Saturday, September 24, 2022

Rambling Notes on The Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe

rambling notes by Rich Horton

(Cover by Don Maitz)

I read this book in 1980, shortly after it appeared. (My copy is a first edition.) I was already a great fan of Gene Wolfe (that's why I bought the hardcover right away!) and this seemed (still seems) a confirmation of his status as one of the most exciting, most complex, most original SF writers. This is a view I have not abandoned since. 

We discussed the book in my regular book club (run by Mark Tiedemann) for September, so I reread it. Shortly thereafter I attended a panel on Gene Wolfe at Chicon 8. All this was energizing -- I'll be paying extra attention to Wolfe in the near future. For one thing, I'll certainly finish my reread of the New Sun books. And I'll catch up to some of the late Wolfe I haven't yet read. 

But what about The Shadow of the Torturer? In a way, I don't have much to say. Not that there isn't a lot to say, but most of it has been said by others, and I don't think I have the energy to attack that now. Maybe after I've finished the whole set? For now, some, I guess, rambling notes.

What is the book about? I think most people know that -- it's the account of Severian, a member of the Guild of Seekers for Truth and Penitence (which is to say, Torturers), beginning with his youth in the Guild, and following him until he leaves his home city, Nessus. We soon gather that the older Severian is now the Autarch, ruler of this far future Urth. But this volume concerns only his life mostly from roughly puberty until his expulsion from the Guild. 

The central sequence concerns his relationship with the Chatelaine Thecla, an aristocratic woman who has been imprisoned by the Autarch, presumably because her sister is involved with a revolutionary group led by one Vodalus. (Severian very briefly encounters this sister (and Vodalus) in the opening scene of the novel.) Thecla's fate is to be tortured, to attempt to extract information about Vodalus, though more likely really as a sort of petty revenge against her sister. (Thecla may well know nothing.) Severian, as a pubescent boy, falls hard for the beautiful Chatelaine. In his telling he seems to think she returns his affection, but in my reading she at most regards him as sort of a cute puppy, and also as the only source of human companionship available to her. And, of course, as potentially her savior. For, indeed, Severian betrays his oath and gives Thecla a knife with which to commit suicide and thus escape torture. For this crime Severian is expelled from the Guild, and exiled to a remote provincial town, Thrax, to serve as carnifex, or executioner.

While in my memory Severian's time with Thecla dominates this first book, in fact more than half the book concerns Severian wandering the city after his expulsion. In this sequence he meets several important people: the seductive and treacherous woman Agia; her brother Agilus, who covets Severian's sword; the giant Baldanders; the strange Dr. Talos and his group of players, including the beautiful Jolenta; and of course Dorcas, a long dead woman whom he retrieves from a strange pool and resurrects. He is challenged to a duel to the death. He visits the Botanic Gardens, which are much bigger on the inside than the outside. And, significantly, he comes into possession of the jewel called the Claw of the Conciliator.

I've skipped over almost every incident, but that's OK, these are best encountered in the reading. What I remember still is, partly, the mysteries. The famous picture of the armored man in a desolate landscape. The Matachin Tower where the witches live (and the realization that all the guild towers are spaceships.) The hut in the Jungle Garden. The note Severian receives. Dr. Talos' play. 

A couple of things struck me in particular on this rereading. One is that Severian, throughout this book, is very young, perhaps 15 at the conclusion. I had always thought of him as older, perhaps because his narrative voice is that of a much older man. (Wolfe is always very careful to control point of view, and keeping track of who is telling his stories, and from which point of view, is essential. This story is told by an older man with perfect memory, but a man who has his own agenda. (Contrast the games played in the Soldier books, in which the narrator forgets everything each night; or how a story like "Tracking Song" is told: via notes recorded each day by a man who knows little of even his identity.)) It seems important to me now though to keep in mind that Severian is a callow adolescent. This colors in particular his relationships with women ...

