Thursday, March 21, 2019

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Closed Shutters, by Frances Tinker and Edward Larocque Tinker

Old Bestseller Review (Not): Closed Shutters, by Frances Tinker and Edward Larocque Tinker

a review by Rich Horton

Edward Larocque Tinker (1881-1968) was the grandson of a prominent New York lawyer, and became a lawyer himself, and eventually a District Attorney. He developed an interest in Latin America, beginning probably with a visit to Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, at which time he he met Pancho Villa. He wrote a variety of books, much nonfiction, for example books about Lafcadio Hearn, about the man who introduced craps to New Orleans, and about artist Joseph Pennell. He also wrote some novels, including Toucoutou, about a mixed-race man. He seems to have been mildly well-known during his life, and as close to completely forgotten now as one can get.

Frances (McKee) Tinker was his second wife. She collaborated with him on a series of novelettes for the Century Magazine about New Orleans in the last four decades of the 19th century. It's not clear to me if these were her only works of fiction. Edward published a later novel about pre-Civil War New Orleans in 1953. I don't know if Frances herself was from New Orleans, or if their mutual interest in the city derived from some other source -- perhaps Lafcadio Hearn. At any rate, these four stories were published in book form as slim octavo volumes in 1931. The stories were collectively called Old New Orleans, with the 1860s represented by Widows Only, the '70s by Strife, the '80s by Closed Shutters, and the '90s by Mardi Gras Masks. It seems natural that they might have been published in a single volume, but I don't know if that ever happened. And, of course, it's highly unlikely that the books were bestsellers.


My copy of Closed Shutters was published by D. Appleton and Company. I seem to have the first editon. The frontispiece is by Joseph Pennell (about whom Tinker published a book), and "decorations", appearing on the cover and the endpapers, by Edward C. Caswell. I found my copy at the well-respected used book store Jane Addams Books in Champaign, IL. Closed Shutters is about 13,000 words long.

It's a very simple story. It opens with a "thin-faced child", a young girl, watching is envy the play of a set of girls at a birthday party. This "thin-faced child" is Alys Ledoux, described as a "Creole", though I'd have said "Cajun" (as she is white, and I thought the "Creoles" were black or mixed-race, but that is apparently not quite right.) Alys lives around the corner, with her ailing mother and an older sister, who take in sewing work to make ends meet. Alys encounters Emma, the black housekeeper of the owner of this house (who is a well-loved and apparently saintly judge.) Emma, who makes it her duty to help the local poor, realizes immediatly that Alys and her sister and mother are essentially indigent, and gives her some food in a valuable blue "tureem".

At first it seems the story will be about Alys, but really it's about Emma, who is portrayed as a wonderful and generous woman, and a dutiful servant to the Judge. She keeps giving food to Alys, and then to Alys' older sister, but a particularly harsh winter intervenes. We see Emma's interactions with a boy who is supposed to be helping her, and with the Judge. And at the end we see death -- the Judge, old beyond his years, finally fails in health. And when Emma finally makes her way to the Ledoux house, she realizes that Alys' mother and sister have both died during the cruel winter, and Alys too is on death's door.

The story is really very depressing, though told in a lightish tone. For a contemporary reader the treatment of Emma, the center of the story, is undeniably racist, though she is regarded by the authors as a virtuous and admirable character, with a slight weakness for mild gambling, and, to be sure, for good food. But she is treated as a child, and the attitudes of the Judge and the authors are undeniably that "benevolent paternalism" that seemed central to "liberal" whites of that time. The story itself it reasonably well-executed, if just a bit too limited in scope. As it happens, I was reading P. Djeli Clark's The Black God's Drums at exactly the same time -- another story set in New Orleans a couple of decades after the Civil War (albeit in an alternate timeline), and the contrast in the agency and independence of the black central characters of the two stories is hard to miss.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Today is Nina Kiriki Hoffman's birthday. Much of her impressive body of short fiction appeared before I was reviewing, but here is a selection of my Locus reviews of her short fiction in this century.

Locus, March 2004

The somewhat slipstream-oriented anthology Polyphony has just reached its third issue, this one very thick (21 stories, some quite long). I was most impressed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman's "Wild Talents", a moving story of a girl whose telekinetic abilities drive her single mother to abandon her to a strange man.

Locus, April 2006

Weird Tales returns with a wonderfully thick issue: 82 pages, close to 50,000 words of fiction. ... fine work from Nina Kiriki Hoffman (“To Grandmother’s House”, a snarky little thing about three children who resent spending Christmas with Grandmother) ...

Locus, May 2006 (review of Children of Magic)

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “The Weight of Wishes” is a sweet and amusing Christmas story about a daughter who can change people – for example into a Christmas elf.

Locus, April 2007

Lone Star Stories’ February issue includes a gleefully nasty little piece from Nina Kiriki Hoffman, “Neighbors”, in which a woman’s speculations about her odd neighbors end up revealing her own family’s strangeness.

Locus, July 2009

The third in Sharyn November’s series of YA original anthologies is Firebirds Soaring. I thought this a bit more uneven than the two earlier volumes, but the best work is very rewarding, including a long novella from Nina Kiriki Hoffman, “The Ghosts of Strangers”, about a village of people allied with dragons, and a girl who can catch ghosts;

Locus, December 2012

In November Eclipse features ... Nina Kiriki Hoffman's “Firebugs” is a fine story about society of clone families, and a member of such a family who has, much against her will, differences, potentially dangerous ones.

Locus, July 2017

And Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Rings” (F&SF, May-June) is a well done look at a culture built on women owning men as slaves. Aris Lifebuilder, who has an unspecified scandal in her past, has just bought a man, a spaceship crewman who had apparently violated a local rule and been enslaved. Hoffman sketches the details of Aris’ society lightly and evocatively, and quite sharply illuminates the structurally fraught relationship she develops with her new man.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Letters from the Flesh, by Marcos Donnelly

Marcos Donnelly turns 57 today. He published a few stories in the 1990s in places like Full Spectrum, Amazing, and F&SF, and a novel with Baen, Prophets for the End of Time. Then this novel in 2004, and nothing I've seen since, though I think there's been at least one further novel, perhaps from a non-traditional publishing venue. I liked this book, and I'm glad to resurrect this review that first appeared in Locus, for Donnelly's birthday.

Letters from the Flesh, by Marcos Donnelly, (Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2004)

A review by Rich Horton

Here is a rather unexpected delight, a new short novel from a Canadian small press (run by SF writer Robert J. Sawyer), told in a series of letters and e-mails. It tells two parallel stories. In one thread, an alien energy creature is revealed to have struck Saul of Tarsus blind on the road to Damascus, and to have taken over his consciousness. The new composite creature composes “letters” – dare we say “epistles”? – to his fellow energy creatures. In the other thread, Lillian Uberland, a young genetics researcher, sends long e-mails to her beloved cousin Michael, a science teacher.

The letters from “Paul” reveal the history of the energy creatures – very long-lived beings formed at the Big Bang, who have only recently (in comparative terms) encountered a deadly Enemy. Ten of these “Asarkos” (for “no-bodied) have recently gone missing, and our protagonist is looking for them when he stumbles across the unimaginable – a planet containing living intelligent begins made of matter! By accident this Asarkos takes over Saul’s brain, and when he comes to, blind and confused, he is introduced to the sect Saul was persecuting, the followers of Jesus Christ. The rest of his letters retell much of the Acts of the Apostles, as the new “Paul” becomes a Christian. He is able to use his powers to raise a dead woman, and in so doing he begins to realize what has been going on in first century Palestine, with Jesus, his disciples, the women around them, and such miracle as the speaking in tongues at Pentecost. The explanation is pretty effective, very science fictional yet oddly and almost ecstatically religious (or at least mystical) as well. The promise of Heaven, let us just say, remains. All is told very nicely, with many familiar Pauline phrases seamlessly woven in, and with the composite creature “Paul” (who is still “Saul of Tarsus” in a sense, especially after he regains some of Sault’s memories) very well portrayed.

Lillian’s e-mails to Michael chart, from her side, a growing controversy in Michael’s science class. It seems that several of his students of are members of the same fundamentalist church, and Michaels teaching of evolution threatens to get him in trouble. Lillian tries to bolster his position with fierce arguments against proponents of Intelligent Design, but to her horror she is drawn directly into the controversy. Michael tries to appease the Creationists with a school-wide seminar in which Lillian will represent the evolution side, debating a visiting Creation Science “scholar”. Considerable complications ensue when violence erupts at the seminar, and all is made worse by Michael’s involvement with one of the students and her mother, and by a secret Michael and Lillian share.

The two threads are joined at the end in a way that successfully caps the story of the Asarkos, and the way in which they and humans can benefit each other. I will say, though, that the way this brings the story of Lillian and Michael to completion comes off rather pat. Their personal story is at once too convoluted in setup and too convenient in resolution. Even with that weakness, I really enjoyed the novel. Its SFnal “explanation” for Christianity is intriguing and thought-provoking – by which I don’t mean to suggest anyone is expected to believe in it, simply that it’s fun to read about and at the same time it promotes worthwhile reflection about philosophical and religious matters.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Novels of Laurence M. Janifer

The Novels of Laurence M. Janifer

by Rich Horton

(Some time ago, a variety of threads were posted on rec.arts.sf.written, at the urging of the wonderful James Nicoll, each giving brief summaries of the novels of a given author. I contributed a few, and posted those later on my old website. I'm slowly reposting them, with updates as appropriate. This update is in honor of what would have been Janifer's 86th birthday, though he died in 2002.)

