Monday, December 31, 2018

Birthday Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

Review Date: 08 May 1998

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

Bantam, 1998, $23.95
ISBN: 0553099957

A review by Rich Horton

To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of Connie Willis' time travel stories, sharing a milieu with her award-winning novelette "Fire Watch" and her award-winning novel Doomsday Book. I'm very fond of both previous stories. Doomsday Book, however, was marred to some extent by a certain mismatch of tone between the farcical events of the 21st century setting from which her time travelers set out and the tragic events of the 14th century into which her protagonist travels. In addition, some major plot points of Doomsday Book were implausible in the extreme. For me, the emotional power of the 14th century story, and the character of Father Roche, were sufficient strong points to overcome my discomfort with some of the clunky bits.

This current novel almost seems a response to some criticisms of Doomsday Book. If the former book was primarily a tragic story of the Plague, this book is a screwball comedy set in the time of Jerome K. Jerome's classic (and highly recommended) late Victorian comedy, Three Men in a Boat. (Indeed, the title of this book is the subtitle of Jerome's.) (And this is the second screwball comedy about time travel in two years, after John Kessel's Corrupting Dr. Nice (1997).) And, Willis seems to be saying, if this is a screwball comedy, darn it, I can have implausible plot points, and outrageous coincidences, and my tone can be as goofy as I want. But a funny thing (so to speak) happened on the way to Coventry, and this novel turns out to have a serious and moving center to it after all, albeit in the context of a generally very funny book. What's more, Willis' point derives nicely from her story's outrageous coincidences, almost too overtly so, as if the book points at its faults and says "I meant it that way".

Which brings me to my misgivings about a novel that I ended up liking quite a bit. The whole machinery of the plot is set in motion by some generally unbelievable actions. The protagonist and narrator, Ned Henry, a 30ish "historian" in 2057, has been trying to get to Coventry Cathedral just prior to the pivotal bombing in 1940 (which destroyed the Cathedral but which may have indirectly turned the Battle of Britain against Hitler) in order to rescue the Bishop's Bird Stump, a hideous item which the historians (read time travelers) need to help convincingly furnish a rebuilt Cathedral. Willis conveniently (for plot purposes) invents a syndrome she calls "time lag", which happens when people time travel too often, and results in confusion, difficulty hearing, excess emotionalism, and such like. The only cure is rest, and Henry's superior, Mr. Dunworthy of Doomsday Book, decides the only place he can rest is in the past (out of reach of the fearsome Lady Schrapnell). Unfortunately, Dunworthy decides to have Ned complete one little tiny task for him in the past, returning an anachronistic item from 1888 to it's proper time, before resting. But Ned is so time-lagged he doesn't quite realize what it is he needs to return, and there isn't enough time to properly brief him…
All these machinations strain credibility, really even beyond the rather loose requirements of a screwball comedy. Moreover, the whole plot centers about the tendency of the structure of Time to resist alteration, which necessarily requires the reader to think about the mechanics of Willis' time travel setup. Unfortunately, in my opinion this setup doesn't really stand up well to being thought about too carefully. At least for the first few chapters, I was simultaneously entertained by the comic goings on, which are prime Connie Willis in her madcap mode, and irritated by the blatant plot manipulation. However, after a bit I calmed down and accepted the premise as given, and I quite enjoyed the story.

I won't detail the rest of the plot, which is quite complicated, though in the end nothing much is really accomplished (which becomes part of the point). We are treated to a brief river journey (an hommage to the trip which makes up the action of Jerome's novel, indeed Willis cannot resist having her characters encounter Jerome and his friends Harris and George, to say nothing of their dog, Montmorency, which I found a bit over-indulgent of her), to a thematically central and also quite funny ongoing rant by an Oxford Don on the subject of the Great Man theory of History vs. his opponent's belief in Natural Forces, to the origination of the jumble sale, several nice love stories, and lots more.

As I've said, though I have reservations, I ended up really enjoying this book. At the surface level there is the shall I say typical good fun of Connie Willis in her screwball mode. Beyond this, the book engages in some Sfnal dialogue with earlier SF such as Asimov's The End of Eternity. And, finally, it all comes together to mean something, and I was quite moved by the final metaphors, which touch on the importance of details to history, and on the worth of grand indulgences like cathedrals.

Birthday Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Birthday Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

by Rich Horton

Junot Diaz turns 50 today. In his honor I'm reposting a review I did of his wonderful first novel.

Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Fiction of 2007 with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (It's a pretty deserving winner, though I have to say I'd have given it to The Yiddish Policemen's Union myself.) Whatever the case might be, Diaz's book is very worthwhile -- energetically written, absorbing, angry, and sad. It is fundamentally the story of Dominicans in the 20th Century, as reflected in the terrible lives of the members of one family.

The title character is Oscar De Leon, a Dominican-American who grows up in Paterson, NJ. He and his older sister Lola live with their mother Belicia -- their father left when they were very young. Oscar is a smart kid and an obsessive reader, but he is not popular: partly because of the reading, more because of the kind of books he reads (SF and Fantasy) and his parallel obsession with fantasy gaming, and finally because he is very fat. Throughout his life he is bullied and made fun of. He is even more miserable because he tends to fall desperately in love with girls, girls way out of his league, and he has of course no idea how to talk to them.

The book follows his life, then briefly Lola's -- she is also intelligent, and at first obedient until she turns wild and runs away. She cannot deal with her controlling mother, and throws herself into some destructive relationships, before finding a talent as a runner, then finally doing well in college. There are also sections from the POV of another Dominican man, apparently a standin for the author (he's a writer nicknamed "Yunior") -- though it's always dangerous to read too much into descriptions of author-like characters. Anyway, Yunior is briefly Lola's lover, and then Oscar's roommate, but he serves as a sort of anti-Oscar as well: fabulously successful with women (if often rather superficially), and as a writer purely realist.

There is also a vital long section detailing Belicia's difficult life: she is orphaned early, kept for years as basically a slave, then rescued and raised by a virtuous aunt, until her post-pubescent maturing brings her to the attention of boys (and vice-versa), leading to eventually disastrous relationships with the likes of a rich boy at school, and later a henchman of the Dominican dictator Trujillo.

In the end, this story is at heart, as I said, about the terrible history of the Dominican Republic, most particularly under the grotesque rule of Trujillo. (To be sure, the US does not escape criticism in this matter.) It is also of course the story of the Fall of one once prosperous family -- and finally the story of the doom of Oscar, a good but hopelessly naive young man.

In many ways this is an almost unbearably sad book. Yet somehow the reading isn't like that -- Diaz is such an energetic writer, and he is often bitterly funny while telling his tale. Also, Oscar is (especially for, well, geeks like us) an affecting character -- a good guy, with good taste -- somebody to root for. Definitely a first rate novel.

As for the direct appeal to SF/Fantasy writers, there are two aspects. One is that the book does have a slight fantastical (or Magical Realist) dimension. The other -- in a lot of ways more interesting -- aspect is the offhand, and utterly believable, references to Oscar's obsessions and reading -- he namedrops not just Tolkien (as in Oscar wanting to be the Dominican Tolkien) but Norton, Butler, Le Guin, and many more, and in such a way as to convince me that Diaz has actually read the stuff, not just done the research.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Birthday Review: Traffics and Discoveries, by Rudyard Kipling

Traffics and Discoveries, by Rudyard Kipling

a review by Rich Horton

In honor of Kipling's birth, 153 years ago today, that is, December 30, 1865, here's a repost of something I wrote about his collection Traffics and Discoveries almost 20 years ago. My views of some of these stories have changed over time (in particular, every time I reread "Mrs. Bathurst" it seems stranger), but I've left what I wrote then unchanged.

These eleven stories were written just after the Boer War was concluded, and some of them deal directly with that war.  Kipling, of course, was virulently anti-Boer in his views. Thus, he was both in favor of the War in a general sense, and often disgusted with the actual conduct of the war. The stories that deal directly with the war show this attitude quite clearly. These are "A Sahib's War", "The Captive", and "The Comprehension of Private Copple". On the whole, these are the weakest stories in the collection. Kipling's fierce feelings force him to preach, and that's always bad for a story. Moreover, his portrayal of the Boers often goes over the edge, particularly in "Copple" and "A Sahib's War". There are well done bits in these stories, but on the whole they haven't worn well.

Four of the stories are about an intriguing Naval person named Emanuel Pyecroft. Three of these are primarily humorous in intent: "Steam Tactics" (about a steam motor car and the nasty trick Pyecroft and co. play on an unfriendly constable), "'Their Lawful Occasions'" (about Pyecroft and co. having some fun during a Naval Exercise), and "The Bonds of Discipline" (about a plot to hoodwink a French spy whom Pyecroft and co. have found on their ship). These are solid, enjoyable, stories. The fourth is much more serious, and it's one of Kipling's legendary stories, and one of his best and strangest: "Mrs. Bathurst".  This is a famously hard to figure out piece about the title woman, an Auckland widow, and a sailor who apparently took up with her, not telling her he was married. In an ambiguous fashion, Mrs. Bathurst manages to haunt the sailor to his death. Very odd, and technically brilliant, and haunting.

