Thursday, September 24, 2020

Ace Double Review: Castaways' World/The Rites of Ohe, by John Brunner

Another John Brunner birthday, another Ace Double review! John Brunner in his early super-prolific period (up through about 1965) was reliably entertaining and always thoughtful, if often also a touch, er, hurried.

Ace Double Reviews, 60: Castaways' World, by John Brunner/The Rites of Ohe, by John Brunner (#F-242, 1963, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

Another Ace Double pairing two John Brunner stories. Castaways' World is about 45,000 words, and The Rites of Ohe about 46,000 words. Amusingly, Ace had all kinds of trouble with the title of Castaways' World: the front cover has it Castaways World, no apostrophe, and the spine has Castaways' Worlds, an extra plural. I shouldn't carp, though: in an earlier review of Brunner's Zarathustra books (of which Castaways' World was the second), I got it wrong too: Castaway's World. The covers are by the two Eds: Valigursky and Emshwiller.

Castaways' World is, as I have said, one of Brunner's three Zarathustra Refugee Planet novels. These concerned the aftermath of the sun of a human-colonized planet in a future galactic polity going nova. A desperate effort resulted in a bunch of ships fleeing the nova in more or less random directions, settling new planets without much care as to their habitability. Castaways' World was revised and expanded in 1974 for a DAW edition called Polymath, to about 62,000 words. As with most of Brunner's many revisions of his novels, the changes are modest expansions and prose refinements throughout the book: no new scenes, no changes in the plot.

The book is set in the immediate aftermath of two ships from Zarathustra crashlanding on a planet. The viewpoint character is Lex, who turns out to have been in training to be a polymath. A polymath is an enhanced individual who serves at the point man for colonizing a new planet. Lex has many but not all of the skills a polymath would have -- what he mostly lacks is specific knowledge of this particular randomly arrived at planet. His starship crashed on the seashore. After a long winter his group has survived, outside the ship, and indeed their ship has foundered in the ocean. It is clear that they will have to make a permanent life on the planet, with limited resources.

The other group crashed inland, and they holed up in the ship over the winter. But as spring arrives it seems they have all died. The seaside group begins to set up the rudiments of a colony. There are stresses, many centered about a promiscuous young woman named Delvia. In particular, a teenaged girl has formed a Lesbian attraction to Delvia, only to be rejected when the older woman finds men available.

Then an expedition is sent to the site of the inland starship. It turns out this group has survived, but under terrible conditions. They continue to believe that they will be able to refurbish their ship and head for another, more hospitable, world. The Captain has basically enslaved the passengers. Naturally they resent the comparative success of Lex's group -- setting up a dramatic resolution. The novel is very enjoyable, often thought-provoking though at times a bit forced -- on the whole good stuff.

The Rites of Ohe opens with a young woman sneaking into a hotel room. It turns out she is convinced that something happened to her lover there a few months previously -- this was the last place he was seen before he disappeared. Nobody believes her, but then a chance confrontation with Karmesin, one of a small group of human immortals, changes things. Karmesin becomes convinced that something strange did happen.

Karmesin's investigations quickly focus on a the mysterious non-human, though very humanoid, residents of the planet Ohe (called that because it has no heavy elements). The residents of Ohe are regarded as experts in sociology, and they have been recruited to help diagnose something called the "Phoenix Mystery", a violent cult plaguing the human worlds. The Oheans are a much older civilization than humans, but hamstrung by their lack of heavy metal, they never really explored beyond their planet.

The mystery inevitably leads Karmesin to Ohe itself, and to some surprising discoveries about the real motives and real accomplishments of the people of Ohe. It's a pretty interesting book, though perhaps just a bit slight -- I think it might have worked better at about half the length. It's also, as with a fair amount of Brunner novels, a bit subdued in tone -- not quite morose but not triumphal, either. Solid work, though, and more evidence that you can will almost never fail to be entertained by a Brunner book.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Old Bestseller (?): A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

 A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

a review by Rich Horton

I have long enjoyed writers' memoirs, perhaps because they are usually well-written. It's not usually because their lives are all that exciting, after all! So when I found a cheap used copy of Edith Wharton's autobiography,  A Backward Glance, I snapped it up, and I have just read it. I will note that I say "autobiography", and that is what it is usually called, but the first edition of the book was simply subtitle "Reminiscences", which is perhaps more appropriate.

