Monday, May 16, 2022

Hugo Nomination Recommendations, 1955

Hugo nomination recommendations, 1955 (1954 Stories)

Recently I did a piece on potential Hugo winners from 1957, having noticed that no stories from 1957 won Hugos: the 1958 Hugos went to stories from 1958 -- a result of the rules at that time extending eligibility up until a couple of months before Worldcon, and also that the 1957 Hugos didn't have any fiction awards. 1954 is in a similar state -- the short fiction awards from 1955 went to Walter M. Miller's "The Darfsteller" (Astounding, January 1955) and Eric Frank Russell's "Allamagoosa" (Astounding, May 1955). Mind you, the novel winner, "They'd Rather be Right", by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, is from 1954 (Astounding, August through November), but it is also widely regarded as the worst Hugo-winning novel in history, so there's no harm looking at potential alternate winners in that category either!

I'll note for the record that the novelette "The Darfsteller" is an excellent story, and a very worthy Hugo winner (though I'd probably choose Damon Knight's "The Earth Quarter" (If, January 1955) instead) and the short story winner, "Allamagoosa", is good fun, though I'd have chosen one of several other candidates. ("Watershed", by James Blish, for example, or "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts", by Shirley Jackson.) "Allamagoosa", by the way, is the first Hugo winner by a non-American (unless you count the German-born Willy Ley, who won for his science articles in 1953 -- but I'm pretty sure he'd become an American citizen by then.)

Incidentally, you might notice that all three fiction winners in the 1955 Hugos are from Astounding. In addition, the Best Editor award went to John W. Campbell, Jr., and the Best Artist went to Frank Kelly Freas, then as throughout his career a regular contributor to Astounding/Analog. Perhaps not surprising -- Astounding certainly retained a position as one of the leading SF magazines. But the story I've heard is that fans of Astounding were somewhat annoyed that Galaxy outdid Astounding in the first Hugos (1953), tying Astounding for Best Magazine, and having the Best Novel winner (The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester) be a Galaxy serial, plus Excellence in Fact Articles going to Galaxy columnist Willy Ley. Thus, in 1955, they (in how organized a fashion I couldn't say) strongly supported Astounding contributors.

Novels

Here's a possible nomination list (though in reality we can assume "They'd Rather Be Right" would have been on the list too.) I would list The Fellowship of the Ring at the top, and then A Mirror for Observers. And honestly, had either A Mirror for Observers or I Am Legend won (assuming The Fellowship of the Ring might not have got the requisite notice as a UK hardcover only), the reputation of the 1954 novel award would be much higher!

The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson

The Syndic, by C. M. Kornbluth

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Other possibilities:

Brain Wave, by Poul Anderson

One in Three Hundred, by J. T. McIntosh

Search the Sky, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

Gladiator-at-Law, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

Undersea Quest, by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson

There were also a couple possibilities from the  so-called "mainstream". Of these three novels, I don't personally consider Lord of the Flies SF (though I can see the argument), and I haven't read the other two.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Messiah, by Gore Vidal

The Magicians, by J. B. Priestley

And of course there were some from the category then called "Juvenile" (now YA or Middle Grade):

The Star Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein

The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron


Novellas

I only found six novellas particularly worth mentioning, so I list them all. Of these, my pretty clear-cut choice is "Rule Golden".

"Sucker Bait", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, February and March)

"Sine of the Magus", by James Gunn (Beyond, May)

"Rule Golden", by Damon Knight (Science Fiction Adventures, May)

"Natural State", by Damon Knight (Galaxy, January)

"No More Stars", by "Charles Satterthwaite" (Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey) (Beyond, July)

"The Golden Helix", by Theodore Sturgeon (Thrilling Wonder, Summer)


Novelettes

Now this is interesting! I found 14 (at least) potential nominees among the novelettes. By sheer coincidence, my five favorites are the first five alphabetically. And the first two are clearly not just the best two stories of 1954, but two of the very greatest SF stories of all time. I don't think it's shocking, but it is disappointing, that none of these stories won an award. I'd also like to highlight once again Budrys' "The End of Summer", which is a wonderful and wonderfully strange story, marred just slightly by a slightly disappointing resolution. (Had he landed that, this story would rank with the two Bester stories.) 