Another odd, haunting, story is "'Wireless'". The narrator (who would seem to be Kipling) comes to a chemist's shop to witness an experiment with the brand new wireless telegraphy.  Amid an excellent explanation of the equipment, and description of the shop, we are shown another, much stranger, sort of wireless communication, as the consumptive chemist, yearning for a silly woman, channels the spirit of John Keats to recreate some of his great poetry.

Still another odd, haunting, story is my favorite of the book, another famous one: "'They'". The narrator stumbles on an isolated country house, occupied by a blind woman and a number of elusive children. Over the course of three spooky visits, the reader and narrator together come to learn the true nature of these children. It's a remarkable, atmospheric story, and of course heavily loaded emotionally when you think it was written not long after the death of Kipling's daughter.

I haven't mentioned "'The Army of a Dream'", a depiction of a rather unpleasant (to me) vision of a future England with compulsory universal armed service (and, it would seem to me, an obvious bit of source material for Starship Troopers);, and "Below the Mill Dam", a cute but kind of slight story in which anthropomorphic depictions of a mill cat, a mill rat, and the millwheel and millrace react to the coming of electricity.

This remains, I think, one of Kipling's very best collections.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Novels of Charles Harness

The Novels of Charles Harness

by Rich Horton

Charles Harness was born December 29, 1915, and he died in 2005. In honor of his birth I'm doing something a bit different -- I'm reposting a summary I did of all his novels, some 15 years ago.

Charles Harness is an odd bird. I like much of his work immensely: it's deeply romantic, vigorously (if not always logically) plotted, exotically imagined, quite moving. But I must also concede his flaws -- as I've hinted, the plots are not always very logical, the characters are often stiff idealizations, the romanticism can be over the top. He has a tendency to recycle his themes and imagery -- in particular, several of his novels are about cyclical universes. (He also uses quite blatantly autobiographical material in a number of his books -- besides the fascination with chemistry and patents, reflecting his career, there is often a beloved older brother to the main character who has died, and two novels (Redworld and Cybele With Bluebonnets) replicate the same series of incidents from Harness's life -- his year as a reluctant theology student before switching to chemistry, his jobs at a printing shop and as a fingerprinter for the police, as well as an affair with an older woman from Fort Worth's "red light" district that may or may not be autobiographical.) I'd say he's a writer who is not for everybody, but a fascinating one for those who acquire the taste.

Harness was born in 1915 in Texas. His main career was as a Patent Attorney. This background shows up in many of his stories: Patent Attorney heroes are featured in a couple of the novels and many stories. Indeed, he wrote some of the "Leonard Lockhard" stories in Astounding (others were by Theodore Thomas, and some may have been collaborations), all of which were about a young patent attorney dealing with the problems of patenting some whacky SFnal inventions. (According to the NESFA Harness collection An Ornament to His Profession, Harness wrote only the first Lockhard story (in 1952) and collaborated with Thomas on the second (in 1954): subsequent Lockhard pieces were by Thomas.)

Harness' writing career divides up fairly neatly into four parts. The first part came from 1948 to 1953, and featured his first novel and several shorter works, including some of his very best work. The stories from this period are very characteristic of his more romantic side. After 1953 he stopped writing to concentrate on his job. He returned to writing in 1966 with two novelettes, "The Alchemist" and "An Ornament to His Profession", each of which gained a Hugo and a Nebula nomination. This new flowering lasted only a couple of years: a few more stories followed, and one of his best novels, The Ring of Ritornel (1968). The third period of Harness's writing career began about 1977 and lasted until about 1991, though it was prefigured by a wild 1974 novella, "The Araqnid Window". This period included most of Harness' novels, 8 of them in all, and a similar number of shorter works. Harness's retirement in 1983 doubtless was one factor in his increased writing productivity. Another couple of stories appeared in 1994, then beginning in 1997 he began publishing short stories quite regularly: about a dozen more by now, as well as two novels, both from NESFA: Drunkard's Endgame (1999) and Cybele, with Bluebonnets (2002).

Herewith the novels:

The Paradox Men (1949, 1953, 1981) (64,000 words)

This book is arguably still Harness's most famous and most respected novel. It has a slightly complicated publishing history. The first version was a short novel called "Flight Into Yesterday", published in an issue of Startling Stories in 1949. (It was already a full-length novel, at some 56,000 words: Startlingand its sister publication Thrilling Wonder Stories regularly featured novels of between 40K and 60K words in single issues.) It was republished, somewhat expanded, in a 1953 hardcover also called Flight Into Yesterday. The title The Paradox Men was first applied to an Ace Double edition in 1955. There were some British reprints in the 60s, but the current definitive edition was supervised by George Zebrowski for a new American edition, part of Crown's "Classics of Modern Science Fiction" series, in 1981. This edition is slightly expanded from the previous ones, and in addition the copy-editing was much better. Some of the later changes are new additions by Harness, some may be restorations of Harness's original manuscript. Certain references to computer tech were surely added in the 80s. Zebrowski quite correctly (in my view) chose to retain the Ace title (probably coined by Don Wollheim) over Harness's original (the needlessly obscure Toynbee Twenty-Two), and over the Startling title (probably coined by Sam Merwin). The expansions from the original magazine version to the Ace Double total about 4,000 words, and consist mainly of interpolation within scenes. There is one new chapter, which is a result of splitting an expanded chapter in two. The further expansions in 1981 are similarly minor, again about 4,000 words worth, and also involve some jargon changes, such as the Microfilm Mind becoming the Meganet Mind.

The plot is complicated, but consistent, logical, and thematically sound. The characters are two-dimensional but interesting and involving. The action is well-done, and the scientific ideas are sometimes philosophical and thoughtful, and at other times wild, implausible, but still engaging. The basic story is of a Thief, Alar, who has appeared in Imperial America 5 years prior to the action of the story, with no memory of his past or identity. The Thieves work underground against the repressive society, using tech invented by their mysterious, dead, founder, Kennicot Muir. The key piece of Thief tech is armor which protects them against high velocity weapons (like projectile weapons), but not against swords and knives. Thus fencing is again a major skill. (Herbert swiped this notion for Dune, of course.) At the time of the action, various threads are converging: the plans of Imperial America to attack its Eurasian enemy, the Toynbee society's attempts to avoid the continuing historical cycle of civilizations rising and falling (they believe that the coming war will bring Toynbee Civilization 21 to an end: the next one will be Toynbee 22, hence Harness' original title), the completion of an experimental FTL starship, the relationship between the evil leaders of Imperial America and Keiris Muir, the enslaved widow of Kennicot Muir, and her attraction to Alar, the predictions of the computer enhanced human called The Meganet Mind (or the Microfilm Mind in the original). What a horrible sentence: but trying to summarize Harness can do that to you. Everything comes to a head with a trip to the surface of the Sun, and then a much stranger trip ...

I recommend it. It seems comparable in many ways to its near contemporary The Stars My Destination: Harness probably had a more original mind than Bester's, and his themes seem a bit more ambitious. But he really couldn't write with him -- and I think it is because of the writing (both prose and pace) that the manic energy of the Bester book is more successfully sustained. Still, The Paradox Men remains a powerful and interesting novel, and such scenes as the final selfless act of Keiris are unmatched in SF.

The Rose (1953) (31,000 words)
(Cover by John Richards)

This is a long novella first published in the UK magazine Authentic in 1953. It was later published in a paperback edition along with two fine early stories ("The New Reality" and "The Chessplayers".) It's reprinted in the NESFA story collection An Ornament to His Profession.

"The Rose" is Harness at his dream-logic wildest. It's the story of psychiatrist dancer Anna van Tuyl, who as the story opens is in the grip of a disease which has crippled her and made her ugly; and Ruy Jacques, an artist who has lost the power of reading, but gained ... something greater? And Martha Jacques, his wife, who is a scientist on the threshold of discovering the "Sciomnia equations", which will once and for all render science superior to art.

It's a strange concoction. Much of the action is absurd: and many of the central arguments, concerning the primacy of Art of Science, push a false dichotomy. But it's always absorbing, and the ideas, even if outwardly silly, are fascinating and compelling: and the ending is wonderful.

The Ring of Ritornel (1968) (82,000 words)
(Cover by Paul Lehr)

The only novel from Harness's late 60s return to the field. The Ring of Ritornel is actually slightly less complicated than some of the other Harness stuff I've read. It involves a far future, human-led civilization, the Twelve Galaxies, which is just coming out of a long war with the planet Terror. (Which I readily guessed was a corruption of Terra: a pun later used by E. C. Tubb, I don't know if Harness was first to use it, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was used much earlier.) The new emperor is something of a despot, but is almost killed at the beginning of the action. Clones are made of him in case he dies, and his poet-laureate is killed and has his brain placed in a music-composing computer to try to save the emperor's life. The lead character is the laureate's brother, who is ignorant of his brother's fate, and who grows up to become a highly-placed legal representative for the Palace. He falls in love with the Emperor's "daughter", and as a result is sent to argue the Emperor's case that the planet Terror should be destroyed. But ... There's lots more going on: energy-eating insects, spiders, the competing religions of Alea and Ritornel, a superintelligent Pegasus Kentaur, beings of antimatter, the end of the universe ... Pretty fun, though at times the absurdities really went too far. It does have several of Harness's recurring tropes: cyclical universes, spiders, beloved brothers, lead characters who are lawyers ...

