Thursday, February 14, 2019

Old Bestseller: A Window in Thrums, by J. M. Barrie

A Window in Thrums, by J. M. Barrie

a review by Rich Horton

Everybody knows J. M. Barrie, right? But they know him almost exclusively for one work (and its offshoots): Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a play first performed in 1904. (Barrie did produce a related novel, Peter and Wendy.) Some may have heard of his first bestseller, the novel The Little Minister (1891), or perhaps his play The Admirable Crichton. And some may have read something about Barrie's unusual and a bit creepy (but probably not criminal) relationship with the children who inspired the Peter Pan stories, the Llewellyn Davies family. Anyway, that's all I knew.

Barrie was born in 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland, the ninth of ten children, the son of a weaver. His life was formed in part by the death of his older brother at the age of 14, and his subsequent attempts to replace his brother in his mother's affection. Barrie wanted to become a writer from early days, but went to the University of Edinburgh at his family's urging. However, he continued to write, and had success with an early trio of books based on his childhood home and church. Kirriemuir became Thrums in these books. The first was Auld Licht Idylls, the second the book at hand, A Window in Thrums (1889), and the third The Little Minister. In his later career he concentrated mostly on the theater. He married an actress, Mary Ansell, but the marriage was apparently unconsummated, and he appears to have in some way truly desired to be "the boy who wouldn't grow up". He was made a Baronet in 1913.

My copy of A Window in Thrums is an American reprint, in octavo size, probably from the 1890s, printed by the Chicago firm Donohue, Hennebery, and Co. It is inscribed, in a very nice hand, "A Merry Christmas from Santa Claus, 1899".

A Window in Thrums is told by a schoolteacher about village life in Thrums, from a perspective many years later than the action. The teacher lets a room from a poor family: Hendry McQumpha, a weaver, his wife Jess, and their daughter Leeby. Their son Jamie is a barber living in London, visiting once a year. Their other son, Joey, died in an accident very young. (There are parallels with Barrie's youth that are hard to miss.) Jess is portrayed as a nearly saintly woman -- she is crippled, and unable to move beyond the short walk from her bed to a chair by her window (the title window). She's portrayed as an intelligent woman, and a genius banker and embroiderer. Her husband is slower, but a hard working and honest man. Leeby is devoted to her mother, to the complete abnegation of her own identity.

All the above, I'm sure, is Barrie's intention, but, really, from another perspective Jess can be seen as a monster -- formed so perhaps by her disability and by the loss of her son, but still! -- she has all but enslaved her daughter, and she is all but psychopathic in her determination that Jamie shall never marry.

The book opens with a series of chapters that are really humourous sketches of life in Thrums -- the local comic is described, and theg gossip following the movements of the minister, or the appearance of any man with an eligible woman. There's an amusing account of the local "post" trying to get out of his engagement to a local woman -- unscuccessfully, of course. Much of this is amusing, somewhat sentimental, told in just enough Scots dialect (with English glosses) to give a pretty good flavor of things.

The book concludes with a long linked set of chapters detailing Jamie's relationship with his family, especially his sister, over the course of one of his visits. A key incident is Jess stealing a glove her son seems to treasure -- she's convinced it belongs to a sweetheart, and that just won't do. Jamie goes back to London, and tragedy strikes -- Leeby dies of a fever, and Hendry and Jess follow not long after, and then we see Jamie's fate -- apparently betrayed by a woman (no details are given) -- seemingly driven mad by the loss of his family and by his own guilt.

Most of the book, then, is minor work, not terribly exciting, but sometimes amusing, and sometimes interesting in its portrayal of Scots village life in the middle of the 19th Century. But I was a bit put off by the conclusion, and its absolute rejection of the idea that Jamie might meet and have a good life with a woman from outside the village. It really seems a reflection of Barrie's apparent fear of sex.

Birthday Review: Six Gates from Limbo, by J. T. McIntosh (and some of his short fiction)

Here's something a bit different for my birthday reviews -- I've extracted a bunch of short looks at the short fiction of the Scottish writer J. T. McIntosh, whose real name was James McGregor, born February 14, 1925. He died in 2008, over 30 years after he stopped writing SF. He was a sometimes interesting, often frustrating, writer, but one whose work I often enjoy, even as aspects of it annoy me.

I start with a look at one of his later novels, then the short fiction.

Six Gates From Limbo

J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor, was a Scottish writer who published many short stories and novels between about 1950 and the early 70s. I have long enjoyed his stories, with reservations. McIntosh was often interested in quirky variations on social structures. He tended to set his stories in rather sketchily described futures, usually in that sort of intergalactic society where planet hopping is like taking a bus, or at most an ocean liner. Then he would introduce one unusual social variation, sometimes interesting, sometimes implausible. His style was breezy and fairly individual to him. He worked most often at the long novelette or novella length, say 13000 to 20000 words. But he also wrote quite a few novels. And with many writers of that era, he was noticeably sexist, though at times in quirky ways.

Six Gates From Limbo is a latish novel, published in the UK in 1968. It was serialized in If in two parts in January and February 1969 -- I haven't seen that version but it seems likely to be an abridged version -- the copy I read (the 1969 Avon paperback) is about 60,000 words long.

I found it rather an interesting book. A man comes to consciousness on what seems to be a deserted planet. It is apparently well-suited for human life, but abandoned. Or so it seems -- after a while he encounters a woman, and a little later, another woman. They names themselves Rex, Regina, and Venus -- names with obvious symbolism. They name their world Limbo. But soon they learn that there are matter transmitter gates from Limbo, and eventually they decide to take them. They discover a variety of societies beyond these gates, but all are seriously sick societies, each in different ways. The reasons for this, it turns out, is that they are colonial worlds, and that they cannot escape the various effects of dependency on Earth. It seems that Rex and Regina and Venus have been created as part of a project aimed at finding a solution to the problem. And so they do -- rather a shocking one.

I'm not sure I buy McIntosh's premise, nor his solution, but it's a thought-provoking story all the same. I should mention that the problem of colony worlds and their interactions with the mother world and with other colonies was one of McIntosh's recurring themes.

Planet Stories, January 1951 and July 1951

I've mentioned that J. T. McIntosh is a guilty pleasure of mine.  At this stage in his career, he was signing stories "J. T. M'Intosh", and there are two M'Intosh stories in these issues.  One shows him at his most didactic (and he was often oddly didactic): "Safety Margin" (January 1951).  This seems almost like an attempt to push Campbell's buttons, but I have a feeling M'Intosh didn't really know quite where Campbell's buttons were.  Anyway this is an odd story about a space drive (the vibrodrive) that cannot be run more than 10 seconds (or something) at a time.  A screwup happens, and it's necessary, in order to save the ship, to run the drive a bit longer.  A special government representative explains to the engineer who saw him run the drive that there is really no limit on how long it can run, but that the government is afraid that if the lack of limitation became known, the drive would be vulnerable to conversion to weapons-use.  So, they made up the story about the 10 second limit.  Everyone knows there is a "Safety Margin", see, but they don't know it's infinite.  Then the government guy kills the engineer.  To prevent the secret getting out, see?  The logic holes in this story are amazing, but perhaps justifiable as a set up.  The thing that squicks me, of course, is the cold blooded killing, and the apparent assertion that that's justifiable, an "end justifies the means" thing. 

The other M'Intosh story is much better, a straight "planetary adventure" called "Venus Mission" (July 1951).  A spaceship crashes on Venus.  One of the passengers is a hero of the recent war (since over) between the human colonists and the native Venusians.  Another is a "Plucky Girl"(tm).  Others include the usual ineffectual suspects, most notably a pretty piece of fluff.  The Hero of the war gets to know the Plucky Girl, and tell he's done with being a Hero.  The war was enough for him.  Somebody else was going to have to cross 20 miles of Venusian terrain to reach the nearest Human city and arrange a rescue, and brave the evil Venusians, who detect prey by sensing brain patterns.  (This makes sense, sort of, because Venus' atmosphere doesn't allow for much in the way of sight or sound.)  The Plucky Girl, furious at the cowardly hero, decides that she will make the trek.  She almost makes it, but at the last, the Venusians are alerted to human presence by the silliness of the Pretty Fluff, who had also decided to try to reach the human city.  Both are captured, and Pretty Fluff is subjected to horrible torture, until the Hero, who has been following them all along (for a good reason, which I can't quite recall, but which was justified in story context), rescues them.  You will not be surprised to learn that the story ends with Hero kissing Plucky Girl, marriage at 11.  It all sounds silly and pulpish, and it is, but it's also fun.  Stuff like this is what makes M'Intosh a guilty pleasure.

F&SF, April 1953

"Beggars All" actually seems written for J. W. Campbell, at least in form. Scouts from a far future human galactic culture recontact an isolated colony. They seem to be outrageously rude beggars.  In the course of resisting another aggressive civilization, at the behest of these beggars, the scouts realize that the bad manners of these "beggars" evolved for good socially adaptive reasons.  Or so M'Intosh would have us believe: I wasn't convinced.  He also tacked on a horrendously unconvincing, and unnecessary, love story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The other novelette is from J. T. McIntosh, "Spy" (15300 words). This story is oddly reminiscent of the McIntosh novelette from F&SF, October 1955, discussed below: "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'". Both stories are about a spy from another planet who uses a cover involving statistical research to investigate the planet to which he comes. To be sure, this story is in details quite different. Ken Corvey is from the colony planet Aram, come to Earth to verify Earth's military power. His cover is as a journalist doing "survey reporting" -- using statistically significant subsets of populations to learn things. His life is complicated in two ways: he is falling in love with an Earthwoman, Sandra Reid; and he is very ill, with an illness that originated on his planet. He can't seek treatment, because the doctor will recognize his illness and deduce his real planet. So he has to put up with the symptoms, which are extremely realistic hallucinations.

