Sunday, September 30, 2018

Birthday Review: Theodora Goss stories

Birthday Review: Short Fiction from Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is one of my favorite SF/F writers, bar none; and especially so if you consider writers of short fiction who began publishing in this millennium. (Add Genevieve Valentine and C. S. E. Cooney to that list, and I note that those are all women without comment.) Today is her birthday, and so here is my compilation of most of the reviews I've done of her work for Locus.

(Locus, April 2002)

I reviewed her first story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals", from Realms of Fantasy, for Locus, in the third monthly column I ever wrote. I am always proud when I realize the potential of a new writer from the beginning -- though the pride belongs to them! Alas, my electronic copy of that review is corrupted, and I can't read it. But here's the excerpt from the Small Beer Press page:

One of the most impressive debuts I can recall. Fairy tale retellings are a dime a dozen, and Sleeping Beauty ones probably as common as any, so this story has to be special to stand out, and special it is.

(Locus, January 2004)

Theodora Goss's "Lily, With Clouds" (Alchemy #1) tells of a woman coming home to her sister's house to die, accompanied by her dead husband's mistress, and her husband's paintings. Mostly it's simply of picture of three woman: the conventional, prudish, sister; the once rebellious dying woman; and the rather odd mistress -- but the ending is just beautiful, an inevitable surprise.

(Locus, May 2004)

In Polyphony 4, Theodora Goss continues to impress with "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm", in which a girl takes violin lessons from a German newly arrived at her Southern town. She learns he has a strange desire -- to make a flying machine and reach the flying city of Orillion. Goss blends a heartfelt depiction of a girl growing up with a lovely portrait of a man's dream, and at the end adds darker strands to her tapestry.

(Locus, September 2005)

Theodora Goss offers "A Statement in the Case" (Realms of Fantasy, August). An old man tells a policeman of his friendship with an apothecary. The apothecary is an immigrant, and he runs an old-fashioned store: one might say "charming". All this changes when he marries. Slowly we learn the apothecary's strange secrets, his sadness, and why the policeman is interested.

(Locus, December 2005)

First, Strange Horizons -- which, however, is no longer exactly "less prominent". But they do feature one of the best stories of the month -- indeed, of the year: Theodora Goss’s "Pip and the Fairies". Philippa’s late mother wrote children’s books about a girl visiting fairyland. Philippa (Pip?) is now a successful actress, and she has bought the house her mother and she lived in, in poverty, while the books were written. These books, lately popular, were based on her childhood -- or were they? Stories she told her mother, or stories her mother made up, or real magical experiences, or some sort of fictional distillation of the problems a single mother and her child faced … Goss intertwines Philippa’s memories of her childhood, her imperfect relationship with her mother, her present day relationship with fans of the book, and passages from her mother’s books. The material is perhaps familiar but the treatment is powerfully affecting.

(Locus, April 2006)

The second issue of Fantasy Magazine has appeared. Disclaimer first -- I contribute short book reviews to this magazine. Even so, I don’t think I am wrong to praise Theodora Goss’s "Lessons With Miss Gray", in which five young women, four close friends and an outsider, take lessons in magic from the title character, who has appeared in other Goss pieces. The girls learn real magic, and they also learn (or we learn) about their characters how these (and their futures) are affected by race, class, and gender. It’s witty and involving and clearheaded -- another triumph for Goss.

(Logorrhea review, Locus, May 2007)

Theodora Goss’s "Singing of Mount Abora" plays with Coleridge instead of Tolkien -- recasting the inspiration of "Kubla Khan" in weaving together a story of an Ancient Chinese woman trying to win a dragon’s hand, a contemporary woman studying Coleridge, and Coleridge himself, in Xanadu of all places.

(Locus, June 2007)

The June Realms of Fantasy closes with a lovely Theodora Goss tale, "Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon", about a Princess who is really a baby found by a childless royal couple in the woods, and her ordinary childhood, and ambitions, and what happens when she finds her real mother. Here again is a story that captivates first -- perhaps it is not especially profound but it is great fun. I thought first of George MacDonald's The Light Princess.

(Locus, December 2007)

And to a true survivor in online SF: Strange Horizons. In October I liked best Theodora Goss’s "Catherine and the Satyr". It’s set in Regency England. Catherine is unhappily married, and has left her husband. The Earl of Aberdeen has a zoo, and the zoo has a satyr. Catherine finds the satyr surprisingly well-educated, and attractive, and so ... but Goss is a subtler writer than that, and the story, in the end, suggests that marriage in a society like Catherine’s could be a cage -- like the satyr’s cage, perhaps, or even like the servitude endured by a servant Catherine unwittingly causes harm to.

(Locus, May 2009)

Apex Online’s March issue is also strong, with a couple of thematically related original stories. ... "The Puma", by Theodora Goss, returns to the famous early exemplar of human/animal chimera stories, with a survivor of the events of Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau confronted by the beautiful puma woman who plays on his guilt to support her efforts to continue Moreau’s work, but with more control ceded to the chimeras.

(Locus, March 2010)

Last year Theodora Goss explored the aftermath of Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau in a fine story called "The Puma". Now, at Strange Horizons in January, she gives us "The Mad Scientist’s Daughter", which features six "daughters" of mad scientists, among them Moreau’s creation Catherine, as well as Rappaccini’s daughter, and a creation of Dr. Frankenstein, and a hitherto unrevealed pair of daughters of Jekyll and Hyde. The story details their lives together, their difficulties with their unique histories and characteristics, and so on, in a very witty and intelligent fashion. [Gee, wouldn't a novel on this subject be nice? :) ]

(Locus, October 2010)

Another online magazine, Apex, unveils a new editor in August, Catherynne M. Valente. Her first issue features a lovely story from Theodora Goss, "Fair Ladies", about Rudi, a rather callow young R/u/r/i/t/a/n/i/a/n Sylvanian man who is compelled by his father to take up with an older woman -- in fact, we soon gather, his father’s old mistress. The oddly alluring woman has a secret, of course, a magical and sad secret. It’s a familiar story, but given particular resonance by the slightly dissonant angle of telling, and by the ominous historical events looming the background -- the rise of the Third Reich.

(Locus, July 2011)

"Pug", by Theodora Goss (Asimov's, July), is set in the background of one of the most famous novels of all time -- readily enough recognized though I’ll not mention which it is. But the title dog (who seems perhaps to have escaped from another novel by the same author!) has a unique characteristic -- he can travel to other worlds, and eventually the heroine of this story, a rather colorless and sickly girl, can follow him. Which perhaps gives her a life otherwise denied her. The story nicely elaborates on the circumstances of its heroine, and is just fun to read for Goss’s prose, and for the pleasure of unpicking the relationship with its source material.

(Locus, September 2012)

Finally, in the August Asimov's, I really liked Theodora Goss's "Beautiful Boys", a short piece about a certain class of young man -- "bad boys" one might call them as well as beautiful, prone to brief affairs with vulnerable women followed by abandonment. It's told by a woman researcher, and she has an explanation for them -- a science fictional one, so that the story becomes both a subtle and slightly sad look at her life, and a somewhat Sturgeonesque bit of Sfnal speculation.

(Locus, January 2014)

And "Blanchefleur", by Theodora Goss (from Paula Guran's anthology Once Upon a Time), is a long and quite traditional but very satisfying tale of a young man, regarded as the village idiot, who instead is part Fairy, and who eventually is summoned to his other family's place, where there seems to be lots of talking cats... and too a variant on the traditional three tasks. This is subversive or post-modern or revisionist, really -- but it's beautifully told and often funny and original and, well, nice.

(Locus, July 2015)

The other story I really liked in the July Lightspeed was "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology", by Theodora Goss, in which a group of post-docs and grad students write about an imaginary country, creating history, religion, culture, etc., from scratch; then somehow find that it really exists. Did they create it? One of them ends up marrying a daughter of the Khan, and that is even stranger, as she has an identical twin who is ignored by everyone (as in Cimmeria, twins have no independent souls), but who follows them everywhere. Very Borgesian, of course, and very fine.

(Locus, January 2017)

More traditional in form, from The Starlit Wood, is "The Other Thea", by Theodora Goss, which takes the central idea of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Shadow" (that a person might become disconnected from their shadow, which is sort of an other self, an alternate version of them), and makes a new story of it, related a couple of her best earlier stories, "Miss Emily Gray" and "Lessons with Miss Gray". Thea (surely a significant name choice!) has been drifting through life in the months since graduating from Miss Lavender’s School of Witchcraft, and she ends up drifting back to the school, where she is told that she must find her shadow, which had been cut off by her grandmother when she was just a child. So she travels to the Other Country, and, of course, does find her shadow -- or it finds her -- but who says the shadow wants anything to do with her? It’s a beautifully written story, and great fun, but perhaps a bit thin next to the Samatar story, and to my other favorite in the book.

(Locus, May 2017)

The best recent story in comes from Theodora Goss. "Come See the Living Dryad" is told by a contemporary woman, Daphne Levitt, a scientist writing about historical "freaks", like the Elephant Man. Her motivation is her great-grandmother, who was an exhibit in the 1880s as "the Living Dryad". In reality, this woman, Daphne Merwin, suffered from Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia, a real condition that can lead to branch-like growths on peoples’ skin. Dr. Levitt ends up investigated her great-grandmother’s murder, for which, she learns, a man was falsely convicted. The real story turns on a familiar tale of jealousy and abuse and charlatanage. A moving story, well-framed (and, if truth be told, not really SF or Fantasy, but very much worth reading).

