Thursday, January 17, 2019

Old "Bestseller": The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

Capsule Looks at The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

a review by Rich Horton

Ronald Firbank was born January 17, 1886. He was one of the oddest and most original writers of the early 20th century -- his works are rather decadent, rather campy, quite funny, and not like any other writer I know. In memory of his birthday, here's some short things I wrote about a few of his novels (and one minor short story) a number of years ago.

A very different sort of comedy is practiced by Ronald Firbank. Firbank was a Roman Catholic Englishman of considerable independent means (his father was a railroad tycoon), who lived from 1886 to 1926. Firbank was also homosexual, and apparently terribly impractical, and quite shy. He wrote several novels, a few short stories and a play, starting in about 1907. He published the novels at his own expense, partly because they are so odd, partly, I think, because he couldn't really be bothered dealing with business details. But even during his life he gained considerable notice, and even had one strong seller in the US, with his novel Sorrow in Sunlight, retitled Prancing N****r by his American publisher in an apparently successful attempt to gain notice.

Firbank's novels are fey, highly mannered, creations, essentially comedies of manners, but the "manners" tend to be rather unusual. I'd read several of his novels a few years ago, but I just got a copy of the Complete Firbank, and I decided to reread some of them.

1. The Flower Beneath the Foot

I began with The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923). This story is set in the fictional country of Pisuerga, and its plot turns on the love affair between the Crown Prince Yousef and one Laura Nazianzi. But Laura is not highly placed enough to satisfy the King and Queen, who are pushing for a marriage to an English Princess. All seems conventional enough, but of course the plot such as it is has nothing really to do with the novel.

It's all really about conversations, wicked conversations. Firbank is among other things a very cruel writer -- his characters die, fail in love, and most of all are shown up as being very very silly. They also occasionally have funny names like Sir Somebody Something or Madame Wetme. One character has a favorite Shakespeare play -- "Julia Sees Her". Many of the women are intriguing to seduce other women, one way or another. Even Laura Nazianzi seems more excited by the prospect of returning to the convent and her special friend (complete with birch rod) than by the prospect of a relationship with Prince Yousef. It's all very arch, and terribly witty, and quite funny but perhaps best appreciated in smallish doses -- which is OK because this novel, as with all of Firbank, is pretty short.

2. Valmouth (and "Odette")

Valmouth, a rather short novel, is apparently generally regarded as Firbank's best, and at any rate I like it the best of his work that I've read.  It's set in a seaside resort, among a varied group of characters, most of whom seem to be over 100 years old, maybe even 150 or so. The plot concerns the plans of the son of one of the women to marry a "foreign" woman, and the effects of this plan on his mother and his previous lover, also there is a side plot concerning the vague  attempts of one of the older women to seduce a young farmer.  But the plot is nothing really, just an excuse to listen in on the various outre characters. The pleasure is derived from the delicate double-entendres buried in almost every line of dialogue -- concerning masochism, madness, fooling around with priests, etc.

"Odette" on the other hand, a very early story, shows almost nothing of what Firbank would become -- it's a silly and sentimental and moralistic short piece about a young orphan who encounters a prostitute and perhaps effects a change in her life.

3. The Artificial Princess

I read another Ronald Firbank "novel", The Artificial Princess, a story of about 20,000 words completed in 1915 but not published until 1934, several years after Firbank's death. All Firbank is slight in terms of plot, but this seems slighter than usual. It concerns a very young Princess (17) of a fictional country that seems closely to resemble England. The Princess has
a somewhat older companion, the Baroness. She sends her on a mission to a potential lover, but the Devil intervenes and the Baroness encounters a potential lover of her own. The action closes at a play written by another member of the court, the Mistress of the Robes, with encounters for the Princess and Baroness both in the offing.

Feather light, its attractions result from Firbank's characteristic fey description and arch dialogue. Still, it seems rather a lesser work than the other Firbank novels I have read. (Perhaps it is not a surprise the Firbank did not publish it in his lifetime.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple (#F-195, 1963, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This is one of the shorter Ace Double combinations I've seen. Silverberg's novel is about 34,000 words long, Temple's about 30,000. This is also a pretty minor pair of short novels -- neither is really memorable.

Robert Silverberg was a regular writer of Ace Doubles, producing thirteen "halves" over his career, in twelve different books. Several of his Ace Doubles were under pseudonyms: Ivar Jorgenson, David Osborne, and most often his Protestant pseudonym, Calvin Knox. Interestingly, The Silent Invaders is an expansion of a novelette from the October 1958 issue of Infinity, "The Silent Invaders", by "Calvin Knox" -- but the novel is as by "Robert Silverberg". After this edition, it was reprinted a couple of times in the 70s and 80s, by Ace and Tor, as Silverberg allowed some of his early pulp stories back into print. (I remember reading one of those thin Ace books back in the day.) (I note for the record that when I call these early Silverberg stories "pulp" I am referring to the general style -- the stories themselves, by the late 50s, were almost all (perhaps indeed all) published in digests, such as Infinity, rather than in actual pulp magazines.)

It's a rather preposterous little piece of pulpish fun. And it is in its way fun -- though probably only a novelette's worth. Silverberg has always been a facile writer -- I don't mean this in a bad way, I think writing with facility is a virtue, though not a necessary virtue. What I mean by this is that his writing flows nicely -- he's just easy to read, he compels reading. Even if, as in this case, what you are reading isn't all that good.

The protagonist is named Abner Harris -- but in reality he is Aar Khiilom, an agent of the Darruui. He has been sent to Earth, surgically altered to look like a human, on a mission to try to influence Earth to support Darruu in an anticipated war with their ancient enemy, the Medlin. He arrives on Earth, with orders to spend his first ten days or so just blending in. Indeed, a pleasant affair with a local woman would be just the thing -- and he is about ready to bed the beautiful Beth Baldwin when he receives a message from his boss -- emergency! He is compelled to stand her up.

It turns out that the Darruui have discovered that the Medlin have also infiltrated Earth. Abner's new job is to assassinate as many Medlin as he can. And his first assignment -- wait a minute, you'll NEVER GUESS this incredible plot twist -- is to assassinate a Medlin agent who is impersonating an Earth woman under the name Beth Baldwin!

Of course it turns out that Beth has the jump on him, and soon she and her fellow Medlins are trying to turn Abner/Aar to their side. It seems they are convinced he is a rare virtuous Darruui. More to the point, the Medlins have decided that their primary job is to nurture humans -- it seems that humans have begun to evolve into superbeings -- the future truly belongs to the arriving superhuman race. The rest of the story involves Abner/Aar resisting at first -- he cannot stand to betray his people, and eventually learning the deeper truth etc. etc. All in all, a silly story, very minor Silverberg, a bit too rapidly resolved -- nothing special at all. But as I said, enjoyable enough reading on its own terms.

William F. Temple was an Englishman involved in the UK SF scene from very early -- he roomed for a while with Arthur C. Clarke, and he was editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He wrote a number of juvenile novels, both SF and other, and a few SF novels and a number of short stories. He wrote three Ace Double halves, two of which were later combined to make another Ace Double.

The cover of Battle on Venus features what seems to be a huge runaway disk from an old fashioned mainframe disk drive, chasing a man with the proportions of a Darrell Sweet humanoid. (Noting that Sweet's drawings were supposedly of actual humans, but that can't really have been the case.) I just mention that because it struck me as amusing -- the cover is actually a somewhat accurate representation of a scene from the book.

The book concerns the first expedition to Venus, led by a lugubrious Captain who believes himself cursed by his first name (Jonah), and crewed by several redshirts and a "professional explorer" named George Starkey. The ship comes in for a landing only to find itself being shot at. And once on the surface, a variety of tanks and the like begin attacking. The crew are also menaced by the runaway disks. But all of a sudden the attacking tanks turn around and start defending the ship from another attacking set of vehicles. And all attempts at communication are met with silence.

Things finally quiet down, and George Starkey takes a helicopter on an exploring mission, only to be shot down. Luckily he is found by a beautiful girl from an isolated settlement, a girl who has spent her life as an expert thief (part of her culture), but who has decided to leave her home city. She and George are quickly in love, despite cultural differences. They manage to make there way to the home of the personage who, it turns out (big surprise) is orchestrating all this chaos.