Laurence Janifer had an SF career spanning 50 years. He was born Larry Mark Harris (or perhaps Laurence Mark Harris), and changed his name to Janifer (his Polish grandfather's name) in 1963. He used Harris as his byline until that name change. He had a short story in the rather obscure magazine Cosmos in 1953, when he was 20. His real career started in 1959, with a few stories in places like Astounding and Galaxy, under the name Larry M. Harris; and with the first of three collaborative novels with Randall Garrett, under the joint pseudonym Mark Phillips; and with another collaboration with Garrett, published as by Larry M. Harris and Randall Garrett, the vaguely soft-porn SF novel Pagan Passions. Janifer's stories were often amusing -- his main mode is comic. His best known series by far, comprising five novels and many short stories, is the Survivor series, about "Gerald Knave, Survivor", a man whose job is to go to newly opened planets and survive, in so doing discovering and perhaps fixing the particular dangers that colonists might encounter. Janifer died in 2002, aged 69, and his last novel (as far as I know) was published in 2003: Two, a Gerald Knave novel.

I list his SF novels, and other novels under his own name, below. He also apparently wrote erotica as Alfred Blake and as Barbara Wilson, and he may well have written other books in various genres under different pseudonyms.

THE "PSI-POWER" SERIES

Brain Twister (aka "That Sweet Little Old Lady") (37,000 words) (1959)
The Impossibles (aka "Out Like a Light") (62,000 words) (1960)
Supermind (aka "Occasion for Disaster") (69,000 words) (1961)

Randall Garrett was well-known for writing stories to order for Campbell's quirks, and these collaborations with Janifer certainly fit the bill. They are all about an FBI agent named Kenneth Malone, who in book 1 is assigned the job of investigating mysterious leaks in a secret government program. He deduces that these must be the result of telepaths, and he decides to recruit other telepaths to help, and he reasons that the best place to find people with psi-powers would be in insane asylums. Most notably, he finds a very powerful psi who believes she is Queen Elizabeth I. Aside from that quirk, and her habit of knighting her subordinates, she is great help. The book is pretty amusing but doesn't really hold together. It was strangely nominated for a Hugo. The second book features Malone tracking down a group of teleporters who have been stealing cars. Very minor stuff. The third ups the ante a lot, as some psi-interference has been causing people to make mistakes, sometimes minor, sometimes major. Malone tracks down a secret cabal of psis, who are doing all this for the world's own good, or say they believe. One of those novels which in the background features disasters ending up with a tenth or more of the population dead, though nobody much seems to care. The three books feature three separate love interests for Malone, without reasonable explanation as to why he is so unfaithful, though that changes unconvincingly right at the end.

THE SURVIVOR SERIES

Survivor (50,000 words) (1977)
Knave in Hand (51,000 words) (1979)
The Counterfeit Heinlein (65,000 words) (2001)
Alienist (68,000 words) (2001)
Two (65,000 words) (2003)

These novels about Gerald Knave, Survivor, are set in a not very extensively described galactic society called the Comity. A similar society, possibly the same one, certainly also called the Comity, is the setting for his SF novels You Sane Men, Power, and Reel. Thus those might be regarded as pendants to the Knave books, though they are considerably darker and the links really aren't internally important. I should add that it's not at all clear that the Comity is the same in each of these books -- in particular, the Comity in Power is confined to our Solar System, unlike any of the other books.

Survivor is a very poor novel in which Knave visits a world which had seemed benign, but on which people are suddenly dying. He finds a -- well, not quite evil, but not nice to humans -- life form that's been around forever, and eventually learns to talk to them.

Knave in Hand is rather better. Knave is called to the planet Haven IV, which is occupied by some rather nice snake-like aliens called Tocks. There is also a small human enclave on the planet, mostly consisting of people from the other two habitable planets in the system, Haven II and Haven III, which have both been extensively colonized by humans. The Tocks have an unusual social system, and almost no crime. So when their Crown Jewels are found to have been stolen, it's assumed that a human is the culprit. When Knave arrives, the situation suddenly becomes worse, as the popular head of the Human colony is murdered, and a few more apparently random murders also occur, amid some attempts on Knave's life.

So Knave rushes around the place, quelling riots and uprisings, interviewing humans from Haven II (good), humans from Haven III (bad), and Tocks (very good). His problem is deducing a motive for the crimes (he figures out means fairly quickly). I had no problem figuring out the bad guy and the motive right from the start -- I thought Knave rather slow on the uptake to be honest. Still, it's an OK story -- much better than Survivor, which I thought very bad, and probably about even with The Counterfeit Heinlein. Janifer's "voice", or I should say the first person voice of Gerald Knave, is kind of fun -- very typical cranky "competent man" narrative, with constant sarcastic asides about the folly of humankind (often taking on blatant straw men, but when was it ever otherwise?). Not highly recommended, to be sure, but decent time passing stuff.

The Counterfeit Heinlein is not really a "survivor" novel, but it stars Gerald Knave. This is more of a detective story (as, really, are all the Knave novels save the first, though the short stories often feature him in honest-to-goodness "survivor" mode). Knave is hired by a library on Ravenal, a well-established planet, to find the person who stole a Heinlein manuscript. Thing is, the manuscript is of "The Stone Pillow", and it's well-established as a forgery (after all, as we all know, Heinlein never wrote "The Stone Pillow", though he did list it as a prospective Future History story). So why did anyone steal a basically worthless manuscript? And how did they steal it -- it was well guarded.

The story ends up mainly being a locked-room mystery. There are decent SFnal aspects -- one fairly interesting alien species, and a fair amount of blather about the spacefaring future which followed the "Clean Slate War" on Earth. There's also, as you might guess, a lot of self-referential "SF about SF" aspects -- indeed the story includes a scene set at a future SF society meeting. The solutions to the couple of mysteries are OK, but a bit flat. Again, a moderately enjoyable novel, but not great.

Alienist is another locked-room mystery. Indeed, in the final analysis, four of the five Gerald Knave novels are mysteries, and have nothing to do with his supposed "Survivor" job. (I should note that a number of the Knave short stories do indeed feature puzzles relating directly to the "Survivor" thing.) I'd say, though, that Alienist is the weakest of the three late Knave novels. It opens with Knave lost in space, thousands of light years from civilization. He is contacted by an alien named Folla, who claims to be "not of these spaces", and who transports Knave back to civilization, indeed to the planet Ravenal, instantaneously. Knave worries about this enough to involve his friend/mentor Master Higsbee, and to meet an alien psychologist (source, I think, of the punning title), but nothing much more happens until a patient of the psychologist becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his wife -- in a locked room. Knave is recruited to prove that the guy couldn't have done it, and before long he has met a policewoman he really likes, and he has realized that some aliens resembling Folla seem to have contacted various people in dreams. And they seem to be up to no good. The locked room mystery is resolved, in an acceptable fashion, and the alien problem is also sort of resolved, much less satisfactorily. I had real problems in this book with the breezy non-science justifications for things, and with the characters jumping to implausible conclusions right and left. Some OK Knavish maundering and food porn, though.

Two is a fairly pleasant story, perhaps the best of the Knave novels. Knave is married (to the policewoman from Alienist), and is trying to relax into retirement with his wife, but the Crown Princess goes missing, and he is recruited to try to figure out what happened. In the process he finds that people are making attempts on his life, and on his wife's life as well. It turns out that more than one fishy thing is going on, involving a humanoid alien species, and some homicidal robots, and incompetence in high places. Enjoyable. The ending sets up a potential sixth Knave novel, but I suppose we'll never see that now.

ANGELO DI STEFANO (written with S. J. Treibich)

Target: Terra (35,000 words) (1968)
The High Hex (35,000 words) (1969)
The Wagered World (29,000 words) (1969)

These are halves of Ace Doubles. Janifer's collaborator, S. J. Treibich, published only these three stories to my knowledge before his death, very young, in 1972.

Target: Terra is not very good, though as with much Janifer, page by page it's fairly amusing. It's about a satellite which orbits a future Earth in which the Western powers, the Asians, and the Africans live in an uneasy armed state, with so many anti-missile missiles that it is even impossible for a relief spaceship to get up to the satellite. The satellite itself is there to carry a bunch of nuclear missiles. The hero, Angelo di Stefano, finds that the missiles have been impossibly retargeted to the wrong cities -- and all of Earth is in danger of destruction. At the same time the satellite is falling to pieces -- the food production is busted, etc. The "villains" are obvious, but it takes Angelo 100 pages to find them. Silly stuff, really.

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

The Wagered World is the shortest of this series, the least well structured -- and I think I like it the best. It opens with the crew of Space Station 1, including in particular Angelo and his presumptive love interest, ecologist Juli Dental, crashlanding after the events of The High Hex. First the crew must convince the world's computer system that they are alive even though they were declared dead when their incoming rocket crashed. The next section sees Angelo and Juli sent on a mission in a hastily cobbled together hyperspace ship, sent to backtrack to the source of the invading robots, in the fear that the real purpose of the robots was to soften up Earth for a followon invasion. The two find themselves at a cocktail party featuring the 647 races of the Intergalactic Council, and they also learn that yes, an invasion of Earth is planned. Angelo plays a gambling game, and wins an alien companion. Upon their return to Earth, they are accused of treason (for consorting with the aliens who are about to invade) and rape (for no very clear reason at first). The third section is basically a courtroom drama which ends in Angelo unconvincingly convincing the invading aliens not to attack and instead let Earth join the Intergalactic Council.

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

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

OTHER NOVELS

Pagan Passions (50,000 words) (1959)

Written with Randall Garrett, published as by "Larry M. Harris and Randall Garrett". This was published by Beacon Books as a "Galaxy Novel". They appear to have been trying to push "sex in space" or something. Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet was featured in the same line. There are sex scenes in Pagan Passions, but I don't think it even can be called "soft porn", unless perhaps by the standards of 50s SF.