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Late But Little Known Ace Double: Life with Lancelot, by John T. Phillifent/Hunting on Kunderer, by William Barton

Ace Double Reviews, 23: Life With Lancelot, by John T. Phillifent/Hunting on Kunderer, by William Barton (#48245, 1973, $0.95)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the last true Ace Doubles, having been published in August of 1973, the last year for the "dos-a-dos" style doubles. It features one author's first novel and only Ace Double. And it features nearly the last novel by one of the most prolific of Ace Double contributors. William Barton's Hunting on Kunderer is the "first novel", a fairly short one at some 34,000 words. John T. Phillifent wrote 16 different Ace Double halves, fourteen under the name "John Rackham", and Life With Lancelot is one of four novels he put out in 1973, the last year he published any novels. It is about 40,000 words long. One interesting note is the cover to Life With Lancelot, which is by Ed Valigursky. Valigursky was an extremely regular cover artist of Ace Double in the first decade of the series, but his last before this one was in 1965. Nice to see him return one time right at the end of the series (and indeed he did another in 1973, for Mack Reynolds' Code Duello). This was also mostly the end of his SF illustrator career, though he continued to do work for places like Popular Mechanics until he retired some time in the 1990s, and he also did some fine art.

(Covers by Harry Borgman and Ed Valigursky)

William Barton has become fairly well known in recent years for a number of reputedly extremely dark and cynical novels, featuring lots of violence and lots of sex (sometimes rather icky sex). He often writes in collaboration with Michael Capobianco. I myself have not read any of his novels, but I have read a number of novellas in places like Asimov's and Sci Fiction, and the novellas are indeed often extremely dark and cynical, and they tend to feature plenty of violence and (sometimes icky) sex. They are also often very good -- in particular I like his two most recent Asimov's novellas: last year's "The Engine of Desire" and this year's "Off on a Starship".

Hunting on Kunderer has some sex, though it's not very icky (a bit maybe), and some violence. It's not what I'd call dark, but it is rather cynical. It's really not very good, though, not even close to as good as his later work -- the writing is at best routine, at worst clumsy, the plotting is perfunctory, the setting a bit ordinary.

Kunderer is a planet apparently consisting largely of jungles, with huge trees, and with a dominant predator much resembling a tyrannosaur. A small group arrives on the starship Wandervogel to take a hunting trip. These include Scott MacLeod, a space navy officer on leave; Uri Baruch, a 300 year old Jewish man who has just been ousted as long-time first minister of the Vinzeth Empire, and who has had his sexual organs restored to him after nearly 300 years as a eunuch; Pashai anke Soring, an alien who has been studying human sexuality; and Maryam, a whore who has been assisting Soring in his researches.

On arrival the four go off into the jungle with a guide named of all things Gilgamesh. Meanwhile, the starship has been sabotaged, and apparently only good luck got them safely to Kunderer. The captain quickly decides that one of the four passengers committed the sabotage, and he engages another guide and follows them in order to interrogate each suspect.

The action consists of a bit of hunting of the tyrannosaurs, a bit of ineffectually questioning by the Captain, a rather more effective investigation by the people repairing the starship, and other niceties such as the alien Soring trying to get Maryam to be seduced by or seduce other passengers in order to advance his scientific studies. There are a few deaths, a solution of sorts to the sabotage mystery, and a curiously upbeat (one might almost say, pasted on) ending.

I can detect traces of the future Barton in this book, but for the most part there is no indication that he would become the writer he did. A weak effort, with a couple of minor interesting touches but mostly not -- forgettable, on the whole.

In 1961 John T. Phillifent published a story called "The Stainless-Steel Knight" in If, under the "John Rackham" name. That story is the first part of the novel Life With Lancelot, which is padded out with two more stories of similar length. As far as I can tell, the two additional stories were not published elsewhere. In this book the three stories are called "Stainless Knight", "Logical Knight", and "Arabian Knight".

All three stories are set on a "Vivarian" planet, consisting of three continents, each a reserve for people living in imitation of a certain historical period. The hero is Lancelot Lake, who is given a back story in which he, a lowly spaceship technician, attempts to save a doomed spaceship, and fails, crashlanding on an alien world. He is posthumously awarded promotion to Prime G, the highest rank in Galactopol. Unfortunately for Galactopol, the aliens have super medical powers, and great interest in humans, and they save Lancelot's life, and give him extra physical strength and an alien companion, called the Shogleet. They can't do much for his brains, though.

Lancelot demands assignments worthy of his position, and as each continent is becoming destabilized -- failing to maintain their historical culture -- he goes to each one in turn. The first is a medieval culture, menaced by the appearance of a "dragon", and Lancelot must vanquish the knight who found the dragon, and then destroy the dragon (which is actually something else, as the reader readily guesses). This he does with the considerable help of the Shogleet, at the same time enjoying himself with several wives and a beautiful maiden who falls in love with him. The second is an Ancient Greek culture which has rejected the Gods, and Lancelot's job is to go down disguised as Apollo, and perform a few miracles to rekindle faith. But he and his lovestruck female technician companion end up in trouble, and the Shogleet must come up with another solution, inspired by a famous Greek comedy. The third culture is Arabian, and it is menaced by a renegade Galactic who is using the high-tech androids, afreets, and so on to rule a fictional Baghdad. Lancelot and a beautiful but sexually repressed fellow agent visit Baghdad disguised as Iskander and the Queen of Sheba, hoping to use the woman agent's charms to distract the bad guy. Unfortunately, the rat doses her with an aphrodisiac. Naturally, Lancelot ends up benefiting from her sudden compulsion for sex, while the Shogleet (with it must be said Lancelot's considerable assistance) again saves the day.

All in all, these are pretty weak stories. The core ideas are hackneyed, and Phillifent does very little new with them. The sex is a bit embarrassing -- the first story has only hints of it, but the later two, presumably written much later, both feature repressed women who fall for the alien-enhanced Lancelot, and who spend most of the story buck naked, and much of it begging for his attention. The plots are rudimentary, solved mainly by the Shogleet's conveniently scaled powers. Lancelot's character shifts a lot, too -- the basic setup is that he is a nebbish, more or less, stupid and way out of his depth and not much physically either. But by the last stories he has become somehow quite a bit more intelligent, and he seems to be rather more a physical specimen (even discounting the alien mods) than originally described.

I'm also a bit puzzled by the use of the Phillifent name. The original story was published as by "John Rackham", and "Rackham" was the name he used for all of his other Ace Doubles save one, and that one, Hierarchies, was originally an Analog serial as by "Phillifent" (which name he generally used only for his Analog stories (and some Man From Uncle tie-ins).)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Old Bestseller Review: The Bright Face of Danger, by Robert Nielson Stephens

Old Bestseller Review: The Bright Face of Danger, by Robert Nielson Stephens

a review by Rich Horton

Back to a true Old Bestseller, though not a top bestseller. But certainly of that ilk.

Robert Nielson Stephens (1867-1906) was a journalist, theatrical agent, playwright and novelist, originally from Pennsylvania, later in New York, and then England, where he died before his 40th birthday. (He had long been ill.) He was a fairly popular writer in his time, and his best known work was a play, a novel, and later a movie, An Enemy to the King (1896). The book at hand, The Bright Face of Danger (1904), is a distant sequel to An Enemy to the King, concerning the son of the hero and heroine of that novel. My edition appears possibly to be a first, from L. C. Page, though it's inscribed "Paul Johnson, Salem Ill, from Tommy. Dec. 25, 1913", which suggests it was a Christmas present in that year. It's in fair to poor condition. It is illustrated by H. C. Edwards.

I have noticed that my reading of historical novels written around the turn of the 20th Century has included a number of novels about 16th and 17th Century France. Here's a summary (note that When Knighthood Was in Flower is primarily about England, with a short segment in France, but an historically significant segment):

1515: When Knighthood Was In Flower, Louis XII

1530: Under the Rose, Francis I

1593: The Helmet of Navarre, Henry IV

1608: The Bright Face of Danger, Henry IV

1630: Under the Red Robe, Louis XIII

(Each title is a link to my review of the novel in question. I should add that An Enemy to the King (which I haven't read) is set in about 1588, during the time of the Three Henries (Henry III, Henry IV, and Henry I of Guise).)

The novel itself is only peripherally about historical matters (and, oddly, one could argue that the faction of the bad guy in the book ends up winning, as Henry IV was assassinated in 1610). It opens with Henri de Launay, a rather bookish young man, deciding that he must set out to Paris to prove his courage and maturity, partly because his bookish ways sometimes excite comment in his fellows, partly because of his admiration for his father, the Sieur de Tournoire, and partly because the girl he fancies he loves has mocked his mustaches as negligible in comparison to one Brignan de Brignan. So he sets out on his way, with his father's somewhat hesitant approval, accompanied by one servant and with some advice from his father's old retainer.

