Thursday, July 19, 2018

Birthday Review: Kelly Link

Birthday Review: The Short Fiction of Kelly Link

Recently I mentioned how much I like Genevieve Valentine's short fiction, and I noted that she might be my favorite contemporary short fiction writer. And then I immediately noted that at last she's "in the conversation". By which I mean I have several favorites, and the one I'd pick on any given day can change. And one of my other absolute favorites is Kelly Link, who was born July 19, 1969. Which is almost a REALLY REALLY significant day in world history, I might add -- and in a very science fictional (and scientific) way!

Anway, here's a selection of my reviews of Kelly Link's short fiction, from Locus between 2004 and 2008. That leaves out a lot -- I covered her work in other venues earlier, and in Locus later, and I've liked it from the beginning. (I remain quite proud of noticing her first story, in Asimov's, and recommending it for a Hugo nomination.)

Locus, December 2004

And the real standout, one of my favorite stories of the year, is "The Faery Handbag", by Kelly Link. Genevieve is a girl in love with a boy named Jake. Genevieve also has an eccentric Grandmother, Sofia, who comes from Baldeziwurlekistan, which makes her hard to beat in Scrabble. Sofia has a special handbag, which, she says, holds her home village, placed there to escape the War. I shouldn't say more -- it's a neat story in itself, neater still because of Link's storytelling voice -- and I'm looking forward to more stories about Genevieve.

Locus, July 2005

Finally, the title story, "Magic for Beginners", is one of my favorite stories of this year. I was grabbed from the beginning lines: "Fox is a television character, and she isn't dead yet. But she will be, soon. She's a character on a show called The Library. You've never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had." Indeed I do! But the story isn't really about Fox -- it's about Jeremy Mars, a 15-year-old boy with a writer father and a librarian mother and a four close friends and, it turns out, an interest in a Las Vegas wedding chapel and a phone booth. Delight is the best word -- I was delighted every second to be reading this story.

(My feelings haven't changed! What a story, what a great great story.)

Locus, April 2006

Naturally one of the stories I most looked forward to was Kelly Link’s "The Wizards of Perfil", and this is indeed a very enjoyable piece, though not as good as her best work. A boy named Onion and his disagreeable cousin Halsa, as well as Halsa’s mother and brothers, are fleeing a war that has already their other parents’ lives. Money is short, so when a reprensative of the reclusive Wizards of Perfil offers to buy a child, one of them must go. Onion, who may be telepathic, seems a natural candidate to sell to the representative of the reclusive wizards, but somehow Halsa is sold instead. As we expect with Link, the story goes in unexpected directions, telling of both Onion and Halsa and the very reclusive wizards -- though I must say the resolution was exactly what I expected. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Locus, November 2007

Kelly Link’s "The Constable of Abal" is perhaps the best here. Zilla and Ozma are a mother and daughter who can see ghosts. They have had to flee Abal after Zilla killed a constable who was investigating some lucrative blackmail she was getting up to. But the ghost of the constable accompanies them, and eventually they fetch up in another town, at the house of the mysterious Lady Fralix. Who, in good time, will teach Ozma what she needs to know about her mother and herself. It is another delight from Link, charmingly told, original, fun and wise.

Locus, January 2008

And it will probably surprise few that my favorite story here is from Kelly Link. "Secret Identity" is about a superhero convention -- apparently with real superheroes, making this the one fantastical piece in the book -- and a girl who pretended to be her older sister and is now hoping for a rendezvous with an older man she "met" online. Which is as awkward as you might expect, and handled perfectly by Link: and not quite as you expect either.

Locus, January 2008

Kelly Link offers a truly remarkable story, "Light", which as with many Link stories is best read, not read about. But, briefly, it concerns Lindsey, who lives in a Florida a lot like the Florida we know. But not exactly -- for example, there are the "sleepers". Lindsey’s job is to manage a warehouse used by the government to house people found sleeping, unwakeable. And there are pocket universes, which can be explored, and toured, and even retired to, as with Lindsey’s parents. Lindsey also has an ex-husband, and a fairly crazy brother … and I don’t want to say much more but that it is wonderful as ever with Kelly Link, and that it is resolved perfectly.

Locus, May 2008

Kelly Link’s "The Surfer" is set in the near future. A Balkanized U.S. is descending to economic and political chaos. Its health care system is helpless in the face of a series of new flus -- and so Dorn’s father, a Doctor, grabs Dorn from soccer practice and whisks him down to Costa Rica. There they spend a short while in quarantine, waiting for a chance to join a colony centered around a surfer who was verifiably abducted by aliens and is waiting for their return. The SFnal furniture here is interesting -- the plausible and depressing near future, the potential aliens, Costa Rica’s dreams of a space program. But the story is about Dorn, his dreams of being a star soccer goalie, his immaturity, his interactions with a couple of girls also in quarantine. And, yes, his growth, in classic YA fashion -- but his growth seems earned, and isn’t implausible or excessive. And anyway it’s Kelly Link, which means the telling is enchanting.

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Merton, Colonist (aka Canadian Born), by Mrs. Humphry Ward

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Merton, Colonist, by Mrs. Humphry Ward

a review by Rich Horton

Mary Augusta Ward is considered an English writer, and she spent the great bulk of her life in England, but she was born in Tasmania in 1850. Her father was Tom Arnold, a school inspector in Tasmania and later a Professor of Literature at the University of Dublin, then a lecturer in History at Oxford. Her grandfather was Thomas Arnold, the legendary Headmaster of Rugby College, and her uncle was the great poet ("Dover Beach") and critic Matthew Arnold. Her brother-in-law was Thomas Huxley, and so her nephews were Julian and Aldous Huxley. (Aldous was named after a character in one of her novels.) Mary Augusta married Humphry Ward, a lecturer at Oxford, later a journalist. Their son, Arnold (natch!) became a Member of Parliament. She began publishing with a children's book (Milly and Olly) in 1881. She published her books as by Mrs Humphry Ward. Later in her life she became a leading opponent of women's suffrage, and the head of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. That stance seems uncharacteric today, for she was otherwise very active in liberal causes of the day: she was a campaigner for better education for the poor (she founded a school now called the Mary Ward Centre), she set up a sort of day care center to allow poor women to work more easily, and she promoted University education for women, initially starting the "Lectures for Women" program at Oxford. .

Her first major success, and still probably her best-known novel, was Robert Elsmere (1888). There were no bestseller lists at the time, but I suspect it would have ranked very highly on any such list. It's the story of a churchman and the problems in his marriage caused by his theological differences with his much stricter wife. I saw a copy once and passed -- it looked rather dry. Two of her novels, Lady Rose's Daughter (1903) and The Marriage of William Ashe (1905), were each the bestselling novel of their year in the US, according to Publishers' Weekly.

The novel at hand was serialized in 1909 and came out in book form in 1910. It was published in England as Canadian Born, but retitled Lady Merton, Colonist, in the US. I bought it in part because it looked like a good read, but also because of another feature of the physical book. It has a broad piece of tape over the lower part of the cover, labeled Famous Circulating Library, "Books One Cent a Day". Commercial circulating libraries were once a major means of book distribution, but by about the middle of the 20th century they disappeared, rendered unnecessary by the spread of public libraries, and the introduction of relatively cheap paperback editions.

My edition, possibly the American first, was published by Doubleday, Page. There is a frontispiece by Albert Sterner. (His version of Lady Merton does not match my image of her.) It is signed by, I assume, the first owner, Bee V. McBride, who lived on 9107 Virginia Ave. (There are probably many Virginia Avenues, but I assume this is the one I am fairly familiar with, on the South Side of St. Louis.)

The book opens with 28 year old widow Elizabeth, Lady Merton, on a train in the middle of Canada, accompanying her brother Philip in a private car on a trip from Quebec to Vancouver. (Her late father was a major investor in the railroad.) Lady Merton's husband died in the Boer War, very shortly after their marriage.

She finds herself enchanted by the Canadian landscape, to the point of boring her brother, who is much younger, and in doubtful health (not helped by his drinking). Then, somewhere in Manitoba, the train is halted because a sinkhole has made the track unusable. While repairs are made, she meets an energetic mining engineer now working for the railroad, who arranges for their comfort while supervising repairs to the track. She takes an immediate interest in this man, George Anderson, a native of Manitoba, and she is fascinated by his advocacy for Canada and its future. Anderson, it soon becomes clear, is a man going places -- soon he will stand for the Canadian Parliament. He soon begins to have an influence on Philip, as well.

So, you can see where THAT is headed. But there are complications. For one, Elizabeth's birth and wealth and the fact that her home is in England seem to make a relationship with a Canadian inappropriate. Add to that the fact that she already has a courter -- Arthur Delaine, a 40 year old Englishman who feels the need to marry, and who thinks Elizabeth appreciates his fascination with the classics. And Delaine happens to show up in Winnipeg, with the evident intention of fixing his position with Lady Merton.

