Thursday, April 18, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage is the fourth of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barchester, following The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and Doctor Thorne (1858), and succeeded by The Small House at Allington (1863) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). Framley Parsonage was first serialized in Cornhill Magazine in 1860/1861, and published in book form in the latter year. (Serialization of novels was common in that period, and three of the Chronicles were first published in magazines, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.) The earlier Barchester novels were quite successful, but apparently Framley Parsonage was even more so.

I read The Warden when I was a teenager, and I read Barchester Towers last year (review here). I intended to continue reading the Chronicles in order, but I made a mistake, and got a (free!) audiobook version of Framley Parsonage and started listening to it before I realized I should have read Doctor Thorne first. (No big deal, I think -- I can certainly figure out much of what happened in Doctor Thorne from what I learned in Framley Parsonage, but Trollope's pleasures like very much elsewhere from the simple progressions of the plots.) The narrator of my version was Timothy West -- I note that Audible also features versions by Simon Vance, by David Shaw-Parker, and by Flo Gibson. I can only say that I think West did an excellent job.

The novel proceeds in several closely related threads. The primary thread concerns Mark Robarts, the Vicar of Framley Parsonage. Mark is a pleasant enough man in his late 20s, who became friends as a child with a boy of the same age, then the son of Baron Lufton, though Mark's friend, Ludovic, has succeeded to the title at the time of this novel. Lord Lufton's mother, Lady Lufton, is a benevolent woman, and she helped Mark Robarts get an excellent education, and sponsored him for the living at Framley Parsonage (a very good living) and even introduced him to his wife, Fanny. Mark is thus in a good situation, with a wife he loves, and children he loves -- but he does feel that he is too much in Lady Lufton's debt, and thus under her control. And so, as the novel opens,  he accepts an invitation from a new friend of his, whom he met through Lord Lufton -- Nathaniel Sowerby, who owns a house near the seat of the Duke of Omnium. The point here is that the Duke of Omnium is a Whig, and Lady Lufton is a Tory, and so Lady Lufton will not be happy. In addition, the Duke is reputed to be a very immoral man, and, in fact, Mark already knows that Mr. Sowerby is an unstrustworthy man, at least in financial matters, for he has already led Lord Lufton into debt, by rather shady means. Very soon, then, Mark finds himself agreeing to sign a bill for Mr. Sowerby, to help tide the man over some financial difficulties -- though the reader (and, soon enough, Mark) realizes right away that Mr. Sowerby will not be able to raise the money to pay off the bill, and the burden will fall on Mark. 

So, this thread is entwined throughout the novel: we realize quickly that Mr. Sowerby is on the road to complete financial ruin, and that he will bring Mark with him. Mr. Sowerby is the MP from the Duke's part of Barchestershire (chosen by the Duke) and part of the book follows some political upheaval -- the Whigs gain control of Parliament. This allows Sowerby to angle for a plum appointment for Mark -- a Prebendary stall in Barchester -- which again, will only entangle Mark more damningly with Mr. Sowerby. Trollope was keenly interested in politics and once stood for office himself. This is the most political of the Barchester novels I've read, with plot lines involving multiple governments being formed (Trollope has great fun calling the Whigs "Gods" and the Tories "Giants" in an extended metaphor), and concerning the fortunes of not just Mark Robarts, but his brother John (who holds a minor position in a government department), and of Archdeacon Grantly (who stands to gain a Bishopric if a bill creating two new sees is passed), and Mr. Harold Smith, a pompous Whig (and brother-in-law to Mr. Sowerby) who wants a Cabinet position.*

The key romantic thread involves Mark's sister Lucy, who comes to live with Mark and Fanny, and thus meets Lord Lufton. The two fall in love, but Lady Lufton and the Archdeacon's wife Mrs. Grantly have long intended that Lord Lufton marry Griselda Grantly. Lucy is aware of that, and tries to hide her attraction to Lord Lufton, but any reader can see the way the wind blows. This is all resolved very nicely, even powerfully -- and Griselda Grantly, it must be said, is a terribly comical character in her almost imprenetrable self-conceit and lack of passion or intelligence. 

