Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Translator, by John Crowley

The Translator, by John Crowley

a review by Rich Horton

John Crowley is one of my favorite authors, but I am familiar primarily with his Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has also written impressive realistic (or near-realistic) fiction. I finally rectified a major omission in my reading by getting to The Translator, from 2002. (I still haven't read Four Freedoms.)

The Translator is set primarily in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Christa (Kit) Malone is a new student at a Midwestern college (it could almost have been my school, the University of Illinois, though it could have been Illinois State, or somewhere else, or purposely unspecified). She is an aspiring poet -- indeed, the book opens with a prologue in which she meets JFK at a ceremony recognizing high school poets.

But I should say first that the story is framed from three decades in the future, in the newly non-Soviet Russia, where Kit is visiting St. Petersburg, for a conference on a poet named Falin. Falin had been exiled to the US, and had taught briefly at Kit's college -- and Kit's first book of poems included a section of translations of Falin's poems. At this conference, then, she tells the story of her involvement with Falin to her hosts. We also know, because of this future viewpoint, that Falin disappeared shortly after the main events of the book -- he drove away from the college, and his car was found in a river -- he was presumed killed accidentally, perhaps a suicide, though of course some people assume murder, or even that he escaped to a new life.

Back in the past -- Kit's life is more tangled than just being a college freshman. She's  late to enroll, because she became pregnant in high school, and had to delay matriculation while at a Catholic institution having her (eventually stillborn) child. And her much loved brother Ben has joined the Army, and gone to Vietnam, in the "advisors" period before it became a real war (as if!) -- and Ben is killed, in what the Army calls an accident. All this is essentially prologue to the heart of story -- but powerful and very affecting prologue.

At school Kit decides, partly at random, to take the class in Poetry that Falin is teaching. This leads to her getting closely involved with him (inappropriately so, one might say). One thing they do together, of course, is work on translating some of his poems. Kit also learns a good deal about Falin's early life in Russia -- a rather horrifying time as basically a feral child, lost or abandoned by his parents and "adopted" by a group of similarly situated children. And something, too, of some of Falin's major work, particularly a series of poems about a sort of alternate, or parallel, Russia.At the same time Kit gets involved with a group of radicalized students (their main cause is Fair Play for Cuba.)

That's the first part of the book -- part II brings events to a climax, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book foregrounds the feeling people apparently had at the time -- that a nuclear war, and even the end of the world, might really be imminent. All along, as well, Kit's feelings for Falin, and his for her, are intensifying. It's never entirely clear whether they actually have sex -- it is clear that Falin is concerned that his feelings for Kit are wrong, though the real source of the danger he feels she's in is also a bit ambiguous. For Kit has been approached by a man who is apparently a US agent of some kind -- it seems that some people are wondering if Falin is really as anti-Soviet as he appears -- could his exile be a front, and could he be a spy?

All this could be pretty mundane -- and still effective -- but in this novel it is heightened -- by Crowley's amazing prose, for one thing, but also by the themes behind the themes -- the nature of translation, for one; and the responsibility of poets -- and everyone -- to intervene, to be the better angels of their nations, as opposed to the darker ruling angels. In the end this novel is quite beautiful, quite profound, powerful and moving and a plea, above all, for peace, and for what understanding is possible between people who can only speak through translations.

To finish, perhaps a couple of quotes. Here's Falin, in class, speaking about Housman's poem usually called "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now": "do you see: the only other figure in the poem is very last word, and it compares white blossoms to tree in winter, covered with snow. With snow, when all blossoms and leaves will be gone. In the very moment of his delight the poem reminds him, and us, that time will pass, blossoms will fall. ... And it may well be that it was not Housman's thought but the poem itself that produced this meaning, that the poet reached next-to-last line and this rhyme arose of its own accord, with all these meanings. Yes I am sure, sure it did. A gift that came because of rhyme, came because rhyme exists. Because poetry is what it is. And because this poet was faithful." That's pretty significant, of course, because in translating rhymed poetry the poem may give you a different rhyme -- with a different meaning. And what is most faithful? To accept the new meaning in the new language? Or to force what you can of the original meaning in the original language, even if that betrays poetry in the new language?

And another quote from Falin, in a letter to Kit: "Well we have kissed at that frontier, my love, haven't we? We ourselves. I have come into a world where West is away, where freedom does not rhyme with fate, and where alone you can be found. So it is enough, and must be; for unlike Alice I know no way back."

There's much more of course, bravery and sadness and love, and a whole lot of seamlessly fresh and lovely prose. A wonderful novel.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Will McIntosh

Today is Will McIntosh's birthday. Starting not long after I started at Locus, he produced an impressive spate of really fine short stories, including "Bridesicle", which won the Hugo. He turned to novels (of course! -- though he still publishes fine shorter work) in 2011, both YA and adult. Here's a selection of my Locus reviews of his work:

Locus, March 2005

Will McIntosh, in "Totems" (Interzone, February-March), offers a fine human/alien love story, concentrating on a human woman desperately trying to recover the hundreds of carvings made by her alien lover – for a rather strange reason.

Locus, November 2005

Interzone continues to refine its design, in particular its artwork. The October issue, #200 in the magazine’s impressive history, is really spiffy-looking. There is more fiction than usual as well, and the quality is very high. Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypses” is set in the near future. The narrator has broken up with his girlfriend and is going to a VR speed-date – meeting a bunch of women virtually for brief interviews. McIntosh sharply portrays his character – basically decent if a bit shallow – his past, his old girlfriend, and a few of the women he meets; and at the same time sharply portrays the decaying future. Very well done.

Locus, November 2006

Aeon is an electronically distributed magazine with a provocative personality of its own. They publish a mix of poetry, features including science articles by Rob Furey and essays by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and a wide variety of generally exotic fiction. I thought the best story in issue eight was Will McIntosh’s “Oxy”, set in a far future where environmental change and human change result in people with distinctly separate personalities coexisting.

Locus, November 2007

On Spec has now reached its 69th number. In this issue I really enjoyed Will McIntosh’s “Perfect Violet”, one of a few recent stories dealing with the idea of selling and buying memories. Kiko is an impoverished young woman barely scraping by by selling her memories – but the losses are terrible, including a romance that was quashed by her father. Hope comes when her former lover finds her again … and when she can come to term with her memories (or lack thereof) of her father.

Locus, December 2007

Somewhat depressingly, I note that a newish online magazine, Darker Matter, is closing up shop after 5 issues. Number five was their best, with in particular a good far future story by Jason Stoddard, “True History”, about manipulation of history and identity by posthumans, and a fine Will McIntosh piece, “Young Love on the Drowned Side of the City”, set after a plague has mostly wiped out the adults and the surviving children have reached their teens. The protagonist is shown playing irresponsible teenaged games with his cohort, but his relationship with the girl he’d like to be his girlfriend shows perhaps a bit more to his character.

And to a true survivor in online SF: Strange Horizons. In October Will McIntosh contributes a lovely sweet romantic fantasia, “One Paper Airplane Graffito Love Note”, about a sailmaker in a timeless sort of town who falls in love with a sculptor. But the sculptor has two issues – she believes her life story is being repeated stolen for fiction, and … well, let the story reveal that. The central love story is not anything new – but nicely told – what makes the story special is the grace notes, such as the sudden fashion of graffiti confessions that takes over this town.

Locus, January 2008

From Asimov’s for January, There is also nice work from Will McIntosh: “Unlikely”, a sweet story about a odd statistical coincidence: if the two main characters spend time together, it seems that their city’s accident rate decreases. Or so the statistics say. Which means that Joseph and Tuesday are thrown together in the name of science – “Not that this was a date”, though. Oh yeah?

Locus, May 2008

Will McIntosh’s “The Fantasy Jumper” (Black Static, February) has a striking and rather horrifying central idea – at a sort of fair or carnival one booth allows you to create an artificial person, who can look like just about anyone – yourself, your girlfriend, a tailored creation, even a celebrity (if the license is available). This “person”, then, jumps to its death. The story follows a few customers – a rather creepy guy who takes all too much pleasure in the deaths; a guy who just wants to talk to the women he “creates”, and a girl whose girlfriend has broken up with her, and who finds a way to use the booth as a sort of revenge. Short, very imaginative, and powerful.

Locus, June 2008

Will McIntosh’s “Linkworlds”, published in two parts in March at Strange Horizons is a quite intriguing story representing a somewhat fashionable new sort of SF: stories told in a straightforwardly science fictional manner, set in quite artificial universes. This story is told from the POV of an autistic (it seemed to me) young man (named Tweel, oddly enough, though I could not detect any other link to “A Martian Odyssey”) living on a world inside a bubble. Various worlds, of differing natures, float through this bubble, occasionally coming close enough to another world to “link” and to allow trade and travel between the worlds. But trade and travel, alas, also imply the potential of war – a potential unexpectedly enhanced when Tweel is able to help improve the navigation of the “linkworlds”. He and his adopted world must find a peaceful response to the threat of conquest. Nice, clever, work, if somehow so artificial that the ending seems not quite meaningful.

