Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Novels of Avram Davidson

The Novels of Avram Davidson

by Rich Horton

Today would have been Avram Davidson's 96th birthday. He died in 1993. In his memory, here's a repost of something I did back in 2003 on rec.arts.sf.written, a quick summary of his novels. For the most part I don't say much about them. I've revised it to account for the 2005 publication of The Scarlet Fig.

Avram Davidson is one of my favorite authors, but his reputation, with me as with most anyone, is founded on his short fiction (and, I suppose, to some extent on his exotic nonfiction, as with Adventures in Unhistory). Davidson's strengths were a sharp moral sense, a fascination with curious minutiae, a quirky imagination, obfuscation to good effect, and a glorious sprung prose rhythm. All of these strengths, it seems to me, are better displayed at shorter lengths. His novels tended to be sloppily plotted, or to display signs of lost interest, or to simply not finish (as in the case of his several series begun but never completed). Thus I urge those who have not yet discovered Davidson to seek out the short fiction, recently collected in such places as The Avram Davidson Treasury, The Investigations of Avram Davidson, and The Other Nineteenth Century. Highlights include the Engelbert Eszterhazy stories, the Jack Limekiller stories, "The Sources of the Nile", "The Slovo Stove", "What Strange Stars and Skies", "El Vilvoy de Las Islas", "Dragon Skin Drum", "Dagon", "The Lord of Central Park", and many more.

But here we consider the novels. Several were written in the middle sixties, and published as paperback originals, probably for minimal advances, probably written fairly quickly. These show signs of being forced into rather pulpish and conventional plot frames, and the exuberance of the writing is sometimes muted. Still, the prose does break free at times, and Davidson's imagination remains compelling. (Incidentally, while my copies of the books are all old paperbacks, except for Vergil in Averno, I should note that Wildside Press recently reissued nearly all of Davidson's novels, so they are fairly readily available.)

Many of the novels were parts of projected series, though these series were not usually finished. Here's a summary of Davidson's "novel series", with the books listed in (to the best of my knowledge) internal chronological order. (After the series summary, I'll list and describe all the novels individually).

1. Dragon
The Kar-Chee Reign (1966), Rogue Dragon (1965) -- no more ever planned or needed

2. Vergil
Vergil in Averno (1987), The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), The Scarlet Fig; or Slowly, Through a Land of Stone (2005)

Up to six more "Vergil" books were reputedly planned. A number of short stories about Vergil have also been published, some of which may be extracts from The Scarlet Fig. Here's David Tate's list of the Vergil short stories:

"Vergil and the Caged Bird", Amazing, January 1987
"Vergil and the Dukos: Hic Inclusus Vitam Perdit, or The Imitations of the King", Asimov's, September 1997
"Yellow Rome, or Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", Weird Tales, Winter 1992/1993, also in The Avram Davidson Treasury
"Vergil Magus: King Without Country", with Michael Swanwick, Asimov's, July 1998
"The Other Magus", in Edges, Eds. Ursula K. Le Guin & Virginia Kidd (Pocket Books; Berkley paperback, 1980)
"Sea-Scene, or Vergil and the Ox-Thrall", Asimov's, February 1993
"Young Vergil and the Wizard", Infinite Matrix, December 2001

I have heard that there are possibly another half-dozen unpublished shorts.

3. "Starflux/Earthflux"
The Island Under the Earth (1969), The Six-Limbed Folk (apparently never written), The Cap of Grace (apparently never written)

4. Peregrine
Peregrine: Primus (1971), Peregrine: Secundus (1981)

A third Peregine book was planned but never written. Davidson's son Ethan wrote a novelette, "Peregrine: Parentus", based on Avram's notes for the final novel. It was published in 2016, but I haven't seen it.

Now, to briefly describe the various novels individually. I'll list them in publication order, to the best of my knowledge. There are a couple I haven't yet read. Also, many of them I read in short order as I found them used in about 1994, which was before I kept notes on the books I read. Which means I don't remember them all very well.

Joyleg (with Ward Moore) (1962)

A version was serialized in Fantastic. This is one of three novel-length (or nearly so) collaborations by Davidson: the other two are with his ex-wife Grania Davis. This novel is about a man living in the back hills of Tennessee who turns out to be a veteran of the American Revolution. The secret of longevity attracts the attention of the American Government, and the Soviets as well, and much political foofaraw occurs, much revolving around the book's real main characters, a Congressman and Congresswoman (the "woman" underlined on the back of my 1962 Pyramid paperback -- I suppose that was considered almost more SFnal than a 200 year old guy back in 1962). I thought it went on a bit long, and that it read too much like Ward Moore and not enough like Davidson. Minor.

Mutiny in Space (1964)

Expansion of the Worlds of Tomorrow novella "Valentine's Planet". Probably the least of Davidson's novels. It is reminiscent of Poul Anderson's slightly earlier Virgin Planet, in that it features a man or men spacewrecked on a planet dominated by women who, it turns out, are just looking for a REAL MAN [TM]. In this case a mutiny leads to a spaceship crew being marooned, on a planet where the males are all small and childlike (as I recall), so that the women rule. Naturally, things change. It's not horrible, and not completely un-Davidsonian, but it's not very good, either.

Masters of the Maze (1965)

The first novel to show real signs of Davidson's true obsessions, and his true, or mature, prose style. It's a weird thing, and I didn't really find it wholly successful, but I found aspects quite fascinating. I admit I don't remember it well at this remove, but it involved weird alien creatures in control of a "Maze" that allowed travel through space and time, and a failing young writer, and dangerous aliens who need to be stopped.

Rogue Dragon (1965)

Davidson earned a Nebula nomination for this, though it should be noted that in those days (this was the first year of the Nebula awards), the rules were different, and the list of nominated works is rather long. The aliens known as the Kar-Chee came to Earth and brought the Dragons with them, but the Kar-Chee have been defeated, but Earth is an exhausted backwater. Now the Dragons are hunted for sport by rich men from elsewhere in the Galaxy. Jon-Joras, the hero, comes to realize that this sport must cease. A decent, fun, sometimes dark, novel.

Rork! (1965)

In an exhausted human-colonized portion of the Galaxy, a young man goes to Pia 2, "the most
remote, isolated, world in the Galaxy", and gets involved in a conflict between entrenched colonialist men who have enslaved the local species called "Tocks", and the Wild Tocks, all further complicated by the danger of the fierce rorks, yet another species. Parts of it were quite good, parts, particularly the ending, were simply rushed.

The Enemy of My Enemy (1966)

I don't remember this one well. A fugitive gets surgically transformed to become a Tarnisi, and ends up affecting the course of a hopeless war between Tarnis and some other nations. The solution is slightly unexpected. I don't think this was one of may favorite early Davidson novels, but as I say I don't remember it well.

