Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Another Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Greg Egan

The great Greg Egan had a recent birthday which I missed due to a trip I took. But it's not too late to catch up, with a selection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction. Alas, I wasn't writing these in the '90s, when he fully erupted on the SF scene -- some of my favorite SF short stories ever are among his '90s work, including above all "Wang's Carpets", truly on the the best SF novelettes ever. This selection also doesn't include my look at his latest Analog story, "The Slipway", from the July-August issue, which is very fine work.

Locus, June 2002

The February Interzone leads with Greg Egan's novella "Singleton". This story brings to mind predecessors like "All the Myriad Ways" by Larry Niven, and "Divided by Infinity" by Robert Charles Wilson, as its protagonist deals with the idea that the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics is true. That is, any decision we make we made all possible ways, in different universes. For Niven's protagonist, the resulting question was "Why do anything?" For Egan's hero, Ben, the problem is a feeling of guilt: he is living a fairly happy life, presumably the result of having made some fairly good decisions. How does he deserve this, while his counterparts in alternate universes are condemned to whatever misery resulted from "wrong" decisions?

Locus, April 2006

Greg Egan’s “Riding the Crocodile” (One Million A. D.) is intriguing enough, but somehow doesn’t quite have the spark of his best work. It’s about a posthuman couple trying to cap a very long life by contacting the mysterious civilization called the Aloof in the Galaxy’s core.

Locus, September 2007

Greg Egan seems to be fully back in the field after years helping people entangled in Australia’s refugee mess: last year we saw a fine novella, and this year there has been a new story in Dozois and Strahan’s The New Space Opera and now “Dark Integers” in the October-November Asimov’s. This is a sequel to his earlier story “Luminous”, in which a small group of mathematical researchers discovered that the mathematical rules of our universe aren’t constant – and that finding other “true” rules implies finding a parallel universe. Worse, the two universes don’t interact well – the imposition of “our” mathematical truth is destructive to them and vice versa. As this story opens, the three people in on this secret have been maintaining a sort of DMZ between the two universes with the help of someone in the other universe for over a decade. But now there are hints that someone else may have stumbled on this mathematical curiosity – which could be very dangerous to the other universe. And likewise very dangerous to us, if they choose to retaliate. The story concerns attempts to explain some new notions about the maths behind this idea – interesting notions but not that easy to follow. But the state of hopeless war implied between two incompatible universes is depressing as described. And while I can’t really believe in the basic idea, it is delightfully loopy and original – simply different enough that we know we’re reading Egan. The story works for its weird SFnal interest – and it also works in sadly depicting two sides who can’t trust each other.

Locus, October 2007

“Induction”, by Greg Egan (Foundation #100), about the eventual results of an unmanned probe to another star system. The story primarily follows a woman who works on the original launch, and who gets a surprising offer when the probe responds from the new system. The message is a fairly central SFnal message – certainly one expressed by many other stories – but Egan’s presentation is up to the current date and plausible.

Locus, June 2008

Interzone in April features a new Greg Egan story, sort of a modern day “Microcosmic God”. In “Crystal Nights” a brilliant rich man, Daniel Cliff, sponsors an attempt to breed intelligent beings insides a computer. The goal is simply AI, but the forced evolution he plans to use raises the question: What do we owe artificial beings we “create”, even if they are a simulation? If we create them in conditions which require their death, are we murderers? Cliff is forced to confront that idea, but his attempts to evade it have concomitant problems. The story sharply examines the basic moral issues, cleverly suggests eventual unexpected consequences, and also speculates buzzingly on computer and biological (and combined) means of evolving intelligence.

Locus, January 2016

This month we get two truly exceptional novellas – either one would be a wholly worthy Hugo winner. From the December Asimov's we get Greg Egan's “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, tense political SF set in the Asteroid Belt. The politics are appropriately and believable futuristic (though as one might expect you can draw analogies to present day (and decades or centuries past!) political battles – and I suspect different people will draw different parallels, for me an indication that the story is more about real human action than in grinding any contemporary ax). We open with a woman from Vesta setting out on a trip to Ceres, hidden in a piece of rock, part of the economic link between the two asteroids: Vesta getting ice in exchange for rock. We learn the back story: a portion of the Vestan community has been ostracized by a new political movement for the supposed economic sins of their ancestors. (There is an intriguing economic and philosophical debate encapsulated there, that I'll leave for the reader to unpack, but it's Sfnally zingy all by itself.) Many of the persecuted Vestans are escaping to Ceres in the “river of rock”. Most of the rest of the story unfolds in parallel on Vesta, as Anna, the woman in charge of handling the new arrivals to Ceres, deals with them and in particular with a terrible decision she is forced to make; and in the past on Vesta, as we learn about the political changes there, and in particular the acts of a resistance group. Egan sets up an almost impossible political dilemma – with true villains but with no easy answers on how to deal with them; and with good (but not perfect) people faced with no-win situations.

Locus, August 2017

A new Greg Egan piece is always worth your time. In Tor.com for August he offers “Uncanny Valley”. This is the story of Adam, who we soon gather is a recreated version of a famous writer, based on memory uploads and the like. Adam faces opposition from his original’s family, and from the law, which doesn’t recognize his personhood, but the emotional center of the story concerns his realization that he isn’t his original – and why; as well as his encounter with his original’s husband’s family in El Salvador.

Locus, January 2018

Greg Egan is back again in the November-December Asimov’s, with “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”. This follows a man who loses his job to an AI – and who begins to suspect the AI’s were programmed using his skills. His wife is a nurse, and supports them while he looks hopelessly for a job, and encounters others in the same boat, including a conspiracy nut who claims to have evidence that the AIs have taken over everything. That’s crazy, of course, but his wife loses her job as well, and teachers … the story quietly works its way to a subtle conclusion that resonates with today’s economy, and also reflects on what makes human lives worthwhile.

Locus, October 2018

As usual there is a certain focus on Halloween-themed stories in the September-October Asimov’s, and the cover novella comes from a writer one hardly expects to be working in that mode. But, indeed, Greg Egan’s “3-Adica” does open in a foggy Victorian London of sorts, and Sagreda and her lover Mathis do encounter dangerous vampires. But it’s quickly clear we’re in an Eganesque milieu – a simulated world, based in this case on a fairly lame fantasy novel. But Sagreda and Mathis are searching for a different world entirely – it seems they’ve learned the trick secret of hacking the operating systems of their host machines to jump to different simulations, and they are looking for a world based on the (real) math game 3-adica. Their reasons lie in their real nature, which we learn along the way, and 3-adica, when they get there, is a mathematically fascinating environment. (I was reminded a bit of “Wang’s Carpets” as described in that much earlier Egan story, one of his very best.) The story itself comes to a solid conclusion, with a slingshot – and I gather there is more coming in this milieu. Strong work.

Locus, April 2019

Asimov’s for March-April has a novella from Greg Egan, “Instantiation”, sequel to last year’s “3-adica”. The intelligent “non-playing characters” from the previous story, led by Sagreda, realize that the gaming platform on which they’ve carved out space is in trouble, and may become obsolete. They need to look for a way out to a different platform, which involves some intriguing stuff, such as impersonating Kurt Godel … even more intriguing, I think, is the new platform for which Sagreda is aiming.

Locus, June 2019

Greg Egan’s new long novella (or short novel) is Perihelion Summer. A black hole has been detected entering the Solar System. Depending on how close it comes to Earth, the effects can range from nothing much to massive floods to total destruction. Or what eventuates: a slight perturbation of Earth’s orbit, so that winters are significantly colder and summers hotter. Matt is involved in a small group experimenting with a self-sufficient floating “fish farm”, and his group decides to take their “floating island”, the Mandjet, to sea as the black hole comes, figuring that if the worst (or almost worst) happen that will be the safest place. Over three sections, we follow his efforts, and the reaction of the rest of the world to the disaster, and the ways in which the Mandjet and the people who end up there try to cope – mostly technologically but also socially – with an unexpectedly fraught future. This is neat stuff, with some intriguing sort of small-scale tech, a good bit of Kim Stanley Robinson-style technocratic problem solving (with a bit less optimism than Robinson usually manages), and it’s fascinating reading as well – the sort of book where welding becomes a suspenseful event.

Belated Birthday Review: The Dalemark Quartet, by Diana Wynne Jones

(Cover by Yvonne Gilbert)
Diana Wynne Jones was born 16 August 1934, and died in 2011. She was an exceptional writer of Fantasy, best known for her Young Adult work, but also for some very good work aimed at adults. (And it should be noted that most of her YA books are definitely "to please adults", and the best of them are as complex and challenging, perhaps more so, than most so-called "adult novels".)

In belated recognition of her birthday (hey, I was out of town!) here are four short reviews of the books in her Dalemark Quartet.









Cart and Cwidder

(Cover by Juliet Stanwell Smith)
Cart and Cwidder is the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which ran to four. Dalemark is a fairly obvious version of Wales.  Indeed, the book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander, though not the Prydain books (set in a version of Wales), but rather the Westmark books, as they share, very roughly, tech level, and interest in politics.

