Sunday, June 9, 2019

Birthday Review: The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman

The great Joe Haldeman, SFWA Grand Master, winner of multiple Hugos and Nebulas and too many other awards for me to count, turns 76 today. I haven't seen a novel since 2014s Work Done for Hire, so I don't know how much more we're going to get from him, but his career as it stands is remarkable. This is a review I wrote for my blog back in 2007 of his novel The Accidental Time Machine, the last in a quite remarkable late career run of singleton novels that (to my eye) began with The Coming (2000).

The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman

a review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman has, somewhat quietly, become one of my favorite writers, for sheer reliability. It's not that I didn't highly respect him before -- I liked The Forever War a great deal, loved The Hemingway Hoax, and liked many of his short stories. But he wasn't a writer I would buy on sight. And then he went through a period where he just didn't interest me -- the novels Forever Peace, 1968, and Forever Free in particular -- fairly recent work -- simply did not appeal based on reviews. But beginning, as I recall, with The Coming (2000), I have read all his stuff, at about 18 month intervals. The Coming was followed by Guardian, Camouflage, Old Twentieth, and now The Accidental Time Machine. Each of these novels has been fairly short, quite different from its predecessors, compulsively readable, built around nice SFnal ideas (if usually familiar ones), well characterized, and philosophically interesting. Haldeman does sometimes have problems with endings -- the conclusion of Guardian in particular is a mess -- but without exception his novels are great fun to read, even if the ending is a bit rushed or a bit perfunctory. (Sometimes the endings aren't the point -- The Coming, for example, has a mild surprise ending that could be a letdown if you were expecting some dramatic transcendent revelation -- and clearly was a letdown to many readers -- but I think it is just what he planned, and it caps the novel he meant to write quite well.) Quite simply, Haldeman's novels are among those I most look forward to in complete confidence I will enjoy them.

The Accidental Time Machine is, in this sense, quite of a piece with its fellows. It deals with a somewhat familiar idea -- a time machine that only goes forward. The ur-narrative here, really, is Wells' The Time Machine, but this story reminded me more urgently of Poul Anderson's pulpy classic "Flight to Forever". But with plenty of original Haldeman touches. For one thing, this is his "MIT novel", just as The Coming was his "Gainesville novel". (Haldeman splits his years between MIT and Gainesville, FL.) And, as his afterword notes, Haldeman stumbled on a bafflegab explanation for his protagonist's time travel that turns out to have at least some physical plausibility.

Matt Fuller is a post-grad working on a graviton detector. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend, as it turns out for a rival post-grad. One day he notices that his machine seems to disappear briefly, then reappear. Rather quickly (perhaps too quickly) he figures out that it disappears for exponentially increasing times, and that anything within a Faraday cage attached to the machine goes with it. He assumes that the machine is traveling in time -- and, it turns out, fairly predictably in distance as well. He ends up deciding to go along with the machine -- with disastrous consequences, as he is soon detained on suspicion of murder. His only escape is farther into the future.

So we have a bit of a travelogue to varying futures, most notably one in which the Eastern US is under the rule of an oppressive theocracy. There he picks up a companion, a pretty and innocent young woman. He has some hope -- hints that he must have eventually returned to his own time, as well as contact with an AI interested in travel to the very far future indeed. The resolution is quite nice, not exactly expected but not unexpected either. The SFnal content throughout is involving, if never coruscatingly brilliant. Just intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining. Again, a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kate Wilhelm

The great Kate Wilhelm was born June 8, 1928, and died a year ago March 6, just a few months short of her 90th birthday. She was my leading candidate for most unfairly passed over would-be SFWA Grand Master -- I wonder if her turn to writing primarily mysteries over the past few decades of her life contributed to that oversight. I thought one of those mysteries, the first Barbara Holloway novel, Death Qualified, was also an exceptional SF novel. I also greatly liked the also often fantastical Constance and Charlie stories. And her novels and short fiction published within the field were also excellent. My favorite novel was probably Juniper Time; and my favorite short fiction included "Baby, You Were Great", "The Fusion Bomb", "Somerset Dreams", and "Forever Yours, Anna".

She was one of those writers nurtured somewhat, early in their careers, by Cele Goldsmith, and I had hoped to get a chance to ask her about Goldsmith, but I never did, one of my regrets. (I also waited too long to ask Harlan Ellison about Goldsmith, but fortunately I did get a chance to send Ursula K. Le Guin a letter to which she gave a lovely response.)

Here's what I've written about her short fiction, either in my "Retro-reviews" of old magazines, or of her late work, in my Locus column. As such, these notes don't really mention her very best work, but they do show that, early and late, she was always good.

Retro-review of Amazing, February 1960

The great Kate Wilhelm's first story appeared in one of the Paul Fairman issues of Fantastic in 1956, and her first important story ("The Mile-Long Spaceship") in John Campbell's Astounding in 1957, though really Robert Lowndes, at Future and Science Fiction Stories, was her most important early editor. But she did have a few stories in Goldsmith's issues. "It's a Good Trick If ..." is an amusing short piece about a family in which strange hallucinations keep happening -- even to the dog -- and it becomes eventually clear that their young son is the cause. Minor work, sure, but well enough done.

Retro-review of [The Original] Science Fiction Stories, May 1960

Kate Wilhelm's "The Living Urn" is another crime story. A disreputable art collector wishes to steal a rare "living urn". But it turns out, in a nice twist, that he can thus be useful to the authorities, who want that object safely delivered to Earth. Minor but nicely done.

Locus, February 2002

Kate Wilhelm supplies the cover story for the February F&SF, "The Man on the Persian Carpet". The two main characters are Carolyn Harley and Drake Symes, who had "fallen in and out of love since kindergarten".  But Carolyn's parents oppose the relationship, and Carolyn finds herself unexpectedly marrying a man she barely knows, after a rather creepy sexual encounter. Drake drifts into occult publishing, and Carolyn also brushes with the occult, learning palmistry.  Years later, after a child and a divorce, Carolyn meets Drake again, and they fall back in love -- but Carolyn realizes that her palm, and Drake's, and that of her teenaged son all tell of a cataclysmic event a few years in the future.  It is that event around which the story turns -- and Wilhelm drives things to a well thought out conclusion, with real sacrifice and loss amidst possible happiness, the sacrifice more poignant because of its nature (which I will not reveal).  This is the best Kate Wilhelm story I've read in a few years -- perhaps it is marred slightly by a somewhat implausible villainous plot driving the crisis, still, it's a very fine story.

Locus, April 2008

The February issue also offers an all too rare Kate Wilhelm sighting, with “The Fountains of Neptune”, a quiet story of a woman dying of cancer who visits Rome one more time and, perhaps, encounters a god.

Locus, February 2011

The January-February F&SF has a fine new Kate Wilhelm piece, “The Bird Cage”. Dr. Grace Wooten is researching methods of human near-hibernation for a rather unpleasant rich man who wants to find a way to live until his diseases can be cured. But her first human trial leads to some completely unexpected side effects, as the sleeping man somehow seems to interact with people involved in significant events in his life, including his brother and a girl who had been present when he nearly drowned as a child. Those two, after scary “fugue states” in which they remember those events, come into contact, and eventually confront Dr. Wooten, who is faced with scary evidence of the dangers of her research.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Kit Reed

Kit Reed was born June 7, 1932, and died in 2017. She was a particularly sharp satirist, and always ready to see horror in ordinary(ish) situations. She wrote quite a few novels, often non-fantastical, but for me (and I suspect, for many readers) her best work was her short fiction. This is a selection of my reviews of her work for Locus -- as with many writers with long careers, much of their best work appeared before I started writing for the magazine, and I regret thus missing her some of her best work, but she wrote incisively to the end of her life.

Locus, June 2002

May's Sci Fiction offerings are a decent set. Best is probably Kit Reed's "The Last Big Sin", about an obese man at a religiously oriented "fat farm". It seems overeating is "the last big sin", and this man struggles to comply with the boot camp conditions – only to discover a bitter secret behind the camp's operation. Reed does mordant satire as well as anybody, and this is pretty solid mordant satire.

Locus, May 2003

Kit Reed in particular is impressive in the May F&SF, with "Incursions", a striking paranoid fantasy of an ordinary man's alienation from his life. Dave Travers takes a train from his suburban home into the city, planning to apply for a job that might free him from his boring routine as a college instructor. But his sense of desperation increases, and he escapes the train in rural Connecticut: but his life is still going nowhere. The base story here is fairly familiar, but Reed's use of imagery from sources such as the old computer game Zork makes it seem new again.

Locus, September 2003

Kit Reed's wicked "Focus Group" tells of a woman who falls for a soap actor and manipulates her focus group to help his career. Sort of.

Locus, June 2004

The May lineup at Sci Fiction is strong. ... Better still is a scary little domestic piece from Kit Reed, who does domestic scariness better than anybody. "Family Bed" is told by a teenaged girl in a large family. They live their life as an advertisement for the virtue of family togetherness, including everyone sleeping in the same bed. Reed portrays the creepiness of this situation beautifully, upping the ante at nearly every paragraph, making the really icky climax effective.

