Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Another Belated Birthday Review: Stories of Greg Egan

The great Greg Egan had a recent birthday which I missed due to a trip I took. But it's not too late to catch up, with a selection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction. Alas, I wasn't writing these in the '90s, when he fully erupted on the SF scene -- some of my favorite SF short stories ever are among his '90s work, including above all "Wang's Carpets", truly on the the best SF novelettes ever. This selection also doesn't include my look at his latest Analog story, "The Slipway", from the July-August issue, which is very fine work.

Locus, June 2002

The February Interzone leads with Greg Egan's novella "Singleton". This story brings to mind predecessors like "All the Myriad Ways" by Larry Niven, and "Divided by Infinity" by Robert Charles Wilson, as its protagonist deals with the idea that the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics is true. That is, any decision we make we made all possible ways, in different universes. For Niven's protagonist, the resulting question was "Why do anything?" For Egan's hero, Ben, the problem is a feeling of guilt: he is living a fairly happy life, presumably the result of having made some fairly good decisions. How does he deserve this, while his counterparts in alternate universes are condemned to whatever misery resulted from "wrong" decisions?

Locus, April 2006

Greg Egan’s “Riding the Crocodile” (One Million A. D.) is intriguing enough, but somehow doesn’t quite have the spark of his best work. It’s about a posthuman couple trying to cap a very long life by contacting the mysterious civilization called the Aloof in the Galaxy’s core.

Locus, September 2007

Greg Egan seems to be fully back in the field after years helping people entangled in Australia’s refugee mess: last year we saw a fine novella, and this year there has been a new story in Dozois and Strahan’s The New Space Opera and now “Dark Integers” in the October-November Asimov’s. This is a sequel to his earlier story “Luminous”, in which a small group of mathematical researchers discovered that the mathematical rules of our universe aren’t constant – and that finding other “true” rules implies finding a parallel universe. Worse, the two universes don’t interact well – the imposition of “our” mathematical truth is destructive to them and vice versa. As this story opens, the three people in on this secret have been maintaining a sort of DMZ between the two universes with the help of someone in the other universe for over a decade. But now there are hints that someone else may have stumbled on this mathematical curiosity – which could be very dangerous to the other universe. And likewise very dangerous to us, if they choose to retaliate. The story concerns attempts to explain some new notions about the maths behind this idea – interesting notions but not that easy to follow. But the state of hopeless war implied between two incompatible universes is depressing as described. And while I can’t really believe in the basic idea, it is delightfully loopy and original – simply different enough that we know we’re reading Egan. The story works for its weird SFnal interest – and it also works in sadly depicting two sides who can’t trust each other.

Locus, October 2007

“Induction”, by Greg Egan (Foundation #100), about the eventual results of an unmanned probe to another star system. The story primarily follows a woman who works on the original launch, and who gets a surprising offer when the probe responds from the new system. The message is a fairly central SFnal message – certainly one expressed by many other stories – but Egan’s presentation is up to the current date and plausible.

Locus, June 2008

Interzone in April features a new Greg Egan story, sort of a modern day “Microcosmic God”. In “Crystal Nights” a brilliant rich man, Daniel Cliff, sponsors an attempt to breed intelligent beings insides a computer. The goal is simply AI, but the forced evolution he plans to use raises the question: What do we owe artificial beings we “create”, even if they are a simulation? If we create them in conditions which require their death, are we murderers? Cliff is forced to confront that idea, but his attempts to evade it have concomitant problems. The story sharply examines the basic moral issues, cleverly suggests eventual unexpected consequences, and also speculates buzzingly on computer and biological (and combined) means of evolving intelligence.

Locus, January 2016

This month we get two truly exceptional novellas – either one would be a wholly worthy Hugo winner. From the December Asimov's we get Greg Egan's “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, tense political SF set in the Asteroid Belt. The politics are appropriately and believable futuristic (though as one might expect you can draw analogies to present day (and decades or centuries past!) political battles – and I suspect different people will draw different parallels, for me an indication that the story is more about real human action than in grinding any contemporary ax). We open with a woman from Vesta setting out on a trip to Ceres, hidden in a piece of rock, part of the economic link between the two asteroids: Vesta getting ice in exchange for rock. We learn the back story: a portion of the Vestan community has been ostracized by a new political movement for the supposed economic sins of their ancestors. (There is an intriguing economic and philosophical debate encapsulated there, that I'll leave for the reader to unpack, but it's Sfnally zingy all by itself.) Many of the persecuted Vestans are escaping to Ceres in the “river of rock”. Most of the rest of the story unfolds in parallel on Vesta, as Anna, the woman in charge of handling the new arrivals to Ceres, deals with them and in particular with a terrible decision she is forced to make; and in the past on Vesta, as we learn about the political changes there, and in particular the acts of a resistance group. Egan sets up an almost impossible political dilemma – with true villains but with no easy answers on how to deal with them; and with good (but not perfect) people faced with no-win situations.

