Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Birthday Review: I Dare, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

I Dare, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Meisha Merlin, Decatur, GA, 2002, ISBN 1-892065-03-7, US$18.00, 472 pages

A review by Rich Horton

Steve Miller was born on July 31, 1950, and so I decided to resurrect this review I did for 3SF back in 2002. It's a fairly brief review, conforming to the format I used for 3SF.

[I should note that my favorite Liaden novels are a pair of books set a generation before the main plot line which was started in the first book (Agent of Change) and concluded in the book reviewed here, I Dare. Those books are Local Custom and Scout's Progress, books written in the early '90s but not published until 2001 by Meisha Merlin, and 2002 by Ace. Both have significant romance plots (unlike most of the Liaden books, which are more adventure oriented), and I really enjoyed them. I reviewed them for Dave Felts' small 'zine Maelstrom, but I've lost my copies of those reviews. (I have the Maelstrom issues somewhere, and maybe I'll retype them from the paper copies whenever I find them.)]

I will also add that Lee and Miller now publish with Baen, and I Dare and its immediate predecessor, Plan B, have been republished by Baen as Korval's Game.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller published their first Liaden books in 1989. The series was picked up by Meisha Merlin and continued in 1999. I Dare is the seventh novel, and it ends the long plot arc begun in the first book, though there is plenty of room for further books in the same universe.

This book follows Plan B, in which the powerful but controversial Clan Korval was forced by the machinations of the sinister Department of the Interior to abandon the Liaden main world, Liad. The current novel follows several threads. On the planet Erob, many of the main Korval Clan members are gathering to muster a force that can resist the Department, while back on Liad the wizard Anthora tries to maintain the home front. But Anthora may be getting help from an unexpected source … And the somewhat raffish gambler, Pat Rin, has been isolated from the rest of the Clan, and he gathers a beautiful gangster and some more friends and tries to set up another power base on an isolated, rather anarchic, world.

As the above summary might suggest, the book is rather busy, probably too much so. I think it could have benefited from judicious cutting, perhaps the complete excision of at least one thread. The authors also give the good guys such power (essentially magical powers) that too much suspense is leached from the conflict – they cannot lose. It's still exciting. I liked the sections with Pat Rin particularly. As usual, there is a heavy dose of romance to go along with plenty of action. It's by no means the best of the Liaden novels, and it's not a good place to start, but I Dare does resolve longstanding questions, and is should satisfy long time fans.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Birthday Review: Kalpa Imperial (and Trafalgar), by Angélica Gorodischer

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2003)

A review by Rich Horton

[Angélica Gorodischer turns 90 today, and in honor of her birthday, I'm posting this review I did for Locus Online back in 2003, and I've added the snippet I wrote about her book Trafalgar for Locus (the print version) in 2013. The original Locus Online review of Kalpa Imperial is here.]

Here before me is a delightful book, Kalpa Imperial, by Angélica Gorodischer. It is a fantasy about "The Greatest Empire That Never Was", as the subtitle has it. Gorodischer is Argentine, and the translation from the Spanish is by Ursula K. Le Guin -- a recommendation in itself! A portion of this book was published in Starlight 2 a few years ago. The voice seems very reminiscent of Le Guin: hard to say if that's reflective of the original work or of her translation.

The book is a compendium of several separate stories, mostly told by a professional storyteller (who also has an important additional role in one story), concerning the history of "The Greatest Empire That Never Was". Most of the stories tell of Emperors and Empresses, some good, some bad, some mad -- how they came to power, how they fell from power, how they ruled. The stories are often romantic, but the romanticism is tinged by a sort of earthiness, and a realism that does not quite become cynical. The stories are nicely imagined, sometimes funny, sometimes brutal. The whole is billed as a novel, but the stories work fine separately, and are really linked only by geography and the voice of the storyteller, so it's more a linked collection of short fiction, in my view.

There are eleven stories, or chapters, arranged in two books. The opening piece, "Portrait of the Emperor", tells us that a good man now sits on the throne of the Empire, and then goes on to tell of the founding of the empire, by a weakling boy who learned a different kind of strength. "The Two Hands" is a fable-like story of an usurper who ended up spending twenty years confined in his bedroom. "The End of a Dynasty, or The Natural History of Ferrets" tells of a young Crown Prince, son of a cruel Empress and a deposed Emperor, who grows up torn between the evil influence of his mother and the countervailing touch of a couple of kindly workmen. "Siege, Battle, and Victory of Selimmagud" is an ironic tale of a thief and deserter and his encounter with the General besieging the title city. "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities" is a lovely long description of the varying history of a Northern city, sometimes the capitol, sometimes ignored, sometimes something quite else.

Book two opens with "Portrait of the Empress", in which the storyteller who has been narrating these tales is recruited by the Great Empress to tell her of her Empire's history. She in turn tells him of the woman who rose from poverty to become the Great Empress. "And the Streets Empty" is a dark story of the vengeful destruction of a city by a jealous Empress. "The Pool" concerns a mysterious physician, and his encounters with those plotting to overturn the current dynasty. "Basic Weapons" is a colorful and macabre piece about a dealer in people, and a rich man, and obsession. "'Down There in the South'" is a long story of an aristocrat with a dark secret who is forced to flee from the ruling North to the rural South, and who is fated to change history when the North comes to invade. And "The Old Incense Road" tells of a mysterious orphan, a mysterious merchant, a caravan, and some "stories within the story", all eventually concerning another change of rulers.

The stories are full of humor and tragedy, of cynicism and romanticism, of secret identities, of wisdom and folly, of blood, of nobility. The fantastical elements are slim: this is perhaps what is called sometimes "Ruritanian" fantasy -- set in a different world that much resembles ours. At the same time the landscapes and characters and events are heightened in color, so that if there may not be overt magic, the ordinary seems magic enough. The feel is certainly fantastical.

It is often remarked that Americans (indeed, English language readers in general) tend not to read a lot of fiction in translation. This does seem true of SF readers -- we are happy enough to read books by Englishmen and Australians and even those wacky Canadians, but it tends to be hard to find books from other languages. I'm not sure this is entirely, or even largely, because Americans (or Englishmen or Australians or whomever) are particularly xenophobic. Rather, there isn't that much available in translation, for several reasons. Acquiring a foreign language book means the publisher (or author) must pay extra for a translator. Once translated the book is different from the original -- most likely not as good. (And a bad translation can do long-term harm, in part by making it harder still to obtain a good translation. (I have heard that the English publishers of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris have refused to contract for a new translation, even of such an important novel, even though the existing one is notoriously poor (apparently a two step job, Polish to French to English).)) Finally, the English language book market is pretty full of books in English -- perhaps publishers simply feel there are already enough books. (Perhaps in smaller countries there might be more pressure to find books published in other languages -- assuming the readers have the same appetite for fiction, but fewer writers to provide it.)

But even if our failure to read much SF in translation is understandable, it is nothing to be happy about. Thus I'm delighted to have a chance to praise a book from an Argentine writer. And I'm delighted that the translation reads wonderfully -- though to be sure I cannot speak directly to its accuracy. Kalpa Imperial is a lovely book -- praise is due Le Guin and to the folks at Small Beer Press for bringing it to our attention; and much praise is due Angélica Gorodischer for writing it.

[Added in 2018]

Happily, the amounted of translated SF available in the US has expanded tremendously, most notably evidence by Hugos for China's Cixin Liu and Hao Jingfang and for Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Indeed, short fiction in translation is a regular feature in magazines like Clarkesworld. As for Gorodischer, at least one more of her books has been translated into English, also SF: Trafalgar, back in 2013. Here's what I wrote about that book in the May 2013 Locus:

A few years ago Small Beer Press published the Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer's lovely mosaic novel (or linked story collection) Kalpa Imperial (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin). Now they give us another linked collection from Gorodischer, Trafalgar. (This time Amalia Gladhart does the translation.) The stories are all about a merchant named Trafalgar Medrano, who has a spaceship he calls the Clunker, and who travels all around the Galaxy buying and selling things, and more importantly, encountering strange planets and stranger societies. There is a sort of club story feeling to the tales -- almost a resemblance to Dunsany's Jorkens -- and there is also a hint of Le Guin in the ethnography. The book is enjoyable throughout -- Trafalgar's voice is absorbing, and so is that of the narrator (who may or may not be the same person throughout) -- and the societies Trafalgar encounters are interesting and wittily presented. My favorite was "Trafalgar and Josefina", a tale told to the narrator through her somewhat eccentric old Aunt Josefina, very very funny in its framing (that is, in Josefina's comments on the story) and turning darker as we learn of Trafalgar's visit to a planet with a very strict caste system, ruled by a randomly chosen person of a lower caste, who makes the mistake of falling for a married woman.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Birthday Review: A Young Man Without Magic, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

A Young Man Without Magic, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Tor, 2009)

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Lawrence Watt Evans' 64th birthday, so it seems appropriate to repost this review of a novel I really enjoyed a few years ago. Alas, the series this book started was canceled after the second volume.

