Thursday, March 29, 2018

Another Ace Double: Mercenary From Tomorrow, by Mack Reynolds/The Key to Venudine, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 111: Mercenary From Tomorrow, by Mack Reynolds/The Key to Venudine, by Kenneth Bulmer (#H-65, 1968, 60 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Kenneth Bulmer again! And Mack Reynolds this time, the first time I've looked at one of his books.

Indeed Reynolds is something of a curious lacuna in my reading of SF. He was born in 1917, full name Dallas McCord Reynolds. He began publishing SF in 1950. He was a prolific short story writer through the decade, often using pseudonymns, including the fairly transparent Guy McCord and Dallas Ross. (A later pseudonym for romance novels was Maxine Reynolds.) He published a mystery novel (set an an SF convention, shades of Sharyn McCrumb!) in 1951, but did not publish another novel for a decade. He published a great many novels from then until his death in 1983. His father was twice the Socialist candidate for US president, and Mack was an ardent Socialist and longtime member of the American Socialist Party. After he became a regular contributor to the notably conservative John Campbell's Analog he had a reputation as sort of Campbell's token Commie, though Reynolds' socialism, though sincere, was cranky in just the sort of ways that, it seems to me, would appeal to Campbell. His novels were certainly available when I started buying books, but they didn't have tremendous reputations, and they never really appealed much to me. So I never read much of his work. It seemed like a good time to at least give one of his novels a try.

And as I've noted before: Henry Kenneth Bulmer, born in England in 1921, was a very prolific writer from the early '50s, under his own name and many others, most notably "Alan Burt Akers", the name under which he wrote the Dray Prescot series for DAW. He was primarily an SF writer, but also did a lot of work in other genres. He was editor of the New Writings in SF anthology series after the death of John Carnell. He died in 2005.

Both these novels are parts of series. Reynolds' Mercenary From Tomorrow (1962, 1968) is a Joe Mauser novel, the first in a series that eventually included three further novels: The Earth War (1963), Time Gladiator (1964, 1966, exp 1986 by Michael Banks as Sweet Dreams, Sweet Princes (title of the original serial), and The Fracas Factor (1976). As you can see, a complex publication history, the more so if we consider that a story featuring Joe Mauser was published in Fantastic Universe in 1957: "Happy Ending" (written with Fredric Brown), and that a related story  (without Joe Mauser), "Status Quo", appeared in Analog in 1961. Mercenary From Tomorrow, as far as I can tell the most interesting of the stories, first appeared as a novella, "Mercenary", in the April 1962 Analog. That version was about 21,000 words long. The Ace Double is more than double that length, some 45,000 words.

(As ever, credit goes to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Mack Reynolds for lots of good information.)
(Cover by Jack Gaughan)

Joe Mauser is a soldier for hire in a near future dominated by corporations, and by a social structure (called People's Capitalism) based on a post-scarcity economy, and stratified into social classes (Lower, Middle, and Upper, with their own subdivisions) and skill categories (Military, Food Preparation, Clothing, Religion, etc.). The Military category fights wars between the corporations, wars which are televised. Successful veterans can get enough money and prestige to jump classes -- Joe himself was born a Mid-Lower and is now a Middle-Middle. I didn't find much of this convincing, but I did find it somewhat interesting. The other interesting fillip is that wars must be fought with pre-1900 technology.

Joe is about to sign up with Baron Haer's Vacuum Tube Transport, who are about to fight a war (or "fracas") with Continental Hovercraft. The problem is, Vacuum Tube Transport is an upstart company, and the much bigger Continental Hovercraft has maneuvered them into a war which they are not financially able to fight. Joe know they are a lost cause, and that only inexperienced soldiers will sign up. Indeed, the commander of Continental's army is Stonewall Cogswell, a General with whom Joe has previously served, and whom he admires. (Note the Tuckerization -- besides Cogswell, I recognized a Sturgeon and a Sohl as minor characters.) But Joe has a plan -- a gimmick -- by which he hopes to engineer a spectacular upset, and in so doing gain himself advancement to the Upper Class.

Things are complicated a bit when he meets Baron Haer's two children -- Balt Haer, the rather spoiled heir, who will be a commander in the Vacuum Tube Army, and Nadine, a stunningly beautiful woman, a Doctor, who turns out to have some revolutionary ideas of her own. But Joe manages to suppress his attraction to Nadine, and to finesse his distaste for Balt Haer, and to convince the Baron to allow him to try out his (still secret) gimmick.

The rest of the novel includes some filling in of social details, via conversations with Joe's new, young, Lower, batman, Max Mainz; and with a veteran newsman. There is also a day on the town, where Joe is seduced (almost) by a beautiful "fracas groupie". And an encounter with a representative of the Soviet bloc -- they observe American fracases to make sure post-1900 technology is not being used. This representative is clearly up to no good ... And there is an assassination plot against Joe, and a flashback to one of his previous battles.

All leads to Joe's mysterious gimmick -- which is sensible enough but not quite as dramatic as I had hoped. The actual "fracas" is a bit of an anticlimax, though that's OK in the context of the story Reynolds wants to tell. And the conclusion features a somewhat bitter, but not unrelievedly so, twist.
(Cover by John Schoenherr)

I enjoyed the novel, perhaps more than I expected. I'm tempted to seek out the rest of the Joe Mauser stories, though the SFE suggests that they are less interesting. I did find a copy of the April 1962 Analog, to compare "Mercenary" with the expanded novel version. The main thread of the story is identical (with the exception of a few small editorial changes), but the novella doesn't have the "fracas groupie, nor the assassination plot, nor the battle flashback, and also one pre-fracas aerial reconnaissance scene is new in the book. I'd say the novella has everything essential -- the additional scenes in the novel are enjoyable enough to read but really add very little.

Bulmer's novel, The Key to Venudine, is also part of a series. It's the third book of eight called collectively Keys to the Dimensions. I've read one other entry in that series -- the fourth book, The Wizard of Senchuria. The conceit is that there are sort of parallel Earths, with widely varying levels of technology, and even aliens on some of them, and certain people can sense Portals to the other worlds. As far as I can tell from two I've read, each of the books (with the possible exception of the last, The Diamond Contessa (1983)) is mostly independent, with some mostly minor references to the overarching conflict of the series, between the evil Contessa di Montevarchi and another group of good guys.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
Venudine is a world at a medieval tech level. The book opens with Fezius and his giant friend Offa heading for a tournament in honor of the upcoming marriage of the Palans Red Rodro. Fezius was born into a noble family, but some dirty dealings lost his family their position, so he is a cynical independent fighter. He and Offa are mounted on Griffs -- flying animals. As they approach the Griff Tower near Rodro's place, they notice something funny going on, and when they descend to investigate, their griffs are paralyzed by some force, and they have to crashland. And soon they encouter a trio of people trying to escape from the Palans Rodro, and they soon realize that the two women of the party are Rodro's intended, the Princess Nofret, and her sister, rumored to be a witch-woman, the Princess Lai. Nofret has no wish to marry Rodro. And the two women have some unusual powers -- or, we soon guess, technology.

Before long Fezius, having fallen head over heels in love with Princess Lai, is trying to help them escape from the thuggish Rodro. And Fezius is forced to believe in Lai's "powers", which consist really in her ability to sense the Portals to other dimensions, and in some tech she has got from those worlds. Fezius' dangerous exploits lead him to contact with the scary aliens called Slikitters, and later on lead him to Earth, where he learns of the conflict between Nofret and Lai's allies on Earth, and the evil Contessa.

There's a lot of action, nicely portrayed, and a lot of jumping between dimensions, finally leading to a final confrontation with Rodro and the Contessa. It's generally pretty enjoyable if pretty minor work, but better than some of the other Bulmer novels I've read. I was a little disappointed in the ending, specifically the resolution of the Fezius-Lai romance, in which it is anticlimactically revealed that Lai had another boyfriend on another world all along. Luckily for Fezius he's taken a shine to an Earth woman he met during his adventures ...