Locus, September 2004

Kit Reed's "Yard Sale" (Asimov's, August) is about two sisters trying to sell their father's various obsessive collections after his death. But her father's acquisitive and hoarding spirit has survived. Reed is perhaps the most effective writer of truly original and off-center horror around, and this is another example. 

Locus review of Nine Muses (February 2006)

Kit Reed’s “Spies” is a better fit, and it too is one of the better entries here, a funny Southern story about another group of goddesses, hinted at by their names (Ada, Clo, and Lally).

Locus, September 2006

Kit Reed is perhaps the best writer we have of satirical SF horror, and “Biodad” (Asimov's, October-November) is anotherstrong example. A successful woman has two children by artificial insemination, but eventually decides to find their biological father. But his ideas of his fathering responsibilities are a nasty surprise.

Locus review of Naked City (August 2011)

Kit Reed’s “Weston Walks” takes quite a different look at New York, about a rich orphan whose only contact with the rest of the world seems to be unusual tours he gives of the city – until an odd young woman tries to get to him.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Birthday Review: Two Novels by Dorothy Heydt

Today is Dorothy Heydt's birthday. Dorothy was a regular on the wonderful Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.composition back in their glory days (late '90s, early 2000s). And she wrote two enjoyable novels. Here are my capsule looks at those two books.

Capsule Review of The Interior Life

The Interior Life is an odd fantasy published to seemingly no notice by Baen in 1990. I had never heard of it until I saw a rave review by Jo Walton on rec.arts.sf.written. It's by Katherine Blake, who turns out to be Dorothy J. Heydt, a regular rec.arts.sf.written poster. It is quite different and original, and very good, marred perhaps just a bit by a somewhat anti-climactic ending, with a bit too much pat character pairing off. The story is told on two tracks, as the protagonist, Sue, a midwestern housewife and mother of three, gets her life under control and becomes involved in her community, as well as helping her husband get a key promotion, all the while following a storyline in a fantasy world (of her invention? or a world to which she has some quasi-telepathic connection?).  In the fantasy world, the Lady Amalia follows her brother into the Darkness, which has been slowly engulfing their land for two centuries. She encounters the Lord of Darkness, and some of his slaves, and learns an important secret about the source of his power. The story leads up to a predictable but still well-handled and original confrontation between the literal forces of Light and Dark. Both base plots don't sound terribly fascinating in description (which I suspect is why the book was ignored), but the story is absorbing reading: largely for the background details: Sue's dinner parties and PTA meetings, the details of castle life and war preparation in Amalia's world. Oddly, I found myself more involved in Sue's mundane struggles than in Amalia's heroic efforts, though the latter are quite interesting.  Blake/Heydt also avoids over-obvious parallels between the two storylines.

Capsule Review of A Point of Honor

Dorothy J. Heydt's new novel is A Point of Honor.  Heydt is the author of an intriguing 1990 fantasyThe Interior Life, as by Katherine Blake), and also of a whole bunch of stories published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's magazine and anthologies. A Point of Honor takes "cyberspace" concepts in a sufficiently new direction to be worth it. The novel features Sir Mary de Courcy, a rather successful player of Chivalry, a virtual reality jousting game. After she wins a tournament, she accepts a virtual estate as forfeit from one of her foes, then she finds her real life threatened.  She hides out with one of the creators of the Virtual domain where her new estate is located, and they embark on a virtual quest to find out if there is anything fishy about the estate she has won which might justify the attacks on her. The story is exciting enough, and a good read, but it suffers from a couple of common flaws. The first is that, this being a virtual environment, the author doesn't hesitate to bend the rules outrageously in the favor of her protagonist: this is well-rationalized, but it does tend to reduce suspense a bit.  The second is that the solution to the mystery was unsatisfying: basically, the bad guy didn't seem to me to have -nearly- enough motivation to attempt murder repeatedly.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Ray Nayler

This is a shorter review collection than usual for me, because Ray Nayler has only been publishing in the SF magazines since 2015, but his work has been so exceptional, I think he deserves the extra notice. Today is his birthday, so in his honor, here we go:

Locus, July 2015

Every once in a while a story knocks you flat, and that's a special thing. When it comes from a writer unfamiliar to you, it may be even more special. Ray Nayler's “Mutability”, in the June Asimov's, is such a story for me. It's set a few centuries in the future, a time that seems pleasant enough and in some ways not much changed from now – perhaps a bit more peaceful. There are just enough hints of future tech to convince, but the key change, only slowly revealed, is that people seem to be very long-lived, with a “memory horizon” (like in Kim Stanley Robinson's “Green Mars”). The protagonist is a scholar of an obscure lost language called “SAE” (Standard American English, I trust), and the story turns on his meeting a woman in his regular cafe … They have a story, which I'll leave Nayler to tell – and it's a good one, but the gestalt of the overall story is even better. Lovely.

Locus, April 2016

And Ray Nayler’s “Do Not Forget Me” (Asimov's, March) is a nicely multiply framed story, set in Central Asia, in which a man tells his wife a story he heard from a poet about a slave raider and the strange wanderer he captures.

Locus, March 2017

Ray Nayler is back in the January-February Asimov’s with another quiet and exceptional story, “Winter Timeshare”. Regina is visiting Istanbul, as she does every winter, intending to rendezvous with her long-time lover Ilkay. The SFnal hook is that the two, relatively privileged people in this future, take their vacations in “timeshares”: that is, they are “sheathed” in “blanks”: apparently empty bodies into which consciousnesses are downloaded. The story is partly about the resentment many have of the “blanks” (or the “dead”); and about terrorist actions, which end up distracting Ilkay (a security specialist), and end up forcing Regina (occupying unfamiliar male blank) to take unexpected action. But it’s also about Istanbul in winter, and a curiously intermittent love affair; and about the hints of an extremely interesting world situation behind everything.

Locus, December 2018

Another sort of mystery is at the heart of “Incident at San Juan Bautista”, by Ray Nayler (Asimov's, November-December). In Old West San Juan Bautista, August Sutherland, German immigrant turned dentist turned hired killer, is preparing for his latest assignment. He is fascinated by a woman in the saloon, and obtains her services. But she is a much stranger creature than your standard-issue beautiful Western movie whore, as August learns when she first extracts from him his story, then tells him as much of hers as he can understand. SF readers will have ideas about what or who she is – but the story doesn’t really reveal that in detail, just shows the eerie results of her particular pastime. Cool stuff.

Birthday Review: Stories of Margo Lanagan

June 5 is Margo Lanagan's birthday. She's a brilliant Australian writer, whose stories are noticeable tinged with very effective horror. Here's a collection of my Locus reviews of her stories:

Locus, December 2006

A few anthologies of varying types prompt more thought about how theme books differ from general anthologies. It’s my general view that too specific a theme weakens a book – partly by leading to too many too similar stories, and partly by constricting writers’ imaginations. So I look forward in particular to completely “open” books, such as Eidolon 1, a descendant of the very fine, now defunct, Australian magazine Eidolon. This anthology is full of good work. In particular I liked Margo Lanagan’s quite nasty “A Fine Magic”, in which a magician plans revenge on two beautiful if rather vain sisters who have rejected his suit. The magic described is lovely and scary – and the results uncompromising.

Locus review of Dreaming Again (June 2008)

The prize is Margo Lanagan’s “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross”. Uncharacteristically for Lanagan, this is set in an unambiguously science-fictional future, in which human fertility is in ruins (we assume as a result of environmental damage). We witness the protagonist’s encounter with an apparently alien prostitute, then a meeting with a woman he had a one night stand with, which surprisingly has resulted in a viable pregnancy. It’s bitter but not mean, the characters damaged but not evil. Powerful stuff.

Locus review of Extraordinary Engines (August 2008)

At any rate, Extraordinary Engines is indeed quite fun. To begin with my favorites, I really liked two stories: Margo Lanagan’s “Machine Maid” and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fixing Hanover”. Lanagan’s story concerns a young bride come to an isolated Australian ranch. She has to adjust to the loneliness, the stress of leading a household, and to her husband’s attentions, for which she was woefully unprepared. Things get worse when she discovers (hardly to the reader’s surprise) the extra uses her husband can make of the robot maid he bought for her. The story works particularly well because of Lanagan’s fine writing, her capturing of the heroine’s emotions, and the slightly surprising changes she rings on the more or less expected ending.

Locus, February 2010

Another anthology very much worth your time – but possibly hard to find for Americans – is x6, an Australian collection of six novellas – mostly quite long novellas. The best stories have strikingly similar themes. “Sea-Hearts”, by Margo Lanagan, gets to a similar place from a different direction. It set in an isolated fishing community, where girl children don’t seem to be viable. The “Mams”, or wives, come from the sea. We can see where this is going – it’s a selkie story, of course. And it turns on the boys’ realization of their mothers’ state, and their reaction. Perhaps it’s more romantic than Haines’ story – perhaps too optimistic – but to me it made its point, about the dark way men can mistreat women, quite as effectively if not more so, and yet allowed that things needn’t be that way.

