudest of his historical novels -- I'm not sure I would go so far, but certainly Rodney Stone confirms that he was an effective historical novelist.

I will add that this book, set about a decade before the Regency, seems possibly an influence of the novels of Georgette Heyer -- the portrayal of the dandy set in particular seems familiar. And, interestingly, the male protagonist of Heyer's first significant novel, These Old Shades, is the Duke of Avon -- echoes of Lord Avon in this book (though Heyer's Duke and Doyles Lord Avon are otherwise radically different characters.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Old Ace Double: The Paradox Men, by Charles Harness/Dome Around America, by Jack Williamson

Ace Double Reviews, 18: The Paradox Men, by Charles L. Harness/Dome Around America, by Jack Williamson (#D-118, 1955, $0.35)

by Rich Horton

This old Ace Double is a fortuitous combination -- back in 1955 Ace managed to pair two writers who, in 2003 (when I first wrote this review), were nearly the oldest living active SF writers. (Andre Norton still qualified as active, though only one of her late novels was not a collaboration. Her age was between Williamson's and Harness's. Nelson Bond was not then active, but he did have a story in Asimov's not too many years before 2003. Among truly active writers, Williamson and Harness seemed then clearly the oldest.)

The Paradox Men has become a classic in the field. Dome Around America hasn't. In both cases, for good reason. The Paradox Men was first published as "Flight Into Yesterday", in the May 1949 Startling Stories. That version was about 56,000 words long. The first book version was a 1953 hardcover, also called Flight Into Yesterday, from Bouregy and Curl. It was slightly expanded -- I haven't seen that book, but I presume the 1955 Ace Double, with the title changed to The Paradox Men, is substantially the same, and it's about 60,000 words. The Paradox Men was later reprinted, again slightly expanded to about 64,000 words, in 1981 in a Crown hardcover, as part of their Classics in Science Fiction series. As far as I know the 1999 reprint from NESFA Press, as part of the four novel omnibus called Rings, follows the 1981 text. Dome Around America was also originally published in Startling Stories, in the July 1941 issue, under the title "Gateway to Paradise". The 1955 edition is certainly a revision, though I haven't seen the earlier story. Dome Around America is about 42,000 words long.

(Cover by Richard Powers)
The Paradox Men is arguably still Harness's most famous and most respected novel. The plot is complicated, but consistent, logical, and thematically sound. The characters are two-dimensional but interesting and involving. The action is well-done, and the scientific ideas are sometimes philosophical and thoughtful, and at other times wild, implausible, but still engaging. The basic story is of a Thief, Alar, who has appeared in Imperial America 5 years prior to the action of the story, with no memory of his past or identity. The Thieves work underground against the repressive society, using tech invented by their mysterious, dead, founder, Kennicot Muir. The key piece of Thief tech is armor which protects them against high velocity weapons (like projectile weapons), but not against swords and knives. Thus fencing is again a major skill. (Herbert swiped this notion for Dune, of course.) At the time of the action, various threads are converging: the plans of Imperial America to attack its Eurasian enemy, the Toynbee society's attempts to avoid the continuing historical cycle of civilizations rising and falling (they believe that the coming war will bring Toynbee Civilization 21 to an end: the next one will be Toynbee 22, hence Harness' original title (never used on a published version): Toynbee Twenty-Two), the completion of an experimental FTL starship, the relationship between the evil leaders of Imperial America and Keiris Muir, the enslaved widow of Kennicot Muir, and her attraction to Alar, the predictions of the computer-enhanced human called The Meganet Mind (or the Microfilm Mind in the original). What a horrible sentence: but trying to summarize Harness can do that to you. Everything comes to a head with a trip to the surface of the Sun, and then a much stranger trip ...

I recommend it. It seems comparable in many ways to its near contemporary The Stars My Destination: Harness probably had a more original mind than Bester's, and his themes seem a bit more ambitious. But he really couldn't write with him -- and I think it is because of the writing (both prose and pace) that the manic energy of the Bester book is more successfully sustained. Still, The Paradox Men remains a powerful and interesting novel, and such scenes as the final selfless act of Keiris are all but unmatched in SF.

As far as I can tell from comparing the three versions of the novel I have, the first expansion involved some minor wording changes throughout, and the addition of a couple of fairly minor scenes. There is one new chapter, which is a division of one of the original chapters into two (with some additions). It might well be that the editor of Startling Stories (Sam Merwin) made the original cuts to fit the space available. The 1981 expansion involves some changes in the tech, to make it slightly (only slightly!) more plausible for 1980s sensibilities. The most obvious change is that the Microfilm Mind becomes the Meganet Mind. On balance, I think the latter-day changes sensible and not harmful to the feel of the story, and I'd recommend the NESFA edition -- but reading any of the three main editions will give you pretty much the same experience.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
Dome Around America is set a couple hundred years in the future. The United States is enclosed in a force field which has preserved its air and water from the disaster caused by a "dwarf star" wandering through the solar system. The US offered this technology to the rest of the world, but Cold War tensions caused the other countries to refuse it, and to disbelieve US reports of the dwarf star danger. (There was also that accident in Australia, but that was probably commie sabotage anyway!) I'm guessing that one of the changes from 1941 to 1955 was substituting Soviet villains for Nazi villains. The dwarf star sucked away the atmosphere from the rest of the Earth, and it is assumed that it is all a moon-like desolation, just as it looks.