Which brings me to the question of women, and their characterization. Wolfe is often criticized for his women characters, and often with good reason. The women in this book -- Thecla, Agia, Dorcas, Jolenta, even the prostitute with whom Severian loses his virginity, all fit, more or less, into the old virgin vs. whore duality. There are complexities, of course, that make that bald dichotomy an over-simplification. And it should be remembered that all these women are seen through the eyes of a callow adolescent (admittedly, perhaps also through the memory of a much older man.) But still -- Thecla as portrayed is an idealized woman. (I am convinced, though, that truly we know little of her real self, only what Severian sees.) Agia is a treacherous schemer. Dorcas is nearly a pure innocent, in that she seems literally newly reborn. We learn little of Jolenta in this volume -- we see her only through Severian's eyes, and Severian's response is sheerly lustful. And of course the the prostitute really is a whore (and one who is imitating Thecla, to boot.) I have seen it suggested that all the women are improbably attracted to Severian -- but I think that's a misreading. It is only Dorcas who may be sincerely attracted to him. We know little (yet) of Jolenta. Thecla's relationship is unequal and constrained by her imprisonment. Agia's motivations are clearly transactional -- there is no reason to believe she cares a whit for Severian. (I will add one thing about Severian's relationship with Thecla -- it is never directly said that he and Thecla have sex, but I think there are sufficient hints that they do.) In sum -- I don't think this book has fully realized female characters -- which is to day that Wolfe's critics aren't wrong -- but I also think, that for this particular book, that is not a weakness, simply a result of the book's focus. (Though I can understand that for some readers, this aspect of the book may be a failure.)

I don't have any overarching conclusion to reach, and I don't think I will until I complete the four volume sequence. I'll simply say that The Book of the New Sun's high reputation is deserved, and this reread of the first volume has not changed my mind.

Finally, a look at two Gene Wolfe signatures -- one stamped on the front cover of my edition of The Shadow of the Torturer, the other written in my copy of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. (Alas, I can't just now put my hands on the copy of my first Best of the Year volume which I got Wolfe to sign next to his story in that book, "Comber".) The signatures are definitely the same!



Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, by Lawrence Block

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, by Lawrence Block

by Rich Horton


I've previously read several Lawrence Block books with enjoyment, but I hadn't yet tried his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, about the title man, a burglar, who gets involved in murder cases and helps solve them (or so I deduce.) I received an advance copy of the latest in the series, the thirteenth, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown. My interest was piqued in part because I know Brown as both a science fiction writer and a mystery writer, of some note in both fields. So, odd as it may seem to begin a series at book 13, I gave it a go. And I enjoyed it a great deal.

(I'll note in advance that this book won't be released for another month -- October 18th. But go ahead and pre-order -- it's available in audio, or for Kindle, or in print.)

We open with Bernie at his antiquarian bookstore, Barnegat Books. Books and bookselling are his love -- burgling is just a way to make money. Sadly, in these days technology has made both jobs harder -- omnipresent surveillance and modern locks are tough on burglars, and internet bookselling is killing physical book stores. Bernie notes the shoppers glancing at his books then look for deals online, for instance. A former regular customer is now selling him books he found cheap. But he's still able to live his fairly comfortable life, feed his cat, and meet his best friend, Carolyn, for lunch and/or drinks, and to complain about the state of modern life -- the eyesore skyscraper that replaced the Bowl-Mor, or Amazon killing Bernie's business, or all of Carolyn's favorite dyke bars closing. Bernie dreams of stealing the Kloppman Diamond from sleazy Pharma Bro Orrin Vanderbrinck, but the cameras everywhere are a problem. So it's off to bed with Fredric Brown's classic noir, The Screaming Mimi.

The next morning things seem strange. Business at the bookstore is brisk. One of his favorite customers is back. A couple of very intriguing women buy a lot of books ... and seem interested in more. And ... the Bowl-Mor is back! What is going on? A meeting with Carolyn reveals that she has notices odd changes as well ... And -- hey, there aren't any security cameras around Orrin Vanderbrinck's penthouse.

Before long we gather -- Bernie gathers -- that somehow he and Carolyn have ventured into "the best of all possible worlds". Bernie's business is booming because there are no internet bookstores. Carolyn's favorite dyke bars are back. And Orrin Vanderbrinck's diamond might be accessible to a skillful burglar!

I won't say much further ... suffice to say that complications arise. There are a couple of murders. Bernie is accused of a crime he didn't commit -- or, maybe, this universe's version of Bernie did? And he and Carolyn's relationship takes an unexpected step. Can Bernie figure out what's happening? Well, sort of, because this book isn't about the mystery, really. It's about -- well, more than anything it's about friendship, and beautifully so. It's also about Fredric Brown (and his SF book What Mad Universe.) It's about long series of mysteries. It's about books, and if getting everything you want is the best thing. And it's a very funny book -- much of it is Bernie and Carolyn talking, finishing each others' sentences in the manner of best friends, joshing with each other. It's simply -- warm and sweet and clever.