The more severe complication, however, is George Anderson's family history. His father was an alcoholic, who caused his house to burn down, killing Anderson's mother and sisters, while he was drinking. Anderson thinks his father dead, but a mysterious man is following him to Vancouver ... and at a stop in the mountains, this man approaches Delaine -- telling him, of course, that he is Anderson's father.

Much ensues -- an attempt by Anderson to rehabilitate his father, an attempt by his father to rope Anderson in on a dicey mining venture, Anderson rescuing Philip from drowning, and then his father escaping and getting involved in a criminal venture, with fatal results.

It's all pretty enjoyable stuff, though by the end it wears out its welcome just a bit, as Elizabeth returns to England, and Philip's health becomes a determining factor. I thought that something of an unnecessary complication, to be sure, and in the end, things resolve more or less as we have expected all along, with a curious epitaph recording an episode of the happy couple's life in Canada.

So, as I said, I did enjoy this book. It's not as didactic as the reputation of some of Mrs Ward's other novels, though to be sure she is quite clear on the proper place of a woman as her husband's support in a marriage. (That said, she is also quite clear on a woman's right to choose her own life within those constraints, and a woman's value and versatility and also her right to an education.) More than anything, the novel is a paean to Canada, especially to the dream of Canada as it was becoming its own nation, as it was experiencing its own version of Manifest Destiny. I wonder -- is it remembered at all in Canada?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller (1998)

a review by Rich Horton

Archie Weller was born 13 July 1957. He is mixed race, Australian aboriginal and white, and he is well known and respected for his fiction on aboriginal life in contemporary Australia. In 2000 I contributed a review to the American journal Antipodes, which concerns Australian literature. I covered Weller's second novel, Land of the Golden Clouds, which is Science Fiction, as well as a rather dreadful fantasy novel, The Alchemist's Key, by Traci Harding. As for Land of the Golden Clouds, I found it a mixed bag -- a work of some ambition, that mostly fails. It's tedious for long stretches, and the SFnal aspects are pretty silly. At any rate, here's what I wrote about that book (somewhat revised for wording).

Land of the Golden Clouds is set 3000 years after a nuclear war had devastated the human technological society. Ilgar, a young man of a hunter-gatherer tribe descended from Australia's white inhabitants, is a "moon-talker", who prophesies the future based on what he sees in the night sky. His tribe and others in Australia, including the "Keepers of the Tree", descendants of the aboriginals, live in fear of night-time raids from the cave-dwelling Nightstalkers, who have migrated underground and cannot tolerate sunlight, and who prey on human flesh.

One dark night, Ilgar and his companions are attacked by a group of Nightstalkers. In the ensuing fight, all his companions are killed, as well as all but one of the attackers. This survivor is an 18 year old girl names S'shony, who has developed a reveulsion for her people's ways, after falling in love with a "Sun Person" who had been trapped under ground.

She uses her telepathic powers, as well s the love she and Ilgar begin to feel for each other, to urge him to form a band of people to travel overland to the cave of the leader fo the Nightstalkers. At this time an airplane from Jamaica, a rare outpost of advanced technology, is marooned in the area. Ilgar, now renamed Red Mond Star Light, leads a small party (including S'shony, some members of his tribe, two Keepers, and the Jamaicans) on a long treck across Australia.

This trek, perhaps extending from roughly Uluru (Ayers Rock) to Melbourne, takes up most of the novel. Along the way the group meets several other tribes with different ways, most hostile, but a few willing to join their quest. Some people are killed along the way, either as a result of the dangers of traveling in this landscape, or of the evil machinations of some of the tribes they encounter. A constant theme of the book is the way almost everyone in this future mistrusts anyone unfamiliar, and while this attitude seems in some way natural, Weller is surely suggesting that the way forward in the future is more trust and cooperation. The culmination is an exciting battle.

For me, this was about halfway to being a pretty fine post-Apocalyptic quest story. There are numerous impressive bits, such as the terrifying picture of life in the "Silver City", and also the well-done final battle. But much is silly and pointless, and the characters seem fairly stereotyped, though they do come to some life.

My major problems came in three areas. One was simply the unevenness of the telling -- long sections are very tedious. The scientific background is inane -- the depicted results of nuclear war are just wrong; and there is an added disaster that seemed unnecessary to me: an asteroid struck the Earth, which has evidently been knocked from its orbit and is slowly spiralling into the Sun. The telepathy that some tribes possess didn't convince at all. And, most tellingly, the prose was often quite weak. Certain descriptive passages were pretty impressive, but much was clunky and ungrammatical. (And the copy-editing of my edition was terrible.)

Ultimately, the novel read as a tired variation on hundreds of '50s post-Apocalyptic stories, complete with exaggerated anti-technological bias. In that way, it resembles only too many efforts by non-SF writers that tiresomely reiterate ancient clichés that they might think they are the first to offer.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Little Known Ace Double: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn

Ace Double Reviews, 74: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn (#D-223, 1957, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

James Gunn was born July 12, 1923, so he turns 95 today, and he is still an active writer, with a new novel out this year. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did several years ago of his only Ace Double. Alas, it was his first novel, and I'm afraid I'm not very kind to it.

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This Ace Double pairs the first adult solo novel from each of these well-known writers. (Silverberg had an earlier juvenile, Revolt on Alpha C (which as it happens was probably the first SF novel I ever read), while Gunn published a collaboration with Jack Williamson (Star Bridge) in the same year as the first publication of This Fortress World.) The 13th Immortal is about 45,000 words long, while This Fortress World is much longer at 67,000 words or so (and even as such is abridged). (I find it funny that Gunn appears in this Ace Double with Silverberg's 13th Immortal, and that he later published a novel, fixing up some of his better early stories, called The Immortals.)

Both writers are SFWA Grand Masters. I've written about Silverberg in these Ace Double reviews many times before, so I won't repeat myself here. Gunn is particularly well known as one of the first people to treat SF in an academic milieu -- indeed, he published extracts from his MA thesis in Dynamic Science Fiction. He has been a Professor (now Emeritus) of English at Kansas University for decades, and he is the Founding Director of KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction. (He has taught at KU for 60 years now!) He's also, of course, been a significant writer of SF for even longer, getting particular notice for The Listeners, about SETI, basically, which was a Nebula nominee. He won a Hugo for Best Novelette for "The Giftie" in 1999, and other Hugos for non-fiction in 1976 and 1979.

The 13th Immortal is set several hundred years after a century of war has caused the remainder of the world to retreat to technological stasis. Twelve immortal men have parceled the world into twelve domains, and they in their various ways have enforced an agrarian lifestyle on everyone. The thirteenth domain is Antarctica, newly green and secure behind an impenetrable field.

Dale Kesley is a farmer in Iowa. But he has surprisingly little memory of his past life. One day a man turns up, looking for someone -- for Dale. This man is from Antarctica, he claims. And so too, says the man, is Dale. And it's time for him to go home. After some internal agonizing, Dale decides to follow this man -- mostly because of a nagging feeling that he doesn't really fit in Iowa.

But their travels do not go smoothly, In South America the two are separated, and Dale is captured by the agents of the Immortal in charge there. Rather implausibly, this man takes a shine to Dale and instead of having him executed after an escape attempt he recruits him -- as an assassin! Dale's new job is to go back to North America and kill the Immortal up there!

It is clear that relationships among the Immortals are fraying. And during Dale's travels he learns even more about his world, as he ends up encountering a town full of despised mutants, and a town run completely by automation. Inevitably his peregrinations lead him to Antarctica, and a confrontation with the mysterious 13th Immortal -- as well as a realization of his own history and destiny.

This is really pretty minor stuff. Silverberg of that era was a competent craftsman, and often willing to at least make a stab at handling interesting issues -- but still often a producer of yard goods. This book is yard goods, and indeed a bit below the average Silverberg 1950s standard, perhaps not a surprise coming so early in his career.

This Fortress World was first published by Gnome Press in 1955. This 1957 Ace Double is abridged. It is a novel that seems very derivative of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. (One of Gunn's Hugo-winning books was called Isaac Asimov: Foundations of Science Fiction.) But nowhere near as good.
(Cover by Murray Tinkelman)

It opens with a young acolyte, William Dane, at a religious order witnessing a beautiful woman leaving something in the collection bowl, then going outside only to have her feet cut off by some blacksuited thugs. Finding her beauty sufficient to challenge his faith, he hides the pebble she left. Soon the thugs are invading his cathedral -- he kills a few of them, and decides to leave.

He's picked up by an intellectual who teaches him, almost instantly it seems, to be a master fighter. But when this man urges him to give him the mysterious pebble, he kills him. After another escape, he is rescued by a whore with a heart of gold (TM). But that doesn't last -- he decides to escape to another world, but instead he ends up in the hands of the blacksuits, by whom he is tortured. But the WWAHOG(TM) rescues him again, rather surprisingly -- only to be kidnapped herself. So William realizes he has to confront the head of the blacksuits -- and eventually the real power. But he learns that there is another power he knew nothing about ...