But at his very first stop, he meets another young man, a bit of an annoying braggart, and the two come to words, and then to a duel. Henri wins (naturally, or we wouldn't have much of a book!) and on the person of the dead man discovers a letter -- a plea for help from a woman who says "come at once, my life and honour depend on you". Henri decides he must try to find this lady and offer what help he can, so he sends his servant home to beg his father to negotiate a pardon for him (for the dueling death) from the King, and Henri sets on alone.

He manages, partly by happenstance, to discover who and where the lady in question is. She is the young wife of an old man, the Count de Lavardin. It seems the Count is insanely jealous of his wife (whom he married from a convent), and he must have decided that she had cuckolded him with the man Henri has killed. Fortuitously, Henri meets another man trying to get into the Chateua de Lavardin, and the two arrange a scheme: the Count is known to be a chess fanatic. They will masquerade as chess players, hoping to get an invitation to the Chateau.

Of course this all works. Henri's new friend is the better chess player, and he manages to beat the Count. Meanwhile, Henri wanders the Chateau, and ends up meeting the Count's beautiful wife, and her resourceful maid, Mathilde. It is quickly clear that the Countess, a devout Catholic (Henri is a Huguenot), is completely faithful to her husband, not because she loves him (he is rather a monster), but because of her marriage vows. But as the man Henri killed is not available to clear her name, she is likely to be severely punished. And indeed Henri will likely engender further jealousy from her husband, especially as his evil boon companion, the Captain de Ferragant, seems insistent on fostering such feelings in the Count. (De Ferragant either has designs of his own on the Countess, or perhaps he is himself jealous of her.)

So we can see where this is going. Henri of course is smitten with the Countess, who returns his feelings but will not betray her vows. This does Henri no good, as he is soon imprisoned by the Count, and threatened with death. Henri manages to discover evidence that the Count is plotting against the King (which explains the mission of his erstwhile chessplaying friend, who has disappeared). The magnificent Mathilde, and her local boyfriend, offer some daring help to allow Henri to escape -- but when the Countess is imprisoned herself, he must try to rescue her. And soon he is recaptured, and about to be executed ... when a sort of deus ex machina (though not really -- it is reasonably well explained) saves the day.

It's fun stuff, light of course, implausible, but I liked it. It must be said that the Countess comes off as a bit of a milquetoast -- her maid Mathilde seems the better woman! Indeed, Henri, while certainly proving his bravery -- kind of messes things up himself. Though he does end up with the mustaches of Brignan de Brignan!

Monday, September 24, 2018

A John Brunner Ace Double: The Repairmen of Cyclops/Enigma from Tantalus

Ace Double Reviews, 50: The Repairmen of Cyclops, by John Brunner/Enigma From Tantalus, by John Brunner (#G-115, 1965, $0.45)

Today would have been John Brunner's 84th birthday. He was one of my favorite writers of Ace Doubles, so in his memory, how about a repost of an Ace Double review I did of two of his novels back to back.

More John Brunner! These two novels were both serialized in Cele Goldsmith's magazines, Enigma From Tantalus in Amazing, October and November 1964, and The Repairmen of Cyclops in Fantastic, January and February 1965. Enigma from Tantalus is about 31,000 words, The Repairmen of Cyclops about 45,000 words.
(Covers by John Schoenherr and Jack Gaughan)

The shorter novel, Enigma From Tantalus, is set on a planet called (not surprisingly!) Tantalus. A group of scientists is studying the one intelligent inhabitant of the planet, a distributed mind. This mind uses telepathy to control its components. It breeds/evolves components for various functions -- notably, since the arrival of humans, who brought the potential of mining for metals to its attention, it has begun to breed mining creatures. Despite all their efforts, scientists have not been able to directly communicate with the creature, or to understand its telepathy, despite bringing humans thought to have telepathic potential to the planet.

One such human has, in view of his annoying personality, just been sent back to Earth, in a specially diverted spaceship. After the ship has gone, the scientists discover that one human has become part of the Tantalan's waste, and they jump to the conclusion that the Tantalan has bred a human replica to send to Earth -- for what purpose they cannot guess. The spaceship is arrested in Earth orbit, and one of the Masters of Earth, highly intelligent and imaginative people, goes up to the ship to interview the motley bunch of passengers and decide which one is the replica.

Brunner throws in some cute ideas, though they tend to be a bit half-baked. He considers the nature of a future Earth in which all major decisions are ceded to machines -- by implication, humans themselves are almost part of a distributed intelligence like the Tantalan, under control of machines. The basic mystery is not terribly interesting, nor solve all that brilliantly, though there is a beautiful sting in the tail of the story. On balance, I would say that this would have made a pretty good novelette at some ten or fifteen thousand words, but at thirty thousand it seems padded.

The Repairmen of Cyclops is one of three Brunner novels about the Zarathustra Refugee Planets. These are planets colonized by humans fleeing the nova of Zarathustra's star, far in the future after some sort of Galactic society has been established. 21 such planets have been discovered by the human Galactic society. Interactions with those planets are kept to a minimum, however -- it is felt that allowing them to develop on their own is preferable from the point of view of encouraging vibrant new cultures and ideas. The flipside of course is that many people, especially on the more primitive of these worlds, live perhaps unnecessary lives of poverty and misery.

Cyclops is not a ZRP, but (in a previous novel) it was involved in an underhanded scheme to harvest nuclear material from one of the ZRPs. The government of Cyclops, led by the authoritarian woman Alura Quisp, now favors a policy of encouraging Galactic intervention in the ZRPs, ostensibly to uplift their inhabitants to Galactic civilization. This novel opens with Quisp's lover hunting a wolfshark, and losing a leg in the process. He is rescued by a local fisherman, and taken to the nearest hospital, which happens to be run by the Galactic Patrol, or Corps, instead of Cyclops. The Patrol has much better facilities, and they discover that the leg the wolfshark chewed off wasn't the man's own leg.

Maddalena Santos is a Patrol member visiting her old boss at the base on Cyclops. She is bored after spending 20 years not interfering on a primitive planet. So she gladly gets involved in the mystery of the anomalous leg. Also involved are her boss, and the fisherman, really a boy, who rescued the shark hunter. We quickly gather what's really going on -- lacking regeneration tech, a doctor on Cyclops has instead been repairing patients with parts taken from people kidnapped from yet another ZRP. It is up to Maddalena and the others to stop these people -- a job complicated by the aging Alura Quisp's desire for a new young body, and by her willingness to take extreme political steps to interfere with the Corps.

I thought the story lots of fun, though, as with so many from this period, it sets up the situation rather nicely, then rushes way to swiftly to a conclusion. I still quite liked it, and I intend to seek out the other ZRP stories. They have a somewhat complicated history: the first, Secret Agent of Terra (1962), was republished in revised form as The Avengers of Carrig in 1969; and the second, Castaways' World (1963), was revised as Polymath in 1974. All three (with The Repairmen of Cyclops also apparently revised, though lightly, and not retitled) came out in a UK omnibus in 1989 as Victims of the Nova.

Birthday Review: With the Lightnings, by David Drake

Birthday Review: With the Lightnings, by David Drake

On the occasion of David Drake's birthday, here's my review of the first of his Leary/Mundy novels, which I have found very enjoyable.

David Drake's With the Lightnings, from 1998, is the first of a space opera series featuring Lieutenant Daniel Leary of the Republic of Cinnabar navy. As far as I can tell there have been two further books (Lt. Leary Commanding and The Far Side of the Stars) with a fourth in the series, Some Golden Harbor, due this year. [Many more have followed.] The model here is clearly naval adventure fiction resembling Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, or perhaps C. S. Forester's Hornblower series. I can't tell if the correspondences with Hornblower might not be closer than with O'Brian, but there are definitely points of comparison with the Aubrey/Maturin books.

Daniel Leary is a junior lieutenant from a powerful family on the planet Cinnabar, leader of a group of human-colonized worlds. His father is one of the leading politicians on Cinnabar, but Daniel and his father are not on speaking terms. Leary is assigned to a small diplomatic mission to the independent planet Kostroma, which has historically been neutral but favoring Cinnabar in an ongoing rivalry with a fairly evil seeming group of worlds, the Alliance. A new Elector has taken over on Kostroma, and it's necessary to make sure the Alliance doesn't sway this Elector's opinions.

Leary has an interest in natural history (thus Drake takes a "Maturin" characteristic and transfers it to his "Aubrey"-analog), and he makes his way to the Elector's Library. This library is run by Adele Mundy, who has spent 15 years or so in Alliance space learning to be a great librarian. (Er, information retrieval specialist.) But Adele is actually part of a once influential Cinnabar family, the Mundys of Chatsworth, most of whom were brutally murdered when they were accused of treason. The accusations were made by ... Corder Leary, Daniel's father. (It seems that the accusations were correct to an extent -- some of the Mundys were traitors, though not Adele, but the resulting punishment, murdering everyone connected with the family including Adele's 10 year old sister, was excessive.) Adele, basically apolitical, survived by virtue of being away in Alliance space. But when Adele realizes who Daniel is, she insults him gravely. Daniel's only recourse, he feels, is to fight a duel, but he finds a graceful way out of this and the two become friends of a sort.