It's also SF, and Lawrence Block isn't really an SF writer (though he did have an early story in one of Judith Merril's Best of the Year annuals.) But he plays nicely with the old multiverse trope. Maybe not much makes sense, and that's part of the point! I'll be looking for more Bernie Rhodenbarr books -- if I have time, because Lawrence Block promised to tell Bernie to save some Jeffery Farnol books for me the next time I can make it to Barnegat Books!

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Angelic Avengers, by "Pierre Andrézel" (Karen Blixen)

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Angelic Avengers, by "Pierre Andrézel" (Karen Blixen)

by Rich Horton

Karen Dinesen was born in Denmark in 1885. Her father was wealthy and had a small literary reputation, but he committed suicide when Karen was 9. She made an unfortunate marriage to the Swedish Baron Bror Blixen in 1914, and they opened a coffee plantation in Kenya. Bror was unfaithful and lazy, and by 1921 the marriage had collapsed. Blixen stayed in Kenya until 1931, living since 1925 with the big game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton, until he died in a plane crash. After the coffee plantation failed, Karen Blixen returned to her family's home in Denmark, where she remained for the rest of her life, dying in 1962. (She was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize that year (Steinbeck won) and she may have been chosen had she not died, though apparently the Swedish Academy was worried about showing too much favoritism to Scandinavians. This is an appropriate concern, that seems not to have bothered them with such later controversial picks as Eyvind Johnson. I personally think Dinesen a much more interesting writer than Steinbeck, and I wish she had won the Prize.)

She had written stories for literary magazines as a young woman, published in Danish as by "Osceola", but she doesn't seem to have intended to have a literary career until late in her time in Kenya. Her first book was Seven Gothic Tales, completed in 1933. She wrote it in English (which she primarily spoke while in English-speaking Kenya.) After some difficulty, she found a publisher in the United States (who did not pay an advance!), using the semi-pseudonym Isak Dinesen, which she retained for the rest of her career. (I say semi-pseudonym as after all Dinesen was her maiden name.) Her best known work seems to be her memoir of her time in Kenya, Out of Africa, though its fame must rest in some part on the popular movie. I far prefer her fiction -- especially Seven Gothic Tales, but really all of her works in that mode, including Winter's Tales, Last Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny (which includes "Babette's Feast", also made into a successful film), and Ehrengard. All these are moody, colorful, usually set in the past, and often with a touch of the supernatural. Beautiful work. There was some resentment in Denmark about the fact that her first book was written in English (she published a Danish version as a free translation, with some details changed) and her subsequent work was usually published simultaneously in Danish and English, and it's not clear to me if she wrote in one language and then translated the work, or if she did the writing sort of simultaneously. Her life story is quite interesting, often dark -- marred by her father's suicide, her husband's unfaithfulness, her lover's untimely death, and chronic illness (including syphilis contracted from her husband, and various other medical issues due in part to poor treatment of the syphilis, or so it is believed.) 


In this context The Angelic Avengers, her only full-length novel, is something of an outlier (though it does bear some similarity to her other fiction.) She wrote it during the War, and it was published in 1946. She seems to have been a bit dissatisfied with it, and she chose a new pseudonym, "Pierre Andrézel". For some time she denied that she had written it, or claimed that she had merely translated a lost French novel. For myself, I found the book at an estate sale quite a while ago, and figured it was worth a shot for a dollar. I had no idea who Pierre Andrézel was, but it looked like the kind of goofy over the top romantic/Gothic fiction I often enjoy. And so it proved to be! I was quite surprised (and somewhat gratified) when I looked up Andrézel to see if "he" had written any other books, and found that "he" was actually one of my favorite writers. I reread it just now, partly in service of the 1946 Project at the recent Worldcon.

The Angelic Avengers is set in the 1840s. A young English girl, Lucan Bellenden, an orphan, has lost her position as a lady's companion, and finds a new one as governess to a blind young boy. She soon grows attached to the boy, and the boy's widowed father begins to pay attention to her. Lucan senses that he may be about to propose, and she has decided she must refuse -- she does not love him. And then she is shocked and embarrassed when instead he suggests she become his mistress. So she runs away.