I hardly believed a word of it, I have to say, and I was bored through most of it. The Galactic society Gunn sketches is unconvincing, despite his heavy-handed attempts to give it a philosophical grounding. And the characters do not convince, either. (For example, William is unable to reconcile himself to the fact that Whore With a Heart of Gold (TM), with whom he falls in love, was, well, a whore (for very good reasons, it turns out).) Pretty weak stuff. I must add, however, that I was reading an abridged version, and it's possible that the full novel does a better job, particularly in establishing character.

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake's 2000 novel The Hook treats a subject much on the mind of writers, and probably little on the mind of those not involved in some way with the publishing industry: the death of the midlist. Bryce Proctorr, a bestselling writer of thrillers, is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and perhaps as a result, is completely blocked on his new book. One day he bumps into Wayne Prentice, an old friend and fellow novelist with whom he has been long out of contact. Wayne tells him his sad story: his first novels were well-received, but he became a victim of the harsh logic of bookstore computers: each novel sold a bit less than its predecessor, causing subsequent orders to go down, which caused sales to go down -- the old vicious circle. Wayne had even switched to a pseudonym, with short-term success but eventually the same fate. He has a novel finished that he can't sell. So Bryce has an idea -- what if Wayne gives him the novel. Bryce will do a light revision to make it read like he wrote it, then submit it under his own name -- and they will split the advance, over a million dollars.

So far so good. But there's a kicker. Bryce's soon-to-be-ex wife will take half of his fee for the book -- if they are still married when the payment arrives. And she is apparently (Bryce says) a stone bitch who is dragging out the divorce just to torture him. So, she needs to die. And Bryce can't do it -- he'd be the first suspect. But Wayne ...

Wayne is an ordinary guy, it seems. Very happily married. A good writer, just a victim of the insanity of contemporary publishing. And not in any way a murderer. So he thinks he'll say no. But he runs the idea by his wife, who much to his surprise doesn't reject it out of hand. So he ends up agreeing to meet Bryce's wife, just to see if she is really a bad person ...

In a way, this part ends up making no sense. Wayne meets Lucie Proctorr, who is certainly not a nice person. But "not nice" doesn't mean "deserves to be murdered", and Wayne is not really presented as a character who would make that leap. Yet he does -- I felt mainly in order that the rest of the book would exist.

And the rest of the book is an ironic recounting of how Lucie's murder affects the two writers. Their writing careers develop in believable but not entirely expected ways. Their personal lives also change, in rather ironic fashions. Each feels considerable pressure from the power the other man has over him -- either one could reveal the crime, and send both of them to jail. But their lives remain intertwined in surprising ways. All leading to a truly creepy conclusion.

It's pretty good stuff. For me, the implausibility of the characters' initial actions keeps it short of brilliant -- though it is muchly redeemed by the ending. Making me wonder, indeed, if Westlake didn't work from the ending backward, in a sense.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Final Hugo Ballot Thoughts

Here, at last, is my summary post about the Hugo shortlist, with my tentative voting plans in many of the categories. I'll include links to the various posts I've already made about the novels, and about each of the short fiction categories.

Best Novel

My view is that this ballot has two halves -- three strong candidates at the top, and three solid and enjoyable novels behind the top three -- good work that I'm glad to have read, but not quite at the level of the top three.

I intend to vote in this order. Each title will link to my review of the novel in question.

1. New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
2. Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee
3. The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin
4. Provenance, by Ann Leckie
5. Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
6. The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Best Novella

In this case, I think there are three novellas that are close to a dead heat at the top of the ballot, two further pieces that are nice enough but not really in the same league with the best stories, and one quite weak, quite disappointing story. My discussion of the stories is here.

My ballot order:

1. "And Then There Were (N - one)", by Sarah Pinsker
2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire
4. River of Thieves, by Sarah Gailey
5. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
6. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Novelette

Unlike the first couple categories, I think this one has three divisions: two stories, very close in quality, that are clearly the best; two more that are also quite strong, but a step behind; and the last two which are also decent work, just one further step behind. Probably, in that sense, a fairly typical ballot -- and, it should be said, a pretty strong one. My post on the novelettes is here.

And my ballot order:

1. "Extracurricular Activities", by Yoon Ha Lee
2. "The Secret Life of Bots", by Suzanne Palmer
3. "Wind Will Rove", by Sarah Pinsker
4. "A Series of Steaks", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5. "Children of Thornes, Children of Water", by Aliette de Bodard
6. "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time", by K. M. Szpara

Best Short Story

In this case I'd say there's a kind of even distribution of quality from top to bottom. Again, a strong ballot, with no bad stories, but one, in my view, severely harmed (as was the novel ballot, and inded the novella ballot as well) by omitting a few of the clear cut very best stories of the year. My detailed comments are here.

Ballot order:

1. "The Martian Obelisk", by Linda Nagata
2. "Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
3. "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde
4. "Carnival Nine", by Caroline Yoachim
5. "Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon
6. "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse

In the other categories, I'm generally less informed, and while I will vote where I have a preference, I mostly won't discuss things at length. There are a couple categories where I'm pretty well informed, but I won't discuss my ballot here, for partly personal reasons, and partly because I think the choices here are based on razor thin margins -- these are the Editor categories. But I'll say a couple of things about a couple of the categories.

To begin with, Best Related Work. Here I will just say that I hope that sentiment in the wake of Harlan Ellison's death doesn't promote votes for Nat Segaloff's hagiography A Lit Fuse, surely the weakest by far of the nominees. (My vote is for Paul Kincaid's Iain M. Banks, but all the other books beside A Lit Fuse seem worthy.)

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, I really think it's a three horse race, between my choice (The Shape of Water), Get Out, and Blade Runner 2049. The others are, honest, kind of in the "there are things on this list not like the others" category. Enjoyable movies in their way, but seriously not in the same league as the top three.

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, I'll won't vote -- I liked "USS Callister" a lot, but I haven't seen (nor heard) the other nominees.

In Best Professional Artist, my top slot goes to Kathleen Jennings, on merit, and because I recommended her for nomination and was very pleased to see her on the ballot. The rest of the nominees, to be sure, are all fine artists.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 978-0-316-26231-1, $17.99, tpb, 615 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Finally I’ve finished the last of the Hugo nominated novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And guess what – it’s my favorite of the set. It still, to my mind, doesn’t rank with John Crowley’s Ka, nor with Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, nor with The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel; but’s it’s pretty impressive work.

It’s been pitched, mostly, as a climate change novel – it depicts a rather sunken New York, a sort of new Venice (as with many coastal cities in this future) – and that’s important to the book. But more than that, this novel is about Robinson’s views on late capitalism, and most particularly on the way the financial system has evolved. It is, as with many of Robinson’s books, a very political novel, full of political discussions and digressions which are, for the most part, pretty interesting, and pretty one-sided.

The story opens with a couple of men, Mutt and Jeff, working as free-lance quants in the financial industry, who are sort of squatting in the farm area on the roof of the Met Life Building, which is now a residential co-op in the intertidal area of New York. Jeff, the more radical of the pair, releases a virus into the SEC’s system which will change key financial laws in a direction of greater fairness, just as a test. It’s quickly withdrawn, having caused a curious spike in the markets, and the two realize they had better run – but before they can get anywhere they are kidnapped, and end up in a container on the bottom of the harbor.

The point of view shifts quickly: the story is told through several rotating characters, all of whom live (at least eventually) in the Met Life building. These are Charlotte Armstrong, who nominally runs the co-op; Franklin Garr, a young financial wizard specializing in speculative investments about intertidal real estate; Roberto and Stefan, two orphan boys who are looking for sunken gold; Vlade, the Met Life building’s “super”; Amelia Black, a cloud star who has an apartment at the building but spends most of her time literally in the clouds, on her airship traveling around the world making nature films of a sort; Inspector Gen, a high-ranking NYPD cop; and a “citizen”, who presents essays about the financial and political history and current (as of 2140) situation in New York.

The plot twists around several events – the kidnapping and rescue of Mutt and Jeff; Roberto and Stefan’s adventures with the gold and later other things; Vlade’s investigation of what seem to be sabotage attempts on the building; Franklin’s risky speculations, his abortive love affair with a fellow financial expert, and his turn to the “good side” including investments in safer intertidal housing; Charlotte’s reluctant political career, sparked in part by a hostile takeover attempt on the Met Life Building; Amelia’s misadventures, such as trying to resettle some polar bears in the Antarctic; and a variety of investigations by Gen, covering some of the above issues. The climax results from a major hurricane reaching New York, and its aftereffects, which extend to radical political and financial changes.

