Friday, November 30, 2018

Birthday Review: Novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery

Birthday Review: Novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery

a review by Rich Horton

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born November 30, 1874, on Prince Edward Island, and died in 1942. She is of course best known for her series of novels about Anne Shirley, an orphan girl living on Prince Edward Island, which follow her through her life. (Montgomery herself was almost an orphan.) I read those aloud to my daughter starting in 1998, and in memory of Montgomery's birth date I have posted the very brief capsule reviews I did of most of the Anne of Green Gables stories back then, as well as of one other short novel, Kilmeny of the Orchard.

Via Wikipedia, I just learned something interesting about the genesis of Anne in Lucy Montgomery's mind. She saw a particular photograph of the model/actress Evelyn Nesbit, and used that photograph for her conception of Anne Shirley's looks, and of her "youthful idealism and spirituality". Let's just say that, if you look up Evelyn Nesbit's rather sad (and shocking) personal life (which has come up before on this blog), I think you'll be surprised at her association with a character like Anne Shirly.

As a teen I never read the Green Gables stories of Lucy Montgomery.  The reason is obvious enough: they are "girl" stories.  But I did feel, somehow, that I ought to be familiar with them.  Lately [in 1998] I've been reading long books aloud to my 9-year old daughter, Melissa.  This month I decided to try Anne of Green Gables.  As many of you no doubt know, it's about Anne Shirley, an 11-year old orphan, who is adopted by the sixtyish brother and sister pair of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who wanted a boy to help on the farm but got a girl by mistake.  They live at the farm of Green Gables, in Avonlea on the North Coast of Canada's tiny province Prince Edward Island.  Anne is extremely talkative, extremely imaginative, extremely smart, and somewhat prone to getting in trouble.  (But not too much trouble.)  The story follows about 5 years of her life, from arrival at Green Gables to graduation from an Academy which certifies one as ready for college (if you can afford it), or teaching.  Teaching at the age of 16!  Plotwise the book is a bit episodic, and a bit manipulative, as Anne basically goes from scrape to remarkable triumph, again and again, until just at the end a couple of terrible blows are guaranteed to bring the reader to tears.  And Anne is in some ways just too much of a paragon.  But it's still a very enjoyable book, and even if I felt manipulated at times, it was very moving.  In addition, I thought the character and voices of Anne and her stepmother Marilla were extremely well done.  I felt particular empathy with Marilla, and by the end, when her love for Anne became clear even to her gruff self, I could hardly read any of Marilla's lines aloud for the lump in my throat.  A good book, and it's easy to see why it's an enduring classic.

The second Anne of Green Gables book is Anne of Avonlea.  This covers Anne's life from 16 to 18, as she is the schoolteacher at Avonlea.  She meets a young, rather cloying, American-born boy, who takes a fancy to her, and gets involved in the boy's widowed father's love life.  She tries to push the good folk of Avonlea into improving the village, along with her friends, especially, of course, Gilbert Blythe.  (It's been obvious to everybody: the readers, the other folks in Avonlea, Anne's friends, maybe even Gilbert, that Anne and he will marry, but Anne seems oblivious.  I'm not sure to what degree I buy this.)  She and her stepmother Marilla adopt orphaned twins, Davy and Dora, and the wild Davy becomes very attached to Anne as well.  And Anne befriends the mysterious, cranky, newcomer, Mr. Harrison. At the end, Anne is suddenly presented with an unexpected opportunity she had not thought to have.

These are enjoyable books.  I'm reading them aloud to my daughter.  (And I will say that Montgomery's prose holds up well to the stress of reading aloud.)  There is a certain lack of suspense, though Montgomery does spring a few surprises.  And to some considerable extent this book reveals its genesis as a serial.  (It is very episodic.)  The biggest weakness, I think, is that Montgomery doesn't seem to get men, at all.  I believed in Matthew Cuthbert, Anne's adoptive father, and Gilbert Blythe comes through OK, mostly because he is kept somewhat at a distance.  But characters like cloying young Paul Irving ("You know, Teacher."), his father Stephen, even the enjoyable Mr. Harrison, even minor characters like Thomas Lynde, don't convince at all.  Some of this may be cultural differences, some may be literary conventions, but I do think that Montgomery falls short in this area.  I still find the books worthwhile, though.

This month I finished reading L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Poplars to my daughter.  This is the 4th in the series in internal chronology, but it's very late in order of writing.  (It was published in 1936, while the fourth book actually written comes from 1919 or so.)  The book shows the strain of being interpolated into the series: it's very episodic (I believe much of it was published as short stories), and there is no real tension in the plot, nor much development in Anne.  It tells of the three years after Anne and Gilbert became engaged, in which Gilbert was in medical school, and Anne was principal of the high school in Summerside, PEI.  There is a potted crisis for Anne to resolve in each year: in the first year she must win over the unfriendly Pringles, who dominated the town socially; in the second year she must win over the talented but bitter and unfriendly Katherine Brooke, one of her teachers at the high school; and in the third year she must save her little neighbor Elizabeth from the overly strict women who are raising her, and restore her to her father.  Still and all, the book remains enjoyable and worth reading.  Interestingly, this book was published in a longer version in England as Anne of Windy Willows.  Apparently, some of the incidents of which Anne hears (town history concerning some gruesome ancestors) were considered too intense for American kids. (The Willows/Poplars change was for another reason, I can't recall what.  I confess I think Windy Poplars (the name of the home in which Anne lives in Summerside) a much better name than Windy Willows.)

I've also finished reading the fifth novel in the Anne of Green Gables series to my daughter.  (Fifth in internal chronology, fourth in publication order.)  Anne's House of Dreams concerns the first few years of Anne and Gilbert's life in Glen St. Marys.  Gilbert sets up his practice, and Anne settles in as a housewife and has her first children.  The main conflicts concern a mysterious tragic young woman living close by.  The key new characters are this woman, Leslie Moore, and an old sailor named Captain Jim.  This book is still enjoyable, but Anne is in many ways less central, and a bit less interesting, than in earlier books, now that she's settled into her role as Gilbert's wife.   It's also extremely annoying in that LMM developed a late tic in her writing ... the constant ... unending ... use of ellipses.)

And, finally, I finished reading L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Ingleside to Melissa.  This is the last Anne novel LMM wrote, perhaps her last novel, period, written in 1939.  It's set at the turn of the century, pretty much, thus it's sixth of the eight Anne books in internal chronology.  It's also a good example of why internal chronology isn't always best.  For instance, there is one direct, and rather horrible, spoiler for a bad event from, I'm guessing, Rilla of Ingleside.  In addition, the story shows a lot of signs of struggling to squeeze in incidents without distorting the existing books.  For example, there are a couple of chapters about Jem's unsuccessful attempts to get a dog.  It's obvious that in an upcoming book, he will get a dog, and that in this book LMM needs to work around that.  It's very episodic, but then so are most of the Anne books.  Still, though, it's a fairly enjoyable read, with some nice touches. (It's also often annoying in that LMM developed a late tic in her writing ... the constant ... unending ... use of ellipses.)

Rainbow Valley is #7 in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series.  This book is set in, I suppose, 1905 or so.  Anne Blythe, Gilbert, and their children are really only side characters.  The book is mostly about the new minister of Anne's church, and his four children.  The minister, John Meredith, is a widower, and he is a very unworldly man.  As a result, though he loves his children dearly, he is not raising them very well.  Clearly, he must marry.  But complications ensue, of course, as we follow the escapades of the children, and the bumpy course of John Meredith's romance.  All works out in the end, naturally.  I liked this installment quite a lot, really.  I was convinced and moved by the central romance, and I liked the new kids.  Pretty good.

The other Montgomery book I read was Kilmeny of the Orchard, a very short novel, not one of her Anne of Green Gables books.  This story concerns a young man, heir to a well-off shopkeeper, who decides to spend a year after college in a remote Prince Edward Island town.  While there, he meets a beautiful young woman, who cannot speak.  In all ways she appears perfectly healthy, she can hear just fine, plays an excellent violin, but can't speak.  The story is quite melodramatic, as first we are told the story of her mother, who got married to a man who turned out, through no fault of his own (!), to already be married.  Then the young woman, Kilmeny, and the young man fall in love, but Kilmeny feels herself unworthy of marriage, because of her "defect".  The resolution involves Kilmeny's step-brother, an Italian orphan, who had also been in love with Kilmeny.  This feature reveals one of the more distasteful features of Montgomery's books: her racism (and classism). In the Anne books the racist bits are very minor, involving occasional remarks about the "French".  Apparently the French community of New Brunswick (the original Acadians -- many of whom moved to Louisiana and became the Cajuns (Acadian = 'cadian = Cajun)) were not highly regarded by the Scots and English inhabitants of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  They seem to have been mostly employed as farmhands.  In Kilmeny of the Orchard it is made clear from the beginning that Neil, of Southern European birth, somewhat dark-skinned, and an orphan, is a lesser being, prone to emotional outbursts despite having been brought up from birth by Kilmeny's dour Scots Aunt and Uncle. Anyway, though Kilmeny of the Orchard has significant flaws, it is still an involving and enjoyable read.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Cobbler of Nîmes, by M. Imlay Taylor

Old Bestsellers: The Cobbler of Nîmes, by M. Imlay Taylor

a review by Rich Horton

Back to a true Old Bestseller type book. That said, I don't think this book was a bestseller, and indeed I'm not sure Taylor ever had a big bestseller. But she was an at least mildly popular writer. Her full name was Mary Imlay Taylor, and that seems to be her maiden name (in that one contemporary notice I found refers to her as "Miss Mary Imlay Taylor"). She was known as something of an expert on Russian history, and several of her books were set in historical Russia, including one of her best known, On the Red Staircase. Another popular book was The Impersonator. Her dates were 1878 1938.