Locus, September 2008

Will McIntosh continues to impress with stories showing an impressive imagination. In “Midnight Blue” (Asimov's, September) finding curious spheres in the right comination confers special powers on people. These spheres, once common, have become very rare, leading to a market for them – with, again, the rich generally getting richer. Jeff is a highschool kid, not one of the rich or popular ones, but when he finds a particularly rare sphere, his life changes. What works best is the tricky resolution McIntosh engineers. Like Rosenblum, this story is more about economics at its heart than about its fantastical idea.

Locus, January 2009

At the January Asimov’s “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh is a rather cynical examination of the prospects for resurrection of cryonically preserved people. It seems the expensive process must be sponsored, and one way is to agree to marry whoever revives you … which is a bit of a problem for the lesbian heroine, who rather hopes that her preserved lover can also be revived. Nothing brilliant here, but a clever look at a potential downside of this speculative tech.

Locus, January 2013

This whole issue of Asimov's is quite strong. “Over There”, by Will McIntosh, is first rate SF horror, told effectively in parallel point of view, as a physics researcher runs an experiment which seems to split the universe into parallel streams – though people can experience what their other universe counterpart is experiencing. But one universe is menaced by unexplained “dragons”, which freeze anyone they touch – leading to terrible agony for the counterparts in the other universe. The researcher and his wife end up on the run in both places, as people look for revenge on the people responsible for this disaster – and things are complicated further because the wife is pregnant. In the end, the Sfnal aspect is simply an enabling strategy for a wrenching personal drama – and a very effective one.

Locus, March 2016

Lightspeed's January issue features "The Liar's Tour", by Will McIntosh, which posits the means of visiting the souls of the dead via cryogenic sleep. Ben has been obsessively revisiting his dead girlfriend ... which is a problem for his relationship with his live wife. Things proceed to an affecting and believable conclusion. The title concept (about a tour that Ben's girlfriend conducts through Savannah) is pretty cool, and it's one of those stories with no villains -- just earned sadness.

Locus, April 2017

Even better, in the March-April Asimovs – one of the stories of the year so far – is “Soulmates, Inc.”, by Will McIntosh. Daniel is recovering from a breakup with Emily, and so he starts using Soulmates, and he gets a really intriguing contact from Winnie, whose profile seems absolutely perfect for him. They start talking online, and things are going wonderfully, but somehow Winnie is never available for a face-to-face meetup. We can figure what’s going on quickly – and with Emily’s help, so can Daniel. He realizes “Winnie” is artificial, only an online construct, and he assumes at first that she was created by Soulmates to lure him to sign up, but after a while he realizes she’s an independent AI. He reacts in anger, and takes steps to get her erased. But what if “Winnie” can take revenge as well? The story is scary, and morally provocative, and resolved with honesty. Daniel in particularly is a wholly believable character, really well captured.

Locus, May 2018

In Lightspeed for April Will McIntosh’s “What is Eve?” is an enjoyable YA-flavored story of a group of smart students sent off to a strange isolated school, where they encounter their new classmate, Eve, a very odd – and scary – creature indeed. Readers immediately will gather that she’s an alien – but what sort of alien and why is the question. The answer is clever and interesting – and Eve is given a meaningful voice: nice work, if the viewpoint character’s actions seem a bit predictable.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Birthday Review: The Kestrel, by Lloyd Alexander

Birthday Review: The Kestrel, by Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander was born January 30, 1924. He died in 2007. He is best known for his Chronicles of Prydain, a five book series beginning with The Book of Three. (A not very successful movie from Disney's dark period, The Black Cauldron, was based on these books.)

These were absolutely foundational YA books for me -- I adored them, read them multiple times. Taran Wanderer was my favorite. They are based (a bit loosely) on the Mabinogion cycle, in a sense the Matter of Wales. I didn't know any of that when I was young, mind you. And, curiously, I didn't read anything else by Alexander. I haven't reread the Prydain books -- I should, and I suspect they hold up just fine.

Anyway, I finally got to his next most famous (I think) series a couple of decades back. These are the Westmark books. In honor of his birthday, here's what I posted about the second book of that series on my SFF Net newsgroup back then.

A while back I read Westmark, by Lloyd Alexander. That was a YA book et in an imaginary kingdom, at a time roughly corresponding to, oh, the 17th Century? [The following paragraphs will contain spoilers for Westmark.] A young man from a provincial town ends up in trouble with the evil minister of the distracted King: the minister is suppressing freedom of the press, and the young man is a printer's devil.  When his boss gets arrested, he barely escapes, and wanders throughout the country (called Westmark), learning much.  He makes friends with a fiery revolutionary, and with a beggar girl. (The reason the King is distracted, by the way, is that his daughter has disappeared long since. Bells should ring in any reader's head at the encounter with the beggar girl.) By the end, the King is dead, the minister exiled, and the beggar girl is installed in her rightful spot as Queen, and the hero, Theo, is her fiance. I felt Westmark was interesting, but that the resolution was a bit too easy and convenient.

A fairly short time after the events of Westmark, the action of the sequel, The Kestrel, commences. The Barons are mad at the new Queens' reforms, the fiery revolutionaries are convinced she isn't going far enough, and Theo is restless. He heads into the back provinces, and finds himself nearly killed, as an invasion, fostered by a traitorous Baron, a traitorous General, and the evil minister from Book 1, has begun. The neighbouring country, Regia, with the promise of an easy victory over the General's forces, has crossed the border. But the Queen, who has implausibly snuck out of the palace to try to find Theo, ends up rallying her army after the General's surrender to Regia. Meantime Theo ends up with Florian, the previous book's revolutionary, and he decides to join a newly formed guerilla army, intended at first to harry the Regian army, but eventually to force the Queen to further concessions.

This book pushes its characters a bit harder than Westmark: carefully selected minor characters (whose red shirts are easily detectable) are killed, and the major characters, especially Theo, are made to see the evils of war, and their own potential for violence, fairly effectively. But still, the resolution is too easy, too convenient, too brisk. And certain implausibilities (mainly the Queen blithely sneaking around in costume, just about anywhere) did rather annoy me.  It's not a bad book, but it is flawed.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford turns 78 today. It shouldn't be a surprise, I suppose, that the writers who were coming into prominence when I started reading in the field are getting on a bit now -- I'm getting on a bit myself! But somehow it still surprises me a bit. I still remember being particularly impressed with stories like "Doing Lennon" and "White Creatures" and "Cambridge, 1:58 AM" and "If the Stars Are Gods" (with Gordon Eklund), and "Time Shards" back in the '70s. So I'm happy to still be able to put together a selection of reviews of his short fiction from my time at Locus (with one look back at his second published story). Most of these review are from early in my time at Locus, but I should note that the current (January 2019) issue includes a review of "A Waltz in Eternity", a new Greg Benford story that I really liked, from the November Galaxy's Edge.

Retro Review of F&SF, January 1966

And finally Greg Benford's "Representative from Earth" is another humans vs. aliens sort of thing, in which a spaceman is subjected to a series of trials, which he assumes are to evaluate humanity's worthiness for membership in the local interstellar empire -- but it turns out the local ruler has something else in mind for him. This was Benford's second sale -- his first had been the winner of an F&SF contest the year before.

Locus, July 2002

A fairly common theme in an Analog story is the stupidity of technophobes.  I confess this message appeals to me – I basically agree.  So in some ways I was eagerly cheering along with Gregory Benford and Kevin J. Anderson, authors of "Mammoth Dawn", as their hero, a plucky entrepreneur who has over decades managed to recreate several extinct species (dodoes, passenger pigeons, and mammoths, among others) deals with evil ecoterrorists intent on slaughtering the "unnatural" new creatures.  But at another level I cringed from the strident and one-dimensional characterization of the story's villains, and with the way the authors use the trick of having the main bad guy be a clear cut idiot and failure to reinforce their message.  I applaud the basic thrust of the story, but I think the story suffers from the unsubtle deck-stacking characterization.

Locus, September 2003

The Janis Ian/Mike Resnick anthology Stars features a topnotch list of writers riffing on Ian's songs. There's some fine work here -- though maybe a couple too many obvious and earnest takes on "Society's Child". ... Gregory Benford's "On the Edge", a mild revision of his 2001 Sci Fiction story "Brink", is a fine near future fantasia featuring Emma Goldman, Lenin, Jefferson, Franklin, and other founding fathers both Soviet and American as they yearn for a revolution in the soulless consumerist 21st Century world.

Locus, November 2003

In Gregory Benford's "The Hydrogen Wall" (Asimov's, October-November) an impending encounter with a denser region of the Galaxy threatens Earth. A trainee Librarian deals with a frustrating alien AI which, it turns out, may be able to help protect the Solar System from this disaster. But there is a price -- one that rather raised my eyebrows! Some really nice SFnal ideas,

Locus, January 2004

Interzone is now officially bimonthly, leaving the field with no magazines that actually publish 12 issues per year. September leads off with a fine far-future story by Gregory Benford, "Naturals". Dawn is a child of an enclave of "Naturals", humans unconnected to external intelligences, in a world of mostly very enhanced humans, or Supras. We follow her early life, and especially her love affair with a Supra, then a life-changing disaster that leads to a new understanding of her position in this new world.

