Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Beth Bernobich

Beth Bernobich is exactly 1 day younger than yesterday's birthday subject, M. Rickert (which makes them both just a couple of months younger than me). Beth wrote a lot of exciting short fiction in the 2000s, then turned to novels -- a fantasy series collectively called River of Souls for Tor, and a fun YA fantasy, Fox and Phoenix. I hadn't seen anything for a few years, but just this year, under the name Claire O'Dell, she published an intriguing looking novel, A Study in Honor, the first of the Janet Watson chronicles, which (as the title of the first book and the name of the narrator suggest) puts versions of Holmes and Watson, who happen to be women and black, into a near-future dystopian US.

Here's a compilation of my reviews of her short fiction. (I also reviewed Fox and Phoenix for Black Gate.)

Locus, April 2003

Also of note is "Poison" by Beth Bernobich (posted January 20/27 at Strange Horizons), at 12,000 words perhaps the longest story yet featured at Strange Horizons. This story recalls Le Guin and Arnason, as well as Strange Horizons regular M. C. A. Hogarth, in that it depicts a human-like people with a different sexual nature. "Poison" is about a pair of tikaki, who can change their sex at will once they reach maturity. The narrator has not yet "ripened", but his/her companion, Yenny, has, and this ability makes Yenny a valuable prostitute. A new client, however, is using Yenny is some way as to make him/her ill, and the story turns on finding out what this client is plotting, which also reveals some of the story behind the tikakis' place in this alien society.

Locus, July 2003

I found the second issue of the overtly slipstream anthology Polyphony (edited by Deborah Layne with Jay Lake) even better than the first. ... Another fine story is Beth Bernobich's "Chrysalide", about a court painter whose success is based on her power to draw the "spirit", as it were, from her subjects to the painting, at a terrible cost.

Locus, April 2006

Asimov’s for June features one longish novelette and a passel of short stories. The novelette, “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange”, is the first Asimov’s appearance for a very promising newer writer, Beth Bernobich. Simon Madoc is a mathematics student whose twin sister, Gwyn seems to have been driven mad by mathematics. We soon gather that this is in a parallel world of some sort: it feels a bit like Edwardian England but the city is called Awveline and the country Èireann, and other countries mentioned include familiar ones like Estonia and unfamiliar ones like Lîvod. Math is different, too: Simon is studying theories about the electrical properties of certain equations. And now Simon is at the center of a murder investigation, as several of his student friends have died in mysterious circumstances. This is all quite interesting, but in the end I wasn’t convinced. But I was intrigued: and I want to see more from Bernobich.

Locus, December 2007

September/October’s Interzone has a series of interesting stories … Beth Bernobich’s “A Handful of Pearls” is effectively creepy in portraying an unpleasant viewpoint character – a scientist whose girlfriend has left him – we slowly gather, because of his bad behavior – and we slowly are drawn into his abuse of a young humanoid girl they discover on an isolated island. What I wanted more of was the background – this seems to be set on an intriguingly different parallel Earth, but we don’t really learn enough about that.

Locus, September 2008

Somewhat belatedly I should mention a very fine story at Subterranean Magazine’s online edition for Spring. (I confess I have a hard time delineating the beginning and end of their issues.) “Air and Angels”, by Beth Bernobich, has an almost steampunk setup, with a young Victorian man meeting a fascinating pair of sisters, and being drawn briefly into their lives. The ladies are scientifically talented, and fascinated by astronomy – and it turns out they have a striking plan – which rather explicitly echoes a famous feminist SF story, given an intriguing alternate perspective by the Victorian setting.

Locus, October 2008

And among a host of first-rate work at Postscripts – the stories above, plus a fine Luff Imbry story from Matthew Hughes and solid work from Justina Robson, Eric Brown, and Paul DiFilippo among other, one story stands out. This is “The Golden Octopus” by Beth Bernobich (yet another writer exactly my age!). This intriguingly parallels her arresting earlier piece “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange”. It follows the young Queen of Éirann (an alternate Ireland), as she juggles statecraft, her desire to support a researcher’s efforts to develop a form of time travel, her potential but unrealizable interest in her chief bodyguard and her politically more acceptable romance with the researcher, and finally a scary series of strange murders. The wrenching ending turns on the expectable but often unthought results of successful time travel.

Locus, December 2009

Speaking of PS Publishing and steampunk, they have put out Beth Bernobich’s first book, Ars Memoriae, a novella set in her somewhat steampunkish alternate history in which Queen Aíne rules in Éireann, a version of Ireland that occupies more or less the place of England as something like World War I looms. Commander Adrian Dee, still tortured by memories of another past, is sent by his Queen on a mission to Central Europe to uncover plots that may lead to a war involving the Prussian Empire, Austria, Montenegro … all this involving revolutionaries in Montenegro, a traitor in Éireann, and, naturally, a strong beautiful woman whose loyalties Dee cannot at first know … It’s fun stuff, but just a bit more routine than Bernobich’s previous Éireann stories. Still – there is surely more to come, perhaps even a novel, and Bernobich remains one of the most exciting newer writers we have.