The Cobbler of Nîmes was published in 1901, when Mary Imlay Taylor was only 23. It is copyright 1900, suggesting perhaps an earlier serialization? The publisher is the Chicago firm A. C. McClurg. My edition has a note on the flyleaf: "12/25/06 Merry Christmas to Marmee [?] from Willie".

I've previously written about several historical novels set in 16th and 17th Century France, all by English or American writers. Some of these concerned the conflict between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots), which was theoretically resolved in 1598, when Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes, granting significant civil rights to the Huguenots. (Henry IV himself was raised Protestant, but famously converted to Catholicism, saying "The Crown is worth a Mass".) These books are listed below, with links to my reviews:

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

The Edict of Nantes, however, was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 via the Edict of Fontaineblue. This led to decades of persecution of the Huguenots, and violent resistant from them. This is the backdrop against which The Cobbler of Nîmes is set. Its action occurs in 1703. The Huguenot, or Camisard, stronghold is in the Cévennes region of Southeast France. The King's soldiers, led by Marechal Montrevel, have a policy of burning Huguenot villages, and either executing the men or sending them to be galley slaves, and sending the women to supposed nunneries, in which they are mistreated and often die. (The Camisards, it should be said, also committed atrocities against some Catholic villages.)

The title cobbler, M. Charlot, is a hunchback (called le Bossu), and a good Catholic. He sees the exhibition at a fair of a "damned person" -- a young woman who died of her mistreatment at the Tour de Constance. He notices a young man at the exhibition, who seems distressed, and offers him a place. He is François d'Aguesseu, a Huguenot and the brother of the dead woman. Charlot urges him to hide, and arranges for him to have a place at the chalet of Mme. de Saint Cyr, who lives alone except for a serving woman, Babet, and her granddaughter Rosaline. They are secretly Protestants, and all the rest of the family has died in the religious unrest.

The reader will not be surprised that François and Rosaline are soon in love. But there are problems. A local commander in the French Army, M. de Baudri, fancies himself in love with Rosaline, though his love seems sadistic and rather vile. He is ready to pressure her to marry him in exchange for protection for her family from persecution. Another vile individual, Mère Tigraine, a local fishwife and fanatic Catholic, has discovered François's hiding place at the chalet. Meanwhile, François has a chance to flee to England (where his family has some money), but he refuses to either leave the Saint Cyrs in danger, and also he wishes to join the Camisards and fight for Huguenot rights.

In the end it is up to Charlot, at great risk to himself, to arrange for the escape of François and Rosaline, despite the interference of Mère Tigraine. There are battles to come, and a desperate capture of Rosaline, and a magnificient sacrifice by Charlot, who of course is in love with Rosaline himself, hopelessly, though she has always, unlike almost everyone else, treatedhim kindly. The ending is pretty predictable, and to some extent it comes off a bit flat, though Charlot's actions are pretty affecting.

This is a pretty minor effort among the great rush of historical novels that appeared around the turn of the 20th Century. But it's not bad either -- Taylor was a writer with real ability, though not a great writer. She does seem to have been quite scrupulous in her attention to historical accuracy.

Birthday Review: Five Capsules on C. S. Lewis

Five Capsule Reviews of C. S. Lewis.

Today is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Clive Staples Lewis (who, famously, died on the same day in 1963 as another British writer known for SF/F work -- Aldous Huxley -- and, of course, as an American President.) In Lewis' memory I'm posting this set of five rather informal (and somewhat short) "reviews" (blog posts, really) from some time ago. The four Narnia posts are all from a reread I did back in 2001 or so. (I couldn't find the others.) I purposely chose art from a variety of different editions of the Narnia books. As a kid when I first read them, from the library, several times over, the editions were the mass market paperbacks much like image shown for Prince Caspian below.

C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce is a "novel" which serves really as a piece of Christian apologia.  It's very well done, fascinating reading, well-argued though I think attacking straw men in many cases. I don't see that it can persuade an atheist, but the advice herein seems very good for a Christian. In it Lewis has a dream in which he is waiting for a bus in a grey, rainy, city.  The bus takes him and a number of other passengers into the sky, then up a cliff onto a beautiful plateau, leading to a range of mountains.  He and the passengers seem insubstantial, but a number of beautiful, substantial, people come to try to help the passengers make their way to the mountains. This is Heaven, you see, and they have come from Hell. Lewis overhears a number of conversations between the souls in Heaven and the unsaved souls: in every case, the unsaved souls find excuses for not accepting joy and staying in heaven. Eventually Lewis meets George MacDonald, Lewis' great predecessor as a combination Christian apologist/writer of children's fantasies, and MacDonald becomes the mouthpiece for much Lewis' burden of teaching. For instance, the famous quote from this book, "there are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done'" is attributed to the MacDonald character, though as far as I know it's not really a quote from MacDonald.

One of my rereading projects for this year is the Chronicles of Narnia. The second book (by order of publication, which is obviously the right order in which to read the books -- hmmmph!) is Prince Caspian.  The four Pevensie children return to Narnia a year after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Soon they realize that hundreds of years have passed in Narnia while only a year has passed on Earth.  The reign of the four children is legendary.  Narnia has been ruled for some time by humans called Telmarines, who came from another country.  They have oppressed the talking animals and dwarfs and so on, especially recently, under the rule of the evil King Miraz.

Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy manage to save a dwarf from execution, and he tells the story of King Miraz' nephew Caspian (who is actually not a prince but the rightful King of Narnia).  Caspian was raised by a kindly nurse and a half-dwarf/half-human tutor, who told him stories of the glorious time of the High King Peter and the other Pevensie children, when the animals could talk, etc.  Caspian becomes a partisan for returning Narnia to a juster rule, and he also learns that he is the true King: that his uncle killed his father and exiled any loyal knights while Caspian was an infant.  When Miraz' wife finally gives him an heir, Caspian escapes and begins a resistance effort, with the help of a number of dwarfs and talking animals.  It is he who has called the four children back to Narnia (by blowing the magic horn introduced in the first book), and so the children make a journey to the site of the desperate battle Caspian is fighting with the much superior forces of the usurper.  And, of course, Peter and the others, particularly Lucy who seems closest to Aslan, help vanquish Miraz (who is doomed also by his natural suspicion and the dissension in his ranks).

This is an enjoyable book to read, but I didn't like it as much now as I liked it when a teen.  Not because of the Christian symbolism, which I didn't notice back then but which is clear as a bell now: I actually think that stuff is well done.  The main reservations I have are, first, the worldbuilding: which is really quite thin.  For example, as far as I can tell from travel times, Narnia must be no more than say 50 miles on a side.  By the same token the plot is simple, with a somewhat contrived ending.  And finally, Lewis is very anti-industry, anti-modernism of any sort, and at times that is expressed in a grating fashion, such as when he intimates that bridges are bad things.

I jumped right back into my reread of the Narnia books.  I'd say that rereading the first two books they seemed diminished by time, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, not a favorite of mine when I was a teen, seemed better on rereading.  Edmund and Lucy, the younger Pevensie children, are staying with their nasty cousin Eustace.  Eustace has made fun of them for their belief in Narnia, but one day as the three children are looking at a picture of a ship, they find themselves once again in Narnia ... indeed, in the water next to the ship. They are rescued, and the ship turns out to be the Dawn Treader, on which King Caspian is sailing to the Eastern Ocean, trying to retrace the steps of the seven nobleman who had been loyal to his father, and who were exiled by the usurper King Miraz.  Also, Reepicheep the Talking Mouse wishes to travel all the way to the very end of the world (Narnia being flat), and to see what lies beyond.  The neat part of this book is the imaginative details of the various islands the travelers visit on the way.  In addition, the ending is beautifully handled, though it's got some of the same sadness as some of the other Narnia books, as Edmund and Lucy are told that this is their last visit.  Eustace has undergone some salutary learning experiences on the trip, but there are hints that he may return.  Caspian is paired off with a wife, and as a result I now see that Neil Gaiman's Stardust has a slight echo of Narnia in it.  (Though as I've said before, Stardust reminds me much more of Lud-in-the-Mist.)  The only drawback is Lewis' usual anti-modernity, but that rather comes with the territory.