With no chance of another position without a reference, she can only think to throw herself on the mercy of an old school friend, Zosine, and she ends up at her house, on their mutual 18th birthday. Zosine is happy to see her, and invites her to her birthday ball ... and, shockingly, the ball ends with the revelation that Zosine's father has had to run away to avoid his creditors -- a business venture collapsed terribly. Zosine too is now destitute, with only her father's estranged cousin, Aunt Arabella, and her  old black nurse, Olympia, from Hispaniola (where Zosine was raised.)

(I will add immediately that the portrayal of Olympia, though quite positive in the sense that she is a good person and treated sympathetically, also trades quite broadly on racist stereotypes, and rather diminishes the fact that Olympia was a slave and though she claims to have loved Zosine's father, and had a child of his, was also clearly a victim of sexual predation in that sense.)

Zosine and Lucan need to find another position, and after some difficulty receive what seems a remarkable offer -- to come to France to live with an old English couple, a retired clergyman and his wife. Their duties will be light, primarily to take studies in history and religion from the old man. And so they go, and at first things seem wonderful. The old man, Mr. Penhallow, is very learned and teaches them a great deal. The place, in the Languedoc, is quite pleasant. There are some jarring notes -- the servant boy, Clon, who seems simple minded and apparently has a criminal past, for one. And the housekeeper is somewhat sinister. Finally, the neighboring estate, Joliet, seat of the Baron de Valfonds, has a curious history -- the Baron's family has vowed never to leave their province, ever since his ancestor was murdered during the French Revolution. The two girls do meet some interesting young men -- Baron Thésée, for one; and an Englishman, Noël Hartranft, who seems to fall for Zosine, but who admits he is engaged and will not go back on this promise; plus the handsome young Magistrate, Emmanuel Tinchebrai, who may be a byblow of one of the Valfonds ...

The sense that something is wrong mounts, and the reader will not be surprise to learn that there is a terribly dark secret behind the supposedly idyllic home the girls have been provided. The action turns on them finding a secret letter; on a serious accusation against Mr. Penhallow that seems to be disproved; and on the girls' realization that they are in desperate danger, and soon all hope of escape seems gone ...

It's all terribly melodramatic, of course. The villain(s) are satisfyingly horrible, and the two protagonists are engaging. The motivations are deeply weird in a very old-fashioned way: the attitudes, both religious and as to the proper place of women, are absurd. The romances are a bit thin, to be sure. But if one simply accepts the attitudes as a weird fantasy situation, and reads the novel just for the over the top fun, it's quite entertaining. Definitely not for everyone -- and not as powerful as Dinesen's great "Tales" -- but I liked it. It's sometimes considered fantastical, and certainly there are a few occurrences that can be regarded as supernatural, but I think it's best considered a Gothic historical novel.

(Evidently it was regarded in Denmark as partly a satire/allegory of the German occupation, though Dinesen always denied this.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Unfortunate Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Unfortunate Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

by Rich Horton

Mervyn Wall (1908-1997) was an Irish civil servant, and also a writer of plays, stories, novels and non-fiction. The Unfortunate Fursey was his first novel (though he had written plays before that.) It was published in 1946, and a sequel, The Return of Fursey, appeared two years later. These are darkly comic works, satirical commentary on the Church and on Irish life. His later four novels seems to have abandoned the humor and the fantastical elements, and instead are deadly serious -- though well respected -- works of social realism. He retains a significant if minor reputation, both for the Fursey books and the later novels.

I heard about The Unfortunate Fursey only a few years ago, when the new Valancourt Press edition appeared with an introduction by Michael Dirda. I read the introduction somewhere and I was convinced I should read the book -- but I didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks about, spurred by the 1946 project at Chicon 8 to consider it as a potential "Hugo" candidate had there been Hugos then. And, indeed, The Unfortunate Fursey is definitely one of the best fantastical novels of its year (though Wall would probably be pipped at the post by another Mervyn, Peake, with his novel Titus Groan.)


The Unfortunate Fursey begins at the monastery of Clonmacnoise, some time in the 10th Century. This long peaceful community is under siege from by a plague of demons, and the monks turn to prayer and proven chants to conquer the devils. Alas, one monk, the simple Fursey, is so frightened by the unholy visitors that his prayers are ruined by his stuttering. Before long, the demons concentrate in Fursey's room, and the monks decide the only solution is to expel him.