This book was published in 1934, three years before her death. It had been serialized in the Ladies' Home Journal the prior year (and it also incorporates some material from the Atlantic Monthly.) As such it might have been expected to deal with almost her whole life. And in a sense it does, but ... Well, to begin at the beginning, that's where the book begins. It opens with a scene from her very young childhood, which she calls her earliest memory, walking with her father in a new dress that she realizes she likes. There is some description of her family's roots -- and they were a prosperous family, on both sides, well established in New York society. There are early foreign travels, to Italy, Spain, France. And she disovers books -- though not novels, those are not allowed -- and she discovers story, and very soon is making up her own stories. By her teens she had written a novella, and had published some poetry. But it is clear that there was no expectation that a lady of her class would become a professional writer. 

As she grows older we learn of her marriage, to Teddy Wharton, but we learn almost nothing of Teddy. His name is barely mentioned. It is clear in context that they did not get on, but you have to look outside this book to learn that he had mental problems, was eventually institutionalized, and that they divorced in 1913, have been long separated before that. There is mention of some apparently enjoyable travel they did early in their marriage -- a Mediterranean cruise, some carriage rides to obscure places in Italy, etc. And we do learn that Edith was fascinated by motorcars, and bought one as soon as she could.

We certainly never hear of her extramarital affairs. The name of Morton Fullerton does not appear in the book. Walter Berry is mentioned, at length, but there is no hint of a romantic attachment. (Apparently, there was a romantic attachment, though it's not at all clear it was ever consummated.) Berry does get full credit for his role as, essentially, her beta reader: he read her earlier works before they were published, and offered apparently very helpful advice, both positive and negative in tone.

So what else happened in her life? She moved permanently to France in 1907, having previously built a country home in Massachusetts. And she met a lot of people! And -- perhaps most eventfully -- she had a "good war", as it used to be said, during the Great War. She was in Paris, and their was a need for help in caring for refugees. Wharton took the lead in organizing a great amount of this -- fundraising, training women volunteers, arranging housing and medical help. She is fairly self-deprecatory about her efforts, but after the War she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French government.

So, if we're not going to hear about her marriage or her love affairs, and if we're not going to hear much about actual events qua events in her life, why read this book? The obvious first answer is -- what does it tell us about her writing? And in this area it's maybe a slight disappointment. It's not that there's nothing about her writing -- but there's not a lot. She does discuss the genesis of her first book, a surprisingly influential work on, of all things, interior decoration, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman. She also discusses her early short stories, mostly in Scribner's Magazine, such as "Mrs. Manstey's View", and the first story collection, A Great Inclination. After that her writing gets less attention, though many of her books do get a look. Her first novel, The Valley of Decision (which I must read!), is touched on; as is the success of The House of Mirth (and the failure of a play based on it); and Ethan Frome is mentioned (at that time still considered arguably her best (short) novel), but mostly to complain that people said she knew nothing about people like those in Ethan Frome, though at the time she actually had a home in the area where the novel is set. The Age of Innocence is mentioned partly to express surprise at its commercial success. (I don't think the Pulitzer it received is acknowledged.) And, to the disappointment of many readers, she doesn't really discuss the depths of her imagination, nor, very much, the mechanics of her writing process. I think we have to acknowledge that she simply wasn't interested in such a discussion.

So what else is there? Well, what there is is extensive exploration of her many friendships. First among these by far is Henry James. An entire chapter is given to him, with much discussion of James' personality, his habits, his eccentricities, his endearing qualities, his novelist theories. There are accounts of various day trips she and James took when she visited him. There are accounts of his occasional criticism of her writing (which, on the whole, he admired.) There are additional anecdotes of seeing James at her home in the US, and later in Paris. It is all very generous, and interesting.