Continued galomping through Narnia with The Silver Chair.  Eustace, from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and his schoolmate Jill Pole, fleeing bullies at their school, escape through a gate into Narnia.  Aslan sends them to Caer Paravel, telling Jill a series of things she must do to help find the Prince, Rilian, the son of Caspian.  Rilian was searching for the serpent who killed his mother, and for ten years has been lost.  Eustace and Jill, with the help of a marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum, set out to the North to find clues about Rilian.  Braving some evil Giants, they learn that  he is underground, and they end up in a realm of "Earthmen", or gnomes, ruled by a beautiful Queen, and her Prince.  They learn, as you have guessed, that the Prince is Rilian and the Queen an evil sorceress, and through cleverness and bravery they fight free and back to the surface.  This book holds up pretty well.  The underground kingdom is pretty cool, and well described, as is the city of the Giants.  And Puddleglum is a delightful character, one of Lewis' best.

I continued my Narnia rereading project with The Horse and His Boy.  This is sort of a pendant to the rest of the books, being set during the reign of the four children from the first book.  It is set in Calormene, a corruptly ruled country, of an Arabian flavor, someways south of Narnia.  A young boy, Shasta, cruelly treated by his adoptive father, escapes with a horse who turns out to be a talking horse (Bree) from Narnia.  The two soon fall in with a noble girl (Aravis), running from a forced marriage to the evil Grand Vizier, who also is accompanied by a talking horse (Hwin).  When trying to sneak through the capitol city of Calormene, Shasta is mistaken by King Edmund of Narnia (who is visiting with Susan, as the Crown Prince of Calormene wishes to marry her) for the prince of Archenland, a country on the border of Narnia and Calormene.  Taken to the palace, Shasta escapes after finding the real prince, while Aravis meets one of her friends by luck overhears a plot by the Crown Prince to invade Archenland and Narnia to attempt to force Susan to marry him.  Follows a desperate ride across the desert to try to warn the Archenlanders, complete with encounter with Aslan, and revealment of Shasta's true identity (not much of a surprise).

This was my favorite Narnia book when I was a kid, but in some ways it doesn't hold up as well as some others.  For one thing, the meme "White men good, Arabs bad" seems to be tacitly understood.  Granted that in Narnian terms this can be explained by the degree of worship of Aslan -- it still comes off as frankly racist.  Also, I think the plot is easier to see coming at this age -- I think I was more surprised when a kid by the twists.  But there is much that is good, as well, perhaps especially the characters of the talking horses.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Sarah Monette

Today is Sarah Monette's birthday, and in her honor here is a compilation of my Locus reviews of her short fiction (with a blog extract included).

Locus, January 2004

The longest story in Alchemy #1, Sarah Monette's "The Wall of Clouds", is also fine, about a strange set of patients at a convalescent home, perhaps sometime in the late nineteenth century, some unexpected deaths, and a perhaps haunted elevator.

Locus, September 2004

In Sarah Monette's "The Venebretti Necklace", Mr. Booth discovers a walled-in skeleton in one of the Museum's mysterious basements. He and archaeologist Miss Coburn learn that the skeleton is of Mrs. Stanhope, who disappeared at the same time as the cursed Venebretti Necklace more than a half-century before. The question is "Who buried her and why?". In a way this is a somewhat ordinary ghost story, but the characters, especially the pathologically shy Mr. Booth, and Monette's voice, make for a very entertaining read. I look forward to more stories of Mr. Booth.

Blog Post, early 2005

My favorite story in All Hallows #35 was "Bringing Helena Back", by Sarah Monette, one of her Kyle Murchison Booth stories. This time Booth agrees to help an old college friend bring his wife back from the dead (despite the fact that she died of a cocaine overdose in the company of another man).

Locus, August 2006

Lone Star Stories has three good stories: “A Night in Electric Squidland” by Sarah Monette may be the best, about a psychic investigator looking at disappearances from a shady nightclub.

Locus, February 2007

Sarah Monette is one of the most consistently enjoyable newer writers we have. “Amante Dorée”, at the Winter Paradox, is another delightful piece. Annabel St. Clair is a prostitute in New Orleans in an alternate history in which the French rule North America. She is also a spy for the French emperor, investigating people such as young Louis Vazquez, who claims to be a descendant of the last Bourbon king. Yet she is vulnerable – when she lets real emotion affect her, as with her flirtation with a British spy. And she, of course, has secrets … This short story has intrigue, romance, sexual ambiguity, death … lovely work.

Review of Fast Ships, Black Sails (Locus, December 2008)

The other highlight, 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, August 2008

There is also, in the Spring Postscripts, a decidedly weird story of wandering in dream world from Sarah Monette, “The World Without Sleep”, which struck me oddly only in that it seemed not quite right for a Kyle Murchison Booth story – other than that it’s quite good.

Locus, October 2009

And there’s more horror – of a sort, again, that appeals to me – at Clarkesworld. “White Charlie” is another of Sarah Monette’s Kyle Murchison Booth stories (though Booth’s name is not given here). In this one Booth must deal with the unwanted gift to his museum of some mostly worthless old books from a dotty benefactor. Unfortunately, the previous owner had tried to use the books to gain power – and in so doing had summoned a rather scary creature, that comes along with the gift. What I really liked here – besides the secondary characters – was the way Booth is forced to think twice about his response to the dangerous creature unwittingly loosed on the museum.

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, May 2011

In May at Fantasy Magazine, Sarah Monette’s “The Devil in Gaylord’s Creek” is an involving story about a dead girl who has a job killing devils. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but Morgan, the narrator, is dead, and about 16, and with her rather prissy boss, or minder, or mentor, a man named Francis, she uses a magical sword to kill the Devil when he shows up. We learn something about these Devils – the one in Gaylord’s Creek was conjured from tragedy, and perhaps that’s always true – and we learn something about Morgan, and her life and death and afterlife, and her oddly affecting relationship with Francis. Good and original work.

Locus, March 2012

Sarah Monette's “Blue Lace Agate” (Lightspeed, January) is a buddy cop story – with the “cops” in question being instead members of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigation – worried about things like shoggoth larva smugglers. There's a decent murder mystery here, but as expected for this subgenre, the heart of the story is the developing relationship between two mismatched partners – and that is well-executed as well. I don't know if Monette plans more stories involving Jamie Keller and Mick Sharpton, but they would be welcome.

Birthday Review: Metaplanetary, by Tony Daniel

Metaplanetary, by Tony Daniel

a review by Rich Horton

Tony Daniel turns 55 today. He received a lot of well-deserved notice in the 1990s for his first couple of novels, and for stories like "Life on the Moon" and "The Robot's Twilight Companion". The novel in question, Metaplanetary, the first of a planned trilogy, appeared in 2001, and its successor, Superluminal, in 2004, but he couldn't sell the third book, and nothing else came out until an enjoyable novel from Baen in 2012, Guardians of Night. He has continued to write and edit for Baen since them. For his birthday, I am posting a review I wrote first for my blog back in 2001, of Metaplanetary.

The best reading I have done recently, however, was of Tony Daniel's new novel Metaplanetary. So far, this is the best SF book I've read from 2001. Metaplanetary is a grand, involving, novel set in 3013 C. E., in a fully colonized solar system which is about to burst into a vicious civil war. It is chock full of neat, if perhaps not always fully plausible, SFnal ideas. It managed to excite my somewhat jaded sense of wonder, and it made me care deeply about quite a few characters, and it advances some interesting and worthwhile moral themes. Its main flaw is that it doesn't end so much as stop -- it's part of a trilogy (the sequel was called Superluminal, and the third book never appeared), and it really does not stand alone. Another, lesser, flaw, perhaps, is that the villain is really evil -- no moral ambiguity there. But that said he is well-portrayed and interesting.

The solar system in 3000 or so is divided into basically two sections. The inner system, called the Met, consists of the inner four planets, and a gloriously weird system of tubes connecting them, which makes the whole thing look like a spider web, sort of. Many people seem to live in the tubes, or in nodes of the system, called bolsas. Mercury, with all that energy available, is the dominant planet. Earth has been largely returned to nature.

The outer planetary systems have all been colonized, with varying degrees of success. Triton, Neptune's big moon, is one of the most successful colonies. In addition, a number of artificially intelligent ships live permanently in space, particularly the Oort clouds, and they have traveled as far as Alpha Centauri. (These are called cloudships.) The Met doesn't reach to the outer system because the asteroid belt is impractical to cross with the tubes.

Besides the Met, the other key SFnal notion of the book is "grist". Basically, grist is very "smart" nanotech. Most if not all humans have an integrated bunch of grist attached, called a pellicle, which hosts a version of the their personality in AI form, called a convert. There are also "free converts", AI's based on scans of human brains but which don't have a biological body.Humans can interact with both free converts and with the "attached" converts of other humans in Virtual space, and all of the system, pretty much, is instantaneously connected by a grist network called the merci. And some humans are what are called LAP's -- LAP stands for Large Array of Personas: they are in essence a network of clones and converts that can be physically and virtually in many places at once.

