Sunday, February 28, 2016

Edith Wharton Stories: "Autres Temps ..." and "The Long Run"

Next up is a pair of stories that seem linked in my mind: “Autres Temps …” and “The Long Run”. The stories are from nearly the same time: “Autres Temps …” appeared in Century, July 1911 (as “Other Times, Other Manners”), and “The Long Run” in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1912.

“Autres Temps …” is generally regarded, I think, as one of Wharton’s best stories, and I would tend to agree. It’s the story of Mrs. Lidcote, who scandalously left her husband and ran off with another man some 18 years before the action of the story. She has been living alone in Italy for some time, but she is finally returning to New York. It seems her daughter, Leila, has done much as Mrs. Lidcote did – divorced her husband and married her lover. Leila wants to see her mother again. On the steamer she meets again an old friend, Franklin Ide, who has suggested in the past that he wants to marry her, and whom she has refused on the grounds that she won’t be accepted in society anywhere, and that won’t be fair to Franklin. (An abiding theme again and again in Wharton’s work is how society’s rules disproportionately affected women.) Franklin seems convinced that times have changed – after all, Leila is accepted everywhere – attitudes have changed, surely Mrs. Lidcote will also be accepted. And, indeed, she allows herself to think that that may be the case.

Well, you can see where this is going. Mrs. Lidcote comes to New York, and is taken to her daughter’s new house, and she can see what a success her daughter is – she is very happy in her new marriage, her ex-husband is compliant, and she is accepted everywhere, by all the “best” people. But, in a series of devastating, and deliciously underplayed, scenes, we see that while the rules are indeed different for Leila, nothing has changed for Mrs. Lidcote – she is essentially shunned by everyone, and even those close to her: her daughter, and a sympathetic old friend, maneuver around her, shunt her to the side, make excuses that they don’t even seem to realize they are making. Finally, she decides she must return to her solitary life in Italy, and she gets one more passionate plea from Franklin Ide -- and we realize that he too, without even realizing it, treats her as someone to step carefully around in “society”. It’s just a beautiful, devastating story, and also stunningly well-written.

And in a way it’s almost like SF … because to get it, you have to understand attitudes which are quite alien to present day attitudes. There was an adaptation – a play, I think – that recast the story in 1960 … I wonder how that worked? Seems to me it might not have, really. I should mention also that it’s loosely based on a real story – a Boston woman in 1895 abandoned her family and ran off to Paris with her lover. In her case, her children shunned her completely, until finally inviting her for a visit some 40 years later – when she got the cable inviting her, apparently she fell dead on the spot. (Obviously this denouement had not eventuated when Wharton wrote "Autres Temps ...".) Lewis quotes the woman in question’s granddaughter claiming that Wharton “got it all wrong” – of course, Wharton did not, at all. Because she wasn’t telling this woman’s grandmother’s story, she was telling the story of Mrs. Lidcote, a character she invented!

So, the, what of “The Long Run”? It seems almost a purposeful response to “Autres Temps …”. The first story told of the sad fate of a woman who defied societal convention and ran off with her lover. “The Long Run” tells of the sad fates of a man and a woman who, in the end, obeyed society’s rules. (Of course, Wharton’s definitive take on this subject came a few years later in her great novel The Age of Innocence.)

“The Long Run” is told by an unnamed narrator who, at the start, having returned to the States after a dozen years away, runs into an old Harvard friend of his, Halston Merrick. Merrick, when he knew him in college and just after, was a brilliant and unconventional man, apparently destined for a great career in literature or perhaps politics. He was rich (of course), and he inherited his father’s Iron Works early after his father’s unexpected death, but he intended to sell it and get on with his real career. At the same party where the narrator meets Merrick, he sees a woman who looks vaguely familiar. He asks Merrick who she might be, and he learns that she is Mrs. Reardon, but that he must have known her as Mrs. Trant, Paulina Trant.

