Sunday, December 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Capsules of two novels by John Sladek

This would have been John Sladek's 82nd birthday. Alas, he died in 2000, only 62. Last year I reviewed his novel Bugs in this space, and I have also reviewed his novel Tik-Tok. I'll post links to those reviews below, but in addition, here are some very short capsule reviews of two more of his novels.

Review of Bugs

Review of Tik-Tok

The Reproductive System

When John Sladek died, I realized I had never read any of his novels, so I dug out a copy of The Reproductive System that I'd had for a while, and figured I'd read it.  (This novel was called Mechasm when Ace published it in the US: the British title is much much better, and makes much more sense.) This is a satirical novel about a company in Nevada (or maybe Utah) which hires a mad scientist who designs self-reproducing, intelligent machines.\ Soon the machines escape and threaten to take over the world.  The plot isn't the main interest, of course.  Indeed, the book isn't that well structured: there is an almost wholly unconnected subplot about Americans and Russians spying on French efforts to launch a rocket to the moon.  But though some of the humor is dated, most of it is still pretty incisive.  Parts of the book are laugh out loud funny, while also being observant and effectively satirical.  Definitely a worthwhile read.

Black Aura

John Sladek wrote a couple of mysteries in the 1970s, featuring as a detective an American living in London, Thackeray Phin.  (Sladek himself was at that time an American living in London, though I believe he moved back to Minnesota for the last several years of his life.)  I bought Black Aura, I believe the second of the series.  (I am not sure there were any more than two: the first book, I think, was Invisible Green.)  Thackeray decides to investigate a medium who is running a society called the Aetheric society (or something). He simply wishes to figure out her methods (which are conventional medium fraudulence), but while he is living with the society a couple of murders occur, which he ends up solving.  It's an OK read, and sometimes reasonably funny, but not nearly as funny as for example his SF novel Mechasm.  Plus, the plot is a bit implausible, and the solution to the murders is pretty clever, but as usual overcomplicated.  Good enough that I figure I'll try the other one, but nothing near as good as his remarkable SF satires.

Birthday Review: Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson (2009)

a review by Rich Horton

It strikes me about Julian Comstock that it's not very high-concept, which is a departure for Robert Charles Wilson, whose books are often built on quite striking SFnal ideas, such as the time-slowing barrier around Earth in Spin, or the weird reversion to prehistoric times of Darwinia. Julian Comstock, instead, has a fairly straightforward post-Collapse scenario. In the '50s a book like this would have been set after a nuclear war. Julian Comstock, instead, is set in the 22nd Century after an economic collapse caused at least in part by global warming. The United States, which now includes Canada, has devolved to essentially a religiously-dominated monarchy, though the "President" is still elected. The narrator is Adam Hazzard, ambiguously a member of the "leasing class". (American society has become formally divided into three classes: Aristos, leaseholders, and indentured laborers.) He lives on an estate in Athabaska, somewhere (I presume) in what is now western Canada but has become one of the 60 states of the U.S. His closest friend is Julian Comstock, the nephew of the President, sent to Athabaska to keep him out of sight of his Uncle, who is suspicious of any rivals, and who in fact had Julian's father executed when he seemed to be becoming too popular. Adam is an eager reader of boys adventure books, and indeed hopes to become a writer. (As it is clear he does, this book being purportedly his account of Julian's career.) Julian is also interested in books, but more particularly banned "Philosophy": that is to say, 20th and 21st Century science, now banned by the religious authorities.

The US is engaged in a protracted war with the "Dutch", who occupy Labrador. Adam and Julian end up conscripted into the Army, but Julian takes an assumed name to avoid his Uncle's attention. Much of the novel then follows their military career -- first in Montreal, then campaigns in Labrador. For Adam this is significant as he falls in love with a rather odd young woman, a singer, and gains her affection (ambiguously, perhaps) when he rescues her from her abusive brothers. Adam also meets a war reported who gives him advice on writing, meantime stealing Adam's firsthand accounts of battles and passing them off as his own work. This becomes particularly significant when Julian, in classic style, reveals his bravery and military brilliance -- and Adam's account becomes a bestseller, and they return to New York, to deal with Julian's Uncle.