Clash of Star-Kings (1966)

Very short novel (about 38,000 words, originally half of an Ace Double) that appeared on the Nebula nomination list for Best Novella of 1966. It depicts a conflict between alien entities as a conflict between the ancient Gods of the Aztecs and the Olmecs, witnessed by a couple of writers living in Mexico to save money. Pretty good stuff, best I think for the depiction of everyday life for American expatriates in Mexico. My full review is here: Review of Clash of Star-Kings/Danger From Vega.

The Kar-Chee Reign (1966)

Prequel to Rogue Dragon, telling of the end of the period of Kar-Chee oppression of Earth. My full review is here: Review of Rocannon's World/The Kar-Chee Reign.

The Island Under the Earth (1969)

Published as one of the celebrated first series of Ace Specials in 1969. Here the source of Davidson's imagination is closer to Greek myth. The novel is set in a strange land with such creatures as Harpies and especially Centaurs. Unfortunately I remember little else except that I liked it, and that I was saddened to hear that Davidson never wrote the sequels.

The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969)

First published by Doubleday in 1969 (as far as I know, the Vergil novels are the only Davidson novels originally published in hardcover), then as an Ace Special in 1970, expanded from a 1966 novella in Fantastic. Perhaps Davidson's most highly-regarded novel. It is an "Alternate History Fantasy", set in a Roman Empire full of magic, and alchemy, and strange creatures, in which the poet Vergil was a powerful sorcerer. This novel is about Vergil's search for the perfect Speculum, or mirror, and his involvement with several women. It is the first novel in which Davidson gave full reign to his fascination with the oddities of history and "unhistory", and in which he let his prose style loose to its full flowering of elegant eccentricity.

Peregrine: Primus (1971)

Perhaps Davidson's single most engaging novel, and the most overtly comedic of them. It's set in another alternate Roman Empire. As I said in my review of the Wildside reprint, for Maelstrom SF: The story is set in an alternate history. Peregrine is the younger son of "the last pagan King in lower Europe". When he reaches his majority, his father reluctantly exiles him, in order to prevent trouble with the Crown Prince. So begin Peregrine's, er, peregrinations. Accompanied by a faithful page and an aging sorcerer, he roams about "lower Europe", encountering the remnants of an eccentric Roman Empire, a wide variety of mutually heretical Christians, and many other wonders.

Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973)
One of two Davidson novels I have not read. Apparently set in prehistoric times, and when I asked about it people seemed to think it fairly good. There is a presumably shorter magazine serial version, "The Forges of Nainland are Cold", from Fantastic in 1972. (There is also a 1971 If novella, "Arnten of Ultima Thule", which may be part of the novel as well.)

Peregrine: Secundus (1981)

Much of a muchness with Peregrine: Primus, it continues Peregrine's story without seeming to bring it closer to any sort of conclusion. I'd say it's not quite as good as the first book but still quite enjoyable. Assembled from a 1973 novelette in F&SF ("Peregrine: Alflandia"), and a 1980 novella in Asimov's ("Peregrine Perplexed").

Vergil in Averno (1987)

The prequel to The Phoenix in the Mirror, telling of Vergil's journey to the underworld. I found it a
lot harder going than its predecessor, to be honest.

The Scarlet Fig (2005)

I wrote this for Fantasy Magazine when this novel finally came out (in a lovely and expensive hardcover edition): Some books have significance and value beyond their pure value as novels. Certainly The Scarlet Fig is one such – the long awaited third Vergil novel from the late Avram Davidson. Its value as fiction is high enough, mind you. It’s very characteristic of late Davidson, stuffed with evidence of his erudition, the prose complicated, eccentric, enjoyable for those of us who have a taste for Davidson’s prose. (That said, often a bit prolix, perhaps a bit too precious.) The story concerns Vergil’s travels after he leaves Rome (“Yellow Rome”), fearful of accusations of having tarnished a Vestal Virgin, and also menaced by piratical Carthaginians. He visits many strange shores: Corsica, Tingitayne, the Region called Huldah (and its beautiful eponymous ruler), the island of the Lotophageans, where he drinks of the Scarlet Fig, and finally the Land of Stone in North Africa. All along we witness much magic and many wonders – all reflecting the altered Rome of Davidson’s Vergil Magus, a Rome reflecting the legends that accumulated in the Middle Ages: so, gloriously grotesque satyrs, victims of the cockatrix, the dogs of the Guaramanty, etc. I enjoyed it greatly, particularly the character of Vergil and the mix of darkness and strangeness throughout. It is also beautifully presented: a large handsome hardcover, with beautiful illustrations, and much excellent additional material to the novel: afterwords by both Davis and Wessells, and several appendices including a few “deleted scenes” and
reproductions of some notecards from Davidson’s collection (“Encyclopedia”) of Vergilian research.

Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (with Grania Davis) (1988)

I have not read this book either. Apparently, the plot concerns Kublai Khan's setting a task for Marco Polo before allowing him to return home.

The Boss in the Wall (with Grania Davis) (1998)

A long novella (perhaps 32,000 words) extracted (by Davis) from a much longer novel that Davidson had been working on for some time when he died. This was published in book form by Tachyon after Davidson's death. It's good stuff, with much of the classic Davidson flavor, about nasty critters that lurk in the walls of houses.

An extract from my review for Tangent: So what is it about? To quote: "A Paper-Man or Paper-Doll or Paper-Doll Man. A Hyett or Hetter or Header. A Greasy-Man or String-Fellow. A Rustler or Clicker or Clatterer. And/or other names." Or the "House-Devil". Or "The Boss in the Wall". Professor Vlad Smith moves into a new house. Which is a very old house, owned by his Uncle Mose. Almost immediately, something unexplainable and scary kills his Uncle and puts his wife and daughter into states of shock. A local doctor puts Vlad in touch with Professor Edward Bagnell, who has been investigating sightings of the "House-Devil". And we follow Vlad, and Bagnell, and others in a rambling search through the available scholarly and semi-scholarly and crackpot records of other potential "Paper Men", "Rustlers", and "Bosses in the Wall", to an encounter with a mysterious committee studying the phenomenon, and to a resolution to (at least) Vlad's story.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Naomi Kritzer

Today is Naomi Kritzer's birthday. She began publishing fiction about when I began at Locus, and she's been doing strong work all along, but obviously she got particular notice with the 2016 Hugo winner for Best Short Story, "Cat Pictures, Please". And she's on the current Hugo shortlist for Best Novelette with a very fine story, "The Thing About Ghost Stories". Here's a compilation of my Locus reviews of her short fiction:

Locus, October 2002

The October Realms of Fantasy features no less than 3 stories in fairy tale mode. Two are retellings of familiar fairy tales as science fiction. Naomi Kritzer's "In the Witch's Garden" is based on "The Snow Queen". The children, real and "made", of an enclave of scientists are conditioned never to leave lest the Snow Queen find them. The title witch finds one such "made" girl after she escapes, and wishing a daughter of her own, kidnaps her. But her new "daughter" remembers eventually that she was looking for a friend of hers who had also escaped, and she leaves on a journey to find this boy. What she finds instead, inevitably, is a "conceptual breakthrough" (to use Peter Nicholls' term) about the nature of their world. The reader will likely have guessed most of what is going on well in advance, but the story still satisfies.

