Thursday, February 28, 2019

Old Bestseller Review: Snowdrift and other stories, by Georgette Heyer

Snowdrift and other stories, by Georgette Heyer

a review by Rich Horton

When I was a teenager I read every one of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, and her other romances and historicals (except for My Lord John), and her mysteries, as well. I also read 1 1/2 of her early contemporary novels, but I gave up on them, finding them truly dire. I've reread some of my favorites among the romances on occasion since that time. (My favorites are, I suppose, Sylvester, Sprig Muslin, Frederica, Arabella, and These Old Shades. Probably a couple more could be fit in there.)

So I was surprised to see, at Sally Kobee's booth at Boskone a couple of weeks ago, a Heyer book I didn't recognize: Snowdrift and other stories. It turns out, however, that this is a slight expansion of her only story collection, which I read back in the day under the title Pistols for Two. This book adds three "recently discovered" stories to the 11 that appeared in the first collection. Apparently she wrote nearly two dozen short stories all told -- I suspect the stories not reprinted have contemporary settings. The book seems to have been assembled by Jennifer Kloester, who has written two books about Heyer, including a biography. She also provides an introduction.

Heyer was a novelist, and these short stories don't show her at her best. But they are by and large cute and enjoyable, if implausible and often vaguely unsatisfying. She just doesn't have time to unspool the sort of plot she could do at greater length, and, more importantly, she couldn't really make the inevitable end of story realizations that the two main characters are destined to be together very convincing. Falling in love at first sight is a romance convention, but the fun of many of Heyer's books is that even if the characters do fall in love at first sight (and they usually do not) it takes them a few hundred pages to realize it. Herein they mostly have to be ready to get married within 20 pages.

The stories are:

"Snowdrift" (5700 words)
"Full Moon" (6600 words)
"Pistols for Two" (5500 words)
"A Clandestine Affair" (8700 words)
"Bath Miss" (5400 words)
"Pink Domino" (5500 words)
"A Husband for Fanny" (5300 words)
"To Have the Honour" (6000 words)
"Night at the Inn" (6200 words)
"The Duel" (5000 words)
"Hazard" (5800 words)
"Pursuit" (5200 words)
"Runaway Match" (4900 words)
"Incident on the Bath Road" (5100 words)

(The last three stories on that list are the "recent discoveries".)

There are a couple of duels, several elopements (though nobody actually reaches Gretna Green), and lots of 30-something men falling in love with and quickly claiming girls of 19 or so. There are also a couple of cases of older men and older women getting together (that is, men in their late 30s or 40s, women in the mid to late 20s -- in one case, a widow well into her 30s, though!) -- I have always liked those better in principle, in her novels as well as these stories -- the women are more mature, more even matches for the men. The cases where men almost twice the age of the girl heroines marry them seem problematic -- and it's worse in these short stories, where there is really no established relationship -- the characters don't know much about each other except that they like the other's looks, and maybe that they are decent to talk to for a few minutes. But there you are -- that's the nature of the genre, I suppose.

As I said, though I found these stories less satisfying than Heyer's novels, they were still enjoyable. The conversation is often amusing. The plots are simple, but in at least a couple of cases there are cute twists. It is amusing as a reader to guess from the beginning what's going to happen -- amusing but generally fairly easy. Certainly a minor part of Heyer's oeuvre, and likely only for completists, but if you are a fan, these are worth your time.

Birthday Review: Stories of John Barnes (and one novel, A Princess of the Aerie)

Today is John Barnes's birthday. I think he's one of the best pure SF writers of our time. In particular, The Sky So Big and Black is one of the best SF novels of this millennium -- and one of the scariest. Here's a selection of my reviews of his work in Locus, plus a review of his novel A Princess of the Aerie that appeared in the UK magazine 3SF.

Locus, November 2005

The November Analog features a novella by John Barnes, the latest in his Thousand Cultures series, which opened with a beautiful Analog novelette, “Canso de Fis de Jovent”. “The Diversification of His Fancy” reads like a bridge to a new novel. That said, it stands pretty well alone, though it may be a bit too long. Giraut Leones, the series’ hero, is now a celebrated musician (as well as a spy) – and he has also been a target of assassination attempts. His latest concert seems likely to be the venue for another attempt – and so we witness his “entourage” as they try to protect him. His entourage includes (among others) his ex-wife; his once dead friend; his father, who is now younger than him; and his lover. We learn little enough about the assassination plot (I presume that’s left for the novel?), but we learn a lot about the background of the Thousand Cultures, and especially about their somewhat imperfect immortality technology, which is based on recorded minds being downloaded into new bodies. (Hence the once dead friend and the younger father.) This story turns movingly on one of the central imperfections of this technology: not everyone can be saved and downloaded.

Locus, January 2006

The January-February Analog is also strong, indeed, one of the best issues in some time. There is good work in particular from Rajnar Vajra, Mark W. Tiedemann, and Richard A. Lovett, and an intriguing far future reverse take on today’s environmental controversies by Julian Flood, “Change”. But the best story is the longest: John Barnes’s “’The Night is Fine’, the Walrus Said”, a direct sequel to “The Diversification of its Fancy” (November 2005), and due to be followed by its own sequel in March. Indeed, it would appear that Barnes’s latest Thousand Cultures novel is perhaps being stealthily serialized in Analog, at least in part. I have no complaints! The stories work well enough on their own, though they are very clearly parts of a larger whole.  In this story Giraut Leones is again the subject of multiple assassination attempts as he tries to get his latest musical project finished. He seems to be the target of some faction of a group of illegal human colonies on distant planets. Things are further complicated when he begins to fall for a woman from his past – who seems to be connected to a representative of those colonies, and who is also a passionate Ixist. (The Ixist religion (introduced in an earlier book) being the subject of Giraut’s latest work.) The ending reveals some secrets, and sets the stage for much more to be revealed soon – involving AIs, aliens, the curious life-extension tech on this future, and of course the illegal colonies.

Locus, February 2006

John Barnes’s latest Thousand Cultures story continues in the March Analog with “The Little White Nerves Went Last”. A recording of Giraut Leones’s old boss Shan has been hosted in Giraut, and both are in the custody of rogue “aintellects”. Shan in particular had been a fierce opponent of AI rights, and this story consists mostly of his account of his childhood on a distant planet. The story reveals some important secrets of Barnes’s future – the source of his enabling “springer” (matter transmitter) technology, and the nature and motivations of a threatening alien civilization. This story is interesting and moving, if at times just a bit pat. The stage seems well and truly set for a pretty spectacular finish.

Locus, May 2006

I thought the best stories in the first issue of Baen's Universe were two longer novelettes. “Poga” by John Barnes, is a fantasy about a woman, Plain Old Goddamn Amy (or “Poga”), whose father was a struggling fantasy writer who suddenly made it big. In this world, Elfland is roughly Wyoming, and she lives in Colorado, near the border. She is struggling with a lonely life, and her dead father’s ambiguous legacy, and her uneasy relationship with the fantastical promise of Elfland.

Locus, November 2006

In October at Baen's Universe I thought two stories stood out – perhaps not quite what a reader of Baen Books would expect. ... Even better is John Barnes’s “Every Hole is Outlined”, set very far in the future, and essentially the life story of a girl sold from slavery into service on a starship. The small starship crew lives at a different rate, in essence, from planetbound people, and in a very different way as well. And there are mysteries – in particular the ghosts … Barnes’s heroine goes from a young girl more or less manipulated into marriage with an old man to the ship’s captain, and as we read of her life we learn fascinating snippets of the culture she inhabits. It’s quite a moving story, and it hints at a very interesting future.