The narrator ends up spending some time with Halston Merrick, and he learns the whole story. Merrick and Paulina Trant fell in love – her husband was a rather awful bore. After a while, suddenly, Paulina shows up on Merrick’s door step – she is ready to run away with him. And Halston Merrick can’t bring himself to do it. He tells himself he’s saving her from herself – her foresees a fate something like that of Mrs. Lidcote in “Autres Temps …”. But by slow degrees he comes to realize that he is the coward … he is the one unable to throw off society’s rules. And, in the “long run”, what will he be? He will never sell the Iron Works – he’ll never write anything worthwhile (the narrator reads some later efforts and finds them weak and tired). And when Mr. Trant dies unexpectedly, he and Paulina meet again, and somehow he is unworthy of her – and, she, perhaps, is unworthy of him, or at least the old him. And now, years later, both Halston Merrick and the now Mrs. Reardon are sad ordinary creatures, bores, failures.

This is a decent story, but to me it has the air of constructedness – it seems didactic, formed to make its point. In a funny way I was reminded of James Hilton’s Random Harvest, whose protagonist (for rather more melodramatic reasons) ends up leaving a life with his great love to take over his family’s business. The difference in this case is that Hilton’s hero still makes something of his business (and political) career – though still missing his love, and still, perhaps, feeling that he was missing an opportunity by not pursuing a writing career.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Edith Wharton Stories: "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, by Edith Wharton

I’ve been working my way through R. W. B. Lewis’ selection of Edith Wharton’s best short fiction over the past few weeks, and I’ve found it very enjoyable. I thought I might discuss a few of my favorites over the next little while. I probably won’t (necessarily) review the stories in detail, and there will be spoilers. Because come on! But I’ll warn before risking really messing up a story.

First (in chronological order, that is) is Wharton’s first ghost story (she wrote quite a few). This is “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1902. As I finished the story, I thought to myself, OK, what just happened? Am I too slow to understand? But a quick look at the internet revealed that that reaction is pretty much universal. And I should add that I really liked the story – I just didn’t understand the ending fully.

So what do we know happened? The story is told by a servant, a lady’s maid (though whether or not the title bell is hers is in question). Her name is Alice Hartley, and she’s just recovered from typhoid fever, and is having a hard time finding a position before ending up at Mrs. Brympton’s remote country house. Mrs. Brympton is a youngish wife, frail, with her two children having died, and with an unhappy marriage. But she’s popular with the servants, and her brutish, coarse, husband is unpopular. (Hartley is happy to realize that her lingering sickliness makes her unattractive to Mr. Brympton.) The only peculiar things are the woman Hartley sees in a hallway, who no one else admits to knowing, and the fact that Mrs. Brympton will never summon Hartley with the bell.

We soon realize that the mysterious woman Hartley sees is the ghost of Mrs. Brympton’s much loved earlier lady’s maid, Emma Saxon, who had died a few months before. And one night, while Mr. Brympton is visiting, the bell rings. Hartley responds – but sees Emma Saxon’s ghost – and an angry Mr. Brympton. On another occasion, the ghost leads Hartley to the house of Mr. Ranford, a neighbor who is Mrs. Brympton’s closest friend. (Too close? Hartley swears nothing improper happens.) It seems Emma Saxon is trying to send Alice Hartley a message, but Hartley can’t decode it.

Finally, as Mr. Brympton returns unexpectedly one night, the bell rings again, and Hartley sees Emma Saxon again, and rushes to her mistress, just as her husband comes upstairs … Mrs. Brympton faints, and soon dies, and Mr. Brympton says, strangely, “It seems that’s done for me”, and Emma Saxon’s ghost returns, reproaching him. At the funeral, Mr. Ranford seems to be limping. And that’s more or less it.

So what really happens? What was Emma Saxon’s message? What happened to Mr. Ranford?

It seems to me that the most conventional answer is roughly this: the Brymptons had an unhappy marriage. Mr. Brympton was often away. Mr. Ranford, a much more sympathetic man, began a relationship with Mrs. Brympton (sexual or not may not matter much). Mr. Brympton found out, and objected violently. (Especially perhaps as he may have been denied his “marital rights”, possibly with the help of Emma Saxon’s ghost.) Hence his statement “It seems that’s done for me [his marriage, that is]”. And why does Mrs. Brympton die? Just frailness? The stress of two perhaps difficult pregnancies? Fear? As for Mr. Ranford’s limp, perhaps Mr. Brympton had a fight with him.