Locus, May 2004

The webzine Strange Horizons has a reputation as a slipstream-oriented site, but it opens 2004 with 3 fairly pure science fiction stories ... Naomi Kritzer's novelette "St. Ailbe's Hall" (1/19-1/26) considers the question of whether enhanced animals (dogs in this case) have souls and can be accepted into the Catholic Church. It's a worthwhile and longstanding SFnal theme, and her story (told through the eyes of a priest) is involving and moving, but I wasn't quite convinced by the societal background to her story, and by the reactions of the general populace.

Locus, March 2009

Baen’s Universe tends to have a science-fiction bias, but it was the fantasy stories that I preferred this February. Naomi Kritzer’s “The Good Son” is a familiar story from one point of view – a faery falls for a human woman and comes to our world to seduce her. But what makes it special is not his courtship of his lover – rather, it is the relationship he is forced into with an older couple he tricks into serving as his parents in order to make his backstory more convincing. An original and quite moving slant on an old story.

Locus, March 2013

“Solidarity” (F&SF, March-April), another of Naomi Kritzer's stories of life in a purported Libertarian Utopia, which as the title rather strongly signals, suggests that economic forces can create something nearly indistinguishable from slavery even in (or perhaps especially in) a society ostensibly based on individual freedom. (I find these stories (which seem well on their way to forming a novel) engaging and entertaining but perhaps pushing a bit too hard to make their point – less sneering villains, for one thing, would to my mind lead to a more powerful ultimate message.) In this story, Beck has been kicked out by her father for helping expose the nasty labor situation on New Minerva, and while on her own she learns of a plot to disrupt the funeral of the labor leader, Miguel, who was featured in the previous story.

Locus, March 2015

The January Clarkesworld is #100 ... I really liked a very funny short story by Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures, Please”, about an emergent AI that decides it has to do good for people, though it must be paid, in cat pictures of course. The three cases it takes on are interesting themselves, and the AI's reactions are priceless – I laughed aloud in public.

Locus, January 2016

In Clarkesworld's November issue “So Much Cooking”, is a fine, affecting, story by Naomi Kritzer about an epidemic of bird flu, told in the form of several entries from a cooking blog, as the blogger reports on how hard it is to cook when a city is quarantined and as you keep taking in more children who need a place to stay.

Locus, May 2017

Clarkesworld’s March issue has three consecutive stories that issue that struck me in a similar way. These stories use sure-enough science fiction ideas (not just furniture) in the pursuit of low key character exploration – and indeed, all wander to not terribly dramatic conclusions. And I liked them all – “Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Café”, by Naomi Kritzer, is set in a café in South Dakota, where the narrator is marooned while trying to get home to reconcile with her parents before an asteroid hits the Earth (or misses, depending on luck). She meets a friendly couple, who understand her, it seems, a lot better than her parents, who broke with her over her sexuality. Again, the question isn’t about the end of the world – it’s about the narrator’s modest choice. And it’s nicely, if a bit patly, handled.

Locus, July 2017

Uncanny’s May-June issue is further proof that it stands with any of our field’s zines: always interesting, and usually justifying the “uncanny” name. ... Even better, I think, in its short space, is “Paradox”, by Naomi Kritzer, which is told by a time traveler (or travelers?) in a series of paragraphs, explaining what’s up with the timeline(s), and why it’s so hard to get things right.

Speaking of Naomi Kritzer, I should mention her first collection, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories. The title story won a Hugo, and there are numerous other excellent stories here (I particularly like “Scrap Dragon” and “So Much Cooking”), and also two new pieces, of which my favorite is “Ace of Spades”, about a journalist in China, reporting on an Iraq-like war in which the US is using remotely-operated robots. The geopolitics don’t convince (China isn’t Iraq, and that matters), but the personal story of Natalie and her father and her reasons for being there really does work.

Locus, January 2019

In Uncanny’s year-end issue I liked Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories”, which tells affectingly of a woman, a folklorist who is an expert on ghost stories, and her relationship with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, both before and after her mother’s death.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Damien Broderick

Today is the 75th birthday of Damien Broderick. Broderick has written some of my favorite short fiction over the past decade -- scientifically provocative, fun stories, in a variety of voices. (He's also a first rate novelist and writer of non-fiction.)

Here's a selection of my Locus reviews of Damien's short fiction over the past decade. While I'm here, I'd also like to recommend a particular favorite novella of mine, "The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear's Stead", first published in the Ursula K. Le Guin/Virginia Kidd anthology Edges in 1980, and reprinted by us at Lightspeed a few years ago, and also in Damien's collection Uncle Bones. I include my review of that story at SF Site below as well.

I'd also like to mention my recent review in Black Gate of Damien's updated version of John Brunner's 1950s novel Threshold of Eternity.

Locus, January 2009

Damien Broderick returns to short fiction with “Uncle Bones”, a YA-flavored zombie tale – and pure science fiction. Jim lives with his mother and his uncle, but his uncle is dead – and reanimated by nanotechnology: lucky enough – for certain values of “lucky” – to get an experimental and not wholly successful treatment – side effects include a terrible smell and flaky skin and worse. Jim knows another “Stinky” – the sister of one of his friends. He’s not sure what to think about the whole thing, but when it seems his Uncle might be involved in something shady, he tries to find out what’s going on … with unfortunate results. It’s an enjoyable story, if just a bit predictable and perhaps too convenient in its resolution.

Locus, May 2009

Damien Broderick’s “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide”, from the April-May Asimov’s, is a beautiful story about Sam Park, come to Titan to investigate a mysterious spaceship – complete with lizardlike pilot and flowers. A variety of theories are in play, mostly involving aliens, but Sam believes this ship was sent by intelligent dinosaurs, a theory that invites contempt from the mainstream scientists, contempt perhaps further fueled by his advocacy of paranormal powers – something reluctantly accepted by the scientists who witness teleportation and telepresence used in the investigation. This speculation, tied with discussions of the Fermi Paradox, is fascinating, but the heart of the story is Sam’s own character: a single father mourning his dead son (as signaled by the perfect title, taken from Rudyard Kipling’s “My Boy Jack”, a poem lamenting his son’s death in the Great War).