In sum -- this is kind of a good example of the middle range of Ace Doubles. Both novels have good points -- they're fun enough. Neither is a lasting masterwork. Mercenary From Tomorrow is a bit more serious, and the more lasting of the two.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A review of Paul di Filippo's The Big Get-Even

The Big Get-Even, a novel by Paul di Filippo

Blackstone Publishing, 2018, $26.99

a review by Rich Horton

Paul di Filippo is best known as an SF writer, with 10 or so novels published in the field, and numerous shorter works since his debut in the legendary magazine Unearth some four decades ago. I have found his short fiction (and novellas, a particular strength of his) immensely enjoyable: I'd mention in particular "The Mill", "Mairzy Doats", "Karuna, Inc.", "Wikiworld", "A Year in the Linear City", "The Jackdaw's Last Case", and the stories of The Steampunk Trilogy.

His latest novel, however, is a contemporary crime caper, The Big Get-Even. As such it might easily escape the notice of SF readers. But it's worth seeking out -- it's a lot of fun, sexy and twisty and humorous.

Glen McClinton was a crooked lawyer and a heroin addict before he got caught. Now he's out of prison, on parole, but disbarred and as such without much in the way of a means of earning his keep. He's living with his retired uncle, eking out an existence on some gold he managed to hide from the authorities. One night the car in front of him stalls at the stoplight, and he investigates and finds the driver in a drugged stupor, and uses his Narcan spray to revive him -- a fellow heroin addict, evidently.

A few months later the man he saved, Stan Hasso, visits him with a scheme -- Stan is looking for revenge on his old boss, a crooked real estate developer named Nancarrow, who let him take the fall for a series of arsons ordered by Nancarrow and executed by Stan. Stan's scheme is to convince Nancarrow that a certain plot of land upstate is the land a casino developer needs for his project. They can get Nancarrow to buy the land from them at an inflated price. Stan just needs Glen as the front man, and also Glen's lawyerly ability. He has a couple more confederates -- a woman whose parents lost everything as a result of Nancarrow's manipulations, and that woman's Aspergerish student, a computer hacker. Oh, and Glen's gold money will be useful to buy the property.

Against his best judgement, but a little desperate, Glen decides to help. They buy the property, a rundown lake resort. Glen, who has been without female companionship for a long time, finds himself distracted by Stan's lush and luscious girlfriend Sandralene, and by Vee Aptekar, the woman out for revenge, who seems to be a bit of an ice queen. But part of their scheme involves actually getting the resort up and running again -- and in so doing they hire some folks from the nearby economically depressed city, mostly immigrants from Cape Verde, led by a gorgeous young woman named Nellie Firmino.

So the plot unfolds. The resort is soon open, and operating, though at a loss. The hook is set for Nancarrow. The problem is, Glen has fallen for Nellie, with whom he is soon sleeping. And he feels like a heel for disappointing her and her Caboverdean friends, who are thrilled to have jobs again. But they're still losing money, and Stan and Vee want their revenge, and things are well in motion and impossible to stop.

The reader sees the outline of the logical conclusion well in advance, but Di Filippo negotiates the way there slickly, with a nice and believable twist, that resolves some of the implausibilities that had bothered me. There is also a final twist -- again, what we expect all along, but nicely revealed. It's a fun ride the whole way. Granted, there are remaining implausibilities, including the easy way Glen gets all the sex he wants (and more), from several stunning women. And their scheme never really made much sense to me -- but that aspect is actually made believable by the end. This is a wholly enjoyable caper novel, with antiheros we can root for, and real villains who are bad guys indeed. It's light on violence and heavy on sex and comic turns. Fun stuff.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A review of John Crowley's Ka

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, by John Crowley

a review by Rich Horton

Christie Yant opens her review of Ka in the April Lightspeed by noting, with some wonder, that the Nebula shortlist does not include this novel. That is certainly a thought that occurred to me. In the long run, or even mostly the short run, awards don't matter that much. But there are some books which confer more honor on the awards for which they are nominated than the awards confer on them. An award like the Nebula is diminished when it fails to notice a book as good, as important, as well-written, and as wise as Ka. This is not to say that any of the novels on the shortlist are bad -- in fact, it's my impression that that the list (fully seven novels deep!) is fairly strong overall. Three of its members joined Ka and John Kessel's The Moon and the Other on my Hugo nomination list. (Those were Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory; The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss; and Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. And one that I haven't yet read, The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin, would very likely have had a chance to supplant one of those three.)

Doubtless there are reasons -- the most likely is that Ka, a long novel released late in the year, was not read by enough Nebula nominators. Be that as it may -- it is a remarkable work, and the notion that it was regarded as not one of the seven best SF/Fantasy novels of 2017 by the members of SFWA is, at least, curious. I don't want to sound so grumpy -- indeed, as I said, the novels chosen for the shortlist are pretty fine. (And, indeed, it's hard for anyone to read everything good published in a given year.) But there is pretty fine and there is remarkable.

So, what of the novel itself? Ka is told, in essence, in two voices. (And Crowley, like most great writers, is exquisitely in control of narrative voice.) The true narrator is an elderly man, some time in the fairly near future, in an environmentally collapsing world, somewhere in the Northeast of the US. His wife died some years before, and he is acutely aware that he is dying. (Perhaps the central concern of this novel is death -- the death of people, the death of crows, the death of civilizations, perhaps the death of the human world. The other central concern is story -- probably the most central concern of Crowley's entire oeuvre.)

The narrator finds a very sick crow in his yard, and nurses him back to health, and somehow learns to speak with the crow. He learns his name -- Dar Oakley -- and then learns his very long story. Dar Oakley is an unusual crow, obviously. He is the first crow to take a name, the first to learn to communicate with humans. The first human he has a relationship with is a girl named Fox Cap, in what seems a Neolithic culture somewhere in Europe. Fox Cap is close to the tribe's shaman, and indeed become shaman eventually. As a result of his association with her, and other humans, he learns of the human tendency to war, and of the benefit thereby accruing to crows -- carrion, dead humans. So indeed the novel is throughout involved with death, and more intimately as well, as Fox Cap and Dar Oakley journey to the land of the dead (or something like that) to steal "the most precious thing", the secret of immortality. Only Dar Oakley keeps it for himself.

And so he is reborn again and again, and we hear his story as he leaps forward in time -- to a monk in the middle ages; then across the ocean to the New World, and to a Native American tribe, and one man in particular, taken captive by one tribe (war again) and adopted into them. Then forward to the Civil War, and its aftermath, and a Spiritualist woman, and then her son, who learns to hate crows, and then finally to the time of the narrator, in our near future. Throughout we learn of war, and death, and what may come after death. Dar Oakley makes several journeys to various versions of the land of the dead. He also has numerous crow families, and we meet some of his fellow crows and his mates, particuarly one called Kits, who it turns out is a special crow as well.