We note that Alice Hartley, the narrator, insists that Mr. Ranford and Mrs. Brympton never acted inappropriately, and the reader tends to believe her, as she is the narrator, and a sympathetic character. But is she always truthful? Interestingly, she says at one point that she never lies – just exactly as she is telling a (justified) lie. I don’t think her testimony on this matter can be trusted.
I think all this makes a fairly sensible explanation, but perhaps it seems to fall just a bit flat. 

What else could be going on? One reader suggests that Mrs. Brympton’s final illness was the result of a botched abortion. And why an abortion? Could it be that the baby was Mr. Ranford’s, and that the timing means that Mr. Brympton will know this? Or could it simply be that she can’t bear to lose another child? Or that she can’t bear to have a child for Mr. Brympton (who would, surely, have raped her if he got her pregnant)?

What of Emma Saxon? Is there any suggestion that her relationship with Mrs. Brympton was more than simply that of lady and lady’s maid? I have to say I don’t really think that’s meant to be implied.

Does anyone have any other notions?

A Wonderful Lesser Known SF Novel: Ares Express, by Ian McDonald

A Wonderful Lesser Known SF Novel: Ares Express, by Ian McDonald

A review by Rich Horton

Once again, I’ve nothing new ready to write about, so I’m dipping once more into by backlist of reviews. As I am right now reading Ian McDonald’s latest novel, Luna: New Moon, I thought I would highlight one of his earlier novels, possibly my personal favorite among his books. This isn’t to be read as disparaging such novels as River of Gods and The Dervish House, which are also wonderful. But Ares Express is the novel of his that I think is most unjustly neglected. It was first published in the UK in 2001 but as far as I know it didn’t get a US edition until 2010.

Ares Express is a long, adventure-filled, extravagantly colourful, often funny, quite moving, highly imaginative, excellently written, story, set on a glorious Mars built partly of sharp-edged Kim Stanley Robinson-style extrapolation, but mostly of lush, loving, Ray Bradbury-style semi-SF, semi-Fantasy, Martian dreams. McDonald has visited this Mars before -- it's the setting of his first novel, Desolation Road, and indeed his first published story, "The Catharine Wheel", is set in a slightly different version of this setting, and even shares some characters with Ares Express. I thought this book perhaps the most delightful "read" of 2001.

The main character is an 8 year old (nearly 9) girl with the beautiful name Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. The 8 years of her age are Martian years, making her on the order of 16 Earth years old. She is the daughter of an Engineer of the huge train Catherine of Tharsis, and she wants nothing more than to inherit her father's place as Engineer. But in the strict society of the Martian trains, girls don't drive. It is time for her to marry, and soon a marriage is arranged with an eligible boy of the Stuard clan of another train -- with a stainless steel cookware set waiting for her at her new home. So, Sweetness impulsively decides to run off in the company of a despised boy of the trackbuilding Waymender clan. This will lead to her family's disgrace in train society, and as she soon learns, it may lead to her death as well.

Sweetness and Serpio Waymender strike across the desert, aiming for the haunt of a man named Devastation Harx, the leader of a mail-order religious group that has ensnared the persecuted, handicapped Serpio. Serpio can "see" Sweetness' secret companion, the spirit of her dead twin that she calls Little Pretty One. But when they find Devastation Harx on his huge airship, Sweetness learns that she has been betrayed -- Little Pretty One is something quite different than she had known, and Devastation Harx covets her twin for the power she can give him over the "angels" (AI's) which control the Martian climate, and, indeed, reality itself.

So Sweetness finds herself again on the run, trying to find Devastation Harx and reclaim her twin and save the world. At the same time her redoubtable Grandmother Taal has decided that family is more important than the rules of train society, and she has left the train to look for Sweetness. Add in a group of anarchic performance artists and comedians, a dream artist, a man who can cross the various alternate realities of Mars, and many more wonderful characters and landscapes, and you have the enchanting melange that makes up Ares Express.