Barry Thane is a young man, part of the "Ring Guard", the dwindling crew of men who guard the dome from sabotage. But he has come to believe that something weird -- aliens, maybe? -- live Outside. So he is mentally prepared when he notices a moving rock penetrating the dome, and what he discovers is a camouflaged spaceship/ground vehicle, sent by an organization of surviving humans who are consumed with hate for America, and who live in domes with limited water and air on the former ocean bed. Barry foils the plot of the man in the invading ship, Glenn Clayton, and he hatches a plan to impersonate Clayton and infiltrate the Outside. But Clayton has plans of his own ... And both men are vulnerable to the charms of a woman of their enemies ...

It's really silly stuff, with not much in the way of redeeming values. The science is nonsensical. The resolution is just plain wholly unbelievable. The story itself moves nicely enough -- Williamson was too much the pro to fail to tell a solid story scene by scene. But all in all it is a fairly prime example of why routine 1940s SF is so often unmemorable.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Hugo Ballot Reviews: Short Story

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novelette

The shortlist is as follows:
"The City Born Great", by N. K. Jemisin (, September 2016)
"A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers", by Alyssa Wong (, March 2016)
"Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
"Seasons of Glass and Iron", by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press; reprinted in Uncanny Magazine)
"That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn (, March 2016)
"An Unimaginable Light", by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)
Again, two SF stories, one of them the Rabid pick. Yes, the Fantasy-heavy lineup is making me a bit grumpy. and as we'll see, I think the Fantasy nature of a couple of the stories is a weakness in them. Again -- Fantasy is absolutely eligible for the Hugo, and if that's what you like, I can't argue. And I do like a good Fantasy story. But it's also important to recognize good SF, and SF does some important things, different from Fantasy, that I don't think we do well to be ignoring.
All the writers save Wright are women. Four of the stories were first published online in free venues, and one more was reprinted last year in a free venue.
My ballot will look like this:
1) "That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn
Easy pick for me. It was the only story on my nomination list to make the final ballot. (As I've noted before, that's not unusual.) And it's SF. More importantly, it's really good. From my Locus review: ""That Game We Played During the War" is a moving piece about Calla, a woman who was a nurse for Enith during their war with the telepathic Gaant people. The war is over, and Calla is visiting Gaant, trying to meet and continue a game of chess she had been playing with Major Valk, whom she had encountered both in Enith and later after she was captured, in Gaant. This version of chess is unusual -- because of the Gaantish telepathy -- and it’s not so much the point -- the point, of course, is how enemies can come to a peaceful meeting (and, too, how telepathy complicates that!)" So -- a core SF idea used very well in service of a worthwhile moral point. With good writing and good characters. Works for me.
2) "Seasons of Glass and Iron", by Amal El-Mohtar
Here's the first inflection point, for me, in this category. I think the gulf between Carrie Vaughn's story and the rest of the ballot is pretty wide. The next two or three are pretty decent stories, but not stories I'd consider quite Hugo-worthy (which doesn't mean I'll leave them off my ballot). Next on my list, then, is "Seasons of Glass and Iron", which has grown on me a bit after rereading. It's about two women, fairy-tale heroines from traditional stories. One is Tabitha, forced to wander the world until she wears out seven sets of iron boots becaue she let slip the secret that her husband was both beast and man; Amira is the princess on the glass hill, forced to wait until a suitor can make it all the way up the hill. The ending is a bit too obvious -- we can see it as far in the distance as Tabitha sees the hill. Still, it's a nice enough story, just not, to me, a great story.
3) "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies", by Brooke Bolander
This grew on me a bit upon rereading as well. Still, it's a short-short (perhaps 1100 words), that does one thing -- tell a story of rape and murder, or, more appropriately, vengeance and finding power without ceding power to the villain -- and it does it with panache and energy. But there's little enough of true fantastical interest here. That's one thing I do want in my Hugo winners -- a core element of SFnal or Fantastical interest. Anyway, this is, again, a fine story, and it does what it wants to do quite well in its short space, but there were better stories this year.
I reread this one too, and I'm wobbling on it a bit. It's the story of two sisters, one of whom leaves their family, and the other who stays -- and dies, in her sister's thoughts (and perhaps actually) ending the world. But there are multiple worlds, especially as the two sisters keep trying to rewind time. Lots of flash to the story -- it's well written, and agonized, and ... Well, I didn't care that much. Which to be sure could be my fault. Also, the magic seemed simply arbitrary -- which is a big reason I didn't care. Again, I want more true SFnal or fantastical zing. This is well-done, sure, but, for me, kind of meh. 
5) No Award
Sometimes you have to make a stand. I didn't think either of the two remaining stories -- wholly aside from any Rabid Puppy influence -- good enough to rank ahead of No Award.
6) "The City Born Great", by N. K. Jemisin
About a young man who becomes aware that something is coming to life in the fabric, as it were, of New York City. And he becomes, I guess, the steward of New York's new life, after meeting and befriending (?) an older (much much older) man who seems to know what's going on. Some decent prose here, and nothing much else that interested me. The idea -- that a city can attain an actualized "life" -- become a true living thing -- is very old, to the point of cliché. (Which doesn't mean it can't still be used profitably.) And the story really does nothing interesting with this idea. (And, to my mind, is totally unconvincing in suggesting that New York is only now (in story terms, which seems roughly present day, or at most a couple of decades in the past) coming to life, and no other American city is similarly alive -- this seems, in context of the story, just false to fact.) I also didn't think the main character believable. And once again -- arbitrary magic, leaving us with another story with insufficient Fantastical zing. But, hey, lots of people obviously liked it!
7) "An Unimaginable Light", by John C. Wright
This story is a talky piece, mostly dialogue between a robot -- a whorebot -- accused of violating the "general directives" governing robot behavior; and the robot's examiner. Loads the dice in the direction we expect, then pulls an unconvincing twist at the end. It is interesting in exploring deep ideas, but I think kind of fumbles this. It also depends overmuch on the context of the rest of the closely linked anthology it appeared in -- but I'm voting for "Best Short Story" here, not "best part of a linked narrative".
For what it's worth, I'll publish my nomination ballot. I actually listed a number of other stories in my post on my nomination thoughts -- most of which were on a par with the stories I nominated. I didn't have a clear winner among all my short story choices, that is; and that's emblematic of a wider, and basically unsolvable, problem with this category in particular: there are so many stories published each year that there are typically way more worthy stories than potential nominations. (This of course is the biggest reason the short story category used to have potential nominees thrown out due to the now vanished "5% rule.) It's easy to understand why some of these five didn't get noticed as much: Kanakia's story was in Interzone, which is not only a print 'zine but based in the UK, and Rich Larson may well have been competing with himself too much -- he published several nomination worthy stories last year, and it's easy to imagine they sort of split the Larson vote. I will note that three of these stories appeared first in print. It would have been nice to see Rambo get the nod, after the disappointment of her disqualified Nebula nomination. 