The ultimate conflict involves his worries about his lover's ultimate loyalty (to Earth, of course), and his won (to Aram -- but are the colonies really right?). The resolution buries a slight twist, which is OK but not quite believable. Still, the story is good reading, and makes some interesting points. I'd rank it as one of McIntosh's better outings. I think he missed an opportunity -- which probably was not something he would have been interested in at all! -- of using the realistic hallucinations to present multiple possible endings, never telling us which was real. I.e., to write a Philip Dick story!

F&SF, May 1955

"Eleventh Commandment" is a painfully obvious political fable about a proposal for a law against miscegenation between the slightly altered races of the future (each adapted just a bit to fit their home planets' environments). This is a story that perhaps had more force in the '50s than it does now.

New Worlds, August 1955

McIntosh's "The Way Home" is the lead novelette, a long one at 19,500 words. A small group of explorers, four men and three women, find themselves trapped on an alien planet when the seemingly friendly indigenous aliens steal their spaceship. Their lifeboats remain, but they soon realize the aliens have boobytrapped them. The story is both a problem story -- how have the lifeboats been boobytrapped? -- and an examination of small group dynamics. The puzzle of the boobytrapping seemed easily enough solvable to me, and also the alien's motivations for acting as they did seemed implausible -- or nonexistent. But McIntosh's real interest anyway is in exploring the tensions -- both sexual and "leadership"-related -- between the seven humans. That works OK, and keeps the interest, but it is marred for me by the sexist (though very typical of the time) view of the women crewmembers.

F&SF, October 1955

So, to the fiction. The lead story is J. T. McIntosh's "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'", just shy of 14,000 words. A secret agent for the planet Verna, calling himself Mr. Lees, comes to the planet Renn, with the goal of determining whether an alliance with Renn is desirable. Verna's rival planet is Kolper, and the hero is forced to kill a Kolperian agent on the spaceship just before arrival. Thus is investigation of the situation on Renn is complicated by the fact that he is quickly under investigation as a murder suspect. More to the point, the detective in charge of the case is a very beautiful woman. Lees' investigations seem to suggest that the people of Renn are "sheep" -- easily cowed, polite to a fault. Perhaps they will not be a strong ally. But on the other hand, his pursuer, the beautiful detective, besides being sexy as heck, is hardly sheeplike. And the pressure to conclude an alliance seems to be increasing ... I was entertained, on the whole, but not in a science-fictional way. And that's the main problem I had with the story -- it needn't have been SF at all, and the fact that it is presented as an other world adventure is nothing but distracting.

New Worlds, February 1957

This issue includes a novella by J. T. McIntosh: "Unit", a rather disappointing story of a group of five people (really 6 including an unmodified "unit father", as he implies but never states outright) who have been trained to work as a superintelligent unit, by having all 5 of their brains erased and retrained together. Some hints of sexual tension are underdeveloped, and the mission that the "unit" solves together is cute but doesn't really convince.

Galaxy, June 1959

The other novelet is "No Place for Crime", by J. T. McIntosh, short for McIntosh at about 11000 words. A quartet of thieves plan a series of perfect crimes on a world with a reputation as being free of crime. This world is so because, basically, the citizens have completely given up their privacy. The thieves' plan revolves around teleportation, a bit of a cheat, especially as McIntosh must rather artificially constrict his version of teleportation abilities to make it work. Of course the perfect crimes don't quite come off, and there is a bit of a twist at the end (plus an implausible love story) to add flavor. Middle range for McIntosh, I'd say.

Galaxy, August 1961

"The Gatekeepers" is a pretty well done piece from J. T. McIntosh. As he was wont to do, he uses a modest SFnal idea to carefully establish a difficult situation, then tries to work out a solution. The idea here is that two planets have a difficult to maintain matter transmitter (MT) link. They use this for trade -- actual interplanetary travel being expensive. But they have stumbled into war. Realizing that the link must be maintained mutually, or be lost and prohibitively expensive to reestablish after the war, they agree to each maintain a single gatekeeper (and a couple of spares), noncombatants who will swear not to allow the link to be used for sending soldiers or weapons. The story concerns the two gatekeepers, who, through a combination of coincidence, a bit of gentlemanly trading (technically against the law, but tolerated), and the one man's insistence on his wife's presence, end up simultaneously threatened by partisans who want to send bombs or germs through the gate to destroy the other planet. The meshing of the plot is nicely done -- the way different pressures on the two men lead to similar situations.

Analog, April 1963

The other novelette is J. T. McIntosh's "Iceberg from Earth" (12,500 words). McIntosh was a regular at Galaxy and New Worlds and other places in the 50s, rarely if ever cracking Astounding, but in the 60s he sold several stories to Campbell. This one is very much in his usual style, set in a system colonized by humans, with three planets arranged in a classic balance of power. The narrator is a spy from Marlock, which is eternally almost at war with Coran. They are the poorer two planets of the system. They are on the larger planet, Rham, as a new Marlockian warship is demonstrated. They now that Coran will try to sabotage the new ship. Earth as it turns out has an interest in foiling Coran's plans, so they have sent a spy, a beautiful but very cool woman named Nova Webb. The bulk of the story concerns the working out of the various plots, and in particularly how Nova Webb is revealed as more intelligent -- and more vicious -- than the various men from the colony worlds. It's OK but quite thin.

Amazing, September 1964

On to the shorter pieces from the September issue. We begin with the novelette, "Planet of Change", by J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor (1925-2008), a Scottish writer who published 15 or so novels and something like a hundred shorter pieces in the SF field in a 30 year career beginning in 1950. I've read several of his novels, and quite a few short stories (or, mostly, in his case, novelettes), often with a fair amount of enjoyment. "Planet of Change" is the story of the court martial of the leader of a mutiny on a ship that had been ordered to explore a planet from which no previous explorer had returned. The mystery turns on the read identity of the man being court-martialed, and that of course turns on the real nature of the dangerous planet. It's an OK piece, nothing terribly special.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Birthday Reviews: Four Inspector Maigret novels, by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was born on this date (February 13) in 1903. He died in 1986. He's by far most famous for his novels about the Paris based Inspector Maigret, of which he wrote dozens, but he wrote a great many more crime novels, almost all heavily focussed on the psychology of the criminal. Many of the non-Maigret novels are quite highly regarded, but I confess a great fondness for the Maigrets. I've read almost all of them. Here are shortish looks at four of the Maigret novels.

The Bar on the Seine, by Georges Simenon

It has been quite a long time since I read a Maigret novel. It seemed that I had exhausted those that had been translated into English, though it was hard to be sure. I saw a new Penguin edition, curiously sized, of a book that seemed at first unfamiliar. This was called The Bar on the Seine, translated by David Watson from a 1931 book called La Guingette a Deux Sous.

Well, it turns out I had read the book. It had been translated in 1940 by Geoffrey Sainsbury, and published variously in English as Guingette by the Seine, A Spot by the Seine, and Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine. (I had a 1990 Harcourt Brace paperback under the latter title.) But no matter -- I didn't remember it, so I reread it, with only the occasional intimations of familiarity -- for the most part it felt new.

Maigret visits a gangster who is about to be executed, and the man hints that he knew of a murderer, from 6 years before, who frequented a bar called La Guingette a Deux Sous. Maigret has little luck finding this, until he stumbles across a man who mentions his plan to visit this tavern -- a man who, Maigret learns, is also arranging as assignation with his mistress. Maigret finds his way to the tavern, where he finds the man (a successful coal merchant) with his wife, and also the man's mistress and her husband, a struggling haberdasher, and a varied cast of characters, including a talkative heavy-drinking Englishman, and several more folks. It seems the mistress is a rackety woman who has had affairs with several of the regulars at this tavern -- and that her husband has used this knowledge to blackmail some of her lovers. So it is perhaps not a surprise when the sorry blackmailer is shot -- and when his wife's latest lover, the coal merchant, is found with a gun.

The man escapes, and Maigret tries to track him down. Meanwhile the Englishman strikes up a relationship of sorts with Maigret, while at the same time all but flaunting his attempts to help the escaped coal merchant. And Maigret learns some of the details of the haberdasher's arrangements, including his involvement with a moneylender who disappeared, significantly, six years before -- just when the gangster Maigret had talked to had hinted at knowledge of a murder. Maigret is very dissatisfied with the obvious shape of the case -- something is going on. Which of course he discovers. What works -- quite brilliantly -- in this book, one of the earliest Maigrets, is the eventually displayed, quite convincing, quite sad, character of the actual murderer. Some of the early Maigrets seem uncharacteristic of the series to me -- Maigret is at times almost an action hero -- but in this case the story reads very much like later Maigret, with the main interest being the psychology of the murderer and other related figures.

The Madman of Bergerac, by Georges Simenon

Penguin have been rereleasing some older Maigret novels by Georges Simenon. They are retitling them, which can be confusing  -- the last one I bought was a book I'd already read, in a different edition and translation. (Though I was still glad to reread it -- it has been a while.) But now I have found a Maigret that is completely new to me: The Madman of Bergerac. This novel dates to 1932 (as Le Fou de Bergerac), and was published in English as part of a 1952 omnibus called Maigret Goes South. But I had not yet read it.

