Sunday, October 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Later Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

In honor of what would have been Ursula Le Guin's 89th birthday, here's a selection of my reviews of some of her stories -- all pieces published after I started reviewing, so fairly late in her career.

Tangent, 2000

Ursula K. Le Guin's stories are always worth looking forward to.  "The Birthday of the World" (F&SF, June 2002) is another fine effort.  The narrator is the only daughter of God.  After God dies, she will marry her younger brother and they will jointly be God.  As we quickly gather, the story is set in a land where religion and monarchy are intertwined: "God" is the joint King and Queen, as it were.  The narrator's story continues as turbulent times come to her country.  They are powerful and violent (the narrator befriends a teenaged girl whom her father had raped and enslaved), and have been successful in war, but there are hints that this may end.  One of her brothers wishes to be God in place of the chosen brother.  The continued inbreeding in God's family seems to be causing genetic problems.  And finally a strange set of visitors appears.  Le Guin nicely portrays yet another different culture, and as usual she centers her story on a real person who truly comes to life.  I felt the ending, especially the nature of the "visitors" (which you may have already guessed) was a bit cliche, a bit flat, but this is still a fine story.

Locus, March 2002

While I enjoyed the novellas in the two Asimov's issues I've mentioned, the best stories in those issues are shorter stories.  The pick story this month is a novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wild Girls" (March).  It's one of her trademark "anthropological" SF stories, set on an unspecified planet, with three interrelated groups of humans: City people, Dirt people, and Root people.  Very roughly, the City people are aristocrats, the Dirt people peasants, and the Root people merchants.  The story opens with a young band of City men raiding a Dirt village, apparently to steal Dirt children to become slaves or, in the case of beautiful girls, concubines or wives. Le Guin slowly develops a picture of a rather cruel culture, with a number of interesting facets, all viewed deadpan, from an inside perspective.  More importantly, she intertwines this with the involving story of the destiny of two of the Dirt captives, sisters, as they grow up and attract the attention of the City men.  Le Guin remains one of our very best writers, and this is one of her finer recent stories.

Locus, June 2002

Ursula K. Le Guin's remarkable recent outpouring of SF continues with an original story in her new collection, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. This is "Paradises Lost", a very long novella (at over 36,000 words nearly a novel) about a generation starship. Le Guin specifically mentions Harry Martinson's long poem Aniara in her introduction, and indeed I was reminded in some ways of that work. Le Guin's interest is mostly in the society on board the ship, and specifically in the ways such a society will be stressed by the arrival at the destination star. Much of the story details the way in which a stable shipboard society has been established -- major adaptations such as the one child per person rule, and minor adaptations such as children wearing no clothes for the first few years of their lives. Le Guin then shows the growth of a new religion, fundamental to the ship itself. The final conflict is between adherents of this religion, who do not wish to leave the ship, and those who are willing to colonize the destination planet. Le Guin intelligently considers the likelihood that many shipdwellers would have no interest in moving to a planet, though the created religion is too harshly a caricature, made so clearly stupid, that her argument perhaps loses force.

Locus, August 2002

We are treated to a new Ursula K. Le Guin story, first posted at The Infinite Matrix, June 3. "The Seasons of the Ansarac" is a fine Le Guin story, in her familiar anthropological SF mode.  The Ansarac are a race that live according to their "Way": essentially, they live half the year in cities, crowded lives, but forming no families.  Each spring they migrate to the country, and there they live on isolated farms, with their mates.  But then a meddling visitor suggests change ... .  Solid, witty, work, and Le Guin's imagination about different ways of being a family remains a wonder.

Locus, November 2012

Tin House #53 celebrates its two home bases, Portland and Brooklyn, with stories and articles by residents of those places, and/or about those places. The magazine is notoriously friendly to the fantastic, and it's nice to see a new story from Portland's Ursula K. Le Guin, and it's especially nice to see that "Elementals" is a delight -- charming and imaginative, in tone reminding me of her Changing Planes stories. It describes a few "elemental" creatures: "Airlings", "Booklets" (which cause typos), and "Chthons" and "Draks", creatures of the earth and fire. Clever, gently funny, warm and thoughtful.

Locus, August 2018

We’ll begin with two traditional "literary" magazines -- for good reason. The Paris Review features a story for the late, much-lamented, Ursula K. Le Guin, "Firelight". It is, appropriately, a story about her most enduring character, Ged, on his deathbed. Not much I can say about except that it does not disappoint, it’s very moving -- and a quote: "He would go on this time, until he sailed into the other wind. If there were other shores he would come to them. …" Tears -- of loss but also celebration.

Ace Double Reviews, 112: Fugitive of the Stars, by Edmond Hamilton/Land Beyond the Map, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 112: Fugitive of the Stars, by Edmond Hamilton/Land Beyond the Map, by Kenneth Bulmer (#M-111, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Kenneth Bulmer again! With Edmond Hamilton. I'm posting this review -- a brand new Ace Double review -- on Hamilton's birthday, October 21.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Jerome Podwil)

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) of course was an early legend of the field, mostly for his Space Opera, though he was also associated with Weird Tales, where his first story appeared. He wrote most of the Captain Future stories, and was a regular writer for DC Comics. And of course he was married to the great Leigh Brackett.

