Thursday, August 30, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: The Four Feathers, by A. E. W. Mason

Old Bestseller Review: The Four Feathers, by A. E. W. Mason

Michael Dirda recently reviewed this book in the Washington Post and I thought "that book looks like it would be right up my alley!" So I bought a copy and read it -- and Michael was right.

Alfred Edward Woodley Mason lived from 1865 to 1948. He was at time an actor, a playwright, and even a Member of Parliament, of the Liberal Party. But his major success was as a novelist. His best known novel by far was the novel at hand, The Four Feathers, from 1902, which was filmed multiple times, most successfully in 1939 by Zoltan Korda, starring John Clements and Ralph Richardson. He was also known for several detective novels about Inspector Gabriel Hanaud of the Surete, created as a reaction to Sherlock Holmes and said to be an inspiration behind Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

My copy of The Four Feathers is a 1905 edition from Macmillan. It is inscribed inside by Dorothy A. Kern, of Chicago, presumably the first owner. A note on the first page states that the main character first appeared in a short story published in the Illustrated London News.

Harry Feversham is a sensitive 14 year old when we first meet him, the only child of the widowed General Feversham. He is allowed to stay up with the General and a few of his army friends on their annual meeting on the anniversary of a critical battle. He hears tales of courage and cowardice, and the General's crippled friend Lieutenant Sutch (who, it is suggested, had an unrequited passion for Harry's dead mother) notes the fear that Harry shows at the tales of cowardice and the sad outcomes of the cowards. Harry, Sutch fears, is too intelligent and too imaginative, unlike his rather dull father. But there is no alternative -- all the Fevershams have been military men, and so must Harry be as well.

The action jumps forward 13 years, to 1882. Harry has been in the Army for some time, and he is having dinner with his fellow officers Trench, Willoughby, and Durrance. He announces his engagement to an Irish woman, Ethne Eustace. This caused Durrance some pain, for he is also in love with Ethne. Then Harry receives a telegram, and throws it in the fire. Soon thereafter, he resigns his commission. It becomes clear to Trench, Willoughby, and to Castleton, who sent the telegram, which indicated their regiment was to be called to active duty, that Harry has resigned his commission for fear of the danger of active duty. So they each send him a white feather, symbol of cowardice. And, shortly thereafter, Harry confesses as much to Ethne, and in a passion, she tears a feather from her fan and gives it to him as well, the fourth feather, and their engagement is broken.

Much of the rest of the story is told via Durrance. On duty in Egypt and the Sudan, he follows the careers of his fellow officers, and each encounters terrible dangers. One crisis is the loss of some letters from General Gordon that had been hidden in a town overrun by rebels. Miraculously, these letters are recovered. Durrance realizes that the strange man who effected the recovery was none other than Harry Feversham. At about that time, a strange accident striked Durrance blind, and he is forced to return to England, invalided out of the service. There he again strikes up a relationship of sorts with Ethne, while his curious friend, the widow Mrs. Adair, who it is immediately clear is hopelessly in love with Durrance, is also involved. Durrance hopes to marry Ethne -- but is it fair that she marry a blind man? Only if she truly loves him. And, of course, he is honest enough to realize eventually that she still loves Harry. Meanwhile, Harry is in North Africa -- having discovered that another man who sent him a feather is imprisoned in a hellhole, and having decided to get himself sent to the same prison, and to effect his former friend's release. It is clear that his hope is to redeem each of the four feathers -- only so that he will be worthy of Ethne's respect (not love) when again they meet in the afterlife.

And so things go -- a curious love quadrilateral of sorts between Harry, Durrance, Ethne, and the tortured Mrs. Adair. Acts of desperate heroism in North Africa. The kind intervention of Lietenant Sutch. Durrance's struggles with life as a blind man. Ethne's music. It's all highly pitched romanticism, insisting on a thorough obsession with honor -- but not revenge. It's not really quite believable, of course, but it's fun and involving. Not a great novel, but an enjoyable novel, and well written as well. Dirda was right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Birthday Review: Jade Tiger, by Jenn Reese

Jade Tiger, by Jenn Reese (Juno, 978-0-8095-5674-8, $12.95, 239, tpb) January 2007.

A review by Rich Horton

Jenn Reese was born on this date, and so I've resurrected a brief review I wrote for Locus back in 2007 of her first novel.

Jade Tiger is Jenn Reese's first novel. (She has published a number of fine short stories in the past few years.) This is an extremely fast-paced story about a half-Chinese half-American martial artist. The fast pace is both a benefit -- it's a quick, exciting read, hard to put down -- and a shortcoming -- plot steps and character motivations are kind of glossed over, and the prose is often a bit careless as well, as if the pace of the plot was echoed by the pace of the writing.

Ian Dashell is a Professor of Archaeology at Risley University. One night he encounters an Asian man breaking into the artifacts room and destroying precious objects, apparently at random. The man seems ready to beat Ian to death, but a young woman suddenly invades, saving Ian’s life and preventing the man from stealing his actual desire – a jade crane. The woman is Shan Westfall, whose Chinese mother was part of the Jade Circle, a group of five women martial arts experts. But her mother was killed and several of the jade artifacts – objects of some power – possessed by the Circle were stolen, and Shan returned to the USA with her American father. Now she is running a small martial arts studio – and still searching for the lost artifacts.

It is clear to Shan that the man who nearly killed Ian is a key to tracking down still more artifacts – Shan already has the tiger, and now the crane. And, it turns out, Ian also knows where to find one more of the animals, the dragon. He insists on accompanying her in quest of it, and so does his colleague, Daniel Buckley. And they’re off! Just like that – a breakneck trip to France to track down the dragon. But the bad guys seem to know where they are going, and there is a scary encounter in France, followed by a different kind of scary encounter with Ian’s parents in England. (Ian and Shan, of course, quickly fall for each other.) Then off to an island near Hong Kong, owned by a rich collector with sinister plans of his own.

The action never stops – which, as I have implied, is both good and bad. There is little time for plot logic, and not much more time for character and relationship development. (Though that works OK – Ian and Shan are engaging people, and while I could have used a bit more focus on their developing attraction, it comes off well enough.) There are several scintillating martial arts fights, and some nice plot twists, and lots of danger. I had fun reading Jade Tiger. It’s not a masterpiece, but it shows plenty of promise, and its failings don’t get in the way of its exciting story.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Birthday Review: The Cunning Man, by Robertson Davies

Birthday Review: The Cunning Man, by Robertson Davies

Copyright: 1994 (published in 1995 in the USA)

This was one of the very first reviews I wrote for the World Wide Web -- as I recall it was posted on one of the very first online bookstore sites. I can't even remember the name of the site just now. It had an interesting discussion forum, alas all long since gone.

I'm reposting it today because Robertson Davies was born 105 years ago.

I wrote, in December of 1995:

It was already my plan to review this book here, simply because it is the last book I finished, and it is a significant book by one of my favorite authors. However, I learned some very sad news today: Robertson Davies died December 2, so this review will take on a somewhat valedictory tone.

For me personally, the news of Davies` death is quite depressing, doubly so because now two of my three favorite non-SF writers have died within a few weeks of each other. (Kingsley Amis having died in late October.) My third favorite non-SF writer, Anthony Powell, is older than either Davies or Amis (Amis was 73, Davies 82, and I believe today is Powell`s 90th birthday. [Actually, Powell was born on 21 December 1905.])

Oh well, on to the book. Robertson Davies was a Canadian author, arguably the finest Canadian writer ever, who wrote plays and novels on generally Canadian subjects. The novels fit generally into trilogies: The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy, in order of composition, represent his first nine novels. All his novels, however, can be read independently (although at least The Deptford Trilogy probably reads best in order.) To say, as I have said, that his novels are "about Canada" is a laughable understatement, however. I tried to summarize the subjects which Davies covered once for a friend, thinking it would be a tidy list, and I kept going and going: Theatre, Music, Vaudeville, Toronto, Hagiography, Jungian Psychology, Art (particularly "The Old Masters"), aging, medicine, Canadian politics, war, finance, schools (both Canadian "boarding schools" and Universities), and on and on. Suffice it to say that his novels are fascinating, hypnotic, works, usually centered on an artist of some kind. Perhaps the best place to start with Davies is his first two books: Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice, as these are somewhat lighter in tone than his later works (though all Davies` work is full of comedy at some level.) In my opinion, his best novels are Fifth Business, the first of The Deptford Trilogy, and What`s Bred in the Bone, second book of The Cornish Trilogy.