Locus, August 2017

A new Greg Egan piece is always worth your time. In Tor.com for August he offers “Uncanny Valley”. This is the story of Adam, who we soon gather is a recreated version of a famous writer, based on memory uploads and the like. Adam faces opposition from his original’s family, and from the law, which doesn’t recognize his personhood, but the emotional center of the story concerns his realization that he isn’t his original – and why; as well as his encounter with his original’s husband’s family in El Salvador.

Locus, January 2018

Greg Egan is back again in the November-December Asimov’s, with “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”. This follows a man who loses his job to an AI – and who begins to suspect the AI’s were programmed using his skills. His wife is a nurse, and supports them while he looks hopelessly for a job, and encounters others in the same boat, including a conspiracy nut who claims to have evidence that the AIs have taken over everything. That’s crazy, of course, but his wife loses her job as well, and teachers … the story quietly works its way to a subtle conclusion that resonates with today’s economy, and also reflects on what makes human lives worthwhile.

Locus, October 2018

As usual there is a certain focus on Halloween-themed stories in the September-October Asimov’s, and the cover novella comes from a writer one hardly expects to be working in that mode. But, indeed, Greg Egan’s “3-Adica” does open in a foggy Victorian London of sorts, and Sagreda and her lover Mathis do encounter dangerous vampires. But it’s quickly clear we’re in an Eganesque milieu – a simulated world, based in this case on a fairly lame fantasy novel. But Sagreda and Mathis are searching for a different world entirely – it seems they’ve learned the trick secret of hacking the operating systems of their host machines to jump to different simulations, and they are looking for a world based on the (real) math game 3-adica. Their reasons lie in their real nature, which we learn along the way, and 3-adica, when they get there, is a mathematically fascinating environment. (I was reminded a bit of “Wang’s Carpets” as described in that much earlier Egan story, one of his very best.) The story itself comes to a solid conclusion, with a slingshot – and I gather there is more coming in this milieu. Strong work.

Locus, April 2019

Asimov’s for March-April has a novella from Greg Egan, “Instantiation”, sequel to last year’s “3-adica”. The intelligent “non-playing characters” from the previous story, led by Sagreda, realize that the gaming platform on which they’ve carved out space is in trouble, and may become obsolete. They need to look for a way out to a different platform, which involves some intriguing stuff, such as impersonating Kurt Godel … even more intriguing, I think, is the new platform for which Sagreda is aiming.

Locus, June 2019

Greg Egan’s new long novella (or short novel) is Perihelion Summer. A black hole has been detected entering the Solar System. Depending on how close it comes to Earth, the effects can range from nothing much to massive floods to total destruction. Or what eventuates: a slight perturbation of Earth’s orbit, so that winters are significantly colder and summers hotter. Matt is involved in a small group experimenting with a self-sufficient floating “fish farm”, and his group decides to take their “floating island”, the Mandjet, to sea as the black hole comes, figuring that if the worst (or almost worst) happen that will be the safest place. Over three sections, we follow his efforts, and the reaction of the rest of the world to the disaster, and the ways in which the Mandjet and the people who end up there try to cope – mostly technologically but also socially – with an unexpectedly fraught future. This is neat stuff, with some intriguing sort of small-scale tech, a good bit of Kim Stanley Robinson-style technocratic problem solving (with a bit less optimism than Robinson usually manages), and it’s fascinating reading as well – the sort of book where welding becomes a suspenseful event.

Belated Birthday Review: The Dalemark Quartet, by Diana Wynne Jones

(Cover by Yvonne Gilbert)
Diana Wynne Jones was born 16 August 1934, and died in 2011. She was an exceptional writer of Fantasy, best known for her Young Adult work, but also for some very good work aimed at adults. (And it should be noted that most of her YA books are definitely "to please adults", and the best of them are as complex and challenging, perhaps more so, than most so-called "adult novels".)

In belated recognition of her birthday (hey, I was out of town!) here are four short reviews of the books in her Dalemark Quartet.

Cart and Cwidder

(Cover by Juliet Stanwell Smith)
Cart and Cwidder is the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark books, which ran to four. Dalemark is a fairly obvious version of Wales.  Indeed, the book reminded me a bit of Lloyd Alexander, though not the Prydain books (set in a version of Wales), but rather the Westmark books, as they share, very roughly, tech level, and interest in politics.