Locus, August 2009

At Asimov’s for August I was again very impressed by a Damien Broderick story. “The Qualia Engine” tells of a group of children whose parents were genetically engineered, way back in the 1950s, for enhanced intelligence. The children have inherited much of that intelligence (but not all: regression to the norm). The narrator, Saul, is close friends for life with three of his fellows. His “hard problem” is the nature of human emotions, and he works on the title “engine”, which will allow people to directly experience others’ emotions. But, as he reflects on his own life, his own feelings, the eventual success of the project is a two-edged sword indeed. The story is sharply told, very funny at times, and ultimately very powerful.

Locus, October 2009

Tor.com keeps publishing interesting work. .. Damien Broderick offers a story that appeals to nostalgia in a different way. “The Ruined Queen of Harvest World” explicitly invokes Cordwainer Smith in a tale of uplifted cats looking for freedom, and of a glorious romance between a science fictionally plausible Harvest goddess figure and a dead man (sort of). It’s fun stuff, but just a bit too arch, and it makes a good try but doesn’t quite succeed in echoing Smith’s “incantatory” style.

From my review of Uncle Bones (collection) at SF Site

The best two stories are those from the 1980s. "The Ballad of Bowsprit Bear's Stead" appeared in 1980 in Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd's original anthology Edges. (Le Guin is not thought of as an anthologist, but she and Kidd edited two impressive books around that time: Edges and Interfaces.) This is a bravura performance, spectacularly written and stuffed with SFnal ideas. The title character is an historian from the future, and an Ainu, sent back in time to observe the fall of the "Old Galactics," an empire of Neanderthals. It's often provocative -- incest is a major theme, for instance, and so is personal hygiene, and so is genocide. (Neither the Ainu depicted here nor the Neanderthals have attitudes much in sympathy with 21st Century Western attitudes.) As I mentioned, the writing is arresting, often quite funny (as with the depiction of the Emperor's robots, modelled on Karl Marx and Adam Smith), sometimes punny, sometimes bawdy. I think it rather a discovery.

Locus, February 2010

In the February Asimov's I also enjoyed Damien Broderick’s “Dead Air”. Broderick’s recent stories have been riffing on past masters of SF, such as Roger Zelazny and Cordwainer Smith, and here he takes on Philip Dick, with a pretty much pitch perfect pastiche, in a story that slyly also confronts some ideas of a less well-remembered SF writer, as it talks of “thetans” taking over people’s TV sets to deliver messages. And behind the wacky furniture lurks a sad story of a divorced man and his lost children.

Locus, August 2010

There is a lot more to like in the Spring issue of Subterranean – but my favorite story is by Damien Broderick. “Under the Moons of Venus” is another of his stories that riffs on a famous SF writer’s work – but Broderick makes the story entirely his own. The title seems to reflect Burroughs, and the last line echoes yet another famous writer, but the story really is in conversation with a third (who I won’t mention, though I think it will be clear enough to readers). Blackett lives, he thinks, on a nearly deserted Earth. He, along with much of humankind, was briefly on an alien-altered Venus, but he has been returned. He hopes to go back to Venus, and tries to find a way; while his psychiatrist tries to convince him he’s delusional. There’s also a talking dog, and an obese Turkish bibliophile. It is not clear to this reader whether Blackett or his psychiatrist has the right of it, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a very well written story, profoundly evocative, and whatever your interpretation of events, deeply moving.

Locus, May 2011

Damien Broderick’s sudden resurgence over the past three years or so has been simply a wonder. (Not that Broderick was not already a noticeably excellent writer, but he had never been all that prolific, especially at shorter lengths.) “The Beancounter’s Cat” (Eclipse 4) tells of Bonida, a humble woman – a beancounter – who suddenly acquires a talking cat. The woman lives in Regio City on a curious world perched under the “Skydark”, near the ancient “Skyfallen Heights”. There are cantrips for cleaning, and an Absent Goddess, Lalune, but it’s clear enough that this is a far future with Clarkean technology indistinguishable from magic. The story revolves around Bonida’s dead mother’s true nature, and Bonida’s destiny, which may be humanity’s. The themes are typical of Broderick, one of our prophets of the posthuman, and the telling, in a rather arch, formal, style, is lovely, and the SFnal mysteries are worthy of revealing – and revealed nicely.

Locus, December 2013

One of the interesting features of SF is the sometimes open collaboration of writers, one extending another's ideas. Robert Silverberg has enthusiastically participated in this sort of collaboration, for example extending Isaac Asimov's 1941 classic “Nightfall” to a full-length novel in 1990. Now he gets the same treatment, as Damien Broderick has written a long novella, “Quicken”, beginning more or less at the end of Silverberg's 1974 classic “Born With the Dead”. The two stories are published together as Beyond the Doors of Death. “Quicken” is a fully successful sequel, not betraying the original at all but recognizably Broderick's vision. (Indeed, at the beginning I thought of Silverberg, but by the end Van Vogt was in my mind.) “Quicken” is like “Born With the Dead” told from the POV of Jorge Klein, whose wife Sybille has been “rekindled” after her too early death. In the first story Klein was disappointed by Sybille's indifference – the dead are cold, above all (and Silverberg's prose perfectly captured this coldness). Now, in Broderick's story, Klein too has been rekindled, and he is similarly “cold”. But he finds himself recruited to be an ambassador from the Deads to the “Warms”, in an increasingly dangerous world where the still living resent the rekindled. The story begins a a slow pace, introducing Klein to his new state, but then begins to leap forward, into a future riven by war between the quick and the dead (if you'll pardon me), and then still forward, by century and millennium, to a somewhat transcendent resolution. I doubt this is what Silverberg had in mind with his original, but Broderick's take is consistent nonetheless, and quite fascinating.

Locus, April 2017

The big novella this March-April Asimov's is plenty of fun, a wild kind of superscientific ride. This is “Tao Zero”, by Damien Broderick. Shipton Dow is the son of Robin Dow and Robyn Dow, who were brilliant young teenagers when he was conceived. They also were lottery winners, and they used their winnings to start an industry devoted to learning how to manipulate the Way (the Tao), and to further understand the nature of intelligence. As a similarly precocious young teenager, he is at MIT when he begins to fall for another brilliant teenager, Felicity. Then suddenly an attack on the MIT campus puts Ship in great danger, and he is saved by a mysterious entity who whisks him away through a tesseract … and Felicity too is swept up into this action, along with her grandfather and eventually Ship’s parents, not to mention Ship’s AI companion, Bandaid. This is wacky stuff, told in short sections headed by quotations from the Tao Te Ching, clever, often funny, kind of sweet, kind of convoluted. In the end in a curious way I thought it a bit small-scale relative to the really grand implications of the super science described – though I’m not sure that’s a weakness or a reflection of the nature of the Tao.