I am going on. Pardon me, obviously Davies is an enthusiasm of mine. Anyway, his last two novels (barring a posthumous work) are Murther and Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man, which appear to be the first two parts of another loose trilogy [now generally called the (unfinished) Toronto Trilogy), although both are capable of being read completely independently. The Cunning Man is the story of Jonathan Hullah, a Toronto doctor of somewhat unusual reputation. Hullah narrates the book, and tells his own life story beginning in about 1920 in a very isolated part of Northern Ontario, and continuing through early experiences with the local doctor, and also a Native American healing-woman, boarding school, medical school, World War II, and his postwar establishment of his own rather unusual medical practice, which is treated as a court of last resort for cases other doctors have considered hopeless. The key elements of the book are Hullah`s relationships with various people, in particular his school friends Charlie Iredale and Brocky Gilmartin (the latter the father of the narrator of Murther and Walking Spirits), his English lesbian landladies, called The Ladies, and the community surrounding the Very "High Church" Anglican church of St. Aidan`s, next door to Hullah`s practice. At the heart of the story is the mystery surrounding the death of the pastor of St. Aidan`s, Father Ninian Hobbes, and the attempts of Charlie Iredale, now an Anglican priest and Fr. Hobbes` assistant, to have Hobbes declared a saint.

As usual, the main interest of the book is in the characters, and in the curious subjects which come up as a result of the story: medieval saints tales, Anglican ritual and especially Church music, acting, a somewhat psychosomatic theory of disease, church politics, some Freudian psychology, and a great deal more.

For me, this book ranks in the middle range of Davies' work, which of course still makes it highly recommended. However, my interest flagged at times, and the book failed to completely involve me in the way that Davies' very best books do. Also, the central story is less compelling than in most of Davies` books, so the interest devolves even more to the characters and the somewhat arcane knowledge and theories that Davies discusses. These are interesting indeed, but a real gripping story would be still more interesting.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Birthday Review: House of Meetings, by Martin Amis

Birthday Review: House of Meetings, by Martin Amis

A review by Rich Horton

Martin Amis turns 69 today. I've read most of his work -- he's been a favorite of mine since I realized that the son of another of my favorite writers (Kingsley Amis) was also a writer. So I'm resurrecting this review of his 2006 novel House of Meetings.

Martin Amis's new novel is House of Meetings. Obviously making use of some of the research associated with his previous non-fiction book, Koba the Dread, which was about Stalin, he has written a novel about a "survivor" of the Gulag. But of course the novel is in great part about the ways in which this man didn't really survive the Gulag.

The narrator is a Russian born in 1919. He is telling his story, in what seems to be a long letter, to his stepdaughter, an American girl, sometime in 2004 or so. In the present he is taking a trip back to the location of the slave labor camp in which he spent ten years from about 1946 to 1956. It becomes clear he intends to die soon, and this narrative is a confessional.

The fulcrum of the story is a love triangle, involving the narrator, his ten years younger brother Lev, and a beautiful young Jewish girl named Zoya. Just after the War (in which the narrator, in his words, raped his way across East Germany -- in company, to be sure, with the rest of the Russian Army), Zoya moved into their neighborhood in Moscow, and immediately established a reputation as a woman of little character. But a very beautiful woman. The narrator, a war hero of sorts, handsome, used to having his way with women, becomes obsessed with her, but is rejected. And ends up being sent away to a labor camp. And he is astonished to learn that his rather ugly younger brother has taken up with Zoya, and indeed married her. But then Lev too is sent to the camps -- the same camp. And the two men spend several years there -- though Lev is a pacifist, and refuses to become involved in fights against the camp bullies, or the administrators. Which leads to something of a rift between the two men -- a rift exacerbated in the narrator's mind by his jealousy. But something changes horrendously when Zoya is allowed to make a conjugal visit -- in the "House of Meetings". And when soon after that, the camp is closed and the inmates freed.

The later life of the three is also described. The narrator is fairly successful, in Russian terms, eventually emigrating to the U.S., while Lev's marriage disintegrates, and he marries another woman, and has a son, destined to die in Afghanistan. But all is leading to a final confrontation between the narrator and Zoya, and to a final revelation in a long buried letter from Lev to the narrator. All this incident is skillfully unfolded, if to be honest the final letter isn't quite the explosion we have been led to expect.

Much of the interest in the novel is in the quite compelling descriptions of life in the labor camp. Besides being a portrayal of slave camp life, and a portrayal of a ruined man, it is to some extent a pained depiction of a dying country. It is very well written. A bit less "bravura" in prosody than earlier Amis books, though still often arresting. And very moving, quite believable, quite profound. One of Martin Amis's best novels, I think.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Birthday Review: A. S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale

Birthday Review: The Biographer's Tale, by A. S. Byatt

a review by Rich Horton

I wrote this review back in 2004, and I'm resurrecting it in honor of A. S. Byatt's birthday. She is a magnificent writer -- I'm a particular fan of Possession, and of the utterly brilliant short story "Sugar", as well as the novellas of Angels and Insects. Much of her work if fantasy, or borderline fantasy. This novel is one of her less well-known books.

The Biographer's Tale, from 2000, is one of those books A. S. Byatt seemed to produce as a break from her "Frederica Potter" series. (I suppose one shouldn't call The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and The Whistling Woman the "Potter" series -- might cause confusion!) It's an enjoyable novel, fairly short, fairly amusing, with a number of surface similarities to Possession, but a very different overall feel.

Phineas G. Nanson is a very small Englishman, a graduate student in postmodern literary theory. (I say very small -- his description of himself is not specific, but I don't think he is meant to be a "dwarf" or "midget" or whatever the correct clinical term is -- rather, a very short, slight, man, perhaps 4'9" or 4'10".) One day he decides to chuck that branch of study, and a professor suggests as an alternative a study of biography, or, specifically, the three volume biography of Sir Elmer Bole, by Scholes Destry-Scholes. This biography turns out to be indeed fascinating, and Bole himself an incredible person, a Victorian polymath, who among other things married two women, a somewhat typical Englishwoman and a Turkish woman. Nanson decides to try to do a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes. But he runs into trouble quickly -- Scholes is long dead, or at least disappeared, he isn't even really named "Scholes Destry-Scholes", and very little is known about him.

At this juncture the book seems ready to become a spiraling mystery built around curious small facts, and an elusive subject. Nanson discovers some papers left at his publishers by Scholes, that appear to be sections of contemplated biographies of other famous people, real people this time: Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen. But these prove problematic as well, as much of these accounts turn out to be invented. Nanson digs deeper, and at the same time gets a job, working at a curious travel agency run by a couple of gay men. The travel agency concentrates on unusual tours, thematically linked -- which corresponds fairly well to the inventions of Scholes re his subjects. Nanson's other diggings lead him to meet two intriguing but different women: a Swedish ecologist, or more specifically a bee expert, whom he meets at a museum dedicated to Linnaeus; and a radiologist, the niece and closest surviving relative of Scholes Destry-Scholes.

The rest of the book swings to "autobiography", as the subject becomes not Bole, or Scholes, or Linnaeus, Ibsen or Galton; but rather Nanson, in particular his relationship with the two women he has met, and his difficulties and successes at his new job. It's all pretty interesting, and fun, and generally unexpected. Some of it -- much of it -- has a distinct air of unreality. Byatt is always prone to fantastical writing even in her most mainstream stories, and here she is certainly brushing against the border of realistic fiction with -- what? I guess that's part of the question -- a question naturally posed when we consider a fictional biographer with an assumed name writing about a fictional person, but also writing about "real" people, though making up stuff about them. And so on -- consider the radiologist's art pictures -- X-rays presented as art -- are these bones the real people? Or Francis Galton's composite photographs ... or Henrik Ibsen's ideas about character ... or Linnaeus' classification schemes ... in many ways this is a "light" book but it is also an obsessively intellectual book (as usual with Byatt), and a fascinating read.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Perhaps Forgotten Mystery Novel: The Flaxborough Crab, by Colin Watson

A Perhaps Forgotten Mystery Novel: The Flaxborough Crab, by Colin Watson

a review by Rich Horton

I admit I had never heard of Colin Watson when I ran across this 1969 mystery novel at an estate sale or antique shop recently, hence the "Perhaps Forgotten" label. But on research (i.e. reading his Wikipedia entry) I see he was quite popular at that time, and that the Flaxborough books even became a TV series. So very possibly he's not forgotten at all.

Colin Watson (1920-1983) wrote 12 novels in the Flaxborough series -- Flaxborough being a provincial town based on Boston, Lincolnshire (where Watson worked as a journalist). He wrote one other novel (The Puritan) as well as a study of thrillers, Snobbery With Violence, that covers such writers as Dornford Yates, whom I have reviewed on this blog. (And, yes, "snobbery with violence" fits Yates very well.) Four of the Flaxborough novels were used in the BBC TV series Murder Most English, in about 1978. (One of these was the novel at hand, The Flaxborough Crab.) There were also BBC radio adaptations of two of the books.

The detective in the books is Inspector Walter Purbright, a rather plodding but honest fellow. Another major character is Miss Lucinda Teatime, who seems rather a conwoman, but, as a recurring character, is evidently never the true villain. She's "of a certain age", but seems concerned with her appearance and sexual availability, even though she doesn't actively engage in such activities in the book at hand -- and she's quite clever and intriguing if, well, also intriguing, in another sense.

