Monday, February 18, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks

Iain Menzies Banks would have turned 65 last Saturday (16 February 2019) -- he was only some 5 years older than me, but alas he died far too young at about my current age. He was a wonderful writer of SF, and SF-adjacent "mainstream" fiction. In his memory, here's my review of my favorite among his SF novels, posted exactly as I wrote it in 1997:

Review Date: 05 March 1997

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks

MacDonald, 1990 (UK), 12.95 pounds
US Paperback Edition, Bantam Spectra 1992, $4.99 (ISBN: 0553292242)

Iain M. Banks is a Scottish writer, of several "mainstream" novels (albeit often with "slipstream" elements), published as by Iain Banks, and several SF novels (published with the middle initial). Banks has quite a reputation in the UK, stemming from the success of his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984). He seems less well-known in the US, but at least his SF books eventually make it across the pond, and I have been reading the SF novels over the past year or so. (Reviews of two of those novels appear elsewhere on this site [or will, when I repost them].) Half by accident, half on purpose, I evolved a reading strategy which has led to me end up my reading of all the Banks SF novels available in the US as of last year with Use of Weapons, probably the consensus choice among Banks' readers as his best SF novel. (A new SF novel, Excession, was published last summer in the UK and is just now available in the States.)

(Cover by Paul Youll)
As implied above, I approached Use of Weapons with high expectations, not always a good attitude. However, in this case my expectations were met. Use of Weapons is one of Banks' "Culture" novels: set within our Galaxy at approximately (to within plus or minus a millennium) the present time, and concerning the interactions of the Culture, an interstellar society composed mostly of humanoids and of a variety of AI machines, the latter often "drones" of (very roughly) human size and intelligence, or ship minds: of ambiguous size and enormous intelligence. Like all the Culture novels I've read, this one takes place mostly outside the Culture proper: because that is where the stories are. (The Culture is a utopia, so at least to a first approximation, everyone is happy, and there isn't much in the way of story-generating conflict.)

Use of Weapons is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a non-citizen of the Culture, who has been employed by the Special Circumstances branch of the Culture's Contact section as a mercenary, trying to influence conflicts on a variety of planets to be resolved in the direction the Culture prefers. As the main action of the story opens, Zakalwe has "retired" from SC. Diziet Sma, a Culture citizen who has been Zakalwe's "control" in the past, is rudely summoned from her latest (quite pleasurable) assignment in order to find Zakalwe and recruit him for one more emergency mission (involving a situation with which Zakalwe was previously involved).

From this point, the novel progresses in two main directions. The main branch of the story follows Sma forward in time, as she pursues and eventually finds Zakalwe, and as Sma and Zakalwe accomplish, in general terms, the mission on which the SC branch has sent them. This involves convincing a retired politician who supports the "right" side (anti-terraforming, pro-Machine Intelligence) of a conflict in an unstable star cluster to return to the arena and forestall a coming war, and then also involves some intervention in a "brushfire" which has broken out as a precursor to the war. This story is exciting and enjoyable, with plenty of Banksian action, Banksian scenery, and Banksian humor, the last as usual particularly embodied in the character of Sma's drone assistant, Skaffen-Amtiskaw. (Banks' machine characters are inveterate scene-stealers.)

The second plot thread moves steadily backward in time (complicated by a couple of even-farther backward flashbacks), following Zakalwe's career as an agent for SC, back to his recruitment by SC and his war experiences prior to that, and finally back to his formative years as an aristocrat of sorts on a planet with roughly 19th-20th century Earth technology and social structure. This thread allows us to slowly learn more of Zakalwe's character, and of the traumatic events which have made him the rather tortured individual he is at the time of the main action. Thus, the novel's structure is at first blush mildly experimental (there are actually four separate "threads" if one separates out the flashbacks as a thread, and if one considers the prologue and epilogue). However, this structure is really logical, and essential to the reader's experience. Essentially, the main action is illuminated by our growing understanding of Zakalwe's past. And the use of Sma as a viewpoint character (despite her somewhat non-centrality to most of the action sequences) is a vital strategy: in a sense, she becomes a stand-in for the reader: and part of our understanding of the novel is trying to understand Sma's feelings for Zakalwe (which are not romantic at all, by the way), and to measure her Use of the Weapon that is Cheradenine Zakalwe in the context of Zakalwe's humanness, and in a sort of parallel or contrast to Zakalwe's expert use of a variety of weapons.

The climax of the novel is a shocker (though I think it is guessable (I guessed it, anyway, though Banks kept me doubting)). However, it's not just a "surprise ending for the sake of the surprise". It's crucial to our understanding of the book: and it gives the book meaning far beyond the (very good) adventure story it has been up to that point. The climax seemed to reverberate back through the entire book, giving new meaning to almost every incident. This is a book which almost demands immediate rereading.

Ob-nitpicks: there are a couple of points where I don't think Banks plays quite fair with the reader in setting up the surprise (though this could be the result of insufficiently subtle reading on my part), also, I'm not sure I'm fully convinced by some of the changes in Zakalwe's character. These are very minor points indeed, however, and I recommend this book highly.

Birthday Review: Stories of Tina Connolly

Today is Tina Connolly's birthday. Tina has been publishing exceptional short fiction for over a decade now, and so I've assembled a set of my reviews of her work for Locus. Tina is very good at any length, but she is one of those writers who has done lots of exceptional work at the short-short length, which sometimes means short-short reviews! But they still should not be missed! Tina is also among the best recent comic-oriented writers (though, again, she is perfectly capable of being deadly serious when needed, and, besides, comic stories are often really deadly serious.) (I see, too, that this set of reviews mentions some quite obscure publication venues -- which I'm happy to see, because those tiny efforts often feature first-rate stuff that deserves all the notice it can get.)