Birthday Review: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born 22 April 1899 (though it was April 10th in Russia at that time.) In his memory, then, here's what I wrote about his memoir, Speak, Memory, on my SFF Net newsgroup long ago.

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my long time favorite writers. I'm not sure how I discovered him -- I suspect it was because Ada used to get cited as a "science fiction novel by a real famous writer". Anyway, as a teen I read a whole bunch of his short stories, mostly the emigré work collected in three volumes back in the day (Tyrants Destroyed, etc.), and I read Ada, then Lolita. Some time later I returned to him and read his other major English novels -- Pnin and Pale Fire, my two favorites, and also The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Look at the Harlequins, and Transparent Things, plus a few of the emigre novels (originally written in Russian and later translated by Dmitri Nabokov): King Queen Knave, Invitation to a Beheading, Mary, The Defense. Outstanding work -- he's an amazing writer. (And clearly should have gotten a Nobel -- one assumes he didn't get one for political reasons.)

Speak, Memory is his autobiography. It was originally a series of pieces for the New Yorker, later assembled in about 1950 as Conclusive Evidence. It was revised twice, first for Russian translation, then again in 1965 or so as Speak, Memory, with the subtitle "An Autobiography, Revisited." It covers his life from birth to about 1940, which is to say his "Russian" life, before he moved to the US and began to write in English. Nabokov came from an aristocratic family in the St. Petersburg area. His father, however, was a noted liberal, even spending time in prison for writing articles critical of the Czar. (He later became part of Kerenski's government, and after emigrating to Berlin was assassinated in 1922.) Nabokov was born in 1899. He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The book spends quite some time covering his rather idyllic childhood, including descriptions of a series of governesses and tutors, of trips to resorts in Europe, of his early and lifelong fascination with butterflies. (Besides being a brilliant writer he was an entomologist of minor note.) There are long sections about his ancestry -- his father's life, his uncle's, his mother's. He only briefly treats his siblings -- in particular, his immediate younger brother, Sergei, he confesses to find very hard to write about. (It seems that Sergei was homosexual, though Nabokov never says so directly, but hints at it, and Nabokov seems to feel some shame at not reacting very well to this discovery.) Sergei ended up dying in a German concentration camp -- to which he was sent at least in part for his homosexuality. (Also for speaking out against the German regime.)

After the Revolution, the Nabokovs escaped to Europe, living variously in Berlin, Paris, and Prague. Vladimir took a degree at Cambridge as well. He also began writing, usually under the name Sirin. In Speak, Memory he speaks of the emigre writing scene, but does not directly mention much about his own efforts -- except that he does say, after describing several significant writers, that he always took the greatest interest in one "Sirin". Interestingly, Nabokov writes essentially nothing about his wife in the book -- though he does address much of it to her. He describes two love affairs -- one childhood infatuation (aged ten or so) with a French girl while spending a summer at the beach, and then his first extended teenaged affair, aged 16 or so, with a girl named Tamara. But there is nothing about his later love life. (I read later that he had an affair in the '30s -- I am sure he was chary of writing about this, either from his own embarrassment or to spare Vera.)

It's a beautifully written book, as one might expect. I found the first few chapters a bit slow -- the genealogy stuff, for example, didn't really involve me. But it gains momentum, and by the end is quite fascinating. And throughout, just gorgeuous as to the prose.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Peter S. Beagle

Today is Peter S. Beagle's 80th birthday. I've a huge fan of his for years, but less than I should have been -- I bought copies of The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place back in the mid-'70s but for hard to figure reasons I didn't really read Beagle until the 21st century -- and then I realized what I'd been missing! Happily, though, my time at Locus has corresponded with a really impressive late career run of short fiction from Beagle.

I have met Peter Beagle once or twice -- certainly at Archon a few years ago, and I was able to ask him about Robert Nathan. I'd noticed a distinct kinship in tone (and, perhaps, setting) between A Fine and Private Place and One More Spring ... and Beagle was happy to call Nathan a writer he really admired.

Anyway, here are my reviews, mostly from Locus, of much of Beagle's lovely recent stories:

Locus, May 2004

Closing the May F&SF is Peter S. Beagle's "Quarry". This is as good an adventure fantasy story as I've seen in some time. The narrator is a young man, fleeing an unspecified horrible fate in "that place", pursued by supernatural "Hunters". He meets up with a cynical old man fleeing from a different sort of monster. The two make an alliance of convenience, but the old man has another plan in mind, involving yet another monster. This is a lively, amusing, imaginative, and exciting tale.

Locus, October 2005

It’s Double Issue Time – both Asimov’s and F&SF publish special issues dated October/November. Let’s begin with F&SF. The cover story is “Two Hearts”, by Peter S. Beagle, a sequel to his beloved novel The Last Unicorn. We are told that this story is the bridge to a new novel expected soon. It will certainly do in the mean time. It’s the story of a young girl who decides to accost her King after her village has been ravaged by a griffin. The King is one of the heroes of The Last Unicorn, much aged, and the young girl also meets Schmendrick and Molly Gloss on her journey. The story does read like a bridge to a new story, but an effective and moving bridge.

Locus, June 2006

The third issue of Fantasy Magazine (to which I contribute short reviews) has appeared, headlined by an absolutely wonderful new novelette from Peter Beagle, “Salt Wine”. It’s told by an old sailor, whose voice Beagle captures perfectly. The sailor had a friend, who one day saves a merrow (or merman) from a shark. The merrow gives him a treasure: the recipe for salt wine. Salt wine turns out to be a fabulous drink, and the friend enlists our narrator to help him market this, with at first great success. But there is a dark side, a very surprising one, and the realization of this aspect gives the story a strong moral dimension, turning an absorbing sea story into something darker, something quite beautiful and also heartbreaking. I’d say this was the story of the year if I hadn’t already nominated M. Rickert’s “Journey Into the Kingdom” – but who says we can’t have two stories of the year?

Locus, October 2006

Always welcome is a new Peter Beagle story, and “El Regalo” (F&SF, October-November) certainly satisfies, if it can’t quite be ranked among his very best stories. It’s a tale of a girl with a younger brother who is a witch. Her brother is of course a pest, and when he gets himself in trouble, she reluctantly (or not so much!) must rescue him. The resolution is satisfying enough, but details nagged me – for example, the girl should clearly be in high school as described, but her age is given as 12.