"Empty Planets", by Rahul Kanakia (Interzone, January/February)
"Red in Tooth and Cog", by Cat Rambo (F&SF, March/April)
"Red King", by Craig de Lancey (Lightspeed, March)
"That Game We Played During the War", by Carrie Vaughn (, March)
"All That Robot Shit", by Rich Larson (Asimov’s, September)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Three SF Novels from the Scholastic Book Club (Del Rey, Key, Silverberg)

Three SF Novels from the Scholastic Book Club (Del Rey, Key, Silverberg)

a review by Rich Horton

Like many kids in my generation -- and perhaps to this day! -- I used to get paper (kind of newsprint) order forms for various arms of Scholastic Publishing at my schools. I was happy to order books through them, for 35 cents or whatever. I don't remember getting a lot of SF though -- in fact, the only SF book I remember getting from Scholastic for sure was Stranger From the Depths, by Gerry Turner (a fairly well-remembered book, reprinted by Scholastic in a sharply abridged edition in the early 70s -- the novel was first published in 1968).

I did read one such book from the library, when I was 10 or so -- Revolt on Alpha C, by Robert Silverberg, his first "novel" (very nearly his first published fiction) -- a juvenile that came out in 1955 from Thomas Crowell and was later reprinted by Scholastic.

The other day, however, at an estate sale I saw three Scholastic Books in pristine condition: the aforementioned Revolt on Alpha C, as well as The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key, and The Runaway Robot, by Lester Del Rey. I was familiar with all these books by title, and I figured I'd snap them up and read them.

I could somewhat jokingly say that "Lester Del Rey" was a pseudonym, used by such writers as Robert Silverberg and Paul Fairman, as well as by Leonard Knapp. That's an exaggeration. But in fact Lester Del Rey was the name used by the man born Leonard Knapp. I don't know if he ever legally changed his name. He used to claim his real name was Ramon Felipe Alvarez-del Rey. He did use a variety of other pseudonymns, such as Philip St. John and Erik van Lhin. He did some major SF work early in the Campbell era, most notably the robot story "Helen O'Loy" and a tense novella about a nuclear disaster, "Nerves". Most of his later contributions -- quite major contributions! -- to the SF field were as editor, of a number of SF magazines in the 1950s, and of books most significantly in the 1970s (it was he who discovered Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara). His writing career went by fits and starts -- he apparently suffered repeatedly from writer's block, and so turned to the likes of Silverberg to write stories he had agreed to do. And, for The Runaway Robot, he apparently contributed an outline that Paul Fairman, a hack writer who had had an undistinguished (to say the most) career at the helm of Amazing in the 1950s, and who later wrote a novelization of the short-lived 1970s sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie (a show I remember with some affection), turned into the finished novel. The book first appeared in hardback from Westminster Press in 1965, and was reprinted by Scholastic in 1966. This edition is illustrated by Wayne Blickenstaff. It's the longest of these three books at just under 50,000 words -- the other two are a bit shy of 30,000 words each.

That's not an encouraging gestation -- and in some ways The Runaway Robot is a pretty bad book. The plot stretches our credulity, and the science stretches it even farther. But in the end, I thought it pretty good in one important way. It's told by a robot named Rex, who has been a companion to Paul, a boy on the Jupiter satellite Ganymede. When Paul's family is recalled to Earth, they decide they can't take the robot. He is sold to a fungus farmer, but he doesn't like his new life, and he misses Paul, so he runs away to at least see Paul one more time before he leaves. But Paul sneaks away, and convinces Rex to help him stow away on a freighter headed to Mars and then Earth. Rex manages to get the two of them onto the Terrabella. He hides Paul, and he convinces the Captain to "hire" him -- and makes a great impression with his cooking. Inevitably Paul is discovered, and the Captain is angry and turns them into the authorities on Mars, but Rex comes to the rescue once again and escapes, then sends Paul home to Earth, while rejoining the Captain as his ship heads to Earth then Ganymede. But once on Earth, more adventures happen, and in the end ...

Well, I won't spoil it. And, as I suggest, the plot is really kind of silly. But the book is redeemed by one aspect -- Rex. His character is really well handled. He's a fairly intelligent robot, but as he tells the story, robots, of course, are not really intelligent, and really don't have feelings, or imagination, etc. All along Rex is demonstrating tremendous intelligence, impressive imagination, and true emotion. (He's certainly a lot smarter, and a lot more likable, than Paul!) All this is presented pretty humorously -- I thought it really worked. I certainly rooted for Rex -- and so the inevitable ending was satisfying (though plotwise it happened entirely too quickly).