Also, I didn't review her story from last year, "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections", because I'm now concentrating on print magazines for Locus, but I will add that it is excellent, and you should all read it!

Locus, June 2007

Yog's Notebook is a modest new magazine for which I had small expectations that were readily exceeded. The title promises Lovecraftian horror -- and in a sense that's true but the touch here is light -- to very good effect. I quite liked "A Memory of Seafood", by Tina Connolly, a deadpan restaurant review, its effect arising from the nature of the dish served.

Locus, February 2008

To the online (or electronically distributed) world: The second issue of the Australian YA ‘zine Shiny again features three fine stories – and again my favorite was the most light-hearted,  Tina Connolly’s “The Goats are Going Places”, something of a sendup of such YA hits as “Gossip Girl”, which is notoriously based on a real prep school in Manhattan. In Connolly’s story, her heroine is kicked out of her public high school, and is sent to live with her aunt, and to attend a high-end school. She gets in with the “in” girls, but perhaps takes things too far – except that her aunt can actually do magic, and uses some to teach her niece a lesson.

Locus, August 2008

And again we see that many writers are committing Mundane SF, whether or not they explicitly intend to. For instance, Tina Connolly’s “The Bitrunners” (Helix, July), set mostly on the Moon, among a gang of children who commit small-time crimes – in part to conceal their larger crime: “bitrunning”, sneaking confidential information from place to place. The narrator, though, has bigger things in mind: a trip back to her Martian home, with the greater risks that entails. She’s a very well presented unreliable narrator, with a bitter past – a past that poisons even her present hopes. (She is, perhaps, an unreliable narrator even to herself.)

Locus, March 2011

The old editors, Cat Rambo and Sean Wallace, bow out with some strong stories in January and February at Fantastic. From January, I liked Tina Connolly’s “As We Report to Gabriel”, an original and quite charming story about fairies, set in a house owned by a woman who has been forced to renounce any interest in fairies for political reasons. Which is a problem, as she is married to one. The telling is delightful and the depiction of the nature of fairies is original and unexpected.

Locus, October 2011

Bull Spec is a North Carolina-based magazine that has been growing in confidence. Its sixth issue includes five stories, all enjoyable. I liked Tina Connolly’s “Selling Home” best, set on a tall structure with poor people on the lower levels and rich people up higher – but the rich people have a fertility problem, which means that the struggling narrator Penny will be faced with a hard question – what to do when a chance-met rich girl wants to buy her little brother.

Locus, September 2012

In August, though, that changes – I thought the two original SF stories at Lightspeed were best. ... I really liked “Flash Bang Remember” by Tina Connolly and Caroline M. Yoachim. It's built around a frankly unbelievable central notion: on a generation ship, all the inhabitants share a single childhood, which they experience virtually while growing up in a vat. These childhood experiences were the real life of a boy who has been kept in stasis every since. The heroine is called Girl23 – she's their attempt at recording a similarly ideal female childhood experience, but as her number suggests, there have been problems. Then the original boy is waken from stasis, and they meet. As I said, I had a hard time buying the premise, but given that, things are worked out very nicely, with a well-done resolution. It's lightly told, engaging, with a YA feel, and for all that there's a thoughtful core to the piece.

Locus, February 2018

Uncanny in November-December features a very effective brief story by Tina Connolly, “Pipecleaner Sculptures and Other Necessary Work”, about an android on a generation starship who faces a transition as they reach their destination – from a preschool teacher to a more martial role. The unvoiced questions concern what work is necessary – and of course identity and agency for androids.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Old Bestseller: A Window in Thrums, by J. M. Barrie

A Window in Thrums, by J. M. Barrie

a review by Rich Horton

Everybody knows J. M. Barrie, right? But they know him almost exclusively for one work (and its offshoots): Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a play first performed in 1904. (Barrie did produce a related novel, Peter and Wendy.) Some may have heard of his first bestseller, the novel The Little Minister (1891), or perhaps his play The Admirable Crichton. And some may have read something about Barrie's unusual and a bit creepy (but probably not criminal) relationship with the children who inspired the Peter Pan stories, the Llewellyn Davies family. Anyway, that's all I knew.

Barrie was born in 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland, the ninth of ten children, the son of a weaver. His life was formed in part by the death of his older brother at the age of 14, and his subsequent attempts to replace his brother in his mother's affection. Barrie wanted to become a writer from early days, but went to the University of Edinburgh at his family's urging. However, he continued to write, and had success with an early trio of books based on his childhood home and church. Kirriemuir became Thrums in these books. The first was Auld Licht Idylls, the second the book at hand, A Window in Thrums (1889), and the third The Little Minister. In his later career he concentrated mostly on the theater. He married an actress, Mary Ansell, but the marriage was apparently unconsummated, and he appears to have in some way truly desired to be "the boy who wouldn't grow up". He was made a Baronet in 1913.

My copy of A Window in Thrums is an American reprint, in octavo size, probably from the 1890s, printed by the Chicago firm Donohue, Hennebery, and Co. It is inscribed, in a very nice hand, "A Merry Christmas from Santa Claus, 1899".

A Window in Thrums is told by a schoolteacher about village life in Thrums, from a perspective many years later than the action. The teacher lets a room from a poor family: Hendry McQumpha, a weaver, his wife Jess, and their daughter Leeby. Their son Jamie is a barber living in London, visiting once a year. Their other son, Joey, died in an accident very young. (There are parallels with Barrie's youth that are hard to miss.) Jess is portrayed as a nearly saintly woman -- she is crippled, and unable to move beyond the short walk from her bed to a chair by her window (the title window). She's portrayed as an intelligent woman, and a genius banker and embroiderer. Her husband is slower, but a hard working and honest man. Leeby is devoted to her mother, to the complete abnegation of her own identity.