Locus, September 2011

I spent last month immersed in three new urban fantasy/paranormal anthologies from Ellen Datlow, and this month I see another: Blood and Other Cravings. The theme is ostensibly vampires, but often not traditional vampires: instead creatures that feed on, or crave, a variety of essential substances, not just blood. The mode is generally horror. As we certainly expect from Datlow, it’s a strong book. John Langan, Kaaron Warren, Richard Bowes, and Lisa Tuttle all shine, but my favorite story is from Margo Lanagan. “Mulberry Boys” plops us down unexplained with a teenaged boy and a sinister older man, chasing a “mulberry boy”. We gather quickly that the older man is paying the villagers where the younger boy lives to allow him to alter a suitable subset of their children to be fed only mulberry leaves, and so to produce, horribly, something valuable called silk. The story portrays powerfully how this changes the “mulberry boys” (and girls), and how the protagonist comes to grips with what this really means – it’s true horror, and yet leaves its characters some agency. (The lack of true agency is perhaps my main complaint about much traditional horror – what sort of story is it if the characters really never have a chance?)

Locus, January 2014

And finally I will mention a very strange Christmas story from Margo Lanagan, We Three Kids, the PS Publishing year-end special. This is the story of Yoseph and Mariam, who have just had a miraculous child – and the three very odd visitors who seem terribly interested in the child. That framework is familiar of course, but the visitors, who first come to a sandal-maker's house and who don't seem quite human, give things an aura of real strangeness and a hint of horror. As ever, Lanagan comes at things from an unusual angle indeed, effectively disquieting.

Locus, December 2017

Finally I must belatedly mention a new collection of stories (many previously collected) from Margo Lanagan, Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories. It’s is certainly a first-rate book, and it includes three new stories. My favorite of these is “Not All Ogre”, about Torro, who is half-ogre, and who comes to with two friends. We get hints of the menace of ogres the townspeople sense, and the changes undergone since the old prince was deposed – and of Torro resisting his ogreish urges. Then the story turns – it is a Sleeping Beauty retelling of a rather ghoulishly horrific, and effective, sort.



Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Today is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's birthday. She's been producing excellent SF -- and mysteries -- for some three decades. Here's a selection of my reviews of her short work in Locus.

Locus, March 2003

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's new story (Asimov's, April) also plays off 9/11, though in the end that's not its focus. The title, "June Sixteenth at Anna's", refers to a work of art: a recording, made from the future, of conversations at a restaurant in Manhattan, on June 16, 2001. Max's wife was one of the subjects of this recording. She has recently died, and Max reminisces about her modest fame, and then "watches" the time recording of her afternoon at Anna's. The modest Sfnal content serves to illuminate a very nicely done, very quiet story of an old man, love, and memory.

Locus, January 2004

Sci Fiction for December features a Lucius Shepard novella plus a Christmas novelette from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Rusch's "Nutball Season" is a pleasant sentimental seasonal story, about a divorced policeman who finds himself guarding a single mother who has threatened to shoot Santa Claus if he comes to her house. I think any reader can see where this story is going, but Rusch gets us to the end nicely.

Locus, September 2004

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Collateral Damage" is set in a future where children are required to take classes using time viewer technology to study war – in hopes that direct experience of its horrors will prevent future wars. A veteran teacher is charged with "inappropriate touching" of a four-year-old girl. The coy way these charges are presented and eventually explained weakens an otherwise thought-provoking piece.

Locus, January 2006

As with many magazines, Sci Fiction often featured Christmas-themed stories in December, and so we see Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Boz”, a sweet if slight piece about a solitary man minding the store, so to speak, on a generation starship, and his reaction to a Christmas present from the crew.

Locus, September 2009

“Broken Windchimes” (Asimov's, September) is about a male soprano who has been raised from early childhood to be a perfect singer for the alien Pané. It seems the Pané love human song, but a very limited version of it, and they have no tolerance whatsoever for imperfection. The main character happens to hear a recording of Louis Armstrong, and shortly thereafter, either corrupted by Armstrong’s highly imperfect voice, or corrupted by the inevitable effects of age, misses a note, which implausibly (to me) ends his career forever. He escapes to a space station with a broader cultural base than he has heretofore known, and, of course, discovers the blues. And a different style of performing … He also ends up learning some surprising secrets about the way children are recruited to be trained as Pané singers. The problem I had with the story, as I’ve suggested, is that at times I simply didn’t believe things. I didn’t believe the Pané fanaticism about perfect soulless singing. I didn’t believe the economic background hinted at. I was unconvinced by the narrator’s convenient enthrallment with the blues. But still – the manipulation works. I was moved by the story, it did affect me. It’s on the ragged edge – I could have just dismissed it in frustration, but Rusch held it together enough that, in the end, I liked it.

Locus, January 2010

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is above all a committed storyteller, and “The Possession of Paavo Deshin” (Analog, January/Febuary) is an absorbing story set in her Retrieval Artist future. Paavo is a young boy on the Moon, afraid of the “ghosts” he sees on occasion – which turn out to be links to his parents who abandoned him when they had to “disappear”. His loyalty is to his adopted parents – even if his father may be a criminal. And that loyalty will be tested. Nothing here is SFnally new enough to fascinate me, but the basic story is quite involving.

Locus, November 2010

The Asimov’s October-November double issue also features a couple of strong novellas. I have not previously liked Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Asimov’s stories that become her 2009 novel Diving into the Wreck, but they have been popular. So I was surprised to quite enjoy “Becoming One With the Ghosts”, set in the same universe, and featuring the main character of the novel, Boss, as an important secondary character. The main character here is Coop, Captain of the warship Ivoire, which has retreated to Sector Base V after a defeat at the hands of the enemy Quurzod. But Sector Base V seems impossibly altered. And soon they encounter strangers, who seem as surprised by the Ivoire’s presence as the Ivoire’s crew are surprised by the changes at the Base. What’s going on is easy enough to guess, but Rusch unspools it effectively -- I enjoyed, and I was tempted to go right off and read the novel.

Locus, February 2013

From the January Lightspeed ... Kristine Kathryn Rusch's “Purity Test” is a somewhat predictable but still affecting tale of a woman whose cruel father, convinced his wife had betrayed him, insists on tests of virginity for his son's prospective brides – and in the end his daughter (the narrator) must face such a test herself, but not before she learns to doubt its value.

Locus, November 2018

One more story this month is of interest to SF readers, especially those connected to fandom, though it’s not SF. “Unity Con” is the latest of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine about Spade, a Microsoft millionaire and a Secret Master of Fandom who helps conventions with financial issues, and Paladin, a young woman who investigates knottier problems, sometimes with Spade’s help. This time Paladin is at Unity Con, a convention intended to promote unity between the factions of fandom that were so noticeably divided by the Sad Puppy fiasco. There’s a dead body – of a fan and writer apparently modeled to an extent on Vox Day, and it looks like murder. Spade wants nothing to do with this mess, but is inveigled into helping, especially when it appears something funny has happened with the con’s finances. The story itself is pretty minor, the solution to the crimes a bit trivial and a bit implausible, but Rusch’s real goal here is to promote her vision of a way forward for fandom.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 61: The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey/Badge of Infamy, by Lester del Rey

Ace Double Reviews, 61: The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey/Badge of Infamy, by Lester del Rey (#76960, 1973, $0.95)

by Rich Horton

Leonard Knapp was born on June 2, 1915, though by the time he began publishing science fiction stories in 1938 he was using the name Lester del Rey, and continued to do so until his death in 1993. He told people various versions of his "true" name, typically a variation on "Ramon Felipe Alvarez-del Rey", and only after his estate was settled was it definitively settled that his birth name was Knapp. Throughout his career he used other pseudonyms as well, most notably Erik Van Lihn and Philip St. John. He made an early mark as a writer with stories like "Helen O'Loy" and "Nerves", each of which appeared in one of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies, but in later years he was often blocked. However, he had a major impact as an editor, at magazines like Space Science Fiction, and more notably at Ballantine Books, which SF/Fantasy imprint was renamed "Del Rey Books" after he and his wife Judy-Lynn. Lester Del Rey's most famous discovery was Terry Brooks -- he acquired and edited The Sword of Shannara and it became a smash bestseller. On the occasion of what would have been his 104th birthday, here's a look at his only Ace Double.

As I've noted before, many of the SFWA Grand Masters published in Ace Doubles. One of my goals is to review Ace Doubles by each of the Grand Masters who did have an Ace Double. Lester Del Rey is one of the interesting cases. His only Ace Double was one of the last. This book appeared in 1973, as the series was limping to a conclusion. Interestingly, this same pairing appeared earlier as a double book from a different publisher, one of the more unusual "double" series ever. This was the Galaxy Magabooks, put out by Galaxy magazine between 1963 and 1965. These "books" were in the format of issues of Galaxy, and they paired two short novels by the same author back to back (not dos-a-dos). The Sky Is Falling/Badge of Infamy was the first such book. The other two were Theodore Sturgeon's "... And My Fear is Great ..." paired with "Baby is Three" (two very short novels indeed, really indisputably novellas), and Jack Williamson's After World's End paired with The Legion of Time. (You can't fault the choice of authors -- two Grand Masters and the third author, Sturgeon, clearly the best of the three, not a Grand Master due only to a relatively early death.)

