Thursday, February 22, 2018

Another Forgotten Ace Double: Vanguard from Alpha, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Changeling Worlds, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 110: Vanguard from Alpha, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Changeling Worlds, by Kenneth Bulmer (#D-369, 1959, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've written about both these writers before, and so I'll reproduce what I wrote:

Aldiss was born in 1925 to working class parents (his father a draper, his mother's father a builder). He was educated at Framlingham College and West Buckham School, and spent part of the Second World War in Burma. He worked at a bookseller after the War, and his first book was a lightly fictionalized account of a bookstore. He was an SF reader from an early age, and at the same time he was publishing his first mainstream book he was publishing his first SF stories in the magazines. Throughout his career he did distinguished work in SF and in mainstream fiction. I have found his work immensely enjoyable, and very varied in tone, style, subject matter, and structure. He also wrote a few memoirs, and I enjoyed the most complete of those, The Twinkling of an Eye, very much indeed. He won a couple of Hugo Awards, a Nebula, a Campbell, hordes of BSFA awards, and was named an SFWA Grand Master in 2000. He died just this past August, the day after his 92nd birthday.

Kenneth Bulmer, born in England in 1921, was a very prolific writer from the early '50s, under his own name and many others, most notably "Alan Burt Akers", the name under which he wrote the Dray Prescot series for DAW. He was primarily an SF writer, but also did a lot of work in other genres. He was editor of the New Writings in SF anthology series after the death of John Carnell. He died in 2005.

The novels at hand, I have to say, don't show their authors at their best. (Though Bulmer was never brilliant, so his book isn't as big of a falloff as Aldiss'.) The covers are the typical for that era Two Eds -- Valigursky for The Changeling Worlds, Emshwiller for Vanguard from Alpha.

Vanguard From Alpha was first published in New Worlds for September and October 1958, under the title Equator, which was certainly Aldiss' preferred title, and which was used for the British editions. I don't know if the Ace version differs much from the original serial -- it wouldn't shock me if there's some sex in Equator that was cut from Vanguard From Alpha -- but maybe not!
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Curiously, Aldiss expanded the novel much later (1987), fixing up "Equator", a 1965 story called "The Impossible Smile", and a new novella, "The Mannerheim Symphony" into a book called The Year Before Yesterday. I haven't read that, and I don't know anything about it, but asked some people who have read it, and it's a pretty metafictional thing -- apparently, "Equator" is inserted into the novel by having one of the characters from the rest of the novel read it.

Vanguard From Alpha opens with a trio of men on a mission to the Moon base of the alien Rosk, who have come from Alpha Centauri asking for refuge on Earth. They have been granted an enclave on Sumatra, but there's a lot of distrust of their motives. And strange goings on at the Moon base have resulted in this mission. It goes badly, however -- Tyne Leslie, the protagonist, is shot, and when he wakes from his injuries he finds that one of his fellows, Allen Cunliffe, is dead -- the other man, Murray Mumford, says that he had to shoot Cunliffe.

But Mumford then disappears, and Leslie suspects him of foul play. And indeed he soon learns that Mumford is believed to have intercepted some important information, and is ready to betray the humans to the Rosk. Leslie is warned to leave all this investigation to the professionals, but he plunges headlong into things, and soon is captured by the Rosk, only to be saved from certain death by a beautiful Rosk woman.

It continues at a breakneck pace, Leslie whipsawed between an apparent peace faction among the Rosk, and Mumford's own story, and the reappearance of Allen Cunliffe, and the possibility of an invasion fleet from Alpha Centauri. Not to mention his fascination with Benda, the lovely Rosk woman ...

It's really pretty implausible stuff on pretty much every front (not least the apparent sexual compatibility of humans and Rosk). Aldiss by this time had already published his first significant SF novel, Non-Stop (aka Starship), as well as a successful mainstream book, The Brightfount Diaries -- I'm not really sure what he was up to with this -- just making a buck? Exercising his thriller muscles? His next New Worlds/Ace pairing -- X for Exploitation/Bow Down For Nul/The Interpreter -- is far more serious, far better, even if it too is pretty minor Aldiss.

As for The Changeling Worlds, it struck me as one of those stories where the author is making things up as he goes along, not figuring out what sort of story it will be until maybe halfway through. It's told in two threads. In one, Richard Makepeace Kirby is a bored member of The Set, a decadent group of wealthy people who spend their lives going from world to world and party to party, marrying for a few days at a time except when they buy a baby -- then you have to stay together for a year -- and duelling. Richard and his new wife Molly decide to get a baby, and somehow Richard (and Molly) begin to feel like they might like to stay together for a long time.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
In the other thread, John Hassett is on a secret mission to a Black Symbol world called Brighthaven. Black Symbol worlds are proscribed -- the locals are not supposed to know about the wider Galactic civilization, even though they sell their grain to the richer worlds in exchange for heavy equipment. But Brighthaven has decided to cut agricultural production -- and Hassett's predecessor has been murdered. He goes undercover as a tractor maintenance man, and quickly learns that religious leaders have been fomenting hatred of "aliens" (humans from other planets). Soon he is discovered and on the run.

Meanwhile Richard witnesses his brother, a missionary, get murdered at a Set party -- and Molly is almost killed in a duel. He gets an offer to do something with his life -- take a serious job, but that seems silly. Still, he and Molly and another couple hare off on a trip, while Richard decides to find who killed his brother. They also learn something about where their babies come from.

Well, no surprise -- there are wheels within wheels, and a totally crazy economic setup. Plus no rich person ever has a baby the natural way -- instead, babies are another product of the Black Symbol worlds. But the plans of the rabble-rousing priests are dangerous as well ... And of course at the end a sneering evil villain has to pop up ...

For a couple chapters I was kind of intrigued by some of this, but it quickly stopped making any real sense, either economically, or emotionally. You get the sense Bulmer had a notion that his audience deserved some cool ideas -- and he more or less offers those, but without thinking them through well at all. Not to mention some pretty standard '50s era sexism. Really not a very good book at all.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Final 2018 Hugo Recommendation Post

This is a bit of a catchall post concerning the remaining categories. In many of these categories, I don’t really have any choices. This doesn’t mean I don’t think highly of those categories – I do! But I just can’t say much intelligent about any of them. I’ll go ahead and mention the categories anyway, for information’s sake.  

Best Semiprozine

I’ll nominate from the online world Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Lackington’s, and Kaleidotrope, as well as, from the print world, the venerable and still excellent Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Each of these magazines publishes fiction primarily – and excellent fiction. Most of them are pretty well known, but perhaps Lackington’s, edited by Ranylt Richildis; and Kaleidotrope, edited by Fred Coppersmith, deserved special mention because they don’t get quite as much attention.