And ... well, we learn why this endless pointless war continues, and George and his love make there way back to the ship, and ... and ... It's hardly worth describing. It's really another pretty silly story. Along the way there are occasional cute bits, a little humour, competent but not distinguished writing. And it's short. In all, surely one of the more forgettable Ace Doubles.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer (#M-131, 1965, $0.45)

by Rich Horton

Today is Kenneth Bulmer's birthday -- he'd have been 98. I've posted a lot of reviews of Bulmer's Ace Doubles already, but there always seem to be more! This is actually a review I wrote a while ago, but it's been off the internet for some time, so here it is again.

(Covers by Jack Gaughan)
As I've previously mentioned, one of my goals is to cover at least one entry by all of the most prolific Ace Double contributors in this series of reviews. This book pairs two quite prolific Ace Double writers: Bulmer wrote 15 Ace Double halves, Reynolds 13. I'd already reviewed a Bulmer book, but this is my first Reynolds Ace Double. Planetary Agent X is about 47,000 words, Behold the Stars about 44,000. This Ace Double also represents one of those in which the halves seem mildly thematically linked: both of these rather explicitly concern human expansion and colonization of the stars.

Mack Reynolds had a well-established reputation as sort of John W. Campbell's pet socialist. Reynolds (real name Dallas McCord Reynolds) was in fact an active member of the American Socialist Labor Party, and his father Verne Reynolds actually ran for President twice as a representative of that party. I've read only a couple of his books, and they do not seem overtly Socialist to me, though they aren't anti-Socialist either. (I understand that a few of his novels were more explicitly Socialist.) It seems to me that politics aside, he resembled Campbell quite strongly in being contrarian in temperament, and in promoting some of Campbell's tics regarding individualism and secret organizations working for the good of man and such like.

The publication history of Planetary Agent X is a little odd. The front matter states "This novel originally appeared in Analog in two parts under the titles "Ultima Thule" and "Pistolero"." Certainly Part I appeared as "Ultima Thule" in the March 1961 Analog. However, I can find no evidence that a story called "Pistolero" by Reynolds ever appeared anywhere. The Contento Index claims that "Pistolero", which it lists as part of this novel, appeared in SF Impulse, the British magazine edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli, sister to New Worlds (and originally called Science Fantasy), in June 1966, but under the title "Hatchetman", and a year or so after this Ace Double was published. (Curiously, one of Reynolds's earliest stories was a collaboration with Fredric Brown in Amazing for December 1951 called "The Hatchetman" -- I assume the story is unrelated.) I wonder if perhaps Reynolds submitted "Pistolero" to Campbell and told Ace that it would be published there, only to have it rejected. Then he may have sold it to SF Impulse, where it seems to have appeared a year after the Ace Double. (I should add that I don't know if the Ace Double versions of the stories differ from the magazine versions.)

The novel is a straightforward fixup of two novellas about Ronnie Bronston. Bronston lives some centuries in the future. Humans have colonized hundreds of worlds, many, perhaps most, united by a very loose government, centered on Earth, called United Planets. The central tenet of the United Planets is that interference with the internal affairs, particularly the political organization, of member planets is verboten. Ronnie dreams of going offplanet, and the only route to that is to work for UP. As the book opens, he is interviewed and hired for a casual-seeming organization called Section G. This seems to be sort of a secret department, aimed at enforcing the noninterference rule.

Ronnie's first assignment is to track down a criminal named Tommy Paine, who has been fomenting revolutions on numerous planets. His revolutions follow no specific pattern -- mainly simply removing entrenched autocrats from power, or forcing static societies out of ruts. He is assigned a beautiful Eurasian assistant, Tog Lee Chang Chou, who proceeds to annoy him en route to the various planets he suspects Paine might be at by playing Devil's Advocate. For all Ronnie suggests that some of these societies might deserve interference, Tog has reasons (not necessarily consistent) that they should not be messed with.

The ending to this section is easily guessed, and very predictable, involving among other things the meaning of Tog's name. At any rate, Ronnie is promoted to full membership in Section G. His next assignment, in Part II, is to track down Billy Antrim, a very young "pistolero" from a Mafia-dominated planet. (It is not, I am sure, a coincidence that "Billy Antrim" was one of the names Billy the Kid went by.) Billy was sent by his mob boss to kill a squealer who had come to Earth. The story actually focuses more on Billy's fleeing than on Ronnie's chasing, though the end, which is a bit dark and somewhat effective, does deal with Ronnie.

I assume there are a few more United Planets stories in Reynolds's bibliography. [Indeed there are -- quite a few, though this was the first.] For myself, this was not bad, though far from great. Enjoyable if predictable.

I've previously mentioned Kenneth Bulmer's career. He was a very prolific English SF writer, publishing something like 100 novels, including the Dray Prescot series (as by "Alan Burt Akers") for DAW. He also edited the last several volumes of the classic English original anthology series New Writings in SF.

Behold the Stars concerns David Ward, ex-Army, who is working for the Solterra government matter transmitter operation, several years after the end of a wearing war with the alien but nearly human "Venies". Space travel is mostly done by matter transmitter, but STL spaceships need first to travel to distant stars to place receiver stations (though the ships can be fueled by matter transmission). Some of the Solterra spaceships are encountering a new alien race, which has ambushed several human installations.

War seems imminent, but surprisingly many top people are very pacifist, despite the aggressiveness and provocation of these new aliens. Ward himself, though no pacifist, is reluctant to fight again -- he feels he did his time in the previous war. But his best friend disappears, and his friend's girlfriend introduces David to a beautiful girl who, it turns out, wants David to investigate the other guy's disappearance.

All this leads to David confronting his "cowardice", falling in love with the new girl, and tracking down his best friend -- which also leads to a solution to the problem of the pacifists.

It's not very well worked out. The deck is stacked to favor certain arguments. Some of the action is silly. The end is terribly abrupt. Even so, I enjoyed the characters (though they were terribly two-dimensional), and the story was a breezy read. I can't rate it as very good, but it was at least passable, if you swallow some of the absurdities.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Slightly Belated Birthday Review: Vegas Heist, by Van Allen Plexico

Slightly Belated Birthday Review: Vegas Heist, by Van Allen Plexico

a review by Rich Horton

Yesterday, January 12, was the 51st birthday of Van Allen Plexico. I've gotten to know Van a bit over the past few years at conventions, expecially Archon, and as it happens we've twice been v/i/c/t/i/m/s contestants on Jim Yelton's Geek Universe Trivia Thunderdome, episodes of which Jim occasionally records at cons like Archon. Last fall we were "celebrity" contestants. I lost. Van finished second, to Wyatt Weed, a St. Louis-based writer/director. (In fact, Wyatt directed Four Color Eulogy, in which my son had a tiny role.)

At Archon I also bought a copy of Van's new novel, Vegas Heist, release in 2018 from White Rocket Books. Yesterday I did a lot of cleaning of my library, and one thing that surfaced was Vegas Heist. Whey I realized it was Van's birthday, I figured I ought to read it, and so I have.

Much of Van's fiction is SF or Fantasy, but Vegas Heist is a crime story, indeed a caper story, set in 1965. John Harper is a career criminal, and as the story opens he gets a call from a man named Salsa, with whom he's worked before. They decide to meet in St. Louis to plan the job. With a jugger (safebreaker) named Donovan, they begin by robbing an engineer in the St. Louis suburbs (hey, I'm an engineer in the St. Louis suburbs!) The engineer is known to be a gun nut, and the goal is to get some arms that can't be traced to them. Then it's on to Las Vegas, Salsa's home base. Salsa has heard that Caesar's Palace, which is just about to open, will have a bunch of money in their safe the night before the opening, and he's also heard about a secret underground passage into the safe's location.