The Forgotten Door is another 1965 book originally published by Westminster, that had a reprint edition from Scholastic, apparently also in 1965. The author is Alexander Key (1904-1979), an illustrator and author, probably best known for Escape to Witch Mountain (1968), which has been filmed multiple times. My scholastic edition is illustrated by Dom Lupo.

The Forgotten Door shares themes with multiple Alexander Key books -- themes that suggest he kind of hated most people. The story opens with a boy stumbling into a pit of sorts, and coming out in an alien world -- Earth, presumably the North Carolina mountains where Key lived. The boy is schocked when the first people he meets seem hostile -- and especially shocked when they shoot at a deer he has befriended. We quickly gather that this boy -- who can't remember his own name -- can sense people's -- and animal's -- thoughts. He finally encounters a friendly family, the Beans. Over the next few days the boy gains a name -- Jon -- and becomes close to the Beans, but finds little but suspicion elsewhere. He is accused of stealing (the real villains are a couple of no good local kids from a no good local family (the adults are also persistent thieves) -- it soon seems that all the locals are no good except for a kindly judge). He is threatened with entry into the web of social services. The government hears of him and soon wants to examine him and probably make use of his telepathic talents. (And there are hints that Russian agents are also on his track.) In a desperate conclusion, his only hope -- and indeed the Beans' only hope -- is that he can find the "door" he entered Earth through and return to his home planet -- along with the Beans, who conveniently have no real ties and pretty much seems to hate everyone anyway. (Granted, the story makes it easy to see why they'd hate the people around them, but I really felt the author had his finger pretty heavily on the scales.)

It's an exciting and involving story, and there are moments that are really moving. And I think I'd have loved it if I read it age 10 or so. But I felt now that Key was having things his way with plot and character manipulation, and the sense I got of real dislike of the human race really bothered me, and struck me as essentially unfair. I didn't believe in his aliens (granting that we couldn't see them enough to really know them), and I thought the conclusion was kind of unearned, and an escape, not a resolution.

Finally, Revolt on Alpha C. This as I noted above I first read when I was about 10. It might have been the first real Science Fiction book I read (that is, if you don't count the likes of Danny Dunn). It first appeared in 1955 from Thomas Crowell. Silverberg was 20 at the time (his first two stories had appeared in magazines in 1954). Scholastic reprinted it in 1959, and it went through numerous printings subsequently: my copy is the 4th Scholastic printing, from 1963.  The illustrations are by William Meyerriecks.

As it happens, the original order form which the original buyer used to order his copy was neatly folded inside the book. I've reproduced it here. As you can see, it was sold through "Arrow books" -- Scholastic had a few different "book clubs", I think arranged by age -- one of the other ones, if I recall, was TAB.

It's the story of Larry Stark, a young man (20, just like the author) on his final cruise before graduating from the Space Patrol Academy. They are heading to the colony on Alpha Centauri IV. He has a couple of fellow Patrol soon to be graduates along with him. One of them is a rather combative young man, somewhat shorter than the average, whose name is "Harl Ellison". Sound familiar? (I asked Silverberg about this, and he said that for this book he used names of several friends for character names -- that is, he "Tuckerized" them -- a practice which he soon abandoned.)

On the way Larry realizes that his friend Harl has some odd ideas, repugnant to Larry, whose father and grandfather were in the Space Patrol. Harl is not convinced that Earth is always right -- in fact, it turns out, he was born on Jupiter, part of the failed colony there, which was crushed by Earth when they made a bid for independence. This turns out to be important when they end up at Alpha C and find that the colony there is in the throes of a revolution. Many parallels are drawn to the American revolution, but Larry is stubborn in trusting his father and the chains of authority.

He has some adventures, including a trip to one of the four colony cities as a spy for the Earth government. This involves an implausible flight in a helicopter without enough fuel, and a dash through the jungle with a Tyrannosaurus Rex on his tail. (Alpha C IV is represented as being in the equivalent of the Mesozoic Era, and apparently a whole lot of parallel evolution has occurred.) He is thrown in jail, but escapes, and returns to his commander, only to have a crisis of conscience when he realizes that the commander's plan to quash the revolution involves destroying at least one of the colony cities. He must choose between abandoning his career (and disappointing his father), or allowing an atrocity to occur.

It's a beginning writer's book, and it shows. Silverberg is one of the SF field's greats, but it doesn't really show here (not surprising for a book he wrote so early in his career.) The book still moves briskly, and reads nicely enough (though the prose is quite wobbly compared to the mature Silverberg). The science is, let's say, inconsistent -- an attempt at reasonable plausibility (by '50s scientific standards) is made, but there are still howlers. (Like the implication that when you're on Pluto you're closer to Alpha Centauri.) The economics of the colony planets don't hold together at all. The Captain's actions, and how he utilizes his personnel, strained my belief. The central conflict of the story actually could have been pretty wrenching if told with a bit more subtlety.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hugo Ballot Reviews: Novelette

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novelette

The shortlist is as follows:

Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
"The Art of Space Travel" by Nina Allan (, July 2016)
The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde ( Publishing, May 2016)
"The Tomato Thief" by Ursula Vernon (Apex, January 2016)
"Touring with the Alien" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld, April 2016)
"You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay" by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny, May 2016)

A little better showing for SF here, with the Allan and Gilman stories. All six nominees are women.