Locus, April 2005

It was a pleasant surprise to find Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Far Futures so enjoyable. The book includes six stories of substantial length: three novelettes and three novellas. The stories are all adventure-oriented, and all but one set in other solar systems. Sometimes the protagonists have things a bit too easy, sometimes the plot doesn't quite hold together, but each story qualifies – put simply – fun. The most SFnally intriguing is Gregory Benford's "Beyond Pluto", in which human explorers encounter energy beings at the edge of the Solar System.

Locus, May 2006

I thought the best stories in the first issue of Jim Baen's Universe were two longer novelettes. ...Gregory Benford’s “Bow Shock” is in his “realistic depiction of science” mode, concerning a young astrophysicist struggling for tenure, dealing with an ambitious rival, problems getting observation time, an impatient girlfriend, and, of course, a controversial discovery. The story follows a fairly predictable path, but it’s still enjoyable and SFnally interesting.

Locus, June 2013

April at Tor is pretty impressive, with a wide range of mode and tone. First we get a fine pure hard SF piece from Gregory Benford, “Backscatter”. No surprises here, but solid deployment of a traditional set of tropes and plot elements: the asteroid explorer crashed and needing an imaginative way to be rescued, her snarky AI companion, and the cool and scientifically plausible discovery.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Carrie Vaughn

Today is Carrie Vaughn's birthday. Vaughn is probably best known for her long series of novels about Kitty, a radio DJ who gets turned into a werewolf. Her more recent post-Apocalyptic series, with several short stories and the novels Bannerless and The Wild Dead, is very fine. And, as this selection of my reviews of her short fiction should show, she's written a lot of exceptional short stories.

Locus, January 2007

The October/November Weird Tales includes Carrie Vaughn’s “For Fear of Dragons”, a story with a familiar setup: a virgin who is to be sacrificed to a dragon bravely decides to kill the beast – but she learns that the real menace to her land might not be the dragon. The resolution is thematically perfect.

Locus, May 2007

Baen’s Universe features both fantasy and SF, but has expressed a slight editorial bias towards the latter. In June, however, I thought the fantasy stories rather better. Best of the SF is Carrie Vaughn’s “Swing Time”, a nice mixture of time travel and dancing, in which a woman cavorts between eras, always dancing, always encountering the same fascinating man, until the equivalent of the Time Patrol catches up with her.

Locus, June 2010

probably my favorite in Lightspeed's first issue (June 2010) comes from Carrie Vaughn. “Amaryllis” tells of a rather nice seeming future, but constricted, for ecological reasons. The protagonist is a fisher ship captain, and the story concerns her problems with a corrupt local official, and with a young crewwoman who wants a baby – but permits for children are hard to come by. It’s a quiet story, never spectacular, but strongly realized, well-characterized, effective.

Locus, September 2012

“Astrophilia”, by Carrie Vaughn (Clarkesworld, July), is set in the same future as her fine story “Amaryllis”, in which humanity has responded to environmental disaster by strictly limiting childbirth, and also by adopting generally anti-science attitudes This one is fine as well, and quite similar in tone to the previous one, Stella's household is dissolved during a drought, because their pastures have dried up. She is a skilled weaver, and so is taken in by another, richer, holding. They have a daughter about Stella's age, who is an amateur astronomer, using a salvaged telescope. She and Stella become lovers, and Stella is pushed to defend her against her conservative father's resentment – of the time spent doing observations, and of the very fact of the telescope's existence. It's a quiet story, sweet, hopeful, and well-grounded in presenting a future way of life.

Review of Fast Ships and Black Sails (Locus, December 2012)

Carrie Vaughn’s “The Nymph’s Child” is similarly romantic, opening with Grace Lark in prison, as her lover and Captain reveals her true sex to the Marshal who had assumed with everyone else that the notorious First Mate Gregory Lark was a man. The pregnant Grace is spared to bear her child, while the rest of the crew is hanged, and now, years later, her daughter might be thinking of becoming a sailor, and Grace doesn’t know how to react.

Locus, March 2013

At Lightspeed in February I also liked “Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris”, the “origin story” for Carrie Vaughn's ongoing steampunk series about a (dare I say) spunky Princess of England and her engineer friend, in a 19th century altered by alien “aetherian” technology.

Locus, July 2013

Carrie Vaughn's “Fishwife”, from the June Nightmare, is of course horror. It's set in a downtrodden village, where the men struggle to bring home any catch, and the women, the fishwives, are humiliated by the meager return they get for selling it. Then a strange man washes up on their shore … and he offers them riches – at the cost of a little sacrifice. A moral tale (as with so much horror) that resolves strangely.

Unfettered is a new anthology benefiting editor Shawn Speakman, a cancer survivor. Best here is Carrie Vaughn's “Game of Chance”. As noted above, Vaughn has a perfectly well established series to work in, but instead this is a standalone SF story about alternate timelines, and a group of people who try to alter history for the better, usually, it seems with ambiguous or worse results. The protagonist is a young woman who went off with this group partly as an escape from her affluent but stultifying life, and partly for love. But her ideas for alternations are mostly ignored, suggesting a similar stultification, until tragedy forces her in a different direction.

And finally to Asimov's, where Vaughn gives us “The Art of Homecoming”, Military SF (though not much concerned with military action) set in a widely populated interstellar milieu.  It's a warm story about a Major with the Diplomatic Corps, ordered to take some time off after she was held responsible for damaging trade relations with an alien species. She wonders if her career might be over, and considers other paths while visiting her sister and her sister's wife and their partner at a boutique farm on a colony planet. The particulars of Major Daring's military career and the incident that may have ended it aren't important here – the nature of home, and the different kinds of home, are what matters.

Locus, May 2016

In Lightspeed I liked, well, all the stories in April. Carrie Vaughn’s “Origin Story” is a good superhero (or supervillain) story, in which the heroine recognizes the villain robbing the bank she’s at … he was her boyfriend in high school. It goes kind of where you expect from there, quite nicely.

Locus, June 2016

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War” (, March) is a moving piece about Calla, a woman who was a nurse for Enith during their war with the telepathic Gaant people. The war is over, and Calla is visiting Gaant, trying to meet and continue a game of chess she had been playing with Major Valk, whom she had encountered both in Enith and later after she was captured, in Gaant. This version of chess is unusual – because of the Gaantish telepathy – and it’s not so much the point – the point, of course, is how enemies can come to a peaceful meeting (and, too, how telepathy complicates that!)

Locus, June 2017

I quite enjoyed stories in the two April issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. From April 13 Carrie Vaughn offers “I Have Been Drowned in Rain”, a fairly conventional and modest quest story about the usual ragtag group trying to bring the rightful Queen back to her country to overthrow the Tyrant. Somehow they have made it almost there – what treachery can await? The story turns on the most suspect member of their group, a farmer woman they rescued from rape, who has cooked and cleaned for them, and who sings sad songs – but whom they don’t know. The story doesn’t really ever surprise, but it is well done and effective and makes its simple point just rightly.

Locus, October 2018

Carrie Vaughn’s “The Huntsman and the Beast” (Asimov's, September-October) is a fine gender-switched “Beauty and the Beast” variant, with Jack, the huntsman for a decent if slightly thick Prince, leading his lord and their party to a seemingly deserted castle. But it’s still inhabited – by a Beast, of course – and the Beast subdues them, and Jack offers himself as hostage for his Prince. The story can be guessed fairly well from that point – the Beast’s true nature, her backstory, and the crisis when the Prince returns, determined to rescue a loyal retainer who no longer wishes to be rescued. This is nicely done, and nicely handles the simple fact that the basic outline of the story is fairly clear from step 1 – there is enough new and honest here to take us happily to the expected (but not overdetermined) close.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Black on Black, by K. D. Wentworth

Birthday Review: Black on Black, by K. D. Wentworth

Today would have been Kathy Wentworth's 68th birthday, but, alas, a promising career was cut short by illness in 2012. Kathy was one of the first authors I remember meeting, at ConQuesT in Kansas City some time in the late '90s, and we also interacted in One of the things it seems reviews of this sort can do is bring back to mind writers who may be forgotten for terribly unfair reasons.

I was really impressed by a number of her short stories, including "Exit Strategy", "Born-Again", and "The Orangery". I didn't read much of her work at novel length, but I did read her first novel for Baen, under the circumstances I describe below, in a brief review I did on my SFF Net newsgroup.


(Cover by Patrick Turner)
I received a postcard from someone in Oklahoma, presumably K. D. Wentworth herself, consisting of a cover flat for her Baen novel Black on Black. I admit it had been on my mind as a book I might like to try, but I hadn't got around to buying it.  Next time I was in a bookstore, the book just happened to leap out at me (crazy things, books), so I bought it.  I guess that means the postcard was a successful promotional tool.  I will say however that the cover rather misrepresents the nature of the book.  It focuses on the title character/protagonist's partner, who is actually a middling minor character.  However, she's a woman, and as drawn by Baen's selected artist, she's showing plenty of cleavage.  Sigh.

