Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Walter Jon Williams

Today is Walter Jon Williams' 66th birthday. So here's a set of my Locus reviews of his short fiction, as we await his next Quillifer novel, due in just a couple of weeks.

Locus, July 2002

Worlds That Weren't is an anthology of four Alternate History novellas. Walter Jon Williams in "The Last Ride of German Freddie" gets credit for the wackiest idea: bring Friedrich Nietszche to the American West, specifically Tombstone at the time of the gunfight at the OK Corrall.

Locus, May 2003

The lead novella in the May Asimov's is Walter Jon Williams's "Margaux", set in his Praxis universe. The story itself is an effective portrait of Gredel, a beautiful young woman who is the girlfriend of a small-time. Gredel's accidental befriending of Caro, a bored aristocrat, drives the story. She witness Caro's empty life, and her boyfriend's increasingly risky life, her mother's status as a kept woman, and her stepmother's abuse at the hands of her husband. The lessons Gredel learns seem unavoidable in her situation – but the upshot is chilling. A solid story, with a convincing and ambiguous central character. What's missing is anything much in the way of SFnal punch, though I suspect that placing the story in its larger Praxis universe context would supply that.

Locus, November 2003

The word count in the October-November Asimov's doesn't disappoint either -- there are three long novellas (at close to 30,000 words apiece) among 7 stories. My favorite is Walter Jon Williams' "The Green Leopard Plague". A mermaid, Michelle, is hiding out on a remote South Pacific island. She makes her money doing deep background historical research, using what remains of the Net after much social upheaval and the Lightspeed War. Her client wants details about a mysterious gap in the life of Jonathan Terzian, who in that gap went from obscure Philosophy professor to the founder of a new economic and social order based engineering people to use chlorophyll for basic nourishment. (We gather that much more has changed in the intervening centuries -- people are mostly immortal, and can alter themselves to do much more than use chorophyll: for example, they can become mermaids.) The search details are interspersed with the actual story of Terzian's crucial weeks, as he encounters a mysterious woman on the run from a former Soviet mob of sorts; and he ends up helping her escape while learning the secret she carries. Michelle's is also dealing with a former lover, who "died" but has been restored from a backup, and who won't accept that she is no longer interested in him. The resolution to each thread has a nice sting in the tail, with a message about the ambiguity of historical knowledge buried in one story; and with a nice variation an age-old tale of jealousy emerging from the other.

Locus, September 2004

Walter Jon Williams's "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" (Sci Fiction, August 4) is great fun. Ernesto is a member of an Andean folk music group that is a front for an organization that does borderline illegal services for the right price. He is hired to retrieve a certain cargo from the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Hong Kong. Thus he must subcontract some dive experts, who happen to be members of a water ballet troop. Then they join a cruise ship as part of the entertainment, and make their way to Hong Kong, only to find that a rival group is not far behind. Plenty of action, humor, double-crossing, and even some science-fictional macguffins are on hand. Light stuff, indeed, but a joy to read.

Locus, November 2004

Between Worlds is a fine collection of novellas, edited for the SFBC by Robert Silverberg. The general theme is far distant stars – the "Galactic frontier". Walter Jon Williams offers a long piece set in his Praxis universe, "Investments", in which a couple of the heroes of the Praxis books investigate some shady business on a newly opened planet – but end up encountering a very dangerous astronomical anomaly.

Locus, June 2007

Still better in Alien Crimes is Walter Jon Williams's novel length "Womb of Every World". This opens in a fantasy-like setting, with a man named Aristide who has a magic sword and a talking cat. He heroically organizes a mission to flush out some bandits who seem to have been sacrificing caravan travelers to their evil god. But of course much more is going on than the fairly standard fantasy setup this seems to be -- in fact, the bog standard nature of the setup ends up being part of the point. Aristide is investigating a much bigger crime than the bandits' actions -- a crime with interesting speculative resonance. So in this case the genres combine beautifully -- the story truly is about a crime, but the crime is very SFnal.

Locus, March 2013

Subterranean for Winter is a special Walter Jon Williams issue, with a good old novella, “Surfacing”, and a new one, “The Boolean Gate” (published last year as a chapbook), which presents Mark Twain late in his life, quite believably, as he encounters Nikola Tesla and a bizarre project. It's been well-received in general, but I confess that while I thought it well done, in particular as to Twain's character, it didn't really work for me as a story.

Locus, October 2017

In “The Triumph of Virtue” (The Book of Swords), Walter Jon Williams introduces the hero of his new fantasy series, Quillifer. The young Quillifer, studying to be a lawyer, and in love with a beautiful woman of the new Queen’s court, gets involved in a mystery aimed, apparently, at the Queen’s inappropriate lover. Quillifer must navigate the shoals of court intrigue to solve the crime – and he learns to his discomfiture that solving the crime is much easier than dealing with an embarrassed Queen.