For the most part, the solar system is in something of a Golden Age. The physical needs of people seem to be well supplied. A critical political issue is the rights of "free converts". Some do not consider them "Human" -- they are just computer programs, in this view, without real free will, without, if you will, "souls". But others, especially in the outer system, regard them as clearly human.

The novel is told from a variety of points of view: a couple of cloudships; a free convert named Danis Graytor; Danis' human husband Kelly; their daughter Aubry (who has a human body but is considered a "half free convert"); an artificial woman named Jill with a body made of grist and a braine based on a ferret's; Colonel Roger Sherman, the military leader of Triton's forces; Sherman's son Lee; Director Ames, the leader of the Met government; General San Filieu, an aging Catalan woman under Ames influence who leads the Met attack on Triton; and more. This gives us a good look at the variety of ways people live in this future, and at what it is like to be a free convert, or a cloudship, or a human with a pellicle and convert attachment, or a LAP. This also helps keep the action moving, important in a fairly long book.

The action of the novel is exciting and fascinating. We see atrocities, such as some clever means of torturing AIs, and a brutal attack on Triton with some scary uses of space tech; and we see heroism in the resistance to these atrocities. We see convincing depictions of sex between humans and AIs, and of alternate means of travel in a physically linked solar system, and of AI entertainment. We get useful glimpses of the history of this future: the young life of Director Ames, the development of the cloudships, the invention of grist and the merci. It's a fairly long book, but never boring.

The characters are fully rounded, even the villains. (If they are evil, and many are, they are evil in interesting ways.) Daniel gives his different characters and narrators different voices. His prose is generally sound, occasionally lapsing into cliche, but at other times very nice. His scope is vast, and his theme is one of the great SF themes: "What is a human?" He illustrates this nicely with his array of characters of vastly different "shape" or composition; and he metaphorically illustrates even more nicely the associated conflict of viewpoints between individualists and collectivists: hinting by the end at a truly scary collectivist vision. The scary parts of the book are convincing and often quite original, and very scary: and the heroism is moving and believable. I really liked this book.

Ace Double Reviews, 75: The Planet Killers, by Robert Silverberg/We Claim These Stars!, by Poul Anderson

Ace Double Reviews, 75: The Planet Killers, by Robert Silverberg/We Claim These Stars!, by Poul Anderson (#D-407, 1959, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

On the occasion of the 92nd anniversary of Poul Anderson's birth, here's a repost of a briefish review I did of one of his Ace Doubles, backed with one by Robert Silverberg.

Silverberg again! And Poul Anderson. Two of the most prolific writers in SF history, and also two of the more regular Ace Double contributors. And also two SFWA Grand Masters: two of the best SF writers ever. As of 1959, though, I doubt anyone was predicting future Grand Master status for Silverberg: certainly this novel provides no support for such speculation! Anderson, to be sure, is another matter.

Add caption
The Planet Killers is about 43,000 words long. It is an expansion of "This World Must Die!", published under the name Ivar Jorgenson in the August 1957 Science Fiction Adventures. It's a very simple story -- too simple, really. I expected -- hoped -- to see a twist along the way but none really happened. The story opens with Roy Gardner, an agent of Earth, being ordered to the planet Lurion. It seems that a computer has decided that Lurion will turn warlike in 67 years, make a sneak attack on Earth, and completely destroy it. The only alternative for Earth is to destroy Lurion now, by sending 5 agents to Lurion to set off sonic generators to, I guess, shake the planet apart.

The objections to this are obvious. Most clearly, in 67 years there is no way to divert Lurion from this path? More simply, how can there be a "sneak" attack if Earth has predicted it? And how contrived is this idea of sending 5 and only 5 agents to plant the sonic generators?

At any rate, Gardner goes to Lurion. He finds the one remaining agent of the 5 previously sent, who is near collapse. Gardner soon learns that Lurion is indeed an awful place, evidenced by such  things as entertainments in which two people (one usually, it seems, a woman) fight with knives until one is killed. But Gardner also meets a Lurionese group which hopes to reform the planet from within. And he meets an Earth woman, an anthropologist, with whom he falls in love. She too will be doomed if Lurion is destroyed, for any attempt to evacuate Earth people from the planet would give away the game.

Can Gardner's resolve hold? Or will he make the obvious morally correct decision? And how will his agency treat his defection, if he defects? All the most obvious and straightforward answers occur. It's really a paint-by-numbers book -- Silverberg at this stage of his career was not terribly good, but he was often at least decent -- competent and entertaining, and occasionally attacking interesting themes. But not here -- this is Silverberg at close to his worst.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
Poul Anderson's We Claim These Stars! is a fairly early Flandry story. It was originally published as "A Handful of Stars", in the June 1959 Amazing, then expanded and reprinted in this Ace Double as We Claim These Stars! The Ace Double version is about 41,000 words long. Ace later reprinted it as a single book. It was also reprinted, under the superior title "Hunters of the Sky Cave", in Anderson's collection Agent of the Terran Empire (1965). Alone among the stories in that book, it was not revised for the 1979 Gregg Press edition.

As with all Flandry, the story is good fun. And this is one of the earliest Flandry stories to show hints of the darkness that pervaded the later full-length Flandry novels. Right from the beginning, to be sure, Flandry was lamenting the coming "Long Night" -- that was the central them of the series from the get go. But by We Claim These Stars! little hints of Flandry's personal emptiness begin to show up. Briefly, in this novel he accompanies a young woman who has escaped from a planet overrun by Merseian supported invaders back to her planet, where he sets up a resistance operation. There is plenty of derring-do, and of course some romance (resolved as ever in a bittersweet way), and even a direct physical encounter with Flandry's rival Aycharaych. The Terrans win this round, but we already know, of course, that they won't win them all -- that the Long Night will claim the Terran Empire.

This is certainly one of the best early Flandry stories, probably the best.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of John Grant

On the occasion of Paul Barnett's 69th birthday, here's a compilation of my Locus reviews of a number of his short stories, all of which were published under his "John Grant" pseudonym.

Locus, January 2003

The Autumn 2002 issue of The Third Alternative is also pretty strong throughout. The highlights are a good morally scary piece from Brian Hodge, a solid novel excerpt concerning the Blitz from Graham Joyce, and perhaps most interesting, John Grant's novelette "Wooden Horse". A young man derails his doctoral studies by becoming obsessed with some old British WWII films shown at a seedy local cinema. The recitation of the films involved, and the reason they are so interesting, along with subtle details of the narrator's life, slowly spring the surprise, which is not precisely novel, but well-presented and queasy-making.

Locus, July 2003

John Grant's "No Solace for the Soul in Digitopia" (Live Without a Net), is a fine erotic fantasia of multiple universes, in which a visit to what seems to be our universe reveals the limitations of a computing-based life.

Locus, September 2004

The Third Alternative leads off with a lovely, erotically-charged, novelette from John Grant, "Has Anyone Here Seen Kristie?" The protagonist, devastated by his wife's death, has been pushed by a co-worker to take a vacation in Edinburgh, during the Festival. There he meets by chance a young woman named Kristie, and they spend the week chastely exploring the Festival, getting much more out of it together than the man could have by himself. The culmination is in a sense predictable, but nicely handled with a slightly wistful conclusion.

Locus, November 2004

John Grant's "Q" (Sci Fiction, October) involves a government figure investigating research at a mysterious laboratory. They have learned to scan people's minds, but only usefully to read dreams. Somehow (unconvincingly to me) this leads to a disturbing revelation about the nature of the universe, which is given a cynical political twist. Interesting stuff, but I couldn't quite believe.

Locus, January 2009

John Grant’s “Will the Real Veronica LeBarr Please Stand Down?” is the lead story and the best in the Autumn Postscripts. It’s told from the point of view of a famous actress – perhaps – or is she a simulation of that actress? She works in a whorehouse where the gimmick is that the johns get a liaison with a famous person. And her latest john turns out – scarily – to be only too familiar to her.

Locus, April 2014

I made a point last month about the number of horror stories I liked, and I'll open this month by mentioning another: “His Artist Wife”, by John Grant, from the January-February Black Static. The narrator is a writer of of low-budget paperback entertainments, and his late wife Lucy was a brilliant and popular artist. He's mourning her death while trying to write a much more ambitious novel, based on another real-life couple: a composer and his mysterious wife, who died on their wedding night. Soon enough we realize that Lucy was murdered, apparently by the narrator, apparently because of her affair with the author of some books she illustrated. The story develops gradually, as drawings in Lucy's style begin to appear, depicting versions of her murder; while the new novel goes slowly, while we learn details of the relationship of the composer and his wife; and while Lucy's lover remains the narrator's only human contact. Lots of ambiguity, lots of atmosphere, lots of disquietude. I really liked it.

