Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Birthday Review: Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson was born on my first Halloween -- October 31, 1959, when I was all of 26 days old. In honor of his birthday, then, here are two reviews I did long ago, of his novels Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon.

First, Quicksilver:

Review Date: 12 April 2004

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, New York, NY, 2003, 927 pages, Hardcover, US$27.95, ISBN:0-380-97742-7
a review by Rich Horton

What to say about Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (first of The Baroque Trilogy) that has not already been said? It is largely as has been reported: overlong, rambling, annoying anachronistic, not terribly well plotted. Yet for all that I rather liked it. I certainly didn't love it, and it is by no means as good as Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash, but it is a generally enjoyable and interesting hodgepodge of political intrigue, early scientific inquiry, disease and grime, and eccentricity. For a negative review with which I almost entirely agree in specifics, I suggest Adam Roberts's. All I can say is that I have little objection to Roberts's arguments, but that I came away from the book having enjoyed myself.

The story is told in three long books. (The entire novel is some 380,000 words, so each book is a substantial novel-length in itself. And of course Quicksilver is only the first of a trilogy!) The first book is about Daniel Waterhouse and his relationship with Isaac Newton. Waterhouse is one of a prominent Puritan family, who have wielded some influence during Cromwell's Protectorship. But the story really takes place as Waterhouse goes up to Cambridge, just after the Restoration of the Monarchy. Daniel's loyalties are divided -- he is still his father's son, but hardly a true believer in the Puritan religious doctrines. At Cambridge he befriends the very strange and otherworldly Isaac Newton. Daniel himself is presented as a competent natural philosopher but nothing special -- he is there as a witness to genius embodied by Newton (and others such as Hooke, Huygens, and Leibniz). Daniel becomes a minor political player, Secretary of the Royal Society, sort of a tame Puritan in the Royal cabinet. This section is told on two timelines -- one following Daniel from youth to near middle-age, the other a rather pointless account of Daniel beginning a much later (1714) journey back from Massachusetts (where he seems to have founded MIT) to London in order to testify in a dispute between Newton and Leibniz about the invention of the calculus. This last thread is, I think, a complete mistake -- it does absolutely nothing for the current book. I am sure it will be picked up in later books, and probably be important, but it's just so many wasted pages here.

The second book abandons Daniel entirely to tell the story of two rather lower-class individuals. Jack Shaftoe (the names Shaftoe and Waterhouse will of course be familiar to readers of Cryptonomicon) is a Vagabond -- at first an orphaned boy making a living by jumping on the legs of hanged men to hasten their death and reduce their agony, later a rather lazy mercenary fighting in various wars on the continent. He comes to Vienna, under siege by the Ottomans, and by happenstance manages to rescue a beautiful virgin named Eliza, a native of Qwlghm (a fictional island off the coast of England also from Cryptonomicon). Eliza had been kidnapped from the shores of Qwlghm and sold to the Ottoman Sultan, who fortunately was preserving her to be a gift to one of his generals after the presumed success of the Vienna campaign. Eliza's experience has given her one consuming passion -- the eradication of slavery. Jack (who is nicknamed Half-Cocked Jack due to an unfortunate earlier surgical procedure -- hence Eliza's virginity is safe from him -- though they find other ways to have a good time) and Eliza wander back across Europe to the Netherlands, meeting Leibniz along the way and having a variety of adventures. Finally Eliza is established in Amsterdam, becoming a financial genius and a spy for William of Orange, while Jack makes his way to Paris and eventually to a seat as a galley slave.

The third book switches between Eliza and Daniel, and in this book there is a somewhat coherent plot. Basically, by now the book becomes the story (told from an unusual angle) of England's Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange and his wife Mary take the crown of England from the hated Catholic James II. Eliza's role takes her to Versailles where we see the court of the Sun King, while Daniel plots against James from within his cabinet. The book ends more or less with the successful conclusion of the Glorious Revolution.

As I say above -- there is much wrong with this book. It is too long. Though I was never precisely bored I was often not particularly concerned as to when I would next pick up the book. (It took me the entire month of March to read it.) It is full of very jarring anachronisms, mostly in the speech of the characters. (The events and devices described are as far as I know all essentially real, except for the irruptions of the long-lived alchemist Enoch Root.) Stephenson has defended this by claiming the book is written for 21st Century readers -- if so, then why the absurd spelling tics, such as phanatique for fanatic? In the end the anachronisms simply annoyed me, pulled me out of the book. The overall plot, to the extent I could detect one, is hardly advanced at all in this book, though I think an argument can be made that there is a significant plot thread (taking us from the Restoration to the Glorious Revolution) that is resolved in this book and works fairly well. The characters are to some extent grotesques but mostly interesting grotesques -- they are, I suppose, the main reason I ended up liking the book on balance.

(And all that said, for a book set in the same time period, I recommend much more highly William Makepeace Thackeray's Henry Esmond.)

Second, Cryptonomicon:

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a huge book (about 425000 words). It's not really SF, though it hovers on the edge of being SF.  It's a very absorbing book, and a fascinating book.  Also, its strengths are those that lend themselves to a long novel: it is continually interesting, on the one hand; and on the other hand the plot is a minor source of the interest.  Thus there aren't boring parts that you have to wade through to get to the end: and getting to the end isn't as much the "goal". 

It's told on two timelines.  One is set during World War II.  Two main characters are followed in this thread: Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a math genius and friend of Alan Turing who ends up assigned to the joint US/British codebreaking effort; and Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine who ends up assigned to a unit Waterhouse deems necessary: a unit which will fake evidence that the Allies had other means than codebreaking to allow them to achieve some of the successes they really achieved because they could read the Axis codes.  Thus the Germans and Japanese hopefully won't change their codes.  For some time this thread deals with the codebreaking end of things, but after a while interest begins to focus on a scheme by the Germans and Japanese to hide a bunch of gold in secure caches in the Philippines and elsewhere.  This introduces a couple more viewpoint characters: Japanese engineer Goto Dengo, German U boat captain Gunter Bischoff, and another member of Bobby Shaftoe's special unit, the Australian priest Enoch Root.

The other thread is present-day.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse' grandson, Randy Waterhouse, is part of a startup company trying to establish a "data haven" in a small island country in the Pacific.  This work takes him to Manila, where he meets Bobby Shaftoe's granddaughter, America (Amy) Shaftoe.  (Neither Bobby Shaftoe or Lawrence Waterhouse ever revealed to their children what they did during the War, so Randy and Amy have no idea that their grandfathers knew each other.)  Randy's efforts brush him against some organized criminals.  Also, they find something interesting in Manila Bay while laying cable, something which Randy recognizes as having to do with his grandfather.  Soon he is involved in a race to find one of the caches of Axis gold, and his success may depend on breaking a code his grandfather couldn't break.

All this is a fairly fascinating story by itself, with lots of action and heroism, but what makes the book really work is the clever stuff Stephenson does with infodumps.  He tells us about Unix systems, cryptanalysis, eating Cap'n Crunch properly, proper computer security, mining engineering, cannibals on New Guinea, Douglas MacArthur's relationship with the Marines, computer games, Japanese atrocities during the War, and much more.  And he's a very funny writer as well.  For example, he has an extended joke about an obscure (i.e., nonexistent in our history) set of islands belonging to the UK, with a language all their own, such that, for instance, Smith is spelled cCmmcdn, or something.  Of course this is relevant to cryptography.  But it's also very funny.  The characters are involving, if perhaps just a bit on the bestsellerish side: that is, they are a bit on the supercompetent side (though also with real weaknesses).  I really really enjoyed this book.  I'm not sure whether to nominate it for a Hugo, though: it's definitely one of the 5 best books I've read from 1999, but is it close enough to SF?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Birthday Review: The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, by Fredric Brown

Birthday Review: The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, by Fredric Brown

a review by Rich Horton

Today would have been Fredric Brown's 112th birthday. In his honor, then, I decided to post a fairly brief review I did a long time ago, for my SFF Net newsgroup, of his novel The Lights in the Sky Are Stars.

Brown (1906-1972) was a well-respected writer in both the SF and Mystery genres, winning one Edgar for his novel The Fabulous Clipjoint. His work was often funny, though often with a serious, even dark, undertone. He was well-known for his very short stories. His best known short story is probably "Arena", which was anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and which is considered a source for the Star Trek episode of the same title. Here's what I wrote back in 1999 (which is also when the novel is set):

I read an old SF novel I'd been meaning to try for some time, Fredric Brown's The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953).  This tells of a spacestruck man in 1999, an aging spaceship mechanic, who becomes involved with a politician and her efforts to reignite America's space program by pushing for the development of a ship to Jupiter.  It's mostly too cheesy and melodramatic to work: we need to put up with the hero breaking into an opposing politician's office to steal the meticulous records detailing his corruption, for instance, and with a tragic death, caused because a ten-day delay in getting the program started was impossible, and with the hero teaching himself spaceship administration in no time, and cutting the cost of the program from a near-prohibitive 300 million dollars (!) to 26 million dollars.  Among other things.  At the end there is another weird twist, almost the most melodramatic of all, which oddly almost works, and allows the novel to close on an effective, quite moving note.  It's still a case of preaching to the choir, though.  And in the final analysis I felt the cheesiness and implausibility of most of the novel doomed it.