My ballot, then, will look like this, tentatively, though the first three stories -- actually, the first four -- are real close in my mind:

1) "The Art of Space Travel", by Nina Allan

I wrote this in my Locus review: ""The Art of Space Travel", by Nina Allan, [is] a fine meditative story about Emily, who works at the hotel where the Martian astronauts are staying before they head out to space. The story isn’t about the astronauts, though, but about Emily, and about her mother, a scientist who has a sort of Alzheimer’s-like disease, perhaps because of contamination she encountered while investigating a plane crash, and about her mother’s involvement in preparation for a failed earlier Martian mission, and about Emily’s desire to learn who her father was. A good example of the effective -- not just decorative -- use of an SFnal background to tell a mundane story." Allan actually had three very strong longer stories this year: also "Ten Days" from the NewCon Press anthology Now We Are Ten, and "Maggots", a very long novella (perhaps indeed novel length) from the horror anthology Five Stories High.

2) The Jewel and Her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde

From my Locus review: "The Jewel and the Lapidary by Fran Wilde is a novella from’s line of slim books. The central fantastical idea is pretty cool: there is a valley protected from outsiders by powerful jewels that are wielded by the ruling family ("Jewels") but contained by Lapidaries who each bond to a single Jewel. This story concerns the betrayal and fall of the valley, leaving one surviving Jewel and her Lapidary, both fairly insignificant young women. They must find a way to resist the invaders, and at least to prevent them using the valley’s mines to supply jewels to allow them to cement and extend their conquest. It’s a slim story, fairly uncompromising in its plot, nicely written: I liked it, and I suspect the world it’s set in might yield more fine stories."

3) "Touring with the Alien", by Carolyn Ives Gilman

And I wrote this in Locus: "a welcome new piece from Carolyn Ives Gilman, "Touring with the Alien", [is] a rather unusual alien invasion story. It concerns Avery, a woman working as a delivery driver, who is hired to take an alien and his human companion -- an abductee -- on a not-very well specified trip. On this trip (from Washington D. C. to St. Louis, the reverse, I believe, of Gilman’s recent move) we learn about Avery’s complex past, and about Lionel, the human companion, and a little bit about the alien, who is, well, pretty alien, and not in a clichéd way. Avery is left to make a decision with pretty broad consequences. Thoughtful work."

4) "The Tomato Thief", by Ursula Vernon

OK, here's one I missed earlier. I must have encountered it in a bad mood or something. But I just read it, and it's a delight. It's about Grandma Harken, who lives in a house with its back to the desert. She cherishes her solitude, and her tomatoes, and both are threatened when someone starts stealing the tomatoes. She manages to discover a shapechanging mockingbird as the thief, and when she realizes this woman is imprisoned in this form, she reluctantly decides she must try to free her. Which ends up leading to a visit with the Mother of Trains, an encounter with a gila dragon, and a journey to a fold in the Earth where a monster is hiding. (And a price for the help she gets, which involves the loss of solitude I mentioned, and which presumably sets up future stories.) The plot is well enough done, but the glory of the story is the storytelling voice. It's really a lot of fun.

5) "You'll Surely Drown Here if You Stay", by Alyssa Wong

OK, this is the inflection point. The first four stories on my list seem worthy award nominees, even if in my opinion none of them are as good as the stories I nominated. This story, however, frustrated me. It's very well-written on the prose level. But what it is doing neither interested me nor convinced me. It's the story of Ellis, a young man, son of the desert, who helps out in a brothel in a western town, abused by the Madame, who is his stepmother. He's mourning the murder of his father, and the deaths of many other people due to his mother's anger. He has one friend, one of the women at the brothel, Marisol. Finally executives of the mining company show up, and when they realize Ellis's power to raise the dead, they try to make use of it. This doesn't end well. I think my failure to much like this story is a case, in part, of my personal lack of interest in this sort of fantasy. Which is partly a matter of taste. But it's partly due to the arbitrariness of the action and the magic, and partly due to some, to my mind, very inconsistent characterization. Ellis, in particular, didn't seem to hold together as a person, and Marisol was just flat. This is a story that in an ordinary year I would just leave off the ballot. But this year, when I want to use No Award with purpose, I guess I feel that there is enough redeeming value here (the prose, mainly, and my sense that Wong really is a talented writer), that it doesn't deserve to be below No Award. So, fifth.

I note, by the way, that both this and "The Tomato Thief" are Weird Westerns, a category that seems quite prominent in recent years.

6) No Award

7) -- or, actually, not on the ballot at all (which is important -- a No Award vote is wasted if you put any stories on the ballot after it): Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock

I feel a tiny bit sorry for the author of this story, a woman writing under a rather blatant and silly pseudonym, who, as far as I know, has no connection with Vox Day, nor really any knowledge of the Rabid Puppy movement. On the other hand, she probably sold a lot more copies of this than you could expect. The story is porn, of course, and pretty stupid -- the title describes all you need to know of the action -- a green, three-breasted, voluptuous alien trying to make money as a stripper (to repair her spaceship) encounters a humanoid T Rex and they have sex after her show. There are some lame jokes about the T Rex losing his beloved mate (in a meteor strike, of course!), and such. It doesn't seem very good porn to me, and it's far worse as SF. It's really quite poorly written, to boot.

In summary -- there are four pretty good stories on this ballot. Any of them winning would be OK with me.