Locus, September 2010

Beth Bernobich has not yet published a novel (though Passion Play is forthcoming this fall), but her short fiction has been very impressive, in particular several stories set in an alternate history dominated by a version of Ireland called Éireann. A Handful of Pearls collects much of her non- Éireann short fiction, which is also quite worth your while. The one new story, “Jump to Zion”, is fine work, if not her best, about a colony of former slaves who have escaped (where is not quite clear) only to form a new society again based on slavery. The heroine has struggled to buy herself something like freedom, but cannot guarantee the same for her daughter, and so is tempted by the violence urged by her former lover – only violence seems ever a mistake.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of M. Rickert

Today is the birthday of the exceptional writer Mary Rickert, who publishes as M. Rickert. Certainly her short fiction deserves celebration on this occasion -- so here's a compilation of some of my Locus reviews, plus a brief review of her collection Map of Dreams that I did for Fantasy Magazine.

Locus, August 2002

The cover story for the August F&SF is M. Rickert's "Leda", a clever modern-day retelling of the story of Leda and the swan: what if a swan really did rape a contemporary woman?  How would she, and the rest of the world, react?  It's nicely told, with an effective variety of voices and tones.

Locus, August 2003

F&SF for August ... Best this month, though, was M. Rickert's "The Chambered Fruit", a ghost story. An artist's daughter is abducted and murdered by a man she met under a false guise on the Internet. The heart of the story is the mother's battle with grief, and her involvement with an odd girl who claims to hear from the dead daughter's ghost.

Locus, September 2005

SCI FICTION for August ... Better is M. Rickert's "Anyway", about a single mother with a son ready to join the military, her dying mother and cranky father, and her memories of her beloved brother who was murdered young. Her mother has a family history about sons and going to war and saving the world and guilt – and a choice no parent should have to make.

Locus, May 2006

The May F&SF includes a couple of striking dark stories. One of the best stories of 2006 is M. Rickert’s beautiful horror story “Journey Into the Kingdom”. The story is well-framed, to begin with: a young man at an art show reads a journal/story accompanying a painting. The story tells of a girl growing up as a lighthouse keeper, whose father’s ghost returns again and again, often with other ghosts. She falls in love with one of the ghosts, who tells in turn his story, of an attempt to escape his jealous father, which leads to both father and son dying. The son reveals that he is a special ghost, who comes to life via the breath of mortals: best obtained by a kiss. And it seems that this girl – the artist, we gather – has become one such ghost. But of course this is just a story. Back in the initial frame, the gallery visitor falls for the artist, who seems resistant to his advances. Perhaps she doesn’t want to steal his breath? And then the story takes another dark turn – and another. This is lovely work, beautifully written, fascinatingly imagined, and resolved with that perfect touch of ambiguity that, done right, perfectly enhances a certain sort of contemporary fantasy.

Locus, December 2006

December’s F&SF features as usual a Christmas story – quite a different one – for one thing, it is also a Halloween story. M. Rickert’s “The Christmas Witch” is another outstanding piece from this wonderful writer. Rachel Boyle and her father have moved to a small Massachusetts town after her mother’s death. Rachel learns some stories about Wilmot Redd, famous in the town for having been executed for witchcraft. She begins to collect bones, and makes friends (of a sort) with a boy she stays with after school. But Rachel seems in contact with some variety of real witchcraft – more real than anyone else will credit. Rickert, as ever, takes the story in unexpected directions, often uncomfortable, quite spooky and convincing.

Locus, March 2007

M. Rickert’s “Memoirs of a Deer Woman” is another first rate piece, quite simply described: a woman becomes a deer, and her husband follows her as best he can. I can’t say much more – Rickert’s prose and insight make the story work.

Locus, January 2008

And finally, I find myself a bit behind in covering Subterranean magazine, after its online migration. First I should note the final print issue, #7, guest edited by Ellen Datlow, which has in particular a strong M. Rickert story, “Holiday”, about a man whose father was convicted of child abuse, and who is writing a book absolving his father – but who is haunted by a young girl who seems to be an abuse victim. The story turns darker and darker, and we aren’t sure in the end how deep the stain of child abuse has spread.

Locus, October 2009

M. Rickert’s “The President’s Book Tour” probably reads as SF to most, as it seems to be set in the future, a future in which a devastating war has caused all the children to be deformed, vegetation to be killed, etc. But the manner of telling – the tone, and the almost fable-like disconnection of the setting – reminded me very strongly of Emshwiller.