The rest of the story concerns Julian's conflict with his tyrannical and insane Uncle, and his eventual plans for a better government. All this is complicated by his anti-religious attitudes, and by the enmity the established Church leaders have for him. Julian also becomes obsessed with bringing Philosophical ideas back, going so far as to sponsor the production of an adventure film about Charles Darwin. All this, of course, cannot end quietly.

I liked the novel a lot. Robert Charles Wilson is a wonderful writer. Adam and Julian are both interesting characters. Adam in particularly is almost absurdly naive, and that comes through in nearly every line of the book. Julian is more complicated, and his career, which in my brief synopsis looks clichedly heroic, is much more ambiguous -- and believable -- in Wilson's telling. It's a very fine addition to a really impressive corpus.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson turns 66 today. He's been one of the most consistently interesting SF novelists for over three decades, and he won the Hugo for Best Novel for Spin (2005). He's also won a Philip K. Dick Award, and a Campbell, and a few Auroras. Besides Spin I particularly liked his novel Darwinia (1998). He hasn't written as much short fiction, but that he has written has also been very impressive. Here's a set of my reviews of his short fiction.

From my summary of Original Anthologies from 2000

Of the novelettes, my clear favorite was "The Dryad's Wedding" by Robert Charles Wilson, from Star Colonies.  This is a sequel to his 1999 short novel Bios.  It deals with the colonization of the very "hostile" world featured in the novel, a couple of centuries later, and a young woman who has died and been revived.  She begins to sense the world trying to communicate with her -- Wilson's explanation for this is a bit mystical, definitely building on the mystical ending to Bios, but philosophically interesting.  And the resolution to the story is honest and sad.

Locus, March 2006

And the best story in FutureShocks is Robert Charles Wilson’s thought-provoking “The Cartesian Theater”, which finds a very appropriate way of speculating about machine rights, human identity, even the idea of a soul, in a well-framed and well-told story of a man in an ambiguously prosperous future telling his dead grandfather about a disgusting but legal staging of a simulated (or was it?) death.

Locus, January 2007

Robert Charles Wilson, in Julian: A Christmas Story, does very interesting work with what is again familiar material. In a way this is a story I’ve read, in one form or another, in many 50s magazines: a post-holocaust story, with an anti-science religious/political ruling party controlling the remnants of civilization, as a young man with heretical (i.e. pro-scientific) ideas bids to challenge the new orthodoxy. But the holocaust here is not nuclear but rather environmental, and the new political order is reflective of our contemporary politics. And the characters – primarily the narrator Adam and his aristo friend Julian, two boys about to be embroiled in an apparently ongoing war – are elegantly depicted. I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a longer story – I’d be glad to read it if so – or if the full “story” here is the subtly limned background and nicely hinted future – either way it is a wholly satisfying novella. [Indeed it did become a novel, and my review of that is posted at the link below:

Review of Julian Comstock]

Review of Fast Forward 1 (Locus, February 2007)

More solid work includes Robert Charles Wilson’s “YFL-500”, in which a not very successful artist who does not dream finds a way to create a great work of art when he gets access to another person’s dream (in a sense). Then he tracks down that person – leading to a wry ending. I particularly liked the nature of the art genre described.

Locus, April 2009

And then to Other Earths and Robert Charles Wilson, who offers a grim look at race relations in a US in which the Civil War was avoided, in “The Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe”. A white photographer accompanies a black historian trying to document the terrible events at a sort of work camp for freed black men that to us resembles the Nazi work camps. Wilson is as ever convincing and oblique, not settling for showing simply the horrible alternative history but showing us in the characters of the leads the way changed history affected real people.

Locus, January 2013

Finally, Gardner Dozois offers a first rate new anthology in audio form: Rip-Off!. The conceit is that each story begins with a famous first line, and goes on from there, presumably riffing on the story it's “ripping off”. The best two stories open and close the book. Robert Charles Wilson's “Fireborn” is based on a Carl Sandburg story. It's pastoral in mood, about a Onyx and Jasper, two “commoners” who encounter a fireborn “skydancer” – a woman who has lived multiple lives, trying to earn “transit to the Eye of the Moon”. The story slowly reveals the nature of the “fireborn”, and the ambitions of Onyx and Jasper, as Jasper is lured to become an apprentice to the skydancer. This is excellent “posthuman” SF in which the posthumans are just as human as the “commoners”.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Birthday Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt

Today is Tim Pratt's birthday. Last year on this date I published a set of reviews of his short fiction. Here's a look at his first novel. I'm tempted to say "He got better", which is true, but also unfair to this book, which is still quite enjoyable.