The book opens with several scenes of women being attacked by an older man, and groped. (One of the older men portrayed, by the way, is called Mr. Grope, I am sure not unintentionally, though he isn't the villain.) The curious aspect of all this is the strange scuttling crablike way the attacker runs. So Purbright sets up a patrol, trying to catch the perp, with no results, However, a senior citizens outing, organized by Alderman Winge, leads to a shocking conclusion -- Winge tries to grope one of the women, and in making his crablike escape, falls off a cliff into the river and dies.

So -- problem solved, eh? But the inquest suggests the possible involvement of an herbal product, "Samson's Salad", which is supposed to, er, increase the vitality of older men. (This is pre-Viagra days, of course.) And Samson's Salad, Purbright learns, is sold by an outfit run by Miss Lucinda Teatime. That's not all, though -- there are competing doctors testifying at the inquest, and it appears there's another potential product involved, much more respectable, produced by a German company. Could one of these drugs/herbs be causing the unsavory activities of the Flaxborough Crab? And is there more than one Crab?

You've probably guessed the solution, in broad terms. In narrower terms, there's another death (there always is -- these detectives are terribly inefficient, always at least one more person needs to die for them to solve the case), and it's suspicious enough to lead to further investigation and the revelation of a rather involved murder method.

The whole mystery aspect of this novel is really kind of minor, and the actual murder method seems implausibly involved. But the fun is the wicked satiric portrayals of all the characters, good, bad, and merely crazy. It's nothing overwhelmingly special, but it's pretty fun, all things considered. Not a great book, but I suspect the Flaxborough Novels, as a class, will all pass the time amusingly.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Birthday Review: Chimera, by Will Shetterly

Birthday Review: Chimera, by Will Shetterly

a review by Rich Horton

On the occasion of Will Shetterly's 63rd birthday, here is a repost of my long ago review of his 2000 novel Chimera.

Will Shetterly’s novel Chimera mixes together a few fairly familiar SF themes: human/animal combinations, artificial intelligences, the issue rights for both of the above, and a somewhat balkanized (or at least decentralized) future U. S. with a Libertarian edge (viewed rather darkly, given Shetterly’s politics). The plot is taken from a familiar mystery trope (not uncommon in SF): the hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold who gets mixed up in a vulnerable woman’s problems despite himself. The end result is not bad: the book is fun reading, with very sympathetic main characters, and a fast-moving if sometimes a bit unconvincing plot. I liked this novel, but I didn’t quite love it: I felt it brushed up against some profound thematic material without really fully engaging it, and I felt that the future depicted was more an assemblage of neat bits than a fully imagined, or fully plausible, future society. Perhaps I am simply guilty of wanting to read a book the author didn’t intend to write: certainly Shetterly has delivered a good read, which at least asks the reader to think about some important themes.

The narrator is Chase Maxwell, a former member of UNSEC (apparently United Nations Security: some variety of future Peacekeeping group), who left that job after an assignment went bad. He retains one useful (and really neat!) piece of tech: an Infinite Pocket, an area of warped space attached to his arm, in which he can apparently store things of nearly arbitrary size. Including his gun, which has a similar bit of tech: a sort of “Infinite Magazine”. He’s down on his luck (naturally!) when a jaguar-human hybrid named Zoe Domingo asks him to track down her “mother”‘s murderer. (Actually, I’m not quite sure whether the “critters” of this book are “enhanced” animals, a la David Brin’s “Uplift”, or genetically engineered human/animal hybrids.) Janna Gold, the human Zoe calls her mother (she bought her out of slavery), has just been killed, apparently by berserk “copbots”. But the police department is much more likely to finger Zoe for the murder, given the prejudice against “critters”. Moreover, Zoe has a mysterious earring Janna gave her, which seems to be a piece of special tech that lots of highly placed people really want.

Max is reluctant to take the case: he doesn’t work for critters. But he’s in a bit of a bind, so he agrees to help. What follows is a nearly nonstop chase, as Max and Zoe encounter first the police, then a series of people who seem to be peripherally involved: Krista Blake, a police expert who takes a sudden shine to Max; Amos Tauber, an advocate for full rights for both “critters” and Artificial Intelligences; and Oberon Chain, the head of a high-tech company who is also an AI rights crusader. When some of these people begin to get murdered as well, the frame is in, and Max and Zoe are the designated suspects. At the same time, Max is realizing that his feelings for Zoe may be a lot deeper than is prudent for a human to have with respect to a critter.

From there we encounter a number of different aspects of this future, such as the indentured service camps that have replaced jails; and the “critter” side of town, complete with riots and reverse prejudice against “skins” (ordinary humans); plus scenes of critters “werewolfing”: suddenly going berserk and killing everybody in sight; as well as a very well put argument about the ethics of downloading human brains into computers, and vice versa, and plenty more. As I said, the plot is fast moving, and I was always interested, but at times things happen a bit conveniently for the heroes.

Chimera raises some questions that I didn’t feel were fully answered. Chief among these is “Why were the “critters” created?” I honestly don’t believe that, starting from the present day, the essentially purposeful creation of a new underclass, of that particular nature, is very likely. I also thought his future U.S. a bit unlikely, politically. But both of these reservations are really quibbles, and he does portray his future society quite interestingly. But always at the back of our mind is a desire to more fully engage the submerged issues: equal rights for “critters”, and equal rights for AIs. Those questions are raised, but mostly brushed aside, in the interests of maintaining narrative pace. Certainly a longtime SF reader cannot help thinking of Cordwainer Smith’s classic “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell”, about a “catwoman” who gives all in the pursuit of rights for the “underpeople”. But though such issues are present here, they simply don’t resonate the way they did in Smith’s great story. Nonetheless, though I may (perhaps unfairly) regard Chimera as a missed opportunity to be something really special, it’s still a fun read, with its heart in the right place.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Little-Remembered Ace Double: The Space Willies/Six Worlds Yonder, by Eric Frank Russell

Ace Double Reviews, 12: The Space Willies, by Eric Frank Russell/Six Worlds Yonder, by Eric Frank Russell (#D-315, 1958, $0.35, reissued as #77785, 1971, $0.75)

Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978) was an English writer who worked almost exclusively for John W. Campbell. He began publishing in 1937 and made his first big splash in 1939 with Sinister Barrier in the first issue of the classic fantasy magazine Unknown. (One fannish legend, probably false, has it that Campbell founded Unknown because he wanted to publish Sinister Barrier but didn't think it would fit in Astounding.) Russell was particularly prolific during the 50s, then almost completely stopped, publishing only some 5 short stories and one novel after 1959. He was most famous for novels and stories of interaction between humans and aliens, usually with a comic slant. Sometimes buffoonish humans would come into frustrating contact with unpredictable aliens (as in "The Waitabits" in this book), sometimes a clever human or two would themselves frustrate buffoonish aliens (as in "Diabologic" and The Space Willies in this book). And sometimes the interaction would be a bit more interesting.

(Cover of The Space Willies by Ed Emshwiller)
This Ace Double backs the short novel The Space Willies, about 37,000 words long, with Six Worlds Yonder, a collection of six stories totalling some 43,000 words. All the stories in Six Worlds Yonder are from Astounding, and The Space Willies is an expansion of an Astounding novelette.

The publication history of The Space Willies and its related stories is a bit complex. It was originally a novelette, "Plus X", in the June 1956 Astounding. The Space Willies was then published in 1958 at 37,000 words. The following year, it was further expanded to a 56,000 word novel, Next of Kin. (The copyright notice in the recent Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition of Next of Kin hints at an even later revision, as it gives copyright dates of 1959 and 1964.) (The Chris Moore cover shown for that edition was actually painted for Bill Johnson's Hugo-winning story "We Will Drink a Fish Together".) It must be said that the expansion seams show -- I haven't read "Plus X", but I think I can detect which parts of the novel it must have been, and I don't think the padding added much meat.
(Cover by Chris Moore)

The story concerns John Leeming, a scout pilot for the Terran space navy. Earth and her allies are engaged in a war with the Lathians and their allies. Leeming, a rather insubordinate fellow by instinct, is given the assignment to take an experimental new super-fast one-man scout ship and fly it as far as he can towards the "rear" of the Lathian empire, in order to determine the extent of the Lathian holdings. Leeming proceeds to do so, but as the capabilities of his ship are unknown, he finds himself marooned with a decaying ship on a planet well away from the front, indeed, out of range of an ordinary ship, Terran or Lathian. He's the only human being on a strange planet, and he must find some way to elude capture and find a way back home -- and he may have to do so twice, as even if he steals one ship, it won't be able to get all the way to Earth.