All this is fascinating, always interesting, though the book lacks a conventional plot. The characters are involving, however: Each of these People characters is strange, obsessed, interesting; and the Crows are true Characters as well. The themes, of story and of death, grow and grow in layers as the book continues. By the end it Ka extraordinarily moving, mysterious and wise. And truly lovely. And witty and snarky (in a corvine sort of way) when needed. Crowley is one of the best writers of prose we have. One example from right at the end:

"Only the living can travel there from here, cross the river, see and speak to those they know or know of, take away its treasures. The living create the Land of Death and its inhabitants by going there, and returning with a tale. But dead People can't be there, can't go there or anywhere: they're dead."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Perhaps Forgotten Collection: The Moon Maid, by R. Garcia y Robertson

The Moon Maid and Other Fantastic Adventures, by R. Garcia y Robertson
Golden Gryphon Press, 1998, $22.95
ISBN: 0965590186

A review by Rich Horton

Here's something I wrote a long time ago about one of my favorite writers of sheer fun colorful adventure SF and fantasy. This was his first story collection, and is still his only collection, but he kept publishing cool stories for the following decade or so, the last of which for a while, "Wife Stealing Time" (from 2009) appeared in my Best of the Year collection. He also published a few novels, the last the fixup Firebird in 2006. Three of his novels were what I call Gabaldonades -- time travel romances, about a 20th Century woman from Montana who travels back to the time of the Wars of the Roses, and falls in love with Edward, Earl of March (who later became King Edward IV, and was in fact the father of the famous Princes in the Tower, said to have been murdered by Edward's younger brother, Richard III.) I thought those novels far from Garcia y Robertson at his best, and the series was never finished. At any rate, Garcia y Robertson published nothing (that I am aware of) from 2009 until last year, when I was thrilled to see two more very enjoyable SF novellas in Asimov's.

At any rate, this hiatus led me to worry that Garcia y Robertson's career was in danger, and that his books, thus, in danger of being forgotten. So I think it makes sense to repost this review, as I wrote it back in 1998.

Sometimes I toy with the question "What academic discipline provides the best grounding for an SF writer?". The conventional answers might be Physics, or Astronomy, or even English Literature or Computer Science. But I've come to believe that History is the most valuable such discipline. A knowledge of History provides insight into other societies, into different technologies and different ways of thought, into the effect of geography on culture (very useful for "world-building"), all insights which illuminate the core of much of the best SF. And of course, History is itself a story, a grand sweeping story with a scope greater even than almost any SF story.

R. Garcia y Robertson is an historian, and the benefits of his particular training shine through in his stories. Most obviously, he loves to write historical fantasies, as with his novel The Spiral Dance (set on the Scottish-English border in the 15th Century), or with several stories in the collection at hand, set in a wide range of historical milieus. He also likes time-travel stories, most famously in The Virgin and the Dinosaur, but also in "Gypsy Trade" included here.

The title story is one of the most "Fantastic" of the historical stories included. "The Moon Maid" is an Amazon, one of an historical group of women warriors, located near the Don (or Amazon) River in what is now Russia. Her "tribe" honors lions, and when a nomad Hetman's son is killed by a lion, she must capture and destroy the animal, or risk having her whole tribe exterminated by the nomads. Her tracking of the lion is a mixture of realistic animal tracking, and rather wildly fantastic events, such as a meeting with Hercules, described in hilarious detail.

The place of women in historical societies is a recurring theme in these stories (and strong women characters occur in almost all the stories, including the futuristic ones). "The Other Magpie" features real historical figures at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The title character is a very independent Crow woman, mourning her brother's death at the hands of the Sioux. Partly as a result, she and her transvestite friend end up joining Custer's army. The Magpie and her friend are historical characters, though the specifics of the Magpie's dealings with her dead brother, and of her attempts to save Captain Reno from the coming disaster, are a bit more speculative. "Four Kings and an Ace", perhaps the best story here, features Boy Toy, a young Chinese girl, a Christian and the adopted daughter of missionaries, abandoned on the docks in San Francisco after her parents' deaths. She falls into the hands of a gang which tries to sell her into slavery as a whore, but is fortunate to encounter a clever lawyer, who sees a way to use her beauty in a battle against a crooked railroad man. The story climaxes with a suspenseful poker game, and a predictable ending which still surprises, in the best way.

The fourth "historical fantasy" is "The Wagon God's Wife", set in medieval Sweden, featuring a Norwegian Christian convert who has been banished to pagan Sweden. Saved from freezing by the title character, he finds himself in a battle with a pagan God. Colorful, sexy, and a fascinating look at a culture quite different from ours.

Robertson is also a first-rate writer of science fiction adventure. "Cast on a Distant Shore", one of his earliest stories, is set on an ocean world, where economically marginalized humans live on floating islands and earn subsistence money by diving for seastones. This setup is rather old hat, and the plot is a bit familiar as well, involving a diver in desperate straits who agrees to help an alien scientist fish for a particularly dangerous sea animal, but the story is very engagingly told, with a nice twist or two, and the main characters are interesting people.

"Gone to Glory" is also set on an alien planet, this one in the middle of terraformation. The dirty work of preparing the new planet for human colonization is being done by "retrobred" Neanderthals, and the daughter of a highly-placed human has been lost, apparently captured or killed by a tribe of escaped Neanderthals. Defoe, a skilled pilot with experience dealing with the wild Neanderthals, is called away from a cushy vacation to look for the missing woman. The setting is somewhat unconvincing (the economics of the colonization efforts, including the "retrobreeding" as well as the use of "Super-Chimps", don't seem to add up), but the story itself is very exciting, with a colorful balloon flight across the half-terraformed planet, and a serious, believable, ecological motivation behind things.

Another straight SF story in the collection (all three future-set stories seem to be fit vaguely into the same loose "Future History") is "Werewolves of Luna", a pure romp, and great fun. A Scottish tourist runs into spacesuit trouble, and is on the point of suffocating on the Moon. His rescuers cheerfully abstract his credit, and shanghai him into joining (and financing) their team for an upcoming Virtual Reality adventure game. (Fortunately, one of the rescuers is a beautiful woman.) The first part of the story is nice straight SF, and the finish, set inside the adventure environment, is more like fantasy, involving a quest for a jewel in Dracula's castle. As with some of the other stories, pulling too strongly on the plot threads might cause the whole thing to unravel, but, if you just go along for the ride, it's a wonderful ride.

Robertson writes that "Gypsy Trade" has been optioned for a movie. It's a strong story, with a plot element that movie makers understand (Nazis), and I think it could be a good movie. The story opens with Dieter, dressed in the uniform of a Waffen SS officer, entering a gypsy camp in 1591 with a plan to rescue three gypsy women from the local witch-hunting priest. The story is an interestingly different take on time travel, with a nice plot involving rescuing art treasures from the ravages of war, and incidentally rescuing some humans as well. The background gives us a look at the horrible treatment of gypsies in the 16th century, and again under the Nazis.

A very fine collection. The most compelling feature of these stories is that they are just that: stories. Indeed, as the title of this collection reads, "Fantastic Adventures". Rife with color, full of action and romance, every story included is pure fun to read. (And Robertson has a real knack of knowing when a story ends.) Indeed, if I had a gripe, it might be that serious thematic concerns are left in the dust as the action races by. (Though it should be noted, even as his protagonists strive and (usually) succeed, the background details are often darker: slavery in late-19th Century San Francisco, ecological disaster on an alien planet, the sometimes bloody history of Christianity, are all displayed here.)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Masquerader, by Katherine Cecil Thurston

Old Bestseller: The Masquerader, by Katherine Cecil Thurston

a review by Rich Horton

Finally back to a sure thing Old Bestseller, from a writer with an appropriately dramatic personal life. Katherine Cecil Madden was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1875. Her father was a banker who later became Mayor of Cork. She married an English writer, Ernest Temple Thurston, who was four years younger than her, in 1901. Katherine had already been publishing short fiction, and her first novel, The Circle, appeared in 1903. Her second novel was John Chilcote, M. P., in 1904. This was retitled The Masquerader for American publication (a much better title, I think). It was a huge success -- the third bestselling novel of 1904 and the seventh bestselling novel of 1905, according to Publishers' Weekly. Her next novel, The Gambler, was the sixth bestselling novel of 1905, and her last novel, Max, was the fourth bestselling novel of 1910. While her husband was at first supportive, and turned some of her stories into plays, he apparently became resentful of her success relative to his. (He eventually did become a fairly popular writer.) They separated in 1907. After their eventual divorce, Katherine became engaged to a physician, A. T. Bulkeley-Green, but shortly before their planned marriage, in 1911, she died of an epileptic seizure. Her death was immediately the subject of rumors, however -- some though it might have been a suicide, some thought murder. Poisoning would have been the cause, which of course in the public mind suggested her physician fiancé as a suspect. My personal suspicion, based on very limited knowledge, is that she actually did die as a result of a siezure (she had a history of such attacks), and that the speculation of a more lurid cause was just sensationalism (perhaps abetted by the sensational plots of her novels).