There are complications, of course. For one thing, the engineer in St. Louis, who had interrupted their job and got knocked out for his pains, had heard a clue that allowed him to figure out the jugger's identity, and he's learned that he'll be in Las Vegas, so he's headed there along with a large portion of his personal arsenal. Secondly, while Salsa has heard some of the details of the secret passage's location, he doesn't know enough, and he has to try to finagle the remaining details from the widow of the contractor who was working on Caesar's Palace before his recent accidental (?) death. (This proves more fun than Salsa expected after he realized the widow is a former showgirl and recent trophy wife.) There's also the matter of the thuggish and undependable fourth member of their team, hired as additional muscle. And finally there's Salsa's original informant, who turns out to be (though Harper's team doesn't know his) in the play of a rival casino owner who wants to embarrass Caesar's Palace, and who certainly doesn't want any loose ends left alive after the job is done.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, as Harper's team works out their plan, as their unforeseen antagonists also maneuver, and as some unavoidable missteps place them in danger of detection by law enforcement. It's exciting stuff, well-schemed, with the expected cynical humor dotting things. This is a fun fast read, with additional fillips for people in my position such as the view of my city as the Arch is being erected, and such as the Tuckerization of a certain Jim Yelton as a hapless security guard.

Ace Double Reviews, 80: Clockwork's Pirates, by Ron Goulart/Ghost Breaker, by Ron Goulart

Ace Double Reviews, 80: Clockwork's Pirates, by Ron Goulart/Ghost Breaker, by Ron Goulart (#11182, 1971, 75 cents)

A review by Rich Horton

Ron Goulart turns 86 today -- a surprise to me, I'd have thought him rather younger. In his honor, then, a review of his only Ace Double.

(Covers by Karel Thole)
Ron Goulart is known mostly as a writer of humorous SF -- I've said before that he's sort of a low-rent Robert Sheckley, though I suspect that comparison is too facile -- Goulart doesn't really write all that much like Sheckley. Goulart has also ghost written plenty of stuff, including some of the novels credited to William Shatner. This is his only Ace Double. Clockwork's Pirates is a novel, about 38,000 words long, while Ghost Breaker is a story collection, totaling just short of 43,000 words.

Clockwork's Pirates is set in a future Goulart has used a number of times, concerning the "Barnum System" of planets. This novel is set on Esmeralda, a planet purposely kept at a low level of technology. John Wesley Sand is a freelance secret agent, and is hired by the Barnum authorities to help track down criminals who have kidnapped a local governor's daughter, and who have also eliminated some previous agents. It is suspected that they may be using robots -- which are obviously enough illegal tech.

Sand rather discursively makes his way after the kidnappers, mostly in the company of a hack novelist named Tony Dehner. He also gets help from a mysterious woman who claims to be the daughter of a wizard. And to be sure he doesn't hesitate to enjoy the company of various other women on the way. The actual chase of the kidnappers is not terribly interesting -- Goulart pretty much just makes stuff up as he goes along. I was particularly annoyed by the fact that this nominally SFnal future is actually a fantasy world -- blatant magic is a major feature. For no particular reason except that it makes the author's job easier. It must be said that there are occasional cute touches and amusing bits, and that it all reads smoothly enough. But the novel is totally unmemorable.

Ghost Breaker is a collection of stories all featuring the same character, Max Kearny. Max is an adman who is also an occult investigator. Goulart's stories about him appeared mostly in F&SF throughout the '60s. It is worth noting that Goulart himself worked as an ad man, was born the same year (as far as I can tell) as his character Max Kearny, and lived in pretty much the same place.

The stories follow a broadly similar template -- Max reluctantly agrees to investigate an occult happening for a friend of his. These happenings are always truly fantastical, not Scooby Doo style chicanery (though magical chicanery may be involved). Max manages to figure out what's going on (often too easily) and foil things, usually by looking up a spell in a book -- always too conveniently. Max gets married along the way, and his wife (something of a witch) tends to try to help out and tends to put herself in danger.

That description, I guess, makes it clear that I didn't love these stories. But they are not awful -- Goulart's telling is just engaging enough to hold the interest. The stories aren't exactly funny -- they don't seem intended to be truly comic -- but they are light and amusing enough. Not a one of them is outstanding -- nothing here is brilliant -- but they do seem, well, acceptable. Which in a way describes Goulart's career -- I have been reading him off and on for decades, and I find him fitfully funny -- sometimes tiresome, sometimes OK, and every once in a while, as with a story this year in F&SF, pretty darn amusing. But never, for me, brilliant. (That said, comedy in particular is something that strikes different people in very different ways.)

Here's a list of the stories in Ghost Breaker, with lengths and original publication venues:

"Please Stand By" (8400 words) (F&SF, January 1962)
"Uncle Arly" (3600 words) (F&SF, July 1962)
"Help Stamp Out Chesney" (4300 words) (first published in this collection)
"McNamara's Fish" (6500 words) (F&SF, July 1963)
"Kearny's Last Case" (4300 words) (F&SF, September 1965)
"Breakaway House" (3800 words) (F&SF, May 1966)
"The Ghost Patrol" (5400 words) (F&SF, October 1968)
"The Strawhouse Pavilion" (4500 words) (Coven 13, January 1970)
"Fill In the Blank" (5800 words) (F&SF, May 1967)

Birthday Review: A Scholar of Magics (plus When the King Comes Home), by Caroline Stevermer

Birthday Review: A Scholar of Magics (plus When the King Comes Home), by Caroline Stevermer

by Rich Horton

Caroline Stevermer's birthday is today. I really enjoyed her novels, both solo and in collaboration with Patricia Wrede, and I regret that we haven't seen anything in a decade or so (save one short story.) So here's a repost of what I wrote about two of her novels, A Scholar of Magics (2004) and, more briefly, When the King Comes Home (2000).

Caroline Stevermer's A Scholar of Magics is another fairly direct sequel that still can be read independently. It is a successor to A College of Magics (1994). (Both books are apparently set in the same world as her intervening novel When the King Comes Home, but that novel is set much earlier and I for one cannot readily detect the correspondences.) A College of Magics was set at Greenlaw, a Women's College in what seemed to be a version of France in the early 20th Century, and it involved Faris Nallaneen and her assumption of the important post of Warden of the North. A Scholar of Magics is set at Glasscastle, a Men's College in a version of early 20th Century England (probably around 1915 or so), and it involves a man assuming the important post of Warden of the West. A major character is Jane Brailsford, a teacher at Greenlaw and a close friend of Faris.

The central character, however, is Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter who has been engaged by a group at Glasscastle which is researching a new weapon. Lambert's shooting ability will help them refine the aiming mechanism of the weapon, apparently. Lambert is friendly with Robert Brailsford, a Fellow at Glasscastle and Jane's brother. Jane comes visiting her brother, but she has an ulterior motive. Faris has sent her to track down Nicholas Fell, another Fellow of Glasscastle, who is supposed to become the new Warden of the West. But Fell is resisting.

As it happens, Fell is Samuel Lambert's roommate. So Jane and Samuel spend time together looking for Fell. They encounter mysterious mostly invisible thieves, have exciting motorcar trips, and listen to the music of Glasscastle. Eventually Robert Brailsford and Fell disappear, and Jane and Samuel try to chase them down, helped by a surprising personal property they both share. The nature of the mysterious weapon under development becomes important ...

It's a very engaging, very fun, novel. The characters are likeable, believable, and unexpected in some ways. The love story is very understated, to good effect. The magic is interesting and nicely handled. The pace is a bit leisurely, but the book remains involving, even through an oddly extended denouement. My favorite Stevermer novel so far.

---

Caroline Stevermer has a new book out, When the King Comes Home. It's apparently set in the same world as her fine earlier book A College of Magics.  It's been a while since I read the earlier book, and I confess I didn't notice any close links: I'm pretty sure both books can be read independently.  This new one is quite a nice book.  The world it's set in is very much like roughly 16th Century Europe.  It's set in an imaginary country in Europe, and the other fantasy element is that magic works, though magic isn't wildly prevalent.  Mostly, the feel of the setting is like our world.  The narrator, Hail Rosamer, is a young apprentice to a successful artist.  She lives in the capital city of their "country", which is ruled by an old, dying, King, and a capable "Prince-Bishop".  But people remember the days of Good King Julian, 2 centuries before, with great affection. It is said "When the King Comes Home", any number of miracles might happen.