It’s really a fascinating read throughout. As I’ve suggested, Robinson’s viewpoint is not in any sense balanced (I’m sure he would scoff at the idea that balance was possible or appropriate), and I think it behooves the reader to be a bit skeptical. But for all that, it’s really interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s not just political, financial, and environmental wonkery. There’s plenty of action, and plenty of nice character interaction. I was gripped throughout – though, also, I was able to set the book down for days when other deadlines impended. But that’s not really a bad thing for this sort of book.

Are there weaknesses? Yes. It might be a nitpick, but I don’t think Robinson has the knack of giving his characters individual voices – they all sound the same, despite some clear attempts at differentiating, for example, Amelia’s voice. And I thought the ending a bit fuzzy and slack. Robinson is a tremendously optimistic writer – he always has been, and I’ve always liked that in him, but in this novel it doesn’t always convince, especially at the close. (And Robinson realizes this, and addresses the reader at one point, telling us that really this isn’t a final happy ending, or even an ending at all.) One final thing – this is a big future world, just as big as our world, and the novel resembles that New Yorker cartoon in which the US is represented as a huge New York with a tiny appendage of the rest of the country. Again, Robinson knows this, and directly mentions that particular cartoon, but it still feels like a lack, that for all the inveighing against Denver in the book, we get no sense at all of what Denver is like. Probably this was unavoidable, but it still seems an imperfection.

Well, enough of that. It’s a big shaggy book, and a lot of fun to read. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll care a lot about the characters, you’ll be fascinated and maybe a bit frustrated. And it’ll be first on my Hugo ballot.

Here are links to the other Hugo novel reviews:

Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee;
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin;
Provenance, by Ann Leckie;
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty;
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig

Ace Double Reviews, 84: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig (#H-48, 1968, 60 cents)

Lionel Percy Wright was born 8 July 1923, so in honor of his birthday I am posting this Ace Double review I did 9 years ago on my blog. It's also an opportunity to mention one of the most obscure SF novelists ever, Ellen Wobig, whose only fiction, as far as I know, was this novel.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan)

Here we have something quite obscure. Lan Wright, at least, is not unknown, though he may be all but forgotten. Here's what I wrote in a review of an earlier Wright book: Lan Wright is a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (b. 1923), who was a regular contributor to the UK SF magazines, mostly E. J. Carnell's (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction Adventures), from 1952 through 1963. As far as I know he never even once appeared in a US magazine. Indeed, he only once appeared in an anthology, a British book edited by Carnell. He did have five novels published in the US, four of them Ace Doubles, the last of these in 1968. I had read a story or two in the magazines, and found them mediocre but with interesting aspects, so I tried this novel. As far as I know he is still alive, but seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) since the age of 45. [In fact, he died on 1 October 2010, one year after I wrote those words.]

So, we see that The Pictures of Pavanne was apparently his last book. I would suggest that to some extent the market had simply moved beyond him -- Carnell was not publishing much anymore, having given up New Worlds, and Don Wollheim was moving beyond Wright's sort of stuff as well. And those were for all practical purposes the only editors who ever bought his work.

As for Ellen Wobig, I know nothing of her beyond that she was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1911, and died in Rockford, Illinois, in 1989. And there's no hint anywhere I can find that she published anything besides The Youth Monopoly. Wobig was thus one of only 8 writers whose only novel was an Ace Double half.

Given that you'd perhaps expect these stories to be pretty dire. But that's not really the case. Both have their moments -- both are entertaining enough, really, and with some hints of nice ideas. Neither novel is earth-shaking -- neither is really, in the end, successful. But they exceed my (admittedly low) expectations.

The Youth Monopoly, which is about 38,000 words long, is one of those stories that changes focus as it goes. It may be that the author intended this change -- that she was misdirecting the readers. Or it may be that the story changed on her as she wrote it. Anyway, after a very brief prologue from the point of view of the narrator in his old age, we meet Rod Dorashi trying to escape Metropolis, a city in a future US that seems to be ruled by an autocrat called Commander Korn. Dorashi is fortuitously picked up by one Ormand Bey, who feeds him and reveals that he has heard of him -- from an old man, Frechette, who Dorashi has helped out before he (Frechette) died. Somehow at this point I expected the tale of a revolution against Korn. Instead, Dorashi accompanies Bey to his home, the luxury resort called Trysis, which has been co-owned by the old man, Frechette. Trysis, it turns out, is a very special resort -- visitors are fed a special diet which rejuvenates them by five years. But they can only visit once a year, so to gain significant years of lifespan one must stay on good terms with the owner.

Rather mysteriously, Dorashi is immediately installed in the inner circle of Trysis operations. It seems Frechette picked him as his successor. The other members of that inner circle include Bey and a couple of women and a couple of men. One of the women immediately (it seems) becomes Dorashi's lover. All of them, it seems, have been around since the 14th Century or so, taking the immortality food ever since at a rate metered to maintain a youthful appearance.

The rest of the book basically concerns machinations at Trysis. Bey turns out to be rather a tyrant, imperious in his dealing with his own staff and with the privileged visitors. Part of the concern is that the political powers of this future US -- which seems a fractured set of city-states -- stay ignorant of Trysis's secrets. But part seems simply Bey liking to throw his weight around. Dorashi is shown rebelling a bit, but being severely punished ... and that's kind of it. Until we get to the end, where there is a sudden change in circumstances, and a dramatic (though guessable) revelation. The actual conclusion is cynical and fairly effectively executed. So, in the end, not really a very good novel, but one with aspects of interest.

I wasn't very impressed with the previous Lan Wright novel I read (Who Speaks of Conquest? (1957)). The Pictures of Pavanne really isn't very good, but it's better than Who Speaks of Conquest?. Admittedly that's faint praise. The novel is about 56,000 words.

The main character is Max Farway, the dwarfish son of a rich industrialist. As the book opens he has returned to Earth for his father's funeral. We learn that Max is a) very difficult to deal with; and b) a brilliant artist, probably the best of his generation. Oh, and he had issues -- with his father, and with his painful body.

On dealing with his father's estate, he learns that the older man had become obsessed with "The Pictures of Pavanne", a huge work of art left by vanished aliens on a distant planet. A sequence of human artists have tried to capture the Pictures in smaller form, and have all failed. (Hardly surprising, really.) But Max's father had been corresponding with a scientist who apparently found some mysterious secret about the Pictures. But then the scientist refused further contact with the elder Farway.

Inevitably Max decides to go to Pavanne. His stepmother and agent accompany him. There he encounters the very old ruler of Pavanne, now confined to a high-tech wheelchair/virtual reality system. This man (and his two vile, apparently incestuously lesbian, daughters) torment Max, in part, it turns out, because the scientist with whom Max's father corresponded was actually murdered. A subplot develops, concerning the ruler's chief assistant, who hopes to escape Pavanne with his lover and with all the money he has squirreled away.

But all must wait until the dramatic Passage of the Blue Sun. It seems that Pavanne is part of a two sun system, and the Pictures show best when directly under the Blue Sun, an event that occurs only every 16 years. So -- Max needs to view the Pictures in this light to paint his masterpiece. The other subplots also converge on this point, particularly the amazing discovery the murdered scientist made ... then ... well, a sometimes interesting (though overwrought) plot just falls apart with a banal, silly, conclusion,

Much of this book is quite bad -- the absurd depiction of the nature of artistic creation. The ridiculous orbital mechanics implied for the Pavanne system. The rather casual plotting. The terribly disappointing ending. But there were things I liked. Max isn't a believable character, but he's kind of interesting, and his Oedipal relationship with his stepmother had real potential (but Wright couldn't go through with his implications.) The story actually has momentum most of the way, and the plot, though silly, might have satisfied had it ended a bit more traditionally. It's not a good novel, by any means -- it's undeniably a bad novel -- but it was, yet again, better than I had expected.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Birthday Review: Leviathan 3, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Forrest Aguirre

Leviathan 3
Edited by Forrest Aguirre and Jeff VanderMeer
Ministry of Whimsy Press/Prime Books, Tallahassee, FL, Madison, WI, Canton, OH, 2002
476 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 1-894815-42-4

Jeff VanderMeer was born on July 7, 1968. He's best known, certainly, for his fiction, including the Southern Reach trilogy (the first of which, Annihilation, became an intriguing movie just last year) and Borne; but he has made major contributions as an editor as well. And one of my favorites among his projects was the Leviathan original anthology series. So here's a review I wrote for Locus back in 2002. 

One of the more interesting recent anthology series is Leviathan, two issues of which appeared in the late 1990s, each edited by Jeff VanderMeer with a different collaborator, and published by VanderMeer's small press, The Ministry of Whimsy. After a slight delay, Leviathan 3 is out. It's now available directly from The Ministry of Whimsy ( and will soon be available at other bookstores. VanderMeer's collaborator this time is Forrest Aguirre. 