"Fondly Fahrenheit", by Alfred Bester (F&SF, August)

"5,271,009", by Alfred Bester (F&SF, March)

"Beep", by James Blish (Galaxy, February)

"The End of Summer", by Algis Budrys (Astounding, November)

"The Golden Man", by Philip K. Dick (If, April)

Other possibilities:

"Miss Tarmity's Profession", by Roy Hutchins (Beyond, July)

"Lot's Daughter", by Ward Moore (F&SF, October)

"The Music Master of Babylon", by Edgar Pangborn (Galaxy, November)

"The Midas Plague", by Frederik Pohl (Galaxy, April)

"Dusty Zebra", by Clifford Simak (Galaxy, September)

"How-2", by Clifford Simak (Galaxy, November)

"Down Among the Dead Men", by "William Tenn" (Philip Klass) (Galaxy, June)

"Party of Two Parts", by "William Tenn" (Philip Klass) (Galaxy, August)

"Big Ancestor", by F. L. Wallace (Galaxy, November)

Short Stories

Oddly, I'd didn't find as many short stories that stuck out. For me, either Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" or Seabright's "Short in the Chest" would have been strong winners.

"The Immortal Game", by Poul Anderson (F&SF, February)

"All Summer in a Day", by Ray Bradbury (F&SF, March)

"The Father-Thing", by Philip K. Dick (F&SF, December)

"Adjustment Team", by Philip K. Dick (Orbit, September-October)

"The Nostalgia Gene", by Roy Hutchins (Galaxy, November)

"Short in the Chest", by "Idris Seabright" (Margaret St. Clair) (Fantastic Universe, July)

"BAXBR/DAXBR", by Evelyn E. Smith (Time to Come)


Friday, May 13, 2022

Review: Od Magic, by Patricia A. McKillip, plus some short story capsules

The wonderful writer Patricia A. McKillip has died, at 74. She was a leap day birth, so back when I was doing "birthday reviews" it was a while before I had a chance to do one for her, and when I did it was a reprint of a review I did of The Bell of Sealey Head.

Sadly, before another of her quadrennial birthdays came up, she died. And in her memory, I have compiled a few other things I wrote about her work. Alas, I didn't really write a great deal about her best work -- a few short reviews of short fiction for Locus, or for my blog, and the shortish piece below about Od Magic, a nice novel but not her best. 

I read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and the Riddle-Master books in the early '80s with enjoyment, but it was her glorious Winter Rose, from 1996, that turned me into a true fan, and from that point I read each of her nicely sized novels, one every year or two for about 15 years, always with a lovely Kinuko Craft cover, until she slowed down in the past decade or so. But the way things worked out Od Magic (a minor novel) and The Bell of Sealey Head (which I like rather better) are the only two I wrote about. So this is my tribute!



Review of Od Magic

Patricia A. McKillip's latest novel, Od Magic, is not part of a series. But it is one of a consistent set of novels that she puts out, pretty much one per year, tidily sized (about 90,000 words in this case), tidily shaped. In Od Magic there are no bad guys, just temporarily misled people. Which isn't a bad or dishonest thing, really. But in this particular case it does sort of dull the edge of the book.

Od is a legendary female wizard, very long lived but hardly ever seen. Centuries earlier she founded a school of wizardry in Kelior, the capital city of the Kingdom of Numis. Now she appears to a young man in the North named Brenden Vetch, and asks him to go to her school to be the gardener, and to look for the door under the shoe.

I confess I expected a story about Brenden, but this isn't what McKillip was after. Instead she follows a variety of people: Brenden of course, but also the influential wizard of Od's school, Yar; his politically connected lover Ceta; the High Warden's son, another Warden (that is to say, policeman), Arneth Pyt; the King's daughter, Princess Sulys, who is about to be married to a man she doesn't know, a priggish but powerful wizard; and the small-time wizard (small-time? perhaps!) Tyramin and his enigmatic daughter. The story revolves about the King's concern about the potential abilities of Tyramin, who is not under his control, and about Sulys's desire to actually have a chance to know her husband, and moreover her desire to use certain small powers she possesses, and about Yar's concern that his school -- Od's school -- may have become hidebound, too much a tool of the King (even though the King seems for the most part a pretty good King). And also about Brenden Vetch, and his quite remarkable powers, and his connection with certain beings that have long secretly inhabited the kingdom.

It's all a very nice novel, and always readable, and full of characters you like and root for -- but at the same time it seems a bit inconsequential -- or perhaps the term is "easy". In a way I found this refreshing -- the people really are all trying to do their best, they are just often misguided -- and in all honesty that seems truer than the common evil/good divide. But that said there really isn't much tension in the novel -- or much risk. I enjoyed it, and I think most readers will. But it didn't stay with me.