I'll reiterate my personal nomination ballot, just because I think the stories deserve all the notice I can give them:
"Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home", by Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld, October)
"Project Empathy", by Dominica Phetteplace (Asimov’s, March)
"The Visitor From Taured", by Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, September)
"The Bridge of Dreams", by Gregory Feeley (Clarkesworld, March)
"Told by an Idiot", by K. J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 4)

In my experience, in a typical year only a couple of my nominees make any given category shortlist, and that's probably as it should be. My list does reflect a mild personal preference for Science Fiction, and I certainly don't want to say that that preference should hold sway over other preferences. But in particular I think that "Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home" is one of the best novelettes in recent years, and the best of this year. Its neglect is a shame. My ballot includes two print magazine stories, as well, not that there should be a quota or anything, but if indeed the print magazines are getting overlooked, due to price or availability issues, it would behoove us -- or at least me, as something of an old fart partisan of print! -- to keep promoting them.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hugo Ballot reviews: Novella

My ballot for the 2017 Hugo for Best Novella

The shortlist is as follows:

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle ( publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson ( publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing)
Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson ( publishing)
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

As has been and should be noted, this was an exceptional year for And indeed their program of slim chapbooks, mostly novellas (with the occasional long novelette such as another Hugo nomineed, Fran Wilde's The Jewel and Her Lapidary, and I suppose possibly some short novels) has been very refreshing. Novellas sometimes have a hard time finding a home, and is doing a great job rectifying that situation.

It has also been noted that the print magazines were completely shut out of the Hugos this year. Perhaps the simplest explanation of that is that you have to pay for them, and much online fiction is free. But that doesn't really apply to the novellas -- most of's offerings are only available for sale (there may be some exceptions posted on the website). I do think it is a shame, however. I nominated a couple of print novellas for the Hugo -- "Lazy Dog Out" by Suzanne Palmer from Asimov's, and "The Vanishing Kind" by Lavie Tidhar from F&SF. I think Tidhar's novella, at least, was clearly among the top three of the year -- I obviously liked Palmer's as well, but it isn't as clearly better than some of these, to my taste. But, as I often say -- that always happens. Chacun a son gout and all that. At any rate, this is a pretty strong category (I have more serious complaints at the shorter lengths).

One other notable point is that only one of the stories is Science Fiction, and that only ambiguously so (A Taste of Honey). I don't dispute at all that Fantasy is eligible for the Hugo (and always has been), but I will say that I think there should be SF as well. (And I'll note that the two omissions I mention above, "The Vanishing Kind" and "Lazy Dog Out", are each pure quill SF.)

My ballot, then, will look like this:

1) The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

This has been #1 on my list ever since I read it last summer, and I see no reason to change. I think this is very clearly the best novella of 2016. It is the best written of the stories (though Kai Ashante Wilson's story is also quite beautifully done), and well-plotted, imaginative, involving. As I wrote in my Locus review: "This is evidently in dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft’s "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (which I confess I have not read), though I was more reminded of Lord Dunsany: and after all Lovecraft’s story (unpublished in his lifetime) was written quite overtly under the influence of Dunsany. Johnson, as well, writes of a Lovecraftian world with, well, actual recognizable women! Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the Dreamlands. One of her students has run away with a dreamer -- a man from our world. This is a problem, because her father is influential -- and, as it happens, her grandfather even more so, in scary way. So Vellitt, who has experience wandering, must set off after her, through very dangerous places, and even an encounter with her old lover, Randolph Carter, in search of a way to the waking world, to persuade her student to return. This story is just beautifully written -- way more Dunsany than Lovecraft! -- and exciting, and well imagined, using the good stuff from Lovecraft and new good stuff, and honest about consequences. Unquestionably one of the stories of the year."

2) A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

I missed this until it was nominated for the Nebula, and on reading it at last, I was delighted. It is a beautifully written and rather bittersweet -- with perhaps more sweet than bitter -- story of an aristocratic young man, Aqib, heir to the Master of Beasts of Olorum. He has a short, swift, forbidden romance with a soldier from the Dalucan Embassy; but when this man leaves, Aqib continues to his arranged marriage with a royal woman, a mathematical genius. The story interleaves scenes from his affair with the soldier with the story of his long and mostly fairly happy life with his wife and their daughter -- happy despite his wife living much of her life apart, as a sort of mathematical assistant to godlike beings (who seem science-fictionally rather than fantastically godlike). The conclusion is a bit of an inversion, and I'm not sure it works fully, though it's OK -- it reveals another future for Aqib, perhaps the true future. The strengths of this story lie in the prose -- Wilson is really an exceptional stylist -- and in the dizzying SFnal/Fantastical imagined world.

3) The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

Like The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, this is a Lovecraft-influenced story, even more directly, in that it retells the events of "The Horror at Red Hook" from the point of view of a sidekick to that story's villain -- a black man, a gambler, named Black Tom, who becomes Thomas Suydam's main associate, and who proves to have different aims than his boss. The story surely needed this alternate viewpoint -- and it's quite effective. The writing is at times excellent, at other times a bit careless. I liked it, but it doesn't rate with the two stories above for me.

4) Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is my least favorite of the three Penric novellas I've read to date. I wrote in Locus: "Penric and the Shaman [is] set a few years later, with Penric much more confident in his role as a divine of the Bastard, [and] he is assigned to assist Oswyl, who is investigating a murder. Soon they are on the track of the apparent killer, Inglis, who has run away to an obscure mountain community. We see things from Penric’s viewpoint, but also [those of] Oswyl, and Inglis, and we learn that Inglis is something of a victim, of Beast magic gone wrong. Penric insists on talk, and understanding, instead of rash action -- and the story, a bit meanderingly, leads us (and Oswyl) to an understanding of what brought Inglis to his terrible situation -- at the same time helping to resolving a problem with a ghost in the mountain community they’ve come to. This is engaging work, and I’ll be glad to see more about Penric, but I wasn’t as pleased as I was with Penric’s Demon -- for one thing, there wasn’t enough Desdemona in this story, and for another, I thought Penric too idealized, too, in a word, competent. Still, it’s enjoyable.