Leeming proceeds to have a few adventures, but inevitably gets captured by the natives of the planet, who are not Lathians but one of their allied species. He finds himself in a prison with a number of Rigellians (allies of Terrans), but no other humans. Now his problem is doubly difficult -- but then he has an inspiration. The rest of the book (which I assume to have been the original story) tells of his clever idea and the implementation of it. I found his idea cute in conception, but implausible in execution. As with several other Russell stories that I have read, it is necessary for the hero's foils to be quite remarkably stupid. It also depends on some 50s slang being essentially current far in the future -- and ... but criticism is pointless. The book is not meant to be believable, but just to be fun to read.

Six Worlds Yonder is subtitled "Stories of First Landings on Far Planets", and that is actually a pretty good description of 4 of the 6 stories. It's a decent enough collection in pretty pure Russell mode, but I ought to mention that I had read all of the stories save one before, but I only remembered one of the stories before rereading. (To be sure, that may say more about the state of my memory than anything else.) The six stories are:

"The Waitabits" (17500 words, Astounding, July 1955) -- a Terran military team lands on a world they have been warned is unconquerable. The natives do indeed turn out to be unconquerable, but for an amusing reason. Decent enough, but I think a bit long for its substance.

"Tieline" (2700 words, Astounding, July 1955, under the name Duncan H. Munro for the fairly obvious reason that it appeared in the same issues as "The Waitabits") -- men sent to an isolated "lighthouse" planet inevitably go mad. How can they be kept sane? A bad story -- the setup is strained beyond belief (they go insane on 10-year hitches -- why not try shorter hitches? Pets aren't allowed -- but that is pretty much contradicted by the eventual solution. etc. etc.).

"Top Secret" (6300 words, Astounding, August 1956) -- Terran military types send messages to a remote planet via a relay system, resulting in essentially a game of "telephone", such that a routine message ends up warning of the arrival of 42 ostriches, and repeated requests for clarification just make things worse. Silly as anything, but OK as long as you don't ask for anything but silliness.

"Nothing New" (4000 words, Astounding, January 1955) -- this was the only story I hadn't previously read, and oddly enough it might be my favorite. Humans visit a friendly alien planet for the first time -- or was it really?

"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (Astounding, September 1957) -- this time the story is from the POV of aliens visiting Earth. The humans they like just fine, but there is another species on Earth that one alien comes to fear ...

"Diabologic" (8500 words, Astounding, March 1955) -- this seems to be a fairly popular story, for example it was Andre Norton's choice for the anthology My Favorite Science Fiction Story. I guess it's OK, but it's awfully slight, and it depends on really stupid aliens, who don't understand Zeno's Paradox or the Cretan Liar Paradox. The story features a Terran scout discovering another space-going civilization, and managing to befuddle the aliens enough that they won't pose any threat to Earth.

On the whole, this is a fairly characteristic Eric Frank Russell collection, but not really his best work. Better to seek out the stories in The Great Explosion, his Hugo winner "Allamagoosa", his novelette "Dear Devil", maybe the novel Wasp.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Mostly Forgotten Ace Double: Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse/Echo in the Skull, by John Brunner

Ace Double Reviews, 37: Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse/Echo in the Skull, by John Brunner (#D-385, 1959, $0.35)

Today (August 11, 2018) would have been Alan E. Nourse's 90th birthday, so I've taken the opportunity to repost this review I did some time back of his Ace Double Rocket to Limbo.

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Robert E. Schultz)
This 1959 Ace Double pairs a once-popular writer best known for his juveniles with a writer who became one of the towering figures in the field. At the time Alan E. Nourse was surely the "headline" writer of the pair (which is not to say he was particularly well-known), but as of now John Brunner is clearly the more important figure. Rocket to Limbo is a reprint of a 1957 novel, originally published by David McKay. (There also seems to have been a version, possibly much shorter, published in Satellite Science Fiction in 1957.) It is about 50,000 words long. Echo in the Skull is from 1959: it was published in the same year in the UK magazine Science Fantasy. (I don't know which publication came first.) It's a longish novella at some 28,000 words -- I'm not sure if the Science Fantasy text is the same as the Ace Double, but I suspect it may be. It has been reprinted as "Give Warning to the World" according to the ISFDB, but I can't find any details of that.

One point about John Brunner's Ace Double career. I had previously listed a number of especially prolific Ace Double contributors. Somehow, I managed to forget Brunner: the most prolific of them all, I believe! He wrote 24 Ace Double halves, in 21 different books. A few of these were published under the name Keith Woodcott. (He also used this pseudonym for a few short stories -- I read one just today, "Fair" in the March 1956 New Worlds, a pretty fair story, I will say.)

I enjoyed several Alan E. Nourse novels as a teenager: he was one of the first few SF writers I read (with Asimov, Clarke, Norton, and Simak). In particular I recall The Mercy Men, The Bladerunner, The Universe Between, and Raiders from the Rings. (The last two novels were based on 1951 stories in Astounding -- the curious thing is that Raiders from the Rings is not based on a Nourse story, but rather "The Mauki Chant", by Nourse's sometime collaborator J. A. Meyer.) However the novel at hand is not to my mind as good as any of those.

Rocket to Limbo opens with a scene of Earth's first star ship, the Argonaut, blasting off en route to Alpha Centauri. It is a generation ship -- its primitive engines are expected to take as much as a century to reach the nearest star. Quickly we cut to the main action, some 350 years later. The faster-than-light Koenig drive as been in use for a few centuries, and the Earth has a burgeoning colony population. However, the Argonaut is not found at Alpha Centauri, nor at any other planet. Lars Heldrigsson (I thought I was in a Poul Anderson novel for a second after reading that name!) is a young man preparing for his first journey for the Colonial Service, under the command of legendary explorer Walter Fox.

Lars soon learns that what he thought was to be a routine trip to Vega will be something else entirely. The ship's launch is made under unusual security. And Lars's roommate, his former classmate Peter Brigham, a bitter young man, tells him of a mysterious cargo that seems to be illegal nuclear weapons. They are swiftly told the reason for the unusual procedures: another Colonial Service ship, investigating a newly discovered planet, disappeared after making planetfall. Their job is to investigate this mysterious disappearance.

Walter Fox, it turns out, has a bug in his brain about intelligent aliens. It seems humans have encountered no sign of them, but Fox is sure they must exist, and he wants first contact to be peaceful. But other people are afraid of the aliens, including many of the crew, some of whom plan a mutiny, charging that they have been illegally shanghaied to this secret mission, instead of the expected Vega milk run. Peter Brigham has other motives -- he blames Walter Fox for his father's death on a previous exploration mission. Lars, of course, is a loyalist, and he eventually turns Peter to the good side of the Force.

No prizes (after the opening scene of the book) for guessing what the divided crew actually finds on the strange planet. And no prizes for guessing that Lars and Peter, after a harsh struggle with the elements and with another mutiny, have a key role to play when they encounter strange beings in a strange city. And, finally, no prizes for guessing that Walter Fox's dream of discovering intelligent aliens comes into play as well.

I was rather disappointed by this novel. For one thing, it's put together rather carelessly. There are a number of quite unnecessary niggling inconsistencies (such as how far the Argonaut eventually seems to have travelled, or what sort of planet the mysterious planet is in terms of indigenous life). And the ending is an annoying attempt at transcendentalism via psi hogwash.

I enjoyed Echo in the Skull somewhat more. It's an extraordinarily fast-moving story, partly because it covers a very short time period -- perhaps twelve hours. Long enough to save the world with a love story thrown in. It's gripping and sets up an interesting mystery which is resolved acceptably. There are some short-cuts -- the hero jumps to some correct conclusions implausibly swiftly, for instance. It's not great work but it's good old-fashioned fun.

The story opens with Sally Ercott hungover and in despair. She is broke, filthy, living in a rundown flat, and at the brink of letting her landlord sell her as a prostitute in lieu of rent. She has vague memories of a much more comfortable life, but no specifics -- and more terrifyingly, she does have occasional very specific memories of other, much stranger, lives. These memories involve things like human sacrifice to a huge alien being, and barbarian invaders, and suchlike.

Then she is nearly run over by a young man, who insists on taking her to his house to at the very least clean up and get herself a good meal. Sally's landlord and his wife are depicted as furious at this development -- is their only motivation that of driving her to sufficient degradation to agree to "go on the street"? Or is something more sinister going on? The man who picks up Sally is named Nick Jenkins (it's probably only a coincidence that that is the same name as the narrator of one of the most important (and one of the best, and perhaps my favorite) English novels of the 20th Century: Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time).  Nick is an inventor, and a man with an open mind, and he promises to treat whatever strange stories Sally tells with respect. And when Sally tells him of her unusual memories of other lives, he asks her to draw scenes from them -- which elicits the information that the barbarian invaders from one scene had four arms; and that in another memory Sally's skin was scaled.

Nick arranges for a Doctor to treat Sally. Meanwhile the sinister landlord couple have tracked Nick down, and they are attempting to kidnap Sally back. Fortunately, another resident of Sally's rooming house has also become suspicious of the landlord and landlady. The conclusion moves rapidly, with Sally in deadly peril, even as she and Nick have figured out (perhaps too rapidly, as I suggested) just what's going on. But between Sally's new found confidence, and the help of Nick, the doctor, the other resident, and some reasonably intelligent policemen, all comes out OK.