Locus, September 2004

Another Romance genre anthology has appeared with a fantasy/SF theme: To Weave a Web of Magic. As with the earlier Irresistible Forces, an equal mix of SF writers and Romance writers contribute stories. The best in this book is by Patricia McKillip, "The Gorgon in the Cupboard", about a young painter who unwittingly calls forth the spirit of Medusa. Medusa helps the young man, just a bit, as he rediscovers a formal model of his, fallen on very hard times, and as he learns to see her as a woman, not just a painting to be.

Locus, February 2021

Two more stories in The Book of Dragons, I think, are the very best. “Camouflage”, by Patricia A. McKillip, features a Magical Arts student taking his final exam, and ending up mysteriously in a completely different place and time, where he encounters two women, and sees their dragons, who can rarely be seen, because of their magical camouflage. He has a role here too – which may have something to do with his exam. I’m not telling where and when this test occurs, because it’s part of the fun – but the mix here of magic, time travel, war, and dragons is delicious.

[Some people may remember that when I revealed my Best of the Year TOC a couple of weeks ago I mentioned we reserving a place for one more story -- this was "Camouflage". We had queried McKillip about including it, and hadn't received a response -- it is now only too clear why.]

Review of The Fair Folk

Patricia A. McKillip's "The Kelpie" is set in the same milieu as her fine 2004 novella "The Gorgon in the Cupboard": a group of painters resembling the Pre-Raphaelites. Ned Bonham is a moderately successful young painter. He meets Emma Slade at her brother's party. Emma is an aspiring painter just up from the country. The two fall in love on the instant. But Emma attracts the attention of the very successful Bram Wilding, who arranges for her to model for him, in exchange for his support of an exhibition of women's art – and he pressures her for a different sort of relationship. So far this is a straightforward romance plot – no fantasy – but on a visit to Ned's country home she encounters a quite different creature, and this dangerous encounter leads to a resolution of the central triangle.

Review of Firebirds

Patricia McKillip contributes "Byndley", a striking tale of a wizard who unwisely stole something from the Queen of Faerie, and who comes to the title town to try to find his way back to return it.  But Faerie is not so easy to enter -- or to recognize. 

Review of Firebirds Rising

Patricia A. McKillip contributes another of her stories about a group of painters resembling the Pre-Raphaelites. “Jack O’Lantern” is about a girl struggling with her parents’ conventional views of the role of women, particularly upper class women, as her older sister prepares to be married. During the painting of a wedding party portrait she meets a curious local lad, and hears a story about the Jack O’Lantern.

Review of A Book of Wizards

Patricia A. McKillip, with “Knight of the Well”, a nicely romantic tale of a the Minister of Water and a Knight of the Well and a water wizard trying to understand why the spirits of water seem angry. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Hugo Nomination Recommendations: 1958

I made a post on Facebook about possibly Hugo nominations for stories published in 1957 -- a year that was not well represented in Hugo history, due to the vagaries of changing Hugo eligibility rules, radically different Hugo categories from year to year, including no fiction Hugos in 1957, and a generally cavalier attitude towards the whole process. That post engendered a lot of productive comments, and I figured I'd make an updated version to preserve it on my blog. Thanks to Andrew Breitenbach, David Merrill, Gary Farber, Piet Nel, and Paul Fraser (among others) for suggestions for further stories, and for productive suggestions for more details about Hugo history.

Wandering through the history of the Hugos in the 1950s -- a chaotic time, with no well established rules, with constantly changing award categories, with a con committee, in one case, refusing to give fiction awards at all ... I realized that no stories from 1957 won a Hugo. (The 1958 Hugo for short story went to "Or All the Seas With Oysters", by Avram Davidson (Galaxy, May 1958) and the Hugo for -- get this -- "Novel or Novelette" went to "The Big Time", by Fritz Leiber, a novel (albeit very short) that was serialized in Galaxy, March and April 1958. In 1957, no Hugos for fiction were given.

So, what the heck -- here's my list of proposed fiction nominees from 1957. I use the categories Novel, Novelette, and Short Story.

