Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Hopefully Not Forgotten Fantasy Mystery: Cold Iron, by Melisa Michaels

Cold Iron, by Melisa Michaels
Roc, 1997, $5.99
ISBN: 0451456548

Today is Melisa Michaels' birthday. Melisa wrote a number of enjoyable SF novels, the Skyrider series, of the Space Opera sort, in the mid-80s, followed by a few more, some of them fantasy, the last of which (to date) appeared in 2004. She was the first webmaster of SFWA's site, and was given the Service to SFWA award in 2008. I wrote this review back in 1997, when Cold Iron, the first of two books about Rosie Levine, appeared.

Christmas season is upon us, and Rosie Levine, San Francisco-based PI, is irritated. She hates Christmas. So when her partner barges into their office with a huge Christmas tree, Rosie, against her better judgment, decides to escape by taking on a rather vague and unpromising case.

Candy Cayne (why didn't that name bother her?), a groupie of sorts for the elfrock band Cold Iron, thinks someone is trying to kill the band's leader, and she wants Rosie to find out who and why.
Rosie joins the band and follows them on a few tour stops, to LA and Hawaii. Despite her initial revulsion, she finds herself drawn into the self-destructive lifestyle of the elfrock stars: heavy drug use, absurdly casual sex, and childish violence. And she finds herself both attracted and repelled by the charismatic elf who leads Cold Iron, Jorandel. Rosie does precious little detecting, but in their different ways both Candy and Jorandel lead Rosie to some painful personal revelations and self-discovery. Then, events overtake Rosie, a couple of deaths occur, and she finally starts investigating the violence surrounding the band. There some nice twists, and a complicated scheme comes clear in a moving ending.

Cold Iron works as three different (well-integrated) books. It is a moving and careful examination of an outwardly tough woman's character, and the scars which are holding her back from, I suppose one would say, complete maturity. It is also a mystery story, of the "female hard-boiled detective" variety, a la Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. And it is a look at the scary but glamorous personalities of the members of the elfrock band, especially the very attractive, very unhealthy, leader, Jorandel.
The first level, Rosie's story, is very successful, I think. Rosie is an appealing character. We care what happens to her, even as one is tempted to scream "Wake up!" at her every so often. And, as I say, her personal story is resolved (or, rather, moved towards resolution: I suppose no one's life is ever really "resolved") in a strong, believable fashion.

The second level, the mystery story, is decent but not wholly involving. The scheme at the heart of it struck me as a bit far-fetched, and possibly a bit under-motivated as well. In addition, Rosie's relative slowness in catching on to things, while thoroughly believable and in character (and important to the story), does tend to distract from the mystery: the reader is for most of the book a bit too far ahead of her.

Finally, the third level, the metaphorical level at which elves are compared to rock stars and vice versa: this is what makes this novel a fantasy, rather than a crime novel. And one easy question is: why make it a fantasy at all? The story would work quite well as an ordinary mystery. (A couple of minor plot points do turn on the nature of elves, but I think substitutions could easily have been arranged.) Indeed, from an SF/F reader's point of view, the book raises questions that don't get answered: Why is this world, outwardly quite similar to ours, also openly inhabited by elves (who interbreed with humans)? What is the structure of elven society? Is there an historical explanation for the nature of this world? Just exactly where is Faery? And so on. But answering these questions isn't part of the goal of this book (maybe in a sequel?) Rather, it seems to me, the elfrock band presents a spectrum of elves and halflings ranging from relatively sane, to purely childish, to the dangerous, fascinating Jorandel. Of elves it is said they are "fallen angels, not good enough to save, not bad enough to be lost...who have every charm but conscience", and Jorandel is an excellent illustration of this description. (And the other band members are well portrayed also, ranging in character from an affectless sociopath to a unexpectedly delightful shy sweetheart.) In this way, oddly, it seems to me the core metaphor of this book is "elves are like rock stars" rather than the more conventional "rock stars are like elves". And the directionality of that metaphor makes the book a fantasy. (Or, quite possibly, this reader, an SF reader, is intepreting the metaphor quite differently than a non-SF reader would: and I suspect a mystery reader would enjoy the novel as a mystery, and regard the elf business as local color, or a gimmick. I don't know if mystery readers who don't read SF are likely to find this book, though.)

In summary, this is a fine novel, with a contrasted pair of deeply hurt central characters, who solve their problems in ways which are true to their characters, and which nicely illustrate the nature of humans, and of elves.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Belated Birthday Review: Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way, by James Enge

This is a repost of a review I did for Black Gate of James Enge's first two novels, and the repost is a somewhat belated honoring of James' Birthday, May 25. The original post can be seen here.

Blood of Ambrose by James Enge (Pyr, 978-1-59102-736-2, $15.98, tpb, 416 pages) April 2009.
This Crooked Way by James Enge (Pyr, 978-1-59102-784-3, $16, tpb, 414 pages) October 2009.

A review by Rich Horton

A few years ago Black Gate featured the first published story from James Enge, "Turn Up This Crooked Way". I admit I regard first stories with skepticism -- but despite limited expectations I was entirely delighted, and at the end of the year it made my "Virtual Best of the Year" list. He continued to place stories at Black Gate, all featuring the main character from "Turn Up This Crooked Way", a rather dour magician named Morlock. Morlock’s reputation is bad, but (perhaps predictably) he is actually on the side of good. There were some hints of a tortured back story for him, but little detail.

Now we have two novels from Enge, each also about Morlock. The first, Blood of Ambrose, is more conventionally a novel -- though quite episodic in structure -- and while Morlock is a major character, he shares the stage with another protagonist. But we are vouchsafed some revelations about Morlock’s back story. As for the second book, it is straightforwardly a fixup of several of the Black Gate stories, as well as some new episodes, and some linking material. For all that it does feature an overarching narrative arc, so it ends up working effectively enough as a novel.

To summarize my reactions to Blood of Ambrose -- I enjoyed the novel. I found it compelling reading throughout, and I was fascinated by the characters. But -- you knew there had to be a but, right? But -- it doesn’t wholly work as a novel. The main issue is one you might expect from a first time novelist with experience in short fiction -- it’s too episodic, not sufficiently unified. It reads more like a series of novellas set end to end. And also -- in common with other fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately -- the body count is enormous, to the point you rather wonder "what’s the point?" If the good guys let the bad guys get away with this much awfulness (and most of the victims just ordinary folks caught up in things), then they don’t seem to be doing a very good job.

The story opens with Lathmar, child King of Ambrose and Emperor of Ontilia, fleeing his uncle and regent, Lord Urdhven, who we soon learn was responsible for the King’s parents’ death, and who is soon ready to kill the King’s Grandmother, the lady Ambrosia. But Ambrosia is a nearly immortal woman, in fact the ancestress of the entire royal line. And her brother, also nearly immortal, is Morlock Ambrosius. Morlock arrives in the nick of time to save his sister -- in a nicely executed set piece -- and soon after the battle lines are drawn: Lathmar, Morlock, Ambrosia, and various loyalists against Lord Urdhven and his cohorts.

Which works nicely -- Lord Urdhven is an interesting enough villain, along with his poisoner Steng, but soon we learn that he’s not the real villain -- he’s under control of something much more sinister. And so the King and Morlock’s first victory proves somewhat hollow, and they are quickly battling something worse. There are thus ups and downs in their campaign, leading eventually to Morlock encountering people from his distant past -- indeed even his father, whose identity is fairly significant. There are several further climaxes, all pretty nicely done.

Besides the fantasy elements (worthwhile stuff) and the escalating plot with its multiple climaxes, the real interest here is the characters. Morlock is truly the most compelling, with his dourness, cynicism, and tortured compulsion to do right. His sister is interesting as well, and his sidekick, the dwarf Wyrtheorn. (Though neither of them are entirely original creations, it seems to me -- no slavish copying here, just fairly standard-issue tropes.) Lathmar, the King, is the central point. We are meant to see him grow - and he does, and he’s a good young man, worth reading about -- but at some level he doesn’t fully convince.

