Monday, April 30, 2018

A Strange Mystery Novel: Essential Saltes, by Don Webb

A Strange Mystery Novel: Essential Saltes, by Don Webb

A review by Rich Horton

Don Webb was born on April 30, 1960 (which makes him younger than me! Sigh). He is a prolific writer of intriguing stories, often with a horror cast. He has written three novels, ostensibly mysteries but with weird aspects, for sure, all of which I enjoyed -- but also, none in over fifteen years. But in honor of his birthday, I thought to repost this review I did of Essential Saltes, his seond novel. The first was The Double, the third Endless Honeymoon.

The dedicated SF reader does well to scrounge other then the Science Fiction shelves. Many books are hard to categorize, and many books are categorized for marketing reasons rather than any formal genre definition. (Which is fine with me, genre definitions being so hard to come by.)

Essential Saltes seems to be marketed as a mystery, and indeed it is one. It’s also arguably speculative fiction, though it’s open to multiple readings. But it’s definitely good, and filled with outrageous content that ought to satisfy our desire for the strange.

Don Webb has published boatloads of short stories. As a writer, he is weird, often funny, often strange, always interesting, and Texan. As a book, Essential Saltes is all of those things.

The protagonist is Matthew Reynman, a used-book dealer in Austin. His wife was murdered two years prior to the action, and now her ashes have been stolen. Matthew had promised to keep them and arrange for his and her ashes to be mixed and shot off in fireworks after his death. This really annoys him, and, much worse, his wife’s murderer has been released from prison in a bureaucratic snafu. Matthew tries to find the thief of his wife’s remains, and at the same time avoid being killed by his wife’s murderer.

The story involves many very odd characters, and a mix of subjects that in its eclecticness reminds me of Robertson Davies (though it’s not a very Davies-like book): fireworks, sex, race, alchemy, used books, codes and code-breaking, mental illness, polyamory, and more. There are also some tantalizing hints of a story involving Matthew’s brother John, which is the subject of Webb’s first novel, The Double, also recommended. Essential Saltes is continually interesting just for the strange characters, the odd subject matter, and the well-described sex. The plot is full of action, but at times a bit discursive, and almost too strange for me. That is, the motivations of the very strange individuals involved were perhaps a bit too odd to always hold my interest. But the rest of the book was strong enough to keep me going, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Definitely worth reading.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Duplicators, by Murray Leinster/No Truce With Terra, by Philip E. High

Ace Double Reviews, 40: The Duplicators, by Murray Leinster/No Truce With Terra, by Philip E. High (#F-275, 1964, $0.40)

a review by Rich Horton

This Ace Double review is posted in memory of Philip E. High's birth, on April 28, 1914.

To be honest, this particular Ace Double really didn't excite me prior to reading. Murray Leinster (a pseudonym for Will F. Jenkins) was a respected old pro, but he's never been a particular favorite of mine. Philip E. High is an English writer who never became prominent: he's not really very good, but I find him something of a guilty pleasure. Leinster published 9 Ace Double halves in 8 separate books (plus a later reprint of the one Ace Double that featured him on both sides). High published 6 Ace Double halves. The Duplicators) is about 46,000 words long, and No Truce With Terra is about 34,000 words.
(Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Jack Gaughan)

Will F. Jenkins was 68 when The Duplicators was published. He retired from writing just a few years later. His first SF story appeared way back in 1919 in the legendary all-sorts-of-fiction pulp Argosy: this was "The Runaway Skyscraper", a decent story that was reprinted in the first year of Amazing, and also a couple of times since then. He also had some mainstream success under his own name. He also had success as an inventor, holding two patents involving significant movie special effects technology. Jenkins died in 1975.

The Duplicators is an expansion of a novella called "Lord of the Uffts", from the February 1964 Worlds of Tomorrow. It takes on the idea of the matter duplicator, and like Damon Knight in A for Anything, Leinster concludes that this would be disastrous. The story begins with a rather rackety young spaceman named Link Denham getting drunk and in lots of trouble, and as a result (pretty much) signing on as astrogator on a beat up old ship owned by a disreputable and dislikable man named Thistlethwaite. Thistlethwaite is convinced he is about to make his fortune at a mysterious planet he has rediscovered.

On arrival at the planet, called Sord Three, Thistlethwaite immediately manages to be sentenced to hang, for the crime of being unmannerly. Link lasts a bit longer, but when he gives a speech to the indigenous intelligent race, the "uffts", the Household head, Harl, who has met the spaceship reluctantly decides to hang him too, despite his relatively good manners. But when Link gets to the Harl's mansion, he soon realizes that the entire economy of the planet is based on using some decaying "dupliers": duplicating machines. As a result, no human does any work, and what little work is needed is done by the uffts, in exchange for beer. But the uffts are getting restless. Worse, perhaps, the duplicating isn't working very well -- if you don't provide the right elements as raw material, the duplicated thing won't work. For example, steel knives don't duplicate very well if only iron ore is available; and electronic equipment doesn't duplicate well without, for instance, germanium for transistors. Harl has a beautiful sister, Thana, who is intelligent enough to realize the problem and try to work around it -- and Link has some ideas too. Naturally they fall in love and manage to avert his execution.

Link, perhaps a bit implausibly, quickly cottons to the disaster that dupliers have been for Sord Three, and he realizes that he must prevent the discovery of this tech by the rest of the Galaxy. He also befriends the uffts and starts to try to figure out a way to better their lot. The story, then, involves his sponsoring of an ufft revolution, his eventual solution (almost totally unbelievable) to the duplier problem, and of course his love affair with Thana. It's a breezily readable, if not plausible, novel. It's often somewhat funny. Not really very good, but not bad for half of 40 cents, I suppose.

No Truce With Terra was Philip E. High's second novel (at least according to the ISFDB), his first having been published as a single book by Ace earlier in 1964, The Prodigal Sun. Highbegan publishing short fiction in with "The Statics" in Authentic in 1955, and published quite a few short stories, mostly in UK magazines, through 1963. In 1964 he switched over almost entirely to novels, publishing some 14 through 1979. He seemed to retire at that time (he also retired from his day job, as a bus driver), but a spate of new short fiction began appearing in the Fantasy Annual series of original anthologies featuring mostly Carnell-era veterans, and other places, a total of more than thirty additional stories in the last decade of his life. He died in 2006, aged 92.

This novel begins with a scientist returning to his home only to find it impregnable -- apparently occupied by some strange being, quickly identified as an alien. These aliens seem to be metallic in nature, and to use electricity as a motivating force. They also seem all-powerful, capable of vaporizing attackers. They come in many rather terrifying forms. Soon all of England, and by extension the world, is under threat.

The scientist and a couple of friends, however, are able to analyze the aliens' means of transport, some sort of interdimensional warp gate. They copy the technology and by hit or miss open a gate to yet another planet. Their main thought is to hope at best for a lucky solution to the invader problem, or at least possibly to use this new planet as a refuge. This planet is at a low-tech developmental state, but it is also being monitored by some very advanced aliens, who soon detect the humans. These aliens make contact with the humans, and quickly offer their help. There is also a surprise about these aliens -- easily guessed in advance (I certainly did), but still I'll leave it at that.

Meanwhile, back on Earth the battle against the electronic invaders is going poorly. Even nuclear weapons are useless. But the new aliens do have some ideas ... Well, there aren't really any surprises coming.