Lawrence Watt-Evans' 2009 novel is A Young Man Without Magic. It is the first of a pair* -- not that Tor tells us that, as is too often their habit. It does end dramatically, and at a logical stopping point, but the story certainly isn't over. (And I really wanted to have the next book right then to continue reading!)

(*Actually, I believe seven novels were originally planned, but the publisher dropped the series after the second book.)

(cover by Scott Fischer)
Anrel Murau is the title character. Both his parents were sorcerers, who died in a magical accident. He was raised by his uncle, also a sorcerer, and the Burgrave of Alzur, a town in the province of Aulix, in the Empire of Walasia. In Walasia one becomes an aristocrat by displaying a talent for sorcery, and those of sufficient ability can become Burgraves (in control of a town) or Landgraves (in control of a province) or Margraves (in control of a border area). So Anrel is in an ambiguous state: he has grown up in an aristocratic milieu, but he is not one himself, and as the novel opens, after four years as a student in the capitol city, Lume, he is returning home and wondering what to do with himself. His best friend is his uncle's foster son, a child of commoners who showed sorcerous ability, Lord Valin. Lord Valin is a political firebrand who advocates more power for the common people, and as the current Emperor is apparently a fool, and has bankrupted the realm, his ideas have some currency, though Anrel thinks him foolish. At any rate, a Great Council is being called by the Emperor, and Valin hopes that real political change will result.

The local Landgrave, Lord Allutar, is a powerful sorcerer but, we are told, a rather nasty man. And soon we see him planning to execute a local commoner for a minor crime, thievery, in order to perform some black magic. Valin is furious, Anrel pragmatic, and Anrel's cousin, Lady Saria, oddly unmoved -- it seems she is scheming to marry Lord Allutar. Anrel finds himself trying to stop Valin from making an enemy of the much more powerful Allutar, with no success, all of which leads to a shocking event that drives Anrel to a curious action -- a political speech of his own, followed by a forced exile from his home province and a period of wandering with a group of witches (illegal sorcerers) until his path crosses Lord Allutar again, and the novel ends with an even more shocking event.

After a slightly slow beginning, in which we are perhaps told too much instead of shown. (For example, we are told that Lord Allutar is a bad man, but what we are shown at first is much more ambiguous.) But once Anrel is forced to take action of his own, the story picks up, and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. And as I said, by the end I was fully absorbed and I really wanted to start the next book right away.

I've glossed over most of the plot to avoid spoilers, as there are some interesting revelations that I think should be left for the reader to discover, but that make it hard to discuss details. It is much of a piece with Watt-Evans's typical work -- a hero who is determinedly "ordinary" and forced, mostly against his will, to take a larger role in events; a generally commonsensical approach to all aspects of the world: magic is quite rule-based, and controlled; politics is treated rather pragmatically and almost cynically but not quite; love affairs even are sort of backgrounded. Good solid work from a writer who never disappoints.

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Hawks of Arcturus, by Cecil Snyder III

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Hawks of Arcturus, by Cecil Snyder III (DAW, 1974)

a review by Rich Horton

Cecil Snyder III was born 20 July 1948, and on his 70th birthday last week I thought I ought to resurrect whatever I wrote when I first read this novel a couple of decades ago. But I couldn't find that -- so, crazily, I went ahead and reread the book, and I've written up my current thoughts.

About Snyder almost nothing is known. (In fact, at first I thought he might be a pseudonym.) But his  Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry says "US author ... should not be confused with his father, Cecil K. Snyder, Jr., also an author". And that remains the sum total of my knowledge.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
I used to cite The Hawks of Arcturus as one of the worst SF novels I have ever read, to stand with Jean Mark Gawron's Algorithm, or J. D. Austin's Second Contact, or Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars. So why reread it? As I said, crazy. But, curiously enough, for about half the book I was thinking, "Hey, this isn't so bad! It's not great, but it's kind of fun with a nice mystery ..." -- and, then, in the second half Snyder snatches awfulness from the jaws of mediocrity. He doesn' so much fail to stick the landing as bang the balance beam with his head on the way down and land flat on his back. But, that said, I think the vaguely promising opening lifts it from utterly awful to merely bad.

It opens on Earth, as the Arcturian Ambassador is confronted by one of his own people, En'varid, who demands that he support their warlike new Herald, Darlan, in a rebellion by Arcturus against the Dominions. The Dominions are an association of all the human worlds, which consist of a great number of human colonies on other planets, as well as Earth, which has been restored to life by the colonials in recent centuries. No actual aliens have ever been encountered. The Ambassador resists En'varid's request, because he knows that a war will be no good for anyone, and that Darlan is a dangerous man. En'varid himself, we learn, is plotting against Darlan, for his own advancement.

Then the POV shifts, to Chen, a young man who has just bought a new prospecting ship. He is hitching a ride on the large transport taking the Arcturans back home, and he soon encounters, and is enchanted by, En'varid's personal pilot, a beautiful woman named Alsar. Alsar takes him to a party thrown by the Arcturans, where he meets Darlan. And the next morning, Chen is arrested for the murder of En'varid ... it's clear he's being railroaded, as the murder must have been committed by someone from Darlan's delegation, for political reasons.

We learn Chen's own secrets ... he, an orphan, was raised by an old prospector named Inman, who had investigated a mysterious artifact made of crystallized helium. And Chen has a shard of crystal helium himself -- but he has no idea what it all means.

When they get to Arcturus Chen is rescued by Alsar, and taken to a remote location. He needs to hide from the Arcturan authorities, while Alsar returns to Darlan. But Chen is impatient, and escapes again, only to be picked up by Dominion authorities, and expelled from the planet.

Up to this point I was pretty interested. The Arcturan rebellion, trite as it was as a plot element, still showed signs of being interesting. Alsar -- femme fatale or true ally of the good guys? The mystery of the crystallized helium. Another mystery -- memories of strange past events that come to people (En'varid and Chen included) who use another mysterious artifact (that turns out to be helium too of course) -- these events seem to involved a group of humans escaping a system destroyed by a nova, and being pursued by the warlike enemy Andere.

But apparently Snyder didn't know where to go with this. Chen ends up pursuing clues about a series of novas and finds a strange planet. But somehow Darlan ends up there too, in an unusual ship. There is a star-busting weapon. There is a curious story concerning the histories of Inman, Darlan, and even Alsar and Chen. (There are more than a couple bits reminiscent of Star Wars, which, to be sure, came out three years after this novel -- I doubt any influence occurred in either direction.) Then a return to Arcturus, and a thoroughly unconvincing and weirdly unmotivated strange conclusion. I thought the prose deteriorated in the latter half as well -- I really wonder if Snyder didn't just lose interest in the whole thing.

I think the elements of the book could have made a middling decent light space opera -- nothing great, but something OK. But in the end it's a pretty bad light space opera.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Another Forgotten Ace Double: Cradle of the Sun, by Brian M. Stableford/The Wizards of Senchuria, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 47: Cradle of the Sun, by Brian M. Stableford/The Wizards of Senchuria, by Kenneth Bulmer (#12140, 1969, $0.75)

This review was first written in 2004. I'm reposting it today, on the occasion of Brian M. Stableford's 70th birthday.