(Cover by Virgil Finlay(?))
Both of Del Rey's stories had appeared earlier in magazines. "Badge of Infamy" was in the June 1957 Satellite. The version in the 1973 Ace Double, presumably the same as the 1963 Galaxy Magabook, is about 33,000 words. The Ace Double includes a note to the effect that the 1957 publication was "shorter and earlier". Earlier is undeniably the case, but the story took up 88 pages in that issue of Satellite -- I haven't seen that issue, but for 88 pages to translate to about 33,000 words would be about right (counting illustrations). The Sky is Falling, on the other hand, is definitely revised from its earlier appearance. This was under the title "No More Stars" in Beyond Fantasy Fiction, July 1954 (a sister publication of Galaxy). "No More Stars" was published as by "Charles Satterfield", a pseudonym generally associated with Frederik Pohl. The references I have cite "No More Stars" as by Pohl and Del Rey in collaboration. It is about 17,500 words long -- The Sky is Falling is twice that length, a radical revision throughout. (Though the basic plot is virtually identical -- but there are many new scenes, and expansions to existing scenes.)


This caused me to wonder about stories that first appeared as collaborations, but were expanded to novels under only one name. Three other examples come immediately to mind: James Blish and Damon Knight's story "The Weakness of RVOG" became Blish's novel VOR, Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop's novelette "Tomorrow's Children" (Anderson's first published story, and Waldrop's only story -- and I wonder how much he really contributed) became Anderson's novel Twilight World, and Samuel R. Delany and James Sallis's novelette "They Fly at Çiron" became Delany's novel They Fly at Çiron. Anyone have any further examples?

 [I wrote this in 2004 or so -- while I stand by my critical evaluations below I've softened on my disputes with the Grand Master decision in this and other cases, partly because SFWA has gone to one per year instead of a maximum of six per decade.] I am on record as not approving of the decision to make Lester Del Rey a Grand Master. I think a tenuous case can be made based on his editorial influence. He was editor of several minor magazines in the 50s, under various names (and he used to publish his own work under pseudonyms, so that as "Philip St. John" he edited SF Adventures and published "Lester Del Rey", and as Lester Del Rey he edited Space and published "St. John". Much more importantly, he was very influential in the 70s and 80s as an editor for Ballantine, and the Ballantine imprint Del Rey was named jointly after he and his wife Judy Lynn. In particular, Lester Del Rey discovered Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara, edited it rigorously, and made it a bestseller. In so doing he was crucial to popularizing the Tolkien-influenced subgenre we now call EFP, for "extruded fantasy product". So much for Del Rey the editor -- but my main interest is always in the writer. As a writer he was responsible for two stories in the SF Hall of Fame -- one a very good novella about a nuclear accident, "Nerves"; the other a forgettable and schmaltzy story about a robot "wife", "Helen O'Loy". Besides those stories there were a few more decent efforts ("For I am a Jealous People", "The Day is Done", "To Avenge Man", not much else); and several novels, many of which showed a quirky imagination and a desire to explore unpopular ideas, but none of which are really memorable. He really didn't publish all that much considering the length of his career. To my mind, it simply doesn't add up to a Grand Master's quality of work, nor even quantity.

Still, Del Rey was a pro. And he was a decent writer, and a writer who generally made an effort to have something to say. So both the stories in this Ace Double are readable, and they have some intriguing aspects. But neither is particularly special.

(Cover by Alex Schomburg)
Badge of Infamy opens with "the pariah who was Dr. Daniel Feldman" in a cheap flophouse. He diagnoses a man dying, but can do nothing for him. It seems that medical care is strictly regulated in this future -- and that anyone who performs medical care, or, worse, research, outside of an approved hospital will be severely punished. If the patient survives -- or, indeed, has his life save, as (we learn) in the case that made Feldman a pariah -- the punishment is loss of license. If the patient dies, even if death was inevitable, capital punishment applies. It seems that Feldman was a rising star in the profession before treating a friend who was injured in the backwoods -- now he has been abandoned, even by his wife, a doctor herself.

The dead man in the flophouse turns out to have a certificate as a spaceship worker, and Feldman leaps at the chance to assume the other's identity and take a job on a ship heading for Mars. He is found out and expelled on Mars. There he learns that the maximally evil Earth guilds are squeezing the Martians (i.e. human colonists, -- the old Martians are long dead), and those Martians in the rebellious villages in particular. There is only one hospital on Mars, and so treatment is very hard to come by. Feldman becomes a secret doctor. He faces death if he is discovered, and his problem is exacerbated by the fact that his wife has come to Mars to set up a second hospital.

He discovers a long-incubating Martian plague, that likely has already spread to Earth. Unless a cure can be found, the populations of both planets will be decimated. But when he tries to alert authorities to this danger, he is arrested for performing illegal research. He is sentenced to die.

Well -- what do you think? Will he really die? Will his psychotic wife realize that her support of the psychotic rules about medical research is stupid? Will she have to get the plague first to realize her mistake? Will the Martians rebel? C'mon -- we all know the answers! The basic problem with the story is that the bad guys are so absurdly evull that there is no believing in them. As 50s SF adventure it works OK -- it's quite competently done, reads swiftly, holds the interest, but it doesn't really make much sense at all.

(Cover by Vidmer)
The Sky Is Falling is on the whole a more ambitious and interesting work, though in the final analysis
not really successful either. Dave Hanson wakes up in pain. His last memory is of a bulldozer at a construction site in Canada falling onto him. If he has been saved, this hospital room seems strange, with people making strange gestures and wearing strange clothes, and talking about strange things.

He eventually learns that he is in some other world. He has died and been reconstituted for his engineering talent -- it appears that this world is a Ptolemaic universe, complete with a physical sky on which the stars and planets and sun are fixed. The sky is cracked, and they need someone to fix it. Unfortunately, Dave Hanson isn't the right guy -- his uncle David Hanson is the engineering genius, Dave is just a computer geek.

But he makes a brave try, then is kidnapped by the opposition, which believes that it is destiny that the sky crack open, and the world "hatch" from its egg. He is accompanied by a beautiful woman who misperformed a spell and ended up spelling herself in love with him by mistake. (Alas that she is a "certified and registered virgin".) It's not clear which side is right and which wrong, but perhaps it doesn't matter, until it occurs to someone that Dave's computer knowledge, combined with magical principles and an orrery, might actually be enough to repair the sky.

This is also pretty goofy stuff, but also kind of original. It gets points for the originality, for trying something new. But in execution it is sort of slapdash, and never really convincing.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alec Nevala-Lee

Another birthday today is that of Alec Nevala-Lee. Alec is doubtless best known to most people as the author of the current Hugo nominee for Best Related Work, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is a look at Campbell's life and career and influence along with the careers of and his interactions with three of his most famous (or infamous) and important contributors. It's a wonderful book, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the history of the field, or indeed in 20th Century America.

He has also written a number of very intriguing stories for Analog over the past decade and more. I've reviewed a number of these for Locus, and a collection of those reviews is appended. His latest story, "At the Fall", from the May-June Analog, is also very fine, and my review is in the June Locus, due out any day now.

Locus, June 2011

In the June Analog I found Alec Nevala-Lee’s “Kawataro” interesting. Like a couple other stories this month, this is based on fairy tales to an extent, less a true tale in this case than the Japanese fantastical water creature normally called a “kappa”, but also sometimes called a “kawataro”. Here a cameraman comes to a village of “burakumin” – historically low caste people – to help a linguist who is studying the independently evolved sign language the local deaf population has created. All this is under threat because the village is likely to be combined with a neighboring village. Another threat is embodied in the disappearance or murder of a few people – attributed by some to a “kawataro”. As this is Analog, we expect an SFnal explanation, and to an extent we get one, but not the first one that came to my mind!

Locus, November 2011

Alec Nevala-Lee has been a nice recent discovery at Analog. His latest is “The Boneless One” in the November issue, about an expedition to the Bermuda Triangle (well, almost) in search of scientific discoveries – and profit and fame. A potentially remarkable discovery – luminous octopuses – becomes a bone of contention when their tight schedule suggests they should turn back. The contention turns murderous – and at the heart of it all is a science-fictional idea based on real science. A solid piece of SF, and a darker story than usual for Analog.

Locus, February 2012

At Analog for March, Alec Nevala-Lee again shows his range, in “Ernesto” taking us to the Spanish Civil War, and Ernest Hemingway, who witnesses a church at which seeming miraculous cures have occurred. The turns out to be a political problem as well as a religious (or scientific?) question, and the story lays out the political background effectively while giving a nice Sfnal treatment of the miracles.

Locus, August 2012

The best story in the September Analog is Alec Nevala-Lee's “The Voices”. January is a young woman who hears voices, as did her grandmother. The older woman committed suicide, and January, desperate to escape them, has agreed to join a research project using new technology to stimulate the brain to stop her auditory hallucinations. Now January's hallucinations are quite specific – particularly a familiar voice called Elfric, who sternly warns her against participating in this project. But she continues, with some success. Then she meets a young colleague of the leader of the project, who has been analyzing recording of the voices she hears – something that rather surprises her. This is an SF story, so we expect to learn that the “voices” are real, and that they will be important to January – and so it turns out, though not quite in the way I might have expected. I liked best the delicately spooky twist towards the end, that I suppose I should have seen coming.