High's prose style is fairly individual to him, and a bit shoddy. The plot here is implausible, as are the SFnal ideas ... but ... but ... The story is fast-moving and really kind of fun. The resolution is convenient but still interesting. There is one personal story that stretches belief but that I still found sweet. This is a good example of how Philip E. High could be a pleasure to read, albeit a guilty one.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: Siege of the Unseen, by A. E. Van Vogt/The World Swappers, by John Brunner

Ace Double Reviews, 66: Siege of the Unseen, by A. E. Van Vogt/The World Swappers, by John Brunner (#D-391, 1959, $0.35)

April 26 was A. E. Van Vogt's birthday, so here's an A. E. Van Vogt Ace Double! Siege of the Unseen is about 30,000 words long. It is apparently the same story as "The Chronicler", a two-part serial from Astounding, October and November, 1946. I'm not sure if the story was revised in any way for the 1959 reprinting. It was also reprinted once as "The Third Eye of Evil", a really pulpy title that actually is the only one of the three that has much to do with the story. As for John Brunner's The World Swappers, it is about 43,000 words, and I don't know of any earlier or different publication.
(Covers by Ed Valigursky)

Siege of the Unseen is rather uneasily framed by a series of extracts from the coroner's report on the death of the protagonist, Michael Slade. Slade's mutilated body was found on his land -- identifiable by his third eye. I have to say I was never really worried about Slade's fate, though!

Michael Slade is a successful businessman who gets injured in a crash and suddenly develops a third eye on his forehead. He eschews treatment, and instead tries to learn to see from the third eye. As a result his wife divorces him and he is generally shunned. But when he does learn to see well with all three eyes (curing his previous two-eyed astigmatism in the process), he finds that he can transport himself to another world, apparently coexistent with Earth. This world is inhabited by three-eyed people, including a beautiful naked woman.

Before long, and somewhat against Slade's will, the woman has recruited him to come to her world and join her in a battle against the evil oppressor Geean. She dumps him in a gloomy city and says he must survive for a day. He finds that the city is inhabited by three-eyed vampires, who are apparently normal (if three-eyed) people who have been corrupted by Geean. A young woman befriends him, and tries to get him to lead an attack on Geean, but Slade doesn't feel ready -- especially when the woman asks him for a drink of blood.

Slade returns to Earth only to be recalled again, where he meets a nicer group of people, apparently primitives, but actually people living in superior harmony with nature. But they prove rather passive as to the evil Geean, and soon Slade is on his own again, before being captured by Geean forces. But Slade finds an unexpected ally, leading to his eventual confrontation with the evil leader (not to mention, of course, meeting the beautiful leading lady again ...)

It's a truly silly book, but at times the silliness is inspired. I can't say I liked it much, but I liked it more than I expected. Van Vogt could be so strange that you just had to play along at times. In John Boston's wonderful phrase, he "was the Wile E. Coyote of SF. He ran off the cliff in 1939 and looked down sometime in the 1950s."

The World Swappers is about a secret group of long-lived people plotting a better future for humanity. Which is a familiar enough idea, but Brunner uses it a bit differently than many others. It opens with a man, Saïd Counce, lying in wait for a powerful businessman. He confronts the businessman with his plan to rule the galaxy (that is, the smallish local group of planets humans have colonized). Earth, it seems, is a very nice place to live, but it is becoming overpopulated. Opening new colonies is not feasible, so the businessman plans to promote emigration to the existing colonies -- but they all resent Earthmen. Counce suggests that the businessman, Bassett, is going about things just a bit wrong, and offers his group's help, then disappears.

Then we meet others of Counce's group, on a distant unoccupied planet. They have discovered evidence of aliens, the Others, evidently humanlike but adapted to slightly different types of planets. They fear that humanity is not ready to meet the Others. Finally, we go to Ymir, the least pleasant of the human colonies, ruled by a very repressive religious sect. There we meet a rebellious young woman, Enni Zatok.

We quickly gather that Counce leads a group of people devoted to the interests of all humanity, as opposed to people like Bassett, interested only in themselves. Counce's group is desperately trying to arrange for humans to be welcoming to the aliens. In part they hope to solve the problem of Ymir -- especially as they have a plan for Ymir.

One aspect of the story I liked was the early use of matter transmission as a means of practical immortality, much as with Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol stories. (That is, a record of the copy of a person created when he is transmitted is saved (and possibly edited even, as with McCarthy's stories) and then the person can be recopied if his "original" dies.) That's the earliest use I can think of of this particular wrinkle on matter transmission.

On the whole, its an enjoyable novel, though a bit wobbly towards the end in particular. It tries to do too much too fast, perhaps. The noble central motivations are nicely presented, too. On the other hand, the ideas and events are often a bit strained, not quite convincing. Not Brunner at his best, at all, but as ever with him it is a decent read.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Hugo Ballot: Novella


Novella

The nominees are:

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
"And Then There Were (N-One)," by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.Com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)

My views here are fairly simple. It’s a decent shortlist, but a bifurcated one. There are three nominees that are neck and neck in my view, all first-rate stories and well worth a Hugo. And there are three that are OK, but not special – in my view not Hugo-worthy (but not so obviously unworthy that I will vote them below No Award.)

My ballot will look like this:

1.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)” – A story about a convention of alternate Sarah Pinskers, complete with a murder. It is warmly told – funny at time, 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.

2.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red – 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.

3.       Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – I was rather disappointed by Every Heart a Doorway, the first novella in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. I thought its main character boring, and its murder mystery plot rather a mess, and I thought the story just too long. For that reason, I passed on Down Among the Sticks and Bones until it showed up on the Hugo shortlist. So I came to the story with low expectations – and I was completely delighted. This isn’t just better than Every Heart a Doorway – it’s LOTS better. This tells the backstory of Jack and Jill, very important characters from the first book. They are twins, born to a couple who aren’t really interested in children except for how they look to their colleagues, and who force them into their ideas of the perfect girls – Jacqueline is the pretty one (thought they look the same), intended to be the popular one; while Jillian is the tomboy, the soccer player, the adventurer. (The one weakness of the story is the characterization of the parents – they’re a cliché, their faults seem forced.) The things is, that’s not who the girls really are, and when they find a door into another world, they take it, ending up on the Moors, a very dangerous place, ruled by a vampire, and featuring other horrors like werewolves. Jack stays with a relatively good man, and exercises her interest in learning and scientific research. Jill stays with the vampire, wanting to become a vampire herself – his heir, indeed. But when Jack takes a local girl as her lover, Jill’s eventual reaction catalyzes the inevitable ending.

4.       Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth – 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.

5.       JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven – 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 and underdeveloped 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 that may illuminate the story), 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 ridiculously overpraised.

6.       Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: Home – Much as with Every Heart a Doorway, I was puzzled by the extravagant praise Binti received – I thought it kind of a mess, really illogical, hard to believe. Alas, the sequel, unlike the McGuire story’s prequel, is not much better than the opening, in my view. (Also, it doesn’t come to a real conclusion.) Binti, after spending some time at Oomza Uni, comes home to her family for a visit, and a pilgrimage. She is accompanied by her friend Okwu, one of the murderous Meduse (who also altered Binti’s genetics, though they didn’t kill her, unlike all her innocent prospective classmates). The notion is apparently to make some repairs in the Meduse’s relationship with humans, especially the Koush, a rival people to Binti’s Himba. But little enough happens on that ground (presumably that’s left for the next installment) – instead, Binti’s pilgrimage becomes a trip to the home of the mysterious Desert People, who turn out to be part of her ancestry, and to have a relationship going far back in history with a group of aliens with special tech. I have to say, my main problem was that I just didn’t believe in the story, nor, really, in Binti. It’s obvious a lot of people love these stories, and so it’s clear they’re seeing something I’m missing. So be it – the fault may well lie with me. But I didn’t like this story much, to be honest.

My nominees were, in alphabetical order by author:

1.       Kathleen Ann Goonan, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”
2.       Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Prime Meridian
3.       Sofia Samatar, “Fallow”
4.       Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N – One)”
5.       Martha Wells, All Systems Red

In reality, the three that weren’t nominated are easy to understand – they are the three least readily available. Goonan’s story is from an original anthology (and one that didn’t seem to get a ton of attention, Extrasolar, from PS Publishing in the UK). Samatar’s story is from her exceptional collection Tender, and story collections typically get less attention, especially for original stories, than either magazines or anthologies. Moreno-Garcia’s may be the most obscure – available only to supports of her Indiegogo campaign (and to lucky reviewers!) Indeed, I suspect it might be eligible for next year’s Hugo. But there were plenty of other worthy potential nominees; for instance Damien Broderick’s “Tao Zero”, Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie, and Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Dragon of Dread Peak”.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Hugo Ballot: Novelette


Novelette

The nominees are:

Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

This is really a very strong shortlist. The strongest shortlist in years and years, I’d say. Two are stories I nominated, and two more were on my personal shortlist of stories I considered nominating. The other two stories are solid work, though without quite the little bit extra I want in an award winner.