This book concerns an 11-year old boy named Moril, a musician traveling with his family. They earn their money by stopping at towns and villages and playing songs. They also pass news among the people of Dalemark, and take passengers : they and other musicians are the only people who regularly travel between the northern and southern parts of the land, which are at the point of war. The south in particular is being severely repressed by the Earls (there has been no King for some time), and a spy called the Porter is wanted. The family consists of their jolly father Clennen, their beautiful, aristocratic mother Lenina, the talented 15-year old songwriter son Dagner, and a 12-year old girl, Brid, in addition to Moril. The title refers to the cart they live and travel in, and to the main musical instruments they use, "cwidders", which seem guitar-like (is cwidder a cognate for guitar?), and one of which may have magical powers.

On the journey in question, they pick up a rather mysterious traveller, Kialan, a boy of roughly Dagner's age. He has a tendency to disappear when they pass through villages. Then, near the castle of Lenina's former fiance, some men show up and murder Clennen. Abruptly, Lenina heads to her ex-fiance's house, as he has long promised to marry her if she is ever free. But the children recognize one of the murderers as a guest at the house, and they decide to head on their own to the North.  On their way, they find more trouble, and eventually they learn that war is closer to hand than they thought. Can it be stopped?

It's very readable and involving -- I'm not sure DWJ can be other than readable and involving. But it shares with much YA fantasy a certain thinness in the background. DWJ's best work, such as Fire and Hemlock, seems much more completely imagined, more complex in characterization, theme, and morality. This book is fun, and not without real tension and characterization, but it seems minor compared to my favorites among her work. I will be buying the rest of the Dalemark books, however.

Drowned Ammet

(Cover by Geoff Taylor)
#2 is Drowned Ammet, which is set roughly contemporaneously with the first book, Cart and Cwidder. In this book we meet Alhammitt, or Mitt, a poor boy from the far southern town of Holand, who becomes somewhat radicalized when his father and mother are thrown out of their farm for capricious reasons by the tax collector for the evil Earl Hadd, and later his father's involvement with the Free Holanders goes terribly wrong, leaving Mitt and his feckless mother alone.  Mitt grows up a sailor and later a gunsmith's apprentice, and plots to gain revenge on both the Free Holanders (for betraying his father) and on Earl Hadd (for pretty much everything) by killing the Earl and implicating the Free Holanders. But this plot too goes terribly wrong, and Mitt ends up on a yacht with the two of the Earl's grandchildren, heading for the North.  I liked this book quite a bit -- Jones' puts her characters (Mitt and the two noble children) under great stress -- not just physical danger but she pushes them to see their own sever personal faults, and this works very well. The plot is nicely resolved, albeit with a bit of convenience, maybe with a bit more magical help than I like, and with a plot twist that even though I saw it coming, I could hardly believe she had the effrontery to exercise. (And I thought it just a shade unfair.)  All told, though, a very nice book, and coupled with the first clearly part of a series, but reasonably well contained too. 

The Spellcoats

(Cover by Ruth Sanderson)
The third book in Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet is The Spellcoats. This book is set in the prehistory of Dalemark, hundreds or thousands of years prior to the action of the first two books (and, I assume, the fourth). It deals with a family of children: Robin, Gull, Hern, Mallard (or Duck), and the narrator, Tanaqui, who is presented as weaving the entire story into the title "spellcoats". The so-called "Heathens" have invaded their land, and Gull and their father are recruited to fight -- a war from which Gull returns apparently mad, and their father not at all.  At the same time, the children face hostility from their fellow villagers, because they are bright-haired like the Heathens. As an enormous flood strikes the village, they are forced to flee down the great River to the Sea. Along the way they receive mysterious advice from their dead Mother, and from a strange man, who seems to be a wizard, and who Robin falls in love with.  They learn that an evil wizard, Kankredin, awaits at the mouth of the river, and that he seems to be calling Gull to him. After encounters with both Kankredin and the young King of the Heathens, they head back upriver with their own King, and with their strangely changed "Undying" figure.  All the children must learn their own surprising destinies, and the true nature of their Undying, of their Mother, of the "wizard" Tanamil, of Kankredin and their River. 

Magic is closer to the surface in this book than in the other two, and the events closer to mythical events.  It is partly a nation-formation tale -- it becomes clear that this is the story of how Dalemark as Dalemark came to be -- as such, an important set up, I would guess, for the final volume, which presumably will concern the reunification of the sundered Kingdom. Perhaps because it's such a "mythical" book, it's also darker, and perhaps grander, than the first two book.  All in all, another very fine DWJ story.