Neil Clarke maintains a list of eligible semiprozines, here: Neil’s list still includes Black Gate, but I believe that’s more appropriately a Fanzine – it does not pay its contributors, John doesn’t make significant money from it I’m sure, and it hasn’t declared itself a semiprozine.

I should add a couple of extra particular mentions: two sites that focus on longer fiction: The Fantasist (edited by Will Waller, Evan Shiloh Adams, and Bernard Foyuth), and Giganotosaurus, edited by Rashida J. Smith.

Best Fancast

I am more or less clueless on podcasts, but I’ll mention one that I’ve enjoyed, and not only because I was the featured guest on one episode: The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show,, run by Robert Zseldes ("Robert Zoltan"). I’ll add a long-running and always very good podcast, The Coode Street Podcast,, run by Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe. (I was going to be a guest on an episode of that a couple of years ago, but technical difficulties intervened.)

Best Related Work

I have one book to recommend: Paul Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press), a very interesting and illuminating look at the career of a very significant SF and Mainstream writer.

Professional Artist

I am going to mention three new names in this category (nothing against the excellent work of previous nominees and winners such as Julie Dillon, John Picacio, and Galen Dara, who surely still deserve consideration). But these are three folks who did some very nice work and who haven’t previously been nominated.

1.       Kathleen Jennings – I saw two lovely covers from her this year for Small Beer Press books: Telling the Map, and The River Bank. Not traditional SF illustration – which is not at all a bad thing! She has got notice in the past as a World Fantasy Award artist nominee. And she’s a very good writer: I used her story “Skull and Hyssop” in my 2015 Best of the Year volume. A portfolio is here:

2.       Gregory Manchess – He was the Artist GOH at World Fantasy this year, and I was really impressed by his work displayed there. He wrote an illustrated novel, Above the Timberline, published in 2017, which I have not read, but, again, the illustrations I’ve seen from it are very good indeed. Samples of his work can be found here:

3.       Dave Senecal – Senecal did some intriguing covers for Interzone this year, which attracted my attention. A Google search also found some interesting work based on Lovecraft, and lots more stuff, not necessarily SF or Fantasy-oriented. But the Interzone pieces themselves are well worth a look. UPDATE: I am informed, thanks to JJ at File 770, that as Interzone is by WSFS rules a semiprozine, Senecal's work would be eligible for Best Fan Artist, and not for Professional Artist. I confess he certainly seems like a professional to me (and so does Interzone seem like a prozine), but the rules are the rules, I suppose.

Fan Artist

Here’s a category I’m going to bow out of – I just haven’t seen enough fan art this year to make a recommendation. (With the exception that, as noted above, I will nominate Dave Senecal for Best Fan Artist unless I find some qualifying professional work by him.)

Best Graphic Story

And one more I’ll bow out of – I don’t read graphic novels as a rule. Don’t take that as disparagement – I’m really impressed by the artwork and storytelling, but it’s a case of “so many books, so little time” …

Best Novel, Series, YA
Best Editor, Campbell Award

Saturday, February 17, 2018

2018 Hugo Recommendations: Long Fiction

I've been holding off on this post for a while, because I'm still catching up on my novel reading. But having at least got to The Moon and the Other and Ka, and with time running a bit short, I figure I'll go ahead and post it -- revising it later as I read more.

Hugo Nomination Thoughts, Long Fiction

I use the term “Long Fiction” because we now have three categories that can fit. Best Novel, of course, but also Best Series, as well as the new “Not a Hugo” for Best Young Adult Fiction.

Best Novel

Every year I mention that I haven’t read a lot of novels. Maybe I did a bit better this year, however. Already I’ve read the following novels I think are potentially Hugo-worthy:

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory
Ka, by John Crowley
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss
The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel
Provenance, by Ann Leckie
Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer
The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt
Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck

I’ve got a few more novels ready to read real soon: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (cool that I’ll read that right after John Crowley’s novel about a crow); Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty; The River Bend, by Kij Johnson; and Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. That doesn’t by any means exhaust the pool of good novels, or potentially good novels, but I only have so much time!

I’m going to put three novels on my tentative nomination list right away. These are the best three 2017 novels I’ve read so far, and I’ll be surprise (and pleased!) if any of the novels I have yet to read surpass them. The leading choices for other two on my ballot right now are The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, The Wrong Stars, and Amatka, but there is still time for a new novel to bump one of those, or for me to change my mind. (And, of course, I need to make up my mind between those three anyway!)

So, the top three are, in no particular order (well, alphabetical by author):

Ka, by John Crowley – the subtitle is “Dar Oakley in the Land of Ymr”, and it’s about a Crow named Dar Oakley, who, upon being nursed to life by an aging man in our near future, tells the man stories of his long life – or series of lives – and his increasing contact with humans and knowledge of the human world (which he calls Ymr). This sounds simple – oh, another talking animal story – and it’s nothing but: beautifully told and wise, with the voice of both the human narrator and of Dar Oakley remarkably well-realized.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory – a very funny (and often heartbreaking as well) novel about a family of pyschics – the pater familias is a con man, but his wife and his children (and at least one grandchild) have real (if inconsistent) powers. I was reminded of Michael Chabon, and I was convinced by the portrayal of the Chicago suburbs, where the book is set and where I also grew up. There are multiple love stories, there is a tricky and well-navigated plot, and there is a real and powerful emotional payoff. And, yes, it’s very funny.

The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel – Set a in the 22nd Century on the Moon, centered on the political turmoil in one colony run by the Society of Cousins, in which women hold all political power, on the grounds that men are too violent. (The argument is developed more subtly in the book and in its related stories.) One character (the hero of a previous story) has been exiled and is making a life in another, noticeably patriarchal, society, when he is offered an opportunity to return to his first home. Another character is a woman involved in a Reform movement aimed at giving men in the Society the right to vote. Another character is a charismatic athlete in the Society who wants custody of his son. And who has a very unexpected personal secret. The novel is not drily political, or polemical, at all (though as with most essentially utopian stories, I sensed  a bit of bias towards the more utopianish community) – instead it’s actively engaging, very fun reading, very thought-provoking. This is the choice for those who want traditional hard SF.