By the by there are some neatly typical '50s predictions for 1999: TV remote controls, but those fixed to the living room chairs (!), private helicopters as a common means of travel, and chemical rockets planned to reach the moon by 1969.  (But they switched to atomics and got there by 1965: too bad for Brown's prediction record.)  There's also the odd '50s faith in progress uber alles: the lead character refuses to believe that light speed is a real limit (humanity's beat every other limit it's faced, by gum, it won't let a little thing like the special relativity stop it!), though to be fair that's only his attitude: the novel itself has no relativity-beating.  And there is a curious, somewhat effective, subplot involving a Buddhist vowing to get to the stars via teleportation.

Birthday Review: Stories of Paul di Filippo

Today is Paul di Filippo's 64th birthday. So, it's time for another compilation of my Locus reviews -- lots of them this time, as Paul is a very prolific writer, and a writer whose work I greatly enjoy. The first review comes from Locus Online before I started reviewing for the print magazine -- I did a few reviews and essays for that site, edited by my predecessor as short fiction columnist, the excellent Mark Kelly (and doubtless those contributed to me getting the gig at the print version.)

(Locus Online, 12 April 2001)

It would be a shame if readers missed the long novella in the Spring 2001 issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, one of the DNA Publications stable of magazines. This story is "Karuna, Inc.", by the always interesting Paul Di Filippo. Di Filippo works well at the novella length, and much of his best fiction is in that category, including the stories in The Steampunk Trilogy as well as such fine works as "The Mill" and "Spondulix".

"Karuna, Inc." (like "Spondulix", actually) presents a rather utopian view of economic activity. Shenda Moore is a brilliant young woman who took a nice inheritance and founded the title corporation, with the following mission: "the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs ... the primary goal of the subsidiaries shall always be the full employment of all workers ... it is to be hoped that the delivery of high-quality goods and services will be a byproduct ...". Without commenting on the likelihood of such a plan working in the real world, I'll just say that it would be nice if it would. But unfortunately, Shenda, though she doesn't know it, has an enemy: a consortium of maximally evil corporate types, led by the sinister Marmaduke Twigg.

The story is told alternately from the viewpoints of Shenda, Twigg, and a damaged veteran named Thurman Swan. As Shenda brings Thurman out of his shell of self-pity, Twigg comes to realize the existence of "Karuna, Inc." and moves against it. Di Filippo alternates sunny scenes of Thurman and Shenda with grotesque scenes of Twigg and his fellow evildoers, each of whom have a special operation to make them as evil as possible. The evil seems a bit over the top, and the good has a large dose of wish-fulfillment intermixed, but the story throughout is gripping, and the characters involving. It's a very fun read, mixing tragedy and optimism, mysticism and business, with Di Filippo's usual off-kilter imagination. Not a great story, but a good, enjoyable, one.

(Locus, February 2007)

And Paul Di Filippo, in "Wikiworld" (Fast Forward 1), engages in another of his utopian economic fantasias, this one about a world in which stuff gets done on the "wiki" model: a group of interested people competing and cooperating to build something. Such as house for our hero, Ross Reynolds, which leads to him running the country for three days, starting a trade war, and falls in love. Oh, and ganja on the Moon is involved too. Light-hearted, imaginative, fast-moving, sweet: lots of fun, like any number of similar Di Filippo pieces.

(Locus, November 2002)

Paul Di Filippo's "Shipbreaker" (Sci Fiction, October) is intriguing, about a man and two friends who are part of a crew of various species who salvage decommissioned starships. The hero, Klom, finds a curious alien in some sort of suspended animation, and after reviving it, adopts it as a pet. But it turns out to be something more than anyone expects. One interesting aspect of the story is the low position of humans in a galaxy dominated by much more intelligent species. The story does read like the opening segment of a novel rather than a complete story, however.

(Locus, December 2002)

The DAW mass market anthologies are a mixed lot -- some are quite awful, and some, like Mars Probes, are quite good. Once Upon a Galaxy, edited by Wil McCarthy with anthology veterans John Helfers and Martin H. Greenberg, is one of the better ones, if not so good as Mars Probes. The theme is "science fictional retellings of fairy tales", and most of the stories take a reasonably inventive approach -- sometimes a bit paint-by-numbers in replacing fantasy elements with Sfnal nuts and bolts, but still enjoyable. My favorite entry was Paul di Filippo's "Ailoura", a clever retelling of "Puss in Boots" on a far planet with genetically engineered animal-human chimeras, AI houses, immortality, and of course a younger son cheated out of his inheritance. Di Filippo throws in some nice Cordwainer Smith references for the SF initiates -- a very fun story. McCarthy's own "He Died that Day, in Thirty Years", is a clever and sardonic extrapolation of the unexpected effects of a slightly malfunctioning memory tailoring drug. Most of the rest of the book is decent entertainment as well.

Di Filippo is on a roll lately, though really he's been doing excellent stuff for a long time. His entry in the justly celebrated PS Publishing series of novella-length chapbooks, A Year in the Linear City, is one of the best novellas of this year. Di Filippo follows several episodes in the life of Diego Patchen, an up and coming writer of Cosmogonic Fiction, or CF, the Linear City's analog to SF. The plot turns on Diego's worries about his dying father, and his friend's obsession with a drug-addicted woman; as well as a trip down the city's border river to a distant borough. It's not really much of a plot, just a series of episodes. The fun is in di Filippo's description of the title City, which is very narrow but of unimaginable length, bordered by train tracks on one side and a river on the other side, and mounted, apparently, on some huge scaly beast. Di Filippo invents an engaging and convincing slang, sketches an interesting social/political/economic backgroun, and portrays any number of genially colorful characters, such as Diego's glorious fire-fighting girlfriend Volusia Bittern, or his editor at his main magazine market, an obvious John W. Campbell pastiche. The story is by turns pleasantly rambling, funny, sad, and full of sense of wonder. In general feel it recalls several of di Filippo's "alternate economy" novellas, such as "Karuna, Inc." and "Spondulix". Paul di Filippo is clearly one of the most original, and one of the best, SF writers now working, and while he is certainly not ignored, he does not seem to me to get quite the credit he is due. Perhaps that will soon change.

(Locus, March 2003)

There is also (in the November-December 2002 Interzone) a neat story by "Philip Lawson" (Michael Bishop and Paul di Filippo). "'We're All in This Together'" is about a serial murderer who seems to get inspiration from the banal sayings of a newspaper column called "The Squawk Box". A mystery writer obsessed with contributing a saying to this column ends up involved in the murder investigation. Rather loopy, but with a serious core.

(Locus, April 2003)

Also in the April issue of F&SF, Paul Di Filippo contributes "Seeing is Believing", about a private investigator and a beautiful scientist investigating a criminal who seems able to use his PDA to bypass his victims' brains "Executive Structure". Di Filippo takes a nice SFnal idea and wraps a fast-paced and funny caper story about it. It's not exactly believable but it's great fun.

(Locus, May 2003)

Last month at Interzone Paul Di Filippo and Michael Bishop were featured in collaboration. This month they each appear separately, with rather humorous pieces. Di Filippo's "Bare Market" tells of a journalist's interview with Adamina Smythe, the computer-enhanced genius girl who controls the world's financial markets, resulting in unprecedented prosperity. But Adamina, besides being a genius, is incredibly beautiful, and the journalist is smitten -- what will sex hormones in the system do to the world's fortunes?

(Locus, July 2003)

Perhaps best of all is Paul Di Filippo's "Clouds and Cold Fires" (Live Without a Net), in which the departed humans have left a revitalized Earth in the charge of long-lived, intelligent, genetically engineered chimeras of some sort. Pertinax and his friends must deal with a threat from one of the still technologically oriented "Overclockers", humans who have stayed behind on reservations, and who refuse to abandon the old ways.

(Locus, December 2003)

"The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon", by Paul Di Filippo (Sci Fiction, November), is a very funny and clever tale of "blebs" -- spontaneously generated AIs caused by linkages between random sets of "smart" appliances. These AIs don't always have the best interests of humans in their "minds", and Kas, who lost his parents to a bleb, becomes paranoid when his girlfriend Cody moves in with him: he's worried that their combined possessions might bring the assemblage to a sort of critical mass. But his paranoia starts to affect his relationship with Cody -- just the opening a newly formed AI needs! Fun stuff, sort of a Cory Doctorow/Charles Stross future refracted through Di Filippo's unique sensibility.

(Locus, March 2005)

But best this issue (Interzone, January-February) is Paul Di Filippo's "The Emperor of Gondwanaland". This is a Borgesian story (and knows it, as signaled by being partly set in Buenos Aires, and by the use of Funes as a name) about an overworked magazine editor who stumbles across internet references to micronations. One of these is Gondwanaland, which seems insanely detailed for what must be an imaginative creation. The man joins a discussion group, and eventually falls in love with a woman on one of the groups. She pushes for a meeting -- but how can he find Gondwanaland?

(Locus, April 2005)

From the April F&SF, Paul Di Filippo's "The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet" is an amusing story with a dark edge, about a struggling writer who has finally made it big. The problem is, Riley Small's bestseller, The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet, purports to be the memoirs of a 25 year old sexual adventuress. Now that a movie deal is in the offing, a 35 year old man just won't do as the public face of the author. So, Riley and his agent decide to hire an actress -- when a mysterious woman shows up and declares that she IS Sally Strumpet -- and to Riley, she seems perfect. Especially when she seems ready to continue her sexual adventuring -- with him. But every silver lining has a cloud ... Di Filippo is very entertaining on most subjects, particularly on the ups and downs of a writing career, as already well established by his Plumage for Pegasus pieces -- and this story is another delight.