And there are numerous additional friends to mention. Walter Berry, as mentioned. The great ghost story writer and esthetician Vernon Lee. The Parisian hostess the Comtesse de Robert Fitz-James. Ogden Codman. Jean Cocteau. Mrs. Humphrey Ward. The Royall Tylers. Egerton Winthrop. Theodore Roosevelt. Howard Sturgis. Edward Burlingame. Mrs. Charles Hunter. And so on. Many of these names, presumably prominent in their time, are forgotten now; but some -- Cocteau and Roosevelt and of course James -- are famous still, and others have underground reputations that continue, such as Vernon Lee and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. One might suspect Wharton of namedropping, but I don't think that's the case of all. These were her friends and acquaintances, and she treats them all with warmth and generosity.

So, this isn't a scandalous autobiography, or a particularly psychologically acute autobiography, or the story of an adventurous life. But it is continually enjoyable, and -- as we expect from Wharton -- exceptionally well-written. I will conclude with a couple interesting excerpts (of sorts.)

First, her quick mention of when literature caught fire for her, upon receiving editions of Keats and Shelley as a birthday present: "Then the gates of the realms of gold swung wide, and from that day to this I don't believe I was ever again, in my inmost self, wholly lonely or unhappy."

Second, an account of a story told to her by Jean Cocteau. I wrote this up for Black Gate, so here's a link: Wharton, Cocteau, and an ancient tale

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Stories about Time Viewers

We were discussing T. L. Sherred's "E for Effort" in a group recently, and that brought to mind this list I put together long ago of stories about time viewers. It was on my old website, but that's long gone now, so I figure I'd repost it here. It's striking how many of these are favorite stories of mine. Some of these aren't really about "viewing" the past but listening to it, or "experiencing" it through someone's sensorium.

Brian W. Aldiss, An Age, 1967, Also known as Cryptozoic!

Brian W. Aldiss, "Not for an Age", 1955, Future viewing our present

Poul Anderson, "The Long Remembering", 1957, Neolithic, * (The "viewing" is by "remembering" the experiences of an ancestor.)

Poul Anderson, "The Bog Sword", 2004,Bronze Age, *(A "sequel" to "The Long Remembering".)

Isaac Asimov, "The Dead Past", 1956, Classical/Recent Past, *(My favorite Asimov story, for what it's worth. And to detail the exact period it refers to is a spoiler.)

Gregory Benford, "Time Shards", 1979, Medieval, *This is actually about hearing the past, rather than seeing it.

Stephen L. Burns, "Showdown at Hell Creek", 1993, Dinosaurs,*

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days, 2000, Near past (and other times),.

Gardner Dozois, "A Night of Ghosts and Shadows", 1999, Far future viewing near future, *

Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, "Time Bride", 1983, Near future viewing present,.

Raymond Eich, "Evidence of Things Seen", 1998, Jesus, *

Phyllis Eisenstein, "In the Western Tradition", 1981, Old West, * (Another particular favorite of mine)

Harry Harrison, "The Secret of Stonehenge", 1968, Ancient Britain,.

Gardner Hunting, The Vicarion, 1926, All history

Rudyard Kipling, "'The Finest Story in the World'", 1891, many historical periods, * (This is really about "remembering" in detail historical event via one's ancestor's memories)

Damon Knight, "I See You", 1976, Near Past and All Time, *

Sean McMullen, "Wheel of Echoes", 2020, Shakespeare, * (like Benford's "Time Shards", it turns on recording of historical speakers on clay)

Judith Moffett, "Final Tomte", 1990, Decades in the past of the near future, * (This story and others that use the same idea are part of her novels The Ragged World and Time, Like and Ever Rolling Stream. A separate story in the same series, "The Bear's Baby" (2003), uses the time window idea prominently as well.)

Rebecca Ore, "Scarey Rose in Deep History", 1997, Historical Past (19th Century), *

Lewis Padgett, "Private Eye", 1949, Immediate Past, * (Padgett is a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. I seem to recall that this is regarded as predominantly by Kuttner, though with them, who knows for sure?)

Lawrence Person, "Crucifixion Variations", 1998, Jesus,*

Robert Reed, "Killing the Morrow", 1996,*

Mack Reynolds, Perchance to Dream, 1997, Early Roman, (Not true past viewing: computer reconstruction.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "June Sixteenth at Anna's", 2003, Fairly recent past, *

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "Collateral Damage", 2004, A few centuries into the past, *

William Sanders, "Dirty Little Cowards", 1999, Historical Past (19th Century), *Actually instead of just viewing the past, "experiencing" it through the sensorium of an historical character.