Novel:

Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert A. Heinlein

The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle

Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell

On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham

and you know what -- in many ways the most significant -- and commercially successful -- SF novel of 1957 was:

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

(By the way, The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov, is often cited as a 1957 novel, but its serialization in Astounding ended in December 1956. The same is true of Heinlein's The Door Into Summer, serialized in F&SF.)

Note that four of my suggested novel nominees (all except Heinlein) were born and raised in the UK (Shute moved to Australia in 1950.) Had this nomination list been real (unlikely) and had the Heinlein been replaced by Atlas Shrugged (even more unlikely) all five nominees would have been born and raised outside the US. (Rand immigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of 21.)

Novelette:

"Call Me Joe", by Poul Anderson (Astounding, April)

"The Queer Ones", by Leigh Brackett (Venture, March)

"The Dying Man" aka "Dio", by Damon Knight (Infinity, September)

"Omnilingual", by H. Beam Piper (Astounding, February)

"It Opens the Sky", by Theodore Sturgeon (Venture, November)

("The Last Canticle", by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (F&SF, February) would also have been a worthy nominee, but I left it off because I think of the novel (A Canticle for Leibowitz) first.)

Short Story:

"Hunting Machine", by Carol Emshwiller (Science Fiction Stories, May)

"Journeys End", by Poul Anderson (F&SF, February)

"The Men Return", by Jack Vance (Infinity, July)

"The Man Who Traveled in Elephants", by Robert A. Heinlein (Saturn, October)

"Manhole 69", by J. G. Ballard (New Worlds, November)

"Affair with a Green Monkey", by Theodore Sturgeon (Venture, May)

(I could also have mentioned Kate Wilhelm's second sale, "The Mile-Long Spaceship" (Astounding, April), a strong early story.)

My votes? Citizen of the Galaxy, "The Queer Ones", "The Men Return". In no case are those votes easy choices, mind you.

I note, too, that the "Big Three" (Astounding, Galaxy, F&SF) are represented only by two novelettes and one short story. (And, to be fair, one novel.)

Other notes about 1958: it was the only year of the Hugos in which the winners did not get a rocket ship -- the award this year was a plaque. Also, 1958 was the last year in which there was not a codified process by which a fan vote selected a set of nominees, followed by a general vote for the Hugo. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: The Chequer Board, by Nevil Shute

Old Bestseller Review: The Chequer Board, by Nevil Shute

by Rich Horton


This book was not a bestseller, but Shute, a fairly popular writer for much of his career, had a major bestseller with On the Beach, 7th bestselling book in the US in 1957, and with his last novel, Trustee from the Toolroom (1960). So I think Shute fits that subcategory.

Nevil Shute Norway was born in England in 1899, His father became head of the Post Office in Ireland (shades of Trollope!), and Shute spent a few years there, and tended the wounded during the Easter Rising in 1916. He served in the First World War in its late months. He graduated from Oxford with an Engineering degree (Mechanical Engineering, we'd say now) and worked on airplanes and airships -- notably leading the development of the R-100, a promising British dirigible project that was scrapped after a test airship from a parallel government project crashed. Shute later formed his own company, which developed the Envoy, a trainer for the UK air force. Aeronautical details show up in several of his novels (including the one at hand) -- most famously No Highway, which concerned the failure of an airplane due to metal fatigue -- which happened just a few years later to the DeHavilland Comet. Shute served in Burma during the Second World War (an experience that strongly influences The Chequer Board.) He moved to Australia in 1950, and died of a stroke in 1960.

His first novel was published in 1926, and he published about 20 novels in his life, with a few more appearing posthumously. He signed his books Nevil Shute in order to separate his writing persona from his engineering persona. The Chequer Board was published in 1947, about when it is set. The UK edition was from Heinemann, the American from William Morrow. Apparently there was some concern about its reception in the US, as it is very critical of the treatment of black people at that time, but it seems to have been very successful. It was a Literary Guild selection. My edition is the 1968 Ballantine paperback. 

I will begin with a caution for sensitive readers. The Chequer Board is overtly and honestly a book taking a stand against racism, dealing with both America's dismal treatment of our black citizens, and England's dismal treatment of its colonies; and with the demeaning attitudes most white people adopted towards blacks and Asians. Its heart is clearly -- and movingly -- in the right place; but it was written by a white British man in the 1940s, and as such it can't claim to truly understand the viewpoints of black Americans and of Burmans. (I use here the name for Myanmar that was then current, and the curious demonym Shute uses -- Burmans instead of Burmese.) In addition, Shute regularly -- very regularly -- uses the N-word -- surely accurately reflecting the way his characters would have spoken (and he does not regard the term as neutral -- he's clear that it is offensive, and that his black characters perceive it as offensive.) I think it would have a been false for him not to do so -- but I have been socially conditioned to find it offputting (and, to be clear, this is normal social conditioning, and a good thing.) Others might mind it even hard to take. The women characters are given agency and come off as real -- but the sexual attitudes of the day are accepted quite straightforwardly by the author -- he is fiercely anti-racist (in 1940s terms) but not feminist at all, seems to me.