A Little Remembered YA SF Novel: Raiders from the Rings, by Alan E. Nourse

A Little Remembered YA SF Novel: Raiders from the Rings, by Alan E. Nourse

a review by Rich Horton

Alan E. Nourse was born 11 August 1928 (he died in 1992), so I thought it might be a good time to resurrect this brief review of one of his YA novels, that I wrote for SFF Net a long time ago.

Alan E. Nourse was one of the SF writers whose juveniles introduced me to the field.  The Universe Between is the book I specifically remember: I was very impressed back in 1972 or whenever I read it.  I also read The Mercy Men and The Bladerunner.  (He got some money for the use of his title when the film came out, even though it had nothing to do with his book.)  His career mostly covered about 1951 to the early '70s, though he had a story in F&SF as late as 1990.  He died in 1992.  (He was an M.D., and his last name was pronounced "Nurse".)

A lot of his early work was for the regular SF magazines in the early '50s, then was revised into Young Adult novels later on: many of his YA books are from the '60s.  For instance, The Universe Between (1968) is an expansion/revision of two short stories from 1951 issues of Astounding.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Raiders from the Rings comes from 1962. It too is based on an older story from Astounding, but oddly enough the story is not by Nourse. It is "The Mauki Chant", by J. A. Meyer, from the June 1951 Astounding. Meyer was a friend of Nourse, and the two collaborated on a novel (The Invaders are Coming!, aka The Sign of the Tiger (which was the title of the 1958 Amazing story that the novel was based on).) Mayer also had three stories in Astounding, all in 1951.

Raiders from the Rings is a decent but not great YA SF novel -- which in the end describes much of his work.  He was no Heinlein, certainly, and not quite Andre Norton either (though apparently people used to mistake "Alan Nourse" for yet another Alice Mary Norton pseudonym, along with Andre Norton and Andrew North). He was much better than, say, the Silverberg of Revolt on Alpha C (possibly the first SF novel I read), or most of the "Winston" writers, and at least a bit better than Isaac Asimov writing as Paul French.  This novel posits a future solar system with fierce conflict between Earthman and Spacers -- a familiar subject.  Earthmen hate Spacers for some bad reasons -- they refused to join in the Atomic War that nearly wrecked Earth, thus they were traitors to one side or the other.  (The book's hero, Ben Trefon, is later revealed to be actually named Trefonovich -- which in 1962 was I'm sure supposed to be a shocking revelation -- The Good Guy is a COMMIE!)  They also have good reason to hate them -- Spacers periodically raid Earth and kidnap their women.  Spacers hate Earthmen, conversely, because they won't negotiate, and because they commit horrible atrocities whenever they happen to catch a Spacer ship.

It turns out there's a reason for the Spacer actions, and it also turns out that some Spacer fear of Earthmen, as well as most Earth fear of Spacers, is misguided, which is of course the message of the book.  The book begins with Ben participating in a raid on Earth, by mistake kidnapping not just a girl but her brother.  However, when Ben gets back to his home on Mars, he finds that the sneaky Earthmen have sent a suicide fleet and have blasted the Spacer homes to smithereens, killing Ben's father as well as many other Spacers.  He heads to "Asteroid Central" to join the doomed defense effort, but on the way he encounters a mysterious ship -- which seems to herd him to a strange asteroid.  There Ben and the two Earth kids learn a strange secret about the destiny of Earth, and they, having finally learned to trust each other, must find a a way to make the war stop, and to bring mutual trust between all Spacers and Earthmen.

As I said, it's decent but not great.  The science is actually not bad, and the plot, though it does turn on rather a deus ex machina, is still different enough to interest.  I could have used a bit more sexual tension -- but it was a YA book after all. And indeed any added sexual tension would have required a fuller portrayal of the women in the book, and a fuller engagement with the icky "wife kidnapping" theme.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Significant Recent SF Novel: The Light Ages, by Ian R. MacLeod

The Light Ages, by Ian R. MacLeod
Ace, New York, NY, May 2003, 456 pages, Hardcover, US$23.95, ISBN:0-441-01055-5

a review by Rich Horton

Another review that I'm resurrecting because Ian MacLeod's birthday was yesterday -- but this seems a book that his slipped out of the general consciousness in the years since its publication, and that's just wrong -- it's a really significant book, and I hope it can be rediscovered. (I believe I may have first posted this review at rec.arts.sf.written in 2003.)

Anyway, as it seems in danger of being too soon forgotten, I'm featuring this is this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Ian R. MacLeod is one of the finest writers in the SF field, known best for short fiction such as his World Fantasy Award winner "The Summer Lands", "Starship Day", "Breathmoss", "The Chop Girl", and "New Light on the Drake Equation". He is certainly one of my favorite writers. He has published only one previous novel, The Great Wheel, though I am told that a novel-length version of "The Summer Lands" exists.

The Light Ages has the feel of a steampunk novel -- that is, it is set in an England that resembles Victorian (or perhaps Edwardian) England, with magic that resembles rather grungy technology the motivating force in the background of the book. (Though if the book can be dated, it would seem to date to the late 20th Century -- I'm not sure if that is meant to be a comment on the magic and social organization of the world of the book retarding progress, or if rather it is a backhanded comment on our own society, or perhaps it is simply a mistake on my part.)

The book is told by one Robert Borrows. Robert grows up in a Yorkshire mining town. The substance mined at this town is "aether", a magical source of energy that is the driving force of the economy and technology of the world of this book. Accidents with aether can cause people to mutate into "changelings" or "trolls", and Robert's life changes when his mother begins to mutate. One result is a trip to a strange old woman, Mistress Summerton, a changeling herself, who lives with a beguiling ward called Annalise. Another result is, eventually, his mother's suicide. And yet a third result is his association with the Grandmaster of the local Guild, who is performing dangerous experiments on such things as electricity, and who seems perhaps to have been involved in a mysterious incident that may have caused Robert's mother's aether contamination.

Robert eventually escapes his home town and heads to London, where he becomes involved in fomenting a socialist revolution. He becomes a "mart", someone outside the Guild structure of England. The Guilds apparently control all the technology, and all the labour. Robert, thus, makes his living via the black market, or by simply stealing, and he also becomes a writer for a revolutionary newspaper. His focus is the injustices of the Guild structure, but all along we are also showed the maltreatment of the changelings.

In London Robert also again encounters Annalise, now calling herself Anna Winters. She has become attached to the upper classes, particularly via her friendship with Sarah Passington, daughter of perhaps the most powerful man of the realm. Robert's doomed attraction to the strangely glamourous Anna motivates him to continue to visit her when he can. He is both disgusted by the class inequalities revealed to him, and also of course attracted by the perquisites of the very wealthy -- not to mention such beauties as Sarah and Anna. He also again meets Mistress Summerton, as well as further figures from his past, and further changelings -- all slowly adding detail to our understanding of the terribly unjust social structure of this alternate England. Among all this, Robert runs into further hints of the secret behind his mother's accident, which turns out not surprisingly to be central to Annalise's history as well.

The book turns, finally, on revelations about the emptiness behind the aether-based power structure of the rulers of England, and an ambiguously successful "revolution". Robert and Anna learn much about their past -- and they are intimately involved with the opening of a new "Age". But the new Age is perhaps not all they might have hoped.

I had a complex reaction to this novel. It is for much of its length quite frustrating. The pace is glacial. MacLeod conceals important information (what is aether, really? what are changelings? etc.) for what in the end seems little reason. For too long almost nothing really happens. But it remains absorbing for the excellent writing (save a few slips that I think point to less than wonderful copyediting), and for the fascinating details of life in this alternate England. But what really redeems the book is the ending, which I found emotionally wracking, and honest, somewhat surprising, almost but not quite cynical. I was moved to tears -- I think honest tears -- and the final scene is perfect.

It is an ambitious novel. I cannot argue with anyone who gives up because of the pace -- it really is too slow in developing. For me, in the end the payoff was wholly worth it, though. While acknowledging that it could have been even better, I think I still concur with David Kennedy's view (expressed in another review on rec.arts.sf.written) -- "ridiculously good".

More Ian R. MacLeod:

My review of his first, quite excellent, story collection, Voyages by Starlight
And a compilation of some of my Locus reviews of his short fiction, plus a longer "SF by Starlight" piece on his great novella "New Light on the Drake Equation": Short Fiction of Ian R. MacLeod

A Major SF Story Collection: Voyages by Starlight, by Ian R. MacLeod

Voyages by Starlight, by Ian R. MacLeod
Arkham House, 1996, $21.95
ISBN: 0870541714

A review by Rich Horton

This review first appeared in Tangent, issue 20/21, in 1998. I'm reposting it mainly because it was not available online any more, but prompted by MacLeod's birthday, August 7.