And as I've noted before: Henry Kenneth Bulmer, born in England in 1921, was a very prolific writer from the early '50s, under his own name and many others, most notably "Alan Burt Akers", the name under which he wrote the Dray Prescot series for DAW. He was primarily an SF writer, but also did a lot of work in other genres. He was editor of the New Writings in SF anthology series after the death of John Carnell. He died in 2005.

Fugitive of the Stars opens with the Vega Queen and Captain Horne on a mission to worlds on the edge of the Federation. These worlds have problems -- piracy, for one. But for some reason they resist joining the Federation. Skereth is a major world, and the Vega Queen is set to pick up a local politician to take him to a conference -- and he's a pro-Federation man, so this could lead to Skereth joining.

On shore leave, the Queen's young navigator gets into a fight, and he's out of commission. A local man, Ardric, with navigation experience applies to take his place. All seems fine. But on the approach to Arcturus, Horne is asleep when it is time to traverse the "meteor swarm". Ardric leads the ship through, but there's a mistake, and the ship is destroyed, with almost everyone, including the pro-Federation politician, killed. Horne survives and is charged with dereliction of duty for being in a druken stupor. His career ruined, he realizes that Ardric, who portrayed himself as Federation sympathizer, must have actually been anti-Federation, and must have fed Horne a mickey and then purposely crashed the ship.

Out of options, Horne decides to return to Skereth and look for a way to clear his name. He is convinced that Ardric survived, so he'll look for him. But on arriving, he soon realizes that Ardric's father is the leader of a commercial concern that has reasons to stay out of the Federation. And that has the power to have him killed. And before long he's on a desperate trek to the city they control -- but then is diverted, in the company of a beautiful girl, who turns out to be the daughter of the pro-Federation man who died in the Vega Queen disaster. And the two of them end up in the company of some aliens, who tell of a tale of slavers who brought them to Skereth to work on something called "the Project".

The rest of the novel is a pretty routine working out of the plot -- a desperate strike in the company of wildly diverse former alien slaves at the  Project; the discovery of Ardric in his new role, the discovery of the nature of the  Project. And a perfunctory romance plot. The general outlines never surprise, though there are occasional nice touches in the description of the aliens. This is the sort of yard goods Hamilton could turn out with one typing hand tied behind his back. Minor work.

Bulmer's Land Beyond the Map, like other Bulmer novels, starts promisingly, and has some OK ideas, and then kind of fumbles the ending, largely I think because Bulmer couldn't really figure out the answers to some neat questions his setup posed.

Roland Crane is a very wealthy man, and a collector. One even he is surprised by a visit from a beautiful young woman name Polly Gould. She is looking for a map, a strange old map, torn down the middle, and she thinks Roland has it. All this has something to do with the disappearance of her ex-fiance, Allan Gould, who was a good friend of Roland's in the War.

And indeed, Roland remembers this map, and a scary trip he made with his parents and sister, in which they attempted to follow the map and found themselves in a strange and scary land. They escape, but his sister has been institutionalized ever since. Roland has called this country the Map Country ever since. But he doesn't have the map.

Before long, then, they are the in last place Allan Gould went, County Tyrone in Ireland, trying to find evidence of either the Map or Allan's doings. And they do find strange things -- a nasty man named McArdle who also seems to be after the map, and who is willing to do anything to get it. A rich man in a village who seems to have got his money from a strange place -- it's soon clear that he must have a way to the Map Country from whence he steals valuables. And then there are the strange eyes of light that seem to attack people out of nowhere.

Eventually, of course, Roland and Polly and McArdle all end up in the Map Country, which is strange indeed, apparently a different dimension with different physical rules. And there are fights with tanklike things, and a weird city, and moving roads ... all leading to a really pretty disappointing anticlimax of an ending.

So -- I liked Roland and Polly and their relationship. And I thought the Map Country and its mystery seemed worth investigating. But the conclusion disappoints. So it goes.

Ace Double Reviews, 38: Mankind Under the Leash, by Thomas M. Disch/Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ace Double Reviews, 38: Mankind Under the Leash, by Thomas M. Disch/Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin (#G-597, 1966, $0.50)

(Covers by Jerome Podwil and Kelly Freas)
This would have been (alas) Ursula Le Guin's 89th birthday. In her memory, then, I'm reposting my review of her second and last Ace Double. (I have also earlier reposted my review of her first Ace Double, Rocannon's World.)

Here we have a pairing of two writers who came to prominence in the mid-60s as two of the more literary-oriented writers in the SF field's history. Both writers earned at least a modest reputation in the mainstream (more than modest, in Le Guin's case). In Disch's case that probably comes more from his poetry and his later novels, such as The Priest and The Businessman, rather dark contemporary novels with horror aspects, that have been marketed as general fiction. On the other hand, while Le Guin has written "mainstream" novels and short fiction, as well as a little poetry, her reputation, even in the "wider world", is still founded on her SF and fantasy. The novels in this Ace Double, of course, come from very early in each writer's career. Planet of Exile, about 37,000 words long, is Le Guin's second novel (after Rocannon's World, reviewed earlier in this series). (I note by the way that Ace prints her name "LeGuin", but the space -- "Le Guin" -- is actually correct. Doubtless this is one of the least in the history of Ace flubs.) Mankind Under the Leash, about 47,000 words long, is also Disch's second novel.