The Crown of Dalemark

(Cover by David Wyatt)
The concluding volume is The Crown of Dalemark. Oddly, this book didn't appear until 14 years after the last of the preceding three: in 1993. Yet it's not an afterthought -- the series clearly needed a closing volume -- I wonder why DWJ waited so long.  At any rate it's a solid conclusion, much longer than the first three books, a bit darker in tone (though really all four books have dark overtones), and a logical and different than expected resolution to the events set up in the first books.

There are two main characters in this book -- Mitt, also one of the heroes of book 2 (Drowned Ammet), and Maewen, a girl from the future of Dalemark -- a time very roughly corresponding to our own time in terms of technological development. Maewen, while visiting her father (her parents are separated), meets a couple of strange individuals. One, she soon learns, is Kankredin, the evil wizard from The Spellcoats, while the other is another of the Undying. This character maneuvers her back into the past, to take the place of Noreth, a girl from Mitt's time who looks just like Maewen. Noreth was a descendant of the rightful King of Dalemark, and she had planned to find the four objects that only the King can use (a cup, a ring, a sword, and a crown) and reclaim the Crown of Dalemark and reunite the sundered kingdom.  But Noreth disappeared before she could accomplish this, and Maewen must walk the roads of Dalemark to find these objects in her place. The powers that be, naturally enough, oppose Noreth's quest, and she is stalked by assassins. One of these is Mitt, who is blackmailed by his Northern hosts into going after Noreth -- but after meeting her Mitt refuses, and soon he joins her tiny entourage, along with the hero of Book 1 (Cart and Cwidder): Moril the Singer, as well as another Singer, and the clever but perhaps not trustworthy southern nobleman who was also exiled to the North with Mitt, and the Undying who has sent Maewen here.

Maewen, Mitt, and the others wander about the countryside, often in rather magical fashion, tracking down the four objects, but also trying to elude the assassins, and eventually armies, which are trying to stop.  Maewen's only goal is to give the objects to the man she knows became king: Amil the Great, the man who more or less singlehandedly founded modern Dalemark.  But who could he be?  There is no sign of him.  The resolution is surprising and rather effective. Jones makes excellent use of the rather unusual magic "system" (though it's not really systematic, and is perhaps more effective for that) that she has established, especially the Undying, who are like gods but not by any means omnipotent or even all-knowing.  The four books represent a very solid work of YA fantasy.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Rachel Pollack

Rachel Pollack's birthday was August 17th. I was out of town, so, catching up, here's a quick look at a few of her stories I've reviewed in Locus:

Locus, June 2007

In Interfictions, a new anthology devoted to interstitial writing, oddly, the stories I prefer here all have religious themes. Best is Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard", about the Biblical Joseph looking back at his life from old age. It is interstitial in its contemporary language -- even slang -- and perhaps its irreverence, but really it is a straightforward and sympathetic look at an interesting character.

Locus, May 2008

Again at F&SF for May the longest story is the best: “Immortal Snake” by Rachel Pollack. This is a mythic story of an Empire ruled by a man chosen by lot. He chooses two companions, and they rule until the priests (or the stars) decide they must die. A new ruler, not much given to responsibility, chooses his politically engaged sister and a slave who happens to be a mesmerizing storyteller as his companions. What follows is a love story, and a story of political change – and, inevitably, a tragedy.

Locus, July 2012

I thought the best story in the July-August F&SF was “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls”, by Rachel Pollack. Jack Shade is a Traveller, which here means a man who can go between worlds, particular to the place ghosts go. He is hired by a man who is being haunted by his late wife. Shade agrees to follow her “shade” to the Forest of Souls, to try to free her, but of course he is surprised by what he learns about the woman's life and death – surprise and put in great danger. The primary story is strong here, but Jack's own story – his current life, and the tragedy in his past, the loss of his wife and daughter – is also revealed, to moving effect.

Locus, November 2013

So to Van Gelder's primary outlet … the September-October F&SF has a novella as well, Rachel Pollack's “The Queen of Eyes”, another Jack Shade story. Jack is a Traveler, capable among other things of traveling between “worlds”, and he's also still mourning his wife's murder and his daughter's exile to the Forest of Souls. Here he is engaged by a woman to find her missing mother – who turns out to be the Queen of Eyes. The story starts slowly, even frustratingly, but about halfway through it takes flight, weaving a nice mystery story with colorful fantastic elements and an effective working out of family dynamics.