The book is really about Heyoka Blackeagle, a lion- or cat-like alien called a hrinn.  (Half of Heyoka's head shows up on the cover.)  Heyoka was rescued from the flek slave markets by an Indian (Oglala Sioux, I think) named Ben Blackeagle when he was very young.  Hence his name.  He was raised basically as a human, though he always knew he didn't fully fit.  When Ben died he joined the army, which is engaged in a long war against the flek, who like to "flekform" (my word) planets so that native life (including humans, if any) is wholly destroyed.  After an injury, Heyoka may be on the point of being invalided out, so he takes leave with his friend and partner, Mitsu, at the small human outpost on Anktan, his home planet.  He hopes to meet the primitive Hrinn who live there and discover something about this history. However, he finds both unusual resistance from the outpost director (named Eldrich (!)), and hostility from those hrinn he meets.  One hrinn male, however, recognizes him as having the legendary "Black/on/Black" coloring, which may mean he has special powers.  Soon Heyoka finds himself entangled in hrinn politics, which is more complicated than he may have expected, and, worse, he finds that Mitsu has gotten herself captured by a hrinn clan while trying to help him.

Soon the reader realizes that much more is going on: there is a mystery surrounding Heyoka's birth clan, which was destroyed about the time Heyoka ended up in the slave market; and there are behind the scenes manipulations both among the female hrinn and the males (females and males live apart); and in general something very odd is going on.  Mixed in is his growing realization that he does have unusual abilities ...  It's a fun book, full of adventure, and with a pretty neat and complicated plot.  It does sort of unravel too quickly and conveniently at the end.  And as usual, the hero turns out to have pretty much the powers he needs to save the world.  Though to be fair, these powers aren't as overwhelming as they might have been, and on many occasions Wentworth shows real limits to Heyoka's ability. I liked the book.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 53: Cache from Outer Space/The Celestial Blueprint, by Philip José Farmer

Ace Double Reviews, 53: Cache from Outer Space, by Philip José Farmer/The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories, by Philip José Farmer (#F-165, 1962, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

Today would have been Philip José Farmer's 101st birthday, so here's a repost of my review of his only Ace Double appearance.

Philip José Farmer (1918-2009) was born in Terre Haute, IN, and raised in Peoria, IL. He went to Bradley University (in Peoria) while working at a steel mill, and didn't really turn to writing until graduating at the age of 32. He was noticed very quickly, however, and won an early Hugo as "Most Promising New Writer", largely on the strength of his famous early story "The Lovers", which controversially depicted sex with an alien. (He is also one of those writers who worked for my company in one of its iterations -- in his case, McDonnell Douglas in Southern California in the late '60s as a technical writer.) His most famous works include "The Lovers", the Hugo-winning novella "Riders of the Purple Wage" from Dangerous Visions, and the Riverworld novels, especially the first, To Your Scattered Bodies Go. My favorite Farmer story is probably "The Sliced-Crosswise Only On Tuesday World", which was expanded to a novel, Dayworld.

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller)
According to a brief biographical note in the book, Cache From Outer Space/The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories was Farmer's first book for Ace. Cache From Outer Space is a novel of about 50,000 words. The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories collects four stories, all originally published in 1954. The stories total some 38,000 words.

Cache From Outer Space is a really bad title: I suspect Don Wollheim is to blame. It's not strictly speaking inaccurate, but it's not a very good representation of the book -- for one thing, the "cache from outer space" isn't all that important an aspect of the plot, and for another thing the title serves to tip the reader to something I suspect the writer wished to be at least to a small degree a surprise. Besides the title's misleading aspects, it's just boring.

The novel itself, however, is pretty fun. It's set some centuries after an event -- one assumes a nuclear war (we later learn a bit more detail) -- has caused civilization to crash. Benoni (Ben) Rider is a young man from Fiiniks (Farmer takes great delight in a whole series of silly phonetic corruptions of current place names). He is on his First Warpath -- an initiation journey in which young men of the Fiiniks tribe are expected to raid the nearby Navaho and return with a scalp. But, prompted by his father, he extends his journey far to the East in search of a fabled great river, and of newer and more fertile land. (Besides water problems, Fiiniks is troubled by some geologically unlikely (it seems to me) events: earthquakes and a huge series of new volcanoes.) He is also prompted by a desire for revenge against his the oafish Joel Vahndert, his rival for the affections of Debra Awvrez. Joel turns out to be a crude and slimy traitor, who betrays Ben and leaves him for dead after Ben rescues him from Navahos.

Ben makes his way through the desert and finally reaches the river, called the Msibi. In the process he captures a young black man, Zhem, and the two become blood brothers. They make their way to the territory of Kaywo (= Cairo, Illinois), a warlike state ruled by a beautiful Pwez (= President). Kaywo has just conquered Senglwi (obviously my city, St. Louis), and is facing war with Skego (again, obviously my home city, Chicago). Ben and Zhem join the equivalent of the Foreign Legion, but then Ben meets Joel again, who has made the same journey, more or less. They start a brawl, and that brings them to the attention of the authorities, who plan to send them back home to offer the Fiiniks a new home in exchange for assistance against Skego. But all these plans go up in smoke when news comes of a spectacular discovery in Pwawwaw (!), which Kaywo must control before Skego. This discovery, and Ben's alert reaction to it, changes his position relative to the Kaywo authorities dramatically, leading to an open-ended conclusion. (I wonder if there was a sequel -- one certainly isn't necessary, but there is room for one.)

Cache from Outer Space is a decent adventure novel, reminiscent to some extent of much of Andre Norton's work. Farmer has a good touch with fight scenes, and moves his story along quickly. He also does a good job of portraying his people as part of their culture -- the heroes do not have convenient contemporary attitudes. As such, Ben, though obviously a decent man of his time, is hard for the reader to approve of often. Not a lasting work by any means -- but good work of its kind.

I'll treat the four stories in The Celestial Blueprint separately:

"Rastignac the Devil" (20400 words) Fantastic Universe, May 1954

This story has some interesting ideas but is rather a mess. It's set on a French-colonized planet a few hundred years in the future. The human colonists live in harmony (of sorts) with two other species: the reptilian Ssassaror and the amphibian Amphibs. This harmony is enforced by the "Skins" everyone wears, which condition people to submission, vegetarianism, non-violence, etc. There is also a sanctioned custom of stealing babies of other species and raising them as changelings. Rastignac is a human who wishes to go into space, and who realizes that the Skins are inhibiting people from independent thought and ambition. He also recognizes that the Amphibs have altered their Skins and are plotting to take over the other two species. He is imprisoned for his beliefs, but escapes with the help of some other outcast friends, and in the company of a beautiful and vicious human girl who was raised by the Amphibs. He plans revolution, first, then to rescue an Earthman who has landed a spaceship on the planet. But things don't go quite as he hopes ... The main problem here is a disjointed plot, which shows signs of having been made up as the story was being written. A rigorous rewrite and a careful investigation of the central conflict might have been interesting.

"The Celestial Blueprint" (8500 words) Fantastic Universe, Jul 1954

This is a purely satirical story in which two rival men, both very powerful, contend. The one man asks the other to help him revenge himself on his home town -- by setting things up so that the town will witness the religious signs that portend the end times. The other man does so, but he plans also to take down his rival -- who has his own plans. None of it was really very interesting or believable.

"They Twinkled Like Stars" (6700 words) Fantastic Universe, Jan 1954

This is better. SF horror, in which a plague of lethargy leading eventually to catatonia is inflicting people. The protagonist is a hobo, due to the early stages of this plague. He is taken to a reeducation camp, but it turns out to have a different purpose. What's going on comes clear, via a flashback to the man's youth, and also via some significant names. Not bad at all.

"Totem and Taboo" (2600 words) F&SF, Dec 1954

Another decent story. More playing with names. The hero is named Jay Martin, and his fiancée, Kitty Phelan, wants him to quit drinking. He goes to a strange psychologist to treat his drinking problem, and the doctor leads him to get in touch with his totem animal. The names make it clear what sort of animal his totem is, and also his fiancée's animal -- and the likelihood they stay together. Cute.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Peter Watts

I've already posted a look at Peter Watt's tremendous novel Blindsight on this, his birthday. But I thought a selection of my Locus reviews of his short fiction was also worth doing. So here goes:

Locus, February 2008 (Review of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2)

The standout story is Peter Watts’s “The Eyes of God”, a classical simple extrapolation story, positing a means of both detecting and fixing mental abnormalities, such as (in the case of the protagonist) sexual attraction towards children. One question that arises is “Do you want to change who you are?”, especially if you have never acted on whatever dark impulses your brain might hold. Other questions are variously hinted by the story, which also (perhaps a bit heavy-handedly, though effectively I thought) slowly reveals the protagonist’s rather apposite personal backstory.

Locus, November 2009

Peter Watts's "The Island” (The New Space Opera 2) is less pure Space Opera than a piece of very far future hard SF. A slower than light ship which has spent millennia upon millennia placing "stargates" encounters a weird alien society that their newest gate will put at risk. The characters must decide – in the context of their own conflicts – whether to move the gate. The story has plenty of SFnal cool -- the far reaches of time, the strange alien society, the weirdness of the more or less contemporary humans who construct the gates -- and it closes with a bitter twist.