Mankind Under the Leash in an expansion of a 1965 novelette from If (April) called "White Fang Goes Dingo". It has also been published under the title The Puppies of Terra, which is presumably Disch's preferred title, and which is slightly more appropriate for the book.

Much of Thomas M. Disch's work has been satirical, and so it is with this novel. An outward description of the events of the novel makes it appear quite conventional -- it is about a young man brought up under alien domination of humanity who comes to rebel against the aliens, ultimately successfully. However, the story is rather different than one might expect. The hero is named White Fang, as it was for a time fashionable to name human children after famous dogs. He is the son of a famous novelist, a man much prized among his alien owners for his art, especially as his most famous novel celebrated the rule of the aliens as a good thing for their human pets. White Fang himself makes it clear from the opening of his narrative that he loved his life as a pet of the "Masters", and that he misses the "Leash".

At the age of 7 White Fang's father is killed by "Dingos" -- that is, feral humans. He and his older brother (Pluto) are abandoned by his rather cold mother to a kennel on Earth. But three years later the two are purchased by a Master from the Asteroid Belt, and they go there to live in luxury. White Fang is mated to a lovely girl named Darling, Julie, and they have one daughter. But at the age of 20, on a visit to Earth, they are abandoned by their Master. It turns out that a Solar storm has interfered with the Masters' control over Earth and the humans on Earth -- the Masters are beings of pure energy, you see. White Fang and Julie live in the wild for a time, eventually encountering a band of Dingos, part of a revolution against the Masters' rule that has taken advantage of the situation to regain control of Earth and to free the pets. But most of them don't want to be free. White Fang is imprisoned, but manages to outwit the silly commandant of the prison camp he ends up at, and after discovering his mother and brother at this camp he works to set them free, only to be recapture himself by the leaders of the revolution. This time he is convinced that freedom is preferable to the Leash, and he turns out to be instrumental in a cute plan to drive off the Masters once and for all.

The above description gives little hint of the real flavor of the book. It's very funny, sometimes in satirical fashion, at other times more purely farcical (as in the staging of the opera Salome, called here Salami, which White Fang uses to facilitate the freeing of the pets from the prison camp). It's also somewhat thought-provoking about the question of "slavery in comfort" vs. "freedom among hardship". At the same time White Fang is an appealing character, and his relationship with Julie is quite sweetly portrayed. The plot is perhaps not exactly convincing but is interesting and there are a couple of clever twists. I recommend it, mainly for the clever and satirical aspects.

I went ahead and read "White Fang Goes Dingo" to compare. It tells the same story, in essence, as the full novel, though it's only 15,000 words or so, about a third of the length of the book. The novel is expanded throughout -- in some cases just fleshing out things that were only briefly mentioned in the story, but some long sections are entirely new: the sojourn in the prison camp (and the staging of Salami) is only in the novel, and the description of White Fang and Julie's life from age 10 to 20 in the asteroids is also only in the novel (as is their child).

I ought to mention, too, that Carol Emshwiller's 2002 novel The Mount, a Nebula nominee, is in many ways very reminiscent of Mankind Under the Leash, though The Mount is not at all satirical.

Planet of Exile is, like Ursula K. Le Guin's other early novels, set in her so-called "Hainish" universe, though as with the other earliest novels, she doesn't yet seem to have decided that it is really "Hainish" -- rather it seems to be set several hundred years in the future, after Earth has colonized a variety of planets, forming the League of All Worlds. They have visited a number of worlds with "High-Intelligent Life Forms", or hilfs, that seem basically human, to the point that interbreeding is possible, if difficult. This unlikely fact is explained in the later novels by positing the Hainish seeding program, but I'm not sure she had really figured this out at the time of Planet of Exile and Rocannon's World.

In this novel the Earth Colony on the third planet of Eltanin (Gamma Draconis) has been abandoned or forgotten. About 2000 people remain after some 600 years -- chemical incompatibilities with the local life have made survival difficult. Terrans have difficulty bearing children with themselves, and they are unable to have children with the locals, though relationships, including marriage, have occurred. The other key point is that the world is in a long, eccentric, orbit, such that each Year is about 60 Earth years, with correspondingly long and harsh seasons.

As the novel opens, Winter is coming. (Yes, I went there!) The local Tevar tribe is preparing to retreat to winter quarters. Reports of barbarians from the North coming South in greater than usual numbers have also arrived. Rolery is a young woman of this tribe, somewhat solitary because she was born "out of season", and there are no young men her age. She wanders into the city of the Terrans and meets their energetic young leader, Jakob Agat, leading eventually to a love affair and marriage. Jakob knows of the barbarian danger, which also threatens the Terran city, and he is trying to convince the tribes to unite to oppose the barbarians, but when his affair with Rolery is discovered xenophobic factions turn the tribes against him. The rest of the novel concerns the terrible results of the northerners' invasion, and the desperate, and costly defense, with a glimmer of true hope for the future at the end.