A modest entry in the Ace Double series, pairing a very early Stableford novel -- in fact, his first novel -- with an ordinary piece from Bulmer's long career. Cradle of the Sun is about 48,000 words, The Wizards of Senchuria about 40,000. This is in some ways a perfect example of what the Ace Double format could allow: introducing a new writer to the SF audience with a somewhat unusual novel, but making the package more palatable to the nervous buyer by also including a routine, unsurprising but known quantity in the form of a veteran contributor's rather unambitious offering.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Kelly Freas)

Stableford was born in 1948, and his first story, a collaboration with Craig Mackintosh called "Beyond Time's Aegis", as by "Brian Craig", appeared when he was only 17, in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. He has also written as Kay Stirling, John Rose, and Francis Amery, though the Stirling and Rose pseudonyms may have only been in fanzines. (The "Brian Craig" pseudonym was later used for some gaming tie-ins and at least one more collaboration with Mackintosh. The Amery pseudonym was used for a brief series of stories in Interzone a few years ago.) He first attracted attention (though not very much, I suppose) with two series for DAW in the early 70s: the Hooded Swan books about a spaceship pilot named Grainger who is host to an alien mind-creature; and the Daedalus books, about an ecological mission to a variety of troubled colony planets. Stableford published quite a few books, mostly for DAW, until the early 80s. He reappeared in the late 80s with a highly-praised group of books about an Alternate Historical Victorian England with werewolves. Throughout the 90s his reputation has only grown, with an impressive list of rather hard SF stories mostly on biological themes, many linked as part of his "Emortality" future, which culminated in 6 novels, the last being last year's The Omega Expedition.

I am very impressed by Stableford's most recent work, which I think among the best biologically-oriented SF -- thoughtful, original, extrapolatively exciting. A few years ago I made a point of reading the Hooded Swan and Daedalus books, which are solid if minor work: rather cynical, often focussing on interesting biological ideas (especially in the Daedalus books), certainly worth a look, but not as good as his mature stuff.

The above couple paragraphs were written in the early 2000s. Since then Stableford has continued to publish prolifically, often with the small press Wildside, and he as also translated a great many 19th Century French novels of the fantastic.

Cradle of the Sun is pretty ambitious, imaginative, and in many ways characteristic of Stableford's later work. (Though it's certainly not as strange (nor as ambitious) as his later Ace Double The Blind Worm.) It's set in the far future, when Man is dying out: after an era of exploration, humankind collectively seems to have lost will and ambition. The rats have in the interim evolved to full intelligence, still living in some dependency on humans. A rat philosopher and a human Librarian meet and talk, and they come to the conclusion that both peoples will soon die out, victims of some sort of "psychoparasite". The only solution is a mission to the island of Tierra Diablo, suspected base of this parasite, and only a combined rat/human mission will possibly succeed.

Thus 6 people, 3 rats and 3 humans, set out for Tierra Diablo. The leader is Kavan Lochlain, said to be that last human who feels fear. He reacts to fear but confronting it -- thus he is a good choice to venture into scary territory. There is also the sense that his fear is one of the positive emotions humans have been robbed of by the psychoparasite. He is accompanied by a beautiful aquatically adapted woman and a tiger man (humans have bioengineered themselves in many ways), and by the philosopher rat Anselmas and two more. Kavan carries a bomb which will destroy whatever they find.

Their journey takes them through some intriguing territory, and they meet some strange people -- flyers, and snake people, and so on. At the same time an invasion by mechanical hive-minded insect creatures destroys the Library and the nearby fastness of the rats. Eventually the group reaches the sea and battles their way across, encountering further hive minded creatures, flyers this time, before getting to Tierra Diablo. Inevitably they suffer great losses, until Kavan finally faces his greatest fears and discovers the creature behind the psychoparasite. The eventual revelation of this creature's nature and motives is a bit of a letdown, I will say. Still, the story is a decent read. There's plenty of adventure, some neat SFnal creatures, and an OK resolution. Kavan is a dour, anti-romantic, hero, of at least some interest, though for the most part he and the other main characters are types and not well-rounded people. Obviously Stableford has done much better -- did much better almost right away -- but this is not a first novel to be ashamed of.

Kenneth Bulmer (actual first name Henry) is an English writer, who retired in about 1988, and died in 2005. He wrote in the neighborhood of 100 novels, including the "Dray Prescot" series for DAW under the name "Alan Burt Akers". He also contributed 15 Ace Double halves. And he was the editor for the last 9 volumes of the English original anthology series New Writings in SF. I've found what little of his work I've read to be modestly enjoyable adventure fiction, perhaps a bit slapdash in construction -- I suppose entirely typical of what one would expect from a writer of such prolificity.

The Wizards of Senchuria turns out to be from the middle of an 8 book long series, which the ISFDB collectively calls "Keys to the Dimensions". I will admit I did not suspect that it was part of a series until the end, where one villain remains unvanquished. Knowing that it is part of a series explains some problems I had with the book -- basically, the rapid introduction to an overarching "war" of sorts, which main conflict is quickly abandoned, and only touched on towards the end, never resolved. That problem aside, the book stands alone tolerably, in that it does tell a central story that is finished in this novel. [I later read a couple further books in this series, and those reviews have been posted here as well.]

Scobie Redfern is looking for dinner in Manhattan when he steps into a cab with a big man who seems in a hurry. Soon they are being chased by mysterious beings, and Scobie finds himself snatched away -- as he soon learns, to another dimension, a parallel world. The big man and his friends seem to be the good guys in a war between the dimensions, the foe being the evil Contessa. But before long Scobie is captured and enslaved by the Contessa, only to join a group from yet another parallel world, who plan to escape with the help of one of their own, a beautiful girl named Val who turns out to be a Porteur. Porteurs have the ability to find and open gates between the dimensions, and Val does so, and soon the ragged remnants of their party have struggled through a world or two and seem to have found safety.

The lovely world they find is called Senchuria, but it contains much danger, too. First there are the crystals that radiate paralyzing hate. Then they are captured and cured -- even rejuvenated. But somehow all the men and women are feeling lust for each other -- in Scobie's case, lust for Val. He senses that this is unnatural and tries to resist, soon realizing that the Senchurians -- the Wizards of Senchuria -- feed on emotions, hate, love, anger, fear -- using them somehow to help resist yet ANOTHER inimical force fighting between the dimensions. For, you see, the Senchurians are actually good guys ...

And so it goes, Scobie and Val being recruited to help the Senchurians (after putting up noble resistance), going to yet another dimension, briefly encountering the Contessa, ... Oh yes, and finally falling in love with each other for real. The ending is abrupt, and as I mentioned leaves a major thread, the war with the Contessa, dangling completely. But I'm sure Bulmer gets to that in later books (the last, a 1983 DAW novel, is called The Diamond Contessa, after all). In sum, a bit of a mess of a novel, not very tightly structured at all, not very logical, but mildly amusing light fun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Classic Dunsany Collection

The Collected Jorkens, Volume I, by Lord Dunsany, edited by S. T. Joshi, Night Shade Books, Portland, OR, 2004, US$35, ISBN: 1-892389-56-8

A review by Rich Horton

I wrote this review for Locus back in 2004, and on this the 140th anniversary of Edward James Moreton Drax Plunkett's birth, it seems appropriate to repost it here.

Lord Dunsany's reputation is founded on his highly atmospheric, often ironic, often Romantic, fantasies: several collections of short stories from the first two decades of the past century, and novels such as The King of Elfland's Daughter. These are remarkable works, and extraordinarily influential – I would call him the second most influential fantasist of the 20th Century. But he wrote little in that vein after 1924. What was he writing later in his career? Partly, an enormous wad of tales told in a club, by an aging raconteur named Joseph Jorkens, a man who seemed to have traveled everywhere. These stories are the admitted model for Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart; and presumably at least an indirect model for many further bar tales. (Though one should not forget P. G. Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner.)

These stories are full of ironic humor, much coming from Jorkens' insistence that, at the very least, none of his tales can be proven false. He is quite sensitive about this, and those few club members who doubt him often get a subtle comeuppance. Fortunately, the frame narrator (ostensibly Dunsany himself) is always ready with a whiskey and a prompt to urge another story from Jorkens. Dunsany's control of both his narrative voice and of Jorkens' voice is a continuing pleasure.

The humorous aspect of the Jorkens tales seems at the forefront of their reputation, but in fact many or most of the stories have rather a different flavor taken separately from their frame. To be sure, some are downright funny – I delighted at the perfectly prepared punchline to "A Drink at a Running Stream", in which the notorious whiskey drinker one-ups the rest of the club in describing the best drink he ever had. But more often the stories have a tinge of horror, as with the stalking trees in "A Walk to Lingham"; or Jorkens' terrifying climb in "The Golden Gods". There is also often a very characteristic Dunsanian melancholy, as in "The Witch of the Willows", wherein Jorkens is offered the love of a beautiful witch but rejects her for the ordinary England of the 20th Century – and regrets his choice forever. Surely a metaphor for the loss of the unspoiled countryside in exchange for mod cons. Other tales are mainly tall tales, amusing in their exaggeration but not laugh out loud funny, as in "The Escape from the Valley", in which Jorkens carefully calculates how many ducks are required to lift him into the air.