Review of The Line Between, early 2007, for Fantasy Magazine

(I'm not sure this ever appeared in Fantasy, but I believe I wrote it for them.)

The Line Between, by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon, 1-892391-36-8, $14.95, 232pp, tpb) 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Peter S. Beagle has had a long career and is already a legend for such novels as The Last Unicorn and such short fiction as “Farrell and Lila the Werewolf”. But just in the past few years he has produced a string of wonderful shorter works that rank with the best work of his career. This collection includes most of those recent stories, including a few new to 2006, as well as one or two older pieces. Beagle’s characters are the heart of his works – thoroughly believable, often a bit battered, often somewhat worldy wise. Though he also depicts much younger characters very well.

The very moving closing story, “A Dance for Emilia”, tells of a late-middle-aged actor mourning the death of his childhood friend, a critic, in the company of that friend’s young lover, and of his strangely possessed cat. “Two Hearts” is a lovely sequel to The Last Unicorn. “Quarry” is first rate adventure fantasy, with a young man fleeing scary monsters meeting an older man and joining with him, only to face another monster. “Salt Wine”, one of my favorites here (though the stories are wonderful throughout – hard to name a favorite) is an absorbing sea story about a sailor and the formula for a special drink he gets from a merman (or merrow), with a sharply pointed moral dimension. “Mr. Sigerson” is a satisfyingly different Sherlock Holmes story, featuring Holmes under the title alias spending time playing violin for a backwoods Central European orchestra – only mysteries to solve find him there as well. “El Regalo” and “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” are both focused a bit on younger readers – but quite fine for adults – the first about a young Korean-American boy who is a witch, and his long-suffering sister, the second about a mouse who wants to be a cat. We also get “Four Fables”, three of them brand new, mostly cynical (though with heart) short pieces about such subjects as a Tyrannosaurus told of the coming asteroid.

What more can I say? There are simply delightful stories – a lovely lovely collection from one of the best contemporary fantasists.

Locus, October 2007

Peter Beagle’s “We Never Talk About My Brother”, from the July Intergalactic Medicine Show, is another strong story from this wonderful writer. Jacob and Esau are brothers. (With those names, could they be anything but?) Esau has a sinister power – he can change the near past, and he uses this power to arrange his world has he wants, beginning with making it so that a neighborhood bully has already died. He goes on to a successful career as a network anchor – and what might such a man do with such power? But it turns out Jake has some abilities of his own, which are slowly revealed as he describes a visit Esau makes home to film a TV special. In the end we see that some people rend and some mend.

Locus, June 2008

Peter S. Beagle’s new chapbook, Strange Birds, features three stories based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. “King Pelles the Sure” tells of a small and peaceful kingdom whose ruler longs for a small war – only to find, tragically, that war is not so easy to control. At first a bit schematic, the story becomes profoundly moving at the end, after the King and his Grand Vizier, consumed with guilt, flee their conquered palace and find haven at a remote farm. When the ravages of war reach even there, the now ex-King tries to find redemption. “Spook” is less serious, a trifle really, but quite enjoyable, featuring Beagle’s recurring character Farrell battling a ghost haunting his and his lover’s new studio. The longest story is “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, and it too, after a slowish start, builds to a powerful conclusion. A boy in the middle of the last century hangs out at his Uncle Chaim’s studio, watching the old man paint. So he witnesses the arrival of an angel, who commands that she become Chaim’s muse. The angel is not to be gainsaid, and Chaim soon paints only her, but becomes obsessed, so his wife Rifke eventually is compelled to intervene, leading to the revelation of the angel’s secret … a terribly sad secret, resolved quite beautifully here.

Locus, August 2008

The latest SFBC anthology of original novellas is Marvin Kaye’s A Book of Wizards. The prize story here is Peter S. Beagle’s “What Tune the Enchantress Plays”, about the daughter of a sorceress who is a powerful enchantress herself, and what happens when her mother reminds her that the boy she loves is not of her sort, and so their children won’t be magicians. The story is at once sweet and wise and a bit bitter in its revelation of family stresses.

Locus, September 2008

Intergalactic Medicine Show for July has another fine new story from Peter Beagle. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is a Japanese-set fantasy. A commoner named Junko has attained some status in the household of a samurai, Lord Kuroda, because of his prowess as a hunter. But as a commoner his future is limited. One day he saves an otter who he has accidentally shot – and of course the otter turns out to be a beautiful shapechanging woman, Sayuri. The two marry, and before long Sayuri is scheming for Junko’s advancement – at first a good thing, but the story turns on the dangers of too much ambition. Beagle never fails to engross and also to center his stories on a true moral point without moralizing.

Review of Eclipse Two (Locus, November 2008)

Of the fantasies here, best probably is the remarkable Peter S. Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, set just after the Second World War, concerning a boy studying Hebrew with a Rabbi fascinated by, among other things, old magazine covers, in particular a certain mysterious photographer’s model. The two try to uncover her identity, and learn something quite moving. Nancy Kress’s “Elevator” is a sort of existentialist fantasy about critical junctures in the lives of people trapped on an elevator.

Locus, May 2009

You can’t turn around these days without seeing another Peter S. Beagle story – and that’s a good thing! His range is further demonstrated with “Vanishing”, in March’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which tells of an old man, trying in vain to mend his relationship with his pregnant daughter, who is suddenly snatched away to a mysterious reenactment of his time as an American soldier monitoring the Berlin Wall, particularly his witness of a woman trying to escape East Berlin who is shot down by the Russian guards. The story moving examines the effect of these events on the old man, on a younger man with a very personal connection to the escapee, and on the Russian guard who was forced to shoot the woman. Responsibility, and parenthood, and how they interact, all collide. Beagle also has a new collection, We Never Talk About My Brother, with some strong new stories among a group of very recent reprints – I particularly liked “By Moonlight”, in which a highwayman in Shakespearean England happens upon an old clergyman who tells him a strange, sad, story of his love for the Queen of Faery.