Wilful Hail becomes obsessed with an artist of King Julian's time, Gil Maspero, who among other things made a special medal for the King.  Against her mistress' wishes, Hail makes a copy of this medal, and by happenstance ends up one day encountering a man who looks just like the old King.  Soon it is clear that sorcery is afoot: an evil witch in league with the rebellious lord of one of the provinces is trying to recall King Julian's soul to a new body and bind the King to her will.  Hail ends up imprisoned for a time, then trying to help track down the witch, then trying to help free the King from her spell.  I liked it quite a bit.  It's quiet, and it ends in an honest but rather muffled fashion: Stevermer worked hard to avoid an ending with any sort of heroic cliche.  Hail is a neat character, wholly an artist, headstrong, interesting, unobservant of anything she doesn't care about, like the obviously besotted soldier who keeps encountering her.  The other characters are well drawn, too, and largely good people too.  (The obvious exceptions, like the witch, really aren't characters we get to know.) 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Birthday Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (Random House, 978-1-4000-6567-7, $30, hc, 624 pages) September 2014

A review by Rich Horton

[On the occasion of David Mitchell's 50th birthday, here's a repost of a review I did for Locus back in 2014 of The Bone Clocks.]

David Mitchell is a writer unconcerned with genre boundaries. Many SF readers are familiar with his wonderful 2004 novel Cloud Atlas (or with the ambitious film made of it), which has sections extending into the far future. My favorite of his novels is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), an historical novel (with slight fantastical elements) set in Japan at the turn of the 19th Century. And his new novel, The Bone Clocks, is again SF/Fantasy, with sections set in the medium near future, and with a central fantastical element concerning battling immortals. Does it all work?

The book is organized as six long sections, all featuring an Englishwoman, Holly Sykes, as a significant character (and indeed as the viewpoint character of the first and last parts). We meet Holly first in 1984, when she is 15 and mad at her mother and in love with a 24 year old man (who has made her pregnant, though she doesn't know that yet). Holly also has a bit of a psychological history: as a child she heard voices. And her young brother is precocious and quite strange. She runs away from home to shack up with her boyfriend, only to find that he’s cheating on her with one of her best friends, so she runs away again, making several significant connections: with Ed Brubeck, a lonely boy in her class whom has been shunned as a newcomer; with a strange old woman who makes a curious request; and with a radical couple. She encounters shocking violence, and learns a sort of independence, before Ed finds her with the terrible news that her brother has disappeared.

That sets the stage – quite mysteriously – for the rest of the novel. The succeeding sections each leap forward a decade or so, and are told from different points of view: First comes Hugo Lamb, a charismatic but psychopathic Cambridge student who almost falls in love with Holly (one gathers she might have been his redemption) before being recruited into a group of immortals, the Anchorites. Then Ed Brubeck, now a journalist in Iraq, married to Holly and with a young daughter but unable to give up the thrill of war correspondence. Then Crispin Hershey, a successful novelist (who seems made up of 75% Martin Amis, 10% David Mitchell, and the rest invented) whose career seems in the dumps after a vicious review, after which he takes horrible revenge on a critic, while crossing paths with Holly, who has become a bestselling writer after a memoir about the voices she hears when a child (again, Holly becomes a redemptive factor in Crispin’s life). And finally a Canadian doctor who treated Holly for cancer, but who also turns out to be a member of more benevolent group of immortals, the Horologists, who are engaged in a long battle with the Anchorites. This section at last gives us a potted history of the long battle, leading a climactic battle between the warring immortal sects. The final section is set in Holly’s old age, as she is trying to raise two grandchildren (one of them chance adopted) in an Ireland descending (with the most of the rest of Western society) into chaos after a mini-Apocalypse due to global warming and accompanying superstorms.

There’s a lot going on here, obviously. At one level it’s a sort of life story of a rather remarkable woman (too remarkable, in some ways: both Holly’s near sainthood and her sudden literary success seemed implausible to me: I believed her rebellious teenaged avatar rather more than her later selves). At another level it’s an impressive travelogue, with interesting scenes in England, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia both in the near future and distant past, 19th Century Russia, Japan, Canada, the US, and Iceland. At a third level it’s an SF novel with a political subtext, showing our present day sins leading to a climate-change induced disaster, and on this level it’s pretty impressive, particularly in the final segment. Mitchell has a real SFnal imagination – he’s not at all the slumming mainstream writer lazily borrowing SF tropes that SF readers so often complain about. The novel is often comic, it is intricately and interestingly plotted, and it's impressively well-written. For regular readers of Mitchell, there are also nice but not overly intrusive links to his earlier books (including a by the by explanation for one of the stranger elements of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and mostly minor but sometimes significant characters shared with most of his previous books).

But … well, there’s a but, of course. Besides all the things I mention above, The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel about a centuries-long battle between two small but very powerful groups of immortals. And that part – while it is intriguing – really doesn’t quite work. It’s not so much that the fantastical elements are implausible in the extreme – though they are – I’m happy enough suspending my disbelief that far. I had two problems, though. One is the hokey magic battle at the climax, which really comes off as cliché – Harry Potter dueling with bolts from wands, that sort of thing. The other is that the battle between two small groups (one rather conveniently given the moral high ground over the other group, who come off as sneering supervillains) is elevated in importance, seems to me, above the fates of a whole world full of ordinary people. Perhaps the concluding chapter is Mitchell giving the lie to that – the victory of one group of immortals seems minor in the face of a crumbling world, all the whizbang battles seem almost silly next to Holly and her fellows' dignified work at survival – and if so that’s a fair and powerful conclusion.

I don’t want to overemphasize my issues with that aspect of things, however. The Bone Clocks remains a tremendously enjoyable novel, and a novel with enough serious heft of speculative thought, and character insight, to make it worth pondering. I’d rank it behind The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas, but it’s still worth reading, and one of the best novels, SF or otherwise, of the year.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Birthday Review: Ascending, by James Alan Gardner

Ascending, by James Alan Gardner

a review by Rich Horton

Today is James Alan Gardner's 63rd birthday. In his honor, here's a review I did for my old blog of his novel Ascending. I will add that I hadn't seen a novel from Gardner in over a decade until new novels appeared in each of the past two years: All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded. A welcome return indeed!

Ascending was James Alan Gardner's fifth novel, and his fourth about Festina Ramos, an "Explorer" with the Navy of the future Human Technocracy.  (Besides those four novels, all with one word titles (Expendable, Vigilant, and Hunted being the other three), he has written Commitment Hour, which does not seem to be about Festina.)  Festina was the protagonist of Gardner's first novel, in which we learn the general setup of his future history, to wit 1) humans (and a number of other alien species) have been given the secret of FTL travel as well as some other nice stuff such as life extension treatments by apparently benevolent aliens, 2) the more advanced aliens are the controlling races of the League of Peoples, a very loose confederation of beings that operates with one simple law: anyone who might kill another sentient being is considered non-sentient, and cannot travel outside their own Solar System: if they do, they die, instantly and mysteriously; and 3) the Human Navy's Explorer Corps is composed of disabled and disfigured people who are considered "expendable" because of their handicaps, thus handy for being sent on dangerous missions.  John Clute called this last idea the silliest idea he had ever seen in SF, or words to that effect, and I agree.

In Expendable, book 1, Festina was sent to Melaquin, an Earthlike planet from which no Explorer has returned -- it turns out that it's a parking spot for rebellious Admirals and other people the Technocracy wants to dump without killing.  It also turns out that it is inhabited by a race of glass people who look exactly like humans but who are transparent.  This race is dying out because they tend to get "Tired Brains" at the age of 50 -- and though they are very hard to kill, they just lay down and vegetate forever. Only a few are alive in this book, and Festina befriends one of them, a woman named Oar.  But at the end of Expendable, Festina has exposed the improper use of Melaquin, so the Technocracy has to abandon the planet, and she leaves Oar behind, believing her dead after an 80 story fall.