Leviathan 3, as with its predecessors, seems a "slipstream" anthology, full of stories propelled by fantastical imagery and by unusual narrative strategies, but usually not set in overt or consistent "Fantasy" or "SF" worlds. I think the central image, the central concern, of SF is the encounter with the "alien", (whether the "alien" be an actual alien being, or altered humans, or an alien environment, or simply a different time). SF treats the "alien" in two ways. Some SF is interested in the alien for its own sake – as a marvel perhaps, or as a revelation of some feature of the universe. Other SF is interested in the alien as a sort of contrast with humanity or with the present environment. Thus it might exaggerate some human trait, or it might provide a contrast against which human traits are more clearly displayed, or it might provide a testing ground, as it were, in which human traits can be revealed. Slipstream, it seems to me, is mostly work of the second kind, in which the "alien" aspect might be nothing more than unusual narrative techniques, and in which often the "alien" is inserted with little or no explanation into a contemporary setting. Indeed, perhaps that is how we recognize a "slipstream" quality in certain mainstream stories – either the imagery or structure are sufficiently unusual as to create the same sense of displacement from the norm that we find in SF.

One valuable place to look for stories with a different sensibility is in the too often unfamiliar fiction of other languages. Here there are several translated stories. Most prominent are six linked stories about libraries by Zoran Živković (translated by Alice Copple-Tošic). These also serve as thematic anchors for the various sections of the anthology. These stories are arch and metafictional, very recognizable as Živković stories. In each story an unusual library is encountered. One contains all the books to be written, including the author's own future books. Another contains stories of people's lives, including of course the narrator's. And so on. Wry, deadpan, clever, enjoyable stories. There aew two stories by 19th Century French writers, Rémy de Gourmont and Théophile Gautier; both translated by Brian Stableford. De Gourmont's "Phocas" is a retelling of the story of the capture of St. Phocas, who fed the poor and even the soldiers sent to kill him. Gautier's "The Divided Knight" is a fairy tale, about a man born with two separate natures. My favorite of the translated stories, though, is a delightful comic story set in the Soviet Union: "The Evenki", by Eugene Dubnov (translated by the author with John Heath-Stubbs), about a man who becomes convinced that the title ethnic group is undermining the Soviet state, and who then becomes head of the Department of Evenkology.

Perhaps inevitably, I found a few of the stories incomprehensible – as likely a fault of the reader as of the author. Rikki Ducornet's "Buz" is reasonably intriguing to read, but I failed to understand it – it appears to be about adultery. I was less impressed with Michael Moorcock's "The Camus Referendum", a Jerry Cornelius story, to do with future corporatism and war, which frankly reduced me to pretty much reading sentences without assigning them meaning. This happened to me with a similar Jerry Cornelius story in Interzone a couple years back. I can only conclude that I am out of sympathy with Moorcock's aims here. There is also a Moorcock novel excerpt, "The Vengeance of Rome, Chapter 3", which is nicely written but which reads like a novel excerpt and not like a complete story. Michael Cisco's "The Genius of Assassins" is beautifully written, even to the point of bravura technique, and it seems fully comprehensible, but not terribly rewarding – it is three narratives about brutal senseless serial murders and their perpetrators, and in the end the point of it all escaped me.

A few more stories can be described as intriguingly weird, but not successful. In each case the very strangeness of the imagination revealed makes the stories worth a look, even if I felt they didn't really work. Jeffrey Thomas' "The Fork" describes a curious individual, injured and apparently trapped in an affectless landscape, who eventually finds his way out. Lance Olsen's "Village of the Mermaids" is about a woman who seems to have become a mermaid, but who is somehow trapped on land, always struggling to reach the water and swim away. This is tied to a real world experience in the end, but rather tenuously. "The Progenitor", by Brian Evenson, might be the strangest story here, about a life form (alien race? mutated humans? who knows?) who live tethered in the air, or working on the ground, in the service of the mysterious huge "Progenitor".

In the category of "really weird, but also successful" I would certainly place Stepan Chapman's "State Secrets of Aphasia", a wild ride about a land of clouds, ruled by the ancient Queen Alba. This strange land, home to ectoids and sneeflers and such aristocrats as King Skronk, High Khan of the Cactus Trolls etc., comes under threat from the Black Glacier, and the Queen is forced to review her own history, and confront the real nature of herself and her kingdom. The resolution is interesting though not very original, but the imagery and the wild ride to the end is, in typical Chapman fashion, absurd and compelling, and the story manages also to be quite moving. Just following it in the book is "Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" – to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only – or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us.

One of the defining features of "slipstream", to my mind, is a deliberate blurring of genre lines, mostly the lines between "mainstream" and the fantastic. To be sure, all such lines are blurry anyway. And so a few of the stories in Leviathan 3 seem to me to be clearly across the vague SF/mainstream border. Still, they are good stories and even if they are set in our world and time (as it seems to me) they are told so that their milieu seems different anyway. They make the real fantastic, as it were. Tamar Yellin's two stories here are examples. "Kafka in Brontëland" is a quiet and evocative story of a woman in North England who imagines that a man she sees in her town is Franz Kafka. "Moonlight" is a striking and moving story about the life of a popular artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hinting at a mysterious obsession behind his work. Another story from just across the borderline is "The Swan of Prudence Street" by Scott Thomas. An adolescent becomes infatuated with the beautiful young woman in the upstairs apartment. Familiar stuff, in its basic outline, but well executed and evocative.

"While Wandering a Vanished Sea", by James Bassett is decidedly Ballardian in imagery and affect. The memory artist Mimpi comes to the seaside city Runevan to practice his art, which involves altering people's memories, while claiming that he has been given Runevan's sea. One day he dies, and the sea seems to be gone – or was it ever there? Where did all their memories come from? A nice story. Brendan Connell contributes "A Season with Doctor Black", in which the title character, a dwarf and a scientific genius, spends his summer at his country home, and there encounters a beautiful woman, marooned by car trouble, and they enter into a relationship of ambiguous and shifting character. I found it interesting but not exceptional. Carol Emshwiller's "The Prince of Mules" reminded me just a bit of her recent SCI FICTION story "Water Master", in telling of a older single woman living in a dry rural place, who becomes intrigued by an isolated man who has something to do with water distribution. This is quite a different story, though, and it's a neat piece, telling in Emshwiller's characteristic deadpan voice of the woman's rather excessive obsession with Jake Blackthorn, who at least loves his mule.

At last we come to the stories that most impressed me. They do come, I will say, from names I expected a lot from: Brian Stableford, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Jeffrey Ford. Stableford's "The Face of an Angel" tells of a master plastic surgeon, sometime in the near future, who is confronted by a mysterious man with an unusual proposition. The man has a copy of a book created by the "comprachicos", who were notorious in the 17th Century for buying children and surgically deforming them for use as circus freaks. This man asserts that they actually had a more ambitious goal – to learn to surgically create a perfect face, the face of an angel. Now, with the modern surgeon's technology, and these old secrets, perhaps this goal can actually be reached – but at what costs? In "The Fool's Diary" Duchamp, as always fascinated by gender roles, purports to present an account of a diary kept by a dwarfish woman employed by the wife of King James I of England as a fool. The diary includes much comment on the position of women in the King's court, but also an extended description of a command performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", complete with much discussion on the curious gender switching of the characters in that play, and on the rather ambiguous future happiness of the women. And, finally, the Fool's abilities extend to something stranger – a trip (in some sense) to the "world" of "Twelfth Night", perhaps to hear directly from the characters their real feelings. It's a fascinating and thoughtful story. Finally, Ford's "The Weight of Words" is, I feel, the standout story of Leviathan 3. The narrator is despondent because his wife left him, and he attends lectures in his loneliness. One lecture is given by an Albert Secmatte. Secmatte advances a theory that the particular arrangement of words in printed matter, including such aspects as the font, influences perceived meaning in a way that can be quantified. (The key equation is given as "Typeface + Meaning x Syllabic Structure – Length + Consonantal Profluence / Verbal Timidity x Phonemic Saturation = The Weight of the Word or The Value".) He thinks Secmatte a crackpot, but after a demonstration he becomes convinced that the theory has some value. He asks Secmatte to rewrite his love letters to his departed wife so that they will be especially convincing, and in exchange agrees to help Secmatte with his business, which naturally involves advertising, eventually including some rather slimy political ads. The central idea here is not exactly new, but Ford's working out of it is intriguing, and the writing is beautiful, particularly the lovely closing. We are left thinking not just about subliminal advertising, but about good writing, and love.

Leviathan 3 promises to be perhaps the outstanding original anthology of 2002. Its focus, from a genre reader's point of view, may be a bit narrow – there is no hard SF here, and only the occasional story would readily fit even traditional "soft SF" or "fantasy" categories. But what the anthology promises it delivers, and story after story is intriguing reading.