All the above, I'm sure, is Barrie's intention, but, really, from another perspective Jess can be seen as a monster -- formed so perhaps by her disability and by the loss of her son, but still! -- she has all but enslaved her daughter, and she is all but psychopathic in her determination that Jamie shall never marry.

The book opens with a series of chapters that are really humourous sketches of life in Thrums -- the local comic is described, and theg gossip following the movements of the minister, or the appearance of any man with an eligible woman. There's an amusing account of the local "post" trying to get out of his engagement to a local woman -- unscuccessfully, of course. Much of this is amusing, somewhat sentimental, told in just enough Scots dialect (with English glosses) to give a pretty good flavor of things.

The book concludes with a long linked set of chapters detailing Jamie's relationship with his family, especially his sister, over the course of one of his visits. A key incident is Jess stealing a glove her son seems to treasure -- she's convinced it belongs to a sweetheart, and that just won't do. Jamie goes back to London, and tragedy strikes -- Leeby dies of a fever, and Hendry and Jess follow not long after, and then we see Jamie's fate -- apparently betrayed by a woman (no details are given) -- seemingly driven mad by the loss of his family and by his own guilt.

Most of the book, then, is minor work, not terribly exciting, but sometimes amusing, and sometimes interesting in its portrayal of Scots village life in the middle of the 19th Century. But I was a bit put off by the conclusion, and its absolute rejection of the idea that Jamie might meet and have a good life with a woman from outside the village. It really seems a reflection of Barrie's apparent fear of sex.

Birthday Review: Six Gates from Limbo, by J. T. McIntosh (and some of his short fiction)

Here's something a bit different for my birthday reviews -- I've extracted a bunch of short looks at the short fiction of the Scottish writer J. T. McIntosh, whose real name was James McGregor, born February 14, 1925. He died in 2008, over 30 years after he stopped writing SF. He was a sometimes interesting, often frustrating, writer, but one whose work I often enjoy, even as aspects of it annoy me.

I start with a look at one of his later novels, then the short fiction.

Six Gates From Limbo

J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor, was a Scottish writer who published many short stories and novels between about 1950 and the early 70s. I have long enjoyed his stories, with reservations. McIntosh was often interested in quirky variations on social structures. He tended to set his stories in rather sketchily described futures, usually in that sort of intergalactic society where planet hopping is like taking a bus, or at most an ocean liner. Then he would introduce one unusual social variation, sometimes interesting, sometimes implausible. His style was breezy and fairly individual to him. He worked most often at the long novelette or novella length, say 13000 to 20000 words. But he also wrote quite a few novels. And with many writers of that era, he was noticeably sexist, though at times in quirky ways.

Six Gates From Limbo is a latish novel, published in the UK in 1968. It was serialized in If in two parts in January and February 1969 -- I haven't seen that version but it seems likely to be an abridged version -- the copy I read (the 1969 Avon paperback) is about 60,000 words long.

I found it rather an interesting book. A man comes to consciousness on what seems to be a deserted planet. It is apparently well-suited for human life, but abandoned. Or so it seems -- after a while he encounters a woman, and a little later, another woman. They names themselves Rex, Regina, and Venus -- names with obvious symbolism. They name their world Limbo. But soon they learn that there are matter transmitter gates from Limbo, and eventually they decide to take them. They discover a variety of societies beyond these gates, but all are seriously sick societies, each in different ways. The reasons for this, it turns out, is that they are colonial worlds, and that they cannot escape the various effects of dependency on Earth. It seems that Rex and Regina and Venus have been created as part of a project aimed at finding a solution to the problem. And so they do -- rather a shocking one.

I'm not sure I buy McIntosh's premise, nor his solution, but it's a thought-provoking story all the same. I should mention that the problem of colony worlds and their interactions with the mother world and with other colonies was one of McIntosh's recurring themes.

Planet Stories, January 1951 and July 1951

I've mentioned that J. T. McIntosh is a guilty pleasure of mine.  At this stage in his career, he was signing stories "J. T. M'Intosh", and there are two M'Intosh stories in these issues.  One shows him at his most didactic (and he was often oddly didactic): "Safety Margin" (January 1951).  This seems almost like an attempt to push Campbell's buttons, but I have a feeling M'Intosh didn't really know quite where Campbell's buttons were.  Anyway this is an odd story about a space drive (the vibrodrive) that cannot be run more than 10 seconds (or something) at a time.  A screwup happens, and it's necessary, in order to save the ship, to run the drive a bit longer.  A special government representative explains to the engineer who saw him run the drive that there is really no limit on how long it can run, but that the government is afraid that if the lack of limitation became known, the drive would be vulnerable to conversion to weapons-use.  So, they made up the story about the 10 second limit.  Everyone knows there is a "Safety Margin", see, but they don't know it's infinite.  Then the government guy kills the engineer.  To prevent the secret getting out, see?  The logic holes in this story are amazing, but perhaps justifiable as a set up.  The thing that squicks me, of course, is the cold blooded killing, and the apparent assertion that that's justifiable, an "end justifies the means" thing. 

The other M'Intosh story is much better, a straight "planetary adventure" called "Venus Mission" (July 1951).  A spaceship crashes on Venus.  One of the passengers is a hero of the recent war (since over) between the human colonists and the native Venusians.  Another is a "Plucky Girl"(tm).  Others include the usual ineffectual suspects, most notably a pretty piece of fluff.  The Hero of the war gets to know the Plucky Girl, and tell he's done with being a Hero.  The war was enough for him.  Somebody else was going to have to cross 20 miles of Venusian terrain to reach the nearest Human city and arrange a rescue, and brave the evil Venusians, who detect prey by sensing brain patterns.  (This makes sense, sort of, because Venus' atmosphere doesn't allow for much in the way of sight or sound.)  The Plucky Girl, furious at the cowardly hero, decides that she will make the trek.  She almost makes it, but at the last, the Venusians are alerted to human presence by the silliness of the Pretty Fluff, who had also decided to try to reach the human city.  Both are captured, and Pretty Fluff is subjected to horrible torture, until the Hero, who has been following them all along (for a good reason, which I can't quite recall, but which was justified in story context), rescues them.  You will not be surprised to learn that the story ends with Hero kissing Plucky Girl, marriage at 11.  It all sounds silly and pulpish, and it is, but it's also fun.  Stuff like this is what makes M'Intosh a guilty pleasure.