Birthday Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt

A review by Rich Horton

About The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl I think I can say, as I did with another novel: "this is a very promising first novel, and well worth reading, but also quite clearly a first novel." This book is Urban Fantasy, despite not being set in Seattle or Minneapolis or Newford. That said, it has an original flavor: the fantastical elements have an Old West manifestation.

The protagonist is Marzi (short for Marzipan: hippie parents), night manager of a coffee shop in Santa Cruz called Genius Loci. Marzi is an artist, having dropped out of UC Santa Cruz after a nervous breakdown a couple years previously. She draws a fairly successful underground comic called The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, about a woman who travels to a fantasy Old West and confronts weird villains. Her best friend is Lindsay, a talented bisexual artist still at UCSC. Lindsay keeps trying to set her up with men, but Marzi is skittish just now, after the breakdown. Then a new young man moves in above the coffee shop. Jonathan is studying Garamond Ray, a modestly famous artist who painted the walls of the coffee shop before disappearing during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Lindsay pounces immediately, and perhaps surprisingly has a bit of success pushing Marzi at him.

But at the same time the very strange artist Beej seems to go completely nuts, and starts talking about the Earthquake god. And another couple of artists, Dennis and his ex-girlfriend Jane, act oddly too. In particular Jane seems suddenly to be made of mud, and she seems to want to kill Marzi. All this seems perhaps connected with a locked storeroom, entering which precipitated Marzi's breakdown a couple years previously. That storeroom has an unknown Garamond Ray mural ... which means Jonathan is very interested.

So: Jonathan wants to get into the storeroom. Marzi is afraid, and especially afraid to let anyone else in. Dennis and Jane and Beej are starting to act very strange indeed ... Of course, Marzi will go in, and find a door -- a door that leads inevitably to a version of the Old West that is all too much like her comic. In particular, it holds a chaotic "god" called the Outlaw, who desperately wants to escape back to the real world, and do what he does best: destroy. So when Jonathan lets his curiosity get the best of him (with a little help ...) things go pear-shaped.

And it's up to Marzi to confront her fears, and to learn how to confront the Outlaw in the appropriate manner. Which of course she does, though not without some personal and general cost.

My main problem here was an ending that seemed abrupt and just a bit pat. Yet at the same time several innocent people are killed -- but somehow we are spared emotional involvement with any of the killings -- the characters who die are essentially redshirts, and I felt this a distinct failing. I also felt that the characterization of the villains -- well, Dennis in particular -- was rather lazy. Dennis is a cliche, and not a very interesting cliche.

But as ever when I cite what's wrong with a book I feel I'm overstating things. (Well, not "as ever", but in this case anyway.) The novel is a very engaging read. The good guys, Marzi and Lindsay in particular, are very well portrayed. It's well-written, and the magical elements are well-imagined. It's a good book -- a good first novel, and certainly promising good things to come.

Review: The Chaos Function, by Jack Skillingstead

The Chaos Function, by Jack Skillingstead

Houghton Mifflin (John Joseph Adams Books), 2019

a review by Rich Horton

I've enjoyed Jack Skillingstead's short fiction for a long time, but for whatever reason (mostly that I can't keep up with the SF field's novels that well) I hadn't yet read one of his novels. So when I saw a copy of his latest, The Chaos Function, at Sally Kobee's table in the Archon dealers' room, I figured it was time to remedy that situation.

The protagonist of the novel is Olivia Nikitas, a reporter addicted to what she calls "the Disaster" -- the ongoing crisis always present somewhere in our world. The book is set in the very near future (2029), and as it opens, Olivia is in Aleppo, shortly after the Syrian civil war has come to a shaky conclusion. She's ready to investigate a rumor of a torture cell in the Old City, and she ends up there with her Syrian guide and her current boyfriend, Brian, who is getting a little too important to her for her own comfort. And things go pear-shaped -- the guide and Brian are killed, and in the basement of an old madrassa, Olivia sees an old man die -- and something very strange happens. Something transfers from the old man to Olivia, and she has a vision of a slightly altered future, in which Brian survives. And that turns out to be the case -- only Olivia remembers anything different.