My ballot will look like this. I’ll mention that first two were 1 and 2 on my list before the shortlist was announced, which is pretty unusual!

1.      Yoon Ha Lee, “Extracurricular Activities” (Tor.com, 2/17) – a quite funny, and quite clever, story concerning the earlier life of a very significant character in Lee’s two novels, both Hugo nominees themselves, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem. Shuos Jedao is an undercover operative for the Heptarchate, assigned to infiltrate a space station controlled by another polity, and to rescue the crew of a merchanter ship that had really been heptarchate spies, including an old classmate.

2.       Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots” (Clarkesworld, 9/17) – a very old bot on a battered Ship trying to stop an alien attack on Earth. It shows a surprising amount of initiative – even, one might say, imagination – in dealing with the Incidental. Might that not be useful in dealing with the aliens? Or might bots have their own ideas about their own place? Very strong work indeed.

3.       Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove” (Asimov’s, 9-10/17) – a story about the folk process, and memory, and the occasional importance of forgetting, set on a generation ship. Rosie is a middle-aged teacher on the ship, and a pretty good fiddle player. A malicious virus wiped most of the ship’s memory not too long into the journey, and Rosie and her fellows work on restoring what’s been lost by remembering everything they can, including folk tunes. But some of her students resent being taught history – another form of remembering – why should they re-create Earth on the ship, or even the new planet (that they will never see)? Even Rosie’s daughter has doubts. But purposeful forgetting – or malicious erasing – hardly seems right either. These questions are considered in the light of Rosie thinking about a particular folk tune, “Windy Grove”, a favorite of her grandmother’s, and how it changed over time – and might still change. Thoughtful and quite moving.

4.       Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “A Series of Steaks” (Clarkesworld, 1/17) -- Helena is a frustrated art student who, in order to make ends meet, has turned to forging steak using a 3-D printer (in this future, real meat is very rare (pun intended!).). She’s pretty good at it actually (it’s an art!), but then she receives a huge order for a bunch of T-bones … with a blackmail threat attached. The story turns into a bit of a caper story, with a bit of a love story attached – effectively enough. The original central idea, and nice characters, lifted it above the ordinary for me.

5.       Aliette de Bodard, “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” (Uncanny, 7-8/17) – set in a fantastical Paris ruled by houses of Angels, a couple of adversaries are trying to infiltrate House Hawthorn (using among other things cooking skills). It’s a story I liked – and a story that made me want to read the other works in this milieu – but it didn’t quite seem finished to me, more an outtake or pendant to its overall series.

6.       K. M. Szpara, “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” (Uncanny, 5-6/17) – Not a bad story at all, but not one that thrilled me. It’s a vampire story, and a gay/transgender story. The first aspect is, if I’m honest, a bit of a negative for me, which isn’t fair, I guess, but it’s real – I’ve been tired of vampires for a long time. The second aspect is just fine, and nicely – but maybe just a bit obviously – integrated with the vampire theme. Nothing wrong with any of this, but for me it all added up to “fine work, but not really award-worthy”. Many others’ mileage varied, which is fine.

Obviously several novelettes I nominated didn’t make the cut, but while I’ll still say that if “Soulmates.com” or “The Hermit of Houston” or “ZeroS” or “Keepsakes” or a couple others had made that ballot it would be marginally better, I really can’t complain about the ballot we got.

A Significant Ace Double: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson

Ace Double Reviews, 10: Rocannon's World, by Ursula K. Le Guin/The Kar-Chee Reign, by Avram Davidson (#G-574, 1966, $0.50)

(This April 23 repost is in honor of Avram Davidson's birthday, 23 April 1923.)

Ace Doubles have a fairly declassé image. One doesn't tend to look for all time classics or Hugo candidates among them. Though as previous reviews in this series have shown, there were first rate novels and novellas published as Ace Double halves, such as Jack Vance's Hugo winner "The Dragon Masters". (That was, however, a reprint.) But even so, it's something of a surprise to see that Ursula Le Guin's first novel was first published as half of an Ace Double. Rocannon's World is about 44,000 words long. It was expanded from a 7700 word story, "Dowry of the Angyar", which was in the September 1964 Amazing. This story appears unchanged as the prologue to Rocannon's World (called here "The Necklace"), and it has latterly been reprinted by itself under Le Guin's preferred title, "Semley's Necklace".
(Covers by Gerald McConnell and Jack Gaughan)

If Ursula Le Guin is a mild surprise as an Ace Double author (her second novel, Planet of Exile, was also an Ace Double half), so too might be Avram Davidson. Though it should be noted that Davidson's early novels were fairly routine, rather pulpish, not terribly characteristic of his best work. The Kar-Chee Reign is a 49,000 word novel, a prequel to his 1965 Ace novel (not an Ace Double half!) Rogue Dragon. Rogue Dragon itself was nominated for a Nebula Award, but The Kar-Chee Reign, a lesser work, to my mind, was not. The two novels were reprinted together in 1979, in a volume bannered "Ace Double", but not a true Ace Double. That is, it was not published in dos-a-dos format, and not part of a regular series. Rather, Ace essentially put out a few single author "omnibus" editions of two novels at about that time, and called them Ace Doubles in a nod to their past.

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the greatest SF/Fantasy writers of all time (arguably the greatest), indeed one of the greatest American writers of her generation, died January 22, 2018, aged 88. Le Guin was a favorite of mine since I first encountered her work in the early 1970s. She was best known for her SF novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and for her fantasy trilogy for young adults, The Earthsea Trilogy (later extended with two more books). I loved those books, but also her first written novel, Malafrena, and her last novel, Lavinia, and most everything she published in between, including any number of remarkable short stories. (My favorite is "The Stars Below".)

Her first published novel, Rocannon's World is a perhaps a bit curious, but clearly on the road to her mature work. It is a "Hainish" novel, thus fitting into Le Guin's main "future history", but it doesn't seem wholly consistent with novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. (And indeed Le Guin acknowledged that inconsistency, and wasn't much bothered by it.) What it mainly is is a fantasy novel with SF trappings. Except for the prose, which is excellent as one might expect from Le Guin, it feels strikingly pulpish. (The plot and feel would not have been out of place in an early 50s issue of Planet Stories, and in fact much of the content of Planet Stories was fantasy with SF trappings, work that might have been published as pure fantasy once the market for that exploded after the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings.) Perhaps the influence of Leigh Brackett or Andre Norton can be detected. The ultimate effect is mixed -- the plot is just not terribly plausible in places, and some of the setting and trappings are a bit old hat. But as I said the prose is fine, and the romantic and melancholy overtones are extremely effective.

Fomalhaut II is a planet which has only been lightly explored by the League of All Words (in later novels, the Ekumen). The League does not even know how many intelligent races live there -- three for sure, but perhaps two more. One non-humanoid race is not even encountered in the book. The main races are the Liuar (basically "humans"); and the now split Gdemiar (Clayfolk -- dwarf-analogues) and Fiia (elf-analogues). The League has been promoting the advancement of the Gdemiar to an industrial society, and extracting taxes from them and the Liuar, but after the ethnologist Rocannon encounters Semley (an aristocrat of the Liuar) in the prologue, he decides the world is not well enough understood, and he mounts an expedition to study it. But disaster strikes -- an enemy race is there as well, and they find and destroy Rocannon's spaceship, marooning him with none of his equipment.