Birthday Review: Stories of James H. Schmitz

James Schmitz was born in Hamburg, Germany, on this date in 1911. His science fiction, which appeared for three decades from the early '40s to the early '70s, was very enjoyable. Here's a number of things I wrote about some of his stories, and his last, little known, novel.

Planet Stories, May 1951

The James H. Schmitz story that started me on this odyssey, "Captives of the Thieve-Star", is the cover story of the May issue.  Channok and Peer have just got married.  Channok wishes to eventually join the Imperial Secret Service, but Peer is the daughter of a pirate, who hoodwinks Channok into taking some stolen goods and hiding them on an out-of-the-way planet.  On the way, they encounter a derelict ship heading to the same system.  They realize that there was some sort of falling out among the crew, and that there is some valuable stuff on the ship.  But there is sure to be some sort of guard, beyond the deadly poison that killed the people on the ship.  So they bury it on the planet, and go off to hide Peer's father's contraband.  Then the bad guys from the derelict ship show up.  Peer concocts a plan to let Channok get the drop on them, and they trick the bad guys into messing with the strange alien race on the planet.  And that's just about all, except Channok shockingly realizes that the bad guys are ISS members, thus apparently freeing him, conscience-wise, to join up with Peer's family as a pirate.  The plot here isn't that well worked out, but Schmitz' breezy way with characters, especially women, does show through, and the story is pleasant enough reading.  Peer is definitely a Schmitz heroine in the general style of Trigger and Telzey.

Galaxy, November 1955, January 1956

I ended up buying some old Galaxys, the issues for November 1955, and January and February 1956.  I chose these because the Schmitz serial "The Ties of Earth" is included in the November 1955, and January 1956, issues.  (There was no December 1955 issue because of a distribution change.  Guy Gordon tells how he found the November and January issues at a flea market long ago, and waited ten years to read "The Ties of Earth", always looking for that elusive December 1955 issue with the "middle" part of the serial.  Fortunately, I had the ISFDB to tell me that it was only a two-parter, and that there was no December issue.) 

"The Ties of Earth" is about 27,500 words long, just long enough to be an uncomfortable fit in a single magazine issue, but on the short side even for a two part serial.  It's rather uncharacteristic for Schmitz in some ways: it's set only on Earth, in contemporary times.  It does however have his usual obsession with psi powers.  The hero is Alan Commager.  He's in this mid-30s, a fairly wealthy widower.  His friend Jean has asked him to help her get her husband Ira out of the clutches of a seemingly fraudulent group claiming psi powers.  Commager himself recently had a publicized run of "luck" at a dice game, so the hook they use to contact the psi group is to have them test Commager himself for psi powers.  Present at the meeting are a wealthy older man, Herbert Hawkes, and two attractive younger women, Ruth McDonald and "Paylar", and a few other folks.  Paylar is soon revealed to be the most important person present, and she is the one who tests Commager.

Suddenly Commager is waking up at his house, having no memory of what happened. Soon we learn the his powers were apparently real, and that they scared Paylar sufficiently that she arranged things so that nobody realized what had happened.  Then the plot kicks into gear: Ruth McDonald shows up dead at Alan's workplace, Alan is attacked by psi forces. When Alan evades both these attempts to trap him, Paylar confronts him with a story about her group: they are "Old Minds", original humans with limited psi powers.  They are attempting to control "New Minds", much more powerful psis, to keep the Earth safe.  When they find powerful "New Minds", they either convince them to join their organization, or kill them.  Will Alan join?  (As you'll have realized, he is a powerful "New Mind" psi.)

Alan refuses, and the plot resolution involves a few more "psi battles", involving landslides (shades of "Poltergeist"), giant squid attacking Alan's boat, and finally a series of quite shocking twists involving Alan's life history.  The end is a dizzying series of twists and countertwists, as both Paylar and her "Old Minds" and Alan as a "New Mind" seem to gain the upper hand at different times, and to hypnotically convince the other side that they really won.  It's a bit confusing because for a while it isn't clear whether what the author is telling us at any given time is "truth", or "what Alan/Paylar thinks is truth".  Though right at the end it's clear that Alan has come out on top, and that from now on he will nurture "New Minds", who really are not inimical to the Earth at all, but rather the next stage in its "communal evolution", one might say.

I found the story a pretty fun read up until the tiresome ending.  I thought Alan's character was well done, and I was also taken with Jean.  The strongly implied extramarital affair between the two added some nice tension, and furthermore was well-described and convincing.  Paylar was a reasonably interesting "villain", though the other villains were stock.  The plot was twisty and fairly involving, though there were a few holes.  (For instance, Ruth McDonald shows up dead at one point, then shows up alive later.  This isn't a continuity mistake, and Schmitz implies an explanation, but doesn't really nail it down well.)   Several of the twists were pretty neat, especially the one involving Alan's marriage. 