Wolfhead (1978) (66,000 words)

This novel, serialized in two parts in F&SF in 1977 (presumably in a shorter version), represents for me the start of his "third period". It is a post-holocaust story, set 3000 years after atomic war. The protagonist, just married, sees his wife kidnapped by the Undergrounders, people who have lived underground for 3000 years. He becomes involved in a plot to invade the underground city, for his part to regain his wife, but for the part of the monks who train him, to stop the Underground people from invading the surface. It's exciting and romantic, involving lots of psi powers (done fairly neatly), and a telepathic wolf companion, and a bittersweet ending, and even a twinge of moral ambiguity. Not a bad book, though as usual with Harness there are a lot of wild ideas that don't really hold water.

The Catalyst (1980) (65,000 words)

Harness has called this his favorite among his own works. I disagree -- I really didn't like it very much, indeed it may be my least favorite. It seems to be more autobiographical than most of his books (except for Cybele, with Bluebonnets and Redworld.) It's about a patent attorney (natch!), whose beloved older brother died when he was a teen (another common Harness theme, echoing his loss of his own brother), who is working for a research lab. The lab has two rival scientists: a strict by the book idiot who has advanced by brownnosing corporate management, and a brilliant unconventional scientist who by golly resembles the patent attorney's brother to an amazing degree. The brilliant guy and his team, including the attorney, Paul, develop a catalyst which will produce a wonder substance (that among other things would have cured Paul's brother), in high yields at atmospheric pressure. The idiot scientist is backing an expensive project which will produce the stuff in low yields at high pressures, requiring a complex factory. The idiot guy forces out the brilliant guy and his proteges, then is stuck in a dilemma when the company gets in a patent battle about the new catalyst. Oh, and there's also an unconvincing love affair with a clone, and lots of guff about an unfinished opera, and some hints of time travel. Harness is always at the edge of absurdity with his plots: his best stuff carries it off with flair, but his weaker novels collapse under the weight of all the silliness, which is what happens here.

Firebird (1981) (68,000 words)

This is another book on roughly the same theme as The Ring of Ritornel, and also to a lesser extent The Paradox Men. The universe is cyclical, beginning with the Big Bang, 60 billion years later stopping expansion, and after a total of 120 billion years hitting the Big Crunch, followed by another cycle. But in this particular cycle, two intelligent telepathic computers rule the universe, enslaving all the "humans" (actually cat-creatures). The computers plot to reduce the mass of the universe just enough to allow the expansion to continue forever, thus avoiding their eventual destruction in the Big Crunch. A man and a woman, by falling in love, will join the struggle to restore the missing mass, and restore the natural cycle. Lots of silliness, some rather neatly handled time-paradoxes, all in all an OK book but not great.

The Venetian Court (1982) (56,000 words)

Expanded from a 1981 Analog novella of the same title. This is a weird novel that I rather enjoyed while not believing at all. In the near future, patent infringement has become a capital crime. Ellen Welles has invented a valuable product called fiber K, but unfortunately a megacorporation using a computer to generate inventions just beat her to it. They sue for patent infringement, and the case winds up with a literally insane judge who needs to sentence people to death to juice himself up to write opinions, and hopefully reach the Supreme Court. The story mostly follows Welles's lawyer as he tries to find a way to free her -- but all his quite reasonable defenses are foiled arbitrarily by the judge, and in the end derring-do plus a real deus ex machina is required to work things out. Fiber K is based on spider silk, and the evil judge is a spider fancier -- allowing Harness to play with his recurring arachnid theme. The general arbitrariness of the action, and the too evull villains, weaken the novel, but page by page it is goofy fun. The patent lawyer hero, Quentin Thomas, is also the hero of his later novel Lunar Justice.

Redworld (1986) (63,000 words)

This is a really curious novel. It's nominally SF, but much of it seems to be quite straightforward retelling of the youth of a character much like Harness in a city much like Fort Worth, TX. Except that the character is an alien, and the city is on a planet circling Barnard's Star. The young narrator, Pol, who lives with his mother, his father and beloved older brother having died, witnesses the electroburning of a "lamia" on the day his job at a printers starts. The lamia seems to point at him as she dies, predicting that he will be the mythical "Revenant", who will die and be reborn. And on his way to work he sees Josi, the beautiful but strange (could it be she has but five fingers?) woman who runs the main whorehouse in town.

Pol's world is riven between the Scientists and the Priests -- thirty years previously, a long war was ended by the "Treaty", in which basically the Priests agreed to let the Scientists live as long as they didn't discover any new facts. Pol's sympathy is with the Scientist, in particular as his brother had been working on an immortality serum before he died. But his only chance at education is a scholarship to study for the priesthood. So the story follows his life, in very engaging fashion -- his time at the printer's, his fascination with the mysterious and beautiful Josi, who looks to be thirty but must be at least sixty, his eventual affair with her, his later job at the police station taking fingerprints, his attempt to finish his brother's work, all leading to the climax, in which the mystery of Josi (no mystery to the reader!) is solved, and Pol's fate as the Revenant is achieved.

It's a very enjoyable, engaging read, although much of it is absurd. But Harness's telling overcomes the silliness. It is extremely interesting to compare this book with his latest novel, Cybele, With Bluebonnets -- huge swaths of the plots of each book are identical. And the mode of the telling -- the very engaging, even sweet, feel to the book, is similar to that novel. (I suspect as a result of the autobiographical aspects.)

Krono (1988) (68,000 words)

A time travel novel, again one of Harness's favorite themes. As well as time travel, Harness ropes in Edgar Allan Poe -- a combination repeated in his next novel. In Krono overpopulation problems are resolved by colonizing the past. Philip Konteau is a 50ish "krono", charged with surveying past locations to determine their suitability for colonies. The great danger is instabilities in the time stream that can cause a poorly stabilized colony to disappear. Konteau, mooning over his departed wife, finds himself involved in a project to extend the colonization to Mars' past, when it was wet. He also finds himself involved in a plot apparently hatched by the an evil "Vyr" (a politico-religious leader) who wants to be the new Overlord. And his son may be lost in a timequake. Trips to the Paleozoic, and to the 1840s (i.e. Poe's time), and a meeting with the legendary inventor of time travel, are also involved. In short -- typical Harness! Engaging, not quite logical, not one of his best books but enjoyable.

Lurid Dreams (1990) (57,000 words)

One of Harness's less outré books. He foregoes his usual plot (cyclical destruction and recreation of the universe) for a time-travel story involving Edgar Allan Poe. The time travel is by means of Out of Body Experiences, and the plot involves a graduate student studying the OB phenomenon, by means of his own ability to go OB. He is recruited by a Confederacy nut to go back in time and convince EAP to stay at school and become a CSA General, saving the Battle of Gettysburg for the CSA, instead of choosing a literary career. (Reminiscent of a story by Walter Jon Williams, and I think maybe one by Effinger too.) There is plenty of Time-Travel hugger mugger, and time, of course, doesn't quite cooperate with the wishes of the characters. Decent fun, with some nice Poe details, and lots of wild and implausible stuff, too.

Lunar Justice (1991) (58,000 words)

This is the last novel of his third period. It involves a man trying to ignite Jupiter in order to make the Jovian satellites terraformable, thus ameliorating the Earth's population problem. For economic reasons, the bad guys want to stop this, and as a result they end up arresting the head of the Jupiter project, and trying him in an absurd kangaroo court on the moon. He hires a patent lawyer as his defense lawyer, but more importantly, the patent lawyer turns out to be a super powerful psi. It's all quite cheerfully nonsense. It doesn't really work, but it's kind of fun, with fillips like patent applications in verse and a new model guillotine thrown in.

Drunkard's Endgame (1999) (65,000 words)

Drunkard's Endgame, is a fairly minor book. It was published by NESFA as part of an omnibus of his "cyclical" novels called Rings (the other novels included being The Paradox MenThe Ring of Ritornel, and Firebird.) It's set on a starship populated by robots, who rebelled against their human masters 1000 years previously, and who have been fleeing ever since. The (corrupt, natch) leader of the starship is searching for the ultimate weapon which a human had devised, and which he thinks was stored in the memory banks of one of his fellow robots. He is opposed by the aristocratic robot known as L'Ancienne, and by her nephew Rodo, who falls in love with one of the robots exiled to the surface of the starship. Once again, the book ends with a radical change to existing conditions, and the beginning of a "new world", but in this case the plot contrivances to bring this about are hard to believe, and the villain combines stupidity with malice rather excessively. It's still a breezy, fun, read.

Cybele, with Bluebonnets (2002) (70,000 words)

The bibliography in NESFA's An Ornament to His Profession cites a 1998 edition from Old Earth Books for this, but that edition never came out. The current NESFA hardcover is copyright 2002 and is marked First Edition -- possibly the book was written by 1998 but the earlier publication fell through. (As Ornament came out in 1998 itself, the compiler (Priscilla Olson) was presumably citing a forthcoming edition that did not come to be.) Cybele, with Bluebonnets is a bit of an oddity for Harness, by far the least SFnal of his books. It's mostly a fairly straightforward account of a boy growing to manhood in Texas, in the 20s, 30s and 40s. There is a fantastical element -- an object that may be the Holy Grail, a soul surviving death, and a person somehow knowing the future. But for the most part it's just the story of Joe Barnes, growing up the son of a widow living in "Fort West" (a thinly veiled version of Fort Worth, where Harness grew up), and his obsession with a beautiful older woman named Cybele.