There is another significant thread, involving Mr. Crawley, a desperately poor clergyman with a meager living in a remote part of the county. Mr. Crawley was very briefly introduced in Barchester Towers as the friend of Mr. Arabin, who in that book became the new Dean of Barchester. Mr. Crowley and his wife have four children, and they can barely support them, but Mr. Crowley's pride is so extreme that he refuses all help, though Mr. Arabin as well as Fanny and Mark Robarts try to help, and sometimes manage to sneak treats to Mrs. Crowley. Mr. Crowley is a deeply flawed man, but a very honest and sincere one, and he serves as a moral corrective to Mark when he begins to stray. But the Crowleys face a severe crisis when Mrs. Crowley contracts a severe fever (probably typhoid fever), and Fanny and Lucy Robarts (especially Lucy) come to the rescue. (I understand the Mr. Crowley becomes the key character of The Last Chronicle of Barset.)

I have failed to mention many of the characters, many already familiar to readers of the previous books: the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie, the delightful heiress Miss Dunstable, Dr. Thorne of the book named for him; and well as such new characters as Mrs. Harriet Smith (Mr. Sowerby's sister), and the journalist Mr. Supplehouse.

I won't detail the plot any further -- likely I've already said too much. I just wish to say how thoroughly enjoyable the novel is -- indeed, I'm beginning to understand, how thoroughly enjoyable Trollope is. The novel -- as I understand it, most of his novels -- is told from an omniscient author point of view -- that is, the voice of the author is prominent, and he knows everything, and lets us in on a lot of what he knows. This sort of thing is unfashionable these days, and it is fraught with danger, but in skilled hands -- and Trollope's hands are very skilled indeed -- it is delightful. The author comments extensively on the events of the story, on the motivations and feelings of the characters, and on the moral and political lessons to be derived; and he does so with a beautifully ironic tone. The novel itself is at once gently satirical, and profoundly affectionate to all the characters, even a villain like Mr. Sowerby. It is very funny at times, and really moving at times. It is popular fiction -- of the highest order, but still popular -- and there is a sense that the author arranges that things turn out more or less for the best for the characters we like. But we do also learn, and think, about the society of which Trollope writes, and its social, economic, and political organization.

In summary -- this is a lovely book, and I recommend it highly. Likely it is best read after reading the earlier Barchester books -- but that should be no burden, they are quite enjoyable.

*(I understand that the Palliser novels -- originally called the Parliamentary novels -- are much more concerned with political maneuverings. They are also closely linked to the Barchester novels -- indeed, Palliser is the family name of the Duke of Omnium.)

Monday, April 15, 2024

Pseudonyms Quiz Answers

 Pseudonyms Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to the quiz:

1.  Two 19th century women writers, named Mary Anne Evans and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, each chose a pseudonym with the same traditionally male first name. Give both full pseudonyms in either order (first and last name.)

George Eliot, George Sand (Sand, by the way, spelled the first name "George", no s)

2.  Lincoln Perry was the first Black actor to have a featured credit in a Hollywood film, and to make over $1,000,000 in movies. His characters, such as Joe in Show Boat, and Gummy, in Hearts of Dixie, came to be known as "The Laziest Men in the World": arguably a harmful stereotype, though some Black scholars argue that he was more of a trickster figure, and Perry was awarded an NCAAP Image Award. What was the stage name Perry might be said to have walked up and taken?

Stepin Fetchit

3.  An important political activist and religious figure was born with the surname Little, and had the surname el-Shabazz at his death, but is more generally known by which name (first and last name please)?

Malcolm X

4.  Richard Patrick Russ was a successful writer of boy's stories, appropriate in that his first book, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard, appeared when he was 15. But he changed his name in 1945, keeping his middle name as his new first name, and gained great success decades later as the author of a revered set of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, a couple of which were adapted into the film Master and CommanderGive the new surname under which his later books appeared, and the surnames of the main characters in this series. 

O'Brien, (Jack) Aubrey/(Stephen) Maturin

5.  Name the writer who adopted the pseudonym V. Sirin, a reference to a Russian mythological bird, for their early works published in Germany, such as their first novel, Mary. This writer later published under their own name, and was wont to use versions of their name, such as Vivian Darkbloom, as characters in their novels.

Vladimir Nabokov

6.  One of the most famous pseudonyms in contemporary literature is that of the author of the Neopolitan novels, a four book series beginning with My Brilliant Friend. This author still refuses to reveal her true identity, leading to many speculations, including one that she was actually a man, a claim the author strongly denies. Under what name are the Neopolitan novels published?

Elena Ferrante

7.  Sometimes authors choose a pseudonym when they write in a different genre from their usual. Which renowned mystery writer published such novels as Absent in the Spring and The Rose and the Yew Tree, which were not mysteries but general fiction (with occasional romantic themes), as by "Mary Westmacott"?