F&SF, April 1953

"Beggars All" actually seems written for J. W. Campbell, at least in form. Scouts from a far future human galactic culture recontact an isolated colony. They seem to be outrageously rude beggars.  In the course of resisting another aggressive civilization, at the behest of these beggars, the scouts realize that the bad manners of these "beggars" evolved for good socially adaptive reasons.  Or so M'Intosh would have us believe: I wasn't convinced.  He also tacked on a horrendously unconvincing, and unnecessary, love story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The other novelette is from J. T. McIntosh, "Spy" (15300 words). This story is oddly reminiscent of the McIntosh novelette from F&SF, October 1955, discussed below: "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'". Both stories are about a spy from another planet who uses a cover involving statistical research to investigate the planet to which he comes. To be sure, this story is in details quite different. Ken Corvey is from the colony planet Aram, come to Earth to verify Earth's military power. His cover is as a journalist doing "survey reporting" -- using statistically significant subsets of populations to learn things. His life is complicated in two ways: he is falling in love with an Earthwoman, Sandra Reid; and he is very ill, with an illness that originated on his planet. He can't seek treatment, because the doctor will recognize his illness and deduce his real planet. So he has to put up with the symptoms, which are extremely realistic hallucinations.

The ultimate conflict involves his worries about his lover's ultimate loyalty (to Earth, of course), and his won (to Aram -- but are the colonies really right?). The resolution buries a slight twist, which is OK but not quite believable. Still, the story is good reading, and makes some interesting points. I'd rank it as one of McIntosh's better outings. I think he missed an opportunity -- which probably was not something he would have been interested in at all! -- of using the realistic hallucinations to present multiple possible endings, never telling us which was real. I.e., to write a Philip Dick story!

F&SF, May 1955

"Eleventh Commandment" is a painfully obvious political fable about a proposal for a law against miscegenation between the slightly altered races of the future (each adapted just a bit to fit their home planets' environments). This is a story that perhaps had more force in the '50s than it does now.

New Worlds, August 1955

McIntosh's "The Way Home" is the lead novelette, a long one at 19,500 words. A small group of explorers, four men and three women, find themselves trapped on an alien planet when the seemingly friendly indigenous aliens steal their spaceship. Their lifeboats remain, but they soon realize the aliens have boobytrapped them. The story is both a problem story -- how have the lifeboats been boobytrapped? -- and an examination of small group dynamics. The puzzle of the boobytrapping seemed easily enough solvable to me, and also the alien's motivations for acting as they did seemed implausible -- or nonexistent. But McIntosh's real interest anyway is in exploring the tensions -- both sexual and "leadership"-related -- between the seven humans. That works OK, and keeps the interest, but it is marred for me by the sexist (though very typical of the time) view of the women crewmembers.

F&SF, October 1955

So, to the fiction. The lead story is J. T. McIntosh's "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'", just shy of 14,000 words. A secret agent for the planet Verna, calling himself Mr. Lees, comes to the planet Renn, with the goal of determining whether an alliance with Renn is desirable. Verna's rival planet is Kolper, and the hero is forced to kill a Kolperian agent on the spaceship just before arrival. Thus is investigation of the situation on Renn is complicated by the fact that he is quickly under investigation as a murder suspect. More to the point, the detective in charge of the case is a very beautiful woman. Lees' investigations seem to suggest that the people of Renn are "sheep" -- easily cowed, polite to a fault. Perhaps they will not be a strong ally. But on the other hand, his pursuer, the beautiful detective, besides being sexy as heck, is hardly sheeplike. And the pressure to conclude an alliance seems to be increasing ... I was entertained, on the whole, but not in a science-fictional way. And that's the main problem I had with the story -- it needn't have been SF at all, and the fact that it is presented as an other world adventure is nothing but distracting.

New Worlds, February 1957

This issue includes a novella by J. T. McIntosh: "Unit", a rather disappointing story of a group of five people (really 6 including an unmodified "unit father", as he implies but never states outright) who have been trained to work as a superintelligent unit, by having all 5 of their brains erased and retrained together. Some hints of sexual tension are underdeveloped, and the mission that the "unit" solves together is cute but doesn't really convince.

Galaxy, June 1959

The other novelet is "No Place for Crime", by J. T. McIntosh, short for McIntosh at about 11000 words. A quartet of thieves plan a series of perfect crimes on a world with a reputation as being free of crime. This world is so because, basically, the citizens have completely given up their privacy. The thieves' plan revolves around teleportation, a bit of a cheat, especially as McIntosh must rather artificially constrict his version of teleportation abilities to make it work. Of course the perfect crimes don't quite come off, and there is a bit of a twist at the end (plus an implausible love story) to add flavor. Middle range for McIntosh, I'd say.