McDonald plays archly with the idea that this is a "story", as Sweetness keeps telling herself, and occasionally uses this as license to provide neatly plotted but highly coincidental encounters and rescues for our heroes. And he has great fun with the idea of using some notion of quantum computing to maintain the "reality" of this glorious "manformed" Mars -- at the same time this is quite fun but somewhat subversive of the SF basis of the story -- so that it occupies a sometimes uneasy perch between all-out Fantasy and nominally plausible Science Fiction. But if, at times, this stretches the reader's willing suspension of disbelief to the point of severe strain, at other times it works to add delight, as with the beautiful trip, late in the book, through a series of alternate Marses, including of course those of Bradbury and Burroughs and others of the great SF chroniclers of the Red Planet. This may not be the most serious or the most significant of SF novels, but it is one of the the most fun. I loved it wholeheartedly.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Lesser Known Lawrence Block Novel: No Score

A Lesser Known Lawrence Block Novel: No Score

A review by Rich Horton

This week I’m covering a novel by a well-known writer of crime fiction, Lawrence Block. Block is best known – and quite well known – for two long running series, one about alcoholic private investigator Matthew Scudder and the other about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Books from both series have become movies. I’d been meaning to try one of his novels for a long time, but the final push came when I read a post at Black Gate by Bob Byrne (here) touting a couple of his mysteries about Chip Harrison. I figured I’d start at the beginning of the series.

So what is No Score? Well, on the face of it, it’s a grim realistic novel about the sad life of a young man orphaned by the murder-suicide of his parents. He is expelled from school, ends up homeless in Chicago with $21 in his pocket, spends months living on a couch in his boss’s apartment – and his boss is a low-rent pornographer. Leaving that situation, he spends time as part of a traveling sales team for a termite extermination firm, barely escapes arrest for fraud and statutory rape, switches to grueling migrant farm work, and finally lands in Upstate New York, working a seasonal job in a car wash, where a man shoots him in a case of mistaken identity. Oh, and the whole time he’s trying to lose his virginity, and failing. (The statutory rape, in his case, was not quite consummated.)

Pretty dark stuff, eh?

Well, as you’ve no doubt guessed, this isn’t a grim novel at all, though my description isn’t wrong – the life of the 17-year old protagonist, Chip Harrison, really is pretty desperate. But the book is very funny indeed. It was originally published as by “Chip Harrison”, and the conceit from the start is that Chip is writing the book, while nearly starving on a diet of sardines and stale bread, for what reason we don’t know. It opens with Chip in bed with a strikingly beautiful young woman, on the cusp of finally losing his cherry – when a man busts into the room, puts a gun to Chip’s head, and pulls the trigger.

Follows a flashback to a few months before, when Chip, attending a less than prestigious private school, learns that his parents are dead, just as the police were closing in on them. It seems they were con artists. There is no money, so his school cold-heartedly expels him, months from graduation. He hitchhikes to Chicago, where the only job he can find is passing out advertising slips for a street photographer. Who turns out to make most of his money shooting provocative pictures of his wife.

All along we’ve known that Chip, like many a 17-year old, is obsessed with losing his virginity. He becomes fascinated with the photographer’s beautiful wife, especially after he is recruited to serve as the male subject for some of the photo shoots … but while she is willing to do a great deal with him, she won’t go all the way. And so it continues, as Chip gravitates to the other dead-end jobs mentioned – he seems to have a great deal of success dating girls who won’t put out, and none at all with girls who are willing … until Francine – but his rendezvous with her is interrupted as we are told at the start.

Obviously the gun doesn’t kill Chip, and we do learn, as it were, the “epilogue” to his story, and why he’s writing it, and whether or not he finally scores. And in reality, while the novel is to a great extent concerned with two things – some fairly soft porn involving Chip’s various near-misses, and also a lot of comic scenes and observations – it’s also a nicely enough look at Chip growing up, just a bit, and trying to live a slightly more responsible life than his parents … of course, one thing he must learn is that such responsibility needs to apply to relationships with women as well.