As with much early Maigret, he engages in much more personal action than became typical. He is traveling to Bordeaux for a quasi-vacation -- there is some trivial police business to clear up but he also wants to visit a retired colleague. But in his compartment there is a mysterious man, in some distress, and when the man jumps off the train, Maigret jumps off after him. The man shoots Maigret in the shoulder, and Maigret ends up recuperating in a hotel in the town of Bergerac.

He learns that there have been a number of attacks on young women in Bergerac -- a couple have been murdered, another woman fought off her attacker. These have been attributed to a madman believed to be living in the woods -- and indeed they assume it is this madman who attacked Maigret.

The rest of the novel consists of Maigret investigating these crimes from his hotel bed -- shades of Rear Window! Maigret ruffles feathers by treating several prominent locals as suspects. And (with Madame Maigret's help) he uncovers evidence of a "white slavery" ring, and a local man engaged in an affair with his sister-in-law, and another man secretly acquiring pornography. His old friend even turns out to be fooling around with a young lady ... as ever in the Maigret novels, everyone has secrets. There really is a madman, it turns out -- but there are also more serious crimes going on. It's not a great Maigret novel, but it's pretty decent.

Maigret in Montmartre, by Georges Simenon

Several years ago I read every one of Georges Simenon's Maigret mysteries that I could track down. I'm fairly sure a few early ones may still elude me, but mostly I think I've read the complete set available in English. But I ran across a book called Inspector Maigret and the Strangled Stripper in a used book store. I didn't remember the title, so I bought it and read it. While reading it, every so often things seemed familiar, but I really couldn't remember the basic plot.

It turns out that I had read this book under a different title: Maigret in Montmartre. That title seems to be of the UK translation, by Daphne Woodward. The copy I just bought is a 1964 reprinting of a 1955 Signet edition, translated by Cornelia Schaeffer for the American market. The book itself was first published in the US in hardcover in 1954, probably first published in 1950 in France. (It was written while Maigret was living in the US in 1950.) The French title was Maigret au Picratt's (Maigret at Picratt's). That title refers to the bar in Montmartre at which the stripper of the American title worked. A cursory glance at the two translations convinced me that Woodward's was considerably superior.

The story involves a stripper with a mysterious past (she uses a false identity card) who comes to the police with a story of a planned murder of a Countess. But the next day it is the stripper who turns up strangled. Soon enough a Countess is found dead as well. The stripper was involved with a young man who, we quickly guess, is one of Maigret's young assistants. Maigret must unravel the secret of her past, and of the Countess's past, to solve the crime. The actual solution is a bit over-obvious, and also I was confused a bit by how the stripper got involved with the bad guy, and how she started on her unsavory career. Simenon seems more interested in the psychosexual aspects of the case, and in particular he lingers somewhat on the stripper's enjoyment of her job, and of sex -- in a way that I found odd and not terribly believable (and which made me think too of the stories of Simenon's own rather odd sex life).

The Methods of Maigret, by Georges Simenon

I read, as I believe, pretty much all of the Maigret novels several years ago. But not long ago I ran across a used paperback called The Methods of Maigret, which didn't seem entirely familiar. It was really cheap, so I figured what the heck. I'm still not sure if I read it before -- one aspect seems very familiar: the book features a Scotland Yard detective following Maigret in order to learn his "methods". But the setting and the crime didn't ring any bells. I have to suspect that I did indeed read it, but forgot it enough that I could read it again with the same enjoyment as the first time! Ah, the benefits of aging!

Here Maigret is summoned to Porquerolles, a small island off the French coast in the Mediterranean. A small time crook with whom Maigret had had dealings in the past has been murdered, shortly after brandishing a letter from Maigret and bragging of his relationship. One working theory is that the man was killed by a local crook who so hated Maigret that he was driven to a rage ... but that really seems silly.

Maigret spends a few days on the island, worrying about how his English colleague will perceive his rather methodless methods. This place seems to attract people who have more or less stopped worrying about life, who just want to drift. There are a couple of English people, including an older woman with a French gigolo. There is a Dutch artist with a young Belgian girl as his mistress. There is an old woman and her also fairly old son, who run a number of brothels on the coast. It turns out one of these brothels is now run by the former girlfriend of the murdered man, a woman who Maigret more or less saved ... occasioning the letter that the man had kept. Plus a few natives, including a local crook who is eager to reassure Maigret as to where he stands.

Maigret soon gathers that the murdered man had some potentially valuable information, and many of those lurking seem to hope to find out what it was to make use of it themselves. And he eventually works his way to the solution, which is reasonably sensible, a bit sordid, and which, as often in these stories, leads to a somewhat resignedly sad ending: justice is served, more or less, but the wake of these criminal acts leads to further tragedy.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh is one of the best SF writers of our time, and I wish we would see more stories from her. Today is her birthday, and I'm reminded that she's one of a cohort of writers of a certain importance to me -- those that were born the same year I was born. In her honor, then, here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, mostly from Locus.

2001 Recommendations Post

My favorite short stories were Maureen F. McHugh's "Interview: On Any Given Day" (Starlight 3) and Daniel Abraham's "Exclusion" (Asimov's, February). McHugh's story not only describes a near future teenage milieu quite well, but it's particularly good at what it's really about, in kind of a sideways fashion: the effect of rejuvenation technology on people, particularly a sad older man who has a disastrous affair with the main character.

Locus, March 2002

The March F&SF is throughout a strong issue, with fine stories by Robert Reed, James Patrick Kelly, and Carol Emshwiller.  But the best story is Maureen F. McHugh's "Presence".  This is comparable to Shane Tourtellotte's story from the November 2001 Analog, "The Return of Spring".  Tourtellotte looked at the effect of a cure for Alzheimer's Disease on the person being cured.  McHugh's story is about the wife of an Alzheimer's patient.  We first see Mila's life with her husband Gus as he descends deeply into the abyss of the disease – hence her decision to pay for an experimental cure, even though she knows that the person Gus will be will not, in some sense, be her husband – so much of his brain and memories having already been destroyed.  The story plays out quietly, in McHugh's usual measured fashion, small details building a sensitive picture of these two people and their marriage, before and after, as it were.  There are no overwhelming epiphanies here – just a realistic and believable look at how real people can be affected by medical changes.

Locus Online, August 2002 (review of Polyphony 1)

Maybe the best story in the book, however, is by one of the most prominent names: Maureen McHugh's "Laika Comes Back Safe". This is pure McHugh, a quiet story about a girl growing up, and her best friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Lots of SF is to some extent "about" the extrapolative idea; the rest (or most of the rest) is "about" the people in the story, with the extrapolative idea used to illuminate the characters and lives of those people. Naturally enough, I would think, most "slipstream" fiction falls in this second category — certainly this is the case with McHugh's story, which subtly and heartbreakingly portrays the narrator's quietly desperate adolescence amid a slowly decaying home life.

Locus, November 2002

Sci Fiction for October is highlighted by Maureen F. McHugh's afterlife fantasy "Ancestor Money". Rachel Ball is long dead, and living in a curious afterlife that much resembles her real Kentucky life, only emptier. She receives a letter telling her that her grandchild has left her "ancestor money" -- a Chinese tradition. So she makes her way to Hong Kong to claim it -- but what use is money in the afterlife? The story is wryly told, and quietly leads to a mild but telling epiphany about death.

Locus, May 2003

Sci Fiction opens April with Maureen F. McHugh's "Frankenstein's Daughter", a moving and honest and villain-free story of a divorced mother with a teen-aged son and a younger clone of her dead older daughter. The younger girl's developmental problems and the older boy's rebelliousness and the mother's quilt and sorrow and her ex-husband's sincere attempts to help her cope are all portrayed affectingly. There is no blinding revelation here, just a story of real people living with believable consequences of past tragedy.

Locus, October 2004

The September Asimov's features several contributors who could be described as "hot new writers". But let us not forget the great Maureen F. McHugh, probably not quite new enough to fit that description, who shows up with "Oversite", one of several recent stories by her that look at family life in the near future: always realistic, honest, affecting. This one is no exception, about a woman dealing with her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother and with her teenaged daughter – both candidates for a locator implant.

Locus, November 2007

Also, I’m delighted to see a new story from Maureen McHugh. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” is about a young man who disappears from his home in Baltimore after a terrorist attack, and ends up a mechanic in small Virginia town. Nothing earthshaking happens, in an SFnal sense, but his story, and his mother’s story, are briefly and convincingly laid out. Quiet work, yes, but very real.

Locus, April 2008 (Review of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction)

My other favorite piece comes from Maureen F. McHugh: “Special Economics”, about a Chinese country girl come to the big city in the near future, who ends up more or less indentured to a shady corporation, but manages to come up with a surprising out.

Locus, August 2008

And “The Kingdom of the Blind” is a good new Maureen McHugh story, from Plugged In, published in honor of her and L. Timmel Duchamp’s appearance as Wiscon Guests of Honor. This piece intelligently speculates on the nature of spontaneously arising AI in a medical system – and even more intelligently looks at the work life of the computer system’s programmers, particularly the protagonist, Sydney, who learns to better understand the nature of her coworkers intelligence – and hers – as well as the AI’s.

Locus, December 2009

The overall emphasis of the book is less science fictional than in the second volume – and I confess that’s a mild disappointment to me, but Strahan has never been shy about desiring each of these books to have different emphases. Anyway, my three favorite stories were all SF of one sort or another. Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” is as usual with McHugh very quiet, understated. It’s set after a nearly complete economic meltdown. The story works to bring the consequences of that meltdown home … the narrator makes dolls, special dolls, sometimes ones that look like lost children. And she helps people with food and work when they come by. In different ways both those impulses betray her, and her reaction suggest, in the end, a feeling of uselessness in the face of a collapsed world.