Agatha Christie

8.  Many actors use names that differ from their birth names (think Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Mortenson) but this seems less common for directors. However, one John Martin Feeney became one of the most celebrated directors of all time, winner of four Oscars for Best Director. If his pseudonym was intended to conceal his Irish ancestry, surely he risked exposing that with one of his better known films, The Quiet ManWhat was the name John Martin Feeney used professionally?

John Ford

9.  A woman possibly named Fujiwara no Kaoriko wrote a long novel generally regarded as one of the first novels in history. By what name is this author usually known, a descriptive name, bestowed on her during her service as a lady-in-waiting?

(Lady) Murasaki/Murasaki Shikibu

10.  The great French singer born Edith Gassion presumably did not regret adopting this pseudonym, which is usually translated as what bird in English, based on French slang? (Give either the pseudonym or the English word for the bird.)

Edith Piaf (the Little Sparrow)

11.  A common reason for using a pseudonym is to conceal your side hustle from your main employer. P. M. A. Linebarger was a professor in Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, a reserve Army officer, and an expert in psychological warfare (but never a shoemaker nor a metalworker!). He also wrote some of the most individual science fiction of the 20th Century, such as "Scanners Live in Vain", under which pseudonym (first and last name please)?

Cordwainer Smith

12.  The woman born Paulette Williams rejected her patriarchal name (Paulette) and slave name (Williams) and took a new name, based on Xhosa and Zulu words meaning "She who comes with her own things" and "She who walks like a lion". Give this new name, under which she wrote novels such as Liliane, poetry, and plays like the 1975 Emmy- and Grammy-nominated "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

Ntozake Shange

13. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, was born with a different name. Give his last name at birth -- a name which may have been the inspiration for the title character's name in a certain story by Sturgeon's friend Robert Heinlein -- and Heinlein's character's name became an English word for remote handling devices.

Waldo

14. Portugal's Fernando Pessoa may have used more pseudonyms than any other writer, though he regarded them as individuals of their own, with different biographies and views, and he called them "heteronyms". One of the most famous of his heteronyms even inspired a novel by another of Portugal's greatest writers, called The Year of the Death of [redacted]Give either the redacted name of this particular heteronym, or the Nobel Prize winner who wrote the novel.

Ricardo Reis/Jose Saramago

15. Science fiction and crime writer Stephen Robinett published his first several stories and the serial version of his first novel (Stargate) as by "Tak Hallus", a name derived from a Persian, Urdu, and Hindi word (itself imported from Arabic) which has what appropriate meaning?

Pseudonym/Pen Name

16. A Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master published some stories and a few of her novels as by "Andrew North", presumably because her audience for these books was felt to be boys. Ironically, her first name was also traditionally male -- because she had adopted it at first as a pseudonym for her early novels, but then legally changed her name? What was her full name, either at birth, or after her name change?

Alice Mary Norton/Andre Norton

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Pseudonyms Quiz

Pseudonyms Quiz

As I've mentioned before, I'm in an online trivia league, and I have occasionally written quizzes for that league. My previous quizzes were very Science Fiction-centric, but this year I did one that focuses more generally on pseudonyms -- including, in some cases, names that people chose for themselves and legally adopted. The quiz as presented included the first 12 questions here, but I've added four more questions, rejected during the prep stage in part because they might have played too hard (for a general audience) and in part because I wanted to avoid having too many SF questions.

Most of these questions are about writers, but there are some from the film world, one singer, and one more politically-oriented individual. I'll have answers in a couple of days. If you wish, leave your guess in the comments. [The answers have now been posted here.]

1.  Two 19th century women writers, named Mary Anne Evans and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, each chose a pseudonym with the same traditionally male first name. Give both full pseudonyms in either order (first and last name.)

2.  Lincoln Perry was the first Black actor to have a featured credit in a Hollywood film, and to make over $1,000,000 in movies. His characters, such as Joe in Show Boat, and Gummy, in Hearts of Dixie, came to be known as "The Laziest Men in the World": arguably a harmful stereotype, though some Black scholars argue that he was more of a trickster figure, and Perry was awarded an NCAAP Image Award. What was the stage name Perry might be said to have walked up and taken?

3.  An important political activist and religious figure was born with the surname Little, and had the surname el-Shabazz at his death, but is more generally known by which name (first and last name please)?