It's set in the middle of the 21st Century. The Greek Gods, the real ones, have returned to Earth after thousands of years in hiding, and they are in control now. The hero is a history instructor and a worshipper of Athena, but he finds himself recruited to act as a stand-in for Dionysus. In the process he shows himself worthy by having his way with a young student, and eventually with Venus herself. But it's Artemis who really catches his eye ... It turns out that something else is going on, as we find out at the end. It's a fairly obvious resolution. Still, it's a better book than you might expect, fairly breezy fun, with the Greek God milieu nicely enough handled, and if the resolution is obvious it's still satisfying. Certainly nothing special, but not too bad.

Slave Planet (38,000 words) (1963)

Very short novel about a planet on which humans have enslaved the not very intelligent local race. It tries to be controversial in showing that the local race is really too dumb to deserve freedom, but on the other hand it also shows that the humans are themselves psychologically harmed by their status as slavers. A revolution is fomented, which comes to no good end for anybody.

The Wonder War (40,000 words) (1964)

Human agents in the future are sent to a planet to prevent the development of technology which would lead to Galactic war. The humanoids on the planet are fighting a fascist/communist war, and the agents try to stop the war by frustrating all efforts to conduct it. The deal is, they are supposed to do so with no loss of life. It's about a novelette (at most) worth of ideas puffed up to 40000 words, and I strongly suspect Janifer wrote it in a short time under a quicky contract. (Editor calls: I have an open slot in three months, you're a pro, give me 40K!) It features a profoundly unconvincing love story, a lot of rambling about to no effect, and, as I said, one (silly but tolerable) idea that would have supported a '50s novelet for If or something. I almost wonder if it wasn't expanded from an earlier novelet. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests it may be a collaboration with Michael Kurland.

You Sane Men (aka Bloodworld) (55,000 words) (1965)

A deliberate attempt at a controversial novel, this story is told from the POV of a man on an isolated planet which practices sadism as a cultural norm -- the Lords and Ladies go to houses where they pick out "Bound" men and women of lower classes to torture and rape. The "hero" falls in love with a Bound Woman, gets involved in the inevitable revolution, but finds he cannot overcome his "true" sadistic nature. Didn't really work, nice try in some ways, though. It was reprinted in 1968 as Bloodworld.

The Woman Without a Name (26,000 words) (1966)

Gothic novel. A young woman comes to be a governess at a remote house. She encounters a madwoman who complains about the sins of the head of the house. The children are a bit strange. There is a mysterious room in the attic to which she is not allowed to go. And she's falling in love with the young master ... It seems almost a purposeful assemblage of all the most typical gothic cliches. Too short to really develop the story, not really original in any way, but reasonably well done with those caveats.

The Final Fear (29,000 words) (1967)

A thriller. The narrator is on the run, because another man, the husband of his mistress, is chasing him with intent to kill. The kicker is that the husband is terminally ill, so he doesn't much care what happens to him, while the narrator can't risk exposure of his affair, for fear of losing his job. This rules out just going to the police. Not quite convincing, particularly as to how often they run into each other up and down the length of Manhattan. Not bad stuff, though, and it comes to a fairly effective moral conclusion.

You Can't Escape (32,000 words) (1967)

This is a thriller (Lancer calls it a "Romantic Spy Thriller" -- well, one out of three ain't bad -- no spies, and I don't count a relationship revealed in the last chapter as a "romance", but you'd have to agree it's a "thriller"), about 32,000 words long. A woman comes to consciousness on the subway, believing her name to be Dora Jaienna and the year to be 1959. She soon realizes that it is actually 1965 -- she has lost her memory of the past 6 years. She staggers to a hotel, and as soon as she checks in she gets a call from someone threatening to kill her. And she remembers her other name. It seems in the past 6 years she has taken on a new identity and become involved with the underworld. And now she has betrayed them, and they are after her. And the police won't help. The setup is OK, the execution OK, and the resolution is sudden and stupid and flat and a horrible cheat.

A Piece of Martin Cann (36,000 words) (1968)

Even more ambitious than You Sane Men, I think, though again not really successful. I read it years ago and don't remember it well  -- it's about future psychiatric treatment, and about a guy undergoing such treatment who thinks he has met a literal angel, but gets cured. I seem to recall reading a snippet from Harlan Ellison praising both this novel and Bloodworld -- I think Ellison was responding to the ambition, not the execution.

Power (63,000 words) (1974)

This is set a few centuries in the future. Humanity is ruled by a semi-democratic Empire, controlling the various inhabited worlds of the Solar System. The Emperor is elected, as are his chief advisors, but he appoints the representatives of the various constituencies, which are not only geographical in nature, but also divided by interest groups. The story concerns a mutiny aboard a warship -- the mutineers demand movement towards a more fully democratic society, else they will destroy a city on Mars. It is a very very talky novel. It focuses on the most influential of the Emperor's councilors, Isidor Norin, and his three children: Aaron, the leader of the mutineers; Alphard, a functionary for the influential Church of Probability and Chance, which hopes to use the mutiny to expand its power; and Rachel, who has married a movie star who is in financial trouble to a mobster, seriously exacerbated by threats to the Martian city. As I said, it's quite talky. It's often hard to follow, and the motivations of the characters aren't fully believable. It is quite serious, and Janifer seems insistent on a sober study of the nature of political power, but the book never really involved my interest, and its mixture of cynicism, pragmatism, and hints of idealism never convinced. Again, an ambitious but not quite successful novel.

The novel is rather poignantly dedicated to S. J. Treibich, who had died not long before.

Reel (40,000 words) (1983)

SF about a "pleasure" planet. The action turns on an attempt to take over the rather anarchic city in which are located the casinos and whorehouses. The main characters are Alex Yonge, the son of the owner of one of the main casino organizations, and Marge Sunday, an influential madam. Yonge falls in love with one of Marge Sunday's newly shanghaied girls, and she is assigned to the S&M section as punishment, but the attempt by another man to take over complicates things. It doesn't really come off -- the love story is unconvincing, worse, the resolution is just implausible. I don't really know what Janifer was trying to do here.

It's quite possible that I have missed a number of his novels, and also that he has written some under pseudonyms. But these are those I know of.

Birthday Review: Treasures of Time, by Penelope Lively

Treasures of Time, by Penelope Lively

a review by Rich Horton

Penelope Lively turns 86 today. I haven't read a ton of her work, but what I have read I've enjoyed. In her honor, here's what I wrote (very briefly) about one of her books some while back.

The winner pf the first British National Book Award for Fiction was Penelope Lively's Treasures of Time, and by pure coincidence I had that on hand to read. I've read one previous Lively novel (Cleopatra's Sister) and a memoir (Oleander, Jacaranda), and I liked both, so I've picked up two or three further of her books to try.

This book, from 1979, concerns the ramifications of the production of a TV program (okay, television programme) about Hugh Paxton, a 5 years dead archaeologist who had made a major discovery about ancient England. Hugh's daughter, Kate, and her fiance, Tom (who is an historian studying for his thesis a 17th century antiquarian/archaeologist) come down to Hugh's old home to visit Hugh's widow, Laura, and her crippled sister, Nellie. Laura turns out to be a truly awful woman, portrayed with catty gusto in a way which seems unique to women writers. (If a man wrote of Laura the way Lively does he would be called a raging misogynist. Indeed, Kingsley Amis wrote very nastily of some women in some later books (to me, most obviously in The Russian Girl, but people tend to cite Stanley and the Women), but Amis's bad women were bad in different ways than for example Laura Paxton. Anyway, Laura is terrible to both Kate and Nellie, very controlling but also incredibly stupid, and a raging bore to boot. Kate is emotionally stunted, presumably partly due to Laura, while Tom is a bit vague and unfocussed. Nellie, it turns out, was another archaeologist, and in love with Hugh, and on the evidence Hugh probably (but we can't be quite sure) carried on an affair with her after his marriage to Laura soured.

Over several months, the television programme production progresses, Tom works toward his degree, his relationship with Kate hits some rocks, while secrets about Hugh and Nellie and his discoveries seem ready to burst dangerously into the open. The resolution is emotionally sensible, though a bit understated -- it seemed to me that some guns shown on the mantel were left unfired. But it's a very nice book, and all the main characters come through very strongly, though I did think at times the portrait of Laura seemed almost of necessity a caricature. This is fine work, probably not Lively at her best (certainly I prefer at least Cleopatra's Sister), but well worth a read.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

a review by Rich Horton

I'm trying to get some things I wrote for my previous blog back up, and I ran across this bit I wrote after my most recent rereading of Lucky Jim. It's not Amis' birthday or anything -- that's next month (and I have a lesser known Amis novel to write about then!)

Kingsley Amis is one of my favorite writers, and Lucky Jim (1954) of course is probably his most famous novel. It's also his first novel, which makes him one of those writers who spent their entire career trying to live up to early success. That annoys many writers -- most people like to think they are getting better as they go on. Amis showed signs of annoyance at the continued preeminence of Lucky Jim in the public eye, but not too badly. He kept writing to the end of his life, producing a novel every two or three years right up to his death. Indeed, while his first successors to Lucky Jim are widely regarded as much lesser works, especially his third novel, I Like It Here, beginning with his fourth novel (Take a Girl Like You (1960)) he produced several that at least rival Lucky Jim in quality. I'd mention as my personal favorites The Anti-Death League (1966), The Green Man (1969), Ending Up (1974), The Alteration (1976), and The Old Devils (1986). (Of these The Alteration is alternate history, The Anti-Death League a near-future story with mild SFnal content, Ending Up is set slightly in the future, and The Green Man is a ghost story.)

I was introduced to Amis in High School, oddly enough. My junior year English teacher really liked his work, and she assigned Lucky Jim in our English Literature class. At about the same time I noticed New Maps of Hell, his critical study of SF, and later that year The Alteration came out. Both those books convinced me he was well-disposed to SF, which sat well with my defensive teenaged self, so I decided to be well-disposed to him. I quite liked Lucky Jim when I read it for class, but in all honesty the only other Amis book I read for years was New Maps of Hell. A decade or more ago I picked up a copy of The Old Devils, his Booker winner, and I really loved it, so I started reading him with more discipline, and by now I've read most of his prose, though not quite all of it.