Locus, February 2007

The new online magazine Helix offers a very good third issue. Among several strong stories I’ll mention particularly John Barnes’s “Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair” is a very mordantly funny send up of a Tom Swift-like series of books and more to the point the racist and fascist views expressed therein – which lead to the end of the world.

Locus, September 2007

The August Baen’s Universe includes another strong story from John Barnes, who had two of the best stories there last year. “An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away” is about a couple of documentary makers on Mars to record the impact of a comet as part of the terraforming effort. They have sort of a Red Mars/Green Mars conflict: Léoa’s point of view is to mourn the loss of the old Mars, while Thorby (a significant name in SF terms, but I admit I can’t figure out the reason for the nod to Citizen of the Galaxy) wants to celebrate the coming of a new Mars, and also wants to document Big Energy Release Events – that is to say, things blowing up. The story turns, however, on their more personal characters – Thorby’s lonely life, Léoa’s ambition – as plotwise it pivots on an accident on the surface of Mars.

Locus, January 2010

However, they (Jim Baen's Universe) do close 2009 with perhaps the best story they’ve published yet, and one of the great stories of the year: John Barnes’s “Things Undone”. Rastigevat is a highborn member of a rather darkly formed society. His partner is of lower class, but we learn quickly that they are in love, for which the lower born individual is liable to be executed. Their job is curious – they track down time travelers and try to minimize the damage they can cause. The story turns on several things – the feelings of the main characters (Rastigevat in particular, as he seems to be borderline autistic), eventual revelations about the true nature of this world – an alternate history – and why it’s different to our world, the rather subtle delineation of the extent of the differences (accompanied by some of the typical alternate history namedropping, but here employed to much better effect than usual), and of course a conspiracy … In the end it’s very moving, very involving – I was reminded of one of my favorite time travel stories of all time, John Brunner’s “The Fullness of Time”.

Locus, March 2011

Jonathan Strahan serves notice that 2011 may be as strong a year as the past few in original anthologies with Engineering Infinity. ... John Barnes closes the book with “The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees”. Stephanie and her husband Lars are part of an expedition to the Southern Ocean to investigate a curious feature: a mat of huge upside down “trees”. The nature of the trees and the reason for them is pretty neat, in an SFnal way. The story also has a fine character-based conflict, as Lars’s ex-wife, a humaniform android built for space exploration is also along on the trip; and Stephanie is fiercely jealous of her, a jealousy only complicated by her being as nice as she is physically and mentally superior. Fine work from a first-rate but I feel underrated writer.

Life on Mars Review (Locus, May 2011)

Finally the best two stories come from Ian McDonald and John Barnes. ...Barnes’s “Martian Heart” posits a condition that affects a significant subset of Martian colonists, whereby their heart fails due to the conditions on the planet. The “colonists” here are essentially indentured. For example, the narrator, Cap, and his wife Sam are homeless people on Earth, shipped to Mars in lieu of time in the army, hoping to earn their way back to Earth by prospecting. But the odds of a prospector hitting it big are minuscule – so they’re likely stuck on Mars. And things get worse when Sam’s heart begins to fail. The story is in a sense about how Cap – who is telling it decades later – finally hits it big – and why Sam is the reason he did. Sentimental stuff, I suppose, but in the best way, and it hit me right in the gut.

Locus, December 2012

Strahan also gives us a new anthology of stories set in the relatively near future Solar System, Edge of Infinity, which has a plethora of neat pieces. ... John Barnes's “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh”, about an AI who gets involved (it's his job) with the relationship issues of a man and a woman – which ends up impacting the relationship of humans and  AIs quite profoundly.

Review of A Princess of the Aerie for 3SF, April 2003

Last year I was quite taken with John Barnes's novel The Duke of Uranium, a romp set in a well-inhabited 36th Century Solar System over That novel introduced Jak Jinnaka, a charismatic young man who, it is hinted, will achieve great (and perhaps sinister) power later in his life. Barnes seemed to deliberately sprinkle that book with references to Heinlein, and in many ways it read like a present-day Heinlein juvenile. But Barnes evidently has different things in mind, and the sequel, A Princess of the Aerie, is certainly not a Young Adult book. It is, however, an interesting and very enjoyable read, set in a politically and technologically fascinating future.

Jak's former girlfriend, Shyf, was revealed in the first book to be a princess of a nation in the Aerie, a cluster of space habitats located at the Earth-Sun L4 point. Jak lives in the Hive, at the L5 point, and he's studying at the Public Service Academy, with his friend Dujuv, a young man with panther-derived genes. Jak is looking for a class project, and at the same time he gets a message from Shyf, asking him for help and hinting at a resumption of their relationship. So Jak, Dujuv, and Dujuv's ex-girlfriend Myxenna, head for the Aerie. Once there, however, they find that Shyf claims not to have sent any such message. They also learn that Shyf is not the person they thought she was, instead she is a sex-mad, power-mad, spoiled brat. But Jak and his friends, partly because of what seems to be unusual luck on Jak's part, foil an attempt on the Princess's father's life. As a reward, they are sent to the hellish mines of Mercury, where they get involved with a revolution against a group angling to take control of Mercury's resources.

The story is exciting in itself, and furthermore it is fascinating in its cynical view of realpolitik as it applies to the 36th Century. Our view of Jak is complicated enormously in this second of his adventures: it's clear that he's not quite what he seems, but it's also clear that his friends (and former friends) don't understand him well either. I'm looking forward to further stories detailing the career of Jak Jinnaka -- and I do want to see what he makes of his life and times.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, by Brian Katcher

The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, by Brian Katcher

Katherine Tegen Books, 2015, Trade Paperback $9.99

a review by Rich Horton

At Archon in 2018 I shared an autographing table with Brian Katcher. Since neither of us had signing lines to rival George R. R. Martin, we had got to talk to each other a fair bit, and we exchanged copies of each other’s book. I came out ahead in that deal, with The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak, no doubt.

Brian is local, from the St. Louis area, now living in outstate Missouri. We already had a mutual friend, Kristin Darden, who is part of the book group (run by Mark Tiedemann) that I participate in. I believe Kristin went to college with Brian. And, indeed, she showed up at our signing …

This isn’t a science fiction book, but it’s SF-adjacent, in that all the action takes place at an SF convention. (Based, to some extent, on Brian’s experiences at Archon when he was much younger – though I doubt he ever got up to the more hair-raising things Ana and Zak get up to in this book!) As such, the atmosphere, and the characters, are readily recognizable to those of us who attend cons regularly.

Ana is a smart kid in her senior year of High School in Tacoma, WA. She’s obsessed with her grades, and with her outside activities – in part because her parents insist on this, in part because she wants to be able to go to college somewhere besides the University of Washington at Tacoma, and in part because her parents won’t let her do anything else, for initially mysterious reasons having to do with her sister Nichole, and with the fact that she doesn’t have a sister anymore. One of her activities is Quiz Bowl.