The story is told in a series of short chapters, more or less chronologically following Joe's life. He meets Cybele in High School (or perhaps, mysteriously, earlier): she is his Chemistry teacher. He falls in love, or at least lust, with her from the beginning, and this is a spur towards his eventual ambition to become a chemist. He's rather poor, though, and after graduation he takes a couple of manual labor type jobs, apparently with the behind the scenes help of Cybele. One magical night he encounters her in a storm, and they enter into a passionate affair that last several months, until fate intervenes tragically. But somehow she still seems present, and seems to be guiding his life as he goes to school, gets a job for the government during the war, and marries a girl from his high school. These mysteries are resolved strikingly, somewhat movingly, and also a bit creepily, by the end.
It's a highly readable book, interspersed with almost folksy anecdotes of life in Texas during the 30s, of "Fort West" history, of weird chemical facts and pranks, and of the mysterious "Cup" that might be the Holy Grail. The structure is a bit slack, and the typical Harness hyper-romanticism sometimes fails to convince, but it's still a nice book, worth reading especially for Harness fans.

And, finally, the short fiction:

An Ornament to His Profession (NESFA Press, 1998)

[I should mention that there were a few later stories.]

This collects the bulk of the best of Charles Harness' stories through 1998. Included are many of his outstanding stories -- "The Rose", a 1953 short novel that may be the best thing he ever wrote; "The New Reality", one of the best Adam and Eve stories in SF history; and other neat stories like "The Chessplayers", and "Time Trap".

This book includes a number of stories I hadn't seen prior to this book. For example, his two 1966 stories that were each nominated for a Hugo: "An Ornament to His Profession" and "The Alchemist". These are linked stories, both set at Hope Chemical Corporation and featuring as POV character patent attorney Conrad Patrick. (It is not a coincidence that Charles Harness was then a patent attorney who worked for a chemical company.) I didn't really like "An Ornament to His Profession" much -- it deals with the patent crisis caused by a chemical process that depends on summoning a demon, I think, tied in with the tragic deaths of Patrick's wife and son. I admit I stayed confused about what really happened. "The Alchemist" is rather better -- another patent crisis, this caused by a scientist at Patrick's company using alchemy.

My favorites among the stories I hadn't read were "Child by Chronos", a pretty neat time loop story, from F&SF in 1953; and "O Lyric Love", which links a present day student and his beloved English teacher with Robert and Elizabeth Browning -- in an alternate history. (Some quasi-autobiographical details seem to correspond with some of the plot of Harness's novel Cybele With Bluebonnets.) There is one story new to the book, a novella called "Lethary Fair", a really odd piece (though not THAT odd in the context of Harness's work) about two-headed aliens, androids, a court case about a murder than might not have happened, an old will, etc. There are several of the fast paced novellas Harness published in his late career re-flowering: "The Araqnid Window", "The Tetrahedron", "George Washington Slept Here".

All I can really say is -- if you like Harness, which is to say if you can accept the sometimes downright silly science and logical (illogical?) leaps, then you will like most of this book. If you don't like Harness, it sure won't change your mind.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Eleanor Arnason

Today is Eleanor Arnason's birthday. Arnason is one of my very favorite SF writers, and to my mind a sadly under-appreciated writer. Which is not to say that she's ignored, but simply to say that she deserves far more attention, recognition, awards, and sales than what she has gotten!

For her birthday I've posted a selection of my Locus reviews of her short fiction. Some of her very best stories -- "Dapple", "The Actors", and "Stellar Harvest" in particular, all three of them from a single year, 1999, and all three among the very best SF of the 1990s -- appeared before my time at Locus, so I don't have close looks at them here, but they are magnificent indeed.

(One of her editors mentioned below, George Zebrowski, also has a birthday today!)

Locus, May 2002

The best of the other stories is Eleanor Arnason's "Knapsack Poems". The "goxhat" consist of several different units, all independently mobile and intelligent, but all part of the same "person. Ideally, a "goxhat" has units of all three sexes, male, female, and neuter. The narrator stumbles across a baby unit who is the only survivor of her litter, and against convention decides to raise it to adulthood. As the story continues, the narrator encounters examples of various malformed goxhats, all-female groups, all-male groups, etc., and we get a nice story intertwined with some nice commentary on this curious alien race and, of course, on gender roles.

Locus, October 2002

Gardner Dozois has long made publishing novellas a priority at Asimov's, and he has published some very fine ones this year. Both September novellas are outstanding. Eleanor Arnason contributes another Hwarhath tale, "The Potter of Bones", related to her excellent earlier stories "Dapple" and "The Actors". The story opens with a young Hwarhath girl, Tulwar Haik, growing up largely alone after a disaster wiped out much of her extended family, exploring the fossils in a nearby cliff. She grows up to be a somewhat eccentric potter, but retains her interest in fossils. We soon learn what's going on – this is one of those SF stories that recapitulate the life of a famous scientist in an alternate culture. In this case the scientist is Darwin. Arnason is careful to be true to her imagined culture, and Haik's life (even her version of the Voyage of the Beagle) is very much a Hwarhath life, and her discoveries are made within a Hwarhath cultural paradigm. It is as much a story about the Hwarhath as it is about evolution. It is quiet, gently humorous, moving, absorbing, thoughtful. Arnason is one of the best SF writers we have, and to my mind she is sadly underappreciated.

Locus, October 2004

George Zebrowski has revived his Synergy series of original anthologies with a fine new book called simply Synergy SF. Best here is Eleanor Arnason's "The Garden", which purports to be a translation of a piece of hwarhath science fiction. A young male, Akuin, is rather eccentrically an avid gardener. His compulsory military service in the war against hostile aliens (i.e. humans) is tending a space station's garden. The space station is for research: studying a very unusual wormhole-riddled stellar formation, as Akuin learns due to his affair with a leading physicist. Akuin, however, is not much interested in science, and eventually his love of gardens pushes him to violate hwarhath law. I found it an involving story on its own, with added interest in the way Arnason attempts to portray the thinking of a different race by the way they might write SF.

Review of Ordinary People, by Eleanor Arnason, from the August 2005 Locus

We are told that Ordinary People (Aqueduct Press) is Eleanor Arnason's first story collection – true enough, but almost astonishing. Arnason is for me one of the most important writers of short SF over the past decade plus. Her stories are intelligent, incisive, often very funny, science-fictionally intriguing, warm – and also just plain good reads. Her most obvious and recurring theme is gender roles, most often explored in her Hwarhath stories, set among an alien species for whom heterosexual relationships are abnormal. The Hwarhath society has been developed in numerous novelettes and novellas, as well as two novels, and it is more than just a simple case of exploring "what if homosexuality was the usual orientation", but rather a complexly realized culture, with many interesting aspects.

Ordinary People includes one long Hwarhath story as well as two briefer pieces that depict myths. The longer story is "The Lovers", about Eyes-of-crystal, a woman who is to be bred to an unusual though high-status male, the brother of a respected warrior. This story is perhaps most overtly among the Hwarhath pieces a simple inversion of expectations story, as Eyes-of-crystal and Eh Shawin, her breeding partner, fall in love against their society's mores. Is there any way for them to stay together?  But that's only one part of the story – we learn much more of Hwarhath culture and history. It's all quite levelly told, but very involving, very absorbing.  The two mythlike pieces, "Origin Story" and "The Small Black Box of Morality", are amusing enough though fairly slight.

The book also reprints "The Grammarian's Five Daughters", a popular and cleverly executed sort-of-fairy-tale. It's the story of a very poor Grammarian who has nothing to give her five daughters but various parts of speech.  The evocation of the usefulness of nouns, and verbs, and so on, is very nicely done, as each of the five daughters finds her own way to a successful future. I thought it perhaps a minor piece, at least in the context of my favorite Arnason stories, but a fine enjoyable story. "A Ceremony of Discontent" is a somewhat anthropologically inclined story, about a woman potter in a society where marriages are of three people: a man, a mother, and an independent woman. The heroine is an independent woman who finds herself discontented with her family or her life or something – the title ceremony is amusingly portrayed but the real meat is the offhand depiction of another family organization. The other story here is actually Arnason's second publication, something of a minor classic in the field: "The Warlord of Saturn's Moons", which first appeared in New Worlds back in 1974. It tells of a writer of rather goofy pulp SF and her struggles with her new story and with her real life in dreary Detroit. I liked it.

There is also a poem, "The Land of Ordinary People", and a very political piece, "Writing Science Fiction during the Third World War", her 2004 WisCon Guest of Honor speech (with some recent additions).

An Eleanor Arnason story collection is way overdue, and this is a very welcome book. I recommend it highly – and I look forward to more books from her, collecting marvelous stories such as "Dapple", "The Actors", "Stellar Harvest", "Knapsack Poems", etc.