So Fursey begins his travels, wholly unprepared for life on the road. The devil shows up with an offer for him -- for the minimal price of his soul he will have peace. (As with so many novels about the devil, he gets a lot of the best lines.) Fursey ends up forced into marriage with a suspected witch, after he has saved her from drowning (of course, the fact that she was drowning proved she wasn't a witch.) That marriage doesn't last long after after a sorcerous battle with a neighboring sexton. Fursey is soon trying to return to Clonmacnoise, but his fellow monks will have none of it. So then it's to a King's city to be executed, with the help of a fierce friar who will conduct the examination of Fursey. But with the help of a Byzantine prince (real identity easily deduced) Fursey escapes again.

The story is very funny throughout, and never loses its satirical edge. Fursey soon has a reputation as a formidable sorcerer, and despite his sincere faith he begins to be tempted -- for the devil never leaves him alone. He meets a beautiful woman at a temporary place of refuge, but soon the King starts a war ... No need to detail the plot any further (and my recitation so far is likely somewhat muddled.) The Unfortunate Fursey remains a success -- funny, dark, piercing, uncompromising. It's a novel that has never been precisely famous, but also never forgotten, and contemporary readers should definitely take a look.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Hugo Nomination Recommendations, 1947

Potential Hugo nominees from 1947 (1946 Worldcon)


For Chicon 8, the 2022 Worldcon, I participated in a panel on potential Hugo nominees for the 1947 Worldcon, from 75 years previously. Chicon 8 decided not to have Retro Hugos -- a good decision, I believe -- but instead hosted a series of panels on SF in 1946, including this one. The best thing about Retro Hugos is that they can spur discussion and rereading of stories from the past -- and a panel like this is doing exactly that!

Thanks to Cora Buhlert, David Ritter, Dave Hook, Trish Matson, Michael Haynes, and others who made suggestions!

One category that fans back then might have wanted to vote for that really isn't considered much by Hugo voters today is anthologies, and there is little doubt that Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Raymond Healy and J. Francis McComas; as well as The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, each landmark anthologies of short fiction, were the favorite SF books of that year. In addition, 1946 marked the first book publication of two exceptionally popular novels (neither of which have really retained their reputation at this late date): Slan, by A. E. van Vogt; and The Skylark of Space, by Edward E. Smith and Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby. I should also mention that there were some significant SF movies that year, the best of them likely A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and starring David Niven and Kim Hunter.

Novels:

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake

The Unfortunate Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White

The Angelic Avengers, by "Pierre Andrezel" (Karen Blixen)

The Murder of the U. S. A., by "Murray Leinster" (Will F. Jenkins)

It seems clear to me that Titus Groan is the major work here, the one best known these days. The Unfortunate Fursey is an interesting alternate choice, I think. Very darkly funny, a satirical look at Irish life and the church in particular, set in the 9th century. Mistress Masham's Repose is a very fun "YA" book. The Angelic Avengers is a curious possibility -- it reads like me like historical fiction, but there are some strange happenings that you can squint at and call fantastical. 

Note that I list nothing from within the genre. (Even the Leinster novel was marketed as a mystery.) None of the novel length things from the magazines are familiar to me, to be honest. Does anyone know enough about, say, "Slaves of the Lamp" by Arthur Leo Zagat? Or "Pattern for Conquest", by George O. Smith? Or "The Fairy Chessmen", by Kuttner and Moore? (The latter is a long novella but would be eligible as a novel.) 

Novellas:

"The Chromium Helmet", by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, June) 

"The Last Objective", by Paul A. Carter (Astounding, August)

"Special Knowledge", by A. Bertram Chandler (Astounding, February)

"Lorelei of the Red Mist", by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories, Summer)

"The Blast", by Stuart Cloete (Collier's, April)

"Metamorphosite", by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding, December)

I'm not sure which of these to choose. My real preference would be to reclassify "Vintage Season" here! "The Chromium Helmet" is an intriguing piece about technological pyschological changes with a strong human story at its center -- but it leans too heavily into meaningless tech jargon. Had Sturgeon written it a decade later it would have been half the length and twice as good. The Brackett/Bradbury story (finished by Bradbury after Brackett left for Hollywood) is actually rather disappointing. This is, really, a set of good but not great stories.

