Sunday, March 31, 2019

Birthday review: Stories of Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald turns as old as I am today (as he does every year). He's another of my favorite contemporary writers. My favorite of his novels is not as well known as most of his other novels, this is Ares Express. I've reviewed that here already: Ares Express review. Anyway, here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction from Locus, but beginning with a post I made of a story that is sort of a precursor to Ares Express.

Blog post about "The Catharine Wheel"

I noticed that Ian McDonald's first published story, "The Catharine Wheel", seemed to be related to Ares Express (probably my favorite McDonald novel).  It was published in the January 1984 issue of Asimov's, which I have, so I fished out my copy. And then of course I read the rest of the issue.  "The Catharine Wheel" is the story of the last run of the Catharine of Tharsis, the big train that also features in Ares Express, and also the story of the decision of Kathy Haan, the tortured girl from Earth who operates Martian "manforming" equipment remotely, to kill herself on Earth while her mind is uploaded into the Martian equipment, so that she will never have to return.  Thus she becomes St. Catharine of Tharsis. It's a good story, but I think Ares Express is better.  In the book the trains are well established -- I don't think there will be a "last run", and Catharine becomes Catherine, and details of Kathy Haan's life are changed.

Locus, November 2002

"The Hidden Place", by Ian McDonald (Asimov's, October-November) is an impressive novelette. Fodhaman is a sort of nanny to Prebendary Shodmer, the envoy of the Clade, a starfaring civilization which has contacted the world Fanadd. Shodmer is at the same time a six-year old girl (in a cloned body), and an adult, programmed with the mind of Clade member. Fanadd us unusual in that people are almost always born in twin pairs, and the twins grow up with a telepathic link, and generally live together their whole life, marrying another twin pair, etc. The setup recalls Ursula Le Guin both by its exploration of an interesting and different human society based on a biological change, and by the back story: many worlds have been seeded by humans in the past, and are slowly recontacted, somewhat as in Le Guin's Hainish civilization. Fodhaman must deal with enforced separation from her twin, with the difficult situation of Prebendary Shodmer, both personally and politically, and with questions of loyalty: to her nation, her world, or all of humanity.

Constellations review (Locus, March 2005)

Ian McDonald contributes my favorite story here, "Written in the Stars". This is set in a world where astrology seems literally true. People get horoscopes several times a day, and plan their lives by them. Banbek Shaunt (a curiously Vancean name) is a functionary in the Distributions and Deliveries department of the Astrocratic service. His current worries include his daughter's objections to the man the stars have said is right for her, and a horoscope that predicts trouble for him at work. But his worries reach a different level when he receives an incomprehensible horoscope. It turns out to be another man's, and he decides to visit this other man, who is of all the shocking things an astronomer. This warm and humanistic story is at heart about freedom in a deterministic world – and, perhaps, about the origins of determinism.

Locus, June 2005

The other standout in the June Asimov's is Ian McDonald's "The Little Goddess", about a Nepalese girl selected to be a goddess, and as such raised in isolation in a palace. Only by the intervention of a sympathetic servant does she gain any knowledge of the outside world (the story is set in the next few decades). When, inevitably, her reign is over, she is abandoned to a fractured future India. The shortage of women (caused by sex-selection of children) gives her one marketable quality – the potential to become a wife. But another future complication – genetically enhanced rich people – leads to a distressing choice of husbands, and the heroine is forced to a dangerous alternate way of making a living – ferrying illegal AIs to another Indian state. The story is a sort of pendant to McDonald's Hugo-nominated novel River of Gods, and it offers a fascinating look at an intriguing and plausible near future.

Locus, June 2006

Asimov’s for July features a long novelette from Ian McDonald, “The Djinn’s Wife”, set in the same future India as his wonderful novel River of Gods and last year’s excellent Asimov’s story “The Little Goddess”. Both of those became Hugo nominees, and “The Djinn’s Wife” has a chance as well. An older woman tells a story about a beautiful dancer who married a djinn. But human/djinn relationships never turn out well. So is this a fantasy? No, for the “djinn” here is an AI, capable of interacting with people’s phones/PDAs (or “’hoeks” in the story’s idiom) to project images, talk, and even make love. The backdrop is the water war that was central to River of Gods. The dancer and her AI lover are from the two rival countries, Awadh and Bharat. Their love affair is played out against the backdrop of that coming war, and of threats against the continuing existence of high-level AIs, and inevitably one or the other or both will be tempted to betrayal. It’s a strong and moving story driven by both human problems and by intriguing SFnal ideas. I did feel, just a bit, that its impact was lessened for one who has already read the novel: but it remains a first rate piece.

Galactic Empires review (Locus, June 2008)

Finally, best by far is Ian McDonald’s “The Tear”, which as Dozois’s introductory material notes has sufficient ideas and plot for many writers to make a trilogy from. It’s set in a future McDonald has visited before, in which the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond) has been colonized by the Clade – a vast variety of beings, all apparently based originally on Homo Sapiens, but with genetic modifications (and sometimes more extreme changes) to allow human life to spread to many different environments. On Ptey’s planet most people develop different “aspects”: completely separate personalities that take over when needed. Ptey – or the aspects he has become – play a vital role in a crisis involving a curious group of beings fleeing an implacable enemy. The story keeps leaping to radically different futures, following different aspects of Ptey, through parallel love affairs, centuries long space journeys and battles, meetings with new branches of humanity – it is fascinating, tragic, hopeful, imagination-stuffed, and powerful. One of the stories of the year.

Fast Forward 2 review (Locus, November 2008)

Ian McDonald returns with yet another of his tales of future India. “An Eligible Boy” is trying to attract the attention of any sort of woman in a culture in which sex selection has led to an overabundance of marriageable men. The central SFnal aspect is an AI assistant who helps the young man present himself to women. But the women, of course, have AI help of their own. And the AIs may have motives, too … The human center of the story is rather subdued, as we are always noticing the involvement of the main character’s roommate in things.

Life on Mars review (Locus, March 2011)

Finally the best two stories come from Ian McDonald and John Barnes. McDonald’s “Digging” has something of the flavor of his Martian novels, particularly Ares Express, in telling of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, part of one of several families working on digging a huge hole in Mars, a short of shortcut to terraforming at least a bit of the planet. Tash is invited to accompany her revered “In-Aunt” Mihala on a trip to the top of the hole, where she unexpectedly is pressed to deal with an emergency – and ultimately, to deal with a traumatic change in her family’s circumstances.

Locus, January 2014

A different slant comes in Ian McDonald's “The Queen of Night's Aria” (Old Mars), in which an over the hill singer is touring a Mars which Earth has invaded in revenge for a Wellsian Martian invasion. The singer's tour takes him dangerously close the to front, and an unexpected fan. The story is near farce at times, and very well told, through the voice of the singer's accompanist.

Locus, June 2014

Other good stories in Robot Uprisings include Ian McDonald's “Nanonauts! In Battle with Tiny Death Subs”, in which a self-absorbed remote operator of nano-machines tries to pick up a woman with tales of his battles to save the President from bad nanotech. A nice mixture of humor, a look at a dark side of nano-enhancement, and a subtle closing twist.

Locus, May 2015

Ian McDonald's “Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” (Old Venus)
is a nice take on the traditional Victorian adventure story, with the hero (heroine, in this case) exploring untrodden places. The title Countess is a widow (of a rather bad man), and also a noted artist, of papercuts of flowers. She has come to Venus with her companion (and presumed lover, though with Victorian restraint such details go unmentioned) the Prince Latufui, ostensibly to make papercuts of the Venusian flora, but it seems more likely to track down her rascally brother, perhaps to solve the mystery of the theft of their family's valuable jewel, the Blue Empress. The story is, then, something of a travelogue, and a lovely one: the flora she records by the by are intriguing, the politics revealed, and the history of Venus (including a very early colonization from Earth!) is fascinating, and the Countess is a wonderful character.

Locus, July 2018

And finally, a novella from Ian McDonald, Time Was. This is told by Emmett Leigh, a used bookseller with an interest in history, who comes across an old book of privately printed poems with a letter from a WWII soldier inside. He begins to investigate, finding curious evidence of the presence of the soldier, Tom Chappell, and his lover Ben Seligman, in other conflicts at widely disparate times. We get glimpses of Tom and Ben as they first meet, and Emmett gets involved with an earthy Lincolnshire woman with a tenuous link to Tom and Ben. Are Tom and Ben immortals? Or time travelers? And by what means? The story is sweet and interesting and becomes something even more impressive as Emmett becomes more and more entangled, less of an observer. This fits the “time-slip” genre, beloved by non-SF writers – I was reminded just a bit of Robert Nathan’s wonderful Portrait of Jennie.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Rich Larson

I am surprised that the first story I review here is from 2015. Rich Larson has been publishing stories with Robert Reed-like frequency -- and also with Reed-like quality and range, since 2012 or so. His first novel, Annex, appeared last year. Today is his birthday -- I haven't checked how old he is, but I have a feeling he's younger than my kids! [Okay, I checked -- he's younger than my daughter, but (slightly) older than my son.] Here is a selection of my reviews of his short work, a remarkable set of stories.