Review of Map of Dreams for Fantasy Magazine

M. Rickert is easily one of the most exciting new writers to appear in the fantasy field over the past several years. Her stories are lyrical and odd, often myth-derived, often intriguingly framed. Story collections for new writers who have not yet published a novel used to be rare but they are common these days – sometimes such collections seem too early, but for Rickert such a collection is if anything overdue. And indeed in a sense she has now published a novel: the title story, new to this collection, is novel length at about 40,000 words. (“Map of Dreams”, along with several vignettes also new here, serves as a curious sort of frame for the book – appropriate as Rickert is a contemporary master of the frame story.)  It is an absorbing and moving story of a woman overcome by grief after her daughter is murdered by a sniper. Her marriage collapsing, she follows the husband of another of the sniper’s victims to Australia, convinced that he has learned time travel. This is fine work, but the resolution is a bit too pat, and over its length it loses some focus. But this book also includes some truly outstanding shorter works, beginning with her first published story, “The Girl Who Ate Butterflies”. Other favorites of mine include “Anyway”, about the agony of a woman whose son is about to join the military, and the terrible choice she is offered; and “The Chambered Fruit”, a bit reminiscent of “Map of Dreams” as it tells of a mother battling with her grief about her murdered daughter, and the effect on her of a girl who claims to hear from the daughter’s ghost; and “Angel Face”, about a supposed image of the Virgin, and a boy taken with a skeptical girl. Rickert also takes on the story of Leda and the Nativity Story in unusual ways. This is an essential collection by a superb writer.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Albert E. Cowdrey

Yesterday, December 8, was the 85th birthday of Albert E. Cowdrey, long a rival of Robert Reed for F&SF's most prolific contributor. The great bulk of his work is darkly humorous fantasy, mostly set in or near New Orleans, though his only novel, Crux, is time travel SF, and he has written other SF as well. He's a consistently entertaining writer, and in his honor, here's a compilation of some of my Locus reviews of his work:

Locus, March 2002

The final story in the trio of long novellas under consideration is Albert E. Cowdrey's "Ransom" (F&SF, April).  This is the third in Cowdrey's series of stories set in a far future under totalitarian rule, all turning around time travel.  Hastings Maks, hero of a previous story, is divorced from his first wife and married to a woman he illegally brought back from the past.  His son (by his first wife) is kidnapped, and Maks receives a ransom request – he must go back to the past and rescue a young boy who is destined to die a nuclear war.  At the same time Maks' wife is becoming dangerously involved with an unscrupulous financier who has been taken to the future to help the Empress locate precious items in the ruins of America.  As with the other stories in this series, it is fast moving and the plot involves both the complications of time travel, and the political manipulations of the Security department for which Maks works.  It is nothing more than solid adventure, but it's a good example of such, and I liked it a lot.

Locus, April 2003

Albert E. Cowdrey is back with another amusing but dark look at crime in New Orleans, "The Dog Movie". A detective investigating a series of crimes befriends an old man, a potential victim, who claims his dead wife talks to him on his old TV. Cowdrey's evocation of the voices of his characters is as ever a delight.

Locus, July 2004

Rather more serious is Albert E. Cowdrey's "A Balance of Terrors". An embittered biomedical researcher meets her long ago lover, a very politically connected man, for lunch. We quickly cotton to the researcher's distaste for humankind, and to a certain resemblance to Tiptree's brilliant "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", but Cowdrey avoids a slavish retelling of the earlier story, instead adding a morally evocative closing twist.

Locus, August 2004

F&SF for August is also strong. The cover novella is Albert E. Cowdrey's "The Tribes of Bela", fairly traditional biological SF from a writer better known for his offbeat tales of New Orleans. A mysterious series of murders on the planet Bela brings Colonel Roger Kohn to investigate. With the help of a few of the humans at this mining colony, and despite what seems to be obstruction by many others, he slowly comes to a realization that part of the answer lies with the very strange biology of this planet, a biology resulting from its eccentric orbit. But before he can take action, things go pear-shaped, leading to an action-filled denouement.

Locus, March 2005

Albert Cowdrey has a fine novelet here as well: "The Amulet". A writer interviewing "characters" from New Orleans stumbles across a woman who claims to have been born in "1294. Or maybe five." She tells him a story about an amulet that gives the wearer good luck – for a time. But the instructions for its use are important! And besides luck it proffers another gift. The story is quite funny, historically acute (and cute), told in a well-rendered deadpan voice – and with a nice twist to close things.

Locus, March 2006

The March F&SF features a dryly amusing novella from Albert Cowdrey, something of a change of pace from the bulk of his work. For one thing, “The Revivalist” is set primarily in Baltimore, as opposed to New Orleans. The narrator wakes in a hospital in 1999. But his last memories are from shortly after the war. He tells his story. He is the son of a wealthy brewer, but from early in his life he loved to sleep, sometimes for remarkable periods. All this sleep has two major effects – it makes him a disappointment to those who expect productivity from him (primarily his father and his wife), and it seems to extend his life. His story is a combination of triumphs and letdowns, with a heavy dose of cynicism, and even a bit of philosophical meditation on the perfectibility – or not – of humanity.