Locus, April 2010

Full Moon City is an urban fantasy anthology about werewolves, which on the face of it is a pretty tired theme, these days. But it has a heck of a list of contributors, and it rises well above the average urban fantasy anthology. ... More straight-faced is “La Lune T’Attend”, by Peter S. Beagle, about a pair of loup garoux from “Sout’ Louisiana”, a black man and a white man, now well into their 60s. Decades past they had to deal with another werewolf, less bound by morality than they are, but to their horror they learn that he has returned, and is threatening their family. So they must confront him again, aching knees and all. The Cajun and Creole voices, the evocation of a New Orleans family, are beautifully done, and the story is as ever with Beagle grounded and touching.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

And finally Peter S. Beagle’s “Dirae” is perhaps as ambitious a story as any here, but somehow it never quite connected with me. It’s about a woman compelled to appear suddenly to rescue, almost superhero fashion, victims of injustice, and her search for a solid identity.  Again, I can only say it didn’t quite catch fire.

Locus, August 2010

Peter S. Beagle’s “Return” (Subterranean, Spring) is a new Innkeeper’s World story. Soukyan is a bodyguard, but ever wary of the Hunters, who search for him in pairs, and will never stop until he is killed. As the story opens, he is again found by a pair of Hunters, and again bests them – but a surprising aspect of their attack leads him to very reluctantly return to what he calls “that place” – the “monastery” from which he escaped, and from whence come the Hunters to punish him for that betrayal. And his return forces him to confront what he knew in his deepest self about the nature and weaknesses of “that place”. Beagle remains an incomparable.

Locus, August 2011

Peter S. Beagle’s “The Way It Works Out and All” (F&SF, July-August) is a quite a different thing – it’s an hommage, a love letter almost, to Avram Davidson, with the author depicting a series of strange postcards from Davidson (entirely plausible seeming as to the prose!) from implausibly widely separated places, then a meeting in which Davidson shows Beagle the rather scary way he has learned to get around. I can’t say for sure if you need to already be a fan of both writers to like this story – but I am, and I did.

Locus, February 2017

Tor.com in December features a new Peter S. Beagle piece, “The Story of Kao Yu”. The title character is a traveling judge in old China, very respected, and known for, in very serious cases, submitted the judgment to the Chinese unicorn, or Chi-Lin. But, the story seems to suggest, all men have weaknesses, and for an aging and lonely man, that weakness may well be manipulated by a beautiful young woman. And so with Kao Yu, who lets himself be bamboozled by the lovely Snow Ermine (if that was really her name), and defends her from the warnings of his loyal servants, and even, in the end, from the judgment of the Chi Lin. What happens doesn’t matter here so much as the warm telling, and the nicely depicted characters, major and minor.

Birthday Review: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle, SFWA Grand Master, turns 80 today. He became a favorite writer of mine much later than he should have -- about 15 years ago I realized what I'd been missing. Here's my review from back then of perhaps his most famous novel, The Last Unicorn. (It was originally posted at my newsgroup on SFF.Net.)

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

a review by Rich Horton


One of my longterm guilty non-reads has been Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. I've owned the book for a long time -- indeed, since June of 1977, about when I graduated from high school. (At that time I was sufficiently anal to write my name and the date and the sequential number of the book (among those I had bought -- this was the 279th SF novel!) on the inside.) Somehow I never found time to read it, and I'm not at all sure why. Probably it was reading "Two Hearts", a sequel, last year in F&SF that finally prompted me to dig up my copy.

And my gosh, I'm glad I did. It's a remarkable, beautiful, book. The prose is lovely, the story very moving, the characters involving -- the plot, well, probably just OK but that's not at all the point.

The story is about, no surprise, the last unicorn in the world. As the story opens she is brought to a vague realization that there are no other unicorns anymore, as far as anyone knows. She ends up deciding to search for her fellows, and soon gathers that they were taken away by the agency of the nasty King Haggard, and his mysterious creature the Red Bull. She is captured by a witch running a traveling animal exhibit, but she escapes with the help of a rather incompetent magician named Schmendrick. Schmendrick is tormented by his inability to control his magic in any way, and usually his inability to do any real magic. The two begin to follow Haggard's trail, but Shmendrick is captured by the outlaw Captain Cully, who imagines himself Robin Hood but doesn't quite manage it. Shmendrick escapes, of course, accompanied now also by Molly Grue, a rather faded and beaten down version of Maid Marian who had been cooking for Cully's band for years. And the three make their way to Haggard's strange castle, and to the neighboring town, cursed by prosperity.

At the castle the unicorn encounters the Red Bull, and is unable to deal with it -- and Shmendrick saves her, but by the terrible means of making her a human woman. Admitted to Haggard's haggard castle, they meet his amiable son, and of course the son falls for the unicorn in her womanly form. And eventually she begins to fall for him, once he understands that what she wants is not heroic quests and the heads of dragons and ogres. The shape of the story is clear, and the only resolution -- for Haggard to be deposed and the unicorns freed the Red Bull must be vanquished, and that vanquishing will require a certain sacrifice.

As I said, it's quite wonderful. In particular the first few chapters are astonishingly beautiful: some of the most intense prose I've ever read -- yet always undercut by odd humor and something akin to cynicism but not quite that. These abrupt shifts in tone work startlingly well. Beagle can't really maintain that level, though he reaches such heights again when needed, particularly at the climax. It's one of the field's treasures, no doubt, and I'm glad I finally read it.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Tom Purdom

Today is Tom Purdom's 83rd birthday, and what better time for a compilation of my reviews of stories from his exceptional late career outpouring.

Locus, June 2003

The two longest stories in the June Asimov's, Tom Purdom's "The Path of the Transgressor" and John Varley's "The Bellman", both feature riveting chase scenes, with their respective protagonists coming within a whisker of death. And they embed these chase scenes in unambiguously SFnal settings, and they use the SFnal nature of the settings to drive the stories, rather than as simply window-dressing or local color. I would hope these stories would satisfy most any adventure-starved reader. ... Even better is "The Path of the Transgressor". Davin Sam is a researcher on another planet, studying the habits of some unusual alien social animals. His wife Lizera is a former "geisha" -- genetically engineered to be predisposed toward pleasing her customers -- and now Davin is her "customer". They face considerable prejudice, which comes to a head when some of the alien animals alter their habits and attack the couple. When Lizera is injured it becomes clear that Davin could save himself by abandoning her. Shockingly, this is exactly what the bigots expect. The action sequences, as the two struggle for survival, are very well done, but the meat of the story is the exploration of the nature of their relationship, and the social context of it, which leads to a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion. This is one of the best stories to date in 2003.

Locus, February 2004

DAW's "monthly magazine" of themed anthologies offers a reliable if seldom exciting source of new SF and Fantasy. 2003 closes with Mike Resnick's New Voices in Science Fiction: 20 short stories by new writers (variably defined: from complete unknowns like Paul Crilley to well-established writers like Kage Baker and Susan R. Mathews). For the most part the stories seem more promising than outstanding. My favorite story here is "Palace Resolution" by Tom Purdom, about a civil war between rival factions in an asteroid habitat over the way to deal with an alien probe.