4.  Richard Patrick Russ was a successful writer of boy's stories, appropriate in that his first book, Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda Leopard, appeared when he was 15. But he changed his name in 1945, keeping his middle name as his new first name, and gained great success decades later as the author of a revered set of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, a couple of which were adapted into the film Master and Commander. Give the new surname under which his later books appeared, and the surnames of the main characters in this series. 

5.  Name the writer who adopted the pseudonym V. Sirin, a reference to a Russian mythological bird, for their early works published in Germany, such as their first novel, Mary. This writer later published under their own name, and was wont to use versions of their name, such as Vivian Darkbloom, as characters in their novels.

6.  One of the most famous pseudonyms in contemporary literature is that of the author of the Neopolitan novels, a four book series beginning with My Brilliant Friend. This author still refuses to reveal her true identity, leading to many speculations, including one that she was actually a man, a claim the author strongly denies. Under what name are the Neopolitan novels published?

7.  Sometimes authors choose a pseudonym when they write in a different genre from their usual. Which renowned mystery writer published such novels as Absent in the Spring and The Rose and the Yew Tree, which were not mysteries but general fiction (with occasional romantic themes), as by "Mary Westmacott"?

8.  Many actors use names that differ from their birth names (think Marion Morrison and Norma Jean Mortenson) but this seems less common for directors. However, one John Martin Feeney became one of the most celebrated directors of all time, winner of four Oscars for Best Director. If his pseudonym was intended to conceal his Irish ancestry, surely he risked exposing that with one of his better known films, The Quiet Man. What was the name John Martin Feeney used professionally?

9.  A woman possibly named Fujiwara no Kaoriko wrote a long novel generally regarded as one of the first novels in history. By what name is this author usually known, a descriptive name, bestowed on her during her service as a lady-in-waiting?

10.  The great French singer born Edith Gassion presumably did not regret adopting this pseudonym, which is usually translated as what bird in English, based on French slang? (Give either the pseudonym or the English word for the bird.)

11.  A common reason for using a pseudonym is to conceal your side hustle from your main employer. P. M. A. Linebarger was a professor in Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, a reserve Army officer, and an expert in psychological warfare (but never a shoemaker nor a metalworker!). He also wrote some of the most individual science fiction of the 20th Century, such as "Scanners Live in Vain", under which pseudonym (first and last name please)?

12.  The woman born Paulette Williams rejected her patriarchal name (Paulette) and slave name (Williams) and took a new name, based on Xhosa and Zulu words meaning "She who comes with her own things" and "She who walks like a lion". Give this new name, under which she wrote novels such as Liliane, poetry, and plays like the 1975 Emmy- and Grammy-nominated "choreopoem" for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.

13. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, author of More Than Human, was born with a different name. Give his last name at birth -- a name which may have been the inspiration for the title character's name in a certain story by Sturgeon's friend Robert Heinlein -- and Heinlein's character's name became an English word for remote handling devices..

14. Portugal's Fernando Pessoa may have used more pseudonyms than any other writer, though he regarded them as individuals of their own, with different biographies and views, and he called them "heteronyms". One of the most famous of his heteronyms even inspired a novel by another of Portugal's greatest writers, called The Year of the Death of [redacted]. Give either the redacted name of this particular heteronym, or the Nobel Prize winner who wrote the novel.

15. Science fiction and crime writer Stephen Robinett published his first several stories and the serial version of his first novel (Stargate) as by "Tak Hallus", a name derived from a Persian, Urdu, and Hindi word (itself imported from Arabic) which has what appropriate meaning?

16. A Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master published some stories and a few of her novels as by "Andrew North", presumably because her audience for these books was felt to be boys. Ironically, her first name was also traditionally male -- because she had adopted it at first as a pseudonym for her early novels, but then legally changed her name? What was her full name, either at birth, or after her name change?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Review: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

Review: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

by Rich Horton


David Garnett (1892-1981) was part of the Bloomsbury Group. His mother was the Russian translator Constance Garnett, and he married Virginia Woolf's niece, rather scandalously (she was over a quarter-century younger than him, and he had met her as an infant, and she was the daughter of his one time lover Duncan Grant.) He published his first novel during the Great War under a pseudonym. Lady Into Fox (1924) was his second novel, or, really, a novella -- it's not much over 20,000 words long. He wrote quite a few more books, of which the best known is probably Aspects of Love (1955), the source material for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of that title.