But otherwise the world is suddenly going even more to hell than usual. An apparently weaponized virus has been released, and a pandemic is sweeping the world (except, suspiciously, Russia.) Olivia and Brian return to her Seattle home. But Olivia, ever suspicious, realizes she's being followed ... and before long she's been kidnapped, and ends up in rural Idaho, a captive in a place called Sanctuary. Here she learns that she is now in possession of the ability to change the past -- an ability passed through a series of "Shepherds" since roughly the time of Christ. These Shepherds, now sheltered by a creepy cult-like organization, have tried to steer history onto relatively optimal paths ever since, though they are riven even now by a faction that insists on very conservative changes, and another faction that wants to do more radical things (including using the timeline changes for personal enrichment.) Now Olivia is the new "Shepherd", unless she is killed ... and anyway as a woman she's ineligible. Moreover, this latest crisis, the released bioweapon, may have resulted from her accidental alteration of events to save Brian's life.

Olivia manages to escape, with the help of a couple of discontented Sanctuary members. She's none too sure about the Shepherd rules, either -- there are hints that in the "past" they've not exactly chosen the most beneficial paths. (And "beneficial" is of course a fraught term.) What follows is a desperate chase across half the country and back, and then a return to Syria, as more and more people succumb to the bioweapon. Olivia of course is tempted to change the recent past again and again -- and the results seem more disastrous all the time ...

The endgame is in its broad outlines discernible from the start. The central philosophical questions -- what are the ethics of changing history? who does it benefit? how can it be controlled? -- are interesting, but all lead to a simple answer. In a way, this is disappointing to an SF reader: we have a tendency to want control, to want a path to utopia, to make things right. And Skillingstead wisely dodges this sort of resolution. The other key arc is the characters. Olivia remains interesting throughout -- she's a sharply portrayed protagonist. The other main characters, even Brian, don't quite come into the same focus (though a variety of minor characters convince in their short stays.) Olivia's personal journey is pretty affecting, however, if perhaps her final steps seem a tad pat.

This is a strong novel with its eye usefully aimed right at the current Disaster, outside the US. (The Disaster within our borders is oddly absent -- perhaps things have lurched positively between 2020 and 2029!) It's exciting, even gripping, throughout. I'm glad I finally got to one of Jack's novels.

(Mild disclaimer -- Jack and I once worked at the same company, though half the country apart, and we certainly didn't know each other. (We've met since, a few times.) I don't think that really means all that much, but it's always increased my interest in his fiction.)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

Books Considered: The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier

I run into Rachel Neumeier fairly often at local conventions (she lives in outstate Missouri.) She's written a number of fantasy novels, for Orbit and Saga and other houses, YA and adult both. She gave me a copy of her first novel, The City in the Lake, after the first panel we shared, at Archon quite some time ago. Here's what I wrote about that back then.

It's a YA novel, a fantasy, in general outline a fairly conventional YA fantasy, but quite well done, and achieving real beauty at times. Some of it reminded me a bit of Le Guin, particularly the first Earthsea books, not in plot in any way, but rather something of the feel of the book. I liked it quite a bit, and I hope to see more from Neumeier.

It is set in a mostly peaceful kingdom. The King has two sons. The elder, called the Bastard, is the son of a mysterious woman who came to the City, more or less seduced the King, and then left after bearing his child. The younger is the son of the Queen, a much younger woman who married the King years later. The younger son is of course the heir, and he is widely beloved. The Bastard is instead widely feared, but it seems not for good reasons -- he is in fact an honest man, and very capable, and has no wish to supplant his half-brother as heir -- but people just assume he does. Then the younger son disappears, and no one can find him, and things in the Kingdom start to go wrong.