As one would expect from Le Guin, this is a beautifully written book. Aside from that, however, it's pretty minor -- I didn't like it as much as Rocannon's World, for example, though I think that's because the time dilation aspect of the latter affected me so strongly. The plot of Planet of Exile sort of just stops, and the resolution is not really convincing. The love story worked very well for me, though. Certainly a novel worth reading, but in the context of Le Guin's career, a lesser work.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stories of Ted Chiang

Here's a selection of a number of my past reviews of Ted Chiang's work. This is a bit different than some of my previous selections -- a lot of this stuff is not from my Locus column, partly because some of it predates my writing that column. I've organized it a bit strangely -- it begins with a review I did for my SFF Net newsgroup of his seminal first collection, and follows with individual reviews of a couple of those stories, then continues with later reviews of his later work (these mostly from the Locus column).

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others collects all his fiction to date, including one new story. Again, it's an excellent collection. I reread the earlier stories for the first time in a long time -- I was particularly impressed on rereading by "Tower of Babylon", which posits a cosmology in which a Tower of Babel could actually be successfully built. I admit I didn't quite get "Division by Zero", about a woman mathematician driven to despair when she proves that arithmetic is inconsistent. "Understand" is a nice, dark, story about a man who becomes a superman when he undergoes an experimental brain treatment -- and what happens when he finds another. Of the later stories, "Story of Your Life" remains my favorite, both very very moving and mind-blowing as well, told in second person successfully (and for good reason). As I wrote in my review of Starlight 2: "It's an amazing story, about a linguist who is part of the contact team with aliens visiting Earth. She learns their language, and in Sapir-Whorfian fashion, sort of, she finds her perception of time altered by the alien perception of time. This is interweaved with her reminiscences of segments of the life of her daughter, who died in early adulthood. Chiang combines wonderful linguistic speculation with a real portrayal of truly alien aliens (alien for good reason!) with nice scientific underpinnings, with the affecting and effective story of the linguist and her daughter, and makes it all work as a thematically unified whole. It accomplishes the rare feat of combining an interesting bit of SFnal speculation, worth a story on its own merits, with a moving human story, and using the SF ideas to really drive home the human themes. While at the same time maintaining interest as pure SF. I'm fond of saying that there are two types of SF: stories about the science, and stories which use the science to be about people. This is both types in one." "Seventy-Two Letters" has a great central idea, and it does some nice things working out the implications, but the story itself is resolved with too much actiony hugger-mugger. "Hell is the Absence of God" again has a neat central conceit, and is uncompromising in working it out -- but I admit I was confused by the ending. His Nature short-short is a nice speculation on the future of science in a "post-human" world. And the new story, "Liking What You See", as Rachel Brown says quite reminiscent (both in central idea and form) of Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation", again takes a neat idea, the development of a means of making people unable to perceive human beauty, and extrapolates the consequences wonderfully. (I did think he cooked his argument a bit by having all the "opponents" of the side he seemed to favor being basically evil.)

[Original comments on some of this stories follow.]

Of these I recommend the novella from Starlight 2, "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, most highly.  From where I stand just now, having finished this story just 3 hours ago, this is the clear front runner for my top Hugo vote.  It's an amazing story, about a linguist who is part of the contact team with aliens visiting Earth.  She learns their language, and in Sapir-Whorfian fashion, sort of, she finds her perception of time altered by the alien perception of time.  This is interweaved with her reminiscences of segments of the life of her daughter, who died in early adulthood.  Chiang (who's just incredible: only four stories in his career! this the first in several years) combines wonderful linguistic speculation with a real portrayal of truly alien aliens, alien for good reason!, with nice scientific underpinnings, with the affecting and effective story of the linguist and her daughter, and makes it all work as a thematically unified whole.  It's just a wow! story.

The most impressive of the new stories here is the longest, "Seventy-two Letters" by the remarkable Ted Chiang. Chiang, entirely deadpan, sets his story in what seems to be Victorian England, but what turns out to be a very different world. He tells of a man who specializes in designing automata which are controlled by seventy-two letter "names": particular, carefully designed names causing particular actions to be taken. As the story continues, we learn that this world is stranger than we had thought, as other "alchemical" scientific notions appear to be true. I won't reveal any of the story's secrets: suffice it to say that it turns out to fit the anthology's theme, and that it is continually intriguing and audacious. It does present a rather cold affect, though, failing to engage this reader on the emotional level in the way that, for example, Chiang's wonderful "Story of Your Life" did.

Ted Chiang is back, with "Hell is the Absence of God", a rather intriguing and deadpan look at a world much like our own in which the existence of Heaven and Hell are objectively proven: indeed, the souls in Hell can be seen, and in which angels occasionally come to Earth, typically causing a mixture of miraculous events and capricious disasters.  The story focuses on an unpious man whose beloved wife is killed and ascends to Heaven in one such angelic visitation, and who tries to find a way to love God and thus reach Heaven to rejoin her, against all his instincts.