So, to John Chilcote, M.P. aka The Masquerader. My edition seems possibly the American First, published by Harper and Brothers in October 1904. The flyleaf is signed "To Father from Lulu, Nov. 19, 1904". There are illustrations by Clarence F. Underwood. Though Harper's had a London office, the U. K. edition appears to have been from Blackwood (Edinburgh and London). (For some unexplained reason, the Publishers' Weekly page on 1904 bestsellers claims the book was anonymous, but my copy, and copies I've seen of the Blackwood UK first, are clearly attributed to Katherine Cecil Thurston.)

I'll start by saying that I really enjoyed this novel. And I'll immediately qualify that -- the story is pretty preposterous. And there's a lot of guff about masculine character vs. feminine character, and how a wife's greatest duty and joy is to get out of the way when her husband needs to be doing man stuff. It's interesting to think about this in light of the apparent problems in her marriage, and the way her husband resented the fact that she was more successful than he. But: it's a bestseller of a certain distinct type (there is, for one thing, some definite resemblance to The Prisoner of Zenda, though it's not a Ruritanian-style novel at all), and it executes its plot well, makes the central love story fairly convincing, and is an engaging book to read.

The story opens with John Chilcote, M. P., leaving the House of Commons one night and getting lost in the fog. By happenstance he bumps into another man -- and is shocked to see that this man, John Loder, is his exact double. They talk briefly, and we gather that Loder is somewhat down on his luck -- his father blew the family fortune, and Loder himself was unlucky in a love affair and has sworn off women; while Chilcote is outwardly very successful, but inwardly tormented by his addiction to morphia (morphine).

We follow Chilcote some more, see him neglecting his duties, learn that his marriage is loveless, see him interacting with his mistress, an empty-headed and manipulative woman. And then, in something like despair, and prompted by his mistress' mention of a current bestselling book in which two men who look alike change positions, Chilcote hatches a crazy idea -- he will go to John Loder and offer him money to take his place for a week or so at a time, while Chilcote indulges in his morphia cravings.

After some resistance, Loder agrees. And what he had intended to be just a rote fill-in job becomes something different when Chilcote's wife Eve somewhat contemptuously relays a message from Chilcote's mentor, the Tory leader Fraide, asking him to get a grip and fulfill his potential. As it happens, a crisis is on hand -- Russia is making trouble in Pakistan, and the Whig government, now in power, is vacillating. Loder plunges right in and starts making headway. Both Eve and Fraide notice the change in him ... and then Chilcote is ready to change places again.

This seesaws back and forth a couple of times -- Chilcote relapses and Loder takes over, then Chilcote comes back. Eve can tell the difference, though she doesn't know the reason, and she begins to see some hope that her marriage can be rekindled. Fraide too is excited, and he assigns Chilcote/Loder a key speech asking for more action against Russia. But by happenstance, Loder as Chilcote encounters Chilcote's mistress -- and, shockingly, she is the same woman who had disappointed him in his previous life. (I told you this was pretty preposterous.) Loder is torn between fear of being exposed, and his pride in his new accomplishments -- but especially torn between his growing feelings for Eve and his moral beliefs that as she is another man's wife he must renounce her, must come to a decision.

Spoilers follow ...
(illustration by Charles F. Underwood)

Loder decides to tell Chilcote they must stop this masquerade. He needs to leave the country and build himself a new life. But Chilcote is in terrible straits -- he begs Loder for one more night to lose himself in his addiction. Loder agrees -- and is indeed somewhat complicit in allowing Chilcote to take an unusually large dose. Loder goes home to Eve, and reveals all to her, telling her that he must leave. They both go to Chilcote, meaning to try to straighten him out -- but, no surprise, they find him dead. Loder still believes his duty is to leave, so as not to compromise Eve. But Eve has other ideas -- she insists that Loder as Chilcote has become too important to his country, in his role as Fraide's right hand man (Fraide has been asked to form a government): so, leaving aside her obvious desire to become fully his "wife", he has a duty to England to stay and take over Chilcote's identity.

(We note, of course, that that's exactly what Rudolf Rassendyll does NOT do in The Prisoner of Zenda!)

So -- yes it's preposterous. But I really did enjoy it. Besides the substitution plot, and the love story, there is a fair amount of political neep: I'm not sure that it's really that accurate, but it's fairly interest
ing anyway. A perfect example of the sort of novel that one understands both why it was a bestseller and why it's not a lasting classic. And of that set of novels, one of the more enjoyable reads.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Nebula Ballot Review: Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

Nebula Ballot Review: Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

a review by Rich Horton

Annalee Newitz' first novel, Autonomous, is on the Nebula shortlist. I'd heard lots of buzz about it already, and I knew I liked Newitz' writing (I used her 2014 story "Drones Don't Kill People" in my Best of the Year book), so I meant to get to it -- and I finally did. I have to say, it met my expectations -- it's a really cool book, really hard SF, exciting and scary and moving.

Jack Chen is a patent pirate -- she reverse engineers patented drugs, sometimes ones critical for the health of people who can't affort corporate medicine, and sometimes just for money (a woman's got to live, after all). But her latest effort, a drug called Zacuity, which makes people love their jobs, and want to keep working, has backfired badly -- people are getting addicted to work, to the point of ignoring things like food. She desperately needs to find a cure, and her only hope might be her old lover Krish, who betrayed her a quarter century ago, when she went to jail for her anti-patent activism. She ends up freeing an indentured young man called Threezed (after the last two characters in his ID), and they make their way across Canada to Krish's lab, and to a safer place to work.

Meanwhile they are being chased by agents of the International Property Coalition, which enforces patents. The two assigned to her case are a human named Eliasz and a military bot named Paladin. Bots are nominally indentured for 10 years after their creation, after which they can become autonomous. (Similar rules apply to humans who have been indentured.) Not surprisingly, autonomy isn't quite as easy to achieve as that. And Paladin hardly knows what they -- he? she? it? -- wants -- as most of their wants are controlled by programming.

The story is on the surface about patents and drugs and so on, and about the tense chase as Eliasz and Paladin home in on Jack. And all that works really well. But that's just the surface -- an important surface, to be sure. But the title tells the truth -- the heart of the novel is "autonomy". For bots, sure -- Paladin's eventual realization that they might like to be autonomous is a major issue. But for humans, as well -- Threezed, in particular, who was indentured and sold and had his indenture extended for obscure legal reasons, wants autonomy and is pretty cynical about the whole thing.

But there's more -- what autonomy, for example, do workers who have been given a drug like Zacuity possess? How about Med, a heroic bot researcher who was created as a never-indentured bot -- is she truly autonomous or does her programming control her? And even when Paladin attains autonomy it's temporary -- and can she (as she by then identifies, sort of) trust her "feelings"? What about Eliasz? He's a fanatic about human indenture -- he hates it. And he loves bots, especially Paladin. But he's on the side of a truly evil entity -- well, mostly evil -- and in their service he -- and Paladin -- commit horrible murders. Are they autonomous in so doing?

This is a very thought-provoking book, and tremendously exciting. It's exceptional hard SF. It's not perfect -- the author's hand can be seen on the scales on occasion. And the end is fuzzed just a bit -- there's a cynical side to it, to be sure, but also some convenient resolutions. But what book is perfect? I really liked this novel, and it's pushed its way onto my Hugo nomination ballot.

Late to the Party Review: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

Late to the Party Review: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

a review by Rich Horton

Maybe I will start a set of "Late to the Party" reviews -- books that I somehow failed to read that have been widely praised, and that when I finally get to them I realize really deserve the praise.