After Expendable Festina is no longer the POV character, but in each book she is an important secondary character.  Vigilant and Hunted are mostly unlinked separate stories.  Ascending, though, resumes on Melaquin, with Oar having awoken from a 4 year sleep, apparently cured of her injuries. She has been discovered by a criminal of the Divian species named Uclodd Unorr: a short orange humanoid.  He has been hired to spirit Oar away before the Technocracy council of Admirals finds her, because they wish to make sure she cannot testify against them about the crimes on Melaquin.  So Uclodd, his wife Lajoolie, and Oar are soon running away in the intelligent ship Starbiter.  But they find that not only is the Human navy after them, so is a powerful alien species called the Shaddill -- the very species which sold FTL technology to Divians and Humans, and which is believed to have created Oar's people in the distant past.  After some hair raising adventures, they encounter Festina Ramos, then another strange alien species, the Cashlings. All the while Oar is in contact with a weird alien named the Pollisand, who claims to have brought her back from the dead, and who wishes her help in ridding the universe of the evil Shaddill.

The book is quite fun to read.  It is told in Oar's inimitable voice, familiar to readers of Expendable: she is childish but charming, desperate for attention, very egotistical, profane.  The reasons for all this are explained in the book.  The voice is fun to read, and the action of the book is quite exciting as well.  At the same time, there are caveats.  The whole setup for Gardner's future is really absurd.  Moreover, the science in these books is extremely rubbery, pretty much whatever it needs to be for plot purposes at any one time.  I have seen a number of comments from readers for whom all this is too much, and they can't enjoy the books.  I find that thoroughly understandable -- I can only say that I do like the books, albeit with reservations and a certain amount of eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising.  I made a comment, in a review of one of the earlier books, that they reminded me, in some ways, of '50s SF: in the rubbery but fun science, and in the whole insouciance of the approach to things.  I will say that Gardner's imagination is active: his aliens, though very humanlike in character, are neatly designed, and his tech, wacky is it is, is also often quite clever.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Early Short Stories (and one obscure novel) by Algis Budrys

Birthday Review: Early Short Stories (and one obscure novel) by Algis Budrys

by Rich Horton

Algis Budrys was just a couple of months older than my father, and he'd have turned 88 today. He was one of my favorite SF writers. His best work, in my opinion, came mostly in the 1960s -- the remarkable novel Rogue Moon, the underappreciated novel The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn, and such stories as "For Love", "Wall of Crystal Eye of Night", "Be Merry", and a non-SF story, "The Master of the Hounds". He also did excellent later work: "The Silent Eyes of Time", "A Scraping at the Bones", and the novels Michaelmas and Hard Landing. Late in his life he edited the interesting small press magaine tomorrow (which became one of the first magazines to transition online), right after a period working forWriters of the Future and, by extension, the Church of Scientology, that hasn't reflected well on his reputation.

However, this collection of reviews focusses on his stories from the '50s (with one 1960s outlier that reads to me like a '50s story), as well as his very obscure early novel Man of Earth. He did some very strong work in the '50s as well, with "The End of Summer" in particularly a very memorable piece.

Space Science Fiction, November 1952

Of the short stories, I liked Budrys' the best. It appears to have been tied for his first publication with "The High Purpose", which was in the November Astounding. "Walk to the World" is a bit slight -- it's about a boy, son of an accomplished spaceship Captain. His father often goes walking, seemingly looking for some place unexplored -- the "World" as opposed to "Home". But he always comes Home, of course. Then an old friend, now an Admiral, comes calling. It seems he is needed to leave his home, on a well-settled planet, and go encounter the "World" again, in the form of newly discovered aliens. The resolution is low key, and I liked the message, but really the story doesn't surprise at all. But the telling is very assured -- it may be the best written of all the stories in this issue. (I will confess that Budrys is a long time favorite of mine, and that I consider him sadly underrated (mainly because of his relatively small output, I am sure).) I also note the byline, "A. J. Budrys", which he doesn't seem to have used very often. (Though he seems to be called "Ajay" by his friends.)

Dynamic, October 1953

Budrys's "Snail's Pace" is a somewhat labored and cynical philosophical piece, in which an aging space pilot, who has battled to advance the space program against much resistance, goes into space to begin work on a space station just as a nuclear war is starting. He and his fellows soon realize there will be no further missions, and they debate throwing in with the apparently victorious Russians or simply giving up and heading home, and eventually the old guy decides to head home -- humanity has proven that it's not ready for space yet, and technological advance will return to a snail's pace. Not convincing.

Dynamic, January 1954

The rest of the issue is actually not bad, though not great. Budrys's "Desire No More" is a somewhat bitter story about a man so obsessed with being a space pilot that his life becomes meaningless when it becomes clear that even though he might be one he won't really be one in a significant sense. Good try, I thought, but not really successful.

Cosmos, July 1954

Budrys' novella is more interesting. I trust the only reason the Anderson story was the "feature" was that he (then and ever) had a much bigger name. "We Are Here" is one of a number of SF stories with titles taken from "Dover Beach", though I always thought there ought to be more. (Others include Kuttner's "Clash by Night", Bova's As On a Darkling Plain (others have also used this title), and Blaylock's Land of Dreams. (And arguably Pangborn's "The Night Wind".) It seems to me that "Ignorant Armies" could be a very good SFnal title.) (In case anyone questions the provenance of "We Are Here", the story opens with a quotation from Arnold's poem.)

"We Are Here" is an odd, rather confused, story, that seems quite ambitious and which I thought could have been awfully good but doesn't quite work.  It opens with a scoundrel and sneak thief using his superior psychological abilities to take a car from another man. In the process he murders the man and rifles the car, which turns out to contain some intriguing items. The thief has found other such items before, and he is convinced that he is on the trail of a fantastic opportunity, if he can only arrange a meeting with the organization producing these on a favorable footing. On another thread, the murder investigation, by a smart cop, is strangely derailed by his superior. We quickly learn that the superior is a part of this mysterious organization -- which turns out to be composed of nonhumans -- beings from some other dimension, perhaps. For hard to comprehend reasons, they are working for an economic takeover of Earth -- by offering fabulous products at ridiculous prices. I never quite understood the economic footing of all this, and for this reason, and other hard to grasp motivations, the story founders. But much of it is interesting, and as often with Budrys, told a bit slant and featuring nearly psychotic but still intriguing characters.

Astounding, November 1954

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The lead novelette, Budrys' "The End of Summer", is a well-known story, perhaps Budrys' first major work. It's just under 10,000 words. It's a fine story indeed. The viewpoint character, Kester Fay, is returning to America after a couple of centuries away. We soon gather that humanity is immortal, with a concomitant increase in concern about safety. Fay is a Dilettante, or Dilly, and the more conservative Homebodies and Worker resent that. Though there is another group, Hoppers, even less conservative than Dillies.

Fay runs over a boy's dog on the way home, and we learn more about the strangeness of this society. It seems no one remembers very well -- at first I assumed because of the weight of immortal years, but the real reason is stranger. So the disapproving conservative parents of the boy resolve to erase memories of the dog from their "tapes". And soon the "tapes" become the focus. We finally learn that Kester Fay was the man who decided to keep humanity from death -- at the cost, apparently, of memory, though humans learn artificial means (the tapes) of preserving at least SOME memory.

In the end this is a very odd story -- in one way an indictment of the danger of immortality, but a rather oddly slanted look at that old theme. I think it's a very effective story, and really rather spooky, though I thought the way in which Kester Fay is revealed to be the genius behind the whole setup was a bit of a weak point. Still, it deserves its sterling reputation, and it's a story that continues to live in my memory.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

The other short story is by a much better known writer, to say the least, Algis Budrys. "The Two Sharp Edges" comes early in his career, but it is serious and ambitious and real-seeming in a way these other stories just aren’t. That said, it comes just short of the real wow factor ... it’s a good story, not great one. It tells of a soldier who has been granted the right to an abandoned farm after a devastating war. He restores it to productivity, and then one night a man and his sons visit ... they’re clearly down on their luck. It turns out -- no surprise -- that they were the former owners; but were on the losing side. The story turns on the conversation between the soldier and the former owner, which turns again on this man’s particular secret. There’s no violence nor bitterness, just a sadness at what war does, and another sadness, about home and the loss of home.