But then, after a very long time setting things in place, all heck breaks loose. An Alliance spy has planned a coup, and the Elector is overthrown by a man in league with the Alliance. Most of the diplomats are summarily murdered, but Daniel escapes, along with a crew of "sailors" he has assigned to make shelves for Adele's library. And of course, Adele, a crack shot and a great hacker too, comes along.

There follows a series of hair-raising adventures, both on surface ships and space ships. Daniel Leary is shown (surprise!) to have brilliant leadership capabilities, while Adele proves a very resourceful communications officer type. (She seems well placed to take the Maturin role of non-Naval sidekick who will have a secret job as a spy on future missions.) And in the end Daniel more or less single-handedly (well, double-handedly with Adele, and also with the help of his 20 or so sailors) takes over a space ship and saves the day against amazing odds.

So, yes, it's basically pulp, but in the best way. The main characters are impossibly brilliant. The bad guys do some sneering. There are class assumptions, and servant/master relationship assumptions, that I have a hard time swallowing. The whole thing is pretty implausible. I know all that -- but I still enjoyed it immensely. It's just nice light fun. The main characters are engaging and easy to root for. (And so far as I can tell not destined for each other. (Adele is about a decade older than Daniel, and seems to be not interested in romantic relationships of any sort, while Daniel is very interested in short-term (i.e. one night) romantic relationships with girls who are much prettier than Adele.))

(I note that the cover of my 1999 Baen paperback has a Publisher's Weekly quote that refers to "Cassian and Mundy" -- I wonder if Leary's name wasn't Cassian in a prepublication version of the book. There is no Cassian in the book as published.)

Birthday Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel

Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel

a review by Rich Horton

Today is John Kessel's birthday, and in his honor I'm reposting this review I did long ago of his novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. It was posted on SF Reader.

A cheap answer to the question "When did I know I would like Corrupting Dr. Nice?" would be to say "When I saw the name John Kessel on the cover." After all, I consider Kessel’s first solo novel, Good News from Outer Space, to be one of the best (and oddly neglected) SF novels of the past decade, and stories such as "Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!", "Another Orphan", "The Big Dream", "The Pure Product", "Buddha Nostril Bird" and "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue", among others, are part of a remarkable, memorable, corpus of short fiction. But to be fair, I really knew I’d like Dr. Nice when Kessel dropped in a brief "explanation" of the multiple universes which result from time travellers interfering with the past: it seems that there are a finite number of "moment universes" originating one each 1/137.04 second, 137.04 being the "fine structure constant".

This may mean no more than that I have a Physics degree, and that I’ve always thought that the fine structure constant is a really cool number. But I suspect it also reflects Kessel’s sure touch in giving his SF premise a plausible-sounding (though actually nonsensical) underpinning, even though we don’t really believe in the premise. This sort of thing is one marker, for me, of a "real" SF novel, even if it is, as in this case, a screwball comedy in which the extrapolative element is not central to the theme of the story.

Kessel’s most familiar mode, it seems to me, is satire, often quite savage, as in "The Pure Product" or the well-known Good News outtake "Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner", but he can also wax lyrical, and passionate (see "Invaders" or "Buffalo", for instance). And lately he has shown a distinct flair for out-and-out comedy, as in his explicit Preston Sturges hommage from 1996, "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue". Corrupting Dr. Nice is in this latter mode, a screwball comedy, also dedicated to Sturges (as well as a host of other screwball directors). It is quite successful on those terms, as well as being successful as SF, with a well-expressed core message (over-simplified, that people in the past are still real people) which is resolved in a satisfactory manner.

The story opens by introducing August and Genevieve Faison, a father-daughter team of time traveling con artists. They have just completed a successful scan in revolutionary Paris, and are escaping into the past, when the canonical "meet-cute" occurs, as the very rich Paleontologist Owen Vannice (nicknamed "Dr. Nice") literally stumbles out of a time-machine in Jerusalem, 41 C.E., and into the arms of Genevieve. Owen is transporting a baby apatosaurus (echoes of Bringing Up Baby strictly intentional, I trust) back to his present (2062), but time travel equipment problems strand everyone for a while in 41.

An appropriately wacky plot ensues, involving August’s plan to steal the apatosaurus, Owen and Genevieve falling in love, and a plot involving Simon the Zealot and a band of Hebrew revolutionaries trying to expel the time travelers. All these threads collide nicely, various disasters occur, and the main action winds up with a courtroom scene featuring two historical heavy-hitters (to say the least).

The novel is very entertaining, a fast and funny read, yet with a core of serious thought about the exploitation of the people in the past by those of the future. The characters are well-realized, particularly Owen and his AI security implant Bill, Genevieve, and Simon the zealot (and his son). The resolution to the plot threads are satisfactory, and honest, though the courtroom scene may have gone a bit over the top. The weaknesses of the novel are to some extent endemic to the screwball comedy form: the characters are well-enough realized that their motivations for the acts that propel the plot sometimes seem thin (and Owen and Genevieve don’t quite convince me as a likely pair: this in particular seems common in screwball comedies), also, things move so fast that not everything quite makes sense. I could quibble, for instance, about some holes in the time-travel setup: though as I said, Kessel talks a good enough game to let us ignore these while reading. I must say, though, that these quibbles and weaknesses are basically excused by the constraints of the form Kessel is working in (that is, screwball comedy). Things aren’t necessarily supposed to make sense.

In summary, highly recommended. A first-rate comedy, and a fine SF novel to boot.

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Here's another of my birthday compilations of reviews I've done of stories by some of my favorite writers. In this case of course, John Kessel. Happy Birthday, John!

(From my review of Future on Ice at SF Site)

"The Pure Product" is quite another thing. A man (apparently from the future) goes on a rampage through 80s North America. The story is fast moving and scary. At one level, it's a harder-edged take on the same theme as C.L. Moore's classic "Vintage Season," but at another level, we worry that the empathy-deficient people from the future are us.

(Locus, November 2002)
But the story in this issue that will be remembered most, that will likely be on award ballots next year, that people will talk about, is the longest, John Kessel's "Stories for Men". This is set in the same milieu as his well-received novella of a couple years back, "The Juniper Tree": a colony on the Moon dominated by the Society of Cousins, who have embraced a female-dominated political philosophy. In this society men are mostly (though not exclusively) pampered pets. They have very little political power, very few economic rights, though at the same time they have certain privileged roles: for example, art and science seem reserved mostly to men. (And sex is very available.) Erno is a young man just reaching adulthood, vaguely dissatisfied with his prescribed place in society. He's a talented geneticist who will be allowed to pursue that field; and there's a sexy woman his age very interested in him; but shouldn't men be allowed to vote? Shouldn't they be allowed to inherit property? And what about the men of Earth's history? Or the men in an anthology of early 20th Century short stories he encounters? Were they, somehow, real men (my words) in ways he isn't?

Erno falls to some extent under the spell of an older rabble-rouser. This man urges him to help with some acts of civil disobedience, and before long is facing exile. Erno is pushed further to consider committing an even more radical act, and when in the process things go horribly wrong, his life is completely changed. This is a very thought-provoking story, well-written, with involving characters and an exciting plot. I was bothered by a few things. For one (this is perhaps a fault endemic to the utopian form) Kessel, despite some attempts at presenting contrary views, seems to accept the success of the proposed alternate society too easily.* Two, I did not believe Erno's actions at the crisis. Thirdly, while the story does resolve its main plot successfully, it also ends in a way that strongly suggests it is the opening section of a novel. (To be sure, extension to novel length would give Kessel a chance to flesh out his depiction of the positives and negatives of his imagined society.) Despite these reservations, I think this an excellent story, one of the best of the year.

[*The eventual novel, The Moon and the Other, to a considerable extent resolves these issues.]

(Locus, April 2004)
The other March story in Sci Fiction is John Kessel's "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence". The protagonist is a small-time crook, forever tempted by the sexy Dot (with her red tennis shoes, natch). This time Dot has picked out a rich family's summer home to rob -- but what they find there is not what they expected. It's a sly and sneakily involving story.

(Locus, December 2006)
November at Sci Fiction we are treated to several more first-rate stories. John Kessel's "It's All True" reminded me just a bit of Kage Baker's recent Asimov's novella "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst" in that both feature Citizen Kane figures and time travel. Baker's story of course featured Kane's original, William Randolph Hearst, while Kessel's features Kane's creator and portrayer, Orson Welles. Detlev Gruber is a near-future failed filmmaker who works for an outfit that sends people back in time to recruit geniuses to come to the future and continue their work. His job is to try to persuade Welles to return with him. Welles is at a low point in his career -- RKO has just butchered his version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and his latest project is foundering as well. Gruber shows Welles his sad future life, and offers him lionization in 2048. Will Welles take it? Can he, and still be Orson Welles?

(Locus, January 2008)
Two substantial novelettes highlight the January F&SF. John Kessel’s "Pride and Prometheus" marries Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein, very effectively. The main character is Mary Bennet, grown up both physically and in her character in the years since Elizabeth and Darcy married. She is resigned to spinsterhood, but then she meets a mysterious foreigner -- Victor Frankenstein. But despite Victor’s apparent interest in her, any future for them seems hopeless: for Victor is engaged already, and anyway he is convinced that his past moral failures stain him. And there’s the matter of the mysterious hulking stranger... The story seems at first destined to be a fun romp, a mashup, but it darkens and deepens by the end. Notable too is the way the characters are portrayed: quite true to Austen’s vision (allowing for Mary’s considerable personal growth).