Locus, May 2017

Speaking of which, the other “investigation” story is part of an ongoing F&SF series: this is Rachel Pollack’s latest Jack Shade tale, “Homecoming”. Jack’s latest client is a modest middle aged woman who has a feeling some part of her is missing – perhaps her soul? She believes Jack can do a “soul retrieval”, and the unfortunate thing is that he can, and is compelled to by his curse. So Jack ventures into – wherever he goes – and with some difficulty retrieves what he’s been asked to. Which turns out rather badly, as instead of the poor woman’s soul, he has liberated an ancient evil being, which immediately begins a murder spree. And so Jack must try to clean up the mess, which involves asking for help from some questionable allies, including a somewhat modern djinn, and the Old Man of the Woods. Again, very entertaining – perhaps some of the magic comes off a bit ad hoc, and the innocent deaths don’t have the impact I’d hope, but it is a solid entry in a consistently interesting series.

Birthday Review: Stories of Brian W. Aldiss

Birthday Review: Stories of Brian W. Aldiss

I've written about Brian W. Aldiss each of the past two years at this time -- he died two years ago, and I posted an Ace Double review in his memory, and last year on his birthday I posted another Ace Double review. So this year here's a highly random look at a few of his very many short stories, not at all, really, his best work. But it's what I have! And Aldiss was always worth a look.

Review of New Worlds, December 1955

In "Panel Game" (4200 words) Aldiss presents an overpopulated future in which people are expected to watch "telly" constantly, particularly the channels aimed at their social stratum. The viewpoint couple are surprised to be visited by a dashing man who claims to be a rebel against the government, and they offer him some help (reluctantly, in the case of the husband, eagerly, in the case of the wife). No prizes for guessing what he really is ... A cynical story, reasonably effective if quite predictable.

Capsule look at Who Can Replace a Man?

The other Aldiss book I read was a short story collection, Who Can Replace a Man?.  This is a 1965 collection of Aldiss' best short SF to that date. Some of the stories are very good, perhaps most of all "Old Hundredth", though I also liked "Man in his Time", "A Kind of Artistry" and the title story.  A few of the others are rather dated, though "Basis for Negotiation" rather strikingly predicts SDI.

Review of F&SF, April 1967

The other overpopulation piece is "Randy's Syndrome", by Brian W. Aldiss (8800 words). A woman living in an arcology of sorts is pregnant, but her baby goes on strike -- refuses to be born. This strike spreads to other unborn babies. The child learns to communicate with his mother, and basically announces that he doesn't want to come into the terrible world the adults have left him. It's a nice concept for a satirical story, and it's quite well executed.

Review of Cosmos, September 1977

Brian W. Aldiss's "Horsemen" is a little morality piece with the basic message "Earthmen are evil", telling of an alien planet full of simple -- might one say "unfallen"? -- folk, who do not know war or, I suppose the title would hint, Death, Pestilence, or Famine. "Until the Earth ship came." A bit shrill for my taste.

Review of Galileo, March 1978

Aldiss's "Non-Isotropic" is a rather odd story, not unusual for Aldiss, in which he presents an obsessed scientist who makes a spectacular discovery about the nature of the universe and consciousness and perhaps God. His own relationship, or lack of such, with his short-term mate and son is the center of the story. Interesting, didn't quite work for me.

Locus, April 2003

The Winter issue of the elegant and atmospheric British magazine The Third Alternative features an interview with Brian Aldiss, along with an amusing and mordant short-short, "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at the Edge of the World, Scones Perfect". A man flees a hopeless war with invading aliens, striking across Central Asia with a mysterious woman, ending up at a tea shop. That's about all, but Aldiss' control of tone is perfect: a fine miniature.

Locus, November 2003

On the face of it I suppose it's not surprising that both Grand Masters in this October-November Asimov's offer rather old-fashioned, but quite effective, stories. Brian W. Aldiss's "The Hibernators" is listed as a short story but by my word count is easily a novelette. On a planet orbiting a gas giant such that it spends half a year in winter caused by eclipse, most people spend the winter hibernating. But an adolescent decides not to sleep, and is shanghaied into becoming cannon fodder in a war for control of an odd device called the Insulator. A "Conceptual Breakthrough", naturally, is on the horizon, though Aldiss resolves things just a bit unexpectedly. First rate work.