Locus, April 2015

Beneath Ceaseless Skies' issue of February 5 has two strong stories. “The King in the Cathedral”, by Rich Larson, features an exiled royal brother, and his automaton guard, playing endless games in the desert until a woman sent as a temptation to him offers instead to help him escape. She hopes he will take the crown back from the usurper – but he is getting old, and not terribly interested in the burdens of rule (and gay anyway, so unswayed by her temptations). The story is in its outlines and even resolution quite familiar, but Larson's telling, and the little variations he plays, make it work.

Locus, February 2015

Rich Larson continues to impress with a nice variety of SF and fantasy stories in his newish career, and I quite liked “The Delusive Cartographer”, in the November 24 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Crane and Gilchrist come to an island prison in search of a map that a dying cartographer suggests is in the cell with a certain prisoner. The map perhaps leads to treasure, though for the cartographer it brought him only, we learn, to shipwreck and prison time. We follow Crane’s disguise as a prisoner, and his attempts to get to the map, while Gilchrist waits with the cartographer, and learns his real story. Neat fairly traditional cynically-toned fantasy in a mode somewhat resembling Joe Abercrombie or perhaps Scott Lynch.

Locus, April 2016

In Lightspeed’s March issue I liked a sweet romantic story by Rich Larson, “Sparks Fly”, in which the fantastical element is that a significant amount of people, including the protagonist, are “sparkheads”, who cause anything electronic to fail in their presence, at least when they lose control. Of course, emotions engendered in a romantic relationship make maintaining control a challenge – certainly for Arthur. Not to mention his worry about rejection. So his date with Christina goes swimmingly – but he won’t tell her his issue, and he tries to keep himself under control, until, well, “sparks fly”. It’s not the deepest of stories, but it’s sweet and fun and another indication that Larson has not just talent but considerable range.

Locus, July 2016

Finally, the best piece in the May-June F&SF might be “The Nostalgia Calculator”, by Rich Larson, which posits that the cycle of nostalgia is spiraling up, so that people are becoming nostalgic sooner about more recent things. It turns out this is a bad thing, especially when used by corporations for evil, as Noel finds out when while working for his Uncle’s company notices the problem and tries to take (clumsy) action. Clever Galaxyish stuff.

In Clarkesworld there are as usual a couple of strong stories. Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox” is a fine story set on a colonized planet that has just been through a revolution. Jonas is a young boy and the Fox is his brother – sort of – we learn quickly that the brother died but that the recorded mind of an aristocrat, on the run from the revolutionary authorities, has been implanted in his. The story turns on a chance for true escape for the Fox, and on who really needs the opportunity. The furniture is, to be sure, fairly familiar, but the execution is strong, and the conclusion emotionally convincing.

Clockwork Phoenix is back, and its fifth number is another tasty mix of stories that test the borders of genre. So my favorite story, again from Rich Larson (author of the month, for sure!), is really pure SF, though weird enough to fit in. “Innumerable Glittering Lights” is about the battle of a scientist to keep his investigations going while dealing with cynical and budget-conscious politicians and radical know-nothings. So far, so familiar – and, indeed, the conceptual revelation, that this story is set among intelligent sea creatures under an ice sheet, is really fairly familiar. But Larson executes it well – the names (Four Warm Currents, Six Bubbling Thermals, etc.) are a nice touch, and the milieu is believable: and the conclusion really nails it.

Locus, August 2016

Rich Larson’s “Masked” (Asimov's, July) perhaps extrapolates just a tad more, as three rather privileged girls get together after one of them has had to have a “virus” removed from her social interaction software – software that controls her “Face”, quite literally in that it affects how others see her, and also affects what she sees of the world and news and gossip. The moral is kind of obvious from the word go – as indeed it is in Cypess’ story. So these are nice and effective stories, but not surprising enough to be more than “nice”.

Locus, December 2016

The Asimov’s Double Issue for November/December includes yet another strong story from Rich Larson. “Water Scorpions” is about Noel and his new “brother”, Danny, who is actually an alien child, rescued from a ship that has crash-landed in Chad. Noel’s mother is a xenobiologist working with the aliens, and somehow Danny has bonded with her. Noel resents this, perhaps mostly because he associated Danny’s arrival with his dead sister, and the story plays out as a sad character-driven piece, about two lost children.

Locus, January 2017

In the November/December Interzone, who should turn up but Rich Larson! “You Make Pattaya” is a fine caper story. Dorian is a grifter in the tourist town of Pattaya, Thailand. He concocts a scheme with a prostitute he’s taken a bit of a fancy to, involving blackmailing a pop star in Thailand on a sex vacation. The story is straightforward and slick noirish near-future crime, with minimal but well-placed SFnal elements (a bit of gender ambiguity, some plausible surveillance tech).

Locus, April 2017

Two other stories I liked in the March-April Asimov's are both, in very different ways, about the future of dating. The more cynical is “Cupido”, by Rich Larson, about Marcel, who makes a living by creating tailored pheromones, that will cause the targeted person to fall in lust with Marcel’s client. Marcel himself has a pretty sad love life, and so the story turns on what happens when he falls for one of his “targets”. The moral issues here are straightforward – and Larson navigates them effectively.

Locus, September 2017

Rich Larson is back as well in the July-August Asimov's, showing off his stylish caper/adventure mode. “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” concerns Girasol, who has gotten involved with a radical group (sort of Occupy ramped up to full terrorist mode). She has agreed to help them kidnap Severyn Grimes, a very rich man who can afford to download his mind into young bodies. So far, so familiar, but the story goes in interesting directions, not taking any hackneyed sides, and also features some cool tech, as Girasol can download her own consciousness, dangerously, into intelligent systems. Girasol has her own motives, of course, if no very clear path to realizing them. The story is fast-paced, intelligent, and exciting.

Locus, October 2017

Apex in July features another new Rich Larson story, “L’Appel du Vide”, a solid thriller in which Pau, who is working on a promising project for Ceylan Industries is kidnapped – even though his brain is locked down in way that nothing can be extracted from it. He eventually learns who his kidnapper is, which leads to the rather wrenching motive, predictably closely tied to the nature of the research project. By this time experienced readers can more or less plot the rest of the story – but that doesn’t matter all that much, as Larson, if indeed working familiar territory, handles things very well.

Locus, January 2018

The really exciting news in the magazine field is the long-anticipated Omni revival, with Ellen Datlow returning as fiction editor. The first issue has a time travel theme, for both the nonfiction and the fiction. Rich Larson’s “Verweile Doch (But Linger)” is a fine story about a man who can freeze time. Cesar has used this ability throughout it adolescence and early adult years to help him come up with neat comebacks or to steal money, but he is tortured by his failure to save his mother from an accident – and, it becomes clear, to have a real relationship with two other women: his sister, and a high school crush. Solid work.

Locus, April 2018

The 2/15 issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies had a couple of intriguing pieces. Rich Larson’s “Penitents” portrays a wholly ruined future Earth, in which the more privileged live underground. Mara is one of those, and she’s come to the surface with the help of the wily Scout, to try to rescue her friend Io from the spooky alien creatures who have captured her – it seems these aliens attach to humans they find on the surface and, apparently, take over their minds and send them on forced marches. But Scout knows how alluring the attraction of these aliens is – and Mara eventually learns just why, which gives the story (and its title) its moral point.

Locus, May 2018

In Asimov’s for March-April I was most impressed with a few of the shorter stories. Rich Larson’s “In Event of Moon Disaster” is fine work about a two-person team investigating a mysterious crevasse on the Moon, when all of a sudden a second copy of one the team members appears – followed by a third, and so on. There are obvious existential questions here (echoes of course of Rogue Moon!), but also practical questions, as their shuttle can only take so many people.

Locus, June 2018

Clarkesworld’s April issue includes a somewhat simple but really effective story from Rich Larson, “Carouseling”. Ostap is an artist, and his lover Alyce is a physicist. She and her team are in Mombasa, ready for a major experiment involving something called the Slip. While they’re apart, they use a virtual reality sort of system, linkwear, which allows them a semblance of conflict, even to the point of dancing. Ostap wants to ask her to marry him, but it’s not fair right before the experiment – but he does suggest she brink the linkwear with her to the lab. I think the reader can see where this is going – the experiment is a disaster, and the lab destroyed with no survivors – and Ostap is devastated, but – well, as I said, the next revelation is obvious. Larson handles it beautifully and steers the story to a proper and touching ending.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Elizabeth Hand

Today is Elizabeth Hand's birthday. I first noticed her work with "Snow On Sugar Mountain" in Full Spectrum 3, then with "Last Summer at Mars Hill", in the August 1994 F&SF. But for me I think she started taking off with the stories below, and she has gotten better and better (from a a pretty impressive starting level), to the point when I realized that she had become on of my favorite writers.