(Locus, December 2009)

Paul Di Filippo’s "Yes We Have No Bananas" (Eclipse Three) is one of his wacky but serious pieces of economic extrapolation, mixing advanced physics (involving branes and parallel worlds) with a world in which ocarina music is the height of popularity. The lead character, Tug, is down on his luck -- his girlfriend has left him, he’s being evicted, he’s lost his job, and so he ends up on a houseboat drawing a comic strip with a beautiful young woman and helping a nutty physicist put on a play designed to demonstrate the correctness of his theories ...what can I say? It’s Paul Di Filippo.

(Locus, April 2011)

Paul di Filippo, in "FarmEarth" (Welcome to the Greenhouse), suggests that one way to make boring ecological remediation tasks more enjoyable might be to embed them in a gaming environment, and wraps a nice story around that about a group of kids too eager to take on more advanced responsibilities, who thus get involved in a dangerous conspiracy.

(Locus, November 2013)

Also good this month (Asimov's, October-November) is Paul di Filippo's "Adventures in Cognitive Homogamy: A Love Story", about a brilliant young researcher visiting a "Science Park" in Colombia, where he is seduced into a dangerous encounter with a beautiful member of the underprivileged classes -- followed by (perhaps a tad too predictable) consciousness-raising. Di Filippo also has the best story in the November Analog, "Redskins of the Badlands", which resembles "Adventures in Cognitive Harmony" in the featuring a somewhat innocent highly talented hero, betrayed at the outset by his beautiful lover, encountering a dissident group (and having sex …) The angle here is a bit different -- Ruy Lambeth spends most of his time in his "skin", guarding UNESCO world heritage sites from the depredations of people like a group of ecoterrorists menacing Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.  Both stories are a bit thin towards the end -- mostly interested in introducing some neat tech in the context of a somewhat optimistic (but far from perfect) future society ...But both are fun rides along the way.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Richard A. Lovett

Richard A. Lovett is one of Analog's most regular contributors (of non-fiction as well as fiction), and one of its best. Today is his 65th birthday, and so here is a compilations of many of my Locus reviews of his stories.

(Locus, March 2003)

More interesting in the March issue of Analog is Richard A. Lovett's "Equalization", which addresses an elaborate version of the idea at the heart of Kurt Vonnegut's classic "Harrison Bergeron". In Lovett's story, people choose a career in early adolescence, and from that point forward they are transferred to new bodies each year. The idea is to balance skilled minds with less-skilled bodies, so that competition within a field is roughly equal. The story itself concerns a long-distance runner who realizes that he has been, presumably by mistake, transferred to his own original body, giving him a huge advantage. The idea here is quite interesting, but the story itself doesn't quite work, and the full ramifications of the central idea don't really hold together.

(Locus, September 2003)

The September Analog's strongest story is Richard Lovett's "Tiny Berries", which postulates even worse spam than now -- to the point of intercepting cars and extorting sales. The hero and a couple of friends come up with a solution (probably not workable but interesting) -- wrapped around a sweet but not really convincing love story.

(Locus, January 2004)

Richard A. Lovett's "Weapons of Mass Distraction" (Analog, January-February) extrapolates Patriot Act-like anti-terrorist measures to extremes, making a point about the real consequences -- and one beneficiary -- of such invasions of privacy.

(Locus, June 2005)

Richard Lovett and Mark Niemann-Ross in "NetPuppets" (Analog, June 2005) posit a Sims-like online game. A group of co-workers discover the game and create a couple of characters. The game adds detail to the characters, sometimes making subtle changes. The players try to alter their characters' lives, but unlike with Sims their actions are constrained to fairly plausible real-life actions -- for example, they cannot make a character win the lottery, but they can push her towards a better job. But they might also push their characters in negative ways -- or in criminal ways. But so what? It's only a game, right? The twist is predictable but well-handled, and the moral point, expressed through several characters, is sharply put.

(Locus, November 2005)

I also liked Richard A. Lovett’s "911-Backup", which as with many of Lovett’s stories deals intelligently with the problem areas of future tech, in ideal Analog fashion. In this case the tech is brain capacity enhancement via computer implant, and the problem is "What happens if the computer crashes, and you have offloaded too much capacity away from your brain onto the computer?"

(Locus, February 2007)

Richard A. Lovett’s "The Unrung Bells of the Marie Celeste" (Analog, January-February), is an interesting look at an idea I’ve seen once or twice before: FTL that works fine for unmanned missions but that fails whenever a human is the pilot. (For example, the fairly obscure Poul Anderson story "Mustn’t Touch".) Lovett’s reason why it doesn’t work is clever and also leads to an interesting personal story about his main character, a man chosen for a test flight because he is suicidal.

(Locus, October 2009)

Abyss and Apex for the third quarter includes a Richard A. Lovett story, "Carpe Mañana", that, as often with Lovett, thoroughly explores the social implications of a technological innovation -- his work in this vein reminds me of H. L. Gold’s Galaxy more than about any contemporary writer I can recall. The innovation explored here is the stasis box -- a fairly old SF idea, a box in which no time passes. It’s first used for food preservation -- no need for refrigeration if you can just pop in the fresh food and use it when needed. But Lovett, in a series of short pieces, shows its use by humans -- a daughter trying to escape contact with her parents, a man with Seasonal Affective Disorder skipping winter, prisoners warehoused until their cases are decided, etc. It’s thoughtful and often scary.

(Locus, July 2011)

I mentioned Jack and the Beanstalk stories last month and look! This month Analog has one. in the July-August 2011 issue. It’s called "Jak and the Beanstalk", by Richard A. Lovett, and I don’t think it will surprise anyone to learn that the Beanstalk of the title is a space elevator. Jak spends his life planning to climb the Beanstalk, a rather mad enterprise, and the first part of the story is devoted to showing how one might do that ... which to be honest isn’t terribly compelling as narrative. But the story gets rather better when war breaks out while Jak is on his way up -- making his position on the Beanstalk arguably better than anyone’s on Earth. And when he gets to the geosynchronous part of the Beanstalk and finds the maintenance crew attempting to survive, his priorities change -- in a way he finally really grows up, and ends up heading elsewhere. Lovett is probably Analog’s best current regular writer -- a writer who fits snugly within the Analog format yet does thought-provoking and interesting and continually different work within it.

(Locus, August 2012)

At the July/August Analog the cover story is "Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light", by Richard Lovett and William Gleason, a Moon colonization story. It focuses on a man trying to immigrate to the Moon, as part of a witness protection program. The problem is, it's hard to earn your ticket to stay ... not to mention, it turns out to be easy enough to be found even if you do stay. The ideas about why and how the Moon might be colonized are interesting, and the central plot is enjoyable enough, though the story is probably a bit too long.

(Locus, February 2015)

Analog's big Double Issue for January-February features "Defender of Worms", a novella from Richard Lovett, the latest in a long series of stories about an AI named Brittney. Freed by her first owner, who lives in the outer Solar System, she is back on Earth and acting as a sort of governess for a rebellious rich girl named Memphis. But Brittney is being hunted by another AI, which she calls the Others, and Memphis wants to escape her mother's influence, so the two have lit out for the desolate American West, off the grid. But the enemy has resources, and Memphis has a lot of learning to do, besides Brittney needing to learn to live with Memphis. This is good, entertaining SF, with plenty of action and some nice (if not terribly new) ideas behind it.

Ace Double Reviews, 14: Cosmic Checkmate, by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean/King of the Fourth Planet, by Robert Moore Williams

Ace Double Reviews, 14: Cosmic Checkmate, by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean/King of the Fourth Planet, by Robert Moore Williams (#F-149, 1962, $0.40)

On what would have been Charles V. De Vet's 107th birthday, I'm reposting one of my personal favorites among my Ace Double reviews -- not because the books are my favorites, but because I had a lost of fund tracking down the extended history of the De Vet/MacLean novel and its sequel.

King of the Fourth Planet is about 43,000 words long. Cosmic Checkmate is about 33,000 words, and it has a complicated publishing history. It's an expansion (by a factor of roughly 2) of the novelette "Second Game" (Astounding, March 1958), a Hugo nominee and still a fairly well-known story. The novel was reissued in 1981 by DAW with further expansions, to some 56,000 words, now retitled Second Game after the novelette. (A much better title!) Finally, De Vet by himself wrote a sequel published in the February 1991 Analog, called "Third Game".
(Covers by Ed Emswhiller and Ed Valigursky)

Neither of the authors of Cosmic Checkmate was terribly prolific, indeed, their quantity of output is strikingly similar: 30 or 40 stories and one solo novel each. De Vet (1911-1997) began publishing in 1950, and through 1962 published a couple of dozen stories. Over the next couple of decades he published far less often, just 8 more stories according to the ISFDB, several in Ted White's mid-70s Amazing, with "Third Game" his last story. He published just one additional novel, Special Feature (1975), another expansion of a 1958 Astounding novelette ("Special Feature", May 1958). MacLean (b. 1925), is deservedly the better known. She is this year's SFWA Writer Emeritus (2003). She began publishing in 1949, and has had a story in Analog as recently as "Kiss Me" (February 1997), which made the Hartwell Year's Best #3. Her best-known story is almost certainly "The Missing Man" (Analog, March 1971), which won a Nebula for Best Novella, and which was expanded to her only solo novel, Missing Man (1975). (She has published one other collaborative novel, Dark Wing, (1979), with Carl West, which I haven't seen but which appears to be a YA Fantasy.) Other stories such as "Contagion" (1950), "Pictures Don't Lie" (1951), "The Snowball Effect" (1952), "The Diploids" (1953), "The Trouble With You Earth People" (1968), and "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5" (1995), gained considerable notice.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-1977) was a fairly regular writer for the SF magazines beginning in the late 30s, and ending in 1965-1966 with a sudden spurt of 4 stories for Fred Pohl's If after roughly a decade of publishing no short fiction. He also published quite a few novels in the field, including 11 Ace Double halves (in 9 books -- two of his halves were story collections that backed his own novels). Based on what I've read of his work, he wasn't really very good, and presumably as a result he is all but forgotten now. He might have been best known for a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs-like stories about heroes named Zanthar and Jongor, which appeared from Lancer and Popular Library from 1966 through 1970. (The Jongor books were reprints (perhaps expanded) of stories from Fantastic Adventures between 1940 and 1951, and the 1970 editions had Frazetta covers, which I am pretty sure I saw back in the day, though I never read them.)