Ian MacLeod seemed to emerge into the SF field almost fully-formed, as it were, with the publication in the Fall 1990 Weird Tales of his second story, "1/72 Scale", which was nominated for a Nebula. His first novel, The Great Wheel, has just been published; and Voyages by Starlight is his first collection.

His stories are very well-constructed, and characteristically rather quiet in tone. In this, in some of his themes, and in his ability to plant a subtle bombshell and explode it in the reader's face at a story's close, he reminds me of the excellent mainstream writer William Trevor. SF writers he reminds me of include Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, and perhaps his fellow Ian, McDonald. MacLeod uses SFnal tropes, sometimes quite original ones, primarily as metaphors enhancing the story's themes, or as enabling devices to place his characters in revealing situations.

I've read all these stories in their original magazine publications, and MacLeod has established himself with me as a "must-read" writer. But rereading them in bulk in this collection enhances my sense of his virtues. His prose style is balanced and elegant. He is wonderful at evoking landscapes, either beautiful as in "The Perfect Stranger" and "Starship Day", or grotesque, as in "The Giving Mouth". His characters are closely described, and truly alive.

My favorite stories here are "The Perfect Stranger" and "Starship Day", which resemble each other a bit in setting (sun-drenched island), and in following a man in early middle age whose marriage is failing, in both cases partly because of guilt about a child. Otherwise the stories are wholly different. "The Perfect Stranger" opens with the protagonist meeting his wife at a lovely vacation island. The catch is, everyone's memories are erased at the start of the vacation, so they don't know each other. Idyllic scenes of the couple in love on the island are alternated with scenes of their harried life prior to the vacation, and our knowledge that their marriage was on the rocks prior to the vacation fills us with foreboding for their future once their memories return. Is it possible to start over again, and not make the same mistakes? (A question MacLeod considers elsewhere as well.) And at what cost came this vacation?

"The news was everywhere. It was in our dreams, it was on TV. Tonight the travelers on the first starship from Earth would awaken." So opens "Starship Day", as the lovely island town of Danous awaits the news from the starship. Owen, the narrator, is a psychiatrist, and rather cynical in his view of the news. He's more concerned with his failing marriage, and his failing relationship with his mistress, and his failure to cure a despondent patient. We follow him through a gorgeous day, and a sumptuous "starship party", until the transmission from the ship is revealed. A final twist gives the whole setting and story a sharply drawn meaning. A wonderful story.

Most of the rest of the stories are nearly as good. "Grownups", last in the book and longest, is set in what appears at a glance to be contemporary England. But soon odd differences are revealed: humans are of three sexes: men, women, and "Uncles", who live apart, and who appear to be the childbearers. In addition, adolescents "grow up" by a sudden, painful, physical transformation: thus there is a very sharp demarcation between "grownups" and children. MacLeod examines gender roles (more by exaggerating present-day gender roles) and also, more tellingly, examines the nature of childhood versus adulthood. Bobby, the protagonist, watches his brother "grow up" and get married, later he is pushed by his friend May to try to postpone or avoid "growing up". This is an excellent example of using an overtly SFnal idea to illuminate the mundane human character.

One of the more unusual pieces is "The Giving Mouth". This takes a couple of familiar fantasy storylines (noble son meets peasant girl, Queen orders hopeless quest against invading danger) and plays them out in an inverted, "industrial" fantasy world, full of slagheaps, oil slicks, mechanical but living horses, and a well-depicted atmosphere of brutality and degradation. The resolution is unexpected, and a nice twist on what had seemed a cynical take on "fairy tales".

I'll touch more briefly on the other stories. "Marnie" uses an idea Tiptree used a couple of times, time travel back along one's own thread of consciousness, to explore a man trying to set right his relationship with his lover. It's nice but predictable. "Green" is a very good "alternate fantasy", featuring a gardener for the King in a world where gardens are infested by brownies and fairies as well as ordinary pests. "1/72 Scale" tells of a young boy, whose older brother is dead, who tries to make a complicated airplane model to somehow prove to his parents that he is as worthy of their love as his brother. "Tirkiluk" features a British weather officer on Greenland during World War II. He befriends an outcast Eskimo, then undergoes a mysterious transformation after disaster strikes the weather station. "Papa", set in another of MacLeod's beautiful seaside locations, is a gentle exploration of a very old man, somewhat lost in the suddenly utopian future, missing his long dead wife, unable to connect with his son, and loving but not understanding his grandchildren. Finally, "Ellen O'Hara" (non-SF, as far as I can tell, though it appeared in Asimov's), is a strong story of a Catholic girl in Northern Ireland, who spends her life trying to come to terms with the murder of her pacific father, and finally meets her father's killer, giving her (and us) a bitter and ironic look at her life choices.

This is truly an outstanding collection of stories. If I had a complaint, it would be that they are all familiar to me: I like a collection to feature something new or obscure. (Perhaps one or two of MacLeod's Interzone stories (e.g. "The Family Football") would have been good choices.) But this is mere quibbling: and furthermore, these are stories that reward rereading.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Ian R. MacLeod

Short Fiction of Ian R. MacLeod

Ian R. MacLeod was born August 6, 1956. In honor of his birthday, I'm reposting a few of the reviews I've done of his stories over the year, including a somewhat longer piece I did on "New Light on the Drake Equation", which I still rank as the best novella of the new millennium.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the files for some of my more recent reviews, such as what I wrote about his wonderful 2016 novelette "A Visitor from Taured".

Tangent Online SF By Starlight Feature, June 2001

"New Light on the Drake Equation", by Ian R. MacLeod (SCI FICTION, May 2001)

One of the usually fatal story gimmicks in SF is to make the story be about SF itself. There is little more annoying than an SF story whose point is that SF is good to read. And even when the theme of the story is something more substantive, references to other SF often seem twee or in-groupish. But Ian R. MacLeod, in "New Light on the Drake Equation", his lovely new novella posted at SCI FICTION, manages to make his story be, in part, about SF, and to make that work. It works partly because that is only a small part of what the story is about -- partly because the way it is about "SF" is reflective of the other themes of the story -- and mostly because the central concern of the story, the Drake Equation, is so central to the yearnings of 20th Century science fiction.

The Drake Equation is described here: . Briefly, it attempts to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy that we might communicate with, or at least detect. It combines terms representing the rate of formation of suitable stars, the proportion of such stars with planets, the proportion of such planets that will be habitable, the proportion of habitable planets on which life will actually develop, the proportion of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life evolves, and the period of time for which intelligent life might emit detectable signals. Not surprisingly, the values of most of these terms are not known, and indeed are rather controversial. It is one of the central dreams of SF that enough of those terms are of high enough value that there might be thousands, or thousand of thousands of species in our galaxy with whom we might communicate.

Many evaluations of the Drake Equation have been pretty optimistic. It really does seem plausible that there ought to be other intelligent life in the galaxy -- if nothing else, the Principle of Mediocrity suggests that we ought not to be all that special. But set against the Drake Equation is the Fermi Paradox: if all that life is out there: then where are they? Why haven't we heard from them?

The protagonist of MacLeod's story is Tom Kelly, a scientist who, by 2058, is pretty much the only scientist remaining who has any interest in communicating with aliens, or at any rate in searching for signs of alien radio signals. He lives a lonely, squalid life in a remote area of France. His life's work is trying to communicate with aliens, but he hardly communicates at all with other people -- this is nicely portrayed right at the opening as he struggles to get his mail from the elderly Frenchwoman who runs the post office, and it’s further emphasized, in a different way, by his impatience with the odd electronic postcards that are his actual mail. The squalor of his personal life is accentuated by his drunkenness. And to make things worse, medical science has adapted to the point that these conditions can easily be alleviated by what appears to be nanotech -- you can learn a foreign language by drinking a vial of the right stuff, and you can cure alcoholism. But Kelly, living in what appears to be a near utopian future, himself once an SF fan, presumably one who read about just such miracles, refuses such measures for himself.

The heart of the story occurs when Kelly returns from the post office to his mountainside home. In the village he thought he might have seen his former lover, Terr (short for "Terrestrial"?). Later in the night she comes walking up the mountain. Their long conversation is interspersed with flashbacks of their relationship. Terr and Tom were both students at the University of Aston in Birmingham, England. Terr never settled on a consistent field of study, while Tom became involved at this early time in his life work. So in many ways they weren’t compatible, yet the relationship is presented as fairly idyllic, but as inevitably ending. In the background we see hints of the developing future -- little things like hydrogen-powered cars, bigger things like a manned landing on Mars (no life!), and most importantly, the biological advances that lead to medical improvements like cures for alcoholism, and personal improvements like language learning, radical cosmetic alterations, and even, eventually, functional wings.

In a way, humans are becoming aliens themselves. And Tom Kelly drifts away from all that. Terr becomes a dedicated flyer, which seems to precipitate their breakup. Tom becomes more and more of a hermit, going from academic job to academic job, cadging what little grant money he can, eventually becoming regarded as a crank for still believing that there might be aliens out there -- indeed, for still even caring that there might be aliens out there.