Best Series

I’m going to cop out just a bit and suggest that the best thing to do is look at JJ’s list of eligible series posted at File 770 here:

I’m behind in catching up with some definite candidates. As things stand now I’m most interested in nominating:

The World of Five Gods, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross
Riverside, by Ellen Kushner
Kylara Vatta, by Elizabeth Moon
Terra Ignota, by Ada Palmer

Best YA Novel

This is the first year for this new award. As I mentioned, it is not a Hugo, but it will be administered and awarded by the World Science Fiction Society using essentially the same process as for the Hugos (and the Campbell). The only true YA novel I read this year was Martians Abroad, by Carrie Vaughn, which I enjoyed, though I wouldn’t quite call it Hugo level work. I have just bought A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge, on the urgent recommendation of folks like Farah Mendlesohn and others, and it looks quite interesting. Beyond that I’d suggest a look at the YA category in the Locus Recommended Reading list:

My Recommendation Posts:
Best Novel, Series, YA
Best Editor, Campbell Award

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Old Bestseller: Amos Judd, by J. A. Mitchell

Old Bestseller: Amos Judd, by J. A. Mitchell

a review by Rich Horton

J. A. Mitchell (1845-1918) was a fairly major figure in American publishing, as the founder of Life magazine (which was more news than picture oriented in its early days). He was also an architect of some note. And in his spare time he wrote six novels and a number of short stories, many of them of interest to readers of fantastika. Most famous to those interested in SF history is The Last American (1889), a satirical look at a Persian expedition to a ruined America a millennium in the future. One other SF novel is Drowsy (1917). Worthwhile details can be found in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Mitchell.

Mitchell's most famous novel in his lifetime, however, was Amos Judd (1895). This too is a work of the fantastic, though closer to fantasy than science fiction, and though set mostly around the time of composition. Amos Judd was first published by Scribner's in 1895. It didn't make the Publishers' Weekly list of top ten bestsellers its year but it sold quite well -- I saw online a copy of the 8th printing, from 1896. My edition is from 1901. It is illustrated in color by A. I. Keller. It is signed on the first leaf "S. A. Y. Christmas 1901".

Amos Judd opens with a train reaching the Bingham Cross Roads station, in Connecticut. Three passengers alight, two adults and one boy of about 6 or 7, all foreigners. They proceed to take a carriage to the village of Daleford, looking for Mr. Josiah Judd. On the way there the boy insists they stop at a house on the way -- Josiah Judd will be there, he avers. And indeed that turns out to be true.

The boy is a young Rajah from a Northern Indian state that has just undergone a revolution. Josiah's brother Morton is a successful merchant in India, and he has sent the young boy to his brother to raise, away from the turmoil in his home. Josiah Judd is a successful farmer, childless, and he and his wife take the boy, saving the large fortune in jewels and other things that he has with him for his majority.

Twenty years later, Josiah is dead, and the boy, now called Amos, has inherited his farm. Amos has made quite a success of it, partly through his love of animals, and partly by using the capital derived from his Indian inheritance. Amos also attended college and made a number of friends -- and some enemies, one of whom he killed (partly by accident) when insults were traded. In New York, Amos is at a party and makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Molly Cabot. Amos' initial reaction is strange, and Molly is at first taken aback by the story she hears of his killing his classmate. (To everybody's credit, Amos' Indian background is never seen as an impediment to his eventual courtship of Molly.)

By happenstance, Molly and her father decide to summer in Daleford, unaware that that is Amos' home. But once there, things take their natural course, and the two young people become closer and closer. Amos also makes friends with Mr. Cabot. And he reveals his one unusual talent: he can, if he chooses, see future events. (This is how he knew Josiah Judd would be at another house when they came to Daleford.) However, he cannot change the future -- anything he sees must happen. Even if he tries to change the future, it will still come to be. Mr. Cabot cannot believe this, but he puts it to the test by asking Amos what he (Mr. Cabot) will be doing the next day, and when he tries to do something different he finds he has lost all volition.

There is some discussion of a philosophical nature on the implications of this talent of Amos', which is, in his Indian family, ascribed to a gift of Krishna after an ancestory helped one of Krishna's Earthly incarnations. (This bit didn't make much sense, as one ancestor used his ability to help him extend his territory by winning important battles -- which seems to contradict the notion that the future, once seen, cannot be changed.) At any rate, Molly and Amos' love affair proceeds apace, though Amos at times seems distracted and distraught -- and we quickly guess the reason -- he must have foreseen his own death.

And so of course it turns out -- Molly and Amos marry, and they have a fine honeymoon. Amos and Mr. Cabot have tried again to cheat fate -- and it seems it has worked, for they have hidden Amos away on the supposed day of his death, and he has survived. But, in the melodramatic conclusion, Molly is attacked, and Amos comes to her rescue, and kills the attackers, but is shot in his turn ... with a calendar present showing the wrong date!

Really, I've made this sound sillier than it is. It's actually a well-executed novel, and the inevitable conclusion is well set up, and faced with honesty. It's quite affecting. This is not a great novel (short novel -- it's about 35,000 words), but it's not bad.

It was made into a movie in 1922, The Young Rajah, starring Rudolf Valentino. The movie bollixed things quite a bit, especially at the end, where, predictably for Hollywood I guess, Amos actually manages to cheat his fate, and survives the attack on his life, and indeed returns to his Indian kingdom, Molly by his side, to regain his crown.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2018 Hugo Recommendations: Best Editor, Campbell

Best Editor

Short Form

I suppose I am in a rut in this category, but I think that’s the nature of things. I will happily list the usual suspects – and I really do think they are the worthiest choices. These are, then Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, Jonathan Strahan with the Infinity series and other anthologies (including a Best of the Year series), plus stories for, John Joseph Adams (Lightspeed, numerous anthologies, a Best of the Year series), C. C. Finlay at F&SF, Trevor Quachri at Analog, Andy Cox at Interzone and Black Static, Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace of Clarkesworld (with Neil is also editing a Best of the Year book, and Sean also co-editor of The Dark), Scott H. Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lynne and Michael Damian Thomas at Uncanny

And, of course, the two most decorated contemporary editors, Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois. Ellen, in addition to a couple of strong horror anthologies, and some acquisitions for, returned to her post as Fiction Editor at Omni, with one very strong issue.  Gardner, besides his long-running Best of the Year series, and his work as reprint editor at Clarkesworld, edited an excellent original anthology, The Book of Swords. Each of the above is wholly worthy of a Hugo (and there are others worth consideration as well).

My choice is complicated by the fact that I consider almost every one of these people a friend, in many case of long standing. (There are one or two I haven’t met, but I’m sure I would get along with them as well!) In addition, I have professional relationships with John Joseph Adams (as I am Reprint Editor for Lightspeed) and Sean Wallace (publisher of my Best of the Year book).