King of the Fourth Planet is pretty straightforward SF. John Rolf is a former executive of the Company for Planetary Development who has repented of his unethical ways, and moved to Mars, divorcing his wife and leaving her with their young daughter when she refuses to accompany him. Rolf lives on the giant mountain Suzusilam, where most of the Martians live. The mountain (perhaps a "prediction" of Olympus Mons, which wasn't discovered until 1971) is divided into seven levels, on each of which live Martians of increasing "civilizedness". The fourth level is the home of the Martians at roughly Earth levels of development. The seventh level is reputedly home only to the mysterious King of the Red Planet, a Martian of incredible powers who "holds the mountain in his hand". Rolf lives on the fourth level, home to many mechanical geniuses, and he himself is working on a telepathy machine, which he hopes will solve humanity's problems by giving all people understanding of others. He is assisted at times by his friend Thallen from the fifth level. Just as he completes his machine, a Human spaceship lands, and Rolf senses the evil mind of the Company executive controlling the spaceship. Before you know it, this man, Jim Hardesty, shows up at Rolf's doorstep, demanding his assistance in cheating the Martians. Rolf refuses, whereupon Hardesty reveals that he has hired Rolf's daughter as his secretary (i.e. potential sex slave), but Rolf, with his daughter's help, continues to refuse. Soon a man shows up who has fallen in love with Rolf's daughter, but then Hardesty mounts an attack on the Martians, the daughter is kidnapped, Rolf is injured and his mind becomes detached from his body, and all leads to a confrontation on the seventh level with the mysterious King.

It's mostly a pretty bad book. Some of it is slapdash, such as having people run up and down this presumably huge mountain in no more than a couple of hours. The action develops too quickly, and not logically, and plot threads and ideas that showed promise (or not) are often as not brushed aside without resolution, or with unsatisfactory resolution. There are some nice bits -- the climactic scene at the top of the mountain is pretty impressive in parts, the advanced Martian tech represented by "abacuses" that play musical notes which cause healing and other powers is really kind of nicely depicted, the ethical message advanced, if crudely put, seems deeply felt and not unreasonable. Still -- not really a book worth attention. And not any reason to reconsider Williams' place in the canon.

Second Game is rather better. It's the story of the planet Velda, which has just been discovered by the Earth-centered Ten Thousand Worlds. After warning that they wanted no contact, the Veldians destroyed the Fleet that Earth sent anyway. The narrator, a chess champion, has learned that the Veldians base their society around proficiency in a Game, somewhat like Chess but more complicated. (Details are sketchy, but it is played on a 13x13 board, and each player controls 26 pieces, or "pukts".) Equipped with an "annotator", sort of an AI addition to his brain, the narrator learns the Game and comes to Velda to challenge all comers. He puts up a sign saying "I'll beat you the Second Game". And after probing the opponents' weaknesses by playing the first game, he does indeed beat them the second time. He finally draws the attention of Kalin Trobt, a high official and thus a proficient Game player. After the most difficult Game yet, the narrator again prevails, but Trobt perceives that he is a human, and arrests him as a spy.

Veldian society is predicated on exaggerated concepts of honor, and on absolute honesty. So the narrator is simply placed under house arrest at Trobt's house, though he is told that he will die, in the "Final Game". Over the next couple of weeks, the narrator and Trobt become friends, but the narrator's fate remains sealed. Both probe each other for secrets about their respective societies, and in particular a biological reason for much of the Veldian situation is revealed. Finally the narrator comes up with a surprising solution to his problem, and to Velda's problem, and eventually to the Ten Thousand Worlds' problem.

This short novel is a quick, entertaining, and generally absorbing read. It's not quite convincing -- the Game is marginally plausible, but not the narrator's proficiency. The Veldian social structure, and military prowess, both seem rather artificial. I didn't quite buy the biological problem at the heart of Veldian society either. Indeed, Veldqan biology as portrayed seems truly implausible -- I can't believe this race would survive! Other problems were lesser, such as the magical ability of Veldians and Humans to interbreed (this problem could easily have been finessed by a reference to panspermia or a lost colony or something, but instead the Veldians are supposed to be true aliens). Still, overall the story is enjoyable and thoughtful.

I read the novelette "Second Game" and the novel Cosmic Checkmate back to back. It's interesting how closely they resemble each other. The novel is not an extension, but an organic expansion, without even much in the way of added subplots. There is a somewhat unconvincing love interest for the narrator in the novel which is absent in the novelette.* Otherwise the expansions are all fleshed out scenes, added explanations. I think it actually works pretty well -- the novel does not seem padded.

I followed this by reading the 1981 DAW novel, Second Game. This is longer still, and it also features some curious changes. The changes include: changing the planet's name from Velda to Veldq (presumably to make it more "alien", and also perhaps to avoid sounding like a woman's name), changing the narrator's name from Robert O. Lang to Leonard Stromberg (a change I utterly fail to understand unless perhaps that was the original name, and John Campbell insisted on a more Anglo-Saxon lead character), and adding a new social group to Veldq society, the Kismans, low-status merchants. Further changes include more bald exposition of the Ten Thousand Worlds' situation, an altered (and not terribly believable) explanation for the Veldqan level of technology, a hugely expanded subplot about the narrator's Veldqan love interest, including some rather embarrassing sex scenes (and a revised account of the relationship of the sexes on Veldq), and a fair amount of small interpolations, fleshing out details.

On balance I think I prefer the shorter 1962 novel to the 1981 expansion: some of the 1981 additions are sensible fleshing out, but some are silly. The expanded love story is logical and fills in something missing in the 1962 version, but it's not very well done. Other additions, such as the Kismans and the new explanation of Veldqan tech, seem either superfluous or wrong. I wouldn't say, however, that the 1981 version feels padded -- the novelette, in retrospect, seems somewhat rushed, and I would have to say the story basically supports at least 50,000 words.

Finally I went ahead and read the 1991 novelette sequel, by De Vet alone, "Third Game". This is about 15,000 words long. It's set 23 years after the main action of Second Game. There are severe social problems on Veldq, and Leonard Stromberg's half-Veldqan son, Kalin Stromberg, comes to the planet to try to help. After some more harsh evidence of the silly over-violent Veldqan society, and another sometimes embarrassing highly sexed romance, which involved dealing fairly with the oppressed Kisman minority**, and, get this (shades of Asimov's The Stars Like Dust) -- adopt a constitution modelled on the US constitution. It's really a very bad story.

(*There was a curious brief mention of the girl who becomes the narrator's love interest in the novelette -- on reading that, bells went off in my head, and I was surprised that she did not reappear in the story. Which makes me wonder if the novelette wasn't cut before publication, as opposed to the novel being a later expansion.)

(**The Kismans are important in this story as they weren't in the 1981 Second Game, making me wonder if De Vet hadn't already written a version of "Third Game" when he (and MacLean) expanded Cosmic Checkmate to Second Game.)

Birthday Review: Traitor's Gate, by Anne Perry

Anne Perry was born on 28 October 1938 in London, as Juliet Hulme, and the family moved to New Zealand when she was young, for her health. In 1953 she and a close friend murdered the friend's mother (to prevent them moving away), giving her a rather uncommonly appopriate background for a writer of murder mysteries. (This was the subject of Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures.) After serving her time, Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry, and moved to England (and for a time to the United States). She became a Mormon, and as I understand it, two of her novels, the fantasies Tathea and Come, Armageddon, are based on Mormon themes. Her first mystery, The Cater Street Hangman, was published in 1979, and somewhat fortuitously, I discovered her work just a couple of years (and books) later.

She has written novels in several series, most prominent two set in Victorian England: the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt books; and the William Monk/Hester Latterly books. She also wrote several novels about World War I, a whole series of short "Christmas" mysteries, and beginning just last year, books featuring the Pitts' son Daniel. I read the Pitt books and the Monk books with enjoyment for quite a while, but eventually I felt the books were beginning to weaken, and gave up. This review, written over 20 years ago, is of one of the Pitt books that (as you will see) disappointed me. I'm reposting it on the occasion of Perry's 80th birthday.

Review Date: 12 December 1995

TITLE: Traitor`s Gate

AUTHOR: Anne Perry

PUBLISHED: Fawcett Columbine, 1995

ISBN: 0-449-90634-5

This is the latest in Anne Perry`s long series of mystery novels set in late Victorian England (1890, in the present case.) These novels feature Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, he a policeman (just promoted to Superindent), and she an upper-class woman who married shockingly beneath herself, but who maintains a limited entrée to society, useful in helping Thomas with cases involving crimes among the upper class.