Putting this list together, I noticed that she is extremely good at the novella length (like several other great SF writers, notably Kim Stanley Robinson, Gene Wolfe, and Damon Knight, off the top of my head). The two stories I mention above are a very long novelette and a novella, and most of the stories below are novellas (up to the length of short novels with "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" and Wylding Hall. At any rate -- search these out -- this is a great list of short fiction.

Sci Fiction summary post, 2000

"Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol", by Elizabeth Hand, is a moving story about an alcoholic lawyer, Brendan, dealing with his divorce, his autistic kid, and the sudden intrusion of his old friend Tony, a former rock star down on his luck.  (Tony "Maroni"'s rock band seems modelled very closely on the great punk band The Ramones.)   It's set in the present day, and it has only a very minor fantasy element.  The story turns on the death of Chip Crockett, the star of an early '60s kids' TV show, and Tony's sudden obsession with him.  Brendan is driven to distraction by Tony's websurfing and Christmas-special watching, but somehow Tony seems to connect, just a bit, with Brendan's young son.  Brendan himself is sort of a combination Ebenezer Scrooge/Bob Cratchit (with his kid an obvious Tiny Tim).  I liked the story, and I was very moved by it.

Review of Redshift (SF Site, 2002)

The other novella is Elizabeth Hand's "Cleopatra Brimstone." This is beautifully written, line by line, a very pleasing read, about a woman, studying insects in college, who goes to London to recuperate from a rape, and finds that she has developed a curious sort of alter ego with a strange power. The story is absorbing throughout, if I thought the ending a bit telegraphed.

Locus, February 2003

The rest of the book is almost an anticlimax, but to say so is unfair: all the stories are worth your time, and several more are very strong, for example Elizabeth Hand's "The Least Trumps" is another beautifully written novella, about a woman tattooist who grows up on the coast of Maine, and her relationship with her mother and with love.

Locus, December 2007

Finally, and rather belatedly I’d like to mention Illyria, a lovely novella by Elizabeth Hand, from PS Publishing. Maddy and Rogan Tierney are cousins – closer than cousins, as their fathers were twins, and they grew up in the same family subdivision in Yonkers. They become teenage lovers and also show interest in the stage, like their great-grandmother, a famous actress. Both these meet with family disapproval, except perhaps from their eccentric aunt. The story is fairly simple, with a minimal fantastical element. The heart is of course the two main characters, beautifully portrayed, and their doomed love and not quite so doomed artistic dreams.

Locus, August 2009

I also enjoyed (in Conjunctions #52) Elizabeth Hand’s “Hungerford Bridge”, about a strange and beautiful creature a man is privileged to see – with a curious condition.

Locus, October 2009

This is F&SF’s big double issue, and there’s a lot here. Robert Silverberg offers a very enjoyable Majipoor story, Elizabeth Hand’s “The Far Shore” is a fine fantasy of an aging dancer discovering a strange boy at an isolated cabin;

Locus, October 2010

There are plenty further excellent stories in Stories ... My favorite piece, along with the Gaiman story, is the longest in the book, “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon”, by Elizabeth Hand. It’s about a group of old friends who once worked together at the Smithsonian. A former associate director of one of the museums is dying, and one of the friends, her former lover, recruits the others to help him recreate a controversial snippet of film that purports to show a very strange airplane flying on a remote South Carolina island two years before the Wright Brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk. That secret history aspect is intriguing, but the heart of the story is the fraught history of the men at the center of the story – the main character a mess after his wife’s death; the other two men with different problems in the midst of generally more successful lives. Lovely writing as ever for Hand, with that frisson of mystery and sadness and loss that is central to secret history, I think.

Locus, February 2012

As I've noted before, the literary magazine Conjunctions has a history of engagement with the fantastic. The latest issue, on the subject of kin, includes a nice Elizabeth Hand story, “Uncle Lou”, about Nina and her raffish title Uncle, with whom she's had a good relationship for a long time. He's getting old now, and a last invitation reaches her, to accompany him to a party at the zoo. We gather quickly enough where this is going – what we and Nina will learn about Lou – so there aren't really any surprises here, but what matters is the grace of the telling.

Hand also appears in the anthology A Book of Horrors, with a strong novella, “Near Zennor”. The protagonist, an architect named Jeffrey, has just lost his wife suddenly, and in going through her stuff he finds some letters she wrote to a children's author as a teen. Intrigued by a mystery from her past, he travels to the author's old place, near Zennor in Cornwall. It turns out this writer, whose children's fantasies were odd and very dark, had been accused of child molestation. Jeffrey's wife and some of her friends had tried to visit the man, and one of them later disappeared. All this points in a disquieting direction, but Jeffrey's visit reveals something quite different, and terrifying (and sad) in another way entirely. Again Hand's prose – and its balance and control – is one delight, as is her depiction of place; and here too, a well portrayed central event.

Locus, February 2016

Elizabeth Hand offers a long novella, Wylding Hall, about the British folk revival of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in particular about one ephemeral band, Windhollow Faire, and their great album, named after the title Hall, a strange and quite sinister country house. The story is told from the point of view of the surviving band members and a few others, decades later, and it brilliantly captures the creative spirit around that recording session, and the various characters, especially the band’s leader, who it is clear is absent – something to do with a very strange girl who shows up. The shape of the resolution to that central mystery – who was the girl and what happened to her and the band’s leader – is pretty clear to any fantasy reader from the start, but the eeriness of the events, and the combined fear and wonder that affects all those around, is beautifully evoked.

[I read this last story at a time when I was rediscovering the great band Fairport Convention, and especially their great lead singer Sandy Denny. (I have followed Richard Thompson's career forever, but I sort of let my Fairport listening slip. Windhollow Faire, of course, is presented as part of the same English Folk Revival movement as Fairport Convention -- and it was really neat to read this fictional treatment at the same time as I was devouring such albums as Unhalfbricking.]

Birthday Review: Ash, by Mary Gentle

Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Mary Gentle's birthday, and in her honor I've resurrected this review I did of Ash back when it first came out. I will mention that I reviewed the first two volumes of the American mass market paperback edition for SF Site, and that review is here: A Secret History/Carthage Ascendant.

I finished Mary Gentle's massive novel Ash.  (I estimate it's about 590,000 words).  I bought the English trade paperback, too impatient to wait until December or whenever the last volume of the four American mass market paperbacks is to come out.  This is a very impressive novel indeed.  I've mentioned the first two volumes before, which seemed at first like fantasy, set in an alternate past.  In the end, though, Gentle gives a rationale for her setup which to my mind makes the book Science Fiction, though it will doubtless become another borderline case for those who worry overmuch about definitions. (Like me!)

Ash is a 20 year old female mercenary captain in Europe in about 1476. As the book goes on, we realize her Europe is oddly different from ours: the dominant religion is an altered Christianity (with Mithraic elements, and reference to the "Green Christ", etc.).  Carthage is a significant power, and more intriguingly, the area around Carthage never sees sunlight.  Ash also has strange powers: she hears a voice in her head which gives her tactical advice: this has been a great aid in her career.  Much of the book is concerned with the details of military action and general military life in this time period, and this is all described with gusto, and realism.

The plot is fairly involved, and significant spoilers would be hard to avoid. So, just to sketch things: Ash's company becomes involved in the defense of Burgundy against an invasion from Carthage.  As Carthage invades, the area without sunlight expands.  It seems they must be stopped lest all of Europe become Dark.  But Carthage is aided by strange devices, basically robots made of stone, and they are led by a woman who might be Ash's twin. Ash is captured and taken to Carthage, but her company comes to rescue her.  While in Carthage, Ash learns the secret behind her twin, the voice in her head, the source of Carthage's powers, and the mysterious "Wild Machines" outside Carthage.  After her rescue, she returns to Burgundy, which is mysteriously vital in the defense against the darkness.  The last half or so of the novel describes a nearly hopeless siege, with Ash and her company and the remnants of Burgundy's army penned inside Dijon.  The only hope may be to learn what the "Wild Machines" really want.

This summary misses much of Ash's personal life: her marriage to a charismatic nobleman whom she lusts after but can't stand in person.  Her surgeon, a woman masquerading as a man, who turns out to be related to the royal family of Burgundy, with significant plot effects.  Her priest, who stays with her even after death.