Locus, March 2008

Albert E. Cowdrey’s “The Overseer” is an involving horror story set primarily in the years following the civil war. At the turn of the 20th Century, Nicholas Lerner, an old man in New Orleans, writes a memoir, beginning with his life on a plantation and his friendship with a slave boy. But the War intervened – and, in a different way, the plantation’s cruel overseer’s designs on Nicholas’s sister also intervened. Nicholas arranged for his slave friend to kill the overseer to keep him from importuning his sister – but this act backfires, as the overseer, even while dead, vows revenge. A revenge which involves Nicholas in a strange way, as the overseer chooses to advise Nicholas – leading him to great but poisoned success, as he plays both post-war sides (Reconstructionists and KKK-types) against each other. Nicholas’s memoir writing is alternated with scenes of his old man’s life – attended by a half-black servant who might be his son – and who might also be a target of the overseer.

Locus, June 2009

The second of F&SF’s new bimonthly issues features a long novella by Arthur Cowdrey, “Paradiso Lost”, in which his recurring character Robert Kohn tells the story of his first assignment as a military murder investigator. He’s a newly hatched Security Forces officer, assigned to a starship which is heading to the planet Paradiso to remove the colony there, which is in territory Earth is abandoning as the result of a recent war with aliens. On the way there two significant things happen – the nasty commander of the expedition is murdered, and Kohn becomes the lover of the ship’s pilot, an older woman who is second in command to the murdered General. Kohn manages to solve the murder, but a further mystery arises when they reach the planet – the colonists seem to have disappeared. We learn why eventually, and we witness another critical event, which tests Kohn’s personal and public loyalties. It’s fine work, though perhaps a bit too long and episodic for its eventual resolution to carry.

Locus, July 2010

Speaking of zombies, there is another zombie story in this issue, and it’s pretty entertaining too: Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead”, in which a successful writer hires a security firm to protect him after his latest lover comes after him for revenge – after the breakup and also after the lover seemed to have quite conclusively died. Funny and in a number of ways oddly sweet.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Ace Double Reviews, 15: People of the Talisman, by Leigh Brackett/The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett

Ace Double Reviews, 15: People of the Talisman, by Leigh Brackett/The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett (#M-101, 1964, $0.45, reissued in 1971 as #75781, $0.95)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller)
These are Leigh Brackett's two Eric John Stark stories set on Mars. She wrote one other Stark story, "Enchantress of Venus" (aka "City of the Lost Ones"), published in the Fall 1949 Planet Stories. (The alert reader will guess that it was set on Venus.) It was a bit shorter, and it's collected in The Halfling and Other Stories. In the 1970s, she wrote three Stark novels set on a planet of another star, called Skaith.

People of the Talisman is an expansion of "Black Amazon of Mars", which appeared in the March 1951 Planet Stories. (Another story in that issue is one of the all-time classic "Brackett-like" Mars stories, Poul Anderson's "Duel on Syrtis".) The original story is about 23,000 words long, the expansion about 38,000 words. The Secret of Sinharat is an expansion of "Queen of the Martian Catacombs", which appeared in the Summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories. The original is about 21,000 words, and the expansion is to some 28,000 words. I have seen it asserted, both on the web and in the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that the 1964 expansions were actually done by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton. I don't know if this is true (Clute actually writes "reported expanded for book publication by Edmond Hamilton"), though Hamilton did contribute a brief biographical note on Brackett to the Ace Double edition.

I had previously read the Ace Double versions of these stories, and for this review I read the Planet Stories versions, with an eye to comparison. This was rather interesting. The Secret of Sinharat is a modest expansion, concentrated in the last couple of chapters, with some changes to incident (a character Stark kills in the original is killed by the villainess in the expansion), and with a slight alteration to the concluding message from the heroine to Stark. The changes in People of the Talisman are much more extensive, and they start earlier. Many of the basic elements of the story are the same, but there are radical changes. The nature of the aliens encountered in the closing chapters is wholly different. The ending is completely different. The motivations, and the final decision, of the heroine are radically different (and her hair color changes as well!) It's pretty much a complete rewrite from about the third chapter on. I would say that both People of the Talisman and "Black Amazon of Mars" are worth reading on their own.
(Covers by Enric)