The book was illustrated in woodcuts by R. A. Garnett -- David Garnett's first wife. My edition is the 2004 reprint from McSweeney's, which reproduces R. A. Garnett's illustrations. 

It's the story of a young woman, Silvia Tebrick (maiden name Fox) who one day suddenly turns into a fox. Her husband Richard is despondent -- they were a truly loving couple -- and takes his vixen home with him, and tries to make a life with her in her transformed state. He dismisses his servants, and tries to feed her at the dinner table, and have her sleep in the bed with him, and she even plays piquet.

But over time her urge to be outside dominates, and she loses interest in piquet, and wants to eat food she's caught herself. Eventually Richard must set her free, which only leads to further difficulties for him. She has a litter, and he finds himself desperately worrying about the local fox hunts. There is still a relationship -- and Richard dotes on some of the foxes in her litter, though he's jealous of the father. But the arc of the story is clear, and the tragic ending inevitable.

It's a rather neat story, at once tragic, but a bit arch. Is it an allegory of a woman's desire to have her own life? That's certainly one way to read it. But perhaps it's just a "beast story", or something unexplainable. There is never any reason to doubt the true affection of Richard and his wife, no question of cruelty. But her independent life as a vixen seems something she values as well. A fine novella, and best at this lenght -- any longer and it would have overstayed its welcome.

(Vercors' 1960 novel Sylva, the first book in translation to be nominated for a Hugo, was apparently in part a response to Lady Into Fox, as it's sort of the reverse story -- Sylva is a woman raised by foxes, or perhaps a fox that has become a woman. (I haven't actually read the book.))

Monday, April 8, 2024

Old Bestseller: The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy

Old Bestseller: The Constant Nymph, by Margaret Kennedy

by Rich Horton

Margaret Kennedy (1896-1967) was a British novelist and playwright, with at least 16 novels and a number of plays to her credit, as well as criticism and memoirs. She seems to have been quite successful in her lifetime, signaled in part by several movie adaptations, but, like many writers, her reputation went into eclipse for a time, but she has been somewhat rescued in recent years. Her family was, as a whole, quite literary -- Joyce Cary was her cousin, and one of her daughters and one of her granddaughters are also novelists.

The Constant Nymph, her second novel, from 1924, is definitely her best remembered book. She turned it into a play in 1926 (with Basil Dean) -- this was very popular, with the lead originated by Noel Coward, who was replaced by John Gielgud. There were four screen adaptations, in 1928, 1933, 1938, and 1943. The latter version, starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith, and Brenda Marshall, was quite successful, with Fontaine getting an Oscar nomination. (Having said that, a reading of the plot according to Wikipedia suggests to me that some of the most affecting parts of the novel were excised -- admittedly, in part likely because they'd have been pretty controversial.)

The story opens with a brief introduction to the expatriate British composer Albert Sanger, who left his home early for life on the continent, producing mostly operas that were only appreciated by a rare few, living in various places, with various wives and mistresses, and seven acknowledged children plus some illegitimate ones. We meet one of his protégés, another Englishman, Lewis Dodd, coming to visit him at his ramshackle place in the Austrian Tyrol. This section is called "Sanger's Circus", and Dodd, along with a Russian choreographer named Trigorin, arrive at the house, in which Sanger's seven children -- two by his first wife, four by his second wife, an Englishwoman named Evelyn Churchill, and one by his current mistress live, along with Sanger and the mistress, Linda. Lewis Dodd is another fabulous composer, also mostly unappreciated. The immediate crises are two -- Sanger's 16 year old daughter Toni has disappeared, and Sanger's health is precarious. Toni soon emerges -- she has run off to München, and has been seduced by the Jewish impresario Jacob Birnbaum. It's quickly clear that the even younger Tessa (14) is in love with Dodd, who has just enough self control not to sleep with her. And then Sanger dies.

Toni's situation is normalized, to some extent, when she marries Jacob. The two oldest Sanger children are talented musicians, and old enough to go off on their own. But what to do with Evelyn Churchill's remaining children, Tessa, Lina, and Sebastian? Evelyn's brothers, Robert and Charles, realize they must take custody, and soon Robert and Charles' daughter Florence come to the Sanger home to manage the estate, and to pack the children off to school in England. But Florence -- already an admirer of Lewis Dodd's music -- falls desperately in love with him, though it's really pretty clear they are not well suited. Lewis is entranced as well, due to Florence's beauty and sophistication, and they quickly marry. 