I think this is my third reading of Lucky Jim. It remains a very enjoyable book. It's the story of Jim Dixon, a history lecturer at a provincial English university shortly after the second world war. Jim is involved in an unsatisfactory relationship with a drippy fellow lecturer called Margaret Peel, who uses emotional blackmail such as implicit suicide attempts (she took sleeping pills after breaking with her previous boyfriend) to keep him on the string. He hates his job, and he hates his boss (Professor Welch) if anything even more, while worrying that he won't be retained for the next school year. He hates phoniness in general, particularly that represented by Professor Welch, who is into recreations of old English music (recorders and all).

The plot revolves mainly around Dixon's growing attraction to Christine Callaghan, a beautiful girl who is nominally Professor Welch's son Bertrand's girlfriend -- but Bertrand is also fooling around with a married woman, and he's a crummy artist to boot. Also, Dixon is working on a lecture about Merrie Olde Englande, which he hopes will impress Professor Welch enough that he can keep his job, but every sentence of which he hates. The resolution is predictable, if rather convenient for Dixon (involving a rich uncle of Christine's), but it satisfies. The book itself is really very funny.

But -- one thing I noticed particularly on this reading. Which is -- yes, the people around Jim Dixon are mostly evil little shits, just as he thinks, but he's a little shit himself. Some of the things he does are intolerably mean, petty, or harmful. Burning holes in the Welch's sheets while drunkenly smoking a cigarette is one thing; but such stunts as stealing a colleague's insurance policies and burning them just seem, well, felonious. And of course Margaret Peel really is someone he's better off breaking up with, but the way Christine is presented as naturally good because she is beautiful and has big breasts does seem rather sexist (to say the least.)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Old Bestseller: Antic Hay, by Aldous Huxley

Old Bestseller: Antic Hay, by Aldous Huxley

(I note to begin with that Antic Hay was likely not really a bestseller, but it was a novel that gained considerable notice in its time.)

Aldous Huxley was born in 1894 and died in 1963 -- famously on the same day in November as C. S. Lewis and as a certain American President. He was the grandson of the famous zoologist T. H. Huxley, best remembered now as an early defender of Charles Darwin's views. Aldous wrote a dozen novels, two of which at least can be considered Science Fiction -- his most famous, Brave New World, and his last, Island. Huxley also wrote short stories, poetry, many many essays, and screenplays. He was co-scenarist on several very successful movies -- the Garson/Olivier Pride and Prejudice, Madame Curie, and Jane Eyre. Late in his life he gained some notoriety for using the drugs mescaline and LSD, and for a book, The Doors of Perception, about his experience with mescaline.

Antic Hay (1923) was Aldous Huxley's second novel.  It seems to have been the novel that established his reputation.  I had not previously read any Huxley save Brave New World and Island, both quite some time ago.  Antic Hay is rather a different beast than those books.  It's very much an early '20s book -- recalling quite directly, for instance, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I was also reminded strongly of Anthony Powell, particularly Powell's pre-War novels, indeed most notably his first novel, Afternoon Men.  (Though echoes of Antic Hay seem to be present also in From a View to a Death and Agents and Patients.) I think the Powell novels are better, but that is, I suppose, a matter of personal preference only -- certainly Huxley (of this period) was a direct influence on Powell.

The novel concerns several youngish men and women in London, in 1922.  The main character is Theodore Gumbril, a thirtyish man who at the opening resigns his job as a schoolteacher to try to develop an idea for "Gumbril's Patent Small Clothes": an inflatable bladder to be inserted in the seat of one's pants, so that one could sit more comfortably on hard benches. He returns to London, and we meet his circle: a failed artist named Lypiatt, a precious and supercilious newspaper writer named Mercaptan, a physiologist named Shearwater, and a strange man named Coleman. Soon the various characters are engaged in the typical empty machinations of such novels: Gumbril's former lover, Myra Liveash, puts off Lypiatt's advances while dallying with Shearwater, and eventually, perhaps, ending up with Gumbril again.  At the same time Gumbril, in disguise, seduces the foolish and naive Mrs. Shearwater, who ends up by mistake seeking out Gumbril at Mercaptan's rooms, then Coleman's, whereupon the latter rapes her (an act presented as hardly anything out of the ordinary). Gumbril finds himself in love with an innocent and virginal married woman -- but he cannot bring himself to believe in being in love ...  and so on.

It's quite wittily written, though the tone seems wobbly, at times serious and romantic and idealistic, at other times utterly cynical. The characters are very sharply presented, to the point of caricature in some cases (Mercaptan, for example). The whole attitude is pure early '20s disgust with the "civilization" that led the West to the first World War. Powell's Afternoon Men (1931) has a broadly similar scheme (as do many other novels, of course), but Powell maintains a more consistent, more cynical tone, that I think works better.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Derek Künsken

Today is Derek Künsken's birthday. He's one of the smartest new writers we have, and he intrigued me with his very first sale. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, is good stuff as well! Here's what I've written about his short fiction in Locus:

Locus, February 2007

I also liked a very traditional SF story from last Fall's On Spec, “Tidal Maneuvers” by Derek Künsken, in the classical mode of depicting a very alien being in a very alien environment: in this case a metal creature on a planet orbiting a pulsar.

Locus, March 2012

“The Way of the Needle” by Derek Künsken (Asimov's, March) is quite intriguingly strange but perhaps for the same reason I didn't quite think it worked. It's set on a planet circling a pulsar, and its inhabitants are nourished by the effects of the star's magnetic field. The hero, Mok, has been ordered to assassinate one of his master's rivals, and to accomplish this he must abase himself and associate with “swarmers” (commoners, I suppose). This plot somehow doesn't seem alien enough to support the odd initial setting.

Locus, September 2012

Quite different is Derek Künsken's “Long Leap” (On Spec, Spring). Künsken seems interested in extreme Sfnal environments. Here, a generation starship is trapped by an encounter with a supernova remnant, a pulsar, and the main character, a psychopath but also the ship's only astronomer, finds a chance for redemption in an expedition to the highly magnetic planet they find orbiting the pulsar. It's a hard SF problem story, and as often with those pieces, it seems somewhat contrived, but it delivers an interesting problem and solution.

Locus, February 2014

The lead novelette in the February Asimov's is “Schools of Clay”, by Derek Künsken, who has written several really striking hard SF stories about intelligent creatures in extreme environments. This one is set in an asteroid belt around a pulsar, with a race of creatures made of clays, sometimes “ensouled” with independently thinking radioactive chunks, with an ecology based on the radioactive material, energy from the pulsar, and volatiles mined on the asteroids. The social structure is hivelike, and for this story the “worker” caste is ready to rebel, as a periodic migration, driven by time dilation induced by passage near a black hole, is about to start. Anyway you look at it, that's pretty cool stuff, and really nicely worked out here. The story qua story, and the characters, are well-enough handled if not surprisingly of lesser interest than the setting. Which is to say, I suppose, classic sense of wonder SF.

Locus, November 2014

Derek Künsken has made his mark so far with a number of stories set in decidedly exotic environments. His first story for Analog fits the mark, if the environment isn't quite as exotic as in some earlier stories. “Persephone Descending” opens with Marie-Claude Duvieusart on a routine maintenance job on a floating factory on Venus when her plane explodes and she is ejected into the harsh atmosphere. She soon realizes that her plane was sabotaged, and that she is being pursued by a drone, even as she ought to be dead at any rate. The bulk of the story is taken up with her remarkable efforts at surviving long enough to be rescued, with the unwitting help of some Venusian life. Intertwined are faux-non-fiction excerpts filling us in on the political background and on the aftermath of the attack on Marie-Claude: it seems Venus has been colonized by newly independent Quebec. The colony is struggling, and there is a (somewhat ironic) séparatiste movement. Marie-Claude, an influential union leader, is caught in the middle, and the question is, what does this attack have to with the political issues? Both aspects of the story – the SF adventure and the political intrigue – are interesting, but for me the political aspect didn't really work as well as the truly exciting battle for survival. Still,  Künsken remains a writer to watch.

Locus, March 2015

I also liked “Ghost Colors”, by Derek Künsken (Asimov's, February), mostly for its neat science-fantasy idea: ghosts that haunt people with a genetic predilection for it, and sometimes their relatives. Brian is haunted by the ghost of his rackety aunt's long-time unrequited admirer, Pablo. (His aunt had a disreputable profession.) The deeper story is the value of remembering the past, hinted at by Pablo's profession (paleontology) and Brian's slightly pack-rattish nature, in contrast to his girlfriend's neatnikness. Well-done characters and a nice idea, if a bit of of a listless story (about the girlfriend's desire that Brian have gene therapy to cure him of his ghost.)

Locus, September 2015

The July Asimov's features a novella by Derek Künsken, related to both of his major stories from 2014, “Schools of Clay” and “Persephone Descending”. Like the former it features an alien race with time travel built into their life cycle, and like the latter it is a politically oriented story (with lots of the politics on the dirty side) set in a future in which an independent Quebec has become a power in space after colonizing Venus. “Pollen from a Future Harvest” is set on a planet where a unit of the Sub-Saharan Union has stumbled across a pair of time gates, as well as some vegetable intelligences that send themselves messages via pollen from 11 years in the future using the gates. They have decided to take possession of this potentially extremely valuable discovery themselves and thus rebel against their rulers, the Venusian Congregate. That's a pretty rich setup already, and there's more: arranged tripartite marriages, a murder mystery, Congregate spies, and the question of why the pollen has suddenly stopped flowing through the gates. All this is neat stuff, and the main character, Major Okonkwo, an auditor pressed into leading an investigation after her senior husband's suspicious death, is well-presented. Somehow the story doesn't quite live up to its promise though – I think for my taste there was a bit too much following the ultimately slightly banal stories of corruption in the maneuvering for military leadership, and not quite enough focus on the really cool Sfnal elements – though it should be said that the conclusion uses time travel and its implications nicely – and I should add that my disappointment is really only relative to quite high expectations.