This book concerns an 11-year old boy named Moril, a musician traveling with his family. They earn their money by stopping at towns and villages and playing songs. They also pass news among the people of Dalemark, and take passengers : they and other musicians are the only people who regularly travel between the northern and southern parts of the land, which are at the point of war. The south in particular is being severely repressed by the Earls (there has been no King for some time), and a spy called the Porter is wanted. The family consists of their jolly father Clennen, their beautiful, aristocratic mother Lenina, the talented 15-year old songwriter son Dagner, and a 12-year old girl, Brid, in addition to Moril. The title refers to the cart they live and travel in, and to the main musical instruments they use, "cwidders", which seem guitar-like (is cwidder a cognate for guitar?), and one of which may have magical powers.

On the journey in question, they pick up a rather mysterious traveller, Kialan, a boy of roughly Dagner's age. He has a tendency to disappear when they pass through villages. Then, near the castle of Lenina's former fiance, some men show up and murder Clennen. Abruptly, Lenina heads to her ex-fiance's house, as he has long promised to marry her if she is ever free. But the children recognize one of the murderers as a guest at the house, and they decide to head on their own to the North.  On their way, they find more trouble, and eventually they learn that war is closer to hand than they thought. Can it be stopped?

It's very readable and involving -- I'm not sure DWJ can be other than readable and involving. But it shares with much YA fantasy a certain thinness in the background. DWJ's best work, such as Fire and Hemlock, seems much more completely imagined, more complex in characterization, theme, and morality. This book is fun, and not without real tension and characterization, but it seems minor compared to my favorites among her work. I will be buying the rest of the Dalemark books, however.

Drowned Ammet

(Cover by Geoff Taylor)
#2 is Drowned Ammet, which is set roughly contemporaneously with the first book, Cart and Cwidder. In this book we meet Alhammitt, or Mitt, a poor boy from the far southern town of Holand, who becomes somewhat radicalized when his father and mother are thrown out of their farm for capricious reasons by the tax collector for the evil Earl Hadd, and later his father's involvement with the Free Holanders goes terribly wrong, leaving Mitt and his feckless mother alone.  Mitt grows up a sailor and later a gunsmith's apprentice, and plots to gain revenge on both the Free Holanders (for betraying his father) and on Earl Hadd (for pretty much everything) by killing the Earl and implicating the Free Holanders. But this plot too goes terribly wrong, and Mitt ends up on a yacht with the two of the Earl's grandchildren, heading for the North.  I liked this book quite a bit -- Jones' puts her characters (Mitt and the two noble children) under great stress -- not just physical danger but she pushes them to see their own sever personal faults, and this works very well. The plot is nicely resolved, albeit with a bit of convenience, maybe with a bit more magical help than I like, and with a plot twist that even though I saw it coming, I could hardly believe she had the effrontery to exercise. (And I thought it just a shade unfair.)  All told, though, a very nice book, and coupled with the first clearly part of a series, but reasonably well contained too. 

The Spellcoats

(Cover by Ruth Sanderson)
The third book in Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet is The Spellcoats. This book is set in the prehistory of Dalemark, hundreds or thousands of years prior to the action of the first two books (and, I assume, the fourth). It deals with a family of children: Robin, Gull, Hern, Mallard (or Duck), and the narrator, Tanaqui, who is presented as weaving the entire story into the title "spellcoats". The so-called "Heathens" have invaded their land, and Gull and their father are recruited to fight -- a war from which Gull returns apparently mad, and their father not at all.  At the same time, the children face hostility from their fellow villagers, because they are bright-haired like the Heathens. As an enormous flood strikes the village, they are forced to flee down the great River to the Sea. Along the way they receive mysterious advice from their dead Mother, and from a strange man, who seems to be a wizard, and who Robin falls in love with.  They learn that an evil wizard, Kankredin, awaits at the mouth of the river, and that he seems to be calling Gull to him. After encounters with both Kankredin and the young King of the Heathens, they head back upriver with their own King, and with their strangely changed "Undying" figure.  All the children must learn their own surprising destinies, and the true nature of their Undying, of their Mother, of the "wizard" Tanamil, of Kankredin and their River. 

Magic is closer to the surface in this book than in the other two, and the events closer to mythical events.  It is partly a nation-formation tale -- it becomes clear that this is the story of how Dalemark as Dalemark came to be -- as such, an important set up, I would guess, for the final volume, which presumably will concern the reunification of the sundered Kingdom. Perhaps because it's such a "mythical" book, it's also darker, and perhaps grander, than the first two book.  All in all, another very fine DWJ story.

The Crown of Dalemark

(Cover by David Wyatt)
The concluding volume is The Crown of Dalemark. Oddly, this book didn't appear until 14 years after the last of the preceding three: in 1993. Yet it's not an afterthought -- the series clearly needed a closing volume -- I wonder why DWJ waited so long.  At any rate it's a solid conclusion, much longer than the first three books, a bit darker in tone (though really all four books have dark overtones), and a logical and different than expected resolution to the events set up in the first books.

There are two main characters in this book -- Mitt, also one of the heroes of book 2 (Drowned Ammet), and Maewen, a girl from the future of Dalemark -- a time very roughly corresponding to our own time in terms of technological development. Maewen, while visiting her father (her parents are separated), meets a couple of strange individuals. One, she soon learns, is Kankredin, the evil wizard from The Spellcoats, while the other is another of the Undying. This character maneuvers her back into the past, to take the place of Noreth, a girl from Mitt's time who looks just like Maewen. Noreth was a descendant of the rightful King of Dalemark, and she had planned to find the four objects that only the King can use (a cup, a ring, a sword, and a crown) and reclaim the Crown of Dalemark and reunite the sundered kingdom.  But Noreth disappeared before she could accomplish this, and Maewen must walk the roads of Dalemark to find these objects in her place. The powers that be, naturally enough, oppose Noreth's quest, and she is stalked by assassins. One of these is Mitt, who is blackmailed by his Northern hosts into going after Noreth -- but after meeting her Mitt refuses, and soon he joins her tiny entourage, along with the hero of Book 1 (Cart and Cwidder): Moril the Singer, as well as another Singer, and the clever but perhaps not trustworthy southern nobleman who was also exiled to the North with Mitt, and the Undying who has sent Maewen here.

Maewen, Mitt, and the others wander about the countryside, often in rather magical fashion, tracking down the four objects, but also trying to elude the assassins, and eventually armies, which are trying to stop.  Maewen's only goal is to give the objects to the man she knows became king: Amil the Great, the man who more or less singlehandedly founded modern Dalemark.  But who could he be?  There is no sign of him.  The resolution is surprising and rather effective. Jones makes excellent use of the rather unusual magic "system" (though it's not really systematic, and is perhaps more effective for that) that she has established, especially the Undying, who are like gods but not by any means omnipotent or even all-knowing.  The four books represent a very solid work of YA fantasy.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Rachel Pollack

Rachel Pollack's birthday was August 17th. I was out of town, so, catching up, here's a quick look at a few of her stories I've reviewed in Locus:

Locus, June 2007

In Interfictions, a new anthology devoted to interstitial writing, oddly, the stories I prefer here all have religious themes. Best is Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard", about the Biblical Joseph looking back at his life from old age. It is interstitial in its contemporary language -- even slang -- and perhaps its irreverence, but really it is a straightforward and sympathetic look at an interesting character.

Locus, May 2008

Again at F&SF for May the longest story is the best: “Immortal Snake” by Rachel Pollack. This is a mythic story of an Empire ruled by a man chosen by lot. He chooses two companions, and they rule until the priests (or the stars) decide they must die. A new ruler, not much given to responsibility, chooses his politically engaged sister and a slave who happens to be a mesmerizing storyteller as his companions. What follows is a love story, and a story of political change – and, inevitably, a tragedy.

Locus, July 2012

I thought the best story in the July-August F&SF was “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls”, by Rachel Pollack. Jack Shade is a Traveller, which here means a man who can go between worlds, particular to the place ghosts go. He is hired by a man who is being haunted by his late wife. Shade agrees to follow her “shade” to the Forest of Souls, to try to free her, but of course he is surprised by what he learns about the woman's life and death – surprise and put in great danger. The primary story is strong here, but Jack's own story – his current life, and the tragedy in his past, the loss of his wife and daughter – is also revealed, to moving effect.

Locus, November 2013

So to Van Gelder's primary outlet … the September-October F&SF has a novella as well, Rachel Pollack's “The Queen of Eyes”, another Jack Shade story. Jack is a Traveler, capable among other things of traveling between “worlds”, and he's also still mourning his wife's murder and his daughter's exile to the Forest of Souls. Here he is engaged by a woman to find her missing mother – who turns out to be the Queen of Eyes. The story starts slowly, even frustratingly, but about halfway through it takes flight, weaving a nice mystery story with colorful fantastic elements and an effective working out of family dynamics.