Dunsany is naturally best known as a fantasist, and most of these stories are either fantasies or somewhat implausible adventure tales. But he does venture into Science Fiction once or twice, in particular with two tales of journeys to Mars. These are "Our Distant Cousins" and "The Slugly Beast", in which a friend of Jorkens travels to Mars by aeroplane. These are not terribly hard SF, to be sure, but they do offer the real SF frisson, and the real Jorkens snap as well.

I was thoroughly enchanted by this collection – a marriage of elegant and balanced prose, wry and ironic humor, and an always fertile imagination. Very highly recommended.

A Little-Remembered Ace Double: Gather in the Hall of the Planets/In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, by K. M. O'Donnell (Barry N. Malzberg)

Ace Double Reviews, 39: Gather in the Hall of the Planets, by K. M. O'Donnell/In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories, by K. M. O'Donnell (#27415, 1971, $0.75)

a review by Rich Horton

Barry Malzberg was born July 24, 1939, so I have posted this old review I did of one of his Ace Doubles. (I've made some slight updates.)

This Ace Double is one of those that consists of a novel backed with a story collection by the same author. Gather in the Hall of the Planets is the novel, a short one of some 33,000 words. In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories is a collection of 15 stories, mostly quite short, totaling some 29,000 words. K. M. O'Donnell published a total of four Ace Double halves in three different books.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Karel Thole)

"K. M. O'Donnell" is an open pseudonym of Barry N. Malzberg's (acknowledged as such, a bit coyly, inside this book). The name K. M. O'Donnell is apparently derived, delightfully, from "Kuttner", "Moore", and the Kuttner/Moore pseudonym "Lawrence O'Donnell". Malzberg is one of the more interesting and individual figures in SF. He came to some prominence in the 70s as rather overtly a writer of the "New Wave" (if his best work came slightly after the New Wave hit the shore): his most characteristic stories and novels used SFnal tropes to explore what J. G. Ballard in his seminal 1962 New Worlds essay called "Inner Space". Many of Malzberg's heroes were neurotic men, approaching middle age, with unhappy but often quite active sex lives, with constant worries that they were failures, and with a concomitant concern that the world was a fallen place as well. Many of his heroes were SF writers, leading him rather often to write "self-referential" stories, some collected in The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg. He famously won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel for Beyond Apollo (1972), a fine book about neurotic astronauts. A number of writers associated with Analog, including Poul Anderson, protested this award on the grounds that Malzberg's fiction was actively anti-Campbellian.

Malzberg began publishing in 1967, and attracted considerable attention in 1968 with his Nebula nominated novelette "Final War". He was extremely prolific through the mid-70s. I seem to recall that he publicly retired from SF writing, as was then fashionable (see Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg for other examples). As with those other writers, he returned, though he has never been as prolific in the ensuing years. He has also done a great deal of critical writing, much of it displaying real love for SF mixed with despair for its artistic failures. Some of the best of this work is collected in The Engines of the Night (a Hugo nominee and Locus Award winner for Best Non-Fiction). Early in his career he was briefly editor of Amazing and Fantastic, after Ziff-Davis sold the magazines to Sol Cohen of Ultimate Publishing and as a consequence Cele Lalli relinquished the editorship. During this period a few people helmed the magazines, also including Harry Harrison and Cohen himself, and much of the fiction printed therein was reprints. Malzberg was also a fee reader for the notorious Scott Meredith Literary Agency, as described in his article from last year's Special Barry Malzberg edition of F&SF (June 2003). He returned to agenting in recent years, though now (as I believe) he is retired, and he has produced the occasional story continually for some time. He also has written a series of essays, first in Baen's Universe, later in Galaxy's Edge, again on the history of SF, with the same loving but often tragic view of the field as in The Engines of the Night. These have recently been collected as The Bend at the End of the Road.

When I first began buying SF books on my own, in 1974, I bought a lot of Malzberg's books. One reason is that they were slim and comparatively cheap: he really did publish a lot of novels. In fact his publishers (mainly Pocket Books) used to trumpet his sales on the back of his books: "Over 5 Million Copies in Print" or something like that. What I didn't realize for a while was that that number wasn't quite as impressive when divided by the many novels Malzberg had put out (and also it was somewhat inflated by one movie tie-in: Phase IV.) All that said, I really did enjoy his books. They were clever and thoughtful and effectively dour and often quite mordantly funny. (They were also somewhat repetitive.) What I liked best was the voice, a very noticeable and characteristic voice, detectable in his non-fiction as well, wry, marked by long sentences and asides and a particular rhythm.

Gather in the Hall of the Planets is about a Science Fiction writer named Sanford Kvass. He is approached by aliens who tell him that Earth is being tested: an alien will appear in disguise at the 1974 World Science Fiction Convention, and unless Kvass can unmask the alien Earth will be destroyed. Kvass is already suffering from writer's block and he owes his agent $800, so this hardly improves his mood.

The bulk of the action takes place at the Worldcon. Naturally a big part of the joke is that SF fans and writers are strange enough that there is no way you can tell if one of them is an alien. That said, I'm proud that I figured out who the actual alien was pretty quickly. (Assuming there really were any aliens -- it's possible to read things as Kvass having gone insane.) Besides Kvass's search for the alien, there are passages describing rather cynically a typical convention, with annoying fans, sex-mad quasi-groupies, and drunk pros. There are what seem to be portrayals of a few well-known SF figures: A. E. van Vogt, Sam Moskowitz, Fred Pohl, Damon Knight, John Campbell, and probably others I missed. There is also some discursion on the frustrating life of the writer. All in all, it's pretty fun, not a great book to be sure (and with signs of carelessness, such as a character born in 1945 being 25 years old -- reflecting perhaps the time of writing of the book, but not the time of the action), but enjoyable.

The stories in In the Pocket are, as mentioned, mostly pretty short. Again, they are generally enjoyable but I don't think they represent the best of Malzberg's early work (which I think ended up mostly in an earlier Ace Double half, Final War and Other Fantasies). Five of the stories are original to the collection, the others appeared in F&SF, Venture, Galaxy, If, Amazing, Fantastic, and the anthologies Nova and Infinity.

I particularly liked "The New Rappacini", about a man resurrecting his dead wife; "Gehenna", about three characters crossing paths at a party in New York City; "The Falcon and the Falconeer", about a Nativity play presented on an alien planet; "A Question of Slant", about an SF writer turning to porn; and a couple of cute time travel stories, "July 24, 1970" and "What Time was That?". In general, a lesser collection but still not bad reading.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gardner Dozois

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois would have been 71 today (23 June 2018). As I have done for a few other people, I thought a Birthday Review composed of stories I've reviewed of his for Locus would be nice. The problem is, Gardner's best work as a writer came before I started reviewing.

(Cover by Paul Alexander)
So, I grabbed my copy of his first collection (The Visible Man, 1977), and reread three of my absolute favorite Dozois stories. I also reread Robert Silverberg's introduction, in which he seemed convinced that Gardner was a woman -- no, wait! That was another book! Silverberg, instead, notes Dozois' exceptional prose skills, and places him as a writer working on the edges of Science Fiction -- he writes "much of what he has written is only marginally science fiction by my own fairly restrictive definitions". (For all that, Silverberg published Dozois repeatedly in New Dimensions.) The interesting point is that Gardner, over time, evolved a similarly restrictive definition of SF.

Anyway, I'll cover these three stories much as I might have had I been reviewing for Locus in the '70s.

"Horse of Air" (Orbit 8, 1970)

"Horse of Air" is one of Gardner Dozois' very bleakest stories, which is saying something. It is told in three voices, two of them the same middle-aged man living in a huge Apartment Tower in a much-decayed future city, one of them some sort of observer, perhaps simply the omniscient narrator. The man observes the outside world from his balcony, which we soon gather is a sort of prison; and his dueling internal voices soon make it clear that his main thoughts are vicious and revengeful. He dreams of some apocalyptic event he can set in motion, and of the aliens who will be the agency of that event. We slowly realize his true position -- why he is where he is, why he can't escape; and the portrait is of a rather ugly person in a very ugly future. And the prose reflects this ugliness -- and still somehow reaches for a mad transcendence by the end. [This seems like one of the stories that Silverberg respected but didn't quite consider SF.]