Traitor`s Gate features Thomas much more prominently than Charlotte. Thomas` surrogate father, Sir Arthur Desmond, the owner of the estate for which Thomas` actual father was the gamekeeper, has died in his club in London. The death is ruled accidental, or suicide, but his son Matthew, Thomas` close boyhood friend, is convinced it must have been murder, and asks Thomas to investigate.

Thomas is unable to officially investigate Desmond`s death, but rather fortuitously he is asked to investigate a case of missing information at the Colonial Office, to do with Africa and with British support for Cecil Rhodes. As it turns out, Arthur Desmond, formerly employed in the Foreign Office, had just prior to his death been making "wild" accusations of abuse of power in the government support of Rhodes. Naturally, Desmond`s death and the missing information are linked, and, more importantly, both are linked to the mysterious organization Thomas has run afoul of in previous books, The Inner Circle.

As Pitt`s investigations continue, his own life and Matthew`s are threatened, another murder is committed, and finally Pitt`s discoveries trigger a chain reaction of suicides and murders, ending somewhat in medias res with Pitt apparently ready to openly take on the Inner Circle.

The story is entertaining, and the solutions to the crimes are reasonably clever and interesting. However I don`t rank this as highly as the best books in the series for a few reasons. The Inner Circle has become non-credible to me, in its villainy, and its apparent size and power, not to say the incompetence of such a powerful organization in dealing with such a minor figure as Pitt. Pitt`s solutions to the crimes take on the all-too-familiar form of confronting the criminal with the (rather sparse, by OJ standards) evidence of his wrongdoing, upon which he either confesses or commits suicide. The device of having Pitt assigned to investigate a case of espionage is rather unconvincing. Also, the key crime of the book (the second murder) is not only difficult to credit as far as motive is concerned, but is committed in a foolish manner which seems calculated to ultimately draw attention to the murderer (indeed Thomas is misled rather more than I think he should be).

Finally, a key element of the enjoyment of this series is the ongoing stories of the advancing social life of the continuing characters. The books generally feature a love story or two, and this is no exception, but I didn`t find the love stories very involving. And as I said, Charlotte`s role in this book is minor, which is understandable for this book, but something of a drawback nonetheless.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ace Double Reviews, 21: Master of Life and Death, by Robert Silverberg/The Secret Visitors, by James White

Ace Double Reviews, 21: Master of Life and Death, by Robert Silverberg/The Secret Visitors, by James White (#D-237, 1957, $0.35)

(Covers by ? and Ed Emshwiller)
This is an Ace Double pairing two writers who became quite prominent at a very early stage in their careers. Master of Life and Death, about 51,000 words long, was Robert Silverberg's third novel, following the weak juvenile Revolt on Alpha C (1955) (and one of the very first SF novels I ever read), and another 1957 Ace Double, The 13th Immortal. (There are also his two collaborations with Randall Garrett, The Shrouded Planet and The Dawning Light, published as by "Robert Randall", that appeared as a few short stories and a serial in Astounding in 1956 and 1957, but not until 1958/1959 as books.)  Silverberg had begun publishing short fiction with "Gorgon Planet", in the February 1954 issue of the Scottish magazine Nebula (after a fair amount of fanwriting, enough to earn him a Retro-Hugo a couple of years ago). He famously beat out Harlan Ellison for a special 1956 Hugo for Best New Author.

The Secret Visitors is about 49,000 words long. It is James White's first novel. White also did a great deal of fanwriting, and he continued this throughout his life. I've read the samples collected in the NESFA book The White Papers, and he was a simply wonderful fan writer. He was also a fine pro writer. His career began with "Assisted Passage", in the January 1953 New Worlds. He was of course most famous for his long series of stories and novels about an interstellar hospital, Sector General, and as such he was noted for his aliens and their curious medical problems.

I've enjoyed a great deal of the work of both writers. Unfortunately, they were not yet fully developed at the time of writing these two novels, and neither story is really very good. The Silverberg novel is explicitly called "complete & unabridged" on the cover, which makes me wonder if there was another longer edition of the White novel. I can't find any evidence of an earlier edition, however. I see a later Ace edition by itself, a UK Digit edition, and a UK New English Library edition, on Abebooks. Some of the Abebooks listings call it a "Doctor Lockhart Adventure", leading me to wonder if there were sequels. Does anyone know?

One more point about Silverberg. I previously have listed particularly prolific Ace Double authors, but I have forgotten Silverberg. I could advance the excuse that he wrote many of his Doubles under pseudonyms (Calvin Knox most often, but also Ivar Jorgenson and David Osborne), but that's not the real reason. The real reason I didn't list him is that I forgot to think of him as an Ace Double author. But he was -- in his early, "hack", career. He wrote, as far as I can tell, 13 Ace Double halves, in 12 different books.

Master of Life and Death is an exemplar, it seems to me, of several features of SF of the 50s and 60s. For one thing, it is a strikingly didactic novel -- in this case on the subject of overpopulation. For another thing, it features what I believe is really the standard political future of SF of that period. This future, perhaps surprisingly, was not capitalist in nature, it was not (at least not overtly) America-dominated. Instead, the "default" state of world governance as of X years in the future (X could be 50 or 200 or 300), in 1960 or so, as described by SF, consisted of the United Nations in control, with a basically socialist (though rarely very detailed) economy. All this seems to me, in rereading many older stories, to be accepted all but without thought. That was simply the way things were going to be. There was nothing pro-Soviet about this -- indeed, if there was a backstory (there isn't in the book at hand) it might detail how wicked the Soviets were, until they were subsumed peacefully under the world government.

But economy, to be sure, isn't what Master of Life and Death is about. Though it must be said that the implied economic underpinning to this novel is naive and simplistic -- much like the political underpinning, and the scientific underpinning. It is, indeed, not a very good novel, hardly thought out at all. Though also told with a certain efficiency -- not exactly energy or verve, but efficiency, professionalism -- that makes it a fast read, and a book that holds the attention for the brief time it takes to read, if no longer.

The book is told in third-person but from the POV of Ray Walton, as the book opens the Assistant Administrator of the six-week-old Department of Population Equalization, or Popeek. The job of Popeek, in the horribly overpopulated world of 2232, is to balance population stresses. Reality Check #1 -- what is Silverberg's estimate of the horrible, insupportable, population level which we will have finally reached 275 years in the book's future? 7 billion. What is the current world population [as of my writing this review, 15 or so years ago], only 46 years in the book's future, according to the US Census Bureau? 6.3 billion. This doesn't invalidate the book, but it does speak to a certain failure of imagination. (I'm a bit cruel to him -- this failure of imagination was essentially universal at this time in the '50s.)

What does Popeek do, then? It moves people from overpopulated areas to sparsely populated areas. (Indeed, one of the first things we see Walton do is sign an order to move several thousand people from Belgium to Patagonia. The book doesn't consider the logistics of this.) Also, it arranges for unsuitable people to be euthanized -- babies with defects such as a potential to become tubercular, and old people who have become a burden on society. A familiar idea, but not really handled very well here. Anyway, Walton is confronted by a great poet, a favorite of Walton himself, who begs for the life of his young son. Walton secretly adjusts the records to save the boy's life, but his action is detected by his malcontent brother, whom Walton has given a job at Popeek. Now Walton is under his brother's thumb. Then an assassin kills Walton's boss, and Walton suddenly is in charge of all of Popeek.

He finds himself struggling with his own guilt, with his brother's threats, with internal problems in the department, and with three secret projects authorized by the former director: an immortality serum, terraformation of Venus, and FTL travel to allow colonization of nearby planets. The first is of course a disaster in an already overpopulated world. The second is apparently close to success -- but nothing has been heard from the planet Venus in, oh, a few days. The third is also close to success -- indeed, a ship has already been sent exploring! (Here though is another example of not thinking things through -- Silverberg details a plan to send ships to a potential habitable planet each carrying 1000 people, until a billion people have been moved. OK, suppose somehow ships can be built and launched at the rate of 1 per day -- how long would it take to move 1,000,000,000 people? Over 2700 years! Similar problems, really, would affect the use of Venus or any other "local" planet as a bleeder valve for excess population.)

Walton finds himself driven, in a ridiculously short time (the action of the book takes some 9 days) to absurdly evil actions to maintain his power, quash opposition, and push through the actions he feels necessary. It is ambiguous at times whether he is really after power or sincerely trying to do good. I felt for a while that Silverberg was trying for a tragic look at a good man corrupted. I felt for another while that he was trying for a satiric over the top look at an exaggerated regime of population control. But neither really comes off. And the book stumbles to a disappointing close, with "aliens ex machina" to solve some of the problems (though to be fair with a slightly unexpected ending twist).

Not a good book. The action is implausible, the general setup implausible, the science is dodgy, and the ending rushed and unsatisfactory.

The Secret Visitors also has serious problems, though in sum I enjoyed the story a bit more. It opens with Doctor John Lockhart, a WWII veteran, on a curious British Intelligence mission to prevent an upcoming war. His job is to identify when a mysterious old man is about to die, and to get to him in time for a last minute interrogation. When he does so, the man gibbers in an unknown language, and the Intelligence types seem rather eager to conclude that he is an alien. Before long there seem to be several factions of aliens to deal with, including a beautiful girl, several of these dying old men, and a crew at a hotel in Northern Ireland (not coincidentally, I'm sure, White's home).

The Intelligence people soon make there way to this hotel, and they learn that an evil alien travel agency is fomenting war on Earth in order that the planet, the most beautiful by far in the Galaxy (apparently because it is the only planet with axial tilt!), be maintained conveniently unspoiled for alien tourism. (It should be noted that the aliens generally seem to be fully human -- basically Spanish.) The beautiful girl is trying to smuggle evidence of this perfidy to the Galactic Court in order that the agency can be stopped. For this she needs the help of some humans -- and she seems particularly interested in the help of Lockhart. But is she telling the truth?