There is also a frame story, involving a modern archaeological effort in Tunisia, which mysteriously begins to uncover hints of the Carthage of Ash's story, as well as the a new translation of manuscripts about Ash's life, which suddenly reveal details of Ash's strange history which had never been suspected.  The modern day investigators, archaeologist Isabel Napier-Grant, translator Pierce Radcliffe, and his editor Anne Longmans, start to feel that the very structure of reality is in flux.  Gentle manages to make all this pull together, to make it all work, and to give it all a fairly rational and thematically meaningful explanation.  It's very satisfying, definitely one of the best books of the year.  (Though there is a vaguely cute postscript to the story that didn't quite work for me.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Birthday Ace Double Review: The Alternate Martians/Empress of Outer Space, by A. Bertram Chandler

Ace Double Reviews, 77: The Alternate Martians, by A. Bertram Chandler/Empress of Outer Space, by A. Bertram Chandler (#M-129, 1965, $0.45)

a review by Rich Horton

Arthur Bertram Chandler was born March 28, 1912, in England. He was a merchant seaman for many years, and indeed was the last Captain of the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (on sort of a technicality). He became an Australian citizen in the 1950s. His first stories appeared in Astounding in the mid-40s, including his best-known shorter work, "Giant Killer", but it wasn't until 1959 or so that he began writing more regularly, and also begain publishing novels. Most of his novels were set in the "Rim Worlds" of a future heavily human-colonized Galaxy, and many of those feature a main character named John Grimes, commander of spaceships. Chandler, naturally, used his own experience as a seaman and ship officer in describing life aboard his fictional spaceships. Chandler died in 1984.

(Covers by Jerome Podwil)
This book pairs two non-Grimes novels by Chandler. Both are fairly loopy. Both are also parts of other small series by Chandler. The Alternate Martians (42,000 words) is the sequel to The Coils of Time, another Ace Double (#M-107, 1964). Empress of Outer Space (41,000 words) is the first of three books about the Empress Irene of the Galaxy (or at least the human controlled galaxy.) The sequels were also published in Ace Doubles: Space Mercenaries (#M-133, 1965) and Nebula Alert (#G-632, 1967). I know of no prior publication of any of these stories.

In The Alternate Martians Christopher Wilkinson has returned from a trip to an alternate Venus, this one a lush inhabitable version, where he found an alternate version of his dead fiancée, Vanessa. In her timeline, Wilkinson had died, so the two are available for each other. They are ready to be married, done with galumphing about the "coils of time" (it is Chandler's conceit that the trips to what seem alternate worlds are really time travel, and that time is a sort of helix or "coils", repeating with alterations). But Wilkinson is offered command of a spaceship that will travel to Mars, where scientists wish to see what the alternate Martian past might resemble. One believes it is likely to include real life versions of fictional representations of Mars: his idea is that writers such as Wells and Burroughs had sort of ancestral memories, somewhat garbled, of the different versions of Mars on other "coils of time".

Wilkinson and Vanessa are not intended to travel to the alternate Mars, but of course they do, after a bumbling engineer violates orders and activates the space drive will the time travel unit is being tested. They explore what seems to be a pumping station from the Martian poles, a la Barsoom, but one group is captured by a "tin octopus": clearly a version of Wells' Martians. Wilkinson and Vanessa end up with a group of wild humans, including a Delia Doris (i.e. "Dejah Thoris") as well as a Tars Tarkas. They are resisting the rule of the decadent blood-sucking Wellsian Martians. But the Martians capture them. Luckily, their superior Earth (and Venus) strength comes in handy, as does the superior tech of those remaining at the spaceship/timeship, who finally come to the rescue ...

As I said, loopy stuff. But in its limited way, kind of fun. Chandler never cared a whit, as far as I can tell, for stuff making sense, or for consistency, or, well, for anything but the next colorful incident. I find that exasperating, on the whole -- others may not care as much.

In Empress of Outer Space, a Terran spaceship Captain, Mortimer Jones, has been captured after he took over a world and set himself up as Chief Priest of a silly religion. The Empress Irene has taken charge of the criminal proceedings. Benjamin Tafford, who had formerly worked with Jones, is working for Naval Intelligence. But Jones escapes, along with one of Irene's doubles. He sets up as a pirate, and Irene insists on leading the chase, dragging Tafford along as captain in name only.

Unfortunately some aliens mistake them for Jones's pirates, and shoot up their ship. They crashland on an uninhabited planet -- or so it seems. But when they go out to investigate, they seem to find themselves on a planet that is a weird combination of Oz and Barsoom, with James Bond thrown in for good measure. Tafford and Irene go through some harrowing adventures. In the process, they fall in love, despite Tafford's previous frustration with Irene's highhanded ways, and her frustration with what she saw as his interference.

But then ... well, I won't reveal what happens. Another confrontation with Jones will of course result, and Tafford and Irene will cement their budding relationship, and, well ...

On the whole I don't think this story held together quite as well as The Alternate Martians. Minor work, I think, but I suppose it will appeal reasonably well to Chandler's fans.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Birthday Review: Flannery O'Connor's two novels: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away

Birthday Review: Flannery O'Connor's two novels: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away

Mary Flannery O'Connor would have been 94 today. Alas, she died, not yet 40, in 1964, of complications of lupus, the same disease that killed her father. She was a truly remarkable and original writer, of a couple of dozen short stories and two novels. In her memory, then, here is what I wrote for my blog some long while back about her two novels.

Wise Blood

I'm not really a big fan of Southern fiction in general, though I make exceptions. "Southern Gothic", in particular, always seemed a mode that I wouldn't necessarily find congenial. (This whole prejudice of mine may be no more that a prejudice, formed from equal parts overreaction to William Faulkner's reputation as presented to me in high school (I hope I have got over that sentiment since then), disdain for Confederate apologists (which, mind you, doesn't necessarily describe any of the writers I might have considered), and dislike for occasional perhaps nontypical examples such as Fanny Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes. I should note that I think John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces utterly brilliant, and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer pretty darn good. But I had formed the idea that if I was going to try such a writer, it ought to be Flannery O'Connor. (Perhaps because she was Catholic -- and though my Catholicism is rather lapsed, I do often find Catholic writers sympathetic. Note that Percy and Toole were Catholic.)

So, I read O'Connor's first novel, a rather short book called Wise Blood. It is quite thoroughly strange, full of basically unattractive characters, acting in obsessive ways, coming to bad ends. Yet it's a remarkable, rather moving, strikingly written book that really sticks in the mind.

Hazel Motes is a young man from rural Tennessee who has just got out of the Army. (The book, published in 1952, appears to be set immediately after the Second World War.) He's had no contact with his family, what's left of it, for 4 years, and when he comes home he finds his home abandoned and in decay, and everyone dead. We meet him on the train to the "city", I assume a fictional place somewhere south of Tennessee. (And a reasonably small town for all that.) He's an unpleasant man, baiting the black porter, pushing his lack of belief in Christ on all and sundry.

In the city, he wanders somewhat aimlessly, encountering first a prostitute, then a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his "daughter" Sabbath, then another confused young man named Enoch Emery. Hazel (whose grandfather was a circuit-riding preacher) sets up as a preacher himself, preaching the "Church Without Christ", and advocating blasphemy and sin. He pursues and is pursued by Sabbath Hawks, and also Enoch Emery. Motes is continually unpleasant to all around him. After Hazel rebuffs a confidence man's attempt to cash in on his preaching, he finds himself confronted by a "twin", Solace Layfield, the false prophet, who preaches of "the Church of Christ Without Christ", and who wholly perverts Hazel's nihilistic "message". Meanwhile the pathetic Enoch is trying to steal a "new Jesus" for Hazel, while Sabbath, barely a teen, is successfully seducing Hazel. The end is grotesque and strange -- Hazel becomes a murderer, Enoch a thief, Sabbath is sent to a home, Asa runs off -- and the final two chapters show Hazel mortifying himself, apparently searching for redemption. Whether his redemption is real seems an open question to me, though O'Connor seemed to think it was.

The novel is ostensibly a comedy, and I suppose it is, but a very black comedy. It's full of images and objects and actions heavily weighted with symbolism -- Hazel's decrepit Essex automobile, the gorilla suit Enoch steals, the mummy that is to be the "new Jesus", the blind preacher's eyes, and Hazel's, and much more. The writing, as I said, is striking, with any number of quite memorable phrases, such as the woman whose hair looked like "ham gravy dripping down her head" -- descriptive, and accurate, and very Southern in feel to me. This is a strange and quite compelling novel.

The Violent Bear it Away

I liked Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, which I mentioned here a month or two ago.  I read her only other novel, The Violent Bear it Away, just this past week. It is also striking, involving, oddly comic, ultimately dark if arguably suggesting redemption for its mad, violent, main character. It's really a lot like Wise Blood in a number of ways. Both books feature a young man (actually a teenaged boy in this case) who has been raised by a fiercely Protestant old man who is some variety of preacher/prophet. Both main characters try to reject the influence of this father figure, but ultimately are forced, under gothically violent circumstances, to take on the mantle of their "father"'s religion  Both books feature rather shocking murders at the climax: murders that in the final analysis lead the murderer to accept Christ (it would seem, though other readings are certainly possible). It's odd (as O'Connor herself noted) that a Catholic writer would deal so obsessively with Protestants, and with a gothic and almost hysterical flavour of Protestantism.