Locus, June 2016

Derek Künsken’s “Flight From the Ages” (Asimov's, April-May) is another story about AIs, and also a story set in the very far future. A couple of advanced AIs, bankers, are tasked to investigate the sudden interruption of the tachyon flow from a certain star system, and what they find is dangerous and disturbing … The story leaps farther and farther into the future, as the consequences of the original discovery broaden, and as the intelligences of the universe continue to evolve. The end is pretty much what we expect, and the story, like many very far future stories, ends up a bit abstract … but there’s no denying the interest of the radical hard SF ideas.

Birthday Review: Stories of Alastair Reynolds

Today is Alastair Reynolds' 53rd birthday. He's clearly as good a pure Hard SF writer as we have these days. Here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction, mostly from Locus (the first is from my SFF Net newsgroup.)

Spectrum SF summary, 2001

The novella is Alastair Reynolds' "Glacial", a sequel to his earlier Spectrum SF story "Great Wall of Mars", and with that story part of his common future history which he also uses in his novels Revelation Space and Chasm City.  "Glacial" is from a viewpoint allied to the "Conjoiners", who have created a sort of human hive mind technologically, and it is very sympathetic to that viewpoint, unusual for "hive mind" stories.  It's also a neat SFnal mystery -- a fine story all around.

Locus, April 2002

The latest array of original novellas from Peter Crowther’s PS imprint is rather impressive. Diamond Dogs, a sidebar to Alastair Reynolds’s ongoing future history sequence—in particular, to the events in Revelation Space (2000)—is a Gothic-mathematical fable of high allusive verve. From Chasm City, the Athens of the planet Yellowstone and the entire human universe, a group of ill-assorted adventurers sets out to probe yet another of the sinister alien artifacts that dot their galactic environs. On a barren world, they must penetrate an inscrutable levitating tower, which poses them a succession of ever more treacherous logical puzzles as they advance through its chambers, and punishes excruciatingly any misstep. The humans are at obvious and subtle cross-purposes; their very physical natures must alter to keep up with the challenges they face; and, prior to a denouement of deep Gothic dye, their every weakness is exposed and exploited. Rather like the resonantly lugubrious space operas George R. R. Martin produced in the Seventies, but even gloomier, Diamond Dogs suggests that we are rats in the cosmic maze, our aspirations masks for base desires, our behaviors puffed-up Pavlovian reflexes. But there is humor in the gore, slapstick in the pratfalls; at least we get to laugh at ourselves as we tread the testing passageways…

Locus, November 2002

By and large Peter Crowther's Mars Probes is an impressive original anthology. It stands head and shoulders, at any rate, above the run of mass market paperback anthologies we see these days. I really enjoyed Paul Di Filippo's "A Martian Theodicy", a hilarious revisionist take on the classic Stanley Weinbaum story; and Alastair Reynolds' "The Real Story", in which a journalist finds the crew of the original manned expedition to Mars and finds some rather different views on both "what really happened", and on what has happened to Mars since then.

Review of Constellations (Locus, March 2005)

Another of the standouts is Alastair Reynolds's "Beyond the Aquila Rift", closer to a traditional SF space story, with an unexpected and spooky twist. A starship captain finds himself marooned in a very distant star system due to a mishap navigating what seems to be a wormhole network. There is no way to get home in a human lifetime, so it is perhaps fortunate that he encounters an old lover also stuck in this system. But his efforts to revive a crewmate lead him to a disturbing new revelation.

Locus, November 2005

The cover story for the Summer issue of Postscripts is “Zima Blue”, by Alastair Reynolds, a future art story that actually works. The narrator is a reporter covering the unveiling of the last and greatest – or so it is advertised – piece of art by Zima, a sort of Christo-like character, famous for increasingly huge pieces – wrapping moons and suchlike – mostly consisting of the single color now dubbed “Zima Blue”. The reporter is privileged to learn Zima’s back story, which is surprising and in the end quite moving – and which actually convincingly explains his art.

Locus, April 2006

More spectacular in scale is Alastair Reynolds’s “Thousandth Night”, about the periodic Reunion of a group of altered clones who spend 200,000 years traveling the Galaxy then come together to share their experiences. The conflict here is a mystery concerning one of their number who has evidently fabricated some experiences, leading the protagonist and his lover to suspect something nefarious, perhaps concerning the obscure Great Work that certain cultures are proposing. The nature of the Great Work is indeed fairly interesting, and the crime revealed is pretty dastardly.

Review of Galactic Empires (Locus, June 2006)

Alastair Reynolds’s “The Six Directions of Space” is set in an alternate history where the Mongol Empire rules the world, and much of the galaxy – but they learn that space is leaky, and accidental travel into parallel universes is possible. Two somewhat damaged people from quite different universes find themselves looking for something like a haven, or perhaps even peace.

Review of Forbidden Planets (Locus, October 2006)

Another offbeat version of the story is Alastair Reynolds’s “Tiger, Burning”, which considers the idea of multiple parallel universes in “branes”, each slightly different. Humans have explored across many of these until the differences become dangerous. An investigator with the interesting name Fernando visits a very distant brane featuring a character named Meranda, whose husband just died in what may have been an accident. Reynolds plays with the idea of echoes of stories transmitting information across the branes, so that both The Tempest and Forbidden Planet are really about this current situation – the story never really convinces, but it is interesting.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Alastair Reynolds’s “Fury” shares tropes with both Scholes’s story – a near-immortal Emperor – and Baxter’s – sibling rivalry with effects extending very far to the future – as an Interstellar Emperor’s bodyguard investigates an attempt on his ruler’s life. Here I felt that the familiar tropes were in the end a bit too familiar, though the story remains enjoyable.

Review of Solaris 3 (Locus, May 2009)

So Alastair Reynolds’s “The Fixation” two parallel universes are shown, each different from ours, partly because of the different history of the Antikythera Mechanism, an early device that may have been a mechanical computer – the story centers on women in each universe who are working in very different ways on restoring the Mechanism, and the spooky way their efforts overlap.

Review of Life on Mars (Locus, May 2011)

A couple of stories feature plucky kids getting in trouble by impulsive acts, a traditional YA theme. “The Old Man and the Martian Sea”, by Alastair Reynolds, concerns a girl who misses her older sister, and who ends up stowing away on a delivery balloon, and ending up on a remote and obsolete “Scaper”, on which an old man has spent his last years, and has a story he wants someone to remember.

Locus, March 2017

One of the better novellas of the year showed up in December: The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds. This is another of his stories about Merlin, who is engaged in a long search for a weapon to use against the Berserker-like Huskers, who seem determined to exterminate humanity. He comes across a swallowship destroyed by the Huskers, with one survivor, Teal, who leads him eventually to a war-torn system where he can hope to find a syrinx to replace his damaged one. It turns out Teal has an interesting history in that system – more interesting than even she knows. And the story really turns on that system’s history, and on the title entity, an AI used to prosecute the ongoing war between two factions. The Iron Tactician has been stolen by a third agent – pirates who may really want to end the ware entirely. The resolution is moving and effective, as we learn what or who the Iron Tactician really is.

Review of Infinite Stars (Locus, October 2017)

And the best of all the new stories is Alastair Reynolds’ “Night Passage”, a dark story about what goes wrong when a spaceship carrying both the hivemind-like Conjoiners and the more conventionally “human” Demarchists breaks down in mid-journey to the planet Yellowstone, coincidentally close to a significant alien artefact. The Conjoiners are suspected of sabotage or mutiny, and war threatens. The Captain is also forced to make a morally fraught decision affecting the fate of the entire set of crew and passengers, if there is going to be any continuance of the mission. It’s unsettling and effective work.

Birthday Review: Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Today is Barry Hughart's 85th birthday. Here's a review of his most famous novel (of only three), Bridge of Birds, a lovely book.

I reprint it at I first wrote it, so I'll explain the reference to Alexandria Digital Literature briefly. It was an attempt at a book recommendation system (eventually combined with an early e-publishing venture). It worked very well, but it never caught on widely, I think for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that it didn't get lucky. But the other reason was that it worked well but it depended on a fairly devoted group of earnest users, because the ranking scale had 7 gradations (as I recall!), and the system worked best when you and others like you ranked lots of stories. (Compare Pandora's three gradations.) That said, it provide ME a bunch of great book recommendations.

Review Date: 22 April 1997

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
Del Rey, 1984, $5.99
ISBN: 0345321383

(Cover by Mary Meitzelfeld)
I have enjoyed playing around with Alexlit (Alexandria Digital Literature, which is here) quite a lot, but until now I have mainly just rated and entered stories, doing little with the recommendations beyond looking with interest at the list. For some little time now the top- recommended book for me has been Bridge of Birds. As it was published in 1984, I was somewhat skeptical of my ability to find it: however it is still in print from Del Rey, and I was able to find a copy at Book Stacks. [Alas, Book Stacks, later Books.com, is no longer. There is an omnibus of the three Hughart novels, available from the Chicago SF bookstore The Stars Our Destination. {Double alas, The Stars Our Destination, a wonderful store, is also long gone!}] I placed it at the top of my TBR pile, and having read it, I can report a definite success for Alexlit. This is a very fine novel, charming, amusing, moving, often strikingly beautiful, often rather horrifyingly bloody. [The book and its two sequels seem to be out of print, but I believe it is readily findable used, and I believe there is a Kindle edition.]