Locus, August 2010

Aqueduct Press has issued a new chapbook from Eleanor Arnason, a Lydia Duluth short novel. Lydia Duluth is a favorite character of mine, and this is a fine story, if not quite as excellent as, say, “Stellar Harvest”. In Tomb of the Fathers, Lydia, her AI companion, and a mixed crew of humans and aliens, explore a fortuitously rediscovered home planet of another alien race. The story explores all too human conflicts among different races of the same alien species, along with some gender issues, and even some aspects of AI history. I found it interesting and quite fun.

Locus, December 2012

In November Eclipse features a very welcome Hwarhath story from Eleanor Arnason, “Holmes Sherlock”, about a Hwarhath woman named Amadi Kla, who is a translator of human stories, and who particularly loves the “stories about a human male named Holmes Sherlock”. This gives her a reputation as a potential detective, and so her family's matriarch asks her to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young woman of their lineage. What she finds is scandalous, in Hwarhath terms – which makes it interesting as a way of illuminating that society to us humans, and thus of course illuminating our society as well by contrast. And besides, as usual with Arnason, it's very dryly humorous.

Locus, July 2013

Eleanor Arnason's “Kormak the Lucky” is an outstanding novella about an Irishman taken into slavery by Norwegian raiders. He ends up in Iceland, eventually in the household of the “Marsh Men”, until the crazy grandfather of the family, scheming against his son, forces him to flee to an underground land of “light elves”. This doesn't save him from slavery, but eventually he agrees to help a beautiful elf-woman escape – first to the dark elves, then to the Irish fey. Arnason blends Scandinavian and Irish traditions with her own imagination – the technological nature of some of the elves is particularly well thought out. The elves are unsympathetically and realistically presented, and the people much the same. The telling is deadpan, with Arnason's wit simmering underneath. Just an absorbing and original story.

Locus, April 2016

My usual remit here is new stories, but I felt I should mention an upcoming collection from Aqueduct Press: Eleanor Arnason’s Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. This includes, as far as I know, all of her shorter work about the Hwarhath, organized into “Historical Romances” (long stories of the Hwarhath set prior to contact with humans), Fantastic and Religious Romances (mostly shortish pieces presented as Hwarhath fairy tales), Scientific Romances (Science Fiction written by the Hwarhath, set post-Contact), and even a delightful mystery story, “Holmes Sherlock”, about a Hwarhath woman who becomes intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes stories. These are magnificent stories, wise, witty, science-fictionally fascinating, moving – this may well end up being the story collection of the year.

Locus, May 2017

Add “Daisy”, by Eleanor Arnason (F&SF, March-April 2017), a similarly amusing if not quite serious short story, about a private eye hired to investigate the disappearance of the title character, who turns out to be a very intelligent octopus. In each of these stories we are in the hands of an experienced writer who simply knows how to tell a story.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Old Bestseller: The Stories of the Three Burglars, by Frank R. Stockton

Old Bestseller: The Stories of the Three Burglars, by Frank R. Stockton

a review by Rich Horton

For Christmas my daughter bought me some very old books -- she knows me well! One of them was a pocket-sized edition of this novella by Frank R. Stockton. It's published by Dodd, Mead, copyright 1889. I'm not sure it's a first -- the cover decorations don't match others I've seen, but the size is consistent with the various firsts I've seen advertised, about the same as a contemporary mass market paperback. The flyleaf is inscribed twice: in what looks like a fountain pen, "Papa from Edna, Christmas 1897" (suggesting that this copy may date a bit later than the original publication), and also in pencil "Lorraine Dove".

Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) was born in Philadelphia, the son of a Methodist minister. After his marriage he moved to New Jersey (not far from Philadelphia, after all), and lived there the rest of his life. He wrote widely, including a series of well-regarded fairy stories for children, that unusually for that time eschewed moralism, and were generally funny. He also wrote for adults, including a significant piece of proto-Science Fiction, The Great War Syndicate. These days is mostly remembered for the story "The Lady or the Tiger".

The Stories of the Three Burglars is a novella of about 30,000 words. It is told by a man, a successful lawyer, living with his wife, his Aunt, and his very young son in a country home outside of New York, presumably an early suburb of sorts. The town is subjected to a spate of burglaries, and the narrator plans to fortify his house against them. He also decides on an additional safeguard -- that may perhaps allow the burglar to be caught. He leaves an open bottle of wine in his study, with a sleeping draught included, in order to entice the burglar to take a drink, and thus fall asleep where he can be apprehended.

Presently exactly his happens, but when the man comes downstairs, he finds not one but three burglars. He ties them up, wakes them, and plans to call the police. But by then his wife and Aunt have come down, and the burglars beg to tell their stories. And the women insist that this be allowed.

So the three stories are told ... the first burglar confesses that his father introduced him to housebreaking when he was just a child. In the process he gained an appreciation for the finer things in life, but his father was caught and sent to jail, and he decided to go straight, but life has been hard. He swears that in this instance he was acting as an assistant to the real burglar, and that the third man is a journalist gathering information about the process of burglary.

The second burglar, the supposed real burglar, confirms this story, and tells his own, which is simpler -- he truly is a burglar, and he's perfectly matter of fact about it. It's just his business. He does tell a couple of amusing stories about jobs gone wrong, including a kidnap job in which the girl he kidnaps by mistake is happy to have been taken.

Finally the third man, the journalist, tells his story, which is much stranger. He was born in the US, but after his mother's death, he had to go to Europe with his father, an engineer. While his father is away at work, he lives in an isolated castle, and one day he meets a beautiful girl. (By this time he is a young adult.) They fall in love, but she is engaged to be married to a harsh older man, who discovers them and vows to kill the young man. He is saved from this older man by a strange creature -- an invisible dog-snake, of all things ... and by and by he and his love are able to escape to America and get married, and he becomes a journalist ...

There's more to all this than I've told, of course -- and then there's the denouement, where the man, his wife, and his Aunt must decide whether or not to let any of these burglars free ... which leads to a not too surprising and slightly anticlimactic twist ending. In the end, this is surely not among Stockton's best stories, though it is amusing enough.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Birthday Review: In the Palace of Repose (plus additional stories), by Holly Phillips

Today is Holly Phillips' birthday. Beginning with "No Such Thing as an Ex-Con" in the Summer 2000 On Spec, Phillips published a string of remarkable stories (and two novels), with the last appearing in her collection At the Edge of Walking in 2012. She has been silent in the SF/F field since then -- I recall an interview in which she mentioned that she had returned to school, and was considering different fields of writing. So I'm not sure what her future writing plans are, but I eagerly await new work -- her stories were truly among the very best of the first decade of this millennium.

In honor of her birthday, I'm reprinting a review I did for Locus of her first collection, In the Palace of Repose, followed by a collection of my reviews of her stories in my Locus columns.

Review of In the Palace of Repose from the February 2005 Locus

In the Palace of Repose, by Holly Phillips (Prime Books, 1-894815-58-5, $29.95, 208pp, hb) February 2005.

reviewed by Rich Horton

It is really exciting to see a debut collection of this quality. In the Palace of Repose collects nine stories, seven of them originals. Holly Phillips has not yet published a novel [two appeared since then], and relatively few short stories. She is also an editor at the fine Canadian magazine On Spec.

The title story caught my eye earlier this year in the first issue of H. P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror. This beautiful, atmospheric, story is set in a version of England, in which a bureaucrat is charged with maintaining the house (palace? prison?) in which a lives a magical King. In this new non-magical age the bureaucrat seems to be the only one who still believes in the King. His department ready for elimination, he visits the King one more time, only to find that a young woman has made her way into the King's palace. Who can she be? Lovely stuff. The other reprint is "The New Ecology", from the Summer 2002 On Spec – about discarded parts recombining to make living things.

There might be a suspicion among some cynical readers that original stories in a collection are likely trunk stories. More charitably, they might be viewed as more challenging or individual stories that the writer couldn't place with conventional markets. Or often enough a single new story is included just to reward buyers of the collection with a story they couldn't get anywhere else. All this is irrelevant to this book – the seven new stories, all fine to excellent work, suggest a writer who has found her voice and has too much stuff available to wait for magazine schedules. (And indeed in 2004 I saw at least four more stories by Phillips that didn't find their way into this book – in On Spec, Flesh & Blood, Black Gate, and Alchemy.)

I think the best new story here may be "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun". A young man comes back to his island birthplace, to face his reclusive foreign-born grandfather and resolve a bitter mystery. The climax involves memories of his parents' death, which drove his grandfather mad with grief, the loss of a young neighbor girl at the same time, and the secrets of his grandfather's own people.

But that's just one choice of many. "The Other Grace" is a sensitive and believable story of an amnesiac. After losing her memory, Grace returns home, to a loving and supportive family, particularly her older brother. But she doesn't recognize them, and she doesn't recognize the girl they think they know. She is a new person now -- "the other Grace". Her confusion, her resentment, even, of her previous self, the befuddlement of her friends and family, her coming to terms with her new identity -- all are clearly, honestly, portrayed: not tragic, bittersweet.