The Violent Bear it Away opens with the death of Francis Marion Tarwater's great uncle. Tarwater (as he is called) was basically kidnapped by this strange old man shortly after his birth: at his birth his mother and her mother (the old man's sister) both died, and the boy was left in the care of the old man's nephew, Rayber. Rayber had also been "kidnapped" by the old man but was brought back to his mother. In both cases, the old man, who fancies himself a "prophet", aimed to baptize the boy he kidnapped and raise him to succeed him as a prophet. Rayber has rejected his uncle's teachings and become a radical secular materialist. Tarwater struggles to reject both his uncle's and his great uncle's teachings, and the book is basically about his struggles.

The opening chapters comically and grotesquely describe the old man's death and Tarwater's failed attempts to bury him, as well as setting up the strange family situation in flashbacks. Then Tarwater heads to the city, where Rayber lives with his idiot son, a boy a few years younger than Tarwater who is severely brain-damaged. It was the great uncle's desire that this idiot boy be baptized by Tarwater, and it is his father (Rayber's) desperate desire that Tarwater not baptize him and instead reject religion and start attending school and become "normal". But all this comes to naught in a harsh, strange, end, with a murder followed by a rape, followed by a somehow "cleansed" (perhaps) Tarwater heading back to the city to take up his duties, whatever they may be.

This is all told in a very striking voice, reminding me somehow of an American take on the language of the King James Version. (The title quote, by the way, is from Matthew 11:12, but naturally enough for a Catholic of O'Connor's time, the translation she used is the Douay.) The language, the diction, also reminded me somehow of Irish writers, particularly perhaps Flann O'Brien. It's a remarkable strange book, very readable, if a bit difficult to come fully to grips with.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Birthday Review: Two Novels by H. Beam Piper (Crisis in 2140 and Uller Uprising)

Today would have been H. Beam Piper's 115th birthday. Of course, as is well known, he committed suicide, 60 years old, in 1964. He was out of money -- in bitter irony,  several checks were in his agent's hands at the time. That said, he had also gone through a bitter divorce, and some say he killed himself either to spite his ex-wife (and reduce any life insurance she might receive), or because of depression due to his family problems.

His first novels were the two serials discussed below, published in books form as Crisis in 2140 and Uller Uprising. (A version of "Uller Uprising" had actually appeared as part of the Twayne Triplet The Petrified Planet a year earlier.) In addition to those novels, I append a short look at perhaps his most famous story, "Omnilingual".

Astounding, February and March 1953

(Cover by H. R. Van Dongen)
The two part serial, "Null-ABC", by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, is about 36,000 words long. It was later published -- possibly expanded -- as a novel called Crisis in 2140. It reminded me of nothing so much as a much later collaborative novel that was serialized in Astounding's successor, Analog: "Higher Education", by Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle. The similarities are in the view of contemporary education, not in any plot resemblance.

In "Null-ABC" people have become suspicious of scientific inquiry, and even of literacy. A small group of Literates have become a closed guild. Chester Pelton is a department store owner who is running for Senator on the platform of "socialized literacy" -- he wants the Literates to be forced to become servants of the government, supplying their services to all for free. It seems he is likely to win. But what he doesn't know is that both of his children -- a teenaged boy and a young woman -- are closet literates. They have been taught in secret by the local schoolmaster, who is also the woman's lover. Pelton also doesn't know that much of his support comes from a faction of Literates who believe that if he wins they will eventually take over the government. The good guys among this faction want to push for a return to universal literacy. The bad guys just want power. And the other bad guys want to retain the status quo.

The whole thing is a bit (realistically) confusing. Anyway, the main plot revolves around a couple of sometimes conflicting schemes -- one, to discredit Pelton by revealing that his daughter can read, and two, to frustrate Pelton by fomenting a riot in his department store. So, most of the action is focussed on the (rather silly, in many ways) battle for the store. It's kind of a silly story overall, though I was caught up in it -- it's at least a decent read.

Space Science Fiction, February and March 1953

Now I will treat "Ullr Uprising", and its slightly convoluted publishing history, in some detail.

In the early 50s a company called Twayne planned several volumes of short novels linked in a curious way. A scientist would write a precis of the background -- designing the planets and alien races, for example. Then three different writers would create short novels based on the background. (Not, however, set in truly "shared" worlds, such as Harlan Ellison's Medea anthology -- the backgrounds would be similar, but the stories would not share a common history.) These would be called Twayne Triplets. Several such volumes were planned -- stories written for Twayne Triplets include "A Case of Conscience" and "Get Out of My Sky" by James Blish, "Second Landing" by Murray Leinster, "Question and Answer" by Poul Anderson, and "First Cycle" by H. Beam Piper (later completed by Michael Kurland). The only Science Fiction Twayne Triplet to actually see publication was The Petrified Planet (1952), which included "The Long View" by Fletcher Pratt, "Daughter of Earth", and "Uller Uprising", by Piper. The scientific precis was by Dr. John Clark. (A Fantasy Twayne Triplet was also published in 1952, though it did not seem to be created in quite the same fashion.)

(Cover by Gino D'Achille)
Quite a few years ago I read the Ace reprint of Piper's Uller Uprising, a full-length novel at roughly 55,000 words. (As far as I know this version is what was published in The Petrified Planet, though it's possible the Twayne Triplet version was also shorter than the eventual novel.) It turns out that Piper also sold a cut version of this story. It was published with a very slightly cut title, as "Ullr Uprising", a two-part serial in Lester Del Rey's magazine Space Science Fiction, in 1953. (Somewhat annoyingly, Del Rey did not choose to mention the previous publication of a longer version of the story. But Del Rey was prone to slightly annoying editorial habits with Space -- he routinely published his own novellas, sometimes under his own name, but also sometimes under a pseudonym, Philip St. John.) As I didn't remember the Piper story well, I decided to reread it in the serialized form when I got copies of the appropriate issues of Space.

"Ullr Uprising" is set on a planet inhabited by six-limbed dinosaur-like folks. Humans have colonized this planet, and they employ the natives as laborers, as farmers on Ullr, and as miners on another (uninhabitable) world in the same system. But the natives are restless, under the influence of a rabble-rousing religious figure. As the novel opens, open rebellion breaks out in a number of the local city-states. Our hero, General Von Schlichten, must coordinate the suppression of the rebellion, with the assistance of one loyal group of "good aliens", who are properly grateful for Terran assistance, as well as a fence-sitting city-state or two. He also must deal with the meddlesome but pretty representative of a human pro-native rights organization -- but she gets convinced mighty quick of the rightness of the Terran hegemony, and soon enough she is a) calling the bad natives "geeks", b) serving as a Colonel in the army (and as adjutant to General Von Schlichten), and c) hopping in bed with the General. (Well, OK, they only kiss in this book, written in 1952, but you can bet they'd have hopped in bed if Piper had written the book a few decades later.) Finally, the General must deal with the threat of one of the city-states gaining nuclear technology.

What the story is, clearly enough, is a retelling of the Sepoy Mutiny. And I must say I found much of it distasteful, with the deck-stacking portrayal of the "good aliens" vs. the "bad aliens", and with the cheerful use of terms like "geek" by the "good guys". (It's OK, see, because the bad aliens call humans "suddabits", which is apparently the best their vocal equipment can do with "son of a bitch".) Piper does, to be sure, tell a rapid and fairly exciting story. And the aliens have some interesting aspects -- particularly, they are hermaphroditic, but Piper only glancingly treats the effect this might have on their social organization. It may be, however, that the longer version (which I have not reread) gives more detail about such aspects.

An interesting (to me) side note -- three minor characters have names later used by SF writers for major series characters. Two are names used by Keith Laumer: Retief and O'Leary. I suspect in this case the correspondence of names is just coincidence (Retief in "Ullr Uprising" is a Lieutenant or something who gets a one line mention. O'Leary is more important, but after all O'Leary is a fairly common name.) The third name is Falkenberg -- a minor but not totally insignificant character in "Ullr Uprising" is named Major Falkenberg. Given that Pournelle was known to be a Piper admirer, I do wonder if he didn't consciously reuse the name for his famous mercenary leader, John Christian Falkenberg.

Astounding, February 1957

The Feb '57 Astounding has a very famous story, H. Beam Piper's "Omnilingual".  I hadn't reread this story in ages -- it holds up pretty well.  Notable for its deadpan portrayal of a woman scientist as protagonist -- though the language rather undermines things by calling all the women except the lead character "girls" even though they are apparently fully equal to the men in the expedition in ability and responsibility.  For those who don't know, it's about the archaeological investigation of Martian ruins, and the search for a key to translate Martian texts, lacking a "bilingual" such as the Rosetta Stone.  I'm not really convinced that the answer Piper gives (I'm sure everybody's read the story, but I'll leave it for the SPOILER SECTION anyway) would actually work that well, but the principle is still nicely illustrative.


The "Rosetta Stone" in "Omnilingual" is of course a Periodic Table, though really, more generally, the "omnilingual" (as opposed to "bilingual" -- and the word "omnilingual" appears only in the title) is scientific knowledge in general.  I think there's a chance the general idea would work -- just not so fast as displayed in the story, but I suppose we can accept that as dramatic compression.]

The Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

The Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

In my opinion Kim Stanley Robinson, like many SF writers, is at his best at the novella length.  Most of my favorite KSR stories, then, such as "Black Air", "The Lucky Strike", and "Green Mars", are novellas.  In addition, many of the novels I list below are either fixups of novellas, expansions of novellas, include as their best part novella-length sections, or can be seen to consist of series of novellas. Indeed, a common mode for Robinson is the travelogue, which readily breaks down into story-shaped chunks -- see here The Memory of Whiteness, the Mars novels, and 2312 at least. Robinson's other main mode is Utopian -- even though a few of his books might look more like dystopias, there's always a streak of (somewhat technocratic, usually socialist) optimism to be found. And books like Blue Mars, Pacific Edge, 2312, arguably the closing of The Years of Rice and Salt, seem pretty straightforwardly utopian.

Robinson is a notoriously political writer, and a committed socialist. I'm not a socialist, and I find his political writing interesting and provocative -- but I can also see his thumb pretty heavily on the scales time and time again. Naturally, he's also fascinated by economics. He's one of those writers who loves explaing -- loves telling as opposed to showing. And he does it pretty well. For all the interest in politics, however, the single theme that most links his work in environmentalism, and a search for ways to live lightly on the Earth -- or on Mars, or in other habitats. Granted that this is a political subject as well, it seems even more central than socialism to KSR's work.

The summary presented below should be taken with some grains of salt. In 2002, when I posted the first version of this at rec.arts.sf-written, I had read everything KSR had written except The Years of Rice and Salt, which had just been published. Since then my novel reading has slowed a great deal, and there are several KSR novels I haven't read.

Icehenge (1984)

His first published novel (unless The Wild Shore edged it out), fixup of three novellas, the first and third of which, "To Leave a Mark" and "On the North Pole of Pluto", were published separately.  I'm pretty sure "To Leave a Mark" is the first story by KSR that made an impression on me, in its 1982 F&SF publication.  I think it's a wonderful story, with a typical KSR hero: noble but vaguely clueless.  The middle section is one of his first workings out of his Martian ideas, in this case featuring a noble Socialist Mars.  The final section qualifies the novel as one of the relatively few significant SF novels set in part on Pluto.  (Have Space Ship Will Travel is another, of course.  Other nominations?)

The Memory of Whiteness (1985)

Based on an earlier Orbit novella, "In Pierson's Orchestra".  It's pretty much a travelogue, featuring a genius future musician visiting much of the solar system.  Enjoyable but not really very good.  I seem to recall Algis Budrys claiming in his review that it was a first novel that didn't get published until later novels (particularly The Wild Shore) enhanced his reputation.

The Wild Shore (1984)
The Gold Coast (1988)
Pacific Edge (1990)

This is three novels set in different alternate futures, the first somewhat dystopian (post-Nuclear holocaust, anyway), the second pretty much the present of the 1980s writ large, the third a very Green utopia.  The main characters and some subsidiary characters are apparently versions of each other, as well.  I enjoyed all three books, though Pacific Edge is the weakest for typical Utopian reasons -- you sense that the author has not tested his fuzzy but nice nice ideas hard enough against real human nature, not to mention, Pete [rasfw regular Pete McCutchen] will doubtless remind me, the laws of economics.  The best part of the first book is a long -- well, novella length -- paean/screed/lament to the U.S. by an old man who remembers it before the bombs.  The second features a major character in the defense industry.  I read it on the plane, travelling to a meeting with subcontractors while trying to work up a proposal for one of the projects I was working on -- I realized then that my job in 20 years (were I to choose that career path - I didn't) could be similar to the protagonist's Dad's job.  Dad was by far the best, smartest, most real, character in The Gold Coast, and I thought his character and his job were really well done.

By and large these three books haven't dated well.  They were pretty hot stuff when they came out. (Indeed, The Wild Shore was famously the "humanist" candidate for that year's novel awards, with the "cyberpunk" candidate, Neuromancer, beating it out.)  But to my mind they read now as very much books of the 80s.  Still very much worth reading, mind you, and as the age and the '80sish nature seems less cloying (as we forget that decade), I think they are aging back into significance.

Escape From Kathmandu (1989)

Fixup of four novellas about yetis and Nepal and Mount Everest.  (KSR is a rock climber, and his stories, like but unlike M. John Harrison's, often feature mountain climbing or rock climbing.)  These stories are comic, and pretty successful madcap fun.  Three of them first appeared in Asimov's, the fourth ("The Kingdom Underground") appears only in this book, as far as I know.

A Short Sharp Shock (1990)

Really a very long novella, but it shows up on list list because it has been published as a book, both by Mark V. Ziesing, and by Bantam when they were doing those cool lower-price slimline paperbacks.  It was also in Asimov's, and it was part of a Tor Double.  Pretty good experimentalish thing about a guy who comes to on a planet featuring a single equator circling continent.

Red Mars (1992)
Green Mars (1994)
Blue Mars (1996)

I am apparently one of the few people on rasfw who will admit to liking these books. They get regularly bashed for two main reasons -- some silly science, and some silly politics and economics.  Fair enough on both counts, but in my opinion the successes of the books outweight the shortcomings.  The third complaint is that they are talky and sometimes boring.  They are talky -- either you like that sort of thing or you don't.  And they do get boring -- they are three long books, there are longeurs -- as I've said before, I'd be very happy if he had cut every single section with that silly French guy, Michel Duval.  But with all those reservations, they also display a wonderfully ambitious, and ultimately successful and utopian technological future; a glorious new world in the terraformed Mars (and I am unreservedly Green in my political sentiments relative to this book); and there is in amongst the talk some really neat action and setpieces. 

Oh and by the way this can easily be regarded as a very long series of novellas, as the books are divided into fairly self-contained novella length sections, alternated POV characters.  A couple of these sections were separately published in Asimov's.

Each novel won a major award: Green and Blue won Hugos, Red the Nebula.  (Red also won the BSFA Award, and Green and Blue each won Locus Awards.)  I'm pretty sure no other series has managed this. [Well, until N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth!]

There is a sort of coda to the series, a story collection called The Martians, which includes stories that might be set in the Mars of the trilogy, as well as some set in alternate versions of that Mars, including a sad one in which the terraforming doesn't take. This book includes a couple of precursor stories, sort of beta-versions, related much in the way Vinge's "The Blabber" is related to A Fire Upon the Deep.  The best of these by far is "Green Mars", still probably my favorite of all KSR's stories, another mountain-climbing story, this one about climbing Olympus Mons, natch.  (Has anyone thought of doing an anthology of "climbing Olympus Mons" stories?  It'd be easy to fill a book.)

My review of Blue Mars.

Antartica (1997)

Wags immediately suggested that this book should be called White Mars, though Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose soon appropriated that title.  For some reason I've never got around to this book.  Reviews were mixed. The book is set at an Antarctic research station, and seems to be focussed on sustainable living, modeled, I suppose, by efforts to live sensibly in the harsh conditions of Antarctica.

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

Naturally, the novel is structured as a series of ten long novellas. It's an ambitious alternate history novel. The point of divergence is the Black Death in 14th Century Europe: in this timeline nearly everyone in Europe died of the plague. This leaves the world stage free for a centuries long struggle between a mostly Buddhist or Confucian China, and an Islamic Middle East and Africa, with Europe and Christianity no factor at all. Robinson's interest is in the nature of history, and in the possible evolution of these religions, and their associated social and political structures, without the pressure of Christianity and European Colonialism. Fortunately he avoids the sillier games of alternate history: here we see no cameos by famous men of our timeline in altered circumstances, nor do we see the "find the point of divergence" game played.

Here is my SF Site review: The Years of Rice and Salt.


Forty Signs of Rain (2004)
Fifty Degrees Below (2005)
Sixty Days and Counting (2007)
Green Earth (2015)

This is really another trilogy. Green Earth is an abridged and revised -- or, you might say, organically remixed -- combination of the original three books. I've only read Forty Signs of Rain, which I thought interesting and pretty good. It's about a science wonk named Frank Wanderwal, working for the NSF and advocating legislation to mitigate the effects of global warming, as well as several other characters, including a senator, Phil Chase, who was a character in Antarctica. This book climazes with a superstorm hitting DC. The second book seems to follow Frank Vanderwal through an attempt to adopt a paleolithic lifestyle, as well as accelerating political and scientific efforts to deal with climate change. The third book features Phil Chase becoming President, and further mitigation efforts.

Galileo's Dream (2009)

I haven't read this one -- I have a copy, and it looks worthwile. It seems to be told on parallel tracks, one about Galileo's life, the other in far future on the Galilean moons of Jupiter. I think I'd like it!