Birthday Review: Veniss Underground, by Jeff VanderMeer

Veniss Underground, by Jeff VanderMeer, Prime Books, Canton, OH, 2003, Trade Paperback: US$15, ISBN 1-894815-64-5, 188 pages, Mass Market Paperback: US$5.99, ISBN 1-894815-44-0, 240 pages

Jeff VanderMeer was born on July 7, 1968. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did for Liz Holliday's fine UK SF magazine 3SF, back in 2003. The review is relatively short, because that was the format I was working to.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the most interesting writers in the SF/Fantasy field. He is certainly not unknown, and indeed he has won the World Fantasy Award, but he seems underappreciated relative to his ability. In part this is because his fiction is generally quite experimental. In part it is because most of his work has appeared from small presses. In part it is because he has published no novels (despite a couple of novellas published as short books). Now at least that third issue, if not the first two, is addressed with Veniss Underground.

[Note -- I wrote all that back in 2003! Jeff has certainly received a lot more (very much deserved) notice and appreciation since then, particularly for the Southern Reach trilogy (and the movied made of the first book in that series, Annihilation), and for Borne.]

The novel is neatly structured as three increasingly long sections told from different viewpoints. The opening first-person section is told by Nicholas, a failed Living Artist. He reveals how he became involved with the sinister Quin, a much more successful Living Artist. The second section, in second person, tells of Nicholas's sister Nicola, whose search for the disappeared Nicholas results in a fatal gift of a genetically modified meerkat from Quin. Finally, the third section (in third person, naturally), is about Nicola's ex-lover Shadrach, who journeys to the underworld to try to save the dead Nicola.

The action is interesting and moving. But what makes the novel special is VanderMeer's lush prose, and in particular the descriptions of the far-future enclave of Veniss. I was reminded at times of Samuel R. Delany, at times of Richard Calder, at times of China Miéville. But mostly this lurid and fascinating mix of exotic fantasy, dark horror, and imaginative far-future science fiction is pure Jeff VanderMeer, and much to be recommended.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Not-Forgotten not quite Bestseller: Warlock, by Jim Harrison

Warlock, by Jim Harrison

a review by Rich Horton

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was a major American novelist (and, famously, "novellist") and poet. He was originally from Michigan, and much of his fiction was set in rural Michigan and in other rural spaces, such as Montana and Nebraska. He may still be best known for his novella "Legends of the Fall", made into a well-received movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. His best known novel might be Dalva.

I've felt for a long time that Harrison is a writer I would enjoy, but for whatever reason I had never got around to reading any of his novels or novellas. I did read a collection of his poems (Harrison considered himself primarily a poet). After his death I felt an even stronger urge -- and, hey, it only took me two years to finally read one of his novels. I chose Warlock for the brilliant reason that it was the book of his I already had on my shelves.

That said, I think I made a pretty good choice. Warlock is a comic novel, and a crime novel (while at the same time spoofing crime novels). I have an affinity for both forms. It's set mostly near Traverse City, Michigan -- not a location I'm intimately familiar with, but an area I know slightly, due to my mother being from Michigan, and her father being from the Upper Peninsula, which led to vacations in the state, including trips to the UP, and trips to the northern part of the lower peninsula. Which just means -- I felt sympatico with the setting.

Warlock is a name the main character, Johnny Lundgren, was bestowed on his induction into the Webelos. He's now a bit over 40, and unemployed after losing his job as an executive for a charitable foundation. He's married (second time) to a beautiful nurse named Diana, and they have a pretty active sex life which is recorded in some detail in the book. In his unemployment he is trying to become a good cook, with middling success, but other than that he's definitely drifting -- drinking too much, putting on weight, showing plenty of signs of depression. His father is a cop, and they get along pretty well, though there's a hint that Warlock resents the older man discouraging him from a career as a painter.

Johnny's somewhat less than energetic job search isn't going very well, partly because of his unwillingness to play nice with potential bosses he finds too stupid. He makes a vow to change his life -- four rules: Eat Sparingly, Avoid Adultery (yes, despite his apparent sincere love for Diana, their active sex life, and his confidence she won't stray, he does fool around a bit with some local women), Do Your Best in Everything, and Get in First Rate Shape. But none of these resolutions are going all that well, when suddenly he gets a curious and interesting job offer from a rich but rather eccentric local inventor. It seems this man, Dr. Rabun, is convinced he's being cheated, in various investments, and especially by his estranged wife and son. He wants Johnny to "troubleshoot" -- to check his books, and to investigate any suspicious activity.

This begins with a trip to the Upper Peninsula and a forest Rabun owns (for logging). Warlock more or less stumbles into the criminals stealing from his boss, and, while fleeing from them, also manages to stumble into an affair with a woman who claims to be a "Chippewa Indian" but turns out to be a Detroit schoolteacher of Armenian descent. Filled with a combination of guilt about the adultery, fear for his life, and excitement over a successful mission, he returns home.

Over the next few months he enjoys a certain amount of financial success, and investigates a bit more for Rabun, while Diana applies for a scholarship to med school. Rabun's interests in Florida turn a bit sour -- a health club he owns is sued by a woman who claims to have been severely injured when a cable snapped, and his wife is causing more problems, while his gay son is importuning him for money to open a bar in the Keys. So Warlock heads to Florida, and the climax of the novel, which involves his realization that (as the reader has surely realized) Rabun is even weirder and less trustworthy than he seems, and for that matter Warlock's home life needs a bit of re-examination as well. All this mixed in with sex with a paralyzed woman, and being literally thrown to the sharks, an encounter with a mobster, and an ill-advised disguise to mix in with his idea of the average gay bar clientele.

This is really a pretty funny novel throughout. It spoofs many of the conventions of a certain sort of private detective fiction, while taking them, and in particular Warlock's life, seriously enough to avoid silliness and dishonesty. So among the weirdness and comedy, we get a believable examination of Johnny Lundgren's character, and his reaction to very real depression. Harrison treats all of his characters with a degree of respect, and with affection and undertanding. And his prose is strong -- clear, free of cliche, rhythmically interesting. I recommend it.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

On Genevieve Valentine's short fiction

Genevieve Valentine has been publishing short fiction since 2007, as well as several novels. She is very possibly my favorite current writer of short fiction -- if she isn't at the very top, she's definitely in the conversation. I've reprinted six of her stories in my Year's Best anthologies: "Bespoke", "The Sandal-Bride", "The Grave Digger of Konstan Spring", "Aberration", "This Evening's Performance", and "Everyone From Themis Sends Letters Home"; as well as "The Nearest Thing" in Robots: The Recent A. I., and "Carthago Delenda Est" in War & Space: Recent Combat. She hasn't yet won a major award, but I honestly can't understand why -- in particular, "Everyone From Themis Sends Letters Home" was by a fairly wide margin the best novelette of 2016 and its failure to even garner a Hugo nomination is an indictment of the Hugos, not of that story.

As sort of a signal boost for this excellent writer, here are a few of my Locus reviews of her stories. (I know I also reviewed "This Evening's Performance", but my copy of that review seems to have disappeared.)

From my Locus review of John Joseph Adams' anthology Federations:

Genevieve Valentine’s "Carthago Delenda Est" is set on a space station where a wild mix of ambassadors from a number of species have been waiting for centuries for a particular ship, from Carthage, with a message of peace. But, the story suggests, peace can arrive in different ways, for different reasons.

From the October 2009 Locus:

Genevieve Valentine’s "Bespoke" (Strange Horizons), about a shop devoted to properly outfitting time travelers. I say charming, and the stories do charm, but that perhaps shortchanges them -- each has a deeper background, and each, though short, hints at depths and pasts and wants in the characters that make them seem very real.

From the March 2011 Locus:

Then in March, John Joseph Adams’s first month as editor of Fantasy Magazine, I was blown away by one story, Genevieve Valentine’s "The Sandal-Bride". It is a fairly simple story, and quite uplifting. A merchant is approached by a woman with "the ugliest face I have ever seen". She wants his escort to the next town on his route, there to meet the man she has agreed to marry. To make the escort proper (this is a church state), they must marry temporarily: she will be a "sandal-bride". She has a dowry to make it worth his while, and he agrees almost against his will. On the way, of course, she changes him, and his view of the world, and, perhaps, of ugliness. But there is no conventional ending -- simply a moving depiction of the characters of a few quite ordinary people, and of a man finding something to make his life worthwhile. I just thought it lovely.

From the August 2011 Locus:

Genevieve Valentine is outstanding again in the August Lightspeed. -- she’s been producing a rush of outstanding stories. The problem of AI rights, and particularly the feelings of an AI created in some sense "for" a human’s pleasure, has been treated often, and often very well, in SF (as with Rachel Swirsky’s magnificent 2009 story "Eros, Philia, Agape"). "The Nearest Thing" is another outstanding entry in that field. Like several stories this month, it is told at a slight angle from the ostensible center of the story: Mason Green is a top programmer for a corporation that makes lifelike androids, first as mementos of dead loved ones. His new assignment, from a hotshot executive, is to make an even more lifelike "mind" for a new model. As the title signifies, the android, called Nadia, will be lifelike enough for the executive to fall for -- perhaps by accident. As for Mason? -- well, that’s a key question of the story. And what does Nadia feel? That of course is the central question.