This setup is so extravagantly silly as to almost make the book impossible to continue with. And it isn't helped when White can't seem to decide if his method of interstellar travel involves time dilation or not (there's a man from two centuries in the past as a result of one space trip, but on the other hand this impending war seems possible to stop in short order via a round trip to the capitol planet and back.) And there is the absurd bit that Earth's medical science is so advanced compared to the aliens that Lockhart is treated almost like a god. (But the aliens have an immortality treatment -- that, it turns out, for unconvincing reasons, is WHY their medical science stinks.) And there's the part about Earth music being so superior that the aliens are reduced to tears of joy and admiration by an amateur harp player.

Still, there are good parts, such as the alien Grosni, who live partly in hyperspace. Lockhart, in a segment recalling White's Sector General series, must treat a sick Grosni. The story spirals outward from the beginning premise, leading to an action-packed but again not very convincing conclusion, with it must be said a fairly clever final resolution to the final battle. It's by no means a good novel, and I don't think it could possibly sell today, but it is in many places pleasant and imaginative entertainment.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Sofia Samatar

Birthday Review: Stories of Sofia Samatar

Today is Sofia Samatar's birthday, and again I've assembled a collection of my reviews of her stories. This isn't as long as some of my other similar posts, simply because Samatar hasn't been publishing as long. But she's a major major writer, one of my very favorites already. I haven't written about her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, but I should add that I recommend them both very highly. The second novel didn't seem to get quite as much attention as the first, but it's quite remarkable too, and in particular it closes very strongly.

(Locus, October 2012)

Clarkesworld's August issue features a couple of stories by writers I like a lot, and one by a writer new to me. So naturally the story by the unfamiliar writer, Sofia Samatar, worked best! "Honey Bear" tells of a family trip to the sea, a couple and their one child, but we slowly realize that the child isn't quite a regular human child, and that indeed the human world isn't normal at all any more. The mother narrates, desperately hoping her child, whom she loves, will remember this day, while the father is worried for hard to understand reasons. The problem is the Fair Folk, who seem to rule the Earth now (it's not clear if they are a version of fairies, or if they are aliens called that because of some resemblance). I won't say what's going on (though most readers will guess) -- because the slow reveal, and the mother's desperate, hopeless, love for her child, work together beautifully.

(Locus, April 2014)

The other original SF story in the March Lightspeed is "How to Get back to the Forest", by Sofia Samatar, who has quite rapidly become a major voice in SF/F, with one marvelous novels and several short stories (including the new Nebula nominee "Selkie Stories are for Losers") that are not only outstanding but display a striking range of themes and concerns. This latest is a scary story of a near future in which children are taken away from their parents to be raised (indoctrinated) in camps. The narrator's friend Cee rebels, insisting that she can expel the tracking bug inside her, and pulling the narrator into some of her schemes. In the end it's heartbreaking, and convincing, and  intriguing in its continuing reveal of the strange dark future it portrays.

(Locus, January 2017)

Perhaps the most overt "reimagination" in The Starlit Wood is Sofia Samatar’s "The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle", which is a look at an Arabic tale of at least a millennium ago, translated into English for the first time only last year. Samatar’s story literally "deconstructs" is, takes it apart, looks at each of the characters -- and then cunningly reassembles it, in front of the reader, in the context of the present. It is on the one hand clever -- but still it remains a story, and a moving story.

(Locus, March 2018)

I continue to catch up on some 2017 stuff I missed. For example, Sofia Samatar’s collection Tender: Stories. Truly this is one of the best collections I’ve seen in some time. This exceptional debut collection includes two new stories, "An Account of the Land of Witches", and "Fallow". Both are remarkable. "Fallow" has perhaps got more notice. It’s clearly one of the best novellas of the year. It’s set on a planet colonized by what seem to be perhaps an Amish sect, fleeing an increasingly ruined Earth. They scratch out a difficult living in what seems maybe a domed colony -- with something called the Castle nearby (is that the spaceship they came on? Part of the appeal of the story is that we are told relatively little.) The story is told by a woman who has written stories before, only to see them rejected (literally, as a waste of paper) -- now she will tell the truth about her life so far -- or, really, about three people who to some degree rebelled against that society: her teacher, Miss Snowfall; a man named Brother Lookout, a "Young Evangelist" who had become involved with a visiting "Earthman"; and finally her sister Temar, who had gone to work at the Castle. Samatar invests all this with mystery, with hints of the state of the ruined Earth (and their hopes to return), with slant looks at the details of the religion followed in this colony, with precise and affecting characterization -- it’s a sad but beautiful and not quite hopeless story.

"An Account of the Land of Witches" is quite as good in a very different way. It opens with a lyrical narrative by Arta, a slave who is taken by her master (a merchant) to the Land of Witches, where she learns their magic -- or Dream Science -- which involves language and the manipulation of time. This is absolutely lovely writing, and the magical system is beautiful. There follows -- ever in different well realized voices -- a "refutation" of Arta’s account by her angry master; and then a desperate section told by a Sudanese woman trapped back home by visa problems (and local strife) as she tries to research the fragments that make up Arta’s account and her master’s refutation for her degree from a US university; then a lexicon of the witches’ magical language, and then a strange almost mystical account of a journey in search of the Land. This is really striking, original, and, like "Fallow", mysterious.

Birthday Review: Stories of Jack Skillingstead

Birthday Review: Stories of Jack Skillingstead

Today is the birthday of my old co-worker Jack Skillingstead. Well, we weren't exactly co-workers, but we both worked at Boeing -- only Jack was in Seattle, and I'm in St. Louis. I didn't know that when I started reading his work, back in around 2004, but I did know he was an exciting new writer. Here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his stories (not including a story I included in one of my early Best of the Year volumes, "Everyone Bleeds Through" -- I can't find a review of that in my files.)

(Locus, August 2018)

Jack Skillingstead’s "Straconia" is an effective sort of Kafkaesque look at a man drifting though life, not much engaged with his marriage, who mysteriously ends up in the title city, struggling to deal with its very strange rules. He tries to find a way back  but, well, I mentioned Kafka. (I should also note that somehow the story also reminded me as well of Gene Wolfe’s great early novella "Forlesen".)

(Locus, September 2004)

Jack Skillingstead's first few stories have been consistently impressive, "Transplant" being the latest. The narrator is a genetic freak who may be immortal  he can regenerate any injured part. A rich man sponsoring a generation starship uses parts harvested from the narrator to maintain his life, hoping to survive the journey. The story concerns the narrator's attempt to make an independent life among the short-lived passengers  difficult both because of the other man's insistence on having him near at hand, and because of the traditional difficulty immortals have dealing with the constant losses of mortal friends.

(Locus, May 2005)

"Bean There", by Jack Skillingstead, is a sweet story of a skeptical coffee shop owner in a world apparently gone mad. Strange news stories abound  levitated bicycles, teleporting people, Jerry Garcia returned from the dead. Burt refuses to believe, but his girlfriend Aimee, a sculptor, talks of "Harbingers of Evolution". We can all see where the story is headed, and it gets there nicely.

(Locus, January 2006)

Jack Skillingstead’s "Are You There?" is about a parapoliceman tracking a serial killer. His best lead is the "Loved One" he finds  a "copy" of the killer’s mother’s brain, preserved on a computer. It works well enough as a crime story, and it works even better as a story about the detective and his relationships with women: his ex-wife, a woman he has met in a chat room but not in person, and the electronic copy of his quarry’s mother.

(Locus, April 2006)

And Jack Skillingstead’s "Life on the Preservation" tells of a girl from a future Earth destroyed by aliens who penetrates into Seattle, which has been maintained in a time loop as a sort of reminder of what Earth was like. Her job is to destroy the alien time loop machinery  but this is complicated when she meets a boy … I think this may be the best story yet by this fine new writer.

(Locus, August 2006)

Jack Skillingstead’s "Girl in the Empty Apartment", about a Joe Skadan, a failing writer in a near future troubled by "Harbingers", mysterious entities that seem to manifest in dreams, and that may be linked to multiple disappearances. Joe’s girlfriend dumps him, apparently for a Homeland Security agent, and then Joe becomes a subject of investigation. At the same time he encounters a mysterious young woman, who may offer his only, ambiguous, hope for escape.

(Locus, November 2007)

In Jack Skillingstead’s thoughtful and effective "Strangers on a Bus" a woman taking a bus back home to escape her abusive boyfriend encounters an odd man with a rather solipsistic life view  he thinks the stories he tells become reality for everyone.

(Locus, July 2009)

The Spring On Spec has finally arrived, with nice pieces from Jack Skillingstead and Tony Pi. Skillingstead’s "Einstein’s Theory" is a quiet story, in which an alternate Einstein regrets an act of adultery with a co-worker at the patent office and reflects on his wasted life (namechecking Hugo Gernsback along the way).

(Locus, August 2013)

Jack Skillingstead, in "Arlington", describes a solo flight in a small plane that ends up in an alternate world, but a terribly dangerous alternate world, with menacing creatures apparently kidnapping people. The general outline is familiar, but the resolution is effective.