He then must travel, with the help of Semley's grandson and a small band of locals, to the mysterious Southwest continent where the enemy is located, hoping to find an ansible and call for help. Their journey, mostly on rather unlikely flying "horses", or windsteeds, is full of adventure -- they encounter various different sorts of outlaws, and danger from the weather, and a scary quasi-intelligent race, and finally an unconvincing "Old One" who grants Rocannon special powers, helping him finally accomplish his mission. All this is entertaining but as I have said faintly pulpish and not very plausible. But the final resolution is achingly bittersweet, deeply romantic and very melancholy. Certainly a novel worth reading, though of course Le Guin has done much better things.

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was also one of the SF field's best, and most original, writers. He wrote a number of exceptional short stories (my favorite among them is one of the greatest SF stories of all time, "The Sources of the Nile"), and quite a few novels. The novels, especially the later novels, were interesting but not as brilliant as the short stories. He sometimes seemed to lose interest the more he wrote about something, and indeed he started several series that he never finished. He was also editor of F&SF between 1962 and 1964. Two series of stories are particularly worth notice: the Eszterhazy stories, and the Limekiller stories, and his nonfiction about the sources of certain legends, Adventures in Unhistory, is quite absorbing.

I haven't read The Kar-Chee Reign in some little time, so the following summary may be a bit lacking. It is set far in the future. Humans have colonized other stars, and have forgotten Earth. Earth itself is, as Davidson puts it "flat, empty, weary and bare". A few humans remain, apparently living a low-tech style of life. Then the insectlike aliens the Kar-Chee come, to mine the Earth for its remaining metals, with the help of huge beasts called Dragons by the humans. The Kar-Chee hardly care about humans, displacing them without much thought or worry. Humans have come to cower away from the Kar-Chee, avoiding them in hopes of escaping notice.

The Rowan family lives in fair comfort on an isolated island that the Kar-Chee have not yet reached. When the aliens finally do come, certain of the locals seem to have forgotten the policy of avoiding them at all costs, and a series of attacks are mounted. These attacks meet with initial success, but then the Kar-Chee are irritated, and reprisals occur. But a group led by one Liam decides to continue to take the fight to the Kar-Chee. It will not be a great surprise that they are eventually successful, and Liam becomes a celebrated hero. The Kar-Chee depart, but they leave some of the Dragons behind (setting up Rogue Dragon, set some time further in the future). There is also an indication that contact with the human-colonized worlds will resume, and that Earth itself will be revitalized.

It's far from a great novel, and it's far from Davidson at anything like his best. Still, I do recall enjoying it, though I thought the action in general routine (and sometimes confused), and much of the setup a bit silly. The prose shows only hints of pure Davidson.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Hugo Ballot, Short Story

Here's the first of what will be a series of posts detailing my thoughts on my final ballot ordering for a number of the Hugo categories.

Short Story

The Hugo shortlist is:

"Carnival Nine" by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
"Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)
"Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)
"The Martian Obelisk," by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
"Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience[TM]", by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

This is by no means a bad shortlist. Every story on it is at least pretty decent.  My ballot will look like this:

1. “The Martian Obelisk”, by Linda Nagata – This is set in a future in which a series of disasters, with causes in human nature, in environmental collapse, and in technological missteps, has led to a realization that humanity is doomed. One old architect, in a gesture of, perhaps, memorialization of the species, has taken over the remaining machines of an abortive Mars colony to create a huge obelisk that might end up the last surviving great human structure after we are gone. But her project is threatened when a vehicle from one of the other Martian colonies (all of which failed) approaches. Is the vehicle’s AI haywire? Has it been hijacked by someone else on Earth? The real answer is more inspiring – and if perhaps just a bit pat, the conclusion is profoundly moving.

2. “Fandom for Robots”, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad – a quite delightful story of a 1950s robot (called Computron, natch!) writing fan fiction about an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record. Prasad pulls it off with a perfect deadpan delivery, which makes Computron, as it were, come alive – and which captures the fan fiction culture right on the nose.

3. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, by Fran Wilde – a story of a visit to a museum exhibition that in the end seems to be a “freak show”, and which has a distinct and scary effect on the visitor. It’s told in the second person, and this is (perhaps rarely!) the exactly correct choice for this story, as the reader slowly realizes that the act of viewing the perhaps grotesque (or just misunderstood?) exhibits has parallels with how they see people who are different. I will say that this is a story that improved on rereading – either because my mood was different, or because I saw more on a second pass.

4. “Carnival Nine”, by Caroline M. Yoachim – a nice take on the notion of windup dolls that are truly alive, as Zee, blessed with a mainspring that takes extra winding, grows up with her beloved Papa, marries a nice young boy, and then makes a child who can hardly be wound at all. It’s a simple idea, and told straightforwardly, with no compromises or miracles.

5. “Sun, Moon, Dust”, by Ursula Vernon – a fine magic sword story in which Allpa’s grandmother leaves him a sword on her death, with the three title warriors enchanted into it to teach him to fight. But Allpa is a farmer, and doesn’t see much need for a sword, much to the frustration of Sun, Moon, and Dust. Allpa has plenty to learn, but maybe he has more to teach – and maybe perhaps one of these warriors will realize that there’s more to life than war.

6. "Welcome to your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse – another second person story, and while that’s done well enough, it doesn’t seem quite as effective a choice as in the Wilde story. It’s the story of a Native American man working in a near future tourist destination where people can have “authentic” virtual experience of historical Indian life – but instead of being truly “authentic” the experiences are overlaid with typical fake Indian clichés. I thought it was fine, well worth reading, but it didn’t really wow me.

On reflection and rereading, even though I only nominated one of these stories (and the second wasn’t too far off my nomination ballot), I’m pretty happy with the nominations of the top four stories on my ballot, and the other two are solid work that I can’t and don’t complain about. That said, the nominators missed some outstanding work, I think largely on the basis of ready availability.
My prime nomination candidates were:

Maureen McHugh, "Sidewalks" (Omni, Winter/17)
Giovanni de Feo, "Ugo" (Lightspeed, 9/17)
Charlie Jane Anders, "Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue" (Boston Review, Global Dystopias)
Sofia Samatar, “An Account of the Land of Witches” (Tender)
Linda Nagata, "The Martian Obelisk" (Tor.com, 7/17)
Karen Joy Fowler, "Persephone of the Crows" (Asimov’s, 5-6/17)
Tobias Buckell, "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance" (Cosmic Powers)

The only one of those stories (besides the Nagata, which made the ballot) that was as readily available as the six stories on the final ballot is de Feo’s “Ugo”, a first story by an Italian writer. The other stories are all outstanding. I would say that the Anders, McHugh, and Samatar stories are particularly big misses, and in each case the story appeared in a print publication that was very easy for a reader to miss. Them’s the berries, I guess. For all that, I have to say that this is one of the best Short Story Hugo ballots in a long time.

I’ll note that all six nominees are women – and that that seems fair, this year. Yes, Tobias Buckell and Giovanni de Feo did work on a level with all these women (Anders, Samatar, Fowler, and McHugh included), but they didn’t do work obviously better.

A Forgotten Ace Double: Gallagher's Glacier/Positive Charge, by Walt and Leigh Richmond

Ace Double Reviews, 71: Gallagher's Glacier, by Walt and Leigh Richmond/Positive Charge, by Walt and Leigh Richmond (#27235, 1970, $0.75)

by Rich Horton

Today's Birthday repost of an Ace Double is in honor of Leigh Richmond, born April 21, 1911.