So this year I’m doing something a bit different – and perhaps unfair! I’m going to choose the editors whose publications featured the most stories in my Best of the Year book. That leaves me with C. C. Finlay (four stories from F&SF), Sheila Williams (four from Asimov’s), John Joseph Adams (three from Lightspeed), Scott Andrews (three from BCS), and Lynne and Michael Damian Thomas (three from Uncanny). (I don’t know how to separate Lynne and Michael, and of course I don’t want to!) One of the things that means a lot to me in an editor is championing new writers, and all of these editors to a great job in this area, but one who stands out to me this year is C. C. Finlay, for such writers publishing their first or second stories as G. V. Anderson, R. S. Benedict, and J. R. Dawson. (I guess with Charlie using his initials, his writers feel they need to do the same! 😊)

Long Form

I am deciding on my nominees for Best Editor, Long Form on two criteria: first, involvement with some of the best novels of the year; and second, associations (especially as a leader) with new and exciting and perhaps different book lines. These criteria are obviously pretty subjective, and I have to add, my true knowledge of the real editing work done by book editors is pretty limited.

One name stands out. This is Joe Monti at Saga Press. First of all, Joe edited two of the clear cut, no fuzz, best novels of the year: Ka, by John Crowley; and The Moon and The Other, by John Kessel. Secondly, Joe is the lead editor at Saga, a fairly new imprint that has quickly made a mark, with first rate novels and anthologies. (They also produce very attractive books.)  Two more choices are there partly because of their role in establishing either a new imprint, or an imprint that I feel deserves special notice. But also, in each case they have been responsible for one of the best novels of the year. These are Gavin Grant* at Small Beer Press, and John Joseph Adams, who has his own line (at Mariner Books of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and, no, I don’t know how to untangle that string of names). Each is responsible for at least one of the year’s top novels: The River Bank, by Kij Johnson (Small Beer) and Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner). (I know for a fact that John has some more really impressive books coming out in 2018 – I’ve read at least one of them already!) Another strong book from Saga Press is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss. The editor is Navah Wolfe. And Tor Books puts out some of the best SF every year, and I think Liz Gorinsky deserves a nod (she was the editor for Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous among other books). (Once again, some extra credit might be given for publishing first-time novelists: as with Theodora Goss and Annalee Newitz.)

(*Of course Kelly Link is also a major player at Small Beer Press, and she probably deserves as much credit as Gavin.)

I will emphasize again that my knowledge of the real work of novel editors is limited, and there are many more editors worthy of notice, most of whom are probably all but invisible to the average nominator. I could mention at least Tim O’Connell at Knopf, who edited Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, who edited Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Phil Jourdan at Angry Robot, who edited Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars.


Finally, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This is given to the best writer whose first professional publication in the SF or Fantasy field appeared in the past two years (2016 or 2017). Writertopia has a page, not guaranteed to be complete, with a list of eligible authors: .

I went through that list and came up with the following writers who have done something that impressed me:

G. V. Anderson (who already has a World Fantasy Award!)
R. S. Benedict
J. R. Dawson
Giovanni  di Feo
Tonya Liburd
Benjamin C. Kinney
Finbarr O’Reilly
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Rebecca Roanhorse
D. A. Xiaolin Spires

Interestingly, I don’t think any of these have published novels, and in fact I didn’t recognize a novelist among all the eligible writers listed. (Probably there were some, but I hadn’t seen their novels.) Typically novelists have an advantage. Maybe this year will be different.

Three of these writers have stories in my Best of the Year book this year: J. R. Dawson (“Marley and Marley), Giovanni di Feo (“Ugo”), and Vina Jie-Min Prasad (“Fandom for Robots”, not to mention “A Series of Steaks”). I will certainly happily nominate them. I will also add R. S. Benedict, whose “My English Name” is very impressive, and was definitely on my short list of stories to consider for my book this year, and G. V. Anderson, whose “I Am Not I” was also on my short list, and who should be remembered for other strong work, including last year’s World Fantasy Award winner for Short Fiction, “Das Steingeschöpf”.

My Recommendation Posts:
Best Novel, Series, YA
Best Editor, Campbell Award

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2018 Edition

We have finally finalized the Table of Contents for my Best of the Year book for stories from 2017. I think it's an excellent book (of course I would!) (For those who might have seen some stories I recommended in my Hugo posts that don't show up here ... the book is always influenced by considerations like length, thematic balance, avoiding too many stories from the same source, and also contractual limitations. And as I've said many times, when it comes to the final several stories I choose to include, it's a matter of agonizing over the ones I can't quite fit that are really just as good.)

These are listed in alphabetical order of original place of publication.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2018 Edition, edited by Rich Horton. 

“Time Travel is Only for the Poor” by S. L. Huang (Analog)
“Emergency Protocol” by Lettie Prell (Analog)
“Persephone of the Crows” by Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov’s)
“Cupido” by Rich Larson (Asimov’s)

Winter Timeshare” by Ray Nayler (Asimov’s)
"", by Will McIntosh (Asimov's)

“Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Whatever Knight Comes” by Ryan Row (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” by Charlie Jane Anders (Boston Review)
“The Significance of Significance” by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld)
“The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse” by Kathleen Ann Goonan (Extrasolar)
“Marley and Marley” by J. R. Dawson (F&SF)
“The Hermit of Houston” by Samuel R. Delany (F&SF)
“Rings” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (F&SF)
“Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (F&SF)
“The Sacrifice of the Hanged Monkey” by Minsoo Kang (Fantastic)
“ZeroS” by Peter Watts (Infinity Wars)
“Ugo” by Giovanni de Feo (Lightspeed)
“Love Engine Optimization” by Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed)
“This is for You” by Bruce McAllister (Lightspeed)
“One Hour, Every Seven Years” by Alice Sola Kim (McSweeney’s)
“Montreal, 2014” by Madeline Ray (Mothership Zeta)
“Sidewalks” by Maureen McHugh (Omni)
“Shoggoths in Traffic” by Tobias S. Buckell (Patreon)
“The Fisherman and the Pig” by Kameron Hurley (Patreon)
“Utopia LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons)
“An Account of the Land of Witches” by Sofia Samatar (Tender)
“Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee (
“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata (
“Hexagrammaton” by Hanus Seiner (
“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney (Uncanny)
“And Then There Were (N - One)” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny)
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A Forgotten SF Novel: Time Bomb, by Wilson Tucker

A Forgotten SF Novel: Time Bomb, by Wilson Tucker

a review by Rich Horton

I call this novel "forgotten", and I believe it is, largely, but its author is not forgotten in SF circles, particularly fan circles. Arthur Wilson Tucker was born in 1914, and was brought up in Bloomington, IL, where he lived most of his life. His primary career was as an electrician and projectionist. He was an active fan since the early '30s, known to everyone as Bob Tucker.  He published the legendary fanzine Le Zombie beginning in 1938, as well as The Bloomington Newsletter, and The Neo-Fan's Guide. He won the Best Fanwriter Hugo in 1970, a retrospective John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1976, and a couple of Retro-Hugos as well. He was particularly famous for the ritual of "smoothing" -- a group of people would gather round, pass around a bottle of Jim Beam, take a sip, raise their hands, and when all were done, say "smooooth" and swoop their hands down. I was "smoooothed" at my first convention, ConQuesT in Kansas City in 1998 or so -- that was the one time I met Bob Tucker. He died in 2006, shortly after his wife of 52 years, Fern, had died.