Still, this is really enjoyable. Yes, I had quibbles, but I enjoyed myself throughout. The various setpieces -- the flying horse, the birds, the duel with the golem, etc. -- are great fun. The characters are fun to follow, and the writing is effective -- I always wanted to know what happened next.

And a lot of what happens next again -- that is, after the end of Blood of Ambrose -- is given in This Crooked Way. As I said it is a fixup novel made up of the earlier stories, and a couple more, plus some connecting material and some revisions to make the stories work more as a continuous narrative. Indeed, I urge readers not to skip Appendix B, which purports to reveal the sources Enge used in creating his quasi-Arthurian characters, and which also archly confesses to the fixup form of this book.

The main character is of course Morlock Ambrosius. Morlock, as we know from Blood of Ambrose, is a long-lived magician -- or, more properly, a "maker" -- tortured by his past, and by his family, and by drink, and by his inconvenient insistence on doing good. Morlock is at it happens the son of one Merlin -- yes, it would appear, that Merlin. At least sort of. And it is Morlock’s conflict with his father over the fate of his mother Nimue that drives this novel. For Merlin has gone to great lengths to make Nimue immortal -- but this condition is no favor to her, in great part because Merlin’s means of doing so requires her to be split in three parts. Morlock’s quest here, then, is to reunite his Mother, to live or die as fate wills. But Merlin is a very powerful magician himself, and thus a dangerous foe.

Enge structures the book so that as Morlock journeys he encounters numerous dangers and adventures. Some of these are traps set by Merlin, others are merely hazards of a difficult trek across a dangerous land. Furthermore Morlock in his travels meets other people -- in particular in this case a family consisting of a knight, and his sister, and the sister’s children, two boys and a girl. A few episodes, then, are told from the points of view of some of this family, with Morlock a major character but not necessarily the focus.

What happens, then? Lots happens: encounters with various horrifying beasts such as the Boneless One, the insectoid Khroi, werewolves, spiderfolk, and dragons. Plenty of clever magic: Morlock’s mastery of fire, including sentient flames; an extra-dimensional house; golems; different sorts of magical swords; Merlin’s various clever but often flawed spells. Add plenty of swordplay, a magical horse, and a rather self-absorbed troll.

I’m purposely not detailing the individual plots of the episodes. Each is enjoyable, and quite well-constructed. Each works as a single story, but Enge has done a good job of propelling the overall story so that the book itself really does read as nicely unified. (Though I will say that I thought the additional connecting material from the point of view of a Khroi was superfluous, rather boring, and would have been better omitted.) Morlock’s character is nicely done and always fascinating. The secondary characters -- Merlin in particular but also Morlock’s various fellow travelers -- are well done too. The telling is consistently mordantly humorous. Enjoyable work.

Brief Birthday Review: Inda, by Sherwood Smith

This very brief review was first written for a column I did for Fantasy Magazine long ago. I'm reposting it in honor of Sherwood Smith's birthday.

Inda, by Sherwood Smith (DAW, 0-7564-0264-6, $25.95, 568pp, hc) August 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Sherwood Smith has written a wide variety of books but for my taste her best is Crown Duel, a YA book originally published as two novels. That was set in a fantasy world she has been working on since childhood, and in which she has set many other stories. Her new novel, the beginning of a series, is Inda, which it turns out is something of a distant prequel to Crown Duel (though no knowledge of the other book is required).

Inda is not marketed as YA, and it does feature some not very explicit sex, but its main characters are all teens or younger, and if you ask me it’s appropriate for teen readers -- and also very enjoyable for adults. The title boy is one of several viewpoint characters. He is an aristocrat, the sister of the King’s heir’s intended wife (marriages in this world seem generally arranged from young childhood, and the girl grows up in her intended’s household).  He is brought to the capitol for war training at 10, where he befriends the King’s second son, called Sponge. Sponge, an intellectual boy, is despised by his mentally handicapped elder brother, the heir, and by his scheming Uncle, the Sirandael or "Shield Arm" of the King. But Inda, preternaturally talented at command, befriends Sponge and begins to build a cadre of boys loyal to him, which threatens the plans of the Sirandael. So Inda is framed for a crime and exiled to the sea, while Sponge must make his way alone. Meanwhile the Sirandael embroils his country in an ill-advised occupation of a neighbor, and continues to scheme against Sponge and against other people such as Inda’s also-talented older brother, whose position is further complicated because of the lust the King’s heir feels for his beautiful intended wife.

The novel perhaps starts a bit slowly, but it is in the end supremely readable, full of strong action: wargames, land war, and pirate actions at sea; as well as courtly intrigue, a mild amount of interesting magic, and some well-presented sexual tension. I enjoyed it immensely, and I eagerly await the sequel, due in 2007.

Birthday Review: Fred Chappell's More Shapes Than One

More Shapes Than One, by Fred Chappell (St. Martin's Press, 1991)

A review by Rich Horton

Fred Chappell was born May 28, 1936, in Canton, North Carolina. He attended Duke University, and spent 40 years as a Professor at UNC Greensboro. So we get it -- he was a North Carolinian! He has received considerable and well-deserved notice for his mainstream fiction set in the South -- he can be called a Southern Gothic writer. But he has also written a good deal of Fantasy and fantastical poetry, often published in genre sources such as Weird Tales and F&SF. In honor of his 82nd birthday I'm reposting this brief review, first posted at in 2004.

More Shapes Than One is a 1991 collection of short fiction. Chappell, as noted, had considerable apparent interest in the SF genre, particular the horror side of things (with Lovecraft, I would surmise, a special interest). This interest is amply displayed in this collection. For one thing, three of the stories appeared in genre outlets, two in Best of the Year collections (the DAW Best Horror in one case, and Datlow and Windling's Best Fantasy and Horror in the other) and one more in Weird Tales. All but a couple of the stories are at least to some extent fantastical, and a couple stories directly concern horror/fantasy writers. I liked the book a great deal.

The first couple of stories reminded me of Byatt's The Biographer's Tale, which I recently read [as of the first publication of this review in 2004], in their subject matter: "Linnaeus Forgets" is of course about Linnaeus, and "Ladies of Lapland" about an exhibition to Lapland. Both are fun stories with a certain density of obscure historical facts (as I assume): the first about Linnaeus receiving a very strange plant from a sailor; the second about a French geographer travelling to Lapland and seducing a number of Lapp women.

"The Snow That is Nothing in the Triangle" is a curious story about the mathematician Feuerbach -- it didn't no much for me. "Barcarole" is about the composer Offenbach encountering a dying musician with a resemblance to himself, and about a long-loved tune of Offenbach's youth. A nice story. "Weird Tales" is about H. P. Lovecraft, Hart Crane, and a strange associate of both, Samuel Loveman, who discovers a means of visiting Antarctica in other times -- as when the Elder Gods ruled ...

One of my favorite stories is new to the book, "The Somewhere Doors". This concerns a barely successful pulp writer in the late 30s and 40s, who encounters a strange woman with a very unusual message for him. This eventually gets him in trouble when the government decides the woman is a Communist -- but she may have given him an out in the form of the title doors. My other favorite story is "Duet", pretty much pure mainstream (possibly the only non-fantastical story in the book), about an old-time musician reacting to the death of his friend and fellow musician.

"The Adder" is a clever story about a copy of the Necromonicon in the original Arabic, and its baleful effects on neighboring books. "Ember" is straightforward horror about a man who murders his girlfriend and tries to escape, with predictable (to the reader) results. "Miss Prue" is a very short story about an elderly woman and her relationship with her long time suitor. "Mankind Journeys Through Forests of Symbols" is a very fun story in which unwritten Symbolist poems can take tangible form, and one blocks traffic in rural North Carolina. "Alma" is pretty solid SF about gender roles -- set in a world where men and women are treated as basically separate species, with women quite literally enslaved and sold by some of the men. And "After Revelation" is apparently set in the future, after a couple of holocausts, in a world where science is proscribed -- then the "Owners" come, offering complete knowledge and happiness.