Locus, October 2005

This is in many ways an aging field, and the September Asimov’s provides some evidence of that by featuring stories by two writers in their 80s. But both are close to the top of their form. ... Also solid is Brian W. Aldiss’s “Pipeline”, which also deals with the West and Islam. The action is fairly simple – the chief engineer of a pipeline leading from Turkmenistan to Turkey decides to drive its length upon completion – which turns out to be a dangerous undertaking. The story has the odd SFnal touch (driverless cars, some hints of a changed political landscape), though the action itself, and the interactions of the morally ambiguous set of characters, could come from any spy story – not a complaint, mind you – it’s well done and exciting.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Birthday Review: The Anthony Villiers Novels, by Alexei Panshin

Today is Alexei Panshin's 79th birthday. I wanted to highlight his work with a look at my favorites among his work, the Anthony Villiers novels. This is something I wrote back in 2001, though I don't think my perspective has really changed.

Long ago I read at least one of Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers novels, and I remembered the book with some affection.  I ran across all three of them in a used book store a little while back, so I bought them and decided to give them a reread.  I read the three books very quickly -- they are very readable books, witty, with nice characters that you root for, and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigorous plots. The first book has an introduction by Samuel R. Delany, in which he calls the series a roman fleuve and compares it to A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell.  That qualifies as one of the less acute comments Delany has made, IMO.  Just because a series of books is a series doesn't make it a roman fleuve, and certainly just because a series of books is vaguely comic in tone and about the doings of bohemian and upper class sorts doesn't make it much like A Dance to the Music of Time (which is one of my favorite 20th Century works.)  That said, the description I gave above, "very readable, witty, with nice characters ..., and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigourous plots" actually does apply fairly directly to Dance.  But let that pass -- the Villiers books don't really resemble Powell's great novel all that much, but they are very enjoyable.  Indeed, I was quite surprised by how much I liked them -- more than I expected by a long shot.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
Star Well (1968) is the first.  Anthony Villiers (aka Viscount Charteris) is a 30ish man in a future Galactic Empire.  His father has despaired of him after Villiers divorced the woman he had been pushed into a quasi-political marriage with, and he has been given an allowance and apparently told to wander the less travelled parts of the Empire.  But, we immediately gather, he is a very talented man. (Indeed, though I don't really think Panshin necessarily had read Dorothy Dunnett back in 1968 when these books came out (though The Game of Kings dates to 1961, so he could have), in some ways Villiers recalls Lymond (with a bit less of an edge -- the books are comedies, after all).  Though as Sherwood Smith points out, more likely Villiers and Lymond both descend from such ancestors as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Lord Peter Wimsey.)  Villiers is slight, handsome, a great dresser, very polite, very intelligent, good with weapons, etc. etc.  He travels everywhere in the company of an alien Trog named Torve.  Torve is a philosophical being, in appearance a 6 foot tall furry frog, who composes "musical" pieces which sound like "Thurb".

Villiers finds himself on Star Well, an isolated planetoid in the middle of the Flammarion Rift, which is something of a tourist attraction -- basically an hotel/casino.  He is a bit short of cash, but partly by outfoxing the crooked casino operators, he is on his way to getting enough money to head to the planet where his father's allowance can be claimed.  On Star Well he discerns that something fishy is going on, particularly when he stumbles across a starship landing port that is not mentioned on most maps of the planetoid.  He also encounters a plucky 15 year old girl who is chafing at the thought of the four years her father (as it turns out, a friend of Villiers) means her to spend at a finishing school.  And he finds himself the target of a clumsy attempt at a scam.  Torve the Trog shows up in the company of a fat Mithraist priest named Augustus Srb, who may not be all he seems.  After some enjoyable capering about, we learn that Srb is an Inspector General, convinced that something nasty is going on behind the scenes a the casino.  Villiers, seemingly by accident, ends up helping out.  The ending involves a duel, and then a scary conclusion where Villiers' 15 year old friend stumbles into real danger and he manages to rescue her at the last minute.  It's handled with a nice very light touch, and lots of real cleverness, and dry humor.  Very enjoyable.
(Cover by Kelly Freas)

The Thurb Revolution (1968) finds Villiers and Torve on Shiawassee, a planet under a somewhat strict censorship regimen.  Almost any sort of art is forbidden, so, by mysterious means, Villiers ends up heading to another planet in the system, Pewamo, which is used only for camping and very limited tourism.  He influences some idle youth from Shiawassee to follow him, and almost by accident ends up starting a new artistic movement.  Plus he encounters his old friend Fred, who is fleeing an arranged marriage of his own (remember that Villiers had trouble with his arranged marriage).  One of the cute things Panshin does is never tell us who Fred really is in The Thurb Revolution -- but an offhand reference in Star Well makes it clear that he is actually the Emperor's second son.  Throw in an intelligent cloud that thinks it is God, an assassin, a gawky young woman disguised as a man, a set of acquaintances of Villiers engaged in an unusual form of Tag, and you have another feather light but very enjoyable book.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The third, and, sadly, probably last, of these novels is Masque World (1969).  The book closes with an announcement that the fourth, The Universal Pantograph, will be appearing soon, but it's been over 30 years now, with no sign of it. Apparently (at any I heard it on Usenet, so it must be true) Panshin was dissatisfied with his treatment at the hands of Ace, perhaps not surprisingly.  He still makes occasional noises that sound like he might eventually write it (and perhaps the up to three further books originally planned) -- but I fear that the 60ish Panshin would not write the book the 30ish Panshin would have, most likely to the detriment of the product. [Now that Panshin is nearly 80, I think all thoughts of another novel of any sort from him can likely be abandoned.]