Locus, May 2017

Speaking of which, the other “investigation” story is part of an ongoing F&SF series: this is Rachel Pollack’s latest Jack Shade tale, “Homecoming”. Jack’s latest client is a modest middle aged woman who has a feeling some part of her is missing – perhaps her soul? She believes Jack can do a “soul retrieval”, and the unfortunate thing is that he can, and is compelled to by his curse. So Jack ventures into – wherever he goes – and with some difficulty retrieves what he’s been asked to. Which turns out rather badly, as instead of the poor woman’s soul, he has liberated an ancient evil being, which immediately begins a murder spree. And so Jack must try to clean up the mess, which involves asking for help from some questionable allies, including a somewhat modern djinn, and the Old Man of the Woods. Again, very entertaining – perhaps some of the magic comes off a bit ad hoc, and the innocent deaths don’t have the impact I’d hope, but it is a solid entry in a consistently interesting series.



Birthday Review: Stories of Brian W. Aldiss

Birthday Review: Stories of Brian W. Aldiss

I've written about Brian W. Aldiss each of the past two years at this time -- he died two years ago, and I posted an Ace Double review in his memory, and last year on his birthday I posted another Ace Double review. So this year here's a highly random look at a few of his very many short stories, not at all, really, his best work. But it's what I have! And Aldiss was always worth a look.

Review of New Worlds, December 1955

In "Panel Game" (4200 words) Aldiss presents an overpopulated future in which people are expected to watch "telly" constantly, particularly the channels aimed at their social stratum. The viewpoint couple are surprised to be visited by a dashing man who claims to be a rebel against the government, and they offer him some help (reluctantly, in the case of the husband, eagerly, in the case of the wife). No prizes for guessing what he really is ... A cynical story, reasonably effective if quite predictable.

Capsule look at Who Can Replace a Man?

The other Aldiss book I read was a short story collection, Who Can Replace a Man?.  This is a 1965 collection of Aldiss' best short SF to that date. Some of the stories are very good, perhaps most of all "Old Hundredth", though I also liked "Man in his Time", "A Kind of Artistry" and the title story.  A few of the others are rather dated, though "Basis for Negotiation" rather strikingly predicts SDI.

Review of F&SF, April 1967

The other overpopulation piece is "Randy's Syndrome", by Brian W. Aldiss (8800 words). A woman living in an arcology of sorts is pregnant, but her baby goes on strike -- refuses to be born. This strike spreads to other unborn babies. The child learns to communicate with his mother, and basically announces that he doesn't want to come into the terrible world the adults have left him. It's a nice concept for a satirical story, and it's quite well executed.

Review of Cosmos, September 1977

Brian W. Aldiss's "Horsemen" is a little morality piece with the basic message "Earthmen are evil", telling of an alien planet full of simple -- might one say "unfallen"? -- folk, who do not know war or, I suppose the title would hint, Death, Pestilence, or Famine. "Until the Earth ship came." A bit shrill for my taste.

Review of Galileo, March 1978

Aldiss's "Non-Isotropic" is a rather odd story, not unusual for Aldiss, in which he presents an obsessed scientist who makes a spectacular discovery about the nature of the universe and consciousness and perhaps God. His own relationship, or lack of such, with his short-term mate and son is the center of the story. Interesting, didn't quite work for me.

Locus, April 2003

The Winter issue of the elegant and atmospheric British magazine The Third Alternative features an interview with Brian Aldiss, along with an amusing and mordant short-short, "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at the Edge of the World, Scones Perfect". A man flees a hopeless war with invading aliens, striking across Central Asia with a mysterious woman, ending up at a tea shop. That's about all, but Aldiss' control of tone is perfect: a fine miniature.

Locus, November 2003

On the face of it I suppose it's not surprising that both Grand Masters in this October-November Asimov's offer rather old-fashioned, but quite effective, stories. Brian W. Aldiss's "The Hibernators" is listed as a short story but by my word count is easily a novelette. On a planet orbiting a gas giant such that it spends half a year in winter caused by eclipse, most people spend the winter hibernating. But an adolescent decides not to sleep, and is shanghaied into becoming cannon fodder in a war for control of an odd device called the Insulator. A "Conceptual Breakthrough", naturally, is on the horizon, though Aldiss resolves things just a bit unexpectedly. First rate work.

Locus, October 2005

This is in many ways an aging field, and the September Asimov’s provides some evidence of that by featuring stories by two writers in their 80s. But both are close to the top of their form. ... Also solid is Brian W. Aldiss’s “Pipeline”, which also deals with the West and Islam. The action is fairly simple – the chief engineer of a pipeline leading from Turkmenistan to Turkey decides to drive its length upon completion – which turns out to be a dangerous undertaking. The story has the odd SFnal touch (driverless cars, some hints of a changed political landscape), though the action itself, and the interactions of the morally ambiguous set of characters, could come from any spy story – not a complaint, mind you – it’s well done and exciting.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Birthday Review: The Anthony Villiers Novels, by Alexei Panshin

Today is Alexei Panshin's 79th birthday. I wanted to highlight his work with a look at my favorites among his work, the Anthony Villiers novels. This is something I wrote back in 2001, though I don't think my perspective has really changed.

Long ago I read at least one of Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers novels, and I remembered the book with some affection.  I ran across all three of them in a used book store a little while back, so I bought them and decided to give them a reread.  I read the three books very quickly -- they are very readable books, witty, with nice characters that you root for, and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigorous plots. The first book has an introduction by Samuel R. Delany, in which he calls the series a roman fleuve and compares it to A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell.  That qualifies as one of the less acute comments Delany has made, IMO.  Just because a series of books is a series doesn't make it a roman fleuve, and certainly just because a series of books is vaguely comic in tone and about the doings of bohemian and upper class sorts doesn't make it much like A Dance to the Music of Time (which is one of my favorite 20th Century works.)  That said, the description I gave above, "very readable, witty, with nice characters ..., and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigourous plots" actually does apply fairly directly to Dance.  But let that pass -- the Villiers books don't really resemble Powell's great novel all that much, but they are very enjoyable.  Indeed, I was quite surprised by how much I liked them -- more than I expected by a long shot.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
Star Well (1968) is the first.  Anthony Villiers (aka Viscount Charteris) is a 30ish man in a future Galactic Empire.  His father has despaired of him after Villiers divorced the woman he had been pushed into a quasi-political marriage with, and he has been given an allowance and apparently told to wander the less travelled parts of the Empire.  But, we immediately gather, he is a very talented man. (Indeed, though I don't really think Panshin necessarily had read Dorothy Dunnett back in 1968 when these books came out (though The Game of Kings dates to 1961, so he could have), in some ways Villiers recalls Lymond (with a bit less of an edge -- the books are comedies, after all).  Though as Sherwood Smith points out, more likely Villiers and Lymond both descend from such ancestors as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Lord Peter Wimsey.)  Villiers is slight, handsome, a great dresser, very polite, very intelligent, good with weapons, etc. etc.  He travels everywhere in the company of an alien Trog named Torve.  Torve is a philosophical being, in appearance a 6 foot tall furry frog, who composes "musical" pieces which sound like "Thurb".


Villiers finds himself on Star Well, an isolated planetoid in the middle of the Flammarion Rift, which is something of a tourist attraction -- basically an hotel/casino.  He is a bit short of cash, but partly by outfoxing the crooked casino operators, he is on his way to getting enough money to head to the planet where his father's allowance can be claimed.  On Star Well he discerns that something fishy is going on, particularly when he stumbles across a starship landing port that is not mentioned on most maps of the planetoid.  He also encounters a plucky 15 year old girl who is chafing at the thought of the four years her father (as it turns out, a friend of Villiers) means her to spend at a finishing school.  And he finds himself the target of a clumsy attempt at a scam.  Torve the Trog shows up in the company of a fat Mithraist priest named Augustus Srb, who may not be all he seems.  After some enjoyable capering about, we learn that Srb is an Inspector General, convinced that something nasty is going on behind the scenes a the casino.  Villiers, seemingly by accident, ends up helping out.  The ending involves a duel, and then a scary conclusion where Villiers' 15 year old friend stumbles into real danger and he manages to rescue her at the last minute.  It's handled with a nice very light touch, and lots of real cleverness, and dry humor.  Very enjoyable.
(Cover by Kelly Freas)

The Thurb Revolution (1968) finds Villiers and Torve on Shiawassee, a planet under a somewhat strict censorship regimen.  Almost any sort of art is forbidden, so, by mysterious means, Villiers ends up heading to another planet in the system, Pewamo, which is used only for camping and very limited tourism.  He influences some idle youth from Shiawassee to follow him, and almost by accident ends up starting a new artistic movement.  Plus he encounters his old friend Fred, who is fleeing an arranged marriage of his own (remember that Villiers had trouble with his arranged marriage).  One of the cute things Panshin does is never tell us who Fred really is in The Thurb Revolution -- but an offhand reference in Star Well makes it clear that he is actually the Emperor's second son.  Throw in an intelligent cloud that thinks it is God, an assassin, a gawky young woman disguised as a man, a set of acquaintances of Villiers engaged in an unusual form of Tag, and you have another feather light but very enjoyable book.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The third, and, sadly, probably last, of these novels is Masque World (1969).  The book closes with an announcement that the fourth, The Universal Pantograph, will be appearing soon, but it's been over 30 years now, with no sign of it. Apparently (at any I heard it on Usenet, so it must be true) Panshin was dissatisfied with his treatment at the hands of Ace, perhaps not surprisingly.  He still makes occasional noises that sound like he might eventually write it (and perhaps the up to three further books originally planned) -- but I fear that the 60ish Panshin would not write the book the 30ish Panshin would have, most likely to the detriment of the product. [Now that Panshin is nearly 80, I think all thoughts of another novel of any sort from him can likely be abandoned.]