This is a very fine collection of stories, I think.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: The Chauffeur and the Chaperon, by C. N. and A. M. Williamson

Old Bestseller Review: The Chauffeur and the Chaperon, by C. N. and A. M. Williamson

a review by Rich Horton

Back at last to the original purpose of this blog -- Bestsellers from the first half of the 20th Century. C. N. and A. M. Williamson were a husband and wife team (Charles Norris and Alice Muriel) who had two books appear on the Publishers' Weekly list of bestselling novels of the year, The Princess Passes in 1905 and Lord Loveland Discovers America in 1910. They published most of the their novels first as serials, and, as Richard Rex, in his biography of Alice M. Williamson, suggests, book sales aren't the only measure of popularity. Rex's book quotes the Leeds Times: "who is the most popular serial writer? ... a few voted for Hall Caine, Ian Maclaren had also a fair share of support, but the verdict of the majority was given to Mrs. Williamson." And, indeed, the Williamsons wrote not just for magazines like Smith's, or the Grand, or the Delineator, or the Strand, but also for weeklies like Lloyd's, and daily newspapers like the Daily Mail.

The Williamsons were an interesting couple for other reasons. Both were journalists. C. N. was an editor, of a magazine called Black and White. A. M. sold a piece to C. N. soon after she came to England. Which hints at another interesting feature of their association -- Alice was an American. She came to England in 1892. After they became professional comrades, they married, around the turn of the century. And much of their married life was spent travelling, and as journalists, they wrote about their travels. According to Alice's memoirs, their first collaborative novel came about after the magazine they had contracted with for a travelogue of one of their trips folded, and they decided to wrap a story about their travel account and sell it as a novel.

Their dates were 1869-1933 for Alice, and 1859-1920 for Charles. Alice published some short stories in the United States before moving to England, and continued to publish fiction after Charles' death. She was once quoted as saying "Charlie Williamson could go anything except write stories, and I could do nothing but write stories." This suggested a question as to who was the real writer of their collaborative works? It's notable that several of their stories (the novel at hand included) featured both American and British main characters, and indeed sections written from those different points of view are features of several of these novels. It was assumed aty the time that Charlie wrote the sections from the POV of men and/or English people, and Alice the sections from the POV of women and/or Americans.

Richard Rex, however, comes to a different conclusion, that I find convincing. He believes that Alice was the actual writer of all their collaborative fiction. Charles probably contributed stuch stuff as notes about their travel itinerary (critical to their rather travelogish books), and he may also have taken a key role in the business side of writing. One thing Rex discovered was a couple of stories first published as by Alice Livingstone in the US, and later republished under different titles as by C. N. and A. M. Williamson in the UK. Clearly those were Alice's work alone.

The story gets more interesting however, in Rex's accounting, when he digs into Alice's history in the US. Apparently her actual maiden name was Kent, and she married, very young (about 16) a man named Hamilton. Her marriage was not a success, and she became an actress, first as Alice King Hamilton. After a divorce, she changed her name to Alice Livingstone (presumably adopting her maternal grandfather's surname), and over time all mention of her earlier career was elided from her accounts of her life. She represented herself in her autobiography as 17 years old when she came to England in 1892 (in fact she was 23), and apparently Charles never knew of her previous marriage.

All fascinating stuff -- and I recommend Richard Rex's book, Alice Muriel Williamson: The Secret History of an American-English Author, to anyone interested in more details. In the end, it seems that Alice made a very satisfying life for herself, and that Charlie Williamson was happy as well. I can't blame her if she told a few fibs along the way.

So what of this novel? My edition was published by the McClure Company in 1908. A short story called "The Chauffeur and the Chaperon" was published in the Delineator for October 1906, while a serial called "The Botor Chaperon" appeared in The Grand Magazine (the first true British pulp) between August 1906 and January 1907. (It's not at all certain that "The Botor Chaperon" and The Chauffer and the Chaperon are the same story, but it seems plausible.) The Chauffeur and the Chaperon is copyright 1906/1907.
(Cover by Arthur H. Buckland)

My edition is illustrated by Karl Anderson, and the cover illustration is by Arthur H. Buckland.

As for the story -- two girls, stepsisters living in England, come into a small legacy. The girls' parents were an American woman and a British man, who remarried after their first spouses died. Then they died themselves. The two young women live together, making do with income from the American's serial writing, and the Englishwoman's typing. The American girl is Helen (Nell) van Buren, and the Englishwoman if Phyllis Rivers. Their inheritance is a couple hundred pounds and a boat in Holland. Nell insists that the claim the boat and make a tour of Holland.

(Interior illustrations by Karl Anderson)
When they get there they find the boat has already been let to an American painter, Ronald Lester Starr. A compromise is reached -- Ronald will hire a chauffeur, and ask his Scottish aunt, Lady MacNairne, to act as chaperon, and they will tour Holland together. Unfortunately, Lady MacNairne is hard to find, and Ronald engages an impostor. Nell van Buren's Dutch cousins learn of her existence, and sparks fly immediately between Robert van Buren and Phyllis.-- but Robert is all but engaged, to a rather unattractive and unpleasant woman, Freule Menela. The chauffeur Ronald engages is one Rudolph Brederode, a wealthy and very privileged Dutch Jonkheer, who has fallen head over heels for Nell. Meanwhile, Ronald is sure he is in love with one of the girls, though whether he prefers Phyllis or Nell seems uncertain. And Nell has unaccountably taken a dislike to Jonkheer Rudolph.

The novel continues, following their journey through the canals of Holland. We see any number of cute Netherlands cities -- this really is, to a great extent, a travelogue, and reasonably enjoyable on those terms. There is in addition the romance plot -- Robert van Buren is in love with Phyllis, and Jonkheer Rudolph Brederode is in love with Nell. And Ronald Lester Starr loves both girls. But who do the girls prefer? And what of Robert's intended, Freule Menela? And for that matter, what of the mysterious faux Lady MacNairne?

It's actually quite a fun book. The writing is downright sprightly -- Alice Williamson (assuming it was she) was a very accomplished popular writer. The resolution of the romance is obvious from the word go, but it's nice enough anyway. The travelogue aspects are interesting enough as well. This is really pretty good popular fiction of its time.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: Endless Shadow, by John Brunner/The Arsenal of Miracles, by Gardner F. Fox

Ace Double Reviews, 86: Endless Shadow, by John Brunner/The Arsenal of Miracles, by Gardner F. Fox (#F-299, 1964, 40 cents)

May 20, 1911, was the birthday of Gardner F. Fox, hence this reposted Ace Double review.

Here I continue my exploration of the minor works of John Brunner via Ace Double. Which is a good way to do it, I think -- Brunner wrote a lot of short novels, many of them published as Ace Doubles, and they tend to be entertaining but fairly obviously dashed off quickly.

(Arsenal of Miracles cover by Ed Valigursky)
So, this Ace Double includes Endless Shadow, a very short (about 31,500 words) novel from Brunner. The other side is a novel by Gardner F. Fox. Fox (1911-1986) is a fairly legendary figure in the history of comics. He was a lawyer who turned to writing fairly early, and by 1939 was already writing comics, inventing the character the Sandman. He worked mainly for DC, it seems. He was one of the earliest writers of Batman stories, and he created the Flash. All that is very well, but what about Fox the prose writer? Fox wrote a fair amount for pulps in many genres, but he was an avowed fan of SF (beginning with Burroughs). My previous experience with him was a story or two for Planet Stories. I thought them truly awful, among the worst stuff I read in Planet. The Arsenal of Miracles is the only Ace Double I know of by him, though he did do some pseudonymous work, so perhaps he wrote others under different names. It's about 52,000 words long.