Locus, August 2010

The Spring Issue of Subterranean Magazine, guest-edited by Locus’s own Jonathan Strahan, has completed its piecemeal posting. It’s a first rate issue. Maureen McHugh’s “The Naturalist” is a zombie story, and I admit my first impulse was to sigh. What indeed is the world coming to when even Maureen McHugh is writing zombie stories? But – as I might have trusted – McHugh has given us an actual good zombie story. Cahill is a prisoner abandoned in Cleveland in a sort of zombie reservation, though he himself is not a zombie. His daily life consists of survival, sometimes with a gang of prisoners, mostly by himself. The zombies, it seems, are rare – most have been killed – but a few remain, and Cahill – not really a good man himself, as we are shown – slowly comes to realize that there might be something different in the zombies than the cliché mindlessness. The parallel – abandoned violent prisoners, and abandoned zombies, both assumed to be lost to humanity – seems clear. McHugh’s execution of the idea is subtle, grounded, ambiguous – and as such all the more believable.

Locus, August 2013 (Review of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells)

Maureen McHugh's “The Memory Book” begins as seemingly conventional tale of a genteel young woman (who can do a little magic) forced into work as a governess due to her father's untimely death, but there is a distinct and effective dark side to things.

Locus, January 2018

But the prize story (in the revived Omni) is “Sidewalks”, by Maureen McHugh, which is a variation on one of my personal favorite time travel tropes, and which is grounded, as we expect from McHugh, in absolutely real characters. Rosni Gupta is a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County, and her latest case is a woman who speaks nothing but gibberish. Rosni assume she is perhaps autistic, but on meeting her she realizes that is not the case, and soon learns what the gibberish really is. I’ll leave the secret for the reader to discover – not that it’s particularly a new notion – but the implications are powerful.

McHugh doesn’t publish enough for my taste these days, so it’s exciting this month to see two of her stories, the other in the Global Dystopias special issue of the Boston Review, guest edited by Junot Diaz. “Cannibal Acts” is a quiet depiction of a small community in Alaska trying to survive after an engineered plague; and the decision of the narrator to join with those willing to eat one of their fellows who has died. No particular epiphanies are to be had here, nor anything much heroic, just an honest look at people at the likely end of the human world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Birthday Review: Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury

Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury (2001)

A Review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Donato Giancola)
Back in 1995 Donald Kingsbury published a novella, "Historical Crisis", in Gregory Benford's anthology Far Futures, a pretty good collection of 5 stories about the very far future of humans.  This is the third to become a novel (Charles Sheffield's "At the Eschaton" became Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Poul Anderson's "Genesis" became the novel of the same name.  I don't remember Greg Bear's "Judgement Engine" very well, maybe it became a novel, too.  I'm fairly sure Haldeman won't turn "For White Hill" into a novel, though it's an impressive novelette, based on a Shakespeare sonnet.)

I quite enjoyed "Historical Crisis", though I found it a bit melodramatic, and a bit too rapid.  I also noticed immediately that it was based in an odd way on Asimov's Foundation universe.  As I recall, no mention of that was made in the anthology, and I wondered if Kingsbury had gotten permission -- the similarities are so close as to require that, I would have thought.  Psychohistorical Crisis, at any rate, is advertised by Tor as being based on the Foundation stories, so there is no question of concealment.  It's also much slower than "Historical Crisis" -- so the "too rapid" problem is solved, possibly too well.  (I found the novel always enjoyable to read, but also easy to put down -- it does take quite a while to get where it's going, though the journey is fun, and it's long -- about 230,000 words.)

The book is set from 14790 GE to 14810 GE.  This is about 2700 years after the death of the "Founder" and the near simultaneous establishment of the equivalent of the "First Foundation" on a planet called Faraway.  It's about 1600 years after the formal establishment of the Pax Pscholaris, the "Second Empire" under the rule of the Psychohistorians called Pscholars, the equivalent to Asimov's Second Foundation.  Thankfully, Kingsbury's universe does not include the equivalent of (ack, ptui!) Asimov's evil hive mind, Gaia, nor does it include a robot like R. Daneel Olivaw pulling the strings (except for a cute reference, in which a silly robot character is named Danny-boy).  Also thankfully, Kingsbury recognizes that the rule of the Pscholars is stifling.  Indeed, he is very interested in treating Psychohistory with some seriousness, and in asking how well the secret society of Pscholars can really keep psychohistory secret, and how ultimately stable their rule will be.

The key variation Kingsbury plays on Asimov's idea is to replace the Second Foundation's (ack, ptui!) psychic powers with a technological means of providing them with similar power.  In Kingsbury's future, Asimov's Mule is replaced by a fellow called Cloun the Stubborn, who gets ahold of a device which can be used to control a person (by direct neural input): the tuned psychic probe.  It's still pretty squishy science, but not ridiculous.  The scientists of Faraway (and elsewhere) develop the psychic probe into something called the "familiar", or "fam" -- sort of a PDA with extra memory and processing which links directly to the brain.  You adjust to it from the age of 3, and your personal adjustment theoretically makes it impossible for anyone else to exercise control over you through it.  Pretty much everybody in rich societies has one, and indeed it is all but impossible to get around Splendid Wisdom (Kingsbury's version of Trantor) without it.

The story begins with the trial of a young psychohistorian named Eron Osa.  He is condemned to death, and summarily executed -- by having his fam destroyed.  His body, with its near useless "wet" brain, is allowed to live.  He cannot even understand his crime -- all the data about it was in his fam.
Soon he is desperately trying to relearn normal living skills, as he also begins to receive strange messages.

The story soon is following four points of view, 20 years in the past.  We follow Eron Osa as a 12 year old boy on the planet Agander, as he yearns to become a psychohistorian.  We follow Eron's tutor, Murek Kapor, who is in secret Hiranimus Scogil, the member of a secret group trying to develop psychohistory independently and to counteract the Pscholars' efforts.  We follow Admiral Hahukum Konn, the second most powerful Pscholar, and an enthusiast for ancient weapons systems, as he searches for a worthy student to learn his eccentric interpretation of Psychohistory.  And we follow the elderly Hyperlord Kikaju Jama, an antiques dealer who is interested in upsetting the static social order, especially after he discovers a strange device that shows the stars of the Galaxy, and that hints at a secret planet hidden by the Pscholars.  We also follow a fifth thread, as events in the "present" lead toward a climax.

Eron is soon led by Scogil to Faraway, to learn proper Physics, from where Hahukum Konn recruits him.  Scogil also runs into Kikaju Jama, and they jointly find the secret planet, which hides a greater secret: a trove of ancient psychohistorical lore.  So Scogil and his society join tentatively with Jama's group, and begin to use their new knowledge of Psychohistory to try to slowly destabilize the Second Empire.  All this time Konn is teaching Eron Osa, including a trip to Rith (i.e. Earth) where they reconstruct a B-17 for fun and psychohistorical exercise. And Osa begins to develop a theory which will be unpopular both with Konn and with the more hidebound Pscholars.

All is eventually in place for the action of the climax, which is exciting, even though full of math, and which reveals Kingsbury doing some interesting thinking.  It's really quite fun, and the world Kingsbury creates is fascinating.  There is a lot of somewhat strange sex -- Kikaju Jama, in his 60s, likes to seduce teenage girls (as in about 13), while Eron Osa at age 13 or so has affairs with girls his age and women twice his age.  It should be said that in this society pubescent boys and girls both appear to be considered eligible for consenting sexual activity, and there is no hint that any of the sex in the book is nonconsenting (with perhaps a tiny, plot important, wiggle).  I quite liked Kingsbury's names: the Frightfulperson Otaria of the Calmer Sea being a particular example.  Fun stuff, and in many ways an improvement on its model.



Monday, February 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Simulacron-3 and various short stories, by Daniel F. Galouye

Daniel F. Galouye was born on this date in 1920. He was reasonably prolific in the magazines from 1952 until the mid 60s. He wrote only 5 novels, at least two of which are very well worth reading (Hugo nominee Dark Universe, and Simulacron-3 (aka Counterfeit World), which was the basis of the rather good movie The Thirteenth Floor.) He had war injuries (he was a test pilot) that curtailed his production and probably contributed to his early death in 1976. I find his work often original and enjoyable, if decidedly uneven. Much of it was published in what were considered second tier magazines -- particularly Imagination in the '50s, and Amazing/Fantastic in the '60s; and he is one of the reasons I have a considerable fondness for those two magazines.

I should note re the term "second tier" -- this was the perception of Amazing/Fantastic, behind that so-called "Big 3" of Astounding/Analog, Galaxy, and F&SF. This reflected in part the historical reputation of Amazing -- especially after Ray Palmer's fascination with the Shaver Mystery (and the circulation that that generated) imploded the magazine's reputation (which did not improve through Paul Fairman's fairly indifferent editorial stretch); and in part  generally lower pay rates. But Cele Goldsmith managed through her energy, and her encouragement of new writers, and her taste, to bring the 'zines to a competitive level with the top three. (Especially as Analog was still in the long slide of the late Campbell era.)

These are a number of reviews I did of his short stories for my "Retro-Reviews" of old magazines, along with my blog post about my favorite of his novels, Simulacron-3.