(Locus, March 2017)

I also was intrigued by Jack Skillingstead’s "Destination", a dark story about the widening gulf between the privileged  even quite minorly privileged  and the have-nots. Brad is a game designer, which gives him access to a decent place inside a corporate enclave, and one day he is summoned to a mandatory training exercise, a real world game called "Destination", which involves a fairly random (perhaps?) trip to the "outside" world. Brad’s trip is (a bit too predictably) eye-opening, and he is given an ultimatum of sorts.

(Locus, August 2018)

Jack Skillingstead’s "Straconia" is an effective sort of Kafkaesque look at a man drifting though life, not much engaged with his marriage, who mysteriously ends up in the title city, struggling to deal with its very strange rules. He tries to find a way back  but, well, I mentioned Kafka. (I should also note that somehow the story also reminded me as well of Gene Wolfe’s great early novella "Forlesen".)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: The Wrath to Come, by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Old Bestseller Review: The Wrath to Come, by E. Phillips Oppenheim

a review by Rich Horton

I've previously reviewed E. Phillips Oppenheim's most famous book, The Great Impersonation, in this blog. But today is the 152nd anniversary of his birth, and a while ago I read another of his books, so I thought I'd post a review here. This one is actually SF, and in a way kind of prescient: in about 1924 it predicts an alliance between Germany, Russia, and Japan in about 1940, plotting to start another World War. So I couldn't resist it, though it's not as fun as The Great Impersonation.

E. Phillips Oppenheim was a very prolific and successful writer of thrillers. He was born in London in 1866, and died at his house on Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) in 1946. He seems to have been a writer his whole adult life (though he worked for the Ministry of Information (presumably writing!) during the First World War, and before that he worked in his father's leather business, one assumes until he made enough money from writing to quit). His first novel appeared in 1887, and he published over 100. His life seems, from the Wikipedia description, to have been fairly uneventful, and probably fairly happy. He married Elise Hopkins in 1892, they had one daughter, and a yacht and a French villa as well as the house on Guernsey.

The Wrath to Come opens in Monte Carlo. Young American Grant Slattery unexpectedly runs across Gertrude, once his fiancee, who had jilted him to become instead the Princess von Diss. They discuss things somewhat awkwardly -- Grant assures her he has no hard feelings -- she wonders why he quit the Diplomatic Service (he came into money) -- and they make a date for lunch. Conversation turns to the Germans, Gertrude's adopted countrymen, and their carefully cultivated new image of moderation.

Grant's next encounter is with Susan Yeovil, daughter of the English Prime Minister, Lord Yeovil, and Lord Yeovil's Private Secretary. And it comes clear that there is a conference going on, at Nice, where the Germans and Russians are trying to arrange ways around the worldwide limitations on tonnage of warships, due to a treaty that the US only is not a signatory to. It's also clear that Grant is not quite so much out of the Diplomacy business as it seems ... and that he and Lord Yeovil share a belief in the "special relationship" between the US and the UK, and a belief that the US must join the treaty to allow for true worldwide peace. They also discuss the Japanese minister Baron Naga. And, then, suddenly, Naga, whom they believe honorable, is found dead.

Well, it's easy to see where this is going -- the Conference is being subverted, as Germany, Japan, and Russia wish to rearm and dominate the world. Grant and Lord Yeovil must deal with the evil German Cornelius Blunn, and the evil Japanese Count Itash (described in quite odiously racist terms), as well as the intrigues of a couple of women -- a slinky dancer, and Grant's ex-fiancee Gertrude. (But of course we know from the start the Susan Yeovil is the right woman for him!) Will the Americans and the British prevail? What do you think? The novel spends time in London and New York as well as Monte Carlo, and there is a twist or two, and some mild action. It's not a great work at all, and to my mind not as good as The Great Impersonation, but if you can look away from the classism, and the racism, it's modestly entertaining. And, it did predict World War II in a sense, 15 years in advance! (Though the German political scene portrayed has no one remotely like Hitler.)

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Later Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

In honor of what would have been Ursula Le Guin's 89th birthday, here's a selection of my reviews of some of her stories -- all pieces published after I started reviewing, so fairly late in her career.

Tangent, 2000

Ursula K. Le Guin's stories are always worth looking forward to.  "The Birthday of the World" (F&SF, June 2002) is another fine effort.  The narrator is the only daughter of God.  After God dies, she will marry her younger brother and they will jointly be God.  As we quickly gather, the story is set in a land where religion and monarchy are intertwined: "God" is the joint King and Queen, as it were.  The narrator's story continues as turbulent times come to her country.  They are powerful and violent (the narrator befriends a teenaged girl whom her father had raped and enslaved), and have been successful in war, but there are hints that this may end.  One of her brothers wishes to be God in place of the chosen brother.  The continued inbreeding in God's family seems to be causing genetic problems.  And finally a strange set of visitors appears.  Le Guin nicely portrays yet another different culture, and as usual she centers her story on a real person who truly comes to life.  I felt the ending, especially the nature of the "visitors" (which you may have already guessed) was a bit cliche, a bit flat, but this is still a fine story.

Locus, March 2002

While I enjoyed the novellas in the two Asimov's issues I've mentioned, the best stories in those issues are shorter stories.  The pick story this month is a novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wild Girls" (March).  It's one of her trademark "anthropological" SF stories, set on an unspecified planet, with three interrelated groups of humans: City people, Dirt people, and Root people.  Very roughly, the City people are aristocrats, the Dirt people peasants, and the Root people merchants.  The story opens with a young band of City men raiding a Dirt village, apparently to steal Dirt children to become slaves or, in the case of beautiful girls, concubines or wives. Le Guin slowly develops a picture of a rather cruel culture, with a number of interesting facets, all viewed deadpan, from an inside perspective.  More importantly, she intertwines this with the involving story of the destiny of two of the Dirt captives, sisters, as they grow up and attract the attention of the City men.  Le Guin remains one of our very best writers, and this is one of her finer recent stories.

Locus, June 2002

Ursula K. Le Guin's remarkable recent outpouring of SF continues with an original story in her new collection, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. This is "Paradises Lost", a very long novella (at over 36,000 words nearly a novel) about a generation starship. Le Guin specifically mentions Harry Martinson's long poem Aniara in her introduction, and indeed I was reminded in some ways of that work. Le Guin's interest is mostly in the society on board the ship, and specifically in the ways such a society will be stressed by the arrival at the destination star. Much of the story details the way in which a stable shipboard society has been established -- major adaptations such as the one child per person rule, and minor adaptations such as children wearing no clothes for the first few years of their lives. Le Guin then shows the growth of a new religion, fundamental to the ship itself. The final conflict is between adherents of this religion, who do not wish to leave the ship, and those who are willing to colonize the destination planet. Le Guin intelligently considers the likelihood that many shipdwellers would have no interest in moving to a planet, though the created religion is too harshly a caricature, made so clearly stupid, that her argument perhaps loses force.

Locus, August 2002

We are treated to a new Ursula K. Le Guin story, first posted at The Infinite Matrix, June 3. "The Seasons of the Ansarac" is a fine Le Guin story, in her familiar anthropological SF mode.  The Ansarac are a race that live according to their "Way": essentially, they live half the year in cities, crowded lives, but forming no families.  Each spring they migrate to the country, and there they live on isolated farms, with their mates.  But then a meddling visitor suggests change ... .  Solid, witty, work, and Le Guin's imagination about different ways of being a family remains a wonder.

Locus, November 2012

Tin House #53 celebrates its two home bases, Portland and Brooklyn, with stories and articles by residents of those places, and/or about those places. The magazine is notoriously friendly to the fantastic, and it's nice to see a new story from Portland's Ursula K. Le Guin, and it's especially nice to see that "Elementals" is a delight -- charming and imaginative, in tone reminding me of her Changing Planes stories. It describes a few "elemental" creatures: "Airlings", "Booklets" (which cause typos), and "Chthons" and "Draks", creatures of the earth and fire. Clever, gently funny, warm and thoughtful.

Locus, August 2018

We’ll begin with two traditional "literary" magazines -- for good reason. The Paris Review features a story for the late, much-lamented, Ursula K. Le Guin, "Firelight". It is, appropriately, a story about her most enduring character, Ged, on his deathbed. Not much I can say about except that it does not disappoint, it’s very moving -- and a quote: "He would go on this time, until he sailed into the other wind. If there were other shores he would come to them. …" Tears -- of loss but also celebration.


Ace Double Reviews, 112: Fugitive of the Stars, by Edmond Hamilton/Land Beyond the Map, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 112: Fugitive of the Stars, by Edmond Hamilton/Land Beyond the Map, by Kenneth Bulmer (#M-111, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Kenneth Bulmer again! With Edmond Hamilton. I'm posting this review -- a brand new Ace Double review -- on Hamilton's birthday, October 21.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Jerome Podwil)

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) of course was an early legend of the field, mostly for his Space Opera, though he was also associated with Weird Tales, where his first story appeared. He wrote most of the Captain Future stories, and was a regular writer for DC Comics. And of course he was married to the great Leigh Brackett.

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

Fugitive of the Stars opens with the Vega Queen and Captain Horne on a mission to worlds on the edge of the Federation. These worlds have problems -- piracy, for one. But for some reason they resist joining the Federation. Skereth is a major world, and the Vega Queen is set to pick up a local politician to take him to a conference -- and he's a pro-Federation man, so this could lead to Skereth joining.

On shore leave, the Queen's young navigator gets into a fight, and he's out of commission. A local man, Ardric, with navigation experience applies to take his place. All seems fine. But on the approach to Arcturus, Horne is asleep when it is time to traverse the "meteor swarm". Ardric leads the ship through, but there's a mistake, and the ship is destroyed, with almost everyone, including the pro-Federation politician, killed. Horne survives and is charged with dereliction of duty for being in a druken stupor. His career ruined, he realizes that Ardric, who portrayed himself as Federation sympathizer, must have actually been anti-Federation, and must have fed Horne a mickey and then purposely crashed the ship.