Endless Shadow isn't one of the better John Brunner Ace Doubles I've read, but it is better than the last one, "Keith Woodcott"'s The Psionic Menace. This novel uses an idea most familiar to me from John Barnes's Thousand Cultures series: a number of planets have been colonized using STL methods (or perhaps slowish FTL methods) and have progressed in isolation over the centuries, but teleportation technology has been developed (called here the Bridge System) and slowly authorities on Earth are establishing instantaneous links to the various colonies. I'm sure I've seen this idea explored elsewhere than in Brunner or Barnes, but I can't offhand call up examples. Anyone have any ideas? I suppose in a weird way C. J. Cherryh's early novels beginning with Gate of Ivrel resemble this idea. (On the other hand, the notion of STL colonies being united by later-developed FTL spaceships is fairly common.)

The problem of course is that some of the colonies have developed some pretty weird, potentially rather vile, cultures. The immediate problem faced by Bridge System Director Jorgen Thorkild is Riger's World, which has engendered a cult of snakehandlers which threatens to spread to Earth. But that problem can be solved ... Thorkild's more serious issues are personal. He is obsessed with gaining the favors of his previous boss's mistress, Alida Marquis. But Alida has no interest in him, even though her lover, and Jorgen's boss, is out of the picture, having committed suicide.

It turns out Jorgen's real problems are internal -- he, like his predecessor, is losing his sanity. This particular issue is brought to a head when a new planet named Azrael is contacted. The chief religion on Azrael is rather nihilistic -- death is prized as the ultimate experience, and it is best achieved by murdering another person, which act is punishable by death. The "programer" (Brunner's spelling of "programmer" -- I confess I had to pronounce it pro-Gray-mer) in charge of figuring out Azrael culture is himself murdered. A brilliant young programer, Hans Demetrios, is assigned to Azrael.

Azrael's representative comes to Earth and quickly rejects Earth's offer of a link to the Bridge System. This act somehow drives Thorkild over the edge to insanity. Meanwhile Alida Marquis has fallen in love with Hans Demetrios, who has gone to Azrael to take a desperate risk which should bring Azrael into line -- perhaps at the cost of his own sanity. And Thorkild, in the asylum, meets a naked young woman with her own problems. Somehow her nakedness signals that Thorkild must fall for her ... but her dilemma -- how to find meaning in the overly abundant culture of Earth -- gives him the keys to his own similar problems.

It all never really makes sense. Brunner is clearly trying to write a philosophically engaging novel -- at times it reads a little bit like Ayn Rand -- but the ideas at the center don't ever convince. Perhaps the book is simply too short -- it is certainly at the beginning very confusing, and perhaps a chapter or two of backstory would have helped. It is for an Ace Double oddly free of real action -- it truly does turn on the philosophical issues, not on action or derring do or even, really, politics. I didn't dislike it, but neither did I really like it.

It sometimes seems like Don Wollheim chose the novels paired in Ace Doubles because he could find links between them. The Arsenal of Miracles isn't very much like Endless Shadow, but it does have one slight link: it turns to an extent on the discovery of "gates" between worlds otherwise only linked by much slower (though in this case still FTL) spaceships. In this case the gates are a legacy of a long vanished race. The novel opens with Bran Magannon, the "Wanderer", losing a dice throw to a mysterious woman on the planet Makkador. His penalty: she owns his service. She is, naturally, his long lost lover, Peganna of the Silver Hair. Peganna is the Queen of a humanoid race, the Lyanirn, that had opposed humanity years before. Bran was the commander of the human forces, and he figured out how to beat them, and then worked on a deal to let the two races co-exist -- while he fell in love with Peganna. But a jealous subordinate purposely undermined the deal, and the Lyanirn fled to an isolated planet, while Bran, relegated to a humiliating desk job, resigned and began "wandering". His secret was the gate system he found, left by the long-vanished Crenn Lir.

I enjoyed the opening -- it seemed to set up a potentially quite enjoyable, if very pulpy, story. But things aren't resolve very well at all. Bran and Peganna, reunited, travel through the gates and soon stumble on the key to a treasure trove of Crenn Lir technology. But the bad guys -- Peganna's brother, who wants to be King, and the evil man who succeeded Bran as head of Earth's space forces -- conspire to capture the two, and to control the Crenn Lir tech themselves, relegating the Lyanirn (who it appears are just like humans -- both descendants of the Crenn Lir). Everything comes to a head with a trial, at which the two are condemned to death. Until a miracle happens. In other words, a totally implausible ending saves the day. It just doesn't work.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Happy Birthday, Rob Chilson

Today is Kansas City writer Rob Chilson's birthday. I felt like I ought to honor Rob, whom I know a bit from my regular visits to KC for ConQuesT, but, alas, he just missed the window for publishing Ace Doubles, and as it happens I've not read any of his novels. So I don't have a novel review to post. But I've read a lot of his short fiction, almost always with considerable enjoyment. So I thought I'd reproduce here a selection of the reviews I've done over the years of his short fiction, arranged in chronological order. I'd also like to mention one of my favorite Chilson stories, from a time before I was regularly reviewing: "This Side of Independence", from the February 1998 F&SF, and which was reprinted in both Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell's Best of the Year volumes.

From a piece I did for Black Gate a while back that discussed two issues of Analog from the very end of John W. Cambpell's editorial term and the very beginning of Ben Bova's term:

Robert Chilson, as it happens, is someone I know personally, though not terribly well -- he lives near Kansas City, and we’ve talked a few times at ConQuest, as well as shared the occasional panel. He began publishing in 1968, with "The Mind Reader" in Analog. He has published a great many short stories since then, with Analog and F&SF his primary markets.  He published as by "Robert Chilson" for about the first decade of his career, and mostly as "Rob Chilson" since then. He has also published some seven novels.

"Compulsion Worse Confounded" is about an IT person, as we’d say now. Raleigh is in charge of the "Archimage," a cluster of seven computers that does the processing for Wilder and Wilder, a food company. But the computer is acting up. For one thing, it wants to fire the secretary (who is, natch, beautiful, and who, natch, wants to get together with Raleigh -- this is Analog, after all). It also is ordering the company to acquire a rival -- but the rival seems to be doing something foolhardy. Is Wilder and Wilder’s computer behind that, as well? A fairly amusing story, turning on the computer’s inability to understand human desires, and its rather literal interpretation of orders.

From the April 2006 Locus:

The May issue of Analog does feature one very enjoyable and charming story that is very much pure Analog: Rob Chilson’s "Farmers in the Sky". The title signals a certain debt to Heinlein, as do the chapter headings. Shanda is a young woman from an asteroid farming family who has been studying on Earth, and has fallen in love with an Earthman. She returns home, convinced she’s lost her Earth boyfriend forever, but to her surprise he follows her Out. From this point the story could take a couple of obvious turns (there is also a local boy in the picture), but Chilson finds a kind of middle way that’s pretty satisfying, and that nicely illustrates the theme. And without making anyone a villain! Really, this shows many Analog characteristics very well: the space boosterism, the not terribly subtle explanation of the SFnal ideas by telling them to the visitor character, the hint of didacticism. Exaggerated, all these would be failings: in this story, they are handled pretty well, and for a long time SF fan like me the story is quite fun.

From the July 2012 Locus:

"The Conquest of the Air", by Rob Chilson (Analog 7/8/2012), takes on another fairly familiar idea -- aliens who live undersea -- but does so with some well done wrinkles. Humans are trying to mine the alien's planet -- because they don't know there are intelligent being  under the ocean; while the aliens are mostly skeptical, and fearful, of the idea of intelligent life on land, let alone from other planets. Naturally the story centers on a brave group of explorers who have designed a ship to "conquer the air". Effective and enjoyable work.

From the August 2015 Locus:

Probably my favorite this issue (Analog, 7/8/2015) is another story in an old-fashioned mode, this one reminding me of Jack Vance a bit: "The Tarn", by Rob Chilson, focusing on the Mayor of Firkle Fountain, a remote village known for nothing much, until a rumor spreads the treasure of an old philosophont (or wizard) can be found in a nearby pond. This brings a lot of visitors -- and chaos -- to the town, but the Mayor is convinced that it's all a fraud, and he has a prime suspect too. It's a bit meandering, but nicely told, and with some nice color and hints of an intriguing long history.