Locus, January 2010

And finally in Clarkesworld for January, Peter Watts offers “The Things”, an immediately significant title, opening with a significant list of characters: Blair, Copper, Childs. The narrator is “being” each of these. It is, in fact, a “Thing” as in the movie, or, more importantly, John W. Campbell’s classic novella “Who Goes There?” Watts’s story is honest and thought-provoking and chilling in presenting a version of this familiar story from the alien POV.

Locus, January 2014

And my favorite piece (in Twelve Tomorrows) is the closing story, “Firebrand”, by Peter Watts. The hook is spontaneous human combustion, and the catch is a woman working for a company that wants to be sure they are not connected with the apparent increase in that phenomenon. Of course that can't last – or can it? And what about the next thing? This is funny stuff, and behind it is some cute Sfnal speculation.

Locus, October 2014

And I thought the best story in Upgraded was “Collateral”, by Peter Watts, as uncompromising as ever for him. A soldier kills a bunch of harmless fishermen on a Pacific island when her “enhancement” deal with the perceived threat before her consciousness can intervene. This causes a PR problem for her (Canadian) government, which they deal with in part by treating her so that she makes emotionless, rigorously “ethical”, decisions … which has chilling, unexpected (and coldly logical) results. (I read this more or less as the terrible shooting of Michael Brown occurred just a few miles from my home, and the ideas resonated all the more with me as a result.)

Locus, January 2018

As ever, the latest of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity series of original anthologies is essential reading. Infinity Wars concerns future war, obviously enough, with a noticeable focus on what might be called the “grunt” point of view. The two best stories, I though, came from Dominica Phetteplace and from Peter Watts. ... Watts, in “ZeroS”, posits a technology that turns soldiers into non-conscious actors – for it turns out the unconscious has spooky abilities. Which are pretty scary for the humans who end up sort of “riding” their unconscious – especially when they learn what their “zombie” selves are capable of. For an extra fillip of spookiness, the story is told from the POV of a soldier who actually died, and who has been resurrected by this particular technology – at an increasingly horrible price.

Locus, November 2018

Peter Watts’ “Kindred” (Infinity's End) is told in monologue, addressed from an entity -- I’ll leave it to the reader to learn what entity – to an intelligence it just created, a reconstructed human. It seems this is in the far future, and our monologist wants to discuss what it means to be Human, and why Humans war. For a good reason, that we learn in time. It’s another very philosophical story, and to excellent effect. And I must say I love the title, which has of course multiple reasons, one very cute.

Birthday Review: Blindsight, by Peter Watts

Blindsight, by Peter Watts

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Peter Watts' birthday. He's one of the most interesting and challenging SF writers of our time. I thought this novel Blindsight truly remarkable. I'm reposting what I wrote about that novel for my blog back when it came out.

Now to Blindsight, by Peter Watts. This new novel is told by Siri Keeton, member of an expedition to investigate an anomaly in the far Oort cloud. It seems that Earth was -- attacked? surveilled? -- by what people call "Fireflies", a rain of probes that appeared one night. Several waves of probes are sent from Earth to investigate, and Siri's ship, the Theseus, is the first manned investigator. Five members awake when nearing a brown dwarf that is apparently orbited by possibly alien devices.

The team members are a linguist, Susan James, who has (on purpose) multiple personalities; Isaac Szpindel, a cybernetically enhanced instrumentation specialist; Amanda Bates, a military specialist; and the leader, Jukka Sarasti, a vampire; as well as Keeton, who is an observer or intermediary -- there to translate the findings of the variously enhanced team members to terms "normal" humans can understand, and transmit them to Earth.

(Back a bit -- vampire? And this is hard SF? Yes -- Sarasti is a genetically reconstructed member of an offshoot species of predators from the dawn of humanity. Watts even works in the usefulness of crosses against vampires.)

Their mission is to figure out what the alien "invaders" are up to. And they do so by investigating a "big dumb object" they encounter orbiting a brown subdwarf in the Oort. But this investigation is not easy. On the one hand the "aliens", whoever or whatever they are, seem to communicate readily. But on the other hand they don't say much of real substance, and what they say isn't very welcoming. And direct investigation of the object is difficult: the environment is radiation drenched and otherwise terribly inhospitable, even when they aren't getting attacked. But they persist -- and what they eventually learn is very scary indeed.

The story also is concerned with the various natures of the main characters. A lot of time is devoted to Siri Keeton's backstory: he was an epileptic cured by having half his brain removed; his beloved father was often absent on important spook business, while his less-beloved mother was messing up his life and eventually retreating to "Heaven", a virtual space for uploaded consciousnesses. Siri himself, essentially sort of autistic, also has a difficult relationship with a childhood friend and with his only ever girlfriend. The point of all this, as with the shorter expositions of what makes the other expedition members tick, leads eventually to the real heart of the novel: examination of the nature and utility of consciousness. And that is what makes the novel ultimately fascinating -- the speculation, the ideas. In other words, it's "real SF", if "real SF" is supposed to be about ideas. The characters, indeed, are all fairly unpleasant. The action is interesting but not really rousing. The prose is fine but not by itself any reason to read the book. It's certainly not uplifting. But it is fascinating and full of sense of wonder.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of David Gerrold

Today is David Gerrold's 75th birthday. He certainly is worthy of a birthday compilation of short story reviews -- so here goes:

Locus, September 2005

David Gerrold offers a pair of linked stories, "A Quantum Bit Exists in Two States Simultaneously", the first one "On", the second one "Off". Each story is built around a conversation between the narrator (who much resembles Gerrold), and Dan Goodman, Pope Daniel the First of the Church of the Chocolate Bunny. In the first, the Pope declares the narrator to be a saint, and the two debate the characteristics of sainthood. In the second, the two men discuss evil people, and how to deal morally with them – say, if you were a time traveler with a chance to kill Hitler before he did anything truly evil. The second story worked better for me, the ending in particular being clever and thought-provoking. (And for all that they are linked, each story can be read independently.)

Locus, April 2007

Also from the April F&SF, David Gerrold’s “The Equally Strange Reappearance of David Gerrold” follows from his January story, in which Gerrold encountered a curious alien – perhaps. Here he returns with a few others to the place in California where he found the alien, hoping to find out more. Which he does – perhaps, or perhaps not. It’s quite amusing – though oddly varied in tone – a tonal variance which actually rather works.

Locus, February 2013

F&SF's first 2013 issue is a solid one. ... David Gerrold offers a fine little horror story in “Night Train to Paris”, in which a writer on said train encounters a man who tells him a story about how people seem to go missing from this train fairly often.

Locus, July 2015

David Gerrold is a thoroughgoing professional storyteller, and “Entanglements”, from the May-June
F&SF, is a great example. It's engaging from the go, telling of a writer named David Gerrold and his 70th birthday and how Pesky Dan Goodman (“Peskydang”) ruined it, between the rented giraffe and his unique gift. This is very funny stuff, and then comes the gift, which is, it turns out, a way to learn about yourself in parallel universes. And, without forgetting to entertain, the story takes on some gravitas, as Gerrold learns (predictably enough, I suppose, but believably as well) that all choices come with consequences, good, bad, and just different.

Locus, November 2016

This month at F&SF we have the first of their Special Author issues in almost a decade, this one honoring David Gerrold. His contributions include two novellas and a short memoir, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch adds a nice essay. The novellas are both enjoyable, and quite different from each other, though neither is as good as Gerrold's best recent work. “The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello” continues the story of the eponymous “hero” of Theodore Sturgeon's “Mr. Costello, Hero”. Mr. Costello comes to Haven, a beautiful and not very crowded colony planet. He has a plan to get rich – and, he says, make a lot of other people rich – by herding the dangerous horgs into a place where they can be economically butchered. The narrator is newly married into a large family, with a couple of husbands and four wives, and a good business harvesting glitter bushes. But somehow they get inveigled into Costello's schemes. Costello's charisma and dangerous manipulativeness are well-depicted, and the science-fictional touches – the social organization of Haven, the ecological details – are nicely done as well; and there's a nice resolution. “The Dunsmuir Horror” is the continuing adventures of our author himself, in the form of a letter to Gordon van Gelder. This story is about a city in California that doesn't exist, due to a terrible history involving the massacre of Native Americans – or does it exist? It's amusingly told, as we expect, but it rambles a bit too much.

Locus, July 2018

Even better – one of the best novellas of the year to date – is “Bubble and Squeak” (Asimov's, May-June), by David Gerrold and Ctein. Bubble and Squeak are James Liddle and Hu Son, who are planning to get married this day, then head to Hawaii on their honeymoon. But they hear that there has been a major earthquake in Hawaii – so no honeymoon – and then they realize that the earthquake means a tsunami is heading to their home in Los Angeles. Which means they need to get to higher ground pronto. Fortunately, James is a SCUBA instructor, and they head out quickly on their bikes, and with what they can carry, including some SCUBA equipment. Of course, everyone else is heading for higher ground as well … The story is simply terrifically exciting, involving a plausible mix of heroism, foolishness, brutality, luck, and intelligence, on their part and others, as they struggle to find a way to a safe place, and as various options are closed off over time. Really exciting work.