So it is, anway, with N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo as Best Novel of 2015. Now mind you, at the time of the Hugo voting in 2016 I had only read one of the nominees: Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy. Indeed, until I finished The Fifth Season yesterday, that was still true (I did start Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, but I put it down and somehow never got back to it. Also, Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, has been on my TBR pile for a long time.) I'm not proud of that, mind you -- but I have a hard time keeping up with novels! (For all of 2015, I have, even now, only read a few more of the highly praised novels: from the Locus Recommended Reading list I have, to date, read Nicole Kornher-Stace's Archivist Wasp, David Mitchell's Slade House, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, Gene Wolfe's A Borrowed Man, and Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall (which I thought was a novella). There are a couple more on my TBR pile still: Jo Walton's The Philosopher Kings (it took me a while to get to its predecessor, The Just City), Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit, and Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory, to name three.

So I can now agree that The Fifth Season absolutely deserved its Hugo. (Granting that it's possible that reading one of the other nominees could change my mind.) Moreover, of all the other 2015 novels I've read, only The Buried Giant would tempt me to vote differently. (And that's by a Nobel Prize winner!)

I'm not the first person to say this, but I may as well add my voice to the chorus: the most impressive part of The Fifth Season is the worldbuilding. (Which is funny considering the collective name of the trilogy it begins is kind of the opposite: The Broken Earth.) This worldbuilding encompasses, as good worldbuilding should, not just the physical (geological and geographical and technological and magic system etc.) aspects of its world, but the social system, and the history. This is a tremendously impressive imaginative feat, always surprising, eminently satisfying, and above all constantly interesting.

This isn't to say the plot is lacking interest either. The novel opens dramatically, with a man and another creature, a stone eater, magically ripping open a fault line across the entire continent on which most people live, a continent called the Stillness, despite its extreme tectonical instability. This fault leads inevitably to a series of earthquakes and volcanos and lesser faults and aftershocks, as well as a cloud of ash. The result will be a "Fifth Season" -- a time of extreme cataclysm during which people must hunker down and live off stored food. Most Fifth Seasons last a few months, it seems -- they have happened, for a variety of reasons, throughout the history of the Stillness. But this one will last years.

Already we have questions -- for one, where is the Stillness? Is it on Earth? Another planet? A magical realm? Far future or far past? (By the end, while we don't know for sure, it is beginning to look like this is set on a much-changed Earth in the very far future.) And who or what are these "stone-eaters"? (We learn more about them as the book goes on, but many questions remain.)

The action shifts to the south of the continent, and a woman named Essun, who is mourning her son, beaten to death by her husband a couple of days earlier. This woman has a secret -- she is an orogene (or, more insultingly, a "rogga"). So was her son, and apparently his father killed him on learning his true nature. Orogenes can control, to an extent, the Earth, and they can use energy from the Earth for other things, dangerous things, which is why they are feared. Essun saves her village from the immediate effects of the disaster, then heads out to find her husband and her daughter.

At other times, presumably before the disaster, we meet two more women, both orogenes. One is a girl, Damaya, abused by her parents who fear her talents, who is taken away by a strange man, to the capitol city, Yumenes, and the "Fulcrum", where orogenes are trained. At first this seems a rescue, but soon we realize that the orogenes of the Fulcrum, even if they live fairly comfortably, and have status, are also slaves, and subject to considerable abuse. The third thread follows Syenite, a young woman of considerable talent: a "four ringer" orogene. She is assigned a significant task -- to travel to a coastal city and use her orogenetic abilities to clear its harbor. But she must do it in the company of a ten ring (the maximum) orogene, Alabaster: and they are required to have sex until Syenite is pregnant -- the Fulcrum desires more and more orogenes children to control.

You can probably guess the connection between Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, though it took me a while. Damaya's thread serves to introduce us to the place of orogenes in this society. Syenite's is perhaps the most significant -- on her journey she encounters a couple of illuminating items -- the "node controllers", orogenes who maintain seismic calm across the continent; and also obelisks -- apparently created by "deadcivs", and seemingly sources of tremendous power. Most significantly, she finds the harbor she is supposed to clear actually blocked by an obelisk, and her efforts to move it have profound effects -- and end up with her and Alabaster on the run.

Everything knits together very well. It can't be said that the plot is wholly resolved -- this is a trilogy, after all -- but it does come to a reasonably conclusion, complete with slingshot to the next volume. It's powerful stuff -- a society that at first glance seems fairly prosperous and just, if not perfect, is revealed as terribly broken, bitterly unjust in almost every detail. The main characters -- none of them really likable -- are broken, and do terrible things, but seem horribly justified most of the time. It's urgently readable, continually fascinating, and quite powerful by the end. A real triumph.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Thoughts on the Nebula Shortlist (Short Fiction)


Thoughts on the 2017 Nebula Ballot (Short Fiction)
The Nebula Awards are dated, sensibly enough, by the year of publication of the stories involved, unlike the Hugos, which are dated by the year of the award. So the 2017 Nebula Ballot is the current ballot, for the best stories of 2017.

I’m not ready to write about the novels yet – I’ve only read, I think, four of the seven. My impression is of a strong field – no bad novels – but still a field missing some of the very best of the novels of 2017, most obviously Ka, by John Crowley; and The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel.

Short Fiction

Novella

The Nebula Nominees for Best Novella of 2017 are:

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange, Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
“And Then There Were (N-One)”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal, Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

The first thing I’ll note is the continued strong showing of Tor.com for their line of slim books, most of which are novellas. Even though I would not have nominated all of these for an award, their success is completely deserved – they really are doing a great job publishing a wide variety of first-rate novellas. At least one more of their books was on my list of the best novellas of 2017: Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie.

That said, I do think we risk forgetting the print magazines. There were very good novellas published in the magazines, such as Damien Broderick’s “Tao Zero” in Asimov’s, Alec Nevala-Lee’s “The Proving Ground” in Analog, and Marc Laidlaw’s “Stillborne” in F&SF (and that merely scratches the surface). Even so, I have to admit my nomination ballot for the Hugos probably won’t include any of those stories (maybe the Broderick). It will include a story from an original anthology (“The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”, by Kathleen Ann Goonan), a story from a collection (“Fallow”, by Sofia Samatar), a story published as part of an Indiegogo project (Prime Meridian, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia), and very possibly a story serialized in an online magazine (“The Dragon of Dread Peak”, by Jeremiah Tolbert).

The third thing to note is the absence of men from the ballot – only one (and his story is clearly the worst). Four women, and one non-binary person. I believe four of the nominees are queer as well. On the one hand, that’s statistically unlikely, but on the other hand, it’s a small sample size. And my nomination ballot for the Hugos will be just as heavily weighted toward women. This weighting continues through the short fiction categories (and the novels as well), and I think it’s fair to ask: if people complained about many previous ballots that were heavily masculine, and rightly asked if nominators were checking their predispositions, were reading widely enough, etc. – are nominators doing the same now? For all that, as I noted, my personal nomination lists, at least for novella and short story, have similar proportions (novelette and novel are more weighted to men). In any small sample size, all kinds of strange things can happen. 

If I had a ballot (and I don’t), I would order them:

1.       “And Then There Were (N-One)”, by Sarah Pinsker
2.       All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
3.       Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages
4.       River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey
5.       The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
6.       Barry’s Deal, by Lawrence M. Schoen

I’ve already discussed the first two in my Hugo Nomination post, and also in my Locus reviews. They are both very strong stories, head and shoulders above the other nominees. Here’s what I wrote before:“And Then There Were (N – One)”  is a story about a convention of alternate Sarah Pinskers, complete with a murder. It is warmly told – funny at times, certainly the milieu is familiar to any SF con-goer. But it’s dark as well – after, there’s a murder – and it intelligently deals with issue of identity and contingency. And All Systems Red is a ripping good novella about a security android which calls itself a murderbot, guarding a group of researchers on an alien planet. The murderbot mainly wants peace to watch its favorite TV shows, but that becomes impossible when the team comes under threat. It soon becomes clear that there is an unexpected group on the planet that doesn’t want any rivals, and the murderbot has to work with its humans to find a way to safety. That part – the plotty part – is nicely done, but the depiction of the murderbot is the story’s heart: convincingly a real person but not a human, with emotions but not those that humans expect: very funny at times but also quite moving.