People of the Talisman opens with Eric John Stark trying to reach the city of Kushat with a dying Martian. The Martian confesses with his last breath that he stole a powerful talisman from the city, which guards the mysterious Gates of Death. Stark promises to return it. But on the way he is apprehended by raiders of Mekh, and their masked, black-armored leader, Ciaran. Stark escapes and makes his way to Kushat, where he warns the soft and skeptical populace of the dangerous raiders. When the raiders come, the defense is desperate but it fails, though Stark manages to unmask the leader -- and what he finds is not a surprise if you know the title of the original story. Here the two stories diverge wildly. In the first, a man Stark has befriended escapes to the Gate of Death, hoping to find a secret which will free the city from its conqueror. Stark knows that only evil waits behind those gates, and he follows, only to be followed himself by the beautiful Lady Ciara, the red-haired "Black Amazon" of the title. The three find evil indeed, and Stark must take a terrible risk to use the power of the talisman to free his friends and save Mars from the evil behind the gates. In the novel version, Stark and other city-dwellers plot to escape the city to the Gates of Death, where they believe the talisman Stark possesses may be the secret of freedom. They manage to capture their conqueror, the beautiful black-haired Lady Ciaran. But behind the Gates they again find evil creatures, though portrayed rather differently than in the shorter version. Stark again must vanquish these evil creatures, but the conclusion is quite different, as Lady Ciaran's motivations turn out to be not the same as in the original story.

It's fun and deeply colorful, quite original of its kind, and as I said both the short and long versions are well worth reading.

The Secret of Sinharat opens with Stark cornered by the Solar System law. He is offered a deal: to avoid prison, he must join the war-band of a prince called Kynon, who is apparently going to rain havoc on Mars if allowed to carry out his plans. Stark joins the band, not without making a couple of enemies among the other chief assistants to Kynon. He learns that Kynon claims to have discovered the ancient secret of mind transfer, by which an old man can become young again by transferring his mind to a young body. However, all this is a fraud. Stark still accompanies the war party, meeting a beautiful maidservant, and her fiery mistress, the pampered Queen to Kynon. He and the Queen are, by treachery, isolated during a sandstorm, and manage to survive by coming to the old city of Sinharat -- and their Stark learns another secret of the beautiful Queen. When the two return to the war band, he knows enough to deflect the plans of the war leader, but he must also deal with some more sinister creatures. As I said, the two versions of the story are largely the same, with fairly minor but not insignificant differences. The ending in particular ends up with Stark paired with the same woman -- but the woman's plans for Stark and her future are quite changed in the two versions. Again, a quite worthwhile and colorful adventure story.

I should note that while both stories are about the same person, and his character is consistent between the two, otherwise they are wholly independent, and there is no reason to regard them as being in any particular order timewise (though if you insisted you would probably put The Secret of Sinharat first), and indeed they really read as stories set in two different "futures".

(I was amused, too, by the covers to the Planet Stories issues. Both are by Allen Anderson, a rather lurid regular cover illustrator for the magazine. Both are quite faithful in that they actually illustrate scenes from the story. Both feature Eric John Stark, recognizably the same person. And both feature red-haired women as the most prominent figure. Only the later cover features an armored "bra", though, complete with shaped nipples (which seems wholly unlikely for any real world armor). That, by the way, is quite unfaithful to the story, as the armor was clearly intended to hide any evidence that its wearer was a woman. Anyway, they are pretty much prototypical Planet Stories covers, matching the magazine's reputation to a T.)

Birthday Review: The Big Jump, plus other shorter stories, by Leigh Brackett

Birthday Review: Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump (plus several of her shorter works)

For Leigh Brackett's birthday I decided to do one of my short story review compilations, but in her case I had to go back to my "Retro-Reviews" of old SF magazines. So these are the stories of hers I have reviewed in the original issues of the magazines they appeared in. These include one of her novels, The Big Jump, which first appeared in a single issue of the pulp Space Stories.

Space Stories, February 1953

(Cover by Jeff Jones)
The novel in the February 1953 issue is "The Big Jump", by Leigh Brackett. This too is "officially" a novel, at some 42,000 words. (As far as I can tell from a quick glance at my Ace edition of the novel, it's the same story.) It's a curious sort of book, spending much of its length in Brackett's "hard-boiled" mode, and for that portion it's not very successful. But right toward the end it effectively switches to her high-romantic mode, and that brief portion is rather nice.

Arch Comyn is a spaceship construction worker. He hears that somebody has completed "the Big Jump" -- travelled to another star. He learns that his close friend Paul Rogers was on the crew. However, details about the expedition have been suppressed. Comyn hears a rumor that the survivors are hidden in a hospital on Mars owned by the Cochrane Company (which built the spaceship involved). Comyn makes his way to Mars and rather implausibly barges into the Cochrane complex, and finds the hospital room with the one survivor, Captain Ballantyne. Ballantyne is dying, but Comyn hears him say just a bit -- a hint about "transuranics". Then Ballantyne dies, and Comyn is in the custody of the Cochrane Company, who try to beat his secret out of him. Eventually they let him go, and he heads back to Earth, concerned that the secret of what Ballantyne found on a planet of Barnard's Star will be of altogether too much interest to several parties. And indeed, Comyn detects a tail -- but then he sees Cochrane heiress Sydna Cochrane on TV, making a toast to Ballantyne and hinting that a visit from Comyn would be welcome.