Galaxy, August 1961

"The Gatekeepers" is a pretty well done piece from J. T. McIntosh. As he was wont to do, he uses a modest SFnal idea to carefully establish a difficult situation, then tries to work out a solution. The idea here is that two planets have a difficult to maintain matter transmitter (MT) link. They use this for trade -- actual interplanetary travel being expensive. But they have stumbled into war. Realizing that the link must be maintained mutually, or be lost and prohibitively expensive to reestablish after the war, they agree to each maintain a single gatekeeper (and a couple of spares), noncombatants who will swear not to allow the link to be used for sending soldiers or weapons. The story concerns the two gatekeepers, who, through a combination of coincidence, a bit of gentlemanly trading (technically against the law, but tolerated), and the one man's insistence on his wife's presence, end up simultaneously threatened by partisans who want to send bombs or germs through the gate to destroy the other planet. The meshing of the plot is nicely done -- the way different pressures on the two men lead to similar situations.

Analog, April 1963

The other novelette is J. T. McIntosh's "Iceberg from Earth" (12,500 words). McIntosh was a regular at Galaxy and New Worlds and other places in the 50s, rarely if ever cracking Astounding, but in the 60s he sold several stories to Campbell. This one is very much in his usual style, set in a system colonized by humans, with three planets arranged in a classic balance of power. The narrator is a spy from Marlock, which is eternally almost at war with Coran. They are the poorer two planets of the system. They are on the larger planet, Rham, as a new Marlockian warship is demonstrated. They now that Coran will try to sabotage the new ship. Earth as it turns out has an interest in foiling Coran's plans, so they have sent a spy, a beautiful but very cool woman named Nova Webb. The bulk of the story concerns the working out of the various plots, and in particularly how Nova Webb is revealed as more intelligent -- and more vicious -- than the various men from the colony worlds. It's OK but quite thin.

Amazing, September 1964

On to the shorter pieces from the September issue. We begin with the novelette, "Planet of Change", by J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor (1925-2008), a Scottish writer who published 15 or so novels and something like a hundred shorter pieces in the SF field in a 30 year career beginning in 1950. I've read several of his novels, and quite a few short stories (or, mostly, in his case, novelettes), often with a fair amount of enjoyment. "Planet of Change" is the story of the court martial of the leader of a mutiny on a ship that had been ordered to explore a planet from which no previous explorer had returned. The mystery turns on the read identity of the man being court-martialed, and that of course turns on the real nature of the dangerous planet. It's an OK piece, nothing terribly special.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Birthday Reviews: Four Inspector Maigret novels, by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was born on this date (February 13) in 1903. He died in 1986. He's by far most famous for his novels about the Paris based Inspector Maigret, of which he wrote dozens, but he wrote a great many more crime novels, almost all heavily focussed on the psychology of the criminal. Many of the non-Maigret novels are quite highly regarded, but I confess a great fondness for the Maigrets. I've read almost all of them. Here are shortish looks at four of the Maigret novels.

The Bar on the Seine, by Georges Simenon

It has been quite a long time since I read a Maigret novel. It seemed that I had exhausted those that had been translated into English, though it was hard to be sure. I saw a new Penguin edition, curiously sized, of a book that seemed at first unfamiliar. This was called The Bar on the Seine, translated by David Watson from a 1931 book called La Guingette a Deux Sous.

Well, it turns out I had read the book. It had been translated in 1940 by Geoffrey Sainsbury, and published variously in English as Guingette by the Seine, A Spot by the Seine, and Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine. (I had a 1990 Harcourt Brace paperback under the latter title.) But no matter -- I didn't remember it, so I reread it, with only the occasional intimations of familiarity -- for the most part it felt new.

Maigret visits a gangster who is about to be executed, and the man hints that he knew of a murderer, from 6 years before, who frequented a bar called La Guingette a Deux Sous. Maigret has little luck finding this, until he stumbles across a man who mentions his plan to visit this tavern -- a man who, Maigret learns, is also arranging as assignation with his mistress. Maigret finds his way to the tavern, where he finds the man (a successful coal merchant) with his wife, and also the man's mistress and her husband, a struggling haberdasher, and a varied cast of characters, including a talkative heavy-drinking Englishman, and several more folks. It seems the mistress is a rackety woman who has had affairs with several of the regulars at this tavern -- and that her husband has used this knowledge to blackmail some of her lovers. So it is perhaps not a surprise when the sorry blackmailer is shot -- and when his wife's latest lover, the coal merchant, is found with a gun.

The man escapes, and Maigret tries to track him down. Meanwhile the Englishman strikes up a relationship of sorts with Maigret, while at the same time all but flaunting his attempts to help the escaped coal merchant. And Maigret learns some of the details of the haberdasher's arrangements, including his involvement with a moneylender who disappeared, significantly, six years before -- just when the gangster Maigret had talked to had hinted at knowledge of a murder. Maigret is very dissatisfied with the obvious shape of the case -- something is going on. Which of course he discovers. What works -- quite brilliantly -- in this book, one of the earliest Maigrets, is the eventually displayed, quite convincing, quite sad, character of the actual murderer. Some of the early Maigrets seem uncharacteristic of the series to me -- Maigret is at times almost an action hero -- but in this case the story reads very much like later Maigret, with the main interest being the psychology of the murderer and other related figures.

The Madman of Bergerac, by Georges Simenon

Penguin have been rereleasing some older Maigret novels by Georges Simenon. They are retitling them, which can be confusing  -- the last one I bought was a book I'd already read, in a different edition and translation. (Though I was still glad to reread it -- it has been a while.) But now I have found a Maigret that is completely new to me: The Madman of Bergerac. This novel dates to 1932 (as Le Fou de Bergerac), and was published in English as part of a 1952 omnibus called Maigret Goes South. But I had not yet read it.

As with much early Maigret, he engages in much more personal action than became typical. He is traveling to Bordeaux for a quasi-vacation -- there is some trivial police business to clear up but he also wants to visit a retired colleague. But in his compartment there is a mysterious man, in some distress, and when the man jumps off the train, Maigret jumps off after him. The man shoots Maigret in the shoulder, and Maigret ends up recuperating in a hotel in the town of Bergerac.