Galaxy, October 1954

Finally, Daniel F. Galouye's "Jebbaburba" (5000 words) is about an alien diplomat's son, who has the ability to teleport anywhere, much to the disconcertment of the neighborhood women. The story goes on about efforts to make him stop -- with a slightly unexpected result when he is finally stopped. Pretty minor stuff, not Galouye anywhere near his more interesting peak.

Galaxy, June 1959

Daniel F. Galouye's "Soft Touch" (6000 words) is about a beneficial mutation that produces "Quids", exceptionally moral people who cannot stop themselves from helping others when asked. The hero, despite being poor, is victimized by a co-worker who cadges loans from him, and eventually is manipulated into confessing the other guy's embezzlement. "Quids" are hated by normals, and he is at risk of being beat up and driven out of town, along with his non-prejudiced normal wife, but then a (rather deus-ex-machina like) solution is offered. Minor work.

If, September 1960

Galouye's "Kangaroo Court" is a decent look at the problem of crime in a fully telepathic society. A space miner wakes up from a drunk and finds his partner dead, obviously murdered, in their locked spaceship. Logically, he should be guilty but he has no memory of killing the man, a good friend. There is a plausible motive: they've just made a huge strike. The telepathic society immediately "hears" his thoughts and "convicts" him of murder, and is ready to force him to kill himself, but a sort of ruling body intervenes and insists that there is no absolute proof. The man's brother, a successful psychiatrist, with whom he's had a rocky relationship, offers to help ... Of course, he's not really guilty -- but if anyone else had done it, they would be telepathically "admitting" guilt. (It is presumed that the intoxicated state of the protagonist led him to forget.) Galouye's way around this problem is a bit strained, but it has its interesting aspects. An OK story, not a great one.

If, September 1961

"Mirror Image" reminds me of the Borges bit about creatures that live in mirrors (the source material for Mieville's "The Tain"). A scientist becomes convinced that mirrors are a link to another dimension, similar but not identical to ours, and he proves it by creating a device to amplify the differences. But of course he is regarded as insane. The whole thing just seemed strained to me.

Fantastic, February 1962

"A Silence of Wings" is a somewhat more typical story, and, like much that appeared in Fantastic in those days, it's Science Fiction, though with a central idea that is kind of on the Fantasy side. Humans have come to a new world that they want to bring into their interstellar confederation, to be a productive culture. The problem is, the intelligent species on this world, the Soarers, has no interest in productivity. They just fly, and they have enough to eat, and are same from the local predators mostly. The story is told through a Soarer's POV, and a human's. The human is depressed at the notion that the peaceful Soarers will have their society disturbed, through this boss's action. The story turns on the fact that it's physically impossible for the Soarers to fly -- they are humanoid, of fairly normal size, and their wings are fairy-like, gossamer. They fly only because they believe they can, but they are intelligent, so if they are told its impossible, they'll stop. Which is what happens. (I found that an interesting but multiply imlausible notion.) This leads to disaster, for the Soarers but also the humans, and our human hero must come up with a ploy to restore the Soarers' belief in their powers. I tend to enjoy Galouye's work, but this is a mixed bag, with elements of interest but not really working.

Amazing, July 1964

"Mindmate" is the story of a crusading congressman, Ronald Winston, who is kidnapped and killed, after having his mind impressed on that of Warren Sharp, a lookalike criminal who will do the bidding of Leonard Infeld, the head of the so-called "Fun Houses", where a process called cortical stimulation provides a sort of virtual entertainment. Winston is convinced the process is dangerous and addictive, and he's leading a congressional investigation. Meanwhile, his wife has been secretely visiting funhouses, and his hostility to them has messed up their marriage. Sharp as Winston is supposed to stop the investigation, but he finds himself somehow having unexpected thoughts -- apparently those of Winston. (He also forces himself on Winston's wife, or so it is implied.) The story turns on that process (the way the impressed mind can take over the host mind), as well as on a couple of twists, concerning Winston's wife and her unexpected pregnancy, and concerning some truly sinister potential uses of the cortical stimulation process. It doesn't make a ton of sense if examined too closely, but it's still an effective and enjoyable piece.

Simulacron-3

Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron-3 gained some notoriety a few years ago when a movie was made based on it -- The Thirteenth Floor. I haven't seen the movie, though it got some modestly approving reviews. [I did later see it, and liked it quite a bit.] It came out at roughly the same time as The Matrix and as a movie I liked much more, Dark City, and it shared some of the same themes.

The story opens with Doug Hall attending a party given by his boss, Walter Siskin. Hall has just been promoted to replace his dead friend and mentor at Reactions, Inc., which is developing a new simulation to evaluate consumer reactions. The simulation is populated by virtual people who are exposed to advertisements and such, their reactions analyzed. Siskin sinisterly wishes to use this simulation for political purposes -- he believes that he will be able to control the country if he can predict voter response to various approaches. Siskin is opposed by the Reaction Monitors group -- a seemingly ubiquitous group of pollsters, who will be put out of business by the new sim. Hall is made uneasy by Siskin's political ambitions, himself.

Then Hall starts to notice some strange things. His mentor's notes contained what appeared to be a cryptic message to him, which disappeared. He remembers some other colleagues that nobody else can recall in any way. A psychiatrist friend thinks he's mad. His mentor's beautiful daughter seems to run hot and cold with him -- and to be very concerned about his crazy ideas. And what about the time they drove out of the city and all of a sudden the road just stopped with nothing beyond?

It's no big surprise what's going on, even if the back of the edition I have didn't give it away, and even without the references I've given to Dark City and The Matrix. Hall and all the people he knows are themselves virtual creations in a simulated world. Much of the resistance to his simulation efforts is orchestrated from the "real world" (or is it?), which doesn't want to lose its Reaction Monitors, the real reason for the simulation. Hall finds himself traveling "down" to his simulated world, and encountering (sometimes sadistic) evidence of someone from the "real" world taking over his brain. It's mostly pretty well handled, and the questions raised are interesting. The resolution is perhaps just a bit too convenient, too much fulfilling of wishes. The characters are mostly fairly stock. Still, a fine story.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hugo Recommendations, 2019: Short Story

Time for my yearly Hugo recommendations. I'm beginning with Short Story:


Short Story

A long list of candidates:

Octavia Cade, "The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish" (Kaleidotrope, Winter/18)
Siobhan Carroll, “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes”, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 3/15/18)
Adam-Troy Castro, "The Unnecessary Parts of the Story" (Analog, 9-10/18)
Phenderson Djèlí Clark, "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" (Fireside, 2/18)
Beth Goder, "How to Identify an Alien Shark" (Fireside Quarterly, 7/18)
Alix E. Harrow, " A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies" (Apex, 2/17)
Kathleen Jennings, "The Heart of Owl Abbas" (Tor.com, 4/11/18)
Rahul Kanakia, “Weft”, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 4/12/18)
Rich Larson, "Carouseling" (Clarkesworld, 4/18)
Rich Larson, “Meat and Salt and Sparks”, (Tor.com, 6/6/18)
Ursula K. Le Guin, "Firelight”, (Paris Review, 9/28/17)
P. H. Lee, "A House by the Sea", (Uncanny, 9-10/18)
Yoon Ha Lee, "The Starship and the Temple Cat”, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2/1/18)
Marissa Lingen, "Finding Their Footing”, (Analog, 5-6/18)
S. Quioyi Lu, “Mother Tongues”, (Asimov’s, 1-2/18)
Arkady Martine, “The Hydraulic Emperor”, (Uncanny, 1-2/18)
Heather Morris, “A Slip in the Slice”, (Kaleidotrope, Winter/18)
Mari Ness, “The Ceremony”, (Fireside Quarterly, 7/18)
Annalee Newitz, “The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto”, (Robots vs. Fairies)
Paul Park, “Creative Nonfiction”, (Asimov’s, 5-6/18)
Sarah Pinsker, "The Court Magician" (Lightspeed, 1/18)
Josh Pearce, “Such Were the Faces of the Living Creatures”, (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2/15/18)
Hannu Rajaniemi, “A Portrait of Salai”, (Infinity’s End)
Robert Reed, “Love Songs for the Very Awful”, (Asimov’s, 3-4/18)
Alexandra Renwick, "Because Reasons" (Asimov’s, 3-4/18)
Ryan Row, "Superbright" (Interzone, 7-8/18)
Lavie Tidhar, “The Buried Giant” (Robots vs. Fairies)
Cadwell Turnbull, "Jump" (Lightspeed, 9/18)
Peter Watts, “Kindred” (Infinity’s End)
Rick Wilber, "Today is Today" (Stonecoast Review, Summer/18)
S. Woodson, “Lime and the one Human” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 7/18)

As ever, a lot of good choices. Here’s the set from which I’ll choose my nominees:

Octavia Cade, "The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish" (Kaleidotrope, Winter/18) – About a shop where you can get turned into a goldfish for a pretty fair price – if you need to escape the world for a time. And the narrator, having picked the pocket of the wrong man, does need to get away. The story lets us learn as we go along the way this magic works, and how and when one becomes human again, and also, incidentally, reveals a little twist about the relationship of the narrator, her girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s grandmother.

Alix E. Harrow, " A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies" (Apex, 2/17) -- Told by a librarian (“There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches” – no prizes for guessing which category our narrator fits), as she encounters a teenaged boy who becomes obsessed with a particular pretty bad fantasy novel – perhaps because he needs escape – any escape. Witches know ways to escape … but that’s against the rules, and librarians are rule followers. Grounded and quite moving.