(Locus, November 2009)
The New Space Opera 2 is an exceptional anthology, much as its predecessor was. There’s lots of strong work there -- I’ll just mention my two favorites. John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" winks at the conventions and pretensions of Space Opera, and tells a neat story anyway. Much is as we might expect: two heroes face dangers, question each other's motivations, and eventually both succeed and fall in love. The furniture of the story is effective as well -- clever tech, exciting action, and hints of a long history preceding the story, including the extinction and restoration of humankind. And the undercutting of the motivations, and the ambiguity of the results, is all effective as well.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Birthday Review: Elizabeth Bear stories

In honor of Sarah Wishnevsky aka Elizabeth Bear's birthday, here is a compilation of many of the reviews I've done in Locus of her work.

(Locus, January 2006)

Andy Cox’s Interzone is increasingly a home for colorful adventure SF, it seems to me -- and I don’t disapprove. My two top choices from December are both a bit old-fashioned (though not dated) in setting and plot, with very up-to-now heroines. One is Elizabeth Bear’s "Wax", set in an alternate history reminiscent of Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories: the protagonist, after all, is a middle-aged sorcerer who is a detective. But she’s also a woman, and the real interest here is her political and personal entanglements: with another (private) detective, with the Mayor of New Amsterdam, and with her lover, the married Duke, governor of the still-English colonies.

(Locus, December 2006)

Elizabeth Bear’s "Love Among the Talus" is a traditionally shaped yet still surprising tale of a young woman, Nilufer, the princess of a mostly subjugated land, caught between the schemes of her mother, of a romantic bandit prince, and of the Khagan who has mostly conquered her province. How Nilufer finds her own path is a very satisfying.

(Locus, February 2007)

I’m increasingly impressed with the new small press magazine Subterranean. The fifth issue is dominated by a long novella from Elizabeth Bear, part of her Abigail Irene Garrett series, though Abby Irene is mentioned by name only once. Instead, "Lucifugous" is about Sebastien de Ulloa, who (we know from other stories) will become a close friend of Abby’s. In this story he is taking a zeppelin from Europe to America, leaving his reputation as a Great Detective, and also his "court" -- excepting his young friend and lover Jack Priest. Explanation is required -- it is supplied slowly by the story: Sebastien, a "wampyr", has found it necessary, for personal reasons, to move to the New World.  The story itself is a classical constrained situation murder mystery, well-executed -- but the compelling interest arises from the depiction of Sebastien.

(Locus, February 2008)

In March Elizabeth Bear offers "Shoggoths in Bloom", a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected -- about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations -- all of which is nicely put in the context of the times -- his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens.

(Locus, December 2008)

The other highlight in Fast Ships, Black Sails, for me, is Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s "Boojum", which is SF -- speculative pirate collections seem usually to manage to sneak in a couple of SF stories. And I admit I am a sucker for them. Here, a boojum is a living spaceship, bred in the atmosphere of a gas giant, and Black Alice Bradley is a crewmember forced to make a dangerous choice when aliens attack. The ending reaches for good old SFnal wonder, and makes it.

(Locus, December 2009)

One story in particular in Lovecraft Unbound is outstanding: "Mongoose", by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is set in the same future as their 2008 story "Boojum". So we already know there’s Lewis Carroll lurking in the background, and the title of the new story points at Kipling. But Lovecraft is here too, as one Israel Irizzary is summoned to Kadath Station (other stations also have Lovecraftian names: Providence, Leng, Dunwich, etc.), to deal with an infestation of toves and raths. Carroll again -- but if the creatures are named out of Carroll, they come from a Lovecraftian source -- they are horrors out of space and time, that is. Monette and Bear nicely suggest that horror, and also suggest that bureaucratic screwups are a horror too, as they let Irizzary, with an unexpected ally, and with his partner Mongoose, deal with the infestation while learning some surprising facts about their universe.

(Locus, April 2010)

To finish I will mention an excellent new novella from Elizabeth Bear, Bone and Jewel Creatures, about Bijou, an aging Wizard and artificer of the desert city Messaline, and the jackal-raised child she perforce adopts, and a confrontation with another wizard, a necromancer, with whom she has a particular history that is only slowly revealed. I liked the intricate creatures Bijou creates, and the inner life of the silent child she adopts, and of course Bear’s fine writing. 

(Locus, January 2012)

And Asimov's opens the year with rather a bang, as Elizabeth Bear's cover story for the January issue, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns", is a brilliant piece. It's a murder mystery, set in India in a future marked by global warming -- so that intercontinental travel is exceedingly rare, for one thing, by low employment and other economic hardships (though the general standard of living, by some measurements, seems quite high -- a detail I found plausible), and by some radical genetic engineering, including hybrids like nearly intelligent parrot-cats. Which is to say, most of all, that this is a densely imagined, finished-seeming, future. The murder mystery is in fact a locked room murder, of a rather unpleasant American physicist, who is found killed in a strikingly unpleasant fashion (linked to some future tech). The main character is a classic-flavored much put upon Police Sub-Inspector, who has issues with her mother (fled to VR), with her job security, and with her partner. And hovering behind all this is the specter of a message received from aliens in the Andromeda Galaxy, who, echoing Clarke's "The Star", may be facing death at the hands of a supernova. It's a busy story, in a very good way, and all the parts work together very well -- the future tech is intriguing (and impacts the plot), the mystery itself is nicely and believably resolved, the characters breath, and the wraparound theme is honest and moving. Only January, and we've seen, I think, one of the year's best stories already.

(Locus, April 2014)

All fine work. But the prize here (in The Book of Silverberg) is Elizabeth Bear's "The Hand is Quicker", one of the best 2014 stories I've seen to date. Perhaps significantly, it's not a direct sequel to any Silverberg story, rather it's inspired by two of his best later pieces: "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" and "Sailing to Byzantium", in dealing with virtuality and technological mediation with our perceptions. Charlie is dealing with the loss of a lover -- she must have blocked Charlie from her virtual existence -- this is a future where most everyone wears digital "skins" that choose how they appear to other people, and how they see the world. There's an economic aspect to this as well -- you have to pay for virtual access. Charlie's world falls apart for emotional reaons, and soon enough Charlie is shut of the the virtual experience. We are shown the "underclass" -- people who live in the "real" because they are too poor, or too principled. What will Charlie do? This is a moving story, a sad one, a very honest one. 

(Locus, May 2015)

My other favorite stories in Old Venus come from Elizabeth Bear and Ian McDonald. Bear's "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" is set in a jubilantly high-tech future, with radical gene therapy and super-advanced armor suits and fluid genders -- and also a lush Venus with a  mysterious vanished aboriginal race. Dharthi is a xenoarchaeologist obsessed with proving her theory of the origins of the aboriginals: and also obsessed with resolving her issues with her super-successful lover Kraken, who has always, Dharthi thinks, been better at everything than her. The story is non-stop adventure, encounters with the dangerous and interesting Cytherean animal life such as velociraptors and swamp-tigers, interspersed with mindlinked conversations with Kraken. It's tremendously fun, romantic and manages to evoke much of the sense of wonder I recall from reading old-fashioned "wet Venus" stories as a youngster.

Birthday Review: Carnival, by Elizabeth Bear

Birthday Review: Carnival, by Elizabeth Bear (Bantam Spectra, 0-553-58904-0, $6.99, 395, mmpb) December 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky was born 22 September 1971. She writes under the name Elizabeth Bear, and she's one of the best and best known SF writers to debut in this millennium. In honor of her birthday, here's a reposting of my review of one of her less well-known novels, Carnival. Thie review first appeared in the February 2007 Locus.

Elizabeth Bear’s new novel is an exciting and twisty science fiction adventure story. Bear wields several fairly traditional (and not always quite so traditional) SF tropes with expertise: a female-dominated human culture, radical environmentalists killing off most of the Earth’s human population, a dueling culture, transcended intelligences, AIs in control of society. This all works very well together, in a story that makes the reader think, makes the reader mad (with perhaps some disquiet), and keeps the reader turning the pages.

In a future after AI “Governors” programmed by radical environmentalists caused the depopulation of Earth, leading to colonization of a variety of other worlds, the Governors and the Earth-dominated “Colonial Coalition” are trying to re-integrated these worlds. Many years after a botched mission to one such world, New Amazonia, they have sent two diplomats to try again – and in particular to negotiate access to this planet’s mysterious free energy technology.

The Coalition diplomats are Vincent Katherinessen and Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones, secretly lovers who have been apart for years after their careers crashed. But New Amazonia’s leaders will not negotiate with any but women or what they call “gentle” men. Homosexuality is generally taboo in the Coalition, and women are usually not allowed positions of power, so Vincent and Angelo are the best available choices. New Amazonia, we learn, is ruled by women. Men are kept as slaves, though in better conditions (for the most part) than say blacks in the American Antebellum South. Heterosexual males are matched in Trials: battles, often to the death, with the best chosen to be members of household, where they live in a sort of purdah. “Gentle” males are allowed slightly greater privileges.