From the October 2014 Locus:

Valentine’s "Aberration" (from Jonathan Strahan's anthology Fearsome Magics) could be read as SF, about time travelers who have lost connection with the people in the places (times) they visit, and who barely can maintain connections with each other -- or, in the context of this anthology, perhaps they are something like the Fae … certainly dangerous to those mortals who notice them, certainly timeless. It's a powerful story, very well told, sad, dark, disconnected, atmospheric -- excellent work.

From the July 2016 Locus:

In for April 27 Genevieve Valentine has a really pointed story about fashion, "La beauté sans vertu", about a modeling industry which, as we learn in the arresting first sentence, replaces its models’ arms with arms from teenaged corpses. The story, told absolutely coolly, savages the obsessions of the fashionistas and their enablers and even to an extent their opponents as it follows the short brilliant career of Maria, mostly from the POV of the likes of Rhea, the head of her fashion House. The details -- of dialogue, of dress, of choreography, of the business, are precise and telling.

From the December 2016 Locus:

Clarkesworld’s October issue is another strong one. The standout story is "Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home", by Genevieve Valentine.  It opens with a series of journal entries from the small advance team on Themis, a planet of Proxima Centauri that they are trying to help colonize. These are intriguing, but then the story opens up to reveal that in fact these people are prisoners, recruited to beta test an extremely immersive game, and that Themis is an invention of the gaming company. Problems have ensued, and lawsuits are on the way. But Themis was, well -- a wonderful place to be. And one of the prisoners in particular only wants to go back -- but there’s no there to go back to. Achingly moving, and in a sense as well a depiction of the way a reader sometimes feels after finishing a story.

From the December 2017 Locus:

"Intro to Prom", by Genevieve Valentine, is the standout in the October Clarkesworld. Jack and Celandine and Mara and Robbie are four young people who were abandoned in a domed (and now underwater) habitat when it was evacuated. (But why the evacuation, and what happened elsewhere, are fraught questions that lurk powerfully in the story’s background.) They have plenty of food, and nothing to do but wait for the dome’s inevitable collapse. One thing they do is re-enact prom, over and over again, in different combinations, with different mini-plots -- who goes with who, who leaves with who, etc. The story’s sections cycle points of view between the characters, and we learn who they are, and why they are there, and a bit of what happened before.

Birthday Review: Charles Coleman Finlay's short fiction

Charles Coleman Finlay was born July 1, 1964. So, in honor of his 54th birthday, here's a compilation of a few of my Locus reviews of his short stories. (I've reviewed several more of his stories, but those reviews are less complete.) I will note that I've reprinted his stories three times: "An Eye for an Eye" in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year: 2008 Edition; "Time Bomb Time" in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2016 Edition; and "The Political Officer" in War & Space: Recent Combat. (All from Prime Books.)

From the June 2004 Locus:

Another welcome new find is Charles Coleman Finlay, and he returns in F&SF with another story of the soldier Vertir and the scribe Kuikin. This time they are charged with going, as the title has it, "After the Gaud Chrysalis", hoping to find it before it emerges as a full-grown, and very dangerous, Gaud. They enlist the reluctant help of Elizeh, a former lover of Kuikin's who has become a nun. Follows a dangerous journey down river to an abandoned city, and an exciting conclusion. A solid piece of adventure fantasy, with a good mixture of wit and action.

From the June 2007 Locus:

Much of the June F&SF is also devoted to crime stories. The best is Charles Coleman Finlay's "An Eye for an Eye". At first blush this is pure "entertainent" -- genre fiction through and through. No deep meaning to be found. After all, as Finlay tells us, the story sprang from the opening sentence, essentially a joke concept: telling of a guy who had an eyeball implanted in his anus. To an SF writer (or reader) that suggests naturally enough a future of radical bodily modification. And that's where Finlay goes, in a fast-moving and sardonic tale of a small-time burglar who is engaged to recover a man's "family jewels" -- literally so, by now, it would seem, and presented to his wife as a token of their love -- until their nasty divorce. The story takes a couple of nice twists from there, and in the end it is at one level another tale of a bad guy making bad. And as such supremely entertaining. But in the background lurks the setting -- perhaps not entirely serious but still a nicely hinted future society, which gives the story -- by golly -- quite a worthwhile SFnal edge.

From the August 2008 Locus:

The cover story for the August F&SF, Charles Coleman Finlay’s "The Political Prisoner", violates Mundane Manifesto guidelines by positing a future interstellar human society tied together (at least to an extent) by FTL travel. Moreover, it is set on a planet not terribly advanced technologically (in some ways) from the 20th Century. There’s no denying such futures aren’t terribly plausible. Instead, the futures of these stories are in essence artificial constructions -- stage sets -- for examining an idea (or simply for telling a story). "The Political Prisoner" is a sequel to "The Political Officer", and like that story it draws to some extent on Soviet history for its plot and situation. The title character in both stories is Maxim Nikomedes, an internal spy for one branch of the authoritarian government of the planet Jesusalem -- that is, a man who spies on other factions of the government. Here he is swept up in political turnover and sent to a work camp. The main SFnal element here is that the work camps, instead of being in Siberia, are instead terraforming camps. But the heart of the story is the depiction of Nikomedes -- not a nice man, but among even worse men, so queasily sympathetic.

From the June 2015 Locus:

Lightspeed for May has a very cleverly executed story by C. C. Finlay, "Time Bomb Time". Hannah's ex-boyfriend Nolon has visited her dorm room, desperate to test his rejected research project: a sort of "time bomb" that will have a, he hopes, spectacular effect on the flow of time. Much of the impact of the story is the design, but the characters and ideas are well-done also.

Birthday Review: The Prodigal Troll, by Charles Coleman Finlay

The Prodigal Troll, by Charles Coleman Finlay

a review by Rich Horton

Charles Coleman Finlay was born July 1, 1964, so I am exhuming this review I did of his first novel, The Prodigal Troll, for his 54th birthday. Charlie, who has been using the form of his name "C. C. Finlay" as a byline in recent years, has been editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction since 2015. He's been publishing short fiction, and a few novels, since 2001 (his first a story in F&SF told all in footnotes, and called, appropriately, "Footnotes"). I think he's an excellent writer of fiction, and I hope his editorial duties don't wholly suppress his auctorial voice -- so far, alas, we haven't seen any new fiction since 2015, so he seems perhaps to be following the path of Gardner Dozois, if not quite that of John W. Campbell, Jr. And, that said, I've been really pleased with his work at F&SF.

The Prodigal Troll was his first novel, published in 2005. It was expanded from some previously published short stories. A couple appeared in F&SF, and one interesting one appeared in Black Gate. This last, "The Nursemaid's Suitor", is actually the first part of the novel, but slightly -- though very significantly -- changed. As Finlay notes, it's the story that he would have told if the story was meant to be about the nursemaid and her suitor, rather than about Claye/Maggot, the actual protagonist of the novel.

In a fairly standard (but nicely presented) medievaloid fantasy world, Lord Gruethrist's domains are, at the open, taken over by an ambitious rival. Or, I should say, Lady Gruethrist -- in this world, all land is owned by women. Men fight wars and otherwise act for their wives, but only women can own property. Well, women and eunuchs (who are addressed as "she" and "her".) Lord and Lady Gruethrist have an infant son, Claye, and he has detailed one of his best warriors to help the child's nursemaid to escape to safety. The warrior in question, it turns out, has an unrequited passion for the nursemaind. But on their escape they learn that the situation is more dire than they expected -- it seems the political winds blow entirely against Lord Gruethrist, and all his allies are either dead or subverted. They try to make a home in an deserted cottage, but come to grief -- however, the child survives, because he is adopted by a troll.

Trolls, it seems, are an endangered humanoid species, living in the mountains. Claye, now called Maggot, is raised as a troll, but his differences soon become apparent. His good heart and intelligence serve him in good stead, against the suspicions of the dwindling bands of trolls -- victims of human incursion and their own inflexibility. Eventually Maggot comes out of the mountains, where he sees a woman who completely entrances him. Much of the rest of the novel concerns his fumbling attempts to attract her attention, leading to involvement in a human war, and eventually in corrupt human politics. The resolution involves some expected but satisfying coincidences, and an honest and not standard conclusion -- which quite effectively closes the novel's story but leaves open the possibility (but not necessity) of sequels.