The mood of the story becomes positively elegiac. Humanity, it seems, is doomed to loneliness. We are as alone as Tom Kelly, perhaps living in as squalid a place. I was reminded of two other significant stories on the same theme, "One" by George Alec Effinger, and David Brin’s Hugo-winner "The Crystal Spheres". And MacLeod ups the ante for SF readers by paralleling this idea of the death of hope for meeting aliens with the death of science fiction itself. SF, which Tom Kelly so loved when a child, is apparently no longer written. Its themes are 20th Century themes -- there is no place for it in the future. For me, at least, this resonated powerfully.

But MacLeod doesn’t leave us there. In part we are shown the contrast of Terr’s peripatetic life -- always looking for more and better flying. It’s not clear whether her life, her two failed (but not unhappy) marriages, her career in public relations, are to be seen as in any way better than Tom’s lonely obsessiveness. But they do represent a different way to live -- as do the happy, colorful young people all around Tom -- as do the flyers, physically different, almost aliens themselves. Is humankind itself enough? Do we really need to meet the aliens? The story ends calmly, with Terr’s visit to Tom rendered ambiguous (was it all a dream), but with Tom apparently changing his ways. But still listening.

This is a lovely story -- quiet and beautiful, thoughtful, elegiac and hopeful.

From Locus, May 2002:

Ian R. MacLeod is probably my current favorite writer of short SF, and it is a treat to see his huge novella in the May Asimov's, "Breathmoss". This is in the same milieu as his fine novelette, "Isabel of the Fall", the Ten Thousand and One Worlds, a future dominated by a much altered Islam, and in which there are very few men.

"Breathmoss" is a coming of age story about Jalila, a young woman on a planet with a rather long year. We meet her in spring as she moves with her three mothers from the mountains, where the air is so thin that breathing is assisted by "breathmoss" growing in the lungs, to a small seaside town. Her growing up takes us to winter. Jalila makes three significant friends. One, inevitably, is Kalal, the only boy in the town, perhaps on the whole planet. Another is a beautiful girl named Nayra with whom she falls in love. The third is an ancient "tariqua", a starship pilot, who lives alone near the town. As she comes to adulthood, she is forced almost willy-nilly to choose between conventional life with Nayra, an unconventional relationship with Kalal, and a completely different life as a tariqua -- but her choice seems inevitable, and precipitates a violent act, which leads Jalila towards even more self-discovery.

This story is lovely and fascinating, not least for such offhand details as the curious semi-mechanical hayawans. The thematic heart of the story, issues of identity, and time, and the "Pain of Distance" experienced by people who leave home for a nomadic life, is compelling. Still, I was a bit less satisfied than I might have been. The climactic violence seemed forced and almost a cliché. And the final revelation, if philosophically interesting, also seemed a bit old hat. Nonetheless, this is a fine novella.

From Locus, May 2007

The May F&SF features intriguing stuff throughout. The cover story is "The Master Miller’s Tale", by Ian R. MacLeod, set in the alternate fantastical history of his novels The Light Ages and House of Storms. Nathan Westover, we are told from the start, will be the last of the master millers on Burlish Hill. The story is then a recapitulation of the Industrial Revolution, though this time the new "industry" is magic -- using "aether", as we have seen in the novels. To be sure, the millers use magic as well, in particular to control the unpredictable winds. Nathan’s story is of an abortive fascination with an aristocratic girl, and then rivalry with her as she leads the movement to bring in aether-controlled factories, then involvement with the Luddite-analogues of this alternate world, then a very moving closure, in which both central figures figure sadly. In a way this story is too programmatic -- the Industrial Revolution parallels too crude -- but all is redeemed by the way the personal stories of the main characters work out.

From Locus, May 2008:

The June Asimov’s features another powerful novella from Ian R. MacLeod. "The Hob Carpet" is set in an alternate world in which humans share Earth with close relatives they call hobs, who lack the power of speech and who are enslaved. The religion of this culture is built on extravagant cruelty towards the hobs -- sacrifice, and sacrifice accompanied by horrendous torture, is central. But the narrator is no believer in the gods, and moreover he comes to believe that the hobs do much better work if treated well. But he is not quite a hero: he is curious and cold (both words having double meanings). His love life is quite stunted, and his beautiful wife leaves him. His treatment of the hobs runs him afoul of the authorities, especially amidst drastic climate change, blamed naturally on his apostasy. The resolution is familiar to SF readers: the world turned upside down, martyrdom, scientific heroism (including, in a bit of a misstep, MacLeod’s second recent use of an "alternate Darwin"), cool secrets revealed: but for all its familiarity it is moving and it works.

From Locus, June 2010:

All F&SF’s issues these days are "big double issues". For July-August I thought the best story was from Ian R. MacLeod. "Recrossing the Styx" is set on a grand cruise ship, that caters to the very rich, and particularly to one subset of the very rich: the dead. That is, the dead but revived -- zombies, in a science-fictional sense. The narrator is a crew member, who falls for the wife of one of those revived rich -- a beautiful young woman who has, it seems, traded her youth for wealth -- with a nasty twist revealed when any attempt at intimacy is made. But perhaps there is a way out for her? With the narrator’s help, of course. MacLeod, of course, has more surprises for us -- and it’s nice stuff, if not by any means MacLeod at his best. Speaking of zombies, there is another zombie story in this issue, and it’s pretty entertaining too: Albert E. Cowdrey’s "Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead", in which a successful writer hires a security firm to protect him after his latest lover comes after him for revenge -- after the breakup and also after the lover seemed to have quite conclusively died. Funny and in a number of ways oddly sweet.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Classic Early Ace Double: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp

Ace Double Reviews, 62: Ring Around the Sun, by Clifford D. Simak/Cosmic Manhunt, by L. Sprague de Camp (#D-61, 1954, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This early Ace Double stands as one of the better pairings in the series' history. Both authors are SFWA Grand Masters. Both books are fine work, and very characteristic of the author. Neither story is quite a classic, and as such the book stands just shy of the very best Doubles (a couple of suggestions for the best: Conan the Conqueror/The Sword of Rhiannon; and, if one allows a "recombination", the late repackaging of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle).

Ring Around the Sun is a Complete and Unabridged reprint of a 1953 Simon and Schuster hardcover, which was serialized beginning in December 1952 in Galaxy. It is about 75,000 words (one of the longest Ace Double halves). Cosmic Manhunt is called an "Ace Original", but it is a very lightly revised reprinting if De Camp's 1949 Astounding serial "The Queen of Zamba". It is about 50,000 words long.

Clifford Simak's first SF stories were more or less standard (but well regarded) pre-Campbell pulp adventures -- Isaac Asimov liked his first, "World of the Red Sun", enough to retell it aloud to his elementary school friends. (Asimov later wrote a harshly critical letter to Astounding about one of Simak's first stories for John Campbell, and Simak replied asking for advice on how to improve. Asimov abashedly reread the story and decided he was wrong and Simak was right.) He stopped writing for several years in the 30s, only to be lured back by John Campbell. Simak, with Williamson, Leinster, and a few others, was able to make the transition from 30s pulp to the more serious science fiction Campbell wanted. Simak made his biggest impression over the next decade with the series of stories that became his fixup novel City, which won the International Fantasy Award in 1953. He published two of the earlier Galaxy serials: "Time Quarry" (book title: Time and Again), which appeared in the first three issues of Galaxy (October through November 1950) and Ring Around the Sun. (He also had a novel published as a "Galaxy Novel" in 1951: Empire, a very little known book, by all accounts little known for good reason.)

Ring Around the Sun is an intriguing effort that I don't think quite comes off. The hero is Jay Vickers, a writer living in upstate New York. He lives alone, with apparently just one friend, a tastefully named old man named Horton Flanders. His agent is a lovely woman named Ann Carter, but her evident interest in him is hopeless: Jay can't forget his love for Kathleen Preston, a rich neighbor girl in his home town (presumably located in Southwestern Wisconsin, where Simak routinely set stories) who was sent away by her parents to keep her from poverty-stricken Jay's attention. Jay feels different in other ways: there is the memory of an enchanted valley he visited with Kathleen, and of a strange place he went to as a boy, by the agency of an old top.

Jay is called to New York to meet with a man who wants him to write an exposé of some new products that have been showing up. These are things like a razor blade that never wears out, a light bulb that never burns out, and, most radically, a car that will run forever: the Forever car. George Crawford represents an industry group that is afraid of the effect of these products on the world's economy, and he wants Jay to write articles about the danger. But Jay distrusts Crawford and refuses. Then his friend Horton Flanders disappears, and suddenly people seem suspicious of Jay himself. And of anyone involved with the Forever car and the other new products. It seems that there are "supermen" among us, and that Jay may be one of those who doesn't recognize his talents. Jay escapes a potential lynching and heads for his hometown to try to unravel the mysteries of his birth and upbringing, and of the enchanted valley he once visited.