Walt and Leigh Richmond were a husband and wife SF writing team, who wrote mostly for Analog in the 1960s: about a dozen short stories between 1961 and 1973, of which only one appeared in another magazine, If. These stories were concentrated in one year: 1964, in which fully half the issues of Analog featured a Richmond piece. They also wrote five novels for Ace. Three of these were parts of Ace Doubles. Their last novel was slightly anomalous: Challenge The Hellmaker, published in 1976 as part of the curious and often denigrated "Second Ace Special" series (it was an expansion of a short serial, "Where I Wasn't Going", from Analog in 1963). It would be fair to say that they were "late John Campbell" writers, who really couldn't sell to anybody else (except Don Wollheim). And it would be fair to say, based on what I've read, that this was on merit -- they were pretty bad, luckily for them bad in ways that appealed to the idiosyncratic and often annoying tastes of John Campbell in the 60s. A few of the novels, including Gallagher's Glacier, were reissued by Ace in the late '70s, as revised by Leigh after Walt's death.
(Gallagher's Glacier cover by Kelly Freas)

There is a rather amusing story about their method of collaboration. I've seen this independently attested by several people who met them at the Milford workshops in the mid-60s. Apparently, Walt would sit in his chair and telepathically transmit story ideas to Leigh while she typed. I'll go way out on a limb and say that I personally think Leigh Richmond is the sole author of all these stories, with her husband's name attached for any of a number of possible reasons. (It may well be that the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) ideas behind the stories came out of mutual discussions, mind you.) Leigh was 11 years the elder, by the way, though Walt died in 1977, only 55 years old. (I suppose one might adduce that date as evidence that the collaboration story was true: after all, their last novel was published in 1977, with the 1979 Phase Two being an expansion of a 1969 Ace Double half called Phoenix Ship.) Leigh died in 1996, age 85. It's worth noting that the first of their stories was originally published as by Leigh alone ("Prologue to an Analogue", Analog, June 1961). It was reprinted twice under her name, but in this collection there is no indication that it is not a collaboration, and the title is slightly changed (to "Prologue to ... an Analogue"). Leigh published one other story without Walt, though that was also a collaboration: "There is a Tide", with R. C. FitzPatrick, in the January 1968 Analog, and then one much later novel, Blindsided, with Dick Richmond-Donahue, with her name given as Leigh Richmond-Donahue, so I assume Dick was her second husband. That book came out in 1993 from the obscure publisher Interdimensional Sciences.

So what of these stories? The collection is almost completely negligible. "Prologue to ,,, an Analogue", the longest at 10,000 words or so, was anthologized a couple of times, but I'm not sure why. An advertising agency puts together an ad campaign for a cleaning product featuring 13 witches, and somehow their incantations end up "cleaning up" whatever situation was mentioned on the news program just prior to the ad running -- situations such as attempted bacterial warfare by China (blamed on the US and USSR), slum clearance, a crippled child, etc. And that's pretty much it. Four stories feature inventions by the unworldly Willy Shorts. Three of them are directly about Willy, signalled by the titles: "Shorts Wing" (6200 words, original to this book), "Shortstack" (6700 words, Analog, December 1964), and "Shortsite" (3500 words, Analog, April 1964). In these three Willy is shown coming up with crazy ideas of the sort Campbell liked (at least one reminded me of the Dean Drive), and then his unscrupulous salesman friend markets them. None convinced me. The other Shorts story is "I, BEM" (Analog, June 1964), told from the POV of an AI robot designed by Willy, after the robots have taken over the Earth with kindness, and most humans have left. It's probably one of the best Richmond stories. There is another Richmond story I haven't read, not in this book, called "Poppa Needs Shorts" (Analog, January 1964), and I wonder if it too features Willy Shorts.

The other stories include "M'Lord is the Shepherd" (3100 words, If, September 1965), in which aliens monitoring Earth try to promote human development in order to help defend against another encroaching alien race, but (surprise!) get more than they bargain for when humans prove even more dangerous than the original enemy. The Richmonds get off a couple of cranky jokes -- one plan for holding back human ingenuity once it gets out of hand is introducing television, one of the alien field operatives is called a "teslar": he introduces alternating current, of course (i.e. he's really Nicola Tesla). "If the Sabot Fits ..." (5400 words, Analog, February 1968) comes close to suggesting an original and prophetic idea: computer viruses. All kinds of problems suddenly happen in one city at the same time, all based on computerized operations (from library book distribution to chemical plant operations). They are eventually traced to an educational program which just happens to be sending a binary signal over the TV channel which just happens to be read by local computers as a program. That particular means of introducing a virus is kind of silly (especially as it seems to be pure chance in the story), but the basic idea is at least a bit prescient -- perhaps. Anybody know of any virus stories before 1968? Finally, "Cows Can't Eat Grass" (4800 words, Analog, August 1967), is a problem story about a scout marooned on an alien planet who manages to survive, despite all the local food being apparently undigestible. His rescuers have a hard time believing he's not really a local alien shapeshifter until they figure out the mechanism, which is perhaps a bit strained but OK I guess.

Now for the novel. Gallagher's Glacier (31000 words) is an expansion of a short story of the same title, from the November 1964 Analog. Human colonized space is under the grip of evull corporations. The narrator is a decent space captain who has learned how bad his employers are. He hires Gallagher out of necessity, and is impressed by his abilities as an engineer -- alas, abilities that violate the "book". He also witnesses Gallagher claim an icy asteroid and turn it into a spaceship, the only independent spaceship in the colonies. I assume this ends the original story.

We pick up again a few years later. The narrator runs into Gallagher again on a brutal mining planet. Gallagher, with the help of a standard issue "whore with a heart of gold", shows the narrator the evull side of the company. He naively decides to storm off to Earth to reveal these abuses, and of course gets arrested for his pains. Rescued by Gallagher, he joins a nascent rebellion, meets a pretty girl, and, well, you can see where the story is going. (Complete with implausible tech that only the rebels are independent enough to understand.)

The story is by fits and starts kind of entertaining in a routine way, but mostly unredeemable cliché. That said, I'm not surprised Wollheim published it, and it ranks well above the worst of the Ace Doubles.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Forgotten SF/Regency Romance: Current Confusion, by Kitty Grey

Current Confusion, by Kitty Grey

a review by Rich Horton

I have enjoyed a number of Regency Romances over the years, particularly those by Georgette Heyer, but any skilled and witty writer can make these plenty of fun. And of course I'm a big fan of science fiction, so when I ran across Current Confusion at a library book sale extra cheap, and when I noticed it was a Regency with an SF aspect, I figured it would be worth a try.

"Kitty Grey" is stated on the jacket copy to be a "pen-name of a long-time editor", and a bit of sleuthing by Denny Lien revealed her to be Mary Elizabeth Allen, who was indeed an editor at Walker, publishers of this book (and many Regency romances). "Kitty Grey" has one more credit, as writer of a set of stories that seem to be a sort of frame for an anthology called A Regency Valentine, and Mary Elizabeth Allen was the editor of another romance anthology with a fantasy twist, All Hallow's Eve, which featured stories by Andre Norton, Morgan Llywellen, Jo Beverly, and Carola Dunn.

Alas, Current Confusion isn't really very good, either as SF or as romance. It is real SF, I will say -- it's a timeslip romance, but more than that, it makes real use of the time travel, and include a bit of play with paradoxes, and time travel in both directions, as well as scientific speculation.

Cassandra Brown is a young physicist working on a "4-D accelerator" at a lab in London, when there is an explosion, and all of a sudden the lab looks very different, and there's a strangely dressed man. Of course, no surprise, she's in 1815, at Font Hall, the seat of Harry, Lord Font. Harry is an experimenter himself, and somehow Cassandra's experiment interacted with Harry's fooling with electricity, and she ended up back in time.

She convinces Harry of what happened, and he begins to help her with the math needed to figure out a way back to her time. But complications arise when Harry has to go to London to visit his widowed sister. Cassandra accompanies him, and deals with things like the assumptions immediately made about her virtue, and her difficulty understanding Regency manners, etc. Harry's sister is still mourning her young husband's death, but Cassandra becomes convinced Harry really wants to marry her, while Harry is trying to set her up with a friend of his. And even worse, there's Harry's slimy cousin Arthur, who inherits his title if both Harry and his young nephew are out of the way. But when the nephew is nearly murdered, somehow Cassandra falls under suspicion ... but luckily she and Harry have figured out the way for her to get back to our time.

Once back there, though, she learns what really happened to the Font family ... and she can't allow that -- so she decides to return again ... and everything devolves into utter silliness, really, though it was already well on the way.