Novelettes:

"Evidence", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, September) 

"Rescue Party", by Arthur C. Clarke (Astounding, May)

"A Logic Named Joe", by "Murray Leinster" (Will F. Jenkins) (Astounding, March)

"Daemon", by C. L. Moore (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October)

"Vintage Season", by "Lawrence O'Donnell" (C. L. Moore) (Astounding, September)

Other possibilities:

"This is the House", by "Lawrence O'Donnell" (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) (Astounding, February)

"Dead City", by "Murray Leinster" (Will F. Jenkins) (Thrilling Wonder, Summer)

"The Toymaker", by Raymond F. Jones (Astounding, September)

"Hobbies", by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding, November)

"Vintage Season" is the runaway winner here. One of the greatest SF stories of all time -- a beautifully written and quite powerful story about a man who lets his house to a group of strange people -- learning eventually that they are time travel tourists, and that they are fascinated by disasters. It is usually regarded as primarily a C. L. Moore story -- and I agree with primarily -- but it does seem to me that Kuttner also likely had a hand in it. If we move that to novella (at about 17,300 words, it would be eligible) my somewhat sentimental vote would go to "Rescue Party". "A Logic Named Joe" is famous for "predicting the Internet" but people don't quite realize how well Leinster did predict it, from someone looking up how to kill your wife to kids finding porn ... it's a damn good story. "Daemon" is an effective fantasy about a simple man who can see the "souls" of other people (so he thinks). "Evidence" is one of the later stories in I, Robot; a good story if not one of Asimov's best.

Short Stories:

"The Million-Year Picnic", by Ray Bradbury (Saturday Evening Post, September 23)

"Placet is a Crazy Place", by Fredric Brown (Astounding, May)

"The Last Generation", by Miriam Allen de Ford (Harper's, November)

"Absalom", by Henry Kuttner (with C. L. Moore) (Startling, Fall)

"Alexander the Bait", by "William Tenn" (Philip Klass) (Astounding, May)

Other possibilities:

"The Machine", by "Allison V. Harding" (Jean Milligan) (Weird Tales, September)

"Rain Check", by "Lewis Padgett" (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) (Astounding, July)

"Memorial", by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, April) 

"The Million-Year Picnic" is Ray Bradbury's first great story, the final story in The Martian Chronicles, truly outstanding. A personal favorite. "Alexander the Bait" was Tenn's first sale, and it's good if not great. "Absalom" is a pretty powerful Kuttner story (probably in collaboration with Moore.) "The Last Generation" was presumably not widely noticed in the SF field until its reprint in F&SF in 1950, but it's an impressive piece, more a philosophical meditation than much of a story. "Placet is a Crazy Place" is a well-known story about a very strange planet, and "Absalom" is a powerful story about successive generations of "supermen". 

I thank Michael Haynes for uncovering "The Machine". The story of "Allison V. Harding" is interesting in itself: Jean Milligan married Lamont Buchanan, who became an Associate Editor at Weird Tales under Dorothy McIlwraith, and all her stories were sold to either Weird Tales or another McIlwraith magazine, Short Stories. Her reputation is uneven. Some have suggested that the stories were actually written by her husband, who published several nonfiction books -- I find the evidence for that unconvincing though it's not impossible. The two lived frugally and rather reclusively, Jean dying in 2004 at 85, and Lamont living until 2015. At his death he left a fortune of some $15,000,000. (Both the Milligan family and the Buchanan family were wealthy -- it wasn't the Allison Harding stories and the Lamont Buchanan books that made their money!) Buchanan was also one of the few people to interview J. D. Salinger, though his interview was in 1940, long before Salinger's success.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White

Old Bestseller Review: Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White

by Rich Horton

T. H. White (1906-1964) is of course primarily -- almost exclusively -- remembered for The Once and Future King, his brilliant tetralogy (or single novel) aboout King Arthur. But he wrote a great deal, including two science fiction novels in the 1930s (Earth Stopped and Gone to Ground.) He wrote the first three parts of The Once and Future King (The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood, and The Ill-Made Knight) in the late '30s and early '40s, but just after the war he produced this delightful children's book, Mistress Masham's Repose. It was first published in the US in 1946, and the next year came out in the UK. (The Once and Future King was published in full in 1958, with the first and second sections much revised (and the second retitled The Queen of Air and Darkness) and new fourth section added, The Candle in the Wind. There is a pendant, The Book of Merlyn, written in 1941 but not published until 1977.) 