From the August 2017 Locus:

The highlights of the July-August Analog are a couple of stories whose protagonists live in relatively low-tech areas in far-future settings with plenty of exotic tech, which stretches a point to compare Maggie Clark‘s "Belly Up" and Rob Chilson‘s "Across the Steaming Sea". ... "Across the Steaming Sea" is the latest of a number of stories Chilson has published set on Earth in the very far future, in which a wide variety of "mankin" coexist among the remnants of some very exotic tech. Luro is the lowly youngest son of his village’s Asireman, and so he gets drafted to accompany one Kangahan on a dangerous trip to Melgol, where Kangahan claims he can find the Empyrean, a place of wonders, if only the Asireman will finance the trip. Luro’s greedy father is happy to lend the money and his son’s services, and Luro is happy enough to leave his home, especially when he meets the beautiful Zoritha. To no one’s surprise, though, Kangahan absconds with the money -- but Zoritha agrees to accompany Luro on an attempt to find the Empyrean anyway. So there’s good -- it seems the Empyrean might really exist -- and bad --Zoritha shows no interest in Luro, and the trip gets more and more dangerous. It’s all fun reading, with a nicely wrapped-up ending. Old fashioned stuff, sure enough, and sometimes that’s just the ticket.

(I see, by the way, that just as James Patrick Kelly used to always appear in the June issues of Asimov's, and Robert Reed and Albert Cowdrey used to always appear in, er, every single issue of F&SF <grin>, Rob Chilson seems to be appearing in most every July-August issue of Analog.)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Another Ace Double: The Water of Thought, by Fred Saberhagen/We, the Venusians, by John Rackham

Ace Double Reviews, 81: The Water of Thought, by Fred Saberhagen/We, the Venusians, by John Rackham (#M-127, 1965, 45 cents)

Here's an Ace Double from the recently deceased Fred Saberhagen [I wrote this review first in 2007], backed with one from regular John Rackham. Saberhagen wrote one other Ace Double half, The Golden People (1964), while Rackham was a regular under that name and his real name, John T. Phillifent, contributing 16 total "halves". The Water of Thought is about 44,000 words long, and We, the Venusians is some 53,000 words.
(Covers by Jerry Podwil and Jack Gaughan)

Fred Saberhagen was born on May 18, 1930, in Chicago (hence this reposting of the review), and died in 2007. After stints in the Air Force, at Motorola, and with the Encylopedia Britannica, he became a full-time writer in the mid-70s. He began publishing in 1961, and from very early in his career he was writing about the inimical machine intelligences called the Berserkers, which remain his most enduring contribution to SF. His post-apocalyptic fantasy-flavored novels beginning with the Empire of the East trilogy are also well regarded, and I quite enjoyed his singleton novel The Veils of Azlaroc. As ever, the Science Fiction Enyclopedia entry is very useful: here.

The Water of Thought is set on a world, Kappa, only tenuously colonized by humans, who live behind a forcefield. They have only limited, but generally benign, contact with the intelligent natives, called Kappans. The main character is a "planeteer", Boris Brazil, who is spending a brief vacation, in the company of a local girl named Brenda. He is called back to the colony for an emergency -- it seems another planeteer, Eddie Jones, has gone nuts and killed a Kappan and run off to the hinterlands.

So Boris, in the company of Brenda, heads to the interior to investigate. Their copter is sabotaged, and they are rounded up by Jones and his Kappan friends. They quickly learn that Jones believes that the humanlike Kappans are on the cusp of evolution to full sentience, and he hopes to guide them on the next step, with the help, perhaps, of "the water of thought", a druglike substance that has transformed his consciousness. Alas, it affects Boris differently -- makes him a slave to Jones's every command.

Boris and Brenda are taken to a Kappan village, eventually to be subjected to a brutal initiation ceremony. But Boris escapes, and begins to learn the true secrets behind things. The Kappans aren't the only sentients on the planet, for one thing. And the colonists aren't all so innocent, for another -- it seems the sometimes hallucinogenic properties of the "Water of Thought" have attracted the attention of interstellar druglords. The resolution involves a meeting with the "real" Kappans, a more primitive (supposedly) race ... complete with learning the (somewhat icky) true nature of the Water of Thought. Basically, it's not terrible work, but nothing very special either.

An expanded version of The Water of Thought was published in 1981, but I have not seen that.

John Rackham's real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). He also began publishing in the early '50s, though much less prolifically. He ended up producing something north of 20 novels as well as a fair amount of shorter work, under both the Rackham and Phillifent names.

I've rather enjoyed some John Rackham Ace Doubles, so I approached We, the Venusians with some optimism. And the opening is at least mildly promising. Brilliant pianist Anthony Taylor is approached by an influential Venusian colonist. He wants to take him, and a couple of other musical artists, to Venus, apparently to raise the cultural level of the colony. There is a small colony on the planet, but very rich, because they raise a plant, with the unwilling help of the subhuman local "greenies", that confers immortality and health on people.

Anthony Taylor has a secret, however, He is a half-Greenie himself, and takes "anti-tan" pills to hide this fact. So too does the Aussie singer Martha Merril who is also recruited to travel to Venus. But she is in denial. (The weird thing about all this is that it is taboo to take those pills, apparently because they would allow black people to "pass".) So -- an interesting setup, as they head to Venus, with the obviousl plot being the liberation of the Greenies.

Which is pretty much what happens, only somehow much less interestingly than I had hoped. For one thing, Taylor and Merril seem not necessarily to be half-breeds, but perhaps full Greenies, who were adopted by human parents. And the Greenies communicate mystically by telepathy ... not one of my favorite plot devices. And the whole Greenie society is a letdown -- particularly the bit about how they abandon their defectives, who turn out to be the slaves used to harvest the immortality bean ... All in all, a mess of a novel. (I was intrigued to note that this is one of at least two Rackham novels featuring beautiful and perfectly humanoid alien women with green skin -- the same trope turns up in Danger From Vega.)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Stars are Ours!, by Andre Norton/Three Faces of Time, by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Ace Double Reviews, 36: The Stars are Ours!, by Andre Norton/Three Faces of Time, by Sam Merwin, Jr. (#D-121, $0.35, 1955)

Rather a disappointing Ace Double, this one. Andre Norton's The Stars are Ours!, about 66,000 words long, was first published by World in 1954 -- presumably as a juvenile. Three Faces of Time was published, possibly in a shorter version, as "Journey to Misenum" in Startling Stories, August 1953. The Ace Double version is about 47,000 words.

Andre Norton published 15 Ace Double halves. Many of her early Ace Doubles were reprints of novels first published in hardcover and marketed to the "juvenile" segment (i.e., lots of library sales). This appears to be the case with The Stars are Ours!. The hero is a standard sort of hero for a juvenile SF book, a teenaged boy. There is no sex, not even a hint, not even a suggestion of interest. (That didn't stop Ace from featuring a gorgeous (or so I assume the artist intended) redhead on the cover -- this illustrates a scene that doesn't occur in the book, though it does semi-accurately reflect something that must have happened offstage -- a redheaded woman being awakened from a coldsleep chamber. As one of the women mentioned in the book is redheaded, and was in coldsleep -- well, she was awakened sometime!)

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
The Stars are Ours! opens on Earth after a catastrophe, blamed incorrectly on a hereditary Scientist caste, has led to the remnants of the human population being ruled by thuggish fascist types, who are trying to root out all the remaining Scientists. Dard Nordis is our teenaged hero, and his lame many years older brother is a Scientist, trying to develop some mysterious formula. When their evil neighbor alerts the bad guys that something suspicious is going on, they are forced out, and Dard's brother is killed, but not before entrusting his secret to Dard. Dard and his very young niece must escape in the snow, but fortunately they are able to rendezvous with a representative of the one remaining settlement of Scientists.

It turns out the Scientists are building a starship. Dard's brother's secret is one of the last bits of information they need. Rather implausibly, Dard, despite his youth and unfamiliarity, is allowed to go on a dangerous mission to the bad guys' city to gather the last bit of information before the starship can launch. And so the first half of the novel ends with a last-second escape.