Bob Shaw, "Light of Other Days", 1968, Near Past, * (A true classic. Shaw assembled this and some related stories into the novel Other Days, Other Eyes.)

T. L. Sherred, "E for Effort", 1947, Many Historical Events, *(In the SF Hall of Fame, another great story)

John Stith, Scapescope, 1984

John Taine, Before the Dawn, 1934, Dinosaurs,.

Wilson Tucker, "Time Exposures", 1971

Zoran Zivkovic, "The Paleolinguist", 1997, Hearing early humans, *

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Birthday Review: The Engine of Recall (and some other shorts), by Karl Schroeder

I don't think I've posted a Birthday Review at this blog for the excellent Canadian writer Karl Schroeder yet. One day late, here's one finally. This includes a review I did for SF Site of his story collection The Engine of Recall, plus a few additional reviews of short fiction from Locus.

The Engine of Recall, by Karl Schroeder

a review by Rich Horton

Canada has been the source of a great deal of intriguing SF over the past decade or so, much of it at least moderately "hard SF." Hugo and Nebula winner Robert J. Sawyer is of course one of the most prominent of Canadian SF writers. Other significant recent examples include Robert Charles Wilson, James Alan Gardner, Alison Sinclair, Julie E. Czerneda, Sean Stewart (more of a fantasy writer, of course), and Cory Doctorow. (Though often, it seems to me, Canadian writers have a sort of distributed nationality -- Wilson was born in the US, Stewart grew up splitting time between the US and Canada and now lives in the US, Doctorow spent several years in the US and now lives in Europe.) One of the most rigorously "hard SF" writers to come out of this "Canadian Renaissance" is Karl Schroeder, author of the impressive novels Ventus and Permanence. Now Schroeder has published his first story collection, The Engine of Recall (edited by Sawyer for his imprint at Red Deer Press).

The first thing that struck me about the Table of Contents was the relative unfamiliarity of most of the stories. This was a source of mild embarrassment to me, as I consider myself generally very up to date on short SF. It turns out that one engine of the "Canadian Renaissance" I mentioned above has been some Canadian outlets for SF, most notably the magazine On Spec and the anthology series Tesseracts, that to some extent slip under the radar of often US- and/or UK-centric SF readers. So Schroeder managed to publish a passel of first-rate stories without generating quite the buzz he deserved -- though one story here, "The Dragon of Pripyat", was reprinted in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, Seventeenth Annual Edition, and another, "Halo", was chosen for David Hartwell's anthology The Hard SF Renaissance.

Well, that's one reason for story collections -- to bring to light stuff that might have been missed on first publication. And the stories here are well worthy of this exposure. Take "The Dragon of Pripyat." Gennady Malianov is a morose Russian (or Ukrainian) man hired to investigate a threat to release radioactive material from the remains of Chernobyl. Malianov heads directly to the ghost town of Pripyat. There he meets a curious squatter, and also encounters the mysterious "dragon." He and a remote friend figure out the somewhat mundane (though interesting) nature of the dragon -- the heart of the story, though is the paradoxical landscape of Pripyat. Malianov turns up again in the collection's only original, "Alexander's Road." This time the threat is some missing nuclear warheads in Azerbaijan. Malianov's investigation, however, turns up a couple of further, even scarier, nuclear threats.

One of my favorite stories here is "Halo", set in the same future as Schroeder's novel Permanence. Elise Cantrell is a resident of Dew, a planet of Crucible, a brown dwarf star. Dew has just managed to install an artificial "sun," but this hopeful step is endangered when Elise discovers a message from a hijacked ship, taken over by fanatics who plan to destroy the fragile colony on Dew. She forges a tenuous relationship with one of the original crew of the hijacked ship, but they both know the only ultimate hope for Dew is to destroy the attacking ship, complete with innocent crew members as well as hijackers. This is an excellent example of a moving human story essentially set in an exotic, purely SFnal, environment. Another such story, not quite as successful but still enjoyable, is "The Pools of Air," in which a crew filming in Jupiter's atmosphere are placed in peril by a freak accident to their ship. "The Cold Convergence" is also set in the outer Solar System, this time on Saturn's moon Titan. A psychologist is hired to try to treat a man who has just wandered alone into the Titanian wilderness. The interesting story of the man is undermined a bit by an implausible resolution involving unconvincing real estate laws.