He learns that there have been a number of attacks on young women in Bergerac -- a couple have been murdered, another woman fought off her attacker. These have been attributed to a madman believed to be living in the woods -- and indeed they assume it is this madman who attacked Maigret.

The rest of the novel consists of Maigret investigating these crimes from his hotel bed -- shades of Rear Window! Maigret ruffles feathers by treating several prominent locals as suspects. And (with Madame Maigret's help) he uncovers evidence of a "white slavery" ring, and a local man engaged in an affair with his sister-in-law, and another man secretly acquiring pornography. His old friend even turns out to be fooling around with a young lady ... as ever in the Maigret novels, everyone has secrets. There really is a madman, it turns out -- but there are also more serious crimes going on. It's not a great Maigret novel, but it's pretty decent.

Maigret in Montmartre, by Georges Simenon

Several years ago I read every one of Georges Simenon's Maigret mysteries that I could track down. I'm fairly sure a few early ones may still elude me, but mostly I think I've read the complete set available in English. But I ran across a book called Inspector Maigret and the Strangled Stripper in a used book store. I didn't remember the title, so I bought it and read it. While reading it, every so often things seemed familiar, but I really couldn't remember the basic plot.

It turns out that I had read this book under a different title: Maigret in Montmartre. That title seems to be of the UK translation, by Daphne Woodward. The copy I just bought is a 1964 reprinting of a 1955 Signet edition, translated by Cornelia Schaeffer for the American market. The book itself was first published in the US in hardcover in 1954, probably first published in 1950 in France. (It was written while Maigret was living in the US in 1950.) The French title was Maigret au Picratt's (Maigret at Picratt's). That title refers to the bar in Montmartre at which the stripper of the American title worked. A cursory glance at the two translations convinced me that Woodward's was considerably superior.

The story involves a stripper with a mysterious past (she uses a false identity card) who comes to the police with a story of a planned murder of a Countess. But the next day it is the stripper who turns up strangled. Soon enough a Countess is found dead as well. The stripper was involved with a young man who, we quickly guess, is one of Maigret's young assistants. Maigret must unravel the secret of her past, and of the Countess's past, to solve the crime. The actual solution is a bit over-obvious, and also I was confused a bit by how the stripper got involved with the bad guy, and how she started on her unsavory career. Simenon seems more interested in the psychosexual aspects of the case, and in particular he lingers somewhat on the stripper's enjoyment of her job, and of sex -- in a way that I found odd and not terribly believable (and which made me think too of the stories of Simenon's own rather odd sex life).

The Methods of Maigret, by Georges Simenon

I read, as I believe, pretty much all of the Maigret novels several years ago. But not long ago I ran across a used paperback called The Methods of Maigret, which didn't seem entirely familiar. It was really cheap, so I figured what the heck. I'm still not sure if I read it before -- one aspect seems very familiar: the book features a Scotland Yard detective following Maigret in order to learn his "methods". But the setting and the crime didn't ring any bells. I have to suspect that I did indeed read it, but forgot it enough that I could read it again with the same enjoyment as the first time! Ah, the benefits of aging!

Here Maigret is summoned to Porquerolles, a small island off the French coast in the Mediterranean. A small time crook with whom Maigret had had dealings in the past has been murdered, shortly after brandishing a letter from Maigret and bragging of his relationship. One working theory is that the man was killed by a local crook who so hated Maigret that he was driven to a rage ... but that really seems silly.

Maigret spends a few days on the island, worrying about how his English colleague will perceive his rather methodless methods. This place seems to attract people who have more or less stopped worrying about life, who just want to drift. There are a couple of English people, including an older woman with a French gigolo. There is a Dutch artist with a young Belgian girl as his mistress. There is an old woman and her also fairly old son, who run a number of brothels on the coast. It turns out one of these brothels is now run by the former girlfriend of the murdered man, a woman who Maigret more or less saved ... occasioning the letter that the man had kept. Plus a few natives, including a local crook who is eager to reassure Maigret as to where he stands.

Maigret soon gathers that the murdered man had some potentially valuable information, and many of those lurking seem to hope to find out what it was to make use of it themselves. And he eventually works his way to the solution, which is reasonably sensible, a bit sordid, and which, as often in these stories, leads to a somewhat resignedly sad ending: justice is served, more or less, but the wake of these criminal acts leads to further tragedy.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh is one of the best SF writers of our time, and I wish we would see more stories from her. Today is her birthday, and I'm reminded that she's one of a cohort of writers of a certain importance to me -- those that were born the same year I was born. In her honor, then, here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, mostly from Locus.

2001 Recommendations Post

My favorite short stories were Maureen F. McHugh's "Interview: On Any Given Day" (Starlight 3) and Daniel Abraham's "Exclusion" (Asimov's, February). McHugh's story not only describes a near future teenage milieu quite well, but it's particularly good at what it's really about, in kind of a sideways fashion: the effect of rejuvenation technology on people, particularly a sad older man who has a disastrous affair with the main character.

Locus, March 2002

The March F&SF is throughout a strong issue, with fine stories by Robert Reed, James Patrick Kelly, and Carol Emshwiller.  But the best story is Maureen F. McHugh's "Presence".  This is comparable to Shane Tourtellotte's story from the November 2001 Analog, "The Return of Spring".  Tourtellotte looked at the effect of a cure for Alzheimer's Disease on the person being cured.  McHugh's story is about the wife of an Alzheimer's patient.  We first see Mila's life with her husband Gus as he descends deeply into the abyss of the disease – hence her decision to pay for an experimental cure, even though she knows that the person Gus will be will not, in some sense, be her husband – so much of his brain and memories having already been destroyed.  The story plays out quietly, in McHugh's usual measured fashion, small details building a sensitive picture of these two people and their marriage, before and after, as it were.  There are no overwhelming epiphanies here – just a realistic and believable look at how real people can be affected by medical changes.