My copy of Mistress Masham's Repose appears to be a true first edition. (Not that that is impressive -- the same book in the same condition runs about $10 at Abebooks.) It is inscribed "Vera and Gene Brown. Oct. 1946." The illustrations are by Fritz Eichenberg. (I called this an "Old Bestseller Review" -- I doubt this was a true bestseller, but I think it was very well-received from the beginning.)

The story concerns Maria, a 10 year old girl living on a decaying estate, Malplaquet, in Northamptonshire. She is an orphan, and her guardians are an extremely unpleasant pair, Miss Brown and the Vicar. The two of them are conspiring to steal Maria's inheritance; and in the mean time are abusive, and are embezzling from her. One day while the Vicar and Miss Brown are malingering (a common event) she takes advantage of her freedom to take a boat on one of the little lakes or ponds on the estate, and comes to a tiny island. She goes ashore, and with difficulty reaches a structure (a folly) on the island, and while poking around she sees a tiny person. Fascinated, she picks the little woman up and decides to take her home, as sort of a doll, despite the fierce resistance in the form of tiny pinpricks from a tiny man ... Back in her room, the little woman refuses to be fed and refuses to cooperate, and Maria takes her to her only friend (besides the Cook): the Professor, an aging Latin scholar. The Professor immediately rebukes her -- surely she must realize that these little people have as much right as anyone for liberty, and he urges her to return the little woman home.

Eventually, Maria reluctantly agrees, and takes the woman back to the island. She hatches a plan to benefit the islanders -- there are a few hundred -- to do things to benefit the islanders, and after some suspicion of her, they start to accept her. But her clumsy attempts to help, and her desire to be praised for that, backfire as well, and the Professor urges her again to understand that these are independent agents, and know best how to live their lives. (He uses the Cargo Cult story as a bad example.) By now they have found out that these little people are Lilliputians, brought to England by a sea captain who had rescued Gulliver and knew their location. The captain had planned to make a fortune exhibiting them, but the Lilliputians were happily able to escape and make there way to this now neglected small island. 

The rest of the plot revolves around the danger of the Lilliputians being discovered by Miss Brown and the Vicar, who will doubtless exploit them much as the captain had planned. In addition, they are increasing their pressure on Maria, hoping to find a way to extract all of her inheritance, either by killing her (by accident, of course) or by find the document establishing her title and altering it. Maria and the Professor and the Lilliputians end up cooperating to mutually save themselves and to send Miss Brown and the Vicar to their deserved fate. All this is intriguing enough (though some of the action is a bit overdone, even tedious): daring escapes and heroic Lilliputian treks across the dangerous miles (as it seems to them) of the estate, with dungeons and vile punishments and locked rooms etc.

The real joy, though, at least for an adult reader, is the comical asides. The Professor is the ur-Absent Minded Professor, obsessed with figuring out the mean of obscure Latin words. The Cook is a sweet old lady with her own ideas about treatment of little girls. There is a Lord Lieutenant obsessed with horses who gets an extended comic segment involving the various toy horses he uses to dispense his cigars and candy etc. The various Lilliputians are nice individuals with their own comic aspects. And there are constant hilarious references to the history of the estate, and the many famous individuals who stayed there. (Those alert to English history will recognize allusions to, for example, the Duke of Marlborough (for example, one of Marlborough's great victories was at the Battle of Malplaquet. My actual knowledge of Marlborough is mostly derived from Thackeray's Henry Esmond, and may be distorted, as Esmond (and presumably Thackeray) disliked him.) This is a book I think I'd have loved had a discovered it as a child; and that I greatly liked discovering it late in life.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Review: Finder, by Suzanne Palmer

Review: Finder, by Suzanne Palmer

by Rich Horton

Suzanne Palmer has been publishing short fiction since 2005, and, curiously perhaps for an American writer, she first made her mark with stories for Andy Cox's magazines in the UK (Interzone and Black Static) and for the Australian publication Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I first noticed her with the Black Static story "Zombie Cabana Boy" in 2010, which won me over despite being about perhaps my least favorite horror trope. She has been publishing more widely in the last decade, with stories both thoughtful and full of adventure and action; and she has a Best Novelette Hugo for "The Secret Life of Bots".