The novel fails as a romance mainly because there are no real sparks between the main characters. It gives a brave try on the SF side, but that doesn't work well either. The writing is indifferent, the plot logic often silly, and Cassandra is a very unconvincing character. Just not a very good novel.

A Little-Known Ace Double: I Want the Stars, by Tom Purdom/Demons' World, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 20: I Want the Stars, by Tom Purdom/Demons' World, by Kenneth Bulmer (#F-289, 1964, $0.40)

Tom Purdom was born April 19, 1936, so I am reposting this review I did long ago of the Ace Double containing his first novel.

(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer is an English writer, born 1921 and as far as I can find out still alive. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer from about 1952 through 1988 or so, publishing close to a hundred novels that the ISFDB knows about, under his own name and several pseudonyms. His most-famous pseudonym is probably "Alan Burt Akers", used for his Dray Prescot series of 37 novels for DAW, from 1972 through 1988. I've haven't read any of those novels so I can't comment on them. He also took over editorship of the classic British original anthology series New Writings in SF after the death of the first editor, E. J. Carnell. Bulmer edited numbers 22 through 30 of that series, from 1973 through 1977. With 30 total volumes, I believe that qualifies as the longest running (in terms of number of books) original anthology series in SF history. Though Bulmer's writing tended to be extremely old-fashioned, even pulpish, his editorial hand showed a certain taste for the New Wave (in among a fair amount of old-style stuff).

The author of the other half of this Ace Double is Tom Purdom. Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, most of it in Asimov's, and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the three "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and such stories as "The Path of the Transgressor" and "A Stranger from a Foreign Ship" are quite remarkable.

Purdom's I Want the Stars is his first novel, and it is quite short at about 42,000 words. Bulmer's Demons' World is a bit longer, at some 52,000 words.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Emshwiller)

I Want the Stars is a rather ambitious novel in theme, though the execution doesn't really match the ambition. The novel opens with a group of 4 humans attacking an alien spaceship. We soon learn that humans have been in interstellar space for only a fairly short time, perhaps a century, after having solved their internal problems. War has been eliminated, psychological problems are mostly solved, lifespans are about 300 years, men and women form free and fluid sexual bonds without jealousy, the economy is a post-scarcity economy. (Indeed, I was in some mild ways reminded of Iain M. Banks's Culture.) Why then this attack on the aliens? Well, these aliens, the Horta, are telepaths who take over and enslave by mind control other alien races.

The attack fails, partly because of the Horta mind powers, and partly because the humans involved are simply not psychologically ready to fight sentient beings. The one man of this group, Jenorden A'Ley, is closest to being ready to fight, and he is also struggling with his knowledge of his mortality (enhanced by the machinations of the Horta), and with his search for real meaning in his life. With the two surviving women, he joins another man and heads off exploring. They discover a primitive race, at roughly 20th Century Earth tech and social levels, ready to destroy themselves with atomic weapons. To their horror, they learn that a mysterious super race -- called, get this, the Borg* -- is offering to teach these people whatever they want to know -- to human morality, this seems terribly wrong. They decide to accept the Borg's offer to join the other race and get their own questions answered, and they head to a Borg planet. where various representatives of any number of alien races are under Borg tutelage. But the humans soon learn that the Borg method of teaching, while interesting, is rather frustrating -- they seem intent on teaching their questioners the history of intelligent life, more or less as a precursor to answering any question.

Jenorden gets impatient and starts visiting various other races to see what they are learning. Then the action starts, as some relatively primitive aliens treacherously attack the humans, hoping to steal their technological secrets. And, shockingly, the Borg refuse to stop the violence. Jenorden and the others must fight for their lives, confronting their own potential for violence, and hoping to learn the Borg secret. The answer is not quite believable, but it is uplifting, and it does quite reasonably offer meaning to Jenorden's life.

Demons' World opens with a group of human Foragers venturing Outside, and discovering an unfamiliar man. Against regulations, they rescue this man from the enormous Demon they encounter. They take the man back to their underground warren. The Controller class takes over, and they learn that the man, called "Stead" from the only word he utters, is an amnesiac. They teach him what they can, mysteriously withholding certain knowledge, particularly about sex. This frustrates Stead as he cannot deal with his attraction to such people as the curiously different Della, one of the leading Controller researchers.

But after some instruction, the ruler, or Captain, of this human nation, the Empire of Archon, assigns Stead to be a Forager with the same group that originally found him. There he meets such people as Honey, who seems to attract him in ways disturbingly similar to Della; and Cardon, a bitter man with a secret; and Thorburn, the competent leader. Stead also learns, on his foraging expeditions, that the Demons that the Controllers believe are simply myths are all too real, and truly gigantic; and he comes to sympathize with the lower social state of the Foragers and the Workers relative to the Controllers.

Stead seems ready to come to new understanding of the real nature of this world, and perhaps to regain his memory, when a foraging mission gone wrong brings the redoubled wrath of the Demons on human society. The only hope is for humans to finally learn the truth of their position in this world ...

It's really rather silly, though the story as told is fast moving and readable enough. But the central secret is pretty obvious from the getgo, and the human society doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and Stead's personal story, particularly his abortive relationships with Della and Honey, is frustratingly handled. To say nothing of the blatant ignoring of the square/cube law. Awfully minor stuff, in all.

*Purdom's Borg don't really resemble the Star Trek Borg very much at all, but I do sort of wonder if a Star Trek writer didn't read this book and decide he liked the name.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi



The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (Orbit, 978-0-7653-8888-9, $25.99, hc, 333 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Well, especially for those who have read my previous Hugo reviews this year, let’s cut right to the chase. I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire – it’s a fun book with an intriguing central premise and characters I liked to follow, and some nice action. But it’s not a great book – I don’t think it one of the ten or so best novels of the year. (It’s in the next tranche, along with the other books I reviewed to date (Raven Stratagem excepted – that’s a notch higher).)  There’s no shame in that – Scalzi is a reliably enjoyable writer, and this book is no exception.

I might add that the of the four novels I’ve read from the ballot so far, three are Space Opera by my definition (The Collapsing Empire, Raven Stratagem, and Provenance), and the other (Six Wakes) is also set on a spaceship decades from Earth, though I wouldn’t quite call it Space Opera.. Indeed, we seem to be in something of a Golden Age – or perhaps Silver Age – of Space Opera – the Philip K. Dick Award shortlist included another couple of Space Operas: Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger and Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars (with Martha Wells’ All Systems Red sort of Space Opera-adjacent). (No Space Opera on the Nebula shortlist, though!)

(Neither of the two books I have yet to read from the Hugo Ballot are Space Opera, however.)

The Collapsing Empire is set in a future interstellar human society, the Interdependency, in which the inhabited planets are linked by “the Flow” – that is, the familiar wormhole-type shortcuts between star systems. But, we soon learn, the Flow is beginning to collapse. (Hence the title!)

The story follows three people primarily. Cardenia Wu-Patrick is the new Emperox of the Interdependency, as her father dies at the beginning of the book. She has a few problems – she’s inexperienced (even more so than most new Emperoxes (Emperoxi? Emperoux?), she needs to consider marriage and the most politically advantageous men and women candidates are assholes, and, of course, as she soon hears, the Flow might be collapsing. But, luckily, she has the memories and simulated personalities of all the previous 86 Emperoxes to consult.

Kiva Lagos is a noblewoman acting as Owner’s Representative for the House of Lagos as they deliver a shipment of fruit to End, the most isolated of the Interdepency’s planets – at least with the current configuration of the Flow. However, End is undergoing a revolution, and Kiva’s shipment is impounded – obviously on the orders of the Duke, who is actually being advised by a member of the family of assholes Cardenia is dealing with.

The third POV character is Marce Claremont. He’s a Professor of Astronomy on End, stuck there because his father discovered evidence that the Flow was likely to collapse, which got him ennobled – and more or less exile to End. Now that it’s truly clear that the Flow is ending, the Count decides to sends his son back to the ruling planet to advise the new Emperox – but this is not easy because of the political situation on End.