"Making Ghosts" is an interesting story about pioneers in transferring human consciousness to computers, while "The Engine of Recall" involves using such "ghosts" to pilot spaceships in such dangerous environments as the neighborhood of a neutron star.

"Allegiances" tells of a woman in war-torn former Yugoslavia who is cursed by the ability rob other people of the facial recognition sense. An intriguing idea that I don't think the story quite used well. "Hopscotch" is a rather Fortean story, in which the narrator is in love with a woman obsessed with statistical analysis of unusual events such as UFO sightings and raining fish. "Solitaire" tells of a young human criminal who manages to be "adopted" as sort of an interpreter by a solitary, uncommunicative, alien. The ending nicely violates traditional SFnal expectations.

It is clear to readers of Karl Schroeder's novels that he is a fascinating writer of Hard SF. The short stories in The Engine of Recall showcase that imagination effectively -- strong stories that aren't afraid to be adventure stories while also portraying cool ideas.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Strahan’s introduction signals his interest in what might be called older style SF as well. Hence fine stories like Karl Schroeder’s “Hero”, part of his Candesce series, concerning a young man who truly becomes a hero in delivering a critical message to one of the mysterious and dangerous precipice moths;

Review of Fast Forward 2 (Locus, November 2008)

And from Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell we get “Mitigation”: Here a man is recruited by a Russian gangster to steal the gene sequences of rare plants from a Scandinavian repository. The thrillerish plot is OK – what holds the interest is the buzzing of ideas about the future of our embattled environment.

Review of Solaris 2 (Locus, February 2008)

Several other stories are particularly strong. Karl Schroeder’s “Book, Theatre, and Wheel” concerns an attempt by a medieval woman to retain knowledge during the Dark Ages, despite the suspicion of the Church, and the political machinations of her liege lord. 

Locus, July 2017

One of the significant anthologies of the year is Chasing Shadows, edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts, on the subject of “our coming transparent world”. There is a strong mix of essays on privacy, reprint stories, and a large selection of originals. I thought the best was “Eminence” by Karl Schroeder, about a cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), called Gwaiicoin, used by some Native American communities in the Canadian Pacific, based in part upon potlatch, and on environmental values, and on “eminence”, or social reputation. Nathan is one of the coders behind it, and he’s staked his economic future on it, much to his wife’s distress. And now it seems it’s been hacked – which pushes Nathan to a personal crisis, and perhaps an understanding that if he’s going to invest in something like Gwaiicoin, his investment needs to be total.

Locus, January 2019

The Million, by Karl Schroeder, is a very intriguing novella set in the future of his novel Lockstep, which I have not read. In this future, Earth is inhabited by close to exactly one million people, who strictly maintain their population, and the ecological integrity of the Earth. Any violation -- an unauthorized Visitor, or an unplanned child -- is subject to severe punishment at the hands of the Auditors. Gavin is an unauthorized child living on the Chaffee estate, having been kept a secret his whole life. But things come crashing down one day with they are attacked, and his existence is discovered. His father is killed, and his brother arrested -- one of the attackers is killed as well, and Gavin, escaping, takes an offered opportunity to take the identity of that man, Neil Makhav; and to apply to join the Auditors. Another new auditor candidate is Elana, who is part of the Hundred, the most privileged among the Million. Both Gavin and Elana are charged with secondary tasks by their "families" -- Elana's Aunt needs a plant in the Auditors to ensure their family's position remains secure through the next Jubilee, in which ten billion Visitors will run roughshod over Earth for a month. And Gavin, besides his own secret quest to free Bernie, is asked by his new "uncle", Eli Makhav, to do some spying for his family. Gavin and Elana become friends of a sort, and their separate snooping leads to a completely unexpected revelation. This is enjoyable indeed, but a bit thin. Schroeder's ideas are (as usual for him) fascinating, but they need more development and examination -- all of which I suspect is to be found in the novel.