Locus Online, August 2002 (review of Polyphony 1)

Maybe the best story in the book, however, is by one of the most prominent names: Maureen McHugh's "Laika Comes Back Safe". This is pure McHugh, a quiet story about a girl growing up, and her best friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Lots of SF is to some extent "about" the extrapolative idea; the rest (or most of the rest) is "about" the people in the story, with the extrapolative idea used to illuminate the characters and lives of those people. Naturally enough, I would think, most "slipstream" fiction falls in this second category — certainly this is the case with McHugh's story, which subtly and heartbreakingly portrays the narrator's quietly desperate adolescence amid a slowly decaying home life.

Locus, November 2002

Sci Fiction for October is highlighted by Maureen F. McHugh's afterlife fantasy "Ancestor Money". Rachel Ball is long dead, and living in a curious afterlife that much resembles her real Kentucky life, only emptier. She receives a letter telling her that her grandchild has left her "ancestor money" -- a Chinese tradition. So she makes her way to Hong Kong to claim it -- but what use is money in the afterlife? The story is wryly told, and quietly leads to a mild but telling epiphany about death.

Locus, May 2003

Sci Fiction opens April with Maureen F. McHugh's "Frankenstein's Daughter", a moving and honest and villain-free story of a divorced mother with a teen-aged son and a younger clone of her dead older daughter. The younger girl's developmental problems and the older boy's rebelliousness and the mother's quilt and sorrow and her ex-husband's sincere attempts to help her cope are all portrayed affectingly. There is no blinding revelation here, just a story of real people living with believable consequences of past tragedy.

Locus, October 2004

The September Asimov's features several contributors who could be described as "hot new writers". But let us not forget the great Maureen F. McHugh, probably not quite new enough to fit that description, who shows up with "Oversite", one of several recent stories by her that look at family life in the near future: always realistic, honest, affecting. This one is no exception, about a woman dealing with her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother and with her teenaged daughter – both candidates for a locator implant.

Locus, November 2007

Also, I’m delighted to see a new story from Maureen McHugh. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” is about a young man who disappears from his home in Baltimore after a terrorist attack, and ends up a mechanic in small Virginia town. Nothing earthshaking happens, in an SFnal sense, but his story, and his mother’s story, are briefly and convincingly laid out. Quiet work, yes, but very real.

Locus, April 2008 (Review of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction)

My other favorite piece comes from Maureen F. McHugh: “Special Economics”, about a Chinese country girl come to the big city in the near future, who ends up more or less indentured to a shady corporation, but manages to come up with a surprising out.

Locus, August 2008

And “The Kingdom of the Blind” is a good new Maureen McHugh story, from Plugged In, published in honor of her and L. Timmel Duchamp’s appearance as Wiscon Guests of Honor. This piece intelligently speculates on the nature of spontaneously arising AI in a medical system – and even more intelligently looks at the work life of the computer system’s programmers, particularly the protagonist, Sydney, who learns to better understand the nature of her coworkers intelligence – and hers – as well as the AI’s.

Locus, December 2009

The overall emphasis of the book is less science fictional than in the second volume – and I confess that’s a mild disappointment to me, but Strahan has never been shy about desiring each of these books to have different emphases. Anyway, my three favorite stories were all SF of one sort or another. Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” is as usual with McHugh very quiet, understated. It’s set after a nearly complete economic meltdown. The story works to bring the consequences of that meltdown home … the narrator makes dolls, special dolls, sometimes ones that look like lost children. And she helps people with food and work when they come by. In different ways both those impulses betray her, and her reaction suggest, in the end, a feeling of uselessness in the face of a collapsed world.

Locus, August 2010

The Spring Issue of Subterranean Magazine, guest-edited by Locus’s own Jonathan Strahan, has completed its piecemeal posting. It’s a first rate issue. Maureen McHugh’s “The Naturalist” is a zombie story, and I admit my first impulse was to sigh. What indeed is the world coming to when even Maureen McHugh is writing zombie stories? But – as I might have trusted – McHugh has given us an actual good zombie story. Cahill is a prisoner abandoned in Cleveland in a sort of zombie reservation, though he himself is not a zombie. His daily life consists of survival, sometimes with a gang of prisoners, mostly by himself. The zombies, it seems, are rare – most have been killed – but a few remain, and Cahill – not really a good man himself, as we are shown – slowly comes to realize that there might be something different in the zombies than the cliché mindlessness. The parallel – abandoned violent prisoners, and abandoned zombies, both assumed to be lost to humanity – seems clear. McHugh’s execution of the idea is subtle, grounded, ambiguous – and as such all the more believable.

Locus, August 2013 (Review of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells)

Maureen McHugh's “The Memory Book” begins as seemingly conventional tale of a genteel young woman (who can do a little magic) forced into work as a governess due to her father's untimely death, but there is a distinct and effective dark side to things.

Locus, January 2018

But the prize story (in the revived Omni) is “Sidewalks”, by Maureen McHugh, which is a variation on one of my personal favorite time travel tropes, and which is grounded, as we expect from McHugh, in absolutely real characters. Rosni Gupta is a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County, and her latest case is a woman who speaks nothing but gibberish. Rosni assume she is perhaps autistic, but on meeting her she realizes that is not the case, and soon learns what the gibberish really is. I’ll leave the secret for the reader to discover – not that it’s particularly a new notion – but the implications are powerful.