The central New Amazonian character is Lesa Pretoria (one small conceit I enjoyed was the use of Old Earth world capitols as family names), an important figure in the Security Directorate. Her family is ranged on the political side urging continued separation from the Coalition. They are also involved in the more local issue of increased rights for males. (Motivated in part by Lesa’s concern for her very intelligent young son.) Arrayed against them are the current government leaders, nominally in favor of the status quo, and of some attempt at rapprochement with the Coalition, and possibly secretly aligned with radical groups urging extermination of the male population.

So this is quite a political stew that Vincent and Michelangelo step into. And of course they each have their own secrets – even from each other. The motivations of all of the characters interact complexly, especially as there are not just two but several possible outcomes. And into all this is injected a surprising additional player: a representative of the disappeared original natives of New Amazonia.

It all plays out very entertainingly. There are twists upon twists. There is lots of neat SFnal detail. There is plenty of slam-bang action. Most of all this makes pretty good sense as well … perhaps there are a couple of holes, but in general things were well explained. The resolution is mostly emotionally satisfying but perhaps a slight letdown – I felt Bear pulled her punches just a bit at the end. Plus, there is something of a deus ex machina aspect to the involvement of New Amazonia’s natives – though that’s not quite a fair statement as that was all foreshadowed from the beginning, and described in bits and pieces throughout. Carnival is a very fine SF novel, a contemporary SF novel with contemporary concerns that reads like a traditional SF book (in the best sense).

Friday, September 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Andy Duncan stories

Andy Duncan's birthday is September 21 (which is also my wedding anniversary!) I was very happy to meet Andy at the recent Worldcon in San Jose, and we had a nice talk. And I wanted to do one of my compilations of past reviews for this birthday, and so I have, but I'm afraid it's much shorter than I intended. Some of my reviews of Andy's exceptional earlier stories, like "The Chief Designer", appeared as I recall in Tangent, and I've lost all my files from way back then. And I may have lost a couple of Locus files as well.

But be that as it may -- any look at Andy's work is worthwhile, so here you go, and my apologies that this doesn't include several further excellent storeis:

(Locus April 2007)

One of the most welcome names in the table of contents of Wizards is Andy Duncan -- I haven’t seen much from him lately, and I’ve missed him. "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question" has a claim to be the best story in this book. An orphan girl raised in a museum reaches a certain age, when her master wants her to start performing in the magic show -- which means submitting to the creepy attentions of a mostly male audience. She escapes to another world, where she meets, eventually, the Devil, and where she must answer his questions.

(Locus Feb 2010)

Indeed The Dragon Book is enjoyable throughout -- not a story fails to please. The clear best piece is the closing story, which is also probably the least traditional "dragon" story: "The Dragaman’s Bride", by Andy Duncan. The story features Pearleen Sunday, from Duncan’s excellent earlier story "The Devil’s Ninth Question", but she is primarily there to record the relationship of an "Old Fire Dragaman" and a young woman threatened by sterilization as part of the infamous eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which focused on the poor of Appalachia. Duncan beautifully evokes the mountainous back country of his characters, and situates his "Dragaman" there with complete naturalness. The language is spot on, the story involving, the issue affecting.

(Locus Aug 2018)

Analog’s latest issue features an Andy Duncan story, "New Frontiers of the Mind", that probably isn’t SF, but which is about a pretty significant figure in the history of SF and indeed of Analog: John W. Campbell, Jr. It’s well known that Campbell, while a student at Duke, participated in J. B. Rhine’s early investigations of ESP. This story imagines Campbell’s interactions with Rhine (in this case, an implausible early success), and also the marriages of both Campbell and Rhine (whose wife had a significant role in his researches). It’s a pretty affecting portrait of both couples, and of the obsessions of both men.

(My Year End Summary, 1999)

The best new story, and perhaps the best story Weird Tales published this year, was by Andy Duncan: "From Alfano's Reliquary". This is about an early, corrupt, Pope, and his curious servant. Extremely well-written. Duncan is very very impressive.  I think this story might make my Hugo nomination ballot.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Forgotten (Never Known?) SF Novel: Drek Yarman, by Keith Roberts

A Forgotten (Never Known?) SF Novel: Drek Yarman, by Keith Roberts

a review by Rich Horton

On the occasion of what would have been his 83rd birthday, I am reposting this rather brief look at Keith Roberts' last novel.

Keith Roberts was one of the truly fine writers of science fiction and fantasy in the last third of the 20th Century, but save for one great novel (Pavane) he is little remembered these days. He was born in 1935, and died on October 5, 2000 (my 41st birthday, as it happens). He was an illustrator, and the mostly uncredited editor of the Moorcock era version of the UK magazine Science Fantasy (later SF Impulse), but mostly a writer. He later life was unhappy -- he had multiple sclerosis and was in constant pain, and he had many difficulties with editors and publishers, by repute mostly due to his difficult nature.

His last novel, Drek Yarman, was in the process of being serialized in the first three issues of the fine UK magazine Spectrum SF (which I truly loved), when he died.  It's set in his post-apocalyptic Kiteworld future, and it's told by the title character, a violent, uncouth, self-made seaman, as a revolution by religious extremists is tearing their society (the Realm) apart.  Yarman tells the story of his life.  He is not a sympathetic character, really: a multiple murderer, whose life was formed by the disastrous effects of his upbringing by two alcoholics, but even more so by the effect of his incestuous love for his sister (a whore), and the actions he takes when he discovers her being propositioned by one of his neigbhourhood enemies.

He goes off to the sea, his potential relationships with women ruined by his longing for his sister, and when a disastrous trip to the island of Hy Antiel results in his fortune being made (partly because of his dishonorable acts), he ends up marrying and having kids and becoming first mate on the leading Kiteship of the Realm.  But all that goes wrong as well.  His dissolution is paired with an account of the dissolution of "The Realm" in this revolution.  Yarman's voice is well-portrayed, and the story is interesting, and even though he is a bad man, you feel a lot of sympathy for him, because he really is ill-used by fate, and many of his actions are bad choices when no good choice was possible.  This is a dark novel, and it's easy to see why it had a hard time finding a publisher, but it's worth reading. Alas, it will be very hard to find -- it has not been published since its serialization in Spectrum SF.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Birthday Review: Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, by Damon Knight

Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, by Damon Knight

a review by Rich Horton

In honor of Damon Knight's birthday, I'm reposting this review, which I first wrote about 15 years ago, of his last (and possibly best) novel.

Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, was Damon Knight's last novel, published in 1996. It is a very strange book, reminding me somewhat of Gene Wolfe (perhaps particularly Peace), and of Patrick O'Leary's The Impossible Bird, and of other afterlife fantasies like William Golding's Pincher Martin. (Golding, by the way, was also born on September 19.) Which is a hint that I regarded the book as an afterlife fantasy, though that interpretation is not entirely clear.

The book opens with the narrator, Wellington Stout, in an Italian hospital, recovering from a shot to the head. He had come to Italy for his beloved stepdaughter's wedding, but had agreed to ferry a mysterious package for his less than beloved older brother -- and in trying to deliver the package he seems to have been shot.

Stout is a salesman for a firm dealing in ladies' underwear. (A running joke -- or rather a detail of characterization -- is his obsession with women's breasts and with their bras.) He is 64 years old, an American long resident in England. We learn a bit about his past life -- a couple of marriages, one failed, one seemingly happy but ending with his wife's untimely death. Lots of affairs are implied. His relationship with his stepdaughter (actually his first wife's daughter by her second husband, whom Wellington raised after her mother fell apart) is loving but perhaps on the edge of impropriety. He seems a nice guy but far from perfect.

However, after his injury, he seems to lose his grip on reality. Or perhaps reality has lost its grip on the world. There seem to be competing groups of aliens, and of powerful secret humans, vying for control of the world. Stout finds himself willy-nilly on a journey westward, from Italy back to England to his childhood homes in Pennsylvania and Oregon. At first it seems that an explanation for all the strange goings on may be forthcoming -- what is the message Stout was carrying? Are the aliens from the planet Mongo real? what do the strange voices Stout keeps hearing, muttering almost intelligible phrases, mean? etc. etc. But as Stout's travels continue, things get weirder and weirder.

I quite enjoyed the novel, but I remain puzzled by it. We do get a pretty comprehensive portrayal of Wellington Stout, and of his life, in an odd fashion. And the weird events are continually interesting. But what it all means? I don't really know. It's easy enough to say that it could be an afterlife fantasy -- Stout hallucinating as he dies from the bullet in his head -- but even if that's true that's not much of a stab at what the novel really means ... For all my puzzlement, this novel has stuck with me for a long time -- I think it's very impressive work at this remove.