At any rate, Masque World, which turns out to be the Villiers book I had read in my teens, is of a piece with the previous two. Light-hearted and clever, very fun to read.  The plot is hardly worth recounting -- it concerns a nobleman (and relative of Villiers) obsessed with melons, two Trogs (one real and one fake), a Christian historian, the phenomenon of peelgrunt, the Monists, the parents and sister of Louise Parini, and an incompetent bureaucrat and his alien supervisor.  Good solid fun.  And I gnash my teeth that I will never read the "real" Universal Pantograph.

All in all, these are three of the most purely enjoyable SF books I have read recently.  Not serious in plot or tone, they still allow room for meditation on serious topics.  And they are very nicely constructed with a very light but sure hand, and interlarded with funny bits -- sometimes farcically so, more often arch or subtle.  First rate -- on the evidence of these books, Panshin's near complete disappearance from the fiction writing world is just a damn shame.  (His only other novels are the Nebula-winning Rite of Passage (1968) and a fantasy co-written with his wife Cory Panshin, Earth Magic (1978).) Phoenix Pick published an omnibus edition of the three Anthony Villiers novels just this past June as New Celebrations.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: Ward Moore

Belated Birthday Review: Ward Moore

Ward Moore (1903-1978) published five novels in the field, beginning with Greener Than You Think (1947). (He also wrote significant non-SF work, including Breathe the Air Again and Cloud by Day.) His most famous novel by far is Bring the Jubilee (1953), a very well-regarded alternate history in which the South wins the Civil War. He is also remembered for his last novel, Joyleg (1962), a collaboration with Avram Davidson, about a Revolutionary War veteran discovered to be still alive in the present time; and for a stunning post-Apolacyptic (or "during the Apocalypse") story, "Lot", along with its sequel, "Lot's Daughter". As a writer he started late and finished early, with the great bulk of his fiction appearing between 1947 and 1962 (though a few more stories appeared in the '70s). His second wife was Raylyn Moore, whom I remember for a fair amount of enjoyable SF stories from the '70s.

Here's a collection -- too short, I dare say -- of things I've written about some of Ward Moore's work. Moore's birthday was August 10, so this is a bit late. But I do want to keep emphasizing the work of these minor but interesting writers.

F&SF, May 1953

"Lot", by Ward Moore, is a quite remarkable post-Apocalyptic story. Arthur Jimmon has planned for nuclear war, and when it comes he and his family are ready to escape. But as they travel, with supplies, to Jimmon's planned refuge, his family complain and complain. Jimmon seems the true competent man, well-prepared -- and ready to coldly dispense with any interference. I won't spoil the ending, but it's truly shocking. The story is actually a bitter, horrified look at a certain kind of man -- it's something like satire, something like savage condemnation. It's a powerful story. There was a sequel, "Lot's Daughter", almost as strong. The two were the source material for the move Panic in Year Zero!, which apparently leached all the vicious power of the story from it.

F&SF, September 1955

Ward Moore's "Old Story" (6700 words) is quite good. An aging popular painter, also a philanderer, reflects on his unsatisfying life -- his failure to establish an enduring relationship with any of his three wives, and his lack of critical appreciation. If only he had chosen the right woman back then, he'd have stuck with "real" art ... Then he finds himself back in his younger self, at the critical point. And he chooses a different woman, and indeed life is very different -- he becomes a lionized artist, and a successful businessman as well. (Sort of a Wallace Stevens of the art world.) But he's the same person, which means that despite his tolerant wife, he can't stop fooling around. Still, he comes to the end of a happy life -- but then ... The twist is a good one, and quite forthrightly feminist.

Amazing, February 1960

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
"Transient" is a short novel complete in this issue. It didn't appear in book form until a small-press "Double" edition in 2013. And I think it's fairly easy to see why. It's a really odd story, ambitious to an extent, but mostly a mess and a failure, at least in my view. It's about Almon Lampley, currently the Governor of his state, by appointment after his predecessor's death. Lampley is beginning his campaign for re-election, when he sneaks out to a small town, and enters a hotel. Then things get strange ... and the rest of the novel is a phantasmagoria of weird, often horrific, events. Lampley encounters strange guests, wanders into what seem other worlds, a weird department store, caves. He encounters a race of tiny people, kidnaps one such woman, who grows larger, whereupon he rapes her. He rapes another (normal) woman along the way. There are hints that all this is in pursuit of some personal issues Lampley has to do with his relationship with his wife, and particular to the tragic history of their son -- though none of this is ever made clear. It ends up being boring and unpleasant, even as paragraph by paragraph a pretty impressive imagination is displayed. Worst of all -- the story basically just stops. It may be that I have totally missed the point.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Fantastic, March and April 1962

Joyleg, by Avram Davidson and Ward Moore, is an enjoyable novel about a man, Isachar Joyleg, who is discovered to be collecting a Civil War pension. As the war has been over for nearly a century, surely he's a fraud. Two congresspeople, a man and a woman, go to investigate (because which district his old village is in is unclear). They learn (not much of a spoiler) that Joyleg is as old as he claims, due to a concoction of his. We get to see life in this old town, and all this is amusing, and fairly on point. The congresspeople are decent characters too. That said, the story loses momentum along the way, and while it's well worth reading through, parts of the last half are a bit tired.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse was a really important writer to me early in my SF reading. I read a number of his YA novels when I first encountered SF, such as The Bladerunner and, most memorably to me, The Universe Between. It was a pleasant surprise to me, decades later, to encounter "High Threshold" in a 1951 issue of Astounding, and realize that this was the novelette from which The Universe Between grew. (It's a cool story of entering another dimension with a different geometry -- it truly wowed me at age 12.) He would have been 91 today, and in his memory here's a (fairly random) selection of my thoughts about his short fiction from some 1950s SF magazines.

Astounding, February 1953

Alan E. Nourse's "Nightmare Brother" (9300 words) is about a man subjected to tortures -- simulated via electrodes in his brain. It seems he must be able to resist any level of torture to survive in deep space. I wasn't convinced.

Space Science Fiction, July 1953

The novelette this time around is "Infinite Intruder" by Alan E. Nourse (9500 words). Roger Strang is working on a project to build a barrier protecting the US from further nuclear attacks (New York has already been destroyed) by the Eurasian Combine. He finds his young son being attacked -- at first as if by accident, but then more directly -- but his son miraculously survives even point blank shots. Strang's investigations lead him to strange discoveries -- he himself has no past, and his best friends and wife seem implicated in the attacks on his son. Then he learns that he is from the future, and all this is a desperate attempt to change the past -- for the evil Dictator in the future is named Farrol Strang. But the past cannot be changed. Maybe, though, if they return forward in time the future (present) can be altered! I thought the story no better than OK.

If, June 1954

Alan E. Nourse's "The Link" (5800 words) is another far future story. Humanity has divided into two groups, a pacifistic group that has learned to live together and create great communal music, and a warlike group that has chased the pacifists from planet to planet over millennia. The Hunters are back again, and one couple from the good guys volunteers to stop running away, but to greet the Hunters and try to reform them. An OK theme, but the story doesn't quite sell it.

Orbit, July-August 1954

"My Friend Bobby", by Alan E. Nourse (3800 words) -- maybe the best story here, about a young boy with telepathic powers, who loves his dog (with whom he can communicate), but who is feared by his mother -- leading to a tragic ending. Nothing special, but solid work.

Galaxy, January 1956

"Brightside Crossing" might be Alan E. Nourse's best story. It's a solid if scientifically obsolete story about trying to cross the Brightside of Mercury (of course, as Larry Niven and the rest of us found out some 45  years ago, there is no "Brightside" of Mercury) -- told by the lone survivor of an earlier attempt to cross the Brightside to a man who wants to try again. The survivor's tale, fairly convincingly from a 1955 point of view, tells of the dangers of the attempt, and the heroic efforts to make it, ending as we know from the start, in failure and an ignominious return. The last line is really neat.

If, October 1957

"RX" by Alan E. Nourse posits a galactic community in which Earth's contribution is medical services. A team of a doctor and a surgeon respond to an emergency summons to a planet which has so far refused to sign a contract with Earth. The planet's ruler is dying, and the witch-doctorish methods of the locals aren't working. Their ethics require them to try to treat him, even though they risk death if they fail. The eventual solution is a bit trivial -- somewhat on purpose -- rather a minor bit of work, I thought.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of David R. Bunch

Today would have been David R. Bunch's 94th birthday. He was probably the most original writer of Cele Goldsmith’s tenure at Amazing/Fantastic. He has recently been brought back to print by of all organizations The New York Review of Books, via their NYRB Press imprint, with Moderan, a collection of his stories about the half-robots/half-men of Moderan. Bunch (1925-2000) was a Missourian, a graduate of Central Missouri State (where my son got his degree) and of Washington University in St. Louis. He also attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lived in St. Louis most of his life (though I never met him). He was a controversial figure to Amazing’s readers – the letter columns I’ve read featured plenty of screeds against him. But I find his short, very satirical, pieces continually intriguing, if at times a bit difficult.