"A Special Kind of Morning" (New Dimensions 1, 1971)

[I loved this story on first reading it in High School, in a copy of New Dimensions 1 that I borrowed from my school library. It absolutely holds up. It was probably the first story by Dozois to attract major attention.] This story is told by a very old man, one-legged, to a much younger man. They are on the planet Kos, part of the Commonwealth. The frame device is beautifully handled, and very effective. The prose is Dozois at his very best. And it's pure SF -- set on another world, and quite cunningly introducing a rather horrifying and very science-fictional background. The old man tells the story of when he lost his leg. He was a soldier, in the old war on a different planet -- World -- in which the Quaestors overthrew the Combine, leading to World's entry into the Commonwealth. He's fighting for the Quaestors, and the first scene has him observing the utterly terrible destruction of the Combine's second city, D'Kotta. Dozois's extended description of this destruction is magnificent. Here's a short extract: "Did y'ever watch the sea lashed by high winds. The storm boils the water into froth, whips it white, until it becomes an ocean of ragged lace to the horizon, whirlpools of milk, not a fleck of blue left alive. The land looked like this at D'Kotta." D'Kotta destroyed, his team's mission is to lure down a ship carrying reinforcements for the Combine, and destroy it. So far, so simple, but all along we have hints of strangeness -- clones, and nulls, and zombies, and hereditary executive clones, and disembodied brains in the Cerebrum. And all this becomes slowly more personal, and more central to the old man's story -- leading to a powerful resolution.

"The Visible Man" (Analog, December 1975)

[I remember being surprised and excited to see a Dozois story in Analog, and very impressed by the result. I believe I nominated for a Novelette Hugo in what was my first nomination ballot.] George Rowan is a criminal, being transported to Boston for punishment. He has already been treated in an important way: he cannot see any living animal or human. The car appears an empty self-driving car to him, for example. But he gets a fortuitous chance to escape when the car has a blowout, and he runs, still unable to see anyone. Someone he gets to a town (not without running into some people) and then to a shopping center, where he can disguise himself as a blind man. And he is helped by some mysterious people, who tell him how to get to the sea, to escape to Canada and South America, and join the resistance. This is action filled, fascinating writing, and the terror of Rowan's curious semi-blindness is excellently portrayed, leading to a dramatic conclusion. There is a bit of a gimmick ending -- clever enough, and I think I liked it more at age 16 than I do now -- it might have been better if it stopped a paragraph or two earlier. Still, a strong story.

And now the reviews I did for Locus of some of Gardner's later stories -- which were always well done and interesting, but lacked the drive and passion of his best early work.

Locus, April 2002

Another light-toned contribution from the April 2002 F&SF is Gardner Dozois' "The Hanging Curve", the magazine's annual April issue baseball story -- this one about the last pitch in a World Series Game 7, a pitch that literally hangs in the air, unmoving and immovable.  Nice if quite minor.

Locus, June 2006

Best this time around at F&SF was Gardner Dozois’s "Counterfactual", an interestingly different take on alternate histories of the Civil War. This is set in an alternate world, in which the South still lost the war but in which Lee never surrendered but escaped to fight a long guerrilla war, still ongoing in the 1930s. A journalist named Cliff from the Minneapolis Star, also a writer of Counterfactuals, is traveling to Montgomery, Alabama, to report on the ceremony welcoming Alabama back into the Union. He speculates on a possible alternate history, in which Lee decided to surrender. The depiction of Cliff’s real world -- rather a depressing one -- is of course the main point of the story. For veteran SF readers of course further interest comes from recognizing the main character -- and one other character, less obviously a well-known writer.

Locus, January 2017

F&SF for November/December features a rare and welcome appearance from Gardner Dozois, whose fame as an editor should not cause us to forget how good his fiction is. "The Place of Bones" is a short stylish dark fantasy told by the tutor of a younger son of a French nobleman. The young man becomes a prodigious scholar, and discovers a way into the mysterious Dragonlands, somewhere not quite in Southeastern Europe. The tutor tells of their desperate trip into these lands, from whence no one returns, and what they find -- or hope to find -- there.

Locus, February 2018

There is other strong work here (F&SF, January/February 2018) -- for example a sharp-edged story, "Neanderthals", from Gardner Dozois, pitting an enhanced time traveler against a recreated Neanderthal bodyguard, leading to a cynical resolution.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Birthday Review: Kelly Link

Birthday Review: The Short Fiction of Kelly Link

Recently I mentioned how much I like Genevieve Valentine's short fiction, and I noted that she might be my favorite contemporary short fiction writer. And then I immediately noted that at last she's "in the conversation". By which I mean I have several favorites, and the one I'd pick on any given day can change. And one of my other absolute favorites is Kelly Link, who was born July 19, 1969. Which is almost a REALLY REALLY significant day in world history, I might add -- and in a very science fictional (and scientific) way!

Anway, here's a selection of my reviews of Kelly Link's short fiction, from Locus between 2004 and 2008. That leaves out a lot -- I covered her work in other venues earlier, and in Locus later, and I've liked it from the beginning. (I remain quite proud of noticing her first story, in Asimov's, and recommending it for a Hugo nomination.)

Locus, December 2004

And the real standout, one of my favorite stories of the year, is "The Faery Handbag", by Kelly Link. Genevieve is a girl in love with a boy named Jake. Genevieve also has an eccentric Grandmother, Sofia, who comes from Baldeziwurlekistan, which makes her hard to beat in Scrabble. Sofia has a special handbag, which, she says, holds her home village, placed there to escape the War. I shouldn't say more -- it's a neat story in itself, neater still because of Link's storytelling voice -- and I'm looking forward to more stories about Genevieve.

Locus, July 2005

Finally, the title story, "Magic for Beginners", is one of my favorite stories of this year. I was grabbed from the beginning lines: "Fox is a television character, and she isn't dead yet. But she will be, soon. She's a character on a show called The Library. You've never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had." Indeed I do! But the story isn't really about Fox -- it's about Jeremy Mars, a 15-year-old boy with a writer father and a librarian mother and a four close friends and, it turns out, an interest in a Las Vegas wedding chapel and a phone booth. Delight is the best word -- I was delighted every second to be reading this story.

(My feelings haven't changed! What a story, what a great great story.)

Locus, April 2006

Naturally one of the stories I most looked forward to was Kelly Link’s "The Wizards of Perfil", and this is indeed a very enjoyable piece, though not as good as her best work. A boy named Onion and his disagreeable cousin Halsa, as well as Halsa’s mother and brothers, are fleeing a war that has already their other parents’ lives. Money is short, so when a reprensative of the reclusive Wizards of Perfil offers to buy a child, one of them must go. Onion, who may be telepathic, seems a natural candidate to sell to the representative of the reclusive wizards, but somehow Halsa is sold instead. As we expect with Link, the story goes in unexpected directions, telling of both Onion and Halsa and the very reclusive wizards -- though I must say the resolution was exactly what I expected. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Locus, November 2007

Kelly Link’s "The Constable of Abal" is perhaps the best here. Zilla and Ozma are a mother and daughter who can see ghosts. They have had to flee Abal after Zilla killed a constable who was investigating some lucrative blackmail she was getting up to. But the ghost of the constable accompanies them, and eventually they fetch up in another town, at the house of the mysterious Lady Fralix. Who, in good time, will teach Ozma what she needs to know about her mother and herself. It is another delight from Link, charmingly told, original, fun and wise.

Locus, January 2008

And it will probably surprise few that my favorite story here is from Kelly Link. "Secret Identity" is about a superhero convention -- apparently with real superheroes, making this the one fantastical piece in the book -- and a girl who pretended to be her older sister and is now hoping for a rendezvous with an older man she "met" online. Which is as awkward as you might expect, and handled perfectly by Link: and not quite as you expect either.