At any rate, Masque World, which turns out to be the Villiers book I had read in my teens, is of a piece with the previous two. Light-hearted and clever, very fun to read.  The plot is hardly worth recounting -- it concerns a nobleman (and relative of Villiers) obsessed with melons, two Trogs (one real and one fake), a Christian historian, the phenomenon of peelgrunt, the Monists, the parents and sister of Louise Parini, and an incompetent bureaucrat and his alien supervisor.  Good solid fun.  And I gnash my teeth that I will never read the "real" Universal Pantograph.

All in all, these are three of the most purely enjoyable SF books I have read recently.  Not serious in plot or tone, they still allow room for meditation on serious topics.  And they are very nicely constructed with a very light but sure hand, and interlarded with funny bits -- sometimes farcically so, more often arch or subtle.  First rate -- on the evidence of these books, Panshin's near complete disappearance from the fiction writing world is just a damn shame.  (His only other novels are the Nebula-winning Rite of Passage (1968) and a fantasy co-written with his wife Cory Panshin, Earth Magic (1978).) Phoenix Pick published an omnibus edition of the three Anthony Villiers novels just this past June as New Celebrations.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: Ward Moore

Belated Birthday Review: Ward Moore

Ward Moore (1903-1978) published five novels in the field, beginning with Greener Than You Think (1947). (He also wrote significant non-SF work, including Breathe the Air Again and Cloud by Day.) His most famous novel by far is Bring the Jubilee (1953), a very well-regarded alternate history in which the South wins the Civil War. He is also remembered for his last novel, Joyleg (1962), a collaboration with Avram Davidson, about a Revolutionary War veteran discovered to be still alive in the present time; and for a stunning post-Apolacyptic (or "during the Apocalypse") story, "Lot", along with its sequel, "Lot's Daughter". As a writer he started late and finished early, with the great bulk of his fiction appearing between 1947 and 1962 (though a few more stories appeared in the '70s). His second wife was Raylyn Moore, whom I remember for a fair amount of enjoyable SF stories from the '70s.

Here's a collection -- too short, I dare say -- of things I've written about some of Ward Moore's work. Moore's birthday was August 10, so this is a bit late. But I do want to keep emphasizing the work of these minor but interesting writers.

F&SF, May 1953

"Lot", by Ward Moore, is a quite remarkable post-Apocalyptic story. Arthur Jimmon has planned for nuclear war, and when it comes he and his family are ready to escape. But as they travel, with supplies, to Jimmon's planned refuge, his family complain and complain. Jimmon seems the true competent man, well-prepared -- and ready to coldly dispense with any interference. I won't spoil the ending, but it's truly shocking. The story is actually a bitter, horrified look at a certain kind of man -- it's something like satire, something like savage condemnation. It's a powerful story. There was a sequel, "Lot's Daughter", almost as strong. The two were the source material for the move Panic in Year Zero!, which apparently leached all the vicious power of the story from it.

F&SF, September 1955

Ward Moore's "Old Story" (6700 words) is quite good. An aging popular painter, also a philanderer, reflects on his unsatisfying life -- his failure to establish an enduring relationship with any of his three wives, and his lack of critical appreciation. If only he had chosen the right woman back then, he'd have stuck with "real" art ... Then he finds himself back in his younger self, at the critical point. And he chooses a different woman, and indeed life is very different -- he becomes a lionized artist, and a successful businessman as well. (Sort of a Wallace Stevens of the art world.) But he's the same person, which means that despite his tolerant wife, he can't stop fooling around. Still, he comes to the end of a happy life -- but then ... The twist is a good one, and quite forthrightly feminist.