Passing Strange is a sweet story about the gay underground in San Francisco in about 1940, and in particular about two women: Emily, a singer, kicked out of college for sleeping with a woman; and Haskel, a bisexual artist who does covers for pulp magazines. (Haskel is obviously to some extent inspired by the legendary Weird Tales artist Margaret Brundage.) The two meet and fall in love, and get in serious trouble, the resolution of which is a pretty cool and moving variation of a familiar fantastical trope. My main problem – and it’s not really a problem – is that the fantastical elements are really minor (though the final resolution is wholly fantastical and pretty neat). The main interest in the story is essentially historical, and pretty convincing (with maybe one or two slips – was “queer” really claimed as a positive identity as early as 1940? My (admittedly slim) research suggests that happened in the ‘60s.) All that said, while I wouldn’t put this on my personal nomination list, it’s a pretty worthy nominee.

The next two stories strike me as nice stories, good fun with some interesting stuff, but not stories I really consider award worthy. River of Teeth is a caper story (OK, not a caper – an operation!) about a mixed team of “hoppers” (hippopotamus wranglers, basically) assembled to clear the lower Mississippi of feral hippos. Their leader, Winslow Houndstooth, also wants revenge, against the man who burned down his hippo farm years before. There’s a lot of violence, a truly evil villain, and a fair amount of believable darkness. I mean, I enjoyed it. I just didn’t see it as special – in particular in a speculative sense – yes, there’s the fairly cool alternate history aspect involving the hippos in Louisiana, but nothing with real SFnal zing. Still – it’s pretty fun. As for The Black Tides of Heaven, I confess some of my reaction is based on the rather excessive hype this story (along with its sequel/companion, The Red Threads of Fortune) has gotten. The story concerns the twin children of the Protector, originally promised to the local Monastery. But one of them turns out to have precognitive powers, and the Protector claims them … the other strikes off on their own, ending up in a rebellion against their mother. The good – a decent magic system (alas, treated in a clichéd fashion on occasion), interesting if seemingly inconsistent treatment of gender (to be fair, the supposed inconsistencies may well be eventually explained), and decent characters. The not-so-good: a fairly clichéd plot (which doesn’t really resolve, though to be sure its companion novella was released in parallel, and perhaps the plot is resolved there), rather ordinary prose, and some pacing issues, mainly in the opening section (about a fourth of the story), which really should have been almost entirely cut. Bottom line – an okay story that has been somewhat overpraised.

Finally, Barry’s Deal is, well, really not very good. It’s another of his tales about the Amazing Conroy and his buffalito Reggie, who can eat literally anything (including nuclear bombs). I’ve read some of the previous Conroy stories, with some enjoyment – they have been pleasant entertainment, though to be honest never close to award-worthy. This is a step below. They come to a space-based casino, Conroy looking to bid on an extremely expensive bottle of liquor, but the casino owner is obviously up to something, not to mention that one of Conroy’s old friends (and her stuffed animal Barry) seems to be cheating. After a lot of illogical maneuvering, Conroy and his friend Leftjohn Mocker, figure out what’s really up. The story quite simply makes no sense, and it isn’t fun enough to make up for that. I truly can’t comprehend this getting a Nebula nomination.

Novelette

The Nebula nominees are:

“Dirty Old Town”, Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math”, Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove”, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain”, Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

The good news here is that two of these stories are from print magazines, and one from a print original anthology. Yay! Four women, two men, I believe five of the authors identify as queer. My favorite novelettes this year (“Extracurricular Activities”, by Yoon Ha Lee; “The Hermit of Houston”, by Samuel R. Delany; “Soulmates.com”, by Will MacIntosh; “The Secret Life of Bots”, by Suzanne Palmer; “ZeroS”, by Peter Watts; and Hanus Seiner’s “Hexagrammaton”) include five men (one transgender) and only one woman, and two people who identify as queer (as far as I know).

My favorites are couple of stories that I might have picked for my Best of the Year book except that I chose another Nebula nominated story instead by each author: “Wind Will Rove”, by Sarah Pinsker (a lovely and loving story about the folk process and the conflicts between remembering the old and inventing the new, set on a generation ship); and “A Series of Steaks”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, about a couple of people who forge steaks (made by “printers”), and their eventual revenge on a rich client.

Of the other stories, Bowes’ “Dirty Old Town” is another solid entry in a long series of seemingly autobiographical fantasies set in Boston and New York. I just found it solid, not new enough to wow me. “A Human Stain”, by Kelly Robson, is horror, and I think pretty good horror, but I confess it takes a lot for horror to truly win me over. I’ll call that a weakness in me, not in the story – so your mileage may well vary! Likewise K. M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” is a vampire story – and a gay/transgender story, and I thought it well-executed but it didn’t thrill me. Jonathan Brazee’s “Weaponized Math” is a step below – ordinary Military SF, with nothing really interesting in a Science Fictional sense. It tells its story efficiently, but there is nothing here to elevate it above dozens of other stories. My putative ballot would be:

1.       “Wind Will Rove”, by Sarah Pinsker
2.       “A Series of Steaks”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
3.       “Dirty Old Town”, by Richard Bowes
4.       “A Human Stain, by Kelly Robson”
5.       “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time”, by K. M. Szpara
6.       “Weaponized Math”, by Jonathan Brazee


Short Story

The Nebula shortlist is as follows:

“Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”, Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?”, Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”, Matthew Kressel (Tor.com 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

None of these stories are on my prospective Hugo ballot, and I do think the Nebulas are pretty clearly missing some of the very best stories of the year – Maureen McHugh’s “Sidewalks”, Charlie Jane Anders’ “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”, Karen Joy Fowler’s “Persephone of the Crows”, Giovanni de Feo’s “Ugo”, Sofia Samatar’s “An Account of the Land of Witches”, Linda Nagata’s “The Martian Obelisk”, and a couple of excellent Tobias Buckell stories, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” and “Shoggoths in Traffic”. There are four women and two men on the ballot, not too different from the proportions on my prospective ballot.

I note that all – all – of the nominated stories were published for free online. The stories I have listed above on my prospective ballot include one from an original anthology (Buckell’s “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”), three from print magazines (McHugh’s story, Anders’, and Fowler’s), and one from a collection (Samatar’s, though to be fair it is also available online, but at The Offing, which is somewhat out of the normal notice of SF readers). The other stories were in free online places. I will reiterate that I think the disadvantage stories from print sources have in award nominations these days is a problem, though not one with a solution I can see.

That said, none of the nominated stories are bad, and indeed all of them are interesting. I have two clear favorites here, the two I’m reprinting, Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” and Jamie Wahls’ “Utopia LOL?”, both of which, notably, are pretty funny. Prasad’s story (to some extent reminiscent of one aspect of Martha Wells’ All Systems Red in the novellas), is about a robot AI which becomes a fan of anime, and even contributes to fan fiction. Wahls’ story is even funnier, about a man who gets unfrozen in the far future and the guided tour he gets of his options in this utopia – with a strong slingshot ending.

Next on the list is Caroline Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine”, a pretty moving story about a windup family, and in particular the boy whose mainspring isn’t quite as strong as most. This is solid work – and I know a lot of people loved it (indeed, I’ll suggest in might be a betting favorite for the award) – and I liked it but wasn’t wholly convinced.