The story gets a little stranger from there. It seems that there are not just supermen but androids involved. And parallel worlds -- possibly available for colonization. And messages from the stars. And multiple copies of the same individual. Horton Flanders is in on the whole thing. George Crawford's industry group is engaged in fomenting a war if that's what it takes to stop the incursion of these miracle products and to stop the subjugation of "normal" people by supermen. Ann Carter may be a superwoman herself. And, indeed, the destinies of Flanders, Vickers, Carter, and Crawford seem all to be most curiously intertwined.

This is a very imaginative and pretty thoughtful and ambitious story. Still, I don't think Simak quite brings off what he's trying. Vickers is a thinnish character, and his relationship with Ann Carter is thinner still. Simak's ideas, and his moral, are interesting, but not quite developed as well as I'd have liked. The conclusion is just a bit rapid. (Interestingly, he reused some of these ideas (not all!) in a later novelette, "Carbon Copy" (Galaxy, December 1957).)

Finally, I note that the novel is blurbed "Easily the best Science Fiction novel so far in 1953" -- New York Herald Tribune. I don't know when it appeared in 1953 (in book form), but that's a striking comment given that books published that year included The Demolished Man, Fahrenheit 451, Childhood's End, More Than Human, The Paradox Men, The Sword of Rhiannon, Second Foundation, and The Space Merchants. (This doesn't include serials from 1953 such as "The Caves of Steel" and "Mission of Gravity" that became books a year later.) 1953 was truly an annus mirabilis for the SF field, and Ring Around the Sun is a worthy supporting player among the long list of great work from that year.

Cosmic Manhunt, as I mentioned, is a slight revision of L. Sprague de Camp's 1949 serial "The Queen of Zamba". According to de Camp's foreword to a later reprint, the only change was in the name of the hero's sidekick. The Chinese name Chuen from the serial became Yano (Japanese, or more specifically Okinawan) in the Ace edition, due to Don Wollheim's concern that Chinese people were unpopular as a result of the Korean War. Otherwise the stories are identical as far as I can tell. The book was reprinted by itself by Ace in 1966, the title changed again, to A Planet Called Krishna. And it was reprinted in 1977, restored to the original text and title, in an Asimov's Choice paperback (from Davis Publications), with the Krishna novelette "Perpetual Motion" appended.

I believe this is the first of de Camp's Krishna novels. Quite a few followed, all with a Z place name in the title: The Hand of Zei (1951), The Virgin of Zesh (1953), The Tower of Zanid (1958), The Hostage of Zir (1977), The Bones of Zora (1983) and The Swords of Zinjaban (1991). These last two were co-written with his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp. (There is also a book called The Search for Zei which I assume is a retitling of The Hand of Zei. (It turns out that some editions split The Hand of Zei into two parts, with The Search for Zei being the other part.) The Krishna novels are the main part of his Viagens Interplanetarias series, which includes a number of other stories and the novel Rogue Queen (1951). The most recognizable gimmicks of the series are that the future Earth is dominated by Brazil, hence the lingua franca is Portuguese, and that space travel is restricted to light speed. De Camp claimed this was to keep the books SF: to violate relativity would make them fantasy. Maybe so, but the silly biology of the Krishna books seems equally fantastical.

In The Queen of Zamba (a title much to be preferred to Cosmic Manhunt in my view), private investigator Victor Hasselborg is hired by a rich man to track down his daughter, who has run off with an ineligible rogue. Hasselborg agrees to the job, then finds himself obligated to travel to Krishna, where the couple has apparently decamped (pun intended). Worse, he falls in love with the bad guy's abandoned wife, but she'll have to wait 9 years or so for him to return. (Krishna appears to be at Alpha Centauri or perhaps Barnard's Star, based on travel time.)

On Krishna, Hasselborg disguises himself as a Krishnan portrait painter. He follows the trail of the two lovers to one kingdom, where he meets the King (or Dour) and is rapidly slapped in jail. Before long he is fighting a duel for his life with the Dour. He escapes to another town, and falls in with the local high priest, also arranging to paint the Emperor's portrait. Unfortunately, the nubile (and oviparous) niece of the high priest takes a liking to him, and when he needs help the price is marriage. Meanwhile he runs into K. Yano (or Chuen), a ship companion who seems to be an Earth agent. They realize they are after the same people -- in Yano's case, because the bad guy is suspected of running guns to Krishna, with the object of making himself the planetary ruler. He has already taken over the island kingdom of Zamba (at last, the title becomes clear!). It is up to Hasselborg and Yano to foil the plot, and then resolve their conflicting requirements re the villains. (And in Hasselborg's case, worry about whether if he brings her husband to justice, his beloved will stay married to him, or ...)

It's certainly a pleasant adventure romp, with plenty of color and light-hearted humor. As SF, it's not really all that inspiring -- it could easily enough have been recast as historical fiction. Victor Hasselborg is enjoyable to follow, though his mixture of competence and what seems at times pasted on foibles and diffidence is not quite convincing. His romance is not too exciting -- the girl behind offstage for almost the entire book. Fun, worth your time, not an enduring classic.

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Little Known Ace Double: So Bright the Vision, by Clifford D. Simak/The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Jeff Sutton

Ace Double Reviews, 70: So Bright the Vision, by Clifford D. Simak/The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Jeff Sutton (#H-95, 1968, $0.60)

The Simak half is a collection of not terribly well-known longer stories, from the late 50s basically. The Sutton half is a novel by a very little-known writer. The Simak collection totals 63,000 words, the Sutton novel is about 50,000, making this a fairly long Ace Double.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Gray Morrow)

The four stories collected in So Bright the Vision are "The Golden Bugs" (F&SF, June 1960, 16400 words); "Leg. Forst." (Infinity, April 1958, 17100 words); "So Bright the Vision" (Fantastic Universe, August 1956, 18900 words); and "Galactic Chest" (Science Fiction Stories, September 1956, 10600 words). They are all enjoyable, none really ranks among Simak's best work.

In "The Golden Bugs" a man discovers a strange sort of rock in his back yard, and soon also some very odd insects in his house. Insects that for a short time appear quite helpful ... In "Leg. Forst." an aging con man and stamp collector discovers a remarkable property of a curious stamp he receives from another planet, when said stamp is accidentally mixed with beef broth. The result is marketable as an efficiency enhancer, but it does so in somewhat surprising ways. The conclusion is a little bit unexpected in a sly way. "So Bright the Vision" is probably the best of these stories. It's set in a future in which Earth's only contribution to Galactic society is fiction -- it seems only humans among intelligent races can lie. The necessity to turn out product has led to automation of writing: actually thinking up plots and writing prose by yourself is taboo. A struggling hack gets in trouble with an alien race -- a couple of alien races, in the end. That the resolution will involve the possibility of actual writing, not just programming a writing machine, is predictable from the start, but Simak gets to that point in unexpected ways: and where he ends up isn't quite exactly the cliche ending we might have expected. Finally, "Galactic Chest", as with a number of Simak's stories, involves a newspaperman as protagonist. (Simak of course was a newspaperman himself.) This man is stuck writing the Community Chest column for a local newspaper when he runs a story about "brownies" causing runs of good luck and then realizes to his surprise that the story might actually be true. The solution, again, is mostly what we expect but just slightly different -- I'd say that in three of these four stories ("The Golden Bugs", my least favorite, excepted) the stories are distinguished by a slightly new resolution to a fairly familiar situation.

Jeff Sutton (full name Jefferson Howard Sutton) isn't a terribly well-known writer, but he did publish something in the neighborhood of 20 SF novels between 1959 and his death at the age of 66 in 1979. He also published a few short stories, one of which I read recently in an issue of the very obscure 1950s magazine Spaceways. A number of Sutton's novels were YA books, these written in collaboration with his wife Jean.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow concerns an mysterious man who appears and suddenly becomes a financial tycoon, based on his uncanny knowledge of the future of the stock market. His vast fortune allows him to wield outsize influence politically, and he soon appears to be trying to control certain foreign countries by means of bribes. This naturally attracts the interest of the US government, which assigns an agent to him. Indeed the book opens with two curious scenes: one is of a mild-mannered mathematician waiting to assassinate a shiftless laborer, the other is of an agent waiting to assassinate the tycoon.

Then the book shifts back in time, following two threads. One concerns the tycoon, his appearance, and his early success, and his curious interest in a certain obscure branch of mathematics. The other concerns the mathematician we met at the opening. He is one of about 6 worldwide experts in the theory of multidimensional space. He is dating a beautiful arts professor, but then he loses her to the tycoon. He also notices that his expert colleagues are dying in mysterious fashion. And soon he seems to be under attack, as well as his friends ...

Well, we can all guess what's going on, I think. But it's resolved reasonably well. It's a surprisingly dark book, actually. It's no better than OK as a whole, and it doesn't really convince in its examination of time paradoxes, but there are some nice bits, and it's competently executed.