Amazing, November 1959

David R. Bunch's “The Flesh-Man from Far Wide” is one of the earlier Moderan stories, and it probably serves as a decent introduction. The narrator, a typical psychotic man of Moderan, gets a visitor, who seems possibly to have no robotic “replacements” – no metal parts. And he has other strange ideas, about happiness – he wants to find Moderan’s Happiness Machine. But what do those of Moderan need with happiness?

Fantastic, December 1959

And Bunch’s “Was She Horrid?” is one of his first stories. He’s an author much associated with Goldsmith, though his first two pieces were in If, in 1957 and 1959. His first story for Goldsmith was in the November 1959 Amazing, followed by this one, a Moderan story, about a half-metal man visited by his daughter, ever suspicious that it’s all a plot by his wife in what seems an unending war.

Strange stuff, the essence of Bunch already from the beginning.

Amazing, July 1960

“Penance Day in Moderan”, one of Bunch's earlier Moderan stories, is one of the best, I think. It is told by a vain cyborg, on Penance day, when all the citizens of Moderan march out to shed fake tears. The narrator boasts of his accomplishments, and of what he will do when next they war against each other. It’s quite funny, and quite pointed.

Fantastic, June 1962

David Bunch's "Ended" is longer than most of Bunch's stories, but otherwise wholly characteristic. If you like Bunch -- and for my money he's such an original he demands reading, even though he's neither a comfortable read nor a consistently satisfying read -- you'll find this worthwhile. If not, not.

Fantastic, February 1964

The other is David R. Bunch, the wildly strange writer the great bulk of whose work was very short stories for Goldsmith. “They Never Came Back from Whoosh!” is a satire on commercialism and conformity, about a place said to be wonderful that everyone must visit but no one returns from. It’s one of Bunch’s better pieces I think.

Amazing, August 1964

David Bunch's "The Failure" is a Bunch story, more inscrutable than many, about a forlorn quest for the Final Truth.

Amazing, September 1964

About the Bunch ("A Vision of the King") once again I have nothing much to say -- it's fairly inscrutable as usual.

And, finally, I figured Darryl R. Groupe had to be a pseudonym, and it is, a fairly obvious one for David R. Bunch. Nobody would have been fooled for a second no matter what name was used: "2064, or Thereabouts", is a clearly a Bunch story, about people who are mostly metal, and paranoid, and one who lets an artist into his stronghold. Weird as one expects.

Fantastic, October 1964

Bunch’s “Home to Zero” is not a Moderan story, but it’s certainly a Bunch story, taking on a rather cosmic subject in inimitable Bunch fashion. No point explaining it – it simply needs to be read.

Fantastic, January 1965

David R. Bunch offers “Make Mine Trees” (1,200 words), very strange horror about a man whose wife left him for another man (a Spanish dancer) and who is raising his son alone while working on a formula to save the world. What the formula really does is slowly revealed… pretty effective.

(Cover by Gray Morrow)
Amazing, June 1965

From June, the cover story, David Bunch’s "The Walking, Talking, I-Don’t-Care Man", is a pure Bunch Moderan story, with the narrator, ruling his personal castle, encountering a man/robot who just keeps walking, and refuses to stop, even as his path leads him right through the narrator’s property. It works pretty well, really, in a somewhat talky way.

Fantastic, June 1965

Finally, the inimitable David R. Bunch’s very brief “The Little Doors” is, well, pure Bunch, hard to describe, but pretty effective. It’s about a sort of performance, with weirdly named “creatures” showing up and… well, no point in description. Needs to be read. It’s worth the 600 words.

[It's interesting that Bunch appeared in the last issue of both Amazing and Fantastic to be published by Ziff-Davis and edited by Cele Goldsmith Lalli. One suspects she was rushing to get him published before Sol Cohen took over -- and that the cover honor on the last issue of Amazing was a special nod to him, and perhaps an implied rebuke to the new publisher.]

Eternity, 1979

David R. Bunch's "Through a Wall and Back" is impenetrable -- he's always on the thin edge of simply being irritating, and he goes over the edge here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Birthday Review: Song of Time, by Ian R. MacLeod

Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (PS Publishing, 978-1-59780-094-5, $14.95, tpb, 253 pages) October 2008.

A review by Rich Horton

Ian R. MacLeod is one of the supreme SF writers of recent years, especially at novelette and novella length, and so it is something of a disappointment that his novels seem to have struggled to find an audience. His newest work is so far only out in the U. K. from the excellent but definitely small outfit PS Publishing. Yet in considering this book I am inclined to understand its failure (so far!) to attract a trade publisher. Song of Time is not a high concept book. Indeed it is difficult to capture it with a single thematic statement. (His two Ace novels, on the other hand, were distinctly about the magical substance aether and the ways in which its use paralleled the Industrial Revolution.) Thus it is, I imagine, a bit harder to “sell” the book. And I must also add that while that is not always a shortcoming, in the present case I think it is rather. About which more later. I must also add that it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best SF Novel of 2008, and also the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Song of Time opens with an aging woman rescuing a drowning man from the ocean off her Cornish house. The man, whom she calls Adam, is a mysterious figure – he has no memory of himself, but he knows – or learns quickly – a great many things, some of which are quite unexpected. He is also a remarkably quick healer, and otherwise unusually constructed. Thus a puzzle is established – but really the book is not about this puzzle (though in the end it is solved, quite satisfactorily).

Instead, ostensibly as both a potential prod to Adam’s memories, and as part of a project she is undertaking before dying – or rather before “passing” to a virtual existence – the protagonist, Roushana Maitland, tells her life story to Adam. (And, in a sense, to herself.) And this is the subject of Song of Time – the life story of a woman of the 21st Century, and thus the story of that Century. And both her story and the century’s story are quite tumultuous. Her mother was born in England to Indian parents, her father is more conventionally “Anglo-Saxon”. Her beloved older brother inherits the English looks, and he is also a brilliant musical talent. But somehow his tragic early death unleashes hitherto unrevealed talent in the more Indian-looking Roushana, and she goes on to become a brilliant concert violinist. She marries one of the greatest conductors of the day, and they have a stormy but mostly loving marriage, two kids, and, too, plenty of tragedy.

The historical background is likewise eventful. We are treated to a variety of disasters – nuclear war, a supervolcano, political upheaval. Roushana’s husband is a black American who is heavily involved in French politics when they meet. Roushana’s mother becomes a central activist for the Indian poor. Roushana herself is more of a homebody in spirit – but her life gives us glimpses of ravaged India and American, and radically altered England. And her approaching death gives us glimpses of a strange future in which the dead live on in virtual space.

All of this is nicely done, but none of it is spectacular. In a way this is an unfair complaint – the imagined 21st Century is a mix of a number of not entirely new speculations – but isn’t this really in its way plausible? Yes it is, but somehow while the future we see is interesting it isn’t quite involving, or really terribly thought-provoking. For different reasons Roushana’s life, which is really the center of the novel, while it too holds the interest, doesn’t end up absorbing. I think in part the problem is one of cliché – her brilliant career just doesn’t convince, seems too easy, too old hat. The same with her stormy marriage – the sexy husband (and the great sex) plus the infidelities and the final tragedy are interesting but, alas, just that bit too melodramatic. And finally Adam’s story, only hinted at, is also interesting but too much of a side issue, and too lightly sketched in, to fully work.

Despite the caveats, I enjoyed Song of Time. It’s never boring, and it’s very nicely written. But it is, I think, in the final analysis a minor work.

Birthday Review: Stories of Paolo Bacigalupi

Today is the birthday of Paolo Bacigalupi, a very interesting writer of pretty hard SF, one of the most environmentally committed of our writers. Here's a look at my Locus reviews of his short fiction.

Locus, February 2004

I was very excited by two stories from newer writers in the February F&SF. Paolo Bacigalupi has already drawn attention with stories like last year's "The Fluted Girl". He is also showing considerable range -- each story I've seen has been different from the others. I think "The People of Sand and Slag" is his best so far. It's about a threesome of miners in the near future, and their encounter with a dog (thought to be extinct) in the environmentally devastated area about their mine. Stated so the story seems quite conventional, but Bacigalupi slowly springs some surprises, which I won't spoil -- but the effect is impressive.

Locus, October 2005

Paolo Bacigalupi remains one of the most consistently interesting young writers in the field. “The Calorie Man” (F&SF, October-November) is set in a future following a disastrous famine, which resulted in food production dominated by genetically modified new crops controlled by large corporations. This biotech dominated future is strange in other ways – “calories” are central to all energy, as fossil fuels have been replaced by kinetic energy generated by genetically engineered “mulies”. The hero travels up the Mississippi to Iowa to track down a man the agribusiness companies are very interested in, for all the obvious reasons. It’s a fun and thought-provoking story, though I confess one of the thoughts it provoked in me was that while corporate (and governmental) behavior is often scandalous, I wasn’t convinced that it would reach quite the murderous heights implied herein.