Locus, June 2014

The March-April Interzone is an excellent outing for the magazine. John Grant contributes another very fine piece: “Ghost Story”, in which Nick, a happily married man, gets a phone call from a girl he was infatuated with at the age of about 8. It seems she's pregnant, and he's the father. But the childhood connection had not continued, and they haven't even met in years – how can this be. An uneasy visit explains nothing really, but Nick is pushed to wonder about what the girl is convinced they did together, and what history she came from. Really fine work, and very well resolved.

Also, here's  a link to my review of his collection Take No Prisoners. (This review first appeared in the June 2004 Locus)

Birthday Review: Take No Prisoners, by John Grant

Take No Prisoners, by John Grant (Willowgate Press, 1-930008-09-0-4, $13.95, 260pp, tpb) 2004.

reviewed by Rich Horton

On the occasion of Paul Barnett's 69th birthday, I'm taking the opportunity to post this review (that first appeared in Locus for June 2004) of his collection (under his usual pseudonym, John Grant) Take No Prisoners.

John Grant (who also writes under his real name, Paul Barnett) is not exactly unfamiliar to me – I've read a number of his stories, such as last year's fine "No Solace for the Soul in Digitopia". And of course his compilations of authorial indiscretions in "Thog's Masterclass" (a regular feature of David Langford's fanzine Ansible) are rightly celebrated. But I have not read any of his many novels – and so this book works very well as an introduction. Grant displays considerable range.  Included are a couple of humorous mysteries, several contemporary horror stories, an alternate history novelette, some SF and some fantasy and some very striking combinations of SF and fantasy.

Intriguing were a number of stories, mainstream, straight fantasy or a heady combination of fantasy and SF, which signal a tenuous link to each other by occasional references to The World and by the repetition of character names like Qinefer, Lo Chi, and Qinmeartha; as well as place names like Starveling.  Otherwise these stories show little connection, but I suspect that a greater familiarity with Grant's oeuvre, perhaps particularly his novel The World, would clarify matters somewhat. Not to worry, though: the stories work perfectly taken by themselves.  For example, there is "Mouse", at first reading straightforward SF about the exploration of an anomalous world and its alien-built structure, but which turns out to also concern the World and the Incarnate Gods who create much of it.  At its center is an affecting story of two people trapped in an alien room, one of them the title character (real name Qinefer), a woman who has rejected contact with other people, the other a man still recovering from his wife's departure.  Much different is "I Could have a General Be/ in the Bright King's Arr-umm-ee", about Qinmeartha, who betrayed his evil rulers to the Bright King, partly by seducing the evil Queen, Lo Chi. But he finds that Lo Chi's love exacts a price. "All the Best Curses Last for a Lifetime" tells of a created being who becomes the Soul of Evil. "Sheep" again seems straight fantasy, with this time Qinmeartha a brutal husband to the fair Lo Chi, until she sees a chance for revenge. "Coma" is set in our world, with Lo Chi a young woman in a coma, but it suggests links with a larger universe as Lo Chi's comatose mind explores a certain "chord". Finally, "How I Slept with the Queen of China" is purely mainstream, about a somewhat inarticulate young man trying to protect the title character (real name, again, Qinefer) from an abusive boyfriend.

The longest story in the book is "Snare", which tells of a briefly successful rock band through the eyes of the drummer.  He's in love with the lead singer, and agonizes through her other affairs, dreaming that she really feels something special for him. Much later the band is long gone, and he has married and has a mundane job, but once yearly he makes a pilgrimage and listens to the few songs they recorded. Song by song we learn the sad and ultimately disquieting story behind the group.

The two mystery stories are "A Lean and Hungry Look" and "A Case of Four Fingers".  Both are comic stories about the rather fumbling Inspector Romford. In the first he is dragged by his wife to a bit of "culture": an amateur production of Julius Caesar that gets a bit too realistic.  The second and better of the pair sets the story explicitly in the village of Cadaver-in-the Offing, which serves as the setting for all cozy detective stories. This requires someone to recycle the characters – and who better than the narrator (but let the story reveal that). This particular time a cadaver goes missing before it can be recycled. It seems that the murdered man, a great magician, has performed another feat and disappeared after death.  Can Romford solve the case?

"The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea" is another dizzying SF/Fantasy combination, as the "Finefolk" find a way to flee Earth and the domination of the "Ironfolk" by learning FTL travel. But the Ironfolk inevitably follow ... In "Wooden Horse" a young man derails his doctoral studies by becoming obsessed with some old British WWII films shown at a seedy local cinema. The recitation of the films involved, and the reason they are so interesting, along with subtle details of the narrator's life, slowly spring the surprise, which is not precisely novel, but well-presented and queasy-making.

I am struck here not only by the variety of these stories, and the impressive imagination, but by the control of voice. His first-person narrators all tell their stories in characteristic and different ways: from the exuberant, arch, tones of the Finefolk narrator of "The Glad Who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea", to the archaic and mannered style of Qinmeartha in "I Could have a General Be/ in the Bright King's Arr-umm-ee", to the simple, even naive, words of the young man in "How I Slept with the Queen of China" – each a different voice, each perfectly matched to the story being told.  This is a book of first-rate work, by a writer worthy of more of our attention.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Two Short Novels by Don DeLillo: The Body Artist and Cosmopolis

Two Short Novels by Don DeLillo: The Body Artist and Cosmopolis

a review by Rich Horton

These reviews are taken from blog posts I did at the time of reading, and I'm posting them today on Don DeLillo's 82nd birthday. They are the only books I've read by DeLillo. Both are fairly short, and both have slight elements of the fantastic or SFnal.

The Body Artist (2001)

Don DeLillo's new novel (or novella, it's a bit over 25,000 words) is The Body Artist.  I haven't read DeLillo before, though I have a copy of White Noise buried in the "Ought to Read" pile.  This book, by all accounts, is not typical of DeLillo.  It certainly doesn't seem like the other books based on descriptions of them I've read.

Lauren Hartke is the "Body Artist" of the title (basically, a performance artist).  Her husband, a 64 year old Spanish film director, commits suicide one day, and she stays in their remote rural rented house for a few months, alone.  But soon she realizes she is not alone: a very strange, apparently brain-damaged, man is in the house -- possibly has been in the house since before she and her husband rented it.  Hartke can't bring herself to report this man to the authorities, and she spends some weeks trying to talk to him.  The man can hardly speak, and when he does, it's in incomplete sentences -- sentences which sometimes, eerily, sound like something her husband or she herself said in previous months.  Or even like something she will say in the future.  Was the man spying on them for months, and does his damaged brain recall fragments of conversations?  Is he somehow possessed by the spirit of her husband?  Is he a creature from a different dimension?  Is she making too much of this -- could these utterances just be random words to which her faulty memory assigns shape?

The book is more interested (as we might expect) in asking those questions than answering them.  Though clearly it's about identity -- certainly the questions about the suicided husband's identity are important -- and Hartke's "art" involves trying to reshape her body -- to remove all traces of her "self" and use her body as a template to take on other "identities" -- and of course the question of what "identity" the mysterious stranger has is important, too.  (I found myself, also, thinking of Sarah Canary.)

It's really very well-written.  I wasn't wholly excited by it -- I guess I wanted DeLillo to come closer to answers.  But the book is spooky and memorable, and the prose is excellent. It has been made into a 2016 film by Benoit Jacquot, called À jamais.

Cosmopolis (2003)

Don DeLillo is the author of such novels as White Noise and Underworld, a huge literary star, certainly one of a few names usually mentioned as possibly our leading American novelist. I've only read his two most recent novels, both very short: The Body Artist (2001), and now Cosmopolis, new this year. Cosmopolis is about 50,000 words long, about twice the length of The Body Artist, but still pretty short in comparison to DeLillo's more famous novels. So, if you are thinking I am lazy and/or intimidated by the other stuff, you're probably right. At any rate, I had read a few reviews of Cosmopolis, mostly quite dismissive, and I was going to skip it until I saw a positive mention of rec.arts.sf.written and almost the same time saw it at the library. What the heck, I figured, it's short.

The "hero" (quotes definitely necessary) of this book is Eric Packer, an obscenely rich New Yorker who makes his money in the currency markets. He wakes up one morning in 2000 and decides to drive across town in his limousine and get a haircut. The novel follows his long trip, as the president is in town, and other complications ensue, making it a very slow progress indeed.

Packer does considerable work in his limousine, which is fully net-connected. Most of his work (that we are shown) involves tracking the value of the yen, which is inexplicably rising even though all indicators say it is grossly overvalued. Packer has bet that the yen will fall, and as it rises he loses more and more money, a process exacerbated by what seems his hubris, his refusal to cut his losses. He is also worried, or his security chief is worried, by what is called a "credible threat" to his life. Even so, Packer stops the limousine several times and gets out. He eats three different meals with his old-money wife of about a month, Swiss-born poet Elise Shifrin, each time trying to convince her to finally consummate their marriage. The sincerity of his feelings for her is undercut by his additional stops for a variety of sexual encounters -- with an old mistress, with an employee, with one of his security detail who catches his eye. But though she complains about his evident infidelity, their relationship seems more complicated than that.