Zak is also fairly smart, but he’s a slacker. His father died of cancer not too long ago, and his mother has remarried, and Zak can’t stand his stepfather. Though, it should be said, the stepfather doesn’t seem like a bad guy – maybe just a bit clueless. Zak’s career plan is Tacoma Community College, followed by some kind of tech service job maybe – just enough to keep him in gaming equipment and allow him to attend the occasional con. Oh, and he has a bit of a crush on Ana, who has no idea he even exists (and whose self image is skewed enough that she can’t believe anyone could have a crush on her.)

Then Zak’s academic advisor, who is also the Quiz Bowl sponsor, shanghais him onto the Quiz Bowl team – because she’s caught him cheating on a paper, and because she thinks he’s better than that. Zak agrees in order to be able to graduate – and then realizes the Quiz Bowl tournament is the same weekend as his favorite con! All is lost!

The Quiz Bowl star, however, is Ana’s kid brother Clayton, who is just as hemmed in by his parents as Ana. But he’s a bit more rebellious, and when Zak mentions to Clayton that the convention he’s missing is in Seattle, not too far from the Quiz Bowl hotel, Clayton sneaks out and goes to the con. Which is a disaster on several levels – for the Quiz Bowl team, and more importantly for Ana, who is convinced her parents will blame her. So the only thing to do is for Ana to go to the con and retrieve Clayton – and Ana needs a native guide, i.e. Zak.

So they go, Ana naturally contemptuous of Zak, and of all his nerdy friends. And Clayton proves to be hard to track down … meaning we get a tour of various convention traditions – the gaming room, a filk session, an SCA tournament, etc.. At each of which Ana or Zak or both cause chaos, either because they don’t know what’s up (Ana), or they’re trying to catch up with Clayton (both). And then something really scary happens …

The reader knows where this is going. This genre of YA novel is as well-defined as any romance novel – the mismatched kids are going to realize that they have more in common than they knew. They are going to (with the help of the other person) come to some place of, if not resolution, at least improvement or better understanding of their own family situation. They are going to become at least close friends, probably bf/gf – and, yes, all this eventuates. And that’s cool, because what matters is the journey. Do we believe in these kids, and care for them? Yes. And are their adventures, no matter how small-scale or large-scale, enjoyable? Yes. Will their experiences at least set them on the path to a better future? Yes.

I really liked this book, and I’m glad I had the good fortune to semi-randomly encounter it. (Kristin tells me that Brian’s Almost Perfect is even better.) I don’t think you need to be an SF fan, or a con-goer, to like the book – not at all. But if you are, there’s a bit extra in there for you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Liz Williams

Today is Liz Williams' birthday. She is one of our really fine writers, and perhaps doesn't get as much notice as she deserves. Here's my reviews of her work from Locus:

Locus, June 2002

"The Banquet of the Lords of Night", by Liz Williams (Asimov's, June), is very atmospheric, about a pastry chef in the future, when Earth has apparently fallen under the sway of aliens who cannot tolerate light.  The plot is in the end quite ordinary, but the presentation is neat enough to make the story worth the reading.

Locus, October 2004

Strange Horizons featured two strong, original, science fiction stories in August. Liz Williams's "The Pale" is a selkie story, set in the Scottish island, which are for some reason mysteriously isolated. The narrator's mother is apparently a selkie – the story is partly a clever way to give that a science-fictional rationale, but more significantly the sadness of the personal story of the selkie and her husband and children comes through.

Locus, December 2004

The Fall Electric Velocipede features fine work from Liz Williams. "The Marsella" is about a young Englishman in Barcelona who indulges at an absinthe bar and finds himself in a hallucinatory episode where he must fight a dragon as a Champion of the goddess Cybele.

Locus, March 2005

I liked the whole of the February Realms of Fantasy without any story quite standing out. Liz Williams's "All Fish and Dracula" portrays a naive participant in a Goth Weekend, who witness, without fully understanding, some sinister happenings one Samhain night.

Locus, May 2005

Liz Williams is all over the place this month. Her Asimov's story, "La Gran Muerte", didn't particularly excite me, but I enjoyed stories from the April Realms of Fantasy and the Spring Electric Velocipede. "Blackthorn and Nettles", from RoF, is a fine Welsh-set fantasy, in which a woman falls in love with a smooth young man, but falls afoul of his too-close sister. "Serpent's Tooth", from Electric Velocipede, is a nice traditional SF story about an anthropologist on a planet where the local species is near extinction, and where humans are trying to help the survivors reproduce. He gets involved with a possibly sinister alien (from yet another species) and with the newborn locals – with unexpected results.

Locus, January 2006

Realms of Fantasy closes 2005 with another fine issue. Two regulars contribute the best stories. ... Liz Williams’s “Mortegarde” is distinguished first by a fascinating setting: a series of vastly different worlds like fruit on a world tree. Travel to other worlds is possible but dangerous. Her protagonist is summoned to Mortegarde, a world of wyverns, to present his scientific, rationalist, views – perhaps not to their approval.

From the Introduction to my 2009 Best of the Year volume

And yet there remain stories that draw us in with their exotic settings, such as Liz Williams’s “Spiderhorse” (Realms of Fantasy, August), in which the Norse myths (and Odin’s horse) are viewed from a very original angle.

Locus, January 2014

In Old Mars some authors embrace the pulpish past wholeheartedly ...Also pulpish in overall shape, but ultimately one of the best stories in the book, is “Out of Scarlight”, by Liz Williams, about Zuneida Peace, who began her career as “a seducer of Princes (and occasionally Princesses)” who is now a bounty hunter of sorts, tracking a Princess of the Desert People, who has apparently been kidnapped by a sorcerer … An old rival of hers, Nightwall Dair, is on the track of the same girl, for a different client. Of course there are changes to ring on this familiar setup – Zuneida has a perhaps unfortunate crush on the Princess in question, and both Nightwall Dair and the Princess have slightly untraditional agendas. The traditional pulpish color, and the variation on the traditional plot, are both well done. Really nice stuff.

Locus, December 2018

Gardner Dozois’ final (I presume) original anthology, The Book of Magic, is here, and it lives up to the high standards set by his previous work. The best work includes ... Liz Williams’ “Sungrazer”, an effectively mysterious story of a retired astronomer who is also secretly a magician; and his encounter with a sort of fire spirit, which leads him to negotiating with living stars to save the Earth from a comet.

I also review Liz Williams' novels Snake Agent and Precious Dragon at SF Site.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of A. M. Dellamonica

Today is Alyx Dellamonica's birthday. So here's a collection of my reviews of her short fiction, from my Locus column. It's not as long a collection as it might be ... which can only mean one thing! Ms. Dellamonica should write more short fiction!

Locus, April 2002

The most recent stories in Sci Fiction do nothing to mar the site's well-deserved reputation as the best online source of new short SF, and one of the best sources period. Well worth a look is Alyx Dellamonica's "Three Times Over the Falls": a typically twisty time travel tale, with a man from the future trying to make sure a present day rock band stays together. Stories about the vital importance of rock music to the future never convince me, but that quibble aside this a sound, entertaining, fast moving piece.

Locus, November 2002

The October/November issue of Asimov's is another impressive one. Locus reviewer A. M. Dellamonica contributes "A Slow Day at the Gallery", a fine, cynical, story about a visitor to an alien art gallery with a sinister mission.