The story is a fantasy set in Ancient China, at a time roughly corresponding to the 7th century AD, best I can tell. The narrator is Lu Yu (not to be confused with the author of The Classic of Tea), who is usually called Number Ten Ox. The story opens with the yearly silkworm spinning at Number Ten Ox' home village: but instead of the bounteous harvest of silk the villagers expect, all the silkworms have died: much worse, soon the children of the village are afflicted with a terrible plague. The locals can do nothing for the children, so they send Number Ten Ox to Peking to find an expert. But they have miscalculated the expense of expert help, and the only expert they can afford is Li Kao, Master Li, who has a slight flaw in his character.

Master Li and Number Ten Ox are soon off on a series of searches, from end to end of China, trying to find the Great Root of Power, which may be the key to a cure for the children. Along the way they encounter gods and goddesses, monsters and ghosts, wise men and terrible tyrants. At first the book seems to be a fairly unstructured, though continually entertaining, collection of escapades. However, an underlying structure emerges, in the form of an old legend, and a children's rhyme and game. By the end, Master Li and Number Ten Ox find that much more is at stake than the fate of the children of the village. In particular, Number Ten Ox' attitude is well- depicted: throughout his adventures, he thinks always of the children, in a true-feeling and very affecting way.

(Cover by Kaja Foglio)
The resolution to the story is very satisfying, and also beautifully depicted. Puzzles are solved, emotional knots untangled, ghosts set free, tyrants deposed, and all is neatly unified. At the simplest level the book is an always amusing, often very funny, light fantasy: at another level it achieves real emotional power. It is also an astonishingly bloody book, but somehow we care and even mourn for the many victims even while the tone remains light. In passages the prose achieves real beauty, in particular a prayer which Hughart adapted from a Chinese source, and also the description of the bridge of birds. I recommend this lovely fantasy very highly.

(Needless to add, I hope, is that this is a Western man's fantasy China, not resembling, very much, the real place, its real history, nor even how contemporary folks of Chinese descent likely few the elements Hughart has assembled.)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Birthday Review: PITFCS, by Theodore R. Cogswell

PITFCS, edited by Theodore R. Cogswell

a review by Rich Horton

Theodore R. Cogswell was born March 10, 1918, so he'd have been 101 years old today. (His hometown, Coatesville, PA, was also the home of the great writer W. M. Spackman, who was 13 years older than Cogswell.) Cogswell died in 1987. He was primarily an academic, at Ball State in the 1950s, and by the end an English teacher at a junior college. (Algis Budrys claimed he "couldn't be bothered to publish, and couldn't be bothered to get his Ph.D", which hampered his career.) He wrote some 40 SF stories between 1952 and 1981 (though the largest part by far appeared through 1962), plus one novel, a Star Trek tie-in, Spock, Messiah!, written with Charles Spano. He is still by far best remembered for one story, his first, "The Specter General", from Astounding for June 1952, and later reprinted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIB. One more story is even better, I think -- "The Wall Around the World", from Beyond in 1953.

His writing career, then, never really took off, though as noted he did publish at least a couple really lasting stories, which is more than a lot of folks have done. But he did something else of real significance for the SF field. This was his editing of the "fanzine for pros" called Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, usually abbreviated PITFCS. This ran for 17 issues between 1958 and 1962, with one last issue published in 1979 but mainly printing stuff left over from 1962. He prepared this book, a collection of most of the material from PITFCS, in 1985, but Advent didn't publish it until 1993 (though it is dated 1992.) It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book.

As I said, this book is primarily the contents of PITFCS, though it includes one issue of another Cogswell fanzine, Digit, comprising mostly humorous poems by a number of SF writers riffing on the ambiguous pronunciations of names like Leiber, Boucher, and Poul (Anderson). Not all of PITFCS is included -- the Science Fiction Encyclopedia suggests that what is missing is discussion of a "particularly ugly controversy involving Walter M. Miller". (I have no idea what that controversy was -- I wouldn't be human if I wasn't curious about it, but I assume it was not included in the book for good and proper reasons.)

The book is huge -- 375 close packed 8 1/2 by 11 pages. (Something in me wishes the format was 7 by 10 in homage to the pulps!) Each issue after the first consists of a short editorial note and a series of letters from the subscribers (often, of course, in response to material from the previous issue.) The list of contributors is huge -- prominent names from within the field include Judith Merril, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Rosel George Brown, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett, Kate Wilhelm, Avram Davidson, Damon Knight, Miriam Allen de Ford, Lloyd Biggle, Donald A. Wollheim, Sam Youd ("John Christopher"), John Brunner, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, etc. etc. There were several contributors known primarily for work outside the genre: Richard McKenna, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ciardi, Michael Frayn, and Kingsley Amis most obviously.

What was discussed? Some shop talk, for sure -- there was an exchange about the value of editors, some happy to do rewrites on request, others against it. There was discussion about controversial works of the time, notably for example Starship Troopers -- and, indeed, James Blish vowed to right a response to it in novel form. (This became Mission to the Heart Stars, one of Blish's worst books.) There was a fascinating exchange about Budrys' Rogue Moon, and how he cut it for the magazine publication, and possible alternate titles. There were political discussions -- for example, a bit about Chan Davis' encounter with McCarthyism (which is why his career as a Math professor took him to Canada.) There were versions of the age-old debate "Is Science Fiction Literature?" There were discussion of John W. Cambpell's enthusiasms, such as the Dean Drive. Perhaps most significant, there was extended discussion of the possibility of forming an SF Writers' Union -- discussions that were critical in leading eventual to the formation of the Science Fiction Writers of America. And of course there was gossip.

I'm not sure how wide the true audience for this book is -- I know I'm not the usual case. But I absolutely loved it. It's probably my favorite book "about" Science Fiction, and the Science Fiction community, of all time. And it's still available, from Advent Publishers (via NESFA.) So -- if you are part of the SF community, if gossip and elevated gossip about issues dating back 50 years is of interest to you, this is a wonderfully fun book to have. That said, these issues hanker back to ancient times, sort of, and for many people likely this won't mean much of anything, which is fine too, of course.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Blind Worm, by Brian M. Stableford/Seed of the Dreamers, by Emil Petaja

Ace Double Reviews, 28: The Blind Worm, by Brian M. Stableford/Seed of the Dreamers, by Emil Petaja (#06707, 1970, $0.75)

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Gray Morrow)
The Blind Worm is Brian Stableford's second novel. (His first, Cradle of the Sun (1969) is Stableford's only other Ace Double.) It is about 56,000 words long. Stableford was born in 1948, and his first story, a collaboration with Craig Mackintosh called "Beyond Time's Aegis", as by "Brian Craig", appeared when he was only 17, in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. He has also written as Kay Stirling, John Rose, and Francis Amery, though the Stirling and Rose pseudonyms may have only been in fanzines. (The "Brian Craig" pseudonym was later used for some gaming tie-ins and at least one more collaboration with Mackintosh. The Amery pseudonym was used for a brief series of stories in Interzone a few years ago.) He first attracted attention (though not very much, I suppose) with two series for DAW in the early 70s: the Hooded Swan books about a spaceship pilot named Grainger who is host to an alien mind-creature; and the Daedalus books, about an ecological mission to a variety of troubled colony planets. Stableford published quite a few books, mostly for DAW, until the early 80s. He reappeared in the late 80s with a highly-praised group of books about an Alternate Historical Victorian England with werewolves. Throughout the 90s his reputation has only grown, with an impressive list of rather hard SF stories mostly on biological themes, many linked as part of his "Emortality" future, which culminated in 6 novels, the last being 2002's The Omega Expedition.

I was very impressed by Stableford's work of that era, which I think among the best biologically-oriented SF -- thoughtful, original, extrapolatively exciting. At that time I made a point of reading the Hooded Swan and Daedalus books, which are solid if minor work: rather cynical, often focussing on interesting biological ideas (especially in the Daedalus books), certainly worth a look, but not as good as his mature stuff. Much of Stableford's energy in recent years has been focussed on translations from the French.

The Blind Worm is a fairly ambitious novel that didn't really work for me. It's very much a novel of its time -- strongly influenced by the New Wave. There are three parts, each of similar length. It might almost have been originally published as three stories, though I can't find any evidence of that. In the first, "The Quadrilateral", we are introduced to Earth in the far future. The seas are dry, and the land is dominated by the Wildland, a hive mind of plants. A few humans still live, tolerated by Sum, the controlling mind of the Wildland. One human King, John Tamerlane, wishes to reestablish human presence in a deserted city in the dry Great Gulf. He and his motley fellows, the hero Vanice Concuma, the woman Zea, the wild man Silver Reander, and the boy Swallow, offer Sum a bargain: if he will cede them this city, Swallow will use his telepathic powers to link Sum with the other three components of the Quadrilateral -- hive minds in three other universes. Accompanied by the Blind Worm, a construct serving Sum, and by the ancient man Jose Dragon, creator of the Blind Worm, they journey to the other universes to try to complete the Quadrilateral, with ambiguous results that mostly involve everybody dying. In the second part, "Blind God", the Blind Worm has been granted Godlike powers, and he uses them to resurrect the dead humans, and recruits them to a struggle against his creator, Dragon. In the third part, "The Army of the Dead", all the dead humans in the abandoned City in the Great Gulf have reanimated as zombies, and are attacking the Wildland. The Blind Worm, in another guise, again recruits the Black King Tamerlane and the hero Vanice Concuma to try to battle this army, and to enter the City and vanquish whatever being is behind the army of the dead.

I was bothered throughout by a feeling that much of this was arbitrary -- that Stableford was making it up as he went along. Some of the ideas and imagery are impressive -- but not, to my taste, terribly interesting. And the characters themselves are not very involving, and also seem arbitrarily motivated. It seems that Stableford was trying for a philosophically challenging novel, but he really didn't have the skills to dress it in interesting enough plot/prose/characterization.