Tucker was also a professional writer, of both mysteries and SF, usually as by Wilson Tucker. His first novel, a mystery set in fannish circles called The Chinese Doll, appeared in 1946, and his last, the well-regarded SF novel Ice and Iron, in 1974. His best-remembered novels are The Lincoln Hunters (1958), The Long Loud Silence (1952), The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) and Ice and Iron (1974, expanded 1975). I've read The Lincoln Hunters, Wild Talent, and Ice and Iron. He was said to be determinedly retired from writing after Resurrection Days appeared in 1981. (He apparently sold a novel outline to Harlan Ellison for The Last Dangerous Visions after much prodding, so there may be one unpublished work awaiting, though Tucker also apparently said that that was one story he wouldn't be eager to have unearthed.)

Tucker is also famous for having coined the term "Space Opera" (quite a disparaging term in his hands), and for the practice called "Tuckerization": using names of friends for fictional characters.

(Cover by Richard Powers)
His novels were noted for their generally rather bleak tone, a refusal to flinch from the worst implications of his ideas and of the world he saw around him. (This perhaps in contrast to his personal amiability.) This applies to Time Bomb, indeed, though perhaps not wholly effectively -- the novel is somewhat clumsily executed, and uneasily tied to an earlier novel, The Time Masters.

I read the 1957 paperback reprint from Avon, retitled Tomorrow Plus X. The original novel was published in 1955 by Rinehart and Company, who were Tucker's publishers, for both mystery and SF, from his first novel at least throughout the '50s.

The opening chapter, in several brief sections, introduces a comedian spoofing time travel, an Illinois State police Lieutenant called to the site of a mysterious bombing, a rally for a popular populist politician, an old man working on a device of some sort, an urbane couple watching the comedian with distaste, and a telepath. The connections seem unclear at first. We are soon following Lieutenant Danforth as he continues to investigate the bombing, which is the sixth in a strange series that seemed aimed at associates of the populist politician Ben, the leader of the "Sons of America" movement. (Ben was surely modeled on Joe McCarthy at the time of writing, but yes, he does remind the contemporary reader uneasily of Donald Trump.)

Danforth is soon fired, for the crime of not having solved the bombings. But the department's telepath, a very influential man, arranges for him to keep working on the case surreptitiously. Danforth has fixed on the notion of bombs travelling through time as the means. He is pointed in the direction of a couple who just moved into the area, Gilbert and Shirley Nash. He goes to meet them -- they are a strange couple, and they had an odd history at their previous job, working at Oak Ridge (evidently this was the subject of The Time Masters). Soon it is revealed that Gilbert Nash is actually Gilgamesh, and he's 10,000 years old. Shirley is apparently also slow to age, though she's only a few decades old at this time. Danforth falls in love (hopelessly) with Shirley.

A fortuitous finding of a failed bomb in a nearby field gives Danforth the break he needs, and some good old fashioned detective work leads him to the criminal. Who seems glad to be found. But of course his secret involves time travel -- and he claims to know the future ... What will Lt. Danforth do with this knowledge?

The book is really kind of a mess. Gilbert and Shirley Nash seem wholly unnecessary characters. The explanation of how the "time bomb" worked never made much sense to me. And the conclusion, meant to be heroic (which it is, I suppose) also seemed strained. Tucker did much better in books like Ice and Iron and The Year of the Quiet Sun. (An interview from 1975 conducted by Dave Truesdale and Paul MacGuire III for Tangent mentions a novel about Gilgamesh that he was a couple of chapters into then: he must have abandoned that. I wonder if that was intended to be a third Gilbert and Shirley Nash story?)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2018 Hugo Recommendations: Short Story

Short Story

Another very long list, a set of very worthwhile short stories.

Charlie Jane Anders, "Cake Baby" (Lightspeed, 11/17)
Charlie Jane Anders, "Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue" (Boston Review, Global Dystopias)
Tim Akers, "A Death in the Wayward Drift" (Interzone, 3-4/17)
Eleanor Arnason, "Daisy" (F&SF, 3-4/17)
Kelly Barnhill, "Probably Still the Chosen One" (Lightspeed, 2/17)
Tobias Buckell, "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance" (Cosmic Powers)
Tobias Buckell, "Shoggoths in Traffic" (Patreon, 4/17)
Rebecca Campbell, "The Fall of the Mundaneum, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 9/28/17)
C. S. E. Cooney, "Though She Be But Little" (Uncanny, 9-10/17)
Tina Connolly, "Pipecleaner Sculptures and other Necessary Work" (Uncanny, 11-12/17)
John Crowley, "This is Our Town" (Totalitopia)
John Crowley, “Spring Break” (New Haven Noir)
Scott Dalrymple, "Marcel Proust, Incorporated" (Lightspeed, 6/17)
J. R. Dawson, "Marley and Marley" (F&SF, 11-12/17)
Kate Dollarhyde, “Lamplighter’s Eve” (Lackington’s, Fall/17)
Andy Dudak, "Cryptic Female Choice" (Interzone, 7-8/17)
Tom Greene, "Necessary Illusions" (Analog, 1-2/17)
Giovanni de Feo, "Ugo" (Lightspeed, 9/17)
Jonathan Edelstein, "Of Letters They Are Made" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 6/22/17)
Kendra Fortmyer, "Octopus vs. Bear" (Lightspeed, 5/17)
Karen Joy Fowler, "Persephone of the Crows" (Asimov’s, 5-6/17)
A. T. Greenblatt, "A Place to Grow" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 5/11/17)
Nina Kiriki Hoffman, "Rings" (F&SF, 5-6/16)
S. L. Huang, "Time Travel is Only for the Poor" (Analog, 11-12/17)
Kameron Hurley, "The Fisherman and the Pig" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 9/28/17)
N. K. Jemisin, "The Evaluators" (Wired, 1/17)
Minsoo Kang, "The Sacrifice of the Hanged Monkey" (Fantastic, POC Take Over)
Alice Sola Kim, "One Hour, Every Seven Years" (McSweeney’s #49)
Matthew Kressel, "Love Engine Optimization" (Lightspeed, 6/17)
Naomi Kritzer, "Paradox" (Uncanny, 5-6/17)
Greg Kurzawa, "Soccer Fields and Frozen Lakes" (Lightspeed, 3/17)
Margo Lanagan, "Not All Ogre" (Singing My Sister Down)
Rich Larson, "An Evening with Severyn Grimes" (Asimov’s, 7-8/17)
Rich Larson, "Cupido" (Asimov’s, 3-4/17)
Emily St. John Mandel, "Mr. Thursday" (Slate, 3/17)
Kate Marshall, "Red Bark and Ambergris" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 8/17/17)
Bruce McAllister, "This is for You" (Lightspeed, 5/17)
Maureen McHugh, "Sidewalks" (Omni, Winter/17)
Linda Nagata, "The Martian Obelisk" ( 7/17)
Ray Nayler, "Winter Timeshare" (Asimov’s, 1-2/17)
Mari Ness, "You Will Never Know What Opens" (Lightspeed, 12/17)
Susan Palwick, "The Shining Hills" (Lightspeed, 8/17)
Dominica Phetteplace, "Oracle"(Infinity Wars)
Sarah Pinsker, "The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going" (Asimov’s, 3-4/17)
Vina Jie-Min Prasad, "Fandom for Robots" (Uncanny, 9-10/17)
Lettie Prell, "Emergency Protocol" (Analog, 9-10/17)
Madeline Ray, "Montreal 2014" (Mothership Zeta, 1/17)
Robert Reed, "The Significance of Significance" (Clarkesworld, 7/17)
Ryan Row, "Whatever Knight Comes" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 5/25/17)
Sofia Samatar, “An Account of the Land of Witches” (Tender)
Karl Schroeder, "Eminence" (Chasing Shadows)
Gord Sellar, "Focus" (Analog, 5-6/17)
Benjanun Sriduangkaew, "No Pearls as Blue as These" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 8/17/17)
Eric Schwitzgebel, "The Turing Machines of Babel" (Apex, 7/17)
Jack Skillingstead, "The Last Garden" (Lightspeed, 2/17)
Michael Swanwick, "Starlight Express" (F&SF, 9-10/17)
Molly Tanzer, "Nine-Tenths of the Law" (Lightspeed, 1/17)
Lavie Tidhar, "The Banffs" (Analog, 5-6/17)
Carrie Vaughn, "I Have Been Drowned in Rain" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 4/13/17)
Jamie Wahls, "Utopia LOL?" (Strange Horizons, 6/5/17)
Daniel Wallace, "Sea Girls" (Tin House, Summer/17)
Jo Walton, "A Burden Shared" (, 4/17)
Nick Wolven, "Confessions of a Con Girl" (Asimov’s, 11-12/17)
Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 5/11/17)
E. Lily Yu, "The White-Throated Transmigrant" (, 6/17)
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Adam-Troy Castro, "A Touch of Heart" (Lightspeed, 7/17)