Packer also has different encounters -- the funeral of a rap star he had admired, a pickup basketball game, a trip to a rave. And he meditates rather fatuously (to my mind) on the state of the world, of technology, the meaning of money and poetry, and the deaths of some of his rivals. Alternate sections present the "confession" of a former employee of Packer's, who, we soon gather, will murder him by the end of the book. And Packer keeps losing money, and slowly sheds his security detail, sometimes in shocking fashion, as the seedier part of the city is reached.

Obviously DeLillo is interested in, oh, the relationship between technology-mad "new money" America and the "old-money", perhaps more artistic, Europe (represented by his poet wife). But that seems only a side issue. Packer himself is a strange creation, wholly unbelievable really, as indeed his whole entourage and his obsessions seem huge exaggerations to me. In a way that makes the novel very cold, and Packer's fate not terribly affecting. He's a) not a nice guy, and b) not a real person. Still, I was rather absorbed by the book, and I found it interesting if not exactly gripping. It is perhaps best read as satire, and Packer best seen as nearly a comic grotesque -- an exaggeration.

(There are, incidentally, very minor SFnal aspects -- mainly a camera that seems to see the near future. And the general feel of the book is at least very slipstreamish -- I am sure Bruce Sterling would happily have included it in his list of candidate slipstream novels if it had appeared before Sterling's 1989 article that introduced the term.)

Cosmopolis was made into a film by David Cronenberg that was released in 2012.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Birthday Review: Bones of the Earth, by Michael Swanwick

This is a review I did a long time ago for my old website, now defunct. So it seemed worthwhile to repost it on the occasion of Michael Swanwick's birthday.

Bones of the Earth
by Michael Swanwick
Tor, New York, 2002, 335 pages, $25.95
ISBN: 0-312-87238-0

A review by Rich Horton

I've read some solid SF novels in 2002 so far -- The Years of Rice and Salt, Permanence, Schild's Ladder. It hasn't been a bad year. But nothing that really threw me until this one. Bones of the Earth is, about halfway through the year, clearly my favorite SF novel of 2002. It combines several well-integrated (and rather original) SFnal ideas with some neat scientific speculation, interesting characters, a compelling plot, and a powerfully argued theme about the nature of science and the human urge to do science.

The novel concerns a program to send paleontologists back to the Mesozoic Era to study dinosaurs in their natural environment. As such it is both a dinosaur novel and a time travel novel. Perhaps unexpectedly, the thematic heart of the book is in the time travel aspect, though the dinosaur speculations are worthwhile and fun in themselves.

The story opens in 2012 when Richard Leyster, a young paleontologist, is approached by a mysterious man named Griffin,offering him a mysterious job. He can tell him nothing about the job, but he can show him something -- a fresh Triceratops head. And he seems oddly certain that Leyster will accept the job. Leyster does, of course, and several months later he finds himself at a strange scientific conference, attending presentations about field work in the Mesozoic, and being accosted by a mysterious older woman (though she was born later than he) named Gertrude Salley, who implies a past relationship. Thus we have met the three main characters -- Leyster, the brilliant and studious scientist; Salley, brilliant herself but manipulative and unbound by law or rules; and Griffin, the tormented administrator of the entire program.

One key plot thread concerns a scheme by Christian fundamentalists to sabotage the time travel efforts, which ends up marooning a number of paleontologists in the Late Cretaceous. Griffin and his assistants try to loop back and forth through time to forestall this sabotage, but they are frustrated by the insistence of the sponsors of the time travel program that no paradoxes be created: thus anything they know to have "already happened" they cannot stop from happening. The other key thread involves Salley's attempts to subvert that law -- right at the beginning we see hints that she is trying to cause paradoxes, and her attempts continue, though her motive remains unclear to the reader for some time.

The scenes in the Cretaceous involve some well-handled "primitive survival" scenes, and some fascinating speculation about dinosaur social life and about the real causes of their extinction. The other thread involves some very clever handling of time loops and paradox, and an eventual trip far into the future to meet the Unchanging -- the mysterious beings who have offered the boon of time travel to humans. The resolution is surprising, logical, and achingly sad, or at least bittersweet. Swanwick is convincing treating human curiosity, our love of science. He is convincing treating human reactions to the possibility of fixing our past mistakes. There are some lovely set pieces involving encounters with prehistoric beasts, and one involving a young girl fascinated by Mesozoic sea life. The characters are well-drawn, particularly Griffin and his boss, the Old Man. Leyster and Salley are well done as well but a bit less fully realized -- or pass too clearly idealized to fit their parts. The minor characters are interesting, too. I loved the book, and I was quite moved by it. I think it is one of the best time travel novels in all of SF.

Birthday Review: Stories of Michael Swanwick

On the occasion of his 68th birthday, here's a set of my Locus reviews of Michael Swanwick's short fiction:

Locus, May 2002

"A Great Day for Brontosaurs" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, May) is a light-hearted jape about a man who has invented dinosaurs – which manages to play nicely with the hoariest of SF clichés.

Locus, November 2002

The October/November issue of Asimov's is another impressive one. There is one story that both by its quality, and its controversial nature, will dominate discussion -- let's hold off on that one. More lighthearted is Michael Swanwick's "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Fun", a sequel to his Hugo winner "The Dog Said Bow-Wow". Darger and the enhanced dog are in Paris now, working on another scam: they claim to have found the remains of the Eiffel Tower. Their victim is a dying (indeed, already dead) man named M. d'Etranger. Of more interest (to Darger) is his beautiful young wife, but Surplus is unimpressed, realizing she is an enhanced cat. It's as fluffy as its predecessor, and as much fun.

Locus, December 2002

Michael Swanwick's work is always worth a look, though I don't think "Slow Life", Analog's December cover story, is among his best. It is interesting: about finding life on Titan, and the way such life might think differently from us. (Unfortunately for my tastes, not quite differently enough – the communications barrier is far too easily surmounted.)

Locus, September 2003

I'd also like to mention Michael Swanwick's series of short-shorts at Sci Fiction, The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, which has been reliably cynical and funny. It's nearing conclusion, and a high point was reached with the entry for Einsteinium, "The Dark Lady of the Equations" (June 20), a lovely (and not cynical!) fantasia about an inspiration for Albert Einstein.

Locus, October 2004

Also in the October-November Asimov's is Michael Swanwick's "The Word That Sings the Scythe". This is a direct sequel to last year's "King Dragon". The fey Will has been thrown out of his home village and finds himself a refugee of war. He hooks up, against his will, with an abandoned young girl named Esme, who seems to remember nothing. She seems particularly lucky, but there is a law of conservation of luck – so her luck doesn't mean those around her are lucky. Will learns a bit more about her when in the refugee camp he meets a woman who claimed to have been her mother – of sorts – long before, for it turns out Esme's history is strange indeed. This is all set in a strange fantastical world, with an array of apparently traditional fantasy creatures – unicorns, ghasts, feys, lubins, and others – and a weird admixture of technology, perhaps most strikingly indicated by the intelligent mechanical dragons, that seem to resemble AI-controlled fighter planes more than anything. This is a fine story by itself, and presages a potentially very interesting novel to come.

Locus, July 2005

The cover story for the July Asimov's is a Darger/Surplus novelette from Michael Swanwick: "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play". Swanwick's scoundrelly heroes, a man and an enhanced dog in a sort of post-posthuman world, are now in "Arcadia": that is, Greece. They are looking for the Evangelos bronzes, in a rather low-tech setting inhabited by fairly ordinary humans and sex-mad satyrs. But some powerful African scientists have taken up residence nearby, and they claim to building gods. Perhaps they are: for a very convincing manifestation of Pan, complete with orgy, soon follows. Darger and Surplus, acting rather more like heroes than scoundrels for a change, discover that the scientists have some sinister goals: there are darker gods than Pan that they hope to create. With the help of some very friendly locals, the two save the day.

Locus, November 2005

“Triceratops Summer”, by Michael Swanwick, a lovely sweet story about an accident at a physics institution that brings a herd of Triceratops into the Vermont countryside. Of course the story isn’t really about dinosaurs, but rather about how to enjoy life and about what lasts or doesn’t last and what matters.

Locus, December 2005

Also in January I liked Michael Swanwick’s “An Episode of Stardust”, a cute scam story set in Faery. It really isn’t anything but “yet another con man story”, but Swanwick uses the Faery setting quite effectively.

Locus, July 2006

From the August Asimov's, a strong adventure tale, set on Venus, from Michael Swanwick: “Tin Marsh”, in which two prospectors learn to hate each other after several months of enforced company. One of them snaps, and starts to chase the other with intent to kill – ironically leading to a valuable strike. Which rather complicates an already complicated situation.

Locus, October 2006

In Michael Swanwick’s “Lord Weary’s Empire” (Asimov’s, December) his continuing character Will is chased into the underground of Babel Tower. In this dark realm he encounters Lord Weary, the leader of a gang of the dispossessed and unfortunate: fey creatures such as haints and wodewoses. Lord Weary plans a revolution, and Will quickly becomes his lieutenant. But their ragtag army has little chance against organized opposition. More important to the story is the nature of Lord Weary himself, a cast down high elf, whose motives are difficult to understand. It’s a cynical but sad story, set in a sad but interesting world.