Old Bestseller: The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Old Bestsellers: The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

a review by Rich Horton

I'm trying to get to as many of the really prominent turn of the 20th Century bestseller writers as I can (except for Thomas Dixon), and I knew I would have to get to Elizabeth Von Arnim sometime. She is most famous, even now, for her first novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898), a lightly satirical novel about an Englishwoman trying to adjust to life in German high society after her marriage, and also trying to grow a garden. It was so successful that her most common byline was "By the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden", eventually just "By Elizabeth".

In fact, though, Elizabeth Von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia in 1866. One of her cousins, Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp, is better known as the great writer Katherine Mansfield. Mary was raised in England from the age of three, and 1891 married the Graf Von Arnim, and moved to Germany with her husband. The marriage was not a success, though they had five children. The Graf was abusive and strict, and also constantly in debt, eventually going to prison. Elizabeth and her German Garden was quite autobiographical, though probably somewhat softened. After she divorced her first husband, Elizabeth had an affair with H. G. Wells, then married Bertrand Russell's brother, becoming a Countess in the process. (Of course, a Graf and an Earl are of roughly the same rank.) That marriage also failed, and Elizabeth moved to the United States for a time, and died there in 1941. Two of her novels (Mr. Skeffington and The Enchanted April) were made into Academy Award-nominated films, some 5 decades apart.

The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight was published in 1905. My edition is possibly a First, published by Smith, Elder & Co. of London. It is inscribed Lillian G. Baukart, Nov. 1905; and also has an Ex Libris sticker from one Robert W. Dickerman. It was also made into a film, The Runaway Princess, in 1929.

Priscilla is the daughter of the Grand Duke of a German principality. She is too intelligent for her own good, apparently, and also quite beautiful, but she has refused all offers of marriage, preferring to study poetry with her tutor and English teacher, Herr Fritzing, called Fritzi. After one more, particularly eligible, suitor asks for her hand, she decides to flee to England and live in poverty, nurturing her soul. Herr Fritzing agrees to help.

And so they flee, with a maid and some of Fritzi's money. By sheer luck they make their way to the village of Symford. And they start -- quite innocently -- causing trouble. They insist on buying two cottages from the woman who runs the place, Lady Shuttlesworth. But the cottages are occupied, so Fritzing pays for new cottages to be built for those expelled. And Priscilla is noticed by two young men, Lady Shuttlesworth's poetically minded and frail son Augustus, and the Vicar's son, Robin. Both fall desperately in love with her.

Meanwhile, Priscilla is beneficently giving the poor people around her money. This offends the Vicar's wife, a rather horrible person. The same woman is really annoyed when Priscilla throws a party for the local children -- on a Sunday! And neither Priscilla nor Fritzing has the faintest idea of how to run a household without an army of competent servants -- and the maid they took with them, Annalise, is disgusted by their position, and begins to conspire against them.

Disasters begin to pile up (including a murder). Priscilla and Fritzing go hungry, and are terribly uncomfortable. Priscilla is forced to reject the attentions of Augustus and Robin -- both young men think she is beautiful but poor, and she instead treats them as any Princess would treat young men of nothing like her rank who dare to try to court her. So, quite soon Priscilla and Fritzi are in despair -- and out of money -- until an unexpected person (unexpectd, that is, by everyone but the reader) turns up to rescue the situation.

It's, well, OK in its way. Sometimes gently funny, sometimes a bit too much. Terribly classist -- Von Arnim, a noblewoman herself, is quite comfortable with Priscilla's assumption of all the privilege a Princess must be due. But at the same time Von Arnim is acutely aware of how foolish the Princess really is. All ends happily enough (except for the murdered woman). It goes on perhaps a bit long, and the gentle satire is enjoyable sometimes and at other times a bit wearing. Still and all, I'm glad I read it.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Kij Johnson

Another birthday today is that of the wonderful and versatile Kij Johnson. Here's a collection of my Locus reviews (plus one from my blog) of  her work:

Capsule look at Conqueror Fantastic (2004)

Kij Johnson's "The Empress Jingu Fishes" (Conqueror Fantastic) is a short, beautiful, evocation of a Japanese Empress.

Locus, November 2007

And finally to two very strong original anthologies. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling offer another themed book on folk themes: The Coyote Road. The subject is trickster tales, and fortunately the theme has been interpreted very freely.... In Kij Johnson’s “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change”, the title “Change” is animals learning to talk,  which proves difficult for pet owners for multiple reasons. Many dogs are abandoned, and many are killed. The story revolves around a series of cunningly changing tales the newly speaking dogs in one small city park tell a sympathetic woman. The thought-provoking real subject, of course, is our present relationship with non-speaking animals.

Locus, July 2008

From the July Asimov’s, Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is a sheer delight. Aimee is the operator of an act featuring 26 monkeys, who perform various stunts, then disappear. The story, of course, isn’t about the monkeys disappearing – it’s about Aimee, and how she got there, and her boyfriend, and their future, if they have one.

Locus, January 2010

Clarkesworld also continues to provide really strong work, much of it Science Fiction of an unusual cast. For instance, from October, Kij Johnson’s “Spar”, a story of a human and an alien marooned together on a space lifeboat. It’s aggressively unpleasant – their only communication seems to be sex – if it counts as sex – but unforgettable.

Review of Eclipse 4, from the May 2011 Locus

“Story Kit”, by Kij Johnson, begins with Damon Knight’s six story types, and continues by listing a number of stories of abandoned women … It’s about a woman, a writer, who, we gather without quite being told in so many words, has been dumped. Much of the story is meditation on the story of Dido (Queen of Carthage, loved and then abandoned by Aeneas). It’s interesting, and well-written ...

Locus, November 2011

The other novella from the October-November Asimov's is outstanding: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, by Kij Johnson. Kit is an engineer, taking over a project to build a bridge across a river of a strange substance called “mist”. The story is quiet, fairly simple, but involving throughout, as we see Kit's job from numerous angles: there are engineering problems, management problems, tragedies, potential issues with the locals (including the “Ferry” people, whose business would vanish with the success of the bridge). There's Kit's history, and his rootless life. There's the somewhat (but not terribly) exotic setting. I don't think the story has any “wow” moments – it's just a solid accumulation of absorbing detail.

Locus, October 2012

Kij Johnson's “Mantis Wives” (Clarkesworld, August) is a short sharp look at male/female relations described as if women, like mantises, devour their mates.

Locus, October 2016

Also from, in this case their line of novellas, is a beautiful story by Kij Johnson, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is evidently in dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadash” (which I confess I have not read), though I was more reminded of Lord Dunsany: and after all Lovecraft’s story (unpublished in his lifetime) was written quite overtly under the influence of Dunsany. Johnson, as well, writes of a Lovecraftian world with, well, actual recognizable women! Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the Dreamlands. One of her students has run away with a dreamer – a man from our world. This is a problem, because her father is influential … and, as it happens, her grandfather even more so, in scary way. So Vellitt, who has experience wandering, must set off after her, through very dangerous places, and even an encounter with her old lover, Randolph Carter, in search of a way to the waking world, to persuade her student to return. This story is just beautifully written – way more Dunsany than Lovecraft! – and exciting, and well imagined, using the good stuff from Lovecraft and new good stuff, and honest about consequences. Unquestionably one of the stories of the year.

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Nancy Kress

Today is Nancy Kress's birthday. She's been writing great science fiction for over 40 years. Her 1985 story "Out of All Them Bright Stars" is on my list of the best SF short stories of all time. I didn't start reviewing for Locus until 2002, so this compilation of my reviews doesn't include work like "Out of All Them Bright Stars", nor "Beggars in Spain", nor "The Flowers of Aulit Prison", but she continues to produce exceptional stories.

Locus, June 2002

Nancy Kress' "The Most Famous Little Girl in the World" (Sci Fiction) is also solid, about a little girl who is taken aboard an alien ship. Her cousin tells of both their lives, intertwined with the periodic tentative revisits by the aliens, over much of the 21st century. The focus is on the two women's characters, as opposed to the aliens or the 21st century history portrayed, and it's well done

Locus, September 2003, review of Stars

The Janis Ian/Mike Resnick anthology Stars features a topnotch list of writers riffing on Ian's songs. ... Nancy Kress's "Ej-Es" takes us to a colony world just being visited by a medical ship. The colony has been ravaged by a plague, and the survivors live in squalor. But a side effect of the plague is hallucinations, very attractive hallucinations. The team faces a difficult question of medical ethics. In this case it's quite interesting to read the lyrics to Ian's song "Jesse" and see how Kress has run with some of the implications.

Locus, June 2006

Nancy Kress’s “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (Asimov's) is also strong work, about the promise and pitfalls of nanotechnology as demonstrated by its arrival at a small town. As long as I’m namedropping old novels, the obvious antecedent here is Damon Knight’s very dark A for Anything.