Locus, October 2006

Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the future of his celebrated story “The Calorie Man” with “Yellow Card Man” (Asimov's, December), about a once successful businessman, a Chinese man in Malaya, who has been expelled to Thailand, where he must grub daily for scraps of work. His feelings of degradation are sharpened by his interaction with a now more successful younger man, a man he had fired for fraud in his earlier life. This is a convincingly dark story, with redemption of a sort on offer but not easy for a fallen man to grasp.

Bacigalupi is also on hand in the October/November F&SF, with “Pop Squad”, a strong story about a man whose job is to eliminate illegal babies born to women who have foregone immortality treatments (which also cause sterility). The story is effective in depicting a future of unchanging immortals, but the emotional impact is blunted by a certain forced feeling to the protagonist’s brutality. I couldn’t believe society would accept this – I thought the author created this brutality to shock the reader. And, it must be said, the whole situation felt dated. In the end, a good story that I enjoyed reading, but not great.

Locus, May 2007

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” (F&SF, May) is an effective and bitter look at water conflicts in the future, when California is more or less bleeding the mountain states dry, and the few who remain there eke out a living by such stratagems as accepting bounties for eradicating the stubborn, water-wasting, tamarisks.

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

Paolo Bacigalupi is a must-read writer, and his new novelette “The Gambler” closes this book quite well. A young man from Laos escaped his country’s political upheavals and came as a boy to the US. Now he is a journalist, quixotically going after knotty political stories in a culture obsessed with celebrity. Under pressure to up his ratings, he agrees to interview another Laotian refugee, a young woman who has become an international pop star. She’s not quite the shallow person he expects, but she’s still much more of the culture than he is, and he finds himself forced to choose between his principles and the honeypot of great ratings and a potential relationship with a beautiful countrywoman. Good stuff, but a bit too moralistically obvious, and not quite as SFnally intriguing as Bacigalupi at his best.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Birthday Review: Time and Again, plus some short fiction, by Clifford D. Simak

Birthday Review: Time and Again, plus some short fiction, by Clifford D. Simak

(Cover by Paul Kresse)
Last year for for Clifford Simak's birthday I posted reviews of a couple of his Ace Doubles, plus the first short story collection in the eventually cancelled Complete Stories edition. So this year, I've scoured my reviews of old magazines for a few more short story reviews, plus his novel Time and Again, which was serialized in the first three issues of Galaxy as "Time Quarry".

Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1939

The other stories this issue are by Clifford Simak and Ray Cummings. Simak's "Madness from Mars" (6000 words) tells of a Mars expedition that returns with all its members either mad or dead. They also carry a live Martian animal. Is it the cause? Of course -- but Simak being Simak, not out of evil motives. Minor Simak, but not awful.





"Time Quarry", serialized in Galaxy, October, November, and December 1950

(Cover by David Stone)
"Time Quarry" by Clifford Simak was the first novel serialized in Galaxy, appearing in the first three issues (Oct, Nov, Dec 1950). I read it in the serialized version, but it is better known by its 1951 book title, Time and Again. It also had a paperback edition as First He Died.

As the novel opens, Earth tenuously rules a widespread interstellar empire.  Chris Adams of the Justice Bureau meets a strange man who claims to be his successor, from more than a century in the future, and who tells him that Asher Sutton, lost for 20 years, will return in a few days.  And that he must be killed.

The focus shifts to Sutton, on his return from the strange planet 61 Cygni VII. This planet, though very near to Earth, has never been visited before. Sutton has returned after 20 years -- in a ruined ship. Somehow he made it across 11 light years without air, food, or engines.

Sutton immediately finds himself threatened from multiple directions. He is carrying encoded notes for a book he needs to write -- based on what he learned from the entities on 61 Cygni VII.  But some people want to kill him, others want to control what he writes, and the beautiful woman Eva Barbour, and the android Herkimer, seem to just want to help him write his book. He trusts nobody, especially after Herkimer's owner thrusts him into a duel, which Sutton wins basically because of his enhanced body. Soon Sutton is on a chase through both space and time -- eventually going back to 20th Century Wisconsin, and the home of one of his ancestors, a farmer. (See -- it's a Cliff Simak book -- you just know there will be a pastoral interlude, referably in Southwest Wisconsin.) Sutton learns that the future is war torn, riven by fights between those who believe in Sutton's original teachings, and those who follow a distorted revision. He must find a way to write his book so that it cannot be misread.

(Cover by Walter Brooks)
The central message of the book is very well done -- that all life, humans, aliens, and androids, has an individual "destiny" -- thus that all such life has rights. The bad guys want to restrict all rights to humans. This is well put, and the story is exciting, but it's a bit marred by the silly science, and the feeling that Sutton's powers will let him do whatever the plot requires.

Space Science Fiction, September 1952

Clifford Simak's "The Fence" is a nice short story that touches briefly on one of my personal pet tropes, the time viewer, but which is really once again a paranoid sort of piece -- it seems that people in the future live lives of complete leisure -- so who is providing for us? And if so, why? Could we be ... pets?

Galaxy, October 1954

Clifford D. Simak's "Idiot's Crusade" (5200 words) is about a village idiot who is giving superpowers by an alien for some reason. The now intelligent guy begins by taking revenge on those who have treated him worst -- but then he realizes that revenge is empty. He decides to use his powers to force people to be good -- and, creepily, that seems perhaps worse. Pretty good stuff.

Galaxy, November 1954

All three novelettes are fine work. Clifford Simak's "How-2" (14,000 words) is a satirical piece about a future overtaken by the "do-it-yourself" spirit, which is then undermined when a "do-it-yourselfer" builds an experimental robot. Clever stuff -- and rather different from what people now think of as the standard Simak story.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kim Newman

Kim Newman turns 60 today, beating me to that milestone by just a couple of months. He's written a lot of really fun SF/Horror, often with a bit of a Steampunk/Alternate History angle. Here's a set of my reviews of his work, mostly from Locus, but one from Tangent!

Review of New Worlds (from Tangent #20/21)

Another strong alternate historical piece is "Great Western" by Kim Newman. Newman's alternate history features an England where feudal organizations have continued into the present day. A young girl lives with the widow of a man murdered by the local squire, and the two try to resist the land grabbing of said villain, who is aided by the corrupt local law enforcement. A mysterious stranger on a motorcycle rides into town, and helps them in their struggle. The fun is in the explicit parallels with Westerns (especially Shane) and how the material of the traditional Western is transposed to fit this alternate England (called, naturally enough, "Wessex" (after Hardy).)

Locus, November 2004

An oddly middling month at Sci Fiction – all the stories are fine work, none thrilled me. Perhaps the top story is Kim Newman's "Soho Golem" is one of his Richard Jeperson stories. Jeperson is a dandyish man charged with investigating psychic anomalies. In this case, with his long-suffering policeman partner Fred Regent, he looks into the mysterious death of a corrupt cop involved in the porn industry. A psychic manifestation of sorts seems to be after a number of local porn bigwigs, as well as an anti-porn crusader – all who have a long dead beauty named Pony-Tail in their past. The story is fun and intriguing and has a nice twist – good solid work.

Locus, March 2005

Finally I ought to mention a delightful set of stories found in an unexpected place: the BBC Cult website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/sherlock/index.shtml). These are five Sherlock Holmes pastiches, mostly taking a rather slant view of the Holmes canon. ... Kim Newman's "A Shambles in Belgravia" is told by Sebastian Moran, as his partner-in-crime Professor Moriarty is recruited by Irene Adler to help her with a sensitive problem concerning the Ruritanian succession.

Review of The Fair Folk (Locus, April 2005)

The book's longest story is also its best: "The Gypsies in the Wood", by Kim Newman. Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club investigates the disappearance of two children, and the reappearance of one – Davey Harvill, seemingly aged decades. He manages to find the Davey's sister, but she seems changed herself. Eight years later, journalist Kate Reed is covering the planned opening of an exhibition run by Satterthwaite Bulge, the publisher of a popular magazine of treacly fairy stories, distinguished only by remarkable illustrations. Kate runs into Charles, and quickly gathers that something odd is going on – the exhibition seems somehow haunted. Charles reveals that he is still obsessed with the Harvill case – and that Davey is the sort of idiot savant illustrator for Bulge's publications. After another disaster – an accidental death – Kate and Charles track down the Harvills, including Davey's strange sister, seemingly unaged after several years. The exhibition will be the focus for the unraveling of the mystery of what really happened to Davey and his sister eight years previously – but not before Davey's cousin Dicky is led into danger himself. The story combines the mystery, menace, and wonder of the darker sort of fairy with a pair of engaging human adults who stand outside "faery", as it were: a fast moving story, funny, romantic, moving.