What follows is, really, mostly setup for the following books in this series. And not bad setup – not bad at all. I’ll certainly be reading the rest of the series. This book features lots of action – assassination attempts on Cardenia, derring do in sneaking Marce onto a starship, and plenty of peril on the starship itself, and a whole lot of twisty and nasty political maneuvering. Fine fun work. And the rest of the series has a chance to be even better. This book isn’t bad at all, but it’s not, in my view, Hugo-worthy. (For one thing, fun as it is, it doesn’t really do anything new. That’s not exactly a complaint – it’s a nice variation on a number of familiar themes. But for a Hugo I would like a bit more.)

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Puzzle Planet, by Robert A. W. Lowndes/The Angry Espers, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Ace Double Reviews, 51: The Puzzle Planet, by Robert A. W. Lowndes/The Angry Espers, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (#D-485, 1961, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

(I'm resurrecting this old Ace Double review today because April 17 was Lloyd Biggle's birthday.)

This qualifies as a pretty minor Ace Double in the scheme of things. The Puzzle Planet is about 41,000 words long, The Angry Espers about 48,000 words. The Angry Espers was also published as a complete novel under the title "A Taste of Fire" in the August 1959 Amazing -- I would assume that was a shorter version, though it's just possible that the whole novel appeared in the magazine.

Robert A. W. Lowndes (1916-1998) is of course primarily known as an editor. He worked mostly for Columbia publishing, and edited a host of magazines in several genres. He was notable for producing quite decent magazines on very limited budgets. Among his better known SF magazines were Future and Science Fiction Stories. He wrote a modest quantity of short stories, and four novels. The other novels are The Duplicated Man, a collaboration with James Blish (much of Lowndes' output was in collaboration), Believers' World, a 1961 expansion of "A Matter of Faith", published as by Michael Sherman (which was the name he used for the magazine version of The Duplicated Man) in Space Science Fiction, and The Mystery of the Third Mine (1953), a Winston juvenile. I might add that the book versions of The Duplicated Man and Believers' World came out from Avalon, the low end publishing firm where Lowdes was editor, and for that matter the The Duplicated Man first appeared in Dynamic Science Fiction, which he also edited.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
Lowndes contributes a brief foreword to The Puzzle Planet in which he mentions John Campbell's assertion that an SF mystery was impossible -- because the writer could too regularly base his solution on super science or some other SFnal quality. Lowndes (as with many other writers, notably Isaac Asimov) responded that of course SF mysteries were possible -- it was simply necessary that the writer reveal to the reader any SFnal tricks he will use -- or perhaps better, make the solution to the mystery dependent on nothing SFnal. The Puzzle Planet is his attempt at such an SF mystery.

Roy Auckland has come to the planet Carolus in order to investigate some difficulties among the archaeological team studying the planet. These difficulties, it turns out, revolve around the controversial leader of the team, Dr. Howard James, who believes that the deserts of Carolus hold evidence of a long past powerful race of aliens. But the current inhabitants, the Vaec, are a pleasant but primitive people, much given to silly practical jokes.

James seems to have been the target of a couple of failed murder attempts. But there is something fishy about those attempts. And then another member of the expedition actually is killed -- in a very unusual way. The solution to the murder turns on unraveling not only the tangled relationships of the expedition members, but the secrets of the Vaec. I suppose Lowndes plays fair enough with the reader, but his mystery just isn't that interesting, and the Vaec secrets are hokum, basically.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1923-2002) was one of the lesser known well-loved writers in the field. By this I mean that he was never really prominent, but that he was mentioned a lot as a writer worth trying out. I myself am not very familiar with his work -- all I have read is a number of short stories. Most of them appeared in the last few years of his life in Analog, and by and large these were not terribly good. The Angry Espers is the first of his novels that I have read. His reputation is as an extremely humane writer. He had a Ph.D. in musicology, and he was a Professor of ? at Eastern Michigan (indeed, he taught there while my mother was a student there, though she never took one of his classes). Many of his SF stories involve music.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
In The Angry Espers Paul Corban, a human space pilot, awakens in a hospital on an unfamiliar world. He is surprised that his attendants do not speak, and that they seem disgusted by him. Eventually he is taken to a facility with a number of other people, and he learns to speak the language of this planet. He learns that the planet is full of powerful "espers", and that he is regarded as a subhuman because he has no such ability. He has been confined to the equivalent of a mental institution, and his fellows are mostly natives who are truly mentally deficient in that they should have had esp powers but do not. He nearly despairs, despite beginning to have feelings for a sympathetic female doctor.

Then he discovers one or two more Earth humans in the institution. He lets some of the doctors know that he comes from another planet, but he (and the sympathetic doctors) have not figured on the terrible prejudice of most of the Espers against non-esps. A war is launched against the worlds of the Terran federation. The second section of the novel covers the war in some detail, mostly through the viewpoint of people connected to Paul. It is a terrible war, with Earth's technological superiority (a result of not relying on ESP for everything) only allowing them to slow the inevitable advance of a people that can anticipate every move, that communicate instantaneously, that can teleport, etc.

The third section offers some hope, rejoining Paul and his doctor girlfriend as they make a desperate attempt for political reform on the Esper planet, supporting a less-prejudiced government. Naturally they win, but the implication is a bit scary, because Biggle stacks the deck a bit in their favor (given his initial setup). One can't help but think that the real result would be extermination of Earth. (Biggle also cheats, to my mind, by allowing Paul (and by implication all humans) to have latent esp powers that he gains in moments of extreme stress.)

It's not a terrible novel, but nothing particularly memorable either. I shall have to track down a copy of one of Biggle's better known novels to try.
(Cover by Leo Summers, image courtesy of Galactic Central)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: Provenance, by Ann Leckie



Provenance, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 978-0-316-38867-2, $26, hc, 439 pages) September 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Provenance is Ann Leckie’s fourth novel. The first three (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy) make up a trilogy about an “ancillary” of the Imperial Radch who becomes involved in a conflict between two versions of the Emperor. This new novel is set in the same universe, at roughly the same time, but outside the Radch. It is engaging and fun but frankly seems just a little thin next to the Ancillary series. There’s no crime in that – I think it’s a good thing when an author reaches the point where her readers are glad to read each of her books, and are satisfied by them – but also admit that they are not each equally as good (or progressively better). Solid and enjoyable work is nothing to sneeze at. That said, if I’m saying that, it probably means I don’t consider Provenance one of the best five or six SF novels of the year – and that’s true. But it doesn’t disgrace the award by its nomination either – and, indeed, it fits with all the nominees I’ve read so far, in being enjoyable and entertaining but not exceptional.

The main character is Ingray, a decidedly privileged young woman from the planet Hwae. Ingray’s mother Netano is a very powerful figure on Hwae, and Ingray has long believed that her brother Danach is her mother’s preferred heir. (In using terms like “young woman”, “mother”, “brother”, and “heir” I’m glossing over some interesting complexities of the social and gender organization on Hwae, including that people choose genders at roughly majority, that there are three choices (he, she, and e), that children (at least in powerful families) are often adopted), etc. etc.) So Ingray, in a desperate effort to impress Netano, has arranged to retrieve Pahlad Budraikim, the disgraced child of one of her mother’s rivals from “Compassionate Removal”, a ghastly seeming prison planet used by the Hwae in lieu of the death penalty. And now she has the person in question – except e claims to be someone else entirely. And Ingray is broke.

So Ingray ends up, a bit fortuitously, with a trip back to Hwae on a ship captained by one Uisine. But that has its owned complications – in particular, Uisine is wanted for stealing his ship from the Geck. So the Geck want him, but technicalities allow Uisine to take Ingray back home. Uisine is guilty, with extenuating circumstances – he is one of a group of humans who live on the Gecks’ homeworld, but who must be adapted to their aquatic lifestyle. And his gills never came in.