The Chequer Board is framed by the report of a medical specialist who is asked to take a look at John Turner, who has been experiencing fits, and having difficulty with his coordination. Turner had been injured in a plane crash during the war (the book is set a year or two after the end of the war) and some shrapnel injured his head -- and some of it could not be removed safely. The doctor's diagnosis is that a piece of metal is causing brain issues for Turner, and that it remains inoperable -- Turner will die in a year or so. 

Turner is a cereal salesman. He and his wife Mollie have no children, and their marriage is troubled. Turner, we quickly learn, is none too moral -- he seems to embezzle from his company in a minor way, keeping that money from Mollie, and in fact he was caught committing a similar crime in the Army -- the plane crash occurred while he was being transported back to England to be court-martialed. He ended up serving six months. Now, facing death, he realizes there are a few things he wants desperately to do in his last year -- primarily, to look up the three men who were in hospital with him after the crash. The hospital is connected with the prison, and two of these men are also awaiting trial: Duggie Brent, a commando, had killed a man in a bar brawl; and Dave Lesurier, a black American soldier, has been accused of attempted rape of a girl in the village of Trenarth, where his unit was stationed. The other man is Philip Morgan, the pilot of the crashed plane -- he'd been kept in the same hospital for convenience. Turner tells Mollie what he knows of these three men, and Mollie -- who is feeling oddly better about her husband, partly sympathy for his plight, and partly because he seems to have opened up to her more than ever -- agrees that he should try to find out what happened to them after they got out of the hospital. 

Turner tracks down Philip Morgan's mother first -- and finds that Morgan served in Burma after getting out of the hospital, and stayed there, abandoning his wife. The mother is bitter -- but Turner knows Morgan's wife was unfaithful, and figures he left for good reason, and is probably living miserably in Burma. And he goes out there, hoping to help him out, and finds something quite different -- an extended, and quite exciting, section shows, essentially, Burma making a man of Philip Morgan -- and Morgan learning to respect and understand the people -- including his eventual wife. Turner learns something too ... and on returning to England finds his relationship with his wife much improved. He learns a bit about Duggie Brent -- a good lawyer got him off the murder charge, and Brent spent some time as a circus act, but the trail runs cold there. And he figures he'll never learn what happened to Dave Lesurier, who is surely back in the US. So Turner and Mollie decide on one last vacation, as Turner's health declines. But the canny Turner maneuvers them to Trenarth, where he figures he can ask the locals about Lesurier's case -- and we learn his whole story too, and about the villagers' relationship with the black soldiers, and how the arrival of a white unit messes things up -- and about the shy Lesurier's interest in a young local girl, which ends up leading to a trumped up rape charge.

All is resolved quite neatly -- maybe a bit too neatly, maybe there's a bit of implausible good fortune in the stories of all three men. But Shute's writing is immensely involving -- he truly had the mysterious skill of making the reader want to keep reading. And the message is inspiring and hopeful, with all the characters treated with respect and sympathy. It's a very involving, very moving novel. It is popular fiction, yes ... there is a bit of contrivance. But it's very good popular fiction. I'll be reading more from Nevil Shute.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Old Bestseller Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

by Rich Horton


Many decades ago, when I was a teen, I read The Warden, the first of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire. If I am to be honest, I remember nothing of that novel except that I enjoyed it -- but never went on to read any more. But in recent years it has become clear to me that I have an affinity for Victorian novels, and it certainly seemed that returning to Trollope was something I ought to do (particularly as several friends recommended him.) And not long ago at a charity book sale I bought an ex-lib copy of Barchester Towers, the direct sequel to The Warden, so I decided that would be my next Trollope. (I have always pronounced his name tra-LOPE, but I read a quip from some English writer, can't remember who, about a friend who would greet him in all innocence saying "I was just up in my room with a Trollope", suggesting a different pronunciation.) 