Several stories deal with artists of one sort or another. "Variations on a Theme" intertwines the story of two women: Berenice, a music student in 1916, a brilliant pianist but held back by her teachers' attitudes about women; Brona is an older student in 2003, much more successful. What seems a fairly ordinary set of parallels resolves into something unexpected and haunting. "Pen & Ink" is the story of another artistic student, tying together her own abilities, her missing father's genius, and her mother's love and resentment with a series of unique thefts and hints of a magic. "Summer Ice" is about an art teacher, coming to terms with her new life in the city, her own art, her neighbours, perhaps a man.

Adding a fine piece of urban horror ("One of the Hungry Ones"), about a homeless woman lured to a phantasmogorical series of parties by a beautiful trio of "friends"; and an earnest story of a native woman helping with an anthropological dig, against her people's desires ("A Woman's Bones") rounds out a truly impressive first book.

Here are some other brief reviews of Holly Phillips' fiction from my Locus column (and elsewhere).

Locus, September 2004

Holly Phillips's "A Beggar in Shadow" (Alchemy #2) does not seem to be fantasy at all, though in a couple of ways I was reminded of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, famously a non-fantastical fantasy. The narrator, Julian, is the companion of an older man, Mr. Desambouche, and is pressured by him to act as go-between in an attempt to seduce a beautiful young Duchess. But Julian too is attracted, unwillingly, to the young woman -- which leads to considerable danger and testing of loyalties when the jealous Duke interrupts an assignation.

Locus, November 2004

Holly Phillips's "The Dead Boy" (On Spec, Summer) concerns a woman who sees ghosts and the troubled policeman she helps. He is in trouble for caring too much about one possibly murdered boy, but the protagonist, to her surprise, finds another way to help him.

Locus, December 2004

The first issue of H. P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror is very promising. I really liked a story by Holly Phillips, "In the Palace of Repose". A bureaucrat in what seems to be a version of England visits a mysterious Palace, in which a magical entity he calls the King is imprisoned. On this latest visit he is shocked to find that someone else, a young woman, has found her way to the Palace. He brings her out, sadly expecting her to disappear into a governmental maze. But more to his concern he learns that his department is to be discontinued – it seems in this rational age that no one believes in this magical King any more. So he returns one more time, to find that something new awaits ... The story is quite beautifully written, coming to a satisfyingly expected resolution, effective both logically and emotionally.

Locus, April 2006

Phillips’s “canvas, mirror, glass” (Fantasy Magazine #2) is an intense variation of a fairly familiar setup: a young artist in some sense under the sway of an older artist. But Phillips uses this situation very well. Isobel has become the mistress of a rich older patron, and he wants the alpha artist of their circle, Didier, to paint her, but she is reluctant. And she befriends Michelle, an older, somewhat frustrated, artist, who has been through a similar experience. The resolution is just a shade unexpected, and the story as a whole is emotionally convincing. (Though perhaps not really fantasy.)

Locus, May 2007

One story this issue of Asimov's knocked me flat: Holly Phillips’s “Three Days of Rain”. It’s remarkable how much this story does by doing so little, in a way. The story is set in a drought-ridden future. A Spanish-flavored city is about to vote on whether to abandon their dry location. Santiago is a young man, a glassmaker, who has some friends above his social station. We get a brief look at his life: glassmaking, beginning swordplay, fascination with a pretty girl, fascination with the aristocratic leader of their circle – most of all, his love for his city. I can’t describe why the story works so well, but it does: it is beautiful, true, hopeful and sad.

Blog entry on the anthology Fantasy, edited by Paul Tremblay and Sean Wallace

My favorite story here was certainly Holly Phillips's "Brother of the Moon", from Fantasy. It opens with a "hero" and his sister in bed together in a war-torn quasi-contemporary city (I was reminded - intriguingly but not entirely accurately - of Iain Banks's A Song of Stone). Their war is lost, and one mysterious path forward remains, and eventually the hero chooses to take it, and proceeds to his ancestral home, for an act of sacrifice that entirely redeems the story if only ambiguously redeems his life.

Locus, July 2008

At Fantasy Magazine for May Holly Phillips gives us another remarkable story, “The Small Door”. Sal’s sister Macey is dying of cancer, and she spends her time looking out the window. Their neighbor keeps various small animals in cages, and sometimes the animals disappear. Macey convinces Sal to go snooping, to figure out what evil the neighbor is up to. The answer is, of course, not what we expect – and the climactic line: “you see, it’s such a small door”, is a killer.

Locus, March 2009

Holly Phillips continues to thrill me with her lyrical stories in which small moments loom large, in which small phrases glitter, in which small-seeming emotional elements shatter. “The Long Cold Goodbye” (Asimov's, March) seems almost an inverse mirror to her first Asimov’s story, “Three Days of Rain”, which featured a hot dry city facing potential abandonment. Here Berd, a native of a very cold Northern city, is preparing to leave her home as the ice has finally taken over, and the city becomes uninhabitable. In her dreamlike last walk across her city she searches out one childhood friend, while weirdly accompanied by fantastical ice sculptures of her other childhood friends. The story achieves a naturalistic feel – this seems like it really is happening, is not “story” somehow – and we are given a picture of a lost place – a place some time past colonized by foreigners, still inhabited by natives like Berd, and now to be abandoned by all. The place as portrayed is beautiful (partly due to Phillips’s prose) and the loss aches … and Berd’s prospective new life is also hinted at obliquely. Lovely work.

Locus, September 2009

Holly Phillips goes from strength to strength. “Thieves of Silence”, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is a lovely tale of Zel, a thief who as the story opens invades a rich man’s house to steal enough to keep her and her lover from ruin. But the rich man’s daughters are witches, and Zel is captured – in more ways than one. Zel’s lover Gannet, meanwhile, schemes to land a rich husband – and so we have rich net of betrayal and maneuvering, shifting loyalties, unexpected emotional responses.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Ace Double Reviews, 13: The Green Millennium, by Fritz Leiber/Night Monsters, by Fritz Leiber

Ace Double Reviews, 13: The Green Millennium, by Fritz Leiber/Night Monsters, by Fritz Leiber (#30300, 1969, $0.60)

by Rich Horton

Fritz Reuter Leiber, Jr., was born on Christmas Eve, 1910. His father was a noted Shakespearean actor who also had a significant film career, with some major roles in the silents (such as Caesar opposite Theda Bara in Cleopatra), and a long series of character roles in talkies such as The Sea Hawk. Fritz Jr. toured with his father's stage company, and appeared in small roles in a few films with his father in the 1930s, but his true métier was writing science fiction and fantasy. He had a degree in Physiology from the University of Chicago, and studied for the Episcopal ministry. He began publishing fiction in the mid-30s (he was one of H. P. Lovecraft's many correspondents), and began to make a real mark with work for John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding in the early '40s. He worked briefly at Douglas Aircraft during the War (joining the likes of Philip José Farmer and Jack Skillingstead (and probably many others) as SF writers who worked (in a sense) for my company, Boeing), then spent a decade or so as an Associate Editor at Science Digest. He and his first wife Jonquil had one son, Justin, a philosopher and sometime SF writer. Leiber won two Hugos for Best novel: The Big Time (1958) and The Wanderer (1964), though my favorites among his novels are The Sinful Ones (1953/1980) and A Specter is Haunting Texas (1968). He also won four Hugos for short fiction (plus a special Hugo), two Nebulas, several World Fantasy Awards, and was named an SFWA Grand Master in 1980. He died in 1982.

(Covers by Jack Gaugan and John Schoenherr)
The Green Millennium is a novel first published in 1953, and rather long for an Ace Double half at 64,000 words. Night Monsters is a brief collection, four stories totaling about 27.5 Kwords, all the stories basically horror. (Curiously, Leiber had 5 Ace Double halves, in three books, and three of the Ace Double halves were story collections.)

As I recall James Nicoll's description of The Green Millennium in his "Novels of Fritz Leiber" post on rec.arts.sf.written went something like "Man finds green cat, hijinks ensue". I also recall someone mentioning that they had had trouble from their parents for reading an edition of the book, because of a racy cover. In fact, in the book Leiber makes rather a lot of the notion that female fashions at the turn of the millennium emphasize bare breasts. (Leiber often displayed a just vaguely (or sometimes not vaguely at all) kinky view of sex.) Indeed, this edition features a bare torsoed woman painted from 3/4 to the rear. That said, the book is not really very racy in content. (Less so than The Sinful Ones, also from 1953).

It's set in a large US city at the turn of the 21st Century. The US and Russia remain engaged in a warmish conflict -- the Korean War is in its 50th year, and there is a brief reference to a World War III, and the Capitol being in a second Washington. Phil Gish is a young man, shy of women, who has just lost another job to a robot. He wakes up and finds a green cat in his room, and is overcome with feelings of good will and optimism. He goes gadding about town, and the green cat slips away at a male/female wrestling establishment, run by the moblike organization Fun Incorporated.