Lawrence Block began publishing fiction in the ‘50s, at first soft porn as was at the time somewhat popular in the “pulp paperback” market. (He shared this market with the likes of his close friend Donald Westlake, and with Robert Silverberg, and many other writers with broader reputations in other fields.) Obviously this background influenced No Score. No Score appeared in 1970, and a sequel (Chip Harrison Scores Again) in 1971. By then the joke of Chip’s attempts at “scoring” had perhaps gone a bit stale, and the other two novels in the series, a couple of years later, are more conventional mysteries, with Chip playing Archie Goodwin to a Nero Wolfe-like character. The series ended after four novels, with one later short story. My edition is, I think, a self-published reprint.

It probably isn’t all that representative of Block’s body of work, but I enjoyed it a lot. The soft porn aspect is well enough done, but it’s not the real attraction – the attraction is the comic writing. It’s really a funny and clever short novel. I’ll definitely be finishing the series, and I’m sure I’ll graduate to some of his more prominent work soon enough.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Old Bestsellers: Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer

Old Bestsellers: Enchanting and Enchanted, by Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer

a review by Rich Horton

OK, I don’t know that this was a bestseller – probably not. But the writer was very successful in Germany in the 19th Century. It’s fair to say that his reputation has not survived at all, certainly not in the US, but it would seem not so much in Germany either.

Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer was born in what is now Aachen in 1816. He tried a career in the military, but it didn’t take, and he turned to writing, with little success at first, with plays and translations of Dickens. His successes, eventually, seem to have been memoirs (perhaps lightly fictionalized at times) and travel books. He also worked as a secretary for the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, as a war correspondent, and as a civil servant.

I can’t find much about this book online. It’s a collection of fairy stories. Apparently Hackländer wrote two such books – I don’t know if this is one of them, or a compendium of stories from both. It was translated by Mrs. A. L. Wister, who seems to have worked steadily translating from the German. The copyright is 1870, presumably the date of the translation, by the publisher, J. B. Lippincott. My edition is also from Lippincott, but it must be from later – it advertises the 1887 edition of Worcester’s Unabridged Quarto Dictionary on the inside front cover.

There are five stories. I don’t recognize any of them as traditional fairy tales, though they definitely have that feel. So they might be of Hackländer’s invention, or they may be tales with which I’m not familiar.

The stories are:
“The Elfin Tree” (13,200 words)
“The Dwarfs’ Nest” (8200 words)
“The Princess Morgana” (16400 words)
“Castle Silence” (9600 words)
“The Fairy Tankard” (12400 words)

The first very vaguely recalls “The Nutcracker”. A young orphan boy has been taken into the house of a rich tradesman, and is ill-treated. One Christmas night he sneaks down to see the Christmas tree, and the gifts, including wooden dolls and soldiers. They fascinate him, and then they come to life. He particularly likes a beautiful tiny lady, who tells him that they are all under the spell of an evil sorcerer. With the help of a fierce Nutcracker, the boy finds the sorcerer figure and manages to free the dolls, who run away into the forest. The boy escapes too, but except for the lady, the wooden figures seem to resent him. He ends up adopted by a woodsmen, and grows up to be a fine young man, and more or less randomly encounters an old man who tells him how to find the Elfin Tree, which will allow him to free the beautiful wooden lady again from her enchantment … the ending is clear from that point.

“The Dwarfs’ Nest” is a more of a morality tale. A weaver finds an abandoned house, which legend has it was menaced by Dwarfs. He cleans it up nicely, and his industriousness pleases the Dwarfs, so instead of chasing him out as they did to the previous dweller, they begin to help him, on the condition that he never disturb them while they are weaving for him, once a month. This works well for a while, but then the young weaver falls into evil ways, partly because of the extra money he earns from the Dwarfs’ weaving; and eventually he betrays them. Things go badly until he learns to mend his ways.