Locus, January 2008

Kelly Link offers a truly remarkable story, "Light", which as with many Link stories is best read, not read about. But, briefly, it concerns Lindsey, who lives in a Florida a lot like the Florida we know. But not exactly -- for example, there are the "sleepers". Lindsey’s job is to manage a warehouse used by the government to house people found sleeping, unwakeable. And there are pocket universes, which can be explored, and toured, and even retired to, as with Lindsey’s parents. Lindsey also has an ex-husband, and a fairly crazy brother … and I don’t want to say much more but that it is wonderful as ever with Kelly Link, and that it is resolved perfectly.

Locus, May 2008

Kelly Link’s "The Surfer" is set in the near future. A Balkanized U.S. is descending to economic and political chaos. Its health care system is helpless in the face of a series of new flus -- and so Dorn’s father, a Doctor, grabs Dorn from soccer practice and whisks him down to Costa Rica. There they spend a short while in quarantine, waiting for a chance to join a colony centered around a surfer who was verifiably abducted by aliens and is waiting for their return. The SFnal furniture here is interesting -- the plausible and depressing near future, the potential aliens, Costa Rica’s dreams of a space program. But the story is about Dorn, his dreams of being a star soccer goalie, his immaturity, his interactions with a couple of girls also in quarantine. And, yes, his growth, in classic YA fashion -- but his growth seems earned, and isn’t implausible or excessive. And anyway it’s Kelly Link, which means the telling is enchanting.

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Merton, Colonist (aka Canadian Born), by Mrs. Humphry Ward

Old Bestseller Review: Lady Merton, Colonist, by Mrs. Humphry Ward

a review by Rich Horton

Mary Augusta Ward is considered an English writer, and she spent the great bulk of her life in England, but she was born in Tasmania in 1850. Her father was Tom Arnold, a school inspector in Tasmania and later a Professor of Literature at the University of Dublin, then a lecturer in History at Oxford. Her grandfather was Thomas Arnold, the legendary Headmaster of Rugby College, and her uncle was the great poet ("Dover Beach") and critic Matthew Arnold. Her brother-in-law was Thomas Huxley, and so her nephews were Julian and Aldous Huxley. (Aldous was named after a character in one of her novels.) Mary Augusta married Humphry Ward, a lecturer at Oxford, later a journalist. Their son, Arnold (natch!) became a Member of Parliament. She began publishing with a children's book (Milly and Olly) in 1881. She published her books as by Mrs Humphry Ward. Later in her life she became a leading opponent of women's suffrage, and the head of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. That stance seems uncharacteric today, for she was otherwise very active in liberal causes of the day: she was a campaigner for better education for the poor (she founded a school now called the Mary Ward Centre), she set up a sort of day care center to allow poor women to work more easily, and she promoted University education for women, initially starting the "Lectures for Women" program at Oxford. .

Her first major success, and still probably her best-known novel, was Robert Elsmere (1888). There were no bestseller lists at the time, but I suspect it would have ranked very highly on any such list. It's the story of a churchman and the problems in his marriage caused by his theological differences with his much stricter wife. I saw a copy once and passed -- it looked rather dry. Two of her novels, Lady Rose's Daughter (1903) and The Marriage of William Ashe (1905), were each the bestselling novel of their year in the US, according to Publishers' Weekly.

The novel at hand was serialized in 1909 and came out in book form in 1910. It was published in England as Canadian Born, but retitled Lady Merton, Colonist, in the US. I bought it in part because it looked like a good read, but also because of another feature of the physical book. It has a broad piece of tape over the lower part of the cover, labeled Famous Circulating Library, "Books One Cent a Day". Commercial circulating libraries were once a major means of book distribution, but by about the middle of the 20th century they disappeared, rendered unnecessary by the spread of public libraries, and the introduction of relatively cheap paperback editions.

My edition, possibly the American first, was published by Doubleday, Page. There is a frontispiece by Albert Sterner. (His version of Lady Merton does not match my image of her.) It is signed by, I assume, the first owner, Bee V. McBride, who lived on 9107 Virginia Ave. (There are probably many Virginia Avenues, but I assume this is the one I am fairly familiar with, on the South Side of St. Louis.)

The book opens with 28 year old widow Elizabeth, Lady Merton, on a train in the middle of Canada, accompanying her brother Philip in a private car on a trip from Quebec to Vancouver. (Her late father was a major investor in the railroad.) Lady Merton's husband died in the Boer War, very shortly after their marriage.

She finds herself enchanted by the Canadian landscape, to the point of boring her brother, who is much younger, and in doubtful health (not helped by his drinking). Then, somewhere in Manitoba, the train is halted because a sinkhole has made the track unusable. While repairs are made, she meets an energetic mining engineer now working for the railroad, who arranges for their comfort while supervising repairs to the track. She takes an immediate interest in this man, George Anderson, a native of Manitoba, and she is fascinated by his advocacy for Canada and its future. Anderson, it soon becomes clear, is a man going places -- soon he will stand for the Canadian Parliament. He soon begins to have an influence on Philip, as well.

So, you can see where THAT is headed. But there are complications. For one, Elizabeth's birth and wealth and the fact that her home is in England seem to make a relationship with a Canadian inappropriate. Add to that the fact that she already has a courter -- Arthur Delaine, a 40 year old Englishman who feels the need to marry, and who thinks Elizabeth appreciates his fascination with the classics. And Delaine happens to show up in Winnipeg, with the evident intention of fixing his position with Lady Merton.

The more severe complication, however, is George Anderson's family history. His father was an alcoholic, who caused his house to burn down, killing Anderson's mother and sisters, while he was drinking. Anderson thinks his father dead, but a mysterious man is following him to Vancouver ... and at a stop in the mountains, this man approaches Delaine -- telling him, of course, that he is Anderson's father.

Much ensues -- an attempt by Anderson to rehabilitate his father, an attempt by his father to rope Anderson in on a dicey mining venture, Anderson rescuing Philip from drowning, and then his father escaping and getting involved in a criminal venture, with fatal results.

It's all pretty enjoyable stuff, though by the end it wears out its welcome just a bit, as Elizabeth returns to England, and Philip's health becomes a determining factor. I thought that something of an unnecessary complication, to be sure, and in the end, things resolve more or less as we have expected all along, with a curious epitaph recording an episode of the happy couple's life in Canada.

So, as I said, I did enjoy this book. It's not as didactic as the reputation of some of Mrs Ward's other novels, though to be sure she is quite clear on the proper place of a woman as her husband's support in a marriage. (That said, she is also quite clear on a woman's right to choose her own life within those constraints, and a woman's value and versatility and also her right to an education.) More than anything, the novel is a paean to Canada, especially to the dream of Canada as it was becoming its own nation, as it was experiencing its own version of Manifest Destiny. I wonder -- is it remembered at all in Canada?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller

Birthday Review: Land of the Golden Clouds, by Archie Weller (1998)

a review by Rich Horton

Archie Weller was born 13 July 1957. He is mixed race, Australian aboriginal and white, and he is well known and respected for his fiction on aboriginal life in contemporary Australia. In 2000 I contributed a review to the American journal Antipodes, which concerns Australian literature. I covered Weller's second novel, Land of the Golden Clouds, which is Science Fiction, as well as a rather dreadful fantasy novel, The Alchemist's Key, by Traci Harding. As for Land of the Golden Clouds, I found it a mixed bag -- a work of some ambition, that mostly fails. It's tedious for long stretches, and the SFnal aspects are pretty silly. At any rate, here's what I wrote about that book (somewhat revised for wording).

Land of the Golden Clouds is set 3000 years after a nuclear war had devastated the human technological society. Ilgar, a young man of a hunter-gatherer tribe descended from Australia's white inhabitants, is a "moon-talker", who prophesies the future based on what he sees in the night sky. His tribe and others in Australia, including the "Keepers of the Tree", descendants of the aboriginals, live in fear of night-time raids from the cave-dwelling Nightstalkers, who have migrated underground and cannot tolerate sunlight, and who prey on human flesh.

One dark night, Ilgar and his companions are attacked by a group of Nightstalkers. In the ensuing fight, all his companions are killed, as well as all but one of the attackers. This survivor is an 18 year old girl names S'shony, who has developed a reveulsion for her people's ways, after falling in love with a "Sun Person" who had been trapped under ground.