Depressed again, Phil goes back to his room and spies on the pretty girl across the way, but as she undresses he notices that her legs are furred and hoofed. He decides that between green cats and satyrs he really is nuts, and visits a psychiatrist. But the psychiatrist seems unduly interested in the green cat, and locks Phil in. Luckily, his wild (and bare-breasted) daughter takes pity on Phil and lets him out, and we are off on a pretty much non-stop chase/romp featuring wrestlers, mobsters, a benevolent scientist apparently modelled on Robert Oppenheimer, Russian spies, a witch, a weirdo who is into all sorts of New Ageish religions including, inevitably, worship of Bast in the form of the green cat, the Federal Bureau of Loyalty, aliens with names based on Aphrodite and Dionysus, and so on.

It's not one of my favorite Leiber novels. It seems more frenetic than logical, and one way or another I couldn't quite believe in most of the characters -- they seem generally types, not real. The resolution is a bit trite. Leiber is never quite bad, but this is pretty minor stuff for him.

The flip side is a collection of four stories. Perhaps conveniently, they are pretty much ordered both by decreasing order of length, and decreasing order of quality. Here they are:

"The Black Gondolier" (12,000 words, from the 1964 August Derleth Arkham House anthology Over the Edge) -- set in Venice, CA, with much made of parallels with the real Venice. A man becomes convinced that the oil under the earth is an intelligence, and that it is after him.

"Midnight in the Mirror World" (6200 words, from Fantastic, October 1964) -- a 50-ish divorced recluse who notices a scary woman in one (but only one) of the multiple reflections of himself in two mirrors across from each other -- and each night the woman is in a nearer reflection.

"I'm Looking for 'Jeff'" (5100 words, from Fantastic, Fall 1952) -- a strange woman who only certain people can see shows up every night in a bar, looking for someone named Jeff.

"The Casket Demon" (4300 words, from Fantastic, April 1963) -- a rather silly story about a German-American actress, the last of the Von Sheers, who needs publicity to keep her safe from an ancient curse.

There was a British version of Night Monsters, a full length collection which sensibly deleted "The Casket Demon", and added "The Creature from Cleveland Depths", "The Oldest Soldier", "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes", and "A Bit of the Dark World" (this last a relatively little-known story that I think is worth more attention than it has gotten.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Birthday Review: A Buyer's Market and At Lady Molly's, by Anthony Powell

Birthday Review: A Buyer's Market and At Lady Molly's, by Anthony Powell

a review by Rich Horton

Anthony Powell was born 21 December 1905, and he died in March of 2000. He was of the lower reaches of the English upper class, though he eventually married the daughter of an Earl (Violet Powell, sister of the notorious Lord Longford, and niece of the great Fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.) He attended Eton (one close friend was Henry Yorke, who wrote his novels as "Henry Green", one of the most interesting and original writers of the 20th Century), then Oxford. After graduation, he worked for the publisher Duckworth, briefly worked in movies, and wrote five rather interesting novels. He did not write during the War, instead serving in the Intelligence branch (though not as any sort of spy). He began publishing the work for which he is famous, a 12-volume novel collectively called A Dance to the Music of Time, in 1951, and put out a volume every 2 years or so until 1975. During this period he also wrote reviews for Punch, and later for the Daily Telegraph. A couple of later novels followed Dance, and in addition he wrote a couple of minor (but interesting) plays, and all of one (1) short story. Late in his life he published his memoirs in four volumes, and three volumes of journals.

This is what I wrote about A Dance to the Music of Time as a series, some while back:

A Dance to the Music of Time is an extremely absorbing and well-crafted novel (composed of 12 smaller novels). Its subject is the decline of the English upper classes from the First World War to about 1970, a decline seen is inevitable and probably necessary, but somehow also regrettable.
Such a description might make the novel seem stuffy, but it is not. A Dance to the Music of Time is at times very funny indeed, and always interesting. always involving. It features an enormous cast of characters, and Powell has the remarkable ability to make his characters memorable with the briefest of descriptions. In addition, Powell's prose is addictive: very characteristic, idiosyncratic, and elegant.

The long novel follows the life of the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, from his time at Eton just after World War I to retirement in the English countryside in the late '60s. But Jenkins, though the narrator, is in many ways not the most important character. The comic villain Widmerpool, a creature of pure will, and awkward malevolence, is the other fulcrum around which the novel pivots.

Here are two blog posts I wrote, upon rereading the second and fourth volumes:

A Buyer's Market, by Anthony Powell

The first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, A Question of Upbringing, was basically about "school", with a couple of chapters set at Eton, a chapter set in France the summer between finishing at Eton and going up to Oxford, and a chapter covering Oxford.  This second volume, then, covers the first few years following graduation from Oxford.  The basic subject is young love, I suppose, looked at, as ever with Powell, from a wide variety of viewpoints, different characters and different situations.  The narrator of the series, Nick Jenkins, is famous for telling little about himself, in general, over the scope of the 12 books.  But in this volume, perhaps more than most, he is a major character, and his first essays at relationships with women are pretty  central to this book.  But of course many other characters are described as well.

This book is unified by the character of Edgar Deacon, an aging painter of noted incompetence, and an acquaintance of Nick's parents, and thus of Nick himself.  Mr. Deacon, as Nick calls him, is by the time of the book's action no longer painting: he is running an antique shop.  The book opens with one of Powell's gorgeous set-pieces, wherein we see first Jenkins at some future date at a gallery auction, as some of Mr. Deacon's paintings are sold "the whole set knocked down for a pound".  (Obviously, Deacon's paintings are subject to a "buyer's market".)  This is possibly the same time as the opening of the entire sequence, which I would put in 1949 or so, but others might place in 1970, right at the end of the series.  Anyway Nick is prompted to remember his encounters with Mr. Deacon when a child, then a certain painting of Mr. Deacon's that hung obscurely in the stairwell of the Walpole-Wilsons' house.  The Walpole-Wilsons, we soon gather, are where Nick's first adult "love" lives: she is their niece, Barbara Goring.  Nick's reminiscing seems to spiral in, covering nicely his whole period of "dating" Barbara, then zooming in on a critical dinner party, prior to a dance at the Huntercombes.  This dinner and dance, at which time Nick realizes he know longer cares about Barbara, are the centerpiece of the first very long chapter.  The second chapter then covers a late-night party attended by Nick after the dance.  Nick is surprised to find Kenneth Widmerpool at the Walpole-Wilson's dinner, and later surprised even more to realize that Widmerpool also had designs on Barbara Goring.  All this ends, though, with one of the most famous scenes in the whole sequence, in which Widmerpool so annoys Barbara that she is provoked into trying to "sweeten him up" with some sugar, in the process accidentally dumping an entire sugar caster over his head.

The later party, at Mrs. Milly Andriadis' house, leads to re-encounters with such critical characters as Stringham (Nick's Eton friend), Mr. Deacon, and the Oxford dean and influence-peddler Sillery.  Perhaps more critically, we are introduced to the powerful industrialist Magnus Donners, employer of Stringham and soon also of Widmerpool.  Here many more permutations of love affairs are covered: Baby Wentworth, who was "involved" in the divorce of Stringham's older sister, is pursued by Donners, by the Balkan Prince Theodoric, and (it turns out) also by Mr. Deacon's tenant, the painter and womanizer Ralph Barnby, who becomes one of Nick's best friends.  Bijou Ardglass is also pursued by Theodoric.  Mr. Deacon brings his radical associate Gypsy Jones, who soon ensnares Widmerpool (and later is Nick's own first sexual "conquest").  Mr. Deacon himself, I believe (it's not perhaps clear), is shown in what I interpret as the aftermath of a lover's quarrel with a male singer, Max Pilgrim.  Stringham is currently Mrs. Andriadis' lover, though Nick had thought him engaged to Lady Peggy Stepney, one of the "beauties" of Nick's dinner party set. In a key line, Mr. Deacon reveals to Nick that Gypsy Jones is "in trouble".  Later in the book we learn that Widmerpool was tricked into solving her trouble (procuring an abortion for her, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was responsible). 

At Lady Molly's, by Anthony Powell

Book 4 is At Lady Molly's.  This is set around 1934.  The title character is an eccentric woman, perhaps 10 years or more older than Nicholas Jenkins, formerly married to the Earl of Sleaford, now married to a curious WWI veteran, obscurely injured, named Ted Jeavons.  "Lady" Molly Jeavons and her husband host parties with a rather wide-ranging guest list.  Nick finds himself at one in the company of one of his fellow screenwriters, Chips Lovell.  Nick and Chips are writers for the "quota quickies" -- at this time British film companies were required to release one British film for every Hollywood film they imported.  (As with much of Jenkins' life and career, this is autobiographical for Powell.)  The book continues, very loosely organized around a series of parties at Lady Molly's, along with other encounters, such as Nick running into Ted Jeavons in a bar.  It was only apparent to me on second reading, but to a large, though somewhat subtle, extent this book is about Nick's courtship of Isobel Tolland.  The book opens with Nick hinting that he is just about over Jean Templer Duport, who was his love interest in the previous book, and there is a mention (rather a famous line among Powellites, actually) of much of Nick's time being spent on line at cinemas with different girls.  But right from the first party at Lady Molly's Isobel's presence begins to be felt, even when she is not there.  The Tolland family are vaguely connected to Lady Molly (and indeed the Jeavonses are borrowing the Earl of Warminster's butler, Smith, as the story begins -- Warminster, who I believe to have been partly based on Lady Violet Powell's brother Lord Longford, a notorious Leftist peer, is the eldest Tolland brother, and officially head of the family after their father's death, though they still call him Erridge, after his cadet title (Viscount Erridge).)  A couple of Tolland sisters show up at this party, but Isobel is not one of them -- nonetheless, at the mention of her name, Nick feels a frisson of sorts (though he has not met her).