Then to the closing sequence, which involves the inevitable collapse of the Dodds' marriage, and the terrible difficulty the Sanger-Churchill children have adapting to English school ways. Florence is overcontrolling, and fiendishly jealous of Tessa. Tessa is still in love with Lewis -- and Lewis with her, though it's not clear how much of his response is to be trusted (and it's certainly a bit creepy.) Lewis (of course) is a compositional genius (and also a great conductor) -- and Florence sees him as a career to manage, while Tessa is more of a muse ... The novel careens from what at the beginning is an almost comic -- and quite believable -- portrayal of a chaotic if somewhat loving household to a full on -- and quite believable -- tragedy.

It's not a perfect novel. The brilliance of both Sanger and Dodd as composers seems at times a plot device. The portrayal of Jacob Birnbaum is very antisemitic, though one could argue that it is simply portraying the standard antisemitism of the era. The ultimate plot resolution turns in part on what seems a sort of convenient health problem. But for all that -- it really works. It's deeply affecting, and much of the family dynamics, for all their chaos, or perhaps because of the chaos, ring true. Florence perhaps is in the end too much of a villain -- but also we kind of believe that, and she's a villain but for -- well, not good reasons but understandable ones. It's -- it's a novel eminently worth reading, and quite powerful in its way. And, you know, the ending the reader kind of roots for (but doesn't get) is in many ways just so wrong -- but ... kind of right? I've seen the book compared to Lolita, but it's not really like that at all -- Tessa is not at all like Dolores Haze, nor so horribly abused, and Lewis Dodd, though not really an admirable man, is no Humbert Humbert. And Kennedy gets into Tessa's head in a way Nabokov never did with Dolores.

By the way, I had not known that Kennedy wrote a sequel, The Fool of the Family, concerning two of the Sanger boys, and (of course) their horrifying romantic convolutions. (The Constant Nymph is essentially all about the girls.) It seems to have been a success, and was adapted by Kennedy into a play, Escape Me Never, which in turn was twice filmed, in the UK in 1935, and again in the US in 1947. (The British film seems well-regarded, but the US film was apparently quite poor, despite starring Errol Flynn and Ida Lupino.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

Review: Stone, by Alter S. Reiss

by Rich Horton

A few years ago Alter S. Reiss published a novella for Tor.com called Sunset Mantle, set in a fictional but non-fantastic world. I liked it a great deal, and so I was happy to notice that he has published another story, a novella or short novel, in the same world (though with different characters.) This is Stone, from 2023. As far as I can tell it's ebook only.

The main character is Rael, a young woman in Taraf the City, an independent city-state in what seems a roughly Middle Eastern setting and culture, analogous to our world two or three millennia ago. She is a strong woman, learning to be a stone worker, like her father. The city is building a strong new gate, in the face of threats from a man who has set himself up as a King and conquered several other city-states. Rael's father is a greatly respected stonemason, "of the line of Peor". She has two brothers and a sister. The plot is set in motion when her younger and more mischievous brother Tei is murdered by one of the Red Scarves -- a group of bandits living in the desert wastes, that had recently been declared anathema by Taraf the City's somewhat fanatical new scholar-priest after they had stolen some gold from a caravan.

Rael blames herself for Tei's death, for she had not stopped him from confronting the Red Scarves. Her mother, meanwhile, is bitter that no revenge is being taken. And the loss of Tei puts more pressure on their family to supply urgently needed stoneworkers. Rael's brother is more interesting in being a soldier, and her sister is not well-suited to the work, so they invite a couple of cousins from another city. And the two young men, as Rael quickly realizes, are not actually her cousins -- but her mother insists they maintain the fiction, because their labor is much needed. 

Rael, though disturbed by the lie, soon comes to like the two men, who are good workers, and who even teach Rael some things she didn't know. Indeed she starts to have feelings for one of the men, Arith, which are clearly reciprocated. And the work on the gate continues, until another accident strikes, injuring a friend of Rael's and also one of her false cousins. With his fellow hurt, Arith asks Rael's assistance on something -- taking a mysterious cask in to the desert. Rael knows this must be something questionable, but she trusts Arith.