In a pleasant village remote from the central City, a girl named Timou grows up. Her father, Kapoen, is a wizard, a rather powerful wizard for such a small village, but he is accepted, and does well by the village. Timou never knew her mother, however. She grows up happily enough, learning from her father how to be a wizard, and making friends with the village children, but somehow remaining rather separate. When a young man, Jonas, begins to court her, she puts him off, though she likes him, because she has learned from Kapoen that wizarding and marriage do not mix. Then one spring, as Timou turns 17, disaster strikes: the animals fail to bear, trees won't bear fruit, and Timou's just married friends have stillborn children. The villagers learn that the Crown Prince has disappeared, and of course it is assumed that his disappearance is the reason for the disasters ... Kapoen decides he must travel to the City to help the court wizards find out what has happened, but he charges Timou to stay put.

Of course, after a while she decides she must go to the City as well ... to look for the Prince, or for her father, or for her mother perhaps? She must first travel through the strange forest between her and the City, and that is a strange journey indeed. Then she comes to the City, and also its parallel City, in the Lake, and finds something quite unexpected there. Meanwhile the King has also disappeared, and the Queen blames the Bastard ... And Jonas follows Timou, against her express instructions, and he finds that the path through the forest is different for all different people. Of course, all these people are key to the eventual solution, which is nicely handled, and resolved well, not without loss, but not sadly.

The magic in this book often seems arbitrary, but in quite effective ways. It comes across as magic, not just a different sort of science. The worldbuilding is undeniably rather thin -- at times the world seems to consist only of city/village/forest ... but this isn't a novel that rests on worldbuilding. It rests rather on the characters, and on a little familial tangle, and on magic -- and one some quite nice set pieces, some quite dramatic scenes. Very nice work.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Jo Walton

Today is my friend Jo Walton's birthday. In her honor, then, here's a briefish collection of my reviews of some of her short fiction. I wish there could be more, but she is primarily a novelist, and an excellent one. But her short fiction is excellent too -- and there is a collection, Starlings.

Locus, August 2006

Best I think is Jo Walton’s “Down to Earth” (Absolute Magnitude), in which a somewhat na├»ve young woman from a space habitat travels to Earth to capture squirrels. Only she doesn’t know much about squirrels – or about Earth.

Review of The Best from Jim Baen's Universe from Locus, October 2007

There are other strong stories – Jo Walton’s “What Would Sam Spade Do?” is an amusing and sharp variation on the idea of cloning Jesus.

Locus, April 2009

Jo Walton’s “Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction” ( is a brief pendant to her Farthing novels, set in the U. S. and quietly showing that it shared England’s darkness.

Locus, July 2009

But the clear standout in Firebirds Soaring is Jo Walton’s “Three Twilight Tales”, which begins with a girl making a man out of “two rhymes and a handful of moonshine” and continues into a tavern, where three separate but closely linked tales unfold, leading with retrospective inevitability to a king in search of a queen who finds something perhaps better.

Locus, May 2014

Jo Walton's “Turnover” (Lightspeed, March) is a strong generation ship story from a rather obscure recent source, a 2013 chapbook published by the UK convention Novacon.

Locus, October 2014

Jo Walton also contributes a strong story to in August, “Sleeper”, in which Essie, a biographer in an all too plausible dystopian corporatist future, creates a simulation of her latest subject, Matthew Corley, a fairly famous televison director who had a couple of secrets – he was gay, and he was a Soviet “sleeper” agent. The simulation is ostensibly to help Essie understand her subject better, but the story subtly and almost sadly suggests another reason for her creation, in a dark 21st Century, of a computer simulation of someone who wanted a better world in the 20th Century.

Locus, June 2017 in April features a Jo Walton story with a really absorbing central idea. In “A Burden Shared”, technology exists that allows one person to take on another’s pain. The main character, Penny, and her ex-husband take turns sharing their daughter’s pain – she has an incurable condition resulting in constant pain; and without this help her successfully career might be impossible. (Other uses of the tech are mentioned – apparently devoted fans of celebrities clamor to take their idols’ pain for a time – a nice touch, I thought.) But when Penny wakes up Ann’s pain seems worse than usual – and that points up a real issue with the notion: pain does have uses – and, also, if you are sharing someone else’s pain, what about your own? And indeed Penny soon learns that she has cancer – is it possible she missed the signs because she confused that pain for Ann’s pain? The interesting central idea aside, the story is also an effective look at Penny’s emotional landscape.