Emil Petaja (pronounced Puh-TIE-uh, apparently -- I had always thought it Puh-TAH-huh) was a Montana-born writer of Finnish descent. He was born in 1915 and died in 2000. He became a friend of the near-legendary SF artist Hannes Bok at an early age, and lived with Bok for a time. Petaja wrote stories and poems, some Lovecraftian, and began to sell to the pulps in 1942. He wrote SF and also mysteries for about a decade, then stopped writing and worked as a photographer in San Francisco. He was lured back to the field in 1965 or so -- possibly by Fred Pohl, who bought stories by a number of old pulpsters (such as Robert Moore Williams, A. E. Van Vogt, Bryce Walton, and Jerome Bixby) for Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow in the mid-60s. His first novel was published in 1965, his last in 1970. He may be best known for his cycle of four novels (a fifth remains unpublished) based on the Finnish legend cycle the Kalevala. He was the first SFWA Author Emeritus, in 1995. 8 of his novels were Ace Double halves, including of course Seed of the Dreamers, his last published novel. It is about 37,000 words long.

Seed of the Dreamers opens with a "starcop", Brad Mantee, fetching a scientist who has gone insane and killed several people. The scientist's long-lost daughter, the beautiful Harriet Lloyd, intervenes and the scientist escapes in Brad's spaceship. Brad scoops up the daughter and takes her spaceship -- with her help (she can sense her father's location via psi) he tracks him to an uncharted planet.

To this point I was disgusted. The story so far is sexist, and silly, and implausible, and not very interesting. Things seemed to get worse when nearly the first thing they encounter on the planet is a group of naked black savages who seem straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard. Luckily, before I could throw the book across the room, it is revealed that these people actually ARE straight from the pages of Haggard! It seems that an alien race from across the universe is trying to understand humans. The only material they have is some illicit fiction, coincidentally almost all from the 19th and 20th Century in the English language, that Brad had hidden on his spaceship. (Fiction of any sort is illegal in this future galactic society.) So they have created constructs based on the various stories and populated this world with them.

The rest of the story concerns Brad and Harriet dealing with people who think they are in stories from Haggard, Baum, Shakespeare, Hilton, and Burroughs. They must find a way to convince these people that they aren't really inside these stories, and that they can throw off the dominion of the alien race and chase the aliens from the galaxy. Or something. It didn't really make much sense to me.

It's a very very very silly book. And it's mostly not fun silly -- just stupid silly. There is some unintentional humour -- for example, apparently Petaja couldn't use Tarzan because the books were under copyright (or the character is trademarked or something). So he introduces a character named Zartan the Stupendous, Lord Staygroke. I don't think I was really supposed to break into guffaws at this point, but I couldn't help it.

I suspect Petaja could do a little better than this -- on the face of it this seems possibly an uncharacteristic work. But it certainly isn't very good.

Birthday Review: Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon

Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Elizabeth Moon's birthday, so I've resurrected a review I wrote a long time ago of the first of her Kylara Vatta novels. I'm a big fan of both of Moon's long Military SF series -- the earlier series, sometimes called the Heris Serrano books, but more amusingly, in James Nicoll's coinage, the "Aunts in Space" books; and the later Kylara Vatta series. Both series are bifurcated, with an initial sequence of a few novels, followed fairly directly by a new but related sequence. I'm posting this review because it's of the first novel, but I should add that this wasn't my favorite novel in the Vatta's War sequence -- it got better as it went along.

Trading in Danger was Elizabeth Moon's second novel for Del Rey after leaving Baen. The Speed of Dark came first. It was a near future look at an autistic man and a potential treatment for autism. Trading in Danger was a return to military SF, with an overtly "commercial" aspect, as it is about a commercial shipping company.

This was the first volume of a new series called Vatta's War. As such it may be regarded as primarily an introduction to a character and setting, and looked at that way it works OK. But it's a bit disappointing on its own. (After the Vatta's War books, Moon recently began a new "subseries" called Vatta's Peace.)

Kylara Vatta is a 21 year old nearly read to graduate from her planet's Space Academy, when she is summarily dismissed for having helped a fellow cadet who ended up embarrassing the Academy. Fortunately she is the daughter of the CFO of a very respected family-owned space transport company, Vatta Transport, Ltd, and she has a position to return to. Despite her youth, she is immediately assigned a Captaincy in Vatta organization, and she is given an old ship, with orders to take it on one last shipment and then to bring it to a salvage yard and scrap it. This is seen as a presumably routine first assignment.

But on the way she sees an opportunity to make some money for the company -- possibly enough to refurbish the ship and keep it for herself. She agrees to pick up a shipment of agricultural equipment and take it to a fairly new colony planet. Unfortunately, the place she goes to get the equipment turns out to be on the brink of civil war, and on top of that her old ship finally breaks down and she is stranded without FTL capability. And then one side in the war takes the almost unprecedented step of destroying the ansibles, leaving her (and the entire system) out of contact with the rest of the Galaxy. Her ship is unarmed, so she is forced to cooperate with mercenaries who demand that she intern some personnel from other ships the mercenaries have captured. Before long she is facing mutiny, a further damaged ship, starvation, and eventually the humiliating presence of a senior Vatta captain.

As I said, I like Moon's military SF, and I tend to fall for her female heroes, and this book is no exception that way. I liked Ky and will keep reading her series. But this book itself is unsatisfying in several ways. Some of it is not convincing -- for instance her convenient ouster from the Academy just didn't make much sense to me. (And the reaction of her boyfriend ... well, I won't say, but I didn't believe it, either. Though it's a very minor point.) Furthermore, there are annoying loose ends, such as what is really going on in the war she gets embroiled in, and particularly, why did a certain group blow up the ansibles?: they are never given a plausible reason to have done so (it is stated to always backfire, and it certainly seems to do so in this case). The overall action is just a bit flat. I've often criticized Moon's tendency to have overly sneering, evull, villains: that's mostly not the case here, which on the face of it is good, but which also reflects a certain lack of a coherent conflict in the book.

[I add again, the the series gained a perfectly coherent conflict in subsequent books, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.]

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Brief Birthday Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Today would have been Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 91st birthday. (He died in 2014.) In his honor then, here's what I wrote short after I read his most famous novel, probably about 20 years ago. What I wrote was quite brief, basically a capsule.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by the Nobel-Prize Winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is, I dare say, one of the most famous books of, well, the past One Hundred Years. I've read some shorter stuff by Marquez in the past, and only liked it indifferently. But this is his magnum opus, by most accounts his finest work, and I was looking for something "big" to read.

It's quite a remarkable book. It took me a while to let the comic spirit of the book take over: it's really is a comic novel, and I originally approached it too solemnly. On the other hand, once I thought it was purely comic, the atrocities started to occur. The book is full of outsize characters, and outsize events. Much of the book tells of an extended Civil War, and also there are many murders, a horrifying massacre, absurd accidents, women dying in childbirth, incest, ...  The scope of imagination is enormous, and quite original. The book is about one family, the Buendias, and the town, Macondo, that their patriarch, Jose Arcadio Buendia, founds. The entire history of the town is detailed, and this is also the history of this family. As I said, it is at one important level very comic, but, even aside from the atrocities, its quite sad as well.

Fantastical events occur throughout, which result in the book being called "Magical Realism".  There is a lot of debate over whether MR is just fantasy by someone who doesn't want to be lumped in with genre writers, or something separate. I would argue strongly for the latter: MR, as represented by this book, has a strongly different "feel" from fantasy. One explanation is that the use of the fantastic is something of a political strategy -- an argument that I think might be convincing as to the motivations of the writers, but which doesn't seem helpful is explaining the effect of the strategy on the reader. That is, the Magical Realist aspects transcend any political (especially locally or historically political) aspect.

The main problem I had with One Hundred Years of Solitude was a certain difficulty in becoming absorbed with the characters.  They are so unusual, so obsessed with things I have little sympathy for, that, while I stayed interested in them, I was never fully involved. Despite that, though, this is a fascinating, and thought-provoking novel, and one which I think will stick with me, and grow in memory. I should add that the much praised translation, by Gregory Rabassa, seems to me (not a Spanish reader) to be very successful. [And I can only say that, yes, the novel has stuck with and grown in my memory, in such a way that I consider it a very great novel now.]

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Gregory Feeley

Greg Feeley turns 64 today. He is one of the best and most intelligent SF writers working today, though alas not as prolific as some of us might hope. He is also an incisive and unsparing critic. I say "SF writer", and that is surely true (and Greg strongly identifies as part of the SF community), but, as you will see me say in the reviews I've published below, much of his work is not really SF, or ambiguously so. This is not in the least a problem -- an SFnal imagination surely informs the historical works I've discussed, and, in any case, for me and many other readers, what matters most is the work, and the work should be in the best form or genre for itself. I read widely outside SF, though SF is the core of my reading, and SF is what lights me up even when it's bad, but Greg's writing (critical as well as fictional) is a demonstration that the field of literature is wide, and that we should not be building walls but welcoming great work from wherever it comes, genre-wise or culture-wise.

Some of my favorite Feeley stories date to before I was reviewing for Locus. I think I may have reviewed some of these for Tangent, but it looks like I've lost my original electronic copies of everything I wrote for Tangent, which at this remove seems a terrible loss to me. (It didn't even occur to me, decades ago, that I would want to keep them.) Anyway, as for Greg's stories, the likes of "The Drowning Cell", "The Weighing of Ayre", and "Animae Celestes" (among others) are not to be missed.

Locus Online, 12 April 2001

[This is extracted from a longer piece I did for Locus Online called Two Fine Novellas From Less Travelled Places, which also reviewed Paul di Filippo's "Karuna, Inc.", and in which is discussed the market for novellas -- a discussion which is terribly out of date by now.]