Locus, August 2013

I don't want to suggest that Analog is abandoning its core mission. For one thing, “The Oracle” (and “Tethered”) are both quite traditional in their Sfnal subject matter, and any shift they signal is more a matter of attitude – and also something as simple as roster – the authors are new names for the magazine, and that in itself signals change. And I should note, Schmidt was never shy about developing new writers. One of Schmidt's best recent discoveries, Alec Nevala-Lee, is back in July-August with “The Whale God”, a fine story set in Vietname during the war. One of Nevala-Lee's idea engines is to present a situation which suggests a fantastical or science-fictional premise, and then to turn the idea on its head, not so much by debunking the central premise, or explaining it away in mundane terms, but by giving it a different, perhaps more scientifically rigorous, science-fictional explanation. Here an American officer, a doctor, is presented with a problem – a beached whale, which is complicated because the villagers revere whales, particularly “the whale god”. He has other problems – feelings of being watched, and additional discomfort. In an attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of the villagers, he decides on a risky plan to try to save the whale – a plan complicated when more whales are beached. The resolution is low key, only modestly science-fictional, but the story is well told and well-characterized, with a subdued theme inviting reflections on the whole American adventure in Vietnam, and inevitably on other military actions.

Locus, April 2014

The May Analog is a very solid issue. The lead story, “Cryptids”, by Alec Nevala-Lee, is about an expedition to a an obscure island near New Guinea. It's lead by Karen Vale, a respected scientist, but it's sponsored, to some extent, by the pharmaceutical company for which Amanda Lurie, a former student of hers, works. Karen is just interested in mapping bird species in the New Guinea islands, but Amanda is looking for the source of the batrachotoxins found in a bird, the Hooded Pitohui, because the complex alkaloids offer a lot of pharmaceutical potential.  The bird eats a certain beetle, and the question is, “What does the beetle eat?”. A small group tracks the birds to an uninhabited island … where they find something much more interesting, and dangerous. Cool stuff.

Locus, October 2015

Alec Nevala-Lee's “Stonebrood” (Analog, October), is also interesting, about Marius, who is working a project to map the tunnels left by Pennsylvania coal-mining in an effort to effectively put out a long-burning underground fire. Marius has a dark secret in his own past, for which he did time, and this seems to be intertwined with a somewhat hostile ex-con he's employing, and with strange sounds he starts hearing, as well as the tiny drones used in the underground mapping. The resolution is rational, as usual with Nevala-Lee, and interesting enough, though it is Marius' personal history that ends up being more impactful.

Locus, February 2017

Alec Nevala-Lee takes on climate change, wind power, and bird behavior in “The Proving Ground” in the January-February Analog. Haley Kabua is a woman of Marshall Islands ancestry, part of a group trying to recolonize the islands, mostly sunk due to sea level increases. They have built a seastead, and our adding wind towers for their energy needs, when birds start acting very strangely. A couple of consultants for the corporation that has been sponsoring their effort are investigating. The mystery turns on unexpected effects of a sort of Hail Mary attempt at carbon sequestration. The story is an effective mix of interesting scientific speculation, and plausible near future political machinations, with a realistic resolution.

Locus, May 2018

Analog has also been on a hot streak lately, and this issue is no exception. The lead novelette, “The Spires” by Alec Nevala-Lee, offers an interesting explanation to an old Fortean mystery – the appearance in the Alaskan sky of images of a distant city, and wraps a strong character-based adventure around it. Bill Lawson is a bush pilot in 1930s Alaska, and he is hired by a couple to fly them up to Glacier Bay. They are trying to study the phenomenon of the city images, and that’s where one old prospector claimed to have seen them. He takes them there (illegally), and then a storm damages the plane. He finds himself battling not just nature and the problem of fixing his aircraft, but his own dark temptations, and his skepticism about the couple’s beliefs. The mystery stays mostly a mystery, with a plausible and SFnal explanation hinted at.

"Newish" Bestseller: The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank

a review by Rich Horton

This blog is ostensibly devoted to (besides SF related subjects) "Old Bestsellers" and "Forgotten Books". But sometimes I have to cheat, especially when, Due To Weddings, I haven't finished my latest old book. So I've exhumed a review I did of a book that was quite a success when it first appeared 20 years ago. Alas, the author has published just one more book, a collection of short stories in 2005, and as a result, I sense this book may be in danger of being truly a "forgotten book", even so soon. And it's not a bad book, so I'm happy to bring it some notice. I wrote this in 2002 or so.

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank, attracted a fair amount of praise when it appeared in 1999, and I believe also sold very well. I had noted it in the back of my mind as potentially interesting. At my brother's house last month I noticed a copy on his bookshelf. It seems his wife had read it and enjoyed it. I started into the first story, upon which my brother asked, half-jocularly (but probably no more than half,) "Why are you reading THAT! It's a chick book." Which indeed it is, but a good chick book is good reading for men as well!

At any rate, as if it were a message to me, I saw a copy in a remainder store later in our vacation trip, so I bought it. It's a collection of closely linked stories, what would be called a fixup and marketed as a novel in the SF field. As a mainstream book, it is genteelly labelled "Fiction", no mention of whether it's stories or a novel. In fact all the stories but one are about Jane Ravenal, a young woman from New Jersey, who becomes an editorial assistant and then something in advertising in New York. (The other story is given a tenuous link to Jane (it's set in another apartment in the building she is living in, and in a later story we are allowed to see Jane witness an event from this story, though she doesn't know at all what's going on).) The unifying link is, not surprisingly, her search for, well, let's just call it true love. The stories are closely enough linked to make the collection work as sort of a novel, and indeed bits and pieces of the later stories wouldn't make sense without having read the earlier stories.

The opening story is set at the Ravenal family's summer cottage. Jane is 14 or so. Her 20 year old brother brings home a 28 year old girlfriend, and we witness the arc of that relationship through Jane's eyes. The next story tells of a somewhat disastrous vacation with her first live-in boyfriend. A couple stories tell of various stages in her affair with a much older novelist and editor. There is the unrelated story, a mother telling of her son and his curious relationship with his ex-wife and his new lover. One story tells of an affair with a hunky but ultimately unsatisfactory man. Interleaved with all of these are other aspects of her life, particularly her relationship with her parents (generally quite good). The final story, inevitably, is about the beginnings of what seems destined to be "true love".

I quite liked the book. Jane's voice is well-maintained. It's funny, well-observed, breezy, at times perhaps a bit too much so. The last story was a bit pat -- we know going in how it's going to end, pretty much. (Though it does contain a nicely judged dissection/parody of a book clearly meant to be the notorious The Rules, that book which advised women to act like idiots to "catch" a man.")

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Needle, Iceworld, and a couple stories by Hal Clement

Today would have been Harry Clement Stubbs' 97th birthday. He wrote SF, of course, as Hal Clement. I haven't written a lot about his work -- I read the greater part of it before I was writing. But here are a few short things, about his first two novels (which I read in serialization), and a couple of lesser known shorter works.

Needle

(Cover by Paul Orban)
And finally, I read Hal Clement's Needle, which I had never before read.  It's pretty decent, the story of a shape-changing, symbiotic, alien who comes to Earth chasing a criminal of his race.  To get around, he needs to colonize a human, and he chooses a 15-year old boy, Bob Kinnaird.  Unfortunately, Bob isn't a permanent resident of the Pacific Island near which the aliens crashed -- so the alien, called simply The Hunter, must find a way to communicate with Bob, and then return to the island to search for the other member of his race. The story turns on the alien deducing which human must be carrying the other alien -- I'm proud to say that I figured out who it was for the same reasons the alien did.

One problem, though: I read it in the Astounding serialization, May and June 1949.  It occurred to me that it was a bit short for a full-length novel -- only 40,000 words.  So I had a glance at the book -- which it turns out is almost twice the length of the serial -- 78,000 words or so.  Obviously, I haven't yet read the "Needle" most people are familiar with. Oh well, I'll get to it sometime. [I did, eventually, and I think it's a successful expansion, not a padding.]

Iceworld

(Cover by H. R. Van Dongen)
I read  Iceworld, which was Hal Clement's second novel, in its serialization, Astounding for October,
November, and December 1951.  The trick premise is that the title "iceworld" is Earth: the main character is an alien drug investigator, Sallman Ken, from a hot planet where he breathes sulfur.  Earth is unimaginably cold to him, but it's also the source for "tofacco", a terribly addictive drug (to the aliens) being smuggled in by the bad guy.  Ken is hired (he's working undercover) by the bad guy to try to duplicated Earth conditions on Mercury. (The sun side of Mercury is hot enough for the aliens (in 1951, we still though Mercury kept one face always to the Sun).)  He devises a means of descending to Earth's surface, in a special suit, and makes contact with the remote family that has been trading cigarettes for precious metals. Naturally, he devises a way to foil the bad guy in the end.  It's kind of engaging, but a bit silly, and really not very plausible to me, even using 1951 science.  I noted that Clement, a high school science teacher, makes his main character an alien high school science teacher, recruited as a drug investigator because of his "generalist" science abilities.