Amazing, February 1960

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
"Transient" is a short novel complete in this issue. It didn't appear in book form until a small-press "Double" edition in 2013. And I think it's fairly easy to see why. It's a really odd story, ambitious to an extent, but mostly a mess and a failure, at least in my view. It's about Almon Lampley, currently the Governor of his state, by appointment after his predecessor's death. Lampley is beginning his campaign for re-election, when he sneaks out to a small town, and enters a hotel. Then things get strange ... and the rest of the novel is a phantasmagoria of weird, often horrific, events. Lampley encounters strange guests, wanders into what seem other worlds, a weird department store, caves. He encounters a race of tiny people, kidnaps one such woman, who grows larger, whereupon he rapes her. He rapes another (normal) woman along the way. There are hints that all this is in pursuit of some personal issues Lampley has to do with his relationship with his wife, and particular to the tragic history of their son -- though none of this is ever made clear. It ends up being boring and unpleasant, even as paragraph by paragraph a pretty impressive imagination is displayed. Worst of all -- the story basically just stops. It may be that I have totally missed the point.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Fantastic, March and April 1962

Joyleg, by Avram Davidson and Ward Moore, is an enjoyable novel about a man, Isachar Joyleg, who is discovered to be collecting a Civil War pension. As the war has been over for nearly a century, surely he's a fraud. Two congresspeople, a man and a woman, go to investigate (because which district his old village is in is unclear). They learn (not much of a spoiler) that Joyleg is as old as he claims, due to a concoction of his. We get to see life in this old town, and all this is amusing, and fairly on point. The congresspeople are decent characters too. That said, the story loses momentum along the way, and while it's well worth reading through, parts of the last half are a bit tired.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse was a really important writer to me early in my SF reading. I read a number of his YA novels when I first encountered SF, such as The Bladerunner and, most memorably to me, The Universe Between. It was a pleasant surprise to me, decades later, to encounter "High Threshold" in a 1951 issue of Astounding, and realize that this was the novelette from which The Universe Between grew. (It's a cool story of entering another dimension with a different geometry -- it truly wowed me at age 12.) He would have been 91 today, and in his memory here's a (fairly random) selection of my thoughts about his short fiction from some 1950s SF magazines.

Astounding, February 1953

Alan E. Nourse's "Nightmare Brother" (9300 words) is about a man subjected to tortures -- simulated via electrodes in his brain. It seems he must be able to resist any level of torture to survive in deep space. I wasn't convinced.

Space Science Fiction, July 1953

The novelette this time around is "Infinite Intruder" by Alan E. Nourse (9500 words). Roger Strang is working on a project to build a barrier protecting the US from further nuclear attacks (New York has already been destroyed) by the Eurasian Combine. He finds his young son being attacked -- at first as if by accident, but then more directly -- but his son miraculously survives even point blank shots. Strang's investigations lead him to strange discoveries -- he himself has no past, and his best friends and wife seem implicated in the attacks on his son. Then he learns that he is from the future, and all this is a desperate attempt to change the past -- for the evil Dictator in the future is named Farrol Strang. But the past cannot be changed. Maybe, though, if they return forward in time the future (present) can be altered! I thought the story no better than OK.

If, June 1954

Alan E. Nourse's "The Link" (5800 words) is another far future story. Humanity has divided into two groups, a pacifistic group that has learned to live together and create great communal music, and a warlike group that has chased the pacifists from planet to planet over millennia. The Hunters are back again, and one couple from the good guys volunteers to stop running away, but to greet the Hunters and try to reform them. An OK theme, but the story doesn't quite sell it.

Orbit, July-August 1954

"My Friend Bobby", by Alan E. Nourse (3800 words) -- maybe the best story here, about a young boy with telepathic powers, who loves his dog (with whom he can communicate), but who is feared by his mother -- leading to a tragic ending. Nothing special, but solid work.

Galaxy, January 1956

"Brightside Crossing" might be Alan E. Nourse's best story. It's a solid if scientifically obsolete story about trying to cross the Brightside of Mercury (of course, as Larry Niven and the rest of us found out some 45  years ago, there is no "Brightside" of Mercury) -- told by the lone survivor of an earlier attempt to cross the Brightside to a man who wants to try again. The survivor's tale, fairly convincingly from a 1955 point of view, tells of the dangers of the attempt, and the heroic efforts to make it, ending as we know from the start, in failure and an ignominious return. The last line is really neat.

If, October 1957

"RX" by Alan E. Nourse posits a galactic community in which Earth's contribution is medical services. A team of a doctor and a surgeon respond to an emergency summons to a planet which has so far refused to sign a contract with Earth. The planet's ruler is dying, and the witch-doctorish methods of the locals aren't working. Their ethics require them to try to treat him, even though they risk death if they fail. The eventual solution is a bit trivial -- somewhat on purpose -- rather a minor bit of work, I thought.