Locus, February 2003

Speaking of Canada, the theme for the Winter issue of the e-mail distributed Oceans of the Mind is Canadian writers. A. M. Dellamonica contributes the prize: "Living the Quiet Life", about a far future human society mostly consisting of humans genetically enhanced to be "Quick": telepathic, with special healing powers, etc. Some are "Quiet": they lack these extra powers. Nerethe is "Quick" but passes for Quiet. One of her close "Quiet" friends is the chief negotiator with aliens, who distrust the "mindpicking" abilities of the Quick. Nerethe finds herself pressured to violate her agreements to stay Quiet and to spy on an alien ambassador, who seems to be planning some treachery. Dellamonica sets up an intriguing and original background, and forces her protagonist into a believably wrenching moral corner.

Locus, April 2012

At in February I saw a couple of fine pieces. Alyx Dellamonica's “Among the Silvering Herd” introduces an intriguing character, merchant and diplomat Gale Feliachild. She's been hired to help the island kingdom of Redcap get out from under an onerous tribute they owe a more powerful neighbor. That political story is well enough done if in the end a bit inconsequential, but Gale is an interesting character, and there are fascinating social tidbits mentioned, as well as a personal story involving her unwilling replacement of her ship's captain with a younger man. This particular story is nice enough, but what I really want is more in the same milieu. 

Locus, April 2016

There are some strong recent stories in A. M. Dellamonica continues her series of stories of Gale Felachild and Captain Parrish in “The Glass Galago”, set early in their teaming. The issue here is political: a proposal to increase regulations on magical alterations of people, with a dangerous example at hand: a “script” which changes animals such as the title galago, or humans, to glass. It’s interesting in the short run, but dangerous if not reversed. The problem is, the inventor of this script has lost it, and a woman who has been transformed may die. Gale and Parrish’s job is to find the script, and perhaps also find who took it and why. It’s a nice little mystery, and it fills in some worthwhile background on the society in which this continuingly intriguing series is set.

Locus, April 2017

Also in is the latest Gale Feliachild story from A. M. Dellamonica, “Losing Heart Among the Tall”. Entertaining as ever with this series – this one is from the point of view of Captain Sloot, returning home to retire and leave the protection of Gale to young Parrish. All is complicated by the theft of the Heart of the ship Temperance, which could mean the end of the truce that tamed the pirates. Gale’s sister Beatrice turns out to be central to recovering and protecting the Heart – but her price might be a pledge that Sloot forgo his retirement. These are some of the most enjoyable nautical fantasies of recent years, and perhaps a bit underappreciated.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Hugo Nomination Thoughts, 2019: Summary Post

Hugo Nomination Thoughts, 2019

Here’s my summary of my thoughts about potential Hugo nominees. This year I’ll be a lot briefer than the past couple of years, primarily because I haven’t read as many novels as in past years. Indeed, these are mostly looks at the short fiction. I make a few remarks about other categories, but for the most part (Fan Writer, Short Form Editor, and Campbell perhaps excepted), I don't have terribly strong opinions on most of them.

First, my obligatory “Philosophy” disclaimer – though I participate with a lot of enjoyment in Hugo nomination and voting every year, I am philosophically convinced that there is no such thing as the “best” story – “best” piece of art, period. This doesn’t mean I don’t think some art is better than other art – I absolutely do think that. But I think that at the top, there is no way to draw fine distinctions, to insist on rankings. Different stories do different things, all worthwhile. I can readily change my own mind about which stories I prefer – it might depend on how important to me that “thing” they do is (and of course most stories do multiple different things!) – it might depend on my mood that day – it might depend on something new I’ve read that makes me think differently about a certain subject. And one more thing – I claim no special authority of my own. I have my own tastes, and indeed my own prejudices. So too does everyone else. I have blind spots, and I have things that affect me more profoundly than they might affect others. I’ve also read a lot of SF – and that changes my reactions to stories as well – and not in a way that need be considered privileged.

Anway, as ever, in the lists below, I’ll suggest somewhere between 3 and 8 or so items that might be on my final ballot. Those will be in no particular order. And the other stories I list will all really be about as good – and I might change my mind before my ballot goes in.

I've alread made posts about Novella, Novelette, and Short Story -- below are links to those posts.



Short Story

Other Categories:

Best Novel
Every year I mention that I haven’t read a lot of novels. I’m going to mention these novels as reasonable candidates, and then admit that I really truly haven’t read enough novels to make a strong recommendation. Two of these are first novels that I really like – but while certainly strong indicators of the talents of their writers, may not be quite Hugo material.

Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee
Pride and Prometheus, by John Kessel
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewomen, by Theodora Goss
The Calculating Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Robots of Gotham, by Todd McAulty
The Quantum Magician, by Derek Künsken

The Nebula nomination list includes Kowal’s novel and several I haven’t gotten to: The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, Blackfish City, by Sam Miller, Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse; and Witchmark, by C. L. Polk. The Novik and Miller novels at least have been on my TBR list for some time – the Kuang novel also seems impressive. I have to admit I haven’t even heard of the Polk novel (my bad, I suppose, but there are so many …), and reviews of Roanhorse’s novel seemed to suggest “Promising first novel, but not really award material”, but obviously, not having read it, I can’t say more.

Best Series

Here’s JJ’s list of eligible series posted at File 770: Much props to JJ for the tireless work of maintain this list, but … I think the list itself speaks to problems with the whole concept of this award.

I was skeptical about this award from the start, and I don’t think its history helps it. I’m really bothered by the way adding one short story to a very old series, for example, makes it again eligible (as with Earthsea, objectively by far the most worthy and influential eligible series, but does “Firelight”, beautiful as it absolutely is, really mean we should give it an award now?) Also, the endless parsing of “series” vs. “sub-series”. The way an award can be for, really, semi-random assemblages of related works. I could go on and on.

Best YA Novel

This is the first official year for this new award, I believe. (Wasn’t last year a trial run, that is to say, a Special Convention Award, not part of the official process? [Martin informs me in the comments that in fact last year was the first year for the official award, but that it now has a name, the Lodestar.) It is not a Hugo, but it will be administered and awarded by the World Science Fiction Society using essentially the same process as for the Hugos (and the Campbell). I can only suggest a look at the YA category in the Locus Recommended Reading list: I do think this award is worthwhile, but I quite honestly have read no YA work from 2018.

Best Graphic Story

I don't read much in this category, but I thought I should mention a shorter piece I liked a great deal, "Resolution", by Clifford V. Johnson, from the MIT Press anthology Twelve Tomorrows.

Dramatic Presentation

Long Form

I don’t think there’s much suspense about what will win the Hugo this year, and I think Black Panther is a fine film that might very well be the right choice. Beyond that, I saw Annihilation, which was impressive but didn’t quite hold together for me. I’d say it’s worthy of a nomination. I saw Solo, which I enjoyed, but which I can’t call all that great. Perhaps Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? I haven’t seen enough of its permutations yet. And that’s about all I saw this year.

Short Form

As for Short Form, I watch relatively little TV. And that that I did watch was either non-SF, or not from 2018 (such as Black Mirror Season 4, which came out December 29, 2017).

Fan Categories

In the remaining categories (as, really, with all the categories except short fiction) I do want to emphasize what may be obvious – these are people and things that I personally enjoyed, but I know there’s a lot of excellent work I’ve missed. I’ll be nominating things that impressed me, but I’ll be glad to check out the stuff other people nominate.