A Significant Ace Double: The Rithian Terror/Off Center, by Damon Knight

Ace Double Reviews, 4: The Rithian Terror, by Damon Knight/Off Center, by Damon Knight (#M-113, 1965, $0.45)

by Rich Horton

Today would have been Damon Knight's 96th birthday. He was born in Oregon in 1922, and died in 2002. He was one of the most important figures in SF history, in many areas, and in fact I think his importance in other areas than writing has contributed to a certain neglect or diminishment of his accomplishments as purely a writer of science fiction. To wit -- he was one of the first significant critics of science fiction, famous in particular for his book In Search of Wonder. He was a major editor in the field, first of 1950's magazines such as Worlds Beyond (where he published Harry Harrison's first story, and the first Dying Earth tale from Jack Vance) and If, later of the absolutely seminal original anthology series Orbit, and also of numerous significant reprint anthologies. He was the founding President of Science Fiction Writers of America. He was one of the founders of the Milford Writer's Conference. He was married to the great Kate Wilhelm. (He was even, early in his career, briefly an artist.) He won a Hugo in 1956 as Best Book Reviewer. and a Retro-Hugo in 2001 for "To Serve Man". Some people have assumed that these accomplishments are the reason he was named a Grand Master by SFWA in 1995.

But that does his fiction a disservice. He wrote a great quantity of magnificent short fiction, notably at the novella length, with stories like "The Earth Quarter", "Double Meaning", "Rule Golden", "Natural State", "Mary", and "Dio"; but also at shorter lengths, with the SF Hall of Fame story "The Country of the Kind", and "The Handler", "Four in One", "Masks", "Stranger Station", "A for Anything", "I See You", "Fortyday", and many more. His earlier novels were less successful, but towards the end of his life he did some exceptional work at that length, with CV, Why Do Birds?, and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.

In remembrance of his birthday, I am reposting one of my earliest Ace Double reviews (so it's briefer than usual), of one of the novellas mentioned above ("Double Meaning") backed with a short story collection.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan)

The Rithian Terror is a short novel (or novella), of about 36,000 words. It was originally published in Startling Stories for January 1953 -- I'm not sure if it was expanded or revised for later publication, but I will note that 36,000 words was by no means an unusual length for a story in Startling. The Rithian Terror has also been published under the title "Double Meaning" -- indeed, I believe the only time it appeared as "The Rithian Terror" was in this Ace Double.* It was later published as half of a Tor Double (under the title "Double Meaning") and backed with another Knight short novel, "Rule Golden"). As far as I can tell, the only other stories to be both Ace Double halves and Tor Double halves are two by Jack Vance: "The Last Castle" and "The Dragon Masters"; and two by Leigh Brackett: "The Sword of Rhiannon" and "The Nemesis from Terra". (Spinrad's "Riding the Torch" was both a Tor Double and a Dell Binary Star half.) Off Center is a story collection, with 5 stories, totalling about 44,000 words. It should not be confused with the UK collection Off Centre, which consists of the contents of Off Center plus "Masks", "Dulcie and Decorum", and "To Be Continued". Knight published two other Ace Double halves, Masters of Evolution and The Sun Saboteurs -- I have reviewed both of these (links below). The Sun Saboteurs is an expansion of "The Earth Quarter", and Masters of Evolution is an expansion of "Natural State".

As it happens, both The Rithian Terror and its erstwhile Tor Double companion, "Rule Golden", featured superior (both morally and physically) aliens coming to Earth. I liked The Rithian Terror a fair bit. It features a far future (said to be 2521, felt like 2050 at most) Earth-based Empire, which has a policy of crushing alien races which it encounters. The latest are the Rithians, and after some years of covert harassment by Earth, the Rithians have snuck a spy team onto Earth itself. The story is told from the point of view of the Security man who leads the effort to find the last remaining Rithian, and the points of interest are his relationship with an "uncivilized" member of a breakaway human planet which has good dealings with Rithians, and his courtship of an upper-class woman. Again, the story is fast-moving and enjoyable, with a sound moral point, and the resolution of the main action is nicely calculated, though there is an unconvincing character change pasted on.

The stories in Off Center are:

"What Rough Beast" (10,800 words, from the February 1959 F&SF) -- a man has the power to change the past (involving reaching into parallel universes), thus preventing bad things from happening. Is this a good thing?

"The Second-Class Citizen" (2800 words, from If, November 1963) -- a man who teaches dolphins tricks escapes underwater when the holocaust comes.

"By My Guest" (24,500 words, from Fantastic Universe, September 1958) -- a man drinks a mysterious vitamin and suddenly he can "hear" the ghosts that possess him. This story read to me as if it were Knight trying to do Sturgeon. I liked it, though the ending wasn't quite up to the buildup.

"God's Nose" (800 words, from the men's magazine Rogue in 1964) -- not really SF, a meditation on what God's nose would be like, with, perhaps, a cute but naughty punchline.

"Catch That Martian" (5000 words, from the March 1952 Galaxy) -- there is an epidemic of people being shifted to another dimension, and a policeman theorizes that the cause is a visiting Martian who punishes rude or annoying people in this fashion.

All in all, a very solid brief story collection. "What Rough Beast" is particularly strong, and moving.

Here is my review of The Sun Saboteurs.
And here is my review of Masters of Evolution.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Birthday Review: Faking It, by Jennifer Crusie

Birthday Review: Faking It, by Jennifer Crusie

a review by Rich Horton

Back in the day people used to recommend Jennifer Crusie as one of the best of contemporary romance writers, so I tried a couple of her early novels (which I believe were first published as category yard goods, Harlequin or a similar imprint, but which she was able to have reprinted when she became popular) without much success. But then I bought a later novel, a hardback I believe, and it was a lot better. So on the occasion of birthday I'm reposting something I wrote a long time ago about the novel of hers I liked best.

I have previously tried a couple of Jennifer Crusie novels, and while I have found them moderately enjoyable they have not really lived up to the praise she has received. Her fans have recommended other novels. But my method of picking stuff has been more contingent, not well organized at all. And that continued when I picked up her 2002 novel Faking It at a used book sale a week or two back. However, this time I think I hit the jackpot. Faking It is, it would seem, everything Jennifer Crusie's fans have claimed. Its most distinguising feature is an easy, fluent, constant flow of clever, limber, comedic prose. Line by line the book is not necessarily laugh out loud funny but entertaining and imaginative and sharp.

I should note that the book is rather longer than her genre romance novels. It was published in hardcover, and seems to have been marketed more as "chick lit" than as traditional romance. And indeed while it qualifies as a romance -- certainly it features two main characters who fall for each other from pretty much the start, plus plenty of sex -- it also qualifies as a well-done mystery/caper sort of story (at times almost recalling Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels), and it has some reasonably acute character observations to make.

The story concerns Matilda (Tilda) Goodnight, about 35 years old, a painter of imitation impressionist murals for people's walls. Her family runs a somewhat down at heels gallery in Columbus, Ohio. This family includes her mother Gwen, her sister Eve, Eve's daughter Nadine, Nadine's father Andrew, who divorced Eve when he realized he was gay, but stayed friends, and Andrew's lover, the family lawyer, Jeff. The family is in debt, partly because of Gwen's feckless, and dead, husband Tony. One thing Tony did was to have Matilda forge a series of paintings supposedly by Scarlet Hodge, the fictional daughter of Homer Hodge, who had done some American primitive paintings that he had actually been able to sell for good money. But now there is a problem -- one of the Scarlet Hodge paintings has been sold by mistake -- a painting that could easily be identified as a fake, which would possibly lead to lawsuits involving the other Scarlets. So Matilda tries to steal the painting back from Clea Lewis, the woman who has bought it.

Clea is a rather nasty 40ish woman who is trying to reel in rich Mason Phipps as her new husband, after the previous two died in suspicious ways. Clea also stole $3,000,000 dollars from a former lover, Davy Dempsey, a con man trying to go straight. Davy wants the money back, so he has abandoned his straight ways to try to steal the money from Clea -- but he runs into Tilda in the process. Standard meet cute -- and quickly they are kissing. But Tilda has basically sworn off men. And she still needs that painting.

So the story continues. Tilda makes Davy promise to get her the painting back. Mason Phipps, meanwhile, is after the Goodnight Gallery, and Gwen. Davy is after Tilda, who is attracted but can't admit it. Davy's friend Simon is after Eve, only he doesn't know it, because he only know's Eve's fake uninhibited personality, Louise. Clea seems to have hired a hit man to kill Davy, but Gwen finds herself unaccountably attracted to the hit man. Tilda realizes she needs Davy to steal or otherwise acquire all the other Scarlet Hodge paintings. Davy has ideas for revitalizing the gallery. Davy's unreconstructed conman father shows up. And so on ... A lot goes on, all quite interesting, all cleverly told, nicely plotted, and as I said very well put together prosodically. The title is nicely reiterated thematically -- fake paintings, fake identities, fake orgasms are all central ... A very light novel, to be sure, but a consistent delight.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Birthday Review: To Crush The Moon, by Wil McCarthy

Birthday Review: To Crush The Moon, by Wil McCarthy

a review by Rich Horton

This review was first published in Locus in 2005. I'm reposting it today in honor of Wil McCarthy's birthday.