Locus, March 2004

Tom Purdom's latest story of a future Casanova (prosaically named Joe) is "Romance for Augmented Trio" (Asimov's, February). The protagonist, as in several previous stories, is engaged in an affair with a younger and thus (due to improvements in the human genome) much more intelligent woman, this time named Ganmei. They are journeying to the Kuiper Belt where they are attacked by a mentally unbalanced man, and Joe and Ganmei must use their different talents to try to outwit this psychotic individual, and his AI augmentations.

Guest Review of October-November 2005 Asimov's for Tangent Online

Tom Purdom’s “Bank Run” is my favorite story of this double issue. It appears to be set in the same future as his excellent story “The Path of the Transgressor”. Like that story it features a man on another planet with a genetically-engineered female companion – a woman tailored not only to delight him but also to be loyal to him. The protagonist, Sabor, is one of the leading bankers on the planet Fernheim. This planet has a rather anarchistic social setup, with a few bankers, a number of “Possessors” (major landowners, I suppose), some providers of such services as mercenaries, and presumably a large underclass of genetically-engineered servants: guards, concubines, and everything in between, one assumes. And no particular laws, just social pressure and financial pressure.

Sabor has just refused a loan to Possessor Kenzan Khan, partly on the grounds of the man’s irresponsibility. Khan responds by engaging a mercenary force to try to kidnap Sabor. Sabor’s defense strategy is a combination of flight, physical resistance, and financial negotiations with other banks, with Khan’s rivals, and with the mercenaries. The financial and small-scale political negotiations may sound dry – but I didn’t find them so at all. The story examines the ways in which financial pressure, and self-interest based both on financial opportunity and concern for one’s reputation, might substitute for laws. But this is no libertarian tract – the entire setup raises questions about its feasibility and stability, and does not insist on answers. Behind everything there are lurking questions about Sabor’s own character, and particularly the rather unpleasant implied economy of this future, with what seems to be essentially slavery a main aspect. Finally, much of the emotional center of the story (as with “The Path of the Transgressor”) concerns the question of relationships with people engineered to love you, and engineered for you to desire – how “real” are the feelings on either side of such a relationship?

Locus, October 2005

Best from the Asimov’s Double Issue is “Bank Run”, by Tom Purdom. This story appears to be set in the same future as his excellent story “The Path of the Transgressor”, and like that story it features a man on another planet with a genetically-engineered female companion – a woman tailored not only to delight him but also to be loyal to him. This is a disquieting background note in a story that in the foreground is a clever adventure story, featuring both futuristic technology and futuristic financial manipulation. Sabor is one of the leading bankers on the planet Fernheim. He has just refused a loan to Possessor Kenzan Khan, partly on the grounds of the man’s irresponsibility. Khan’s response is to engage a mercenary force and attack Sabor. The defense strategy is a combination of flight, physical resistance, and financial negotiations with other banks, with Khan’s rivals, and with the mercenaries. It’s not dry in the least – rather, I was in the edge of my seat. And behind everything lurk questions about Sabor’s character, about the rather unpleasant implied economy of this future, with what seems to be essentially slavery a main aspect, and about the emotional aspects of relationships with people engineered to love you, and engineered for you to desire.

Locus, February 2008

Tom Purdom is one of my favorites, and he does not disappoint with “Sepoy Fidelities” (Asimov's, March), about two people who have been given beautiful and strong new bodies by the Earth’s alien rulers. They fall in love, but their new bodies come at a price – their first loyalty is to their job.

Locus, July 2010

In the July Asimov’s Tom Purdom, is in fine form in “Haggle Chips”, which once again examines the collision of economic manipulation and emotional manipulation. A man selling valuable eyes to a powerful woman is kidnapped by an opponent of the woman – he becomes, straightforwardly, a pawn in a power game. Then he falls in love with an associate of his kidnapper – but was she mentally altered to fall for him? And does that matter?

Locus, December 2010

Also in the December Asimov's, I enjoyed  Tom Purdom’s “Warfriends”, a sequel to his mid-60s Ace Double The Tree Lord of Imeten, concerning the balky attempts of a couple of very different species to cooperate.

Locus, April 2011

Tom Purdom’s “A Response from EST17” (Asimov's, April-May) is intelligent science fiction about rival expeditions to a distant planet, and particularly the response of the intelligent natives to the human explorers. It turns out such expeditions are common in interstellar history, and there is a way to deal with them. Purdom offers an interesting explanation for the Fermi Paradox, and a nice way out of it.


Locus, March 2012

In the March Asimov’s I quite enjoyed the cover story, “Golva’s Ascent”, by Tom Purdom. This is another of his Imeten stories (the first of which was the 1966 Ace Double The Tree Lord of Imeten, the second of which was the 2010 Asimov’s story “Warfriends”), set on a heavily forested planet occupied by two species: a tree-dwelling and tool-using people, and a ground dwelling species with considerable linguistic facility but no hands so no tools. This story concerns Golva, a highly intelligent itiji (one of the ground-dwellers), if a bit of a social misfit in his milieu (he is portrayed almost as if he has Asperger’s), who daringly sets out on a journey up the plateau where the small group of humans live. Once there he is captured and studied by a sympathetic researcher – but it turns out the humans are dominated by a rather sadistic leader, and Golva finds himself needing to escape with the help of the researcher. The action is exciting, and the depiction of an alien species is well done.

Locus, September 2013

Tom Purdom's “A Stranger from a Foreign Ship” (Asimov's, September) makes nice use of a familiar central idea: a character who can temporarily switch minds with other people. He uses it for somewhat small time crime – identity theft, basically. And then he wonders how this might affect one particular victim, a young woman … Things resolve, not quite cynically, but realistically, as no great romance is involved, and indeed the characters are not unlikeable exactly but no heroes either. Solid work.

Locus, September 2014

In the September Asimov's Tom Purdom brings to a close (it would seems) his latest sequence of stories, these set on Imeten, a planet he first visited in a 1966 Ace Double, The Tree Lord of Imeten. In this story, “Bogdavi's Dream”, an alliance between some members of the tree people of Imeten, others of the ground dwelling itiji, and a few humans exiled from the human colony mount an attack on the colony, hoping to depose the brutal usurper leading the colony and free the rest of the humans. It doesn't have quite the Sfnal zip of the previous entries – as fairly often with later stories in a series, the inventions and revelations are in the past, and what's left is resolution. That said it's an enjoyable adventure story, with nice battle scenes, and well-drawn characters from all three species, and making good use of the situation already established, particularly the characteristics of the two native intelligent species, in coming to a satisfying conclusion.