The second half occurs centuries later, when the starship at last arrives at a new planet, and it covers, rather less interestingly, their arrival and discoveries on this planet, which turns out to have a history in some ways reminiscent of Earth's.

I really don't think this is one of Norton's better efforts. The two part structure is not dramatically successful -- it's much more two linked stories than a single novel. Even granting that it's a 50s novel, some of the science is just too silly for me; and the action is just not very convincing.

(Cover by Earle Bergey)
Just recently at Black Gate John O'Neill featured the 1983 Ace Omnibus edition of Sam Merwin, Jr.'s The House of Many Worlds, which combines that short novel with its sequel, Three Faces of Time, as a Vintage Treasures feature. I told John that I'd enjoyed "The House of Many Worlds" in its Startling Stories appearance, but that I hadn't read the sequel. But I lied -- I had, in this Ace Double edition, which I'd completely forgotten.

(Cover by Walter Popp)
Sam Merwin, Jr. (1910-1996) was a relatively forgettable writer, but a significant and underappreciated editor in the SF field, particularly for his time at Startling Stories and its sister magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, from 1945 through 1951. He also edited for brief periods Fantastic Universe and Satellite Science Fiction, among other publications. And his father was a fairly accomplished writer and editor as well, and I reviewed his novel The Road to Frontenac a while back on this blog, here.

Three Faces of Time is a sequel to a short novel called The House of Many Worlds, which I read a few months ago [as I first wrote this review]. The House of Many Worlds appeared, apparently in full, in Startling Stories for September 1951. The two stories have been collected together as The House of Many Worlds (Ace, 1983). I rather enjoyed The House of Many Worlds -- it's a parallel worlds story in which Elspeth Marriner and Mack Fraser, a magazine writer and photographer respectively, stumble into a mysterious organization that travels between multiple parallel worlds, trying to maintain peace. Elspeth and Mack (who turn out not to be from our world, in a classic trick of Parallel Worlds novels) enter a world slightly "behind" ours and theirs in development, and forestall danger from a more evil set of parallel world types.

The fact that I mildly enjoyed The House of Many Worlds is one reason I read this Ace Double, not otherwise of too much interest. I figured the sequel was worth a look. But it turns out to be a much lesser novel, much sillier, less interesting all around.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

To begin with, I just couldn't get over the stupidity of the main setup. A space cloud of some sort has retarded development on a newly discovered world, so that it is only at the level of First Century Rome. OK, I don't have a problem with that. BUT, somehow, this version of "First Century Rome", even though it's REALLY 20th Century, just technologically behind, somehow has the exact same set of historical personages as our history. Vespasian is the dying Emperor, Titus his successor, Berenice Agrippina is Titus's lover, Domitian is Titus's ambitious younger brother, Pliny the Elder is the "Resident Watcher". Also, it's the equivalent of 79 AD, a pretty important date for a certain nearby volcano ...

Elspeth, because of her classical education, is sent to this version of Rome to study the culture -- things like figuring out if anyone's school of Latin pronunciation was right. She's also to ferret out any suspicious anachronisms that might point to other bad guys from the "present day" operating. Sure enough, a slimy guy who is putting the moves on her drops in a few references to modern devices, and she ends up submitting to his advances (despite him being a little, er, short in a certain department, as Merwin allows a slave girl to rather frankly hint) in order to get clues. She also meets up with a hidden army her group has on hand, and learns that another parallel world, this one 2000 years in advance of our time, is fooling around in this Ancient world -- apparently to replenish their supply of uranium, which they have exhausted in blowing up their own world. This other world is a matriarchy -- leading inevitably to Elspeth meeting up with Mack again, who makes her jealous because he has (in the line of duty, of course) attracted the attentions of the beautiful redheaded Amazon leader of this "future" world. But this Amazon has better ideas still -- she hopes to seduce the Emperor-to-be, Titus, and take over the Ancient Rome world, as a springboard to a Parallel Worlds Empire.

So, it's up to Elspeth and Mack to save the day, complete with a trip to the Silesian woods, a trip inside Mt. Vesuvius, and a somewhat abrupt, unconvincing, and unsatisfying ending. Really a slapdash piece of work all around.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Not Forgotten Recent Novel: A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons

A Not Forgotten Recent Novel: A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons

a review by Rich Horton

This novel doesn't really fit my blog's various viewpoints at all: it's not Old; it wasn't a Bestseller (though it sold pretty well, I imagine, after it became an Oprah Book Club Selection); it's not Forgotten (helped, again, by Oprah); and it's not Science Fiction. But I was looking for a bit of a change of pace as I was working my way through all the 2018 Hugo Nominees, etc., and when I came across this book at an estate sale I thought it looked intriguing. And indeed, I enjoyed the novel a great deal.

Kaye Gibbons was born May 5, 1960, so she's seven months to the day younger than me. (And, this post is a few days late to be a Birthday Review.) She was born and educated in North Carolina, and still lives there. She's probably best known for her first two novels, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman.

A Virtuous Woman is a very short novel (perhaps just a bit over 30,000 words). It's told in two voices: that of Blinking Jack Stokes, who is mourning the death of his wife Ruby, aged only 45, and trying to figure out what he'll do with himself; and that of Ruby, in the last few months of her life, after she is diagnosed with lung cancer. Their voices are those of rural North Carolinians, colloquial, often funny, just avoiding bitterness.

Jack is twenty years older than Ruby, a poor tenant farmer, skinny and homely, but honest and sweet and not too bad a drinker. Ruby is the child of a somewhat wealthy farmer, and beautiful. But when she was 18 she ran away with a violent and abusive migrant worker, who beat her, and taught her to smoke, and was unfaithful and a terrible drinker. While working at the Hoover farm, where Jack lives and works for the Hoovers, Ruby's husband gets into trouble and is knifed in a bar fight, and dies. Jack has fallen hard for Ruby, whom he sees as way out of his league, but he asks her to marry him -- and Ruby, too ashamed to go home, and just wanting someone to care for her and treat her right, agrees.

Their narrations reveal both the bare few events of the months before and after Ruby's death, but also their back story. Ruby's upbringing and first marriage, of course, but also an outline of their life after their marriage. It is informed by their inability to have children (either Jack is unable to, or Ruby (perhaps due to some violence of her first husband's doing), or both); and by their love for Jack's friend Burr's daughter June, who was the younger child of Burr's horrible wife Tiny Fran, the daughter of Jack's boss Mr. Hoover, who married her off to the most convenient local man when she got pregnant. Their life is externally not terribly comfortable -- Jack never gets the land he wishes for, so they never have much money; Tiny Fran and her first son Roland are dreadful people, and so are others of their milieu; they are unbelievers in a Christian community -- but it's clear they love each other desperately (but quietly), and they find a way to be happy.

The novel is often funny (if gaspingly so), often very moving, and pretty harshly honest about rural poverty. I liked it a great deal. Perhaps every so often we see the author's hand on the scale a bit in favor of her protagonists. Perhaps some of the bad people -- Tiny Fran in particular -- are treated somewhat cruelly. On the other hand -- such people exist, both good, like Jack and Ruby, and bad, like Tiny Fran and Roland. In the end: I was both amused and very very moved. (The chapter in the middle, about their love for June, and their realization they won't have children, and their feelings for their dogs, is just devastating.) I recommend it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Another Brunner Ace Double: Listen! The Stars! (backed with The Rebellers by Jane Roberts)

Ace Double Reviews, 52: Listen! The Stars!, by John Brunner/The Rebellers, by Jane Roberts (#F-215, 1963, $0.40)

Jane Roberts was born 8 May 1929, hence this reposted Ace Double review.

This Ace Double backs a decent, if rather short, John Brunner novel with one of the worst novels I have ever read. Brunner's Listen! The Stars! is about 28,000 words, Jane Roberts's The Rebellers is about 51,000 words.