“The Princess Morgana” is the only story not set in Central Europe. Instead, in the Bagdad of Haroun al Raschid we meet an old retainer and his charge, a tortured young man. The Caliph learns their story – the older man had been the servant of a wise scholar. They had rescued a baby from a sandstorm and raised him to adulthood. But after the scholar died, the young man foolishly opened one of the scholar’s possessions – a picture of the Princess Morgana, who lives in the “Fata Morgana” (a mirage) in the desert, and who is so beautiful that anyone who even looks at her picture will be so consumed with love (or lust) that he will die of the obsession. The Caliph helps them, and soon they are travelling across the desert, the young man still planning to search for the Fata Morgana. Eventually he sets out alone to follow it, but as it’s a mirage he never gets there, until, dying of thirst, he is rescued by the ghost of his mother – you see, ghosts of people who died in the desert visit the Fata Morgana. Once there, of course, he encounters the real Princess … and again you can see where this will lead.

“Castle Silence” is the story of an isolated valley that everyone shuns, because those who do go in never come out. We learn its secret – it was the home of a couple whose wife betrayed her husband, only to regret it. What can remove the enchantment – the help of a pure young woman who is also in love.

Finally, “The Fairy Tankard” concerns the last survivor of a brigandish noble family, a young boy who escapes his father’s castle’s destruction by the agency of the magical title object. He and his companion, another boy, wander to another isolated valley, where they encounter a castle in a lake, and two snakes who turn into girls their age every so often, and a tableau of frozen people.

These stories are all familiar in form, but not to my taste as interesting as the best of, say, Andrew Lang’s retellings (which are what I grew up on). There is a tendency to rushed and convenient endings, and a bit too pat moralizing. The writing is quite stilted, very 19th century in not the best way. I’m not sure if that’s from Hackländer’s original prose, or if it’s a result of Wister’s translation. All in all, a fairly negligible book.

Friday, February 5, 2016

More on the Best Editor, Short Form, Hugo

I recently made a post on potential Hugo nominees in which I briefly discussed potential Best Editor nominations. I mentioned John Joseph Adams, Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Jonathan Strahan, Trevor Quachri, C. C. Finlay, Sheila Williams, Andy Cox, Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace, Scott H. Andrews and Brian Thomas Schmidt. And in all honesty, I think any of those people would be wholly worthy nominees. They have all done first-rate recent work.

But that said, let's be honest, I was being a bit timid. Who would I really vote for? I wanted to be a bit more forthright, and plump for a few folks I am really rooting for. Full disclosure, here -- this is a tightly linked field, and I know almost all of these people personally, and I work for several of them. I've had dinner on multiple occasions with Ellen Datlow and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. I've met most of the rest, excepting only, I think, Trevor Quachri and Andy Cox and, oddly enough, Jonathan Strahan. (But I've talked with Jonathan on the phone (or Skype) and had countless email exchanges with him, so I still consider us friends, even if we haven't met face to face -- and I trust we'll rectify that soon enough.)

So, to continue. As I said, each of these people would be good choices. But I'm rooting for two people in particular, this year, and promoting a third. The "rooting" is partly because they haven't yet won a Hugo in this category, and others on this list (not all of them, to be sure) have -- which isn't fair, no doubt, but there you are. But it's mostly because I really think they have done tremendous work -- and that's why the third person (already a multiple Hugo winner in the Editor category) is on this list.

And, of course, as already hinted, I need to disclose that I work for two of them. Jonathan Strahan is my editor at Locus. And John Joseph Adams is my editor at Lightspeed. Well, so be it. I think one way or another I am equally biased in favor of numerous other people I listed -- as I said, this is a tightly linked field -- most of us know each other, for good or ill (mostly good, if you ask me).

So, what are their credentials?

Jonathan Strahan's primary 2015 credential is as editor of likely the single best original anthology of the year, Meeting Infinity. This includes 8 stories on the Locus Recommended Reading List, two of them included in my upcoming Best of the Year anthology: "My Last Bringback" by John Barnes, and "Drones" by Simon Ings; and also "In Blue Lily's Wake", by Aliette de Bodard; "Rates of Change", by James S. A. Corey; "Emergence", by Gwyneth Jones; "The Falls", by Ian McDonald; and "Pictures From the Resurrection", by Bruce Sterling. Meeting Infinity is one of a series of pure SF original anthologies he's been doing that have been consistently excellent. Perhaps for 2015 they don't officially come into play, but consistency is important too. And of course Jonathan has edited numerous other brilliant anthologies, including the New Space Opera books (with Gardner Dozois), and the "Fearsome" set of Fantasy-oriented books, and well as the Eclipse original anthology series. Jonathan has also been editing Best of the Year anthologies since 2004, and this curatorial role is perhaps not as flashy as that of bringing us new fiction, but (not surprisingly!) I still think it's pretty important. His curatorial role also extends to bringing some outstanding single author collections to us, including Best Of''s for Bruce Sterling, Joe Haldeman, Kim Stanley Robinson, and (in 2015) Alastair Reynolds; and also a series of collections of Jack Vance's early stories (with Terry Dowling), including 2015's Grand Crusades.