Soon Comyn is confronting Sydna, though not before shaking two separate tails, one of whom tries to kill him. Sydna, who is 100% pure Lauren Bacall (remember, this is Brackett in her "tough guy thriller" mode), convinces Comyn to follow her to the Cochrane complex on Luna. Once there, Comyn to his horror sees what's left of Ballantyne -- even though he is dead, his body somehow still lives mindlessly. Before long, Comyn is a) having an affair with Sydna, and b) pushing to join the second expedition to Barnard's Star. After some more hijinks (another assassination attempt), Comyn and a few Cochranes (and some redshirts) are on their way to Barnard's Star. One of the "Cochranes" is William Stanley, a weaselly cousin-by-marriage who lusts after Sydna despite his married state. Stanley reveals that he has stolen the lost logs of the Ballantyne expedition, and he uses this vital knowledge to negotiate controlling interest in the prospective Transuranic company.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Then they arrive at Barnard's Star, and the novel changes tone entirely, to something transcendental, much more reminiscent of the best of Brackett's planetary romances. The other members of the first expedition are found, living in a primitive state with the presumptive natives of the planet. (Natives who seem to be fully humanoid for no reason at all!) Comyn finds his friend Paul Rogers, who refuses to return to Earth. It seems that beings called the Transuranae, composed of transuranic elements, have conferred immortality and freedom from conflict and want on the inhabitants of this planet. So once again we confront the choice -- intellect, striving, knowledge vs. bliss and contentment. (Cf. countless other SF stories, such as "The Milk of Paradise" by Tiptree.) It's no surprise what Comyn chooses (or has chosen for him), but Brackett presents the alternatives in her most evocative style, and really this final section is quite effective.

It's not one of Brackett's best works, but in the end it's decent stuff. The first part, however, is full of plot holes and implausibilities. As well as plain silly stuff like the horror everyone feels at seeing the quasi-living Ballantyne -- still twitching after his death. Spooky, maybe, but not the stuff of Lovecraftian horror as Brackett would have us believe.

Planet Stories, March 1955

Recently in one of the back issues of Planet Stories I have bought (indeed, it was the very last issue of Planet Stories ever published) I read a story called "Teleportress of Alpha C" by Leigh Brackett.  It was the story of a spaceship which had escaped from a regimented, risk-averse, solar system to make it across the years and light-years to Alpha Centauri, and the difficulties they overcame to establish a colony there.  From context it was obvious that it was a sequel, and when I saw a used copy of an Ace Double with Alpha Centauri or Die! by Brackett on one side I figured that would be the whole story, and I was right.  The story I had read is the second half of Alpha Centauri or Die!, while the first half, which appeared as a novella in Planet Stories, is the story of how the spaceship was stolen, and how the band of colonists escaped from the rather Williamsonian robots controlling the Solar System.  It's not Brackett at her best, but it's decent entertainment.

Venture, March 1957

I really liked Leigh Brackett’s “The Queer Ones”, but then I tend to really like Brackett. A newspaperman in a mountain town gets hints of a story – one of the mountain girls brought her boy into the doctor, and x-rays showed he was really strange. The girl swears she’s going to marry the handsome man who knocked her up – but he seems to have run off. But then he’s back, and so is his exotic sister, who makes a connection with the protagonist … It’s clear enough what’s going on, though Brackett runs a couple of nice variations on it, and it ends with classical Brackettian regret.

Venture, November 1957

Leigh Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" is on the one hand a pretty straightforward piece about the ugliness of racial prejudice, expressed as the residents of a small town beat up and rape an alien couple. But it has a curious colonialist side to it as well. The story is told from the POV of Flin, an reprensentative of the Galactic Federation, on his first posting to a newly encountered world, Earth. He is accompanied by his new wife, Ruvi. They are very humanoid except for their pointy ears and green skin. (Yes, they are Vulcans! Almost.) The Federation is providing great benefits to Earth via their advance technology, and they are also trying to civilize humanity. But in the small town Flin and Ruvi are posted to, the locals are essentially unanimously resentful of the alien presence, and they are very hostile to Flin and Ruvi. The whole thing culminates in a horrible scene in which a group of young toughs stop their car, beat up Flin, and rape Ruvi. And then the local justice system refuses to prosecute. The resolution is that Flin and Ruvi leave Earth -- but not before Flin, a weather control expert, takes a terrible revenge against that town. And he is forced to confront the fact that his career is over -- he's no longer civilized either. It's a decent and wrenching story, though far from subtle, and a bit overprogrammed.

There's an Edmond Hamilton story ("No Earthman I") in the same issue, in which Earth colonists have been trying to improve the lot of the aliens on a planet, but the aliens resent that rise up and murder the colonists, to drive them out. The end matter to the magazine includes a note from Brackett saying that one area in which she disagreed with Hamilton was that he was pro-colonialism -- and indeed his story in this issue reads a bit like, say, Jack Vance's The Gray Prince (or like the caricatured (though not entirely wrong) view many people have of Kipling) in its insistence that the aliens are fools for not accepting the kindly guidance of Earthmen. Brackett seems to be saying that her story has the opposite message. Only -- it doesn't. It sends the exact same message -- the locals in her story are fools for resenting the benevolent guidance of the Federation. The only difference is that the locals in this case are Earthmen, and the colonialists are aliens.