McHugh doesn’t publish enough for my taste these days, so it’s exciting this month to see two of her stories, the other in the Global Dystopias special issue of the Boston Review, guest edited by Junot Diaz. “Cannibal Acts” is a quiet depiction of a small community in Alaska trying to survive after an engineered plague; and the decision of the narrator to join with those willing to eat one of their fellows who has died. No particular epiphanies are to be had here, nor anything much heroic, just an honest look at people at the likely end of the human world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Birthday Review: Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury

Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury (2001)

A Review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Donato Giancola)
Back in 1995 Donald Kingsbury published a novella, "Historical Crisis", in Gregory Benford's anthology Far Futures, a pretty good collection of 5 stories about the very far future of humans.  This is the third to become a novel (Charles Sheffield's "At the Eschaton" became Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Poul Anderson's "Genesis" became the novel of the same name.  I don't remember Greg Bear's "Judgement Engine" very well, maybe it became a novel, too.  I'm fairly sure Haldeman won't turn "For White Hill" into a novel, though it's an impressive novelette, based on a Shakespeare sonnet.)

I quite enjoyed "Historical Crisis", though I found it a bit melodramatic, and a bit too rapid.  I also noticed immediately that it was based in an odd way on Asimov's Foundation universe.  As I recall, no mention of that was made in the anthology, and I wondered if Kingsbury had gotten permission -- the similarities are so close as to require that, I would have thought.  Psychohistorical Crisis, at any rate, is advertised by Tor as being based on the Foundation stories, so there is no question of concealment.  It's also much slower than "Historical Crisis" -- so the "too rapid" problem is solved, possibly too well.  (I found the novel always enjoyable to read, but also easy to put down -- it does take quite a while to get where it's going, though the journey is fun, and it's long -- about 230,000 words.)

The book is set from 14790 GE to 14810 GE.  This is about 2700 years after the death of the "Founder" and the near simultaneous establishment of the equivalent of the "First Foundation" on a planet called Faraway.  It's about 1600 years after the formal establishment of the Pax Pscholaris, the "Second Empire" under the rule of the Psychohistorians called Pscholars, the equivalent to Asimov's Second Foundation.  Thankfully, Kingsbury's universe does not include the equivalent of (ack, ptui!) Asimov's evil hive mind, Gaia, nor does it include a robot like R. Daneel Olivaw pulling the strings (except for a cute reference, in which a silly robot character is named Danny-boy).  Also thankfully, Kingsbury recognizes that the rule of the Pscholars is stifling.  Indeed, he is very interested in treating Psychohistory with some seriousness, and in asking how well the secret society of Pscholars can really keep psychohistory secret, and how ultimately stable their rule will be.

The key variation Kingsbury plays on Asimov's idea is to replace the Second Foundation's (ack, ptui!) psychic powers with a technological means of providing them with similar power.  In Kingsbury's future, Asimov's Mule is replaced by a fellow called Cloun the Stubborn, who gets ahold of a device which can be used to control a person (by direct neural input): the tuned psychic probe.  It's still pretty squishy science, but not ridiculous.  The scientists of Faraway (and elsewhere) develop the psychic probe into something called the "familiar", or "fam" -- sort of a PDA with extra memory and processing which links directly to the brain.  You adjust to it from the age of 3, and your personal adjustment theoretically makes it impossible for anyone else to exercise control over you through it.  Pretty much everybody in rich societies has one, and indeed it is all but impossible to get around Splendid Wisdom (Kingsbury's version of Trantor) without it.

The story begins with the trial of a young psychohistorian named Eron Osa.  He is condemned to death, and summarily executed -- by having his fam destroyed.  His body, with its near useless "wet" brain, is allowed to live.  He cannot even understand his crime -- all the data about it was in his fam.
Soon he is desperately trying to relearn normal living skills, as he also begins to receive strange messages.

The story soon is following four points of view, 20 years in the past.  We follow Eron Osa as a 12 year old boy on the planet Agander, as he yearns to become a psychohistorian.  We follow Eron's tutor, Murek Kapor, who is in secret Hiranimus Scogil, the member of a secret group trying to develop psychohistory independently and to counteract the Pscholars' efforts.  We follow Admiral Hahukum Konn, the second most powerful Pscholar, and an enthusiast for ancient weapons systems, as he searches for a worthy student to learn his eccentric interpretation of Psychohistory.  And we follow the elderly Hyperlord Kikaju Jama, an antiques dealer who is interested in upsetting the static social order, especially after he discovers a strange device that shows the stars of the Galaxy, and that hints at a secret planet hidden by the Pscholars.  We also follow a fifth thread, as events in the "present" lead toward a climax.

Eron is soon led by Scogil to Faraway, to learn proper Physics, from where Hahukum Konn recruits him.  Scogil also runs into Kikaju Jama, and they jointly find the secret planet, which hides a greater secret: a trove of ancient psychohistorical lore.  So Scogil and his society join tentatively with Jama's group, and begin to use their new knowledge of Psychohistory to try to slowly destabilize the Second Empire.  All this time Konn is teaching Eron Osa, including a trip to Rith (i.e. Earth) where they reconstruct a B-17 for fun and psychohistorical exercise. And Osa begins to develop a theory which will be unpopular both with Konn and with the more hidebound Pscholars.

All is eventually in place for the action of the climax, which is exciting, even though full of math, and which reveals Kingsbury doing some interesting thinking.  It's really quite fun, and the world Kingsbury creates is fascinating.  There is a lot of somewhat strange sex -- Kikaju Jama, in his 60s, likes to seduce teenage girls (as in about 13), while Eron Osa at age 13 or so has affairs with girls his age and women twice his age.  It should be said that in this society pubescent boys and girls both appear to be considered eligible for consenting sexual activity, and there is no hint that any of the sex in the book is nonconsenting (with perhaps a tiny, plot important, wiggle).  I quite liked Kingsbury's names: the Frightfulperson Otaria of the Calmer Sea being a particular example.  Fun stuff, and in many ways an improvement on its model.