It turns out, to be sure, that there were no sequels, and only three further novels, the "Traitor to the Crown" trilogy of fantasies set during the American Revolution. But Finlay's short fiction has been consistently excellent, and I will include a selection of my reviews of his work in another blog post.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A Mercifully Forgotten SF Novel: Invaders from Rigel, by Fletcher Pratt

A Mercifully Forgotten SF Novel: Invaders from Rigel, by Fletcher Pratt 

At one time I wondered if it would make sense to compile a list of elephant-like intelligent aliens in SF stories.  This was about when Mike Resnick published "The Elephants on Neptune" (which I hated).  There are those beasties in Niven&Pournelle's Footfall, which I've never been able to read.   And there are the mammoths in Stephen Baxter's awful Silverhair and sequels. Weren't there intelligent elephants in Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (at least I thought that was pretty good)?

Any others?

So, the record of elephants in SF is maybe not so great, eh? And perhaps the WORST of all SF elephant stories is Fletcher Pratt's Invaders from Rigel, which I read and reviewed about the same time as Resnick's story appeared.  I bought the book used a long time ago, in part because of Pratt's reputation (mainly, perhaps, derived from his de Camp collaborations). Danger signs, however, were immediately apparent.  The book was published in 1960, and Pratt died in 1956.  It was published by the salvage imprint Airmont, famous for publishing some dreadful stuff, though also some of de Camp's Krishna stories. 

At first I thought it a late novel by Pratt, but that is only because the book came out in 1960.  However, it was first published as "The Onslaught from Rigel", in Wonder Stories Quarterly, Winter 1931. It was reprinted in a 1950 edition of Wonder Story Annual which I assume was a reprint publication featuring backlist stuff from Wonder Stories.

I thought Pratt was a good writer.  I thought that because of his de Camp collaborations.  I am also told that later stuff like Double Jeopardy and especially The Well of the Unicorn is OK.  Well maybe.  But when he wrote for the pulps in the '30s he was irredeemably awful.  I had earlier read Alien Planet, first published as "A Voice Across the Years" in the Winter 1932 Amazing Stories Quarterly, listed there as a collaboration with I. M. Stephens (who was his wife, Inga Stephens Pratt, a quite significant illustrator).  Inexplicably, Ace reprinted this book as late as 1973.  That book was awful, though oddly ambitious in being a rather satirical look at humans and their politics.  Ham-handedly satirical, mind you, but at least it sort of tried.  Invaders from Rigel doesn't even try anything so daring.

The story opens with one Murray Lee waking in his New York Penthouse. He soon realizes he is all metal.  His roommate is as well.  They tromp about the city for a bit, finding a few more live metal people, and many dead ones.  This doesn't seem to bother them much.  Before long alien birdlike creatures are attacking, and some people are carried away by the birds.  It turns out that a comet just crashed with the Earth.  That must have turned everybody to metal.  Jokes are made about how they like to drink motor oil now, and their "food" is electric current.  But the birds are a problem: they seem to be intelligent and malevolent.  After trying to activate a destroyer, they are discovered by some Australians, who have not been turned to metal, though their blood has cobalt instead of iron now, so they are colored blue.  The metal Americans join with the Australians to fight the bird menace, but it soon turns out that the real menace is a race of elephant-beings from Rigel, who are using the metal men, as well as metal apes, as slaves to harvest "pure light" from the core of the Earth.


The humans start to fight the Rigellians, but the aliens have a "pure light" weapon.  Then a new character is introduced: a pilot who was captured by the elephants.  He managed to escape (his ordeal is given several chapters), carrying the knowledge that lead blocks the alien super ray.  Yeah.  The novel concludes with a number of chapters of arms escalation, as the humans invent anti-gravity (because gravity is just like electricity, and so basically, as described, antigravity can be produced by ionization).   Pointless to continue.  By the end, the elephants have been vanquished (whoda thunk it?), and the metal people returned to normal.  Also, there are a couple of totally unconvincing and uninvolving love affairs.

Oh, and most of the world's population is dead, and nobody really cares.

A couple of quotes which struck me particularly:

"I've got it, folks!" he cried.  "A gravity beam!"

[chapter break, natch!]

"A gravity beam!" they ejaculated together, in tones ranging from incredulity to simple puzzlement.

"What's that?"

"Well, it'll take a bit of explaining but I'll drop out the technical part of it." [I'll bet you will!]

[some blather about how light and matter and electricity and gravity are all the same.  Einstein said so, right!]


"What was it in chemical atoms [as opposed to the other kind, I guess] that was weight? It's the positive charge, isn't it? ... Now if we can just find some way to pull some negative charges loose ..."

See?  Antigravity by ionisation!  If we only knew!

Later on one of the metal women is trapped with one of the metal men in a prison.  They are a couple of cages away.  He needs a safety pin, and she has one.  So: "She swung with that underarm motion that is the nearest any woman can come to a throw."  !  Let's tell Dot Richardson!

Oh, well, silly to complain further, or at all really.  I'm sure Platt wrote this in about two days.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett/Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg

Ace Double Reviews, 55: The Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett/Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg (#F-123, 1961, $0.40)

Here's an Ace Double consisting of two all but forgotten books -- by two writers who are anything but forgotten! I've written about both Brackett and Silverberg before, so I'll just jump right into discussing the books.
(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)

The Nemesis from Terra is about 42,000 words long. It is the same story as "Shadow Over Mars", from the Fall 1944 Startling Stories. I haven't seen that magazine (and I don't think the story has otherwise been reprinted, except perhaps in the recent Haffner Press collection of early Brackett). So I don't know if the Ace Double version is expanded or otherwise changed.

It's set on a Mars uneasily shared by human colonists and Martians. There is a nascent movement among the Martians for rebellion. The humans, meanwhile, are increasingly controlled by the "Company", and the notional government, which is supposed to support Martian as well as human interests, seems powerless. Rick, the hero, is being chased by Company goons as the story opens -- they will put him to work in the mines. But first he encounters an ancient Martian woman, who sees Rick's "shadow over Mars". Rick then kills her (admittedly in self-defense), making him an enemy to Martians.

(Cover by Earle Bergey)
Finally captured, he goes to work in the mines. But he manages an escape, and links up with the beautiful Mayo McCall, who has been working with a Martian-rights group. He makes another enemy, too, in the Company thug Jaffa Storm. Mayo and he escape and encounter another Martian race, a winged race. Mayo urges him to join the Martian-rights effort, but Rick is more interested in revenge.

Rick is captured by the Martians, including their boy King, and he is punished for his earlier murder. But a Martian rebellion fails utterly. Rick then gains influence, and begins to rally Martians and oppressed humans to his side. Meanwhile Jaffa Storm has murdered his way to the top of the Company, and he has also captured Mayo McCall. Rick's rebellion is successful, but he is again betrayed, and his destiny is resolved in a journey to the North Pole home of the Martian "Thinkers", where Jaffa Storm has fled with Mayo McCall.

It's decent work, early Brackett in more of a tough and cynical mode than the poetic mode she later found. It's interesting, too, in its realpolitik take on the Martian rebellion, and on Rick's ultimate place in civilized society. It's not quite clear that it fits at all well into Brackett's eventual semi-coherent Martian "mythos" -- many of the names of cities are familiar, but the general shape of things doesn't seem to jibe with, say, The Sword of Rhiannon. (Not that this is really a problem.)

Collision Course is about 47,000 words long. It is expanded from a novella in the July 1959 Amazing. The novel was first published in hardcover by the low end firm Thomas Bouregy, in 1961. Presumably this text is unchanged from the hardcover, as the cover says "Complete & Unabridged".

(Cover by Albert Nuetzell)
The Earth of several hundred years in the future is ruled by a technocratic oligarchy. Humans have expanded into space, using STL ships to reach new worlds, and matter transmitters for instantaneous travel to already discovered places. The Technarch McKenzie, one of the thirteen-member ruling council, has sponsored an FTL project which has finally borne fruit. But the first FTL ship returns with shocking news: the planet they have discovered is already occupied by aliens of a similar level of development.

The Technarch immediately decides to send a group of experts to negotiate with the aliens -- the first intelligent aliens to be discovered. They have orders to divvy up the galaxy fairly. This small group is nominally led by Dr. Martin Bernard, an expert on Sociometrics, and it includes one of his chief rivals, the New Puritan Thomas Havig. The trip out to the new planet is occupied with a certain amount of bickering between the members of the negotiating team.

But once on the planet, after some good work in setting up communication with the apparently very hierarchical aliens, the team hits a deadlock. The aliens chiefs refuse to negotiate, and claim all the galaxy (except for the small portion occupied by humans) for themselves. It seems war is inevitable. But the journey home is interrupted by something completely unexpected -- something which changes the view of the universe for both the humans and the aliens.

This is Silverberg in a very earnest mood, dealing with some fairly serious issues. However, the story doesn't really live up to its potential. It's rather slow paced, the characters are not quite believable, the story itself is just not interesting enough. I would characterize it (in retrospect!) as the work of an author who was determined to do more serious work, but who was not yet up to it.