Astounding, July 1946

"Cold Front" is about a mildly rascally crew of humans who come to an alien planet, intending to open trade with the locals. They represent themselves as official envoys of the human Federation, but in fact they hope to establish exclusive contracts before revealing their discovery and status as a fait accompli. But what to the aliens want? It turns out the planet is uncomfortably cold, and a meteorologist proposes various elaborate schemes to alter the climate. But the aliens reject all these, and seem ready to have nothing more to do with the humans. The story seems set to revolve around the human criminals being unmasked -- but in the end it turns on a minor and somewhat silly scientific detail, and on the aliens' concern about their "inferiority". One of Clement's lesser outings, I thought

If, May 1963

"The Green World" is set on a planet colonized by humans but regarded as anomalous. It seems to be only 40,000,000 years old but it has life that doesn't seem likely to have evolved in that short a time. It also has some extremely dangerous fauna. A small scientific team travels to a remote site to study the history of this world geologically and archaeologically. They find some intriguing stuff, including ambiguous evidence of an old city, of a fossilized intelligent-seeming being, and of possible technological remains. The ultimate explanation, seemed to me, was just a tad, well, anti-climatic.

Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999

Also good was a very long story by Hal Clement, "Exchange Rate". Like many of Clement's stories, this was about a dangerous expedition on an alien planet. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Geoffrey Landis (plus his novel Mars Crossing)

Birthday Review: Stories of Geoffrey Landis (plus his novel Mars Crossing)

Today is also Geoffrey Landis' birthday. He's really good at short hard SF, and here's a set of my Locus reviews of his short fiction (alas, not as much as I'd like!) I've also added my review of his only novel, Mars Crossing.

Locus, July 2002

The best of the many short stories in the July-August Analog is Geoffrey A. Landis' "Falling Onto Mars", a cynical but still hopeful story of the founding of Martian civilization in a clash between a scientific base and the prisoners that Earth has cruelly abandoned on the barely habitable planet.

Locus, November 2002

The October/November issue of Asimov's is another impressive one. Effective if old-fashioned is Geoffrey A. Landis' "At Dorado", about a barmaid at a wormhole station. There is a wreck, and she fears her lover might be a victim. All this, and the general shape of the working out of the story, is familiar, going back to countless sea stories, but Landis adds a stark, moving, twist based on the physics of wormhole travel.

Locus, February 2004

DAW's "monthly magazine" of themed anthologies offers a reliable if seldom exciting source of new SF and Fantasy. 2004 opens with one of the stronger books in the series, Gregory Benford's Microcosms, about closed environments, "small worlds", whether they be small universes, computer simulations, asteroid habitats, or something else. I  quite enjoyed Geoffrey A. Landis's very short "Ouroboros" (a reprint from Asimov's in 1997), again a clever and twisty piece, about a computer-simulation of a universe -- or several.

Locus, October 2005

Financial manipulation is also at the heart of Geoffrey Landis’s fine “Betting on Eureka” (Asimov's, October-November). Eureka is the name given an asteroid said to be stuffed with valuable ores – but the two discoverers are both dead. The narrator is an information broker, and he encounters a down on his luck miner who says he was the partner of the other two – and that he can figure out where they must have found the rock. Why is he telling this story? Well, information is valuable, and so especially is its effect on financial markets. This is a clever and amusing story.

Locus, January 2008

The January-February Analog double issue includes an update of Ross Rocklynne’s classic “The Men in the Mirror” by Geoffrey A. Landis: “The Man in the Mirror”, in this case about one asteroid miner trapped in a perfect mirror.

Locus, September 2010

Geoffrey Landis offers a novella in Asimov’s for September. “The Sultan of the Clouds” is told by David Tinkerman, a technician who is a sort of companion or assistant to Leah Hamakawa, a brilliant woman and terraforming expert. David, of course, desperately loves Leah, who barely notices him. They live in a colonized future Solar System, mostly dominated by the descendants of a few people or corporations that succeeded in staying in space. One of these people is the scion of the Nordwald-Gruenbaum family, which controls much of Venus. He summons Leah to his floating city in Venus, for mysterious reasons. Isolated from Leah, David learns something of the real politics of Venus, complexified not only by cities independent of the Nordwald-Gruenbaums, but also by the social structure of Venus, built around “braid marriages”. David also learns that the heir to the Nordwald-Grueneman holdings has some interesting plans for Leah, both in a personal and scientific sense. It’s fascinating and colorful stuff, with some interesting social details and a neat conclusion based on a hard SF idea (literally).

Mars Crossing, by Geoffrey Landis

Geoffrey Landis' first novel is Mars Crossing. Add another to the huge list of recent Mars books.  The setup for this book is kind of depressing: the world is going to pot. Two expeditions, one Brazilian and one American, have made it to Mars but have failed to return. There is only one more chance: the backup American expedition can go, though only with gimmicky financing (a lottery for a chance to accompany the expedition). An international crew (one Thai, one Canadian, one Brazilian, and three Americans including the lottery winner) successfully lands on Mars, but almost immediately disaster again strikes. The vehicle that was sent in advance, to brew up the fuel for the return, fails spectacularly, killing one member of the expedition and losing all the return fuel. They realize that their only hope for return is to trek to the North Pole, where the Brazilian return vehicle was left, and try to find a way to adapt that vehicle to their needs.

The trek is exciting and dangerous and very well described. Landis has great fun with putting obstacles (literally and figuratively) in his characters' way. The landscape of Mars is extremely interestingly described and so is the technology.

The characters are a bit less successful. They seem drawn from bestseller-land -- appropriately diverse, appropriately screwed up, full of dark secrets in their pasts.  Landis works very hard at trying to portray each character -- to give each character a set of tics and problems, and in so doing I felt that he protesteth too much, and that the effort showed, the sweat showed. They did not come alive for me. Also redolent of bestseller-land were the very short chapters -- seeming to be sized to fit presumed short attention spans. It should be said that that technique seemed to work in making the book a rapid read. At any rate, in terms of characterization and writing style, and also to some extent in the care lavished on presenting the technology, I thought the book mildly reminiscent of Ben Bova's recent Insert Name of Planet Here series.

I should say that in the final analysis I quite enjoyed reading Mars Crossing.  Relative to the best of Landis' short fiction it's a bit of a disappointment, but looked at as a first novel, and as a piece of hyper-hard SF, it's pretty good. 

Birthday Review: A Posse of Princesses and Senrid, by Sherwood Smith

Today is Sherwood Smith's birthday. I've known Sherwood online for a couple of decades, but we first met in person last fall in Montreal, at Jo Walton's immensely enjoyable convention Scintillation. Sherwood signed my copy of A Posse of Princesses there. I've read most of her books, many of which are set in the same secondary world she's been playing with since her teens. Last year on this date I posted a review of Inda, a wonderful novel. Today I'm posting reviews of a couple of lesser works from the same milieu, though when I less "lesser" I should emphasize that they are still extremely enjoyable. I've appended a few reviews I did for Locus of her short fiction.

A Posse of Princesses, by Sherwood Smith

(YA Angst (Norilana), ISBN: 978-1-934648-26-1, $22.95, 300 pages, hc) March 2008

A review by Rich Horton

The new small press Norilana has been very busy lately, and one of the best things they are doing is releasing a number of Sherwood Smith Young Adult stories under their “YA Angst” imprint. The second of these I’ve seen is A Posse of Princesses. This is a confection, a delight, just a good deal of sensible fun.

Rhis is the younger daughter of the King of Nym, a small mountainous country on a fantasy world that at least resembles the worlds of Smith’s other novels, such as Crown Duel, Inda, and the Wren series. Her brother and his dull, strict, wife are to be the rulers after her father, and her older sister will be the Court Magician. So, like younger children of royalty throughout history, Rhis’s destiny seems a politically useful marriage. But Rhis is a romantic girl, fascinated by ballads and adventure stories, to the disgust of her sister-in-law. And furthermore Nym is isolated and unconventional, and Rhis doesn’t really know anyone outsider her family. A chance to remedy this situation comes when the Crown Prince of the much larger country Vesarja invites a large group of nearby royalty and nobles to a few weeks visit. It is clear that Prince Lios is looking for a wife. And even if Lios is not the man, surely there will be other eligible young men in attendance.

So Rhis journeys to Vesarja, accompanied by her sister-in-law’s younger sister Shera, whom Rhis is delighted to learn is not at all the stuffy prude her (much-vetted) letters made her appear. The two new friends come to Vesarja, and Rhis immediately falls hard for the devastatingly handsome Prince Lios. Shera, who already has a boyfriend at home, seems ready to run through several more boys herself … Rhis learns a lot about herself quickly, as she must deal with her feelings for a young man she hasn’t really even met, plus handle the nasty but beautiful Princess Iardith, while also befriending other youths, such as the language-handicapped cousin of the Prince. Then everything changes when Iardith is abducted, and Rhis and her new friends decide to mount a rescue attempt all on their own.

It will be clear that in some ways this is a featherlight concoction. Certainly Rhis is a character for the reader to happily inhabit – she is honest, talented but not absurdly a genius, very nice. And her story has aspects of, well, convenience and luck. But not to a silly degree. I was pulled by the story, and I was happy to root for Rhis. A Posse of Princesses isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a very enjoyable and grounded YA fantasy.