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Emshwiller)
I've said many times recently that early John Brunner is reliably fun -- and usually pretty thoughtful too. Listen! The Stars! is fairly satisfying on both counts -- though it's not quite as purely fun as other Brunner. It was first published in a shorter version (about 20,000 words) as the cover story of the July 1962 Analog, under the same title. A later version was published under the title The Stardroppers, and I believe this version was expanded even further. The Ace Double version, about 8000 words longer than the Analog story, does not contain a single extra scene. The additions are words here and there, often an additional sentence or two, occasionally a couple of paragraphs -- but they are pervasive. It's hard for me to say which version is better -- I read the Analog story then quickly skimmed the Ace Double. The additions don't read like padding, I will say, but I can't really comment on how the pacing was affected. I have no idea if Brunner cut his original story for the Analog appearance, or if he expanded it to be long enough for an Ace Double half.

Dan Cross comes to London to investigate a strange, perhaps ominous, new phenomenon, stardropping. He represents a mysterious organization, but he is pretending to be a new enthusiast. Apparently stardropping is much more popular in England, where it was invented, than in the US. What is it? Well, with some simple electronics it seems one can tune into mysterious signals -- information theory shows they are real signals and not noise. The signals are oddly attractive. Some people get addicted, some people go mad, and there are rumours that some people even disappear.

Cross is able to meet with a local cop, with a young girl addict, with the proprietor of a store selling the equipment, and even with the inventor of the effect, whose son is one of the people who seems to have disappeared. Cross himself tries stardropping, with little effect. But he gets closer and closer to an explanation ... The explanation turns out to be neat enough, with some reasonably well thought out geopolitical implications. The story is just a bit thin, however -- and in a way it seems to end just as the real action should be starting.

Jane Roberts (full name Jane Roberts Butts), published a few short stories, mostly in F&SF, between 1956 and 1964. The Rebellers was her first novel (not counting a "complete novel" in F&SF that was novella length). Her only other novels, according to the ISFDB, were a trilogy about "Oversoul 7", between 1973 and 1984, and a juvenile. She died in 1984, aged only 55. I had never read anything by her. Some of her short fiction seems well regarded, and she was the first woman to attend the Milford Conference of SF writers.

However, she became far more famous in another context. She claimed to have received messages from a supernatural being called Seth, and published a series of books about Seth, perhaps most notably Seth Speaks. These were bestsellers in the 1970s, as I recall, and apparently they remain influential in New Age circles. I will be honest -- at the time, and to this day, I considered these books of a piece with much other spiritualist and New Age stuff -- that is, either completely fraudulent, or possibly a sincere (but silly) result of a mental breakdown. I know others take this seriously, and so be it.

Perhaps my current feelings are partly a result of my reaction to this novel. The Rebellers is set in a grossly overpopulated, plague-ridden, future. Gary Fitch is an artist -- he has lived his life confined in a high-rise in Elmira, New York, part of the Contopolis, making copies of old paintings. This art is deemed important in motivating the workers to help produce the food everyone eats. But Gary is convinced the system is failing, and he dreams of escape.

When rioters attack his building, he takes his chance. After a scary encounter with a government "Doctor" who is ready to put him in suspended animation, he is rescued and taken to the Rebellers -- people who live underground and who are convinced that the system is bad and ought to be changed. But the charismatic Rebeller leader's ideas don't seem just right to Gary either -- and soon he is back in the city, trying to promote a more sensible political organization -- but all seems lost when a newly virulent plague strain breaks out.

Oh, I can't go on. The entire story makes no sense at all. The extrapolation is idiotic. The prose is indifferent. The characters change randomly depending on the needs of the plot. Nothing holds together -- it's economically cockeyed, politically moronic, psychologically silly. And it's boring.

A terrible, terrible, novel.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit, 978-0-316-22924-1, $16.99, tpb, 416 pages) August 2017

A review by Rich Horton

As I noted in my recent review, I was quite late to the party in getting to the first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, which won the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel. I was very impressed by that book, most particularly by the prodigious imagination displayed, by the world-building. I certainly agree that it deserved its Hugo. But my lateness in getting to the first book meant I was even later in getting to The Stone Sky, the concluding volume of the trilogy. (The second volume, The Obelisk Gate, probably the weakest of the three (which is not to say it's a bad book at all) also won the Hugo, last year.)

The Stone Sky is still a very impressive book. But I have to say that for a couple of reasons I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Fifth Season. Part of this is common to series – the bulk of the cool ideas are introduced in the first book, so the later books are less fresh. That said, there are new revelations in each book of the series, a continually deepening understanding of how the Earth (the living and angry Earth, we now understand) got to its current state, and likewise how human society got to its state (and we learn much more about that state as of thousands of years previously). So really that’s OK. However, oddly, as things go on the books – which from the start read as poised on that fractious border between SF and Fantasy – gain more and more of a Science Fictional rationale. We can read them as true SF – what we don’t understand, what we (and the characters) call magic seems to have some variety of rational explanation, even though we mere humans (including the books’ characters) don’t understand that. That’s OK, in fact it’s kind of cool, but it also caused my suspension of disbelief to fracture dangerously at times, particularly when faced with people being literally carried through the center of the Earth, through stone (and magma). And in a matter of hours. The other issue I had in enjoying the book – though I think this aspect was unavoidable (and correct) – the main characters are really rather unpleasant. As who wouldn’t be, having gone through what they did! But it did make it harder, in a way, to spend the whole book with them. And the resolution, while fairly sensible and honest, fell maybe just a bit flat to me.

The book is told in three threads. One follows Essun, the main character of the whole trilogy, as she accompanies her new comm, Castrima, in searching for a new place to live, all the while planning to leave and find her daughter Nassun. The second thread follows Nassun, who has been living in a new kind of Fulcrum (orogene training facility) called Found Moon. Her part opens with her killing her father in self-defense (her father, in the first book, killed her brother and ran away with Nassun). She and two allies of sorts – the Stone Eater Steel and her beloved personal Guardian Schaffa (who has escaped the control that makes Guardians abuse orogenes) also kill two other Guardians and leave Found Moon, to head to Corepoint, on the other side of the world, and wait for the Moon’s return, access the Obelisk Gate and destroy the world. The third thread – in many ways the most interesting – concerns a “tuner” called Houwha, in Syl Anagist, which we gather eventually is the civilization, thousands of years in the past, which created the obelisks but which was destroyed, leading to the creation of the supercontinent called the Stillness, and to the Fifth Seasons, and eventually the Yumenes empire. Houwha and her fellow “tuners” are, in the course of the narration, shown the reason for their creation, the fact of their oppression, and the multiple wrongs at the core of this sometimes utopian seeming civilization. These wrongs parallel, to some degree, the treatment of orogenes in the “present” as of The Fifth Season. Houwha’s mission is to activate “geoarcanity”, which will harvest the Earth’s power to permanently maintain Syl Anagist – but at great cost, to tuners, their quasi-ancestral race, the Niess, and to the living Earth itself.

The narrative strategy is striking, and ultimately wholly successful: the novel is narrated in second person, from Houwha (or what Houwha has become) to Essun, so that Essun’s sections are pure second person, Nassun’s third person in the form of a tale told to Essun, and Houwha’s pure first person. At first this seems a bit of a stunt, but once the reader realizes what’s going on, it comes together to make perfect sense.

In the end it’s a strong book that, as I said, I respect a great deal, but don’t quite love. It’s an effective conclusion to a very strong trilogy. I think it will end up second or third on my ballot, behind Raven Stratagem and possibly New York 2140 (I won’t know until I finish reading that!). I still think, strongly, that Ka and Spoonbenders and The Moon and the Other deserved nominations (and would still rank 1,2,3 on my ballot had they gotten them), but The Stone Sky is a worthy nominee, if not quite the book I hope wins. (I will admit that to an extent this is because of a feeling that two Hugos are enough for this series – which may not be entirely fair, but there you are.)

In the end, of course, The Stone Sky won the Hugo, and indeed it's very fine book, and the Broken Earth trilogy is a remarkable accomplishment.

Review: The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente

The Orphan’s Tales, Volume II: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra, 978-0-553-38404-8, $14, 528pp, tpb) November 2007.