Kathleen Jennings, "The Heart of Owl Abbas" (Tor.com, 4/11/18) -- About a songwriter and a mechanical singer and the Little Emperor in Palace Aster of Owl Abbas. Which audiences are really most important for the singer? Or for her city, or her muse? It’s a lovely bittersweet story, and beautifully written.

Rich Larson, "Carouseling" (Clarkesworld, 4/18) – About an artist and a physicist who, when they’re apart, use a virtual reality sort of system to interact. Then the physicist’s current experiment goes disastrously long, and the virtual reality connection is all the artist has of his lover. Larson handles things beautifully and steers the story to a proper and touching ending.

Arkady Martine, “The Hydraulic Emperor”, (Uncanny, 1-2/18) – Like several strong pieces this year, it’s about future art, and (in this case), about art aliens like -- neat stuff, with nice descriptions of the future art, and well-turned interactions between its protagonist and a rival.

Hannu Rajaniemi, “A Portrait of Salai”, (Infinity’s End) -- a rather philosophical piece, set in a much altered far future system where it seems all of humanity’s Great Projects have failed, and the few who remain (having resisted the Great Temptation of Upload) fight the anomie of the apparent realization that there is nothing new under the (damaged) Sun. But perhaps there can be? That’s the question the story asks. Very cool stuff!

Lavie Tidhar, “The Buried Giant” (Robots vs. Fairies) – a human boy runs away, wanting to become a “real boy”, i. e., a robot. He has dangerous adventures, meeting for example a robot cat and a robot fox, and a dead girl and a manshonyagger (I always like the odd Cordwainer Smith reference!) … It’s lovely and moving and perfectly framed.

Peter Watts, “Kindred” (Infinity’s End) – a very philosophical story, and to excellent effect, told as a monlogue from a far future AI to a reconstructed human from our time (we recognize him!), wondering why humans war.



Friday, February 8, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Mary Robinette Kowal

Today is Mary Robinette Kowal's birthday ... I just read her enjoyable novel The Calculating Stars, but here's a set of my Locus reviews of her short fiction, a varied and quite impressive lot:

Locus, February 2006

Strange Horizons opens 2006 with a series of solid shorter pieces. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Portrait of Ari” is a bittersweet tale of a couple, one of whom is perhaps not quite human, and how that fact alters their happy relationship.

Locus, February 2008

The Australian popular science magazine Cosmos publishes SF stories each issue, and also occasionally features stories on their website (sometimes reprints from the magazine, sometimes exclusively online). In February/March 2007,  they featured an excellent piece by Mary Robinette Kowal, “For Solo Cello, Op. 12”, about a cellist who has lost his hand, but is given a chance to restore it – except that the cost is very high indeed.

Locus, November 2007

Two further Summer issues from the small press: both from magazines distinguished both by longevity and attractiveness. Talebones’ 35th issue has perhaps slightly more of a horror focus than usual – at any rate, my favorite story is a clever horror piece, Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Death Comes But Twice”, in which a man finds a way to be revived from death, hopefully to live forever – but there is a terrible catch.

Locus, August 2009

At Asimov’s for August...A strong issue also includes Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Consciousness Problem”, an effective look at the identity problem as applied to clones with memories matching their originator’s: here dealing with two married scientists, and the feelings of the clone of the husband.

Locus, November 2009

There’s more good stuff at Tor.com. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “First Flight” is a time travel story, with the gimmick being that people can only travel to events in their own lifetime (an idea I think Philip K. Dick used once … otherwise it’s new to me). Eleanor Louise Jackson, at well over 100 years old, is chosen to go back and witness the Wright brothers’ first flight, but in so doing she runs afoul of guidelines concerning interacting with historical people. But Eleanor has her own ideas of her duty to history and to people – which Kowal unspools cutely.

Locus, January 2010

Another subscription-based online magazine is Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. The November issue includes a nice enough, but not quite convincing, near future SF story from Mary Robinette Kowal, “Body Language”, in which a puppeteer is enlisted to control a robot dog she had helped create deliver the ransom for a kidnapped boy. I enjoyed it, but with reservations, particularly about the somewhat ordinary kidnap plot, complete with ordinary twists.

Locus, September 2010

The other two stories in the September Asimov's are also strong in a very nice issue. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “For Want of a Nail” links with Crowell’s story in being set in a long-term space habitat, here controlled by an AI that, it slowly appears, may be going mad – but the cure feels a lot like murder.

Locus, June 2011

The cover story at Asimov’s for June is “Kiss Me Twice”, by Mary Robinette Kowal, a long novella and a murder mystery. Scott Huang is a detective in near future Portland, Oregon. He is at the scene of a murder – a somewhat shady real estate developer has been killed. The police department uses an AI assistant, who manifests to Scott as Mae West. This AI suddenly “freezes”, and soon it seems that there is a threat to the AI as well as a murder case to worry about. The story turns, then, on the issue of AI rights, and it’s a pretty enjoyable work, with some thoughtful consideration of that subject.

Locus, September 2017

“The Worshipful Society of Glovers”, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Uncanny, July-August) is an uncompromising story set in a milieu recalling Elizabethan London. Vaughn is an apprentice glover, caring for his seriously ill sister. Gloves in this world can be magically altered with the help of brownies, and such gloves can cast a glamor, or give strength – or cure people like Vaughn’s sister. But dealing with Faerie creatures is dangerous, and carefully regulated, but when Vaughn is all but ruined after he is robbed, and rather mistreated by his master, he is tempted to deal with a rogue brownie. Kowal doesn’t shy from the consequences of his decisions. It’s a moving and honest story.

Locus, September 2018

I also enjoyed the opening and closing stories in the July-August F&SF, each set on a moon of Mars. “The Phobos Experience”, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is about Darlene, a lieutenant working at a Martian colony who has a vertigo problem – and who is called upon to investigate the discovery that Phobos is hollow – and gets into a serious scrape.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Karen Joy Fowler, plus The Jane Austen Book Club

Today is Karen Joy Fowler's birthday. She is another particular favorite of mine -- and, too, a favorite of my wife's! Somwhat curiously, perhaps, her output is divided between her short fiction, which is mostly SF or Fantasy; and her novels, which are mostly not obviously fantastical (though quite often there is an ambiguous aspect to them.) Here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction from Locus -- not a long list as I wasn't writing reviews when she wrote such earlier masterpieces as "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" -- augmented with my blog post about The Jane Austen Book Club, perhaps her best-known novel thanks to the film.

Locus, August 2002

There are some very strong stories in Sci Fiction for July.  "What I Didn't See" is the first short piece I've seen by Karen Joy Fowler in some time.  Like her novels, it perches on genre boundaries, only SF if the reader insists: why bother?  Enjoy the excellent story: about a 1928 trip to Africa in 1928 to hunt gorillas.  What results is a tangle of human missteps: sexual competition, gender stereotyping, racial tension, the quest for personal aggrandizement, misplaced revenge motives, all leading to an ambiguous ending with a hint of an echo of Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" (said echo surely reinforced by the title).

Locus, February 2003

In the Conjunctions New Wave Fabulists issue, Karen Joy Fowler's "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man" (again, not SF) is a delightful story of a boy growing up with his single mother, and games, baseball, and bullies – but best of all is Fowler's always absorbing wry voice.

Locus, April 2007

April-May is also time for the Asimov’s Double Issue, this one particularly special as celebrating the magazine’s 30th anniversary. The TOC is chock full of familiar names who briefly comment on their history with the magazine. They all do fine work, but the standout is a very welcome return by an author who has been concentrating on novels – mainstream novels, yet! – in recent years, the wonderful Karen Joy Fowler. “Always”, like her Nebula winner “What I Didn’t See”, might annoy SF purists because it’s not necessarily SF (though it MIGHT be) – no matter to me, it’s an excellent story. A young woman and her new husband, in 1930s California, are seduced by a cult that promises immortality. We know it’s a cult because, as her mother says, “a cult is just a set of rules that lets certain men get laid”. In this case, the cult’s leader, who is the only man the women can sleep with. Not surprisingly, the narrator’s husband leaves. But she is consoled a little by the fact that the leader is pretty good in bed – and more by the carrot of immortality, which she somehow never can reject. It is witty and intelligent and honest and believable and not quite sad somehow.

Locus, August 2007

The most influential of these, and the longest lived – the model for new millennium SF ‘zines in many ways, is Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. The current issue is #20,'''... Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Last Worders” is brilliant work from one of my favorite writers. Twin women are on vacation in Europe, in an odd place called San Margais, built on a deep, empty chasm. The story concerns the women’s search for The Last Word Café (“Poetry Slam. To the Death”.). But they are also working out an apparent lifelong sibling rivalry. And they are tracking down a boy they both had a crush on at school, a boy who may be about to perform at the Café.  Arch, mysterious – dealing with poetry and sisterhood and politics in a subtle ways.

Locus, July 2011

Subterranean’s Summer issue is a special YA issue, guest edited by Gwenda Bond. It is chock full of first rate work. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women” is a sharp look at the lure of vampires, elegantly refracted through the lens of a mother’s exasperation with her besotted teenaged daughter – exasperation given an edge by her husband having recently decamped with a younger woman.