Amazing, May 1963

"The Road to Sinharat" is not a Stark story, though its Sinharat is the same as the Sinharat of The Secret of Sinharat, and both stories also mention the city of Valkis, and conflict between the Martians of the city states and those of the Drylands. The hero of this story is Dr. Carey, a Terran scientist, expert on Mars, who is wanted by the United Worlds Committee because of his opposition to the UW's plans to Rehabilitate Mars (i.e., terraform it to some degree), which he believes will be an ecological disaster, particularly for those who live in the Drylands. Carey comes to an Derech, a Martian who owes him for a past deed, a Low Canal resident, and Derech hides him from his pursuers, then agrees to help him make his way to the dangerous abandoned city, Sinharat, where Carey believes there is evidence that will convince the Terrans of their mistakes. The rest of the story follows Carey and Derech and Derech's girlfriend Arrin, by canal and then by land, to Sinharat. It's great fun, pure Brackett to my mind (some have wondered if Hamilton also had a hand in this story, presumably written about when he was working on The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, but I think this is all Brackett). It's got the Brackett romantic touches, and an ecological and anti-Colonial theme that is well argued, I think, and plenty of excitement as well. It hasn't been neglected (it was reprinted in her collection The Coming of the Terrans) but it seems less well-known than it might be.

F&SF, October 1964

Leigh Brackett is, with Bradbury, one of the SF writers most associated with the Red Planet. Her only F&SF story set on Mars is "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon", a fine story in which an anthropologist confronts real Martians, and has a hard time fitting them into his scientific worldview. Brackett's story is one of the last which could straightforwardly present the "traditional" SFnal Mars of canals and decaying ancient races.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Forgotten SF Novel: Where I Wasn't Going (aka Challenge the Hellmaker), by Walt and Leigh Richmond

Where I Wasn't Going (aka Challenge the Hellmaker), by Walt and Leigh Richmond

A review by Rich Horton

I posted a review of Walt and Leigh Richmond's Ace Double Gallagher's Glacier/Positive Charge back in April on the anniversary of Leigh's birth. Today would have been Walt's 96th birthday, so so here's a review of the only thing else I've read by them, an Analog serial.

They were a husband and wife SF writing team, who wrote mostly for Analog in the 1960s: about a dozen short stories between 1961 and 1973, of which only one appeared in another magazine, If. They also wrote five novels for Ace. Three of these were parts of Ace Doubles.

It would be fair to say that they were "late John Campbell" writers, who really couldn't sell to anybody else (except Don Wollheim). And it would be fair to say, based on what I've read, that this was on merit -- they were pretty bad, luckily for them bad in ways that appealed to the idiosyncratic and often annoying tastes of John Campbell in the 60s. Some of the novels were republished by Ace in the 1970s as revised by Leigh after Walt's death.

There is a rather amusing story about their method of collaboration. I've seen this independently attested by several people who met them at the Milford workshops in the mid-60s. Apparently, Walt would sit in his chair and telepathically transmit story ideas to Leigh while she typed. I'll go way out on a limb and say that I personally think Leigh Richmond is the sole author of all these stories, with her husband's name attached for any of a number of possible reasons. (It may well be that the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) ideas behind the stories came out of mutual discussions, mind you.) Leigh was 11 years the elder, by the way, though Walt died in 1977, only 55 years old. (I suppose one might adduce that date as evidence that the collaboration story was true: after all, their last novel was published in 1977, with the 1979 Phase Two being an expansion of a 1969 Ace Double half called Phoenix Ship.) Leigh died in 1996, age 85.

Leigh published one other story without Walt, though that was also a collaboration: "There is a Tide", with R. C. FitzPatrick, in the January 1968 Analog, and then one much later novel, Blindsided, with Dick Richmond-Donahue, her second husband, with her name given as Leigh Richmond-Donahue, so I assume Dick was her second husband. That book came out in 1993 from the obscure publisher Interdimensional Sciences. In 1992 she also published (as by Leigh Richmond Donahue) a (pseudo-?) scientific paper called Field Effect: The Pi Phase of Physics, through the Centric Foundation, which she and Walt had founded, and which seemed devoted to very Campbellian crackpottery. (This foundation was based in Maggie Valley, NC, a town in the Appalachians which as it happens I've visited.)

(Cover by John Schoenherr)
I had bought a few of the early '60s bedsheet-sized Analogs, and I ended up with both parts of the serial "Where I Wasn't Going", from October and November 1963. This was later revised and published as Challenge the Hellmaker in the little-regarded second series of Ace Specials, in 1976.