Senrid, by Sherwood Smith

(Norilana, ISBN: 978-1-934169-62-9, $24.95, 447 pages, hc) May 2007

a review by Rich Horton

Sherwood Smith originally wrote this novel at the age of 15. To some extent this shows – it is very Crown Duel, and last year’s very fine Inda (which is set as far as I can tell some centuries before Senrid, in the same kingdom). Senrid is the boy King of the warlike land Marloven Hess. His wicked uncle is Regent, and has impressed on him a need to avoid weakness. Signs of weakness include altruism, romance, and white magic. The Regent wishes to reconquer territory Marloven Hess controlled in the past, such as the tiny and peaceful Vasande Leror, also ruled by a boy King, but one whose strength is white magic. After Vasande Leror magically resists one invasion, Senrid is pressured to kidnap and execute the children who foiled his plans, but a daring rescue saves the day. In the process Senrid is sucked out of his kingdom, and the Regent takes over. Senrid must learn to cooperate with his former enemies, as well as learning the value of the rule of law and fairness, in order to depose his Uncle. The story is an enjoyable read, if not as good as for instance Inda. It is a bit too episodic, the magic at times seems too arbitrary, the characters are well enough depicted but not as well-rounded as they might be, and such details as the invented slang grate at times. Still, I liked it on the whole, and I’ll be glad to see further tales of this group (though I hope the kids grow up!)
much a story of kids (magically kept prepubescent) having adventures in a fantasy kingdom – with one or two characters (significantly named) who seem to be the author’s counterparts, even to the point of actually coming from Earth. It is set in a world she began dealing with aged 8, and in which she has set many of her novels, including the fabulous

Locus, December 2005

Lone Star Stories is approaching two years of regular bimonthly web publication. From issue #11, October, I think I liked Sherwood Smith’s “The Hero and the Princess” best, though Stephanie Burgis and Jay Lake also contribute good work. Smith’s is a down-to-earth story about a young man who wants to be a hero, and his encounter with a woman who shows him that real heroism is more complex than just good swordsmanship.

Locus, April 2007

Another new online magazine is Coyote Wild. The first issue has a generous helping of fiction, including a novelette and even a novella. The latter is Sherwood Smith’s “Summer Thunder”, actually part of a novel project, but successful on its own. Long peaceful Colend is menaced by a neighbor, perhaps simply because the neighbor prince is obsessed with Lasva, the beautiful sister of the Colend’s Queen. But two other admirers of Lasva are fortunately at hand, and in their own different ways work to forestall the plans of the neighboring prince.

Firebirds review (Locus, April 2007)

Sherwood Smith's "Beauty" is a next-generation sequel to her wonderful Crown Duel, as an self-conscious young princess is kidnapped by a revived villain from that novel, and learns something about inner beauty and inner strength, and redemption.

Lace and Blade review (Fantasy Magazine)

A particular highlight is Sherwood Smith’s novella “The Rule of Engagement”, in which a woman is kidnapped by a man who hopes to marry her, and must find a way to engineer her escape without causing political issues, or harm to the man’s retainers. The story is satisfying in its scope, and hints at a fascinating backstory … all part of a grand fantastical history that Smith has been elaborating since childhood, and which is the source of her excellent Inda novels for DAW.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Matthew Hughes

I have enjoyed Matthew Hughes' stories set in a version of Jack Vance's Dying Earth milieu for a long time. Today is Hughes' birthday -- here's a selection of my reviews of his work (by no means representing all his work!)

Locus, March 2004

The March F&SF opens with "Mastermindless", an amusing science fantasy novelet by Matt Hughes, set "one eon before Jack Vance's Dying Earth". Everyone in the city has been rendered nearly broke, ugly, and stupid. Unfortunately, this includes our hero, which severely hampers his investigation into the cause. It's quite fun, and I'm looking forward to the promised future stories in the series.

Locus, June 2004

The two novelets in the June F&SF are both colorful adventure fantasies, and plenty of fun. Matthew Hughes's "A Little Learning" is about Guth Bandar's examination to become a scholar of the Institute of Historical Inquiry. He must travel through the Events, Landscapes and Situations of the noösphere to the Blessed Isles. But a rival sabotages his route, and Guth is left with little option but to use what small knowledge he has of alternate routes through the noösphere to try to find a shortcut. His adventures are amusing indeed, and cleverly imagined. Hughes is a welcome new find.

Locus, August 2004

Also in the August F&SF is another amusing story by Matthew Hughes, "Relics of the Thim", in which Hengis Hapthorn investigates some very plausible looking relics of an ancient civilization, suspicious because they have been produced by a known con artist – though authenticated by a respected scholar. What he learns is a bit unexpected.

Locus, October 2004

The men show well too, in the September Asimov's. Matthew Hughes might seem like a "hot new writer", but actually his first novel appeared in Canada ten years ago. Still, he has just recently come to well-deserved wide attention. "The Hat Thing" is a sharp time-travel short-short, about the difficulty of really fitting in in the past.

Locus, February 2005

The highlights of the February F&SF are two rather light-toned novelets. "Inner Huff", by Matthew Hughes, is another story of Guth Bandar exploring the noösphere. This is the human collective unconscious – source of stories and tropes. He is researching the siren songs, but ends up captured by a version of Circe, and turned into a pig. He escapes to another part of the noösphere – but as a pig – and there are some interesting pig stories out there ...

Locus, June 2005

The June F&SF features Matthew Hughes "The Gist Hunter", along with a cover illustrating the story, also by Matt Hughes (not the same guy!) I think this may be Hughes's best Hengis Hapthorn story to date. Hapthorn is engaged by one Turgut Therobar to defend him in a case of "murder and aggravated debauchery". Therobar is a very respectable man, but people have gone missing at his estate, and a young woman has been violated outrageously. Hapthorn visits the estate, and finds things are quite strange. In particular, a rival he once insulted is present, and seems to be working to prove a theory involving "gist" that Hapthorn regarded as nonsensical. To be sure, there is also an extremely attractive and surprisingly enthusiastic young woman ... Let's leave the unraveling of mysteries to the story – it's very enjoyable work indeed.

Locus, April 2005

In Matthew Hughes's, "Finding Sajessarian" (F&SF, April), the title character is willing to pay Hengis Hapthorn to find him -- as a dry run for his anticipated disappearance subsequent to a planned crime. Hengis, with the help of his remarkable AI assistant, has little trouble finding him, but Sajesssarian, after all, is a criminal, and has little desire to pay up, instead leaving Hapthorn in a sticky situation. Hengis, and the integrator, and another assistant, are equal to the problem, of course, and readily figure out what is truly happening -- but not without certain, one feels, irrevocable changes occurring in the relationship between Hengis and his much put upon assistant.

Locus, August 2005

Matthew Hughes's "Thwarting Jabbi Gloond" (F&SF, August) goes back to the beginning of Henghis Hapthorn's career. Our hero is rather undistinguished student, but he shows a certain intuitive ability, which causes his friend Torsten Olabian to suggest a career as a discriminator. Hapthorn is skeptical, but then Olabian has cause to ask for his friend's help in dealing with a man who is sponging off his father's estate. Hapthorn's investigations uncover some unsavory and unexpected secrets about Olabian's father and his fortune, involving some rather interesting aliens – perhaps not an unmixed result, but one that at any rate confirms Hapthorn's career direction. This is enjoyable work that accomplishes, I think, just what it is attempting – but it isn't terribly ambitious set next to Hughes's other Hapthorn stories, nor his Guth Bandar stories.

Locus, July 2006

Matthew Hughes is reliably entertaining in “The Meaning of Luff” (F&SF, July), a tale from the early life of Luff Imbry, who by the time of the novel Black Brillion was a reformed con man. Not so here – as he takes advantage of a fellow conperson’s financial need to take the lion’s share of a money making opportunity involving a device that, apparently accurately, reveals the ultimate value of any person’s life. The title tells us where this is going – and Luff’s response to such knowledge is quite in character.

Locus, March 2007

The February and March issues of F&SF each feature a nice cover taken from the same story: the two-part serial “The Helper and His Hero”, by Matthew Hughes. This story represents the culmination of Hughes’s series of stories about the noönaut Guth Bandar. A noönaut is an explorer of the collective unconsciousness: the source material (or perhaps the collective resultant) of story and myth. Bandar is by now middle-aged, and his noönaut career has long since been frustrated – as he has learned, because he is being saved for an important role. Now he takes a vacation to investigate gravitational anomalies in the Swept: a mostly uninhabited plain, the result of a long-past invasion by the alien hive-mind called the Dree. Most of the travelers are victims of a new disease, the Lassitude, and their companions, in hopes of a cure. But Bandar quickly gathers that one disturbing pair is not what it seems. In particular, the young aristocrat of the pair soon evinces great interest in Bandar’s ability as a noönaut – and, worst, this young man shows scary ability in that area himself. More, he seems hardly a real person – closer to an archetype, specifically the Hero archetype. And Bandar, it appears, is to be cast in the role of Helper to this Hero – in a desperate attempt to forestall another Dree invasion. The story is enjoyable enough, but seems just a bit sketchy. And the reason for that is simple, I think: this is exactly the story told in Hughes’s novel Black Brillion. Only the novel was told from the point of view of the young “Hero”, Baro Harkless, while this story is told from Bandar’s POV. It is interesting seeing the tale from another angle, but I must say I find the longer novel a more satisfying experience. (The serial is itself, I believe, just barely novel length according to SFWA’s definition.)