I've given this review an "Old Bestseller Review" heading, reflecting the original focus of my blog. Was Barchester Towers initially a bestseller? As far as I can determine, probably not, but it sold reasonably well, and, with The Warden, essentially established him as a significant writer. I believe many of his subsequent novels sold very well indeed. I also note that this review is quite long -- probably too long. Perhaps I have been influenced by Trollope's own prolixity! (Barchester Towers is long but not terribly so -- perhaps about 200,000 words, maybe a bit less -- but later novels were often very long indeed.)

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was the son of a barrister, and more distantly descended from landed gentry, and a baronet. (The baronetcy eventually was inherited by Anthony's son Frederic, presumably after the death of some cousins.) His mother was a successful writer (a profession she turned to in part because of her husband's business failures.) Much of the family, but not Anthony, moved to the US for a time, and later (including Anthony) to Belgium. Anthony was educated at "public schools" (Harrow and Winchester) which he hated. He got a position at the Post Office, which eventually led to travel all around Ireland and later England. He began writing shortly before his marriage (to Rose Heseltine, in 1844.) His early novels included a few set in Ireland, and met with little success. (I have read that sales of these books were in the low hundreds.) But The Warden (1855) achieved good notice, and Trollope eventually became very popular. He published some 40 novels, with two main series, the Barchester books and the Palliser books (and the two series are apparently connected) as well as many standalones, perhaps most notably The Way We Live Now (based in part on his unsuccessful run for Parliament.)

Barchester Towers opens with the death of the Bishop of Barchester, Dr. Grantly. His son, the Archdeacon, is widely expected to be named the next Bishop, but there are political reasons that may not occur: the Whigs are now in power, and the Grantlys are Tories, a secular difference which seems also connected to differences within the Church of England, with the Grantlys being more "high church" (or "bells and smells") and the other side more low church, nearly "evangelical". And, indeed, the new Government selects a Dr. Proudie instead of Dr. Grantly. And Dr. Proudie has a formidable -- and very evangelical -- wife. And his wife insists that a certain Obadiah Slope be chosen as the new chaplain. Slope is, besides his somewhat fanatical low church leanings, a very ambitious man, and quite a schemer.

Also involved is Mr. Harding, formerly the Warden of Hiram Hospital -- he was unfairly forced to resign in The Warden. Mr. Harding has two daughter -- Mrs. Grantly, the Archdeacon's wife, and Mrs. Eleanor Bold, who has recently been widowed, and who has a young son. Mr. Harding has some hopes of being restored to his position at the hospital.

All this is presented not just in personal terms, nor in political terms, but in financial terms. In this book, there is a great deal of attention paid to how much money a clergyman is paid (especially inasmuch as the Church of England has recently reformed its payment practices,) and to how much a woman might have inherited (which in practical terms means how much a man will take control of upon marriage.) And the plot of the novel turns not just on the maneuverings surrounding the various potentially open livings for the clergy, but on the presumed possible marriage of Eleanor Bold, who, as a young and beautiful widow with a rather decent portion is eligible indeed. 

To summarize very briefly (I hope) we witness the struggle over the Wardenship of the Hospital -- the main claimants being the former Warden Mr. Harding, and the rather needy Mr. Quiverful, who is worthy enough but whose main claim is his need to support his fourteen children -- and the issues here revolve more about Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope desiring to have a Sunday School attached to the Hospital, but more significantly Mr. Slope's decision to shift his support to Mr. Harding in the hopes that that will make him a more attractive suitor to Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor Bold. But beyond that living there is the small church of St. Ewold's, to which the Archdeacon attracts the respected Cambridge scholar Mr. Arabin. And finally the Dean of Barchester dies, and immediately it seems Mr. Slope is the leading candidate to replace him.

On the romantic front, the return to Barchester of the prebendary Dr. Vesey Stanhope from Italy muddles the waters. Dr. Stanhope had been drawing a clerical salary but performing no duties while living in Italy. The new Bishop insists he return (or so does Mr. Slope -- and in this instance Mr. Slope is surely in the right). The Stanhope children include a feckless young man, an artist of no renown, who is a thorough spendthrift, and his older sister begins to scheme to marry him to Eleanor. But Mr. Slope also has designs on her. The late entry in the field is Mr. Arabin, who doesn't have the same financial motives (though Trollope reminds us that no matter Mr. Arabin's concerns, a nice fortune will do him no harm) but who clearly begins to form an attachment. The fly in all this ointment is the other Stanhope, Signora Madeline Neroni, a very beautiful but not terribly moral woman, who made a disastrous marriage to an Italian man, and who lost the use of her legs in an accident. She takes an interest in pretty much any man, in this case including Mr. Slope and Mr. Arabin ...