If, June 1955

There are two novelettes. Algis Budrys' "The Strangers" (14,000 words) is a vaguely Sturgeonesque story that shows promise but ends weakly. Wes Spencer, a bitter 24 year old drunk, is confronted in a bar by a man who knows things about him he shouldn't, and who in particular says "Mr. Laban is dead". This prompts memories of Mr. Laban, a sort of quasi-Uncle who used to visit Spencer throughout his youth, teaching him things, giving him money and assistance, and hinting at a great future. But all this had ended 6 years before -- Wes is at college, on a football scholarship, when he is severely injured, apparently on purpose by mysterious enemies of Mr. Laban. Mr. Laban sadly abandons him -- it seems he's no use anymore to whatever mysterious purpose he has. Spencer is left with a job and the memory of a girl he was supposed to meet but never had. Then, by coincidence (it seems) he meets a girl -- the girl -- and learns that her story was similar: meetings with Mr. Laban, then abandonment when for some reason she falls short. Together, however, they are able to piece together the real story -- which turns out to be pretty disappointing, in my opinion anyway. Still, all in all an OK story. Perhaps it was hurt in my eyes because I was so reminded of Sturgeon, and because Budrys could not drive to a really Sturgeonesque revelation.

Infinity, October 1956

Algis Budrys' "Lower Than Angels" is a Campbellian gimmick story that went to Infinity instead -- an explorer assigned to contact the primitive aliens on a new planet is disillusioned by the belief that the corporation he works for will simply exploit them -- but his efforts to make real contact are doomed because the aliens insist on believing him to be a god.  All that is worked out sensibly enough -- then the last two pages give an unconvincing twist.

Astounding, February 1957

"The War is Over" is about a man of a race of beings who have obsessively worked for generations to build a spaceship.  He is the chosen pilot, and he makes his way to an Earth ship.  He gives the Captain his message: "The War is Over!" -- then collapses into gibbering idiocy.  We learn that he is a descendant of a lizard -- forcibly evolved over centuries by the communications device implanted within the original courier, who crashlanded on the lizard's planet but who was compelled to find a way to deliver the message no matter how long it took.  Reading it as a teen I just thought that so powerful -- but Budrys' delivery seemed rather clunky on this rereading.

If, May 1963

"Die, Shadow!" is sort of weirdly semi-old-fashioned for the Algis Budrys of the 60s -- reads more like an early 50s Planet Stories piece. A space pilot crashes on Venus, and saves his life by suspended animation. He is awakened millennia later by people who regard him as a god, and asked to intervene in a war between humanity and beings from another dimension, "Shadows". Both sides in the war turn out to be wrong -- only the "god" can set things right. Odd sort of thing.

Man of Earth (1958 novel based on "The Man From Earth", from the October 1956 Satellite)

(Cover by Richard Powers)
This is a 1958 novel (never reprinted -- apparently Budrys won't allow a reprint), based on a 1956
novella, "The Man From Earth". It actually opens intriguingly enough, with Allen Sibley, a corrupt stockbroker in a regimented future, contemplating a mysterious stranger's offer of a way out of his legal troubles. He learns that he can be altered completely -- in body and mind -- and indeed greatly improved, while retaining his memories.

He jumps at the chance, only to be shanghaied to the failing colony on Pluto, albeit after the alteration treatment has been given him, apparently successfully. Now calling himself John L. Sullivan, he ends up in the Army, having no marketable skills. The second section of the book is the story of his advancement in the Army, and his eventual overcoming of the malign and/or corrupt sorts about him. It is awful stuff, Heinlein-imitation at its worst, totally cliché, reading like the worst of contemporary "coming of age" Mil-SF only without much SFnal kick. It seems that the colonists on Pluto are planning a sort of revenge attack on Earth -- but then at the conclusion there is an easily predictable twist ... The twist is actually acceptable, nothing great, but I can imagine a tolerable novelette having been made of the beginning (cut), a different middle section (drastically cut) and the conclusion. I have no idea if the novella "The Man From Earth" is by any chance that "tolerable novelette", though I doubt it.

(One of the most egregious weaknesses of this novel is the way that Allen Sibley and John L. Sullivan are completely different characters, with no detectable linkage except the author saying so. I almost wonder if this isn't really two failed stories clumsily mashed together.)

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gregory Norman Bossert

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gregory Norman Bossert

by Rich Horton

Greg Bossert turns 57 today (hard as that may be to believe!), and in his honor I'm posting this set of the reviews I've done for Locus of his stories. All except one -- for my review of "The Empyrean Light", from the Fall 2018 Conjunctions, you'll have to wait for the next issue of Locus (February).

Locus, May 2010

Gregory Norman Bossert’s first story, “The Union of Sky and Soil”, appears in the April-May Asimov’s, and it’s an impressive debut, albeit undeniably the work of a writer with room to grow. The setup and working out are fairly familiar: an archaeological team on an alien planet is working against time to unearth the wonders of the natives’ distant past before the human colonists and a local mining company kick them out. Will any reader doubt for a second that the site will, at the last minute, yield truly amazing things? Of course not, but for all that familiar plot, and the crude cartoons of the villains, there is much to like here, particularly the quite nicely and naturally depicted characters of the archaeologists, and the lovely concept of the aliens’ art: glass/plant meldings, and the quite moving conclusion.

Locus, August 2010

In the August Asimov's I was happy to see Gregory Norman Bossert’s second story, “Slow Boat”, good work but a bit formulaic, about a woman kidnapped and sent into space inside a suspended animation box of course. The mystery is who kidnapped her and why, and the action is how she responds to this. I didn’t quite buy it, and there was too much telling, but the idea is nice, and Bossert remains an intriguing new writer.

Locus, December 2010

New writer Gregory Norman Bossert continues to impress with “Freia in the Sunlight” (Asimov's): here Freia is an AI warplane, who begins to interpret her optimal actions in unexpected ways.

Locus, February 2013

In Beneath Ceaseless Skies #109, Gregory Norman Bossert's “The Telling” is a very original story about a strange child (significantly named Mel) is a strange house whose master has just died. Mel, ambiguously some sort of heir, is drafted to do the “Telling” – to ask the bees of the household to continue to offer their favor. It is full of atmosphere, and weirdness, and disconnection … a lovely story, from a writer who has impressed with everything I've seen from him, and each story quite different to the others.

Locus, August 2013

Perhaps the best in the August Asimov's is “Lost Wax”, by Gregory Norman Bossert. This is another story of revolution, centered around two people, a young artist who sculpts “Messenger Birds” and her friend who helps engineer them to carry provocative messages around the city, whose rulers use “golethem” to control the populace. There's not much surprising in the way this all works out, and if the political ideas are a bit trite the characters are involving and the central notion is well worked out.

Locus, December 2013

Other good stories in the December Asimov's include ... Gregory Norman Bossert's “Bloom”, solid sf adventure of the “menacing alien biology” variety, with a guide and two other people trapped on a “bloom” that will consume them at the slightest move;

Locus, April 2015

Gregory Norman Bossert signaled with his first story a few years ago that he was a writer to watch, and he hasn't disappointed since, showing excellent range and a real feel for story. His latest, “Twelve and Tag”, from the March Asimov's, may be his best yet. It's a tense piece told in a bar in the Jupiter system, as a team of ice miners get to know their newest crew members, Adra and Zandt. They play a game, “Twelve and Tag”, built on quickly matching word pairs but more importantly on telling stories – one true, one false. The stories, the first by an existing crew member, the rest by the new crew, work brilliantly first to set the scene: a future in which the “Out”: space, the Outer Planets, are a frontier in the traditional sense, where fortunes can be made but where life is fairly cheap; all complicated by the expensive process of TAGing, whereby one can be backed up. But then we gather that the backups of many people were lost in a hack some years ago. The individual tales, representing the worst or the most painful or the most embarrassing things the tellers have done, work well to illuminate character – of the tellers, to be sure, and also of the listeners: variously they are mini-adventures and tales of fraught family lives and lost loves … and eventually, the real story, linking everything together, comes clear. It's a good a story as I've seen in 2015, with a neat Sfnal background, wrenching personal details, and exciting action.