Out of options, Horne decides to return to Skereth and look for a way to clear his name. He is convinced that Ardric survived, so he'll look for him. But on arriving, he soon realizes that Ardric's father is the leader of a commercial concern that has reasons to stay out of the Federation. And that has the power to have him killed. And before long he's on a desperate trek to the city they control -- but then is diverted, in the company of a beautiful girl, who turns out to be the daughter of the pro-Federation man who died in the Vega Queen disaster. And the two of them end up in the company of some aliens, who tell of a tale of slavers who brought them to Skereth to work on something called "the Project".

The rest of the novel is a pretty routine working out of the plot -- a desperate strike in the company of wildly diverse former alien slaves at the  Project; the discovery of Ardric in his new role, the discovery of the nature of the  Project. And a perfunctory romance plot. The general outlines never surprise, though there are occasional nice touches in the description of the aliens. This is the sort of yard goods Hamilton could turn out with one typing hand tied behind his back. Minor work.

Bulmer's Land Beyond the Map, like other Bulmer novels, starts promisingly, and has some OK ideas, and then kind of fumbles the ending, largely I think because Bulmer couldn't really figure out the answers to some neat questions his setup posed.

Roland Crane is a very wealthy man, and a collector. One even he is surprised by a visit from a beautiful young woman name Polly Gould. She is looking for a map, a strange old map, torn down the middle, and she thinks Roland has it. All this has something to do with the disappearance of her ex-fiance, Allan Gould, who was a good friend of Roland's in the War.

And indeed, Roland remembers this map, and a scary trip he made with his parents and sister, in which they attempted to follow the map and found themselves in a strange and scary land. They escape, but his sister has been institutionalized ever since. Roland has called this country the Map Country ever since. But he doesn't have the map.

Before long, then, they are the in last place Allan Gould went, County Tyrone in Ireland, trying to find evidence of either the Map or Allan's doings. And they do find strange things -- a nasty man named McArdle who also seems to be after the map, and who is willing to do anything to get it. A rich man in a village who seems to have got his money from a strange place -- it's soon clear that he must have a way to the Map Country from whence he steals valuables. And then there are the strange eyes of light that seem to attack people out of nowhere.

Eventually, of course, Roland and Polly and McArdle all end up in the Map Country, which is strange indeed, apparently a different dimension with different physical rules. And there are fights with tanklike things, and a weird city, and moving roads ... all leading to a really pretty disappointing anticlimax of an ending.

So -- I liked Roland and Polly and their relationship. And I thought the Map Country and its mystery seemed worth investigating. But the conclusion disappoints. So it goes.

Ace Double Reviews, 38: Mankind Under the Leash, by Thomas M. Disch/Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ace Double Reviews, 38: Mankind Under the Leash, by Thomas M. Disch/Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin (#G-597, 1966, $0.50)

(Covers by Jerome Podwil and Kelly Freas)
This would have been (alas) Ursula Le Guin's 89th birthday. In her memory, then, I'm reposting my review of her second and last Ace Double. (I have also earlier reposted my review of her first Ace Double, Rocannon's World.)

Here we have a pairing of two writers who came to prominence in the mid-60s as two of the more literary-oriented writers in the SF field's history. Both writers earned at least a modest reputation in the mainstream (more than modest, in Le Guin's case). In Disch's case that probably comes more from his poetry and his later novels, such as The Priest and The Businessman, rather dark contemporary novels with horror aspects, that have been marketed as general fiction. On the other hand, while Le Guin has written "mainstream" novels and short fiction, as well as a little poetry, her reputation, even in the "wider world", is still founded on her SF and fantasy. The novels in this Ace Double, of course, come from very early in each writer's career. Planet of Exile, about 37,000 words long, is Le Guin's second novel (after Rocannon's World, reviewed earlier in this series). (I note by the way that Ace prints her name "LeGuin", but the space -- "Le Guin" -- is actually correct. Doubtless this is one of the least in the history of Ace flubs.) Mankind Under the Leash, about 47,000 words long, is also Disch's second novel.

Mankind Under the Leash in an expansion of a 1965 novelette from If (April) called "White Fang Goes Dingo". It has also been published under the title The Puppies of Terra, which is presumably Disch's preferred title, and which is slightly more appropriate for the book.

Much of Thomas M. Disch's work has been satirical, and so it is with this novel. An outward description of the events of the novel makes it appear quite conventional -- it is about a young man brought up under alien domination of humanity who comes to rebel against the aliens, ultimately successfully. However, the story is rather different than one might expect. The hero is named White Fang, as it was for a time fashionable to name human children after famous dogs. He is the son of a famous novelist, a man much prized among his alien owners for his art, especially as his most famous novel celebrated the rule of the aliens as a good thing for their human pets. White Fang himself makes it clear from the opening of his narrative that he loved his life as a pet of the "Masters", and that he misses the "Leash".

At the age of 7 White Fang's father is killed by "Dingos" -- that is, feral humans. He and his older brother (Pluto) are abandoned by his rather cold mother to a kennel on Earth. But three years later the two are purchased by a Master from the Asteroid Belt, and they go there to live in luxury. White Fang is mated to a lovely girl named Darling, Julie, and they have one daughter. But at the age of 20, on a visit to Earth, they are abandoned by their Master. It turns out that a Solar storm has interfered with the Masters' control over Earth and the humans on Earth -- the Masters are beings of pure energy, you see. White Fang and Julie live in the wild for a time, eventually encountering a band of Dingos, part of a revolution against the Masters' rule that has taken advantage of the situation to regain control of Earth and to free the pets. But most of them don't want to be free. White Fang is imprisoned, but manages to outwit the silly commandant of the prison camp he ends up at, and after discovering his mother and brother at this camp he works to set them free, only to be recapture himself by the leaders of the revolution. This time he is convinced that freedom is preferable to the Leash, and he turns out to be instrumental in a cute plan to drive off the Masters once and for all.

The above description gives little hint of the real flavor of the book. It's very funny, sometimes in satirical fashion, at other times more purely farcical (as in the staging of the opera Salome, called here Salami, which White Fang uses to facilitate the freeing of the pets from the prison camp). It's also somewhat thought-provoking about the question of "slavery in comfort" vs. "freedom among hardship". At the same time White Fang is an appealing character, and his relationship with Julie is quite sweetly portrayed. The plot is perhaps not exactly convincing but is interesting and there are a couple of clever twists. I recommend it, mainly for the clever and satirical aspects.

I went ahead and read "White Fang Goes Dingo" to compare. It tells the same story, in essence, as the full novel, though it's only 15,000 words or so, about a third of the length of the book. The novel is expanded throughout -- in some cases just fleshing out things that were only briefly mentioned in the story, but some long sections are entirely new: the sojourn in the prison camp (and the staging of Salami) is only in the novel, and the description of White Fang and Julie's life from age 10 to 20 in the asteroids is also only in the novel (as is their child).

I ought to mention, too, that Carol Emshwiller's 2002 novel The Mount, a Nebula nominee, is in many ways very reminiscent of Mankind Under the Leash, though The Mount is not at all satirical.

Planet of Exile is, like Ursula K. Le Guin's other early novels, set in her so-called "Hainish" universe, though as with the other earliest novels, she doesn't yet seem to have decided that it is really "Hainish" -- rather it seems to be set several hundred years in the future, after Earth has colonized a variety of planets, forming the League of All Worlds. They have visited a number of worlds with "High-Intelligent Life Forms", or hilfs, that seem basically human, to the point that interbreeding is possible, if difficult. This unlikely fact is explained in the later novels by positing the Hainish seeding program, but I'm not sure she had really figured this out at the time of Planet of Exile and Rocannon's World.

In this novel the Earth Colony on the third planet of Eltanin (Gamma Draconis) has been abandoned or forgotten. About 2000 people remain after some 600 years -- chemical incompatibilities with the local life have made survival difficult. Terrans have difficulty bearing children with themselves, and they are unable to have children with the locals, though relationships, including marriage, have occurred. The other key point is that the world is in a long, eccentric, orbit, such that each Year is about 60 Earth years, with correspondingly long and harsh seasons.

As the novel opens, Winter is coming. (Yes, I went there!) The local Tevar tribe is preparing to retreat to winter quarters. Reports of barbarians from the North coming South in greater than usual numbers have also arrived. Rolery is a young woman of this tribe, somewhat solitary because she was born "out of season", and there are no young men her age. She wanders into the city of the Terrans and meets their energetic young leader, Jakob Agat, leading eventually to a love affair and marriage. Jakob knows of the barbarian danger, which also threatens the Terran city, and he is trying to convince the tribes to unite to oppose the barbarians, but when his affair with Rolery is discovered xenophobic factions turn the tribes against him. The rest of the novel concerns the terrible results of the northerners' invasion, and the desperate, and costly defense, with a glimmer of true hope for the future at the end.

As one would expect from Le Guin, this is a beautifully written book. Aside from that, however, it's pretty minor -- I didn't like it as much as Rocannon's World, for example, though I think that's because the time dilation aspect of the latter affected me so strongly. The plot of Planet of Exile sort of just stops, and the resolution is not really convincing. The love story worked very well for me, though. Certainly a novel worth reading, but in the context of Le Guin's career, a lesser work.