Best Fan Writer

I’ll reiterate my admiration for John Boston and John O’Neill. John Boston’s most publicly available recent stuff is at Galactic Journey, where he reviews issues of Amazing from 55 years ago, month by month. (It will be noted, perhaps, that I also review issues of Amazing from the same period, at Black Gate.) John’s work there is linked by this tag:

As for John O’Neill, of course his central contribution is as editor of Black Gate, for which he writes a great deal of the content, often about, “vintage” books he’s found on Ebay or at conventions, and also about upcoming fantasy books.

Another Black Gate writer, and fan writer in general, who did great work last year was Steven Silver, particularly his “Birthday Reviews”.

I should also mention Charles Payseur, a very worthy Fan Writer nominee last year, whose Quick Sip reviews of short fiction should not be missed.

And as for myself, I too am a fan writer (at least my blog writing and my stuff for Black Gate qualifies, if perhaps not my work for Locus, which I guess is now officially professional). I was pretty proud of my writing last year. I would note in particular my reviews of old magazines at Black Gate, particularly Amazing and Fantastic in the Cele Goldsmith Lalli era, and my various reviews of Ace Doubles (and other SF) at my blog Strange at Ecbatan ( (and often linked from Black Gate.) The other thing I did this year at my blog was a set of “Birthday Reviews” of my own, inspired by Steven’s series, in which I tried to honor SF writers on their birthdays, either with reviews of their novels, or, particularly, with reviews of their short fiction.

Best Fanzine

As I did last year, I plan to nominate Black Gate, Galactic Journey, and Rocket Stack Rank for the Best Fanzine Hugo. I’m particularly partial in this context to Black Gate, primarily of course because I have been a contributor since the print days (issue #2 and most of the subsequent issues). Black Gate is notable for publishing a lot of content on a very wide variety of topics, from promoting new book releases to publishing occasional original and reprinted fiction to reviewing old issues of Galaxy (Matthew Wuertz) and Amazing/Fantastic/etc. (me) to intriguing posts about travel and architecture by Sean MacLachlan. Rocket Stack Rank and Galactic Journey are a bit more tightly focused: the former primarily reviews and rates short fiction, as well as assembling statistics about other reviewers (myself included) and their reactions to the stories; while the latter, as I mentioned above, is reviewing old SF magazines from 55 years past.

(Incidentally, Black Gate failed to get a Hugo nomination last year because of the new EPH algorithm for ranking nomination votes. I would suggest that possibly this was not an example of the algorithm really doing what it was designed for.)

Finally, I’ll mention the other SF-oriented site I read and enjoy regularly – File 770 ( ), which is (deservedly) very well known, having been nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo numerous times and having won some as well. 2018 was their 40th Anniversary! 

Best Editor

For this year, I’d mainly like to suggest that Jonathan Strahan really deserves a Hugo. His work has been consistently excellent for years, and this year in particular is a significant year, as the last book in his “Infinity” series of original anthologies came out: Infinity’s End. And this book was particularly impressive, a really remarkable original anthology. He also does some editing for, and among his many impressive acquisitions, Ian McDonald’s outstanding novella Time Was stands out. (This should not be taken as denying the excellent work of many others, such as John Joseph Adams, Neil Clarke, Sheila Williams, and C. C. Finlay, who will probably fill out the rest of my ballot – there are several more. (I am giving some precedence to editors whose magazines don’t have their own category, such as Adams, Williams, Clarke, and Finlay, or who do a lot of work in anthologies or other places (like which also don’t have categories. Semiprozine editors, excellent as many of them are, kind of get two bites at the apple.)

Best Related Work

I have two books to recommend. Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is a really remarkable work, detailing the intersecting lives and careers of John W. Campbell, Jr., L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. Exceptionally well researched, very well written – a tremendous contribution to the field. The other book is one I have a personal stake in – but I think it’s a very worthy nominee anyway. This is Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos, which covers the history of the Hugos from 1953 through the end of the 20th Century. Jo writes intelligently and charmingly about all the awards, particularly novel, and goes into detail about a number of the novels. She also included extended comments from the original online posts, with many contributors – but the main contributors, I say immodestly, were the late great Gardner Dozois and myself – both of us mostly discussing the short fiction. I was inordinately proud and thrilled to be a co-dedicatee with Gardner and with Kevin Standlee.


The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, also “Not a Hugo”. This is given to the best writer whose first professional publication in the SF or Fantasy field appeared in the past two years (2017 or 2018). Writertopia has a page, not guaranteed to be complete, with a list of eligible authors: .

I went through that list and came up with the following writers who have done something that impressed me:

L. X. Beckett
R. S. Benedict
J. R. Dawson
Giovanni di Feo
Tonya Liburd
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Cadwell Turnbull
D. A. Xiaolin Spires

Many of these were on my list last year – only Beckett and Turnbull are new to my list. Both published very impressive stories this year, as did Dawson and Benedict and Liburd. Prasad was my top choice last year, and while I thought her one story in 2018 not quite as strong as her 2017 stuff, her body of work is absolutely Campbell-worthy. As usual, I haven’t read novels by any of these – I know there are other writers with strong novels that I just haven’t read (Katherine Arden and Rivers Solomon, most obviously).

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Hugo recommendations, 2019: Novella


I thought this was a strong year for novellas, but not, perhaps, quite as good as last year. I need to caution, however, that I have not yet read some significant novellas. These include Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky, P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums, and Greg Egan’s Phoresis. (Also, a couple of Nebula nominees that were not on my radar: Jonathan Brazee’s Fire Ant, and Kate Heartsfield’s Alice Payne Arrives.) I should also add one other option that I listed last year, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian, which may be officially eligible this year, not last year.

So, here’s my current list of candidates, which, as noted, might expand:

L. X. Beckett, “Freezing Rain, A Chance of Falling” (F&SF, 7-8/18)
Aliette de Bodard, The Tea Master and the Detective (Subterranean)
Greg Egan, “3-adica” (Asimov’s, 9-10/18)
David Gerrold and Ctein, “Bubble and Squeak” (Asimov’s, 5-6/18)             
Carolyn Ives Gilman, “Umbernight” (Clarkesworld, 2/18)
Ian McDonald, Time Was ( Publishing)
Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach (Tor.Com Publishing)
Juliette Wade, “The Persistence of Blood” (Clarkesworld, 3/18)  
Peter Watts, The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon)
Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (Tor.Com Publishing)

Of these stories – none of which would disappoint me if they won the Hugo – my four favorites, in no particular order, are:

1.       Ian McDonald, Time Was – A lovely timeslip piece, about a man who discovers an interesting letter inside an obscure books of poems, and in his research finds evidence of the poet and his lover turning up again and again at different sites of conflict. The frame is important – the story is effectively not just about the time-slipped lovers but about the way the man who tells the story becomes involved himself. Beautifully written.

2.       David Gerrold and Ctein, “Bubble and Squeak” – About a gay couple, hoping to get married, who have their plans interrupted by a tsunami heading to Los Angeles, and who have to find a way to get to higher ground – and, as it turns out, help a bunch of others as well. It’s 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.