And so, the resolution marches forward, a beautifully engineered moral tragedy, as the various missteps -- even those with understandable motivations -- come back to haunt most of the characters, and especially Rael and her family. This is complicated by the expected incursion of the ambitious King, and by a religious showdown of sorts, with the laws and rules of their society, and their consciences, propelling the characters to a crushing end, with heroic acts, treachery, surprises, and deep honesty all swirling together. It's a profoundly moving story, and I recommend it highly.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

by Rich Horton

Vernor Vinge died the other day at the age of 79. I have written an obituary elsewhere (https://www.blackgate.com/2024/03/23/vernor-vinge-october-2-1944-march-20-2024/), so I won't recapitulate that here. I thought, instead, that I would reread one of his novels and review it.

I chose, perhaps perversely, his second novel, from 1976, The Witling, which is generally regarded as his worst novel. I agree with that assessment, but I haven't reread this book since shortly after it was published, so I didn't really remember it. It has been generally available -- first editions from DAW in the US and Dobson in the UK, an illustrated trade paperback in 1983 from Bluejay, and more reprints from Hamlyn, Baen, Pan, and Tor, the most recent in 2006 (and still in print.) This is unusual for a minor paperback original, but it reflects Vinge's status.

The Witling is set on the planet Giri, which is in a system with two habitable planets. Humans have colonized the other planet, and now they have set an expedition to Giri, having realized it has an intelligent race. Their vanguard is an elderly archaeologist, Ajão Bjault, and young space pilot, Yonnine Leg-Wot. As they wait for more of their fellows to land, they encounter the aliens -- and somehow the shuttle with the other Novamericans crashes, and Ajão and Yonnine are captured. 

On a parallel path we follow the aliens, especially the Crown Prince of the nation the humans have landed in, Pelio. Pelio, we quickly learn, is a "witling" -- he is, in the terms of the Girians, handicapped, because he cannot teleport. (This is, of course, how the Girians, with a fairly low level of tech, were able to down the shuttle.) The Prince is unhappy, because his knows his people disrespect him for his handicap. He learns of the capture of Ajão and Yonnine and decides to take the chance of bringing them under his protection. And when he sees Yonnine, his falls immediately for her.

Why? Well, apparently, Yonnine is a rather stocky woman, by Novamerican standards. And so she is considered unattractive. But the Girians are much heavier-set, and by their standards, she is beautifully slim. Uggh. This is stupid on so many levels (women of all builds are attractive, for one, and for two, why would Giri's people have that particular standard of beauty, and for three, it's really tiresome to have adult people falling for other people instantly based purely on physical attraction. Especially when the other people are aliens -- and surely not interfertile.) 

Anyway, Ajão and Yonnine realize they need to recover their maser to call for rescue, and the Prince has the recovered equipment hidden away. Eventually he agrees to let them look at the equipment -- only to find it's been stolen. And throughout this time we have been learning about the implications of a society of teleports. One is -- no doors. Why add a door when you can just teleport inside? To be sure, you have to have been anywhere you want to teleport ("reng"), or at least close enough to "seng" the empty spaces? The exceptions are the super powerful Guildsmen, who are ideally found when young, taken to be raised by the Guild, and who then offer their services -- they can, for example, seng and reng all the way to the moons. Naturally the royal family is very careful about revealing the location of their secret hiding places, so either a Guildsman or a royal must have stolen the equipment.

Anyway -- the plot gets in motion. Ajão and Yoninne must travel to the island where the rest of their people have landed. And here comes in another consequence of teleportation one can only travel roughly along lines of longitude, so as to maintain a low relative velocity between your points of departure and arrival. And travel to an island is extra hard, because boats are vulnerable to sea creatures who can also attack via telekinesis. But perhaps the humans have some technology that may help?

There's some more going on: palace intrigue (leading to absurd artificial deadlines), strife between the various polities on Giri, traitors, etc. And all this resolves in a dramatic ending, with an heroic sacrifice. And a really rather dumb -- and annoying! -- final line.

As a novel of action, it's OK. As a novel of science fiction, it has all kinds of flaws -- not very interesting social organizations, some silly science (especially the odd similarity of the Girians and the humans). As a novel of character, it's kind of negligible. As an extrapolation of how a society of teleports might be organized, and how teleportation might really work? It's pretty interesting, and I'm sure that's what excited Vinge about this project. So when he shows why you need pools at your destinations, or how a single palace can be spread across an entire meridian, or how to use air as a weapon -- that stuff is pretty cool. And, hey, I read it all quickly and with enjoyment (if punctuated by frustration.) Vinge got better -- lots better! As a worst novel in a career, The Witling is above average.