Locus, June 2017

There’s a whole lot of tasty stuff in the May-June Asimov’s. Let’s begin with a new story from Karen Joy Fowler. “Persephone of the Crows” is just wrenchingly brilliant, in a specific mode that reminds me of a few stories I talked about last week – it’s a story that uses apparently true (in story terms) fantastical elements in service of character examination, and in so doing resolves itself without really resolving any of the questions the fantastical elements might inspire. Which, to a devoted reader of the fantastic, like, say me, can be in a way disappointing. But on its own terms I think this story delivers. Polly is a 10-year old girl at a littler girl’s house, and the little girl claims to have seen a real fairy. Polly is envious of the other girl for lots of reasons – money is one, parents are another, and Polly’s wishes for something better in her life only intensify that night – until the drive home, when her drunken father loses control of the car – and things get strange. Be careful what you wish for, perhaps? Though that sounds a bit facile – the story doesn’t quite go where you expect it to, and in the end we have a sharp portrayal of its main character and a sad look at her perception of her family.

Blog post on The Jane Austen Book Club

I suppose I am one of the last folks in these parts to have read Karen Joy Fowler's new novel. The Jane Austen Book Club, indeed, is proving a surprising success in the wider literary world -- it has receive approving reviews just about everywhere, and it was #7 on the last New York Times Book Review bestseller list. I myself have had success in proselytizing for Fowler -- I made my wife read Sarah Canary several years ago and she has happily read all of Fowler's novels since. (My wife is not an SF reader.) In the case of this book my wife read it first, hence the delay in me getting to it. And having finished it we passed it along to a friend of ours, who had just finished the last book we gave her: The Time-Traveler's Wife.

Just yesterday, right underneath their adoring review of Spiderman 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch featured an article about Karen Joy Fowler and The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler had just signed the book at my local Border's -- alas, this article was the first I heard of this! I'd have gone (it's even possible Fowler would recognize my name, either from Locus or from my occasional emails regarding the Tiptree Award). The writer of the article mentions Fowler's science fiction roots, a bit bemusedly but not condescendingly, though she (the article writer) does seem surprised at the connection between Austen and SF readers. [Having missed that chance of meeting Fowler, Mary Ann and I finally met her at the 2017 World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio.]

I thoroughly enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club, I will say. The story is about the six members of a book club devoted to Austen, and the book has chapters loosely linked to each book. Five of the members are women. Bernadette is a woman in her 60s, several times married, who was once a dancer in a low-level sort of off-vaudeville group. Jocelyn is a 50ish woman, a dog breeder, never married herself but an inveterate matchmaker. Sylvia is Jocelyn's long-time friend, whose husband has just left her for a younger woman. Allegra is Sylvia's lesbian daughter, her relationship also just breaking up (her girlfriend having mined her life for stories). Prudie is a 30ish schoolteacher. The one man is Grigg, a computer tech and a science fiction fan, who seems only just now to be reading Austen for the first time.

The story is witty, both sweet and tart. The characters are perfectly captured. The writing is full of allusions to Austen, big and small. There is some discussion of the books, but much more of each character's personal history and how their own personal lives play out over the time of the novel -- with incipient romances, breakups, reunitings, disasters, and unexpected reversals. It echoes Austen in being quiet and somewhat domestic in tone, and of course in its irony and above all wit. Though irony and wit have been characteristics of Fowler from the first!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

In Memoriam, Carol Emshwiller -- a look at her late short fiction

The remarkable Carol Emshwiller died, age 97, on February 2. She was one of the most individual voices in SF over a career of nearly six decades, beginning in the mid 1950s.  She also wrote contemporary novels set in the American West. 

I never had a chance to meet her -- and based on the voice in her fiction, and on the testimony of those who knew her, I dearly wish I could have. But I did have a chance, over the first several years of my time at Locus, to witness and review the truly impressive spate of short stories she produced in her 80s. And so, in her memory, it seems appropriate to post this selection of what I wrote about her work in Locus, with one bonus piece I wrote about her very first story.

Retro-Review of Future #28

On to the short stories, and finally something of real note. This issue includes the great Carol Emshwiller's first publication, "This Thing Called Love", a clever 2300 word story. Robert. A. W. Lowndes was central to Emshwiller's early career, with many of her first stories appearing in Future and in Science Fiction Stories. This story is slight but well done, and definitely shows Emswhiller's "voice", which I think one of the more characteristic individual voices in the field. The POV narrator is a woman of the future, who, like every other self-respecting person in the future, has a crush on an android actor. Her husband has the gall to suggest that the two of them emigrate to Mars as colonists -- but if she went, she'd be away from TV, and who would she love? Her husband? As if! No masterpiece, but a fine clever story.

Locus, March 2002

Two fine stories appear in the first half of February at Sci Fiction.  Carol Emshwiller has made a welcome return to the field in the past couple of years, mostly at F&SF.  "Water Master" is her first story for Sci Fiction.  The story is told from the point of view of a solitary woman at an isolated village. The village's water supply is regulated by the Water Master. The villagers distrust him, assuming he takes advantage of his position.  After a time of drought, unrest grows, and when the narrator learns that the villagers will send a delegation to force the Water Master to increase the water allocation, she goes to visit him in advance, to learn his secrets.  She learns some rather surprising things.  The end is nicely turned, and rather sweet.

Review of Leviathan 3, Locus, May 2002

Carol Emshwiller's "The Prince of Mules" reminded me just a bit of her recent Sci Fiction story "Water Master", in telling of a older single woman living in a dry rural place, who becomes intrigued by an isolated man who has something to do with water distribution. This is quite a different story, though, and it's a neat piece, telling in Emshwiller's characteristic deadpan voice of the woman's rather excessive obsession with Jake Blackthorn, who at least loves his mule.

Locus, June 2002

And of course Carol Emshwiller is always readable, and "Josephine" (Sci Fiction, May) is a sweet, odd, story about two residents of an old age home who try to escape. It works mainly because of the somewhat fuddled view of things we get from the POV character, the man of the couple who is fascinated by the title character but never understands her.

Locus, June 2003

The best story from the "in-genre" writers in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is Carol Emshwiller's "The General", an affecting look at a man raised by his people's oppressors, who becomes the unsuccessful leader of a revolution, and then finds peace hard to attain. 

Locus, July 2003

"Repository" (F&SF, July), from the reliably brilliant Carol Emshwiller. A nameless, wounded, man, perhaps a soldier or a medic, finds himself in some sort of refuge from a war. "Who is the enemy. And more important, who are we?" He learns to hope to escape the war (what war?) … but is there any escape?

Locus, August 2003

Carol Emshwiller's "Gods and Three Wishes" (Trampoline) is a whimsical fable, about a young woman sent by her tribe to visit the gods and demand better treatment from them, who learns instead about luck and fate – and about making your own luck.

Locus, December 2003

Carol Emshwiller is a wonder, as productive now in her 80s as she has ever been. "Boys", from the January Sci Fiction, is a sad fable in which men and women live apart, the women maintaining cities while the men fight wars with men from other places. When the women make a stand against this way of things, an older man is tempted to stay with the woman he has come to love – but what of the pull of tradition, of what is thought to be "nature"? 

Locus, August 2004

Carol Emshwiller (it becomes clear) has been doing a series of stories about war. Two more have just appeared. In F&SF we see "The Library", about a man leading a band to his enemies' beautiful library, planning to blow it up. But his plans go awry and he falls for one of the librarians – with ambiguous results. Another Emshwiller war story is "My General" from the second issue of the new Argosy, in which a woman takes custody of a POW, a general, for the purpose of field labor. But she falls in love (or something similar). His response seems honest, but the result is sad – he ends up trying to stop the war with more fighting. Taken together these and others of Emshwiller's stories brim with compassion for their protagonists, and a sad and weary view of people who seem trapped into fighting for no discernible reason.

Locus, January 2004

Alchemy is a new fantasy magazine, nicely put together, and featuring an impressive table of contents for the first issue. Carol Emshwiller's "Lightning" is an utterly "Emshwiller" story, told in her unmistakable voice. An older woman is struck by lightning, and comes to with no knowledge of her identity. The story simply and wryly tells of her confused reaction to what we must assume are her own house and family -- little really happens, the story isn't really fantastical, but it's witty and a bit disturbing and just well done. 

Locus, July 2004

Sci Fiction for June has another of Carol Emshwiller's affecting stories about other intelligences, "Gliders Though They Be". In this case two species are involved, both apparently roughly humanoid. One species has wings sufficient for gliding, the other only nubs. A male from the wingless species disguises himself and infiltrates the others, charged with mutilating them, but he falls in love, and finds himself forced to compete in a gliding contest for his beloved's favor. 

Locus, December 2004

Sci Fiction in November features another strong "bird people" story by Carol Emshwiller. "All of Us Can Almost ..." reminds us that her intelligent, large, bird creatures are flightless. But they can almost fly, and small creatures of other species sometimes ask for a flight. The story concerns a female who foolishly promises to give a young boy a flight, with interesting results. Emshwiller gets inside her mostly alien characters' heads beautifully.

Locus, March 2005

Carol Emshwiller has another remarkable story in the March F&SF. "I Live With You" is a spooky piece about a person who moves into someone's house and sort of haunts them – to the point of eventually impersonating them and even starting a new relationship. The story is at once humourous and scary, creepy and almost sweet – and also a very effective character study.

Locus, December 2005

As of 2005, Carol Emshwiller has been a published SF writer for a half-century, but her January 2006 story “World of No Return” is her first Asimov’s appearance. And it’s fine work, about an alien long marooned on Earth, raised to keep himself separate from humans and to remember his heritage. But over the course of a long life, he forgets his parents’ stories of their home world, and he subtly (without knowing himself, perhaps) begins to miss contact with humans. All this comes to a head when he finds himself caring for a lonely old woman.