5) This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

(For those who care, this was the Rabid Puppy choice this year.) I'm not sure I shouldn't move this up a spot or two on my ballot. The thing is, I didn't really get it. But I got the sense there was something really cool going on in the backstory, the world-building, etc., that I wasn't thinking subtly enough to understand. Or, perhaps, Mieville is just teasing us with those hints. The story is told by a man about his childhood. He was brought up by his mother and father in an isolated house on a mountainside above a remote town. One day, his father kills his mother, or so he thinks, but most people in the town don't believe him. His father says his mother just left. The boy tries running away, and spends some time with homeless kids in the town, but is brought back, and life continues, with his sometimes terrifying violent father, and his mysterious job as "keymaker", until a census taker comes -- with, it turns out, a special agenda concerning the boy's father's history in another country, during a war. It's hard to ferret out what is really going on -- perhaps the father was a war criminal? -- and it's hard too to be sure how the boy ended up where he is as a man, for some reason writing this memoir while still apparently working as a census taker himself. Strange stuff, precisely written, intriguing but for me not quite cohering.

6) Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

I really expected to like this story -- I approached it with great anticipation. But it just did not work for me. It's about a girl, Nancy, who is sent to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, which turns out to be a home for people -- usually teenagers, more often than not girls -- who had gone through a portal to another world, and who have come back, and desperately want to return to that world, and cannot find the way. Nancy's world was the Halls of the Dead, where she could be silent and still, and emulate the dead as best she could. In the Home she meets a number of other people who went to different worlds, some rational, some nonsense, some very scary. The story turns on a series of murders, and indeed it's a sort of mystery, which comes to a plausible solution. I thought the story was too long, and it really dragged at times. The murders were shocking, and quite bothered me. (My fault, I know!) And I just couldn't find Nancy an interesting character. I feel sure that many people will feel differently, for very good reasons, but this seemed to me a story with some interesting ideas and potential that just never quite worked.

Further posts on at least novelette and short story, and probably novel, will follow in the next few weeks.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Old Bestseller: Casuals of the Sea, by William McFee

Old Bestseller: Casuals of the Sea, by William McFee

a review by Rich Horton

This 1916 novel was not a bestseller. Indeed, Christopher Morley, in his introduction to the 1925 reissue, remarked "Casuals of the Sea is a novel whose sale of ten thousand copies in America is more important as a forecast of literary weather than many a popular distribution of a quarter million". But, as Morley's introduction hints, it was a well-regarded book. It had the aforementioned 1925 reprint (which is the edition I have), and a 1931 edition from the Modern Library (which also reprints Morley's introduction). It retained something of a reputation throughout the author's life, and indeed I can find it discussed with respect as late as 1990, but it almost seems to have vanished from the literary consciousness in the past quarter century.

William McFee (1881-1966) was born to an English father and a Canadian mother on board his father's ship. He was educated in England and became an engineer, not surprisingly turning to the sea, serving as an engineer in merchant ships and, during the first World War, in the Royal Navy. He spent time before the War in the US, and moved there permanently after the War. He became a full time writer in 1924, though he had published a fair amount of fiction and nonfiction while still at sea. He was best known as a writer of sea stories (not surprisingly), though despite its title, his most famous book, the novel at hand, Casuals of the Sea, is only to a small extent set at sea.

Many of the books I have read for this series of reviews are relatively negligible -- some are downright bad, many more are enjoyable on their own terms, "of their time", as it were, but ultimately rather minor work. Casuals of the Sea is something different -- a curious and quite impressive work. It is a bit slow, though it held my attention throughout. And the closing (and most affecting) segments are driven by some significant coincidences, a fair amount of sentimentalism, and a bit of over convenient character development. I suppose, as well, that the slightly paternalistic, perhaps overknowing, attitude of the authorial voice towards things like class and gender roles is a bit old-fashioned. All that perhaps explains why the book seems perhaps forgotten.

That is as it may be. But I think Casuals of the Sea is still something quite remarkable. As I said, it moves somewhat slowly, but it remains absorbing. It is ultimately very moving, in a quiet way. It seems very realistic -- the descriptions of life in the Suburb, the City, and at Sea, as the three section titles of the novel have it, came off to me as spot on. The main characters, particularly the nominal protagonist, Hannibal Gooderich, and his half-sister Minnie, really come to life (if, as I said, towards the end they seem to grow just a bit in ways useful to the novel). The prose is very sound, and when it needs to be it's quite nice. I don't think it's a great novel, nor a classic, but it's a fine novel, and it seems worthy of the position I gather it had attained for most of the last century: a respected work, the major novel of a minor writer. So it's a shame that it's no longer -- as far as I can tell, perhaps I am wrong? -- known at all.

Casuals of the Sea is a fairly long novel (perhaps 175,000 or more words). The following summary will cover pretty much the entire plot -- so, spoilers beware, but this is not really a novel that can be spoiled.