2312 (2012)

Another Solar System travelogue, which could describe The Memory of Whiteness, Blue Mars, and even Icehenge. It opens with the funeral of a resident of  Terminator, a city on Mercury that follows the terminator, natch. (See KSR's story "Mercurial".) The grandaughter of one of the dead  woman begins travelling through the system, Terminator is destroyed and the destruction is investigated, and the granddaughter ends up involved in a project to "rewild" the Earth. So besides being a travelogue it's again about how to live lightly on the Earth (or anywhere) -- which you could argue is the theme of almost every one of KSR's novels. I liked it quite a bit. General reactions were more mixed, but it did win the Nebula Award for Best Novel. 

Shaman (2013)

Ways to make Rich Horton not want to read a book -- call it Shaman. Totally unfair, I know, but that title really didn't interest me. It's set in the Ice Age (other unfair reasons I won't read a book -- it's set in the Ice Age!), so, like most of Robinson's recent books, it involves humans trying to live in severe climate conditions. Might be a really good book, but it's not my thing.

Aurora (2015)

Another novel I haven't read. I really should get to it. It's about a generation ship arriving at another planet, and focusses on the real difficulties such an expedition would encounter.

New York 2140 (2017)

Another novel of climate change. New York in 2140 is a new Venice of sorts, due to rising sea levels. The story follows several characters (all living, to one degree or another, in a single communally organized building) as the world takes further economic/political steps towards a more livable future, and as New Yorkers adjust to their new reality, even while it is further perturbed by another major storm> I liked it a lot -- it was my choice for the Hugo, narrowly over two other excellent books including the actual winner.

My review of New York 2140.

Red Moon (2018)

Thriller set mostly on the Moon, as colonized by the Chinese. Reviews have been decidedly mixed, tending to the negative. Still, it looks interesting, and it also looks like it features KSR indulging some of his weaknesses a bit too much.

Birthday Review: Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Today is Kim Stanley Robinson's 67th birthday. I'm planning on updating my "Novels of" summary post later today, but for now, I'll repost my long ago review of Blue Mars, as written in 1997.

Review Date: 12 Feb 1997

Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam, 1996
ISBN 0553101447

One of the most impressive ongoing hard science fiction epics of recent years has been Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. Red Mars won the Nebula award, Green Mars won the Hugo, and Blue Mars is the eagerly-awaited third volume. [Blue Mars later won another Hugo.]

Robinson has tried to portray, in considerable detail, the story of the colonization and terraforming of Mars, beginning in 2027 and continuing for some 200 years. He has worked hard to get the science right, and to this reader, it is very real-seeming, impressive and interesting. (There is some debate among people who know their science really well about some of Robinson's details. Robinson himself has admitted to fudging the time scale of terraformation (compressing maybe 1000 years of likely effort to 200 years) in order to keep the story at a human scale. The only serious issues I have with the rest of the science (keeping in mind that I am not nearly as knowledgeable as many people) are his large reliance on nearly autonomous machines (in part, this is a personal dislike); and the somewhat handwaving and near-miraculous introduction of radical life-extension technology (this last being in part another strategy to keep the story "human-scale", as it allows him to have some characters survive the entire trilogy).)

Red Mars told the story of the initial colonization of Mars, first by the "First Hundred", a joint Russian-American expedition, then by Earth-dominated, mostly corporate-controlled colonists who followed to build on the efforts of the "First Hundred". It ended with an unsuccessful revolution against Earth's domination of Mars. The Red in its title referred to the pristine, unmodified, planet. Green Mars advanced the story of Mars' colonization, introducing many second- and third-generation characters, and ended in a generally successful revolution which established Martian independence. The Green of the title refers to the greening effects of terraformation.

Blue Mars, then, continues the story of independent Mars. A significant conflict, continuing from the first two books, is that between the hardline "Reds" (who wish Mars restored to as Mars-like a condition as possible), and nearly everybody else, who are to one degree or another "Green", wishing to maintain Mars as a comfortably human-habitable planet. It is a little harder to decide exactly what the Blue of the title means: one reviewer suggests water, which is plausible, as much of the book is set on water. Alternately, it could be regarded as simply an extension on the visual spectrum: what is after Red and Green: Blue. Another view would be that, since Blue Mars is to some considerable extent about rapprochement between the Reds and the Greens, and also between Mars and Earth, that Blue is to be read as a compromise color between Red and Green. For me, however, the key to the meaning of this title is in a moving passage in the middle of the book; where one of the main characters, having formed the habit of "cataloguing" the changing Martian sunsets, and analyzing their color, sees one sunset which is a perfect blue, color of Earth's sky. Thematically, this would suggest both the rapprochement between Earth and Mars, and a "Sky's the Limit" theme to the future, in Robinson's utopian view.

The action of the book, like that of the first two, is presented in a series of novella-length parts, each somewhat independent, each from the viewpoint of a different character. Many of the First Hundred return in this book as viewpoint characters of sections, as well as some of the later generation members introduced in Green Mars, and at least one new, significant, character for this book. To me, Robinson's best work has always been at novella length, so this plays to his strengths. (Indeed, his previous "novels" Icehenge and Escape from Kathmandu are both assemblages of novellas; in addition, he has written such outstanding novellas (or novelets) as "The Blind Geometer", "Black Air", "The Lucky Strike", "A Short, Sharp, Shock", and my favorite Mars story, not part of the official Mars trilogy, "Green Mars".) The linked-novella form also allows significant jumps in time, important in a story which takes place over such a long time (about a century for Blue Mars, I believe). A negative effect of this structure is a certain slackening in the overall story: as I have said, Blue Mars seems mainly to be about the rapprochement of Red and Green (quite movingly symbolized on a personal level by several segments which deal with the personal rapprochement of long-time "enemies" Ann Clayborne, the leading Red, and Sax Russell, the first terraformer); but in addition it is concerned with rounding out the overall story of the colonization of Mars, and for Robinson this means considering the future of the rest of the solar system as well. Thus Blue Mars has sections set on Earth, on Mercury, and in the moons of Uranus, as well as visits to Venus, the asteroids, and the others of the Outer Planets. These sections are quite interesting, but also seem to result in a certain dilution of the overall effect.

Besides his interest in the "hard" sciences as played out in the gut-level details of the exploration and terraforming of Mars, Robinson is very interested in "softer" sciences, and much of the trilogy is concerned with politics. I found the discussions of politics quite interesting, though a bit biased (but generally a pretty fair attempt is made to show most sides of the various issues). There is not one but two extended descriptions of "constitutional conventions". Robinson also takes on the sociological effects of life-extension: and here he seems a little less sound. He tries to depict the effects of great age on people, and makes some good points, but is not quite convincing. More tellingly, I think he severely underplays the negative population effects of life-extension. Robinson is, it seems to me, a Utopian at heart, and he is a little too sanguine about people almost automatically adopting (solar-system-wide) policies such as one child per couple.

Blue Mars, by itself, is a pretty successful trilogy closer, but not quite successful as a novel. I still rank Red Mars as the best novel of the series: it had a more coherent structure, was set over a shorter time-period, and featured my favorite writing of the series: the ecstatic novella "Falling into History", its central section. Still, it is only fair, I think, to consider the Mars trilogy as a unit, and as such it is very successful, very worthwhile. Almost inevitably, there are longeurs, and the multiple viewpoint character approach sometimes blurs the impact, sometimes results in tedious chapters. (I, for one, could have done without every one of Michel Duval's sections over the three novels.) Robinson's writing is clear throughout: for the most part he seems to have purposely trimmed his prose: at times the writing becomes a bit clipped or telegraphic, and only rarely does he wax lyrical, or ecstatic.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Alex Irvine

Today is Alex Irvine's birthday. He's a very fine writer who deserves a bit more notice, I think. Here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction:

Locus, May 2002

The two real standouts in Sci Fiction are a pair of stories set in the late 21st Century, but in very different milieus. Alex Irvine's "Jimmie Guang's House of Gladmech" is a moving story about a stateless man, Jimmie Guang Hamid, who ends up in Kyrgyzstan, trying to make money in the chaos of a war between the Islamist Federation and Russia. He sponsors a series of battles between war surplus robots, partly in the hope that his entertainments represent a temporary chance for rapprochement between the occupying Russians and the IF fighters. But when he falls in love with a local girl, a victim of rape by one of the Russians, he wonders if he needs to take sides, or if that would just be giving into to the spirit of war. This is a thoughtful and affecting story.

Locus, September 2003

I was very pleased with the September F&SF -- a strong issue indeed, top to bottom. The cover story is Alex Irvine's "Pictures of an Expedition", which tells of a Gates-sponsored trip to Mars in 2009, looking for water and evidence of life. They find both, but that's not what the story is about. Instead, it's about the reaction of the multi-ethnic crew, three men and three women, to the intense media pressure on them (things like betting on which of them might be murdered by a crewmate). Most seriously affected is the designated "babe" of the mission, Jami Salter, and it is her severe reaction that provides the fulcrum to the story. I found it well-done, but oddly muted -- I think in the end it is about a rather small subject, and somehow it doesn't seem to punch at novella weight.