Locus, February 2017

Gregory Norman Bossert is always interesting, and “Higherworks” (Asimov's, December 2016) is certainly that, though I felt it didn’t quite work. Dyer is some kind of creator of nanotechnology that seems to be used for communal rave-like events (one issue I had was that I never quite understood this particular purpose – my fault, perhaps). But she is on shaky legal ground – she is a US Economic Refugee in the UK, and moreover her former company believes she has stolen their intellectual property, and this use of nano seems to be illegal in the UK – and on this particular day she seems to be followed by a mysterious woman who keeps disappearing. The ultimate explanation is sensible, I suppose, but I found it a bit underwhelming.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Birthday Review: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

a review by Rich Horton

Today Nicholson Baker turns 62. In his honor, I've exhumed this review from my old blog.

I should say to begin with that Nicholson Baker is a favorite novelist of mine. His first novel, The Mezzanine, remains my favorite among his works, but I've never been disappointed, except perhaps by The Fermata. (Though I have not read Human Smoke, his most recent nonfiction book, nor the novel House of Holes, and I probably won't .)

The anthologist of the title is the first-person narrator, a poet name Paul Chowder, who had some early success (including a Guggenheim), but has fallen on hard times in his career. Chowder has compiled an anthology, called Only Rhyme, a collection of rhymed poetry. However he has become blocked on writing the introduction. Partly out of frustration at his fecklessness in this effort, his long time girlfriend, Roz, has left him.

The book covers a few weeks of his life. (A long time period for a Baker novel -- The Mezzanine took about an hour, Vox however long a phone sex call takes, Room Temperature about 20 minutes.) In his personal life Chowder spends most of his time cat vacuuming -- that is, avoiding writing. He cleans out his office. He mows his lawn. He helps a neighbor put in a floor. And he moons over Roz, even visiting her a few times, especially when he suffers a minor hand injury. He gives a reading. He renews his passport. And he attends a conference in Switzerland.

Around all this he discusses his theories about poetry. Chowder is a strong advocate of rhyme (as his anthology's title suggests). He's also a strong believer that the fundamental rhythm of English poetry is the four beat line of the ballad. Metric theory (iambs and anapests and all) is a distraction. Iambic pentameter is a mistake. Free verse even more so. (Yet he constantly mentions how good some free verse poems are -- and, ironically, he admits that he himself can't rhyme very well.) It's all quite well argued, with excellent examples. Even if you disagree, it's very entertaining. (Assuming you like poetry.)

Aside from those details of plot and theme, the book is just very nicely written. Baker is a wonderful, funny, writer of prose, and a great observer of details. (For instance, he complains about something I've complained about -- the way it is so hard to tell which side is up on a USB connector.) Prose example: talking about Horace meant when he wrote "carpe diem" -- not exactly "seize the day" but pluck it: "Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant -- pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don't freaking grape the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That's not the kind of man Horace was." Not the best, nor most euphonious, passage I could have chosen, but it gives a good sense of the rhythm and light humor and knowledge of the book. Highly recommended.

[This novel appeared in 2009. Another novel about Paul Chowder, Travelling Sprinkler, appeared in 2013.]

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Old Bestseller: The Booming of Acre Hill, by John Kendrick Bangs

Old Bestseller: The Booming of Acre Hill, by John Kendrick Bangs

a review by Rich Horton


John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922) was a native of Yonkers, NY. He attended Columbia, and on graduation went to work for Life Magazine, and later for Harpers'. He wrote comic sketches from the beginning, and later a considerable variety of comic short stories, novels, and also poems. The term "Bangsian Fantasy", for a fantasy set in the afterlife, was coined after him, though I'm not sure it's still current -- at any rate, I always use the term "Afterlife Fantasy" for such works. He seemed to have a solid reputation as a humorist in his lifetime, but he doesn't seem all that well remember these days, and on the evidence of the book at hand, I'd suggest that much of his humor has dated a great deal by now.

The Booming of Acre Hill is a collection of short stories, all set in or very near the New York suburb Dumfries Corners, which I suspect may have been based on Bangs' longtime home, Yonkers. It is subtitled "and other reminsiscences of urban and suburban life", which seems to imply that the stories may be true, but they are unmistakably fiction. The stories first appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal, the Women's Home Companion, and "the various publications of Messrs. Harper and Brothers". My edition looks like a First. It's published by Harper and Brothers, and illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson.

The stories are:
"The Booming of Acre Hill"
"The Strange Misadventures of an Organ"
"The Plot That Failed"
"The Base Ingratitude of Barkus, M.D."
"The Utilitarian Mr. Carraway"
"The Book Sales of Mr. Peters"
"The Valor of Brinley"
"Wilkins"
"The Mayor's Lamps"
"The Balance of Power"
"Jarley's Experiment"
"Jarley's Thanksgiving"
"Harry and Maude and I -- Also James"
"An Affinitive Romance"
"Mrs. Upton's Device"

The bulk of the stories are between 2500 and 3500 words, with the last a bit longer at some 6000 or so. The first 12 are purely about suburban life. The first one is a bit uncharacteristics -- it's not about Dumfries Corners but a new development nearby, Acre Hill, and the scheme to draw buyers, which, curiously I thought, involved hiring a socially connected but impecunious man to rent a house and throw parties to which the rich and upper class denizens of the city will come -- convincing people moving to the suburbs that this was the place to be. This gives a hint as to the class of people living in these "suburbs" -- they all had a couple of servants, for instance. They seem to be professionals, lawyers and the like.

"The Mayor's Lamps" and "The Balance of Power" are both about a man who tries to run for Mayor of Dumfries Corners, mainly because he wants the lamps that are gifted to each Mayor. He loses, of course (to his wife's relief) -- the second story is an encounter with a man who represented "the balance of power" -- a working class fellow who felt snubbed by the candidate. Which means that the suburb does have an "other side of the tracks".

The two Jarley stories reminded me just a bit of Kuttner and Moore's Gallagher stories -- Jarley has a habit of making implausible and ultimately useless inventions. (For instance, in one story he devises a machine to harvest his son's energy, and doses himself -- unfortunately, he does indeed become full of energy, but he also starts to act like a ten year old.)

The last three stories are very light romances. The first is about the narrator's rivalry with Harry for the attentions of a pretty girl named Maude -- and as they debate who has the better case, James swoops in and takes her affections. The second describes two excellent young people, who have not married despite closing in on 30. They are perfect for each other. But the man lives in New York, and the woman in Boston. The story ends "But they never met. And they lived happily ever after." And the third concerns a woman who is constantly playing matchmaker. Her husband finally convinces her to stop, but then she insists on trying one more time ... and after some wrong turns, a fortunate scheme works out.

The other stories are about the misadventures of ordinary life in the suburbs, very much in the tone of, say, a 1950s sitcom. My favorite in the whole book is "The Book Sales of Mr. Peters", in which a vestryman at the local church is inveigled to arrange a book sale in order to raise money to fix the roof. The inconvenience of the sale is amusingly described, but it makes what seems a nice profit. So the next year he is importuned to repeat the sale. He agrees, then nothing seems to happen. So he shows the importuners how much the previous year's sale actually cost him (far more than the profit), and happily writes them a check for the needed amount, glad to have saved himself a lot of money.

There are, I think, two kinds of comedy -- comedy that shocks us, disturbs us, and makes us question the nature of the world or of our lives and society; and comedy that reassures us that's all is right with the world and our place in society. These stories are most definitely of the latter sort. They are reasonably amusing, but terribly dated, and I think it is their conventionalism and refusal to challenge the reader that date them, and that make them essentially forgotten.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Birthday Review: Ragamuffin, by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin, by Tobias S. Buckell

a review by Rich Horton

Tobias Buckell turns 40 today, and in his honor, I've compiled a set of my Locus reviews of his short fiction; and I've also resurrected this review that I did for my old blog back in the day, of his second novel.