Lots of excellent stories there. I do have some favorites. My nomination list will include five of these, and I have to admit, I don’t know right now which five.

Maureen McHugh, "Sidewalks" (Omni, Winter/17) – Rosni Gupta is a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County, and her latest case is a woman who speaks nothing but gibberish. Rosni assumes she is perhaps autistic, but on meeting her she realizes that is not the case, and soon learns what the gibberish really is. I’ll leave the secret for the reader to discover – not that it’s particularly a new notion – but the implications are powerful, and the characters are absolutely real.

Giovanni de Feo, "Ugo" (Lightspeed, 9/17) – About a girl who repeatedly meets a strange boy named Ugo, who claims to know their common future. Eventually he tells her that he experiences “Leaps” through time, when his older self goes into a sort of fugue and travels into his younger mind. The story follows their life, and their love affair, and careers – with the question always as to how it will end, for Ugo’s knowledge of the future only goes so far. There’s an obvious hint of The Time Traveler’s Wife here, but with a somewhat darker tint – and with an ambiguous ending twist. This is a very effective, moving, and thoughtful piece.

Charlie Jane Anders, "Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue" (Boston Review, Global Dystopias) – This concerns Rachel, who has been confined in an institution to cure her particular personal problem, as the state sees it – her belief that she is a woman, though she was born a boy. Her childhood friend Jeffrey is a functionary at this particular institution. And the method of “cure” is particularly horrific – not that her situation isn’t horrific no matter how the state wished to treat her. Anders has always had the ability to present truly agonizing situations with a superficially comic surface, which only makes the realization of the horror beneath more affecting – and never more so, I think, than in this story.

Sofia Samatar, “An Account of the Land of Witches” (Tender) – It opens with a lyrical narrative by Arta, a slave who is taken by her master (a merchant) to the Land of Witches, where she learns their magic – or Dream Science – which involves language and the manipulation of time. This is absolutely lovely writing, and the magical system is beautiful. There follows – ever in different well realized voices – a “refutation” of Arta’s account by her angry master; and then a desperate section told by a Sudanese woman trapped back home by visa problems (and local strife) as she tries to research the fragments that make up Arta’s account and her master’s refutation for her degree from a US university; then a lexicon of the witches’ magical language, and then a strange almost mystical account of a journey in search of the Land. This is really striking, original, and mysterious.

Linda Nagata, "The Martian Obelisk" (, 7/17) – set in a future in which a series of disasters, with causes in human nature, in environmental collapse, and in technological missteps, has led to a realization that humanity is doomed. One old architect, in a gesture of, perhaps, memorialization of the species, has taken over the remaining machines of an abortive Mars colony to create a huge obelisk that might end up the last surviving great human structure after we are gone. But her project is threatened when a vehicle from one of the other Martian colonies (all of which failed) approaches. Is the vehicle’s AI haywire? Has it been hijacked by someone else on Earth? The real answer is more inspiring – and if perhaps just a bit pat, the conclusion is profoundly moving.

Karen Joy Fowler, "Persephone of the Crows" (Asimov’s, 5-6/17) – is just wrenchingly brilliant, using apparently true (in story terms) fantastical elements in service of character examination, and in so doing resolves itself without really resolving any of the questions the fantastical elements might inspire. Which, to a devoted reader of the fantastic can be in a way disappointing. But on its own terms I think this story delivers. Polly is a 10-year old girl at who meets another girl who claims to have seen a real fairy. Polly is envious of the other girl for lots of reasons – money is one, parents are another, and Polly’s wishes for something better in her life only intensify that night – until the drive home, when her drunken father loses control of the car – and things get strange. Be careful what you wish for, perhaps? Though that sounds a bit facile – the story doesn’t quite go where you expect it to, and in the end we have a sharp portrayal of its main character and a sad look at her perception of her family.

Tobias Buckell, "Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance" (Cosmic Powers) – A starship maintenance robot, after a successful battle, by happenstance rescues a CEO of the enemy fleet, and finds himself inveigled/bribed/coerced into rendering assistance. The story turns on the complex intersection of intriguing speculation about AIs and identity, economics, contract law, moral law, free will and orbital mechanics. In other words, really cool stuff.  