Locus, August 2004

Best at Sci Fiction this month is Alex Irvine's "Volunteers". This is a rather darkly moving, quite odd tale of interstellar colonization. Wiley Brennan has grown up on a colony at 47 Ursae Majoris A (the new "hot" SF setting – see Allen Steele's Coyote and Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake). The colony is in trouble, as most of the residents are psychotically trying to somehow replicate the 1950s, to the point of having plastic surgery to look like Marilyn Monroe. His problem is exacerbated by his father's status as a "Volunteer" – who stayed awake during the entire journey from Earth, and by his mother's having died en route, possibly as a result of a mistake his father made. The story is layer upon layer of oddness (especially the nature of the starship's AI): not always convincing, but always interesting. The narration imbues events with a sense of impending tragedy – a three-way tragedy: in the past of the main action, at the time of the main action, and possibly in the future as well. It's emotionally fraught, a powerful story – far from flawless, but still one of the better stories of the year.

Locus, October 2008

Not quite 40 year old Alex Irvine’s “Shad’s Mess” (Postcripts, Summer) very nicely portrays an ordinary working guy facing corporate pressure in an interesting science fictional setting – he’s an operator of a teleportation booth, and he’s who the shit falls on when things go wrong. Amusing and honest and oddly sweet.

Locus, December 2009

Alex Irvine returns to the world of his fine 2007 story “Wizard’s Six” in “Dragon’s Teeth” (F&SF, December). This is another strong dark high fantasy story. Paulus is a guard captain whose service to his King and Queen ends up sending him on a quest to kill a dragon. But he understands that he has little power before the political maneuvering behind the tasks he’s given – but perhaps the quest itself will grant him some variety of power. The story does not seem over, and certainly I am eager to read more.

Review of Is Anybody Out There? (Locus, June 2010)

The first two stories use the idea of the alien to explore human character, a time-honored SF strategy. Alex Irvine’s opening story, “The Word He Was Looking For Was Hello”, does a beautiful job of briefly presenting numerous traditional SF answers to the alien question while exploring a lonely man’s yearning for his daughter, given up for adoption.

Locus, January 2003

Alex Irvine's "Vandoise and the Bone Monster" (F&SF, January) is a complexly framed story that settles down to concern an old man in Colorado trying to kill himself – and the thing that's chasing him. The story interleaves American Indian magic and history, with paleontological history, and it's always entertaining.

Locus, March 2004

The March F&SF closes with a strong caper story (with a slight but unmistakable fantastic element) from Alex Irvine, "A Peaceable Man", reprinted from his collection Unintended Consequences. The title character is an antique dealer on the shady side of the law, who ends up spending a few years in prison when a robbery goes bad. When he comes out he finds that his beloved dog is dead … or is it? What's more, a gangster is after him for the money from the robbery – but he has no idea where it might be. Irvine continues to demonstrate impressive range, and this story, which reminded me just a bit of Donald Westlake, opens up another subgenre to his talents.

Locus, January 2005

Another fine story about art is Alex Irvine's "The Lorelei" (F&SF, January), set in early 20th Century New York, where a callow young painter meets the famously romantic American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder.  A strange sort of encounter with Ryder's muse – the Lorelei – has great effects on both Ryder's life and work, and that of the younger man.

Locus, July 2003

I found the second issue of the overtly slipstream anthology Polyphony (edited by Deborah Layne with Jay Lake) even better than the first. The standout for me was Alex Irvine's "The Uterus Garden", which is of all things straight science fiction. Some sort of plague has rendered most women infertile, so fertile women are in particular demand. Sometimes for high-status marriages, but more scarily they are at risk of being kidnapped, sedated, and used as broodmares. An infertile couple, awaiting adoption, encounter an escapee from one such "uterus garden" – she is pregnant, and the couple are presented with a tricky moral dilemma. All very nicely handled.

Locus, January 2008

Alex Irvine’s “Mystery Hill” (F&SF, January) concerns Ken Kassarjian, a late middle-aged man who owns the title tourist attraction in rural southern Michigan. It’s one of those places where gravity seems askew – water flows upward, things like that. Ken is plagued by both skeptics and wacko true believers, so he is suspicious when a physicist, Fara Oussemitski, shows up. On the one and, she’s doing the kind of measurements intended to debunk his site. On the other hand, she seems to believe that something really is strange about the gravity at Mystery Hill. On the third hand, she’s awfully pretty. Ken has other problems, including a neighbor who keeps gathering the very strange roadkill near the site and, it turns out, makes a strange homebrew from the remains. Plus there is a persistent wacko who thinks she is a “Reptilian” alien, and a group of local teenagers who dance on the seventeenth hole of his putt putt golf course. Fun stuff throughout, neatly resolved.

Locus, March 2016

The best of three Martian-set stories in the first 2016 issue of F&SF comes from Alex Irvine. “Number Nine Moon” is a gritty sort of story (literally, in a sense) about a few space veterans who decide to loot a deserted Martian settlement as the planet is being abandoned by Earth. Disaster strikes, and the survivors have to make a desperate attempt to escape to orbit before the last human leaves them. It’s duct tape adventure resembling The Martian, with an intriguing crusty old narrator and his cynical foil. Fun stuff.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Closed Shutters, by Frances Tinker and Edward Larocque Tinker

Old Bestseller Review (Not): Closed Shutters, by Frances Tinker and Edward Larocque Tinker

a review by Rich Horton

Edward Larocque Tinker (1881-1968) was the grandson of a prominent New York lawyer, and became a lawyer himself, and eventually a District Attorney. He developed an interest in Latin America, beginning probably with a visit to Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, at which time he he met Pancho Villa. He wrote a variety of books, much nonfiction, for example books about Lafcadio Hearn, about the man who introduced craps to New Orleans, and about artist Joseph Pennell. He also wrote some novels, including Toucoutou, about a mixed-race man. He seems to have been mildly well-known during his life, and as close to completely forgotten now as one can get.

Frances (McKee) Tinker was his second wife. She collaborated with him on a series of novelettes for the Century Magazine about New Orleans in the last four decades of the 19th century. It's not clear to me if these were her only works of fiction. Edward published a later novel about pre-Civil War New Orleans in 1953. I don't know if Frances herself was from New Orleans, or if their mutual interest in the city derived from some other source -- perhaps Lafcadio Hearn. At any rate, these four stories were published in book form as slim octavo volumes in 1931. The stories were collectively called Old New Orleans, with the 1860s represented by Widows Only, the '70s by Strife, the '80s by Closed Shutters, and the '90s by Mardi Gras Masks. It seems natural that they might have been published in a single volume, but I don't know if that ever happened. And, of course, it's highly unlikely that the books were bestsellers.

My copy of Closed Shutters was published by D. Appleton and Company. I seem to have the first editon. The frontispiece is by Joseph Pennell (about whom Tinker published a book), and "decorations", appearing on the cover and the endpapers, by Edward C. Caswell. I found my copy at the well-respected used book store Jane Addams Books in Champaign, IL. Closed Shutters is about 13,000 words long.

It's a very simple story. It opens with a "thin-faced child", a young girl, watching in envy the play of a set of girls at a birthday party. This "thin-faced child" is Alys Ledoux, described as a "Creole", though I'd have said "Cajun" (as she is white, and I thought the "Creoles" were black or mixed-race, but that is apparently not quite right.) Alys lives around the corner, with her ailing mother and an older sister, who take in sewing work to make ends meet. Alys encounters Emma, the black housekeeper of the owner of this house (who is a well-loved and apparently saintly judge.) Emma, who makes it her duty to help the local poor, realizes immediately that Alys and her sister and mother are essentially indigent, and gives her some food in a valuable blue "tureem".

At first it seems the story will be about Alys, but really it's about Emma, who is portrayed as a wonderful and generous woman, and a dutiful servant to the Judge. She keeps giving food to Alys, and then to Alys' older sister, but a particularly harsh winter intervenes. We see Emma's interactions with a boy who is supposed to be helping her, and with the Judge. And at the end we see death -- the Judge, old beyond his years, finally fails in health. And when Emma finally makes her way to the Ledoux house, she realizes that Alys' mother and sister have both died during the cruel winter, and Alys too is on death's door. Add to that the economic stress on both Emma and the Judge's wife, when the true state of his finances is revealed after his death.

The story is really very depressing, though told in a lightish tone. For a contemporary reader the treatment of Emma, the center of the story, is undeniably racist, though she is regarded by the authors as a virtuous and admirable character, with a slight weakness for mild gambling, and, to be sure, for good food. But she is treated as a child, and the attitudes of the Judge and the authors are undeniably that "benevolent paternalism" that seemed central to "liberal" whites of that time. The story itself it reasonably well-executed, if just a bit too limited in scope. As it happens, I was reading P. Djeli Clark's The Black God's Drums at exactly the same time -- another story set in New Orleans a couple of decades after the Civil War (albeit in an alternate timeline), and the contrast in the agency and independence of the black central characters of the two stories is hard to miss.