Locus, December 2006

Nancy Kress’s “Safeguard” is a scary and thought-provoking story that felt a bit strained to me. Still, it raises wrenching questions. It opens with four rather odd children in what is clearly an artificial habitat. But in a disaster the habitat breaks. Their “caretaker” picks them up, and she is, we soon learn, presented with a dilemma. The children are apparently bio-weapons – carriers of a plague. But she loves them – how can she kill them? But if she doesn’t kill them, is she instead killing millions?

Summary of Baen's Universe, 2008

By contrast, my two favorite novelettes came from veteran writers. These are Nancy Kress's "First Rites" (October) and David Brin's "The Smartest Mob" (February). ... Kress's "First Rites" is a tense story of a genetic modification that leads to a new form of consciousness -- not necessarily with happy results.

Locus, March 2009

The March Asimov’s also features a fine novella from Nancy Kress, “Act One”. The story is told by Barry Tenler, the agent for a slightly aging actress, Jane Snow. Jane is preparing for a movie about children with a controversial genetic modification which makes people extremely empathic. Barry has a special personal reason for concern about genetic mods – he wanted his son to share his dwarfism, and insisted on genetic changes when the fetus tested “normal” – changes which didn’t quite work. And in the wider world, all such genetic treatment is of course very controversial. But, as “Act One” shows, there are unexpected side effects to even apparently beneficial changes like increased empathy – and there may be worse side effects when fanatics, on either side of the issue – get involved.

Life on Mars review, May 2009 Locus

And Nancy Kress’s “First Principle” deals with Martians who have been specially adapted to live there, and with the prejudice of some Earth people – in this case, particularly an obnoxious teenaged boy – who can’t deal with their differences.

Locus, October 2007

The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, will definitely rank among the landmark original anthologies of the year. I greatly enjoyed it – if I had one quibble it would be that a book of “New” stories probably ought to have included a couple of “newer” authors – every author included is quite well-established indeed. I lack space to cover it in detail. There are many strong stories – .... Nancy Kress’s “Art of War” examines the tragic disconnect between an alien species view of art – and how they interpret looted human art – and the human view.

Locus, October 2008

The major novellas at the fall Asimov’s Double Issue are from Robert Reed (b. 1956) and Nancy Kress (b. 1948) – so both members of the Baby Boomer class. Both stories are enjoyable. It is Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” that does seem to me, however, a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents – but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution – signaled from the beginning – is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end – and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving

Locus, November 2009

I have three months of Fantasy Magazine to catch up with. From September I particularly liked Nancy Kress’s “Images of Anna”. A “glamour shot” photographer is surprised when his photos of an engaging middle-aged woman turn up very strange – other people appear in them instead of the subject. He learns that the photographs are for her new boyfriend, who she met online – which raises red flags for him. But on continued investigation things only get stranger, and the eventual explanation is surprising and effective. The story works nicely metaphorically, in portraying the way a lonely and nice person sees herself … and fantastically, with the really quite delightful conclusion.

Locus, January 2014

In “Pathways” Nancy Kress (Twelve Tomorrows) tells of a backwoods family with a recurring genetic disorder: Fatal Familial Insomnia (sort of the real-life version of her “Sleepless”, without the positive aspects). Ludie, the narrator, is a young woman with the gene, who volunteers for an experimental treatment, against the wishes of her family, and in the face of a deadline – a cartoon -version Libertarian President is about to be voted out in favor of someone who will restrict this sort of research (but restore welfare programs). What works here, and works well, is the characters – Ludie and her family, and the Chinese doctor doing the research. Moving stuff, if, again, with a hint of wish-fulfillment in the background.

Locus, October 2016

In Now We Are Ten, there’s a good, short, fable-like piece from Nancy Kress, “Pyramid”, something of an allegory on success (appropriately for a retrospective anthology like this, there are nods to a number of SF greats).

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Old "Bestseller": The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

Capsule Looks at The Flower Beneath the Foot (and two other novels), by Ronald Firbank

a review by Rich Horton

Ronald Firbank was born January 17, 1886. He was one of the oddest and most original writers of the early 20th century -- his works are rather decadent, rather campy, quite funny, and not like any other writer I know. In memory of his birthday, here's some short things I wrote about a few of his novels (and one minor short story) a number of years ago.

A very different sort of comedy is practiced by Ronald Firbank. Firbank was a Roman Catholic Englishman of considerable independent means (his father was a railroad tycoon), who lived from 1886 to 1926. Firbank was also homosexual, and apparently terribly impractical, and quite shy. He wrote several novels, a few short stories and a play, starting in about 1907. He published the novels at his own expense, partly because they are so odd, partly, I think, because he couldn't really be bothered dealing with business details. But even during his life he gained considerable notice, and even had one strong seller in the US, with his novel Sorrow in Sunlight, retitled Prancing N****r by his American publisher in an apparently successful attempt to gain notice.

Firbank's novels are fey, highly mannered, creations, essentially comedies of manners, but the "manners" tend to be rather unusual. I'd read several of his novels a few years ago, but I just got a copy of the Complete Firbank, and I decided to reread some of them.

1. The Flower Beneath the Foot

I began with The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923). This story is set in the fictional country of Pisuerga, and its plot turns on the love affair between the Crown Prince Yousef and one Laura Nazianzi. But Laura is not highly placed enough to satisfy the King and Queen, who are pushing for a marriage to an English Princess. All seems conventional enough, but of course the plot such as it is has nothing really to do with the novel.

It's all really about conversations, wicked conversations. Firbank is among other things a very cruel writer -- his characters die, fail in love, and most of all are shown up as being very very silly. They also occasionally have funny names like Sir Somebody Something or Madame Wetme. One character has a favorite Shakespeare play -- "Julia Sees Her". Many of the women are intriguing to seduce other women, one way or another. Even Laura Nazianzi seems more excited by the prospect of returning to the convent and her special friend (complete with birch rod) than by the prospect of a relationship with Prince Yousef. It's all very arch, and terribly witty, and quite funny but perhaps best appreciated in smallish doses -- which is OK because this novel, as with all of Firbank, is pretty short.

2. Valmouth (and "Odette")

Valmouth, a rather short novel, is apparently generally regarded as Firbank's best, and at any rate I like it the best of his work that I've read.  It's set in a seaside resort, among a varied group of characters, most of whom seem to be over 100 years old, maybe even 150 or so. The plot concerns the plans of the son of one of the women to marry a "foreign" woman, and the effects of this plan on his mother and his previous lover, also there is a side plot concerning the vague  attempts of one of the older women to seduce a young farmer.  But the plot is nothing really, just an excuse to listen in on the various outre characters. The pleasure is derived from the delicate double-entendres buried in almost every line of dialogue -- concerning masochism, madness, fooling around with priests, etc.

"Odette" on the other hand, a very early story, shows almost nothing of what Firbank would become -- it's a silly and sentimental and moralistic short piece about a young orphan who encounters a prostitute and perhaps effects a change in her life.

3. The Artificial Princess

I read another Ronald Firbank "novel", The Artificial Princess, a story of about 20,000 words completed in 1915 but not published until 1934, several years after Firbank's death. All Firbank is slight in terms of plot, but this seems slighter than usual. It concerns a very young Princess (17) of a fictional country that seems closely to resemble England. The Princess has
a somewhat older companion, the Baroness. She sends her on a mission to a potential lover, but the Devil intervenes and the Baroness encounters a potential lover of her own. The action closes at a play written by another member of the court, the Mistress of the Robes, with encounters for the Princess and Baroness both in the offing.

Feather light, its attractions result from Firbank's characteristic fey description and arch dialogue. Still, it seems rather a lesser work than the other Firbank novels I have read. (Perhaps it is not a surprise the Firbank did not publish it in his lifetime.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple

Ace Double Reviews, 43: The Silent Invaders, by Robert Silverberg/Battle on Venus, by William F. Temple (#F-195, 1963, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)
This is one of the shorter Ace Double combinations I've seen. Silverberg's novel is about 34,000 words long, Temple's about 30,000. This is also a pretty minor pair of short novels -- neither is really memorable.

Robert Silverberg was a regular writer of Ace Doubles, producing thirteen "halves" over his career, in twelve different books. Several of his Ace Doubles were under pseudonyms: Ivar Jorgenson, David Osborne, and most often his Protestant pseudonym, Calvin Knox. Interestingly, The Silent Invaders is an expansion of a novelette from the October 1958 issue of Infinity, "The Silent Invaders", by "Calvin Knox" -- but the novel is as by "Robert Silverberg". After this edition, it was reprinted a couple of times in the 70s and 80s, by Ace and Tor, as Silverberg allowed some of his early pulp stories back into print. (I remember reading one of those thin Ace books back in the day.) (I note for the record that when I call these early Silverberg stories "pulp" I am referring to the general style -- the stories themselves, by the late 50s, were almost all (perhaps indeed all) published in digests, such as Infinity, rather than in actual pulp magazines.)

It's a rather preposterous little piece of pulpish fun. And it is in its way fun -- though probably only a novelette's worth. Silverberg has always been a facile writer -- I don't mean this in a bad way, I think writing with facility is a virtue, though not a necessary virtue. What I mean by this is that his writing flows nicely -- he's just easy to read, he compels reading. Even if, as in this case, what you are reading isn't all that good.