3.       Carolyn Ives Gilman, “Umbernight” – Set within a struggling colony on a world subject to periodic bursts of radiation for its primary’s UV-emitting companion. Michiko is perhaps the only colony member interested in exploring their world, so she is forced into leading a dangerous expedition to recover the latest cargo drop from Earth, which will arrive just before the next predicted “umbernight”, when their planet will be awash in dangerous radiation. The expedition is predictably a disaster, especially when umbernight comes a bit early … and the members learn, the hardest way, that their planet changes in quite amazing ways in true umbernight. It’s pretty neat stuff really, set against its protagonist’s justly cynical attitude.

4.       Juliette Wade, “The Persistence of Blood” – This is set in a caste-driven society living in underground cities. The Lady Selemei is the wife of an influential member of the governing caste, whose women have tremendous difficulty in childbearing, and also are societally expected to bear many children, as their Race is seen to be in decline. Her loving husband has agreed to that they must abstain from sex, and has even proposed a law to make it legal for women with health issues to “retire” from childbearing (and even, perhaps to use contraceptives!)  The story turns on her husband’s sudden death, and her shocking step of assuming her husband’s seat in the Council. It comes to a powerful and moving conclusion.

The current leader for the fifth position on my is Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition, sort of as a proxy for all three Murderbot novellas that came out in 2018 – all fun and thought-provoking, certainly worth reading. Either the Beckett or Robson novellas could be chosen as well. But I have a few more stories to read before the nomination deadline, as I’ve noted.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Hugo Recommendations, 2019: Novelette

This is my long list of novelettes I’ve considered for nomination, largely the list of those I put in the Recommended Reading section of my Locus reviews (with a few additions).

Dale Bailey, "The Donner Party", (F&SF, 1-2/18)
Bo Balder, “A Cigarette Burn in Your Memory”, (Clarkesworld, 1/18)
Gregory Benford, "A Waltz in Eternity", (Galaxy's Edge, 11/18)
Michael Cassutt, “Unter”, (Asimov’s, 7-8/18)
Tina Connolly, “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”, (, 7/18)
John Crowley, “Flint and Mirror”, (The Book of Magic)
Andy Duncan, “Joe Diabo’s Farewell”, (An Agent of Utopia)
Theodora Goss, “Queen Lily”, (Lightspeed, 11/18)
Daryl Gregory, “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, (, 9/18)
Kameron Hurley, “Sister Solveig and Mister Denial”, (Amazing, Fall/18)
James Patrick Kelly, "Grace’s Family", (, 5/18)
Alex Jeffers, "The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death", (Giganotosaurus, 4/18)
Samantha Murray, “Singles’ Day”, (Interzone, 9-10/18)
Alec Nevala-Lee, "The Spires", (Analog, 3-4/18)
Julia Novakova, "The Gift", (Asimov's, 11-12/18)
Justina Robson, "Foxy and Tiggs", (Infinity's End)
Kelly Robson, "Intervention", (Infinity's End)       
Karen Russell, "Orange World", (The New Yorker, 6/4/18)
James Sallis, "Dayenu", (LCRW, Spring/18)
Jack Skillingstead, “Straconia”, (Asimov’s, 7-8/18)
Brian Trent, "Crash-Site", (F&SF, 5-6/18)
Carrie Vaughn, “The Hunstman and the Beast”, (Asimov’s, 9-10/18)

The top candidates for my ballot are:

1.       Dale Bailey, “The Donner Party” (F&SF, 1-2/18) – a savage look at an alternate version of Victorian England in which the upper classes eat the children of the lower classes. The insecure new wife of an upper class man is put to the test, as it were.

2.       James Patrick Kelly, “Grace’s Family” (, 5/18) – Grace is a starship, and it’s her job to maintain her family – the humans – and robots – who live on board, while they grow up, and age, and explore. This is fascinating original SF, deeply concerned with the purpose of intelligence in the universe.

3.       Alex Jeffers, “The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death” (Giganotosaurus, 4/18) – A leisurely and lovely look at the career and life of a diplomat who has largely gone native at his post, the Chinese-flavored Haisn. But, with glosses hinted at by the title entertainment, he gets caught up in political turmoil, and must make a new life. It’s hard for me to describe the continual pleasures of the tale, bound up in the narrator’s self-involved (but generally pleasant) character, the sideways revelations of the nature of Haisn’s culture, the gentle realization of the fate of the narrator (and his faithful servant) after their ejection from Haisn

4.       Kelly Robson, “Intervention” (Infinity’s End) -- A very intelligent story about child rearing in a heavily inhabited future Solar System. The narrator is from Luna, where creche work is socially frowned upon, so she leaves to work on an asteroid-based creche – and then later gets a chance to work on a bid to reform Luna’s failing creche system. This is just really interesting social speculation; and the characters are also very solidly portrayed, very honest.

5.       Karen Russell, “Orange World” (The New Yorker, 6/4/18) – An older first time mother is driven to make a deal with a literal devil to save the life of her child, and only the intervention of her support group allows her to cope … Really well written, really convincing.

6.       James Sallis, “Dayenu” (LCRW, Spring/18) – Perhaps the story of the year, though I have the notion that I might be the only person saying that. Opens with the narrator doing an unspecified but apparently criminal job: so, like a crime story – and Sallis is, after all, primarily a crime novelist. But details of unfamiliarity mount, from the pervasive surveillance to a changed geography, then to the realization that the rehab stint the narrator mentioned right at the start was a rather more extensive rehab than we might have thought. Memories of wartime service are detailed. Page by page the story seems odder, and the destination less expected. The prose is a pleasure too – with desolate rhythms and striking images.

It was hard to leave out stories like Justina Robson’s “Foxy and Tiggs”, Alec Nevala-Lee’s “The Spires”, Tina Connolly’s “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”, Daryl Gregory’s “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth”, and Andy Duncan’s “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” – and, really, all the rest. Another great year for SF/F novelettes.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of David D. Levine

Today is David D. Levine's birthday. Here's a selection of my reviews for his work from Locus -- alas, there are fewer such in recent years, as David has been seduced by the lure of the novel -- and quite successfully so, with his popular series beginning with Arabella of Mars.

Locus, April 2002

The slow boat from Brighton finally brought me the final 2001 issue of Interzone.  It is an outstanding issue, too, without a single poor story.  David D. Levine's "Nucleon" is the winner of the 2001 James White Award, and it's a fine, sweet, story of an unusual junkyard – a nice variation on the traditional "curiosity shop" tale.

Locus, January 2003

Beyond the Last Star, edited by Sherwood Smith, concerns what might lie "beyond" the end of the universe. ... My other favorite was David D. Levine's "Written on the Wind", about an alien linguist working on translating a mysterious message discovered in the cosmic background radiation. The nature of this message is predictable enough, but Levine manages to make the revelation moving and sense-of-wonder inspiring even though we know what's coming.

Locus, June 2003

Best of all in the June F&SF is promising new writer David D. Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle", about a brain encased in a spaceship which becomes a derelict, and the man who discovers and frees this brain far in the future.

Locus, September 2003

Imagination Fully Dilated: Science Fiction is an anthology of stories written around art by Alan Clark. The fine new writer David Levine offers "Legacy", an affecting (if slightly contrived) story of sacrifice on a scientific mission to a supernova.

Locus, November 2003

Hitting the Skids in Pixeltown is a collection of stories by generally new writers. Regarded as a showcase of new writers, it's impressive, and I'll certainly look to see more work from these folks. I enjoyed most of it ... I particularly liked "Ukaliq and the Great Hunt", by David D. Levine, which cleverly recasts American Indian-style legends to tell a story that turns out to be straight SF.