The first section is called "The Suburb". It opens on a snowy day in North London, some time in the 1890s, with a snowball fight between the boys of a Grade Board School and those of a Catholic school. Our attention is drawn to Bert Gooderich, who leads the public boys to victory -- we realize he is a poor student but are told he will be a soldier. The impression is that the book will focus on him, but instead he has a minor role. Attention passes to his mother, Mary, some years earlier, as she comes from her farm home to the city to take up service. She gets in trouble, goes home to have the baby, and is surprised at the forbearance of her mistress. An attempt to make the father do his duty, as it were, fails utterly (he has run off to Canada), but Mary is able to marry Herbert Gooderich, a somewhat hapless fitter at a local factory. Wilhelmina (Minnie) is her first child, and she has two more by Herbert, Bert and Hannibal (named after one of the few horses his father actually won money on). The rest of the first section follows the school years of the children -- Minnie is fairly clever, Bert, as noted, quite useless, and Hanny is rather dreamy. All things change when the elder Bert Gooderich, already doing poorly at his job, manages to drown himself one drunken night. By this time Minnie has had a fairly good job in a photo shop, and has had one boyfriend, whom she throws over when he objects to her smoking. Hanny is still in school, and Bert the younger is ready to join the Army (and he will soon be killed in the Boer War).

The second section ("The City") is primarily concerned with Minnie's somewhat rackety career. She loses her job in the photo shop when it is sold to an American concern (which will replace the workers with a new machine), and gets a position with a curious woman named Mrs. Wilfley, a sort of spiritualist who writes books and runs a sort of salon, and makes her money writing advertising copy. One of Mrs. Wilfley's acquaintances is an energetic young man named Anthony Gilfillan, who is attracted to Minnie. Soon she is in love with him, and he proposes that she become his mistress. (There is no question of marriage, due to class differences and to Gilfillan's devotion to his career.) She is happy in this role, and when he moves on, she (now living in France) takes up with a series of men, the last of whom, some 5 years later (it is now about 1905), is a sea captain, George Briscoe. When that relationship ends, she returns to England in the company of a French woman, a dressmaker. And shortly thereafter, Captain Briscoe, missing her, makes the surprising decision to ask her to marry him, and she accepts.

Finally, "The Sea", the third and longest section, centers on Hannibal, the youngest Gooderich. As it opens he is getting into trouble -- he's lost his first job (for laziness, it seems) and is in with a bad crowd, doing minor pilferage and such. Mrs. Gooderich, much hating to do this, thinks of sending him off to sea -- their old neighbor, an American woman named Mrs. Gaynor who had been a great friend to Minnie, has a son who is on a ship. But first she turns reluctantly to her brother in law, a fairly well-off man named Brown. He has just inherited the lease on a tobaccanist's shop, and his energetic daughter Amelia wants to make a go of it. They decide that Hanny ought to help out Amelia with the shop, and so he does. Before long Amelia has more or less decided that she will marry Hannibal -- but he kicks up his traces (influenced in part by his friendship with a used bookstore owner, who has introduced him to sea stories), and, after a coincidental encounter with Captain Briscoe at the shop, decides to take a position that has just opened up on the Caryatid, Captain Briscoe's steamship. (Neither has any idea that they are soon to be brothers-in-law.)

There follows the story of Hannibal's journey around the world, during which he at last -- he imagines, more or less correctly -- becomes a man. He falls for a barmaid in Swansea, an intelligent and ambitious girl who is about to take over a bar of her own. He learns his trade at sea, first as steward's mate, then as a fireman in the boiler room. There are adventures of a modest sort -- Hannibal saves the ship from fire at one point, and he makes a sort of a friend of a man who he then sees die of fever, and he meets Hiram Gaynor in Japan and Hiram takes him to a geisha house (or something of that sort), and he ends up catching a bad illness on the way home. In the process he and Captain Briscoe realize their relationship, a somewhat awkward situation.

On his return, after Captain Briscoe gets in trouble for having beached the ship, Hannibal marries the girl in Swansea, and they settle happily into married life. Meanwhile Minnie has a child -- perhaps it is Briscoe's (the timing is reasonable), but her insistence on naming the boy Anthony (as in Gilfillan) raised my suspicions! -- and she turns to writing advertising copy with Mrs. Wilfley. Hanny is happy as a bar owner, wholly under his wife's domination, but she is a pleasant and sensible woman and he is a pliant young man. However, his health never quite recovers from his illness at sea, and (in a somewhat too programmatic conclusion) he begins to take a patent medicine which his wife recommends based on a advertisement written by his sister. The combined effects of a weak constitution, his illness, and the noxious "medicine" do him in, and in a, for all its contrived nature, quite moving conclusion, he dies very young, but somehow happy, just as his son is born.

That's a bald outline of the plot, but I don't think it gets very well at what I liked about the book. The characters are really a big part of it -- they do come off as real people. There are many I have not described much. Mrs. Gaynor is an intriguing and very grounded person. Hanny's various shipmates are an interesting lot. The Brown family are a nearly perfectly realized middle middle class clan -- having just come to modest prosperity, convinced of the virtue of their ways, certain of their control over their circumstances. Hanny's wife, and her Welsh name, Nellie Ffitt, are a delight. Anthony (later Sir Anthony) Gilfillan is absolutely a "man on the make", but he seems to deserve his success still. A few details didn't quite convince me -- Minnie becoming a suffragist (but not, she insists, a suffragette!) felt a little off; and as I hinted above, Hannibal's late growth from delinquent to fairly enterprising and eager seaman reeks a bit of convenience. But such cavils aside, in its whole the book really impressed me -- always enjoyable, precise and plausible in its depiction of English life at the turn of the 20th Century, and when it wants to be, quite profoundly moving.

The "casuals" of the title are people like Hannibal and his parents -- casually drifting along, taking what life has to give them, bad and good. They are contrasted to the "efficients" -- the Browns, Anthony Gilfillan, Hannibal's wife -- perhaps even Minnie has grown to be "efficient" by the end. One senses that the author's attitude towards the "casuals" is a mixture of affection and exasperation, while towards the "efficients" he is somewhat suspicious of their striving, but respects their energy and discipline. Though really he is not attempting to make any moral point so bald as that.