The other three stories are all pretty original. I didn’t love any of them – but I could see them all doing challenging stuff, and I can see why other people do love them. I think Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” is my favorite, about a visit to a very odd sort of museum.

My ballot would look like:

1.       “Fandom for Robots”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
2.       “Utopia, LOL?”, by Jamie Wahls
3.       “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline Yoachim
4.       “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde
5.       “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”, by Rebecca Roanhorse
6.       “The Last Novelist (or, A Dead Lizard in the Yard”, by Matthew Kressel

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Two Obscure Ace Doubles (Treibich/Janifer, Chandler, Jakes)

Ace Double Reviews, 1: The Rim Gods, by A. Bertram Chandler/The High Hex, by Laurence M. Janifer and S. J. Treibich

Steven J. Treibich was born on March 8, 1936, and died very young in 1972. This would have been his 82nd birthday, so, in his memory, I'm publishing these reviews I did long ago two of his Ace Doubles. The Rim Gods/The High Hex was, in fact, the very first Ace Double review I ever did, back in 2003 on the Usenet newsgroup rec.art.sf.written; and Tonight We Steal the Stars/The Wagered World was the second. I never did get around to Target: Terra (backed with John Rackham's The Proxima Project).

Treibich published one short story and three short novels, all in collaboration with Laurence M. Janifer. I know nothing more about him. Laurence Janifer had an SF career spanning 50 years. He was born Larry Mark Harris (or perhaps Laurence Mark Harris), and changed his name to Janifer (his Polish grandfather's name) in 1963. He used Harris as his byline until that name change. He had a short story in the rather obscure magazine Cosmos in 1953, when he was 20. His real career started in 1959, with a few stories in places like Astounding and Galaxy, under the name Larry M. Harris; and with the first of three collaborative novels with Randall Garrett, under the joint pseudonym Mark Phillips; and with another collaboration with Garrett, published as by Larry M. Harris and Randall Garrett, the vaguely soft-porn SF novel Pagan Passions. Janifer's stories were often amusing -- his main mode is comic. His best known series by far, comprising five novels and many short stories, is the Survivor series, about "Gerald Knave, Survivor", a man whose job is to go to newly opened planets and survive, in so doing discovering and perhaps fixing the particular dangers. Janifer died in 2002, aged 69.

This Ace Double was published in 1969. It's reasonable to suppose that the Chandler "novel" was the primary half -- Chandler had a bigger name than Janifer or certainly Treibich (and indeed his name appeared in much bigger print on the cover) and The Rim Gods is the longer of the two halves. The Rim Gods is about 50,000 words long, The High Hex about 35,000 words.

A. Bertram Chandler (1912-1984) was born in the UK. He spent a long time in the Merchant Navy, first in the UK, and since 1956 in Australia, and his naval background is evident in his stories. His first story appeared in Astounding in 1944, and he continued publishing until his death. The great bulk of his novels concerned Commodore John Grimes, a spaceship commander.

The Rim Gods is presented as a novel, but in fact it is a fixup of four novelettes. The stories are related in that they are all about Chandler's main hero, Commodore John Grimes of the Rim Worlds, and in that they are presented as happening sequentially while Grimes is on an unplanned mini-tour while his wife is away on a vacation of her own. However, they are all pure standalone episodes, complete in themselves. The front matter claims that the "four Parts of this book appeared individually during 1968 in Galaxy magazine". That is not actually correct -- they appeared in Galaxy's sister magazine, If. They did not appear as parts of a serial but as separate novelettes, and not in consecutive issues (but in four out of five consecutive issues). The four stories are of very similar length, each between 12,000 and 13,000 words. I don't know if the stories were revised for book publication, to add the very flimsy connective tissue -- it wouldn't surprise me if they were, however.

Part One was published in the April 1968 If as "The Rim Gods". A group of religious nuts come to Grimes's planet, seeking to establish a new "Sinai" on an abandoned planet to which they believe they can attract God, with the help of an apostate member of their sect. This member happens to be a) a telepath, b) a drug user, and c) a very beautiful woman. Grimes goes along to observe, making sure they don't ruin the planet, and so he witnesses the rather unexpected results of their attempt to attract their God.

Part Two was published in the June 1968 If as "The Bird-Brained Navigator". Grimes visits a planet run by a tolerant bunch of priests, whom he had earlier helped overthrow some robber barons. An incompetent spaceship navigator, realizing his career is likely over when Grimes prepares to set things straight on his ship, tries to escape by sailing ship to the enclave of the robber barons, with the help of a beautiful alien woman. Grimes manages to get aboard the escaping ship and make use of the incompetent navigator's incompetence in foiling his plans.

Part Three was published in the December 1968 If as "The Tin Fishes". Grimes is sent to a water planet, where the local economy being ruined by a plague of mutated starfish. He tries to figure out what's going on while fending off (or not) the advances of a beautiful but dangerous woman. Explicitly James Bondian, as mentioned in the story itself.

Part Four was published in the August 1968 If as "Last Dreamer". On his way home, Grimes encounters an anomalous planet in empty space. Investigating the planet, he finds that he is compelled to talk in rhyme, and to act out a puerile fantasy based on a fairy tale involving rescuing a sleeping princess. Two beautiful women are involved, at least one of them a seducer. The explanation for all this is implausible but kind of cute.

Basically, these are light space opera, and generally enjoyable but not lasting stories. The Rim Worlds are set up to be a nominally SFnal setting but to be hospitable to basically fantastical events occurring -- on the Rim, the fabric of space-time is stretched thin, it is said. I find that offputting but if you just let things flow the stories do pass the time.

(Incidentally, these are part of a long series, and Grimes is supposed to be faithfully married to Sonya at this time -- presumably their courtship occurred in an earlier story. In these stories, amidst much temptation, he only backslides once -- with an indication that he does so only for duty's sake (not that he doesn't enjoy it).)

The High Hex is the second of three novels by Janifer and Treibich. Janifer published a number of stories and novels in a career that lasted from the 50s until his death last year. His most famous stories were about his continuing character Gerald Knave, Survivor -- indeed, three Knave novels have been published by Wildside in the past few years. (That is, the early 2000s.)

The three novels were all parts of Ace Doubles, and I'll get to all three eventually.  (After I read the other halves of their respective Doubles.) The first one was Target: Terra (1968), the third was The Wagered World (1969). They all feature as main character Angelo di Stefano, as of the first book the Intelligence Officer for U. N. Space Station 1.

In the first book Space Station 1 went nuts, and there was a threat that it would blow up the Earth. Angelo eventually figured out what was going on and saved everything, but SS1 was destroyed in the process, putting him out of work. In The High Hex, the other Space Station, #2, which is jointly run by Africans and Haitians (I found the book's presentation of Africans to be rather on the racist side, actually), has been taken over by the African contingent, which is threatening once again to blow up the world. The crew of SS1, augmented by an English-educated witch doctor, head back up to SS2, where they must attempt to use the witch doctor's psychological abilities to "hex" the SS2 crew and stop their nefarious plans. Unfortunately, this effort is interrupted by an invasion of alien robots, who start consuming all the metal on earth to make copies of themselves. Angelo must come up with a way to save the Earth, with the unwilling help of his machine-loving fellow crewman Chris Shaw. He does, naturally, though it seemed to me that technological civilization was pretty much kaput due to the robots eating all the metal before the end of the book.

The main problem with both these books is the very ad hoc nature of the plot. The authors just make silly things up as they go along, and none of the science even remotely makes sense. The only reason to read them is the joky narrative voice, which seems to me to be very much Janifer's voice, very similar to the narrative voice of the Knave books. Thus they can be entertaining as you read along (if you like the voice -- you might just think it's stale), but the whole thing doesn't hold together at all. In sum -- forgettable.