With To Crush the Moon Wil McCarthy brings one of the most satisfying recent series of Hard SF novels to a close. This series, collectively called, perhaps, The History of the Queendom of Sol, began in 2001 with The Collapsium (itself an expansion of a 1999 novella). That novel told of brilliant scientist Bruno de Towaji, who saves the Solar System three times from the dangers of super high-tech combined with a jealous rival. The Collapsium introduced the key technologies of the series: various types of programmable matter, and matter transmission. The latter technology, combined with an editing process, allowed for practical immortality. This first book was cheeky and playful and rather Tom Swift-like in ways.

The subsequent three novels are more closely linked, and quite a bit darker in tone. By the end of The Collapsium, Bruno had married the Queen of Sol. In The Wellstone (2003) his son, Bascal, was the ringleader of a group of young people frustrated by their lack of opportunity in a world of immortals. The main character is Bascal's friend Conrad Mursk. The two of them and a large group of rebellious youngsters are exiled to Barnard's Star at the end of the book, and Lost in Transmission (2004) tells of the establishment and ultimate failure of the Barnard's Star colony. Conrad chooses to return to Sol, and To Crush the Moon is the story of what happens after his return.

The Wellstone and Lost in Transmission both had sections set thousands of years in the future, with Conrad (now called Radmer) retrieving Bruno de Towaji from self-imposed exile and returning with him to an altered Moon (now called Lune), where the last significant remnants of humanity are fighting a war with emancipated robots. Earth and the other major planets have been "Murdered". To Crush the Moon tells first of the crisis in Solar System politics that led both to the alteration and terraforming of Luna into Lune, and then to the tragic missteps resulting in the "Murder" of Earth. Conrad and Bruno are central to these events, and so are their wives, Queen Tamra and Xiomary Li Weng (Xmary).  Much of this section is savvy portrayal of what seems like inevitable political problems -- particularly problems dealing with fanatics who wish to restore death to society, and with the impatient returnees from various failed star colonies. Then the conclusion continues the story of the far future war on Lune, with Radmer leading Bruno de Towaji on a desperate mission to, quite literally, save humanity.

The story is satisfying on multiple levels. The scientific (and politico-economic) speculation remains scintillating. The pure adventure aspects are thrilling. The prose is clever, sardonic, successfully darkly funny even in the shadow of the deaths of billions. Conrad and Bruno are very well realized characters, though most of the remaining characters are a bit flatter. (In particular the leading women, Tamra and Xmary, never really come to life.) Lines like "Bruno was elbow-deep in wormholes. Not literally, of course -- he'd lost more than one arm that way already --" are simply delights. The ultimate scope of the story is really impressive, in space, time, and theme. The ending is perhaps a mild disappointment -- it's logical enough, and the reader is not cheated, but it seems just a touch off tonally.

I've truly enjoyed this series of novels, and I confess to slight puzzlement that it hasn't received more notice. For my taste, this is what 21st Century SF ought to be. (Of course there are other recent SF stories that are also "what 21st Century SF ought to be", such as Charles Stross's Accelerando stories.) The latter three novels have all been mass market originals -- perhaps their failure to appear between hard covers has told against them. If so, that's a shame.  I urge readers to seek out these first rate novels.

I've also posted this review of McCarthy's The Wellstone.

Birthday Review: The Wellstone, by Wil McCarthy

Birthday Review: The Wellstone, by Wil McCarthy, Bantam Spectra, New York, NY, 2003, US$6.99, ISBN 0-553-58446-4, 353 pages

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Wil McCarthy's 52nd birthday. Thus I am rescurrecting a review I did of his novel The Wellstone, that appeared in the June 2003 issue of 3SF.

I quite enjoyed Wil McCarthy's The Collapsium a few years back, a generally light-hearted, almost Tom Swiftian, novel set a few centuries hence in the Queendom of Sol. This told of Bruno de Towaji, a great inventor who is called on repeatedly to save the Solar System from destruction, and who finally becomes the permanent consort of the Queen of Sol. There is a lot of wacky tech at the heart of the Queendom. Artificial matter such as super-dense collapsium, which allows the construction of tiny "planettes" with reasonable gravity. The Fax system, by which people and other objects can be transported as information at light speed, and reassembled at their destination. Filters applied to the information in the Fax allow bodily modifications, most especially elimination of disease and aging. Programmable matter, such as wellstone, which allows ready construction of such things as solar sails by reprogramming reflectivity easily.

The sequel is The Wellstone, set some time later. The Fax filters have led to practical immortality (or immorbidity), which is a problem for the children. What will they do when they grow up? Their parents aren't about to vacate their jobs, for the most part. Some of these kids turn delinquent as a result -- or perhaps they would have been that way in any case. A number of kids are being disciplined by confinement to Camp Friendly, a "summer camp" located on a tiny "planette". One of these kids is the POV character, a young engineer named Conrad Mursk. Another is the Crown Prince Bascal, the son of Bruno de Towaji and the Queen. Bascal is extremely talented, a noted poet and a born leader, and he is very rebellious, as well as very spoiled. He incites the boys to an act of sabotage -- they escape via fax to Denver and release a dangerous substance that turns programmable matter to junk. They are soon captured, and Bascal's furious parents return them to Camp Friendly, with even stricter confinement (no working Fax gates).

But Bascal is not to be thwarted. With Conrad's sometimes reluctant help, with the help of a semi-accidental recruit, a teenaged girl named Xmary who was arrested by mistake in the earlier incident, and with the continued help of Bascal's less intelligent henchmen, he hatches another audacious plot. They use the properties of programmable matter to create a "homemade" solar sailship from the planette, and they head for the nearest working Fax gate. But a surprise awaits them there ...

I thought this even a better book than The Collapsium. It lacks the previous book's almost insouciant inventiveness -- the "Tom Swift" nature I referred to above. But the characters are done better, in particular Conrad himself, and Bascal as seen by Conrad. Bascal is an interesting creation -- a nice mixture of admirable and dangerous characteristics. Conrad and Xmary are nicely handled positive characters -- their frustration at their lot as children in a world with no room for them as adults is well portrayed. The book remains inventive, and often funny, with a dark undertone (reinforced by a downright grim prologue and epilogue) that lends a certain (forgive me!) gravitas to the theme.

I've also posted this review of McCarthy's To Crush the Moon.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Birthday Review: The Impossible Bird, by Patrick O'Leary

Birthday Review: The Impossible Bird, by Patrick O'Leary

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Patrick O'Leary's birthday. O'Leary was one of the most promising and fascinating new writers around the turn of the millennium, but, sadly, we've seen little from him since this, his third novel. I'm taking the opportunity to repost this review I did back when it first appeared on my newsgroup. (A shorter version appeared in the magazine 3SF.) I've revised the review a bit to reflect what we know since the book appeared.

Patrick O'Leary is an SF author from Detroit.  He's written three  novels, all much praised: Door Number Three, The Gift, and The Impossible Bird. When I read Door Number Three I labelled it magical-realist wacky science fiction, with significant Catholic content. (It's a pretty good book.) O'Leary is an extravagant admirer of that other Catholic SF writer, Gene Wolfe, and Wolfe has been known to praise O'Leary's work quite fulsomely. I was convinced O'Leary was on his way to becoming a major voice in the SF field after these novels, but since then there has only been one more book, a story collection called The Black Heart, in 2009. I don't know what happened but I suspect it may have been the usual sad story -- talented writer is just a bit too strange (in a good way!) to sell widely.

The Impossible Bird is another very strange book that might be called "magical realist science fiction".  (Other books (from the same period) I'm tempted to so classify: Signs of Life, by M. John Harrison; and Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling.) It is at core the story of the relationship of two brothers, Mike and Daniel Glynn, who grew up Catholic in Saginaw, MI, in the 1950s.  Now, in about 2000, Mike, the elder by two years, is a successful director of TV commercials, and Daniel is an English professor, living in Detroit.  Throughout their lives it seems Mike has been the better looking, more athletic, more aggressive; while Daniel has been the nerdier and more intellectual.  Daniel is happily married with a 9 year old son, while Mike is divorced.

And both of them are dead.  (Thus in some ways the book also resembles for example Pincher Martin.)  This isn't at all clear at the open.  Daniel seems to be in shock after the death of his wife, while Mike is returning from an ad shoot in the Amazon.  Both are contacted by men who seem to be government agents, and ordered to find each other.  In Daniel's case, the spur is the kidnapping of his son.  But soon the strangeness of their situations becomes obvious. Why are the streets so empty?  Why do people kill each other, with the victims not minding?  What are the hummingbirds that everyone seems to have? And what does the boys' old high school teacher, Dr. Kindler, have to do with all this?  To say nothing of the childhood occasion when the two boys saw a UFO.

It's not entirely clear to me that we are to read this as I read Pincher Martin -- i.e. it's all an hallucination; or if it is to be regarded as real; though on balance I think the after death scenes are to be regarded as real.  The explanation for the after death situation vaguely resembles Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia (though it is really rather different), and the philosophical working out of that situation is notable for disagreeing violently with the philosophical working out of an arguably similar situation in Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder.

The book basically is about Daniel and Mike working out their issues with each other, and it succeeds rather well on this level.  It's moving, rather sad, and it's also a rather absorbing book.  The SFnal content, however, didn't always quite work for me. And perhaps the characters of the two men, though reasonably well portrayed, are drawn a bit too obviously from stock. Nonetheless, a fine book, and I wish there had been many more from O'Leary.