Locus, January 2007

The Autumn 2006 Postscripts opens with a very fine, and very bawdy, story from Michael Swanwick, “The Bordello in Faerie”, in which a young man in a mining town on the border of Faerie is attracted by the title bordello, only to be very surprised indeed at the nature of the whores there. Inevitably, he becomes addicted …

Locus, February 2008

Michael Swanwick’s “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” (Asimov's, February) is fascinating SF (not related to his fine new novel The Dragons of Babel) about a human embassy to an alien city. The city is attacked, and everyone killed but one human – who escapes in the company of one of the aliens, wearing a spacesuit whose intelligence is based on his now-dead lover. The story deals with economics, with the biology and culture (and economics) of the aliens, and with the dangers of crossing an unfamiliar planet … it is intelligent, full of adventure, original, wry.

Locus, December 2010

In the December Asimov's I also liked Michael Swanwick’s “Libertarian Russia”, another stark look at the future, here one in which Russia’s descent into anarchy is regarded as a libertarian opportunity by the somewhat clueless protagonist – and by some meaner folks;

Locus, August 2011

Best in the August Asimov’s is “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Get Up Again” may be the longest title yet from Michael Swanwick, who has had a few pretty long titles before. It’s about an American of Irish descent visiting the Old Sod, in a future in which aliens have brought prosperity and peace to Earth – at a cost, no doubt. He’s about to head to the stars when he visits Ireland, and there he falls for a beautiful singer. He’s almost ready to toss his future away and stay with her – and he learns that she’s a member of a terrorist group aimed at pushing the aliens off Earth. And she asks him to help … He’s left with a harsh choice, not to mention the question of whether her love is real or aimed at manipulating him. The resolution makes sense, and the story really does work.

Locus, September 2011

And finally the best recent story at is Michael Swanwick’s “The Dala Horse”, in which a little girl from Sweden must travel alone (but with her toy (?) horse) over the mountains. On her trip she encounters a dangerous man, and other forces are compelled to intervene. The story begins with a purposefully fairy tale aura, but to no one’s particular surprise (I trust) it is SF all along, post-Singularity SF, about the choices people – or polities – might make in the context of the classical Vingean Singularity’s arrival. As such, this is by now almost an old story, but Swanwick makes it new again.

Locus, May 2014

As for the novelettes, they are better still. Michael Swanwick's “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” is a stylish deal with the devil variant – an innocent young woman goes to Hell to try to rescue her father. The Devil, in the form of an alluring Madam, makes a unique deal with her … Over the next year , her innocence is tested and (in the way of things) vanishes, which may or may not serve as a win for the Devil. The depiction of Hell is imaginative and rings true, and the resolution is very nice.

Locus, June 2015

My favorite story this issue comes from Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost. “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters – H’ard and Andy are Come to Town” is about a couple of con men visiting rural Paradise Lake, Texas, in a drought-ridden future. They plan to con the townspeople into thinking they can banish the drought … naturally counting on the unwitting help of the local crooked sheriff. What they don’t expect is the sheriff’s all too precocious daughter roping herself in … The story is very funny, very clever, told perfectly.

Locus, November 2017

Michael Swanwick’s “Starlight Express” (F&SF, September-October) is really good far-future SF, set in Rome. Flaminio is a water carrier, and one day he sees a woman on the platform of the “starlight express”, which seems to be a way to travel to the stars, no longer understood by humans. People sometimes travel through it, but it’s assumed that’s a way to suicide. No one comes back – except here is someone. Flaminio and this woman, Szette, spend much time together, and he learns her strange, sad story, and of course that time must end. An elegant and bittersweet and wise piece.

Locus, December 2017

Michael Swanwick’s “Universe Box” (which was actually published last year, in an edition of 13!) is also fairly breathless fun, in which a thief steals a box with everything anyone could desire in it, and under pressure, has a rather colorless young man named Howard hide it, as the Adversary pursues. Howard has been planning to ask his girlfriend Mimi to marry him, while Mimi has been planning to break up with boring Howard, but the box, and the adventures the thief leads them into, change both their lives. It’s stuffed with wit, with imagination, and with audacity.

Birthday Review: Sagramanda, by Alan Dean Foster

Sagramanda, by Alan Dean Foster (Pyr, 1-59102-488-9, $25, 287pp, hc) October 2006.

A review by Rich Horton

Today is Alan Dean Foster's 72nd birthday. In his honor, then, I'm reposting this rather brief review I did for Locus of his novel Sagramanda back when the book came out.

Sagramanda is a novel set in near future India, following several different viewpoint characters in an eventually interlocking narrative. As such it superficially resembles Ian McDonald’s brilliant River of Gods. Foster’s novel is not so brilliant as McDonald’s, and really it makes no attempt to be brilliant at that level. Rather, it is an enjoyable and fast-moving thriller – and quite successful as such.

Taneer Buthlahee is a scientist who has taken a spectacularly valuable piece of new technology from his company. He wishes to offer it to a rival company – for enough money to make he and his fiancée, the beautiful Depahli De, secure for life – away from India. For Depahli is an Untouchable, and a former prostitute, and thus their relationship is unacceptable to many in their home country. Taneer, thus, is a target – his company has sent a specialist to retrieve him, dead or alive. And his father is after him, to prevent the stain on their family’s honor of a link with an Untouchable. Taneer also involves a middleman to help him make a deal, a poor merchant, Sanjay Ghosh, who likewise is trying to make a secure life for he and his beautiful wife. At the same time their city of Sagramanda (transparently a fictionalized Calcutta) is threatened by two very different beasts: a man-eating tiger, and a Frenchwoman who has become a serial killer in worship of Kali. The novel follows, in short segments, all these characters – Taneer, Depahli, Taneer’s father, Sanjay, the tiger, the serial killer, the policeman investigating the murders, and more. And, as the reader knows from the start, all these threads will converge, some naturally, some by coincidence.

It’s quite an exciting read. The plot moves sharply, and quite believably. The characters are engaging enough, though rather two-dimensional. The portrait of fairly near-future India is fairly well-done, though here the book truly does suffer by comparison with McDonald’s altogether more complex and deeper portrait. Sagramanda is no masterpiece, but it is fun and not without deeper shadings.

Ace Double Reviews, 83: The Communipaths, by Suzette Haden Elgin/The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy, by Louis Trimble

Ace Double Reviews, 83: The Communipaths, by Suzette Haden Elgin/The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy, by Louis Trimble (#11560, 1970, 75 cents)

Today would have been Suzette Haden Elgin's 82nd birthday, so here is a repost of my review of her first "novel" -- a novella, really, like many Ace Doubles.

(Covers by Josh Kirby and Jack Gaughan)
As with many Ace Doubles, this backs a very forgettable (and mostly forgotten) novel with an early, minor, work by a writer who became much better. Which highlights one of the benefits of the format -- it was a way for young writers to publish novel length or near novel length work that showed promise but wasn't always quite ready for prime time. The forgotten work is Louis Trimble's The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy, about 38,000 words long. The more remembered writer is Suzette Haden Elgin (1936-2015), and her first novel is here: The Communipaths, about 28,000 words.

Elgin's first story was "For the Sake of Grace", which appeared in F&SF in 1969, when she was 33 and a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at San Diego State. (Linguistics were a major theme of her SF, and her "Native Tongue" trilogy is built around an invented language.) That story featured a character named Coyote Jones, and it was fairly well received, being reprinted in the Wollheim/Carr World's Best SF. The Communipaths also features Jones, and so do four later novels, including Furthest, the only other Elgin novel I've read so far.

The Communipaths is set in the Three Galaxies, about a millennium in the future. The faster than light communication system in the Galaxies is run by powerful telepaths (called communipaths), who are genetically identified as very young babies, taken away to a creche and raised to live a life of luxury, while also being conditioned to service. And then they die, very young. On the planet Iris, in one of the most remote corners of the Three Galaxies, a powerful potential communipath is born to a young woman, a member of the Maklunites, a communal group of people the depiction of whom made me think of Le Guin (perhaps particularly The Dispossessed). Coyote Jones is sent to Iris to take the baby from his mother, but the mother, already distressed over the loss of her lover (the baby's father), resists.

The baby is taken away to the communipath training planet, but the mother is still distraught, going so far as to use her own considerable mental powers, combined with the baby's, to attempt to teleport the baby to her. It is decided that she is a traitor to humanity, and Coyote, along with his sometime lover Tzana Kai, is recruited to arrest her. He does not take kindly to the assignment, though there is a rationale: the baby's considerable mental powers, uncontrolled and unshielded, are a threat to people's lives.