Ace Double Reviews, 2: Tonight We Steal the Stars, by John Jakes/The Wagered World, by Laurence M. Janifer and S. J. Treibich (#81680, 1969, $0.75)


John Jakes became famous (and presumably rich) in the mid 70s when he was hired to write the Kent Family Chronicles, a series of historical novels set in the US during and after the Revolutionary War. The release of these paperback novels was timed to coincide with the Bicentennial celebration. The books had titles like The Bastard, The Furies, and The Americans. These were huge bestsellers at the time, a real phenomenon. They were later made into a couple of television miniseries. Jakes later published a Civil War series, North and South (also made into a miniseries), and he has continued to publish historical novels with some success.



Before the Kent Family Chronicles, however, he was pretty much an old fashioned pulpster, perhaps one of the last. According to his home page, he published over 200 short stories and 60 novels: mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. I recall seeing his novel On Wheels, about people who live in their cars all the time -- this might have been his best known SF novel. He also published a series of Conanesque books about Brak the Barbarian. A few of his SF short stories gained praise, such as "The Sellers of the Dream", anthologized in the Amis/Conquest Spectrum series. But for the most part, he seemed to be regarded as a competent hack, nothing special but a solid professional. Tonight We Steal the Stars is noticeably long for an Ace Double half at 67,000 words. The front matter notes that it is the third in a series about "II Galaxy", apparently a new galaxy (or perhaps the Milky Way redesignated). The previous two novels of the series, When the Star Kings Die (1967) and The Planet Wizard (1968), were published by Ace but as single books. On internal evidence, I would guess the three books share only the setting, each standing alone as to plot and main characters. According to a prologue, 9000 years previously interplanetary civilization fell, but was reconstituted from the wreckage by houses with names of transparent (and highly implausible) derivation: Xero, Ibym, Genmo, Gullffe, and so on. These houses, ruled by the Lords of the Exchange, still rule the Galaxy. They each control certain special products/services, such as transportation in the case of Genmo.

This book is about Wolf Dragonard, a respected Regulator (or cop) for the Genmo family, who is recovering, not well (he's developed a drinking problem), from the death of his wife. He has a sympathetic boss but a sadistic and ambitious underling. The latter schemes to cost him his job, and after an incident the boss maneuvers a vacation/rehab interval on a seedy resort planet. On this planet Wolf encounters a mysterious woman, who seduces him and in the process lets slip some information about a plot to steal the "Stars", the jewels which symbolize the various stars ruled by Genmo. However, things get confusing when Wolf tries to track down the villa where he spent a weekend with this woman -- it had disappeared!

Wolf convinces his boss to send him to the planet Wheel, which is controlled by a former Genmo engineer, who has set up a competitive transportation company. It is on Wheel that the beautiful thief Jenny Sable has been found -- and she is the supposed ringleader of the plot to steal the Stars. Wolf manages to infiltrate Jenny's group, but then things get more complicated. He learns something that makes him suspect Jenny is being set up to fail. He has further doubts about the source of his own information, and about the safety of his boss. And, natch, he begins to fall in love with Jenny.

The resolution involves a fairly exciting breakin sequence, plenty of angst and loyalty stretching for Wolf, and a couple of not too illogical twists. It's by no means a great book, or even, really, good, but it is fairly fun. The ending flattens out just a bit. Certainly the plot in general has a couple of holes. The overall setting is unconvincing. The prose is mostly competent, with a couple of horrible lapses, such as mixing up "infer" and "imply". I think the title is a neat pulp title, and the revelation that "stealing the stars" is just jewelry theft is a bit of a letdown. Not a lasting book, by any means, but a book which basically delivers on its implicit promise -- a couple of hours of fairly mindless entertainment.

The Wagered World is the third and last of Janifer and Treibich's books about Angelo di Stefano, former Intelligence Officer for UN Space Station 1. This is the shortest of this series, the least well structured -- and I think I like it the best.

The story opens with the crew of Space Station 1, including in particular Angelo and his presumptive love interest, ecologist Juli Dental, crashlanding after the destruction of Space Station 2, and the vanquishing of an invading group of alien robots. (See The High Hex.) The open section briefly details the crew's problems in convincing the world's computer system that they are alive even though they were declared dead when their incoming rocket crashed.

The next section sees Angelo and Juli sent on a mission in a hastily cobbled together hyperspace ship, sent to backtrack to the source of the invading robots, in the fear that the real purpose of the robots was to soften up Earth for a follow-on invasion. The two find themselves at a cocktail party featuring the 647 races of the Intergalactic Council, and they also learn that yes, an invasion of Earth is planned. Angelo plays a gambling game, and wins an alien companion.

Upon their return to Earth, they are accused of treason (for consorting with the aliens who are about to invade) and rape (for no very clear reason at first). The third section is basically a courtroom drama which ends in Angelo unconvincingly convincing the invading aliens not to attack and instead let Earth join the Intergalactic Council.

All this makes basically No Sense At All. But the breezy manner of the telling, and the cheeky imagination (especially in the middle section), and perhaps especially the briefness of the tale, make it an enjoyable if very minor book.



Thursday, March 1, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Thirty-First of June, by J. B. Priestley

Old Bestseller: The Thirty-First of June, by J. B. Priestley

a review by Rich Horton


J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) was once an immensely popular figure in English culture, best known perhaps for his plays (perhaps most notably An Inspector Calls), but also an important popular critic, and a radio broadcaster, and a novelist. His 1930 novel Angel Pavement was #5 on that year's list of US bestsellers as reported by Publishers' Weekly. His 1929 novel The Good Companions won the James Tait Black award. And for all that he seems almost utterly forgotten today.

As the (as ever illuminating) entry on Priestley in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, a great deal of his work was at least somewhat Science Fictional or Fantastical in nature. Much of it was informed by J. W. Dunne's extremely influential An Experiment With Time. The novel at hand, The Thirty-First of June (1962) is a lighthearted example: it's an Arthurian Fantasy, sort of, based in part on the idea (which I believe is found in Dunne's work) that somewhere in the universe even fantastical ideas must be actualized. It's very short (perhaps 35,000 words). It's illustrated by John Cooper.

One 31st of June, in the Kingdom of Peradore, a neighbor to Arthur's realm, the Princess Melicent is obsessed with a young man she's seen in a magic mirror, named Sam. Meanwhile in our world, in 1961, Sam is an artist for an advertising agency. He has seen a vision and used her as a model for a stockings ad. But he's wholly disillusioned with his job. Priestley here goes in for a lot of "get off my lawn" sort of commentary/satire on the modern urge to "progress". ("Owing to the deplorable lack of progress in Arthurian England, it was all very peaceful" ...)

Melicent's father is opposed to her marriage to someone as lowborn as Sam. And there are two wizards involved, the good Malagram and the bad Malgrim. Both want a magic brooch. Malagram agrees to bring Melicent to Sam in his world, while Malgrim, along with Melicent's saucily wicked Lady-in-waiting Ninette, conspires to bring Sam to Peradore. This leads, of course, to a lot of hijinks, with Sam thrown in the dungeon, and Melicent making rather an impression as a guest on a TV show.

A salesman, as well as Sam's boss, also end up in Peradore, and soon they are enchanted into becoming a Knight and a Dragon for Sam to overcome in order to earn Melicent's hand. And Malagram and Malgrim keep up trying to foil the other's schemes ... But perhaps there is a compromise available? After all, surely there is money to be made turning Peradore into a tourist destination?

It's all really rather silly, but silly in just the way we expect. And it manages, despite the "get off my lawn" vibe, to be really pretty funny, especially in the scenes in a bar, with Sam and the barmaid and the salesman Captain Plunkett. The tone throughout is bubbly fun. It may have been aimed at the YA market, though I'm not entirely sure -- I think it's plenty entertaining for adults.

(As it happens, it was made into, of all things, a Soviet Era TV show, called 31 June, starring among others, Alexander Godunov.)