Tobias Buckell, "Shoggoths in Traffic" (Patreon, 4/17) – is a clever Lovecraftian crime story, in which a couple of people steal (repossess!) a car from a drug dealer and try to take it to Miami – but on the way run into a weird highway exit and a biker magician and – well, you’ll not think of cloverleafs and other traffic patterns in quite the same way after this!

My Recommendation Posts:
Best Novel, Series, YA
Best Editor, Campbell Award

Saturday, February 3, 2018

2018 Hugo Recommendations: Novelette

This is my long list of novelettes I’ve considered for nomination, largely the list of those I put in the Recommended Reading section of my Locus reviews (with a few additions).

Daniel Abraham, “The Mocking Tower” (The Book of Swords)  
Nina Allan, “Neptune’s Trident” (Clarkesworld, 6/17)
Charlie Jane Anders, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” (Cosmic Powers
G. V. Anderson, “I Am Not I” (F&SF, 7-8/17)
Dale Bailey, “Come As You Are” (Asimov’s, 5-6/1)
R. S. Benedict, “My English Name” (F&SF, 5-6/17)
Maggie Clark, “Belly Up” (Analog, 7-8/17)
Samuel R. Delany, “The Hermit of Houston” (F&SF, 9-10/17)
Christopher East, “An Inflexible Truth” (Lightspeed, 8/17)
Greg Egan, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine(Asimov’s, 11-12/17)
Greg Egan, “Uncanny Valley” (, 8-17)
Kate Elliott, “’I am a Handsome Man’ said Apollo Crow” (The Book of Swords)  
Max Gladstone, “Crispin’s Model” (, 10/17)
Theodora Goss, “Come See the Living Dryad” (, 3/17)
Robert Grossbach, “Driverless” (F&SF, 3-4/17)
Austen Habershaw, “The Masochist's Assistant” (F&SF, 7-8/17)
Maria Dahvana Headley, “Black Powder” (The Djinn Falls in Love)  
Simone Heller, “How Bees Fly” (Clarkesworld, 2/17)
Chi Hui, “Rain Ship” (Clarkesworld, 2/17)
Xia Jia, “Goodnight Melancholy” (Clarkesworld, 3/17)
Mary Robinette Kowal, “The Worshipful Society of Glovers” (Uncanny, 7-8/17)
Yoon Ha Lee, “Extracurricular Activities” (, 2/17)
Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves” (Cosmic Powers)
Will McIntosh, “” (Asimov’s, 3-4/17)
Sean McMullen, “The Influence Machine” (Interzone, 3-4/17)
David Erik Nelson, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” (F&SF, 11-12/17)
Suzanne Palmer, “Books of the Risen Sea” (Asimov’s, 9-10/17)
Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots” (Clarkesworld, 9/17)
Susan Palwick, “Remote Presence” (Lightspeed, 4/17)
K. J. Parker, “Message in a Bottle” (The Djinn Falls in Love)  
Tony Pi, “That Lingering Sweetness” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 4/27/17)
Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove” (Asimov’s, 9-10/17)
Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “A Series of Steaks” (Clarkesworld, 1/17)
Robert Reed, “Leash on a Man” (F&SF, 9-10/17)
Robert Reed, “Dunnage of the Soul” (F&SF, 1-2/17)
Alastair Reynolds, “Night Passage” (Infinite Stars)
Kenneth Schneyer, “Keepsakes” (Analog, 11-12/17)
Hanus Seiner, “Hexagrammaton” (, 5/17)
Lavie Tidhar, “Waterfalling” (The Book of Swords)  
Genevieve Valentine, “Intro to Prom” (Clarkesworld, 10/17)
Will Waller, “Phantom Architecture” (Rivet Journal, Fall/17)
Peter Watts, “ZeroS” (Infinity Wars)
Alex Wells, “Angel of the Blockade” (, 9/17)

The top candidates for my ballot are:

1.       Yoon Ha Lee, “Extracurricular Activities” (, 2/17) – a quite funny, and quite clever, story concerning the earlier life of a very significant character in Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit. Shuos Jedao is an undercover operative for the Heptarchate, assigned to infiltrate a space station controlled by another polity, and to rescue the crew of a merchanter ship that had really been heptarchate spies, including an old classmate.

2.       Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots” (Clarkesworld, 9/17) – a very old bot on a battered Ship trying to stop an alien attack on Earth. It shows a surprising amount of initiative – even, one might say, imagination – in dealing with the Incidental. Might that not be useful in dealing with the aliens? Or might bots have their own ideas about their own place?

3.       Samuel R. Delany, “The Hermit of Houston” (F&SF, 9-10/17) – This is set some time in the future, in a strange future, hard to get a grip on (the best kind), from one angle seeming sort of pastoral utopia, from other angles utterly horrifying. It’s mostly about the narrator’s long-time lover, an older man named Cellibrex (sometimes), and about the hints he lets drop of some of the true nature of this future. There is extremely interesting treatment of gender, and of politics, and of law and custom and memory – and I don’t get everything that’s going on in the story, in a good way.

4.       Will McIntosh, “” (Asimov’s, 3-4/17) -- The story is scary, and morally provocative, and resolved with honesty. It’s about a man using an AI service to meet potential partners, and finding a really interesting woman – but somehow she never wants to meet in real life. Of course, she’s an AI – and the protagonist doesn’t react very well to that revelation.

5.       Peter Watts, “ZeroS” (Infinity Wars) -- posits a technology that turns soldiers into non-conscious actors – for it turns out the unconscious has spooky abilities. Which are pretty scary for the humans who end up sort of “riding” their unconscious – especially when they learn what their “zombie” selves are capable of. For an extra fillip of spookiness, the story is told from the POV of a soldier who actually died, and who has been resurrected by this particular technology – at an increasingly horrible price.

6.       Hanus Seiner, “Hexagrammaton” (, 5/17) –  A man serves as a sort of intermediary to Europans who have survived an alien virus, guiding a young woman to visit her father when he realizes she is infected with the virus – and with a purpose. Another thread shows a man – the same man? – in prison – and somehow both these threads seem to turn on understanding the alien language, and its multiple meanings for the same sentence. The linguistic weirdness reminded me of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, and though it’s not THAT good, it’s pretty weird cool stuff.