The climax of these events occurs in great part at a party thrown by an aging and rather out of date brother and sister, the Thornes, ostensibly to welcome Mr. Arabin to his new post at St. Ewold's. This takes up several delicious chapters, and we see the entire spectrum of Barchester society, from a Countess down to laborers -- it's a gentle comic masterpiece, and it forms a well constructed resolution to the questions of the plot. I won't detail how that works out (though Trollope on occasion fairly openly tells his readers what to expect) -- but it's quite satisfying. And, indeed, though some people's specific hopes are dashed, it has to be said that all the characters more or less land on their feet.

I found this novel supremely pleasurable to read. Trollope is a very funny writer (in a very quiet way) for one thing. He is quite acute in his depiction of the social order of his time. He is (mostly quite affectionately) observant of the weakness and folly of his characters -- "good" and "bad"; and he loves to present the careful machinations of all the characters leading to unexpected consequences. The only real villain is Mr. Slope, and even he, though oily and unpleasant, is presented as fairly intelligent, and sometimes in the right. (Well, perhaps Vesey Stanhope is a bit of a villain in a less active way -- at any rate, he is morally profoundly negligent.) The prose is Victorian prose at its fullest -- many contemporary readers lose patience with such prose -- the long sentences, the fairly obtrusive narrator, the overt means of characterization (telling instead of showing.) But I love it -- and if you have the taste for that prose, Trollope is a master. Perhaps one of the elements that is the hardest for present day readers is the complete acceptance of the Victorian English view of women's proper place -- in the home, as nurturers. Trollope's women have a great deal of agency, and also intelligence, but they do accept that their role is to be wives and mothers. (To be sure, a woman like Mrs. Proudie uses her position as the Bishop's wife to wield a great deal of power, most certainly over Dr. Proudie as well as more widely in the diocese.)

Finally -- a note, maybe a question. The novel has very many characters who are clergymen, and they have a dizzying array of titles. Many I know well: Archbishop, Bishop, Vicar, chaplain, curate. Others I recognize but can't quite place in the hierarchy: Archdeacon, Warden, Canon, Dean. Some I really don't know at all, like precentor and prebendary. Does anyone know more detail about this?

And one small additional note -- the previous Victorian novel I read is Vanity Fair, from one decade earlier. It's a very different novel in tone, of course -- but I did detect some parallels between the virtuous (but very foolish) Amelia Sedley and the virtuous (and actually fairly intelligent) Eleanor Bold. (Mostly their perhaps excessive devotion to their less than perfect -- and dead -- husbands, and their deep love for the sons. Also, more trivially, they are both widows who eventually remarry.)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi

a review by Rich Horton


Here is a novel that wears its time of writing on its sleeve.The Kaiju Preservation Society opens in early 2020, just as the pandemic is staring. Jamie Gray is working for a food delivery service, and sees a great opportunity for his company -- perceiving that the market for delivered meals is about to explode, Jame is eager to present this dea to the CEO -- only to be fired ... 

Let's pull back a bit. John Scalzi needs little introduction -- he's been writing vary enjoyable SF novels for nearly two decades. He's won a Campbell, a Locus, a Dragon, and a couple of Hugos. And somehow he became a lightning rod for the Sad Puppies despite, as far as I can tell, writing EXACTLY the sort of old-fashioned, plot and adventure and cool SF idea-centered stuff they claimed to want! Well, to use an appropriate word, whatever! I like his stuff, and I read it regularly, and so I was happy when our book club chose his brand new novel for our next read. (In this case, I bought the novel through Audible, so I listened to it rather than reading it. The reader, who did a fine job, is Wil Wheaton.)

To continue -- Jamie is humiliatingly forced to accept a gig job workiing for the same company, delivering meals. And in the process Jamie meets a guy from college, a guy who is impressed with Jamie's knowledge of SF (knowledge that almost led to a Ph. D.) And when it becomes clear that Jamie is facing impossible financial pressures due to a) not having his old job; and b) the pandemic; this guy, Tom, offers Jamie a job, for a group called the KPS. A really really well-paying job, but with a catch -- it's in a remote area, out of reach of connection to cell networks, and potentially living a little rough. But, hey, what's the alternative? And the job seems perhaps to have some connection to Jamie's SF knowledge?