Locus, June 2004

Tops in the June Realms of Fantasy is David D. Levine's "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely", a story set inside a comic strip, in which the title character becomes convinced he is fictional. There are plenty of cute touches, but the story turns oddly and effectively darker as no other character believes Charlie.

Locus, October 2004

The Summer Talebones, a generally good issue, closes strongly with David D. Levine's "Where is the Line", in which a somewhat bitter unemployed man encounters a mysterious neighbor and learns something from her via massage. It's involving and subtly erotic, and the main character rings true, though the resolution may be just a bit pat and moralistic in some ways.

Locus, April 2007

David D. Levine’s “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” (F&SF, April) tells of the history of a Paul Bunyan like space-based tall tale character, backwards through a few generations to the story’s origin. It’s perhaps a bit hokey – but successfully so.

Locus, February 2009

Realms of Fantasy’s February issue has a nice humorous story by David D. Levine, “Joy is the Serious Business of Heaven”, in which Umiel, an angel and a desk jockey (against her will) deals with such frustrations as a clueless boss,  the implementation of ISO 999, and the fact that her ideas for counteracting the Competition seem to be ignored.

Locus, April 2010

The May Analog includes a nice David Levine story, “Teaching the Pig to Sing”, told from the point of view of a future royal – genetically enhanced to be a natural ruler. He has been kidnapped by revolutionaries – a group who wants a return to democracy – and over a couple of days he finds himself unable to convincingly argue against their views. But neither do they convince him. And his people are still looking – what will happen when they find him? Levine’s resolution is a bit unexpected, and adds an edge and some poignancy to the story.

Locus, August 2011

The 100th issue of Realms of Fantasy, for June, is an extra long one, with some pretty good stuff. I particularly liked David D. Levine’s “The Tides of the Heart” – pure Urban Fantasy, in which a plumber with a specialty in magical problems runs into a special one: an undine trapped in the pipes of an historical old house marked for demolition. The plumber’s solution to the problem is personal as well as magical, and the intermixing of the two works perfectly.

Locus, January 2013

The November 15 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies includes a very nice David D. Levine story, “Liaisons Galantes: A Scientific Romance”. The conceit behind the story is that people who are truly in love manifest doglike creatures called “galanteries”. It's set in Paris, among a group of artists. Zephine is a struggling young writer, hopelessly obsessed with the group's charismatic leader, Darius. Then she meets another man, and they hit it off and become lovers – but to their concern, no galanteries appear. Are they really in love? And what does it mean that Zephine is suddenly inspired, and writing a promising play that attracts Darius' interest? The resolution becomes what we expect – not tritely, but such that we are led in the right direction so that everything seems just right. A quite enjoyable piece.

Locus, January 2014

There is a steampunkish cast to some of the better stories in Old Mars. For example, David D. Levine's “The Wreck of the Martian Adventure” features Captain Kidd recruited by the King to sail a ship to Mars – I have to admit I something of a sucker for space sailing stories. The concept is pretty much the story here, but withal it's very well done.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Nick Mamatas

Today is Nick Mamatas' birthday. He's one of the most interesting, and most politically-engaged, writers working these days. Here's a collection of my reviews of his short fiction, plus a very brief capsule of his first novel, Move Under Ground, from 2004, that I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup.

Locus, December 2005

Next a brand new electronic publication, planned to appear quarterly, available either as an e-book or (in delayed fashion) on the web: Son and Foe. The first issue, November 2005, contains a generous mix of reprints and originals. The best of the originals are surprisingly good, frankly better than I expected for a new online publication. My favorite is by Nick Mamatas, “Real People Slash”, written as if a memoir of a few years in the life of “Nick Mamatas” – and frankly pretty convincing and involving purely as memoir (true or not). But the story takes a strange, and effective, turn into Lovecraftian paranoia.

Review of Polyphony 6 (Locus, November 2006)

Also very weird is Nick Mamatas’s “The Uncanny Valley”, in which a psychiatrist tries to deal with – I think! – the dangerous unconscious of uploaded post-human intelligences, which appear to be destroying the world.

Locus, August 2007

Flytrap #7 includes, stealthily, a shocking and effective story by Nick Mamatas, “Solidarity Forever”, about a vain couple who decide that the best expression of their progressive pieties is to have sex with (i.e. rape) the most oppressed person they can find: a prisoner in Africa dying of AIDS.

Locus, November 2008

Weird Tales for July/August has a couple of striking pieces. Nick Mamatas is mordantly funny in “Mainevermontnewhampshiremass” in telling of a horror writer returning to his home town somewhere in the Northeast to battle a terrible menace – as it turns out in company with many other horror writers, and as it turns out … well, read the story.

Locus, April 2011

Nick Mamatas, in “North Shore Friday” (Asimov's, April-May), mixes a secret history of a government project to read minds with attempts in the 1960s to smuggle Greek refugees into the US and get them safely married off. The narrator, from decades in the future, remembers one sad incident, when one such operation went a bit wrong. The story nicely mixes the slightly mad idea of the mind reading operation with the interesting story of the refugees with an effective, subtly told, story of the narrator’s crush on a girl involved in the immigration activities.

Locus, September 2012

The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, edited by Sean Wallace, includes five original stories (and a large selection of good recent work). All the originals are worthy of attention. The best is “Arbeitskraft”, by Nick Mamatas, set in alternate Victorian London, and told by Friedrich Engels, who is using Difference Engine technology – advanced, in his factory, to a “Dialectical Engine” – to recreate his late friend Karl Marx. Engels dreams of using this technology to liberate the workers, with the help of the Dialectical Engine version of Marx. At the same time he encounters terribly oppressed girls from a match factory, and sees how the steampunk tech of this alternate history has affected their lives. The story is, obviously, politically engaged, and also full of interesting steampunkish notions, and some action as well.

Locus, January 2013

Bloody Fabulous is an anthology, about even mixed between new stories and reprints, on the subject of fashion. It's entertaining throughout. My favorite original piece came from Nick Mamatas: “Avant-n00b”, about a young fashion blogger who stumbles across a very strange “vintage” piece of clothing that turns out to have links to Vichy France.

Capsule Review of Move Under Ground (from my blog)

Another small press book is Nick Mamatas's Move Under Ground, the first novel by a writer who has done some pretty good shorter stuff in recent years, mostly what we used to call slipstream [though as I recall Nick rejected that term], often with a horror tinge. (In fact, Mamatas too can be linked with the New Weirdos. [grin]) Move Under Ground is from Night Shade Books.

It's got a high concept premise -- Jack Kerouac meets Lovecraft. That is, the novel is set in the early 60s, and Jack Kerouac is mysteriously enlisted to wage a battle against the denizens of R'lyeh, which has risen in the Pacific. People are turning into beetlemen, horrible cults are forming, mysterious things happening. Kerouac tracks down Neal Cassady and starts to head cross country from Big Sur and then San Francisco, destination New York. Along the way he picks up William S. Burroughs, and spends a little time in Burroughs's home town -- my place of residence, St. Louis. (I think he muffed the local geography a bit, but perhaps in 1962 or so he was right.)