"Where I Wasn't Going" is set on a major UN project, a space station. The station is just becoming operational. The hero is an American Indian, Mike Blackhawk. The villain is a straight-arrow American military type. The heroes allies include a Russian woman, a black woman, a Chinese man, and various other ethnic types. (And they are mostly portrayed as pure types, though the black woman is, I thought, fairly well and sympathetically described.) In that way it is somewhat non-Campbellian, but otherwise it's pretty pure Campbell.

(Cover artist uncredited, Vincent Di
Fate perhaps?)
As the station comes online, a plot is put into motion by the military types to take over. It seems that the UN has decided that a space station is too powerful not to control, and not to use to control and regiment humanity even more closely. But fortunately at the same time, and by sheer accident, the Chinese scientist invents a space drive, based on some incredibly hokey "physics". (If I read it right, and I admit I may not have, it worked by aligning all the electrons and protons so that the charges were in the same direction, and thus it would be pulled "North". In Earth orbit! So that North, in terms of a magnetic field, wouldn't seem to have much meaning.) Using the space drive, and plenty of derring do, the heroes manage to escape, and to set the stage for humanity to be free to explore new frontiers. But not before casually (though, it must be said, by accident) using a laser to burn a hole through the Greenland glacier and destroy Thule, killing hundreds. (Luckily, we later find, they were all in league with the bad guys, so that's OK.)

Needless to say, it's pretty bad. I haven't read the expanded later version, Challenge the Hellmaker, so I can't say if it's improved or changed in any way.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Birthday Review: Absolute Uncertainty, by Lucy Sussex (plus additional reviews)

 Today is Lucy Sussex' birthday, and in her honor I have posted this brief review I did of her short 2006 collection Absolute Uncertainty, followed by three short extracts from my Locus column reviewing her short fiction.

Absolute Uncertainty, by Lucy Sussex (Aqueduct Press, 1-933500-06-9, $9, 148pp tpb) April 2006.

A review by Rich Horton (from Locus, September 2006)

This collection from Australian writer Lucy Sussex is one of an intriguing series of short books from Aqueduct Press collectively called Conversation Pieces: brief books engaged in a “conversation” with feminist SF issues, including short fiction, essays, original and reprinted novellas and short novels, even a long narrative poem. Absolute Uncertainty is a collection of short stories dating as far back as 1994 and including some from 2006. The stories cover quite a range: some SF, some fantasy, some that could be called horror. “Absolute Uncertainty” is one of the better known, about a sort of virtual reality review of Werner Heisenberg’s life, particularly his controversial association with the Nazis, and his attempt to develop for Germany an atomic bomb. The new stories include “A Sentimental, Sordid, Education”, about a young man’s ambiguous sexual initiation, and an AI’s research into the wellsprings of creativity; “A Small Star of Cold”, a bittersweet ghost story about a much-loved “party facilitator”; and “Duchess”, a clever story about what seems to be the return of the notorious 17th Century woman Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, to the present day to comment (and blog) about fashion. “Kay and Phil” is a moving story imagining an encounter between Philip Dick and Kay Burdekin, a feminist novelist who wrote a spooky novel imagining the world after a Nazi victory, Swastika Night: possible source material for The Man in the High Castle. “Frozen Charlottes” concerns a couple rehabbing and old home who find some dolls that seem linked to a horrifying historical tale of a serial killer of poor children. And “Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies” is a retelling of the real history behind the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda”, from a rather different point-of-view. The collection is capped with an interview with Sussex, conducted by Maureen Kincaid Speller. Fine stuff all around.


Here are three more short extracts from my Locus columns reviewing additional stories by Lucy Sussex:

Locus, March 2005

Some real neat stuff at Sci Fiction in February. It opens with Lucy Sussex's "Matricide", about a woman who locates and sells unusual objects. Her occasional boyfriend finds a strange doll, and two of her clients want to buy it, but he won't sell to them. She's also dealing with a difficult pregnancy – and she's unready or afraid of commitment. Then the disappointed clients take rather sinister steps to retaliate.

Locus, December 2007

More online news … Two interesting new publications originate in Australia, both under the aegis (at least in part) of Alisa Krasnostein. New Ceres is a shared world project. The planet New Ceres is artificially maintained at an 18th Century tech level. There are hints in the two issues so far that this is a controversial aspect of their society, and that changes may be coming. My favorite stories so far, however, have been a couple of mysteries about an eccentric high-society woman, La Duchesse, and her secretary, Pepin, who has a secret of his own. In Lucy Sussex’s “Mist and Murder” (from issue 2) they investigate a potential haunting at the house of a man whose wife left him some time previously. The plot is clever enough (based on an early Australian story) but it is the characters La Duchesse and Pepin who make it work and who bid fair to return for many interesting adventures.

Locus, May 2008

My favorites in the Australian anthology 2012 were “Apocalypse Rules, OK?” by Lucy Sussex, very amusing stuff about the real movers behind the various idiocies humans get up to