The protagonist is named Abner Harris -- but in reality he is Aar Khiilom, an agent of the Darruui. He has been sent to Earth, surgically altered to look like a human, on a mission to try to influence Earth to support Darruu in an anticipated war with their ancient enemy, the Medlin. He arrives on Earth, with orders to spend his first ten days or so just blending in. Indeed, a pleasant affair with a local woman would be just the thing -- and he is about ready to bed the beautiful Beth Baldwin when he receives a message from his boss -- emergency! He is compelled to stand her up.

It turns out that the Darruui have discovered that the Medlin have also infiltrated Earth. Abner's new job is to assassinate as many Medlin as he can. And his first assignment -- wait a minute, you'll NEVER GUESS this incredible plot twist -- is to assassinate a Medlin agent who is impersonating an Earth woman under the name Beth Baldwin!

Of course it turns out that Beth has the jump on him, and soon she and her fellow Medlins are trying to turn Abner/Aar to their side. It seems they are convinced he is a rare virtuous Darruui. More to the point, the Medlins have decided that their primary job is to nurture humans -- it seems that humans have begun to evolve into superbeings -- the future truly belongs to the arriving superhuman race. The rest of the story involves Abner/Aar resisting at first -- he cannot stand to betray his people, and eventually learning the deeper truth etc. etc. All in all, a silly story, very minor Silverberg, a bit too rapidly resolved -- nothing special at all. But as I said, enjoyable enough reading on its own terms.

William F. Temple was an Englishman involved in the UK SF scene from very early -- he roomed for a while with Arthur C. Clarke, and he was editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He wrote a number of juvenile novels, both SF and other, and a few SF novels and a number of short stories. He wrote three Ace Double halves, two of which were later combined to make another Ace Double.

The cover of Battle on Venus features what seems to be a huge runaway disk from an old fashioned mainframe disk drive, chasing a man with the proportions of a Darrell Sweet humanoid. (Noting that Sweet's drawings were supposedly of actual humans, but that can't really have been the case.) I just mention that because it struck me as amusing -- the cover is actually a somewhat accurate representation of a scene from the book.

The book concerns the first expedition to Venus, led by a lugubrious Captain who believes himself cursed by his first name (Jonah), and crewed by several redshirts and a "professional explorer" named George Starkey. The ship comes in for a landing only to find itself being shot at. And once on the surface, a variety of tanks and the like begin attacking. The crew are also menaced by the runaway disks. But all of a sudden the attacking tanks turn around and start defending the ship from another attacking set of vehicles. And all attempts at communication are met with silence.

Things finally quiet down, and George Starkey takes a helicopter on an exploring mission, only to be shot down. Luckily he is found by a beautiful girl from an isolated settlement, a girl who has spent her life as an expert thief (part of her culture), but who has decided to leave her home city. She and George are quickly in love, despite cultural differences. They manage to make there way to the home of the personage who, it turns out (big surprise) is orchestrating all this chaos.

And ... well, we learn why this endless pointless war continues, and George and his love make there way back to the ship, and ... and ... It's hardly worth describing. It's really another pretty silly story. Along the way there are occasional cute bits, a little humour, competent but not distinguished writing. And it's short. In all, surely one of the more forgettable Ace Doubles.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 32: Planetary Agent X, by Mack Reynolds/Behold the Stars, by Kenneth Bulmer (#M-131, 1965, $0.45)

by Rich Horton

Today is Kenneth Bulmer's birthday -- he'd have been 98. I've posted a lot of reviews of Bulmer's Ace Doubles already, but there always seem to be more! This is actually a review I wrote a while ago, but it's been off the internet for some time, so here it is again.

(Covers by Jack Gaughan)
As I've previously mentioned, one of my goals is to cover at least one entry by all of the most prolific Ace Double contributors in this series of reviews. This book pairs two quite prolific Ace Double writers: Bulmer wrote 15 Ace Double halves, Reynolds 13. I'd already reviewed a Bulmer book, but this is my first Reynolds Ace Double. Planetary Agent X is about 47,000 words, Behold the Stars about 44,000. This Ace Double also represents one of those in which the halves seem mildly thematically linked: both of these rather explicitly concern human expansion and colonization of the stars.

Mack Reynolds had a well-established reputation as sort of John W. Campbell's pet socialist. Reynolds (real name Dallas McCord Reynolds) was in fact an active member of the American Socialist Labor Party, and his father Verne Reynolds actually ran for President twice as a representative of that party. I've read only a couple of his books, and they do not seem overtly Socialist to me, though they aren't anti-Socialist either. (I understand that a few of his novels were more explicitly Socialist.) It seems to me that politics aside, he resembled Campbell quite strongly in being contrarian in temperament, and in promoting some of Campbell's tics regarding individualism and secret organizations working for the good of man and such like.

The publication history of Planetary Agent X is a little odd. The front matter states "This novel originally appeared in Analog in two parts under the titles "Ultima Thule" and "Pistolero"." Certainly Part I appeared as "Ultima Thule" in the March 1961 Analog. However, I can find no evidence that a story called "Pistolero" by Reynolds ever appeared anywhere. The Contento Index claims that "Pistolero", which it lists as part of this novel, appeared in SF Impulse, the British magazine edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli, sister to New Worlds (and originally called Science Fantasy), in June 1966, but under the title "Hatchetman", and a year or so after this Ace Double was published. (Curiously, one of Reynolds's earliest stories was a collaboration with Fredric Brown in Amazing for December 1951 called "The Hatchetman" -- I assume the story is unrelated.) I wonder if perhaps Reynolds submitted "Pistolero" to Campbell and told Ace that it would be published there, only to have it rejected. Then he may have sold it to SF Impulse, where it seems to have appeared a year after the Ace Double. (I should add that I don't know if the Ace Double versions of the stories differ from the magazine versions.)

The novel is a straightforward fixup of two novellas about Ronnie Bronston. Bronston lives some centuries in the future. Humans have colonized hundreds of worlds, many, perhaps most, united by a very loose government, centered on Earth, called United Planets. The central tenet of the United Planets is that interference with the internal affairs, particularly the political organization, of member planets is verboten. Ronnie dreams of going offplanet, and the only route to that is to work for UP. As the book opens, he is interviewed and hired for a casual-seeming organization called Section G. This seems to be sort of a secret department, aimed at enforcing the noninterference rule.

Ronnie's first assignment is to track down a criminal named Tommy Paine, who has been fomenting revolutions on numerous planets. His revolutions follow no specific pattern -- mainly simply removing entrenched autocrats from power, or forcing static societies out of ruts. He is assigned a beautiful Eurasian assistant, Tog Lee Chang Chou, who proceeds to annoy him en route to the various planets he suspects Paine might be at by playing Devil's Advocate. For all Ronnie suggests that some of these societies might deserve interference, Tog has reasons (not necessarily consistent) that they should not be messed with.

The ending to this section is easily guessed, and very predictable, involving among other things the meaning of Tog's name. At any rate, Ronnie is promoted to full membership in Section G. His next assignment, in Part II, is to track down Billy Antrim, a very young "pistolero" from a Mafia-dominated planet. (It is not, I am sure, a coincidence that "Billy Antrim" was one of the names Billy the Kid went by.) Billy was sent by his mob boss to kill a squealer who had come to Earth. The story actually focuses more on Billy's fleeing than on Ronnie's chasing, though the end, which is a bit dark and somewhat effective, does deal with Ronnie.

I assume there are a few more United Planets stories in Reynolds's bibliography. [Indeed there are -- quite a few, though this was the first.] For myself, this was not bad, though far from great. Enjoyable if predictable.

I've previously mentioned Kenneth Bulmer's career. He was a very prolific English SF writer, publishing something like 100 novels, including the Dray Prescot series (as by "Alan Burt Akers") for DAW. He also edited the last several volumes of the classic English original anthology series New Writings in SF.

Behold the Stars concerns David Ward, ex-Army, who is working for the Solterra government matter transmitter operation, several years after the end of a wearing war with the alien but nearly human "Venies". Space travel is mostly done by matter transmitter, but STL spaceships need first to travel to distant stars to place receiver stations (though the ships can be fueled by matter transmission). Some of the Solterra spaceships are encountering a new alien race, which has ambushed several human installations.

War seems imminent, but surprisingly many top people are very pacifist, despite the aggressiveness and provocation of these new aliens. Ward himself, though no pacifist, is reluctant to fight again -- he feels he did his time in the previous war. But his best friend disappears, and his friend's girlfriend introduces David to a beautiful girl who, it turns out, wants David to investigate the other guy's disappearance.

All this leads to David confronting his "cowardice", falling in love with the new girl, and tracking down his best friend -- which also leads to a solution to the problem of the pacifists.

It's not very well worked out. The deck is stacked to favor certain arguments. Some of the action is silly. The end is terribly abrupt. Even so, I enjoyed the characters (though they were terribly two-dimensional), and the story was a breezy read. I can't rate it as very good, but it was at least passable, if you swallow some of the absurdities.