I found much of the book interesting, but about as much kind of slow. Perhaps it would have helped if I was more knowledgeable about either the Beats or Lovecraft -- as it happens, I've read very little in either area. The writing is  quite nice, with plenty of exotic and original images.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Birthday Review: Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem

Today is Jonathan Lethem's birthday. And this gives me an opportunity to repost a review that is fairly important to me, not because it's a great piece of writing or anything, but because it's the first thing I wrote with some hope of professional publication. I wrote it in response to a note in, I think, Book Pages, asking for a Science Fiction reviewer. The date, according to my records, was 16 November 1995. They sent my a nice note back saying they liked it, but they weren't quite sure ... so they must have gone with someone else.

It's pretty short, which is because I was writing to their expected length.

Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem

Cassell, 1994 (TP: Tor, 1995)
$19.95 (TP: $10.95)
ISBN 0151364583 (TP: 0312858787)

Jonathan Lethem is a rather new writer whose stories have been appearing in Asimov's, Pulphouse and elsewhere over the past few years. His short fiction has shown outstanding range, and a quirky imagination. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, amply demonstrates both these qualities.The novel concerns Conrad Metcalf, a down-at-heels Private Inquisitor in mid-21sty century Oakland. He is drawn into investigating the murder of an affluent doctor with gangster ties, and becomes involved with shady cops, gangland figures, and beautiful women with questionable pasts. Thus, at the surface, this is a straight-forward pastiche of the standard hard-boiled detective novel, transposed into the next century. At this level, the novel works fine: the mystery is sufficiently absorbing and has enough twists to carry the plot, and Lethem has the first-person narrative down very well, with the "typical" hard-boiled attitude.

However, this is more than a standard SF take on Chandler. The SF elements themselves, though not terribly plausible, are interesting and thought-provoking, and well-integrated with the structure and themes of the novel. These include universal drug use for (fairly precise) control of emotional states, wildly extrapolated privacy laws, babyheads (children with vastly accelerated mental growth but normal physical growth), and intelligent, self-aware animals (the result of "evolution therapy"). Some of these tropes are use to generate jokes, but for the most part they support and reinforce the central story and the themes in which Lethem is interested. Ultimately, this is a serious, funny-sad novel, and at the heart of it are big questions about memory and the nature of personality. (These questions, and other elements of the novel such as the drug use, are very reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick.) Lethem handles the mixture of moods excellently, and the resolution to his story is perfect and satisfying. This is a very exciting first novel from one of the most promising new SF writers of the past few years.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Belated Birthday Review: Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks

Iain Menzies Banks would have turned 65 last Saturday (16 February 2019) -- he was only some 5 years older than me, but alas he died far too young at about my current age. He was a wonderful writer of SF, and SF-adjacent "mainstream" fiction. In his memory, here's my review of my favorite among his SF novels, posted exactly as I wrote it in 1997:

Review Date: 05 March 1997

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks

MacDonald, 1990 (UK), 12.95 pounds
US Paperback Edition, Bantam Spectra 1992, $4.99 (ISBN: 0553292242)

Iain M. Banks is a Scottish writer, of several "mainstream" novels (albeit often with "slipstream" elements), published as by Iain Banks, and several SF novels (published with the middle initial). Banks has quite a reputation in the UK, stemming from the success of his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984). He seems less well-known in the US, but at least his SF books eventually make it across the pond, and I have been reading the SF novels over the past year or so. (Reviews of two of those novels appear elsewhere on this site [or will, when I repost them].) Half by accident, half on purpose, I evolved a reading strategy which has led to me end up my reading of all the Banks SF novels available in the US as of last year with Use of Weapons, probably the consensus choice among Banks' readers as his best SF novel. (A new SF novel, Excession, was published last summer in the UK and is just now available in the States.)

(Cover by Paul Youll)
As implied above, I approached Use of Weapons with high expectations, not always a good attitude. However, in this case my expectations were met. Use of Weapons is one of Banks' "Culture" novels: set within our Galaxy at approximately (to within plus or minus a millennium) the present time, and concerning the interactions of the Culture, an interstellar society composed mostly of humanoids and of a variety of AI machines, the latter often "drones" of (very roughly) human size and intelligence, or ship minds: of ambiguous size and enormous intelligence. Like all the Culture novels I've read, this one takes place mostly outside the Culture proper: because that is where the stories are. (The Culture is a utopia, so at least to a first approximation, everyone is happy, and there isn't much in the way of story-generating conflict.)

Use of Weapons is the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a non-citizen of the Culture, who has been employed by the Special Circumstances branch of the Culture's Contact section as a mercenary, trying to influence conflicts on a variety of planets to be resolved in the direction the Culture prefers. As the main action of the story opens, Zakalwe has "retired" from SC. Diziet Sma, a Culture citizen who has been Zakalwe's "control" in the past, is rudely summoned from her latest (quite pleasurable) assignment in order to find Zakalwe and recruit him for one more emergency mission (involving a situation with which Zakalwe was previously involved).

From this point, the novel progresses in two main directions. The main branch of the story follows Sma forward in time, as she pursues and eventually finds Zakalwe, and as Sma and Zakalwe accomplish, in general terms, the mission on which the SC branch has sent them. This involves convincing a retired politician who supports the "right" side (anti-terraforming, pro-Machine Intelligence) of a conflict in an unstable star cluster to return to the arena and forestall a coming war, and then also involves some intervention in a "brushfire" which has broken out as a precursor to the war. This story is exciting and enjoyable, with plenty of Banksian action, Banksian scenery, and Banksian humor, the last as usual particularly embodied in the character of Sma's drone assistant, Skaffen-Amtiskaw. (Banks' machine characters are inveterate scene-stealers.)

The second plot thread moves steadily backward in time (complicated by a couple of even-farther backward flashbacks), following Zakalwe's career as an agent for SC, back to his recruitment by SC and his war experiences prior to that, and finally back to his formative years as an aristocrat of sorts on a planet with roughly 19th-20th century Earth technology and social structure. This thread allows us to slowly learn more of Zakalwe's character, and of the traumatic events which have made him the rather tortured individual he is at the time of the main action. Thus, the novel's structure is at first blush mildly experimental (there are actually four separate "threads" if one separates out the flashbacks as a thread, and if one considers the prologue and epilogue). However, this structure is really logical, and essential to the reader's experience. Essentially, the main action is illuminated by our growing understanding of Zakalwe's past. And the use of Sma as a viewpoint character (despite her somewhat non-centrality to most of the action sequences) is a vital strategy: in a sense, she becomes a stand-in for the reader: and part of our understanding of the novel is trying to understand Sma's feelings for Zakalwe (which are not romantic at all, by the way), and to measure her Use of the Weapon that is Cheradenine Zakalwe in the context of Zakalwe's humanness, and in a sort of parallel or contrast to Zakalwe's expert use of a variety of weapons.

The climax of the novel is a shocker (though I think it is guessable (I guessed it, anyway, though Banks kept me doubting)). However, it's not just a "surprise ending for the sake of the surprise". It's crucial to our understanding of the book: and it gives the book meaning far beyond the (very good) adventure story it has been up to that point. The climax seemed to reverberate back through the entire book, giving new meaning to almost every incident. This is a book which almost demands immediate rereading.

Ob-nitpicks: there are a couple of points where I don't think Banks plays quite fair with the reader in setting up the surprise (though this could be the result of insufficiently subtle reading on my part), also, I'm not sure I'm fully convinced by some of the changes in Zakalwe's character. These are very minor points indeed, however, and I recommend this book highly.