Review of Adventure Vol. 1 (Locus, October 2005)

Kim Newman’s “Richard Riddle, Boy Detective” is related to his Diogenes Club stories (most notably “The Gypsies in the Wood” from earlier this year), though it’s perhaps less substantial. It tells of three children who get on the trail of a supposed French Spy, and of a local anti-evolutionist fanatic who seems to have a secret.

Locus, November 2005

Much of October at SCI FICTION is devoted to a Diogenes Club story by Kim Newman, “The Serial Murders”. This is about the 70s version of the Club, featuring in particular Richard Jeperson. This time he is investigating a series of murders that seem somehow to have been “predicted” by a popular British soap opera. Throw in a comely professor studying soap operas, the wicked and wickedly portrayed cast and crew of the series, and a solution that is nicely non-supernatural though the supernatural still plays a role … Newman is a very entertaining writer who has been at top form for several long stories this year.

Review of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Locus, April 2008)

Paul McAuley and Kim Newman offer “Prisoners of the Action”, a downright goofy story about the aftermath of an odd alien invasion, with a man investigating strange happenings on the Indian Ocean island where the alien prisoners of war have been confined.

Locus, October 2008

And “The Red Planet League”, by Kim Newman, is the only story in Gaslight Grimoire not to feature Holmes at all. Rather, it is told by Sebastian Moran, about Professor Moriarty taking revenge on a prat of a rival astronomer. The plot is trivial and rather silly, but the narration is delightfully comic.

Locus, December 2010

Mysteries of the Diogenes Club is a collection of some of Kim Newman’s delightful stories of a British private club that investigates unusual events. The book includes one new novella, and a very good one it is: “Kentish Glory”, subtitled “The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School”. It’s about a girls’ school, sometime shortly after World War I, where Amy Thomsett is sent after her mother finds her sleeping on the ceiling. It seems many of the girls at Drearcliff have “Talents”, Amy’s being levitation. The story touches on the usual school story elements: the bullies, the forbidding headmistress, the daft teachers, the obscure rules – all laid out in Newman’s witty prose. Amy soon makes some fast friends, and some vicious enemies. The plot turns on the kidnapping of one of Amy’s friends: it’s mostly a frolic, though with darker elements, and it hardly matters anyway, the story is simply great fun.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of M. C. Pease

M. C. Pease published about 20 stories between 1949 and 1957, then fell silent. Apparently he kept writing, without success: at any rate I have seen a report (second-hand, or third hand actually) from a former F&SF slushreader of seeing in the slush a story from Pease as late as the early '70s. Pease’s main market was Astounding, and secondarily Robert A. W. Lowndes’ magazines, though he also had pieces in If, Beyond, Fantastic Universe, and Science Fiction Adventures. I have read several Pease stories, and have found them sometimes interesting failures -- the ideas are sometimes intriguing and original, but the execution tends to fall short.

So, who was Pease, really? Biographical details were hard to come by. So I solicited the help of an email list I subscribe to, full of experts on short fiction in magazines, especially SF. And we did some digging, and came up with Marshall Carleton Pease III (1920-2001). He had a B. A. from Yale in Chemistry, and an M. A. from Princeton, and eventually a Ph. D., I'm not sure from where. Though his degrees were in Chemistry, his work was in electronics, beginning with radar countermeasures and ending up working at SRI in Computer Science, particularly early research into parallel processing: interesting stuff (to me, anyway, as that's my field). He published lots of scientific papers and at least one textbook. His father was a prominent pediatrician. The really cool detail is what links this M. C. Pease to the SF writer -- a letter from John W. Campbell to Isaac Asimov, suggesting he write a story about an idea that Pease had had but felt he couldn't do justice to. Asimov never wrote the story, but Campbell's letter mentions that Pease was at Sylvania at that time (late '50s), as was Marshall C. Pease the Yale/Princeton grad.

I find writers of this sort interesting, and worth remembering even if I wouldn't, say, include any of their stories in a prospective Best Forgotten Storis of the 1950s anthology. So, on the occasion of what would have been Marshall Pease's 99th birthday, here's what I've written about a few of the Pease stories I have read.

Astounding, August 1951

(Cover by H. R. van Dongen)
"City of the Phoenix" by M. C. Pease is a strange mess of a story, with the occasional hint of something interesting that makes it readable enough. Ter Ankhdart (yes, Pease attended the Isaac Asimov school of character naming) is a young Socio-Logician who comes to a planet on which all the humans have moved into an enclosed city, because they created an atomic power plant that ran wild. An expedition from the Second Galactic Civilization has investigated this planet as part of the desperate search to find a weapon that will stop the alien Slugs who are overrunning human civilization. But the planet seems hopeless, with just this remnant of the First Civilization, at an apparent tech level of 7 -- current Galactic Civilization is at level 12. (The story is full of fairly meaningless socio-babble like that.) However, the exploring spaceship, trying to lift off after giving up, finds that their power plant is being drained. Perhaps this is evidence of a weapon that can stop the slugs?

Ter enters the city, and encounters skepticism and resistance from the already present workers, especially the thuggish leader, Lar. But he also attracts interest from a pretty redhead named Triccy. (Pronounced Tricky or Trixie? Who knows?) Before long Triccy and Ter are exploring the city, meeting the listless, apparently hypnotized, residents. And Ter explains the the City, to have lasted for 2500 years, must be maintained by humans. But what humans? Not these listless residents. And what of the terror they feel when asked where they lived when they were young? ... Anyway, Ter has an answer (not a terrible one), and with that a solution to the problem of the Weapon (a much less plausible one.) And, by the way, the shy and apparently virginal awkward nerd Ter and the lovely Triccy are inevitably a couple by the end ... despite some really icky sexual dynamics ... Actually, in the final analysis, a pretty silly and mostly annoying story.

Dynamic, October 1953

M. C. Pease is a not terribly good, and not terribly well known, writer from (mostly) the early '50s whose work I still find fairly interesting at times. "Temple of Despair" is not great stuff but mildly interesting. A planet devoted to producing a dangerous drug which is valuable as a cancer cure is about to be abandoned, as another drug has been found. An agent arranges to be dropped there to investigate social conditions -- no one has ever understood how the ruling priest keep the population in line, given that harvesting the plant in question is terribly dangerous. The agent, a very ugly man, poses as a priest (rather too easily), and learns that a mysterious "Release" happens every so often. He sneaks into the Temple and encounters a beautiful but apparently evil woman, who seems to be the chief priest. He notices that all the top priests seem to be young and good-looking. He manages to learn the true nature of the "Release", which explains everything, reasonably enough. No classic, not even very good, but better than it might have been. I'll explain the not too surprising secret at the end, after spoiler space.

Oh, and the SPOILER for the Pease story --





the priests have an alien mind transfer machine. During the Release they force everybody to more or less randomly switch minds, which messes up any plans for revolution etc. Plus the priests use their control and understanding of the process to pick handsome young bodies for their own. Of course at the end the ugly man destroys the machine -- but also manages to (by accident) switch his mind into the body of the beautiful young priestess.

Science Fiction Stories #1, 1953

The next story is by M. C. Pease: "The Way of Decision" (10700 words). I've read a couple of his Astounding stories, and while they weren't precisely good I do recall that they were at least mildly ambitious, in terms of ideas considered.

And that's a fair description of "The Way of Decision". This is a story about group marriage. I'm not sure how early group marriage was treated seriously in SF -- but I imagine this story is a fairly early treatment. The other interesting feature of this story is that the new social organization is looked at in economic terms. In essence, group marriages, called here "clans", are economic units. They specialize in certain types of work, and hire out as a group to do these jobs. The marriages are certainly at least as important economically as they are for any sexual or familial reason. The story is set perhaps a decade or two after this became at least mildly common thing, but prejudice against clans is still widespread. The clan in question is considering whether to accept a new wife. She is pretty but perhaps has little else to recommend her. Except -- she is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. A man who has been opposed to hiring clans to do work for his companies. It seems clear that the clan will get a major new contract from this man if his daughter joins them -- but is this a good reason to accept her? The story itself is very static -- lots of talking and philosophizing, not very convincing characterization, and an ambiguously presented conclusion. It doesn't work all that well as a story, and I'm not terribly convinced by the economic issues or the general sociology, but I thought it a brave try and at least interesting for the questions it tries to ask.

Astounding, December 1954

M. C. Pease's "Eight Seconds" asks what humans can do to win a space war with aliens who have just slightly better reaction time -- so that they react 8 seconds more quickly than humans in a space battle. I wasn't convinced either by the general setup, or by the solution, though it is a cutish twist. In a way, I was reminded of Robert Sheckley's "The Battle", also from Astounding.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

"Ripeness" is not one of M. C. Pease's best stories, though it still shows ambition. Philip Reynolds is in charge of a computer that has allowed a dictator to control the world -- and Reynolds has allowed this, seeing it, at the beginning, as the only way to help the world out of chaos. But the dictator’s rule is getting harsher and harsher, and Reynolds is pushed to consider rebelling when his brother, an opponent of the dictator, is arrested and likely to be executed. It’s a bit talky, and the computer bits are totally implausible, but it does try for moral seriousness, if in the end not quite selling its resolution.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hugo Ballot Thoughts, Short Fiction, 2019

Hugo Ballot Thoughts, Short Fiction, 2019

Here’s a look at the Hugo Ballot for the short fiction categories. I’ve read all the novelettes and short stories, but not the novels, alas. I don’t have much to say about the other categories – though I will say, I don’t think Archive of Our Own should have been nominated in the Best Related Work category because to me it doesn’t really fit that category. And the argument “What category does it fit?” doesn’t hold water, because there’s no law that says there has be a Hugo for everything, even if it seems like that sometimes. Indeed, I think this is a case where a committee-decided Special Award would have been quite appropriate.

