Sunday, December 9, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Albert E. Cowdrey

Yesterday, December 8, was the 85th birthday of Albert E. Cowdrey, long a rival of Robert Reed for F&SF's most prolific contributor. The great bulk of his work is darkly humorous fantasy, mostly set in or near New Orleans, though his only novel, Crux, is time travel SF, and he has written other SF as well. He's a consistently entertaining writer, and in his honor, here's a compilation of some of my Locus reviews of his work:

Locus, March 2002

The final story in the trio of long novellas under consideration is Albert E. Cowdrey's "Ransom" (F&SF, April).  This is the third in Cowdrey's series of stories set in a far future under totalitarian rule, all turning around time travel.  Hastings Maks, hero of a previous story, is divorced from his first wife and married to a woman he illegally brought back from the past.  His son (by his first wife) is kidnapped, and Maks receives a ransom request – he must go back to the past and rescue a young boy who is destined to die a nuclear war.  At the same time Maks' wife is becoming dangerously involved with an unscrupulous financier who has been taken to the future to help the Empress locate precious items in the ruins of America.  As with the other stories in this series, it is fast moving and the plot involves both the complications of time travel, and the political manipulations of the Security department for which Maks works.  It is nothing more than solid adventure, but it's a good example of such, and I liked it a lot.

Locus, April 2003

Albert E. Cowdrey is back with another amusing but dark look at crime in New Orleans, "The Dog Movie". A detective investigating a series of crimes befriends an old man, a potential victim, who claims his dead wife talks to him on his old TV. Cowdrey's evocation of the voices of his characters is as ever a delight.

Locus, July 2004

Rather more serious is Albert E. Cowdrey's "A Balance of Terrors". An embittered biomedical researcher meets her long ago lover, a very politically connected man, for lunch. We quickly cotton to the researcher's distaste for humankind, and to a certain resemblance to Tiptree's brilliant "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain", but Cowdrey avoids a slavish retelling of the earlier story, instead adding a morally evocative closing twist.

Locus, August 2004

F&SF for August is also strong. The cover novella is Albert E. Cowdrey's "The Tribes of Bela", fairly traditional biological SF from a writer better known for his offbeat tales of New Orleans. A mysterious series of murders on the planet Bela brings Colonel Roger Kohn to investigate. With the help of a few of the humans at this mining colony, and despite what seems to be obstruction by many others, he slowly comes to a realization that part of the answer lies with the very strange biology of this planet, a biology resulting from its eccentric orbit. But before he can take action, things go pear-shaped, leading to an action-filled denouement.

Locus, March 2005

Albert Cowdrey has a fine novelet here as well: "The Amulet". A writer interviewing "characters" from New Orleans stumbles across a woman who claims to have been born in "1294. Or maybe five." She tells him a story about an amulet that gives the wearer good luck – for a time. But the instructions for its use are important! And besides luck it proffers another gift. The story is quite funny, historically acute (and cute), told in a well-rendered deadpan voice – and with a nice twist to close things.

Locus, March 2006

The March F&SF features a dryly amusing novella from Albert Cowdrey, something of a change of pace from the bulk of his work. For one thing, “The Revivalist” is set primarily in Baltimore, as opposed to New Orleans. The narrator wakes in a hospital in 1999. But his last memories are from shortly after the war. He tells his story. He is the son of a wealthy brewer, but from early in his life he loved to sleep, sometimes for remarkable periods. All this sleep has two major effects – it makes him a disappointment to those who expect productivity from him (primarily his father and his wife), and it seems to extend his life. His story is a combination of triumphs and letdowns, with a heavy dose of cynicism, and even a bit of philosophical meditation on the perfectibility – or not – of humanity.

Locus, March 2008

Albert E. Cowdrey’s “The Overseer” is an involving horror story set primarily in the years following the civil war. At the turn of the 20th Century, Nicholas Lerner, an old man in New Orleans, writes a memoir, beginning with his life on a plantation and his friendship with a slave boy. But the War intervened – and, in a different way, the plantation’s cruel overseer’s designs on Nicholas’s sister also intervened. Nicholas arranged for his slave friend to kill the overseer to keep him from importuning his sister – but this act backfires, as the overseer, even while dead, vows revenge. A revenge which involves Nicholas in a strange way, as the overseer chooses to advise Nicholas – leading him to great but poisoned success, as he plays both post-war sides (Reconstructionists and KKK-types) against each other. Nicholas’s memoir writing is alternated with scenes of his old man’s life – attended by a half-black servant who might be his son – and who might also be a target of the overseer.

Locus, June 2009

The second of F&SF’s new bimonthly issues features a long novella by Arthur Cowdrey, “Paradiso Lost”, in which his recurring character Robert Kohn tells the story of his first assignment as a military murder investigator. He’s a newly hatched Security Forces officer, assigned to a starship which is heading to the planet Paradiso to remove the colony there, which is in territory Earth is abandoning as the result of a recent war with aliens. On the way there two significant things happen – the nasty commander of the expedition is murdered, and Kohn becomes the lover of the ship’s pilot, an older woman who is second in command to the murdered General. Kohn manages to solve the murder, but a further mystery arises when they reach the planet – the colonists seem to have disappeared. We learn why eventually, and we witness another critical event, which tests Kohn’s personal and public loyalties. It’s fine work, though perhaps a bit too long and episodic for its eventual resolution to carry.

Locus, July 2010

Speaking of zombies, there is another zombie story in this issue, and it’s pretty entertaining too: Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead”, in which a successful writer hires a security firm to protect him after his latest lover comes after him for revenge – after the breakup and also after the lover seemed to have quite conclusively died. Funny and in a number of ways oddly sweet.

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