Locus, June 2007

Matthew Hughes's "Sweet Trap" (F&SF, June) is reprinted from a limited edition of his 2006 novel Majestrum. Henghis Hapthorn, along with his new familiar and also with is other self, the magically talented Osk Rievor, is hired to track down a missing man. The man bought an unexpectedly cheap spaceship then disappeared. Henghis and his often reluctant allies manage to track down the disappeared man, and find the unexpected criminal behind it all. It's a pleasant story but nothing special.

Locus, December 2009

Postscripts #19 is subtitled Enemy of the Good. So, yes, I know it’s officially an anthology but to me it’s still a magazine. The title story is one of Matthew Hughes’s Luff Imbry stories, set as with his Henghis Hapthorn pieces in the age just prior to that of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Here the enterprising thief is captured by a trap set by his latest victim. But his captor has an additional use for him – to explore a cave wherein an ancient sect had reputedly created nearly perfect works of art. Such ancient masterworks would surely be incredibly valuable. But – well, there’s always a but, and it’s fun getting to the but, and realizing why Luff himself is uniquely qualified to (more or less) triumph.

Locus, May 2017

The three novelets in the March-April F&SF are all really nice pieces, in different ways – perhaps none of them is precisely groundbreaking but they are all quite fun. ... Matthew Hughes starts a new series with “Ten Half Pennies”, about Baldemar, a poor boy who finds himself bullied at school, and comes up with the notion of buying protection from a moneylender’s enforcer, which leads eventually to doing errands for said enforcer, and then to a position as “wizard’s henchman”. The story from there is well-plotted and amusing, told in Hughes’ well-honed Vance-derived ironic voice.

Birthday Review: Stories of Nina Allan

Nina Allan is one of the best, and one of the most individual, writers working in our field. She's published two strong novels (The Rift (2017) and The Race (2017)) but for me she shows at her best with her short fiction -- though her best short fiction is longer novelettes and novellas (including the exceptional short novel "Maggots".) Here's a selection of my reviews of her short work for Locus.

Locus, June 2008

Each year Albedo One sponsors a contest, the Aeon Award, and this year’s winner is Nina Allan’s “Angelus”. It’s told by a chess Grand Master from Eastern Europe, who encounters an old college friend by surprise, and reminisces on their shared history at Cambridge, in particular the one woman they both had some sort of relationship with, the daughter of a powerful professor. Quite subtly the differences in this world are revealed – political relationships are evidently quite different to our world’s, and there is a war fought in part by greatly altered “flyers” – and this is related also to the sad way the relationship of these two men and the young woman they both, perhaps, loved worked out.

Locus, August 2009

Black Static’s version of “horror” probably fits my taste as well as any horror magazine. At the August/September issue I enjoyed Nina Allan’s atmospheric “My Brother’s Keeper”, which I suppose qualifies as horror in that it’s a ghost story. But ghost stories, to me, often don’t have a “horror” vibe, as in this case, in which Martin is confronted with a family secret on receiving a special gift from his Lesbian “aunts”, as his single mother tries to resist their well-meaning interference is his life – all this mediated by Martin’s dead brother’s commentary.

Locus, July 2010

Similarly, Nina Allan’s  “Flying in the Face of God” (Interzone, March-April), about a woman making a documentary about a woman undergoing radical bodily alterations to become a starship pilot seemed to be about the wrong person – I’d have liked to see more about the pilot, less about the filmmaker, though I have no doubt Allan told the story she wanted to tell. And not by any means a bad story, I should say.

Locus, November 2010

At the September-October Interzone I quite liked Nina Allan’s “The Upstairs Window”. It’s a cynically told piece, in which the narrator tells of a friend of his, an artist who has got in trouble with the government and who must flee. The narrator is a journalist, who cultivates a more detached attitude. Behind this somewhat simple outline hints of the background slowly come to light – this is some sort of repressive England (perhaps an alternate present?) – and the revelation of this background is what gives the story depth and interest. I thought it a slant approach to telling the story, and ultimately quite effective.

Locus, January 2011

A few small press anthologies have come my way. Eibonvale Press is devoted to “Horror, Magic Realism, Slipstream, and the Surreal”, and Blind Swimmer is an anthology of new stories by writers who have published with them. The general theme is “Creativity in Isolation”, and the stories are a generally nice lot. My favorites include “Bellony”, by Nina Allan (one of the more interesting new writers), about a reporter who comes to an English seaside resort to investigate a favorite author of hers, who had disappeared some years previously. She leases the writer’s old house, and learns some contradictory things – stories she hears, facts she learns, about the writer’s past life don’t seem to jibe. Nicely mysterious work, with an interesting character behind the character in the disappeared writer, who we never actually meet.

Locus, June 2011

The best piece in the March-April Interzone, however, is “The Silver Wind”, by Nina Allan. Martin is a real estate agent in a rather oppressive future, but he becomes fascinated with the idea of time travel and the potential involvement in that sort of thing of a dwarf clockmaker named Owen Andrews. But visiting Andrews is dangerous, as he’s somewhat persona non grata to the government. But Martin’s interest is personal – his wife has died – and his hope is to turn back time. What he finds from Owen Andrews is rather different, and it takes Martin to a quite different place. Martin’s personal story is in contrast to the back story, of a militaristic and racially fraught future – and the strange background of Andrews’ clock researches adds a third intriguing axis to a fine story from a continually improving writer.

Locus, October 2012

Black Static for July-August debuts a new, smaller, format for the magazine, one that I understand will be used for Interzone as well. (The fiction wordcount, as far as I can tell, will be roughly the same.) The standout this time comes from the remarkable Nina Allan. “Sunshine” is a vampire story, though avowedly “an undercover protest against vampire fiction”. The protagonist is a vampire, or in his term, a hirudin. He is in the nature of things a solitary individual, and a serial killer. The story, told in his voice, details his life and methods, and then the one human he ever cared for, a young woman, and how their relationship came about and in the end was resolved, in a shocking way that illuminates the idea of vampire as serial killer. A really effective, powerful, piece.

Locus, October 2016

There’s been a lot of good stuff recently at Tor.com. The best is “The Art of Space Travel”, by Nina Allan, a fine meditative story about Emily, who works at the hotel where the Martian astronauts are staying before they head out to space. The story isn’t about the astronauts, though, but about Emily, and about her mother, a scientist who has a sort of Alzheimer’s-like disease, perhaps because of contamination she encountered while investigating a plane crash, and about her mother’s involvement in preparation for a failed earlier Martian mission, and about Emily’s desire to learn who her father was. A good example of the effective – not just decorative – use of an SFnal background to tell a mundane story.

In Now We Are Ten ... Nina Allan’s “Ten Days” is also strong, about Dora, a lawyer and a death penalty opponent, who becomes fascinated with the story of Helen Bostall, who had been executed for the murder of her radical socialist husband in the 1920s. Dora is convinced she was innocent (which seems obvious enough). When she fortuitously finds a curious watch that turns out to be a time machine, she goes back to try to meet Helen Bostall and warn her of the danger she is in. But what can happen when you try to change the past? Allan’s story, though, isn’t really about the twists and dangers of time travel: it’s more interested in character, and in politics, and their intersection.

Locus, March 2017

Five Stories High is a collection of five novellas, all set in a spooky house called Irongrove Lodge. Each story is really independent – the house is similar in some ways from story to story but with different characteristics. The best story is the first and longest, “Maggots”, by Nina Allan. Willy is a boy from the North of England who becomes convinced that his Auntie Claire has been replaced by another creature who looks just like her. This ends up messing with his relationship with his first girlfriend, who is convinced he has Capgras Syndrome. Over the years, Willy hides his suspicions and quietly investigates cases of people who seem to have some of the same convictions he has, a path that leads him to a scary story of a man who wrote a book about how his sister had become a demon, and who ended up murdering her. These people had lived in Irongrove Lodge, and Willy finds his way there, and has a legitimately scary revelation about what has happened to him, and to his Aunt.

Locus, August 2017

In the June Clarkesworld Nina Allan, one of the most consistently interesting of contemporary SF writers, offers “Neptune’s Trident”. The world has changed radically since something called the clampdown, which seems to be result, at first, of some sort of invasion or attack. Caitlin is living in Scotland, struggling to keep her and her partner Steph going by gleaning useful items from what washes ashore; and hoping that by some miracle her brother, a submariner, has survived. Steph has a strange disease, a result of whatever has changed the world, that results in people becoming what are called “flukes”, and Caitlin is hiding her condition from an increasingly hostile society, represented here most directly by an itinerant preacher Caitlin encounters. Hints at the true nature of what’s happened slowly surface – perhaps a deep change in reality? This is interesting work, which seems to fit into a long tradition of morose English catastrophe SF, going back to John Christopher (All Flesh is Grass) and of course J. G. Ballard’s early novels.