A review by Rich Horton

Today is Catherynne M. Valente's birthday, so I'm taking the opportunity to post this review I wrote for Locus. It appeared in the November 2007 issue.

This is a book (or pair of books) written on an old model: The Thousand Nights and a Night. Yet I found it as original, and delightful, as any book I’ve read in years. It consists of fairy tales, yes, but not retold fairly tales. Rather, entirely new tales, abundantly imaginative, gorgeously written, and stunningly and intricately framed.
(Cover by Michael Komarck)

The outer frame is set in the garden of a Sultan’s estate. The Sultan’s daughter is about to be married. The Sultan’s son has befriended the orphan girl who lives in the garden. She tells him stories written on the inside of her eyelids (and eventually he tells her the stories written on the outside). The Arabesque setting of this frame immediately suggests The Thousand Nights and a Night, and so too does the way the stories do not come to immediate conclusions. But Valente’s design is more complex than Scheherazade’s: instead of simply ending stories in the middle and completing them the next day, these stories encounter other stories in their midst. So the character in one story will meet a new character with their own story to tell, and the first story will pause as the subsequent tale is recounted … and so on.

The book is divided in two main parts, “The Book of the Storm” and “The Book of the Scald”; each dominated, to an extent, by one story. “The Tale of the Crossing”, in the first part, concerns a one armed boy crossing a lake in the company of a ferryman in search of the girl who has been his companion during a terrible childhood. The lake is clearly enough analogous to the Styx, and the ferryman to Charon … but of course he has his own story. In the second part we read “The Tale of the Waste”, about a Djinn imprisoned in a cage, and her story concerns her position as one of the Queens of the Djinni, and the attack she is ordered to lead on the city of Ajanabh.

As the subtitle suggests, much of the focus is on a couple of colorful cities, both in terrible decline. The city of coin is Marrow, and their coins are most horrifying created. The city of spice is Ajanabh, but, as we learn, the spices are all dead. Despite the current state of decline of these cities, The Orphan’s Tales is packed with wonders. We read of living Stars, of mechanical women, of manticores, of a giant who is the gate of a city, of courteous kappas (and what happens when a kappa bows), of repentant sirens, of edible gems… Valente’s imagination is prodigious, and she weaves lovely new patterns with existing mythical threads, and she finds gorgeous new fabric as well. And all knitted together with poetic prose.

The stories are not just intertwined structurally, but thematically as well. And characters from one story will sneakily pop up later from a different angle. Time is rather fluidly treated – the book seems to cover perhaps the entire history of its exotic world. (I can imagine an annotated version attempting to arrange the events chronologically.) One repeated theme is marriage, and for the most part (though not entirely) the marriages treated in the book are sad. (Which seems to bode ill for the Sultan’s daughter’s wedding.) But perhaps more central to the book’s theme is Story – the way in which the stories change depending on the teller, or on the focus, or on the outcome, is fascinating. As to is the way Valente toys with our expectations for Story – the way in which familiar patterns are altered.

The first volume of The Orphan’s Tales, In the Night Garden, is on the World Fantasy Award  shortlist. I haven’t read it yet, but if it is as good as In the Cities of Coin and Spice, it would be a worthy winner. And so too this book – not really a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but something different – should be looked for on next year’s award shortlists.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A (Mostly) Forgotten SF Novel: Born Leader, by J. T. McIntosh

A (Mostly) Forgotten SF Novel: Born Leader, by J. T. McIntosh

a review by Rich Horton

J. T. McIntosh (real name James Murdoch MacGregor (1925-2008)) was a Scottish writer of curious interest. McIntosh began publishing SF in 1950, and was remarkably prolific for most of the next three decades, then fell silent -- only about 54 when he quit writing. The great bulk of his work was of novelette length, though he published almost 20 novels (some assembled from series of novelettes). He's a writer I find persistently interesting and persistently frustrating. He achieved a certain popularity in the '50s which diminished through the '60s. Time might have passed him by, or he might have run out of ideas, or his faults might have overwhelmed his virtues.
(Cover by Richard Powers)

In dealing with him I must account for the fact that when I encounter a McIntosh story in an old magazine (there were no collections) I will happily read it, and also with the fact that I will often be annoyed with the stories. But -- entertained. The reasons for these facts are multiple -- for one, McIntosh really did have a smooth and engaging narrative style; and for two, he was really interested in, more than anything, social dynamics, especially as impacted by an SFnal change in circumstances. So that's good. But the problem is, he had a tendency (largely on purpose) to reduce his social speculation to a single change, amid a society otherwise indistinguisable from the Western society of the '50s. Moreover, he sometimes seemed to force his views on the effect of his SFnal change on society on the reader, instead of letting them arise (with perhaps surprises) from the external changes posited. Laid upon all that was a distinct flavor of the clichéd sexism of that time. (That said, he did feature women in prominent roles, with plenty of agency, to a degree not necessarily very common at that time.)

Put another way, McIntosh's futures, and his other worlds, were not "through-composed" -- one aspect of the world changed, and everything else was unaltered, in implausible ways. And the novel at hand, Born Leader, for all that it seems one of his better regarded earlier works, seems to me to exaggerate his faults and minimize his virtues.

Born Leader was first published by Doubleday in 1954. My edition is retitled Worlds Apart, and seems to have been issued in 1958 from Avon. Both titles are reasonable for the book.

(Cover by Richard Powers)
We open on the world Mundis, which was colonized a generation or so previously by a starship from a collapsing Earth. (Rather shockingly, all the colonists are white ... and this is presented as a choice which was made and acquiesced to by the entire Earth population in order to avoid conflict in the new settlement.) The colony is essentially split into two groups -- the older people, who were adults when they left Earth, and the younger generation, born on Mundis. (There is a big gap, due -- quite sensibly -- to no children being taken on the ship (nor, I think, born en route).) The "born leader" of the original title is Rog Foley, the most influential man of the younger generation. He is planning to leave Lemon, the single town of the colony, and form a new settlement. At the same time he is arranging the marriages of several of his friends (marriages on Mundis are temporary), as well as planning to marry one Alice Bentley himself. (Coincidentally, Alice Bentley is the name of the long time owner of an excellent SF bookstore on the north side of Chicago, The Stars Our Destination. Alice is now, I believe, running Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis, with Greg Ketter.) One of the main issues of contention between the younger and older generations is the older people's absolute taboo on any knowledge of atomic energy (because that's what destroyed the Earth -- in an extremely silly fashion as described in the book.)

Soon we learn that there is a second planet in the system, called, imaginatively enough, Secundis. (Mundis and Secundis, then, are "worlds apart".) It was colonized by a later ship, which was run in a very authoritarian and paranoid fashion. An expedition is being sent from Secundis to Mundis, with plans to conquer the latter planet. Phyllis Barton is the key character here -- a woman of influence, a lieutenant, in a society in which women are regarded almost exclusively as breeders, quite literally lesser beings. She is involved in various schemes to undermine her peers and enhance her position in the hierarchy.

So we see the main conflict of the novel: can the Mundans unite sufficiently to, in their loosy goosy way, resist the invasion of the Secundans. You hardly need ask that question without knowing the answer. You can guess some other things, like who Phyllis Barton will end up with after she realizes that on Mundis she is allowed to be a woman. And how the rigidity of Secundan society, and the paranoia engendered by it, is key to the resolution. The plot itself, while a bit featureless (much like the surface of Mundis) is fitfully interesting, particularly the escape of an older man involved in a taboo relationship with one of the younger women, and their eventual capture by the Secundans.

I have to say I liked the other early McIntosh novels I read rather more than this one. (Most particularly World Out of Mind and One in Three Hundred.) Born Leader goes on rather too long, and not enough really goes on in the novel. It bored me, and most of McIntosh's early novels, and novelettes of almost any period, avoid that. I can't really recommend it, even as I suggest that an omnibus of, say, World Out of Mind, One in Three Hundred, and a selection of a dozen or so of his best stories would be worth rediscovering.