One of the most ballyhooed new collections in 2002 is Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life and Others. The ballyhoo is fully justified -- this collection, of all his published stories to date, is full of exciting stuff. There is one new story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary". Chiang postulates a brain modification called "calliagnosia", which disables one's ability to perceive beauty in human faces. He follows the debate over an initiative at one Pembleton University which would require all students to have the treatment, on the grounds that it would eliminated "lookism" among the student body. He stacks his argument somewhat by making the opponents all obvious bad guys, but the examination of the social effects we might see from such a treatment, as well as related aspects such as the use of sort of the reverse effect in advertising, in fascinating. It's a very thought-provoking piece. (Incidentally I was reminded of Raphael Carter's Tiptree Award winner "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation"). It's not Chiang's best story, but it's still a must read.

In September F&SF features a highly anticipated cover story, the first substantial Ted Chiang story in several years, "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate".  (This story is also available in book form from Subterranean Press.) It does not disappoint. It is set in Baghdad perhaps a millennium ago. A merchant tells the Caliph his strange story: how he encountered an alchemist with an unusual device: a gate to the past. (Interestingly, this gate is described in science-fictional terms, though it could as easily have been pictured fantastically: as a magical tapestry, perhaps. But I think Chiang’s choice -- purely aesthetic, it is not central to the story -- works very well.)  We hear three tales within the tale, about people who used the gate, to travel decades into the past, and how some were greatly helped, and others harmed. The stories intertwine very neatly, and of course they merchant himself will likewise use the gate, with ambiguous but moving results.

Ted Chiang is back -- we knew that already, what with last year’s spectacular Hugo winner "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate". "Exhalation" is quite as spectacular, and completely different. It depicts a quite unusual artificial world, apparently completely made of metal, whose inhabitants are likewise metal, and who breathe air supplied by replaceable lungs. It is told by one of these people, who discovers how their brains work, as it becomes clear that the supply of air is diminishing. The setup seems to imply some history that other writers might have exploited -- is this a society of robots after humans have left, perhaps? -- but Chiang’s interests are elsewhere, and the story explores deeper philosophical questions, and comes to a very moving conclusion. To make the obvious pun -- it took my breath away.

"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", by Ted Chiang, at the Fall Subterranean, is Chiang working out the personal and social consequences of a new technology, called Remem. This works with "lifelogs" ("personal cams that capture continuous video of their entire lives"), to allow instant retrieval of the video of some past event you might be thinking of. The story is told by a journalist who is skeptical of the new tech, and who is particularly worried that replacing ones mediated (and perhaps "softened") memories of past disputes with loved ones might be harmful. The journalist's investigations are interleaved with accounts of an historical example of a new "memory technology" being introduced -- in this case the introduction of writing by Europeans to Tivland (now part of Nigeria). The parallels are interesting -- both stories are interesting, and the journalist's story is particularly affecting (dealing with his strained relationship with his daughter) -- this is strong and very thoughtful SF, only perhaps slightly disappointing in comparison with some of Chiang's own work in that there is no real gosh wow sense of wonder -- but that's hardly fair.

We lead off this month with three very strong novella chapbooks. First is the eagerly anticipated new Ted Chiang story, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, published in a very attractive edition by Subterranean Press, with cute and illuminating illustrations by Christian Pearce. This novella does not quite have the awesome zing of some of Chiang’s work -- the overwhelming sense of wonder he can induce. But it works very well as a rigorous examination of the ramifications of creating artificial life. The story concerns the invention of what are first intended as sort of virtual pets, with extra intelligence, in a virtual world. These software creatures -- called "digients" -- are "raised" by humans, and inevitably develop their own personalities, leading of course to questions of AI rights, autonomy, etc. There are digients who resemble animals, and some who resemble robots -- allowing the story to resonate not only with questions of AI or robot rights, but with those about animal rights as well (and for that matter questions about the rights of children to autonomy). These are traditional SF questions, which may be why the story doesn’t awe like some of Chiang’s work. But Chiang’s examination of these questions is thorough, sensitive, and thought-provoking. His main characters are two people, Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks, who work for the first company to design these digients. These two adopt some of the digients, and become key figures in the eventual drive to provide them what we might call a good home. Such issues as what happens when the computers the digients "inhabit" become obsolete, or what does it mean for an AI to be "happy" when their happiness is an initially purely programmed behavior, or what rights does an AI have concerning suspension and restarting, or resetting to a previous state, and many more, are examined -- and not dryly, but in the context of an involving story.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: Ice, by Anna Kavan

Old Bestseller Review: Ice, by Anna Kavan

a review by Rich Horton

OK, I don't think this novel was a bestseller, but it was a success, the biggest success of its writer's career. (She died at age 67 a year or so after it appeared.) Anna Kavan was the name adopted by the British writer born Helen Woods in 1901. She was born in Cannes (to British parents), grew up traveling constantly in Europe and the US until her father's suicide in 1911, after which she returned to England and boarding school. In 1920, unable to go to Oxford, she married Donald Ferguson, and immediately they moved to what was then Burma. She was terribly unhappy there, both with the climate and with her husband. They divorced in 1928, and Helen soon married painter Stuart Edmonds. That marriage dissolved in 1938. Helen began publishing fairly conventional (but fraught) novels in 1929 with A Charmed Circle, using her first married name, Helen Ferguson (even though by then she was married to Edmonds). Five further novels followed through 1937. A character in some of these early novels was named Anna Kavan. In 1939, after her second divorce and her first suicide attempt, she changed her name to Anna Kavan, not just as a pseudonym but legally. Some of the rest of her life was spent in and out of asylums and sanatoria, treating in part her long time heroin addiction, with at least two additional suicide attempts. (Some have suggested her death in 1968 was a suicide, though the official verdict (probably correct) was heart failure, a result in part of her heroin addiction.) She continued to write, in a generally more experimental mode. Ten further books (novels and story collections) appeared in her life, and another half-dozen after her death. She became associated with the nouvelle roman style. Ice (1967) was her last novel (not counting any of the posthumous work).