She uses her telepathic powers, as well s the love she and Ilgar begin to feel for each other, to urge him to form a band of people to travel overland to the cave of the leader fo the Nightstalkers. At this time an airplane from Jamaica, a rare outpost of advanced technology, is marooned in the area. Ilgar, now renamed Red Mond Star Light, leads a small party (including S'shony, some members of his tribe, two Keepers, and the Jamaicans) on a long treck across Australia.

This trek, perhaps extending from roughly Uluru (Ayers Rock) to Melbourne, takes up most of the novel. Along the way the group meets several other tribes with different ways, most hostile, but a few willing to join their quest. Some people are killed along the way, either as a result of the dangers of traveling in this landscape, or of the evil machinations of some of the tribes they encounter. A constant theme of the book is the way almost everyone in this future mistrusts anyone unfamiliar, and while this attitude seems in some way natural, Weller is surely suggesting that the way forward in the future is more trust and cooperation. The culmination is an exciting battle.

For me, this was about halfway to being a pretty fine post-Apocalyptic quest story. There are numerous impressive bits, such as the terrifying picture of life in the "Silver City", and also the well-done final battle. But much is silly and pointless, and the characters seem fairly stereotyped, though they do come to some life.

My major problems came in three areas. One was simply the unevenness of the telling -- long sections are very tedious. The scientific background is inane -- the depicted results of nuclear war are just wrong; and there is an added disaster that seemed unnecessary to me: an asteroid struck the Earth, which has evidently been knocked from its orbit and is slowly spiralling into the Sun. The telepathy that some tribes possess didn't convince at all. And, most tellingly, the prose was often quite weak. Certain descriptive passages were pretty impressive, but much was clunky and ungrammatical. (And the copy-editing of my edition was terrible.)

Ultimately, the novel read as a tired variation on hundreds of '50s post-Apocalyptic stories, complete with exaggerated anti-technological bias. In that way, it resembles only too many efforts by non-SF writers that tiresomely reiterate ancient clichés that they might think they are the first to offer.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Little Known Ace Double: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn

Ace Double Reviews, 74: The 13th Immortal, by Robert Silverberg/This Fortress World, by James E. Gunn (#D-223, 1957, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

James Gunn was born July 12, 1923, so he turns 95 today, and he is still an active writer, with a new novel out this year. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did several years ago of his only Ace Double. Alas, it was his first novel, and I'm afraid I'm not very kind to it.

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This Ace Double pairs the first adult solo novel from each of these well-known writers. (Silverberg had an earlier juvenile, Revolt on Alpha C (which as it happens was probably the first SF novel I ever read), while Gunn published a collaboration with Jack Williamson (Star Bridge) in the same year as the first publication of This Fortress World.) The 13th Immortal is about 45,000 words long, while This Fortress World is much longer at 67,000 words or so (and even as such is abridged). (I find it funny that Gunn appears in this Ace Double with Silverberg's 13th Immortal, and that he later published a novel, fixing up some of his better early stories, called The Immortals.)

Both writers are SFWA Grand Masters. I've written about Silverberg in these Ace Double reviews many times before, so I won't repeat myself here. Gunn is particularly well known as one of the first people to treat SF in an academic milieu -- indeed, he published extracts from his MA thesis in Dynamic Science Fiction. He has been a Professor (now Emeritus) of English at Kansas University for decades, and he is the Founding Director of KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction. (He has taught at KU for 60 years now!) He's also, of course, been a significant writer of SF for even longer, getting particular notice for The Listeners, about SETI, basically, which was a Nebula nominee. He won a Hugo for Best Novelette for "The Giftie" in 1999, and other Hugos for non-fiction in 1976 and 1979.

The 13th Immortal is set several hundred years after a century of war has caused the remainder of the world to retreat to technological stasis. Twelve immortal men have parceled the world into twelve domains, and they in their various ways have enforced an agrarian lifestyle on everyone. The thirteenth domain is Antarctica, newly green and secure behind an impenetrable field.

Dale Kesley is a farmer in Iowa. But he has surprisingly little memory of his past life. One day a man turns up, looking for someone -- for Dale. This man is from Antarctica, he claims. And so too, says the man, is Dale. And it's time for him to go home. After some internal agonizing, Dale decides to follow this man -- mostly because of a nagging feeling that he doesn't really fit in Iowa.

But their travels do not go smoothly, In South America the two are separated, and Dale is captured by the agents of the Immortal in charge there. Rather implausibly, this man takes a shine to Dale and instead of having him executed after an escape attempt he recruits him -- as an assassin! Dale's new job is to go back to North America and kill the Immortal up there!

It is clear that relationships among the Immortals are fraying. And during Dale's travels he learns even more about his world, as he ends up encountering a town full of despised mutants, and a town run completely by automation. Inevitably his peregrinations lead him to Antarctica, and a confrontation with the mysterious 13th Immortal -- as well as a realization of his own history and destiny.

This is really pretty minor stuff. Silverberg of that era was a competent craftsman, and often willing to at least make a stab at handling interesting issues -- but still often a producer of yard goods. This book is yard goods, and indeed a bit below the average Silverberg 1950s standard, perhaps not a surprise coming so early in his career.

This Fortress World was first published by Gnome Press in 1955. This 1957 Ace Double is abridged. It is a novel that seems very derivative of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. (One of Gunn's Hugo-winning books was called Isaac Asimov: Foundations of Science Fiction.) But nowhere near as good.
(Cover by Murray Tinkelman)

It opens with a young acolyte, William Dane, at a religious order witnessing a beautiful woman leaving something in the collection bowl, then going outside only to have her feet cut off by some blacksuited thugs. Finding her beauty sufficient to challenge his faith, he hides the pebble she left. Soon the thugs are invading his cathedral -- he kills a few of them, and decides to leave.

He's picked up by an intellectual who teaches him, almost instantly it seems, to be a master fighter. But when this man urges him to give him the mysterious pebble, he kills him. After another escape, he is rescued by a whore with a heart of gold (TM). But that doesn't last -- he decides to escape to another world, but instead he ends up in the hands of the blacksuits, by whom he is tortured. But the WWAHOG(TM) rescues him again, rather surprisingly -- only to be kidnapped herself. So William realizes he has to confront the head of the blacksuits -- and eventually the real power. But he learns that there is another power he knew nothing about ...

I hardly believed a word of it, I have to say, and I was bored through most of it. The Galactic society Gunn sketches is unconvincing, despite his heavy-handed attempts to give it a philosophical grounding. And the characters do not convince, either. (For example, William is unable to reconcile himself to the fact that Whore With a Heart of Gold (TM), with whom he falls in love, was, well, a whore (for very good reasons, it turns out).) Pretty weak stuff. I must add, however, that I was reading an abridged version, and it's possible that the full novel does a better job, particularly in establishing character.

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

Birthday Review: The Hook, by Donald Westlake

by Rich Horton

Donald Westlake's 2000 novel The Hook treats a subject much on the mind of writers, and probably little on the mind of those not involved in some way with the publishing industry: the death of the midlist. Bryce Proctorr, a bestselling writer of thrillers, is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and perhaps as a result, is completely blocked on his new book. One day he bumps into Wayne Prentice, an old friend and fellow novelist with whom he has been long out of contact. Wayne tells him his sad story: his first novels were well-received, but he became a victim of the harsh logic of bookstore computers: each novel sold a bit less than its predecessor, causing subsequent orders to go down, which caused sales to go down -- the old vicious circle. Wayne had even switched to a pseudonym, with short-term success but eventually the same fate. He has a novel finished that he can't sell. So Bryce has an idea -- what if Wayne gives him the novel. Bryce will do a light revision to make it read like he wrote it, then submit it under his own name -- and they will split the advance, over a million dollars.

So far so good. But there's a kicker. Bryce's soon-to-be-ex wife will take half of his fee for the book -- if they are still married when the payment arrives. And she is apparently (Bryce says) a stone bitch who is dragging out the divorce just to torture him. So, she needs to die. And Bryce can't do it -- he'd be the first suspect. But Wayne ...

Wayne is an ordinary guy, it seems. Very happily married. A good writer, just a victim of the insanity of contemporary publishing. And not in any way a murderer. So he thinks he'll say no. But he runs the idea by his wife, who much to his surprise doesn't reject it out of hand. So he ends up agreeing to meet Bryce's wife, just to see if she is really a bad person ...

In a way, this part ends up making no sense. Wayne meets Lucie Proctorr, who is certainly not a nice person. But "not nice" doesn't mean "deserves to be murdered", and Wayne is not really presented as a character who would make that leap. Yet he does -- I felt mainly in order that the rest of the book would exist.