The problems with the ending are at least threefold, as I see it.  One problem is endemic to "psi" stories: the powers of the participants in psi battles often seem to vary conveniently depending on plot needs, and "The Ties of Earth" has some such power variance.  Another problem is that a couple of the very last twists, intended to be really wrenching, aren't set up quite fairly.  In particular, Alan's childhood turns out to be important, but issues with his childhood, such as that he was an orphan, aren't even mentioned until right towards the end.  A third problem may be partly due to my desires for the story direction, as opposed to the author's intentions, but I was very disappointed when Jean, as a character, was basically just discarded before the climax.  Schmitz didn't want to deal with Alan and Jean resolving their relationship, apparently, especially with Alan's difficulties dealing with his newfound "New Mind" status.  Understandable, perhaps, but disappointing, and structurally off.  And, finally, the gooey mystical Old Mind/New Mind stuff, especially in its characterization as of the final twist, just doesn't work for me. (It is very reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt, actually.)

One possibility to account for at least some of the problems is that Galaxy's editor, H. L. Gold, may have butchered the story, as he did so often to other writers.  If so, that's a darn shame, and as far as I know, there is no original manuscript available.  (Maybe it's still up in that mysterious attic with the Karres Venture manuscript.)  I suspect this story is less likely than most to eventually get reprinted.

Amazing, December 1961

Schmitz's "The Star Hyacinths" is a part of his main sequence of stories, about a future Galactic civilization called the Hub. In Eric Flint's set of books collecting his complete works for Baen, it was included in the volume called Telzey Amberdon for convenience' sake: it does not feature Telzey, but one of the main characters, Wellan Dasinger, appears in some of the Telzey stories. This is fairly minor work (perhaps that's why it appeared in Amazing and not Analog). Six years prior to the main action, Dosey Asteroids were robbed of a shipment of extremely valuable Star Hyacinths. Wellan Dasinger is on a mission with a certain Dr. Egavine -- who turns out to be a criminal. As do the the crew of the ship they are taking, except for the attractive and competent pilot, Miss Duomart Mines. No surprise -- they're looking for the missing Star Hyacinths. And as it happens, so is Wellan, in is role as insurance investigator. They have to negotiate hypno sprays and machine that broadcasts fear, as well as a survivor of the crash of the spaceship that had the stolen gems. None of it quite convinced me, either economically or as to plot. And for that matter Duomart is less fun as a heroine than either Telzey or Trigger. Schmitz was usually at least kind of fun reading -- and that's the case here -- but this ranks fairly low on any list of his Hub stories.

Amazing, November 1962

Schmitz's "Left Hand, Right Hand" is pleasant and fairly ordinary SF, with a familiar plot. Troy Gordon is a member of an Earth expedition researching the newly discovered planet Cassa. He has recovered his barely alive compadre Jerry Goodman, a pilot, and his keeping him hidden? Why? It seems the Earth expedition has been overrun by penguin-like aliens, the Tareeg, and to his disgust the rest of the expedition, the scientists, have been cooperating with the Tareeg, after a coujple of them were tortured to death. Troy wants Jerry to help him escape and return to Earth with the news -- especially as the Tareegs, water creatures, are preparing to crash comets into Cassa to turn it to a water planet. But Jerry must recover first, and Troy must keep him a secret from both the Tareegs and the quisling scientists. It all culminates in a twist ... and all this is nicely done, but routine.

Analog, February 1966

"The Searcher" is a Hub story from Schmitz, but it does not feature either of his most famous heroines, Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee. Instead the heroine is Danestar Gems, from the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency. Danestar is an expert in miniature gadgetry. Unfortunately, this is all we really get to know of her, besides that she is "a long-waisted, lithe, beautiful girl". That's a weakness in the story -- Danestar is really a cipher, unlike Telzey and Trigger, who do acquire real characters over there multiple appearances. The other weakness is not uncommon to Schmitz's stories -- the resolution depends to too great an extent on basically luck, or rather the unusual powers depicted taking on whatever aspect the plot requires.

The story is about an energy creature from a dust cloud called the Pit which has come to Mezmiali, a planet just two light years from the edge of the cloud. The creature is in search of an alien instrument it needs. As it happens, Danestar and her partner are investigating a smuggling group that just happens to be trying to smuggle that particular instrument to private buyers. The energy creature can simply absorb humans, unless they are Danestar and her partner, in which case there will only be close calls. The story begins as a detective story about Danestar foiling the smugglers, but the last half or so is a chase between her and her partner and the energy creature, until she magically figures out how to zap it.

I thought it one of Schmitz's weaker pieces, though others seem to like it a lot.

The Eternal Frontiers (Putnam, 1973)

The only James Schmitz novel I hadn't read was his last, The Eternal Frontiers, from 1973.  This short book (about 42000 words) is not set in his usual "Hub" universe.  Instead, humans, fairly far in the future, are divided into a couple of major groups, and some much smaller groups.  The two major power centers are the Star Union, mostly space dwellers, and the Galestrals, who are descended from the colonists of a very hostile planet, and thus are very competent fighters and planet workers.  The Star Union is further subdivided into a group of people who are fully developed for zero gravity, and who can't tolerate planetary gravities (the Swimmers), and a group who live in habitats where gravity is still used (the Walkers).

The novel is set on a new planet, remote from human space, which has a lot of valuable heavy metals.  The Walkers wish to mine the metals conventionally, which would give them a political advantage, and the Swimmers want to do it from "domes" (gravity controlled) with more automation.  This would be more expensive, but the Swimmers believe it would be safer.  I didn't quite figure out where the Galestrals really fit.  At any rate, funny things start happening, and it begins to look like someone, a rogue Galestral or a rogue Swimmer, perhaps, is trying to sabotage things so that it looks too dangerous for Walkers to mine the planet.  People start being killed, by a violent, elusive, beast.  Ghosts start showing up.  Other evidences of sabotage are uncovered.  The eventual resolution is a twist, and not quite fair in some ways.  It's far from Schmitz at his best.  The characters are pretty much ciphers.  (He does feature a couple of his usual spunky, competent, women.) The book really reads like a sketch of a novel.  A revised, longer, version, beefing up the interpersonal relationships and characterization, and setting up the solution to the novel a bit more fairly, might have been pretty good. Some of the ideas are in fact kind of neat.  I almost wonder if Schmitz ran out of energy: he retired from writing the year after this was published, maybe he just didn't want to put the work into the book that it needed.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Old Bestseller Review: The Graftons, by Archibald Marshall

Old Besteller: The Graftons, by Archibald Marshall

a review by Rich Horton

Archibald Marshall was the penname used by Arthur Hammond Marshall (1866-1934), a British journalist and novelist. He seems to have written primarily realistic novels of British contemporary life, set prior to the first World War. I was to an extent reminded of some novels my mother used to read, by "Miss Read" (though those, I believe, were set later) -- contemporaries compared him to Trollope, which seems a huge stretch to me, though I suppose he may have aspired to that status. He seems to have been fairly popular, especially (says Wikipedia) among American readers, though he was not so successful as to show up on the Publishers' Weekly lists of the top ten bestselling novels of the year. He wrote at least one SF novel, Upsidonia, from 1916.

The Graftons is from 1918, or so the copyright says. My edition, possibly an American first, is dated 1919 on the title page. It's published by Dodd, Mead. There is an introduction (dated March 1918) by the author, which states that it "deals with the same characters as Abington Abbey". Abington Abbey was an earlier novel (though Wikipedia curiously dates it to 1919.) Marshall refers to criticism of that novel (and futher criticism presumed to follow of The Graftons) for not dealing with the impact of the War, and he demurs that he cannot deal with the effects on society of the War until it is concluded, so he has set his novels in the decade or so prior to the War. He admits that his characters doubtless face a potentially tragic future, and that at least one of the young men in the book will likely have died.

The Graftons are a family from the City now occupying Abington Abbey. The father is George, a widower, and he has three daughters (Caroline, Beatrix, and Barbara), and one son, also called George. As the novel opens, the Rector of Surley, a local church, is dying, and the question is who should succeed him? The main candidates are the Rector's son, who is perhaps too inexperienced, but well liked; and the rather pompous and annoying Vicar of Abington, A. Salisbury Mercer. The gift of the living of Abington is in George Grafton's hands, and so there's a problem -- the Grafton's (and most everyone else) cordially dislike Mercer, but they don't think they should foist him on Surley either ... So this all seems to be a reason people might compare Marshall to Trollope. But this whole issue is quickly resolved, in a generally satisfying fashion (and these chapters have some nice comic elements.)

The rest of the book primarily resolves around the love affairs of Caroline and Beatrix. Beatrix is the more worldly of the two older girls, and we soon gather she had thought herself in love previously with a man who turned out to be rather a cad. (I assume this was dealt with in Abington Abbey.) There is a man named Dick Mansergh, a Navy man, who is clearly besotted with her, and he's of the right class and has the right money. But does she love him? As for Caroline, she is a country girl at heart, and she falls for Maurice Bradby, who is apprenticed to George Grafton's property agent. As such Bradby is distinctly of a lower class than the Graftons, so their relationship will raise questions. 

Of course all is resolved pleasantly -- it is that sort of novel. There is even the possibility of a remarriage for George Grafton, to a pretty (and rather rich) local widow, some years younger than him. I thought this subplot resolved in a clumsy and annoying fashion, actually.

It's a very pastoral book, quietly preachy in a classic "Little England" fashion, very much plumping for the virtues of English country life, and of the class system, etc. The writing is fine, the characters are, well, types, and somewhat idealized types, but not poorly portrayed. It seems in the end just of the sort of book to have been popular in its time, and to have become completely out of fashion not long after.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Steven Popkes

Today is Steven Popkes' birthday. He's been publishing strong short fiction (and a couple of novels) since the early '80s, never making a huge splash, as common for writers who don't publish a lot of novels. But he's really a fine writer. Here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction in my Locus column:

Locus, December 2002

Steven Popkes, like Ray Aldridge, is a writer who made a mild splash in the field then seemed to disappear for a while, and who has returned recently. He gives us "Winters are Hard" (Sci Fiction, November), set in a near future where humans can be engineered to adopt various animal characteristics. His main character is a journalist who tries to understand the motivations driving one such man, who has become part wolf, and who lives on an isolated reservation with a wolf pack.

Locus, January 2003

Last month I noted the appearance in the December F&SF of the first story in several years from Ray Aldridge. The January 2003 issue of Asimov's features two stories by fine writers who took longish sabbaticals from the field. Steven Popkes, after an absence of some years, has appeared in F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, and Sci Fiction in the last year or two, and in this issue he returns to Asimov's with a fine novella, "The Ice". Phil Berger is a high-school hockey player contemplating scholarships from a couple of small colleges. All this changes when a reporter reveals that Phil is actually the clone of Gordie Howe (one of the greatest hockey players of all time). Suddenly interest in Phil's hockey playing mushrooms, as does the pressure on him. Popkes follows Phil's life over some decades, as he abandons hockey, deals with some personal issues, puts his life in order, meets a fellow clone whose development didn't go quite as well, and comes to term with what his "family" really is. The story is an effective extended essay on identity, and on the true wellsprings of a person's "self". It's highly readable, moving, well-presented and thematically honest. It does show signs of excessive authorial manipulation in a couple places, and the rationale for the original cloning is not convincing, but overall I quite liked it.

Locus, February 2003

The February Realms of Fantasy opens with two rather long stories (for them), and both are quite good. ... Steven Popkes's "Stegosaurus Boy" is perhaps unavoidably a bit over-earnest dealing with its subject matter, race relations in Alabama in 1964, but the main character, a boy fascinated by dinosaurs who learns a very odd secret about himself, is well-portrayed and the central secret is clever and original.

Locus, January 2004

Steven Popkes returns in the January Asimov's with "This Old Man", a fine post-holocaust story. The holocaust in this case was a plague that made almost everyone incapable of reading. Lemuel is an orphan, and the bodyguard of the old man of the title, a very old man indeed, and perhaps the only person left who can read. He leads a settlement in Missouri. This story follows the old man and Lemuel as they visit another settlement and try to unravel the mystery of the "Kingdom City Man", a rapist and murderer who has so far eluded capture. Lemuel's personal history, and some secrets of the old man's, also come into play. It's an absorbing and ultimately wrenching story.

Locus, July 2006

Quite different in tone is “Holding Pattern” by Steven Popkes (F&SF, July), in which a Guatemalan tyrant (modeled, it would seem, on Saddam) has been deposed: but the “real” tyrant cannot be identified among his various doubles – especially as each double has been imprinted with the memories of the original. It’s an effective meditation on guilt and punishment and the sources of personality.

Locus, August 2009

Steven Popkes treats again the newly fashionable idea of genetically restored Neanderthals in “Two Boys” (Asimov's, August). Two time tracks follow one of the earliest “new” Neanderthals and one of his grandchildren, both in different ways dealing with the attitudes of other (Homo Sapiens) children. Neanderthals turn out to be brilliant negotiators, and to have strange senses of humor. And to understand something about their species history, and that of Homo Sapiens … Though I don’t quite buy some of the assumptions underlying the story, the extrapolations Popkes makes from these assumptions – such as the real reason humans outcompeted Neanderthals – are original and striking.

Locus, May 2010

Steven Popkes’s “Jackie’s-Boy” (Asimov's, April-May) is also nice but imperfect. It’s set a few decades in the future, after a series of plagues, engineered and otherwise, have all but wiped out humanity. The title character is a boy who meets an elephant at the St. Louis zoo – an uplifted elephant, we soon gather. The two eventually head south in search of more elephants. It’s an enjoyable read, and Jackie (the elephant) has a bitter side to her character that really works. But I was never convinced by the boy’s character – neither his voice nor his learning, and for that matter Jackie’s knowledge and motivations don’t quite hang together either.

Popkes is present as well in the May-June F&SF, with an altogether darker story, “The Crocodiles”. This is the second Nazi zombie story I’ve read recently, though the other one was a light-hearted romp compared to this. It’s told in first person by a German engineer who agrees to work on the “Tote Manner” project to avoid being sent to the front. He tells, with some near glee, of the efforts they go through to weaponize this disease, using, of course, the ready supply of subjects from Buchenwald, then Auschwitz, for their trials. His deadpan lack of morality – pure Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” – is almost funny, though the end results are anything but.

Locus, December 2012

At Asimov's for December the longest story is “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected”, by Steven Popkes. Jacob is a once successful rock star who is suddenly contacted by his ex-lover, Rosie. She wants him to serve as a song doctor – but not for a human, rather for a “divaloid”, a simulation of a teenaged pop star. Rosie is helping to program the divaloid, and she wants to understand how, or if, one can program creativity. Naturally the ultimate question is what the divaloid wants, or if the divaloid can “want” anything. The magic Jacob performs doesn't necessarily convince me, but the interaction of the main characters – Jacob, Rosie, and Dot (the divaloid) – does convince. A moving and thoughtful story.

The November-December F&SF has another very good Steven Popkes story, “Breathe”, about a family of vampires of a sort – they can steal “health” from other people. The story contrasts two brothers – one who rejects his “gift” and another who has benefited greatly from it – as their father dies. (Perhaps too slowly.) A sharp moral exercise.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Birthday Review: The Privilege of the Sword (and short stories), by Ellen Kushner

Today is Ellen Kushner's birthday. In her honor, then, here's a review of her lovely novel The Privilege of the Sword, plus a few related short stories.

Review of The Privilege of the Sword (originally published in Fantasy Magazine)

This is one of those books that I opened and started reading just to get its flavor, and it rudely shoved aside the other books I was planning to get to first. It is a delight throughout, supremely witty, romantic, adventurous. The setting is an unnamed country that resembles Regency England to some extent. The action occurs some 20 years following the classic Swordspoint, and a few decades prior to Ellen Kushner’s collaboration with her partner Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings. Like Swordspoint it is a “fantasy without magic”, though magic explicitly returns in The Fall of the Kings. Katherine Talbert is the 15 year old niece of Alec Campion, one of the heroes of Swordspoint, who is now the notorious Mad Duke Tremontaine. The Duke summons her to the city with the intention of making her a swordswoman. She had expected a more conventional future, but ends up taking very well to the sword, especially after instruction from the other hero of Swordspoint, the legendary Richard St. Vier, now living alone in the country. Katherine has many more experiences in the city, things like visiting a brothel, seeing a play, spying with the Duke’s protégé Marcus, and more conventional entertainments such as balls. She also becomes enmeshed, without the Duke’s knowledge, in a challenge against the Duke’s bitter enemy, Lord Ferris, a scheming politician and abuser of women, who has stained the honor of one of Katherine’s more typical female friends. Katherine is a delightful heroine, and the Mad Duke is a truly wonderful character. The dialogue is fast-paced and sharp. The minor characters are also excellent (my favorite is the Duke’s mathematician friend the Ugly Girl). The plot is effective, if a bit loose-limbed at times. Over all, I loved it – a thoroughgoing pleasure.

Locus, April 2009

The first of the new bimonthly issuesof F&SF is April-May. Ellen Kushner offers a prequel to her novel Swordspoint: “’A Wild and Wicked Youth’” tells of Richard St. Vier growing up the son of a brilliant woman who never married his father, and so lives on the charity of a local Lord. Richard is friends with the nobleman’s son, but they have different interests – differences that are magnified when an encounter with a faded swordsman gives Richard the chance to learn his real talent … and magnified further, of course, when Crispin comes into his inheritance.

Locus, December 2010

And finally I’ll give a brief nod to a new Ellen Kushner short story about Alec Campion (of Swordspoint and its sequels), "The Man With the Knives". It’s available as a chapbook from Temporary Culture, in a truly lovely package with Thomas Canty illustrations. The story is fine work, about a solitary woman, a healer, who takes in a desperate mourning man, a man with a collection of knives – knives that, it turns out, have healing uses. Worth reading on its own, or as a pendant to the wonderful books its related to, or simply to enjoy the lovely bookmaking behind the chapbook.

Review of Urban Fantasy (Locus, August 2011)

A different kind of Urban Fantasy is set in imaginary cities, and some of the best of this the past few decades has been Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and its sequels (one written with Delia Sherman). So it is a delight to see a very early look at Richard St. Vier and Alec Campion, from a different point of view, in “The Duke of Riverside”, which is a Riverside dweller’s view of Alec’s arrival, on the point of despair, in that dangerous part of town.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Old Besteller: The Marquis and Pamela, by Edward H. Cooper

Old Besteller: The Marquis and Pamela, by Edward H. Cooper

a review by Rich Horton

Edward H. Cooper is one of the more obscure novelists I've encountered in my reading of early 20th Century popular fiction. He was born in Newcastle under Lyme (not to be confused with Newcastle upon Tyne, the much more famous and larger city) in 1867, was crippled from birth, and died in 1910. He went to Oxford and became a journalist. He also wrote novels such as Richard Escott, Resolved to be Rich, and the book at hand, The Marquis and Pamela. He seems essentially fully forgotten nowadays (with reason, based on this novel, anyway,) and I doubt this book sold well enough to be called a bestseller.

My copy seems to be a first American edition, in poor condition, from Duffield and Company in 1908. (The English edition was from Chatto and Windus.) It's illustrated nicely enough, by Julia Roper. It's signed in pencil by, I think, V. Siebert Romberg.

I bought it at an antique store and read it on a lark, expecting a light romance. And indeed, it opens in this fashion, at a party among London's racing and gambling set. (Actually, the people involved, and the timeframe, seem very similar to the miliue of Shaw's "Pygmalion" (and of course, of My Fair Lady.)) The Marquis of Seaford is an older man, very well-respected as a good horseman, and a man who will always pay his debts. Pamela is a 20-something woman, very beautiful, with some money of her own, and ready to find a man to marry. Two men are the leading contenders -- a wealthy but dull scholar, Sir Norman Stanier; and a dissipated and financially unstable younger man, Lord Whitmore. Pamela doesn't really seem to much like Stanier, but he does have money; and Whitmore is more attractive, but something of a mess.

The races at Ascot are coming up soon, and we gather that Lord Seaford's horse is a heavy favorite. He will surely back his horse with a large bet. And then we find that there is a plan to fix the race, so that Lord Whitmore's horse wins instead. Seaford will be nearly ruined.

More details come out -- Seaford has been helping Lord Whitmore financially for some time, but Whitmore has betrayed him in many ways. Whitmore has had several mistresses, and has had children with them, and his latest mistress is pressing him for money to support her and her two babies after she has been discarded. Seaford is warned off betting on his horse by a "gypsy" ...

We come to a crisis. To no reader's surprise, it becomes clear that the Marquis of Seaford is in love with Pamela, but thinks he's too old for her. (A reasonable thought -- he's 55.) And Pamela seems to return his affection. And the more we learn about Whitmore, we realize he's an out and out rotter. What will happen? Will Seaford save himself by listening to the gypsy? Will their set come to their senses and banish Whitmore from public life for his many sins? And what about Sir Norman Stanier, who seems a basically good man?

Spoilers to follow, not that it matters over much ...

The author heavily intervenes at this point. He tells the reader, in no uncertain terms, that Lord Seaford is a horrible person. (And he shows his neglect of the tenants at his estate, to emphasize the point.) He also tells us that Pamela is a horrible person (she's selfish, and she's cruelly leading Whitmore and Stanier on, and she really has no redeeming qualities save her beauty.) OK, so everybody is awful? What to do ...

Seaford bets on his horse as planned, and the scheme to fix the race goes through, and he is almost ruined. (I wondered how such a transparent and obvious race-fixing went unpunished.) Whitmore, still under great financial pressure, presses Pamela to marry him. But his mistress has revealed Whitmore's sins to Pamela, and she rejects him. Whitmore commits suicide. Pamela, to her shock, is blamed by society, and cast to the margins. She is "rescued" by the odious man who (it turns out) is behind the race-fixing scheme, and they plan to get married, though she finds him repulsive.

Then, somehow, at the end, the Marquis comes to his senses (barely) and realizes he still loves Pamela -- though he hates her for causing distress to his friend Whitmore (there are homoerotic hints in the description of the Seaford/Whitmore relationship, though I think they were unintended.) So the Marquis spikes the marriage plans, and the book ends with Pamela and Seaford in a romantic clinch ...

It's just such a crudely manipulative mess! Some of it could have worked with a more skillful writer (and it should be said that Cooper's prose and imagery are sometimes well-handled -- but not his characterization!) The idea that Pamela and the Marquis and indeed their whole set are dreadful people is actually quite believable, but isn't really sold by the bulk of the book. And questions remain -- What about Seaford's tenants? And if he was ruined by his big bet on his horse, can he still afford to marry Pamela? And ... And ... (I haven't mentioned the saintly Biddy and her upstanding intended clergyman husband, who try and fail to set Seaford straight and to save Whitmore's life ... that's another detail that just seems forced in.)

Sometimes, indeed, popular fiction of the past is forgotten for very good reasons!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Birthday Review: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling (plus two shorts)

S. M. Stirling turned 66 today, so I decided to exhume this review I wrote a while ago about his novel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, along with a couple of brief looks at short stories from my Locus column.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling

a review by Rich Horton

I was surprised to realize that I've actually not previously read a Stirling novel. I confess the premise of the Draka series turned me off -- I don't dispute that the stories might be enjoyable and well done, but I didn't want to read them. In a different way, the Island in the Sea of Time books aren't either my cup of tea. I did read some stories set in his Dies the Fire universe, and had I more time I might have gotten to the novels, but I didn't. However, his new series appeals quite openly to my inner Golden Age of SF fan. I had been considering getting the first, The Sky People, but hadn't got around to it. So instead I began with book 2 of the series (I'm not sure there will be any more -- there doesn't need to be, but there could be). This novel opens with a rather unbearably twee prologue set at an SF convention in 1962. The viewpoint character is named Fred (wink wink nudge nudge), and he records the reaction of the SF professionals to the American landing on Mars. Injokes abound, most labored (a writer named Bob (wwnn) lamenting that he had to abandon his planned novel about an orphaned adopted by Martians), only one cute (and that maybe unintentional: a brand new writer named Larry bursting out "Lookatthat!"). Lots of namechecking: Jack, Arthur, Spreggie (!), Poul, Beam, Leigh, etc. I get it, I suppose -- we are being signaled that this is a novel about the sort of Mars we used to dream of in SF, but I thought it went on way too long for too little effect.

But the real novel is much better. This is an alternate history, in which for reasons that will become clear, Venus and Mars have conditions similar to many pulp era SF stories. Venus is a wet jungle planet with fairly primitive humanoid inhabitants. And Mars is a dying desert planet with very civilized humanoids with a very old, very tradition-oriented culture. The Sky People concerned the exploration of Venus. Now, In the Courts of the Crimson King deals with Mars.

The main characters are a Martian Princess, natch, and a human scientist. But that's not quite right. The Martian, Teyud za-Zhalt, is the daughter of the current very old King (or Despot) of the City That is a Mountain, the much shrunken remnants of a Kingdom that once ruled all Mars. But Teyud's mother was not of the appropriate genetics to have an official child (or something), and since Martian women can control their fertility, her decision to have a child was a capitol crime. She was horribly killed, though the King managed to spirit his daughter away, where she was raised ("socialized") in her mother's genetic caste, Thoughtful Grace -- very intelligent and powerful warriors. Because of the control over fertility, Martian females and males have essentially equal status, so Teyud in fact is a potential heir to her father's throne -- which makes her a target if found of rivals of higher social class but less direct genetic relationship to the dying older King. So for decades (Martians are very long lived) she has been acting as a mercenary for hire, guarding caravans and the like, I suppose. And now she has been hired to escort a Terran expedition to a mysterious long-abandoned city. And the archaeologist who most wants to investigate this city is Jeremy Wainman. Jeremy is well-qualified, not just because of his scientific ability, but because he is fairly well adapted to Martian conditions: he grew up in the dry New Mexican highlands, and he is very tall, at 6' 6" only half a foot or so shorter than Teyud.

So, the expedition sets off for the lost city. Jeremy and Teyud, predictably, perhaps, begin to take a liking to each other. But they are soon aware that they are being chased ... as we learn, by representatives of not only the putative "Crown Prince" who has discovered her existence, but also by representatives of conservative factions in the King's government, who are concerned over his innovations (he is working with Terrans to use nuclear power to help circulate water more efficiently, thus perhaps to some extent alleviating the long decline of Martian civilization). They each manage to save the other's life, further cementing their affections for each other. And at the lost city they make a spectacular discovery, one with implications for Teyud's fitness to rule a perhaps revived Mars.

All this is really more or less the shape of the narrative we expected. And so it continues, with lots of action, chases, a "damsel in distress" (except, as noted, it's not a damsel but a guy -- Jeremy -- part of a purposeful inversion of pulp traditions that Stirling pulls off nicely) -- all leading to a dramatic final confrontation. And it's really lots of fun. I will say that I thought the actual final conclusion a bit too much of a deus ex machina, and not quite what I had in mind. Which of course isn't necessarily an author's obligation -- he's writing his book, not mine -- but still! Anyway, for all that as I said, I liked the book, as light entertainment.

Locus, July 2002

S. M. Stirling's "Shikari in Galveston" (Worlds That Weren't) is set in an alternate world where an asteroid impact in the late 19th Century wiped out most of Europe and the United States' technological civilization: the new "British Empire" is dominated by India (and the descendants of Englishmen who fled to India under Disraeli's leadership), while the U. S. is inhabited by "tribes" of both white men and Indians, as well as debased descendants of those who turned to cannibalism in the aftermath of the asteroid impact.  I was disturbed by the way in which the cannibals were blithely portrayed as permanently subhuman, making them convenient villains, but the story, about a hunting expedition into cannibal country that runs into evidence that the cannibals are planning an organized attack on the "civilized" tribes, is brisk, exciting reading.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

S. M. Stirling, in “Ancient Ways”, tells a very entertaining story of a Cossack joining up with a Kalmyk to rescue a kidnapped princess. It’s SF because it’s set in his “Dies the Fire” future, in which electricity suddenly stopped working, and society forcibly reverts to pre-industrial ways. It’s pure unpretentious fun, and I could see a series of stories following the same set of characters.