Finder
was her first novel, from 2019. It has spawned two sequels (Driving the Deep (2020) and The Scavenger Door (2021)), neither of which I've read. I will say that Finder is a perfectly successful standalone; though its protagonist is clearly, on the first hand the sort of character who could be the driver of an entire series, and on the second hand, one who has a personal situation that could drive a more tightly connected set of books with a true narrative arc. I read the book by listening to the audio version. The narrator is Joe Hempel. (I will likely misspell some names, or forget some, in the review -- a hazard of reading by listening. Also, there is a map in the printed book, which might have helped!) 

This main character is named Fergus Ferguson. He was born on Earth in a climate-ruined future, and after a fraught childhood in flooded Scotland, escaped to Mars as a teen. He became an accidental hero of the Martian resistance in a losing fight, but having lost his closest friend, a combination of survivor guilt and perhaps some PTSD led him to keep escaping, it seems; and his current job is to find things; wherever they might be in the human occupied Galaxy. This Galaxy appears to be the fairly typical sort we see in a lot of SF: connected by wormholes of some sort, with planets and space habitats scattered widely, some home to humans, others to a variety of alien species. 

Fergus has come to Cernekan, a loose collection of different types of space-based habitats, in search of Venetia's Sword, a spaceship which was stolen by a criminal named Arum Gilger. On arrival, he meets a woman named Mother Vahn, and learns quickly that she and Gilger are enemies ... and almost immediately their transport is sabotaged, and Mother Vahn is killed. Fergus manages to escape and is rescued by the rest of Mother Vahn's family, who appear to be clones. Fergus learns -- despite the fierce suspicions of some of the Vahns, especially the teenager Mari, that Cernekan is politically divided into roughly five power centers: the Governor, the "Wheels" (which is to say, the habitats where the Vahns (lichen farmers) and the arms dealer Harcourt live), the medical satellite, the criminal organization running the mines, and Arum Gilger's upstart criminal group. (There are also the mysterious Shielders, who live in the sunshields that control solar radiation for Cernekan, and are very reclusive.) The Vahns somewhat reluctantly trust Fergus, believing that his mission to recover the stolen spaceship puts him on the same side as them, who want Gilger stopped.

The novel's pace is extremely rapid, with neat action segments following each other relentlessly. It soon becomes clear that Gilger is making a play for control of Cernekan. He's a sociopath, and his chief henchman, Bor Graf, is even more clearly a psychopath, given to murdering people (especially Vahns) on a whim. Gilger has formed an alliance with the miners, with the aim of destabilizing Cernekan. Fergus begins to take actions in support of the other side (basically the Governor and the Wheels) with help from Harcourt (another ex-Martian) and (reluctantly) Mari Vahn. Full scale war breaks out, and it soon is clear that Gilger is winning. But Fergus is able to do some good (taking Venetia's Sword out of action is one thing) until Harcourt's daughter on Mars is kidnapped by Gilger's thugs, and the price for her life is that Harcourt stay out of the battle. All may be lost ...

I've not mentioned a key outside factor -- the alien Asiig, who have lurked near Cernekan for decades, occasionally taking a person, and either not returning them, or returning them much changed. It's clear to the reader that the Asiig will eventually play a key role. And, indeed, that is one of a couple of quibbles I had with the book -- the Asiig's actions have a certain deus ex machina feel. My other quibble is one I have with many novels these days -- the bad guys are so bad, so sneeringly, pyschopathically horrible, that they stretch belief. Moreover, one has to ask -- what kind of polity would tolerate an Arum Gilger -- or especially a Bor Graf -- for any period of time? Really, one comes to the conclusion that Cernekan is a pretty dreadfully flawed society.

At any rate -- the novel is still a very enjoyable read. As I said, the pace is headlong, and well-maintained (though a side trip to Mars perhaps is a bit of a distraction.) At first it seemed set up to be rather light, a caper novel; but it's not. Fergus has his own troubled backstory, and the novel itself is a war novel, with a pretty extreme body count. But it's still a good deal of hectic fun, with some very clever plotty bits, and some nice humor mixed throughout. It's a first novel, and I'd say that shows, but it's a good first novel, and I'm definitely going to be checking out the sequels.