Short Fiction

Novella

I am behind on my novella reading, so I’ll just give a quicky summary. Here’s the list:

Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Of these only Artificial Condition was on my nomination ballot, but I didn’t get to The Black God’s Drums until later, and it would have been on my ballot. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach struck me as impressively ambitious – probably the most ambitious of the nominees – but I think the ending is a mess. Still a story worth reading. The Tea Master and the Detective is nice work, not quite brilliant. And, I say with guilt, I haven’t read Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I suspect will be very fine work.

Then there’s Binti: The Night Masquerade, which I couldn’t finish. Partly this was simply deadline pressure – I was bored, and I had other stuff I HAD to read, so I gave it up. But, well, Binti was not without interest, but ultimately kind of a mess; and Binti: Home was downright awful, so my expectations were not high. Honestly, I am at a nearly complete loss as to why these stories have been Hugo nominees. But, let's be fair -- I didn't finish the story, so it might have gotten a lot better by the end. (Though some Hugo Ballot reviews I trust suggest otherwise.)

I’ll try to get to Beneath the Sugar Sky, but pending that, The Black God’s Drums probably gets my top vote, and Artificial Condition second. And I won’t think it a bad award if anything but Binti: The Night Masquerade wins. And, seriously, how could people ignore Time Was, by Ian McDonald?

Novelette

The novelette list:

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

None of these were on my nomination ballot, but they are all worthwhile stories. I still think my ballot is better: Dale Bailey’s “The Donner Party”, James Patrick Kelly’s “Grace’s Family”, Alex Jeffers’ “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death”, Kelly Robson’s “Intervention”, Karen Russell’s “Orange World”, and James Sallis’ “Dayenu”. Most of these are understandable non-nominees – “Orange World” (The New Yorker), “Dayenu” (LCRW), and “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death” (Giganotosaurus) all come from venues that just don’t get enough notice from the nominating community. And for that matter, so does “The Donner Party” (F&SF) – the current nominating constituency (taken as a whole) simply won’t consider stories from print magazines, which is a disgrace, quite frankly. Of these, “Dayenu” in particular is remarkable, and it’s a shame no one saw it.

That said, the two Tor.com website stories, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” and “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, are very very good, and could have fit on my ballot easily. Connolly’s story tells of Saffron, the Confection Taster, and her husband Danny, the Pastry Chef, who are forced to serve the “Traitor King”. The title banquet features a series of dishes, all of which are arranged to recall past events – and by this means the back story of the Traitor King’s ascension is revealed. The ending is perhaps a bit predictable, but the journey to it is very effective. Gregory’s story tells of a sort of environmental apocalypse, but not any of those we have faced or are now facing. Instead, in a ‘50s movie sort of way, alien spores seed the Earth in 1975, and the story follows LT from boyhood to senescence, as he and his family battle to understand the new ecology, and perhaps to find a way to adapt. The story combines an elegiac feel with optimism in powerful fashion.

“The Thing About Ghost Stories” is really good as well, about a folklorist who specialized in ghost stories, and her relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The relationship (naturally for this particular story), continues after her mother’s death. Very fine, emotionally true and affecting.

The Only Harmless Great Thing has generated the most buzz of any of these novelettes, and has already copped the Nebula. I admire Brook Bolander’s writing – and this novelette is well-written – but it just didn’t work for me. Sometimes I see a piece get an award nomination and I think “What were they thinking?”. On other occasions – certainly in this case – I think I understand the nomination – this is an impassioned story, a well-written one, it’s about something important. But it doesn’t hold together, it doesn’t seem essentially true to me. It tells of an alternate history in which the Radium Girls (who were poisoned by working on watch dials without protection) end up training intelligent elephants to replace them (there’s a specific nod to Topsy, an elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison); and also tells of a future in which elephants appear to rule, and a woman and and the elephants communicate about nuclear waste. (It occurs to me that I have had terrible luck with SF stories about elephants (or elephant-like beings) – these include dreadful novels like Fletcher Pratt’s Invaders from Rigel, Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall, and Stephen Baxter’s Silverhair; plus a dreadful short story in Mike Resnick’s “The Elephants on Neptune”. (The only good example I can think of is Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth.))

Zen Cho’s “If at First you Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” is, I think, best described as pleasant fun, about an imugi that wants to become a dragon. It tries every millennium or so, and its initial failures are amusing. Then it blames a depressed Ph. D. student on its failure, goes to try to eat her, and becomes entranced – spends a lifetime with the human. It’s not a surprise what happens to the imugi after she dies. I mean, this is a nice story, a fun read. But, I just don’t see Hugo winner.

Simone Heller’s “When We Were Starless” has a fairly familiar setup – a struggling tribe trying to survive in a tough world, with some help from what seems perhaps a crashed spaceship – complete with an ancient hologram that’s regarded as a dangerous ghost. Heller works some nice changes on this – the tribe is aliens, though the tech (and the ghost) seem human; and much of the interest inheres to the well described narrator … Again, this is nice work, and again, I didn’t quite seem what separates it from a raft of fine, well done stories that aren’t on the Hugo ballot.

The first three stories I mentioned (by Connolly, Gregory, and Kritzer) will be at the top of my ballot – in an order yet to be determined. Then the other three, with the position of the Bolander story depending on how many points it gets for ambition (clearly it's more ambitious than the Heller or Cho stories) versus success.

Short Story

The nominees are:

“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Of these, Alix E. Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” and Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” are the two that appear in my Best of the Year volume, which is a good clue that they’re the stories at the top of my ballot. The fact is, the rest of these stories are all pretty good, so in no way does this list shame the Hugo nomination process. That said, there are several short stories I thought superior to the others that made the final ballot – and, hey, that’s the way it goes! If we all liked the same things, it would be a dreary world. That said, these stories deserve more notice: “The Buried Giant”, by Lavie Tidhar; “Kindred”, by Peter Watts; “A Portrait of Salai”, by Hannu Rajaniemi; “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish”, by Octavia Cade; “The Hydraulic Emperor”, by Arkady Martine; “The Heart of Owl Abbas”, by Kathleen Jennings; and “Carouseling”, by Rich Larson.

So, anyway, my Hugo ballot, with comments. Note first that places 3 through 5 might easily be shuffled before submission.

1. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” – This one is pretty special. It’s told by a librarian (“There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches” – no prizes for guessing which category our narrator fits), as she encounters a teenaged boy who becomes obsessed with a particular pretty bad fantasy novel. The boy is obviously in a difficult family situation – and perhaps escape is what he needs. And witches know ways to escape … but that’s against the rules, and librarians are rule followers. The story is at the same time a bit cute, almost arch, and yet grounded and quite moving.

2. “The Court Magician” – This tells of the career of a young boy selected to learn magic. And so he does, over time, mastering sleight-of-hand, always wanting more, until he is finally offered real magic. Which must be in service of the Regent of his land, and which comes at a cost – a terrible cost to himself, and, he eventually realizes, possibly to others as well. It is in a way another variant on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (a story Pinsker riffed on even more explicitly last year with “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going”). Strong and morally effective.

3. “STET”, by Sarah Gailey – A strong story, intriguingly structured, best suited, perhaps, for online reading, though it certainly can be read on paper – it consists of an abstract, several citations, and editorial comments with rejoinders by the author. I sort of don’t want to discuss it more, as that might blunt its impact. It’s in a sense a trolley problem story, dealing with autonomous cars.

4. “The Secret Lives of Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” – another differently structured story, detailing the imagined lives of nine people whose teeth ended up in George Washington’s mouth. It’s strong stuff, very worth reading, necessary reading indeed, engaging powerfully with our nation’s “original sin” and the often underacknowledged culpability of our Founding Fathers with that sin. Listed lower relative to other stories because, well, I like “story”, and I didn’t think this had enough of that. But it didn’t mean to have any more “story” than it did, for good and sufficient reasons. So – not an auctorial failing – but still a reason it’s not higher on my ballot.

5. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” –  This is a wise and funny story which tells of the seduction of the title woman by a series of creatures of Faerie – an elf, a selkie, a pooka – and their mutual disappointment as she enjoys their company but fails to pine when they desert her – indeed, she marries the blacksmith.

6. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” – this is about what it says, pretty much. The Prince, who is (all too predictably) remarkably dumb and cruel, hunts the sisters, and captures and imprisons one – with easy to guess eventual results. As I say, it’s quite predictable in general shape, but that’s a bit unfair to it, because it’s a cleverly told and quite funny story. It fits with a few stories I’ve mentioned – a good story, one I’m glad I read, that doesn’t quite seem to me to be Hugo material.