Locus, November 2006

The short stories are all fine work ... Carol Emshwiller’s “Killers” (F&SF, October-November) is a mordant story of our country ravaged by war, to the point that the protagonist’s town is almost wholly inhabited by women – leading to unexpected results when she finds a man, perhaps an enemy.

Locus, February 2008

Carol Emshwiller is another writer who began in the ‘50s and is still going strong – as with “Master of the Road to Nowhere” (Asimov's, March), a delightful and affecting story about a group of humans who live in animal-like packs, with only one adult male and a “harem” of females, along with the children. The males fight for domination, the losers going off to live alone in the wild. The story concerns one male, a leader of his pack but under challenge, who has fallen in love, strictly forbidden, with one of the women in his pack. 

Locus, October 2009

How do you define Fantasy, anyway? The simplest definition, to me, is “stories with magic”. (Defining magic perhaps a bit broadly: events unexplainable by science.) But as often noted there are some stories that are readily identified as part of the Fantasy genre but which have no magic. (Canonical example: Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner, though one ought to note that its sequel The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman) reveals that magic is part of that world.) These stories tend to be set in secondary worlds, either fairly detailed ones like the quasi-English setting of Swordspoint, or in lightly sketched unidentified geographies. The latter is the case with any number of short stories by Carol Emshwiller, particularly a long series examining war from the point of view of various people caught up in it. The latest of these stories (all unlinked, I should say) is “Logicist” (which actually seems possibly set in Ancient Greece). A teacher and his students are overrun when the enemy wins a battle they are witnessing. He ends up behind enemy lines, and is nursed to health by a woman with whom he begins to fall in love. But she is of the enemy! Where does his duty lie? 

Locus, February 2010

I’ll conclude with one online site, Fantasy Magazine. The selections for January include a couple about flying, or the dream of flying, that intrigued. Carol Emshwiller’s “Above it All” is about a woman who adopts an abandoned baby girl, a girl who can fly. She keeps the girl weighted down as long as she can, but of course eventually realizes she can’t stand in the way of her adopted daughter’s true nature. As with so much recent Emshwiller, its wry and warm at the same time.

Locus, July 2010

Now to the online magazines. Lightspeed, the new SF companion to Fantasy Magazine, has a wonderful Carol Emshwiller piece in July, “No Time Like the Present”. A group of wealthy people move into the narrator’s town, causing plenty of suspicion and resentment. The narrator, a teenaged girl, befriends one of the young girls among the newcomers, even while the rest of the town grows increasingly hostile. We realize quickly enough from whence the new folks come – it’s an old enough SF idea. And in the end that’s pretty much the story – but it resonates particularly well as told by Emshwiller, through her narrator, and the well-pointed slang, and the implications of this particular “invasion”. Emshwiller remains simply remarkable.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 113: Android Avenger, by Ted White/The Altar On Asconel, by John Brunner

Ace Double Reviews, 113: Android Avenger, by Ted White/The Altar On Asconel, by John Brunner (#M-123, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

The occasion for this Ace Double review is Ted White's 81st birthday today, February 4, 2019. Ted White is a true SMOF. He published a fanzine beginning at age 15. He won the Best Fan Writer Hugo in 1968. He was co-Chair of the 1967 Worldcon, and his fannish credits could likely go on for pages.

He is probably best known to the casual SF fan (at least, fan of my age) as an editor -- an assistant at F&SF from 1963 to 1968, then for the next decade editor of Amazing and Fantastic, where he affected an improvement from the depths of the years right after Sol Cohen took over the magazines, to something at times approaching the Cele Goldsmith Lalli levels. (These were the years -- 1974-1978 at least -- that I subscribed to those magazines, and I appreciated Ted's rather pugnacious approach to them.) He then became an editor at the American magazine Heavy Metal (based on the French graphic magazine Metal Hurlant.)He was also a disk jockey for a time, and he is an accomplished musician.

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Gray Morrow)
And he is an SF writer, producing more than a dozen novels and a couple of dozen short stories (the most recent in 2017, so he's still at it.) One collaborative story got a Nebula nomination, but I'll confess that I've not really been overly impressed with the occasional story I've seen. But I hadn't read a novel, and I ran across this Ace Double, with Android Avenger, so I figured it was worth a try. (I admit I really bought the book for the Brunner novel.)

So, what is Android Avenger about? Well, it's about 40,000 words or a bit more! Sorry ... It's set in New York in the relatively near future of 2017 -- oh, wait a minute, that's the past now! Life is calm in this near future, apparently, mostly because anyone who shows unruly attitudes -- Deviants, that is -- is detected by automatic scanners, and executed. The narrator, Bob Tanner, is serving his periodic (every couple of years) duty as Executioner -- a thousand people gather in an arena, and press a button, one of which randomly activated the electric charge to kill the Deviant. This time, however, Bob is oddly affected by the execution, and he ends up going into sort of a fugue, which causes him to be picked up and scanned. The scanner finds nothing, but an X-ray determines that his bones are metal. Surely this will brand him a Deviant, so he escapes, using violence, which is certainly Deviant.

Soon he encounters a beautiful redhead, who warns him to be careful. Then he's attempting to return home -- but his home is too dangerous. And suddenly he finds himself gripped by a compulsion he can't control -- and he runs without volition (and at implausible speed) to a building wherein he finds and kills a man. Before long he's confronted by the sister of the dead man (another beautiful redhead!), and he learns that the original redhead is named, oddly enough, Hoyden. And then he is possessed by the mysterious force again and kills the sister.

By now you can see who the android avenger of the title is, though not why he's "avenging". The story continues at some pace, through some sudden changes of tone and scenery. He meets up again with Hoyden. They have sex. They fight. Then he runs away to another borough, takes on a new identity, and starts to live with the poor people there, who are outside the controlled system of the main part of New York. And things get stranger, and Bob, trying to understand his nature and purpose, finally comes to a confrontation with the being behind his problems ... Plus he gets his reunion with the lovely Hoyden.

It's all a bit -- maybe a lot -- silly, and disjointed. There are occasional nice bits of speculation, as for example about the moving roads in future (past, now) Manhattan. There's a certain ambition behind some of it, lost in the end by the need for action and by the hard to take ending. So -- not a particularly memorable book. There was a sequel, called Spawn of the Death Machine -- I almost wonder if White wrote it just so he could use that gloriously pulpish title.

(Cover by McKenna (not for The Altar at Asconel)
I've written a lot about John Brunner before, so I won't reiterate that. He is a favorite of mine, and I generally really like his early, shorter, less serious novels. The Altar On Asconel is in that category, but it's a bit late -- 1965, after he had begun producing work of more obvious ambition, such as The Whole Man from 1964. This novel is part of his so-called Interstellar Empire series, which also includes an early novella, "The Wanton of Argus", which became the very short Ace Double half The Space-Time Juggler; and another novella, "The Man from the Big Dark". The ISFDB also claims that his first novel, Galactic Storm (written when he was 16 or 17, and published as by "Gill Hunt") is part of that series. (I've not read that book, and I gather it's not easy to find.) It's about 55,000 words long. It was serialized in If, April and May 1965, as "The Altar at Asconel", in a cut version, about 42,000 words. I have the serial as well, and the cuts seem to be pervasive but rather minor -- a few sentences here and there, spread throughout the book. I don't know if Brunner or Frederik Pohl made the cuts.

The main character of The Altar on Asconel is Spartak, an academic on Annanworld, which was the university planet of the old interstellar empire. The empire has mostly collapsed, after 10,000 years, with many planets having reverted to barbarism, but a few, such as Annanworld, still retaining a decent tech level. Spartak's specialty is the history of the empire -- he knows, for example, that the starships humans use were all made by a previous, now disappeared, race -- and especially the history of one prominent world, his home, Asconel, which also has retained some technological underpinnings.

Spartak, along with his half-brothers Vix and Tiorin, agreed to leave Asconel on the ascension of their older brother Hodak to the position of Warden -- in order to avoid the possibility of clashes over the succession. But now, 10 years later, Vix has shown up on Annanworld with terrible news -- their brother Hodak has been assassinated, and a strange man named Bucyon has taken over as Warden. And he, with the beautiful Lydis and the misshappen Shry, rule the planet in the name of a god -- Belizuek, who demands human sacrifices. And it seems that nearly the whole population of Asconel has been conditioned, so that they accept their oppression happily.

Vix, along with his latest woman, Vineta, head to Delcadoré, near the heart of the old empire, to look for Tiorin. And they find him, but they also are shanghaied into transporting a mutant girl, rumored to have mental powers, into exile on the Galactic rim. This is accomplished by a crude conditioning, so they cannot even think about going to Asconel to try to free their planet from Bucyon and Belizuek. But the mutant girl's powers come in handy -- she is able to undo their conditioning, and after some struggle, she agrees to help them get to Asconel.

Once there they find the world in even worse shape than they thought. And then they encounter Belizuek, who seems a megalomaniac telepathic being. Vix and Tiorin are read to attack, but Spartak, with the help of the mutant girl, comes up with a more sneaky plan ... And, well, you know more or less how it ends. There is, of course, a revelation as to what or who Belizuek really is, and there's a final, fairly logical, fate for Spartak and the mutant girl (who is quite young -- there's no suggestion that Spartak fancies her).

All in all, this isn't one of Brunner's best efforts. I wonder if he really didn't have much interest in the project. There is less speculative interest, less original thinking, than in most of Brunner's early books. The plot is not very tightly constructed, and things are really too easy for Spartak and company. The end is rushed a bit, and also comes off rather flat.