In the case of John Joseph Adams, his first credential is obviously as editor of Lightspeed. I think the stories we publish are outstanding, and this year I am using four stories in my book: "The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal", by Chaz Brenchley; "Time Bomb Time", by C. C. Finlay; "The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club", by Nike Sulway; and "You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead", by Brooke Bolander. But John is also a prolific produce of excellent original anthologies, three of which appeared in 2015: Operation Arcana (from which I'm using "The Graphology of Hemorrhage" by Yoon Ha Lee), The End Has Come (with Hugh Howey), and Press Start to Play (with Daniel Wilson). John also does reprint anthologies, represented in 2015 by Wastelands 2 (apocalypse stories) and by Loosed Upon the World (climate change stories). And finally, he too does a Best of the Year anthology, in his case the SF entry in the "Best American" series -- the first entry appeared in 2015, guest edited by Joe Hill.

Finally, it is incumbent on me to mention Sheila Williams, simply because I believe that her magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, was the single best SF magazine of 2015. No fewer than 14 stories from Asimov's appear on the Locus list this year, and I am using three in my book: "Mutability", by Ray Nayler; "Twelve and Tag", by Gregory Norman Bossert; and "Acres of Perhaps", by Will Ludwigsen. I am abashed to confess that as I drafted this post I thought of her last -- only because she was won this award multiple times before. But that's unfair, wrong thinking -- the award should go to the Best Editor each year -- there should not be a sense of "taking turns".

So -- the three people above will be on my nomination ballot this year, along with two more from the long list of very worthy editors I mentioned in the first paragraph. And whoever wins will be very deserving.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Not Quite Forgotten SF Novel: The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett

A Not Quite Forgotten SF Novel: The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett

A review by Rich Horton

Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was one of the greatest pulp-era SF writers. She began in Astounding in the February 1940 issue with “Martian Quest”. Throughout the ‘40s and to the middle of the ’50s she published a great deal of SF, much of it in the planetary romance subgenre. Right about 1955 – exactly as the pulp era came to an end with the disappearance of Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Planet Stories – she slowed down. Only about a half-dozen further SF stories appeared, and no new novels – until 1974, and the book at hand.

To be sure, SF wasn’t all she did. She wrote crime novels – some quite highly regarded, though I haven’t read any. Most appeared in the ’40s, but her last, Silent Partner, came out in 1969. And she wrote screenplays, some in the ‘40s (most notably, The Big Sleep, with William Faulkner (and Jules Furthman)), but quite a few more beginning in 1959 with Rio Bravo, and continuing to such well-known movies as Rio Lobo and The Long Goodbye. Her final credit, perhaps the most famous of all, was The Empire Strikes Back (though by most accounts much of her screenplay was gone by the time the film was released). It seems likely that the screenwriting was what drew her away from SF.

Her husband was Edmond Hamilton, one of the most celebrated writers of pure Space Opera. They almost never collaborated, except on a posthumous story, “Stark and the Star Kings”, which mixes Brackett’s most famous character with some of Hamilton’s most famous; and, most think, on the 1963 Ace Double The Secret of Sinharat/People of the Talisman, which is revised and expanded versions of two of Brackett’s Stark stories for Planet Stories – the generally accepted view is that Hamilton did the revisions. Brackett died of cancer in 1978, shortly after turning in the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back to George Lucas.