From the beginning Ice has been called science fiction, and that's not unreasonable, though Jonathan Lethem, in the introduction to my edition (a "50th Anniversary Edition" from Penguin), writes "I doubt it helps for it to be categorized as science fiction, or for it to be categorized at all." Still, it has always had champions in the SF field (I've been meaning to give it a go for decades), and the one writer I am most reminded of is J. G. Ballard. As I suggest above, it was initially a success, but it seems to me that over time it more or less disappeared from wide notice, though it was always on the edges of the conversation in the literary corridors of the SF world. But Kate Zambreno wrote in 2006 (in an essay reprinted as the Afterword to my edition) that "Kavan, every bit the equal of every writer she has been compared to [such as Jean Rhys, who likewise had a late career success, with Wide Sargasso Sea, just a year prior to Ice], has -- regretfully -- vanished." This Penguin reissue is evidence that she's back in sight.

This is really quite a remarkable novel. It is told by an unnamed narrator (all the characters are nameless), who, at the opening, is back home, in a country threatened by impending war, driving to a remote location to find a girl (as she is called throughout) whom he had once wanted to marry. She has married another man, and the narrator, a military man, just wants to see her again. This encounter reveals a marriage in trouble, and the narrator seems to want to rescue her -- and we get flashbacks to an earlier visit shortly after the marriage. So far the novel seems not unconventional, but then there are the sudden irruptions of images of ice walls rushing in, imprisoning the girl and other characters -- but are these just the narrator's madness?

Noticeable too, from the beginning, is the narrator's sexualized and somewhat violent perception of the girl. She is always described as painfully thin, extremely pale (like ice, one might say), very fragile. Often bruised. Male violence, sometimes suggested, sometimes described, seems always near. Really this is all quite uneasy-making.

The book accelerates quickly. Soon the narrator is following the girl as she sails to another country. This country is closer to open war with its neighbors. It is ruled by an autocrat called the Warden, and the narrator learns that the girl is with the Warden. He plots to meet the Warden, and to arrange to see the girl, with scary and strange results. All through this narrative there are further descriptions of the coming ice, and strange interludes that seem real as they happen but then are forgotten -- riots, violence, the girl dead on multiple occasions.

The book continues, at breakneck speed, as the narrator chases the Warden and the girl through country after country, as war and catastrophe take over the world. (It's not at all clear that the world is our Earth.) Sometimes the narrator and the girl are together, sometimes the girl is with the Warden, sometimes she is alone. What at first seems a praiseworthy attempt by the narrator to pry the girl from the clutches of the explicitly sadistic Warden becomes ambiguous, for the narrator's images of the girl are just as violence-tinged as the Warden's actions, and indeed the narrator and the Warden come to seem doubles. And throughout the ice grows closer and closer, and the end of the world, of humanity, looms.

It's not a long novel (a bit shy of 50,000 words, I'd say), and it moves, as I said, at great velocity. The writing is clipped and vicious. The rhythms are pounding. The images are striking and scary. There is from the beginning no way out but death for everyone.

One of the obvious interpretations suggested is that the images of Ice refer to heroin. That's perhaps too obvious, but it does make some sense. But at the same time the objectification of the girl as fragile and subject to violence resonates horribly with so much of what we see about the way many men treat women -- and the girl in this novel is treated as a child subject to discipline by all the men she is with (her husband, the narrator, and the Warden) -- though much of her attitude is laid at the door of her mother. (Kavan apparently had a difficult relationship with her mother.) So there's that. And, too, there is the shadow of a coming apocalypse, and of course the end of the world was an abiding concern of people in the '60s. As with almost any such novel, open to multiple readings, it seems worth it just to take the novel first on its own terms, and let it take on as many meanings as it suggests.

I'll leave with a few questions about Ice:

1. The 'girl" is described in strikingly fragile terms -- constant reference is made to her thinness, the way her bones stick out, her extremely pale skin and white hair. (And of course calling her a "girl" and not a woman is in itself an infantilization, and an emphasis on fragility.) Some of this is clearly a reference to "ice", but much of it suggests that the men in her life see her sexuality as bound up in violence -- explicit sadism in the case of the warden, slightly sublimated sadism in the case of the narrator, marital frustration that perhaps has led to physical abuse in the case of her husband. To what extent is this novel about male violence towards women, and about the male gaze infantilizing women, or subordinating women?

2. The apocalyptic event that drives the overall shape of the novel seems to be encroaching walls of ice. As first presented, the walls of ice seem hallucinations, but as things continue, it does seem that the action converges on the tropics, as ice consumes more and more of the world. Is this real? Or is this simply what the narrator perceives as his internal life is changed?