Anyway, the main action of the book follows a couple of strands.  One is Widmerpool's engagement to Mrs. Mildred Haycock, a rackety widow is also somehow connected with Lady Molly.  Mrs. Haycock is also the much younger sister of Mrs. Conyers, the wife of General Conyers, one of the most generally admirable men portrayed by Powell -- a hero of the Boer War, a very competent and interesting man.  (Indeed, this book introduces two of my favorite minor characters in the series: Conyers and Ted Jeavons.)  The other is the relationship of Erridge and Nick's old friend J. V. Quiggin, now married to Mona (who was formerly married to Nick's longtime friend, and Jean Templer's brother, Peter Templer.)  Nick spends a weekend with J. V. and Mona at a cottage owned by Erridge.  Erridge shows up, and at first Quiggin wishes to discuss the political magazine he wants him to fund, but before long it's clear that something is about to happen between Erridge and Mona.  And at a visit to the Warminster estate, Thrubworth, Isobel Tolland and another sister show up, and Nick decides on sight that he will marry Isobel.  Elsewhere Widmerpool is agonizing over the prospect of a weekend with Mrs. Haycock, at which he fears he will have to prove his sexual mettle.

And so on.  It's wonderful stuff.  Not much more I can say.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Sean McMullen

Today is Australian writer Sean McMullen's 70th birthday. In honor of this, I'm posting a compilation of my reviews of his short fiction in Locus. (My review of his story "Electrica", from the March-April 2012 F&SF, somehow has disappeared from my hard drive, but fortunately Steven Silver reviews it in Black Gate here.)

Locus, September 2002

From Sci Fiction,  "Voice of Steel" by Sean McMullen is a delightfully loopy (no pun intended) story in which a contemporary woman stumbles on a way to communicate through time with the early 15th Century English scientist William Tynedale. The working out is goofy in almost a pulpish fashion, but the consequences of the plot machinations are thought-provoking.

Locus, December 2002

Sean McMullen's "Walk to the Full Moon" (F&SF, December) is nice, mainly for its quite original explanation for the appearance of a pre-Neanderthal woman in modern day Spain.

Locus, October 2006

Interzone for August has a fine mathematical fantasia from Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson, “2 + 2 = 5”, in which a mathematician proves that there are holes in the number system; and another story about numbers, “The Measure of Eternity” by Sean McMullen, a lush piece set in the legendary Arabian city Ubar, in which a cruel king, a beautiful courtesan, her servant, and a beggar who has, quite literally, nothing, learn how important nothing can be.

Locus, September 2009

As for the new stories in the August-September F&SF: the cover piece is something of a departure for Sean McMullen. “The Art of the Dragon” is told by an art historian who happens to be one of the first witnesses to a dragon who eats human works of art, beginning with the Eiffel Tower. He is anointed an “expert”, and as such gets a front row seat for the dragon’s continuing career, which basically involves a lot more destruction, and he also witnesses the sometimes daffy human reaction, such as the Dragonist cult which ends up trying to appease the dragon with a virgin sacrifice. McMullen’s point is interesting, though I think he took too long getting to it – still, a thought-provoking piece.

Locus, August 2010

Sean McMullen has the best story at Analog for September. “Eight Miles” tells of an expert balloonist in 1840 London hired by a rich man to take him and a passenger to unusually high altitudes. The passenger is a strange foxlike woman, apparently only barely intelligent, but she gains mental acuity as altitude increases. The rich man thinks she is of a race inhabiting the Himalayas, hence her preference for altitude. The reader will quickly know where she really hales from, and the story doesn’t surprise in getting to that reveal, but the ending slingshots nicely from there.

Locus, January 2011

Sean McMullen’s “Enigma” (Analog, January-February) is a classical SF puzzle planet story, and also something of a Fermi Paradox story. A group of explorers, each a mix of human/animal traits, tries to figure out the meaning and history of a strange, nearly indestructible, and quite abandoned, alien city. The answer is perhaps a bit of a stretch to believe, but it’s wrapped around a decent theme, and the result of the team’s discovery is interesting and bittersweet.

Locus, June 2017

The March-April Interzone includes a new Sean McMullen story, “The Influence Machine”. This has a bit of a steampunk flavor. It’s set at the turn of the 20th Century, told by an Inspector for the Metropolitan Police in London, a man with a scientific education. He investigates a disturbance caused by a young woman with an intimidating looking machine, and decides she is harmless, but not before seeing what her machine can do: it takes pictures of what seems to be an alternate London. In somewhat reluctant sympathy with her position as a woman with scientific ability who is not respected, he continues his association with her, as she is able to use her machine to learn scientific secrets from that alternate (and more advanced) world, until her discoveries attract the attention of the authorities, who become very interested. This puts the narrator in a tricky moral situation. All is resolved in a satisfactory fashion.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Old Bestseller (Not!): The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville

Old Bestseller (Not!): The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville

a review by Rich Horton

Herman Melville (1819-1891) is now one of the canonical Great American Writers, known mostly for his novel Moby-Dick (1851), and a bit less for his first novel Typee (1846), and for his last short novel, Billy Budd, which was left unfinished at his death and was not published until 1924. In fact, Melville's career as a prose writer lasted essentially 11 years, from 1846 until 1857. Except for Billy Budd, his literary work the rest of his life was poetry, and while his books of poetry sold risibly in his lifetime, his reputation in that field has waxed enormously, and he ranks now, in critical estimation, perhaps third among American poets of his time, behind only Whitman and Dickinson.

While I have often heard it said that the failure of Moby-Dick ruined Melville's career, I don't think that's quite correct. No doubt the sales for that novel were disappointing compared to his very popular earlier books, but it still seems to have sold moderately well. The following three novels, however: Pierre; or, The Ambiguities; Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile;  and The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade; were far less successful, both financially and critically. In particular, the publisher of The Confidence-Man went bankrupt, and it is doubtful that Melville was paid at all for the book. All those books were largely panned by contemporary critics. By the end of his life, Melville was regarded as a minor writer of sea stories. It was only beginning in the 1910s, and accelerating in the 1920s after the publication (and success) of Billy Budd, that his reptutation burgeoned. And while Moby-Dick is still regarded as his masterpiece, and a truly towering work of American literature, many of the other novels, The Confidence-Man perhaps most of all, have gained a significant place in the canon.

I have a copy of Moby-Dick, but while I will read it eventually, I just wasn't in the mood. And The Confidence-Man, a novel I had only barely heard of until recently, seemed fascinating. So I decided to make it the second piece by Herman Melville I ever read. (I read "Bartleby the Scrivener" as an assigned work in High School.) I read The Confidence-Man in the Library of America collection of his later prose work.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was published on April 1, 1857; and the action of the novel is set on that same date. There is no question that the date was chosen with malice aforethought.
It opens as a man boards the steamer Fidèle in St. Louis. He seems mute, and displays a slate, rewriting quotations from 1 Corinthians 13: "Charity thinketh no evil", "Charity never faileth", etc. In contrast, a barber, who plies his trade on the boat, sets up his shop with the sign "NO TRUST". And we see that a reward is offered for a mysterious impostor.

All this actually sets up expectations, potentially, for a bit of plottiness. But the novel does not proceed this may. As the journey downriver continues, we are introduced to a variety of men, beginning with a severely crippled black man, begging for alms. He meets with resistance -- distrust -- and is defended by a man in mourning, with a weed in his hat. This man strikes up a conversation with a businessman, promoting the idea of confidence and trust in other people. And by the by he mentions an opportunity to buy shares in a certain company, rumored to be in distress.

And so the book continues, with a variety of individuals appearing and disappearing, with one person usually speaking -- at length -- with another, urging confidence in and charity towards one's fellow man. And often somewhat obliquely suggesting an investment, or a loan, or the purchase of an improving medicine, or some other scheme. Both sides of the conversations are presented with force -- the men (or is it one man?) urging confidence, and various people professing skepticism. Certain longer stories are offered, one about Colonel John Moredock, the Indian hater; another about the ill effects of accepting a loan, etc. The barber professing "No Trust" is debated.

This continues through the course of the day, as the boat passes Cairo and heads further down the river. We soon realize that the conversations are the point of the book -- the constant debate between seemingly virtuous "confidence" in others -- clearly, however, from the mouth of a "confidence man", who appears to (with indifferent success) be attempting to swindle the passengers -- and a more skeptical attitude, a more individualistic approach to life.

If nothing happens, if no plot emerges, it doesn't matter. The book is almost mesmerising at times. It's a remarkably modern-seeming novel in design, and in aim. Melville's prose is not, I suppose, modern -- it's of the 19th century, but vigorously his, not like any other writer. The sentence are very long (often occupying whole paragraphs), and they demand careful reading, but also reward it. The book seems engaged in portraying the American character, as Melville saw it, and from none too happy a vantage point. It is quite a remarkable performance, a striking and completely original novel. And often quite a funny one.