Complications keeps piling up. There is Ingray and her problems, Uisine and his, and “Garal”, as the person Ingray thought was Pahlad, Burdraikim and eir problems. Things don’t get easier back on Hwae – Ingray gets involved with some foreigners who want to study an area of “ruin glass”, which has implications for Hwae’s own history, and its accepted beliefs about that history, which are pretty fundamental to their culture. Then someone is murdered. And another group, from the planet Omkem, invades and kidnaps a group of children, looking for access to stargates …

There’s a lot going on, and it’s pretty involving stuff. It’s mixed with worthwhile cultural details, varying from human group to human group, and complicated further when aliens are involved. There’s some believable and fun action. The characters are engaging. The exploration of gender roles on Hwae, intertwined interestingly with class, is nice (there are parallels with the way gender is chosen in J. Y. Yang’s Hugo-nominated novella “The Black Tides of Heaven”, and frankly I think Leckie’s depictions of gender selection more interesting than Yang’s). So, then, why did I say it sometimes seems a bit thin? One reason is that everyone seems basically an early 21st Century human, and lots of the background details of their lives don’t differ a lot from our lives. Other than that, the whole book, while remaining fun, does seem to work out a bit conveniently. It all adds up to a book I enjoyed plenty, but a book I that I don’t quite think stands among the very best novels of 2017.

(I’ll caveat this by noting that while I know and am on good terms with a great many SF writers, including several Hugo nominees this year, I probably know Ann Leckie a bit better than some of the others, for the simple reason that she lives in a neighboring suburb to mine, that we sometimes go to the same grocery store, that our kids went to the same high school at about the same time, and that she, for example, signed my copy of Provenance at a local independent book store. So take anything I say with whatever heaps of salt you wish.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Another Ace Double Review: The Ballad of Beta-2, by Samuel R. Delany/Alpha Yes, Terra No!, by Emil Petaja

Ace Double Reviews, 82: The Ballad of Beta-2, by Samuel R. Delany/Alpha Yes, Terra No!, by Emil Petaja (#M-121, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

April 12th is Emil Petaja's birthday, so I figured this is a good day to repost this review, first written in 2008. And any day is a good day to post a review of a Samuel R. Delany novel!

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Valigursky)
I used to speculate as to which of an Ace Double pair was considered the "lead" title. I've since decided that there wasn't necessarily one at all -- that both were by default considered "equal". But if there was a lead one, surely the much longer one, by the older, more established, writer would be it? And when this Ace Double appeared, maybe that was the case, and maybe the marketing focussed on Emil Petaja's Alpha Yes, Terra No! After all, it's 50,000 words long, by a veteran writer (who ended up being named SFWA's first Author Emeritus). The Ballad of Beta-2 is only about 29,000 words, and while it was Samuel R. Delany's fifth book, Delany was still very young (23), and his books hadn't really made much of an impact yet. But from the perspective of 2008, the Petaja novel is the curiosity, the appendage which (I suspect) is more likely to be read because it happens to come along with a Delany story than on its own (let's be honest, rather limited) merits.

Of course we know the real reason Wollheim paired these two novels: he thought it was cute to have one side with an "Alpha" title, and the other with a "Beta" title! (I have no doubt whatsoever that that's the case, too.)

Even saying that about Delany's latterday prominence (and noting that he is an SFWA Grand Master, and one of the field's very greatest writers), one comes away from The Ballad of Beta-2 understanding why he wasn't yet a superstar. Because this really isn't a very good book. It was with his next couple of books (Empire Star and Babel-17) that he truly hit his stride. You can certainly see in The Ballad of Beta-2 some of the stylistic quirks that mark his best work -- that is, it is undeniably a Delany story -- just a weakish one.

It fits into that fairly large subgenre of "generation ship gone wrong" tales, though that isn't clear from the start. It opens with a student, Joneny, ordered by his professor to study the "Star Folk", an obscure group of humans living around a planet called Leffer VI. Joneny reluctantly takes as his subject one of the Star Folk ballads, "The Ballad of Beta-2", and he heads to Leffer VI to try to meet the Star Folk.

He learns that the Star Folk are descendants of a group of people who left Earth in a number of generation ships -- but, as seems almost traditional by now, FTL travel was invented and the stars colonized before they ever got where they were going. A few of them limped into Leffer VI after some centuries, but they didn't want to leave their ships, so they are allowed to stay on board, maintaining their ship-based culture. A couple more ships reached Leffer VI as wrecks, and a couple more never made it.

Joneny, with the help of a mysterious young man he meets on one of the wrecked ships, finds a couple of ship's logs, and reads the tale of the passage between the stars. He quickly realizes that the mysterious lines of the "ballad of Beta-2" actually tell of real events: the "sand" mentioned in the ballad is space dust or something like that, the Beta-2 is one of the ships, the woman in the ballad is the captain of one of the ships, etc. etc. All this is a bit too programmatic perhaps but kind of interesting in its way. Where Delany lost me was his final revelation: the nature of the young he meets, and why the ships ran into such trouble.

In all fairness, it's not really a terrible story. It's just not nearly as good as Delany would be doing within months of this novel's appearance.

One cute note: the second sentence shows Delany making a remarkable prediction: he seems to refer to compact fluorescent light bulbs: "White light from the helical fixture struck the sharp bones of the professor's face."

Emil Petaja (pronounced Puh-TIE-uh, apparently -- I had always thought it Puh-TAH-huh) was a Montana-born writer of Finnish descent. He was born in 1915 and died in 2000. He became a friend of the near-legendary SF artist Hannes Bok at an early age, and lived with Bok for a time. Petaja wrote stories and poems, some Lovecraftian, and began to sell to the pulps in 1942. He wrote SF and also mysteries for about a decade, then stopped writing and worked as a photographer in San Francisco. He was lured back to the field in 1965 or so -- apparently (at least in part) by Fred Pohl, who bought stories by a number of old pulpsters (such as Robert Moore Williams, A. E. Van Vogt, Bryce Walton, and Jerome Bixby) for Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow in the mid-60s. His first novel was published in 1965, his last in 1970. He may be best known for his cycle of four novels (a fifth remains unpublished) based on the Finnish legend cycle the Kalevala. He was the first SFWA Author Emeritus, in 1995.

Alpha Yes, Terra No! opens with a shapechanging alien from Alpha Centauri visiting Earth, in the early years of the 21st Century. (That is, about now -- it's kind of fun to read a story set in our "present" and see how different things are.) He is apparently here in defiance of his planet's rulers -- but quite why we don't know. It's clear he holds humans in something like contempt. But as he makes his way through San Francisco he does encounter some people he likes, particularly Kora, a young woman, a prostitute's daughter, who tries to help the poor and downtrodden; and Oren Starr, a folksinger of particular talent -- who himself falls for Kora immediately.

We soon learn that Kora and Oren are partially Alphan -- the result of a forbidden experiment generations before. And the alien invader is desperately trying to find "good" humans to stave off the dominant faction on Alpha Centauri who want humanity exterminated before they can get out of the Solar System. Oren and Kora are the key. So he manipulates them to go to Mars, where the evil "Big Man" who runs the Solar System behind the scenes is trying to build a starship. And from there, of course, the path leads to Alpha Centauri -- but there are pitfalls on the way, partly because of the bad guy from Alpha C trying to track them down.

The resolution, hinted at in the cover copy, is a trial of Terra, reminiscent perhaps of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. I wasn't terribly impressed by Petaja's arguments in this section -- he allows the Alpha C bad guy to get away with too much, in particular. The resolution is not a big surprise of course, though in some ways it works better than most of the book.

On the whole, it's a bad book. The structure is silly, the characters don't make sense, there is little or no originality. And there are such howlers as one event on Mars. They are driving, when all of a sudden it gets completely dark, everything stops. Why? Phobos has just eclipsed the sun. It is explained that this happens many times a day. Well, it's true that Phobos does pass in front of the Sun many times a day -- but its disk is so small relative to the Sun's disk at Mars that it does not significantly affect the Sun's illumination.