"Spirit of the Place", by Gregory Feeley, is an impressive fantasy novella based on an historical incident, indeed, an incident which is still generating controversy and political maneuvering to this day. The story is set in Greece in 1802, as the ship Mentor, owned by the Scottish Lord Elgin, takes on a number of crates containing marble friezes and metopes removed from the Parthenon. These are the so-called "Elgin marbles," which after much debate were sold to the British Museum by Elgin, and which remain there today, despite many appeals that they be returned to Greece.

This story is told through Elgin's personal secretary, William Richard Hamilton. He is to accompany the marbles to England on the Mentor. Once the ship is underway, there are murmurs among the crew of whispers and strange noises from the hold. Hamilton ventures down, and encounters something very strange indeed, a "spirit" resident somehow in the ash planks which were just used to repair the Mentor. The rest of the story recounts Hamilton's relationship with this spirit.

The story is well-told, bolstered with careful historical details, and with careful references to the literary and mythological history of nymphs and dryads. Hamilton's relationship with this "person", as he is compelled to call her, is ambiguous and somewhat painful. His character and the spirit's character are well-depicted, and the resolution takes part of the Mentor's actual history and portrays it in a new light. The story itself is only indirectly about the Elgin marbles, but its depiction of the pain of the nymph of the ash tree at her uprooting is a fine metaphorical version of the cruel removal of the great sculptures in the Parthenon from their rightful home. As with much of Feeley's work, the action of his story becomes a sort of metaphor for the thematic matter of the piece. This is excellent work, and I hope it comes to the attention of SF readers.

Locus, January 2003

Beyond the Last Star, edited by Sherwood Smith, concerns what might lie "beyond" the end of the universe. All in all it's a pretty decent book, though the repetitive nature of many of the stories does pall a bit. Gregory Feeley opens the book very strongly, with possibly the best story, "False Vacuum", initially, and intriguingly enough, about a far future Muslim Earth, in which non-Muslims have all left as machine intelligences. A young woman encounters some of these intelligences, and learns a bit of their nature -- and then the story shifts gears, to put a different focus on things.

Locus, April 2004

Perhaps the best story in The First Heroes is Gregory Feeley's "Giliad", a very good post-9/11 reflection. It is barely SF or not SF at all, nor even historical fiction, but it still occupies the same imaginative space, it seems to me. The narrative intertwines several points-of-view, mainly that of Leslie, a contemporary woman in the fall of 2001. Her husband is beta-testing a new computer game, Ziggurat, a sort of Civilization variant set in Bronze Age Sumer. Leslie studies Sumer, and dreams of a Sumerian girl faced with war at the beginning of history. Meanwhile, at the time Francis Fukuyama fatuously called "the end of history", history advances quite brutally -- at the World Trade Center, in Afghanistan, and of course in Iraq, collocated with Sumer. There is a brief interval showing an SF writer (unnamed but recognizable as James Blish) worrying about another possible "end of history" in the Bomb-haunted 50s. An absorbing and thoughtful novella.

Locus, May 2004

Gregory Feeley seems determined to make things hard on SF award nominators: "Arabian Wine" (Asimov's, April-May) is his second outstanding novella to appear in an SF venue this year, but like "Giliad" (from The First Heroes) it is not really SF. "Arabian Wine" is a long novella (cut from a short novel) concerning Matteo, younger son of a Venetian merchant family in the early 17th Century. He has encountered the invigorating properties of a drink called "caofa", and he hopes to make it popular in Europe, and thereby make a fortune for his family, and perhaps also to revivify Venice itself. He is also involved with a young man working on a steam engine. And his mistress is engaging in small-time witchcraft on the side. Any or all of these activities might engage the unwelcome attention of various Venetian authorities. This is an absorbing tale set in an unfamiliar milieu, and dealing with the introduction of new technology -- SFnal enough, eh? In the end though it is mainly, and movingly, about a man ground in the gears of the apparatus of an autocratic state, about the impact of Islam on the West, and about coffee.

Review of Arabian Wine, from the March 2005 Locus

Gregory Feeley's "Arabian Wine", published in Asimov's last April-May, was one of the most celebrated stories of the year. I thought it perhaps the best novella of 2004 (with only another Feeley story, "Giliad", to challenge it). It is on the preliminary Nebula ballot as I write. And now a longer version appears in a lovely edition from the small press Temporary Culture.

The novella was, in fact, cut by Feeley to fit the length restrictions of the magazine. Thus the new version is really the original version of the story, and indeed the preferred version. It is nearly half again as long, at roughly 40,000 words on the borderline between novella and novel. The novella is an excellent work, but the novel is better, a fuller and richer story, recounting for the most part the same events but with elaborations both at the micro level (a line here and there) and the macro level (not so much new scenes as expanded scenes). There are significant additions – considerably more detail of the protagonist's time in Alexandria, an instructive encounter with a young boy in the Arsenal, more interactions with his not always fully supportive family. But perhaps more importantly there are lines and paragraphs which make the narrative richer, more detailed, throughout. Pace is not an issue – the story unfolds just as it should at the greater length.

The central character is Matteo Benveneto, a younger son of a Venetian trading family. He is unable to travel for the family because he is subject to severe seasickness. But on his only journey he was introduced to coffee – kahveh, caofa, "Arabian Wine". Back in Venice he pursues two projects. He hopes to introduce coffee to the European palate and establish his family as a leading distributor. And he is assisting his friend, Gaspare Treviso, in developing a steam engine for the potential use of the Venetian state. This is all against the backdrop of a stagnating Venice, in about the year 1600.

These projects are promising. The steam engine, designed to pump water out of the basements of buildings (certainly an issue in Venice!), is technically challenging but appears to work. And coffee is a hit with most of the people who try it. But there are political and cultural issues. Matteo deals with much of Venetian society, one way or another: a Senator; a representative of the Jewish ghetto; the deeply conservative artisans of the shipbuilding sector, the Arsenal; his own skeptical family; even his fortune-telling mistress. In the end he is ground, like his coffee beans, in the machinery of the authoritarian state: suspicious of change, riven by factions, unwilling to confront the reality of an altered political and cultural landscape. Matteo's fate is almost random, contingent upon the whims of those in power and the whims of simple fate.

This is not unambiguously SF. There are elements that may be speculative – most notably the fairly early efforts to build a steam engine – but nothing that violates what I know of history (unless an early scene amusingly hinting at the invention of espresso qualifies!). Nonetheless, the novel (as to be sure with much historical fiction) satisfies in an SFnal fashion. It is in part about the introduction of new technology to a society – surely a deeply science-fictional theme. It is also a depiction of an unfamiliar culture – again an SFnal theme. It is also of course relevant to contemporary concerns – for one thing it deals with the clash of Islam and the West; for another it deals with the wielding of autocratic power, all but uncaringly, against insignificant individuals. No matter the genre – "Arabian Wine" was one of the best novellas of 2004, and Arabian Wine will surely stand as one of the best novels of 2005.

Locus, February 2006

Jay Lake’s anthology TEL: Stories consists of 29 stories of an “experimental” nature. Many of these are interesting but not quite successful, but the best are quite good, particularly the opening story, Greer Gilman’s “Jack Daw’s Pack” (a reprint), and the closing story, Gregory Feeley’s “Fancy Bread”, is which the long life of Jack (of Beanstalk fame, it seems), and his ongoing struggle for bread, is a means of depicting, of all things, economic history – from a rather slant perspective.

Locus, November 2008

Otherworldly Maine is a fine collection of fantastical stories set in Maine, mixing reprints with originals. The reprints come from such storied writers as Mark Twain, Edgar Pangborn, and Stephen King, as well as some less well known people, and they are a fine diverse selection. The new stories are also good – the best is “Awskonomuk”, by Gregory Feeley (a writer we haven’t seen enough from lately). It’s not really SF or Fantasy, though its concerns are SFnal – a hobbyist archaeologist, interested in the possibility that Leif Ericson’s people got as far south as Maine, inquires into the history of an Abenaki woman whose DNA suggests a snippet of European ancestry. The fulcrum, in this villainless story, is the question of where the interests of First Nations people really lie – this woman, at least, cares much more about the future than a perhaps ambiguous past.

Locus, February 2011

Finally, I was glad to see new fiction from Gregory Feeley, though Kentauros is more than just fiction: it’s a beautifully written linked set of three essays and two short stories (one of them in two parts), all on the subject of Kentauros, the unfortunate son of a human king who dared to lust after the goddess Hera, and who was tricked into sleeping with a cloud simulacrum of her instead, engendering Kentauros, who in time would rape some horses, engendering the race of centaurs. The essays discuss that rather obscure bit of Greek mythology. One story tells of Kentauros’ difficult life, and the other is about Mary Shelley, and her relationship with Lord Byron and with Leigh Hunt, as she raises her son after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death. The Kentauros story comes up, but more central is Mary’s own life, her own genius, and her recollections of her husband, and a supposed poetic version of the Kentauros myth that Hunt suggest Shelley may have written. The book is fascinating in a scholarly sense, and also in a literary sense, and it is simply lovely as well.

Locus, November 2016

Even better, I thought, was Gregory Feeley’s “The Bridge of Dreams” (Clarkesworld, April), set in the very far future with a Norse-derived theme (I was reminded, a bit, of Roger Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry”, not necessarily because of any direct similarities.) Heimdallr is a being living alone and maintaining an ice bridge between Plouton and Charon that he calls Bifröst, when a visitor, Garðrofa arrives with a summons from the Sheltered Gardens in the “Sunlit Realms” – the Inner Solar System – where the two, become one, will encounter the remnants of humanity, and people called kobolds, and a task that may involve treachery … It’s a mysterious story, redolent with convincingly weird posthuman details, effectively stranged by such devices as naming the planets recognizably but unusually. There is wildly high technology, and a certain elegiac tone, an elegant and careful prose, and some just cool ideas.