The other stories on the verge are Kenneth Schneyer’s “Keepsakes”, Alastair Reynolds’ “Night Passage”, Daniel Abraham’s “The Mocking Tower”, and Kate Elliott’s , “’I am a Handsome Man’ said Apollo Crow”.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Two of Ursula K. Le Guin's Lesser Known Novels

Two of Ursula K. Le Guin's Lesser Known Novels: The Beginning Place and Very Far Away From Anywhere Else

a review by Rich Horton

I wanted to take another look at some of the work of the great Ursula K. Le Guin, who died January 22, and in particular I wanted to write about a couple of less celebrated novels. So I chose two books I read when they came out, and enjoyed, but hadn't thought of much since then. The more significant of these is The Beginning Place, from 1980. This is an adult novel, though its protagonists are young (20), and I suspect when I first encountered it, when I was the same age as they, I thought of it as YA. The other book is a shortish novella, about 20,000 words, and undeniably YA, and also non-fantastical. This is Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, about two high achieving but lonely high school seniors falling in love, or at least in friendship. (I was also about the same age as the protagonists when I first read it.)

The covers shown are from the Bantam editions. I'm pretty sure I read Very Far Away From Anywhere Else first in the Atheneum edition, borrowed from the library, however. (The Beginning Place was also been published under the title Threshold in the UK.) (N.B. That is supposed to be Hugh on the cover of The Beginning Place but it doesn't look anything like him.)

The two books resemble each other in one quite significant way: both are stories about relatively young people, social misfits to some degree or other, who meet and fall in love. That is, I suppose, hardly an unusual plot -- indeed, stated that baldly, it approaches cliché. That said, the four main characters are each quite different to each other -- and The Beginning Place, not surprisingly, is a more complex novel, and is doing some interesting things with the classic portal fantasy structure. (Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, as noted, is not Fantasy at all.)

(Cover by Elizabeth Malczynski)
I'll note right here that I'll essentially be describing much of the plot of each book. I don't think that "spoiling" like this harms the books at all, but I know many people disagree. As a quick summary I can say that I enjoyed both books, though The Beginning Place is the better and more interesting book, and uses its fairly traditional portal fantasy plot very well in service of a story about people of our own world, who must ultimately make their home in our world.

So, then, the earlier and shorter book. Very Far Away From Anywhere Else is, unusually for Le Guin as far as I can recall, told in the first person, though the narrator, Owen Griffiths, makes sure to tell us that he's transcribing an oral account he recorded. Le Guin's care in acknowledging the narration is evident. This is something of a classical convention, I think. Owen is 17 at the time of the story's events, and a senior in High School, in a town on the Pacific Coast. (He notes that he is a year younger than his classmates, having got into school early. I found this a little odd because I was 17 until October of my Freshman year in college, and I never skipped a grade or anything, though Owen turns 17 in November, so he'd have been a month younger than me.)

Owen is, basically, a nerd, and the smartest kid in class, and he doesn't have any real friends. He loves his parents, but they clearly don't get him either. He wants to go to MIT (or maybe Cal Tech) and study the physiological basis of psychology, but his mother wants him to go to "State", which happens to be in town. He doesn't like sports, except he used to enjoy touch football. He's frustrated when his Dad buys him a car ... he doesn't want a car, he wants to be able to afford to go to MIT. (All this makes him sympathetic, perhaps particularly to someone like me, who was in a similar boat, though I've always liked sports -- but I think Le Guin stomps her feet a bit on what she thinks is virtue and what she thinks is wrongness.)

He happens to stumble into conversation on the bus one day with a classmate, and as it happens a neighbor, another senior, Natalie Field. Natalie is like Owen, except her obsession is not science but music. Specifically composition. Before long he and Natalie are close friends, willing to talk to each other about anything. Until Owen spoils it when he gets it into his head that he ought to want to have sex with her. And Natalie isn't ready. This all makes a lot of emotional sense. The resolution turns on a car crash, and the question of Owen attending MIT, and Owen's decision to see Natalie's songs performed even after they have drifted apart.

It's really a pretty simple novel -- not surprising at its length. I thought it a bit overdetermined at times -- the main characters a bit too too special -- aspects a bit unfairly moralizing. But it's still intensely enjoyable, and the final 10 or 20 pages are pretty powerful in their way. Not a great work -- but Le Guin at less than her best was still an effective writer.

The Beginning Place is an altogether more interesting novel. It is a pure portal fantasy, with a plot that at its most basic level is very traditional: a couple of characters, misfits to some extent in our world, find their ways (through a Portal) into another world, where it turns out they are the people needed to go on a Quest and Right a Wrong that threatens that world. But the novel is ultimately more interested in the two characters growing to realize that the true desolation they must resolve is that blighting their lives, in our world.

It alternates its viewpoint between the two main characters, each about 20. Hugh Rogers is working as a checker at a supermarket in an unnamed town. He lives with his mother, who is needy and controlling. He want to study library science and be a librarian, but he's constrained to follow his mother, who has moved multiple times since his father left them. He's stuck, and, worse, stuck in a lifeless and corrupted landscape. And one evening he just runs -- runs through his neighborhood and others and to a wooded area near a paint factory, and finds himself by a creek -- and drinks the water and feels, somehow, home.

Irene Pannis shares an apartment with a not terribly stable young couple. Her father has died, and her stepfather is both feckless and sexually threatening. She wants her own place, but seems destined to have to deal with life at her mother's. But, since she was 13 she has been able to find occasional refuge in another place -- beyond the same creek Hugh has found, in a land where time runs more quickly than in our world, where it is always twilight, and where she finds a town where she is welcome, where she makes friends, and feels at peace.

Irene discovers Hugh while he is sleeping by the creek, and resents what she considers an incursion. But the town -- Mountain Town, or Tembreabrezi, is threatened -- the roads cannot be traveled, and so they don't get the food they need, and can't sell what they make. It seems that Hugh is, in the classical portal fantasy sense, the hero who is needed, and Irene angrily brings him to Tembreabrezi. And they learn that Hugh can always get in to this world, and Irene can always get out. Hugh is enchanted by the Lord of the place, and his lovely blond daughter Allia, while Irene feels closer to the Mayor, or Master, a dark man.

As the home life of both Irene and Hugh gets worse -- Irene is forced to return to her mother and her grabby stepfather, and Hugh's mother is still colder to him -- they decide to spend the time in Tembreabrezi needed to satisfy whatever quest is called for. There is some resistance -- the Master's grandfather, at some cost (the whole nature not revealed) -- had saved the town long before. However, in the end it is Irene and Hugh alone who travel up the mountain, and we get hints of what prior sacrifice was required -- but the two force a different resolution. (There are reminders of the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story, and, too, Hugh remarks once, that with his father dead and his mother rejecting him, that he is a man without parents -- a significant remark, I thought.) The ultimate resolution of the main quest is, in an oddly appropriate way, a bit anticlimactic (though a true climax follows). And while Tembreabrezi is presumably restored, that's not what seems to matter. What matters is Hugh and Irene coming to realize that their true home is in our world -- and that they must make their own way there (together, as it happens).