So … in 1974 she had been relatively inactive in the SF field for some two decades. The Ginger Star represented a return to the field. It was serialized in two parts in If in 1974, and published in book form by Ballantine/Del Rey. Two sequels, The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith, followed in 1974 and 1976. (Around this time she also edited two books for Ballantine/Del Rey that emphasized her Space Opera/Planetary Romance roots: The Best of Planet Stories Volume 1 (alas, there was never a second volume) and The Best of Edmond Hamilton.)

I adore the great Brackett stories of the late ’40s and early ‘50s, particularly The Sword of Rhiannon, one of the great pure planetary romances; and other stories in the same loosely developed future (though The Sword of Rhiannon is really set in the past): “The Halfling”, “The Dancing Girl of Ganymede”, “Mars Minus Bisha”, “Shannach – the Last”, for example. Other SF was also very fine, most notably The Long Tomorrow, a post-Apocalyptic novel; but also The Big Jump and The Starmen of Llyrdis. Her slightly later story from Venture, “The Queer Ones” (aka “The Other People”) is excellent, and not terribly well known. The Eric John Stark stories fit into her Mars/Venus/etc. future – and they are quite enjoyable as well. Stark is portrayed as a nearly savage man, raised as an orphan on Mercury, and rampaging through Venus and Mars in the most prominent pieces.

The Skaith novels feature Stark as the protagonist, but they are set on a planet in another Solar System, Skaith. I had assumed that she set them there because the Mars and Venus of the earlier stories was no longer astronomically plausible, and perhaps that is the case, but it should be noted that in these books she does still portray Stark as a native of Mercury – also a highly implausible thing. Anyway, I had ignored the Skaith novels until now partly because of a feeling that they would be pale latter-day imitations of the earlier stories, weakened by the forced relocation. And to an extent I think that’s true enough, though The Ginger Star is still fairly fun.

Eric John Stark comes to Skaith as a somewhat unofficial representative of the Galactic Union. His mission is mostly personal: his mentor, sort of adopted father, Simon Ashton, has disappeared from the chief city of Skaith, and foul play is suspected. Skaith, an ancient planet turning colder as its Sun dies, is ruled by a shadowy group called the Lords Protector, via the Wandsmen, who control most of the city states, largely by a sort of bread and circuses policy whereby the shiftless “Farers”, or it might be, “welfare cheats”, leech off the productive citizens. Stark more or less randomly begins to look for Ashton, and finds hints that he may be in the harsh North, perhaps at the mysterious Citadel of the Lords Protector. He makes an enemy of the local Wandsman, and then heads to Irnan, another city where a faction is trying to get passage via the Galactics to another planet, to escape the rule of the Lords Protector. There he assists in the beginning of a rebellion, and finds himself declared the subject of a prophecy, that a “Dark Man” would come to bring people to freedom. That the prophecy is delivered by Gerrith, a beautiful and tough Wise Woman, who insists on accompanying him in his journey to the North, is only a bonus.

Stark continues north, meeting with treachery at almost every turn, and with further prophecies. But it is clearer and clearer that he is coming closer to Ashton, and to the Lords Protector, whom he (somewhat reluctantly) sees as his responsibility to unseat. And, too, the only way out seems to be through. His increasing feelings for Gerrith are a factor as well. So we get to a final confrontation with the mysterious Lords, and to a meeting with Ashton … and then … well, it’s the first book of a trilogy, and so it stops. It’s pretty clear that the story set up at the beginning will take all three books to resolve.

There’s a lot to like here. The various different peoples, all varieties of human, some more mutated than others, are pretty cool. Stark is Stark, though a bit different – more thoughtful, I suppose – than in the earlier stories. There’s the usual tough guy attitude, and when needed, action and violence, though often enough Stark is the victim and not the perpetrator. It was – I guess – OK, but as I had feared, just a bit thin, and bit less emotionally intense, than the Martian stories. And Skaith comes off as a cliché – a somewhat pale imitation of a ‘40s pulp milieu. Still, not bad – but not the true quill Brackett … for that, go to The Sword of Rhiannon!

(A note on my edition, shown above -- this is the second edition, from 1979, with a Boris Vallejo cover. The original cover from 1974 is by Jim Steranko, and to my mind it is much better, with a depiction of Stark much closer to my image of him.)