Ragamuffin is Tobias S. Buckell's second novel, and it is a direct sequel to his first, Crystal Rain. However it does not seem at first a sequel, as the action begins on Pitt's Cross, as a mysterious woman named Nashara escapes the human reservation there. Indeed, we learn a lot about the larger universe of Buckell's future, stuff only hinted at in Crystal Rain. Humans are generally kept in near or literal slavery by a variety of powerful alien races, all apparently under the control of the Satraps, trilobite-like aliens who use mind control on their subjects. The Satraps (a bit like Walter Jon Williams' Shan, rulers of the Praxis) greatly restrict technological development, and humans are a particular offender in this sphere. Three human worlds, at least, are isolated behind closed wormholes: Earth, Nashara's home planet of Chimson, and New Anegada (the Nanagada of Crystal Rain). Humans in the Satrapy are controlled by a human group called Hongguo, who police tech advancement and create mind-controlled slaves using Satrapy equipment. Nashara herself is a "Ragamuffin", one of an isolated group of space pirates or independent traders, depending on point of view -- but she is also a special creation -- a clone who, along with her sisters, has had her brain (or some interface equipment to it) seeded with, in essence, a virus that might allow copies of her to take over ships controlled by agents of the Satrapy.

Nashara starts to make her difficult way towards the Ragamuffin base, or perhaps to Chimson or Nanagada. On the way, she encounters a human habitat being destroyed, and she learns that the Satraps seem to have, possibly, changed their attitude towards humans, from tolerating them in a limited fashion to planning to exterminate them. And she runs into a somewhat nontraditional member of the Hongguo, who has his own plans for the coming changes ...

Meanwhile, as they say, back on Nanagada, a brief period of peace for the heroes of Crystal Rain ends with the return of the nasty aliens called the Teotl, who are worshipped as gods by an Aztec-derived faction on the planet, complete with human sacrifice. But these Teotl want to talk to John, and to Pepper, both of them very long-lived and artificially enhanced people who were trapped on Nanagada when the wormhole closed. It seems the wormhole has been reopened, and the Teotl are fleeing other aliens -- the Satraps, basically, I think -- who also want to exterminate THEM. Perhaps humans and the Teotl can make common cause, despite complete mistrust? Perhaps they NEED to!

I really enjoyed the book. There are a couple of faults -- on occasion the prose gets a bit careless, a bit rushed. And the ending seemed to come just a bit too quickly -- though of course it's not a final ending, there are more books coming in the series! But it was great fun to read, and I find this future a really enjoyable space operatic future -- it pushes a lot of my buttons. The action is exciting -- the bad guys are bad but not quite cartoons -- the good guys are ambiguous and make mistakes -- the SFnal ideas are fun (if not for the most part all that original) -- and I'm really looking forward to upcoming books.

Birthday Review: Stories of Tobias Buckell

Today is Tobias Buckell's 40th birthday. He's one of the most consistently interesting writers to debut in this millennium, and I'm please to offer this set of my Locus reviews of his stories, that goes back as far as 2002 and includes stories from this year.

Locus, July 2002

And new John W. Campbell Award nominee for Best New Writer Tobias S. Buckell also present a neat (if not completely new) idea in "A Green Thumb" (Analog, July/August): cars are "grown" from greatly altered trees.  Buckell embeds this idea in a fairly conventional story about a boy dealing with his single father.  It's nothing earth-shattering, but nice enough.

Locus, April 2008

Baen’s Universe in April ... best this issue is Tobias R. Buckell’s “Manumission”, which gives a bit of backstory for one of the main characters in his novels. The man is a chemically enforced slave for a future company on an Earth isolated by aliens who control the secrets of star flight. His latest mission is to assassinate a woman trying to escape the company. Naturally he might like to escape as well, but the company has ways to keep him in line – including, possibly, his memories. The story is exciting adventure, and a good pendant to Buckell’s novels.

Locus, September 2011

I was saddened to hear of Martin H. Greenberg’s recent passing. He brought more new stories to print than any non-magazine editor of recent decades, and surely his efforts rivaled the likes of Schmidt and Dozois for prolificity. His DAW anthologies were uneven, but occasionally featured jewels, and I was thrilled to find such a jewel in Hot and Steamy, which is subtitled “Tales of Steampunk Romance” and coedited by Jean Rabe. The story I loved was Tobias S. Buckell’s “Love Comes to Abyssal City”, which has an intriguing setting: an underground city ruled by AIs who have decreed limits in technology to, essentially, “steampunk” levels. The heroine is one of those charged with protecting her society from the intrusion of dangerous ideas from other such cities, and she is also awaiting her arranged marriage to the man the city’s AIs deem most suitable. The broad outlines of what will happen are obvious, but Buckell lets them unwind nicely, with plenty of neat ideas about the nature of the Abyssal City holding our interest.

Locus, June 2012

And Fireside is a new magazine edited by Brian White, with the aim of publishing good stories from all genres. The first issue is pretty solid, with my favorite story being Tobias S. Buckell's “Press Enter to Execute”, about a hired killer whose jobs are, apparently, crowdsourced. His targets, he thinks, are spammers – until he is pushed to look a little closer, and realizes that he's been a little naïve. Buckell lets us guiltily revel a bit in the sort of fantasies many Internet users have doubtless had, then looks at where vigilante justice really leads – and adds an Sfnal twist.

Locus, March 2016

Tobias Buckell has published four novels and a number of short stories set in fascinating interstellar future collectively called the Xenowealth. He's been mostly concentrating on other projects lately, so the appearance of Xenowealth: A Collection, is welcome. It comprises all the Xenowealth short fiction published to date, with two new stories. I thought "Ratcatcher" particularly good, as it follows Pepper, the series' most important character, on a desperate mission through vacuum to a wormhole-traversing train, where he hopes to confront a brutal alien killer but instead must deal with a bitter veteran cop who knows something of his violent history. Cool future tech and powerful action mix very well.

Locus, April 2017

John Joseph Adams’ newest anthology, mostly originals, is called Cosmic Powers, and it comprises short Space Operatic tales. Fitting the scope of Space Opera into short stories can be hard, but these stories do it pretty well.  “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”, by Tobias Buckell, one example. A starship maintenance robot, after a successful battle, by happenstance rescues a CEO of the enemy fleet, and finds himself inveigled/bribed/coerced into rendering assistance. The story turns on the complex intersection of intriguing speculation about AIs and identity, economics, contract law, moral law, free will and orbital mechanics. In other words, really cool stuff.

Locus, August 2017

Patreon continues to be a way for some writers to publish their short fiction, and I keep my eyes on a few writers whose work I like. One such is Tobias Buckell, whose “Shoggoths in Traffic” is a clever Lovecraftian crime story, in which a couple of people steal (repossess!) a car from a drug dealer and try to take it to Miami – but on the way run into a weird highway exit and a biker magician and – well, you’ll not think of cloverleafs and other traffic patterns in quite the same way after this!

Locus, November 2017

Overview: Stories of the Stratosphere is one of those now fairly common anthologies one might call futurological: rather pedagogically aimed at very near future technology. In this case it’s specifically aimed at one narrow technological innovation: balloons in the stratosphere, and their potential uses in such areas as surveillance. The stories (which grew out of a conference called the Stratosphere Narrative Hackathon, which associated teams of scientist, artists, and writers to discuss specific ideas) are all rather short, and sometimes a bit schematic. The best, probably because it offers the most action, is “High Awareness”, by David Brin and Tobias Buckell, in which Noriko Chen takes a dangerous trip to the central “Stratollite” in a constellation she designed, to try to figure out how it seems to have been hacked – and then to make a dramatic attempt at gathering the necessary data and then returning to Earth.

Clarkesworld, April 2018

Tobias Buckell’s “A World to Die For” is a parallel worlds tale, opening in an environmentally collapsed future, a milieu reminding me of Mad Max. The gang Che runs with is stopped by another gang that wants a trade – Che for some solar panels. That seems strange and pretty scary, but things get stranger when she meets a man who says she’s been rescued from an attempt on her life, and stranger still when she meets herself, and realizes she’s rattling through a variety of parallel worlds, in wildly varying states of environmental health. The story drives – perhaps a bit too didactically – towards a morally convicted resolution.