The novel runs on a couple of threads -- one following Coyote, who is interesting enough in a slapdash early '70s sort of way; and the other the Maklunites, also interesting enough in a very '70s way (as my comparison to Le Guin of that era is intended to suggest), before coming to a dramatic if rather too abrupt conclusion (with a very easy to guess resolution, or one might even say, copout). It's OK work, but weak mainly in being too short -- those characters of some interest aren't really given time to develop, the Maklunite society is only sketched, the plot is, as I said, resolved too abruptly. So: not unpromising, but a minor piece of work

Louis Trimble (1917-1988) wrote a number of books in the SF, mystery, and western genres. In SF, he wrote mainly for Don Wollheim, whom he followed from Ace to DAW. His last novel appears to be The Bodelan Way (DAW, 1974), which I recall seeing, probably because of the Freas cover. He wrote one book in collaboration with Jacquelyn Trimble, presumably his wife.

The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy is a light adventure that is not quite light (or frothy) enough, or alternately not serious and well thought out enough. It seems a consortium of industries objects to the onerous rule of the "Federation", a future Galactic society. So they plan to take over, with the help of some treasonous "GalMil" agents, and with some forbidden military technology.

For some hard to understand reason, a key to their plan is a planet on which they establish an artificial society resembling 19th Century England, only better. (No Satanic mills.) The Federation sends a spy to infiltrate this society, as does the one planet (or some group of planets) independent of the Federation, Jondee. The representative from Jondee is a sprightly woman, that from the Federation an intelligent but slightly stodgy man. You can see where this is heading! (Though in the end Trimble disappoints a little here ...) At any rate, the two successfully -- though with some difficulty -- unmask the real plot, while tripping through some not very convincing scenes set in a version of a 19th Century British village.

The issue here, really, is that none of the setup makes much sense. And that for something making so little sense to actually work, a lot more wit would have to be in evidence, and a lot more sex, too, if you ask me, and some more action. The makes nods in the direction of all three, but doesn't execute very well in any area.

From what I can gather from the brief mentions of Trimble I've seen, he's fairly well regarded as an unpretentious provider of decent entertainment in all the genres he worked in -- and that's the sort of book The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy seems to want to be -- unpretentious decent entertainment -- but for me it fell short.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Raymond F. Jones

Birthday Review: Stories of Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones would have been 103 today. He's not much remembered these days, but he was an interesting writer of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. His career continued into the 1970s -- his last story appeared in Ted White's Fantastic in 1978.  In his memory I've compiled this set of reviews of his stories, that I wrote based on reading several old magazines in my collection.

Astounding, December 1952

"Noise Level", by Raymond F. Jones (15500 words)

This is the first and best known of three stories Jones wrote featuring physicist Martin Nagle. In this story Nagle is recruited to join a project to investigate the claims of a young engineering graduate, Leon Dunning, that he has discovered anti-gravity. The discoverer was apparently universally regarded as an unpleasant crackpot. He finagles a demonstration with a government scientist, however, and the demonstration -- a film of which is shown to the members of the project -- shows him wearing his anti-grav belt and clearly levitating. Unfortunately, on a repeat of the demo, something malfunctions, and Dunning crashes and dies. Nagle and the others on his project are tasked with examining the limited remaining data Dunning left behind -- his library, a noisy videotape, his laboratory. One of the older scientists immediately proves that anti-gravity is impossible, according to established science, but the younger ones, Nagle in particular, are convinced by the demo that something must have happened, and somehow they manage to produce a crude reproduction of anti-gravity -- nothing like what Dunning had done, but still revolutionary.

Then comes the kicker -- and I won't reveal it, though you might guess. But it's pure, unadulterated, John W. Campbell wish-fulfillment. So I wasn't surprised to learn, via a post by Alec Nevala-Lee, author of the exceptional new book Astounding, a biography of Campbell as well as his top writers Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard, that the idea came from Campbell, and he pitched it first to Heinlein. Heinlein passed, and so Jones was the man who turned Campbell's idea into a story.

And you know what? Yes, the story is based on pure bunkum. But it works. And the ending -- even in its absurdity -- is really kind of inspiring. This is the essence, I think, of Campbell's force -- and of Raymond F. Jones's force, because, while Jones was never a great writer, he was an effective writer, and his stories, the best of them at least, are still worth a look. As the SF Encyclopedia puts it: "He was one of the carriers of the voice of sf."

By the way, the cover of that issue of Astounding, called "The First Martian" -- doesn't it look like it should have illustrated Theodore Sturgeon's great story "The Man Who Lost the Sea"?

If, June 1954

"The Colonists", by Raymond F. Jones (16000 words)

John Boston tabbed Jones as a writer worth some attention, and I think this story, though it doesn't quite work, is indeed worth attention. Earth is setting up a star colonization program. We are first introduced to the military leader of an attempt to set up a beachhead colony, which has failed utterly. He is about to commit suicide in shame. We quickly cut to the head of the recruitment effort, who has yet to find a single colonist. It turns out he is running virtual reality simulations (or semi-VR, with staff members acting certain roles), and so far every colony has failed. The military insists that they should start colonies -- but the sim just run has proved that wrong. (The leader was stopped before his suicide and his memory of the test was wiped.) The recruiter has otherwise focussed on screening rebels and people with a reason to get away from Earth, similarly failing. Finally a man comes, a man with a good job and a secure life, who insists that he wants to be a colonist. The recruiter finally agrees to test him, though he's sure he'll fail. The test is difficult -- he faces sabotage, bad fellow colonists, the death of a child, and the resistance of his (acting) wife. But he persists. The point is that the best colonists won't necessarily be rebels -- doing so for "negative" reasons, or military personnel, doing so for "duty", but rather people of strong character, people who still care for Earth, but who have "positive" reasons to be colonists.

Some of the setup is hard to believe -- I couldn't really buy the practicality of simulating several years on an alien planet is what seems to be a few weeks. And as with other Jones stories, it's a bit didactic, and he tells rather than shows much of his point. And the point is a bit more obvious than he seems to think. But -- the story is still quite powerful, quite moving, and the odd love story concerning the psychologist who acts as the colonist's wife in the simulation is quite affecting.

Astounding, December 1954

Raymond F. Jones's "The School" has an interesting setup, and one of some interest to me as it deals with my own industry. It opens with the demonstration of a new superbomber by Firestone Aviation (apparently meant to be Boeing -- my own company -- at least based on its Seattle location). The bomber seems to be a success, but the chief engineer abruptly gives his notice. He's disgusted with himself -- planes are just getting bigger and more complicated -- not smarter. (Shades of Clarke's "Superiority".) He declares that he is heading off to a radical new school -- to unlearn all the things he was taught in school. The protagonist is the Air Force liaison, who is tasked to try to get into the same school -- to find out why so many of the top engineers (at other companies too) are quitting. Once he is there we get some lectures about how schools are instruments of enforcing cultural conformity, and of putting the brakes on real originality. It doesn't really work as a story -- too many lectures, things go too easily. The ideas are -- well, they're exactly up Campbell's alley, it seems to me. And they are not entirely absurd -- to some extent schools do enforce cultural standards. But at the same time they are presented too dogmatically, and too many assumptions ("all math teachers are bores who suck the interest out of the subject", etc. etc.) are taken as given.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

The opening novelet is by Raymond F. Jones, who had a long career in the field (first story published in 1941, last in 1978), but who never really became prominent. He did publish some stories that garnered attention, perhaps these days most notably the novel This Island Earth, which became a movie. "The Gift of the Gods" is a noticeably dark story -- an alien spaceship crashes in the Atlantic, and the US recovers it, but is pressured to allow equal access to the Russians and to other countries. Physicist Clark Jackson is recruited to be part of the US scientific team, partly because one of his college classmates is the General in charge. Problem is, Jackson hates the General, because he blames him for stealing the only girl he ever got up the courage to ask out. And Jackson also hates the General’s views: he wants the alien tech for weapons development, and he also wants to keep all that knowledge from the other nations. Jackson soon realizes that this attitude is held by all the other investigators, and finds himself eventually allied with the horrified alien representative. The conclusion is cynical and dark. It’s to some extent an interesting effort, but it doesn’t really work: it’s a bit overblown and unconvincing -- in particular, the characters come off as cardboard types.

Amazing, December 1961

Finally there is Raymond F. Jones' "The Memory of Mars". Mel Hastings is a journalist, and his wife is dying. She insists, however, that they once went on a trip to Mars. But Mel has no such memory -- and he also has a desperate fear of spaceflight. But he regrets not being able to indulge her desire for a "return" trip -- then, after he dies, he learns to his shock that she doesn't seem to be human. I admit, as a regular SF reader, I immediately assumed she'd turn out to have been Martian, somehow having replaced his real wife during the trip to Mars, during which Mel would have been treated to forget. That's not quite what's going on, though -- the resolution is far more complicated, and a bit strange, involving Mel getting treatment to deal with his space fright, which leads to him recalling his and Alice's trip, and realizing something very odd indeed happened. I think in the end the story is overly complicated, wrapped around a familiar idea, but I did want to know what was going on all along. Not great at all, but intriguing in its way.