3. What world is this novel set on? The opening appeared to me to possibly be set in England, but as things continue, any Earthbound setting seems more and more unlikely, though whatever planet this is, it's extremely Earthlike. Does it even make sense to ask where the novel is set?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Birthday Review: The Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams

Birthday Review: The Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams was born October 15, 1953. In honor of his birthday, I thought I'd repost this review I did of the first of his Dread Empire's Fall novels back in 2003.

Review Date: 25 August 2003

The Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams
UK: Earthlight, London, October 2002, 418 pages, Paperback, UK£10.99, ISBN:0-7434-6110-X
US: HarperTorch, New York, NY, August 2003, 418 pages, Paperback, US$7.50, ISBN:038082020X

a review by Rich Horton

Walter Jon Williams's The Praxis is the first volume of a series called collectively Dread Empire's Fall. It was published last year in the UK, and is due in the US any day now, a mass market paperback from HarperTorch. The UK edition is subtitled "Book One of Dread Empire's Fall", while the US edition is labeled Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis.

This book is unabashed Space Opera, and I found it extremely fun reading. Every so often the characterization or the plotting seems to fall back on cliché -- and after all the basic setup is pretty familiar, particularly the rehashing of Naval Fiction standard situations. The book is also clearly the first of a series, thus the story doesn't really end -- those factors hold it short of excellence. But it's very good -- neatly conceived, with plenty of gripping action, and with two main characters who are interesting, and flawed in believable ways even while also supremely gifted in fairly standard commercial fiction fashions.

The parts of the Galaxy linked by an extensive wormhole network are ruled, as the story opens, by the long-lived aliens called Shaa. They control several other spacegoing species -- the lizardlike Naxids, humans, the birdlike Lai-Own, the furry Torminel, etc. The basic philosophy of the Shaa is that everything worth knowing is already known. Their governing system, the Praxis, attempts to enforce absolute stability. Machine intelligence, genetic engineering, and certain other technology is forbidden. The ruling style is extremely hierarchical, and superiors have the right to kill inferiors for any reason whatsoever. The subordinate species seem essentially equal to each other, sharing government and military posts, though there seem to be worlds, even sectors, dominated by one or another species.

Now the very last of the Shaa has decided to die. This impacts the future of Lord Gareth Martinez, an up and coming Naval officer. His main patron has been chosen to die along with the Shaa, and Martinez, who is brilliant and rich but handicapped by his family's relatively low, provincial, standing, represented by his vulgar accent, will thus lose a key supporter. But he gains some fame when he coordinates a daring rescue attempt. And the rescue attempt is piloted by Lady Caroline Sula, the only remaining member of a formerly powerful family that has fallen into disgrace. The two are both decorated, and when they meet each other, sparks fly. But Sula has some deep personal issues which make her skittish about relationships. Her backstory is slowly revealed in flashbacks. (These flashbacks were published separately as the novella "Margaux" in the May 2003 Asimov's.)

Martinez ends up posted to a ship run by a football-mad (football = soccer) Captain. Martinez and a few others including his trusty old batman (yes, a cliché) run the ship while the Captain and his various good footballers (who are worthless as naval types) practice. The ship makes its way to a Naxid dominated system, and Martinez notices some very suspicious Naxid behaviour. He concludes correctly that they are planning to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the death of the last Shaa and try to assert their status as the first race conquered by the Shaa and take the Shaa position at the top of the heap. Martinez's perspicacity and his brilliant tactics keep the Naxid operation from being a complete success.

Back on the capitol planet, Zanshaa, the Naxid attempt to take over the ruling Convocation is also foiled, partly by luck, and the other species quickly mobilize for a war. Sula's hopes for a quick promotion are ruined when her lieutenant's exams are interrupted by the rebellion. But this leaves her in position to once again use her piloting skills and become a war hero on her own.

And so come the opening battles of what looks likely to be an extended war. The book ends pretty much on a note of "to be continued". Clearly Martinez and Sula are destined for each other one way or another, though Williams has managed to make their future ambiguous -- Sula's past could come back to haunt her, and Martinez' conceit and overweening ambition could ruin things as well. I'll be eagerly looking forward to future volumes, and I'm sure there will be plenty more space battles, alien political intrigue, and an involving personal pair of stories for our two heroes.

Another Ace Double: The Jester at Scar, by E. C. Tubb/To Venus! To Venus!, by David Grinnell

Ace Double Reviews, 45: The Jester at Scar, by E. C. Tubb/To Venus! To Venus!, by David Grinnell (#81610, 1970, $0.75)

a review by Rich Horton

E. C. Tubb would have been 99 today, so I am reposting this review of one of his Ace Double appearances in his honor.

Tubb was a British writer, born 1919, died in 2010. He published something over 100 SF novels, and about as many short stories, under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. One pseudonym was the memorable "Volsted Gridban"! His best known pseudonym was probably "Gregory Kern", under which name he wrote the "Cap Kennedy" books for DAW in the early 70s. (I have not read any of that series.) But he is by far better known for his long series of novels about Earl Dumarest and his search for his lost home planet, Earth. These were published first by Ace, then by DAW, from 1967 through 1985, with a final book showing up only in 1997 from a small press (apparently having been published sometime earlier in France, and presumably having been rejected by DAW). This series runs to 32 books, of which I have read 25 or so. They constitute a rather guilty pleasure -- very formulaic, very repetitive, sometimes downright silly, certainly not particularly good. But I found them enjoyable mind candy.

The Jester at Scar is some 44,000 words long, and To Venus! To Venus! is some 45,000 words.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The Jester at Scar is the fifth of Tubb's Dumarest of Terra novels. In these novels a tough, amazingly fast, lucky, very skilled, spacer named Earl Dumarest obsessively searches for his homeworld, Earth. Dumarest lives in a far future human-colonized galaxy in which Earth is off the beaten path and basically forgotten, and in which even the idea of a single planet as the homeworld of all humans is pooh-poohed. Most of the planets are "Mongos": i.e. they have one unique feature, and little variation (as in the old pulp cliche "It was raining on Mongo"), and most seem ruled either by Evull corporations or by either Evull or Silly and Inbred (or both) aristocracies/royalties. The two main panGalactic organizations are the Church of Universal Brotherhood (good, despite their habit of brainwashing people in exchange for food), and the red-cloaked, emotionless, Cyclan (EVULL squared), super-intelligent cybernetic people who plot to rule the Galaxy. Despite the cliche and lazy setup, the books, though uneven, were sometimes pretty enjoyable -- no classics here, but among this sort of stuff Tubb's work is better than average.

In the book just before The Jester at Scar, Kalin (one of the best and most important of the series), Earl came into possession of an incredibly valuable red ring, which gives the owner the ability to exchange minds with another person, and which the Cyclan covet. Thus he is now hunted by the Cyclan. As this book opens, Earl is staying on the spore-ridden planet Scar, with a poor woman. A couple of thugs invade her home, and after Earl is forced to kill them he notices that they have several other red rings. It seems clear that someone has hired people to try to retrieve red rings from anyone they can.

At the same time Jocelyn, the newly married ruler of the planet Jest shows up at Scar, along with his new adviser, a Cyber. Jocelyn hopes to find some profitable trade for his impoverished planet, while the Cyber of course has a deeper game -- he's figured out somehow that Dumarest is on Scar. (Tubb rather subtly plays a little game here -- Jocelyn, the "Jester" of the title, believes in the power of Chance and Fate and he thinks he has come randomly to Scar -- but it turns out that all this was planned by the Cyclan.) There's a fair amount of somewhat pointless toing and froing, and of course a knife fight, before Dumarest and a partner head out into the wilderness of Scar during the brief planetary summer to claim a cache of valuable Golden Spore. The Cyclan are after him, of course, but so too, luckily, is Jocelyn. And of course Dumarest has his own luck, skill, and fanatic determination on his side. The book is much of a piece with most of the Dumarest novels, lacking only a temporary love interest for Dumarest, and I'd place it in the middle range of Tubb's books.

Donald A. Wollheim is justifiably known as an editor, and hardly remembered as a writer. His editorial work at Ace and then at his own imprint, DAW, is significant if often controversial. On the one hand such things as his role in the pirated Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings, and his promotion of lots of low grade SF with famously crummy titles and tiny advances must be disparaged. On the other hand he was responsible for publishing early work by an astounding array of important writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and C. J. Cherryh. He also was editor (or co-editor) for two of the more significant Best of the Year collections.

He wrote a fair amount of unmemorable short fiction starting in 1934, most of it in the 40s. He also wrote quite a few juveniles in the 50s and 60s, under his own name, perhaps most notably the Mike Mars series. All his few adult novels seem to be as "David Grinnell". (The Ace Doubles under his own name were anthologies.) To Venus! To Venus! is the last, and close to his last piece of fiction.

To Venus! To Venus! is set in the fairly near future of the book's publication date, 1970 -- perhaps around 1990? A Russian unmanned probe has reached Venus and reports surprisingly balmy conditions -- nice enough for human habitation, even. The Americans are astonished -- all scientific evidence indicates that it is a hellhole, and they quickly put together a three man mission to land on Venus and settle the question once and for all. The Russians have also mounted a manned mission, and the two ships find themselves in a race.
(Cover by John Schoenherr)

The American team consists of a straight arrow commander named Chet, and two contrasting subordinated -- a gungho guy named Quincy, and a cynical guy named Carter. Much is made, unconvincingly, of Chet's leadership skills in making them a team. At any rate, they reach Venus, but have difficulty landing in what turns out to be a hellhole as the scientists predict, and they seem to be stranded. It turns out that the Russians have also landed, almost simultaneously, and they still claim it's a balmy near paradise. But they too are in trouble. The only hope for either group is for the Americans to hike across the surface of Venus, more or less by dead reckoning, fortunately only 100 miles, to where they believe the Russian ship has landed. (As presented this is basically impossible, and to be fair it seems Wollheim knows this, and gives a fair account of the likely difficulties and doesn't deny that the ultimate success is due to pure luck.)

It's not really very good. Stiff dialogue, strained science, flat characters. It's all very earnest, both in the worshipful presentation of U.S. can-do engineering spirit, and in the ultimate message of Soviet/U.S. cooperation (a bit undermined perhaps by the cartoonish presentation of the only actual Russian character).