Soon Jamie is in Greenland, still wondering what's going on. We can guess, of course, given the title of the novel. And, indeed, KPS stands for Kaiju Preservation Society, and once in Greenland they travel to a secret base, and go through a portal into an alternate Earth. An Earth with conditions that allow for the existence of 100 meter tall monsters. (They are powered by biological nuclear reactors!) Jamie's job is to "lift things" (and the novel has a lot of fun with that.) Everyone else is a Ph. D., including the other newbies, with whom Jamie soon becomes very friendly. 

The first large chunk of the novel is all about explaining what's going on, which is pretty fun -- wildly improbable but clever rationalizations of the Kaiju biology, amusing training sequences, references to a certain famous Kaiju which crossed over to our Earth near Japan thanks to a nuclear explosion (nuclear explosions thin the barrier between worlds ...) There's a lot of camaradie between the various KPS members -- they are a genuninely nice bunch. The eventual plot concerns first an effort to get a pair of Kaiju to breed, and second, a job Jamie is given to shepherd various visitors -- government official, military, scientific higher ups, and, of course, corporate sponsors -- around the base -- it seems that a chance to see real Kaiju is quite the lure. The actual conflict comes fairly late, involving an attempt to bring a Kaiju to our Earth to harvest some genetic material ... which turns out to be a really bad idea.

The novel is very light (though some terrible things happen) and it's very enjoyable. Scalzi's narrative voice is as usual delightful. A lot of it doesn't make a ton of sense, but it really doesn't have to -- the attempts to have it make SF sense are entertaining anyway, and we're not really expected to believe it. An afterword explains the genesis of the novel -- the stress of the pandemic, not to mention a maybe Covid maybe not illness, made it impossible for Scalzi to finish the more serious novel he had planned. He needed relief -- and the idea for this novel came to him, and he finished it in record time (by my lights -- maybe it's normal for Scalzi.) He described it as a "pop song", which seems entirely correct.

I liked it -- it's short and swift and fun. I do have one quibble, and it's a quibble I have about a lot of recent fiction -- the villain is a maximally, cartoonishly, evil corporation. Evil corporations are the lazy default villains these days, and certainly you can find a lot to complain about in corporate actions. But what this corporation gets up to is pretty extreme. And -- the novel takes on the stresses of the pandemic and such nicely enough. But in 2022 we have additional stresses, and a reminder that for real maximal evil a consciousless autocrat of a nation state is a much better candidate than a mere profit hungry corporation. 

[Note -- I've modified my original review, thanks to a hint from John Scalzi's editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. I had assumed Jamie Gray was male -- but the the novel carefully does not specifiy. Indeed, the other characters are referred to as he, she, and in one case they -- but we never learn Jamie's pronouns. This is, I suspect, easier to do in a first person narrative! It was a bit tricky for me to work around all the "he"s in my original draft without using "they".

I will offer a couple of defenses. The first is simple -- I did not read the novel, I listened to it. And the narrator, Will Wheaton, is male. And for a first person narrative, it's pretty natural to assign the narrator's gender to the first person character. Beyond that I'll suggest that there is one ambiguous marker that the Jamie might be male -- his job is to "lift things", and lifting things implies upper body strength, which is unevenly distributed between males and females. That said, the other person in the novel whose job is to "lift things" is explicitly female. The novel features no romantic subplots, and indeed I spent a tiny amount of time wondering whether or not Jamie is gay or straight -- there is no evidence either way (that I detected.)]

My Black Gate Essay Series

Over the past couple of years I've written several essays -- six for far -- for Black Gate, in each case taking a fairly close look at a story (or a few stories, or a poem) that I either particularly like or find particularly interesting. I'm quite proud of these posts, so I'm putting a link to them here in my blog.


"The Star Pit", by Samuel R. Delany;

Three Stories by Idris Seabright;

"Winter Solstice, Camelot Station", by John M. Ford;

"It Opens the Sky", by Theodore Sturgeon;

"Winter's King", by Ursula K. Le Guin;

"The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", by James Tiptree, Jr.;


I note that above my links just mention the title of the stories under consideration, but Black Gate editor John O'Neill add more interesting titles to the essays, and I particularly liked his title for the most recent one, about Tiptree: Still Not Telling Us