And the rest of the book is an ironic recounting of how Lucie's murder affects the two writers. Their writing careers develop in believable but not entirely expected ways. Their personal lives also change, in rather ironic fashions. Each feels considerable pressure from the power the other man has over him -- either one could reveal the crime, and send both of them to jail. But their lives remain intertwined in surprising ways. All leading to a truly creepy conclusion.

It's pretty good stuff. For me, the implausibility of the characters' initial actions keeps it short of brilliant -- though it is muchly redeemed by the ending. Making me wonder, indeed, if Westlake didn't work from the ending backward, in a sense.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Final Hugo Ballot Thoughts

Here, at last, is my summary post about the Hugo shortlist, with my tentative voting plans in many of the categories. I'll include links to the various posts I've already made about the novels, and about each of the short fiction categories.

Best Novel

My view is that this ballot has two halves -- three strong candidates at the top, and three solid and enjoyable novels behind the top three -- good work that I'm glad to have read, but not quite at the level of the top three.

I intend to vote in this order. Each title will link to my review of the novel in question.

1. New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson
2. Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee
3. The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin
4. Provenance, by Ann Leckie
5. Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
6. The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Best Novella

In this case, I think there are three novellas that are close to a dead heat at the top of the ballot, two further pieces that are nice enough but not really in the same league with the best stories, and one quite weak, quite disappointing story. My discussion of the stories is here.

My ballot order:

1. "And Then There Were (N - one)", by Sarah Pinsker
2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire
4. River of Thieves, by Sarah Gailey
5. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
6. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Novelette

Unlike the first couple categories, I think this one has three divisions: two stories, very close in quality, that are clearly the best; two more that are also quite strong, but a step behind; and the last two which are also decent work, just one further step behind. Probably, in that sense, a fairly typical ballot -- and, it should be said, a pretty strong one. My post on the novelettes is here.

And my ballot order:

1. "Extracurricular Activities", by Yoon Ha Lee
2. "The Secret Life of Bots", by Suzanne Palmer
3. "Wind Will Rove", by Sarah Pinsker
4. "A Series of Steaks", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5. "Children of Thornes, Children of Water", by Aliette de Bodard
6. "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time", by K. M. Szpara

Best Short Story

In this case I'd say there's a kind of even distribution of quality from top to bottom. Again, a strong ballot, with no bad stories, but one, in my view, severely harmed (as was the novel ballot, and inded the novella ballot as well) by omitting a few of the clear cut very best stories of the year. My detailed comments are here.

Ballot order:

1. "The Martian Obelisk", by Linda Nagata
2. "Fandom for Robots", by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
3. "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand", by Fran Wilde
4. "Carnival Nine", by Caroline Yoachim
5. "Sun, Moon, Dust", by Ursula Vernon
6. "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM", by Rebecca Roanhorse

In the other categories, I'm generally less informed, and while I will vote where I have a preference, I mostly won't discuss things at length. There are a couple categories where I'm pretty well informed, but I won't discuss my ballot here, for partly personal reasons, and partly because I think the choices here are based on razor thin margins -- these are the Editor categories. But I'll say a couple of things about a couple of the categories.

To begin with, Best Related Work. Here I will just say that I hope that sentiment in the wake of Harlan Ellison's death doesn't promote votes for Nat Segaloff's hagiography A Lit Fuse, surely the weakest by far of the nominees. (My vote is for Paul Kincaid's Iain M. Banks, but all the other books beside A Lit Fuse seem worthy.)

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, I really think it's a three horse race, between my choice (The Shape of Water), Get Out, and Blade Runner 2049. The others are, honest, kind of in the "there are things on this list not like the others" category. Enjoyable movies in their way, but seriously not in the same league as the top three.

In Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, I'll won't vote -- I liked "USS Callister" a lot, but I haven't seen (nor heard) the other nominees.

In Best Professional Artist, my top slot goes to Kathleen Jennings, on merit, and because I recommended her for nomination and was very pleased to see her on the ballot. The rest of the nominees, to be sure, are all fine artists.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 978-0-316-26231-1, $17.99, tpb, 615 pages) March 2017

A review by Rich Horton

Finally I’ve finished the last of the Hugo nominated novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. And guess what – it’s my favorite of the set. It still, to my mind, doesn’t rank with John Crowley’s Ka, nor with Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders, nor with The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel; but’s it’s pretty impressive work.

It’s been pitched, mostly, as a climate change novel – it depicts a rather sunken New York, a sort of new Venice (as with many coastal cities in this future) – and that’s important to the book. But more than that, this novel is about Robinson’s views on late capitalism, and most particularly on the way the financial system has evolved. It is, as with many of Robinson’s books, a very political novel, full of political discussions and digressions which are, for the most part, pretty interesting, and pretty one-sided.

The story opens with a couple of men, Mutt and Jeff, working as free-lance quants in the financial industry, who are sort of squatting in the farm area on the roof of the Met Life Building, which is now a residential co-op in the intertidal area of New York. Jeff, the more radical of the pair, releases a virus into the SEC’s system which will change key financial laws in a direction of greater fairness, just as a test. It’s quickly withdrawn, having caused a curious spike in the markets, and the two realize they had better run – but before they can get anywhere they are kidnapped, and end up in a container on the bottom of the harbor.

The point of view shifts quickly: the story is told through several rotating characters, all of whom live (at least eventually) in the Met Life building. These are Charlotte Armstrong, who nominally runs the co-op; Franklin Garr, a young financial wizard specializing in speculative investments about intertidal real estate; Roberto and Stefan, two orphan boys who are looking for sunken gold; Vlade, the Met Life building’s “super”; Amelia Black, a cloud star who has an apartment at the building but spends most of her time literally in the clouds, on her airship traveling around the world making nature films of a sort; Inspector Gen, a high-ranking NYPD cop; and a “citizen”, who presents essays about the financial and political history and current (as of 2140) situation in New York.

The plot twists around several events – the kidnapping and rescue of Mutt and Jeff; Roberto and Stefan’s adventures with the gold and later other things; Vlade’s investigation of what seem to be sabotage attempts on the building; Franklin’s risky speculations, his abortive love affair with a fellow financial expert, and his turn to the “good side” including investments in safer intertidal housing; Charlotte’s reluctant political career, sparked in part by a hostile takeover attempt on the Met Life Building; Amelia’s misadventures, such as trying to resettle some polar bears in the Antarctic; and a variety of investigations by Gen, covering some of the above issues. The climax results from a major hurricane reaching New York, and its aftereffects, which extend to radical political and financial changes.

It’s really a fascinating read throughout. As I’ve suggested, Robinson’s viewpoint is not in any sense balanced (I’m sure he would scoff at the idea that balance was possible or appropriate), and I think it behooves the reader to be a bit skeptical. But for all that, it’s really interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s not just political, financial, and environmental wonkery. There’s plenty of action, and plenty of nice character interaction. I was gripped throughout – though, also, I was able to set the book down for days when other deadlines impended. But that’s not really a bad thing for this sort of book.

Are there weaknesses? Yes. It might be a nitpick, but I don’t think Robinson has the knack of giving his characters individual voices – they all sound the same, despite some clear attempts at differentiating, for example, Amelia’s voice. And I thought the ending a bit fuzzy and slack. Robinson is a tremendously optimistic writer – he always has been, and I’ve always liked that in him, but in this novel it doesn’t always convince, especially at the close. (And Robinson realizes this, and addresses the reader at one point, telling us that really this isn’t a final happy ending, or even an ending at all.) One final thing – this is a big future world, just as big as our world, and the novel resembles that New Yorker cartoon in which the US is represented as a huge New York with a tiny appendage of the rest of the country. Again, Robinson knows this, and directly mentions that particular cartoon, but it still feels like a lack, that for all the inveighing against Denver in the book, we get no sense at all of what Denver is like. Probably this was unavoidable, but it still seems an imperfection.

Well, enough of that. It’s a big shaggy book, and a lot of fun to read. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll care a lot about the characters, you’ll be fascinated and maybe a bit frustrated. And it’ll be first on my Hugo ballot.

Here are links to the other Hugo novel reviews:

Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee;
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin;
Provenance, by Ann Leckie;
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty;
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi.